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ZTE Axon 30 Ultra review: A step in the right direction
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra
Retail price: $749.00$749.00 at ZTE
What we like
What we don't like
ZTE is jumping back into the high-end premium phone market feet first with the Axon 30 Ultra. This flagship smartphone offers all the specs the Axon 20 didn’t and does so in a sleek, modern package. On paper, it competes well with top phones from Xiaomi, Samsung, OnePlus, and others. Does the latest from ZTE have what it takes to score consumers’ cash? Find out in the Android Authority ZTE Axon 30 Ultra review.
What you need to know about the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra
- ZTE Axon 30 Ultra (8GB/128GB): $749/€749/£649
- ZTE Axon 30 Ultra (12GB/256GB): $849/€849/£739
The Axon 30 Ultra marks a return to the premiere flagship space for ZTE. It’s a monster of a device with (almost) all the specs and features you expect to see in this category.
The Axon 30 Ultra is already being sold in China and is being made available for North America, Europe, and the UK starting in June. Two models will be made available to the greater worldwide market; one with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and another with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. Black is the only color option available outside of China. Online preordering from ZTE’s website starts May 27 and the general on-sale date is June 4. Anyone who pre-orders the phone will receive a free pair of headphones from ZTE.
The phone goes head-to-head with the likes of the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro, the Samsung Galaxy S21 series, and the Xiaomi Mi 11 family. That’s some stiff competition, but the Axon 30 Ultra is up for the challenge.
How is the design?
ZTE’s Axon 30 Ultra reminds me a bit of the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s a blocky piece of hardware that has tight corners and a massive camera module on the rear. The phone takes on the glass and metal sandwich design, with Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, and aluminum serving as the mid-frame. ZTE didn’t say why it went with Gorilla Glass 5 rather than the newer Gorilla Glass Victus, though it’s not a dealbreaker at this price point. Both the front and rear glass panels are curved, the rear more so than the front. The curves help the phone rest deeper in your grip. The metal frame is thin along the side rails and sticks out a bit. You can feel it against your palms. I like the black colorway, which takes on different hues depending on how you hold it in the light. It has a matte finish and includes an anti-scratch coating.
See also: The best ZTE phones you can get in 2021
The phone is a good-sized hunk of glass. The screen shape makes for a tall, lean phone that’s easy to grip in your hand, but not necessarily easy to reach with your thumb. ZTE kept the weight to a respectable 188g. It doesn’t feel overlarge in your pocket, though the corners may poke you in the leg as you move around.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a fine piece of hardware, even if it borders a little bit on the familiar.
The phone’s functional elements are reserved for the right and bottom edges. On the right is where you’ll find a screen lock button and volume toggle. These buttons are a bit sharp against your skin but provide excellent feedback. The bottom edge houses a USB-C port, a bottom-firing speaker, and a dual-SIM card slot. ZTE maintained clean lines on the left side and top edge. That means there’s no room for a headphone jack. In addition, unlike previous Axon series phones, the Axon 30 Ultra doesn’t support expandable storage.
Most flagship phones have adopted massive camera modules the last few years and the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is no different. The phone’s module is beefy and busy. Four lenses crowd the module along with a flash, laser-focusing system, and stenciled text. It’s hard to miss.
ZTE says the phone has “basic waterproofing only” and does not carry an IP rating. Many of the phone’s competitors do have official water and dust resistance ratings.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a fine piece of hardware, even if it borders a little bit on the familiar.
What about the 144Hz screen?
ZTE loaded the Axon 30 Ultra with a high-tech screen. It bests much of the competition by skipping the 120Hz refresh rate and jumping to 144Hz instead. ZTE ensured the screen is power efficient. It is set to adaptive mode out of the box, which means the screen varies the refresh rate depending on what you’re viewing. You can also choose to peg it at 60Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz, or 144Hz if you wish. At 144Hz, the result is some of the smoothest on-screen action in both everyday apps and games that we’ve seen outside of dedicated gaming phones.
The panel stretches 6.67-inches with Full HD+ resolution (2,400 x 1,080) in a 20:9 aspect ratio. In addition to the fast refresh rate, the screen supports a 300Hz touch response rate, 10-bit color, and a 100% DCI-P3 color gamut. You’ll note a small punch hole camera centered at the top of the display. Unlike the Axon 20 5G, the Axon 30 Ultra does not have an under-display selfie camera. ZTE says the screen-to-body ratio is 95%. These specs are all on par for a flagship device.
The screen is a beauty to behold. Scrolling up and down menu items and feeds looks incredible thanks to the higher refresh rate. Colors look rich, the resolution is sharp enough for most people, and the brightness measures up under the sun. It’s a good screen, particularly for watching video.
There is a fingerprint reader built into the display which I found to be a cinch to train and painless to use for unlocking the phone in a hurry. I also didn’t encounter any ghost touch issues with the screen’s curved edges.
How is battery life?
ZTE crammed a 4,600mAh battery inside the Axon 30 Ultra and it does a good job. With the phone set to the adaptive screen refresh rate, I regularly saw plenty of battery left in the tank after a full day of heavy usage. Screen-on time was often between 6.5 and 7.5 hours, which is plenty. Standby time stretches into the ridiculous if you use the phone lightly.
There are gobs of tools aboard to manage battery life, from the always-on display to dark mode, screen refresh rate, and background app usage. If you find yourself in battery trouble, there’s likely a setting to adjust that solves the problem.
The phone supports 65W wired charging and the charger comes in the box. In our tests, the phone powered up from 0% to 100% in just under 50 minutes. That’s not the fastest we’ve seen but it’s still really quick. There’s no support for wireless charging, which is a major missing feature for a modern flagship, even one that’s this affordable.
How powerful is it?
With the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 aboard, along with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in our review unit, the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra sets the stage for stellar performance and it delivers.
The device powered through the usual set of benchmarks. On 3DMark, for example, it outscored 91% of all devices — only other Snapdragon 888 phones bested it. It did very well in GeekBench and AnTuTu, as well. For our own, homegrown Speed Test G benchmark, the 30 Ultra ran it in 74 seconds, which is extremely competitive with other Snapdragon 888 devices.
Speaking more practically, real-world usage demonstrated zippy performance across the board. Everything about the phone felt fast and fluid. The phone never lagged or slowed down, and even intense games ran smoothly with no frame drops.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra lives up to the Snapdragon 888’s tall promise and based on our results the 8GB model provides all you need. The 12GB model might be overkill.
How good is the Axon 30 Ultra camera?
Even though the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra has four rear-facing cameras, the company refers to it as the “trinity camera system.” The phone has three 64MP sensors on board for the standard, ultra-wide, and portrait lenses, respectively. There’s a periscoped 8MP zoom camera as well, which can handle 5x optical zoom, 10x hybrid zoom, and 60x digital zoom. The camera also includes a laser detect autofocus system and dual-LED flash.
It’s a solid camera system that, in general, captures good snaps when out and about. I was pleased with focus, exposure, and color, which were all on point. The ultra-wide handles images with aplomb. Color profiles across the three main lenses (wide, ultra-wide, tele) are somewhat different as you can see below in the greens, blues, and whites. You can also see how the zoom works from 0.6x to 60x in the series below. Zooming to the maximum is clearly worthless, but the 5x optical results were pretty solid.
Indoor shots are accurate, with good focus and color, but a touch of grain, as evidenced by the samples below. The dynamic range is also great, as seen in the balloon photo.
ZTE packed the camera with tons of shooting modes to explore, such as the ability to capture video with up to three cameras at the same time, long-exposure portrait for creating dramatic backgrounds behind your subject, super moon ultra shot for enhanced moon photography, a color-changing filter, as well as multiple vlogging templates and other video filters. The moonshot feature, which is similar to one on the Samsung Galaxy S21, doesn’t produce the best results as you can see below. Even so, the camera did a decent job at sunset and post sunset.
The phone can record video at up to 8K at 30fps or 4K at 60fps, which is standard for a flagship these days. The video footage looked really good. I was pleased with color, focus, and clarity of what I shot. I didn’t see any noise or other problems in my videos.
The 12MP selfie camera does a semi-respectable job. It doesn’t overdo the beautification, which I appreciate. Outdoor shots looked clean. Selfies captured indoors were on the grainy side. Self-portraits taken indoors were mixed, and you can see in the (right) sample below that the camera had a hard time detecting the left side of my face.
You can view full-sized samples in this Google Drive folder.
- Stereo speakers: The phone combines the earpiece and bottom-firing speaker to generate stereo audio. The sound is good as long as you keep the volume set to a reasonable level. Blasting it all the way up creates a lot of unwanted distortion.
- My OS: This is the latest version of ZTE’s Android user interface skin. It’s palatable. I’m not a big fan of the colors used throughout the UI, but that may be just me. I appreciate that there are only a couple of bloatware apps on board and they can be deleted.
- Updates: ZTE’s track record for updates is murky at best. For the Axon 30 Ultra, ZTE said it will “provide Android OS updates, regular security patches, and approximately two years of support (may fluctuate by region).” If you’re looking for a gauge on how timely those updates may be, ZTE has yet to update last year’s Axon 20 5G to Android 11.
- 5G: Not only does the phone support sub-6GHz 5G, but it also supports “dual 5G.” What does that mean? You can have two 5G-enabled SIM cards in the phone running on separate 5G networks. Few phones can do that. It doesn’t support mmWave 5G.
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra specs
|ZTE Axon 30 Ultra|
2,400 x 1,080 Full HD+
HDR10+, 100% DCI-P3
Main: 64MP, f/1.6, OIS
Portrait: 64MP, f/1.9
Ultra-wide: 64MP, f/2.2
Telephoto: 8MP, OIS
65W wired charging
161.53 × 72.96 × 8.0mm
Value and competition
ZTE’s pricing for the Axon 30 Ultra is fairly aggressive. It’s not the cheapest flagship to reach the market, but it undercuts some of the competition by hundreds of dollars. At $749 for the base model, you’ve got the 6.67-inch, 144Hz screen, the Snapdragon 888 with 8GB/128GB, the quad-camera system, and all-day battery life in a package that’s well built and attractive. Boosting the RAM and storage to 12GB/256GB only costs $100 more ($849) and might be worth it if you plan to shoot a lot of videos.
Starting off, let’s address the ZTE Axon 30 Pro, which is a less-costly version of this phone. The screen is the same size, though it is limited to 120Hz. It also has the Snapdragon 888, a 64MP main camera, and 128GB/256GB storage options, but it lowers RAM to 6GB and makes other concessions. Pricing is more reasonable at about $459, though the phone is limited to China for the moment.
The relative bargain pricing of the ZTE is a compelling sales factor.
The most obvious competitor from other brands is the Samsung Galaxy S21 range. The Galaxy S21 is an excellent choice, but it does cost a bit more money if you want a screen size comparable to that of the Axon 30 with the Galaxy S21 Plus. Samsung’s cameras are better, though, and each phone in the series has official IP ratings, supports wireless charging, and has a three-year software upgrade commitment from Samsung. That extra cash might be worth it.
The standard OnePlus 9 is something to consider. At $729, it plays right in the same space as the Axon 30. It sacrifices a few premium features but is still a decent phone. Another option is the more expensive $969 OnePlus 9 Pro. I found the design of the OnePlus 9 Pro better than the Axon 30 Ultra, but that’s subjective. More importantly, the cameras are about on par between the two phones.
Elsewhere, Xiaomi’s affordable $749 Mi 11 is a fine phone with an appealing design that might serve as an alternative to the Axon 30 Ultra.
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra review: The verdict
ZTE’s first true flagship phone in years is an excellent effort. The Axon 30 Ultra is a finely crafted piece of hardware that covers most of the basics in terms of features and performance.
In its favor, the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra has a beast of a screen, top pixel-pushing power, and battery life that lasts. Detractors include no wireless charging and no IP rating, both of which are available from many competitors.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra competes well in a healthy market for premium devices.
The Axon 30 Ultra is the most compelling flagship I’ve seen from ZTE in a long time, though it falls just short of today’s best.
Who is it for? Anyone who’s in the market for a budget flagship might consider the Axon 30 Ultra. Perhaps it doesn’t illicit the raw emotional appeal some of its competitors do but ZTE managed to turn out a high-end device just the same. ZTE has taken a big step forward with the Axon 30 Ultra.