ZTE is a smaller phone manufacturer in the grand scheme of things, but it has shown itself to be a worthy competitor in the larger smartphone market. And the company’s back at it again with a mid-range Android phone in the Axon 30—competing in the same bracket as phones like the Pixel 5a.
Quick glances can be deceiving, and the Axon 30 is certainly trying to lure you in with some premium hardware on the outside. ZTE’s phones tend to use a very slick, modern style for the exterior and that’s no different here. However, that’s not to say the specs don’t show some promise as well. Using the Snapdragon 870 processor with either 8 or 12 GB of RAM (our review unit is the 8GB model), the Axon 30 should be able to show off some impressive performance for the price tag of $499.00. With a 5G connection as well, this could wind up being an amazing budget alternative to more expensive flagships, but that’s going to come down to the specifics.
However, this isn’t the first time I’ve said a lot of this. The ZTE Axon 20, this phone’s predecessor, also had competitive specs on paper but wound up disappointing me with a stuttering 90 Hz mode and a mediocre camera. It’s not a bad phone, but there was no reason to pick it up over more established phones that could offer more for the same price. So, let’s see if the 30 manages to pick up the slack and put forward a truly compelling offer this time.
Hardware: Good Enough at Mimicking Better
Performance and ZTE's Software: Smooth and Safe
Cameras: A Lot of Promises That Don't Meet the Mark
Conclusion: It's Alright, Just Nothing Special
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 5G
- RAM: Either 8 or 12GB model (8GB model reviewed)
- Storage: 128GB with 8GB model, 256GB with 12GB model + MicroSD card slot on both
- Display: 6.92 inches 1080 x 2460 120 Hz AMOLED
- Cameras: 64MP wide, 8MP ultrawide, 5MP macro, 2MP depth; 16MP selfie cam (under display)
- Ports and charging: USB-C
- Battery: 4220mAh with 65W fast charging; No wireless charging
- Fingerprint Sensor: In-display
- IP Rating: N/A
- Colors: Black or turquoise
- Dimensions: 170.2 x 77.8 x 7.8 mm; 189g
- Price: $499.00 (8GB RAM + 128GB storage, as reviewed), $599.00 (12GB RAM + 256GB storage)
Hardware: Good Enough at Mimicking Better
Now that you know what’s under the hood, let’s talk about the exterior. The Axon 30 features a slick glass and plastic frame with some minor patterns etched into it. Despite it looking very premium, it feels neither cheap nor expensive when held—it’s a very strange plasticky feel I’m completely neutral on. I have the black model (there’s also a turquoise version) and on the whole, I’d say it looks pretty standard but modern all the same.
Overall, the Axon 30 can easily blend in with other popular Android phones—whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing I’ll leave up to you. It’s also worth mentioning the back of the phone is an absolute fiend for fingerprints, but at least ZTE had the foresight to include a transparent case in the box.
The phone uses a 6.92-inch, AMOLED display (which runs at 120 Hz) and it looks wonderful. Naturally, as an AMOLED screen, colors look more accurate on the Axon 30 as opposed to LED displays. But the real winner here is how cohesive the screen is— nothing is interrupting it thanks to the under-display selfie cam.
Instead of a punch-hole design or top bezel for the selfie cam, ZTE hid it underneath the display here—a feature the Axon 20 pioneered. The effect isn’t perfect, you can notice the camera if you’re looking for it, but regardless, it’s still good enough you’ll forget it’s there after a few minutes of using the phone. Another thing built into the screen is the fingerprint sensor, and while it’s more finicky than I’d like, it’s still workable and shouldn’t give you much trouble.
ZTE has a good track record of making its phones look good and the Axon 30 is no different. This shell could easily belong to a phone twice the price, but that’s all for naught if the performance can’t back it up.
Performance and ZTE’s Software: Smooth and Safe
The Axon 30 runs MyOS 11, which I would classify as a lightly modified version of Android 11. Before we go any further, ZTE’s not forthcoming when it comes to future update plans, so it’s not confirmed if the phone will be receiving a version of Android 12 at the time of writing. ZTE has made minor hints that it’s developing a version of Android 12, so I think it’s safe to assume the Axon 30 will receive it, but I can’t guarantee it until ZTE does.
When it comes to the OS itself, MyOS sneaks in a couple of cool features and plenty of visual changes, but it still mostly plays things safe. This is stock Android with a cosmetic skin that focuses on bright colors and curved edges. It does give things a unique visual language compared to other Android builds, but if you prefer a more subtle UI I could also see this being annoying. Pretty much every slider and button in the menus has a bright neon look to it, which is going to be a love it or hate it sort of thing (personally, I like it a lot).
There are some minor new features included in MyOS 11, but none of them are going to rock your world. For example, one of the more substantial additions is the “Z POP” gesture, which opens a small quick-access menu with shortcuts for the home screen, lock screen, and taking a screenshot. This can be useful, just nothing crazy. At the end of the day, if you like Android you’ll like what ZTE’s doing here, and you’ll also get reacquainted with everything very quickly. If you’re expecting some crazy new features then MyOS doesn’t deliver anything in that regard.
On the very bright side, there is nearly no bloatware loaded onto the phone out of the box other than a few of ZTE’s own apps (such as a voice recording and file browsing app).
But that’s enough about how MyOS looks, how does it feel? Well, I already mentioned ZTE packed in a 120 Hz display on the Axon 30, and thankfully, 120 Hz mode runs very smooth here. Obviously, if you really push the phone to its limit you’ll have some stutters, but in everyday use, I was able to consistently use 120 Hz mode without issue. Booting up the phone and opening apps was also snappy most of the time, but there was the occasional hiccup.
Basically, the Snapdragon 870 is really pulling its weight here. It’s tough to make this phone buckle if you’re not actively trying to, and even in gaming, it did a commendable job. I’m not a huge mobile gamer mind you, but what I did try worked excellently, even for more intensive titles like Fortnite.
Even the battery held up pretty well—I’m a fairly light phone user so take this as you will, but I was able to comfortably get a day and a half of use out of the 30. I think you can rely on this lasting a full day out of the house without much issue unless you’re using it constantly. But in that case, the Axon 30’s ultra-fast 55W wired charging makes a low battery an easy thing to deal with. Unfortunately, there’s no wireless charging, so you’ll have to make do without that.
Cameras: A Lot of Promises That Don’t Meet the Mark
Much like the rest of the phone, at first glance, the 30’s camera looks quite impressive. It has four rear lenses (64MP wide, 8MP ultrawide, 5MP macro, and a 2MP depth), and tons of modes to mess around within the app itself. All of this promises a versatile camera that can capture quality photos, but as we’re about to see, the Axon 30 rarely lives up to its own camera array.
The wide lens works well enough for landscape shots—it oversaturates colors a lot (especially green), but if there are more neutral tones present it mostly balances out. The digital zoom is pretty bad, as you can see in the photo with the squirrel, but for snapping quick pics this is definitely a serviceable camera. You can get some good shots with it in especially on sunny days and even with indoor lighting things are decent.
When more neutral tones, like the browns in this shot, are present, it helps the camera reign in the other colors and produce a much better image.
What about at night though? With the normal camera mode, things are about as you expect—the quality and detail are bad, and the camera has a tough time figuring out light sources. With the Night mode enabled, however, there is a notable improvement. The quality is still lessened compared to normal photos, and results vary a lot, but it is decent.
More of the same in normal mode, but you can tell the sensors are struggling with the light source and patch of bright green.
When it comes to the portrait and macro modes, I found things to be generally less impressive. The bokeh effect didn’t look great a lot of the time, and it heavily detracts from images taken with either mode. You can see in the right image that the bokeh is encroaching on the subject of the photo, which just makes things look blurry. It’s still workable, and a nice thing to include, but I doubt you’ll want to rely on them most of the time.
Left image: Macro lens; Right image: Portrait mode
Because the selfie cam is under the display, it’s starting with a disadvantage. Any phone with an under-display selfie cam will be sacrificing quality, and the 30 is unfortunately no different. As you can see in both images, the selfie cam doesn’t do a great job even outdoors in ideal lighting. The detail’s iffy and the sunlight looked awful even when it was just bouncing off my face—I had to stand in the shade just to get anything decent as you see below. The portrait mode (which you can see on the right) does improve things considerably, but even then it’s not remarkable.
Both were taken with the front camera lens. Left: Normal selfie mode; Right: Portrait mode
So yeah, when it comes to pictures the cameras can achieve some great stuff, but most of the time quality will be middling very inconsistent. Fortunately, I have some more praise to give the phone’s video-recording capabilities.
While the video still shares the same issues of oversaturation and messy zoom, you can record at 4K, 60 FPS and the stabilization does a commendable job. It won’t blow you out of the water, but if recording footage is a common use of your phone for you, then the 30’s camera is good enough.
Conclusion: It’s Alright, Just Nothing Special
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, when I looked at this phone’s predecessor, the ZTE Axon 20, I found it largely disappointing. It didn’t offer anything to make it more desirable than the other mainstream mid-range Android phones, and frankly, the 30 doesn’t do much to improve things.
The performance is certainly the phone’s greatest strength—it’s fast, and I don’t want that to go underpraised. But the camera hurts this phone big time, especially compared to what you can get on similarly priced phones like the Pixel 5a. Comparing any Android phone’s camera to the Pixel is pretty much always going to be a bad look to be fair, but the camera isn’t the only problem here. While the hardware and software are nice, the lack of guarantees when it comes to how long the phone will get updates makes recommending this phone for the long run a worrisome idea.
The Samsung Galaxy A52 5G was also released this year for $499.99 and it offers good performance, a 120 Hz display, and a versatile camera array. On top of that, it guarantees four years of security updates, three years of OS updates, and is also made by a more reputable brand. And those are just two phones released this year that easily compete, and in many ways, triumph over the Axon 30.
None of this is to say the 30 is a bad phone mind you—maybe you don’t really care about the camera and just want a solid Android machine. In that case, I think the 30 does a fine enough job to be usable, but not really recommendable. There aren’t many reasons to pick this phone up over its competitors, it’s just generally underwhelming.
This is honestly a good portrayal of the Axon 30 as a whole: It has some major positives like the performance and software but ultimately hurts itself at the same time in really obvious ways negating those advantages. It may run smoothly and trick you into thinking it was made by the more prestigious company for a second, but as an overall package, it doesn’t impress.
Here’s What We Like
- Good-looking exterior
- Fast performance
- 120 Hz mode
- Excellent AMOLED display
And What We Don't
- Weak cameras all around
- Fingerprint magnet
- Lack of update gurantees