The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is a high-end device that checks all the right hardware boxes. Snapdragon 888 processor? Check. Fast refresh rate screen? Check. A metric ton of rear-facing cameras? Check, check, check, and check. Itâs also priced well, starting at $749 while many of its competitors start around the $1,000 mark.
The Axon 30 Ultra delivers on many fronts, like its high-quality screen and flagship-level performance. For some, that will be enough. However, it falls short in more subtle ways that you wonât see on a spec sheet. Its novel camera array is let down by uneven, heavy-handed processing. Thereâs also a stray bug here and there, which can range from harmless (a 5G on / off toggle appears twice in a quick settings menu) to more annoying (the camera shutter noise going off even in silent mode). ZTE may iron out these bugs in future updates, or they wonât, and youâll be the obnoxious parent with the noisy smartphone camera during your childâs dance recital.
the Axon 30 Ultra offers top-notch performance with a large, lovely screen
And even though all of the key hardware is there, a few flagship-y features have been omitted to hit the Axon 30 Ultraâs more aggressive price point. Thereâs no IP rating for water resistance and no wireless charging. The phone doesnât work on Verizon either, just on T-Mobile and AT&T, and 5G service on T-Mobile is limited to one band.
If those factors arenât dealbreakers and youâre comfortable working around the occasional quirk, then the Axon 30 Ultra offers top-notch performance with a large, lovely screen at a lower price than the competition. We donât see too many of those high-performance / lower cost premium phones in the US to challenge the heavyweights of the Android world, and itâs nice to have an alternative. But it does lack some of the polish and a few features that distinguish the more expensive competition.
Our review of
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra
7 out of 10
- Excellent performanceÂ
- Big, fast refresh rate screen
- Great camera hardware
- Image processing is a mixed bag
- No IP rating
- Doesnât work on Verizon
Buy for $749.00 from ZTE
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra screen, battery, and performance
At 6.7 inches, the Axon 30 Ultraâs screen is about as big as they come these days. Itâs a 1080p OLED with a refresh rate up to 144Hz. You can set it manually to 60, 90, 120, or 144Hz, or let it switch automatically between those rates based on the content youâre viewing. That 144Hz rate is a little faster than the 120Hz rate youâll find on most high-end devices, but Iâm not sure I could tell the difference between them if I didnât know which was which. The bottom line is that every swipe, scroll, and animation looks incredibly smooth on the 30 Ultraâs screen.
Generally speaking, itâs just a really nice screen. Contrast is rich, the bezels are slim, and the panel curves over the sides of the phone; marketers love to call a screen like this âimmersive,â but that actually feels like a fair descriptor. Itâs a little tough to see outside in bright light, but itâs still usable.
That big screen makes the Axon 30 Ultra a big device. Itâs comfortable enough to hold, and the curved screen and back panel help, but I definitely canât reach my thumb clear across the screen while using it one-handed. Thereâs Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back panels and the frame is aluminum, giving the whole phone a solid, premium feel.
Phone performance also meets the âpremiumâ bar, thanks to that Snapdragon 888 processor. It feels very snappy jumping between apps, pinching and zooming around Google Maps, and scrolling through Twitter. Iâm also happy to report that the in-screen optical fingerprint sensor is quick and responsive, too â it gave me a little thrill with every unlock and password manager authentication. Itâs a feature that goes the extra distance to making this feel like a highly responsive, premium device.
The Axon 30 Ultraâs 4,600mAh battery is big enough and consistently got me through a day of moderate use. However, I was conservative with some battery-draining settings like screen refresh rate, and all of my use was on Wi-Fi, so I expect you could fully drain the battery over the course of a day if you really went for it. Wireless charging is, as mentioned earlier, not an option here, but the phone supports 65W wired charging with the included charging brick, and it is plenty fast.
Android 11 comes preloaded on the Axon 30 Ultra, and ZTE says an Android 12 update will come at the end of the year or in early 2022. The company doesnât give a firm timeline for security updates but says it generally provides them for around three years. Not the worst support policy by far, but not among the very best. ZTEâs Android interface is called MyOS, and itâs a straightforward affair that doesnât try to get too fancy. There are a truly overwhelming number of shortcuts in the fully expanded quick settings menu accessed by swiping from the top of the screen, but you can rearrange and whittle them down to your heartâs content.
ZTE Axon 30 Ultra cameras
Rather than one high-resolution main camera complemented by several lower-resolution sensors, ZTE has chosen to put three 64-megapixel sensors in the Axon 30 Ultraâs rear camera array. Youâll find a standard wide-angle main camera with optical stabilization, a 35mm-equivalent wide-angle for portraits, and an ultrawide. Thereâs also an 8-megapixel 5x telephoto camera with optical stabilization. Itâs a lot of cameras, and none of them are throwaways.
The Axon 30 Ultraâs cameras are impressive, but theyâre also a little frustrating. First, the good: these three 64-megapixel cameras all capture a lot of detail in good light, which Iâd expect from the main camera, but that isnât always the case with ultrawides since they tend to have lower resolution chips. The telephoto module offers 5x true optical zoom â results arenât great indoors or in dim light, but with plenty of available light, itâs much better than the digital zoom alternative.
I also really like the portrait lens, which is wider than the telephoto options most other smartphone cameras use. This is a personal preference; I like getting more of the scene in portrait photos, you may not. Thereâs no option to digitally zoom in while using portrait mode if you donât like the wide-angle look, and portrait mode photos (with artificially blurred backgrounds) can only be taken with the dedicated portrait lens or the selfie camera. Something to consider if wide portraits are really not your thing.
Now the bad: image processing (particularly color and saturation) is inconsistent between cameras, and two photos from the same camera can vary noticeably with slight shifts in composition or subject positioning. Images from the main camera often look oversaturated. Most of the time itâs subtle enough not to bother me much, but then Iâll take a picture of my orange cat and heâll look like a Cheeto.
Portrait mode photos suffer some misses, too: subject separation from blurred backgrounds can look a little clumsy, and the lack of OIS in the portrait camera means youâre more likely to see slight blur in dimmer conditions, even without much camera movement. The wider focal length also means youâll need to crank up the blur if you want to obscure a distracting background, which makes the subject cut-out problems more obvious.
when the Axon 30 Ultra does get things right, images look really good
Maybe these shortcomings are more frustrating because when the Axon 30 Ultra does get things right, images look really good. Exposure is well balanced, all four cameras are genuinely useful, and each of them offers an impressive level of detail retention. Iâd entertain leaving my dedicated camera at home more often with this combination of focal lengths and capabilities, but image processing is too much of a wild card for me to feel comfortable with that.
One of the Axon 30 Ultraâs most annoying bugs lives in the camera app, too: the camera shutter sound is permanently stuck on, even with every volume control set to silent. Thereâs no way to turn it off in the camera settings menu or the main settings menu. I hate this. Maybe some people could live with it. Maybe you can root your phone and eliminate the problem yourself. Maybe ZTE will fix the issue soon. All I know is that I cannot live a shutter-sound-on lifestyle and itâs the kind of thing I might return a phone over, no matter how good the pictures look.
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is exactly what it appears to be: a lower cost alternative to the big Android flagships with top-tier performance and a great screen. I wouldnât recommend it to just anyone, and you need to be comfortable either living with a couple of quirks or navigating a way around them. You donât quite get the same level of polish or reassurance that you would from a Samsung, OnePlus, or Google device, but in return you get excellent performance for the money.
The Axon 30 Ultra has a healthy price advantage over the other big-screen-big-performance competition like the $1,069 OnePlus 9 Pro and the $999 Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus. If youâre willing to concede some screen real estate, then its advantage narrows compared to the OnePlus 9 ($729) and standard Galaxy S21 ($800). With either of those options, youâll get the same excellent performance and a few other benefits, like wireless charging and more sophisticated image processing.
The Axon 30 Ultra has a healthy price advantage over the other big-screen-big-performance competition
Of course, itâs an important caveat that the Axon 30 Ultra doesnât work on Verizon. That will rule out a significant number of prospective customers in the US. And I wish the cameras lived up to their hardware potential more often. If thatâs not much of a concern, youâre not a Verizon customer, and your priorities are set on a big screen and snappy day-to-day performance, then you have a great option in the 30 Ultra.
All that said, I canât see a reason not to buy the Axon 30 Ultra if none of the above concerns you. Youâll get excellent performance, a massive screen with a silky smooth fast refresh rate, and great camera hardware â and you can rub it in your friendsâ faces when you pay several hundred dollars less for your phone than they did.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge
Agree to continue: ZTE Axon 30 Ultra
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it â contracts that no one actually reads. Itâs impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit âagreeâ to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people donât read and definitely canât negotiate.
To actually use the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra, you must agree to:
- Google Terms of Service
- Install updates and apps: âYou agree this device may also automatically download and install updates and apps from Google, your carrier, and your deviceâs manufacturer, possibly using cellular data. Some of these apps may offer in-app purchases.â
To add a Google account, youâll also need to agree to two more things:
- Google Play Terms of Service
The following agreements are optional:
- Back up to Google Drive: âYour backup includes apps, app data, all history, contacts, device settings (including Wi-Fi passwords and permissions), and SMS.â
- Use location: âGoogle may collect location data periodically and use this data in any anonymous way to improve location accuracy and location-based services.â
- Allow scanning: âAllow apps and services to scan for Wi-Fi networks and nearby devices at any time, even when Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is off.â
- Send usage and diagnostic data: âHelp improve your Android device experience by automatically sending diagnostic, device and app usage data to Google.â
- Carrier location access: âYour carrier occasionally requires location data to improve its services and analytics.â
Additionally, for Google Assistant, thereâs an option to agree to use Voice Match: âAllows your Assistant to identify you and tell you apart from others. The Assistant takes clips of your voice to form a unique voice model, which is only stored on your device(s). Your voice model may be sent temporarily to Google to better identify your voice.â
Final tally: three mandatory agreements to use the phone at all, another two for Google account services, and six additional optional agreements.