ZTE Axon 20 5G is the first phone with a selfie camera underneath the display. ZTE Axon series has brought a lot of innovations in the past. And the newest ZTE Axon 20 5G ensures that the innovative streak continues.
For a phone that launched a while ago why is our review so late? Well for starters we only got it a couple of weeks ago. Turns out the strained USA/China relationship means only a few units are allowed which are slowly making rounds with the various reviewers.
For a phone with a radical new feature, there isn’t anything fancy with the box at all. The unboxing is decidedly a ho-hum affair. Box, phone, insert with case and SIM tool, fast charging brick, USB-C cable, and a headphone jack dongle. Everything in the box is in plain vanilla white. However, you get everything you need to get started which is a good thing I guess.
ZTE Axon 20 5G hardware is definitely premium looking
The ZTE Axon 20 5G has a glass front, glass back and a plastic frame. The device is built extremely well and looks-wise definitely feels premium. There are no obvious creaks or squeaks.
Since it has a glass back, it is slippery as an eel so for day-to-day use, it is best to slap on the nice matte texture case included in the box. The right-hand side rail houses the power button and the volume rocker. The power button has a slanted texture finish to help distinguish it from the volume buttons.
On the top frame, we get a microphone and nothing else. Moving along on the left-hand side rail is clean and then on the bottom rail, we have a microphone, USB-C port, and speaker grille.
Let’s take a look at the front of the device. Here we have no punch hole or notch in the display area thanks to the under-display selfie camera. The screen is gargantuan in size as it is almost 7 inches diagonally. One would think that with no camera cutout or notch it would be an all display look in the front. However, the slightly larger chin at the bottom is a lost opportunity by ZTE to achieve an almost full-screen look.
As we take a look at the back of this phone, you can’t help but notice the large rectangular quad-camera module. And with a large camera array, you get a lot of wobble on a flat surface which is a common phenomenon for smartphones that have large camera modules. Besides the camera module, there is the Axon 5G logo at the bottom and a ZTE logo just under the camera. Other than that there is some light CE marking opposite to the Axon 5G logo.
The back shows a slight surface color gradient depending on the lighting condition and viewing angle which is a nice touch. The color gradient is definitely more subtle than some other devices such as the Oppo Reno 5 Pro 5G. Oh and since it is a smooth glass back this phone is a fingerprint magnet, luckily ZTE includes a nice matte case in the box to help alleviate this problem.
The Axon 20 5G has a massive 6.92″ display and a 4220 mAh battery. Somehow though ZTE has managed to distribute the 198 grams quite evenly so the in-hand feel isn’t as weighty. Despite this observation, I feel that the device is a bit too large for my taste.
Two other quick things to bear in mind as far as hardware impressions go. I am not able to ascertain what sort of glass is protecting the display. In addition, my review unit came without a factory screen protector but that may not be the case with retail units.
ZTE is offering the Axon 20 5G in four colors – Purple, Orange, Blue, and Black. I also think that ZTE has priced the phone attractively for the various features it is offering besides the under-display selfie camera.
The 10-bit 90Hz refresh rate OLED Display is excellent
You have to admit, the best of this smartphone is the no-hole punch display. Aside from that headline, the Axon 20 5G packs a massive 6.92″ 90Hz refresh rate FHD+ OLED panel with a 388 ppi pixel density. It also features a 240Hz sampling rate which results in a smoother UI along with improved touch response.
Let’s talk about the 10-bit color depth display of the Axon 20 5G versus the standard 8-bit color depth displays. An 8-bit display has 256 gradations of red, blue, and green which gives us 256x256x256 or a total of 16.7 million possible colors. Now for 10-bit panels, each pixel shows 1024 versions of red, blue, and green which 1024^3 yields 1.07 BILLION possible colors. Needless to say, the OLED display panel on the Axon 20 5G is superb and has 100% DCI-P3 color gamut.
Rounding out the display specs we have a 20.5:9 tall aspect ratio and Always On Display (AOD) support. No official brightness numbers but in broad daylight outdoors at a farm, I had no issues with visibility when capturing pictures and video. So the peak brightness by my guesstimate is definitely around 1000 nits or more.
With a beautiful high refresh rate OLED display supporting 10-bit color depth means video and gaming experience is good. However, there are two issues that mar this visual experience. First is a pixelation in the area where the selfie camera is in white backgrounds. The second is a disappointing 84.8% screen-to-body ratio. For comparison purposes, my current daily driver S20 FE has the same screen-to-body ratio even with the hole punch. So I just wish ZTE had made the bottom chin a bit smaller.
Speaking of Display options, MiFavor UI has a lot of customization options. Screen refresh rate, improved contrast, dark mode, reading mode, night light, and screen color temperature can all be tweaked to your personal preference. So from a display settings perspective, ZTE allows a level of customization equal to other top-tier smartphone manufacturers.
I think ZTE should have made the device with really slim bezels like on their marketing materials. And I am bummed that ZTE missed out on capitalizing this despite the under-display selfie camera. The end result would have been a gorgeous large screen display since there is no hole punch or notch. Instead, there isn’t anything that makes the Axon 20 5G stand out when compared with other similarly priced devices. ZTE could have scored a home run but instead looks like they bunted for just first base.
Snapdragon 765 and 8GB RAM mean performance is equivalent to a Pixel 4a 5G
There are three flavors of the ZTE Axon 20 5G for sale. Mainly the differences are in RAM and storage – 6GB/128GB, 8GB/128GB and 8GB/256GB. My review unit is the middle of the road (8GB/128GB) which resembles the specs for the Pixel 4a 5G.
Geekbench score for this device compares well to what we have seen for other smartphones with a Snapdragon 765 (7nm) processor. My review unit got a Single-Core score of 715 and a Multi-Core score of 3018 on Geekbench 5.
Gaming performance on this device is excellent and comparable to other devices running a similar hardware setup. The Snapdragon 765 processor with the Adreno 620 GPU is quite capable of playing PUBG or COD at normal settings without any hiccups. Extended gaming periods did not result in any significant amount of heating which indicates that ZTE engineers did pay proper attention to heat dissipation during hardware design.
The system software automatically turns on Game Mode when you launch a gaming app. So to summarize, from a performance perspective there don’t seem to be any glaring drawbacks for the near or distant future.
Software on the ZTE Axon 20 5G is still Android 10
The software on this device is a custom ZTE UI called MiFavor. The version on the Axon 20 5G is MiFavor 10.5 which is based on Android 10. So it is about a generation behind compared to devices from other mainstream Android manufacturers. However, ZTE did update the security patch to January 2021. So overall from a device software standpoint you get some mixed signals.
The MiFavor skin isn’t too far off from the stock Google Android experience. Since it is a fairly large phone, I chose to use the navigation buttons in lieu of gestures. The best part about the ZTE MiFavor UI is that there aren’t any extra app stores like the ones on Samsung, Oppo, or Xiaomi devices. You get the Google Play Store and that’s it.
The other perk that MiFavor has that there aren’t any duplicate caller or messages apps. These apps are all identical to what you will find on a Pixel device. The only difference I see in terms of regular use is that swiping left doesn’t bring up the Google Discover Feed. This is because the home screen is a rotating carousel of sorts. There are also a lot of options such as one-handed mode and Z-Pop which is similar to the Edge function on a Samsung Galaxy series device.
A few other bright spots are there are no ads that try to promote other apps when you are installing a software update or an app from the Play Store. This is something Xiaomi needs to implement with their devices going forward. There isn’t any noticeable bloatware on the phone and the WPS Office that comes preloaded can be uninstalled for a near-stock Android experience.
For unlocking the phone there is a fairly quick under-display fingerprint scanner. There is an option for face unlock but on most Android devices this isn’t very secure I typically skip past it during setup.
Overall with the exception of the phone running Android 10 in 2021, I have no complaints related to the software on the ZTE Axon 20 5G.
Selfie Camera is not good but Main Rear Camera is very good
For this review, let’s first talk about the elephant in the room. Which is, how good is the selfie camera on the first commercially available smartphone with an under-display selfie camera.
The short answer is that the results aren’t that great. And this is despite having a 32MP f/2.0 high spec hardware under the screen.
Before we dissect the selfie camera performance let’s learn a bit more about how ZTE accomplished this feat. To get a camera underneath the screen, ZTE uses two screens simultaneously. One is a small square screen on top of the selfie camera and the other being the main OLED display. For a detailed breakdown go see Jerry’s teardown video here. In most use case scenarios you will not notice the under-display camera but in certain apps with white backgrounds, it is very easy to spot it.
As far as the output of the selfie camera is concerned, exposure and focus are fairly stable, but the unique under-display design of the Axon 20 creates a bunch of image quality problems. One thing you will notice right away is that the dynamic range is pretty poor so you constantly get blown out pictures. You will also see pictures consistently underexposed as well.
Outdoors I noticed that if you shoot a selfie while holding the camera flat in your hand and looking down results improve quite a bit. However, the nose hair POV is not most people’s idea of a good selfie so take that with a pinch of salt. There are plenty of issues with white balance, unnatural skin tones, and blurring if the distance is around 2 feet from your face. Noise levels are high in regular light and get progressively worse when lighting conditions aren’t optimal.
So we get a clean aesthetic look on the front display but the downside is relatively poor selfie camera performance. If you don’t take a lot of selfies then this device might be something you should consider. This is because the rear main camera performance is a solid B+.
The main rear camera is a 64MP f/1.8 sensor and then there is an 8MP f/2.2 ultra-wide. There are also a 2MP f/2.4 macro and a 2MP f/2.4 depth sensor. The main camera sensor is capable enough to keep pace with other phones in this price range especially in daylight. However, a similarly priced Pixel 4a 5G will run circles around the Axon 20 5G.
With a bit of practice, you can expect fairly good results from the main camera. Even though it is 64MP, the final output is 16MP due to the 4-in-1 pixel binning. Night mode works reasonably well on this device in low light but it still struggles a bit more than the competition. Expect a bit of a learning curve and a steady hand to coax out some good pictures from the main camera and the ultra-wide cameras.
Not much to report on video capabilities for this device. Basically, you can record in 4K at 30 FPS or 60 FPS from the rear camera. The camera app has a variety of other modes/options for VLOG, lighting conditions, etc.
Battery Life is good for a full day of use
Thanks to an OLED screen and Snapdragon 765, the ZTE Axon 20 5G offers reasonable battery life with a 4,220mAh battery. However, there are other large-screen phones that have larger batteries and end up getting better battery life than the Axon 20 5G.
So if you are looking for absolutely stellar multi-day battery life, this device will disappoint you. Having said that, you can easily go from dawn to dusk without having to worry about having to top up. I consistently got over 5 hours Screen-on-Time during my review period.
And as far as recharging goes, there is no support for wireless charging. However, ZTE does include a 30W fast charging brick in the box. It is strange mentioning a charging brick in reviews, but this is 2021, and smartphone makers are busy eliminating the charging brick from their retail packaging.
One quick caveat about battery life, my SOT time was quite good but this is because my phone for some reason never connected to the 5G signal on T-Mobile. So your individual experience may differ from mine.
Audio is just satisfactory, even with DTS:X and under-display top speaker
There is no headphone jack on the ZTE Axon 20 5G. Using the headphone jack dongle or a Google Pixel dongle yields slightly different results. The sound output quality is better in my opinion with the factory dongle. I used my Audio Technica wired earbuds for test purposes. Bluetooth audio quality is excellent and I had no issues with pairing my Realme Air Buds Pro. Supposedly there is a Hi-Fi Earphone setting in the Sound menu but I was not able to test it out.
As far as speaker output goes the quality is satisfactory, to say the least. The bottom-firing speaker is quite loud but I am not so sure about the quality of the output from the under-display top speaker. The call quality in handset mode using the top speaker was okay since it uses the bone conduction method to deliver sound.
So best to use the dongle or BT headphones for enjoying music, video, or play games. For regular calls, either handset or speakerphone works like other smartphones. Another category where I would rate this phone a solid B+.
ZTE Axon 20 5G never got a 5G signal on T-Mobile in Southern California
On paper, the ZTE Axon 20 is a dual SIM 5G device. However, on the T-Mobile network in Southern California, I never saw the 5G signal logo in the top left corner. I only saw 3G, 4G and LTE symbols while out and about. Download speeds ranged around 2-4 Mbps similar to my Pixel 4a which is a 4G device.
The review sample was provided by ZTE USA yet I was unable to get 5G on T-Mobile’s GSM network. This was perplexing because I made sure to use the R15 SIM card from T-Mobile. And that same SIM card in my S21 gets 5G on T-Mobile without any issues.
Call quality was excellent via handset (under display speaker) or speakerphone modes. Every day calls, texts, downloading apps, watching YouTube videos, or streaming music via Spotify Stations has no known issues even with the meager download speeds. Bluetooth 5.1 support means there were no issues pairing my Enacfire E90 earbuds with this smartphone. Wi-Fi connectivity is great with dual-band Wi-Fi Direct support.
The ZTE Axon 20 5G has NFC including Dual-SIM NFC settings. The Connected devices settings menu has Screen Cast, and Nearby Share to round out connectivity options.
Should you buy the ZTE Axon 20 5G?
So is there one standout reason to buy the ZTE Axon 20 5G? The promise of an under-display selfie camera on paper is dashed by poor selfie camera results. Not to mention a fairly large screen-to-body ratio. On the rear camera front, only the main camera performance is decent. The output from the remaining three requires quite a bit of effort to produce good results. The other nagging problem is the lack of 5G connectivity at least in the USA on T-Mobile.
I think that ZTE missed the opportunity to make the front of the phone standout with the under-display camera. I mean an edge-to-edge display with no hole punch would definitely get more folks interested in this device.
Having said that, there are some good points, the first being the price. One thing ZTE did do well is set a realistic MSRP. So if you want a large 10-bit OLED display, decent battery life, gimmick-free software, and don’t care about selfies then the ZTE Axon 20 5G should be on your list.