Hands On With ZTE's Newest Unlocked Phone, the Blade V8 Pro

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LAS VEGAS—Here in Las Vegas, ZTE is doubling down on unlocked phones. At this year's CES, the company showed Google's Daydream View VR platform running on its Axon 7 phone and introduced the Blade V8 Pro, its first low-cost unlocked device for the US.

"Unlocked" is key here. ZTE's position as the perpetual fourth or fifth largest phone seller in the US comes because it provides a steady stream of lower-priced, relatively high-quality phones to the likes of AT&T, Cricket, and MetroPCS.

"The unlocked market has been growing," ZTE VP Jeff Yee said. "It's inching up a couple of percentage points a year, and if we continue to do this right, within a couple of years we might be within a quarter of the phones sold."

The Blade V8 Pro will cost $229.98 when it goes on sale today, and it's compatible with the AT&T and T-Mobile networks. It's a big, solidly built phone with dual 13MP rear cameras, a very large 3140mAh battery, and a 5.5-inch 1080p screen. There's a fingerprint scanner on the back, and it runs a workhorse Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. The main down side is that it's going to launch with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which really, nobody should be doing in 2017.

The Blade goes up against the new Huawei Honor 6X, Moto's G4 line, and a bunch of Asus and Blu phones in the unlocked sub-$300 market. The Honor has a bigger battery and more RAM, but the Blade's dual main cameras look to be better than the Honor's. The two cameras are of equal resolution, unlike the Honor's, with one color and one black-and-white. That speeds up autofocus, especially in low light, and lets the phone create some attractive effects (options shown in the image below.) I shot in very low light in both the regular and monochrome modes; monochrome wasn't sharper, but it definitely shot faster.

The competition is going to be a tough call and it'll take some testing to figure out which one is better.

The Android 7.0 Nougat and Daydream updates for the Axon 7 will arrive "in a manner of weeks," Yee said. That'll make the $399.99 Axon 7 the most affordable Daydream-ready phone out there, as the other devices that work with Google's VR system cost over $600.

The Axon 7 also has two things that other Daydream phones don't have: dual front-facing speakers. I slapped the phone into Google's Daydream View headset and put it on my face to watch Muse's 360-degree "Revolt" music video. The front-facing speakers made a difference! Having sound coming straight at my face, as opposed to needing to fumble with earbuds or listen to a single rear-facing speaker, felt more immersive than Daydream View did on a Google Pixel. Yeah, sure, it wasn't as immersive as LG's wild neck-mounted speaker system, but it was a step forward for Google's affordable VR.

Nougat will arrive as an over-the-air update for Axon 7 users, Yee said. There's a little bit of bad news, though. Yee said that official Verizon and Sprint support for the Axon 7, which has compatible CDMA radios on board but could never quite get certified, isn't going to happen. While there's a community of people making the Axon 7 work on Verizon, "at this point we have to move on to the next generation," he said.

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