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Hands on: ZTE Axon Pro

Brand be damned: ZTE’s Axon Phone is a gorgeous, all-metal flagship for $450

ZTE’s Axon Phone is a high-powered flagship encased in a stylish, all-metal body with a mid-range phones’ price of just $450 unlocked.

ZTE doesn’t have the best brand identity in the U.S. – Those who know the Chinese smartphone maker probably associate the ZTE name with cheap, pre-paid phones. Of course, ZTE is more than that. It’s had a vibrant portfolio of fascinating, high-end devices with interesting tech inside for years (though its had a fair share of quality issues in the past). Now, ZTE wants to break into the U.S. in a big way with the Axon Pro.

With a gorgeous all-metal body, top-tier specs, and absurdly low price tag, the Axon phone aims to be a true contender against the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, and iPhone 6. It certainly has the spec sheet and looks to be on that star-studded list, but only a full review will tell whether the Axon lives up to its potential.

We used the Axon phone briefly at the NYC launch event and came away impressed. Here’s our first take on the device. A full review will follow shortly.

Gorgeous, all-metal body with a lot of flair

It seems that every high-end smartphone these days is going with an all-metal build, and ZTE’s done the same with the Axon Pro. Its all-metal casing is smooth and polished to a nice shine. It has a grainier look than the iPhone, and it picks up the light in a beautiful way. ZTE’s also added a number of thoughtful details to the design, including unique speaker grills on the front of the device with a cool pattern made up of small triangles.

The pattern repeats itself in a different-colored metal inset on the back of the Axon Pro where the two cameras are positioned one above the other. It’s a nice touch that looks gorgeous on both of the models we saw. On the Navy blue version, the gold grill insets really stand out, but they also look classic on the champagne gold version, albeit in a more subtle way.

Thanks to the metal construction, the Axon Pro feels solid and cool in your hand. The bezels are minimal, so even though it sports a 5.5-inch screen, it doesn’t feel unwieldy. It also looks slightly smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus, too, in part because its bezels are black.

Its all-metal casing is smooth and polished to a nice shine that picks up the light in a beautiful way.

There are no buttons on the front of the device, but a white, round circle acts as the Home button. The standard Back and Recent Apps buttons sit on either side, though you wouldn’t know they were there, unless you use them – They light up briefly, when you tap on them. The power button is on the right side, and the volume rocker sits on the right.

Overall, the Axon Pro looks like a gorgeous premium smartphone, and it feels far superior to most ZTE phones, with the exception of the Nubia brand, which is also high-end and very polished.

Top-tier specs

ZTE went all-out with the Axon Pro’s specs. Its 5.5-inch Quad HD screen with a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution looks gorgeous. The screen takes up the vast majority of the phone’s front side, but there’s a buffer of black bezeling around the sides, as well as the top and bottom of the phone. The front-facing speakers are above and below, though only one shoots out sound.

The Axon Phone is powered by the oft-criticized Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor and 4GB of RAM. ZTE says the 810 shouldn’t overheat or cause performance issues on the Axon Phone like it did on the Sony Xperia Z3+ and other recent flagships. During our brief hand-on, the device stayed cool, but it’s impossible to say whether the overheating issue will rear its ugly head when the phone’s in use for a long period of time. The 4GB of RAM should make the Axon Phone a regular speed demon, but it’s too early to tell from the short hands on.

ZTE Axon rear camera angle
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

As far as storage goes, the Axon Pro comes with 32GB built in, but there’s no MicroSD card for expansion. While 32GB is a good entry-level option, it will be interesting to see if ZTE offers storage upgrades in the future. A 3,000mAh battery powers the Axon, and it has Quick Charge powers, so it should juice up quickly. We’ll need to test it further to pass judgment on battery life, but ZTE estimates 12 hours of talk time.

High-res audio sounds great

Since nearly every flagship has the same basic spec sheet these days, ZTE decided to add a bit of extra flair to the Axon phone. It polled users on what they wanted in a smartphone, and found that most wanted to have a great audio experience. In response, it popped front-facing speakers on the phone and stuck two hi-fi audio chipsets inside the Axon phone to support high-res 32-bit, 192KHz audio files.

ZTE added a bit of extra flair to the Axon Pro with hi-fi audio support.

We popped on the same pair of JB E13 headphones that ZTE plans to throw in with some pre-orders for the Axon phone to have a listen, and it sounded great. I’m certainly no audio expert, but the difference in audio was noticeable when compared to the iPhone 6 Plus I had with me at the time. I also tried the Axon Pro with my crappy iPhone headphones, and it still sounded great.

Those who really care about audio quality will love this feature. Of course, true audiophiles will no doubt want to listen for themselves first, which you can’t do, because the Axon phone isn’t available in stores yet.

Dual-camera setup and a sharp selfie shooter

HTC’s tried the whole dual-camera thing before, and it upset its users so much that the dual cam moved to the front of the HTC One M9 this year. ZTE’s trying its own hand at the dual cam setup on the Axon Pro with a 2-megapixel and 13-megapixel shooter on the back on the device. The cameras can be used to create depth and other cool effects. It was hard to tell how well the camera would perform in real life, given the extremely dark lighting at the event, but we’ll test it out in more detail later. The cameras can also record in 4K, if you’re into that kind of thing.

ZTE Axon camera
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

Selfie takes will be thrilled to know that there’s an 8-megapixel camera on the front of the Axon Pro, too.

Conclusion

ZTE still has a long way to go before it becomes well known in the U.S., and without carrier support, the Axon Pro will have trouble catching buyers’ attention. If it can manage to sway T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint to carry the Axon phone, though, it could go very far – especially with a price like that ($450 for such a high-powered phone is unheard of – Most flagships sell for $200+ more).

We’ll update this hands on with a full review in the coming weeks, as we get our hands on the Axon for a period of time that exceeds 30 minutes.

Highs

  • Gorgeous all-metal design
  • Hi-Fi audio support
  • Low $450 price for a flagship phone

Lows

  • No carrier support – yet