ZTE Axon 30 Ultra review: the right stuff at the right price

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The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a high-end device that checks all the correct hardware boxes. Snapdragon 888 processor? To check. Fast refresh rate screen? To check. A ton of rear-facing cameras? Check, check, check and check. It’s also well priced, starting at $ 749, while many of its competitors start around $ 1,000.

The Axon 30 Ultra performs on many fronts, such as the high-quality screen and flagship-level performance. For some that is enough. However, it falls short in more subtle ways that you don’t see on a spec sheet. Its new camera array is let down by uneven, heavy-handed processing. There’s a stray bug here and there, too, which can range from harmless (a 5G power switch appears twice in a quick settings menu) to more annoying (the camera shutter sound goes off even in silent mode). ZTE can fix these bugs in future updates, or not, and you’ll be the obnoxious parent with the noisy smartphone camera during your kid’s dance recital.

And while all the major hardware is there, a few flagship features have been left out to hit the Axon 30 Ultra’s more aggressive price point. There is no IP rating for water resistance and no wireless charging. The phone also doesn’t work on Verizon, only on T-Mobile and AT&T, and 5G service on T-Mobile is limited to one band.

If those factors aren’t deal breakers and you feel comfortable getting around the occasional quirk, the Axon 30 Ultra offers top-notch performance with a big, beautiful screen at a lower price than the competition. We don’t see too many of those high-end / cheaper premium phones in the US to challenge the heavyweights of the Android world, and it’s nice to have an alternative. But it lacks some of the shine and a few features that set its more expensive competitors apart.

The 30 Ultra’s screen is curved at the edges for a more immersive feel.

ZTE Axon 30 Ultra screen, battery and performance

At 6.7 inches, the Axon 30 Ultra’s screen is about the same size as it is today. It’s a 1080p OLED with a refresh rate of up to 144Hz. You can manually set it to 60, 90, 120 or 144 Hz, or have it automatically switch between those speeds based on the content you’re watching. That 144Hz speed is slightly faster than the 120Hz speed 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 one was which. The bottom line is that every swipe, scroll and animation looks incredibly smooth on the 30 Ultra’s screen.

Overall, it’s just a really nice screen. The contrast is rich, the bezels are narrow and the panel runs down the sides of the phone; marketers like to call such a screen ‘immersive’, but that actually feels like a fair description. It’s a bit difficult to see out in bright light, but it’s still usable.

That large screen makes the Axon 30 Ultra a large device. It’s comfortable enough to hold, and the curved screen and back panel help, but I absolutely can’t reach my thumb clearly across the screen when using it with one hand. There is Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back panels and the frame is aluminum, giving the whole phone a solid, premium feel.

The Axon 30 Ultra offers Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back panel.

Thanks to that Snapdragon 888 processor, the phone performance also lives up to the ‘premium’ bar. It feels really tough to jump, pinch and zoom between apps in Google Maps and scroll through Twitter. I’m also happy to report that the on-screen optical fingerprint sensor is also fast and responsive – it gave me a bit of excitement with every unlock and password manager authentication. It’s a feature that goes to extremes to make this feel like a very responsive, premium device.

The Axon 30 Ultra’s 4,600 mAh battery is large enough and has consistently put me through a day of moderate use. However, I was conservative with some battery drain settings, such as the screen refresh rate, and all my usage was over Wi-Fi, so I expect you could completely drain the battery over the course of a day if you were there really went for it. Wireless charging isn’t an option here, as mentioned earlier, but the phone supports 65W wired charging with the included charging brick, and it’s fast enough.

Android 11 is preloaded on the Axon 30 Ultra, and ZTE says an Android 12 update will arrive at the end of the year or early 2022. The company doesn’t provide a clear timeline for security updates, but says it will generally take them about three years. Not the worst support policy, but not the very best. ZTE’s Android interface is called MyOS, and it’s a simple affair that doesn’t try to get too fancy. There’s a really overwhelming number of shortcuts in the fully comprehensive quick settings menu that can be accessed by swiping from the top of the screen, but you can rearrange and resize them to your heart’s content.

Cameras galore.

ZTE Axon 30 Ultra cameras

Rather than having one main high-resolution camera complemented by several lower-resolution sensors, ZTE has opted to fit three 64-megapixel sensors into the Axon 30 Ultra’s rear camera. You will find a standard main camera with wide-angle lens and optical stabilization, a wide-angle lens of 35 mm for portraits and an ultra-wide camera. There is also an 8 megapixel 5x telecamera with optical stabilization. There are a lot of cameras, and none of them are disposable.

The Axon 30 Ultra’s cameras are impressive, but also a bit frustrating. First, the good: these three 64-megapixel cameras all capture a lot of detail in good light, which is what I’d expect from the main camera, but that’s not always the case with ultrawides as they usually have lower resolution chips. The Tele module offers 5x true optical zoom – results aren’t great indoors or in low 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 that most other smartphone cameras use. This is a personal preference; I like getting more of the scene in portraits, maybe not. There’s no option to digitally zoom in 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 selfie camera. Something to consider if wide portraits really aren’t your cup of tea.

Now the bad: Image processing (especially color and saturation) is inconsistent between cameras, and two photos from the same camera can vary noticeably with minor shifts in composition or subject positioning. Images from the main camera often look oversaturated. Usually it’s subtle enough not to bother me much, but then I’ll snap a picture of my orange cat and he’ll look like a Cheeto.

Portrait mode photos also have some flaws: separating subjects from blurry backgrounds can look a bit clunky, and the lack of OIS in the portrait camera means you’re more likely to see light blur in dark conditions, even without a lot of camera shake. The increased focal length also means that you have to increase the blur if you want to cover up a distracting background, making the issues with cropping the subject more apparent.

Perhaps these shortcomings are more frustrating, because when the Axon 30 Ultra gets it right, the visuals look really good. Exposure is well balanced, all four cameras are really useful, and each one offers an impressive level of detail retention. I would love to leave my dedicated camera at home more often with this combination of focal lengths and capabilities, but image processing is too big a wildcard to feel comfortable with.

One of the Axon 30 Ultra’s most annoying bugs also lives in the camera app: the camera’s shutter sound stays on all the time, even when every volume control is set to silent. There is no way to turn it off in the camera settings menu or main settings menu. I hate this. Maybe some people could live with it. You may be able to root your phone and fix the problem yourself. Maybe ZTE will solve the problem soon. All I know is that I can’t live a shutter sound lifestyle and I could give it something like that back to a phone no matter how good the photos look.

The Axon 30 Ultra lacks a few flagship features like wireless charging, but it doesn’t skimp on build quality.

The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is exactly what it seems: a cheaper alternative to the big Android flagships with top performance and a great screen. I wouldn’t recommend it just to anyone, and you should be able to live comfortably with a few quirks or navigate your way around it. You don’t get quite the same level of shine or reassurance that you would get from a Samsung, OnePlus, or Google device, but in return, you get great performance for the money.

The Axon 30 Ultra has a healthy price advantage over the other big-screen competition with big performance, like the $ 1,069 OnePlus 9 Pro and the $ 999 Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus. If you’re willing to allow some screen real estate, its benefit gets smaller compared to the OnePlus 9 ($ 729) and the standard Galaxy S21 ($ 800). With each of these options, you get the same excellent performance and a few other benefits, such as wireless charging and more advanced image processing.

It’s an important caveat, of course, that the Axon 30 Ultra won’t work on Verizon. That rules out a significant number of potential customers in the US. And I wish the cameras would live up to their hardware potential more often. If that’s not much of an issue, you’re not a Verizon customer and your priorities are big screen and snappy day-to-day performance, then you have a great option in the 30 Ultra.

That said, I don’t see any reason not to buy the Axon 30 Ultra if the above doesn’t concern you. You get great performance, a huge screen with a silky smooth fast refresh rate, and great camera hardware – and you can rub it in the faces of your friends if you pay hundreds of dollars less for your phone than they do.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge