Take your flagship phone, shrink it down in size, and shave off a few specs - it’s normally a winning formula.
Sony did it. Samsung does it. And now ZTE is getting in on the act with the Axon 7 Mini.
It’s essentially a smaller, slightly less powerful version of the Axon 7, a phone that didn’t make a huge splash here in the UK but did gangbusters in the company’s native China. You don’t have to be a smartphone savant to see why, either.
Top-end specs for very little cash? Yes please. The Axon 7 Mini isn’t quite such a bargain, but it’s still got plenty of headline features - including a stellar all-metal build, and a gorgeous OLED screen.
Does it get any better for less money? Let’s find out.
It might be made of aluminium, but the Axon 7 Mini feels a lot softer than most other all-metal phones. It’s still better than plastic, but only just; pick it up and it’s instantly obvious why you didn’t pay big bucks to own one.
At less than 8mm thick it’s hardly what I’d call chunky, slipping neatly into a jeans pocket and sitting comfortably in your hand - thanks in part to the slightly curved rear. Give it a tap, though, and it sounds a little hollow. Not something you’d get on a more expensive phone.
I’m not convinced by the textured metal strips above and below the screen on the front of the phone, though. They don’t match the smooth rear, and feel a little cheap.
That’s odd, because ZTE hasn’t skimped in other places. The screen has 2.5D glass that curves slightly at the edges, for example.
The volume and power buttons at the side have to be some of the loudest and clickiest I’ve ever used on a smartphone, too. At least they feel firm when you press one, but seriously, they make a racket.
On paper, the Axon 7 Mini’s screen is a big step down from the Axon 7’s 5.5in, QHD display. Looking at the mid-range competition, though, a 5.2in, 1080p OLED panel is still high on the wish list. Top marks, ZTE.
OLED means deep blacks and incredible contrast, and the Axon 7 Mini delivers. Everything looks sharp enough, and there’s enough brightness here to cope with direct sunlight. Viewing angles are ace, too.
ZTE has been careful to dial down the vibrancy, so your photos and videos don’t look unnatural. You can choose between a few custom colour profiles that can dial the temperature up or down, but none of them will leave the screen looking overblown.
This is still an OLED screen, though, so colours do look a little more punchy than they would be in reality. Not one for picture purists, then, but your Instagram photos are going to look on point.
PERFORMANCE & BATTERY LIFE
With a Snapdragon 617 octa-core CPU and 3GB of RAM inside, the Axon 7 Mini is well equipped for a mid-range phone - even if it’s not quite on the same scale as the bargain-tastic OnePlus 3 (you will be missed).
It’s perfectly equipped for the kinds of thing you’ll actually use your phone for, like web browsing, Facebook and YouTube - even if benchmark scores aren’t going to blow you away. Even with ZTE’s cumbersome UI running on top, everything feels responsive enough and with no signs of major slowdown.
The Adreno GPU isn’t all that powerful, but as it’s paired to a 1080p display it still manages to put in a good performance. More graphically intensive games like Asphalt 8 will push it hard, not quite maxing out the frame rate to a smooth level, but it still does a decent enough job for the money.
There’s ample room for apps and games, too. My test unit had 32GB of built-in storage, but you can always add more with a microSD card.
It’s a shame, then, that battery life doesn’t quite stack up. It rarely lasts a full day, and the remaining percentage often takes a nosedive for no apparent reason. Web browsing shouldn’t be as big a drain as it is here.
Games can drain as much as 25% in half an hour, and even ZTE’s Smart Power Saving mode can’t pull back much extra juice. It’s not like the phone is heating up, and the OLED screen won’t drain as much power as an LCD one, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why this is so power hungry.
Sure, it supports fast charging, but only QuickCharge 2.0. That means 50% charge in around half an hour - still pretty quick, but not on the same level as some of the competition.
The Axon 7 Mini is no slouch when it comes to the fingerprint sensor, at least. It’s in my preferred place at the back of the phone, is easy enough to find by touch alone, and responds rapidly to your presses.
The other highlight is the speaker array. The stereo drivers fire towards you, and have to be some of the loudest you’ll find in a phone at this price.
You can crank up the volume to impressive levels, and for the most part, your music won’t dissolve into a mess of reverb and distortion. I still dialled things down a notch or two to strip out any interference, but it definitely punches above its weight.
It would take the hands of a giant to completely block the speaker grilles, too, so you’ll pretty much always be able to hear that YouTube video without resorting to a pair of headphones.
Dolby Atmos sound processing is on board, too, creating a larger, more expansive sound for your videos, games and music. It’s surprisingly effective, and doesn’t warp your audio like a lot of digital EQ settings. A genuinely useful inclusion when paired with those excellent (for the money) speakers.
ZTE’s custom interface might be up there with Huawei for how different it is to vanilla Android.
It ditches the apps drawer, dumping newly downloaded apps and games on the home screens. That either means lots of folders, or remembering where you’ve left everything. Fine for anyone coming from an iPhone, but a pain if you’re used to the regular Android layout.
The custom icons are pretty foul, too. They try too hard to look like iOS, but with muted colours that just seem to blur together. It makes finding something specific quite a challenge. Good job the effect goes away once you start installing your own apps.
I hate the default keyboard, too. It’s a mess of icons, gestures and colours that is awkward to use, and hangs around on screen too long after you’ve tapped away. My advice? Download the Google keyboard as soon as you can.
The other major tweak is Mi Pop, a kind of pop-up toolbox that lets you take screenshots, toggle mute, lock the screen and jump back to the home screen. It would make sense on a larger phone, but here it just feels redundant - and it gets in the way too much. Turn it off, ASAP.
With a 16MP, Samsung-supplied rear camera, the Axon 7 Mini sounds like it’ll be a potent snapper, but there’s more to quality phone photography than pixel count.
The f/1.8 lens really should be sharper: as is, your shots just don’t have the level of fine detail you’d expect given the hardware, especially around the edges of the frame.
There’s a noticeable amount of noise, too - even when shooting in bright conditions. Image processing works a little too hard to eliminate it, so you’re either left with grainy pics, or smoothed out shots lacking any detail.
At least there’s hardly any shutter lag, at least in bright conditions, which helps make the camera feel responsive whenever you press the shutter. Focusing slows down in the dark, but it still makes a good effort when it comes to low-light shooting.
Auto HDR isn’t bad, but the camera app has a tendency to rely on spot metering instead of evaluating the scene. That can leave exposure completely wide of the mark in certain shots, based on where you tapped to focus.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for the price, there’s no 4K video recording either: instead, you’re limited to 1080p.
Going by specs alone, the Axon 7 Mini should have been a hit. Decent power, an OLED screen and a metal build for under £300? Sounds great.
It’s a shame things don’t pan out once you get one in your hand, though. The UI isn’t great, the camera is merely average, and battery life is problematic to say the least.
Sure, those speakers are ace, but that’s not enough to stop this from being an also-ran, rather than a must-buy.