Mobile / Hands-on Review

In the Field: The ZTE Axon 7 and 7 Mini Smartphones

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Time really does fly—it’s been almost a year since I reviewed ZTE’s previous-generation flagship smartphone, the Axon Pro. While I’m no stranger to Android devices, that was my first hands-on experience with the brand, and I remember walking away being not only impressed with the device itself, but optimistic about the future of the smartphone market as a whole. The Axon Pro positioned itself well in a crowded space by offering above-average performance, top-shelf construction, and an appealing feature set at an affordable price.

ZTE Axon Pro 64GB Smartphone

This helped reassure what I had already known: that delivering a premium smartphone at an approachable price was indeed a possibility, and I hoped that more manufacturers would soon follow suit. Judging from customer feedback and third-party reviews, I wasn’t the only person who thought ZTE was on to something with the Axon Pro. For the most part, it was a working formula. This time around, ZTE is back to show us something new, the Axon 7 and the slightly less equipped, but not to be underestimated, Axon 7 Mini. And just like last year, ZTE wants to remind you that you don’t always need to empty the piggy bank to have a complete and enjoyable smartphone experience.

ZTE Axon 7 mini A7S121 32GB Smartphone

Two Devices, not That Far Apart

Before we get into how the Axon 7 and 7 Mini differ, let’s explore how they’re alike. At first glance, they bear a similar appearance. Both devices sport a unibody design with non-removable batteries, along with a perforated-hole design on the front of the phones that covers its dual speakers and microphones above and below the screen. Speaking of the screen, with a 5.2" display size, the Axon 7 Mini is similar in its support of an AMOLED screen as with the Axon 7, which sports a 5.5" screen which is designed to deliver optimized contrast and color reproduction. One thing you notice almost immediately is that the larger Axon 7 features navigation buttons right below the display, while the Axon 7 mini utilizes software-based navigation keys.      

While you would expect 4G LTE connectivity from any advanced smartphone these days, and you get it here, both Axons up the ante by offering dual SIM card connectivity. This is a great feature for travelers and power users who need to manage more than one phone number. You also get a microSD card slot on both devices that supports microSDXC cards up to 256GB, and this is always a crowd pleaser for Android fans looking to increase their storage capacity. Just keep in mind that you can’t take advantage of dual SIM connectivity and microSD expansion at the same time, because they occupy the same slot. In case you’re wondering, the handful of phone calls I made sounded just fine.

On the bottom of each phone, you’ll find a USB Type-C interface for charging and computer connections. With USB Type-C, not only can you easily connect the cable in either orientation, but you also enjoy quick-charging technology. While the charging speeds weren’t blazing fast, I was able to go from 0 to 100 percent in less than 2 hours.

Quite a lot of attention has been paid to headphone jacks these days, and you’ll find one on each of these devices. On the rear of the Axon 7 and 7 Mini, a fingerprint reader can be found below the camera flash. This was my first experience using a smartphone with the fingerprint reader on the rear, and as expected, it took some getting used to. But once I got accustomed to its placement, I found it to be comfortable to operate and very responsive when unlocking the phone. To aid in your comfort, both phones include clear plastic covers that allow you to securely grip the device while still exposing its attractive design. Additionally, headphones with onboard playback and volume buttons are also included—we’ll touch on the audio side of things a little later on.

Hardware Specs and Camera Design

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the design of the Axons, let’s take a look at what’s lurking under the hood. The Axon 7 Mini is equipped with a Snapdragon 617 octa-core chipset, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage; while the Axon 7 features a Snapdragon 820 quad-core chipset, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. Clearly, both devices are packing some serious horsepower, and it shows when navigating the user interface, and during my modest gaming sessions. Getting back to the aforementioned screens, the larger display on the Axon 7 has QHD 2560 x 1440 resolution, compared to the Full HD 1920 x 1080 screen found on the Axon 7 Mini. During my time with both devices, I found the Axon 7 Mini to deliver a slightly higher brightness output to that of the Axon 7, with both devices set to Auto Brightness mode. Nevertheless, I never found readability to be an issue with either device. Wireless capabilities also differ a bit between the two Axons, since the 7 offers dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi and the 7 Mini has single-band 802.11n connectivity.

I think I’m pretty fair when it comes to evaluating smartphone camera performance. While my go-to camera is my trusty Sony DSC-RX100 II, it’s not always with me, but my smartphone is. And while I don’t expect my phone to go toe-to-toe with my point-and-shoot, it should be able to fill in when the opportunity presents itself. These smartphones pack some pretty impressive camera specs and features. The Axon 7 is endowed with an 8-megapixel front-facing camera and a rear 20-megapixel camera with a 5-element f/1.8 sapphire lens. It also offers optical image stabilization (OIS), a feature commonly seen on flagship devices. While OIS isn’t present on the Axon 7 Mini, it does pack an 8-megapixel front camera and a 16-megapixel rear camera with an f/1.9 sapphire lens of its own.

Upon launching the camera app on both devices, I was greeted by a graphic that showcased a few of the devices’ onboard photo enhancements, such as Magic Exposure mode, Slow Motion, Manual mode for more control, and even Live Photo capabilities, which records a short video when capturing images. All in all, I found the camera performance to be very good on both phones, with photos being a touch sharper on the Axon 7. Both phones showed some limitations when shooting in low-light conditions, but photos taken outdoors and in rooms with adequate lighting yielded positive results. On the video recording side of things, you get 1080p with the Axon 7 Mini and up to 4K with the Axon 7.

Android OS and Software Enhancements

I’m sure if we took a poll, the majority of Android users would prefer a clean, untouched operating system, as supposed to a skinned or themed overlay. I understand why manufacturers do it, though, with the number of devices on that market, they almost have to differentiate themselves in some way. Hardware can only vary but so much, but software adds personality. In this case, both of these smartphones run ZTE’s MiFavor UI on top of Android 6.0.1. I, for one, don’t mind manufacturers adding a bit of special sauce, but I have a few rules. For starters, do no harm. These enhancements shouldn’t be a drain on system resources; everything should remain fast and fluid. Second, they should make sense. Meaning, they have to genuinely enhance the OS. ZTE did a few things here that I like. For starters, while I didn’t take advantage of all the software enhancements, such as motion gestures and button reassignment, having them enabled during testing didn’t compromise usability.

I also spent a great deal of time listening to music and watching videos while toggling the Dolby Atmos and Headset HiFi modes. I’m a bit of an audio purist, so I usually choose to disable musical enhancements, but I found the Headset HiFi mode to be especially useful for poorly recorded tracks. Similarly, Dolby Atmos injected life into almost every video and movie I threw its way. I access movies from my home PC via my Plex account and, each time, I preferred listening with Dolby Atmos engaged. Even better, I could easily access Dolby Atmos mode from the customizable drop-down window.          

Strong Contenders in a Crowded Arena

Is the smartphone market still a crowded one? You betcha, especially when you look at the number of Android devices available. There’s no shortage of competition out there, offering customers a plethora of options. In fact, it can be downright dizzying at times. This in itself can be a good thing, though competition fosters innovation and can even drive prices down. But price isn’t everything and shouldn’t be the only consideration when it comes to something as important as your smartphone. Anybody can race to the bottom, but can they produce a device that won’t let you down in the process? I often say, I don’t mind paying a little extra for tech if it delivers for me in the long run. Smartphones are no longer luxury devices; they are daily necessities for many people. They’re avenues for communicating, exploring, conducting business, and even entertaining—they had better work. Spending time with the Axon 7 and 7 Mini shows me just how far we’ve come.

I still remember my first smartphone, the Android 2.2 Froyo-powered Samsung Captivate, and being blown away by how fast and intuitive it was compared to the not-so smartphone it replaced. Having been in the game a while, I’ve had a front-row seat to the hardware and software evolution taking place in the mobile device market, and I continue to be impressed that we keep pushing the envelope even farther. Things that we consider essential don’t have to be expensive, nor should this be a mundane or arduous daily task. ZTE wants you to take pride in smartphone experience, enjoy yourself—live a little. With the Axon 7 and 7 Mini, you have two choices that offer some of the best tech that smartphones have to offer.

If you need help deciding which of these phones is best for your smartphone enjoyment, contact us or post in the Comments section, below. Your smartphone is important, and we’re here to help.  

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please dont buy this awful phone

I have the Mini..  It's very nice.  My prior phone was a Samsung Mega 6.3.... I like this phone as much as my daughters Samsung S6 active.   Better price,  beautiful screen,  and the sound is awesome... Dolby ATMOS!  At $199.95 USD you can't beat it.  My Wife's Lenovo G4 2016 is a hunk of junk compared to the Mini.  I recommend! 

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