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Under-display front camera remains inferior to traditional ones
Waterfall design is slippery
No IP rating and wireless charging
While foldable phones are generally credited for trailblazing our technological future, there was a time when under-display cameras (UDC) had just as much influence. Whether you're a selfie-taker or portrait flaker, a near-invisible UDC lends itself to a display that is free of any punch holes, notches, and distractions. (Just imagine an iPhone or MacBook Pro without a notch. Nice, right?)
ZTE's Axon 20 5G, which my colleague Matthew Miller reviewed back in 2020, had the world's first under-display camera. And like many "firsts", it was a mere glimpse of a seamlessly integrated camera. Today, we're looking at ZTE's next big thing: the $799 Axon 40 Ultra.
Having spent the past few days with the newly-released flagship, here are my initial impressions and developing review.
64MP wide, 64MP ultra-wide, 64MP periscope, and a 16MP front
5,000mAh with 65W fast-charging
USB-C, IR blaster, Bluetooth 5.1, Wi-Fi 802.11ac
MyOS12 based on Android 12
Spec-wise, the Axon 40 Ultra checks most boxes of a 2022 Android flagship. Similar to the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and OnePlus 10 Pro, the ZTE is equipped with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, a large AMOLED display that refreshes at 120Hz, 8 to 12GB of RAM, and a 5,000mAh battery that supports the North American maximum of 65-watt fast charging. Where the device falls short is with water and dust resistance, which it doesn't have an IP certification for, and the absence of wireless charging.
Still, there are some notable differentiators that make the Axon 40 Ultra more appealing for global users, such as its $799 price tag, not one but three 64MP cameras on the rear, and, of course, the under-display 16MP front-facing camera. There's also the forgotten IR blaster, handy for folks who often lose their TV remotes.
In the hand, the Axon 40 Ultra reminds me of 2020's Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra. With its rectangular form factor, curved edges, satin-finished back cover, and even the boxy camera module on the upper left corner, the ZTE is a stylus shy of being a Samsung. That's not a knock at the Axon by any means. I think the Note 20 Ultra is one of the best-looking phones to date, and glad to know that ZTE's industrial designers feel the same.
Even though the Axon 40 Ultra has a massive 6.8-inch display, it's shaped in a 20:9 aspect ratio. (For reference, the latest iPhones and Samsungs have a 19.5:9 scale.) This makes the phone narrower and much easier to collapse your fingers around. However, ZTE takes a step backward by curving both the display and the back cover, leaving you with just a sliver of side-railing to grip onto. While I'm the type who tucks a pinky underneath my phone when holding it, I can imagine this feeling like a soap bar for users with smaller hands.
Only in the brightest levels can you make out the pixelated fragments of the Axon 40 Ultra's under-display camera. That's as good of a compliment as I can give for the developing tech. The third-generation UDC is easily the most natural integration I've seen and beats out that of the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and previous Axon devices. Naturally, the Axon 40 Ultra display is a visual marvel, with no diversions when scrolling through apps and watching videos.
As for its picture-taking, the heavy work is once again done in post-processing. The image below shows what the 16MP camera is actually capturing in the viewfinder (left) and what the output (right) is like after all the software adjustments. For the most part, it appears the Axon 40 Ultra just sharpens the captured image, dials down the saturation, and not much else -- which is less aggressive than I expected. However, parts of the selfie, like my shirt and hand, are clearly washed out and lacking in detail.
Bottom line: ZTE's third-generation UDC is an improvement from the previous two but produces shots that are still unnatural-looking and remain inferior to what traditional selfie cameras deliver. The Axon 40 Ultra accomplishes the "under-display" part of UDC by embedding it in the most subtle manner. Now, it just needs to satisfy the "camera" bit.
The Axon 40 Ultra runs on ZTE's custom MyOS skin, based on Android 12. Animations and transitions are buttery smooth with or without the 120Hz refresh rate. I'm a big fan of Android skins that integrate subtle blurs and fadeaways, and MyOS does just that.
In general, I find ZTE's approach to Android respectful. The Google News Feed is a right swipe from the home screen, there are four quick toggles at the top of the notification panel (like on stock Android 12), and the standard suite of Google apps is set as the default. The experience so far has been more approachable and user-friendly than other skins I've tested in the past.
My two callouts with MyOS start with the default slide of pre-installed apps. At the get-go, you're presented with a row of bloatware that includes Booking.com, WPS Office, and Facebook. Fortunately, they can be uninstalled and not just disabled like on Samsung devices. Then there is ZTE's commitment to future software updates -- or lack thereof. While the company has yet to publicize a standard for operating system and security updates like Samsung, Google, and other Android manufacturers, you can expect one to two years of OS upgrades.
I'll be playing with the Axon 40 Ultra's cameras over this weekend, but from the shots that I've already captured with its trio of 64MP lenses (main, ultra-wide, and periscope), I'm satisfied.
There's a customized Sony IMX787 sensor built into the primary camera, which consistently captures realistic colors and blurs out the background (see image below). Even at peak hours, the camera system was able to withstand the sunlight and produce shots that are natural-looking and saturated just enough.
I also want to mention that ZTE's camera app has the most dedicated shooting modes that I've seen on any mobile device. There's a toggle for virtually every scenario and activity you could think of, including Pro, Street, Night, Star trail, Starry sky, Moon, Light draw, Clone, Macro, Multi-exposure, and more.
The Axon 40 Ultra is available for purchase starting at $799 for the 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage configuration. At $799, the handset undercuts every 2022 flagship, including that of Samsung, Google, Apple, and OnePlus. For all the high-end specs you're getting, along with a matured under-display camera, ZTE has quite the value offering on its hands. Stay tuned for the rest of the review as I further test the performance and battery life of the device.