ZTE Axon 30 5G review: value fighter for T-Mobile
ZTE just outed a new Axon 30 5G midrange sheriff in town, albeit one that is only said to be compatible with T-Mobile's mid-band 5G, despite the company's 4G/5G network equipment prowess. Available for just $499, the ZTE Axon 30 is the most affordable handset with under-display camera you can now get, and it beats the Z Fold 3's UPC selfie shooter in that respect.
Even without this unique "all-screen" street cred, the Axon 30 is laden with nearly all the modern bells and whistles such as a high 120Hz refresh rate display, fast charger, and a quad camera set on the back. How good is said kit and the other components? Check out our ZTE Axon 30 review to find out...
ZTE Axon 30 screen and under-display camera design
The phone's gargantuan 6.92" 1080p display would typically mean one cumbersome to handle in the palm device, if it weren't as tall and narrow, with a 20.5:9 aspect ratio. That doesn't mean that the Axon 30 is not a big phone, at 6.70 x 3.06 x 0.31 inches (170.2 x 77.8 x 7.8 mm) in dimensions, just that it is manageable to use with one hand relative to its screen size.
What the handset is, however, is very light for that same screen diagonal, and also incredibly thin. Its housing is made of 3D composite polymer material with "nano-level glow texture," sort of the glass lookalike hybrid like Samsung's A-series designs, so the phone weighs just 6.67 oz (189.0 g).
The hard case that comes with the phone does add extra bulk but at least it is in the box, and is transparent, revealing the good job that ZTE did with the black or aqua color versions play over the Axon 30 body. When out of the case, the phone lies very well in the hand, too, as its rear has rounded sides and the build material enough traction in the palm to hold it securely at all times.
The volume rocker and power keys on the side also offer a good tactile feedback and ergonomic positioning. There is a fingerprint reader embedded under the screen, and it offers competitive unlocking and finger sensing speeds.
Moving on to the big, uninterrupted screen whose under-display selfie snapper is barely visible, we have to say that ZTE did a better job with this type of camera than the UPC unit in the Galaxy Z Fold 3 that is visible at all times. Through employing some layering trickery, ZTE managed to hide the selfie camera very successfully, returning a true "all-screen" feel the first time you stare at the Axon 30's front.
The display itself is sufficiently bright but, at the phone's $499 price point you shouldn't expect a 1000 peak nits or per-unit color calibration. The colors are a bit on the cold side of the spectrum in the standard color gamut, as you can see from our tests below, and the phone's panel doesn't return an "excellent" score in any of the color representation categories. It does offer a 100% wide P3 color gamut coverage, though, for those HDR flicks, and is eye-health certified for low emissions by TUV.
In essence, the Axon 30 offers a very good display which, while not very bright for comfortable usage outside under direct sunlight, is entirely sufficient as a daily driver otherwise, with adaptive 120Hz refresh rate for smooth scrolling, gaming, and interface animations, a rarity at this price point.
To top it all off, the interface has a dark mode switch in the control panel, and offers night as well as reading modes there for easier access, for a complete roundup of modern phone display features.
ZTE Axon 30 interface and performance
Smooth moves, fast processing
Speaking of the interface, it is mostly stock Android 11, with 12 on the way, and a thin layer of ZTE's own paint on the top, introducing features as the abovementioned night/reading/dark mode switches directly accessible from the control panel.
Add a full settings list and a few live wallpapers or themes thrown in for a good measure, and there is barely an extra feature you'd demand from the Axon 30's Android overlay.
The new Snapdragon 870 processor that runs it also performs very well on the light interface, with no visible delays or stutters while navigating.
While a rehash of last year's Snapdragon 865+ built on the 7nm process, the 870 is clocked at the whopping 3.2GHz peaks, and returns some very good benchmark scores. That's why it seems to be a perfect solution for the upper midrange category, with ZTE even managing to shoehorn it in a sub-$500 phone.
The 8GB RAM provided are adequate enough for lining up many apps open at once, and about the only thing we could complain about in the processor and memory specs departments is the 128GB amount of base storage of which about 110GB are user-available.
You can buy an Axon 30 version with 12GB RAM/256GB storage for a Benjamin more, though, clocking in at just $599, and even that will be cut further if you subscribe for the newsletter upon first order, so that last point of complaint instantly becomes moot, too.
ZTE Axon 30 camera samples
The best under-display camera, out of three
ZTE used a quality 64MP Sony IMX682 camera sensor for the main shooter, and an 8MP ultrawide angle camera. Sorry, no telephoto but the phone does offer 2x lossless crop magnification thanks to the large main sensor resolution.
There is an extra 2MP Depth-of-Field camera for added quad-camera street cred, too, but we especially liked the 5MP unit dedicated to macro shots as usually the main or ultrawide cameras don't do as good of a job at focusing at objects closely. The 5MP macro camera on the Axon 30, while nothing to do with the excellent Microlens one on the Oppo Find X3 Pro, for instance, does a great job shooting clearly at up to an inch distance from the subject.
Unfortunately, since we don't have two or three identical 64MP sensors for the camera functions on the back, there is some color and white balance discord that happen on most other phones that go with disparate sensors, too. Check out some Axon 30 camera samples below.
The phone returns pretty accurate colors with the main camera, while the ultrawide is a bit on the warm side of the white balance spectrum. Areas towards the edges could be sharper on some photos, but that's a common problem with high-res phone camera sensors paired to mainstream lenses.
As for the under-display camera - it's not as good as the best selfie cameras out there, especially with tricky dynamic range situations like a light source behind the object - but it's actually rather good when you consider its technology and when there is enough light around.
Video also turned out pretty good in its 4K 30fps mode, with no excessive artifacts, and very fast continuous autofocus.
ZTE Axon 30 battery life and charging speeds
Lightning fast charger
The combination of a frugal 1080p high refresh display, an overclocked 3.2GHz processor, and a 4200mAh battery pack, predictably managed to squeeze good but not great battery life from the Axon 30 in our tests, with over 10 hours of screen-on time while browsing at a preset brightness.
The daily endurance is decent, just don't expect the phone to last you for a weekend, but ZTE has an ace up its battery life sleeve, and it is a very fast 65W charging support, with the respective brick supplied in the box. We measured the ultrafast 38 minutes charge from zero to full battery, and just 20 minutes of it will bring the phone to a state to last you until the evening. Good job, ZTE, especially at the price point!
Should you buy the ZTE Axon 30?
At its $499 price point for the 8GB/128GB base model, and $599 for the 12GB/256GB version, the Axon 30 is not exactly swimming with sharks when it comes to the competition. The main ones are the OnePlus 9, which is also suited for T-Mobile, but starts at $729 with faster processor and longer battery life.
The other, more formidable direct competitor to the Axon 30 are the Motorola Edge 2021 specs, with the phone now dropped to $499, too, with bigger battery and camera sensor, but weaker processor/memory combo.
Both of those, however, don't have the Axon 30's wow factor with its "all-screen" display design and cool hidden selfie camera, so if you are looking for a sub-$500 phone with most modern bells and whistles, the new ZTE budget champ deserves a strong consideration.