ZTE’s new Axon M isn’t the first attempt at a dual-screen folding smartphone. That honor goes to the Kyocera Echo from 2011, a doomed Sprint exclusive. Back then, the required tech to pull off such a unique form factor didn’t quite exist and being chained to Sprint was a fatal mistake. The phone was a clunky, glitchy flop that few had a chance to even buy. Fast forward over six years and we have a second attempt by ZTE, and modern specs coupled with a much slicker form factor make this one actually work. It’s tragically an AT&T exclusive, repeating a major mistake from Kyocera, but AT&T does enjoy a much larger audience than Sprint. Does the Axon M have what it takes to separate itself in a very crowded market? Let’s dive in and take a look.
When folded, the phone works like any modern smartphone, albeit thicker and heavier than most. The entirety of the Axon M is aluminum and glass, which looks and feels very premium, but can also double as a boat anchor. It’s a bloated half-pound of tech. The front is very clean with a 5.2-inch IPS LCD display, which is almost identical to the back except for a single camera (which pulls double duty) and dual-LED flash. A small earpiece is also centered at the top with a notification light to the right. The easiest way to discern which end is which is to remember that the hinge is always on the right when using the main screen (the second screen is face-up on the back). And that hinge definitely makes itself known, although it adds some grip and I got used to it quickly. The top and bottom bezels are also huge.
The back is simply a full sheet of glass and second screen. It functions as the camera viewfinder for “rear” camera shots when folded, which I’ll get to later. Otherwise, it’s simply the back of the phone and similar to other phones with glass backs. Be extra cautious when putting it down, however, as you don’t want to scratch your second screen.
The bottom has a USB Type-C port with fast charging (Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0) and two speaker ports, although just one is an actual speaker and the other a microphone. An antenna band is on either side of those ports.
The top has a coveted 3.5mm headphone jack and a microphone port, and similar antenna bands to the bottom.
There’s a lot going on around the left side. At the top is the SIM/microSD tray, followed by a volume rocker and the power button with an integrated fingerprint scanner. There’s another progammable button well below the rest that can launch an app of your choosing with a long press. A double-tap will launch the camera.
Unfortunately, it can’t be used to snap a picture.
The right side is all hinge and it’s a very tough, well made one. I’m confident that it will easily hold up for two years or more, and there’s even a two-year warranty to back it up. It does jut out a bit, but I never found it uncomfortable to hold and it’s a worthwhile quirk as the real magic happens when you put it to use.
When the back screen opens beside the main one, a host of opportunities present themselves. The phone instantly becomes the king of multitasking, using a full 5.2-inch screen for each app. You can also meld them together to create a large, tablet-like screen (with an unfortunate gap down the middle). A final option is to mirror the two, so the same content appears on each. I’ll get into more detail later.
When unfolded, the back is all aluminum and very well built. The hinge opens and closes with a reassuring click, and several rubber feet prevent the two metal sides from hitting each other and scratching. The phone is surprisingly easy to hold when unfolded as your fingers can still grab the side of the hinge.
I applaud ZTE for taking some risks with the Axon M’s design. Things are getting a little boring in the smartphone space and it’s nice to see a company stick their neck out a little. Whether or not it pays off remains to be seen, although I’ve been having a lot of fun with it so far.
|ZTE Axon M|
|Display||Two 5.2-inch IPS LCD screens, 426 ppi (1080 x 1920) each, Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on both|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821|
|Storage||64GB with microSD support (up to 256GB)|
|Rear Camera (doubles as front camera)||20MP with dual-tone flash|
|Front Camera||Utilizes the main rear camera|
|Charging||USB-C with fast charging (Quick Charge 3.0)|
|Sound||Bottom firing speaker works in tandem with front earpiece for stereo sound, 3.5mm headphone jack|
|Software||Android 7.1.2 Nougat|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC|
|Sensors||Accelerometer, ambient light, proximity, compass, gyro, fingerprint (side-mounted)|
|Measurements||150.9 x 71.6 x 12.2mm|
The Axon M is considered a flagship phone (with a flagship price), but it’s unfortunately rocking an aging Snapdragon 821. That’s still a powerful processor and it’s coupled with 4GB of RAM, and overall performance is still at a flagship level. When using the phone folded up, it’s very fast and fluid with web browsing, multitasking, video watching and gaming all top notch. With both screens firing together, performance is usually solid, but occasional stutters creep in. A newer Snapdragon 835 could’ve helped. The phone can also pause for a couple of seconds when changing dual-screen modes. ZTE’s custom launcher (MiFavor) over Android 7.1.2 Nougat is very close to stock. There are several modifications to allow for the second screen, but otherwise it’s a familiar experience. The phone handled any game I threw at it and the second screen often made them more immersive. It’s like going from a phone to a 6.5-inch tablet with a quick flip of the back. The seam between the two displays isn’t terrible and I was usually able to ignore it. Not always…
The twin 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD displays are solid, but not the best out there. Colors are rich and pop more than the LG G6’s rather muted display, and viewing angles are excellent. HTC’s LCD panels always seem to have an edge over the competition, much like Samsung’s panels do compared to their OLED counterparts, but I’m happy with what ZTE has provided. Neither panel has light bleeding around the edges and both are virtually identical when it comes to calibration. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case based on early complaints as one panel tended to have a warmer tint when side-by-side. Hopefully this was just a quality control issue with the initial batch.
The 16:9 screens don’t get very bright and most flagships outshine them. They couldn’t even reach 400 nits when maxed out, while the smartphone average is over 430 nits. Outdoor viewing was tolerable, but direct sunlight often created a challenge. For a phone costing over $700, I expected a little better.
The bottom firing speaker works in tandem with the front facing earpiece for stereo sound (much like HTC’s latest flagships) and they’re among the best with such an arrangement. The Axon M also supports Dolby Atmos technology, creating sound that’s well balanced and never tinny. Speakerphone calls were loud and clear, and I could easily hear callers in the noisy outdoors. A 3.5mm headphone jack lives at the top and it’s a high fidelity setup. Audiophiles won’t be disappointed.
The phone is equipped with a decently sized 3,180mAh battery, which is unfortunately sealed inside. For such a thick and unusual design, I was hoping for a battery door. The good news is that battery life is very good, easily getting me through a full day and night when using just the main screen. Occasional use of the second one didn’t make much of a difference. When the phone is opened up for much of the day, however, the battery starts to struggle. I still made it well into the night, but was running on fumes at around 9pm.
The USB Type-C port supports Quick Charge 3.0, which can be a lifesaver for heavy users that need a midday top-up. I was able to charge the phone from 0 to 100% in a little over 80 minutes. And yes, the quick charger actually comes in the box like virtually every other Android flagship. No need to drop another $70 (cough, Apple). Android’s standard battery saver is also onboard if needed.
The Axon M is similar to Motorola’s portfolio as it runs a near stock version of Android, but adds a few of its own toppings. It has the swipe-up gesture for the app drawer and a light enough touch on things that I wasn’t itching to install Nova Launcher.
If you’re not a fan of bloatware, however, you’ll get a little frustrated. AT&T has packed it with garbage, but fortunately allows you to uninstall some third party crap. AT&T’s own apps can’t be uninstalled or even disabled, which is actually stricter than Verizon.
Having two screens working together requires a few software modifications, but they’re relatively intuitive and easy to use. You probably noticed an “M” to the right of the standard Android buttons in the last few screenshots. Touching that temporarily launches three multi-screen options in place of Android’s buttons, allowing you to multitask, meld both screens into a large 6.5-inch one or simply mirror the same content on both screens.
The first action key (A/B – highlighted in blue) is the multitasking “dual-mode” one, allowing you to run a separate app on each screen. This works in both portrait and landscape, and is arguably the most useful way to put both screens to work. There is a ton of potential here, such as video chatting on the left and looking at a menu on the right, or watching Netflix on one screen and browsing the web on the other. And on and on and on.
The second action key (A), called “extended mode,” will meld the screens into a 6.5-inch “tablet” phone. This also works in both portrait and landscape orientations, but the seam down the middle breaks it up. I’m usually able to ignore it, but when it splits a person’s face in half or interferes with a video, it becomes a glaring limitation of the form factor. Watching videos in this mode is also disappointing as there are huge top-and-bottom black bars, limiting how much extra real estate you’re actually getting.
I almost always watched videos on the main screen with the second one folded back.
The third action key (A/A) is “mirror mode” and simply shows the same content on both screens. The only practical use case for this is to partially fold the phone (portrait or landscape) and share content between two people. Looking at pictures, watching a video or playing a game across a table are possibilities.
Mirroring the screens seems fun, but I honestly rarely used it. It’s definitely the most niche of the three modes.
The key on the far right simply turns off the second screen. Be sure to do that before folding it back or the phone has a tendency to think that screen’s still active, cutting things off of the main one or otherwise acting strangely. It’ll often correct itself given a little time.
All of today’s mainstream flagships have both front and rear facing cameras, but the Axon M had to compromise a little to accommodate the form factor. The solution was to have one main camera that pulls double duty. A 20 megapixel shooter with a dual-tone flash faces you when using the main screen and selfies work like any other smartphone. If you want to shoot like it’s the rear camera, you simply turn the phone around and the second screen becomes the viewfinder. When finished, that screen turns off and you flip the phone back to the main screen. It sounds like a pain, but in practice it’s easy to get used to.
As far as picture quality, it’s a solid shooter most of the time. Low light and night shots could be hit or miss, but overall I was satisfied. If you’re really serious about photography, a Galaxy S8/Note 8 or LG V30 are better options. For the majority out there, however, the Axon M’s camera is more than adequate, especially when shooting outdoors during the day.
This photo is a good example of what the Axon M’s camera can do in less than perfect lighting. Shot at sunset, overall exposure is excellent, but it couldn’t quite bring out the trees in the foreground. It did have a small handicap, however, as the window I shot from was slightly tinted. And here’s a fun fact – That building is the Nakatomi Plaza from the original Die Hard movie. It’s actually called the Fox Plaza.
Indoor shots were also great. Exposure and sharpness were on point with minimal noise, and colors were accurate.
When the lights went down, it was a bit of a lottery as things fell apart. Some shots had a lot of noise and soft focus, while others weren’t half bad. They’re generally fine for social media, but don’t exactly meet the standard of a $700+ shooter. A mid-range phone like the Moto Z2 Play, which is $300 less than the Axon M, provided much better results.
Night shots were also a little disappointing. Like the low-light indoor ones, it was a bit of a lottery, which is surprising given its f/1.8 aperture. Some were fairly decent, while others were a noisy mess. None were at the level of a Pixel 2 or LG V30. The camera hardware seems capable, however, and software tweaks could iron a few things out. Look at how much Essential has been able to improve their dual-camera system over the last few months.
The camera app itself is very good. There’s a comprehensive manual mode and panorama, time-lapse, multi-exposure and slow motion options are available, among others. There’s also a wide variety of Instagram-like filters that can be applied before or after a photo is taken.
Video can be shot in 4K and the overall results are usually good, but it suffers in low light like the stills. There’s also no optical image stabilization (OIS), so video has a tendency to be a little choppy at times and it’s important to hold still when taking photos in low light.
A lot of amazing phones launched in 2017, but none of them were particularly unique. Curved displays, dual cameras and premium builds have become somewhat ubiquitous. BlackBerry’s KEYone was a little different, offering the only physical keyboard on a mainstream smartphone in 2017. Essential launched a titanium and ceramic phone with a screen wrapping around most of the front (and limited modularity), but for the most part, there was just a lot of sameness in the last year.
ZTE took an ambitious idea that Kyocera had attempted years earlier with the Echo (below) and made it work with modern specs and a much improved design.
Whether or not the phone is financially successful, I really hope ZTE launches a sequel in 2018, because it’s the boldest attempt at differentiation that I’ve seen since the Russian/Chinese YotaPhone series. Those have OLED screens on the front and E Ink screens on the back, but limited availability and quality control issues make it a tough sell. A lot of corporate infighting doesn’t help, either.
The Axon M is far from perfect with a subpar camera (given the high price) and thickness and weight that just don’t belong on a modern flagship. ZTE also needs to drop the AT&T exclusivity nonsense. That being said, it’s by far the first dual-screen smartphone that doesn’t feel like a working prototype.
I’ve had more fun with the Axon M than any other smartphone in 2017. The novelty of the second screen wore off a little, but I continued to find myself trying to find a reason to flip it open. It was just too cool working both simultaneously. It’s also the ultimate party trick with friends.
If ZTE can refine the design, eliminate the large seam between the screens and bring down the thickness/weight, it could represent a new direction for smartphones. Samsung is rumored to be launching a folding phone with a bendable OLED screen in 2018 (Galaxy X) and they’re also rumored to be finishing a dual-screen device like the Axon M. We’ll see which approach wins the day. If dual-screen phones are indeed part the future, the next few years will be a lot of fun.