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I've been using handheld devices for more than 20 years and during the days of PDAs and early smartphones, we regularly saw unique form factors. For the last couple of years, it seems most phones were defined as "black slabs". ZTE decided to mix things up a bit with the ZTE Axon M from AT&T.
It's been a few years since I have tried a ZTE phone, but it is clear it can make a quality product. I'm not sure if there is really a compelling reason to spend $725 on the Axon M, but I applaud ZTE for trying something different and my wife seems excited about a business use case for it.
The ZTE Axon M is thicker than most phones because in its default mode there is a display on the front and the back. This isn't really that different than most modern phones that have glass on both the front and back panels, but this back panel is actually a usable display. Gorilla Glass 5 is used so the back should be as strong as competing glass sandwich smartphones.
Both displays are identical 5.2 inch panels with 1080p resolution. They look great with crisp fonts and great color. There are large bezels below and above the displays, but the side bezels are minimals, especially where the two displays meet in the center.
With the hinge taking up the entire right side, buttons are positioned on the left side. Near the bottom is the TV mode button that you can assign to your preferred video app, including Direct TV. The indented power button is located about halfway up the left side and it serves as the fingerprint scanner, similar to the Sony Xperia devices in operation outside the US. A long volume button is above this with the SIM card slot near the top.
The 3.5mm headset jack is on top while the USB Type-C port is on the bottom. The edges are metal and overall the phone has a high quality look and feel.
The ZTE Axon M runs Android 7.1.2 with the October 2017 Android security patch. It's a primarily stock Android experience that is only really cluttered up by loads of AT&T apps. These include AT&T Call Project, Mobile Security, myAT&T, DirectTV Now, ProTech, Smart WiFi, and a few games.
The hinge joining the front and back displays is positioned on the right side of the Axon M. It extends most of the length, but when you look at the back of the phone you can see there is piece about an inch long up top and another about 1/4 inch near the bottom that rotate with the back display and secure into the back of the front display when closed.
In addition to the default single main display on the front, there are three other modes for using the dual displays. The A-A mode shows you the exact same thing on both displays. This can be useful when propped up in tent mode when you want to share video content with someone sitting across from you at a table. Other than this, I have yet to figure out another use for A-A mode. It would be cool to see a Battleship game or some other game that could be used to play head-to-head mode.
The second mode is A mode where there is one view of apps appearing across both displays. This can be useful for browsing the web where the wider experience feels more like a tablet. There is clearly a gap between the displays, but the software does a good job of minimizing the effect. I tried watching Google Play movies, but didn't see much benefit since the top and bottom was heavily letter-boxed so there was very little additional size benefit compared to just watching a movie on one display in landscape orientation.
The final mode is A-B mode, which I found to be the most useful for the dual display setup and one that seems to make the most sense for the enterprise. My wife was excited to see her consultant website on one side and calculator on the other so she could easily tally orders remotely on the phone. This A-B mode works in both portrait and landscape orientation so different apps can take advantage of various orientations. This is the mode I use all the time on the Axon M. You can also move one app from one screen to the next by swiping left or right with three fingers.
As you start to move the right display to the back, the display turns off when in A or A-B mode. It only stays on for A-A mode. The four bottom navigation buttons (back, home, task switcher, and mode selector) appear on the bottom of each display in A-B mode when you touch the display and so far this has worked flawlessly.
One other unique aspect of the ZTE Axon M is the single 20 megapixel camera in the same location as the front-facing camera on most other phones. With a display on the front and back the front is the only location for the camera. When you launch the camera, it defaults to front-facing mode. Rotate the right display to the back and then you can tap the icon to switch to standard camera mode. The camera will now be on the outward facing side with that display off. The rear display is now the viewfinder and there are a number of modes and options in the camera application.
The ZTE Axon M is priced at $725 or $24.17 per month over a 30-month period. There are no other dual display smartphones like this for a direct price comparison.
Many mid-level smartphones are priced in the $400 to $500 range while the latest flagships are in the $800 to $1,000 range. $725 may be a bit high for a Snapdragon 821 powered phone, but if you can find a use for the dual displays it may be worth it for you.
The ZTE Axon M is clearly a unique smartphone with the two displays. ZTE has done a good job of building a solid smartphone that performed flawlessly for me. This wasn't easy considering there are different screen modes to manage.
I was worried about having two displays with one facing the back most of the time. However, they are both Gorilla Glass 5 so should be able to withstand the same as most dual glass panel phones. The ZTE Axon M slipped off a bench and hit my front patio after a drop of about 20 inches. There was a small knick out of one corner of the frame piece, but both displays are perfectly fine.
There are dual speakers with Dolby Atmos audio and music plays loud and clear. Phone calls sounded fine and Google Assistant worked very well.