During a press event in NYC today, ZTE took the wraps off of the Axon line of smartphones. The first Axon 5.5-inch Axon is packed with high-end specs and design and sells for $449.98. It is available for order direct from ZTE, Amazon, Ebay, and Newegg starting today, with shipments beginning on July 27th.
ZTE is one of the many Chinese smartphone companies that doesn't yet have a great brand presence in the US, and the Axon is specifically designed to give the brand more equity here. ZTE says it designed the Axon in the US for the US market, and it features things like metal finishes, a quad-HD, 2560 x 1440 pixel display, and comes in blue, gold, and silver color options. It is also equipped with a dual rear camera that allows for refocusing after a picture is taken (much like HTC's DuoCamera on the One M8), as well as what ZTE is calling "hi-fi audio." The Axon is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with 4GB of RAM and has a 3,000mAh battery. It works on both AT&T and T-Mobile's LTE networks and runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.
A two-year warranty differentiates the Axon from other phones
The company is also introducing a new level of support for the Axon, starting with a two-year manufacturer warranty. ZTE says it's committed to bringing the latest Android updates to the Axon line, as well, appealing to the enthusiast smartphone users that have typically preferred Nexus phones for their fast software updates.
The Axon is a departure from the phones ZTE has typically offered in the US, which were low-cost, low-end phones made by carriers. It considers its Nubia brand, which also offers high-end devices, a separate company, and will continue to sell phones such as Nubia Z9 direct to consumers worldwide. But the Axon was made for the US, and it doesn't have oddities such as dual SIM slots or Asian-influenced software interfaces, like many other Chinese smartphones in the US have. ZTE says it will still sell devices through carriers, and it will apply successful features from the Axon line to its carrier devices.
ZTE is one of many companies trying the unlocked approach in the US
ZTE isn't the only company trying to sell unlocked phones direct to consumers: this year, we've seen companies such as Alcatel OneTouch, Asus, and Huawei enter this market. All of the companies are trying to do the same thing: grab the attention of customers that want well-made, high-performing devices but aren't interested in paying upwards of $700 for an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. ZTE says it is forgoing a high marketing budget in order to put its resources in making the Axon a better device at a lower price, but it's not clear how well it will do in actually making a name for itself in the highly competitive US market.
In person, the Axon isn't especially remarkable: it's well-made enough, but doesn't convey the premium feel of HTC or Apple device. It's not a unibody, and it looks more like an HTC phone from 2011 than what we've come to expect from modern devices in 2015. The display is nice enough, for sure, and the Snapdragon processor ensures that the phone is responsive and fast. We'll reserve judgement on the dual camera array until we've been able to spend more time with the Axon.