ZTE Axon M review: Hands-on with ZTE’s unhinged, two-screen smartphone
When you’ve spent the best part of a week writing about nothing but phones that, while different, all look pretty much the same, the ZTE Axon M comes as something of a breath of fresh air. This is a phone that looks normal from the front but takes on a whole new perspective when you take a closer look at the right edge.
There, instead of the usual array of buttons and trays, you’ll find something unusual: a hinge. In the old days of smartphones this might suggest a fold-out keyboard. You know, like the HTC Desire Z or the HTC TyTN II; but no, not with this phone. In fact, the Axon M is a smartphone with a dual display. Unhinged? Well, maybe not.
2 x5.2in FHD 1,920 x 1,080 IPS displays
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821|
|Storage||64GB with microSD expansion|
|Rear camera||20MP with hybrid autofocus and EIS|
ZTE Axon M review: Design, key features and first impressions
I’ll be straight with you. The Axon M isn’t completely new. It was first announced last December but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to get hands-on with it and because it’s so different I wanted to bring you my first impressions.
With that out of the way, let’s get on with the review, and the first thing I’d like to address is that dual-screen design. In single-screen mode, there’s one on the front and one on the rear. They’re both 5.2in 1080p efforts and they look pretty decent. There’s no fancy 18:9 aspect ratio or ultra-high PPI pixel density but, hey, there’s two of them; cut it a little slack.
When the phone is folded up, only one of these screens is active and, from a distance, you’d be forgiven for not realising this was a regular single-screen smartphone. That’s the first challenge surmounted.
The second screen only becomes active once you fold it out. At that point, the Android homescreen (or whatever other app you happen to be using) expands automatically to fill the extra space so you have one huge, nearly square, 1,920 x 2,160 display in front of you.
Great. The only hindrance is that there’s now a ruddy great border now running down the centre of the screen. That’s not ideal for browsing the web. However, you can spin the phone around so the line runs horizontally, which is a mite less distracting. And this is a great way to browse: there’s oodles of space for reading and scrolling and browsing. Plus, there’s another benefit of having a big square screen like this. You can run the keyboard across the majority of the bottom segment and have your document or email or web page running across the top screen.
And, do you know, it kind of makes sense. I’d be constantly worried about scratching the second screen when its shut, concerned about the hinge breaking and I’m none too keen on the volume, power and fingerprint reader sitting on the left edge. Still, initial impressions are that it’s well made. It opens and closes with a satisfying and high-quality snap and, in single-screen mode, it sits in the hand exactly like any other smartphone.
The big problem with the Axon M, if it ever comes out in the UK, is that it’s expensive to make and, therefore, to buy and that the internal specifications don’t quite match the price tag.
In the US, the ZTE Axon M is available for $725 which is flagship smartphone territory. It’s perhaps not as expensive as a Samsung Galaxy S9 but is significantly pricier than the Snapdragon 845-equipped Asus Zenfone 5Z, which is coming out in the UK later this year.
If this were a normal phone, you’d expect that sort of cash to net you a top-tier processor, a good dollop of RAM and plenty of storage. That’s not the case with the ZTE Axon M. Instead, you get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 – a two-year-old chipset last seen in the OnePlus 3T – 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage with microSD card expansion capabilities.
The camera looks reasonably decent, delivering a 20-megapixel stills from the rear camera with hybrid autofocus but there’s no OIS (optical image stabilisation). Plus, the battery looks dubiously small at 3,180mAh given that, a lot of the time, it’s going to be powering two 1080p screens. If you just use the one screen most of the time, battery life is likely to be fine, but if you’re not going to be using the dual-screen mode then what are you spending this much on a crazy phone for?
ZTE Axon M review: Early verdict
As I’ve already said, there’s no guarantee the phone will come to the UK but I’d like it to because I’d love to live with a twin-screen smartphone for a while to see what I think of it and find out if foldable screen smartphones are really the future.
Even if I came down in favour, though, convincing consumers is going to be tough and that’s why I think the ZTE Axon M is going to have a hard time of it. While the hardware itself seems well-made and effective in what it does, I just don’t think the price is low enough to persuade customers to take a punt on the potentially gimmicky.