ZTE may not have a strong presence in Malaysia in terms of smartphones, but the company is aiming to change that with the arrival of the Axon Elite. The device features a premium feel accompanied with powerful hardware, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 inside. With ZTE’s asking price of RM1,999 for the Axon Elite, what does the device have to offer and how well does it perform?
DESIGN AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS
When I first picked up the Axon Elite, I immediately loved the heft to the phone. The weight feels just right and the overall size of the device fits my palm comfortably. The Axon Elite has an aerospace grade aluminium frame, and that is what really gives the device its overall premium feel. Its edges are slightly curved, which makes the phone easier to hold. On the front, the screen is slightly elevated, giving the display a sense of depth. That being said, should the phone experience any fall, the screen might be prone to cracking if it gets dropped with the screen facing down.
The Axon Elite’s speaker looks fantastic, the grille of the speaker is actually the first thing I noticed when I first saw the phone. However, I was rather disappointed when I saw that it had only one speaker on the bottom. Other than that, button placement on the phone could’ve been done better. The volume buttons should be shifted a little more towards the top, because quite often I accidentally took a screenshot when I actually intended to lock the device. That being said, the buttons on the Axon Elite feel nice as the volume up button has an accented feel to it, making the volume rocker easily recognisable.
The ZTE Axon Elite attracts fingerprint rather easily, making me constantly wipe the back of the device. If you have sweaty palms, the back of the Axon Elite will be a handful for you to handle. Besides that, the dual-camera setup is decorated with a triangular pattern design, with the dual-tone flash on its left. Personally, I’m not a fan of the fingerprint sensor being on the back of the device; it vibrates whenever I accidentally place my fingers on it while picking it up.
Sporting Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 810 processor, the device definitely screams flagship. It may not be fitted with 4GB of RAM like on the OnePlus Two or the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, but 3GB of RAM is more than enough for the Axon Elite to provide a snappy experience. The 5.5-inch display has a full HD resolution with a pixel density of 400ppi, offering a crisp and clear display for daily media consumption.
Upon unlocking the device, you’ll be greeted with an iOS-like home screen. There is no app drawer, as all apps are available right on the home screen. The stock launcher is highly customisable with wallpapers that can easily be changed and applied with blur effects. Icons can also be changed on the fly, complete with multiple swipe transition effects to choose from.
Once you pull down the notification bar, the device then starts to look more like stock Android. It’s good that ZTE didn’t waste the screen’s real estate because they managed to fit in most setting toggles without making it look too packed. Moving on to the ‘Settings’ app, it offers two interfaces. With a simple swipe, you can either view your settings in simplified categories, or in a full-fledged interface that is similar to stock Android.
Being used to having the back button on the right, I’m was glad to find that the touch capacitive buttons are interchangeable. Long pressing the menu button launches the voice command assistant while doing the same for the back button will bring up the ‘Recent Apps’ cards.
The ZTE Axon Elite has one key feature: triple bio-authentication. Fingerprint scanners are becoming more common these days, so it is only right that ZTE included a fingerprint scanner on the Axon Elite. It’s placed at the back with the rationale that that’s the location your index finger will naturally rest. However, during my time with it, it frustrated me more than I was pleased to use it. It often gets my fingerprint wrong, no matter how properly I place my finger or how clean it is.
If that’s not for you, try “Sky Eye”. This feature makes the Axon Elite Malaysia’s first smartphone to have a retina scanner. Unlocking your phone with your retina definitely sounds cool and it works most of the time, but if your volume was turned up to the maximum, you’d be getting a lot of awkward stares as the “digital high-tech scanning” sound chimes away while you hold the phone close to your eyes.
However, if you want to be a total hipster, you can even unlock the phone with your voice. You can use any three words to form the unlock phrase, I used “Spongebob’s Red Underwear” and it worked, multiple times (awkward stares included).
There is also a feature called ‘Mi-POP’ on the phone. It’s similar to the ‘Assistive Touch’ feature on the iPhone, except that the default button is the ‘back’ button (can be changed to home button as well). If you pull it away from the edge, it gives you more buttons to tap on – home, recent apps and menu. Long pressing the button will show you more options like power off, reboot, lock screen, screenshot, and volume controls. Other than that, the interface has multiple typos and I’m sure ZTE can spot and fix them with an OTA update.
While these issues are mere annoyances, I am most troubled by one thing: notifications – or specifically, the lack of them. The phone would often be very ‘quiet’ throughout the course of the day. It was not until after a few days of using that I realised that notifications only come in when I unlock the device. This may be a battery saving feature of the phone, but it is an incredibly inefficient one – who wants their instant messages to arrive only when the phone is unlocked? Worse, there appears to be no way to disable this “feature”.
The battery life of the Axon Elite is really impressive. When the device is moderately used with Wi-Fi for the entire day, I was still left with 45% of battery. I start my day at 9am with roughly two hours of continuous WhatsApp messaging, an hour of gaming, about 20 shots of photos as well as an hour and a half of phone calls throughout the day, and it only brought the phone’s battery level down by 55%, which I find very impressive.
When I’m using it only on mobile data, I enhanced my usage with three hours of WhatsApp messaging, four hours of calls with three hours on both Clash of Clans and Need For Speed. At 9pm, I was still left with about 17 percent of battery. With the 3,000mAh battery on the Axon Elite, I can safely say that it is a device that doesn’t require you to lug a power bank around with you.
The Axon Elite’s screen is one of the things I love about the device. It’s bright and the colours really put a punch in the images displayed onscreen. I’m glad ZTE didn’t put a 2K screen on this device as it would be redundant. Having a 1080p resolution on a 5.5-inch screen is more than enough for my casual gaming and YouTube needs.
As mentioned above, the perfect smartphone size for me would be 5.5 inches. It sits just nicely in my hands and ZTE definitely made use of every inch of the phone because everything is easily reachable, either with a touch or a couple of swipes.
These may not be BoomSound speakers, but it does somehow emulate them. The ZTE Axon Elite has a single front-facing speaker on the bottom, covered by the triangular mesh design. The device sports a high fidelity (Hi-Fi) audio chip, making the sound output really clear and crisp. However, when the volume gets over 70%, audio starts to crackle. Fifty percent is the sweet spot as it is clear enough in loud environments, yet soft enough that it will not disturb those around me.
Now for the interesting part. You would think if the phone was placed facing downwards, the audio would get muffled, but that’s not the case for the ZTE Axon Elite. Thanks to the slightly elevated display, the speaker has a distance from the surface so the sound actually gets boosted while still retaining clarity.
The camera on the ZTE Axon Elite is not the best, but it’s not the worst either. The shutter is fast and images are captured rather quickly. The user interface is pretty straightforward as settings can easily be changed on the left, with multiple shooting modes like multi-exposure, manual, sport and slow-motion.
The dual camera set-up on the back gives the phone depth-sensing ability. This means the Axon Elite’s camera is able to take bokeh shots, similar to images taken with a DSLR camera. However, these aren’t true bokeh shots because the two cameras take the photo at the same time, then apply post-processing to give it a shallow depth of field. This makes the object clear, while the background blurs out.
Trying the bokeh feature on the Axon Elite’s camera, it does take decent shots, but the images come with a lot of noise, especially in the background. The multi-exposure feature is also pretty interesting where you can take two photos and the device will combine them together into one image. Check out the sample pictures below.
ZTE’s Axon Elite does pack a punch but does it stack up well against other worthy opponents? First, there is the OnePlus 2. Dubbed the 2016 Flagship Killer, OnePlus’ second smartphone is also equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 but it has a much better user interface that’s close to stock Android. Not only that, the 64GB model of the OnePlus Two has 4GB RAM compared to the 3GB RAM on the Axon.
That being said, the Axon Elite offers a more premium body with its space grade aluminium chassis frame. Besides that, it also has triple bio-authentication, a dual-camera setup, and an 8MP front-facing camera instead of a 5MP camera. Oddly enough, both these devices use the same processor but the OnePlus 2 doesn’t come with Quick Charge 2.0 while the Axon Elite does.
The next contender would be the recently launched Sony Xperia Z5 Dual. Yes, you’re paying RM2,699 for a device that has a smaller 5.2-inch screen, but it also comes with dust and water resistance. Sony’s Xperia Z series have always been known for their cameras, so they made sure the Z5 was fitted with a 23MP rear camera where great quality pictures are almost guaranteed.
The Axon Elite does have a lower 13MP rear camera but for RM600 less, you would get the Axon Elite that has the same processor, amount of RAM, and internal storage. Not to mention, it also has a 5.5-inch full HD screen should you prefer the bigger screen.
The ZTE Axon Elite offers decent specifications but it’s unfortunate that ZTE did not match it with a more refined user interface. Overall, the ZTE Axon Elite performs really well as a daily driver. Like I said, it looks and feels great in the hands, but it’s going to take more than just good design to leave an impact. If the company can refine its craft with its smartphones a little more, ZTE can actually be one of the brands people think of when they’re in the market to buy a new phone.