I really wanted to like the ZTE Axon M the first time I tried it. With the trend of smartphone screens getting bigger and longer, surely a phone sporting two screens instead of one would be even better right?

Not only can you flip open the phone and multitask across the Axon M’s dual 5.2-inch displays, but with just a couple taps, you can combine the two screens into a giant 10.4-inch display. You can even close the displays halfway and turn the thing into a tent and use it as a mini presentation device, perfect for showing off all your crummy photos to friends and family. On top of that, the nature of the Axon M’s folding screen forced ZTE to work with Google to figure out how to make apps work across multiple screen sizes and ratios, which paves the way for the inevitable wave of phones with full on bendy screens. I applaud ZTE’s ambition for actually trying to sell this thing, but after a week of using it every day I’m sure that the $725 Axon M is a device that should have never left the concept lab.

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Out of the box, the first thing you notice about the Axon M is just how hefty this thing is. It measures just under half an inch thick and weighs more than half a pound—we’re talking serious brick-like stats here. But that isn’t the phone’s only ergonomic issue, as its entire right side is dominated by a big, bulky hinge. All of its physical controls, including the volume rocker and power button/fingerprint sensor, are on the other side. That might be nice for lefties, but it’s bad for everyone else.

Furthermore, the Axon M’s fingerprint sensor is pretty hit or miss, often forcing me to enter my PIN instead. The most annoying thing is that when the fingerprint reader doesn’t work, you need to press and hold down on the lock screen to access the PIN entry. What the hell was wrong with swipe to unlock? This is just being different for no good reason, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn it off.

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The best thing about the Axon M’s design is ZTE’s quick launch button, located on the lower left side of the phone, which by default is set to open video apps like YouTube or DirectTV, but can be easily reprogrammed to summon any app on your phone. It’s nice nod to customizability that even big names like Samsung and Google could learn from.

But all of these things are just distractions that take away from the Axon M’s highlight feature: Its dual 5.2-inch full HD screens. Even after a hundred times, it’s still kind of exciting to flip the phone open and see your screen real estate instantly double. And the panels themselves aren’t half bad either, featuring decent contrast and peak brightness north of 400 nits. And if you don’t want to use them as one giant 10.4-inch screen, you can always hit the M button down by the standard Android navs button to select mirrored, multi-tasking, or tent mode too.

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Changing screen modes is as simple as hitting one of the four icons from the M icon at the bottom of the screen.

That said, there are also plenty of limitations to the Axon M’s dual screens. Mirror mode (which copies whatever is on the main display onto the second screen) is the only special mode that works when Axon M isn’t fully open. Also, when you’re multi-tasking, you can’t do stuff like play two games at the same time, because only one screen can be active. Anything happening on the other side gets paused. But the most disappointing thing is that when you combine the phone’s two 16:9 displays, you end up with a square. That means anytime you’re watching a video, there are gigantic letter boxes on the top and bottom. It’s a huge waste of space, and despite what you may think, the bezel that runs down the middle never gets easier to ignore.

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The rest of the components on the Axon M don’t earn much praise either. On our battery rundown test, it lasted 7 hours and 34 minutes, which is the shortest time we’ve seen this year, and even worse than the LG G6’s mark of 7:58. And that was in the Axon M’s traditional single screen mode. With both displays running, you’re looking at about half that.

All that wasted space makes me sad.

As for photos, since there’s a screen on either side of the phone, ZTE only put a single 20-MP camera on the Axon M. So instead of switching between front and rear camera, you just flip the phone depending on which direction you want to shoot. Unfortunately, that ends up being a lot more confusing than it sounds, especially when the screens don’t automatically switch based on your grip.

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This is pretty embarrassing, especially since the Axon M costs almost $100 more than a Galaxy S8.

But the real embarrassment comes from the Axon M’s low-light photos. The 20-MP camera simply doesn’t catch enough light, and even with night mode turned on, pics are significantly darker than what you get from similarly priced phones. Just check out that nighttime cityscape for a clear example.

Look, I appreciate that ZTE really went for it, especially in a year when the hottest trend has been making screens a tiny bit wider and bezels a tiny bit smaller. But for $725 (or even $525 after Best Buy’s recent $200 off deal), the Axon M isn’t something any sane person should buy.

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README

  • When using both screens as a giant display, some apps use the tablet version which is nice. But the bezel that runs down the middle is hard to ignore.
  • This thing is half an inch thick and weighs more than half a pound.
  • Even when using just one screen, the Axon M’s battery life is underwhelming.
  • The Axon M’s low-light photography is embarrassing for the price.
  • AT&T exclusive.

SPEC DUMP

Android 7.1.1 • Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 • 4GB of RAM • 64GB of storage • microSD card slot • dual 5.2-inch full HD LCD displays • 20-MP camera • 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi • Bluetooth 4.2 • 3.5mm audio jack • USB-C port • 3,180 mAh battery • 5.94 x 2.82 x 0.48 inches • 8.11 ounces

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