ZTE Axon 30 5G Review: Under-Display Camera King



ZTE’s Axon 20 was the first Android smartphone to offer an under-display camera, buried beneath the phone’s OLED panel beneath a layer of pixels. But while the tech was exciting, it was still in its infancy.

Fast forward a year and the ZTE Axon 30 5G is official, offering second-gen under-display camera tech that represents a huge advancement and blowing even ultra-premium competition out of the water – and that’s just in the selfie camera department.

Throw in a gorgeous 6.92in AMOLED panel, top-end processing power, rapid fast charging speeds and a premium form factor, and you’ve got a show-stopping mid-range smartphone that’ll cost you just £419/$499. Intrigued? You should be.

Design and build

The ZTE Axon 30 5G is a good-looking smartphone, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t rewrite the rules of the Axon design DNA. It looks similar to the rest of the collection, which isn’t a bad thing given the premium design on offer, and it’s available in glossy shades of Black and Aqua.

It sports a full-screen display with slim bezels, with a slightly protruding ridge that runs along the edges of the smartphone to make it easier to grip one-handed. Flip it over and you’ll find a holographic finish that adds to that premium look ZTE is striving for with the Axon 30, along with a rectangular metal camera housing that protrudes from the rear.

The only downside? Despite the premium look, it doesn’t really feel premium in the hand. That’s because both the sides and the rear of the phone are made from plastic, rather than glass and metal like other similarly priced phones and ZTE’s own upgraded Axon 30 Ultra.

It comes with benefits, like being more lightweight and durable than glass at just 189g, but it just feels like it’s missing something when held in the hand.

Another design feature that detracts from the premium look is the huge ‘Axon’ and ‘ZTE 5G’ logos on the rear – though I suppose you could get a case that covers the rear entirely if it really bothers you.

On the right of the display, you’ll find volume rockers and a power button in a tidy arrangement, and at the bottom, you’ll find a USB-C port, speaker grille and a dual-SIM slot.

There isn’t a headphone jack unfortunately, but ZTE has included a USB-C-to-3.5mm adapter in the box if you’ve got a pair of wired headphones you aren’t ready to give up just yet.

Display

The ZTE Axon 30 5G sports a gorgeous, if not slightly gargantuan, 6.92in AMOLED display that’s an absolute joy to use.

It’s tall, sporting a 20.5:9 aspect ratio, which means it’s still easy to use one-handed – even if it is a little hard to reach the top of the display with your thumb. It’s vibrant, vivid and downright gorgeous, with the FHD+ (1080 x 2460) resolution providing plenty of detail for TikTok scrolling sessions and Netflix binges.

There’s also the 120Hz refresh rate to consider which, while not quite the 144Hz of some premium alternatives, offers a beautifully smooth scrolling and swiping experience. It makes the phone feel more responsive, and it’s immediately noticeable in use.

There is the option to select an automatic refresh rate, which adjusts the rate depending on what you’re doing in a bid to conserve battery, but where’s the fun in that?

You might notice that the display doesn’t feature the holepunch or notch used in many full-screen alternatives, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a camera. Like last year’s ZTE Axon 20, the Axon 30 sports an under-display camera (UDC) – but there have been significant upgrades in the past 12 months.

The portion of the display covering the under-display camera of the Axon 20 could only offer a maximum pixel density of 200ppi, and that resulted in a noticeable difference in image quality compared to the rest of the display, making it immediately noticeable even without a traditional camera cut out.

The upgraded under-display camera tech of the Axon 30 5G now allows for double the pixel density at 400ppi, which matches the rest of the display and makes it much harder to spot. For comparison, the density of the display covering the under-display camera of the ultra-premium Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is just 144ppi.  

ZTE’s implantation of UDC technology is as close as any manufacturer has gotten to a truly invisible front-facing camera, only visible if you angle the smartphone a certain way in bright light or if the display is off entirely. It’s an incredible jump in just 12 months, and considering the mid-range price of the smartphone, it’s a major selling point if you do want to be an under-display camera adopter.

Along with an under-display camera, the ZTE Axon 30 sports an in-display fingerprint reader. It works well, much like most modern fingerprint scanners, correctly reading my fingerprint most of the time, and you’ve got facial unlock (though not as secure as Apple’s Face ID) as a backup if your fingers are a little too dirty to scan.

Specs and performance

At the heart of the ZTE Axon 30 5G you’ll find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 870 5G coupled with either 8- or 12GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage depending on availability in your region. It might not be the top-end Snapdragon 888 or recently upgraded 888+, but will you notice the difference in day-to-day use? I expect not.

When combined with the buttery 120Hz refresh rate, the Axon 30 5G provides a premium smartphone experience with smooth scrolling, even in media-packed apps like Twitter and Facebook, it can handle high-end games like Call of Duty Mobile with ease and it’s generally a joy to use, free of stutter or lag.

That’s largely represented in our benchmark results, with the chipset producing similar results to the 888-enabled Galaxy Z Flip 3 and Realme GT, though it can’t quite compete with the graphical performance from its more premium sibling, the Axon 30 Ultra. Take a look at the results of our tests below:

When it comes to connectivity, you should expect the latest and greatest including 5G, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.1, NFC and a USB-C port for charging, and there’s a microSD card slot within the SIM tray to expand storage too.

On the software front, the ZTE Axon 30 5G comes running Android 11 out of the box, though with ZTE’s MyOS 11 skin applied. The idea of a custom Android skin may strike fear into your heart, scarred by years of terrible UIs full of bloatware, but ZTE has done a commendable job at sticking to a relatively stock Android design.

There isn’t any bloatware, nor are there any pre-installed ZTE apps. The closest you’ll get is ZTE Private Space, an app that allows you to securely store photos, videos and entire apps if necessary. You’ll also find a handful of gestures, including shaking the phone twice to turn on the flashlight, that improves the experience on offer.  

It’s not completely stock, as evident by the look and feel of the notification shade and some widgets, and the Settings menu can be a confusing beast at times, but these are relatively minor niggles of an otherwise decent skin.

Battery life

Battery life is an area where the ZTE Axon 30 5G could do with some improvement, likely down to that huge high-res 120Hz AMOLED display. Though the battery is respectable at 4200mAh, I found that it was just about enough to get me through an entire day’s use when running at 120Hz the entire time when browsing social media, texting, gaming and taking the occasional photo.

There was, admittedly, a slight improvement when the refresh rate was set to automatic, which allows the display to switch between refresh rates depending on what you’re doing, but it wasn’t as dramatic a difference as expected, squeezing out only an extra few hours with average use.

The ZTE Axon 30 5G, then, isn’t a phone that’ll keep on going for days – at least without serious compromise to the experience – but the one saving grace is that it’ll charge very quickly, especially for a phone in the £400/$500 price range.

The ZTE Axon 30 5G offers support for 65W fast charging, and what’s even better is that a 65W charger comes bundled in the box – no need to fork out for a charging brick like with some flagship smartphones in 2021. That means you can take advantage of the fast charging from day 1, which in our testing provided 42% charge in 15 mins, 78% in 30 minutes and a full charge took around 50 minutes.

So, while the Axon 30 5G might not have the best battery life, at least you’ll be able to top it up quickly when needed.  

Camera

When it comes to cameras, the ZTE Axon 30 5G is a bit hit-and-miss. Given the fact that I was so impressed by the camera performance on offer from the upgraded ZTE Axon 30 Ultra, it’s sad to see the standard model suffer so much to hit a cheaper price point.

The Axon 30 5G has a ‘quad’ camera setup on the rear, though don’t expect to get four usable lenses. Instead, you’ll find a large 64Mp Sony IMX682 sensor as a primary, along with an 8Mp 120-degree ultra-wide lens, a 5Mp macro camera and 2Mp depth sensor.

While there’s potential for great imagery from the main and ultrawide angles, the macro and depth sensors seem like they’re there only to bump up the camera count rather than provide a great shooting experience.

The main 64Mp snapper uses 4-in-1 pixel binning to produce detailed shots at a smaller resolution, but you’ve also got the option to capture native 64Mp snaps too.

Regardless of the shooting mode, the main lens does a great job at capturing detail and natural colour, even in more challenging lighting conditions. There’s a dedicated night mode to boost the light in dark environments too, and while it’s not quite dramatic as some premium smartphones, it certainly improves the overall look of the image.

There isn’t a zoom lens, but you might not realise that given the prompts to zoom in to 2x (and up to 20x via pinch zoom) via the Axon 30’s camera app. This is instead a digital zoom, cropping in on the image captured by the main 64Mp snapper, and as you might expect, images become grainier and overprocessed as the digital zoom increases. It could be useful for some things, but don’t expect the same results as a dedicated telephoto lens.

The 8Mp ultra-wide camera performs as expected, capturing much more of the scene with a 120-degree field of view with decent results. It’s best used in sunny outdoor environments, offering a decent shooting experience with vibrant colours, though there are occasional soft patches where the lens can’t quite pick out all the detail of leaves of a tree or the pattern of a jacket.

The less said about the 5Mp macro sensor the better; simply put, it isn’t very good. As with most budget macro lenses, you have to find the sweet spot for the fixed focus, and that’s generally not as close as you might like. The bigger problem, however, is that shots often look dark and lack any real detail. What I’m trying to say is, if you need to get a close-up shot, use the main lens and crop in.

What about that under-display camera on the front? As mentioned, there have been huge advances in the technology compared to the ZTE Axon 20 5G, which first introduced the under-display camera, making it much harder to spot this time around. The problem is that the image quality produced by the 16Mp snapper isn’t quite up to scratch compared to most selfie cameras right now – even those on budget phones.

Selfies captured on the Axon 30 5G can come across as soft with a noticeably more muted colour palette compared to the rear camera offering, even in gorgeous outdoor environments – what many would consider ideal conditions for selfies. However, it’s still a marked improvement on the quality produced by the first-gen kit, and it looks to perform better than the UDC of the ultra-premium Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3.

If you don’t often take selfies, it’s a compromise well worth accepting – especially if you like the idea of a full-screen display without a camera cut-out – but if you’re a selfie lover, there are better-performing cameras available at a similar price.

Price

The ZTE Axon 30 starts at just £429/$499 for an 8GB/128GB combination, but there’s also an upgraded 12GB/256GB variant that’ll cost you £519/$599. Despite not featuring the top-end specs, it’s a tempting price for a smartphone that generally provides a premium smartphone experience with powerful internals, a gorgeous display and impressive charge times.

If you’re tempted, you can buy the ZTE Axon 30 from ZTE in the UK, US and worldwide right now. For more inspiration and to see how the ZTE Axon 30 compares to the competition, take a look at our hand-picked selection of the best mid-range phones. 

Verdict

The ZTE Axon 30 isn’t the perfect mid-ranger, but it certainly has a lot going for it. The 6.92in 120Hz FHD+ display is a huge selling point, offering a gorgeous scrolling experience that makes everything from texting to gaming feel more responsive, and the design of the phone looks great too, even if it’s made from plastic and not glass.

There’s also the under-display camera to consider; while the quality of the selfies can’t quite compare with standard front-facing cameras, ZTE’s implementation is far more advanced than offerings from even ultra-premium options like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3. The rear-facing setup, while lacking a telephoto lens for close-ups, offers decent performance across the main and ultra-wide lenses.

Throw in 65W fast charging, a decent software experience and a very tempting price tag and you’ve got a great mid-range smartphone.

Specs
ZTE Axon 30 5G: Specs

170.2 x 77.8 x 7.8mm

189g

6.92in AMOLED display (120Hz, FHD+)
Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 5G

8/12GB of RAM

128/256GB storage expandable via microSD

Rear cameras: 64Mp wide, 8Mp 120-degree ultra-wide, 5Mp macro and 2Mp depth sensor

Front-facing 16Mp under-display camera

[email protected] video

USB-C port

4200mAh battery with 65W fast charging

5G connectivity

Wi-Fi 6

Bluetooth 5.1

NFC

In-display fingerprint reader

Android 11 with MyOS 11 skin applied



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