Phones have become taller and thinner over the last few years, but their overall designs have remained fundamentally the same. The ZTE Axon M for AT&T shakes things up by adding a second display. It’s not an E Ink panel like on the Yotaphone, nor a strip on top like the LG V20. No, this is a full-on extra panel that folds out, turning the Axon M into a small tablet, and opening many new possibilities for multitasking and entertainment in the process. We got to spend some time with the phone ahead of its release and have some first impressions.
Are Two Screens Better Than One?
We’ve seen the dual-screen approach before, in the form of the Kyocera Echo back in 2011. ZTE has refined the concept here, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. When folded closed, the Axon M is a thick half-inch slab with a band of metal running along the sides and matching screens on the front and back. Both panels are 5.2-inch, 1080p TFT LCDs with 426 pixels per inch, similar to what you find on the Moto G5 Plus. They’re sharp for the size and have good viewing angles.
When folded shut, the phone measures 5.9 by 2.8 by 0.5 inches (HWD). It weighs 8.1 ounces, making it significantly heftier than phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 (5.9 by 2.7 by 0.3 inches, 5.5 ounces), and the hinge on the right can feel a little uncomfortable in your grip. That said, it’s easy to hold in one hand and reach across the screen with your thumb.
The hinge on the right side means most of the buttons are on the left. There you’ll find a volume rocker, a large power button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor, and a camera shutter. The top has a 3.5mm headphone jack that supports high-fidelity audio with Dolby Atmos software. The bottom has a pair of speakers with a USB-C port sandwiched between. The hinge itself feels sturdy, like it should be able to withstand a good deal of wear and tear.
The primary screen is the one where the earpiece and camera are located. The one on the back remains off (and just looks like a plain glass back) until you unfold the hinge and it automatically turns on. In this mode, the phone becomes closer in size to a small tablet like the Amazon Fire 7. A seam runs down the middle where the two screens meet, which can be a little distracting.
When open, the phone automatically extends your primary display onto the second screen. You can also move apps from one side of the screen to the other, run two different apps side by side (like a video and Twitter, for instance), or mirror the screen so both sides show the same thing. All of these modes worked well, with no noticeable stutter or lagging on the pre-production unit we saw, except for a game of 3D chess that locked up.
Android 7.1.2 Nougat supports multiple displays, and currently there are about 100 apps optimized for support across both displays, with more on the way. As mentioned above, the seam between the screens becomes a bit irritating when watching video and browsing the web, though I imagine you can probably get used to it in time.
Behind the Screens
The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor clocked at 2.15GHz. It’s not quite on par with the Snapdragon 835 you’ll find in the Note 8 and most other high-end phones, but it’s still powerful enough to ensure smooth performance. There’s also 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, with a microSD slot capable of accepting cards up to 256GB.
It’s worth noting there’s only a single 20-megapixel camera sensor on what’s essentially the front of the phone. That means to take a standard picture (not a selfie) you have to flip the phone around, at which point the viewfinder immediately appears on the rear display. The camera is pretty standard in other regards. It took clear photos in a brightly lit setting and pretty nice selfies due to the high megapixel count, but we’ll have to see how it fares in low light.
A 3,180mAh battery is under the hood, which should be fine for one screen, but I’m not so sure about two. The iPad Mini 4 has a 5,124mAh battery, for instance, and lasted 5 hours and 15 minutes in our battery test. Fortunately, the phone supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, so you can charge to full in a little over two hours.
Who Is This Phone For?
The thing to understand about the Axon M is that it isn’t intended to be a flagship phone or a successor to the Axon 7. ZTE says it envisions the phone becoming popular among business users who want to multitask by running two separate apps side by side on full-size screens, allowing them to do things like take notes while a video plays. It’s exclusive to AT&T, which limits the phone’s reach, and whether the average buyer finds it attractive will likely depend on which apps take advantage of the dual-screen design. Pricing and a release date haven’t been announced yet, but we’ll be testing the phone for a full review as soon as we get a chance, so check back soon.