Hands-On With Axon M's 'Westworld'-Like Folding Phone

Mid-screen bezel could be deal-breaker

A Westworld-like folding phone is coming to AT&T in the next month and we had a chance to spend some time with the device.

The Axon M features 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a Snapdragon 821 CPU, a 20 MP camera and, certainly most importantly, two 5.2-inch 1080p screens that can unfold to form one larger 6.75-inch screen with a bezel down the middle. Phone manufacturer ZTE says its device will be available to purchase through AT&T in the next month for $24.17 for 30 months on AT&T Next when they have eligible service. 

Comparing the specs of ZTE's new folding phone with the competition puts the Axon M at about as powerful as last year's Google Pixel in terms of processor power and with more RAM than the top-of-the-line iPhone X and as much as the beloved Samsung S8. While the Axon M's single 20 MP camera blows popular phones like the iPhone 8 and S8 out of the water, it's not the highest MP offering in a smartphone on the market. The resolution of those two screens, at 1080p each, also put it on solid ground, without really challenging the status quo. The best part? The phone has both excellent built-in speakers and a stereo jack. It uses a USB-C port for charging.

The big attraction of the Axon M, of course, is its unusual folding, twin-screen design. (And as crazy as it sounds, it's relatively low-cost for a high-end smartphone at sub $700.)

Seriously, an unfolding screen
Folded up, the Axon M presents itself as a slightly larger, slightly thicker, iPhone 8 (or slightly smaller iPhone 8 Plus). The phone acts just like a standard smartphone, with only the front screen active while folded in half. The only time this isn't the case is when you make use of the front-mounted camera. Doing so turns the back of the phone - that second screen - into a phone-sized view of what your picture will look like. The design removes the need for a front-facing and rear-facing camera lens and allows you to take 20 MP pictures and selfies with the same camera.

The phone can also be sort of half-unfolded, turning the two screens into the sides of a triangle so that the device can be laid on a table with both screens showing the same view. This presentation mode allows you to face one of the phone's screens toward you and the other toward someone sitting opposite you. The idea is that two people could watch the same video, one could present information on a work document or spreadsheet to the other, or two people could play a video game, like Battleship, against one another without the need to hand off the phone.

Finally, the phone can be completely unfolded, essentially turning the Axon M into a 6.75-inch tablet. In tablet mode, you have the ability to use each side of the hinged bezel as its own screen, or to display things across the entirety of that space, but with the bezel running down the middle of your view.

The phone recognizes when you fold and unfold it and reacts accordingly. The folding has a nice snap to it when you get it fully open, though I worried a little about one-day, forgetting which way it folds and over-extending the hinge in the wrong direction. 

While I was impressed with just how slight the phone was when folded up, and the screen space it offered while unfolded, that middle of the screen bezel is a stark contrast to the increasingly bezel-less phones taking over the smartphone market.

But Jeff Yee, ZTE's vice president of terminal marketing and devices, told me that in testing and use that found that it wasn't that noticeable over time. 

Why a folding screen phone?
The idea for a phone that offered a screen that could fold in half didn't come from Westworld's use of a similar prop on HBO, or, initially from ZTE itself. It was actually an idea born out of a request from AT&T and Japanese telephone operator Docomo.

"We were challenged by Docomo to come up with something new and innovative and different," Yee says. "AT&T also approached us about its close relationship with DirectTV. They asked if we could come up with a phone that would be more focused on entertainment."

In thinking about the two requests, Yee said, they started to look at how people do things like watch TV. What they noticed was that for many people today, watching television is a multi-screen experience. People sitting down for a night of TV also often have their phone on, tweeting about what they're watching, or googling things about the show.

So then they looked at tablets and what you could do on those devices and compared them to the top phones in the market.

"The problem is that people want a bigger screen but they still want something portable," Yee says. "Phones are trending bigger. We probably sell more 6-inch phones then anyone else, but you go beyond 6-inch and people stop buying them."

The answer to the problem, he says, is the foldable phone.

"You have a standard mobile phone for one-handed use and a tablet for two-handed use," he says.

But the physical design of the phone was only half the solution, the team also had to come up with not only a smart software overlay for the Android operating system, but the right use approaches to support on the phone. What they settled on was four distinct modes: traditional, dual, extended and mirror.

The Modes
In the phone's traditional mode, there's really no difference between how you would use the Axon M and most other smartphones. The device falls neatly between the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus in terms of size, comfortably fitting in your hand. And the added width of that second screen isn't noticeable at all when held.

Pulling the phone's screens apart like a book, the first mode you hit is the mirror mode. The phone rests easily on a table, solving the problem of how you might show off that latest cat video to your co-workers or loved ones without having to miss out on the glory of a perturbed domesticated animal.

Yee says that while the company sees people using the mode for presentations and watching videos with friends, they also see a lot of potential for games. They've even already started talking to game developers about the potential use of those two screens, including Candy Crush developers King.

I had a chance to try chess in the mirror mode and while the game wasn't really built for the phone, it was nice to be able to play chess on a screen tilted toward me without having to pass the phone back and forth.

Once you open the phone entirely up, flattening the screens to the full 6.75-inch view, many apps and browsers will automatically see the device as a tablet, Yee said. That means that a lot of apps and browsers will work natively on the Axon M in the phone's extended mode.

Of course, your view will be interrupted by a not-that-slim bezel, but app developers can take that into account to do things like naturally split the view between the content and comments in a single app, Yee said.

He also insisted that over time even if you were to do something like watch a video spread across both screens, overtime you sort of forget about that bezel. That's not something I noticed during my short time with the device, but perhaps with longer use that is true.

The mirror mode seems the easiest to apply to existing apps and browsers. It simply treats the screen as if you have two distinct 5.2 inch screens resting side-by-side. This can be useful for things like reading emails while watching a video, checking out a spreadsheet and a browser, the variety is essentially endless.

The phone I was looking at still had software tweaks inbound, like new swipes. At the time, one of the special ones I saw was a three-finger swipe that moved apps between the two screens in extended mode. But more are coming Yee said.

ZTE has no plans for smartphone dominance with the Axon M, they know they're can't ship the sort of phone to take on the likes of Samsung and Apple just yet.

"Our expectation isn’t that it will go head-to-head with Apple and take over sales," Yee says. "it will be for a niche market."

And they knew it's a device that has room for improvement. Among those future improvements is the desire to completely remove the bezel, but for now, Yee believes ZTE is ahead of the market with this first foldable, dual-screen phone. And that despite the fact that Samsung recently announced that it was working on its own foldable phone.

Samsung announced plans for its take on the foldable phone within a day of the Axon M leaking, Yee says.

"This leaks last week and within 24 hours Samsung says, 'We are working on it too,'" he says. "But we will maintain our share of the pie. We have been working on this for a year."