Flagship head to head: Lumia 950 XL vs ZTE Axon 7

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The ZTE Axon 7 is one of the late 2016 flagships that I'd never even held until now. Reputed to be exceptional bang-per-buck and with terrific multimedia, I thought the very similarly specced (and also great value) Lumia 950 XL would make for an interesting head to head comparison.

Axon 7 and Lumia 950 XL

ZTE Axon 7 and Lumia 950 XL...

As usual, I've shaded in green an obvious 'win' for either device, I honestly have no idea which way this one's going to go (as I start to compile the feature)... Any row where a winner would be totally subjective is left uncoloured. Or, where both devices are utterly excellent but in different ways, I've given both a 'green'(!)

[By the way, if you're viewing this feature on a smaller-screened phone then the table may well cause you problems. Try viewing in landscape mode? Failing that, go view this on a laptop or tablet!]

  ZTE Axon 7 Microsoft Lumia 950 XL
Date first available September 2016 November 2015 (can you believe that the 950 XL is now nearly 18 months old??)
Current price, availability £345 (SIM-free in the UK, inc VAT - from Amazon - from importers, note that this may arrive with some Chinese bloat and with Google services needing to be officially installed from the ZTE Market. May require some patience! £315, SIM-free, from Amazon UK, all 950 XL models still qualify for the free Continuum Dock, in theory, though availability is completely up in the air, depending on where you are in the world, I suspect. Your mileage will definitely vary!
Dimensions, form factor, weight

152 x 75 x 8mm, aluminium unibody and frame, 175g.


152 x 78 x 8mm, plastic chassis and replaceable backs (plastic/leather/wood etc, from Mozo, as modelled here!), 165g

Durability No specific durability metrics, plus the screen's exposed. Definitely needs to be used in an add-on TPU case!
No specific durability metrics, though the fact that the back comes off will help enormously for water damage, i.e. taking out battery and cards immediately, drying out the internals. Damage to the back or corners is trivial through replacement, but the screen's exposed, of course.
Operating system, interface Android 7.1, capacitive (and configurable) controls
Windows 10 Mobile, (dismissable) virtual controls
Display  5.5" AMOLED QHD (1440p), Gorilla Glass 4, superb display contrast even outdoors, one of the best AMOLED screens I've seen, right up with the Lumia's (surprisingly) - 'assertive' pop-ups for notifications, though no always-on function. Still, got to have a joint winner in this row - they're both quite excellent! 5.7" AMOLED QHD (1440p), Gorilla Glass 4, ClearBlack Display polarisers help with outdoor contrast, Glance screen available (in various colours) for always-on time, day and notification icons
Connectivity LTE up to 300Mbps, plus dual nano SIM (if microSD unused), NFC, Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac, integral wifi tethering, Bluetooth 4.2 LTE up to 300Mbps (all bands), NFC, Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac, integral wifi tethering, Bluetooth 4.2, Continuum connectivity to use external displays as secondary screen, independent of the phone display, this gets it the win here by a whisker!
Processor, performance Snapdragon 820 chipset, 4GB RAM, very fast indeed Snapdragon 810 chipset, 3GB RAM, faster than it's ever been under Redstone 2 builds, though still slower for almost everything than Android 7.1 on the ZTE. Multi tasking and app resumption is excellent though, at least with all the modern UWP apps
Capacity 64GB internal storage, expandable via microSD 32GB internal storage, expandable via microSD
Imaging (stills)

20MP f/1.8, dual LED flash, 1/2.6" sensor, Phase Detection auto-focus, OIS. Excellent results, though outgunned by the optics and general quality from the Lumia. And yes, a camera comparison feature is coming soon!

8MP front camera

20MP PureView f/1.9 1/2.4" BSI sensor, Phase Detection auto-focus, dedicated camera shutter button and launch key, genuine 2x lossless digital zoom (in 8MP oversampled mode), OIS. 'Rich Capture' produces customisable HDR shots and 'dynamic flash', with triple LED illumination. Outstanding shots in most light conditions, with just focussing issues in low light as an Achilles heel.

5MP front camera


Imaging (video) 4K, optically (and optionally digitally) stabilised, plus stereo audio recording that just about copes for live music, but can't match the HAAC microphones on the Lumia. 4K, optically (and optionally digitally) stabilised, with 'Best photo' 8MP grabbing built-in, plus Rich Recording and HAAC microphones for high quality stereo capture.
Music and Multimedia Very good front-facing stereo speakers with Dolby ATMOS enhancements implemented in hardware. 3.5mm headphone jack, A2DP, high-end DAC for headphone output to even high impedance accessories. Decent mono speaker, loud but lacking in bass and depth, though you can trade volume for fidelity in a simple tweak. 3.5mm headphone jack, A2DP+APT-X, so great headphone audio too, but it can't make up for the much weedier speaker overall.
Navigation  Google Maps is now the gold standard in phone navigation, tied in with many other Google services and offering true real time navigation around traffic issues.

Windows 10 Maps is now pretty mature and impressive, though at least one rung down from Google Maps in terms of live traffic awareness and re-routing.

Cortana/Voice Most Android phones have Google Now or Google Assistant built-in, but the ZTE device here is only optimised for Chinese voice and only available in that language! I tried installing Google Now (etc.) to no avail. Reluctantly, this device is a no go for voice, for Europe, at least. Cortana is now mature and well integrated, and with a surprising degree of 'assistance'.
Battery, life  Sealed 3250mAh battery, one day is just about possible, plus USB Type C fast charging (up to 2A) and compatibility with Qualcomm's Quickcharge 3.0. Removable 3300mAh battery, easily gets through a day (on latest firmware), plus USB Type C (up to 3A) and Qi wireless charging built-in.
Cloud aids Google Photos, once installed, does a great job of organising photos and syncing them across all signed-in phones and tablets. Plus backup space is free forever, with only a few caveats... Ditto for general set-up backup, though it's not 100% convincing here due to the ZTE Chinese ROM. Windows Photos syncs across all signed-in devices, subject to your OneDrive tariff (stingy, unless you have Office 365), should you have thousands of images in the system. Plus Windows 10 backs all your media, application data and settings to a separate backup folder system, tariff-free on OneDrive.
Biometrics  The fingerprint sensor is effectively instant and works well - the scanner is nicely sculpted into the back of the phone Iris recognition ('Windows Hello') works well unless you wear varifocals(!), but takes a few seconds in real world use.
Applications and ecosystem  The might of Google and Android's app ecosystem - everything is available and almost always in first party form. Windows 10 Mobile now has just about every mainstream app covered. Often third party clients are involved, mind you, there are companies who hate Microsoft so much that they simply refuse to write for Windows, it seems.
Upgrades and future Ah. Err... Well, updates will follow to this ZTE Chinese ROM, though it's clear that there's no official European OS variant yet. A slightly uncertain future, plus there's the usual worry over what exactly is in the ROM. For example, I found the 'Zooking LockScreen' module in the firmware that was identified by a reliable malware scanner as potentially malicious. Hmm..... A little worrying! Windows 10 Mobile will be updated through 2017, of course, as part of the global Windows 10 ecosystem. Production devices can expect updates every month, Insiders every few weeks. The 950 XL is part of the Insider program if needed, the next major update is in April 2017 and is dubbed the 'Creators Update'. Not that it affects the phone too much, other than fixing bugs under the hood and improving general performance.

Axon 7 and 950 XL


Adding up the green 'wins' gives a score draw of 8 each. Which is fair, since both devices share not only a lot of their specifications but also a distinct lack of ready availability. The ZTE because it's only officially sold in a couple of markets in the world, the Lumia because Microsoft has stopped making them, so you've got to go chasing around retail channels to find stock. Ah well.

The ZTE is clearly the faster and more capable device in many ways, but it lacks some of the character of the Nokia-designed 950 XL, especially with that Mozo back on. Plus ZTE's support of users in non-approved markets is going to be way worse than Microsoft's of W10M users, even when the OS is on the back foot.

Comments welcome - have I been fair overall?