Axon 7 Mini Hands-On: Best Small, Budget Conscious Smartphone?

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Axon 7 Mini Hands-On: Best Small, Budget Conscious Smartphone?

Earlier this year, ZTE released the Axon 7, one of the best received budget-conscious phones of the year. At $400 unlocked, it has everything you’d want in a premium smartphone, for several hundred dollars less. A sleek, all-metal build with a design that echoes the HTC M8/M9 thanks to bombastic dual front-facing speakers, top-notch internals including a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, an Adreno 530 GPU, a 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, 3250 mAh battery, 20 MP rear-facing camera and Android Marshmallow.

It was so well-received, in fact, that ZTE decided to release a second version. The Axon 7 Mini is the smaller, even more budget-conscious edition of the flagship, with a similarly premium design but internal specifications that are downgraded from its higher-priced brother. This is not a situation like the Pixel and Pixel XL, there’s a clear difference between the Axon 7 and Mini.

axon7mini_top_680.jpgThe area where budget smartphones have improved vastly in the last handful of years is hardware. Even if the camera is subpar, or the processor is midrange, in 2016 you can expect a phone in the $250-300 range to have a build quality far beyond its sticker price. Last year’s OnePlus X was a great example of this, as is Huawei’s Honor line. The latter, though, shows its budget pedigree when stacked directly against a flagship. You can tell the aluminum used is of lesser quality and thinner, and that the overall construction is a step down from what you’d find on the iPhone, Galaxy S7 or Pixel.

axon7mini_fingerprint_340.jpgWith the 7 Mini, that is not the case. This phone easily stands up to the best I’ve used in 2016 from a hardware perspective. It is a solidly built machine, that has a significant heft which helps give it a sense of durability. It’s immediately impressive from the first second you hold the device, and only improves over time. In the few days I’ve spent with the Axon 7 Mini, I’ve been amazed at how good it feels in the hand and how easily it could fool someone into thinking it’s a $700+ gadget.

axon7mini_speaker_340.jpgIt’s the spitting image of the larger Axon 7 which, to my eyes, is the spitting image of the HTC One M8 or M9. It’s not a design that will likely blow anyone away, simply based on the fact that there are only so many ways to design a slab of aluminum, but it does look fantastic and does not tip its hat that it’s only $300.

Most of the aspects of the hardware, in my short time thus far with the device, I’ve found highly impressive. Starting, as I said above, with the overall build quality and continuing with the dual front-facing speakers, which are loud but more tinny than those on the Alcatel Idol 4S, and the 5.2-inch 1080P AMOLED screen, which has good colors (though clearly less vibrant than those on the Pixel or S7) and is extremely bright. Like, don’t look at me in the dark of night for fear of turning your eyeballs into jelly, bright.

axon7mini_front2_680.jpgOnce you get past the fabulous hardware, though, the house of cards begins to wobble. Inside the device is a Snapdragon 617 processor, 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 405 GPU. All of these combined should be enough to power a device in 2016 to an acceptable degree, but the 7 Mini struggles to offer an experience that is anywhere near fluid.

Now, I’ve not spent enough time to get a full sense of how it performs, but my initial reaction has been one of disappointment. I certainly think my thoughts are being affected by the fact that I have been using the Pixel XL, perhaps the smoothest Android phone of all time, for the last month, thus undoubtedly exacerbating the issues of the 7 Mini.

axon7mini_settings_340.jpgStill, I have been struck by the amount of dropped frames, slowdowns and general “clunky” nature of using the device. It handles most things fine, so long as you have some patience, but it does add further weight to the question “Why buy this and not the standard Axon 7?” For $100 more you can get a machine with top-tier 2016 specs, which I would be far more comfortable with knowing I need the phone to likely last two years, possibly more.

I imagine I will adjust to the performance of the 7 Mini the more I distance myself from the Pixel, but it has a significant amount of work to do to win me over. The software here is a moderately skinned version of Android Marshmallow that reminds me of a mix between TouchWiz and LG’s custom software. That means it’s not the prettiest, nor the most intuitive, but once you get your bearings it works like a lot of other Android phones. The toughest thing I had switching from the Pixel to the 7 Mini, in all honesty, was simply figuring out where all the settings were located.

axon7mini_camera_680.jpgWhile the software still has a chance to slide into my good graces, I’m not sure the camera does. Though I’ve only used it for, literally, a few hours, thus there is still much work to be done, it’s clear this camera is not going to impress many people. This is the area where most budget phones really show their slimmer prices and it is no different here.

The quality of the photos is simply not there. The below image is of my cat, Rogelio, taken at 4:24 p.m. on the east coast yesterday, just minutes before the sun officially set, in a room lit by Philips Hue bulbs set to roughly the same color as your normal incandescent light bulb. There are a few immediately noticeable issues.

roeglio_7mini_680.jpgOne, it looks far, far darker than the scene actually was and two, the focus and detail on the cat is below average. He looks almost out of focus the image is so soft, and his coloring is dulled significantly. This was taken relying entirely, as I tend to do when testing, on the device’s auto features. That means I didn’t fiddle with any settings, and I let the software autofocus to see how it would do. I took a few photos around the same time this image was taken, where I actually tapped to put Rogelio in focus and better expose him and the results were mixed. While the scene was more accurate in terms of overall exposure, the detail of the images were no better than the one above.

Now, I didn’t think it would be fair to pair this camera against the Pixel, given that the latter is more than double in price and deemed by many as one of, if not the best, camera in a smartphone. So instead I stacked it against the Nexus 6P, a device that is more than a year old now and, when it was released, was only $100 more than the Axon 7 Mini.

Here’s a photo taken one minute later, this time with the 6P:
rogelio_6p_680.jpgThe difference is monumental, everything about the 6P’s photo is better than what the 7 Mini offered.

There’s still a lot of testing to be done with this device, but the Axon 7 Mini has much to prove if it wants to be considered among the ranks of the best budget smartphones. That sector has grown immensely in terms of competition over the last few years, making it an exciting and fun time to buy on a budget. The amount of sacrifices you have to make if you can’t shell out big bucks for premium flagships is smaller than ever. We’ll have to see if the 7 Mini can live up to that notion.

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