ZTE Axon 20 5G Review: The Mediocre Contender

Rating: 6/10 ?
  • 1 - Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 - Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 - Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 - Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 - Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 - Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 - Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 - Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 - Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 - Absolute Design Nirvana
Price: $440
ZTE Axon 20 5G facedown on a stone wall
Eric Schoon

ZTE may not be a household name, but the Axon 20 is a notable phone regardless. This is the first phone to release with an under-display selfie camera, but it doesn’t stop there—the Axon 20 has multiple things going for it that could make a great entry in the mid-range Android market.

Here's What We Like

  • Premium design
  • Good Performance
  • Unique selfie cam

And What We Don't

  • 90 Hz mode stutters
  • Unclear software updates

With an impressive display, decent internals, 5G connection, and a versatile camera array, the Axon 20 sounds like a great phone. Throw in the unique selfie cam and you’ve suddenly got an attention-grabber on your hands. So, let’s see if the Axon 20 is actually worthy of the attention.

Table of Contents

An Impressive Spec Sheet

When you get the Axon 20 in your hands, it can certainly trick you into thinking it cost more than it does. It runs smoothly, uses premium materials, and when you glance at the specs you’ll see that there’s a lot to happy about here.

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G 5G
  • RAM: 6GB, 8GB (reviewed)
  • Storage: 128GB + MicroSD card slot
  • Display: 6.92 inches 1080 x 2460 90 Hz OLED
  • Cameras: 64 MP wide, 8 MP ultrawide, 2 MP macro, 2 MP depth; 32 MP selfie cam (under display)
  • Ports and charging: USB-C
  • Battery: 4220mAh
  • Fingerprint Sensor: In-display
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi a/b/g/b/ac, 2.4GHz/5GHz; MIMO; Bluetooth 5.1; NFC
  • IP Rating: N/A
  • Colors: Glass-back or Eco-Leather
  • Dimensions: 172.1 x 77.9 x 8 mm; 198g
  • Price: $440

Looking at comparable phones like the Pixel 4a 5G and Samsung Galaxy A52, the Axon 20 puts up quite a fight. The specs are identical, if not better than the competitors, with 8GB of RAM and an octa-core Snapdragon 765G powering it all. It also features 30W wired fast charging, which outpaces most phones in the price range.

Throw in some good camera specs and, on paper, the Axon 20 looks like quite the deal. However, whether it lives up to that in practical use is another question.

Some Elegant Hardware

ZTE Axon 20 5G held up against flowering plant
Eric Schoon

The Axon 20 continues its premium feel with an all-glass back that looks nice until the inevitable reckoning of fingerprints. At least the display looks great with the deep blacks and vibrant colors you’d expect out of an OLED. And, at 6.92 inches, you have plenty of screen real estate to work with here. The fingerprint scanner is also built into the display, and I never had issues with it misreading my print.

Similar praise can be given to the facial recognition, which was quick to set up and even quicker to function. It only works once the screen has been turned on, but afterward, it was fairly accurate when reading my face, even from a variety of angles. This is solely done through the selfie cam, there’s no depth sensor for added security, which was evident considering it was fooled by an image of me. I wouldn’t recommend using this as the only method of security, but it’s still a fast way of unlocking the phone. But this is a good time to talk about the selfie camera though, as it’s one of the more notable features of this phone.

Instead of the common “hole-punch” design, you see on phones like the Pixel 5, ZTE took to hiding the selfie cam underneath the main display. I was impressed at how seamless it was, you can only notice the camera if you’re looking at the phone from a shallow angle or when it’s displaying very bright colors around the camera. This frees up the entire display, which is something I’ve never seen on a phone before and definitely made this great for viewing media.

The front speakers are located below the display, and while they won’t blow you away, they sound fine enough for a phone call or quick music session—they can get pretty loud as well.

ZTE Axon 20 5G sitting on a stone wall
Eric Schoon

Another premium feature the Axon 20 sneaks in is a 90 Hz refresh rate for a silky smooth user experience … in theory. Any time I used the Axon 20 in 90 Hz mode, performance issues started cropping up. Stutters were a somewhat frequent occurrence, which ruins the whole point of a high refresh rate. While 90 Hz is a nice thing to offer, it feels like neither the software nor hardware were optimized well enough to back it up.

But don’t let that get you down, because in the default 60 Hz mode things were smooth sailing for the most part. Even when having multiple apps open and switching between them frequently, the Axon 20 kept up with it all well—for everyday use, this phone knocks it out of the park.

You shouldn’t have an issue using it all day either, In my experience, the 4220mAh battery was more than enough for a full day of use, but I also don’t usually do anything battery intensive. But even if you are putting the phone through the wringer, then the 30W fast charging is here to save the day. This can bring the phone from zero to 50% in just 30 minutes, so as long as you’re near a 30W charger (like the stock charger included), battery life shouldn’t be a concern.

By The Books Software

Collage of photos displaying MiFlavor 10.5 homescreen, app drawer, and settings app.
Left: Homescreen; Middle: Settings app; Right: App drawer

The Axon 20 uses MiFlavor 10.5—ZTE’s own version of Android. MiFlavor keeps things pretty simple though, it’s mostly stock Android with a few inconsequential visual touches. If you’re a big fan of stock Android you should be happy, but if you’re looking for something more unique, MiFlavor doesn’t have much in the way of new features. While the settings app and some UI elements have been changed, in practicality it’s mostly the same Android you know and love, for better or worse.

At least it runs well enough; MiFlavor is fairly quick to boot and I never came across any bugs while using it. It’s certainly not the fastest build of Android out there, but it’s more than serviceable. And frankly, I appreciate the launcher playing it safe and sticking close to stock Android rather than experiment with a ton of new features that might clutter things up.

The biggest issue with the Axon 20’s software is the updates—we don’t know if they exist. ZTE has not announced how many updates this will phone will receive, and it hasn’t even gotten Android 11 yet. It is consistently receiving Google’s monthly security patches, but this sort of uncertainty when it comes to software updates will only become a bigger issue as time goes on .

The Cameras: Versatile, Yet Underwhelming

Close-up of ZTE Axon 20 5G camera array
Eric Schoon

The Axon 20 boasts a nice four-camera array on the back, including wide, ultrawide, macro, and depth lenses, along with the previously mentioned under-display selfie cam—in fact, let’s start there. For a 32 MP selfie cam, the quality you get out of it is alright, but nothing special. As you can see below, the detailing and color are a bit off (which we’ll see more of soon), and when using the camera’s portrait mode, a lot of the lighting and detail was drained out of the image. Functional enough for a quick selfie, but I wouldn’t rely on it for great pictures

Selfie taken with ZTE Axon 20 5G's front camera portrait mode Selfie taken with ZTE Axon 20 5G front cameraLeft: Front camera, portrait mode on; Right: Front camera, normal mode. Click for full size.

Turning to the rear camera, things are better, but still full of the issues that most phones in this price range have when it comes to photography. In strong lighting, you can get some legitimately good shots out of this phone; the portrait mode looks pretty good, the macro sensors are decent, and the main 64 MP wide lens isn’t half bad either. On the other hand, the digital zoom isn’t that great and the colors are something else a lot of the time. The Axon 20 really likes saturated colors—green especially. As you can see from the images below, this results in varying quality a lot of the time. If there are a lot of colors present things are better, but if it’s just a green field like the one you see in the top right things don’t look so hot.

Picture of flowering bush taken by ZTE Axon 20 5G Picture of garden taken by ZTE Axon 20 5GPicture of a tree taken by ZTE Axon 20 5G Picture of a green field taken by ZTE Axon 20 5GAll taken in broad daylight in the span of 10 minutes with the normal wide lens. Click for full size. 

Regardless, the phone’s at its best when outdoors in the bright sun which you can see above. The details are there when you zoom in and the lighting isn’t that off from the real world. The inconsistency makes it difficult to rely on this camera though, while some images look great others are far too bright or saturated.

But when it’s dark out, things get bleaker; even with the phone’s night mode on, the pictures look messy. I actually think night mode made images look worse than normal, often erasing what little detail was there in the first place. And even now, it’s saturating the green in the below shots way too much.

Shot of a tree at night taken with ZTE Axon 20 5G "Night Mode" Shot of a tree at night taken by ZTE Axon 20 5GLeft: Night mode on; Right: Night mode off. Click for full size.

Turning over to the portrait mode, I think it balances the amount of bokeh it uses well. I definitely had some trouble getting it to focus on the correct object, but once it did things look good—the vibrant colors definitely work better in this picture below than the others I took. And if you look at the right photo, you’ll see the macro lens in use, which can get some good close-up shots, but you’ll have to work for them—like the portrait mode, getting it to focus on what you want can take a while.

Shot of flowers using ZTE Axon 20 5G portrait mode Close-up of flower using ZTE Axon 20 5G macro lensLeft: Portrait mode on, wide lens; Right: Macro lens. Click for full size.

So when it comes to photos, things are alright—nothing special, but nothing outright bad. What about the video though? This phone is capable of 4K, 60 FPS footage and it looks pretty good. The footage was smooth, but because you can’t use camera stabilization in 60 FPS, it was difficult to get good shots. The stabilization used in 30 FPS looks good though; as you can see below it still has some shake to it (especially when I almost trip face-first into the road), but it’s definitely enough for some simple recordings—it’s a shame it couldn’t be used at both frame rates.

The versatile camera array the Axon 20 includes is great to see, but not exactly uncommon at the price point. The Galaxy A52 and OnePlus Nord offer similar versatility, and the Pixel 4a manages to beat them all with just two lenses thanks to Google’s incredible software. The camera on this phone is enough to be satisfied by, but you’ll be by no means get excited about it.

Conclusion

Close-up of the Axon 5G logo on the ZTE Axon 20 5G
Eric Schoon

All said and done, the Axon 20 is a pretty good mid-range Android phone. At under $500, it packs in some impressive specs and a great display, along with a workable camera array. However, the issue is that it’s too much like other mid-range Android phones to stand out, and there are mighty competitors to contend with nowadays. Google, Samsung, and OnePlus have all released phones in this price range with the Pixel 4a 5G, Samsung Galaxy A52, and OnePlus Nord that are also really great options.

The most direct comparison is certainly the Pixel 4a 5G, which only costs around $50 more than the Axon 20. The specs are nearly identical, but outside of that things start to look less favorable for the Axon. The Pixel line is praised for its best-in-class cameras—the software magic Google manages with computational photography boosts the 4a 5G’s camera far above the Axon 20. And when it comes to software and updates, you’re receiving them directly from Google,which means they’ll release quickly and are guaranteed until 2023. This is all without mentioning the less expensive Pixel 4a, which while slightly less powerful and lacking a 5G connection, still outpaces the Axon 20 in terms of software and cameras.

The Axon 20 doesn’t do much wrong, the issue is that its competitors are so good that it needs to do a lot more than merely be decent. The only thing that the Axon 20 offers, which makes it stand out, is the under-display selfie cam, which while cool, is far from a selling point. If you pick up this phone you’ll receive a good product, and you likely won’t have any major issues with it. But your money would be better spent elsewhere—which makes it a phone I could recommend to anyone, but I really feel like I shouldn’t. Let’s hope the upcoming Axon 30 Ultra 5G is a bit better.

Rating: 6/10
Price: $440

Here’s What We Like

  • Premium design
  • Good Performance
  • Unique selfie cam

And What We Don't

  • 90 Hz mode stutters
  • Unclear software updates

Eric Schoon Eric Schoon
Eric Schoon is a writer for Review Geek and has spent most of his life thinking about and analyzing products of all shapes and sizes. From the latest games to the hottest smartphones, he enjoys finding the greatest strengths and weaknesses of everything he gets his hands on and then passing that information on to you. Read Full Bio »

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