I’ve had more fun in my week with the zte Axon M, than with almost any other phone this year.
Unlock AT&T ZTE Axon M is a crazy dual screen clamshell, half phone half tablet that I would love to carry. If it’s execution lived up to it’s concept. The company behind this change of pace is ZTE. And even though it’s the fourth largest phone brand in North America, you might not have heard of it.
Well that’s because ZTE is typically focused on affordable phones instead of mold breakers like this. And to the company’s credit, very little about this hardware feels substandard. Peel that second screen off the backside, and it spins on a hinge so sturdy it feels like it came off a truck door.
The lock is strong enough to keep in tablet mode no matter how much jostling you do. And when you shrink unlock at&t zte axon m back down to phone size, it slams shut with a satisfying clack. Worthy of the best clamshells of yesteryear. It’s thicker than most phones, and 17% more massive than even the ponderous Note 8. But that makes room for a programmable shortcut key and a power button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor. ZTE even took a note from HTC and Apple, pressing the earpiece into service as a secondary speaker when you don’t wanna use the headphone jack. And phone calls are just as clear as on a conventional phone. From a hardware standpoint, the Axon M does it’s predecessor, the Axon 7, proud. It doesn’t take long though to start seeing the compromises. – It’s something that’s kinda in between, it’s like halfway happy. – Android has come a long way since the last phone like this, but it’s still not optimized for a second screen. ZTE had to do a lot of custom work to bridge the gap, and that took time. So out of the box, the phone ships with Android Nougat instead of the Oreo update that’s promised soon. It’s also running on an older silicon, Snapdragon 821, soon to be two generations behind. That means you don’t get the energy optimizations of new processors, so the Axon M drains it’s moderately-sized battery quite quickly when both screens are on. And speaking of those screens, you might notice a significant failure in quality control when both are open. On my review device, and several others, the two displays have two different white points. With one appearing much warmer than the other. This is the kind of thing that might pass muster in the budget phone space, but doesn’t really fly
on an expensive flagship. What can you do with that second screen? More than you might expect, actually. The screen mirroring feature might come in handy for showing off photos across a table at a restaurant. I admit that’s kind of a stretch. So, more useful is the full-screen view, which stitches the two displays into one canvas. Now this isn’t great for video, since the resulting super screen is both square-ish and bisected by a big ugly bezel. But it is handy for things like Google Maps, where the bigger area makes it easier to see while driving. And the fact that Amazon Kindle let’s you split a book across pages makes this my new favorite phone for reading. If you stack the screens vertically, you get an insane amount of room for the keyboard. Or, game emulator controls. Or a handy spot to leave a comment, and subscribe to a YouTube channel, without ever leaving the video. Finally, the A-B mode is for hardcore multitaskers, who can run two apps side by side, and almost simultaneously. ZTE obviously put a lot of thought into not just the how of making a dual screen phone, but the why as well. And that makes the Axon M genuinely useful a lot of the time. Unfortunately it’s also genuinely frustrating a lot of the time. Sometimes an app thinks it’s in dual screen, even when it’s not, so half the content gets chopped off. There’s no way to rotate the home screen to landscape in full canvas mode, nor is it possible to make use of the wasted space opposite the dock. Continuing on, switching between single and dual screens can be slow. Since the displays face outward when the phone is closed it scratches very easily. Gorilla Glass 5 notwithstanding. And in a world where haptic feedback just keeps getting better, the vibration motor in this thing feels and sounds straight out of 2011. Lastly, we’ve got to talk about this camera. It’s a single 20 megapixel shooter, which is logical for a phone with two screens. But in practice, shooting photos with this thing is a comical circus of rotations and delays, wrong sides, and upside downs. If you lock the Axon M while it’s in camera mode, the next time you turn it on, it’s gonna wake up on the wrong side, and when you flip it back to the front, you’ll be lucky not to change your wallpaper or move some apps around by scraping your hand across what you thought was the back, but really wasn’t. And for all this trouble? You get quality selfies, sorta. But only adequate regular photos. And to stay adequate, you need to stay in the sun. At night, you’ll get brighter shots from phones that cost half the price of this one. That’s pretty weak. The Axon M is available exclusively from AT&T in the U.S. As the ponderous load of bloatware makes plain. The carrier wants $725 for the phone, or $24 a month for 30 months. Which is a bit easier to swallow if you can also snag th $100 gift card being included at press time. And you know, if the phone delivered a more consistent experience, I’d say it might be worth it to some folks. But as adaptable as Android is, it’s not quite flexible enough to deliver on ZTE’s vision here. And just because something is novel, doesn’t give it a pass. It has to provide more functionality than frustration in everyday life. And to me, this phone fails that test. It feels like a Beta product. A test run at a better Axon M-2. But let me add in closing that if such a sequel ever appeared, I’d be first in line to try it out. Because for all it’s failings, the Axon M gets a lot closer to good than I expected it to. If you manage to find it at a discount, be sure to give it a go.