ZTE believes innovation is lacking in the smartphone industry, that consumers want more from the devices they use the most but companies aren’t delivering. It’s true. While smartphones offer spectacular performance and stellar cameras, there hasn’t been a game-changing feature as of late. The minute differences between last year’s iPhone 7 and this year’s iPhone 8 are a good example.
The Chinese company’s solution is a little strange, though. The next major trend it wants to start is the “foldable phone,” beginning with the ZTE Axon M. In our hands-on review, we found it’s far from what you’d expect a foldable phone to look and work like, but it certainly is unique. The Axon M kicks off a new category of devices in the Axon line — ZTE stresses that the device is not the successor to last year’s Axon 7, which we can expect in early 2018. But is this foldable phone worth bending over for?
FLIP IT OPEN LIKE IT’S 2007
Unlike the patents and concepts we’ve seen of “foldable phones,” most of which rely on a flexible display, the ZTE Axon M’s design is reminiscent of flip phones like the 2007 LG Voyager.
It’s certainly as chunky as those early smartphones, and in a year where the biggest trend has been reducing the edges around the screen, the Axon M packs some of the biggest bezels out there.
There are two screens, one on the front and one on the back. You can unfold the back screen out to have two 5.2-inch LCD screens sitting next to each other, which makes it look like you’re holding a miniature tablet. Both have a resolution of 1,920 × 1,080 pixels, and the screen is protected with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5.
When it’s unfolded, the rear of the aluminum phone looks industrial but unremarkable; there’s not much here other than the Axon logo. On the side with the two screens, the primary left display packs the only camera, on the top left edge, which we’ll get to later. On the left edge of the phone,you’ll find the volume rocker and the power button, which doubles as the fingerprint sensor. There’s also a “quick-launch button” that you can use to access the camera via a double-click, and you can customize it to launch your favorite apps with or without the second screen.
It’s not what you’d expect a foldable phone to look like.
ZTE says the Axon M uses Dolby Atmos for rich sound, and it has a similar hi-fi audio setup as the ZTE Axon 7. The main difference is the Axon 7 had dual front-facing speakers; there are dual-speakers on the Axon M, but one’s the top earpiece and the other is bottom-firing and lives next to the USB Type-C charging port. The headphone jack is at the top of the phone.
The Axon M is quite bulky — nearly double the thickness of most smartphones today – which makes sense considering you’re getting two screens. The thickness didn’t feel too unnatural, though we’ll have to carry the phone around for a longer time to see if it’s cumbersome. When the phone is folded up, only the primary screen works (with some exceptions). You can either completely unfold it, or unfold it halfway to use the second screen as a kickstand.
WHAT’S THE SECOND SCREEN FOR?
You can use the Axon M four different ways, and an “M” logo on the Android navigation bar lets you switch between these different modes. The way people will likely use the phone the most is as a normal smartphone, with the Axon M folded up and the primary screen on.
When it’s unfolded, the second screen will light up and you can tap on the M logo to swap modes. There’s a dual mode, which lets you use both screens for separate functions. Open Twitter on the left screen and Gmail on the right, for example; it’s super-handy for multitasking.
Or you can mirror the primary screen. If you fold back the phone in this mode, the second screen will stay on. This mode works best if you want to share content with someone else. For example, if you’re sitting across from someone and want to watch a movie with them, or if you want to play a game like chess with a friend.
The final mode lets you stretch the primary screen to the second screen, so you can utilize both screens as one giant 6.8-inch display. Open an app like Chrome and it will stretch to fit both screens (with a divider in the middle). This could be handy if you’re watching a movie by yourself, or you just want more screen real estate for one app.
In the brief demo I had with the Axon M, this all worked relatively well. There were a few hiccups and delays with the software, but we’ll reserve judgment for our review of a final retail unit. We like dual mode the most so far, as it felt like we could truly multitask on the phone by using two full-screen apps at the same time.
SOLID SPECIFICATIONS, SINGLE CAMERA
The Axon M is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 processor — the same chip that was in last year’s Google Pixel smartphone — and 4GB of RAM. Performance is smooth and fast, though we’ll have to see how much of a strain the second screen puts on the processor.
The only camera is on the front, but it’s not your average selfie cam.
It comes with 64GB of internal storage, with a MicroSD card slot in case you want to add more space. Like the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, the Axon M will use Bluetooth 4.2 instead of the newer Bluetooth 5 standard.
Aside from the special modes that make use of the second screen, we didn’t have much time to check out the Axon M’s software. It runs Android 7.1.2 Nougat with ZTE’s MiFavor Android theme, and the device will eventually get the more recent Android 8.0 Oreo release, though no timeline was shared.
Packed in the chunky phone is a 3,180mAh battery that ZTE said should offer 28.7 hours of talk time. It supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 fast-charging technology, and it should be able to regain about 50 percent in 30 minutes of charging with the included cable.
There’s no rear camera on the device — the only camera is on the front, but it’s not your average selfie cam. It’s a 20-megapixel camera with an f/1.8 aperture, and it’s intended to act as both the selfie and rear camera.
When you open the camera app, you’ll start in selfie mode. Tap the switch camera icon and turn the phone around: The second screen will turn on and act as the viewfinder, so you can use the same exact camera as a typical rear shooter. It’s a little jarring at first, but it’s a smart way to eliminate the need for another camera on the second screen. We’ll need to take a lot more photos to see if it’s a camera worth using.
PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
The Axon M will exclusively be sold through AT&T in the United States. It starts at $24.17 a month for 30 months ($725.10) on AT&T Next, and hits store shelves in November.
It will be more widely available internationally through many carriers, but you’re out of luck if you’re not on AT&T in the U.S.
The Axon M offers some unique and interesting features, but the design holds it back. Imagine if you could do everything mentioned above with a gorgeous, thin phone with slim bezels, and a second screen that’s flexible rather than a separate display unit. That’s ideally the future of this Axon M series, and it’s a shame we can’t experience it yet.
This is very much an early-adopter device for the tech-enthusiast. But it’s a phone that will make you do a double take, and we certainly need more time with it in our hands to offer up a final verdict.
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