Review: ZTE Axon 7, behold the new performance champion

FROM a Malaysian perspective, it might not be immediately obvious that ZTE is one of the top five smartphone manufacturers in China and worldwide. Four years after being labelled a security threat by the US Congress, ZTE has now grown into the third largest seller of Android smartphones in the United States. It increased shipments by an impressive 30 percent last year.
 
The company has big plans for the Malaysian market. Last year, ZTE announced a major marketing campaign targeting both retailers and consumers. The Axon 7 premium smartphone is at the top of the pack in this campaign. Priced at RM1,999, it falls into the bottom end of the premium segment currently helmed by Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge.

Review: ZTE Axon 7, behold the new performance champion
 

 
Design
Unlike its predecessor, the Axon Pro, the new Axon 7 is thinner and has an all-metal design. Measuring 151.8mm x 75mm x 7.8mm and weighing 175 grams, it compares favourably with the Galaxy S7 Edge and the latest iPhone 7. In a nice touch, ZTE includes a silicone case inside the smartphone package. This is definitely useful as the phone can be slippery at times due to its rounded edges and smooth metal finish.
 
The Axon 7 sports the latest USB Type-C reversible connector at the bottom. The power and volume buttons are located on the right side. The top and bottom of the screen are dominated by two front-facing speakers. The fingerprint scanner is located just below the rear camera hump.
 
Display Matters
The ZTE Axon 7 has a 5.5-inch AMOLED display running at 2560x1440 resolution - the same screen size and resolution as the Galaxy S7. Arguably, compared to LCD screens, AMOLED screens have an advantage in their ability to display darker colour shades including 'perfect' blacks. In terms of brightness and colour reproduction, the Axon 7 screen does not disappoint and matches other premium phone screens. The display is also protected by Corning's latest Gorilla Glass 4.
 
Internal Hardware
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC powers the Axon 4. The SoC is made up of a quad core CPU and an Adreno 530 GPU. A word of warning to the wise - do not be fooled by the number of CPU cores advertised by manufacturers. In recent months, we have been witnessing some 'core inflation' in phone specifications. While the Snapdragon 820 has 'only' four CPU cores, it is still considerably faster than other SoCs like those from Mediatek which pack eight cores.
 
The Axon 7 also sports 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. ZTE also sells a version of Axon 7 with 6GB of RAM. Application storage can be further increased using a microSD card by up to 256GB via the second SIM tray.
 
The smartphone has an impressive 20 megapixel primary camera and an eight megapixel front camera. In its marketing literature, ZTE goes to great lengths to advertise the phone's audio capabilities which include the latest Dolby Atmos and the older Dolby Digital surround sound. The manufacturer also claims 360 degree sound recognition and adaptive noise cancellation during recording.
 
Battery and Performance
The battery rated at 3,250 mAh, is lower than the one in the S7 Edge. But it does support Quick Charge 3.0. After draining it below 10 percent, we were able to get it up to full capacity in just over an hour.
 
Until now, the title of this year's fastest smartphone was held by the Samsung Galaxy S7. In terms of application performance, we now have a new champion - the ZTE Axon 7. To borrow a phrase from Hollywood movies, the Axon 7 absolutely 'smokes' its competition. In all our 3D and application benchmarks, ZTE's new flagship device came out about 30 percent faster than the S7.
 
Audio output is equally impressive. Despite ZTE's claim of supporting Dolby Atmos, the sound from the front speakers does not exactly 'surround' you while watching movies. But it is still the best we have heard from a smartphone in any category.
 
Even so, the Axon 7 is not an undisputed champion in all segments. In our battery life test, it lasted six hours and 15 minutes. That is more than an hour behind the Galaxy S7, but very much in the same ballpark as the Oppo F1 and the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium.
 
Secondly, although the Axon 7 has a rear camera with a higher megapixel count, the quality of the pixels do not quite equal Samsung's flagship device. In fact, it does not even match Samsung's Galaxy Note 5 launched last year.
 
For comparison, see the photo below taken with the Axon 7.

Review: ZTE Axon 7, behold the new performance champion
 

 
And this photo taken with last year's Galaxy Note 5.

Review: ZTE Axon 7, behold the new performance champion
 

 
The selfie-focussed Oppo F1 also beats the Axon 7 in front camera image quality.
 
Having said that, the overall image quality is nothing to sneer at. They definitely fall into the same basket as images from other phones in the same price category.
 
Software
For some time now, we have seen excellent hardware from Chinese smartphone manufacturers (like Xiaomi for example), handicapped by below par software. That is definitely not the case with the Axon 7.
 
The device ships with Android Marshmallow. The MiFavor UI 4.0 runs on top of this and adds a few useful tweaks to the standard Google interface.
 
The camera app is similarly versatile. In addition to the auto, manual and filter options, there are also multiple selfie, slow motion, panorama, multi-exposure, and long exposure modes. One word of caution - do not use long exposure without a stand or pedestal. The phone does not seem to have any image stabilisation.
 
Conclusion
While definitely not perfect in all departments, the Axon 7 sets a new benchmark in the premium smartphone segment. Priced much lower than the Galaxy S7, the ZTE Axon 7 offers chart-topping application performance at a more affordable price.
 
Rating: 5 out of 5

Review: ZTE Axon 7, behold the new performance champion

Review: ZTE Axon 7, behold the new performance champion

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