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ZTE Axon 7 Mini: Our first take

Get in line: Best Buy to sell the Axon 7 Mini for only $200, but for a limited time

ZTE’s Axon 7 Mini appears to be the best of all possible smartphone worlds: uncompromising hardware at an affordable price.

It wasn’t that long ago that ZTE debuted the Axon 7, a handset that smartly married desirable hardware with an affordable, $400 price point. It took on such smartphone juggernauts as Samsung, Apple, LG, and HTC — and against all odds, emerged successful beyond ZTE’s wildest estimations. The Axon 7 has been in and out of stock since June.

That’s helped cement the Beijing, China-based ZTE become a veritable player in the smartphone market. But the company has broader ambitions: its angling to rank among the world’s top three smartphone makers by 2020. And it thinks an even cheaper derivative of the Axon, appropriately dubbed the Axon 7 Mini, will hasten it toward that endgame.

More: Hands on: ZTE Axon 7

ZTE’s is a common enough strategy: Sony has released smaller, mid-range smartphones under its “Compact” brand that generally accompany its flagship devices. Samsung, too, has historically released miniaturized versions of its top-end Galaxy phones, as has Huawei. But typically, the “mini” label denotes compromise: cheaper, smaller companion devices are generally less capable, at least on paper, than their larger counterparts.

In the Axon 7 Mini’s case, though, it’s quite the opposite. This is a kickass little phone.

Where to buy it

The ZTE Axon 7 Mini can be purchased in the U.S. through ZTE’s own online store, where it costs $300 and is available in platinum gray. Amazon also sells the Axon 7 Mini for $300.

A gold version is exclusive to Best Buy during its first couple months of availability, where it’s normally priced at $300. However, between December 4 and December 10, Best Buy will sell the gold Axon 7 Mini for only $200, or the platinum grey version for $250. We’d call this an absolute steal, so if you’re already tempted by the Axon 7 Mini, don’t wait to pick one up.

In the U.K., Carphone Warehouse carries the gold Axon 7 Mini exclusively, where it’s sold for 250 British pounds without a contract, or for free with a 24-month contract that starts at 17.50 British pounds per month.

A dead ringer for the Axon 7

It’s impossible to put the Axon 7 Mini’s hardware in context without mentioning its big brother, the Axon 7. So here’s a refresher: the original Axon 7 featured a slim, sleek, and smooth metal unibody with curves that conform pleasingly, subtly, and symmetrically to its components. In terms of internals, it sported a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED screen (2,560 by 1,440 pixels), a powerful 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 820 processor paired with 4GB of RAM, a 21-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization, and an impressively large 3,140mAh battery that supports rapid charging, a USB Type-C connector, and a fingerprint sensor. It has a Hi-Fi audio chip with impressively loud stereo speakers, too, and it’s one of the first smartphones to support Google’s virtual reality Daydream platform.

The Axon 7 Mini has big hardware shoes to fill, but it smartly borrows a lot from the Axon 7.

That was the Axon 7. The Axon 7 Mini is a logical step down. It looks and feels remarkably similar to its larger, pricier counterpart. Other than a few infinitesimally minor differences, the two are practically indistinguishable from one another. The Axon 7 Mini sports the same curved, sloping glass of its cousin, the same ergonomic bezels and rear casing, and the same easy-to-reach fingerprint sensor. It’s a a dead ringer for the Axon 7 in all the best possible ways.

The internals are by and large no different. ZTE said it made changes sparingly, and that’s largely true. The AMOLED screen is a bit smaller — 5.2 inches compared to its larger, more expensive sibling’s 5.5-inch display — and lower in pixel count: it’s 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) versus the Axon 7’s QHD (2,560 by 1,440 pixels). But thanks likely to the Axon 7 Mini screen’s high pixel density (424 pixels per inch), text, images, and icons appeared sharp and crisp in our brief time with a test unit. And better yet, the Axon 7 Mini’s panel seemed just as bright, vivid, and richly detailed as the Axon 7’s.

Under that big, bright screen is a capable processor, albeit one a hierarchical step down from the Axon 7’s silicon. The Axon 7 Mini packs the Snapdragon 617, the same octa-core processor that powers Lenovo’s Moto G4 and G4 Plus and ZTE’s Zmax Pro. While it’s positioned as a budget chipset, that’s an oversimplification — in our brief time with the Axon 7 Mini, we didn’t encounter any major sluggishness, slowdowns, or overt hiccups. The camera app launched quickly, pictures processed without delay, and galleries loaded absent any noticeable stuttering or hitching.

ZTE Axon 7 Mini Hands On
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

That impressive software smoothness is no doubt thanks in part to the Axon 7 Mini’s 3GB of RAM — a relatively generous amount, by budget standards. It’s a gigabyte less than the amount the 4GB Axon 7’s packing, true, but more than enough in our brief stress testing. The Axon 7 Mini didn’t struggle to switch between apps, launch the camera, or parse a sizable gallery of snaps. It seemed zippy, in a word.

The rest of the hardware’s just as impressive. The Axon 7 Mini, like its pricier counterpart, packs smartphone sensors out the wazoo: a light sensor, geomagnetic sensor, gyroscope sensor, hall sensor, and proximity sensor, to name a few. The base configuration ships with half the Axon 7’s internal storage — 32GB versus 64GB — but boasts a MicroSD Card slot capable of recognizing cards up to 128GB in size. And the Axon 7 Mini, like the Axon 7, packs Bluetooth 4.1 and a radio with support for a myriad LTE bands — in the U.S., it’s compatible not only with AT&T and T-Mobile, but Sprint and Verizon, too.

A good camera, and great audio

The Axon 7 Mini’s camera isn’t quite the caliber of the Axon 7’s — it has a 16-megapixel sensor compared to the latter’s 21-megapixel camera, lacks optical image stabilization, and sports a max video resolution of 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) compared to the Axon 7’s 4K (3,840 by 2,160). But to ZTE’s credit, those are the sensor’s only perceptible downgrades: it has the same autofocus and auto white balance features as the Axon, plus the same suite of brightness and exposure tools.

The front-facing camera is the same 8-megapixel model as the Axon 7’s, and that’s a good thing — we were impressed by the quality of the selfies the Axon 7 captured in low light. Assuming nothing has changed under the hood, we expect the same level of detail from the Axon 7 Mini’s model.

ZTE Axon 7 Mini Hands On

Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

The Axon 7’s audio reproduction is markedly improved, believe it or not, over the Axon 7’s — an unintended benefit of a new sound chip, the AKM 4962, which consolidates the the Axon 7’s two separate audio processors (a AKM 4961 DAC and AKM 4490 ADC) into one. Incredibly, ZTE said the Axon 7 Mini is louder than its predecessor — a claim we can back up after cranking up its volume during a loud demo video. And the level of detail is impressive, besides: the bass is deep but not boomy, the highs are clean and crisp, and voices come through loud and clear. It’s a stellar listening experience across the board.

Battery life is still unknown

Battery life is tough to gauge in a minutes-long briefing. We’ll have to put the Axon 7 Mini through the gauntlet to see how it fares against its larger sibling, but the specs, at least on paper, are encouraging: the Axon 7 Mini packs a 2,700mAh cell which a tad smaller than the Axon 7’s 3,140mAh battery, but one that retains support for Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0. In real-world terms, that means it shouldn’t take the Axon 7 Mini long to recharge — ZTE estimated that half and hour is would be enough to replenish about 50 percent of its juice, in most cases, and that a full hour and thirty minutes should top it off from empty.

Warranty information

The Axon 7 Mini, just like the Axon 7 before it, is part of the Axon’s Passport 2.0 program. That gives the phone a two-year warranty, free two-way shipping, and two-year accidental damage. And finally, Passport 2.0 will give customers $100 in credit toward a replacement Axon handset that was lost or stolen.

It’s worth a look

ZTE said it thinks of its smartphone brands as a pyramid: at the top, its Axon series with the “greatest features” and “premium devices;” in the middle, midrange handsets ranging in price between $200 and $300; and at the base, $50 bargain brands like its Blade series. The debut of the Axon 7 Mini in many ways reaffirms the firm’s commitment.

More: 8 powerful smartphones you can buy for $400 or less

It’s a smart move. The Axon 7 Mini’s beautiful exterior, gorgeous display, outstanding audio place it safely in the pantheon of mid-range smartphones. Huawei’s de facto answer, the Honor 8, is $100 more for hardware largely the same. And while Lenovo’s budget Moto G4 Plus may slot in $50 cheaper, it trades an aluminum body and stereo speakers for a plastic and mono one, respectively, to get there.

The Axon 7 Mini appears to be the best of all possible smartphone worlds: uncompromising hardware at an affordable price.

Highs

  • Beautiful display
  • Incredible audio
  • Snappy performance
  • Aluminum unibody design
  • Great price

Lows

  • Mid-range processor
  • Small battery

Article originally published in September 2016. Updated on 12-02-2016 by Andy Boxall: Added Best Buy offer on the Axon 7 Mini, and U.K. availability