ZTE Axon 7 Hands-On: A Serious Android Contender

ZTE may finally have a phone that can take on the big boys. The newly unveiled Axon 7 offers a promising mix of solid performance, sharp cameras and a generous battery in a handsome aluminum unibody. Although ZTE hasn't set an official price yet, the Axon 7 should cost around $450 or less and arrive stateside shortly after it retails in China today (May 26). After my brief hands-on with the phone, I am impressed by the phone's looks and potential.

Last year's Axon Pro was underwhelming, especially in terms of design. But based on my time with the new device, the Axon 7 feels solid and looks unique. While it retains the rows of dots that its predecessor had on the front, the Axon 7's grille pattern actually houses speakers as opposed to being simply aesthetic components. ZTE said the new design was inspired by luxury cars, and that it partnered with BMW's subsidiary DreamWorks to come up with the new look. The Axon 7 is all curves and has no edges; while this is a subtle touch, it definitely adds an air of elegance to the phone.

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Powered by a Snapdragon 820 CPU, the Axon 7 felt zippy when I swiped through pages, launched apps and snapped pics. The 20-megapixel rear and 8-MP front cameras are sharper than leading flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 (12-MP/5-MP) and the iPhone 6s (12-MP/5-MP), but I'll have to look closely at pictures from each device to judge which is best. ZTE offers what it calls hybrid image stabilization (IS) — a mix of optical image stabilization and electronic or digital image stabilization — for sharper shots.

I love the cool voice control feature that ZTE baked into the phone's Android 6.0 OS. ZTE reps showed me how they launched the camera from the phone's home screen just by saying a trigger phrase, such as "Open Camera," and switching to the front shooter by saying "Switch." ZTE assured me that the U.S. version of the phone would run stock Android.

ZTE also said the Axon 7 will be one of the first handsets to support for Google's newly unveiled Daydream platform for high-performance mobile VR. The phone features a 9-axis gyroscope to reduce nausea and an 18ms delay for better latency. A 2K AMOLED display combined with powerful processors should make for an immersive VR canvas.

Like its predecessors, the Axon 7 will focus on audio. ZTE has worked on the phone's native speakers to make them loud and clear enough to allow you to potentially get rid of your Bluetooth speakers. During my demo, the Axon 7 certainly sounded louder than most smartphones I've reviewed. (If you're confused by the name, since the public has only seen a few Axon devices such as the Axon and Axon Pro, it's because this new model is ZTE's seventh flagship altogether).

All these sound like great specs, especially if the sub-$450 price tag turns out to be true. But we'll have to get the Axon 7 in for a full review to see just how well it stacks up to the competition. Stay tuned.

Cherlynn Low

Cherlynn is Deputy Editor, Reviews at Engadget and also leads the site's Google reporting. She graduated with a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia University before joining Tom's Guide and its sister site LaptopMag as a staff writer, where she covered wearables, cameras, laptops, computers and smartphones, among many other subjects.