48 hours with the ZTE Axon -- and I'm still scratching my head

This unlocked metal-clad Android phone looks interesting from the outside -- but take it out into the real world, and you discover some really strange stuff.

ZTE Axon Phone

ZTE is a company best known for -- well, not much of anything, really. It makes a bunch of those random prepaid phones you see in the back of carrier stores, but ask most Android fans what they think about ZTE, and you'll get a bunch of blank stares in return. 

That's why a collective sea of eyebrows went up when ZTE splashily announced a new high-end flagship phone, the Axon (or Axon Pro, depending on where you look). It's selling for $450 unlocked and off-contract and is clearly intended to compete with the Android elite.

In theory, that's a bold move: Remember, most traditional flagship phones -- devices like the Galaxy S6 and HTC One -- actually cost around $600 to $700. When you pay a couple hundred bucks to a carrier, you're getting the phone at a subsidized up-front rate and then paying back the difference (and usually then some) via a multiyear commitment to inflated monthly charges.

But these days, you can find plenty of really good unlocked phones for surprisingly affordable prices. Motorola's impressive-looking new Moto X will start at $400 off-contract when it launches next month, while the new OnePlus 2 provides a flagship-like package for $389 (if, that is, you can actually manage to buy one). Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 is a solid midrange device that sells for $250 outright. And then there's the third-gen Moto G, which offers a lower-end but extremely compelling Android experience for a mere $189.

So in that kind of climate, why should anyone pay $450 for an unlocked smartphone from a company with no history of producing standout devices? After two days of living with the Axon, I'm still trying to figure that out.

Getting to know the Axon phone

Let's start with the good: ZTE has done a nice job of creating a device that looks distinctive and has a premium feel. The Axon's metal casing stands out from the plastic-centric constructions commonly seen in low- to mid-range (and even some high-end) phones -- and while it's no match for the level of craftsmanship in a high-end metal handset like the unibody HTC One M9, it feels lovely against your fingers and gives the phone a touch of class.

The Axon has an almost industrial-like vibe that makes me think of Verizon's Droid line, with unabashedly pronounced grilles at its top and bottom (only one of which actually holds a speaker, oddly) and loud angular patterns all throughout the design. It's a big, bold phone, and it works hard to check off all the right marks on paper.

ZTE Axon Phone Design

Some of those efforts pay off: The Axon's 5.5-in. Quad HD display looks great, though the phone's auto-brightness feature has been driving me bonkers these past couple days. The screen fluctuates wildly between levels, ramping up and down for no apparent reason and sometimes making itself so dim I can barely see it. Moving the phone around a little seems to force it to recalibrate, but man, that gets old fast. (I eventually ended up disabling auto-brightness and just manually setting the brightness level as needed thoughout the day. It isn't ideal, but it's been far less frustrating, at least.)

The phone's single front-facing speaker sounds pretty good, meanwhile. Music played through headphones on the Axon is supposed to be enhanced, too, as two of the device's marquee features are "Hi-Fi Audio Playback" and Dolby audio optimization.

But you know what? I'm not entirely convinced either element makes a heck of a lot of difference in most real-world use. I went back and forth between the Axon and a phone without any such enhancements -- the 2014 Moto X -- and listening to the same track with the same headphones, maybe the audio on the Axon sounded a little crisper and fuller. Maybe. But after about a dozen back-and-forth exchanges between the two phones, I still found myself thinking: "Hmm. Yeah, I guess this one might be a little bit better. But let me go back and listen to the other one again to be sure."

As for the Hi-Fi thing, let me ask you this: How much music do you store or listen to on your phone that's actually 32 bit in nature? (And if you aren't sure what that even means -- which I suspect will be the case for the majority of people -- well, there's your answer.)

Axon, ax-off

That brings us to my broader issue with the Axon phone: the disparity between marketing-friendly features and actual real-world experience. As we've seen countless times in the past, what a phone is truly like to use in day-to-day life is far more important than how it appears on paper -- and that's precisely where the Axon has struggled in my time with it so far.

To start, I've seen some surprising foundational issues, like imperfect performance: Despite having specs to impress (Octa-core 2GHz Snapdragon 810 CPU! 4GB of RAM! Numbers! Numbers! Numbers!), the ZTE Axon has been rather inconsistent for me. Sometimes, it's fine. But other times, it's jerky and even downright laggy -- to the point where after tapping something, I've started to wonder if the tap didn't register because the system took so long to respond.

The phone's camera hasn't exactly blown me away, either. ZTE is spending a lot of time talking about novelties built into the Axon's imaging system, like a dual-lens setup that lets you play with focus (déjà vu, anyone?) -- but when it comes to just being able to point and shoot and capture a great-looking photo, the Axon often falls short.

Its images have tended to be pretty mediocre for me, in fact, which might be acceptable in a $450 phone if the $180 Moto G hadn't just come along and raised the stakes. As I mused on Google+, Motorola kind of messed things up for other low-cost phone manufacturers. This is one of those moments when you realize how quickly and significantly a standard can change.

ZTE Axon Camera

An image taken with the Axon, using the phone's default settings (click to view at full original resolution)

The Axon's stamina has been on the lower end of passable these past two days: I've yet to make it from morning to night without running out of juice, usually after about three hours of mixed-use screen-on time. That's not horrible, by any means, but it's also not fantastic.

Beyond those foundational concerns, I've run into a host of things with the Axon that are just plain baffling -- design decisions that don't make sense and don't make for a great user experience. Some scattered examples (take a deep breath...):

Centered beneath the Axon's screen is a capacitive circle, which serves as the Home button. Okay. But flanking that are two tiny and identical unlabeled blue dots that appear for a few seconds after you touch the screen and remain invisible the rest of the time. They represent the Back and Overview commands, but there's nothing at all indicating that to the user -- just tiny identical dots (that are sometimes visible) in place of actual representative icons.

Even as someone who uses Android all the time, I've found that to be confusing. Imagine how a more typical user would respond.

ZTE Axon Buttons

Long-pressing the Home button pulls up Google Now, but tapping it and sliding upward opens a weird full-screen widget-panel thing that can't be customized and is never explained. (It shows widgets for multimedia playback, starred contacts, a baked-in pedometer app, and -- perhaps most puzzling of all -- Yahoo Sports.)

I had a major "WTF?" moment when I first pulled it up on accident, and my reaction to it remains pretty much the same now.

ZTE Axon Widget Panel

The Axon has a physical camera button on the right side of the phone, but the button works only when the screen is on and the camera app is open. If you press it any other time -- like, you know, when the display is off and you might want to get to your camera quickly -- it delivers a brief bit of haptic feedback and then doesn't do anything more.

ZTE's launcher places little red dots on some icons in the app drawer and on the home screen but never explains what those indicate or why they're there. After some experimentation, I determined that the dots seem to show up on newly installed apps that haven't yet been opened. I still can't fathom why that's necessary, though, or how the unexplained presence of those dots is going to serve any function beyond confusing people.

You know how you can see your current battery level as an icon in the Lollipop notification panel -- and if you tap that icon, you're then taken to a more detailed battery usage screen? On the Axon, tapping the battery icon causes the standard visual feedback that indicates you've activated a touch target. But then nothing else happens; the actual action of taking you to the detailed battery usage screen has inexplicably been removed from the system.

ZTE Axon Battery

Among other arbitrary visual changes, ZTE has altered the system-level notification panel so that the whole screen gets blurred and covered in a gray filter whenever you pull the panel down. The end result is that anytime you peek at a notification or even just glance at the time, you can't see anything else on your screen.

ZTE Axon Notification Panel

A great user experience is all about the details -- and when a company gets them right, you get that intangible feeling of delight. When a company gets them wrong, well...you get this.

The big picture

So what to make of the Axon? I'm honestly not sure -- and I think that's the real problem: I can't figure out for whom this phone makes sense.

If the Axon came along in a world where we didn't have devices like the $400 Moto X, the $389 OnePlus 2, the $250 Idol 3, or even the $180 Moto G, maybe it would be exciting. But with those types of affordable off-contract phones also in the equation, I'm just not sure why someone would pay $450 for this.

Let's be optimistic and think of ZTE's initial effort as a beta -- a toe-in-the-water test to see what designing and launching a higher-caliber smartphone is like and how consumers will react to the various decisions made along the way. With that framework in mind, I'm looking forward to watching how ZTE learns and evolves from this experiment and to seeing what types of devices the company pursues next.

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