​ZTE Axon 7 review: Is ZTE dumping old stock on Australia?

An overpriced 2016 Android smartphone launched in 2017

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ZTE Axon 7
  • ZTE Axon 7
  • ZTE Axon 7
  • ZTE Axon 7
  • Expert Rating

    3.00 / 5

Pros

  • Few weaknesses
  • Daydream VR compatible

Cons

  • Overpriced
  • Launched June 2016
  • Low-light camera issues

Bottom Line

The ZTE Axon 7 does little wrong, but it launched overseas many months ago and, at this high price, there are many better choices to be made.

Would you buy this?

ZTE has perhaps been best known for manufacturing other people’s phones – Telstra has used them to make it’s own devices in the past. But with the Axon 7, we’re seeing the company launch it’s own flagship onto these shores under its own banner. The problem is that it launched this phone overseas in July last year. There are some unique and interesting features but at a not-inconsequential $699, is it worth buying or is ZTE just foisting its unsold stock on Australia?

Key specs

5.5in, 1440 x 2560, 538ppi AMOLED screen, 64,4GB RAM; Quad-core CPU on Snapdragon 820 chipset, Adreno 530 GPU; 20/8MP cameras, Android 6.0.1, 3,250mAh battery, Fingerprint reader, microSD slot/dual-SIM card, 152 x 75 x 8mm, 175g. Full specs here.

Handling and Design

The large speaker grilles at each end of the screen put us in mind of HTC’s phones with their Boom Sound stereo speakers. ZTE’s officially support Dolby Atmos surround sound but frankly we’ve heard louder and more distinct audio from other phones. There’s not much bass and treble can get distorted well before volume tops out. The unnecessary-oversized grilles therefore tend to make the phone look a bit cheap. Beyond that though, the dark-metal chassis redeems it a little, as does the 8mm thinness.

The 5.5-inch AMOLED screen is colourful enough. Colours don’t pop as with some, more-premium competitors but it’s well above average. We also like the high, 1440 x 2560 resolution.

We’re also fans of the supplied, clear, silicon case which provides good protection without making the phone too bulky or masking its looks. That said, the 175g weight is on the heavy side for a phone this size. The svelte, similarly-specified Oppo R9s that we reviewed a few days ago has comparable specs but weighs 30g less.

The Snapdragon 820 chipset was state-of-the-art a year ago. We’ve seen it on many phones including our Phone of The Year 2016, the Samsung Galaxy S7. Everything ticks along OK but it doesn’t feel like the fastest phone we’ve used. Apps run fast enough but it’s not the most responsive. A minor annoyance is that we can’t see the three, touch-sensitive buttons, beneath the screen in the dark – there’s guesswork involved in where they are and we regularly missed them or hit the wrong one. If we’re really pernickety the power button on the right-hand side of the screen is very easy to press unintentionally. At least the fingerprint reader is located on the back (we approve) but it’s not the fastest we’ve used.

Another annoyance is transferring files to a computer. Rather than plugging it in and it working, drivers need to be installed and even that failed in the first few attempts. It’s minor, but was something else to add to a list of irritations.

Read more: ​Oppo R9s smartphone full review

ZTE includes a few novel features including power-consumption analysis and lock screen modification. You can also unlock the phone by making a custom "noise" but it’s generally, standard Android fare. Perhaps the best feature is compatibility with Google’s Daydream VR – it’s the first phone since the expensive Pixel that we’ve seen does this and that’s a great feature. Also worth noting is that the MicroSD card slot doubles as a second SIM card – an increasingly-useful feature for world travellers.

Battery Life

A 3,250mAh battery is included – average for a phone with these specs. Even with power management it still struggled to last a full day. The rapid charging is nice to have, but we don’t like running low in the evening and we’d have liked to see more from ZTE on a phone that weighs a sizeable 175g.

Next Camera and Conclusion

ZTE Axon 7 Camera test

The Axon 7’s camera was generally good but with some caveats. It captures 4K video at 30fps using both H.265 and H.264 codecs and quality was impressive. While it’s not the best at handling low light, video captured is generally smooth and focusing was instant. Colours are good and grain only makes an appearance in very low light. We didn’t find image stabilisation missing but it’s available at the 1080p 30fps recording mode. However, at this setting fast, automatic focusing all but vanished and we kept having to tap the screen to sharpen things up.

We expect phones to handle moderate lighting better than this: resorting to Night Mode with shutter lag, grain and focusing issues at day time.
We expect phones to handle moderate lighting better than this: resorting to Night Mode with shutter lag, grain and focusing issues at day time.
There was plenty of light for a decent photo here, but much of the photo is still dark - a common theme.
There was plenty of light for a decent photo here, but much of the photo is still dark - a common theme.

The low-light issue is a common blight with the main, 20-megapixel camera. It doesn’t have the greatest dynamic range and any dark patches in pictures went dark a bit too easily. Also, in even moderately-well lit environments, the camera would flash Night Mode on-screen with every shot and give us heavily-sharpened, grainy images. Shutter lag was a constant bug bear but it’s not terrible and we didn’t miss as many shots as with some competitors (e.g. the Oppo R9s).

Despite dark shadows, in good lighting photos came out generally sharp, colourful and well-exposed.
Despite dark shadows, in good lighting photos came out generally sharp, colourful and well-exposed.

The selfie camera was good despite only offering 8-megapixels. While this might not offer the highest resolution it does offer slightly-better low light performance.

Selfies aren't very high resolution but they're very useable if you don't zoom in too far.
Selfies aren't very high resolution but they're very useable if you don't zoom in too far.
Panoramas came out a bit soft for our liking.
Panoramas came out a bit soft for our liking.

Conclusion

This isn’t the first phone that has launched overseas long before being dumped on the Australian market. Recently, Motorola did this with its X Force phone that was a year old before being rebranded and sent Down Under. It’s a shame because Australia has one of the highest penetrations of top smartphones in the world – we embrace new phones regularly.

When the X Force appeared it still had a unique feature set with a three-day battery, unbreakable screen and rugged chassis. It did at least arrive with a heavy discount and it’s $599 RRP is $100 less than the Axon 7. Indeed, there are many excellent phones cheaper than this, our Best Phones Under $600 lists ten of them.

That the Axon 7 wouldn’t get on this list even if it cost $100 less speaks volumes. If none of those competitors look tempting then it’s worth checking our Best Phones Under $700 list. The ZTE Axon7 isn’t a terrible phone and there are no obvious flaws (and Daydream compatibility may turn your head), but with the likes of the excellent Huawei Mate 8, Huawei P9 and Samsung Galaxy S7 costing less, it feels like overpriced, out-dated mediocrity by comparison.

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