A Great Phone in Its Own Right – Review Geek

Rating:
7/10
?

  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $750

The Axon 30 Ultra's backside.
Andrew Heinzman

If you’ve looked into the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra at all, then you’ll know that most reviewers and enthusiasts are pointing to it as an affordable alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S21. I think that’s a disservice to the Axon 30 Ultra, which is really a great phone in its own right and not all that much cheaper than the phone that it’s supposedly undercutting.

Here’s What We Like

  • Flagship performance
  • Awesome 144Hz display
  • Impressive, flexible camera selection
  • 65-watt fast charging
  • Android 12 update coming late 2021 or early 2022

And What We Don’t

  • No wireless charging
  • No IP water resistance rating
  • Doesn’t work on Verizon, poor 5G compatibility
  • Often over-processes photos
  • Can’t turn off camera shutter sound

I’m genuinely impressed by the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra’s specs, performance, unique 144Hz display, and impressive camera array—no lie, it has one of the most flexible camera selections of any phone available today. It’s not a perfect device by any means, and its warts are hard to ignore, but I don’t think that its buy-ability depends on pricing so much as it depends on its unique features and other strengths.

Yes, the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is an affordable flagship, and your budget might be the deciding factor in whether you buy it or another device. But in the month that I’ve tested this handset, I’ve seen the Galaxy S21 go on sale for $780, just $20 more than the Axon 30 Ultra. For that reason, I’m going to try and focus on the Axon 30 Ultra’s strengths and weaknesses without letting the price tag cloud my judgment.

Note: The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra only works with AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks. It does not work with Verizon. Also, it only supports T-Mobile’s 5G network, and even then, it can only connect to one band. If you use Verizon or care about 5G, skip the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra.

Spec Talk

Good googly moogly, this phone is juicy! ZTE stuck some of the best available hardware in the Axon 30 Ultra, and it shows. Just look out for some of the quirks, like the lack of wireless charging.

Specs

  • Display: 6.67-inch, FHD+ (2400×1080), 20:9 aspect ratio, 144Hz, AMOLED curved display
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 5G
  • RAM: 8GB (Reviewed), 12GB
  • Storage: 128GB (Reviewed), 256GB
  • Rear Cameras: 64MP Wide Angle Lens (Sony IMX686/OIS/F1.6), 64MP Ultra Wide-Angle Lens (Samsung GW3/120° Wide/ Ultra-Low Distortion/F2.2), 64MP Portrait Lens (Samsung GW3/F1.9), 8MP Periscope Telephoto Lens (OIS/5x Optical Zoom/60x
    Hybrid Zoom)
  • Front camera: 16MP Selfie Camera
  • Ports: USB-C
  • Headphone Jack: No
  • Battery: 4,600mAh with 65-watt Fast Charge (Charger included)
  • Wireless Charging: No
  • Biometrics: In-display fingerprint reader, Face Unlock
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6E 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax, 4×4 MIMO; Bluetooth 5.2; NFC
  • 5G Compatibility: 5G: n1/n3/n28/n41/n78 (Only works with T-Mobile’s 5G networks)
  • Ingress Protection: None
  • Android Version: Android 11 (MyOS 11)
  • Colors: Black
  • Price as Reviewed: $750 (Reviewed), $850

A Mellow but Exciting Flagship Design

ZTE stuck with a subdued but modern design for the Axon 30 Ultra. It has a large display with slightly curved edges (very tasteful), a giant camera hump (not tasteful), and a glass backside. All in all, it looks and feels like a mellow version of the newest Samsung phones (as many Android flagships do).

Of course, because it’s piggybacking off of Samsung’s design, the Axon 30 Ultra’s camera hump keeps it from laying flat on a table if you don’t have a phone case. ZTE includes a clear, hard, plastic case in the box, and while it isn’t the most stylish thing, it gets the job done.

I spent a bit of time using the Axon 30 Ultra without its case and found that the phone can be difficult to use with one hand. Reaching across the 6.67-inch display is a challenge, and the phone’s slippy, glass backside doesn’t help. Of course, this is just part of using a large phone, and the glass back won’t be an issue if you use a case.

The Axon 30 Ultra homescreen.
Yeah, the screen could be a touch brighter. Andrew Heinzman

While I’m not a big fan of under-screen fingerprint readers, the Axon 30 Ultra’s is quick and reliable. I had some trouble with it at first, but only because I wasn’t paying attention during the setup process. Oops! My mistake led me to try the phone’s face unlock feature, which is impressively fast and works well even in poor lighting. (I should mention that Android face unlock isn’t very secure—anyone with a picture of your face can break past it.)

As for the display, it’s just as badass as you’d expect. The colors and contrast of the Axon 30 Ultra’s FHD+ AMOLED panel are totally on point, and with a 144Hz refresh rate, animations look buttery smooth (although I fail to see a major difference between 144Hz and 120Hz). My only note is that the display could be a tiny bit brighter, but to be fair, it’s a lot brighter than OLED displays from just a few years ago.

I’ve tested the Axon 30 Ultra for about a month, and with regular use, its 4,600mAh battery lasts a little over a day—maybe longer if you cap the refresh rate at 60Hz or 90Hz. That said, I haven’t tested the phone on 5G, so your mileage might vary.

Now’s a good time to reiterate that the Axon 30 Ultra offers very limited support for carriers. It only works with AT&T and T-Mobile networks, and even then, only T-Mobile customers can take advantage of its 5G capabilities (and that’s Sub-6 5G, not the faster mmWave). Maybe ZTE is focused on the Chinese and European markets, and that’s fine, but releasing a flagship device in the United States without supporting Verizon (which has a 40% market share) is stupid.

Killer Performance, Cool OS, Weird Translations

The Axon 30 Ultra notification shade with big UI elements.
BIG BEAUTIFUL UI BUTTONS Andrew Heinzman

Equipped with a Snapdragon 888 chip and 8GB of RAM, the Axon 30 Ultra offers flagship-level performance during everyday use or gaming. Despite my best efforts, it never lags or stutters. I expect that the Axon 30 Ultra will last for a very long time thanks to its hardware, and ZTE tells me that an Android 12 update is coming in late 2021 or early 2022, which is assuring (though I’d prefer a guaranteed, years-long commitment to OS updates).

But performance isn’t everything. Crappy software can often ruin an otherwise great phone. While I wish that ZTE stuck to a more stripped-down version of Android, I have to admit that the company’s MyOS 11 software is pretty badass. It looks great, it’s easy to navigate, and I haven’t encountered any bugs.

While I'm a big fan of MyOS 11, it has some poorly-translated menus.
While I’m a big fan of MyOS 11, it has some poorly translated menus. Andrew Heinzman

One of the defining features of MyOS 11 is its large UI buttons, which have grown on me. I had my reservations at first, but they look really cool and are easy to press without making silly mistakes. Funny enough, using MyOS 11 makes me excited for the upcoming Android 12 release, which features larger UI elements than previous versions of Android. (I’m also excited for MyOS 12, as the Android 12 experience seems right up ZTE’s alley.)

My only complaint with MyOS 11 is that some of its menus are unpolished and poorly translated. It’s a very weird problem that I should have screencapped more. The only example that I thought to capture was the Dual Wi-Fi menu, which reads like something out of Google Translate and has some seriously inconsistent punctuation. It’s not a big deal, but it’s annoying.

ZTE’s Best Cameras Yet, but Is That Enough?

The Axon 30 Ultra from above.
Andrew Heinzman

Why do Apple, Google, and Samsung dominate the mobile phone market? I’m sure there are a ton of reasons, but as a customer, I tend to stick with these brands because their camera technology is years ahead of the game. Even competitors that dump tons of resources into camera tech, like OnePlus and Sony, are always one step behind the big dogs.

It’s a crappy situation. Even if a manufacturer matches the processing power or display quality of big-name flagship phones, it still needs to sell a device with a great camera. Otherwise, many customers and critics won’t be happy with it, regardless of the price.

So, it’s hard to talk about the Axon 30 Ultra’s cameras. They take great photos—way better than any other ZTE phone. The camera selection and software are also impressive. The main, ultra-wide, and portrait cameras have 64-megapixel sensors, and you can shoot with all three lenses at once to improve your chances of getting a great shot. There are also a ton of built-in filters, a night mode, and 8K video support.

A photo of my cat. A close-up photo showing the details of water on a leaf. A photo of bright red flowers. A photo of a metal sculpture

Images shot by the Axon 30 Ultra have a crisp, detailed look, which is what you’d expect from such high-megapixel sensors. The ultra-wide lens is a real winner and will definitely appeal to those who are sick of using the low-megapixel ultra-wide lenses found in most phones. I’m also a big fan of the portrait lens, which feels really wide, and the 8-megapixel telephoto lens offers OIS and 5x optical zoom.

But the Axon 30 Ultra has a habit of overprocessing images. Its night mode doesn’t live up to the big brands, and low-light performance is unreliable. There’s also a noticeable difference in color, saturation, sharpness, and contrast between each camera. And while I’m a fan of the portrait lens, it doesn’t have OIS, so it’s nearly useless in low-light environments, and the blurred background effects just don’t look good. (Funny enough, the best portrait mode photo I shot was the one of my cat shown above.)

In the below images, which don’t look very good, you can see two examples of the Axon 30 Ultra’s night mode and a pair of outrageously overprocessed pictures shot in the daytime. I found that the night mode is usable but often produces blurry shots, and that the Axon 30 Ultra has a lot of trouble processing vibrant subjects, like bright green grass and magenta flower petals, even in favorable lighting.

A colorful worm art piece.A very blurry photo shot in night mode.An over-processed photo of some grass and dirt.An over-processed photo of some flowers.Top: Night mode; Bottom: an example of overprocessed shots in bright lighting.

If I were to describe the camera experience on this phone with one word, I would call it “inconsistent.” As shown in the above photos, the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra can take gorgeous pictures, even indoors if the lighting’s right. All of its lenses are useful and usable, providing more flexibility than the average camera phone. But for every good photo shot on the Axon 30 Ultra, there’s a handful of pictures that look like they were overedited in Lightroom by a high school photography student.

Oh, one more thing. The camera has a shutter sound that you can’t turn off. Hopefully ZTE fixes this problem with a future update because it’s one of the most annoying things that I’ve ever seen in a phone. I also dislike how the Axon 30 Ultra adds a watermark to all photos, though it’s easy to disable.

The Gist: Buy It for Its Merits, Not Its Price Tag

The Axon 30 Ultra outside.
Andrew Heinzman

If ZTE had released this phone a few months ago, I think it would be an obvious buy. But things are a little complicated right now. In the month since ZTE sent me this Axon 30 Ultra, I’ve seen the Samsung Galaxy S21 go on sale for around $780. (I assume that future sales will go even lower.) Plus, RedMagic is preparing to launch a Snapdragon 888-equipped phone for just $500, and Samsung is expected to announce the affordable Galaxy S21 FE this fall (last year’s Galaxy S20 FE cost just $700 at launch).

To that end, I think that the Axon 30 Ultra might be a hard sell for some people. It’s a killer phone with one of the most flexible camera selections I’ve ever seen (even if photo quality is inconsistent), but it isn’t the best phone ever and really isn’t that much cheaper than the competition.

So if you buy the Axon 30 Ultra, I suggest doing it for the phone’s merits, not its price tag. Maybe you’re looking for a more usable ultra-wide lens, or a 144Hz display, or a flagship Android phone that comes from anyone other than Samsung. The Axon 30 Ultra is a fantastic phone in its own right—just don’t ignore its flaws or let its price cloud your judgment.

Here’s What We Like

  • Flagship performance
  • Awesome 144Hz display
  • Impressive, flexible camera selection
  • 65-watt fast charging
  • Android 12 update coming late 2021 or early 2022

And What We Don’t

  • No wireless charging
  • No IP water resistance rating
  • Doesn’t work on Verizon, poor 5G compatibility
  • Often over-processes photos
  • Can’t turn off camera shutter sound