We may be in the age of the $999 flagship phone, but a few smartphone makers are still trying to put out premium devices that don’t flirt with four-digit price tags. OnePlus and Asus have staked out their share of that market with the OnePlus 7 Pro and ZenFone 6, respectively, and now they’re about to be joined by a familiar face that’s been hard to find in the U.S. as of late.
Chinese phone maker ZTE says it’s bringing its latest flagship, the ZTE Axon 10 Pro to the U.S. as an unlocked phone starting at $549. It’s the first ZTE Axon flagship to reach these shores since the foldable Axon M launched two years ago.
ZTE has endured an eventful two years since that phone’s 2017 release. The company found itself at odds with the U.S. government, in part because of stepped-up trade tensions between the U.S. and China but also because the company ran afoul of sanctions by exporting electronic parts made in the U.S. to Iran and North Korea. In 2018, ZTE was hit by a U.S. Commerce Department ban and had to shut down operations for a time. The dispute has since been resolved, but ZTE is only now beginning to rebuild its U.S. presence, releasing a pair of budget phones late last.
The ZTE Axon 10 Pro isn’t new. The phone debuted in other parts of the world earlier this year, and I first got a look at it in May, about the same time it was set to debut in some European countries. Jeff Yee, ZTE’s vice president of innovation and partnerships, told me at the time that the phone maker was hoping that it could eventually bring the Axon 10 Pro to this country, and I’m glad ZTE found a way. While I’ve only spent a little time around the Axon 10 Pro, it’s a promising flagship device that packs some pretty high-end capabilities into an affordable handset.
Here’s what caught my eye about the ZTE Axon 10 Pro.
ZTE Axon 10 Pro specs
|Screen Size (Resolution)||6.47 inches (2340 x 1080)|
|microUSB?||Yes (up to 2TB)|
|Rear Cameras||48-MP main (f/1.7); 20-MP wide (f/2.2); 8-MP telephoto (f/2.4)|
|Front Camera||20-MP (f/2.0)|
|Battery Size||4,000 mAh|
|Size||6.3 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches|
ZTE Axon Pro 10 pricing and availability
The Axon 10 Pro model with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage costs $549. You can boost RAM to 12GB and pay $599 for the phone.
ZTE will sell the model unlocked on its own website, and it will also be available from retailers NewEgg and B&H Photo. The unlocked device will work on GSM-based networks like those operated by T-Mobile and AT&T.
Not having a carrier tie-in puts the Axon 10 Pro at a disadvantage in the U.S., where the majority of phone buyers pick up their handset through their wireless provider. OnePlus, for example, used to only sell unlocked versions of its flagships in the U.S., but the OnePlus 7 Pro was offered through T-Mobile, and the 5G version of that same phone is tied to Sprint.
Three rear cameras
Multiple cameras are all the rage on smartphones these days, and ZTE doesn’t shirk from the challenge with the Axon Pro 10. On the back of the phone, you’ll find a 48-megapixel main camera with an f/1.7 aperture. That’s joined by a 20-MP wide angle lens with a 125-degree field of view and an 8-MP telephoto camera.
The telephoto lens on the Axon 10 Pro allows the phone to deliver a 3x optical zoom. For context, the Galaxy Note 10, which costs $400 more than ZTE’s phone, tops out at 2x. Use all three of the Axon 10 Pro’s lenses, and you get a 5x hybrid zoom. Software makes it possible to get a 20x digital zoom, but you’ll spot some fuzziness in the final result.
In another increasingly common feature among top smartphones, ZTE turns to artificial intelligence to improve its photos, with AI powering motion capture, portrait lighting and scene recognition features. (In that latter feature, the Axon 10 Pro can recognize eight different types of scenes.) Switching between the wide angle and zoom features is as simple as sliding your finger across the phone’s touch screen.
We’ll wait until we’ve taken our own shots with the Axon 10 Pro before we can definitively judge how its cameras match up to those on pricier smartphones. But ZTE’s Yee showed me a few impressive sample shots, including a wide-angle shot that didn’t feature the kind of “fish-eye” effect you see around the edges of some photos shot by wide-angle lenses. Another 360-degree panorama shot in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum captured details that you could still zoom in on without much distortion.
The top Android phones these days usually feature a Snapdragon 855 processor, and the Axon Pro 10 is no exception. That’s augmented by either 8GB or 12GB of RAM, depending on which model you pick. The phone includes 256GB of on-board storage and you can add up to 2TB using a microSD card. ZTE touts more AI capabilities that learn your behaviors with the phone with a goal of reducing app launch times and maintaining the phone’s performance over time. To that end, though the Axon 10 Pro ships with Android Pie, ZTE promises an Android 10 update before the year’s end.
A 4,000 mAh battery powers the Axon 10 Pro, and when it’s time to recharge the phone, you can either rely on the devices QuickCharge 4 support or power it wirelessly thanks to Qi compatibility. ZTE phones tend to fare well on our battery test — last year’s budget-priced Blade Max View held out for nearly 13 hours — so we’re eager to see how the Axon 10 Pro does
At a little less than 6.5 inches, the AMOLED screen on the Axon 10 Pro grabs most of your attention when you first see the phone. That’s because of a 92% screen-to-body ratio, enabled in part by an optical fingerprint sensor that lives underneath the display and removes the need for a bezel. The front camera is centered at the top of the Axon 10 Pro’s display, not unlike the cutout on the Galaxy Note 10.
Even with that large display, the Axon 10 Pro doesn’t take up much space. It measures 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches and seemed easy to operate with one hand, even though I tend to favor much smaller phones. One thing about the Axon 10 Pro that’s likely to cause some grumbling, though — like many newer phones, it’s gotten rid of the 3.5mm headphone jack.
ZTE makes a 5G version of the Axon 10 Pro — it just launched in China, beating other phone makers to the punch in that country. But you won’t find 5G connectivity on the U.S version of the phone.
The absence of a 5G version of the flagship here is a reflection on how 5G is rolling out in this country. Different carriers are using different connectivity technologies, and 5G service has only been turned on in a few cities — and even in those cities, you wouldn’t describe coverage as widespread. Combine the current customer experience on 5G with the lack of penetration for the faster networking standard, and ZTE found it hard to justify the higher cost it would have needed to charge for a 5G version of the Axon 10 Pro.
“The timing for us makes more sense next year,” Yee said.
We’ll need to get our hands on the Axon Pro 10 to see just how it compares to other leading flagship phones. Still, it’s good to have a ZTE flagship back in the U.S. Android users should have a choice of phones when it comes to devices that boast premium features — especially if that device tries to keep a lid on smartphone prices.