2017's most innovative smartphone... ZTE's dual-screen Axon M?

The Chinese manufacturer tries to one-up Apple and Samsung with four different screen modes to drive stronger productivity.

Video: Everything you need to know about Axon M, ZTE's foldable phone

Thinner bezels.

That's been the most innovative smartphone feature of 2017--in the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note8, the Google Pixel 2 XL, the LG V30, and the iPhone X--in another year of mobile incrementalism.

Chinese manufacturer ZTE is arguably taking the biggest shot at something new with the dual screen Axon M, unveiled Tuesday morning in New York. The Android device sports a pair of 5.2-inch 1920x1080 LCD screens that also combine for a 6.75-inch (2160-pixel) wide viewing area when both screens are active side-by-side.

Image: ZTE

ZTE's bet is that the two screens can drive stronger multitasking than any other smartphone to date. Being more productive is where ZTE thinks the Axon M can gain a foothold. The device can fold over into a form factor similar to the leading smartphones from Apple and Samsung--albeit much thicker--while folding out into the size of a small tablet.

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The phone has four different modes:

  1. Dual Mode: Use the two screens independently to do separate tasks.
  2. Extended Mode: Use both screens together as one giant display.
  3. Mirror Mode: Fold the phone like a tent and have the screens mirror each other (to show something or to have two people watch the same video, for example).
  4. Traditional Mode: Use one screen and fold over the other so that you can use the phone with one hand.

In an interview with TechRepublic, ZTE CEO Lixin Cheng cited several scenarios where the Axon M can improve productivity for professionals:

  • Open a calendar in Extended Mode and put the calendar view for the month on the left side and the right side can be your day view where you can tap in to get the details on any meeting.
  • In Dual Mode, if you get an email from someone who wants to schedule a meeting, then you can have the email open on one side and the calendar open on the other to create the meeting.
  • You can also turn the phone in horizontal view and, if you have an email with an attachment, then you could have the email open on the top and the attachment open on the bottom.
  • Similarly, in horizontal view (in Dual Mode) you could have a video conference open on the top and a PowerPoint open on the bottom.

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Other specs for the Axon M include:

Dimensions: 150.8mm (H) x 71.6mm (W) x 12.1mm (D)
Weight: 230g
Processor: 2.15 GHz Quad-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (MSM8996 Pro)
OS: Android 7.1.2 (Nougat)
Camera: 20MP, F1.8, 4K video at 30fps
Battery: 3180 mAh, Quick-charge 3.0 (2 hours to full charge, 30 minutes to 47%)
Storage: 64GB (can add another 256GB in MicroSD slot)
Headphone jack: 3.5mm
Connectivity: USB-C, Bluetooth 4.2, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac 2.4 GHz/ 5 GHz

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ZTE isn't the first to try the dual screen concept. Most notably, the Kyocera Echo gave it a go in 2011.

"In six years, the mobile industry has changed a lot in terms of hardware, software, and consumer behaviors," Cheng said. "We're coming to a new world of multitasking. People are already switching between apps so often. Professionals need productivity."

In order to make the dual screen UI work, ZTE has had to adapt Android and work closely with app makers. But because it's so new and it's non-standard, we should expect issues with some apps, widgets, and Android customizations.

"This is a new form factor, a new platform," Cheng said, "so there were a lot of challenges on the software side... We did a lot of work in order to optimize the user experiences on these two screens."

ZTE identified the top 100 Android apps in the US and has been working with the software makers to optimize them for the dual screen format.

With its focus on two screens, the design of the Axon M also gives up a few things:

  • It doesn't run the latest version of Android (Oreo).
  • It only has one camera.
  • It doesn't have the newest version of Bluetooth (5.0).
  • It's much thicker and heavier than the latest Samsung and Apple devices.
  • Its screen (426 ppi) isn't the same quality as the iPhone X (OLED, 458 ppi) or Note 8 (Quad HD+ Super AMOLED, 521 ppi).

Also note that the iPhone 8's six-core A11 processor has been scoring high laptop-level performance in benchmarks and blowing away the competition. It will be important to watch the kind of performance that the Axon M gets--as well as battery life--since it has to power two screens and its primary selling point is productivity. But it's using a Qualcomm processor from last year to run it.

"This is powerful enough ... to provide the user experience," said Cheng. "I use it. I'm addicted to it. I will never be able to go back to my traditional smartphone."

One other thing that could hold it back in the US is that it's an AT&T exclusive at launch. The company says that AT&T customers will be able to buy it "in the next month." ZTE said it also plans to bring the phone to China, Japan, and Europe (Cheng mentioned working with NTT Docomo and China Telecom). Pricing hasn't been revealed yet, but it's clearly not going to be a low-budget device.

Nevertheless, you have to tip your hat to ZTE for experimenting with a new direction that might squeeze more productivity out of the smartphone. If it works well enough, other smartphone makers will follow.

"ZTE is committed to this category," said Cheng. "We created this category. We're going to lead the way. We're going to evolve both the hardware and the software."

TechRepublic will test the device and put it through its paces to see how well it performs, so check back for further coverage.

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