Back from the dead: $549 Axon 10 Pro rises to fight pricey Apple, Samsung flagships

You are not going to find another comparable Android phone, with this set of components and features, lower than this price point.

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ZTE Axon 10 Pro

Image: ZDNet

Over the last two weeks, I have been lucky enough to get my hands on an incredibly powerful smartphone device. It has three rear cameras, a blazingly fast processor, a hefty amount of RAM and flash storage, a beautiful bezel-less OLED display, and has a sleek industrial design.

iPhone 11 Pro? Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus ? Nope. ZTE Axon 10 Pro.

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ZTE, as you recall, like its Chinese competitor, Huawei, was placed on the US Commerce Department's "Entity List" with a seven-year export ban of American goods to the company back in May of 2018 as a result of the firm having violated the terms of its prior agreements in 2017 regarding export controls to countries like Iran and North Korea.

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This was a situation so difficult that I, and virtually all industry observers, had mostly given the company up for dead. Being placed on this list creates an untenable situation for foreign companies because it means they cannot do business with any US-based concern. In the case of ZTE, and now, what increasingly appears to be the case for Huawei unless it gets a stay from the Trump administration, it meant that companies such as Qualcomm, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and countless others could no longer supply hardware and software components to the Chinese firm.

ZTE was removed from the entity list in July of 2018 after placing $400M in escrow on top of the $1B in fines it already paid back in 2017. Even so, the black eye was terrible enough that ZTE does not have device agreements with US-based carriers anymore. Its latest phones can only be purchased directly from the company or through sales channel partners such as Amazon, B&H Photo, and Newegg. 

Regardless of all of this drama, after having used this phone intensively for the last two weeks, I can heartily recommend it to anyone seeking a high-performance Android device, especially if you are already considering a flagship Android phone from another company, such as Samsung. I would be hard-pressed to spend my money on a super premium Android device like the Samsung S10 Plus or Note 10 Plus considering that the ZTE Axon 10 Pro costs only $549 in its basic configuration.

$549? Surely, this device sacrifices overall build quality and components? Nope. Not that I can easily tell in real-world use.

If you want to compare this device with the Samsung S10+ and the Note 10 Plus, which are the two phones with the closest dimensions and overall components, GSMarena has an excellent page for this.

The ZTE Axon Pro has the same Qualcomm 855 SoC that the Samsung S10 Plus and Note 10 Plus have, with 256GB of base flash storage and 8GB of RAM, although a 12GB option is also available for $50 more. It incorporates a 4000MaH lithium battery similar to the Samsung devices (4100MaH/4300MaH), and you can expect similar battery performance given the chipset and display tech that is being used as well. In my tests, I got more than one day of use out of a full charge.

It comes with Android Pie (9.0) which the Samsung S10 Plus and Note 10 Plus also ship with. The basic launcher UI it comes with is relatively unobtrusive and doesn't get in the way of Google's purist implementation, which you don't get with other Chinese competitors like Huawei or OnePlus or even Samsung. You can also easily switch the launcher out for a different one, which I did in my case with Launcher Pro and Microsoft's excellent launcher.

It uses a 1080x2340 AMOLED capacitive touchscreen with a 398ppi density, which is less than the comparable Samsung at 1440x3040 at 522ppi and 498ppi respectively -- but honestly, I don't think this is a deal-breaker considering that in real-world use, it's a sharp, responsive and bright display.

Like its competitors, the ZTE Axon Pro has three rear cameras and a selfie cam. The primary camera the Axon 10 Pro uses is 48 MP, f/1.7, (wide) with optical image stabilization, which is massive in terms of light gathering capability and for image detail. Secondary cameras are an 8 MP, f/2.4, (telephoto), with 3x optical zoom and a 20 MP, f/2.2, 11mm (ultrawide).

The Samsung phones have a 12 MP, f/1.5-2.4, 26mm (wide) as the main, and a 12 MP, f/2.4, 52mm (telephoto) and 16 MP, f/2.2, 12mm (ultrawide) as the secondaries. The Samsung phones also have a TOF ranging sensor for 3D depth of field. The ZTE doesn't have one of these, but I did not see any deficiency in the quality or sharpness of the bokeh-type depth of field photos that I took with its cameras. I also felt that the night mode photos were decent, although not as impressive as Google's Pixel 3 or the iPhone 11.

The areas in which I think ZTE compromised are in communications, as well as sound reproduction. However, again, in real-world usage for most people looking to use a smartphone for, I don't think these are massive deal breakers considering what this phone costs when compared with the much more expensive Samsung phones. 

ZTE chose a CAT 18 class 4G cellular modem versus a CAT 20, and to fully take advantage of those speeds you need a network that provisions the phones to use it optimally and you also have to take things like network congestion into account as well. 

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The sound DAC which the ZTE uses is 24-bit versus a 32-bit on the Samsungs. That's an inconsequential issue considering that most of the music content available by subscription music services isn't enjoyed in 32-bit uncompressed formats, and are 24-bit or less compressed MP3 or AAC. The phone also lacks a standard headphone port, and you'll need to use the supplied USB-C to headphone jack dongle if you don't want to use Bluetooth audio accessories. The Bluetooth chip on the Axon 10 Pro is version 5, which is the latest and highest standard.

ZTE also chose USB 2.0 communications versus USB 3.1. I don't see that as a deal breaker since most people aren't going to tether the device to a PC; they are mainly concerned with high-speed USB-C/USB PD 18W charging, which the device has -- although the company ships the phone with only a USB-A to USB-C block and cable, which is a minor disappointment. You can pick up an inexpensive USB PD wall charger block and USB-C cable combo for around $40 on Amazon and from other online retailers. 

It also has wireless Qi charging, although it lacks reverse wireless charging, which the Samsung devices have and are useful for things like charging a smartwatch or wireless earbud cases. It should be noted that the current iPhone 11 and Pro do not currently ship with this capability, either.

For security and biometrics, the phone incorporates an in-screen ultrasonic fingerprint sensor, like devices from Samsung and others such as OnePlus and Huawei. It also uses facial recognition with its 20MP selfie camera (the Samsung devices have 10MP selfie cameras). 

We can endlessly debate the minutiae of the speeds and feeds of the ZTE Axon 10 Pro as it compares to the industry heavyweight -- Samsung. Other publications that have delved into the phone much more deeply than myself are much better fodder for this kind of thing. However, where the rubber hits the road with this device in real-world use is that it is an absolute pleasure to use and it is more phone than most users can ever actually take advantage of. 

At $549, with the mostly equivalent parts that it is built with, it is considerably less expensive than the carrier unlocked version of Galaxy S10 Plus, which starts out at 128GB of storage with 8GB RAM at around $899 depending on the retailer and you'll pay a bit more for the 256GB Note 10+ bundle. In my opinion, that is a huge difference and something worthy of serious consideration.

The bottom line is this: You are not going to find another comparable Android phone, with this set of components and features, lower than this price point. The previous value-priced champion, the similarly configured OnePlus 7/Pro, is more expensive. 

The concern with buying a ZTE would be, in my opinion, the ongoing technical support should the company face additional scrutiny from the Commerce Department and the Trump Administration as Huawei is facing now. Chinese companies have also been lacking in their support for Android releases and doing timely updates -- but you can say the same thing about their South Korean competitors who charge a premium for their brands.

All of this is the reason, in my opinion, to spend less money on a Chinese-made Android phone if you are inclined to go in that direction. $549 is not much money to spend on a device with these capabilities if the intention is to replace it in three years or less. Indeed, there are less expensive devices you can buy if you are on a budget, like the $299 Motorola G7 (which is an excellent value for the money) but you won't get top-level performance out of it like you will with the ZTE Axon 10 Pro.

Have you considered the ZTE Axon 10 Pro over other Android competitors? Talk Back and Let Me Know.