ZTE Axon 7 Mini hands-on – ZTE goes small, and it seems to have worked

ZTE has used IFA 2016 in Berlin to show its latest device, the Axon 7 Mini, and I got a ton of hands-on time with it.

ZTE is probably best known for its budget phones – the kind you’d pick up in Carphone Warehouse more because you need something super-cheap for WhatsApp and _phone_ calls rather than because you’ve been saving up for it. That’s changed a bit in the last year or so, and the Chinese brand is trying to follow in the steps of Huawei by making the jump to something a little bit more luxurious.

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As the name suggests, the ZTE Axon 7 Mini is a more compact, slightly lower-specced version of brand’s 2016 flagship. Incidentally, both the Axon 7 and Axon 7 Mini are coming to Europe and UK, with the former having gone on sale in the USA earlier in the year. And while this does’t have quite the flashy specs of its brother, I liked what I saw.

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The first thing you’ll notice is the design, which is a lot more restrained that the outgoing ZTE Axon phones. Gone is the faux-leather trim and gaudy, blingy finishes – they’ve been replaced by something a lot classier. The body is built completely from metal, with curves in all the right places so that it nestles almost perfectly in your palm. It’s small too, with about the same footprint as an iPhone 6S.

The gold version I was using wasn’t at all ugly. In fact, it’s a fairly subdued hue. But there’ll also be black grey and silvery white versions available.

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Colour aside, the most eye-catching design traits are the dual front-facing speakers that eat up much of the space between the display and the top. I always like to see speakers in this formation, as it pushes the sound towards your face, rather than down into your palms. It sounds good too, with a good hit of volume. It lacks that oomph of the regular Axon 7, but of course this is a much smaller device. It does have the same Dolby Atmos support, which mimics a 7.1-channel surround effect.

Under those speakers is 5.2-inch display with a 1080p resolution. It’s AMOLED too, and that makes a visible difference. Blacks are deep, colours are rich and pixel density isn’t a problem at this size. There are a couple of negatives with this display tech, and again they’re noticeable here. Viewing angles are a little poor, while reds and green are a bit too saturated. But they’re minor quirks and, for the €299 price, it’s a good panel.

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Keeping everything ticking over is a Snapdragon 617 CPU, which isn’t the fastest on the market, and it's paired with 3GB of RAM. Things seemed smooth and fast in my time with the phone, but I couldn’t run any benchmarks or test out games. The decent amount of RAM should make for slick multitasking, though.

It’s also nice to see 32GB of internal storage as standard, which is still something of a rarity at this price. Take note, Apple. If that’s not enough, there’s a microSD card slot that’ll accept cards up to 128GB. Don’t need that extra storage? Bung a nano-SIM in there instead.

ZTE reps told me the 2,705mAh battery should make it through the day without a hitch, and at that size I’m not doubting it, but I’ll have to use the _phone_ for a lot longer to know for sure. QuickCharge 2.0 is supported, which should give you 60% of juice in about 30 minutes through the USB-C port.

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On the back you’ll find a 16-megapixel camera, with what ZTE calls Ultra-Fast focus. I tried it out in the testing surroundings of a busy show floor and it worked quite well, locking onto targets snappily and shooting almost instantaneously. I couldn’t really tell how good the results were, but that’ll become clear in the full review. Up front there’s an 8MP camera, which seemed a bit run-of-the-mill. But, again, it’s too soon to say for sure.

One area where a lot these Chinese brands fall down upon is the software, but ZTE seems to have cleaned up its act here a bit and there’s definitely a whiff of vanilla Android with MiFavor 4.0. There are clearly lots of tweaks ZTE's added, from icons to apps, but things like the homescreen and notifications are familiar.

First Impressions

ZTE's progression to the high end is going nicely, with the Axon 7 looking to be its best effort yet. It's compact, well made and packing punch in all the right places.

It's also sensibly priced, coming in under the OnePlus 3 and sitting just above the Moto G4 Plus. You get a lot for your money here, and that's always good.