Initially scheduled to be announced earlier this year, the Axon 9 Pro was finally launched at IFA 2018. It is ZTE’s most powerful handset and with a price estimated at ~$750 it will compete against the best smartphones everyone else has to offer. This time, ZTE has a focus on the multimedia experience with a dedicated custom video processor, and a loudspeaker designed for high-performance.

Successor to the Axon 7, the new Axon 9 Pro was announced on 2018-08-30. Using cost as main criteria, we lined-up a group of smartphones which we will use to assess how the ZTE Axon 9 Pro fits in its immediate smartphone landscape. Sony Xperia XZ3 (~900 USD), Sony Xperia XZ2 (~710 USD), Samsung Galaxy S9+ (~819 USD), Honor Honor Play (~380 USD).

Key technical specifications

  • 6.21” AMOLED Display (2248×1080)
  • 12 MP Camera, f/1.75 aperture
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 platform 6 RAM, 128, 256 GB of Storage + MicroSDXC (400 GB max)
  • 4000 mAh battery capacity
  • Android 8.1

Industrial Design

The Axon 9 Pro uses a glass sandwich design, which means that it looks very neat, and even has glass curving to the edges, like the Galaxy S Series. This design technique is great, but many premium and high-end phones now use it, so wee can’t say that it is very distinctive, but it does allow ZTE to compete because it is pleasant enough.

The fingerprint sensor is well integrated with a nice-looking diamond-cut metal rim. The camera module protrudes a little, but we don’t think that it’s a problem. Flush camera modules were a thing a couple of years ago, but although Samsung and LG go through the trouble of preventing protrusion, Apple and Huawei get away with not doing it, without paying an obvious price.

Sorry for the dust around these areas, but the demo phone has traveled around and some of it wasn’t very visible to the naked eye. We should have been more careful though. Check the photo gallery for a closer look:

This smartphone feels comfortable in the hand because it has a width of 74.5mm and a thickness of approximately 0.31 inches. For reference this is based on a medium size hand (US M gloves).

Bizarrely, the weight information was not available in the official specs, but this design should feature excellent performance in relation to its size and weight. From another viewpoint, how much battery capacity the buyer gets is very impressive for a device of this size. As only the Huawei P20 Pro has 3% more battery per volume.

The Axon 9 Pro’s screen display-to-body ratio of 83.3% is also excellent overall as it is vastly superior to the Axon 7 (73.3%) and Huawei P20 Pro (82%). The Galaxy S9+ barely keeps the lead with 83.6%.

Durability

The glass material is much smoother and shinier compared to metal designs. It puts out a premium feel, both visually and when holding it. Money aside, the price to pay for such design is the risk of breakage that can occur if the device lands on a hard surface, especially since the Axon 9 Pro’s glass slightly curves onto the edges. Regardless, people still prefer glass because it is so nice. Handsets can simply be protected by a case, but it’s a pity to then hide their beauty.

Analyzing how the smartphone was built, we estimate that the odds of cracking during a drop on a hard surface to be high. You can refer to our detailed article about how phones could be constructed to avoid cracks upon drops: How the LG V20 Was Designed To Survive Drops

The Axon 9 Pro smartphone has an IP68 IP rating, which means that it is protected to some degree from dust and/or water. Here’s what the IP68 rating means: Dust tight, no dust can penetrate. Up to 3-meter immersion waterproofing. In some cases, waterproofing means that “some” water can penetrate, but without harming the device. The Axon 9 Pro has not received a U.S Military MIL-STD 810G certification, but it is pretty rare, and LG is the most prominent OEM to do it.

Display and Camera

During our short time with the device, the display looked very nice so there’s no worry about that, but we’ll have to wait until we can take more measures to confirm were it stands. With an sRGB color-coverage of 100%, and true black colors, we’re certain that it will beat near all LCD display at that price range. Note that this OLED panel is supplied by Samsung. OLED Displays are more and more prominent in the high-end market.

The theoretical brightness of ~430 NITs is far from being the highest in this price range, with the S9+, the Pixel 2 XL and the Huawei P20 Pro all between 610 and 775 NITs, as confirmed after a going through our test suite. ZTE mentioned that this handset is in the process for HDR10 certification, and hopefully, they’ll confirm that it got it shortly.

"THE CUSTOM VIDEO CHIP CAN DOUBLE VIDEO FRAMERATE, MAKING MOVIES BUTTER-SMOOTH"

The novelty with the display is the 30 FPS up-scaling chip that ZTE is using. It is a processor that intercepts the display signal and can run image enhancing algorithms, or can double the frame-rate of videos.

This is a technology similar the one found on televisions where any video can up pushed from 24-30FPS to 60FPS. Televisions can go well beyond 120Hz, but this is a novelty for a phone, and the first time that it is implemented on a commercial handset. The results are noticeable: videos can appear much smoother, especially during camera panning. This sort of things happens all the time if you watch sports.

Display technical analysis

The Axon 9 Pro is built with an AMOLED display. OLED is a completely different display technology (than LCD) that has been widely available to handsets mainly thanks to Samsung. The fundamental difference between OLED and LCD displays is how light is emitted. With LCD, there is a small number of white light emitters (1-2 for handsets, 2-100 for TVs) and black pixels are possible by “blocking” the white light with a filter. Unfortunately, using a filter leads to “light bleeding” and “black color” that is really dark-gray.

With OLED, every pixel emits its own light. This also means that creating a black pixel just means leaving it OFF. As a result, black color is really black and other colors are more straightforward to control without using complex filters and color control technologies such as Quantum Dots and Nano Dots.

You can read our complete LCD vs. OLED article which goes deeper into the details.

The resolution of 2248×1080 would be high in absolute terms but in the high-end segment, there are screens with significantly more pixels and higher sharpness. For example, the ZTE Axon 9 Pro has a sharpness of 402 PPI, but the Galaxy S9+ reaches 531 PPI.

ZTE Axon 9 Pro Camera

In the Axon 9 Pro, the camera aperture of f/1.75 is good and the sensor size of ~23 mm2 would be considered large (for a smartphone), but there are sensors with nearly twice the surface area (P20 Pro). On paper, the camera seems promising, and we’re looking forward to putting it to the test.

"ON PAPER, THE CAMERA SEEMS PROMISING, BUT NOT WORLD-CLASS"

Megapixel could be a good proxy for photographic detail and sharpness. For example, on a sunny day, a cityscape photo with a higher megapixel count could lead to finer details. Between 12 MP, 16 MP and 21 MP differences in small details can be quite noticeable, if printed or viewed on a large and/or high-PPI display, but even then it’s not always the case.

In low-light situations, the high Megapixel count (>12) does not matter much, especially if the sensor size is not that impressive, because cramming more pixels onto a given surface area, equates to smaller pixels. Smaller pixels will struggle more to gather dim light. It is better for the overall photo quality to gather more light with fewer (but bigger) sensels than the opposite.

The availability of an Optical Image stabilization (OIS) module on the primary camera augments the odds of capturing sharp images in daylight, and brighter images at night. OIS helps to improve image clarity and higher low-light performance by offsetting tiny hand-shaking motion. OIS makes it practical to leave the shutter open longer to capture more light (longer exposure). Optical and digital stabilization are completely different, with digital stabilization suitable to improve video recording smoothness.

EIS (Electronic Image Stabilization) is not available on this handset. Because of this, the video recordings may be shakier than competitors that have this feature.

The auto-focus of the Axon 9 Pro camera is based on Dual-Pixel Phase Detection Auto Focus (DP-PDAF) technology. Phase-Detection AF that was originally built into discrete AF sensor chips in the DSLR days. Then it got integrated into the camera primary sensor. It works by adding specialized AF pixels sensors that would tell if specific points in the image were in-focus. Dual-Pixel AF is a new version of that technology that pushes the performance to the extreme.

System performance and Battery

This handset main processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (8 Cores, 2.8 GHz) which has access to 6 GB of memory (RAM). This is the same processor used by the vast majority of high-end Android handsets, and it is considered to be today’s best hardware platform for Android. We have covered snapdragon many times, and we know that all handsets using it perform well.

The amount of RAM is paramount for heavy users, or for having many apps/services on the device. When the memory is tight, the phone may become less responsive if the OS has to read/write from the slower Flash storage instead. This has been one of the differentiation between low and high tiers of phones, but this line is blurry now.

"SNAPDRAGON 845 IS CONSIDERED TO BE TODAY S BEST HARDWARE PLATFORM FOR ANDROID"

When this handset goes through the Ubergizmo Labs for tests, we will see if there are small differences when compared to other 845-powered handsets. In the meantime, read our Are Benchmarks Important? article.

Snapdragon 845 CPU, Multi-task benchmark

Snapdragon 845, 3D gaming benchmark

Wireless Broadband Performance

The Axon 9 Pro has a CAT 15 (750 Mbps ⇣ / 226 Mbps ⇡) LTE modem. This level of performance is very good (but not excellent) in its category and in general. Why is it not excellent? Most Snapdragon 845 handset takes advantage of the Maximum CAT 18 LTE specification which tops 1.2 Gbps in theory. We’re not sure why ZTE doesn’t, but it would have been nice.

Wireless networks (3G/4G) performance is often thought as peak download/upload speeds, but it is the average speed that counts. These days 4G/LTE is the primary network of interest, but 5G is coming. The higher the theoretical LTE performance and the better the average true experience. Additionally, wireless providers have better and more efficient LTE networks to optimize their own costs.

Battery

The battery capacity of Axon 9 Pro is 4000 mAh, which is impressive in general, and excellent in its own category.

Battery life is one of the most sought-after features of a handset. A key indicator is obviously its battery capacity — especially within the same ecosystem (Android, iOS or other). Battery life can be affected by a bunch of factors, but the main ones are the central processor aka SoC, display and wireless radios (LTE broadband, WiFi, the cell towers location and more). It is not possible to accurately pinpoint through synthetic tests how much energy drain YOUR unique usage pattern will create.

However, two things are without a doubt always good:

  • A larger battery capacity
  • Rapid charging

It is generally not possible to predict real-world battery life by running synthetic benchmarks. Things such as display brightness, (LTE/WiFi) radio usage and distance to access points will vary too much. Also, the number of apps on-board and their usage is unpredictable. Battery capacity is the best battery-life indicator for YOUR usage.

With an estimated speed of 55 mAh/mn, the Axon 9 Pro charge speed is very fast in absolute terms and is equaled by few. Just to give you some perspective, the fastest-charging phones out there can top ~65+ mAh/mn, which is truly extraordinary.

Wireless charging can be very convenient, and the Axon 9 Pro comes with an integrated wireless charging option. This energy charging method is best for users who spend most of their time at a fixed location. It is also great for overnight charging, and it is even possible to have a wireless charger in your car. It is possible to add wireless charging via add-on cases if it does not come integrated into your handset, but it is not the favorite option for most people.

This product does not have a detachable battery, which is the norm for handsets these days. Closed batteries cannot be taken out or easily exchanged, but they do allow for more compact designs and slightly bigger battery size within the same product design.

Since this product has a huge screen, keep in mind that larger screens tend to utilize more power due to the more significant surface area to illuminate. It depends on the brightness levels screens are being set up at, but the potential for higher energy exists, so larger battery capacity is preferable.

This handset has a relatively standard screen resolution (FHD+). Although this may be a weakness from an image quality point of view, having fewer pixels to compute is a bit better for battery life.

Conclusion

The ZTE Axon 9 Pro was one of the most exciting handsets launched at IFA, it is designed to compete at the highest level, and as such, it finds itself in a ferociously competitive market. The clean design and the 60FPS video upscaling feature might appeal to a crowd that is big on watching action-video content.

We’re not sure how much sway such features will have, but ZTE has probably done its market research homework. It is challenging to be best at everything, and it’s probably a good idea to create a wedge in the market and push from there. Just like Huawei, the ZTE handset quality is climbed rapidly over the past few years, and we expect this trend to continue.

We hope to get to testing the camera at some point, and of course, we will run some benchmarks, but we already know how fast this hardware should be. What do you think?

Filed in Cellphones >Reviews. Read more about Android, Best, Editorspick, IFA, IFA 2018, ZTE.

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