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Review: ZTE Axon (A1R) on Fido – 5 Months Later

April 4, 2016 Leave a comment

ZTE Axon A1R Fido in box IMG_20151215_125436

For 5 months I’ve been using the ZTE Axon as my primary phone and though this device has a bunch of positives going for it, the overall experience has been anything but. I almost didn’t want to write this post because of how frustrated and disappointed I am with this device currently but decided that it needs to be written/said so with apologies in advance to ZTE here we go.

When I went to the launch event for the ZTE Axon I remember distinctly how big of a deal they made about the time they put into the development of this device. They made clear that they had looked into what the consumer in the North American markets wanted out of a mobile device and that ZTE had done everything possible to meet the demands of the consumer. After using the phone for 5 months, I find it somewhat hard to believe they spent as much time as they claimed they did because often the user experience on the ZTE Axon is downright horrendous.

Bundled Keyboard TouchPal: Full of Spam

First I’m going to start with one of the biggest offenders in the terrible user experience category; ZTE’s choice of bundled keyboard, TouchPal. I don’t care what the ratings are for it in the Google Play because those are probably from people who downloaded it of their own accord. To me, the keyboard is downright spammy and an insult to consumers who don’t want core apps to be freemium versions with ads and attempts at taking over elements of your device without permission.

ZTE Axon TouchPal Keyboard Ad

The pre-release version of the ZTE Axon which I received included a version of TouchPal which would pop up ADVERTISEMENTS on top of the keyboard. Literal scrolling ads taking up my precious screen real estate from a keyboard which was forced on me in the first place is not OK. When I called ZTE and TouchPal out about it on Twitter, ZTE apologized profusely and said it must have been a mistaken inclusion in the pre-release version of the software on the pre-release device and they replaced it for a new, post-release ZTE Axon. TouchPal, on the other hand, tried to justify their inclusion of ads by saying that they had to make money somehow. (No, seriously, check out the screenshot below.)

Toucpal Twitter justifying built in ads freemium model IMG_20151120_160019

While I wholeheartedly agree that app developers deserve to make money for their hard work, if a manufacturer is forcing an app on me – especially a core app like a default keyboard! – it is not OK to force users to have a freemium version on their devices. I wouldn’t even be mentioning this because it was only supposed to have happened on the pre-release version. Unfortunately, TouchPal was not quite finished with me.

At random intervals, TouchPal would decide to inform me that I totally needed to be aware of this brand new font that they had launched or of some special new theme they now had. I mostly ignored these minor annoyances until one morning I couldn’t figure out how to shut off my alarm because…

ZTE Axon TouchPal Keyboard lock screen hijack with ads Screenshot_2016-03-12-13-50-26

…TouchPal had auto-updated and had decided it’d be fun if it took over my lock screen with ads and some measurement of how many words I had typed that day versus other users of their keyboard globally. This happened even though I had switched my phone over to Google Keyboard and hadn’t used TouchPal in months. I groggily could not figure out how to properly hit the snooze button because I had never seen this screen before in my life and got really, really annoyed. I have since totally disabled TouchPal on my phone since apparently not using it isn’t enough.

Lesson here for manufacturers: If you are going to be bundling third party apps which are core to the user experience on your devices you had better make very sure it is software which provides a stupendous user experience.

Camera Problems

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The next disappointment on the ZTE Axon was the camera. Despite being told at the launch event that they recognized how important it was for the phone to be able to capture loud audio clearly, be able to capture great images in low light, and that the camera should capture images quickly, they did not deliver on any of these promises. If you’re using the camera in the right situation, then yes, it will take some really glorious photos. But if you’re not using it in an ideal situation (which is probably 60% of the time) your pictures aren’t going to look that great. I decided to test the ZTE Axon one night against an HTC One M8 and an LG G4 when I was in CityPlace Toronto looking east towards the CN Tower, below are the results:

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Super specialized camera settings also mean other apps (specifically I have noticed this in Snapchat) have trouble using the camera. This is because the ZTE Axon’s camera app allows you to easily up the light the camera allows you to brighten up the photo before you take it. The problem is an app like Snapchat just uses the default settings for the camera so the auto-focus always ends up super, duper dark in a low light environment without any way of turning the brightness up.

Further, if you’re trying to record video in a loud environment, the phone does not deliver on its promise to capture it clearly unless there is next to no bass in that music. Recording video at a concert or in a club and the audio will sound terrible…so terrible that it won’t even be recognizable as music and just sound like static. (I know this because I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback on my Snapchats!)

Design Decisions Make ZTE Axon A Right Handed Phone

ZTE Axon speaker on right hand side

If you look at the above picture you will probably notice that most of the holes in the top of the phone are just there for show and only a few of the ones on the right hand side of it have a speaker behind them. The microphone on the bottom of the Axon is on the far left side. This means that if you hold the phone in your left hand the speaker will not line up with your ear unless you hold the phone so it is basically hanging off the side of your head. This in turn makes it so the microphone won’t properly line up with your mouth because it is basically at the side of your neck so you have to hold the Axon extremely awkwardly in order to use it when you put it in your left hand. You basically have to hold the phone completely horizontally with your arm and elbow raised above what’s comfortable and normal.

ZTE Axon left hand awkward position IMG_20160404_143601_3

This may seem irrelevant to all you righties out there but remember that when we righties are on the phone and need to write down some information or use our mouse to click on something on our computers we need to use our right hands. Unless you put the phone on speaker, you’re going to switch it into your left hand and then no one will be able to hear you and you won’t be able to hear anyone until you adjust to the awkward pose the ZTE Axon requires for left-handed use.

Headset Problems While On Calls

This may just be a problem with the review unit I was given by ZTE but I have noticed that very often when I have the JBL headphone accessory that came with the ZTE Axon plugged in during a call at one point or another it’s microphone will simply cease working. I will then have to unplug the headset and switch to speakerphone or regular handset mode in order to continue my conversation. This can be annoying, to say the least.

Conclusion

Although ZTE claimed they spent a lot of time researching what users in this market want out of their devices they dropped the ball so many times that I find that hard to believe. Yes, I am a power user and yes, I am aware the ZTE Axon is supposed to be a mid-range device but that does not excuse things like the horribleness of TouchPal and the ridiculous contortions one has to go into in order to use the phone in their left hand. As cellphone and mobile technology has advanced over the years and the population has become more and more versed with technology we have come to expect more from our devices. If this is what ZTE is selling as a mid-range device, I would be scared to see what they consider low end. ZTE, you’re going to have to significantly step up your game on the next outing if you hope to make a dent in the North American market.

The ZTE Axon is available from Fido for $0 with 2-year Tab24 agreement on a Smart plan here

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