There’s never been a better time to be in the market for a new smartphone, especially an Android phone. Yes, you could have probably said that every year since the dawn of the smartphone — that’s just the way technology works — but this year there’s been an explosion of activity in the world of unlocked, carrier-free smartphones in the US. You no longer have to settle for sub-par hardware when trying to save a few bucks. Companies such as OnePlus, Acer, Alcatel OneTouch, and others have announced phones that can go toe-to-toe with the best from Samsung in terms of performance, but costs hundreds of dollars less than a comparably equipped S6.
Of course, if you’re a company that’s playing in this space, all this competition makes it that much harder to stand out from the pack. You can’t just slap together a bunch of high-end specs, put an aggressive price tag on it, and hope that people will come running. Now, perhaps more than ever, a great smartphone not only checks off the tick boxes for functionality, it also has other, intangible qualities that make it desirable. Maybe it’s an exotic design, maybe it’s the ability to customize the look and finish, maybe it’s super premium materials that are a step above what’s par for the course. Whatever it is, it’s not something you can get from slapping a smartphone together from a parts bin.
ZTE’s new Axon Pro does the check list thing right. It hits most, if not all, of the functionality and components that make a great smartphone today. It has an all-metal chassis, the latest high-end processor from Qualcomm, a super-high-resolution display, and a high-resolution camera. It runs the latest version of Android and works with both AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE networks (but not Verizon or Sprint). You can buy it unlocked for $449, much less than a comparable iPhone or flagship Samsung Galaxy smartphone. That price also includes a two-year warranty that covers any problem or accidental damage, including liquid damage or broken screens.
On paper, the Axon Pro is really attractive, and the price is low enough to turn heads. But in practice, as I’ve experienced over the past few weeks of using it, the Axon Pro lacks the intangible je ne sais quoi that separates the great smartphones from the also rans. It’s largely just fine, which isn’t really a bad thing, but isn’t enough to stand out in an incredibly crowded field.
My problems with the Axon Pro start with the design, but don’t end there. It’s nice that it’s made of metal, but unlike the unibody metal phones from Apple or HTC, the Axon Pro is very obviously bolted together from separate pieces and isn’t nearly as sleek. It looks a bit like an HTC phone from 2011, before the company really tightened up its manufacturing tolerances. The Axon Pro is solidly put together — at no time did I feel like it was going to fall apart — but it doesn’t turn any heads in 2015.
The 5.5-inch, Quad HD display is sharp and bright, though the phone’s automatic brightness adjustment can make it too dim to see comfortably at times. But aside from that minor quibble, it’s a fine screen that does its job as you’d expect it to.
There are some nice features in the Axon’s hardware: it has a front-facing speaker (yes, just one, despite the dual-grille design), a home key that doubles as a notification LED, and a dedicated camera key. Sadly, and a bit confusingly, the camera key doesn’t actually launch the camera app, and it doesn’t have two stages for focus and capture.
The Axon's camera doesn't hold a candle to the S6 or G4
The camera itself is a 13-megapixel unit with a secondary sensor for blur effects after the shot is taken. It’s not the most impressive camera, with flat contrast and drab colors in low light, and the blur effects are just as gimmicky here as they were when HTC debuted them in 2014’s One M8. The camera is the most obvious point where the Axon’s lower cost holds it back — it just can’t hold a candle to the cameras on the Galaxy S6 or LG G4.
But the Axon Pro can hold its own when it comes to performance and stamina. The Snapdragon 810 processor and 4GB of RAM perform flawlessly, and the phone never gets bogged down or feels laggy. Likewise, the 3,000mAh battery had no trouble lasting an entire day with room to spare. ZTE has also included fast charging in the Axon Pro, so it only takes 30 minutes to go from 0 to 50 percent charge. Wireless charging would have been a nice addition, but with quick charging this rapid, I’m not missing it much.
I do wish the Axon Pro had an option for more than just the 32GB of built-in storage or the ability to support microSD cards. Both of those are things that enthusiasts look for, and 32GB is quickly becoming a bare minimum.
For software, the Axon Pro runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, with some slight customizations by ZTE. The modifications aren’t drastic, but there are some odd choices within them that make me wonder why ZTE bothered. The lock screen doesn’t display as many notifications as stock Android does, and the notification panel has been slightly altered in ways that aren’t necessarily any better than what Google does. Google Now is hidden behind a long-press of the home key, but if you swipe up on that you get an odd dashboard of recent contacts, your activity tracking, and random sports news from Yahoo. Most of these things are minor quibbles, but for the people that would be interested in the Axon Pro, I can see them rapidly getting annoying.
And that puts a nice pin on my struggles with the Axon Pro: I just can’t tell who it’s for. It’s loaded with high-end specs that would appeal to enthusiasts, but it’s not as aggressively priced nor as nicely designed as the OnePlus 2, which has similar hardware. It doesn’t have the cool customizability or great software features of the Moto X Style, which also undercuts it in price. And it can’t compete with the cameras and design of the Galaxy S6 or LG G4. It sits in this weird middle area in terms of price and functionality without really standing out in any way. A year or two ago, ZTE could have played this game with ease, but at this point, the pack is just getting too crowded for the Axon Pro to stand out.
Photography by Sean O'Kane