Just what constitutes a “flagship killer”? There isn’t a dictionary definition, but the term typically refers to phones with high-end hardware at prices that challenge the status quo. The OnePlus 3 meets that loose definition, as does LeEco’s Le Pro 3 and Oppo’s F1 Plus. All retail for far less than the $650+ Apple iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S7, LG V20, and Google Pixel Phones, but match — and in some cases surpass — their processing power and battery life.
A rare breed of phones fit the definition of a flagship killer to a T, and ZTE’s Axon 7 is at the head of the pack. It’s the follow-up to ZTE’s Axon Pro, and the company’s attempt to extend beyond the budget phone market that it’s come to dominate. Now, ZTE is looking to carve out success at the high end with the Axon 7.
We put the phone through its paces to determine whether this is the flagship killer to buy or another flash in the pan.
A distinctive design sets it apart
The Axon 7 doesn’t look like every other smartphone on the market, and that’s a good thing. In sticking resolutely with the design language of the predeceasing Axon Pro, ZTE ensured the Axon 7 didn’t lose its distinctive ZTE flavor. As such the phone stands out from a crowd of bland lookalikes and iPhone copies.
The Axon 7’s curving, glimmering aluminum body is a mesmerizing work of parabolic slopes. The screen, much like that of Huawei’s Honor 8, curves toward the phone’s edges. On the smartphone’s front is a 5.5-inch AMOLED panel dominated by a black border that extends to its edges, and a triangular configuration of cutouts above and below it that demarcate the smartphone’s stereo speakers. Slightly above the bottom grill sit the three touch-sensitive buttons that serve as the primary means of navigation through the Axon 7’s hardware: “back,” “home,” and a shortcut to the multitasking menu.
The Axon 7’s minimalist aesthetic continues around the back. The camera lens, flash, and fingerprint sensor are centered on the back. You’ll find the “Axon” and “ZTE” logos further down below. Two antenna lines cross the Axon 7’s top and bottom, and on the sides sit a gleaming power button, volume rocker, and combination SIM/Micro SD Card tray of the same color and reflectivity of the handset’s unibody.
Its 5.5-inch, Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440 pixel), AMOLED screen is absolutely radiant at full brightness. In terms of sheer contrast, it’s a massive improvement over the Axon Pro’s LCD screen. It looks gorgeous.
The Axon 7 also feels great in the hand, which came as a bit of a surprise. We expected the phone’s smooth aluminum to slip between our fingers, but we found the phone surprisingly easy to grip.
Admittedly, the Axon 7’s curved sides aren’t quite as forgiving on the palms the iPhone 7’s — they tend to dig in a bit. Overall, we dig the design, though. It’s only big downside is the lack of waterproofing.
The new Axon 7 is slimmer, sleeker, and more refined than last year’s Axon Pro, but it retains the key elements that help the Axon brand stand out from the competition.
The best audio on any smartphone
ZTE really focused on audio quality with the Axon 7 and it shows. While most smartphone makers barely give audio a passing thought, ZTE pours a lot of time and energy into making sure the Axon 7 sounds amazing.
First impressions are everything, and the Axon 7 makes a great one with its display.
The handset packs two dedicated audio chips, the AKM AK4961 and AKM AK4490, that support Hi-Fi audio playback through headphones and loudspeakers, plus front-facing stereo speakers and sound-enhancing Dolby Atmos technology. We ran each through their paces.
The Axon 7’s stereo getup boasts a pair of 2.15V speakers that easily rank among the loudest we’ve heard on a smartphone. The Axon 7 blows the competition away, even eclipsing the HTC 10, which has decent sound. Our test stream of Jimmy Hendrix albums was clearly audible from across a hallway. However the Axon 7’s speakers have more than volume going for them. Audio is crisp and clear, so it’s free of the distortion you usually get from smartphone speakers. Bass beats are rendered clearly, as are the highs of woodwind and string sections . The Axon 7 handled Hendrix just as well as the Black Eyed Peas and Bach.
The headphone experience was just as good. The Axon 7 supports Hi-Fi audio up to 32-bit/192KHz, which is made better by the Axon 7’s Dolby Atmos tech. The software can pass audio from YouTube videos, music, and movies through professionally tuned equalizer profiles, and simulate a 7.1 surround sound system. It creates a convincing illusion. We were convinced that we were hearing noises behind us.
The Axon 7 is just as capable of capturing sound as it is reproducing it. It packs dual noise-canceling internal microphones that can record audio from up to 23 feet away and record from any direction. The Axon 7 “listens” for an audio source while minimizing the ambient noise around it, amplifying recording where necessary. In our test, it worked as advertised — microphone audio came through crystal clear.
Camera quality is solid, but behind flagships
Camera quality can make or break a smartphone, and luckily, the Axon 7 delivers pretty solid audio.
On the back, you have a 20-megapixel shooter with a f/1.8 aperture that leverages phase detection autofocus to lock focus quickly. The accompanying optical image stabilization (OIS) mitigates the effects of shaky hands and bumpy car rides. Finally, high dynamic range boosts brightness and color contrast.
In daytime conditions, the Axon 7’s snapper holds it own. Pictures of the afternoon New York City skyline came out brilliantly. Colors toward the cooler end of the color spectrum, especially the hues of in the sky and Hudson River, were rendered especially intensely. When high dynamic range is enabled, photos are captured with a vividness that verges on oversaturation. That boldness won’t appeal to everyone, but we liked the effect.
That strong daytime performance didn’t translate to low-light, unfortunately. The Axon 7’s sensor struggled to render the stacks of cardboard boxes in our office’s dimly lit storage closet, exhibiting a fair amount of graininess. Autofocus became oddly sluggish, too. Colors were disappointingly soft and muted in comparison with shots taken with flagships like the Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 Plus.
Luckily, the Axon 7’s rear shooter fared far better in the video department. Video footage was smooth and impressively stable. We appreciated the resolution and framerate options, too, including 4K (4,096 x 2,160 pixels) resolution at 30fps, Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) at either 30fps or 60fps, and 720 in slow motion 240fps.
The 8-megapixel front-facing camera takes excellent shots and videos. It regrettably lacks a flash, but pics snapped in well-lit rooms and daylight came out bright, clear, and free of noticeable grain or softness.
Strong performance from the high-end chip
The Axon 7 is powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor that keeps the Galaxy S7, HTC 10, and OnePlus One 3 ticking. It’s paired with a generous amount of RAM and storage, the exact amount depends on which storage configuration you choose. You can get 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM or 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM.
The Axon 7 is wicked fast. Hiccups were very rare and image-heavy apps like Instagram and Snapchat didn’t slow things down at all.
Our 4GB RAM model didn’t struggle to switch between multiple apps and Chrome tabs. Even lengthy, graphics-heavy Microsoft Word documents, which have a tendency to bring powerful smartphones to their knees, loaded quickly on the Axon 7.
In terms of benchmark performance, the Axon 7 holds up to the competition. It scored a 142,672 in Antutu, just ahead of the OnePlus 3 but short of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. In GeekBench 4’s Compute test, it fared about the same, managing single-core performance of 1,694 — just behind the OnePlus 3 and LG G5 and behind the chart-topping Galaxy S7.
A 3,250mAh battery powers the Axon 7. Its battery is bigger than the one in the Galaxy S7 (3,000mAh) and the LG V20 (3,200mAh). It also supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 standard, which cuts recharge times to about an hour and 40 minutes. In our tests, it took the Axon 7 about 30 minutes to juice to 50 percent.
When it comes to off-the-charger performance, the Axon 7 lasts impressively long. With brightness set to automatic and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular data enabled, we struggled to drain the Axon 7’s battery very far below 40 percent by the end of a moderately busy workday.
Brief sessions of fairly light usage — comprised mainly of checking email, installing apps, and sending Slack messages to coworkers — ate minimally away at the handset’s reserves. Demanding applications like benchmarks and games drained the battery a bit quicker, predictably, but never once did we worry about running out of juice before we hit a wall charger.
The Axon 7 easily lasts a day and those who use it less than power users like us will likely eek out a day and a half.
ZTE pops a light interface over Android
The Axon 7 may run Google’s Android operating system, but with a few tweaks and additions. ZTE’s user interface is called MiFavor.
Recent updates to the phone also gave it a few extra features — including “Night Mode,” which tweaks the color profile on the screen to reduce strain on the eyes at night, and support for 256GB Micro SD cards.
By default, MiFavor’s “Android” theme is selected by default, which leaves the interface largely unblemished. The home screen affords many of the same options as the Pixel launcher on Google’s bone-stock Pixel phones: pressing and holding anywhere on the screen lets you scroll through available wallpapers, insert widgets, switch themes, and swap the animated transition effect between home screens. The app drawer contains a search function that lets you quickly sift through apps.
The lockscreen is a nice touch. It rotates through backgrounds every time you unlock the Axon 7.
MiFlavor leaves other elements of the interface largely untouched. The notification drawer includes the quick toggles introduced in Marshmallow: swipe down from the top of the Axon 7’s screen in rapid succession and you’ll see options to quickly switch off Wi-Fi, data, GPS, Bluetooth, and more. Each button can be reordered, edited, or removed.
One of the most useful ZTE’s additions is My Voice, an app that ties custom voice commands to software actions. You can unlock the phone, take photos, and more using only your voice. You can also wake up the Axon 7 with a hotword, add contacts with a prompt, have the phone read incoming messages aloud, assign apps to custom commands, or even switch on airplane mode, disable the GPS, and adjust the smartphone’s brightness.
Audio is crisp and clear, free of the distortion frequently exhibited by smartphone speakers.
If voice commands aren’t your forte, the Axon 7 offers a suite of gesture controls. A double tap switches on the display, and a three finger pinch takes a screenshot. Shaking the phone twice flicks on the flashlight, while flipping the Axon 7 over mutes an ongoing call.
ZTE’s software could use a bit of polish, though. Some translations are grammatically incorrect, and a ZTE Rewards app serves up annoying promotional offers, ads, and surveys.
That said, MiFlavor certainly is far from the most bloated of Android skins. Most of ZTE’s customizations can be disabled and most of it is subtle enough that it won’t bother you.
When it comes to software updates, ZTE has a better reputation for timely updates than most. Although the Axon 7 is still running Android Marshmallow, it is expected to get the update to Nougat in January, according to a tweet from ZTE Germany. When that comes, Daydream VR support should be switched on. We’ve reached out to ZTE for confirmation.
Warranty, customer service, and availability
ZTE provides a standard one-year limited warranty on the Axon 7, which covers replacements and repairs on units that are found to be “defective in material or workmanship.” It also ships with ZTE’s Passport 2.0 program, a 24-month premium protection plan free of monthly insurance premiums. It covers accidental damage like drops, spills, and cracked screens. There’s also a free advanced exchange option — provide the company your credit card number, and ZTE will ship a replacement device to you in advance of your defective phone. It’ll even cover shipping.
In addition, ZTE will replace or refund any devices deemed defective within the first thirty days of ownership. If your Axon 7 is stolen or lost, the company will reimburse you up to $100. When it comes time to upgrade to a new Axon flagship, ZTE will extend a discount of $100 off your purchase.
For new Axon 7 owners, ZTE also offers a free-of-charge “set up” assistance program. Call ZTE’s hotline and a customer service representative will explain the features of the device and guide you through the setup process.
Sadly, the Axon 7 isn’t available to buy at your carrier’s store. You have to get it online from ZTE or another retailer. Luckily, ZTE has a payment plan set up, so you can pay off your phone in monthly installments over two years, just like you would at a carrier. It’s a relatively simple process and it works on every carrier’s’ network — even Verizon.Our Take
Short of pedigreed flagships like the iPhone 7 and Google’s Pixel, the Axon 7 is one of the best phones you can buy. It’s hundreds of dollars less than the competition, and it packs outstanding audio, a screechingly fast processor, a good screen, and a decent camera. It checks every box. ZTE’s Axon 7 is the flagship killer to beat.
Is there a better alternative?
ZTE’s Axon 7 is the best bang for your buck at $400. The OnePlus 3 used to be a good deal, too at $400, but now the company has discontinued it in favor of the slightly upgraded and pricier OnePlus 3T. Le Eco’s Le Pro 3 is another $400 flagship killer alternative, but we disliked its software and question LeEco’s commitment to the U.S. market and vital security updates. Finally, the $400 Honor 8 is a decent alternative, but it’s not quite as powerful as the Axon 7.
The DT Accessory Pack
The only Android phones we recommend over the Axon 7 are the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, both of which will cost you $250+ more than the Axon for about the same spec sheet. The reason why the Pixels are preferable, lies in the Pure Android software, timely updates, and impressive customer support. If you can swing it, spend the extra money. Of not, the $400 Axon 7 is one helluva steal.
How long will it last?
The Axon 7 may still be running Marshmallow, but ZTE has committed to rolling out an Android 7.0 Nougat upgrade as soon as January of next year. In the interim, it’ll continue to distribute security upgrades and performance improvements over the air, as it’s done over the past several months. It should last you at least two years before an upgrade is warranted.
Should you buy it?
Yes. At $400, the Axon 7 is a no brainer. It packs a speedy processor, the best audio we’ve heard on a smartphone this year, a great display and camera, and software that’s unobtrusive. It may not sport dual cameras, bleeding-edge silicon, or an ungodly amount of memory, but to call the Axon 7 a slouch is to do it a disservice. Short of smartphones hundreds of dollars more, it’s one of the best on the market.
Updated on 05-01-2017 by Christian de Looper: Added news of software update for Night Mode and 256GB Micro SD cards.