ZTE Axon Elite Review: Design grates but cameras impress
By Chong Jinn Xiung October 26, 2015
2015 has seen no shortage of challengers to the premium smartphone throne, with every vendor aiming to deliver a flagship device to take on makers like industry leaders Apple and Samsung.
Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE is considered one of the new kids on the block in the premium smartphone category, with the recent introduction of its Axon series of phones this year.
Stepping into the ring is its latest entry, the Axon Elite, a feature-packed powerhouse that lets users unlock it with your fingerprint, voice and even your eyes. But do more features make a better smartphone?
Bold design but not for everyone
Outwardly, the Axon Elite looks the part of a flagship smartphone. It has gentle curved edges on the corners and sides, encased in a sturdy metal body and is decked entirely in champagne gold. I’m not exactly a fan of the colour and the trend for champagne gold seems to be over. (This year, it’s apparently pink gold, according to the iPhone 6S crowd).
The front is dominated by a 5.5-inch Corning Gorilla Glass providing some protection for the screen. The full HD (1,920 x 1,080 resolution) IPS display is excellent, providing good viewing angles, bright and great colour reproduction. Packing 401 pixels per inch, the display is sharp and detailed, making it great for showing off pictures and videos.
When it comes to the grilles at the top and bottom of the display that conceal the earpiece and front facing speaker. Instead of the usual round micro-drilled holes, ZTE opted for a bold, unconventional design featuring rows of tiny triangles.
While some may see this as aesthetically pleasing, others may find it too distracting or even plain ugly. This same design element can also be found at the back, filling the space between the two cameras on the rear.
ZTE’s designers also decided to mix a faux leather texture (complete with seams) at the top and bottom of the phone’s primarily metal back.
It was as if they couldn’t decide if they wanted a metal or a leather back cover, but since these are materials used in many premium smartphones, they decided to go with both. The result unfortunately, cheapens the look of the devices.
The dual camera setup consists of a 13-Megapixel and 2-Megapixel camera that is used for sensing depth in order to create pleasing, blurred out backgrounds (or bokeh, in photography parlance). On the front, the Axon Elite is fitted with an 8 megapixel camera that offers plenty of resolution for selfies.
Below the rear cameras, ZTE has also provided a biometric sensor for fingerprints. We like having a sensor on the back since our fingers tend to naturally land there when we hold the device.
In terms of buttons, you will find the power button placed on the right side, while the volume rocker sits on the left. Both are placed near the centre so they are easy to reach. There is no dedicated camera button but you can still use the volume buttons to snap pictures. The
The Axon Elite is a dual SIM phone, but the SIM tray allows you to either employ both slots for SIM cards, or utilise one of them to hold a microSD card. It supports up to 128GB memory cards.
Good performance but lacks finesse
Similar to the flawed external design, the Axon Elite’s software also left us feeling like it was lacking in finesse.
ZTE’s MiFavor user interface, which runs on top of Android 5 (Lollipop) is serviceable but it definitely isn’t the prettiest we have seen.
The dark gold accented theme looks tacky and it really feels as if the designers tried very hard to achieve the look of a premium device, but ZTE may have just overdid it.
Another concern, and to be fair, this is something many other vendors are also guilty of, is the inclusion of bloatware like a separate web browser, email client and cloud sharing service, which basically feels unnecessary since Google provides the exact same services with its own apps.
We can understand why though, since Google’s services aren’t available in China, and each manufacturer would need to enhance the standard AOSP (Android Open Source Project) software with their own apps.
On the bright side, the Axon Elite is powered by a top-shelf Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, backed by 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, which offers plenty of speed and great performance.
The experience in using the device is fast and responsive. Launching apps was almost instantaneous and playing games like Modern Combat 5 proved to be no problem for the Axon Elite.
The only downside of the Snapdragon 810 is that it gets hot pretty fast and this has been a well-documented issue for the chipset. Thankfully it doesn’t get to a point where the device becomes uncomfortable to use, although the metallic back tends to pass on the heat to the hands more easily.
As far as audio quality goes, the single speaker was quite loud and we appreciated that when we took a hands free call on the phone. Call quality was also notably loud and clear when we performed a test call with the phone.
It is increasingly common for premium phones to adopt a unibody design and as such the battery is non-removable. Not to worry though, our fully charged Axon Elite review unit managed to last through an entire day with at least 30% by the end of the night.
Even if you do need to recharge, the device supports Qualcomm’s ‘Quick Charge’ technology to juice up the phone in little to no time, so you can be back on the road in a jiffy.
Unlocking the convenience of biometric security
Few smartphones can claim to offer three forms of biometric security measures. With the Axon Elite you can unlock the phone using your fingerprint, voice and even your eyes.
The aforementioned fingerprint reader on the back is the most familiar method to unlock the device. Just touch your finger on the reader and it unlocks without having to input a password. The sensor can recognise up to 5 different fingerprints. It’s fast and reliable.
The more novel approach of unlocking the device has to be the eye scanning option, that utilises the front facing camera. In practice however, the ‘Grand Eye’ scanning software was a hit and miss affair. I found it often failed to verify my eyes.
What’s not so ‘grand’ is that if you’re wearing glasses, you will also need to remove them if you want the camera to properly “scan” your eyes.
Things aren’t so great with the voice recognition system either. Annoyingly (but understandably) you are encouraged to use it in a quiet environment for it to hear your voice clearly, but this is simply impractical. Disappointingly, even in the best of conditions, the voice recognition system failed to recognise my voice print even after multiple tries.
So it’s back to the true and tested alpha numeric code or fingerprint reader for us. These features are of course, available on many other flagship smartphones today.
Cameras do impress
I was very pleased with the Axon Elite’s camera performance. The dual rear cameras grant the ability to sense depth, which allows it to snap nice pictures with ‘simulated’ bokeh that is normally achieved using a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera.
The effect is simulated because the camera performs some post-processing using information gathered from both lenses, to create a narrow depth of field, giving the non-focused areas of the image a blurred effect to separate subjects from the background.
Using the bokeh mode, you can even select to a new focal point on different parts of the image after you have taken the shot.
The effect looks genuine and most people may not realise that it was not created through a DSLR equipped with a wide aperture lens, but rather a smartphone image effect.
Under the regular shooting mode, the camera reliably capture decent quality photographs in most situations, be it light or dark. It also seems to handle high contrast situations fairly well, and autofocus also performed admirably.
The only strike against the camera is the lack of optical image stabilisation to counteract the effect of shaky hands especially when taking pictures in low light conditions.
The Axon Elite has decent video shooting capabilities, it can record up to 4K quality videos though this eats up a lot of storage so in most cases the full HD quality video is just fine.
To top it off, I liked the camera’s slow motion video function. Though the image resolution is not as great as regular full HD, the results are undeniably fun to watch whether it is a simple video of people walking or your favourite pet doing a funny trick.
There is no denying that Axon Elite has the makings of a premium smartphone. On paper, it houses top-notch components on the spec sheet including dual rear cameras, a vibrant full HD display and more security options than you can shake a stick at.
However, more doesn’t equate to better. Its biometric features feel more gimmicky than practical. Both the eye scanning and voice recognition methods are just too finicky and when you are in a hurry to unlock your device, the fingerprint reader is the only reliable method.
On a whole the Axon Elite is a decent premium phone that tries to pack in as many features as possible to offer good bang for your buck. It is a reliable performer that served us well in our daily usage, and the nice camera setup is a real treat.
The only question left is whether the design of ZTE’s premium smartphone is a turn-on for you. For us, the tiny triangle holes and mix of leather and metal didn’t quite tickle our fancy.
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