Mid-rangers are an interesting beast in this smartphone market. Publicized unlocked phones have become a more common occurrence. ZTE wanted to be the uncommon occurence.

The Chinese manufacturer made a point in renaming its US brand — one tarnished by security doubts and locked-in by a legion of low-end devices (some 66 being actively sold in the US market, ZTE claims) — and kicking things off in high-end fashion with the launch of the Axon smartphone. Axon’s competitors, which include Huawei and Xiaomi, took phones from their home-market production, watered them down to “Lite” or “i” versions and then shipped them to the US.

Axon decided to flip the tables by making the phone not only extremely competitive to what we’ve been hearing about the OnePlus 2 in terms of specs and price, but going to what larger OEMs like HTC and Samsung have begun to do: it’s offering a two-year warranty with no-cost incidental repairs. ZTE’s even going the short-lived Motorola route and are building Axons domestically.

The Axon team went a full nine yards and it seems like they are going for more. With a kickoff like this, they can justifiably churn out a few lower-end models while having a flagship reference point. A standard bearer. Something that says, “even something as half as good as I am beats the pants off of anything else.” And based off of what our own Michael Fisher is reporting, that’s what ZTE plans on doing.

Celling it to us


One thing that has constantly alluded Chinese OEMs was big-network carriage of their “affordable flagships.” AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile didn’t take any of them up on their devices, so the default position was to go unlocked on GSM. Maybe it’s because the carriers couldn’t get as much margin as they’d like or maybe they want to protect deals they have with Samsung, Apple, HTC and LG. ZTE’s marketers may or may not admit what their negotiations with the carriers were like, but the public stance they’ve gone with is that the Axon phone was designed specifically for the non-contract space.

There are a few ways to look at that statement:

  1. Duh. Every carrier’s phasing out contracts. What’s special about that if you can’t get a carrier to back you up?
  2. People are still clinging onto paying $200 or so for an upgrade here. How are you going to convince people to shell out $450 for a phone?
  3. Flagship phones actually do cost this much on prepaid carriers and people still buy them. ZTE’s selling a bunch of phones on those carriers. Should it still give the MVNOs some love?

While there are plenty of options for ZTE, the company says it will find a way to get Americans to buy unlocked phones. With multiple appeals to domestically-based support though, it might want to notch a big carrier in its belt to make that point clear. It doesn’t need to, but with prepaid and no-contract postpaid subscriber counts on the rise, it will definitely want to take advantage of this trend ASAP. That is, before ZTE’s friendly competition decides to take advantage of it for them.

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