ZTE Launches a Dual-Display Flagship: How Will it Perform?

After recent launches of bezel-less, AI-capable phones, ZTE is turning our attention to dual displays. ZTE unveiled its first foldable, dual-display smartphone – the Axon M – in New York on 10/17/17.

In a carrier dominated market like the US, ZTE has been able to achieve something few other Chinese players have – a solid market position. In 2Q alone ZTE sold close to 4.1M smartphones and contributed to 11.5% of the US smartphone shipments. But like compatriot, Alcatel, ZTE’s volume primarily comes from prepaid channels.

Though ZTE was expected to up its game in the mid-priced smartphone segment in the US, the Axon M is a straight swing at the premium segment, and this time with carrier backing. While the smartphone market is saturated with devices that have similar form factors and features, ZTE’s Axon M couldn’t have better timing to enter the premium price segment.

A smart-flip phone with dual displays that supports multiple screen modes.

As opposed to the idea of a foldable/flexible display, the Axon M is an advanced flip phone. The phone design has two individual Full-HD 5.2” LCD 2.5D displays. A hinge connecting the two displays allows the phone to flip, lay flat or stand half folded in tent-style. The two displays when side-by-side measure 6.75” and allows three different viewing modes with very specific use cases for both business and consumer applications. Toggling between the various screen modes is straightforward using a soft “M” button next to the conventional Android navigation buttons:

  • Extended mode – Essentially a full screen mode that gives a user both displays combining for a 6.75-inch HD display ideal for general browsing, streaming videos, and gaming etc.
  • Dual mode – Enables viewing two different applications on each display. Everyday use case such as viewing email and calendar at the same time or watching a game and reading score stats on the other screen are a few of the classic use cases.
  • Mirror mode – Mirrors the app of both displays. Perfect for any 2-player games like chess, or can be used by two people sitting across from each other to view the same presentation / document.

Apart from the three modes the second display can be folded back allowing the Axon M to be used like a conventional smartphone.

 

The Axon M sports a single 20MP, F/1.8 aperture camera which doubles as both the front and rear camera. The device packs high performance dual speakers and sound can be toggled between screens when in dual mode.  The device itself doesn’t feel as bulky as the thickness and weight numbers suggest and is the right size when unfolded.

Dual screens a bold move and mighty R&D feat

Clearly the USP of the Axon M is in the additional display and multitasking that it offers. Software to bring the dual displays seamlessly together with a vast number of apps is no small R&D feat.  With that said, compromises have been made in terms of the specs in an attempt to keep the second display.

The device is powered by a 3180mAH battery and 2.1GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor. The Snapdragon 821 processor was a flagship-level processor in 2016 and is now commonly found in phones priced in the $350-$450 range. Taking a more stable, aged engine probably reduced some of the risks of the ample software testing which was needed for a dual screen device.  In addition, it was probably also a financial decision to keep costs under control–again, because of the two costly HD displays.  Finally, ZTE had to do a lot of work to sufficiently power and cool two displays while targeting a full day’s use.  We only had a quick viewing and few minutes with the device.  It is still TBD how well the company did to balance performance vs. power consumption.

As CEO Lixin Cheng rightly put it during his presentation, recently launched smartphones do not have stark differences in design/form factor. ZTE’s Axon M does stand out in the crowd. It also nicely fits into AT&T’s mobile strategy of bundling DirecTV service with mobile wireless service.  With TV consumption in mind, it is not surprising that AT&T made the Axon M an AT&T exclusive device.

At the $700 price point, the Axon M will need some eye-catching marketing or reach through some of the branding gains it has made with its NBA and MLS ties.  Competing in this price tier means it will likely be pulling a subscriber off of another flagship—no easy feat.

How relevant is the innovation at this point?

The Axon M would likely work well in certain Asian markets where consumers spend a lot of time watching video and playing games during lengthy public transport commutes. In the US, these use cases are less prevalent. Nevertheless, as an AT&T exclusive, the Axon M can be viewed as consistent with the carrier’s entertainment content offering.

Dual displays could potentially be the new “Phablet” that offers innovation in form factor and design of next generation smartphones. The Axon M is a step in that direction. However, we expect truly foldable displays to come to market within the next 12 to 18 months, superseding ZTE’s folder approach.

What ZTE does have though, is a history of strategic partnerships with telecom operators that will likely help it hang on to market share in carrier-driven markets. The Axon M will not challenge the high volume flagships within AT&T.  However, it is a necessary and beneficial move for ZTE.  Breaking through and winning its first ranged smartphone in the upper price tiers may pave the way for the Axon series phone within other carrier channels if the device is a solid performer.