ZTE takes security to the next level with the Axon Elite smartphone, a 4G phablet you can unlock with your eyes, voice or finger.
UK PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
The Axon Elite was supplied to us by GearBest, a Chinese site that holds stocks at its EU warehouse, meaning you won’t have to pay import duty. Right now it’s on offer at £217.07/$327 shipping from the EU warehouse. You’ll save some money if you buy from the Chinese warehouse (currently out of stock there mind), though you should read our buying advice first.
The ZTE Axon Elite is also available from Amazon, but at the higher price of £289.99/$435.
Given the device’s specifications it is difficult to argue with the price. A close rival is the OnePlus Two, which starts at £239/$359.
DESIGN AND BUILD
The Axon Elite’s design is going to appeal to some people, but others will dislike it. It’s a very fancy-looking phone, but it almost tries a little too hard – the extra detail stretches even to the volume rocker. If you like to be the centre of attention, the Axon Elite is definitely the phone for you.
The Axon Elite is made with sturdy-feeling, premium-looking aluminium, but has fake leather stitched portions at the top and bottom of the rear. These serve a practical purpose – it’s here that the antennae are housed and thus it removes the need for those lines we’re used to seeing on the side of metal phones to improve signal – but it detracts from the phone’s overall design and premium feel.
It’s a bit on the chunky side, at 9.3mm, and a large 5.5in screen and front-facing speaker grilles top and bottom add to the height. The ZTE feels good in the hand, but at times you will likely find yourself needing to use two.
Mi-Pop is a software fesature that places onscreen a little widget that can make controlling the phone in a single hand much easier – you get quick access to a back button, wherever you like on the screen, or you can tap and hold to also access home, recents and options shortcuts.
The screen is a standout feature, a 5.5in full-HD (1920×1080 pixels) panel with 534ppi pixel density. It’s very bright, very clear, and with punchy colours. Viewing angles are strong, too – we only wish the glass sat flush with the metal frame top and bottom (at least with it being 2.5D aka curved it’s less likely to chip).
Our review sample came in a muted gold known as Ion Gold. What you think of this is entirely down to your personal preferences, but it does follow in the steps of several flagship phones that now have a gold colour variant.
The rear cover isn’t removable, so neither is the battery. It has some interesting features, though, with a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner (this is in addition to the eye-unlock feature) and two cameras plus two LED flashes. We’ll talk more about these later.
You insert your SIM using the tray on the left side. The ZTE Axon Elite can accept two nano-SIM cards – the first with support for all three UK 4G LTE bands, but the second won’t support a data connection.
Below this SIM tray sits a volume rocker, which sits right under your finger when used in the right hand. Over on the right edge is a power button, while at top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and at the bottom a Micro-USB charging slot.
The back and recents software buttons sit either side of the Home button below the screen, and usefully you can switch around their function in the settings.
One of the most interesting features of the Axon Elite is its security and unlocking options, of which there are several. You can choose to use a passcode, the eye-scanner or the fingerprint scanner on the rear, or alternatively voice unlocking. It’s a bit much, but it can come in useful if you’ve only got one hand free – or none, since you can say ‘open sesame’ or ‘phone unlock’ to unlock the phone with your voice.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the eye-unlocking technology used by ZTE. At MWC earlier this year we saw the ZTE Grand S3 using the tech and it attracted lots of attention, so it makes total sense for the company to bring the great idea to other smartphones in its line-up. But it is the first time we’ve seen three biometric security features in one ZTE smartphone.
Unfortunately, our main issue with this type of biometric security that it is still only as secure as your passcode – you can bypass both the eye scanner and the fingerprint scanner. Still they are cool additions and certainly a talking point. And in our tests they worked first time every time.
The camera features are also interesting, but not so unusual these days as HTC and Huawei have recently used similar tech in their smartphones. We’re talking about the dual lenses at 13Mp and 2Mp paired with a dual LED flash, which means you can capture images that can be refocused later, making for some brilliant results. We also quite like the ability to capture multiple exposures in one image for a dreamy effect.
The camera on the front is an impressive 8MP. You’ll also be able to capture 4K videos using the rear-facing camera.
HARDWARE AND PERFORMANCE
We’re so used to seeing MediaTek processors inside Chinese phones that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 paired with 3GB of RAM came as quite a surprise – a nice one, though. The ZTE Axon Elite feels like a fast, high-performance phone in every way, and even downloading the apps we use for benchmarking seemed less of a chore than usual.
We ran the ZTE Axon Elite through our usual benchmarks and recorded 3990 points in the multi-core component of Geekbench 3 (1257 single-core), making it a touch slower than the OnePlus 2 but above phones such as the HTC One M9 and Google Nexus 5X.
In AnTuTu, which also measures overall performance, the ZTE Axon Elite recorded a very good 49,547 points, which is again below the OnePlus 2 but still a very decent score.
We use GFXBench to test graphics performance, and here the ZTE Axon Elite scored a very high 19fps in Manhattan and 53fps in T-Rex. That’s an excellent score for an Android phone, tying it with the Sony Xperia Z5 and beaten only by the current-generation iPhones and theSony Xperia Z5 Premium.
Our final test is SunSpider, in which the ZTE managed a very decent 704ms. Once again, here it beat the OnePlus 2 by some distance.
The ZTE Axon Elite has 32GB of internal storage, which is expandable up to 128GB with a microSD card, and offers 4G LTE, Bluetooth and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. There’s a generous 3000mAh battery inside, but as we mentioned earlier it’s not removable – if you want to top up your phone on the go your best bet is a power bank.
ZTE is running Android 5.0 Lollipop on the Axon Elite, with ZTE’s own MiFlavor interface that ditches the app drawer in favour of home screen icons and folders. We’d prefer a more vanilla Android ideally, and can’t say we like the design of ZTE’s icons, but it’s simple to use and we found it to be smooth and responsive during our brief time with the handset.
The most notable difference we found is in the Settings menu, whereby you are first shown a screen of quick-access Settings and must swipe right to see the standard Android Lollipop settings menu.
The Axon Elite also supports some smart gestures for closing and switching apps, taking screenshots, automatically sending and receiving or muting calls and the like. And there’s the aforementioned Mi-Pop feature, which may help you more easily control the large screen with one hand.
- 5.5in full-HD screen
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor
- 3GB RAM
- Adreno 430 graphics
- 32GB storage (plus up to 128GB microSD)
- dual-SIM (4G/2G)
- Bluetooth 4.0
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi
- 3000mAh non-removable battery
The ZTE Axon Elite has great specs and some interesting tech at an excellent price, but while we appreciate many users will love the design we aren’t entirely taken by it – especially the fake-leather parts on the rear. If you can’t get the OnePlus 2, this is a close second best – and much easier to get hold of.