BERLIN — Everybody loves a comeback story, but ZTE's attempt to bounce back from shutting down operations this summer won't make it to the U.S.
ZTE's new flagship phone, the Axon 9 Pro, made its debut at IFA today. The 6.21-inch phone is powered by the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845 processor, sports an AMOLED screen with Full HD+ resolution, and boasts features like optimized graphics and AI-powered capabilities.
The Axon 9 Pro ships later this month in Germany with a €649 price tag, before it rolls out to the rest of Europe and Asia. When asked if there were any plans to bring the phone to the U.S., ZTE vice president of product marketing and strategy for mobile devices Jeff Yee told us "Not at this time."
That's not surprising, given ZTE's recent history with the U.S., where the government had banned the Chinese phone maker from importing U.S. components in a row over ZTE's sales of equipment to Iran and North Korea. That ban forced ZTE to suspend operations this summer, though the ban has since been lifted and Yee says the company has fully resumed operations. Still, U.S. agencies are now barred from buying phones from ZTE and fellow Chinese phone maker Huawei.
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While it's understandable why ZTE may be wary about launching its new phone into an increasingly hostile market, it's still a shame that the Axon 9 Pro won't make it to our shores. The new phone from ZTE has plenty of promising features — and an attractive price tag — that would have made it a welcome addition to the mix of smartphones in the U.S.
Start with the phone's Axon Vision, ZTE's graphic optimization technology that's designed to deliver accurate colors and optimally adjust the colors on the phone's display. The Axon 9 Pro includes an independent display processing chip that uses MEMC technology (that's motion estimation, motion compensation) for smooth, sharp video and reduced blur in graphically intensive games.
Like other flagship phones, the Axon 9 Pro is turning to artificial intelligence to help out its cameras, which include dual rear lenses (a 12-megapixel main lens with an f/1.75 aperture and a 20-MP wide angle lens to help with panoramic shots). The phone also uses AI to identify apps running in the background that might be slowing down the Axon 9 Pro and shuts them down.
Audio has always been a focus with ZTE's flagship devices, and that holds true for the Axon 9 Pro. The new phone features stereo-speakers aided by a dual-smart power amplifier. ZTE's phone also supports Dolby Atmos.
Some of those features may sound like they're already available on top Android phones in the U.S., and that's certainly true of the AI camera features, which can be found in readily available phones like the Galaxy Note 9 and LG's G7 and V35 ThinQ models. Display purists will look at the notch in the Axon 9 Pro's display and wonder whether another phone with iPhone X-esque screen will really be missed in the U.S.
But it's still a pity that ZTE will skip over the U.S. with this launch because we live in an age where prices of high-end phones inch ever closer to $1,000. (Sony's Xperia XZ3, unveiled the same day as the Axon 9 Pro, will debut in the U.S. at $899, for example.) The Axon 9 Pro offers some of those same high-end features while keeping its price tag in a more affordable price range. That's something U.S. shoppers would welcome, notched display or not.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.