AT&T ZTE Axon M Review: New, different, fun, and a bit flawed

Phones these days are all pretty much the same and every year the next version brings a minor spec bump — nothing more. However, this is different. Enter the AT&T exclusive ZTE Axon M, a dual screen phone that comes to play. Finally, there is something new and interesting to play with, but is it too unique for its own good?

Design

Screen

The Axon M isn’t the first dual-screen phone to be released and it’s not even the first phone to use this design. Without a doubt, you’ll notice the overall bulky design of the Axon M upon first glance. The fact that it is using two 5.2-inch 1080p displays and requires a battery to power both of these means this is going to be a thick phone. There is no way to get around it at this time and while I accept this, many others may see it as a deal breaker.

The two screens are held together by a very sturdy hinge that ZTE claims will withstand 20,000 folds and last you several years. The hinge itself worked great for me and I have no doubt it can stand up to everyday use. Unfortunately, the displays are using Gorilla Glass 5 —which is tougher against cracking — but has a tendency to scratch easier than Gorilla Glass 4. Without any protection, you can expect scratches to accumulate pretty quickly, as I picked up a couple on the back with a couple weeks of light usage.



 

Manufacturers have been pushing a near bezeless design recently to much fanfare. The Axon M is not one of those phones though. The bezels on the top and bottom are quite large, and so is the one between the two displays. This might not be all that aesthetically pleasing but it’s an engineering feat to make a phone with two displays. The larger bezels help fit in all the components and give you a place to grip this large and rather weighty phone.

Buttons

The buttons feel solid and require a nice firm push to activate, assisting in preventing accidental presses. Due to the size and weight, however, you might still find yourself accidentally pressing them. The fingerprint scanner is housed on the left side of the phone and requires the screen to be on before it will read your fingerprint. This setup worked quite well for me, although I didn’t find it as ergonomic as having the fingerprint scanner on the back. Due to the dual-screen design, that’s not feasible here and I found this placement better than having it on the front.

Sound

The Axon line of phones from ZTE are made with media consumption in mind. The Axon M carries on with this tradition by providing stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos processing. They aren’t both front facing like with the Axon 7 model, but instead include a speaker in the earpiece and one bottom firing speaker.

I only had one issue with this and it was that the bottom firing speaker was near the bottom left corner. With this placement, it became very easy to cover when holding in landscape mode and made you almost entirely reliant on the earpiece speaker. Many other brands place the bottom firing speaker on the right side making it more difficult to cover when holding in landscape. I would have liked to have seen this from ZTE as well.

While we’re on the topic of sound, not only was ZTE able to squeeze two displays into one phone but they still had space for a headphone jack. It is so nice to not have to use a dongle when I want to listen to some music. Thank you ZTE for not removing the headphone jack.

If you prefer Bluetooth then you’ll be happy to know that the Axon M allows you to pair up with two Bluetooth devices simultaneously. This is a feature that is only found on a couple of flagships such as the Samsung S8 models or LG V30 and makes it easy to share your music or play it in multiple rooms.

Software

Much more goes into a dual screen phone than just slapping two displays together. The software is also a big part of the experience and ZTE has done a fairly good job on the Axon M. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or there is no room for improvement, but ZTE is off to a good start.

Dual Screen Modes

First off, they’ve included an extra button on the navigation bar at the bottom labeled M. Pressing this button gives you access to the four different modes offered by the Axon M. There is a mirrored A mode showing the same thing on both screens. An Extended A mode that stretches the picture across both displays. The dual-screen mode that allows for a different app to be shown on each screen. Then there is the traditional A mode where the second screen is turned off.

Mirror A mode is by far my least favorite of all the modes and the least used. During their presentation, ZTE showed it being used to play a game with two people with one on either side of the phone setup in tent mode and for conference calls. For me, this display is too small to use for either of those scenarios or any others.

Extended A would be my second least favorite of the dual screen modes. This mode is meant to appeal to those who wish to have a tablet that fits in their pocket. I would be right there with these folks if it wasn’t for the large seam down the middle, or the large black bars on the top and bottom when viewing videos. Whether reading text or watching a video the seam can be distracting, but some users will find it an acceptable tradeoff for a larger screen that fits in your pocket. Hopefully, in future versions as bezels continue to shrink we will see a smaller seam or a different design with no seam at all.

The dual-screen mode is without a doubt my favorite and will be the most used on the Axon M. Android has tried very hard to make multitasking possible in recent years by splitting the screen with multiwindow. Unfortunately, this shrinks your apps and forces them into an aspect ratio the app wasn’t originally intended for. It’s better than nothing but it’s far short of an ideal way to multitask on your phone. Not only that, but some apps such as the Xfinity Stream app and Skype flat out don’t support multiwindow.

The Axon M solves both of these issues by allowing you to run two apps simultaneously side by side in the original aspect ratio and on larger displays. There are countless scenarios for all the different ways you could use the dual screens. My personal favorites were to watch videos or play a game on one screen while talking with friends or browsing news on the other. There are far more productive ways to use the dual screens, but I like to consume media and to multitask while I do it. The Axon M is perfect for this in most cases.

I did run into an issue while trying to watch a video while playing games at the same time. The Axon M has plenty of power for it, but my issue was with the sound. Both games and videos have sound and both wanted to take control over the sound when active. Meaning I could not have a video running while interacting with the game. ZTE offers a little button to control which screen will play sound. However, this button can be a little difficult to find and there is no way to lock it to a screen. Even though you can switch it, once you click on the other screen it takes over the speakers. This is one of the areas I feel could use some improvement on the Axon M.

Gestures

Another one of these areas that could use some improvement is the gesture controls. One specific gesture is the three finger swipe used to swap apps between screens in dual screen mode. This gesture was so frustrating to use that I completely gave up on it and pretended that it didn’t exist. Seeing how rarely it actually works it might as well not exist.

There is also a gesture to switch back and forth from dual A|B mode to Extended A mode by swiping along the navigation bar. This gesture works fantastic, but I rarely use Extended A mode and would rather have seen this dedicated to swapping apps when there is already a button shortcut for this action.

Performance

The Snapdragon 821 and 4GB of RAM are what you would expect to see from a flagship from last year. Don’t worry though because the Axon M is plenty fast enough for multitasking and gaming. Surely the decision to use last year’s Snapdragon SoC was made to keep the price down and it’s a perfectly justifiable one. I ran into no issues while running multiple apps or games.

The only time you’ll notice any lag is while waiting for the second screen to come on, opening the rear camera, or switching modes. None of these are really dependant on the SoC or RAM, however.

Camera

Due to the dual-screen design, there is only one camera on the ZTE Axon M. It is a 20MP f/1.8 shooter without optical image stabilization. The camera is not one of the areas where the Axon M shines. The photos lack in dynamic range due to a small sensor with too many megapixels packed in, and low light performance is even more hampered by the lack of optical image stabilization. Overall, the camera can do a decent job, but when you only have one camera pulling double duty you want more than just decent.

If you use the rear camera often it can be very frustrating. In order to use it, you either have to first launch the camera and then flip the phone, or use the shortcut button which also offers considerable lag. Launching the front-facing camera is much quicker and on the bright side, your selfies will have the same quality and high megapixel count as your rear camera.

Battery Life

The display on your phone saps more power than anything else and for that reason, the Axon M’s battery life is less than stellar. While using it in traditional single screen mode I was able to get approximately 4 hours screen on time. That in itself is about average for many phones but once you start using both screens the battery life drops even faster. This makes the battery a limiting factor here if you’re wanting to use the standout feature of the dual screens. If you plan on using both screens often then you better make sure you are near a charger.

Final Thoughts

It’s been awhile since any manufacturer has taken a chance and released a dual screen phone. Hardware and software has come a long way with phones getting faster, battery life getting better, and Android supporting multitasking. Right now is probably one of the best times to try to introduce such a phone, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready for primetime just yet.

The ZTE Axon M shows a lot of promise with ZTE putting thought into how to use two screens efficiently, but it could still use some work. The hardware could also use some work to slim down the thickness, bezels, and increase the battery life. Regardless of its flaws, I still find the Axon M to be one of the most interesting phones of 2017.

I get hands-on with several phones during the year and the Axon M was one of the most exciting to play with because it was more than a minor spec bump or design change. It is by no means perfect but I give ZTE credit for doing something different and taking a chance. The mobile market has become so stale over the past few years and it’s refreshing to try something different that has some promise.

The Axon M could very well be a small glimpse into the future of what smartphones could be. In a few years, many of the quirks and flaws could be worked out and dual screen phones could become something really special. If you’re not patient enough to wait for that future and want to try something new, different, and a bit flawed you can pick one up exclusively from AT&T for $725 and receive a $100 Visa gift card, for a limited time.

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