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Featured Review: ZTE Axon Mini (Premium Edition)

December 29, 2015 - Written By Kristijan Lucic

ZTE is one of the largest China-based smartphone manufacturers out there. This company has been around for quite some time, and this year they really stepped it up as far as smartphones are concerned. The company’s Nubia and Axon lines of Android-powered smartphones are really compelling, especially specific devices in those series. In particular, ZTE’s Axon line is actually available in a number of markets outside of Asia, and there are specific models made for the international market, which is a good move by ZTE. We’ve actually received yet another one of ZTE’s Axon devices for a review, the ZTE Axon Mini, the company’s first handset to sport ‘Force Touch’ display, or should we say ‘pressure sensitive display’. Anyhow, I’ve been using the device for a week now, and am ready to share my thoughts in a full review, so let’s get started.

Specifications

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As far as specs are concerned, the Axon Mini can be considered a mid to high-end device. The main reason why we’d call this handset mid-range, is the Snapdragon 616 64-bit octa-core processor by Qualcomm running at 1.5GHz which is fueling this smartphone along with an Adreno 405 GPU for graphics. The phone also packs in 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage (expandable up to 128GB via a microSD card). Now, the Axon Mini actually has two cameras on its back, the 13-megapixel main camera (f/2.2 aperture, CMOS sensor, PDAF), and a 2-megapixel shooter which is placed below it. On the front of the device, however, you’ll be able to find an 8-megapixel snapper.

The ZTE Axon Mini features a 5.2-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080, 424ppi) Super AMOLED Force Touch display up front, which is one of the most interesting parts of this handset. The 2,800mAh battery is also a part of this package, and it is not removable. The Axon Mini also packs in two SIM card slots (2 x Nano SIM), and offers 4G LTE connectivity. Android 5.1.1 Lollipop comes pre-installed on this handset with ZTE’s MiFavor 3.2 UI available on top of it. The fingerprint scanner is also available here, and it is located on the back of this phone, right below the two cameras. The fingerprint scanning tech is not the only security option here, the Axon Mini also has a retina scanner which is placed above the display. On top of all of this, the Axon Mini features an AKM4961 Hi-Fi audio chip, which is supposed to improve audio output immensely. The device measures 143.5 x 70 x 7.9mm, while it weighs 140 grams.

Display

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ZTE’s Axon Mini handset sports a 5.2-inch fullHD (1920 x 1080) Super AMOLED display with 424ppi. Now, this is a Super AMOLED panel, which means you’ll get very saturated colors. The display is very vibrant and quite sharp, the display size in combination with the resolution really benefit the sheer sharpness here. The viewing angles here are also quite good, you can basically see the content quite clear no matter from which angle you look at it. I have to say, I didn’t have any issues with this display, at all, even when compared to some QHD panels it looks really, really good.

The touch sensitivity is great, on par with basically every flagship out there, and it’s quite a joy to use. Now, interesting enough, this is also a Force Touch panel. This essentially means that the display is capable of sensing pressure sensitivity, depending on how hard you press on it. Keep in mind that this is not that useful at the moment considering that only some built-in apps offer support for it, though there are already some apps online which let you take advantage of this option. I personally didn’t find much use for it, at least not at the moment, but it does work quite well, and you do get used to it quite fast. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you’ll display will bend or anything of the sort, but it will differentiate regular tap, long press and hard press.

Hardware And Build

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First and foremost, it is worth saying that the Axon Mini is made out of aluminum-titanium alloy, which essentially means it sports high-end build materials. Now, keep in mind that this is combined with plastic on the back of the device. The phone is quite light, which means some of you might not even notice what it’s made off, but Axon Mini is very well-built, and ZTE used premium materials here. One thing bothered me when it comes to this design though, are the power / lock and volume rocker buttons. They feel somewhat cheap and loose, even though they’re quite tactile. If you take the phone and shake it close to your ear, you’ll hear the buttons moving, especially the power / lock one. That’s not that noticeable, nor loud, but it’s somewhat to take note off.

The Axon Mini looks really good, though that is subjective, of course. The whole Axon smartphone line ZTE released sports really interesting and refreshing design, as you can see in the images down below. There are various interesting details implemented here by the company which make this phone differentiate from the competition quite a bit. The speaker grills sport interesting patterns, the dual camera design on the back is also interesting, and the faux stitching is actually also quite nice. Now, this stitching is not all that noticeable straight away because it’s located in the upper and lower portion of the phone’s back, but once you notice it, it doesn’t look all that bad and not tacky at all.

Performance And Memory

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We use our smartphones on a daily basis, and smooth performance is quite important to each and every one of you. I’m pleased to say that the Axon Mini does its job really well, even better than I expected. ZTE’s skin isn’t exactly the lightest out there, but it’s quite commendable in general use. The phone was able to handle basically everything I threw at it with ease, and I really didn’t hold back here, I used it as I’d use any other phone, which says a lot considering I’m a rather heavy user. I don’t really play many games, but the Axon Mini did really well in that department as well. I installed Dead Trigger 2, Modern Combat 5: Blackout and some less intensive titles on there. It performed really well in all those cases.

The general use, as I’ve already mentioned, also didn’t disappoint. Multitasking, playing video, browsing, tons of social networking, taking pictures… everything was really smooth. This smartphone actually sports 3GB of RAM, which is plenty enough to keep the multitasking fluid, but I feared that the Snapdragon 616 64-bit octa-core SoC won’t be able to keep up, even though it’s a solid mid-range chip. I’m glad to say I was wrong, the SoC did really well as far as general performance goes, so well in fact that I could use this phone on a daily basis without issues if needed.

Benchmarks

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As we usually do in our phone reviews, we’ve tested this device in three benchmarking applications, AnTuTu, Geekbench 3 and 3DMark. The phone scored exactly as we thought it would, it offered mid-range results due to the mid-range SoC ZTE has used here. The phone scored 35,596 points in AnTuTu, while it scored 693 points in Geekbench’s single-core test. The phone managed to hit 3,035 points in the multi-core test, which is not half bad. If you’d like to know more, and check out 3DMark results, check out the gallery down below.

Phone Calls And Network

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As far as phone calls, Axon Mini is above average, which is a good thing, because after all, this is a phone first and foremost. Anyhow, the Axon Mini offered clear and crisp sound on both ends and I didn’t experience any difficulty using this handset for calls. The same thing can be said about any other sort of connectivity actually, I tested 3G and 4G separately, and the device performed admirably, as much as my network allowed it to at least. Considering the fact I’m located in Europe, I was able to use 4G LTE connectivity without a problem whatsoever, though those of you who live in the U.S. probably won’t be as lucky due to 4G bands here. All in all, ZTE Axon Mini is definitely more than capable in terms of calling and general connectivity.

Battery Life

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As a full disclosure, I’ve used the Axon Mini for a week before I compiled this review, and have tested its battery in as many days as well. Now, I’m a heavy user, and even though my usage is not identical every day, I have to say I’m pleased with Axon Mini’s battery life. The phone managed to cross the 4-hour screen-on-time mark basically every time, and you really can’t ask for more than that. I’ve used it as I use any other device, though keep in mind I’m not a heavy gamer and have played games for 30 minutes or so during two days of testing, and didn’t see any different results than in the days I didn’t play games at all. The 2,800mAh battery on the inside of Axon Mini was able to keep it going for a while, and I doubt many of you will be disappointed with the device in this regard. One thing to keep in mind here, however, is that I kept the display resolution quite low during my usage, simply because it’s incredibly bright and it suited me that way. The automatic resolution was simply too bright for me personally, so I kept it at around 20-30% at all times, which certainly benefit overall battery life.

Software

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Software on the Axon Mini is quite interesting. The device runs Android 5.1 Lollipop out of the box, but on top of it, you’ll find ZTE’s MiFavor 3.1 UI, which brings tons of third-party software. Now, the skin itself does use quite a bit of RAM, but the performance was quite great overall, and some of ZTE’s solutions are quite useful. The phone has a number of gestures you can take advantage of, like the one where you pinch in with three fingers in order to take a screenshot, for example. There are a number of gestures like this available on the inside, which you can check out in the screenshots down below.

ZTE has also pre-loaded a number of security options inside, which will scan pretty much everything on your phone regularly, and the software for the retina scanner (Sky Eye) and the fingerprint scanner is also here. ZTE’s ‘My Voice’ voice assistant is also available here, and it allows you to access various functions on your phone, but it doesn’t work while the display is off. You can also use the voice function while in the camera app, you can say words like ‘capture’ and ‘smile’ in order for the phone to capture a photo. Force Touch calibration setting is also here, and you can edit navigation key tray and well as the notification tray. You can change the color of the notification tray and re-arrange toggles, while the navigation tray options are somewhat more limited. Another thing worth mentioning here is ZTE’s ‘Mi-Pop’ navigation button which you can activate if you want. You can assign this on-screen button to act as your home or back button, and it lays on top of any screen on your phone. There are also some third-party apps pre-installed here, though there are only a couple of them. We’ll talk more about the camera UI in the camera section of the review.

Sound

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ZTE sports a front-facing speaker, and you’ll be glad to know that it produces quite a pleasing sound as well. It’s not as good as some other front-facing blasters we’ve seen, but it’s more than good enough. The sound is quite clear, and even though it’s not the loudest speaker we’ve seen, it’s still more than good enough. When you plug in a quality set of headphones, things become really interesting. The 32bit DAC & AK4961 chip manage to produce really clear sound, though keep in mind that this becomes clear only with a proper set of Hi-Fi headphones. Using the earphones which ship inside the box you really won’t notice all that much difference between this, and some other device which produces solid sound output.

Camera

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The Axon Mini’s 13-megapixel shooter, in combination with a 2-megapixel snapper in charge of depth perception, manage to produce passable images. This is not exactly one of the best mid-range cameras we’ve tested this year, but it’s good enough for most users. The camera is capable of producing solid images when proper lighting is involved, though it tends to lack detail and sharpness. You’ll need to keep your hand really steady and make sure that the phone has focused on the object properly before you take a picture, otherwise, your images will turn out mushy. The colors seem to be off in most images as well.

The Axon Mini can take some decent images at night, but the area needs to have plenty of light as well, and the ‘keep your hand steady’ part is even more important here. I keep mentioning this because the device seems to be really sensitive as far as this goes, which is not exactly what I’m used to. The image quality deteriorates fast if the light is gone though, but it’s still more capable than a ton of mid-range cameras I’ve tested. The ‘M-EXPO’ feature in the camera app takes a number of images with different focus points and basically lets you change your focus after the image has been taken thanks to the secondary 2-megapixel rear-facing camera. This option works well, but the image taking is, of course, significantly slower.

‘Sky Eye’ Retina Scanner

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We’ve talked about Axon Mini’s fingerprint scanner and voice recognition capabilities, and it’s time to talk about the phone’s retina scanner. We don’t get to talk about this feature all that often, which makes it even more interesting, which is why it has its own category here. Now, ZTE calls this option ‘Sky Eye’, and it works really well, as long as plenty of light is present in a room you’re using this feature. This retina scanner works as well as any other actually, though usability of this thing is really questionable at this point. Light is a huge factor when it comes to retina scanners in general, and it is here too, but it’s at least a cool feature that you can show off to your friends / family.

Conclusion

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That is more or less it. The ZTE Axon Mini (Premium Edition) is a very capable mid-range device which puts focus on sound and security. Its display is also really, really good, and the battery life is slightly above average as well. The camera is only passable, and the company should have offered a somewhat lighter version of their MiFavor UI. Build quality is up to par however, and the phone also looks quite sleek. Now, the question is, is this phone worth the asking price considering it’s not exactly the cheapest device out there (costs slightly below $400)? Well, I’d say there are better options out there for this amount of money, if I’m being completely honest. Still, this is a very solid offering by ZTE, and I’m looking forward to see what’s next.