The model we're working with has a full-on champagne finish, and despite the color, it feels a little less ostentatious than the blingy black-and-gold version I played with a few weeks back. It's a dense, solid-feeling little handset since the body is crafted out of metal but isn't hewn from a single slab. The main section of the Axon's back is one plate, flanked on the top and bottom by metallic caps that form the phone's edges. Turns out they're a potential point of failure, too. I -- ever the klutz -- dropped the Axon from about two and a half feet up onto hard bathroom tile, and while it survived the drop, the corner of one of those edges popped out of place and had to be snapped back into position. I don't think this thing will take a beating; just know that less than a week's worth of jamming it in and out of my trusty blogger bag left the gold Axon with a lengthy vertical scuff I can't rub away. Minor mishaps aside, the Axon's thicker 9.3mm waistline is offset by a gently arching back that settles comfortably into the hand. I get the stylistic reasons why other companies (here's looking at you, Sony) don't make contoured phones, but man: curves make a world of difference.
As is often the case, that metal construction also means there's no way to remove the 3,000mAh battery, and you'll need a paperclip to pry the nano-SIM card out of the slot on the side. This might take a little more effort than you'd think since the tray has a nasty habit of sticking sometimes when I tried to pull it out. That's really it as far as slots go, too, so you'd better know for sure you can squeeze the entirety -- or at least all the really important bits -- of your stuff into the 32GB of built-in storage, especially since only about 24GB of that space is available to you out of the gate. Speaking of what's inside, the phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 clocked at up to 2GHz. Throw in a whopping 4GB of RAM and you've got a spec sheet that's primed to take on the Axon's pricier rivals.
Before you notice any of that stuff, though, your eyes will likely lock onto one of two things: the 5.5-inch Quad HD screen sitting front and center, or all the tiny little triangles festooning the phone. We'll dig into the screen in greater detail shortly, but its spacious dimensions mean the Axon will be a little too big for everyone to comfortably use. Just south of the display lives a trio of capacitive buttons that'll sit just fine with some of you and drive the rest up a wall. I'm not terribly miffed by the lack of on-screen buttons; my only gripe is that the "Back" and "Recent apps" keys are denoted by dots instead of more informative icons. At least you can swap those two options in the Settings menu. Meanwhile, it turns out the grid of triangles above and below the screen are a little misleading.
Given the Axon's audio chops, you'd be forgiven for thinking they covered a pair of front-facing stereo speakers, but there's only one, tiny speaker lodged in the phone's bottom grille -- the details are mostly just for show. The triangular motif got plenty of play around the rest of the phone too, as it adds a bit of texture to the shutter button and volume rocker. There's a teensy patch of triangles separating the main 13-megapixel camera from the 2-megapixel secondary shooter above it, but it's basically just a decal under some protective plastic. All told, it's a neat little visual flourish that helps the Axon stand out from the crowd of conservative-looking flagships.
Display and sound
The jury's still out on whether our phones really need super high-resolution screens (our eyes certainly can't tell the difference past a certain point), but you won't hear me complain about how tightly packed the Axon's 5.5-inch screen is. ZTE chose an LCD panel that uses what it calls Continuous Grain Silicon (CGS) tech, which, in a nutshell, makes for a thinner high-density display... not that it made much of a difference for the Axon's waistline.
Anyway, the whole thing is punchy and saturated, but not quite as overblown as what you'd experience with Samsung's Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge. In fact, it's not too far off from the screen packed into LG's G4 (which strives for more accurate colors than impactful ones). The biggest difference is a slightly warmer, almost redder undertone. I'm the sort of guy who prefers some extra oomph in my screens and the Axon strikes a solid balance here. Brightness and viewing angles were mostly great too, the former being especially important under the pounding summer sun. Thankfully, the auto-brightness setting kept things nice and legible throughout my week of testing. Seeing as we all have our own persnickety screen preferences, I can't guarantee everyone will be as fond of this as I was, but for what it's worth, I haven't spotted any outright dealbreakers.
ZTE apparently tapped the wisdom of the crowds to figure out what it had to nail with the Axon, and high-quality sound was near the top of the wishlist. As such, the company squeezed a digital-to-analog converter that lends the phone the ability to play 32-bit audio; rival smartphones like the Galaxy S6 only support up to 24-bit files. That might sound pretty impressive, but c'mon: Is your music collection filled with 32-bit audio files? Yeah, didn't think so. Factor in where people tend to listen to music on their phones -- traipsing down streets, on subways and so on -- and it feels this 32-bit audio push is more an academic achievement than a practical one. However! There's a bit of preloaded software that will actually change up how your audio sounds.
The Dolby Audio is installed and on by default, which computationally tweaks your tunes in the hope they'll sound deeper and more powerful than they normally would. After throwing my usual slew of test tracks at the Axon, my natural urge to disable anything that wasn't stock Android quickly evaporated. The meandering synth intro of Capital Cities' "Kangaroo Court" sounded brighter and more expansive on the Axon and the included pair of JBL earbuds than it did on the G4 and the iPhone 6. As the album wore on, "Farrah Fawcett Hair" took on a more spacious feel and highlighted little bits of aural texture I never noticed before. The thing is, Dolby's solution won't be perfect for everyone from the get-go. The default equalizer settings try to punch up the mids a little too much, leaving those highs and lows a little wimpier than I'd like. It still makes songs meatier and more satisfying than they would be otherwise, though, and if you're really picky, you can jump into the Dolby settings and tweak things exactly the way you'd like. What's really depressing is the lack of stereo speakers à la the One M9 -- it seems like an odd decision considering how important good audio is to the Axon, but we've got the laws of gadget economics to blame for that omission. At least that lone speaker is plenty loud.
The Axon comes loaded with Android 5.1.1, and thankfully ZTE didn't feel the need to paint over it too much. Aside from some different icons and a custom time/weather widget that greets you upon first boot, you might even mistake this for a stock Android phone. Not quite. First, the interface has some other personalities if the stock-ish default isn't your thing. Long-pressing the screen brings up two alternate themes to load up, called Fancy and Sports. I honestly couldn't tell you what's so fancy about the Fancy look; it changes the default wallpaper to some red feather and axes the app launcher entirely; all your software lives on your home screens instead. And Sports? I don't get why this needs to be here. It makes your icon set round and... that's really it. If you're anything like me, you're better off just ignoring these other options. Unlike other flagships -- the S6 twins and the One M9, for example -- there's no theme store here, which is fine with me. Thankfully, all of Android Lollipop's most important features are just where you'd expect to find them, and there are a few comforting flashes of Material Design peppered throughout the mix.
Since the ZTE isn't coming to you thanks to an arcane carrier agreement, there's hardly any bloatware. In fact, I almost hesitate to call the apps here "bloatware" since most of it is genuinely useful. There's Dolby Audio, for one, and a bunch of apps dedicated to sports and fitness. Yahoo Sports is the most inexplicable addition, but it's handy if you want to keep tabs on certain pro teams. Beyond that, an app called RockMyRun offers curated playlists for those marathon-training sessions, along with an activity tracker called Argus that's more solid than you might expect. It nags you to create an account to squeeze the most use out of it, but it'll still track and display your day's steps in what ZTE calls the Z-Tray. When the phone is locked, a little arrow icon will appear at the bottom of the screen -- tapping on that brings up music controls and a quick rundown of your activity so far. Most of the time, the Z-Tray is a useful thing to have, but when the notification shade is full, it's all too easy to open that when you mean to swipe to unlock. Oh, and speaking of the notifications on the lock screen, it hides all but the topmost one, so it requires an extra two taps to see what's been going on. Sort of defeats the purpose, no?
I'll be real with you: I wasn't expecting much out of the Axon's rear-facing camera duo. The novelty of using a second sensor for kooky post-production effects on phones like the One M8 never worked for me; it just seemed like a way to distract from the hit-or-miss quality of the primary shooter. My worries were mostly misplaced. The 13-megapixel camera lodged in the Axon's back is a capable performer, and the Camera app doesn't lean on that secondary sensor for very much at all. There's a Bokeh mode available by swiping to the left of the main camera view (spoiler alert: The results are sometimes cool, but often screwy), and that's really it.
So, that main camera. You don't need me to remind you that most phone cameras live and die by the light they're used in, so I'm not blowing any minds by saying the Axon's daytime photos were sharp and nicely detailed. Color reproduction could've been better, though; sample shots were often washed out, undersaturated and lacked the punch you'd see in photos taken with the LG G4 or Samsung Galaxy S6 series. HDR mode mitigates the issue a bit, but man, I hate the idea of requiring HDR for nicely saturated photos (the fact that you've got to physically freeze for it to work well stinks too). The same saturation issues plague the Axon in video recordings, even when shooting in 4K; the camera picks up a respectable amount of detail, but colors often seemed a touch blander than in real life. Things naturally take a turn for the worse when it's dark out; shots were flat and smudgy at best. While I'm griping, I wish holding down the shutter button while the phone is locked would automatically fire up the camera. I guess we can't have everything for $450.