A Truly Affordable 2021 Flagship


Smartphones are getting more complicated, incorporating bigger batteries, better cameras and brighter displays, and as a result, have been getting thicker and more expensive. While some may assume that’s inevitable, ZTE’s Axon 30 Ultra proves that you can deliver flagship features in a svelte package at an incredibly tempting price.

With headline features including a 6.67in AMOLED display, a quad-camera array with three 64Mp snappers and a telescope lens, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 and 65W fast charging, all from £649/$749, the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a smartphone you should definitely consider.

Design & Build

The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra has the ‘wow’ factor of a flagship smartphone in 2021, sporting a sleek design that wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of James Bond in the (seemingly always upcoming) No Time to Die.

It’s an incredible feat of engineering, with a combination of metal and glass that feels genuinely exciting to hold in the hand. It feels different from just about every other flagship on the market right now, partly because it weighs just 188g and measures in at 8mm thick – a stark contrast to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra’s 8.9mm and 229g, coming in at 41g heavier than ZTE’s option.

We’ve grown accustomed to chunkier, heavier phones as we compromise to gain features like display and battery life, but ZTE has proven that battery life and a lightweight design don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

A shiny metal band runs around the edges of the phone, protruding slightly on the left and right edges, making for an interesting in-hand feel. That’s flanked by a volume rocker and power button on the right, and there’s a USB-C port for charging alongside a dual-SIM tray on the bottom.

Flip the phone over and you’ll see an impressive camera system that protrudes from the back, but the supplied case in the box helps smooth that out and lay flush on flat surfaces. The housing itself refracts the light, giving the camera unit a rainbow-esque shimmer when it catches the light. It doesn’t make up for the camera bump, but it helps you live with it.

Light refraction is the name of the game with the entire grey glass rear also refracting light to produce an eye-catching shimmer, but with a matte coating, it’s not as noticeable as the camera housing. The matte finish also negates the worst marks and fingerprints, so you won’t feel the need to clean it quite as often as, say, the mirror-like Oppo Find X3 Pro.

There’s no headphone jack here, which could annoy those who are yet to make the jump to wireless headphones, and there isn’t any water resistance either, so don’t take it for a dip if you want it to survive. But, if you’ve got an eye for design, it’s hard to deny that the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra isn’t one of the best-looking phones out there right now.

Display

The display doesn’t disappoint either; it’s a 6.67in AMOLED display with a slight curvature. It’s not as extreme as that of the Motorola Edge though, meaning mispresses aren’t really an issue and the text doesn’t wrap around the edge and disappear either, offering the best of both worlds. It still has the dramatic look of a curved display, without most of the downsides.

Though 6.67in is undoubtedly a large panel, the 20:9 aspect ratio means it’s not that wide, making it easier to use one-handed – though the curved rear and curved display also make it a more comfortable experience.

In terms of spec, it’s a 2400 x 1080 Full HD+ panel with an impressive 144Hz refresh rate, mirroring that of gaming phones and high-end gaming monitors. That translates to a buttery smooth scrolling and gaming experience on the Axon 30 Ultra, with animations, scrolling and just about everything else on the smartphone feeling responsive to the touch.

The latter is down to the 300Hz touch sample rate which, like with the refresh rate, is comfortably in gaming phone territory.

There’s also 10-bit colour support, meaning the screen can display 1.07 billion colours, and there’s HDR10 support too, making it a solid option if you like to watch the likes of Netflix and YouTube on your smartphone. Regardless of what you’re intending to do, the display is crisp, vibrant and responsive, and at 521 nits in our tests, it’s bright enough for use in direct sunlight too.

There’s a single centrally placed hole-punch camera embedded in the display, but it’s markedly smaller than others on the market with a width of just 2.6mm. It doesn’t disappear into the display like an under-display camera would, but it’s not as noticeable as a double hole-punch or notch in daily use.

There’s also a fingerprint scanner built into the display itself. The sensor area is a little small and the finger placement can take a bit of getting used to, but the sensor itself works very well, with a near-instant read and unlock. 

Cameras

Gorgeous design aside, photography is undoubtedly the focus with the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra offering an impressive rear-facing camera system comprised of not one but three 64Mp cameras, and an 8Mp 5x telescope lens too.

That makes the smartphone suitable for a range of shooting scenarios, and while the camera sensors themselves aren’t identical, you get generally great shots across the board.

Let’s start with the star of the show, the main 64Mp wide-angle snapper. It’s Sony’s IMX686, seen on other flagships including the ZenFone 8 Flip, offering an impressive f/1.6 aperture, built-in optical image stabilisation (OIS) and laser detection autofocus, too.

It’s impressively capable, capturing great shots not only in well-lit areas but low-light environments, too. Colours look vibrant without looking over-saturated, and with pixel-binning tech, there’s plenty of detail free of artefacts or noise.

Some of the images I’ve captured with the main lens are genuinely remarkable, with the quality on a par with ultra-premium cameras featured on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra.   

Here’s a gallery of camera samples on Flickr:

ZTE Axon 30 Ultra camera test
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra camera test

But what about when you want to fit more of a scene into the shot? That’s when the 64Mp 120-degree ultra-wide camera comes into play. It’s Samsung’s ISOCELL GW3 in place of Sony’s IMX686, and there’s electronic image stabilisation (EIS) in place of OIS, so images taken aren’t identical in terms of colour balance or detail, but it still does a commendable job.

In well-lit environments, the ultra-wide camera has the potential to take wonderfully wide shots with great vibrancy and there’s little in the way of distortion around the edges too. Ultra-wide-angle cameras can suffer in the detail department, but that’s generally not the case here – likely thanks in part to 4-into-1 pixel-binning tech – although images taken in darker environments can appear noisy and soft in places.

Next up is the third in the 64Mp trio, the 2x optical zoom lens (equivalent to a 35mm lens) described as a portrait lens by ZTE. As the name suggests, it’s the go-to for taking portrait shots – complete with faux-bokeh effect with great edge recognition – and with an f/1.9 aperture, there’s potential for low-light portrait photography too.

Of course, it doesn’t have to just be used for portrait photography, with the camera taking great shots with colours near-identical to those taken by the main lens.

That’s flanked by an 8Mp telescope lens, which provides a 5x optical zoom, a 10x hybrid zoom and a 50x digital zoom. Unlike the portrait and ultra-wide lenses, the telescope lens offers OIS instead of EIS, which makes all the difference as you begin to push the digital zoom to its limits.

Photos taken by the telescope lens at the 5x optical level are in line with those taken by the main and portrait sensors, although there isn’t quite as much detail without the pixel-binning tech available on the 64Mp snappers.

As the hybrid zoom and digital zoom increase, the images become less usable, until you hit the full 60x digital zoom and images are, most of the time, a weird blur. The confusing part is that images at full digital zoom tend to look better in the preview, with post-processing often removing detail and making the finished images look worse overall.

The one exception to this is moon photography; the telescope lens takes impressive shots of the moon on a clear night, to the point where you can even pick out elements of the moon’s surface. There’s even a dedicated Super Moon mode, combining an image of the moon taken by the 60x digital zoom with an image taken by the main lens. It’s quite obvious that it’s not a real image, but artistically speaking, there’s a lot of potential there.

Night-time photography is a strong point for the Axon 30 Ultra, with the f/1.6 aperture of the main 64Mp snapper performing the best overall, although the 2x portrait lens can also hold its own making for some interesting portrait shots with light trails in the background. Night images captured by the main snapper appear well-lit, sucking in every ounce of light from the environment to produce great low-light shots.

Aside from night mode, there’s a magnitude of shooting modes including various video templates specific to vlogging, a colour-changing filter and a pro video mode.

Flip the phone over and you’ll find a single 16Mp snapper embedded into the display. As far as flagship selfie cameras go, it’s pretty standard, offering autofocus tech to keep your selfies in focus and there’s HDR support for challenging light situations too.

It’s decent enough for selfies, video chats and the occasional TikTok, but the rear cameras will likely be the go-to for most.

Videography hasn’t been neglected either, with the rear camera setup capable of shooting [email protected] with 10-bit colour depth and there’s HDR10+ support on offer too.

It’s also where the OIS of the main 64Mp lens really comes into play, offering Steadicam-level image stabilisation as you get your shots. If 8K isn’t your thing, you’ve also got access to [email protected], and there’s a slow-mo mode offering up to 480fps when shot at 720p too.

If smartphone photography and videography is your thing, there’s certainly a lot to love about the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra.

Specs & Performance

Of course, it’s not just about the cameras – the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a performative flagship, sporting the top-end Snapdragon 888 alongside either 8- or 12GB of LPDDR5 RAM depending on the variant you opt for.

It’s a similar story with the UFS 3.1 storage, with 128GB available on the 8GB model and an upgraded 256GB on the 12GB variant. Unlike some rivals, the lack of a microSD card slot means the storage can’t be expanded later on so choose wisely.

Storage limitations aside, the Snapdragon 888 provides a speedy mobile experience regardless of what you’re up to – it can handle media-heavy apps like Twitter and Facebook without a hint of stutter, OS animations are smooth, images are taken instantly and it generally feels responsive to the touch.

Simply put, it’s a joy to use in everyday life, and that power is put to good use when gaming too. It can handle AAA mobile titles like Call of Duty Mobile with textures and framerates cranked to the max. It can get hot over extended periods of gameplay though, despite ZTE’s triple cooling system at work.

That largely matches up with our benchmark results, with the 8GB variant of the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra able to compete with flagships like the Asus ZenFone 8 Flip, Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus and even the ultra-premium Oppo Find X3 Pro. Not bad when you consider it’s more affordable than those models too.

Take a look at our full breakdown of benchmarks below:

The inclusion of the Snapdragon 888 means 5G connectivity is readily available on the Axon 30 Ultra, and you’ll also get Bluetooth 5.2, Wi-Fi 6E (in certified markets) and NFC for Google Pay for good measure.

Battery Life & Charging

Battery life is another area where the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra excels. The built-in 4600mAh battery is, in my experience, just about enough to get me through a full day’s use with tweeting, texting and playing the occasional mobile game.

That’s with the refresh rate cranked up to 144Hz, so if you can live without the top-end refresh rate, expect to squeeze a little more out of the smartphone before it needs a top-up.

There’s 65W fast charging via USB-C on offer, and you don’t need to use ZTE’s own charger (supplied in the box, by the way) to achieve max speed either. The Axon 30 Ultra managed 52% in 30 minutes, which while impressive isn’t close to the 96% of the OnePlus 9 Pro with its identical 4500mAh battery and 65W charging, so we’re currently verifying our results and we’ll update this section very soon.

The only catch? There’s no wireless charging, which some would expect at a flagship level.

Software

The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra runs Android 11 out of the box, with ZTE’s MyOS11 skin applied on top. While that may strike fear into your heart – some manufacturer UIs are crammed with bloatware and annoying features – ZTE has done a good job at offering something close to stock Android 11, devoid of practically any pre-installed apps and there isn’t anything ZTE-branded either.

The closest you’ll get is ZTE’s Private Space, an app that lets you securely store not only photos and videos, but entire apps. There are also a handful of custom gestures, like shaking the phone twice to turn on the flashlight that improve the overall experience.

It’s not a perfect replica of stock Android 11 though, evident by the look and layout of the notification shade, and like with most custom UIs, the Settings menu is a little unintuitive too.

Still, if you can get over some of the more lacklustre visual elements, the software experience is generally fine.

Price

I started testing the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra before I was told anything about how much it’d cost, and based on the gorgeous 144Hz display, impressive camera chops and Snapdragon 888-powered performance, I was expecting something around the £899/$899 mark at least.

That makes the fact that the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra actually starts at £649/$749 for the 8GB/128GB variant all the more impressive, offering incredible value for money compared to flagships like the £1,149/$1299 Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the £829 OnePlus 9 Pro.

The upgraded 12GB/256GB model isn’t much more, coming in at £739/$849.

Both are available to pre-order from ZTE right now, with the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra set to go on sale on 4 June 2021 in the UK, US and Europe, likely when it’ll become available from third-party retailers.

Those that pre-order the smartphone will get a free pair of ZTE’s Livebuds TWS free of charge as an added bonus.

To see how it compares to the competition, take a look at our choice of the best smartphones and the best camera phones too. 

Verdict

The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a stunning proposition, especially when it starts at just £649/$749.

It’s a genuinely exciting flagship smartphone in practically every department: it’s lightweight, feels great in the hand, the 144Hz 6.67in AMOLED display is detailed and crisp, the Snapdragon 888 allows it to perform like a gaming phone and, well, that camera setup is incredible.

Comprised of three 64Mp snappers and a 5x telescope lens, the Axon 30 Ultra’s rear camera offering is versatile, and unlike some, images captured across all sensors are comparable in terms of quality, detail and colour balance.

There are plenty of creative shooting modes available to make the most of the system, and it caters to videographers with [email protected] video recording too.

The results are comparable to those taken on ultra-premium smartphones like the Galaxy S21 Ultra and iPhone 12 Pro, but with one key difference – it’s hundreds of pounds/dollars cheaper.

The software could do with a visual tweak here and there and there’s no wireless charging, but those are minor complaints in what is an otherwise phenomenal 2021 flagship.

Specs

ZTE Axon 30 Ultra: Specs

  • 161.53 x 72.96 x 8mm
  • 188g
  • 6.67in AMOLED display (20:9 aspect ratio)
  • FHD+ resolution
  • 144Hz refresh rate
  • 300Hz touch sample rate
  • Under-display fingerprint reader
  • Rear 64Mp wide (IMX686, OIS, f/1.6), 64Mp portrait (GW3, EIS, f/1.9), 64Mp 120-degree ultrawide (GW3, EIS), 8Mp 5x telescope lens (5x optical, 10x hybrid, 50x digital, OIS)
  • Front-facing 16Mp camera
  • Up to [email protected] video
  • Snapdragon 888 with 8- or 12GB LPDDR5 RAM
  • 128GB or 256GB storage
  • 5G, Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 connectivity
  • USB-C
  • 4500mAh battery with 65W fast charging
  • Android 11 with MyOS 11

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