ZTE is one of those companies that's been around for quite some time, but there's a good chance you can't recall any products it's made. In some markets - including my home country of Portugal - you might have noticed a few phones sold under carrier brands are made by the company, but it didn't leave much of an impression on its own.

That's not to say ZTE hasn't made some interesting devices, though. We see a lot of foldable devices these days, and the Surface Duo was a long-awaited device for many, but ZTE had its own take on a dual-screen phone all the way back in 2017. While the hardware design of the Axon M was a far cry from what we see today, a lot of the concepts employed by that phone are still at play on the Surface Duo. However, it seems like it's the execution of those concepts that often leaves ZTE to be forgotten.

Now, we're in 2021 and ZTE has again come out with a very unique phone, the first to have a front-facing camera hidden under the display - the ZTE Axon 20 5G. Yes, this mid-ranger from ZTE is the first smartphone you can buy without a large top bezel, notch, cutout, or moving parts to house its selfie camera. It's a very cool concept, but in reality, there are some sacrifices to be made, and they're probably more than you should be willing to accept. In the end, it feels like the Axon 20 will suffer the same fate as its predecessors.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 - one 2.4GHz Kryo 475 Prime, one 2.2GHz Kryo 475 Gold, six 1.8GHz Kryo 475 Silver
GPU Adreno 620
Display 6.92 inches, 1080x2460, 382ppi, 90Hz, OLED
Body 172.1x77.9x7.98mm (6.78x3.07x0.31in), 198g (6.92oz)
Camera 64MP main + 8MP ultra-wide + 2MP macro + 2MP depth, Front - 32MP Under-display
Video 4K - 60fps, HDR; Front - 1080p - 30fps
Aperture f/1.89 + f/2.2 + f/2.4 + f/2.4, Front - F/2.0
Storage 128GB
RAM 8GB
Battery 4,220mAh, 30W charging
Color

Midnight Black, Sunrise Yellow

OS Android 10 with MiFavor UI 10.5
Price $449/€449/£419

Day one

Design

The ZTE Axon 20 is a pretty standard-looking phone on the surface, just like most slab-style smartphones. Black really isn't a super appealing color for me as far as phones go, but this phone does have a pretty cool pattern going on under the glass and it reflects light in an interesting way. I'm all for little details to give phones a bit more flair, so while I would have liked to see the Sunrise Yellow model, this isn't bad.

At the top left corner of the phone's back, there's the camera module, which is housed in a pretty big bump, especially considering the quality of the pictures you get from it - more on that later. It has something of a dual-tone look to it, but it doesn't stand out enough to make it that interesting to look at.

On the right edge of the phone's frame - which is made of plastic, by the way - you'll find the power button and volume rocker, which are two separate buttons. Having the three buttons on the same side and with them being the same size can lead to confusion with what button you're pressing, but it's not a huge deal. However, the power button is textured and reminds me of carbon fiber, which means you can tell it apart by touch, but that won't work if you're using a case.

The left side of the phone is completely clean, and the top only has one microphone hole.

That means everything else is at the bottom of the phone, including a speaker grill, another microphone, a USB Type-C port, and the SIM card slot, which can house two SIM cards or one SIM and one microSD card.

Display and sound

Of course, the display is the centerpiece of the ZTE Axon 20, specifically due to the fact that it hides every front-facing component of the phone. The fingerprint sensor, earpiece, ambient light sensor, and selfie camera are all tucked away behind the 6.92-inch Full HD+ panel. It's an OLED display, so it has the usual benefits - true blacks and vivid colors. OLED is also kind of a requirement to have that semi-transparent area for the selfie camera, since it doesn't require a backlight.

In general terms, the display looks just fine, Full HD+ is easily enough resolution for a smartphone screen in my opinion, though my usual complaint of colors looking uneven at lower brightness levels (specifically with Night Light on) still applies here. It also has a 90Hz refresh rate, which is always great to see. It's actually set to 60Hz out of the box, but that's easy to change.

But what you're probably interested in is how it looks in the area above that selfie camera. Put simply, it's not great, but it's ok. As you might have noticed in my hands-on video, I actually couldn't tell a difference in how that area looks when looking normally at the display, but in reality, it depends. In brighter environments and higher screen brightness, it can easily fade away, but as the screen brightness goes lower, you can more clearly tell that the image looks different in that little area, with a sort of green hue and fuzzy image quality. At lower brightness levels, you can also sometimes see a blinking light next to the camera, which is from the ambient light sensor.

The thing is, the area above the camera is almost never your point of focus if you're just using the phone. With that in mind, I do think the under-display camera does a better job of going unnoticed than a typical notch, especially given the right lighting conditions. It's also less noticeable than a notch or punch-hole cutout when the area around it is black. It's definitely first-generation technology, but I think it's an improvement and seeing this first implementation gives me hope for future iterations.

As for sound, the ZTE Axon 20 is alright. It does get pretty loud from the bottom speaker, and while the quality in general seems fine when I'm watching YouTube, the sound of the Google Assistant talking back at me sounds much less crisp than on other phones I've used. The earpiece being behind the display also seems fine, I've always been able to hear callers just fine.

The phone supports DTS:X Ultra sound, and by default, the In-front profile seems to only use the bottom-firing speaker for sound, but you can change to the Wide profile to amplify the earpiece to use as a second speaker. It doesn't sound as good as the primary speaker, and it doesn't really add much in terms of the overall experience in my opinion.

Camera

The Axon 20 has a quad-camera setup on the back, with two of those cameras being throwaways right out of the gate - a 2MP depth sensor and a 2MP macro camera that are only here to give this phone an extra bullet point on the specs list. The main camera is 64MP, and there's also an 8MP ultra-wide camera for when you want to get more in a shot. On the front, the display hides a 32MP selfie camera, which is likely what you're most interested in.

Of course, the question that needs to be answered here is - how much does the camera quality suffer on the selfie camera with a display panel on top of it? To that I say don't worry, the rear camera doesn't have a display on top of it and it's still pretty bad. There's a lot to unpack with this camera, but first off, I'll just say that pictures and videos from this phone look very dark by default. All the pictures are just so much darker and grainier than they should be, even in outdoor situations. Also, similar to a lot of 8MP ultra-wide-angle cameras I've tested, the quality here is not great, with not much in the way of detail and clarity.

The phone does support HDR for photos, and it's set to automatically use it when needed. I've never seen HDR kick in automatically, though, and the pictures look terrible without it. You can enable it manually, and that does help a lot with making the colors appear more in line with real life, but it misses the point of having an automatic HDR mode this way. Still, you can leave it on all the time, you're more likely to get a decent shot that way.

There's also a night mode, which many phones have these days. The unique thing about this one is that it often makes night time pictures look worse, which is quite puzzling. In the right conditions, night mode can help make things a bit brighter and more visible, yes, but if you're in really dark environments, pictures will sometimes look darker with night mode on than they do in the regular mode. Also, night mode comes with some restrictions. For example, you can only use the main camera in night mode. To add insult to injury, the Camera app seems to stop caring about how you hold the phone when using dark mode. If you take a picture in landscape orientation, it will still be saved in portrait orientation and you have to rotate it manually after the fact.

And of course, to address the elephant in the room, the selfie camera suffers quite a bit from having the display components on top of it, despite ZTE's claims of using special display technology and AI algorithms to improve image quality. Pictures from this camera are incredibly soft and bright areas are blown out significantly. As someone who doesn't take selfies very often, this is usable in a pinch, and surprisingly, I like the colors from this camera more than the rear camera sometimes. It's not good, but it does give me hope that other companies will see this and invest more into making good under-display cameras in the near future.

Aside from pictures, there's plenty of modes here, including a "Vlog" video mode that lets you record small segments of video and splice them together as a sort of montage. Movie mode lets you record 21:9 videos, and there's stuff like slow motion recording up to 480 frames per second.

Software, performance, and battery life

The Axon 20 5G runs Android 10, despite releasing late in 2020, and it has ZTE's MiFavor UI skin overlaid on top of it. Visually, MiFavor UI is pretty distinct from vanilla Android, but it's not unrecognizable by any means. It doesn't include a ton of bloatware and relies more so on Google apps for basic functionality, though some things are custom, like the BestWeather app, Clock, and Game Assist. Still, it's clean enough that it doesn't bother me, and it has the advantage of allowing me to easily remove most of the pre-installed apps, which can't be said for every Android skin.

Diving into the settings, it's mostly standard stuff, but there are some things I like that I want to point out. As usual, I have to praise ZTE for allowing me to change both text and display scaling, which is really helpful on a huge 1080p display. Another thing I found cool is that the Night Light feature not only lets me choose the level of blue light filtering, it also lets me adjust the white point, which can greatly reduce the intensity of bright colors when it kicks in.

On the other hand, I've had some annoying issues with the experience with MiFavor UI. In the task switcher, some apps are represented by nothing. Really, it's just a blank space, without a title or anything, but tapping it will take you to the app in question; you just don't know what it is. I've also found myself having more trouble than usual getting the navigation gestures to work. Most frustrating of all, I couldn't set up a Wear OS device on this phone, for whatever reason. It kept failing while setting up my Google accounts, even after resetting the watch and the phone.

That takes me into performance, which is actually pretty good. I half expected things to feel pretty slow before I got this phone (I'm not sure why), but everything works pretty well. Animations are smooth, things load fast, I haven't noticed waiting times switching between apps, it's all pretty good. That seems to be backed up by benchmarks, starting with AnTuTu, which tests the overall performance.

The score here is 15,000 points higher than the similarly-specced OPPO Reno4 Pro 5G, a solid result. That phone already felt pretty fast, but I'm not surprised to see this score higher. Usually, I'd have a screenshot of the ranking, but for whatever reason, the page refused to load on the latest version on AnTuTu.

Moving on to GeekBench 5, a CPU benchmark, the story is similar. Continuing the comparison with the Reno4 Pro 5G, the single-core score is nearly identical, but the Axon 20 comes out well ahead in multi-core performance.

Finally, GFXBench seems to be the exception to this trend. This is a GPU benchmark, and the Axon 20 seems to perform slightly worse across the board.

Battery life is another strong point for the Axon 20, and its 4,220mAh has never failed to get me through a day. On a few occasions, I've actually gone to bed with over 50% battery so I can use it for two consecutive days on a charge, which I always appreciate. However, that seems to come at the cost of some background tasks. I've only noticed this issue with the Outlook app, but I've missed a ton of emails because the phone refuses to send me notifications for them, and that's very inconvenient. This doesn't happen with other phones with the same settings, so I wasn't expecting it to be a problem here. Aside from that, the phone supports 30W charging, and it's pretty fast so getting back up to a full charge doesn't take very long at all.

Conclusion

Before I got to try this phone, and with no prior experience with ZTE, I kind of expected this to be a phone that focuses exclusively on doing one thing and fails at everything else. That isn't really the case, though. I was really happy with the performance, battery life, and the overall quality of the display and sound. ZTE gets a lot of the basics right, and on top of that, it adds the unique proposition of an under-display camera, and all of that costs about as much as you'd expect a phone with these specs to cost. You're not charged a ludicrous amount of money for a poorly implemented innovation.

That doesn't mean that the front-facing camera is any good, though, it's just not overpriced. While you probably can't fault ZTE for trying new things, the fact is the image quality from the selfie camera is bad, and if you care about how your pictures look, this just won't fly.

To add insult to injury, the rear camera is a bad experience, too. The default settings deliver terribly dark pictures, automatic HDR never kicks in on its own, and night mode is limited to the main camera. And that's to say nothing of the fact that it refuses to acknowledge the phone's orientation if I'm using night mode, so all my pictures are sideways.

Overall, the ZTE Axon 20 offers a good experience, but if you take pictures with your phone often or you just care about how they look, this isn't the one for you. If you're eager to try a first-generation piece of tech and you don't care about the image quality, there's a solid enough value proposition here, and a "cool" factor to boot. You can buy the Axon 20 for €449/£419. While ZTE also provides a price in U.S. dollars, it can't currently ship to the U.S. or Canada.

 

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