All hail the flagship killer! ZTE's Axon 7 may be the best bargain phone of 2016

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ZTE’s Axon 7 packs power and class into one incredible flagship killer.

These days, even budget phones are pretty amazing pieces of hardware, and there are a number of so-called flagship killers on the market. Among the best high-powered phones with low prices we saw in 2015 was the ZTE Axon Pro. ZTE hopes to challenge the likes of the Galaxy S7, iPhone 6S, LG G5, and HTC 10 with a new flagship killer, the Axon 7.

The Axon 7 stays true to the original with its 5.5-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution screen, though this time, it’s an AMOLED panel instead of IPS screen. In other words, the Axon 7 should display deeper blacks and contrast to help colors jump out with more drama. The display curves on the sides to meet the phone’s metal body, which is smooth and rich to the touch.

When you look at the back of the phone, the Axon 7 strongly resembles the HTC One M8 with its smooth metal finish, perfectly centered camera lens, and subtle antenna lines. The design diverges with the addition of a fingerprint scanner, which nestles right below the camera and the flash. The fingerprint sensor will work with mobile payments, and it adds layers of security to the phone.

The Axon brand name is the only other decoration on the back of the device. On the front, the signature triangle cutouts of the original Axon Pro mark the speakers at the top and bottom of the device. The power button and volume rocker are on the same side of the phone and the SIM and MicroSD card slot is on the opposite side.

Related: The ZTE Grand X Max 2 is an 8-core phablet that costs just $200

Overall, the Axon 7 is slimmer, sleeker, and more refined than the original Axon Pro, but it retains those funky elements of style, like the triangles, that made the first version distinctive. In a sea of metal phones, those details matter and help highlight the fact that this is a different phone, especially considering it will cost you under $500. Sadly, it’s not water resistant like the Galaxy S7, but the metal should prove durable in the face of short spills. ZTE also provides a two-year warranty for protection.

Powering the Axon 7 is Qualcomm’s 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 820 processor, which brings a ton of power to the device. It’s the same processor behind every other major flagship Android phone from 2016 so far, including the Galaxy S7 and the HTC 10. And since the Axon 7 is running close to stock Android 6 Marshmallow with virtually no bloatware on top of Google’s operating system, it should be speedy and powerful. ZTE really toned down MiFavor UI, which is indeed a blessing. The phone should also get the update to Android N reasonably quickly, ZTE said.

The chip also brings quick charging to the device via USB Type C. According to ZTE, the phone should get 50 percent of its 3,140mAh battery replenished in 30 minutes, with a full charge taking an hour and 40 minutes. It doesn’t have wireless charging like the Galaxy S7, but that’s a typical tradeoff for metal smartphones.

Related: Google’s Daydream could be the Gear VR’s worst nightmare

The amount of RAM inside the Axon 7 differs depending on how much native storage you want. Specifically, the 64GB configuration comes with 4GB RAM, while the 128GB version comes with a whopping 6GB RAM, which should be more than enough for your multitasking needs. Both configurations also boast a MicroSD card slot, which allows for up to an additional 128GB of storage and doubles as a second Nano SIM card slot. The wide LTE band support ensures that not only will the Axon 7 work with AT&T and T-Mobile, but Sprint and Verizon as well.

Around back, ZTE eschews the dual-camera setup on the Axon Pro for a single 21-megapixel Samsung camera sensor with electronic and optical image stabilization. Its front-facing camera comes in at 8 megapixels. There are a number of cool modes in the camera app, including manual mode for pros. We’ll have to wait for our full review to pass judgement on the Axon’s camera.

ZTE also packed in a dedicated audio chipset, which allows for Hi-Fi audio playback and enhancements. The two microphones can also record audio from up to 23 feet away, which is good for when you’re on speakerphone or just trying to record a conversation. It’s also got two stereo speakers on the front of the device, which blast out pretty powerful audio from the distinctive triangular cutouts of the speaker grills. In a demo, ZTE showed us how the phone uses Dolby Atmos technology to give directionality to sound.

Most smartphones fall short in audio performance, but the Axon 7 is the exception to the rule. Even the HTC 10, which boasts BoomSound no longer has front-facing speakers, resulting in a flatter audio experience. Of course, it’ll take a true audiophile to appreciate what ZTE’s done with Hi-Fi audio in the Axon 7, but we were impressed during our brief hands on with the device.

Just like the Axon Pro before it, the Axon 7 will be sold online through ZTE’s website. It’s unknown if it will hit carriers in the future, but it will work with any many U.S. carrier. The Axon 7 is part of the Axon Passport 2.0 program, which gives the phone a two-year warranty, free two-way shipping, and two-year accidental damage. Finally, Passport 2.0 will give customers $100 in credit toward a replacement Axon handset that was lost or stolen.

ZTE told us the device will cost under $500 — that would truly make the Axon 7 the first flagship killer of 2016. It has all the high-end specs and the premium build quality that you’d expect from a flagship phone, plus the extra features you rarely see on flagship killers.

Related: LG G5’s Hi-Fi Plus audio module is like an ammo clip for astounding audio

Since high-end phones like the iPhone 6S, LG G5, Galaxy S7, and HTC 10 regularly start at $600+ for the 16GB and 32GB models, the Axon 7 represents a pretty great deal. Although we have to full review the Axon 7 before passing judgement, it’s looking to be a disrupter in the unlocked phone market.

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