Home Mobile devices ZTE Axon 7 – budget buster packs everything including Dolby Atmos (review)

ZTE Axon 7 – budget buster packs everything including Dolby Atmos (review)

ZTE has released the Axon 7 and Axon 7 Mini Android smartphones in Australia and both provide top-end, flagship features at mid-range prices.

The Axon 7 is a serious contender in the flagship space not because of its amazing $699 price, but because feature for feature, it is hard to beat. The Axon 7 Mini is $499 and is not reviewed here.

ZTE is not a well-known brand – let’s just say that a lot of the white labelled phones and modems you have bought from telcos come from it. ZTE, however, has been in Australia since 2004.

To use its words, “We are coming out of the shadows promoting our own branded devices as stylish, advanced, and reliable with a long history of innovation and support for the Australian market. We have great local experience, we have dedicated local support, we have a great team of people who have been in the company from the beginning, we are here to stay, and have a lot more yet to offer.”

Out of the box

I was pleasantly surprised at the arrival of the Axon 7 – it comes in an elegant black box with gold highlights certainly matching its flagship status. Inside was the phone, a premium set of earbuds/mic (Apple style cues), a Qualcomm 3.0 fast charger and USB-C to USB-A cable. Hidden away is a clear silicon bumper case, a SIM card removal pin and a USB-C to microSD adapter that is handy for phone data transfers and using micro-USB cables.

ZTE AXON 7 box

The phone looks stunning in Ion Gold with no front branding. The 72.2% screen-to-body ratio means very narrow top and bottom bezels with an attractive micro-hole speaker grill on each and a top selfie camera.

The unlit home, back and recent app buttons are capacitive and don’t eat into the 5.5” screen – top marks here. The back is gently curved and has a top centre camera protrusion, dual flash and rear fingerprint reader. It exudes quality of finish and build.

Set up is simple and you can avoid Google at every step (as Chinese users need to do).

Specifications Model A2017G

This is one of the highest specified phones at present. It even has Dolby Atmos and the sound it produces is amazing – you can hear virtually distortion-free, “3D” sound from the stereo top and bottom speakers.

  • Display: 5.5”, AMOLED, QHD, 2560 x 1440 pixels, 538 ppi, covered in Gorilla Glass 4. Very narrow bezels using a 72.2% screen to body ratio; 90% colour saturation.
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, quad core 2 x 2.15GHz and 2 x 1.6GHz.
  • RAM/Storage/SD: 4GB LPDDR4/64GB UFS/256GB microSD and OTG support for up to 2TB external flash and HDD. Chinese version has 6GB/128GB. 49.2GB free space.
  • Camera rear: 20MP, Sapphire lens, f/1.8, 1.1 µm pixel size, phase detection auto-focus and contrast detection, OIS, EIS, digital zoom, dual-LED (dual tone) flash, HDR, 1/2.6” sensor, 4K @30fps record.
  • Camera front: 8MP f/2.2, 1/4" sensor size, 1.12 µm pixel size, 1080p @30fps record.
  • Sound: Stereo speakers, 32-bit/192kHz audio DAC; dual Hi-Fi chipsets; Dolby Atmos; Dolby Digital Plus (7+1 surround); automatic noise cancellation with dual built in mics; 3.5mm audio jack; 360° recording up to eight metres.
  • Comms: Wi-Fi AC, dual band, MU-MIMO, Wi-Di (casting); hotspot; GPS; NFC; Bluetooth 4.2.
  • LTE: Unlocked version Cat 6/7 300/150Mbps; 2100 MHz (Band 1), 1900 MHz (Band 2), 1800 MHz (Band 3), 1700 MHz (Band 4), 850 MHz (Band 5), 2500 MHz (Band 38), 2300 MHz (Band 40), 2400 MHz (Band 41) 2600 MHz (Band 7), 900 MHz (Band 8), 850MHz (Band 19), 700 MHz (Band 28).
  • Fingerprint sensor: five finger register on rear button on an aluminium uni-body.
  • Battery: 3250mAH, 70-hour endurance rating, USB-C Qualcomm 3.0 fast charger supplied.
  • Android: 6.0.1 (Nougat coming soon) and MiFavor UX 4.0.
  • Size/weight: 151.7 x 75 x 7.9mm x 175g.
  • Ion Gold (may be a quartz silver as well)
  • What it does not have – wireless charging, IP rating

Screen

It is a 5.5”, AMOLED, QHD, 2560 x 1440, 538ppi screen covered in Gorilla Glass 4 – this is a screen worthy of a flagship with settings for natural, colourful or gorgeous colour and warm, normal or cool colour temperatures.

It uses a diamond pentile AMOLED and has a maximum brightness of 352 nits. Compare this to the Samsung GS7 Edge at 392 and it is almost as good.

I did notice that the GS7 screen displays slightly more “whiter” tones, but apart from that, it is everything that AMOLED should be – excellent colour, perfect black, infinite contrast and good daylight readability.

User interface

Like most Chinese manufacturers, ZTE has its own User Experience Interface – in this case called MiFavor 4.0 (which will be updated with Android 7).

It seems to be a very light skin over Android and does not waste effort with little-used things like split screens etc. It has its own apps (to avoid Google) including contacts, messages, calendar, recorder, camera and gallery. It also has Google apps if you wish to use them.

It will work equally well with Microsoft Outlook email, calendar and contacts. I used the ZTE apps for the trial and they were all competent – certainly no better or worse than the likes of Huawei, OPPO, et al.

The device shows all notifications on the swipe down screen. You can use OK Google or its own My Voice (not tested) for basic control.

Like all UX it takes a little getting used to, but the initial hesitation soon goes. It also has an extensive range of screen savers and customisations including a MiPop setup for one-handed operation. I like the custom gestures – one will answer a call just by picking it up and placing it to your ear.

I don’t mind the rear fingerprint sensor – like LG, it is fast and easy to get used to. But I also like the separate power button. It will register up to five fingers (good for loaning the phone to a family member) and can bind apps to each fingerprint- like camera, answer phone etc.

Battery life and performance

The 3250mAh non-removable battery uses Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 for, well, quick charges. 5min = 8% charge / 10min = 17% charge / 30min = 50% / 100min = 100% charge. In my tests, from zero to 100% took about 1.5 hours which is very good.

It has a theoretical endurance rating of 70 hours against the GS7’s 3600mAH battery and 92 hours’ endurance. The UX has many battery saving modes including an ultra-power saving mode that goes to black at 15%.

I got about 36 hours use under heavy load and nearly 48 hours under normal load – this is pretty good. The quick charge is amazing!

The Qualcomm 820 was the 2016 flagship processor (later arrivals like the Google Pixel XL have the 821) and performs pretty much as expected in the band of similarly equipped smartphones. In video performance tests, the ZTE performed very well.

But ZTE has a bit more work to tuning the OS to the hardware to get it to match the performance of the GS7 with the same chip. I expect this will come with the Nougat upgrade.

In all tests, the Axon 7 showed no lag or stutter, even in recording 4K and rendering 3D images.

Dual sim or microSD, LTE and phone quality

Dual SIM is becoming a desirable feature, but like most handsets, the second SIM slot is also the microSD slot and the second SIM does not access 4G.

In tests around Sydney, the Axon 7 matched the GS7 (Cat 9 450/50) bit for bit on Telstra 4GX networks. That is more a factor of the network not being able to reach higher speeds.

Reception was excellent, the phone voice quality was clear, hands-free superb (dual speakers) and the phone app provided logs, missed calls, contact use, and everything you could expect.

I could not locate Voice over LTE but I suspect this is more carrier dependent.

Sound quality

This is the only handset with Dolby Atmos and dual front firing speakers in the top and bottom bezel. Spectacular is the only word to describe it. I could have used loud, clear, crisp and more superlatives but this phone has the best speakers bar none.

Dolby Atmos is, of course, a gimmick on a smartphone – you would not want to copy a huge 4K, Atmos-enabled movie to the phone. But it is impressive in that it has the DACs to handle that.

It delivers perfect clarity and frequency response to an external amp via the 3.5mm audio jack and Bluetooth speakers/headphones. In many respects it matches the LG V20 audiophile phone.

Camera

The best description is that in daylight shots it reproduced pleasant, accurate colours, good contrast, crisp detail, HDR worked, white balance was good, and the 20MP captures a lot of information.

In low light, it was a little hit and miss and use of a tripod or selfie stick generally fixed the longer exposure times. I think any issues here will be addressed by Android 7.x and firmware updates.

The automatic settings include HDR and Flash while manual allows you to adjust almost everything. It defaults to 16:9, 20MP. It saves only as JPEG – no RAW files to edit and play with (may be coming in Android 7).

There are many special effects – in all, a well laid-out camera control app and easy to use interface.

All tests were conducted in full auto mode – idiot proof.

Outdoors, daylight, good light: Faithful, accurate, colour if a tad bright. HDR on the shadows was credible, but not as good as other more expensive flagships. File size typically around 7-8MB.

Outdoors, daylight, subdued early evening: It extracted every bit of light without the need for flash – OIS was working overtime (tripod recommended) but produced clear, accurate colour shots.

Outdoors, night, low ambient light: It auto enables super night mode and still does not need flash to get a suitable picture. Use a tripod if you see this. I would override and make flash mandatory and leave HDR off.

Indoors, normal ambient light: OK but HDR takes its toll even with OIS. Use a tripod.

Indoors, low light: The flash is good up to three metres and offers good coverage. Turn off HDR or exposure times will be too long.

Live photos: Like Apple and Samsung it has a three-second video before and after a shot to give an animated effect. Works on front and rear cameras.

Selfie: Credible results with a wider angle than most. Video 1080p not stabilised, so it is shaky – use a tripod or selfie stick if you want the best quality. Beauty slider is effective in removing “blemishes”.

Panorama: The Axon 7 produced credible results with a 2358-pixel height but you need to hold it very carefully and stick to the centre line or the image/stitching will be distorted.

Video: 4K 230fps. 1 minute = 400MB, H.264/5 compression. Outdoors videos are fine but indoors in lower light are muted. It has a nice slow motion video mode.

Summary: It is a better camera than most mid-range phones (and remember this is at a mid-range price), and is up there with many flagships. Overall, it produced nice photos and videos in daylight and average shots in low light.

At the price, there are few that could better it. It is all about knowing what the strengths and weaknesses are and occasionally using manual to get a better shot.

Conclusion

Pros:

  • $699 is unbeatable value
  • Quad HD AMOLED screen at this price!
  • 4/64GB and Qualcomm 820 processor
  • Good camera – you won’t be disappointed
  • Excellent build and quality
  • ZTE has good Australian presence and support
  • Android Nougat on the way and works with Google DayDream View headset for VR

Cons:

  • No IP rating, no wireless charging – neither are deal breakers
  • No Always on screen typical of AMOLED screens – could be easily fixed
  • Phone is a little slippery in sweaty fingers – use the silicon buffer
  • Lack of aftermarket cases

ZTE has indeed come out of the shadows with the Axon 7 – there is everything to like especially at $699 – it is a great, well-made, well-specified phone that is amazing for the price.

While Dolby Atmos is a gimmick for a smartphone it is nice to see ZTE try to differentiate and the by-product is better, no awesome, sound all around – truly outstanding sound which I would compare favourably with LG’s V20 audiophile phone.

The camera does a credible job – you won’t be disappointed, but learning to use the manual settings and investing in a tripod is a good idea.

I would like to see this running Android 7.x as it will introduce DayDream VR, it should also get RAW image support, and a number of new features including even better battery life. After all great hardware needs great software.

In looking at the Australian market, and Qualcomm 820 devices there is no equivalent at the price, although the LG G5 and HTC 10 (both only have 32GB storage) can be seen around for similar money and LG’s dual camera outclasses the Axon 7.

As a mid-range phone, I give it a five out of five – it is really good. As a flagship killer, it is perhaps an 8 out of 10 and that is very good too. Whatever you do, smile as you pay $699 when others are spending nearly twice as much.

Note that the Australian version comes with a two-year $300 accidental insurance cover on top of the two-year warranty when purchased from ZTE online or JB Hi-Fi.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!