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Like the other technology-born devices in our lives that we rely on heavily, we ask our smartphones to do a lot and a little at the same time. We want to have a fast, fluid, and seamless experience, but we don’t want to think about it too much. It should just work and be ready to deliver at all times. In fact, there are few things in our lives that we ask to multi-task as much as we do our smartphones. They serve as our entertainment hub, photographer, news source, maître d', and personal assistant. Perhaps, more importantly, they keep us connected to the people and places we hold dear. If that isn’t enough, we often require that our smartphones balance all of these tasks simultaneously and without any hiccups. While strong performance is expected, we often give little thought to the behind-the-scenes process that makes it all possible—that’s the job of the manufacturer. If you take a look at some of the most highly regarded smartphones on the market, while nuts and bolts are important, user experience continues to the be theF driving force behind customer satisfaction. This is something that manufacturers need to keep in mind when bringing new smartphones to the market.
Having personally owned more smartphones in the past decade than I have fingers, I was happy to spend some time with the 4G LTE-capable, carrier-unlocked-for-GSM Axon Pro from ZTE and take it for a proverbial test drive. I’ve had big phones, small phones, fast phones, and slow phones, so I pretty much know what to expect from a top-tier smartphone, and that’s precisely what Axon designed this device to be. Look at some of Axon’s midrange offerings and you’ll see that the Axon Pro represents a shift in design from its other handsets, showcasing a sleek metallic frame that’s typically of modern flagship smartphones. In this hands-on review, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the specs and features that give this device its place atop Axon’s smartphone hierarchy.
Designed in the USA and available in three colors, Chromium Silver, Ion Gold, Phthalo Blue, the Axon Pro stands approximately 6.1" tall and features curved edges at each of its four corners. The Chromium Silver model I received was aesthetically pleasing and had a high-end feel, thanks to its aluminum construction. While I welcome forgoing a plastic body on a smartphone of this caliber, the Axon Pro can feel a bit slippery at times, so be sure to handle it with care. On the front of phone you’ll see metal grilles above and below the display. While it may appear that these are dual front-facing speakers, the bottom grille houses the speaker and microphone while the top houses the phone’s earpiece. An AT&T nano-SIM card accompanied my review unit and the test call I made in New York City was clear and intelligible on both sides of the call. It is worth noting that this experience may vary based on your network and coverage area. Of all the things we ask our smartphones to do, something as simple as call quality can sometimes be an afterthought; luckily, there were no issues to report here. We’ll revisit the speaker and sound quality a little later on. On the sides of the handset, you’ll find a power button, a volume rocker, and a handy shutter-release button. The 3.5mm headset jack is located at the top of device and a micro-USB interface is at the bottom.
If you like large screens, the Axon Pro delivers just that—a wide, eye-catching 5.5" TFT LCD screen. Furthermore, this screen is packed with notable Quad-HD 2560 x 1440 resolution. In use, it was capable of displaying fine text and image detail with the sharpness you’d expect from a pixel count this high, and was able to handle every video clip I threw at it, without any issues. If you’re concerned about the amount of power it will take to drive a display of this size, the Axon Pro is equipped with a non-removable, rechargeable 3000 mAh lithium-ion battery that supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology. While power users may prefer the option to simply swap batteries when power runs low, Quick Charge technology is a great alternative, as it allows you to charge the battery quickly, decreasing your down time. You can spend more time enjoying your handset and waste less time hanging out near power outlets.
Screen resolution isn’t the only specification we have seen take a noticeable uptick among top-tier smartphone designs recently. It’s now common for flagship models to deliver octa-core processing, and the Axon Pro is no exception, thanks to its Snapdragon 810 chipset. This chipset consists of dual quad-core CPUs and the Adreno 430 GPU. This is more than sufficient to deliver high-performance gaming and multi-tasking. While heat is sometimes a concern with octa-core designs, I never felt that the Axon Pro became uncomfortably warm. Speaking of multi-tasking, how does 4GB of memory sound? The advantage this amount of RAM provides was evident while navigating the Axon Pro’s user interface and switching between apps.
Another trend we’ve seen from top-tier smartphones is the omission of a microSD expansion slot, which is also the case here. While that may disappoint some users, the Axon Pro offers up to 64GB of built-in storage. So if you’ve yet to fully embrace the bevy of cloud storage services available, 64GB allows you to store plenty of documents, music, photos, and high-definition video files. In addition to offering HSPA and 4G LTE connectivity, the Axon Pro features dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi for connecting to high-speed wireless routers. Bluetooth 4.0 is also available, allowing the headset to pair easily with other Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as headphones and activity trackers.
On the back of the Axon Pro you’ll find an impressive camera array that consists of 13- and 2-megapixel cameras. The 2-megapixel camera helps record image depth, and when shooting in Bokeh mode you can select focus points, blurring certain aspects of the image and bringing others into focus. To assist the BSI sensor in shooting images in low-light situations, dual LED flashes can also be found on the rear. High-Dynamic Range (HDR) range is selectable from the smartphone’s easy-to-navigate camera interface, as are Panorama, Multi-Exposure, Sport, Slow Motion, Interval, and Manual shooting modes. Nicely complementing the rear camera design, the front of the phone features a smile-activated 8-megapixel camera for self-portraits. Unfortunately, the aforementioned shutter-release button doesn’t serve as a quick launch for either camera, but I found its placement to be a convenience when capturing photos, giving it a point-and-shoot feel. The overall camera performance was pretty good, but it falls short of cameras with larger sensors. On the video side of things, the Axon Pro’s rear camera can record up to 4K/UHD video at 30 frames per second.
The Axon Pro runs the Android Lollipop 5.1.1 operating system, and while it isn’t a completely stock experience, Android purists will likely appreciate ZTE’s minimalist approach. Being a carrier-unlocked device, this smartphone isn’t plagued by a bunch of bloatware apps that you may never actually use, which eat away at the device’s precious storage capacity. Navigating the home screens and app drawer was relatively uneventful, which is a good thing; I expected it to be quick and responsive, which it thankfully was. Something that did take some getting used to was the bottom navigation buttons. Instead of the Recent Apps and Back buttons found on most devices, the Axon Pro features two dots instead of icons on each side of the home button. I was able to grow accustomed to it after a few hours of use and I was happy to see that I could swap the buttons’ placement from right to left, which I opted to do, mirroring the button layout of my personal device.
One customization I did find surprisingly useful was the pre-installed Dolby Audio app. Dolby is a name that home audio enthusiasts know well, thanks to its popular surround sound technologies like Dolby Pro Logic, Dolby Digital, and Dolby TrueHD. I’m usually skeptical of audio enhancements on portable devices, but Dolby Audio offered a noticeable improvement in sound quality via the built-in speaker and headset jack. The Dolby Audio setting can be accessed directly from its dedicated app and from the settings menu of the built-in music player. As someone who has a ton of music stored in Google Play Music, I was happy to see that I can also enjoy Dolby Audio sound quality outside of the built-in music app. ZTE touts the hi-fi audio quality of the Axon Pro—it's the first smartphone to arrive in the USA that has high-fidelity sound—and I think the company is on to something here, as I found the sonic improvements this feature offered to be noticeable and enjoyable. My review sample also included a pair of JBL in-ear headphones with an in-line remote control that adjusts volume and playback.
At this point in the review, you’re probably wondering about ZTE’s other smartphone models. The Axon sits directly below the Axon Pro in ZTE’s lineup, and shares the same cosmetic design as its big brother. While the display size remains at 5.5", the Axon packs Full HD 1920 x 1080 screen resolution. It also has a respectable 2GB of RAM and is equipped with the Snapdragon 801 quad-core chipset. Like the Axon Pro, the Axon features an 8-megapixel front-facing camera and the dual 13- and 2-megapixel rear cameras of which we’ve grown quite fond. Video recording on the Axon currently maxes out at 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second.
The unlocked ZMAX 2 is another honorable mention from ZTE’s catalog. This 4G LTE-capable, value-priced device doesn’t share the aluminum design of the Axon and Axon Pro models, but it does feature a 5.5" LCD screen mated with high-definition 1280 x 720 resolution. Like the Axon, the ZMAX 2 has 2GB of RAM, but its quad-core processing duties are handled by the Snapdragon 410 chipset. The ZMAX 2 has a front 2-megapixel camera and an 8-megapixel rear shooter accompanied by an LED flash. The rear cover is removable, hiding the device’s 3000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery. 16GB is on board for your storage needs and the device also has a microSD card slot, which supports microSDXC expansion cards up to 64GB. Like the Axon Pro and Axon models, the ZMAX 2 includes the Dolby Audio app and its Movie, Music, Game, Voice, Custom 1, and Custom 2 modes.
The short answer is yes, but allow to me to take a minute to explain the winning recipe here. Let’s look again at the hardware: octa-core chipset, check, 4GB of RAM—yup, high-resolution cameras—you got it. Combine that with a large QHD display and you have the ingredients needed to make a top-tier handset. However, as we mentioned earlier, you have to consider more than just specs when building a successful smartphone. Now add in enhanced high-fidelity sound quality, fast-charging technology, and an uncluttered user interface, and you have a device that’s as useful as it is powerful, positively impacting the overall user experience aspect we touched on earlier. The smartphone market is a crowded one, and the choices can be downright dizzying. If your checklist includes things like ease of use, great screen quality, solid construction, and high-megapixel optics, you should do yourself a favor and take a long look at the Axon Pro from ZTE. As always, your friends from B&H are here to answer your questions along the way.