ZTE Axon 30 Ultra review: the right stuff for the right price
Specs for less
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a high-end device that checks all the right hardware boxes. Snapdragon 888 processor? Check. Fast refresh rate screen? Check. A metric ton of rear-facing cameras? Check, check, check, and check. It’s also priced well, starting at $749 while many of its competitors start around the $1,000 mark.
The Axon 30 Ultra delivers on many fronts, like its high-quality screen and flagship-level performance. For some, that will be enough. However, it falls short in more subtle ways that you won’t see on a spec sheet. Its novel camera array is let down by uneven, heavy-handed processing. There’s also a stray bug here and there, which can range from harmless (a 5G on / off toggle appears twice in a quick settings menu) to more annoying (the camera shutter noise going off even in silent mode). ZTE may iron out these bugs in future updates, or they won’t, and you’ll be the obnoxious parent with the noisy smartphone camera during your child’s dance recital.
And even though all of the key hardware is there, a few flagship-y features have been omitted to hit the Axon 30 Ultra’s more aggressive price point. There’s no IP rating for water resistance and no wireless charging. The phone doesn’t work on Verizon either, just on T-Mobile and AT&T, and 5G service on T-Mobile is limited to one band.
If those factors aren’t dealbreakers and you’re comfortable working around the occasional quirk, then the Axon 30 Ultra offers top-notch performance with a large, lovely screen at a lower price than the competition. We don’t see too many of those high-performance / lower cost premium phones in the US to challenge the heavyweights of the Android world, and it’s nice to have an alternative. But it does lack some of the polish and a few features that distinguish the more expensive competition.
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra screen, battery, and performance
At 6.7 inches, the Axon 30 Ultra’s screen is about as big as they come these days. It’s a 1080p OLED with a refresh rate up to 144Hz. You can set it manually to 60, 90, 120, or 144Hz, or let it switch automatically between those rates based on the content you’re viewing. That 144Hz rate is a little faster than the 120Hz rate you’ll find on most high-end devices, but I’m not sure I could tell the difference between them if I didn’t know which was which. The bottom line is that every swipe, scroll, and animation looks incredibly smooth on the 30 Ultra’s screen.
Generally speaking, it’s just a really nice screen. Contrast is rich, the bezels are slim, and the panel curves over the sides of the phone; marketers love to call a screen like this “immersive,” but that actually feels like a fair descriptor. It’s a little tough to see outside in bright light, but it’s still usable.
That big screen makes the Axon 30 Ultra a big device. It’s comfortable enough to hold, and the curved screen and back panel help, but I definitely can’t reach my thumb clear across the screen while using it one-handed. There’s Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back panels and the frame is aluminum, giving the whole phone a solid, premium feel.
Phone performance also meets the “premium” bar, thanks to that Snapdragon 888 processor. It feels very snappy jumping between apps, pinching and zooming around Google Maps, and scrolling through Twitter. I’m also happy to report that the in-screen optical fingerprint sensor is quick and responsive, too — it gave me a little thrill with every unlock and password manager authentication. It’s a feature that goes the extra distance to making this feel like a highly responsive, premium device.
The Axon 30 Ultra’s 4,600mAh battery is big enough and consistently got me through a day of moderate use. However, I was conservative with some battery-draining settings like screen refresh rate, and all of my use was on Wi-Fi, so I expect you could fully drain the battery over the course of a day if you really went for it. Wireless charging is, as mentioned earlier, not an option here, but the phone supports 65W wired charging with the included charging brick, and it is plenty fast.
Android 11 comes preloaded on the Axon 30 Ultra, and ZTE says an Android 12 update will come at the end of the year or in early 2022. The company doesn’t give a firm timeline for security updates but says it generally provides them for around three years. Not the worst support policy by far, but not among the very best. ZTE’s Android interface is called MyOS, and it’s a straightforward affair that doesn’t try to get too fancy. There are a truly overwhelming number of shortcuts in the fully expanded quick settings menu accessed by swiping from the top of the screen, but you can rearrange and whittle them down to your heart’s content.
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra cameras
Rather than one high-resolution main camera complemented by several lower-resolution sensors, ZTE has chosen to put three 64-megapixel sensors in the Axon 30 Ultra’s rear camera array. You’ll find a standard wide-angle main camera with optical stabilization, a 35mm-equivalent wide-angle for portraits, and an ultrawide. There’s also an 8-megapixel 5x telephoto camera with optical stabilization. It’s a lot of cameras, and none of them are throwaways.
The Axon 30 Ultra’s cameras are impressive, but they’re also a little frustrating. First, the good: these three 64-megapixel cameras all capture a lot of detail in good light, which I’d expect from the main camera, but that isn’t always the case with ultrawides since they tend to have lower resolution chips. The telephoto module offers 5x true optical zoom — results aren’t great indoors or in dim light, but with plenty of available light, it’s much better than the digital zoom alternative.
I also really like the portrait lens, which is wider than the telephoto options most other smartphone cameras use. This is a personal preference; I like getting more of the scene in portrait photos, you may not. There’s no option to digitally zoom in while using portrait mode if you don’t like the wide-angle look, and portrait mode photos (with artificially blurred backgrounds) can only be taken with the dedicated portrait lens or the selfie camera. Something to consider if wide portraits are really not your thing.
Now the bad: image processing (particularly color and saturation) is inconsistent between cameras, and two photos from the same camera can vary noticeably with slight shifts in composition or subject positioning. Images from the main camera often look oversaturated. Most of the time it’s subtle enough not to bother me much, but then I’ll take a picture of my orange cat and he’ll look like a Cheeto.
Portrait mode photos suffer some misses, too: subject separation from blurred backgrounds can look a little clumsy, and the lack of OIS in the portrait camera means you’re more likely to see slight blur in dimmer conditions, even without much camera movement. The wider focal length also means you’ll need to crank up the blur if you want to obscure a distracting background, which makes the subject cut-out problems more obvious.
Maybe these shortcomings are more frustrating because when the Axon 30 Ultra does get things right, images look really good. Exposure is well balanced, all four cameras are genuinely useful, and each of them offers an impressive level of detail retention. I’d entertain leaving my dedicated camera at home more often with this combination of focal lengths and capabilities, but image processing is too much of a wild card for me to feel comfortable with that.
One of the Axon 30 Ultra’s most annoying bugs lives in the camera app, too: the camera shutter sound is permanently stuck on, even with every volume control set to silent. There’s no way to turn it off in the camera settings menu or the main settings menu. I hate this. Maybe some people could live with it. Maybe you can root your phone and eliminate the problem yourself. Maybe ZTE will fix the issue soon. All I know is that I cannot live a shutter-sound-on lifestyle and it’s the kind of thing I might return a phone over, no matter how good the pictures look.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is exactly what it appears to be: a lower cost alternative to the big Android flagships with top-tier performance and a great screen. I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, and you need to be comfortable either living with a couple of quirks or navigating a way around them. You don’t quite get the same level of polish or reassurance that you would from a Samsung, OnePlus, or Google device, but in return you get excellent performance for the money.
The Axon 30 Ultra has a healthy price advantage over the other big-screen-big-performance competition like the $1,069 OnePlus 9 Pro and the $999 Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus. If you’re willing to concede some screen real estate, then its advantage narrows compared to the OnePlus 9 ($729) and standard Galaxy S21 ($800). With either of those options, you’ll get the same excellent performance and a few other benefits, like wireless charging and more sophisticated image processing.
Of course, it’s an important caveat that the Axon 30 Ultra doesn’t work on Verizon. That will rule out a significant number of prospective customers in the US. And I wish the cameras lived up to their hardware potential more often. If that’s not much of a concern, you’re not a Verizon customer, and your priorities are set on a big screen and snappy day-to-day performance, then you have a great option in the 30 Ultra.
All that said, I can’t see a reason not to buy the Axon 30 Ultra if none of the above concerns you. You’ll get excellent performance, a massive screen with a silky smooth fast refresh rate, and great camera hardware — and you can rub it in your friends’ faces when you pay several hundred dollars less for your phone than they did.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge
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May 30, 2021 at 07:08AM