The past few years have been rough for ZTE. After being accused of violating US sanctions, the company was banned from purchasing American components, forced to pay $1 billion fine to the US, and deemed a national security threat by the FCC. Under those circumstances, most companies would pack up their stateside operations and focus on the global market, but ZTE is still trying to sell phones in the US. The flagship Axon 30 Ultra (starting at $749) is the latest of those. It sports top-of-the-line hardware, a crisp OLED display, and a handsome design, but connectivity is poor and ZTE’s software upgrade policy is nonexistent. Add those flaws to the company’s perilous situation with the US government, and we simply cannot recommend this phone to our US readers. The Samsung Galaxy S21 ($799.99), a similarly impressive flagship from a much more stable company, is a safer bet.
One Handsome Handset
Measuring 6.4 by 2.9 by 0.3 inches and weighing just 7 ounces, the Axon 30 Ultra is a tall and slim phone. It’s about the same size and weight as the OnePlus 9 Pro ($1,069), but its curved edges make it feel slimmer and more refined.
On the front you’ll find a 6.67-inch AMOLED display with a centered hole punch for the camera. Resolution clocks in at 2,400 by 1,080 pixels with a density of 335ppi. There’s a 144Hz variable refresh rate that can slow down to 30Hz to conserve battery life.
The display is bright with excellent contrast. Colors are vivid, if not quite as immersive as on the Samsung Galaxy S21 and the OnePlus 9 Pro. The Axon 30 Ultra may not have the same WQHD resolution you’ll find on the OnePlus 9 Pro and other premium phones, but you’ll be hard pressed to notice any difference.
Like many high-end phones, the Axon 30 Ultra has an in-display fingerprint sensor. Refreshingly, its sensor is actually good: quick, accurate, and not too finicky about finger placement.
Flip the phone over and you’ll find a glass shell with an earthy gray matte finish. A large camera module protrudes from its top left corner; the TCL logo is on its bottom right corner. Polished aluminum rails hide between the curved display and backplate. The top and left edge are bare. On the bottom side you’ll find a USB-C charging port, speaker grille, and dual SIM slot. A razor-thin volume rocker and textured power button are on the right. Both buttons are easy to reach and provide a satisfying click when tapped.
The Axon 30 Ultra’s looks scream flagship, but durability is a different story. The front and back are made of Gorilla Glass 5, which should be able to withstand minor drops and dings without much damage. What’s missing is an IP68 rating like you’ll find on the Galaxy S21 and the OnePlus 9 Pro. Sure, the Axon 30 Ultra is water resistant, but that’s not going to help you if it slips from your hands into a pool.
Great Connectivity…in Europe
There’s no way around it: The Axon 30 Ultra has terrible connectivity in the US. Most manufacturers offer extensive band support on their flagships or sell regional versions of their phones. ZTE does neither. Band coverage is exactly the same on the global and US versions of the Axon 30 Ultra—and it’s geared toward the UK and the EU, not the US.
Americans should brace for spotty service. T-Mobile customers can use the phone on its 5G and LTE networks, but there’s no band 71/n71—a huge omission, since T-Mobile uses the frequency for both 5G and LTE data. AT&T customers are limited to LTE coverage. Verizon customers are out of luck.
LAA LTE bands 46 and 48 are absent. All the carriers use these bands to improve service in congested areas. Band 66, a superset of band 4 that’s used by all the carriers, is also missing from the mix. On the plus side, band n78, aka C-band, is included.
We tested the Axon 30 Ultra on T-Mobile’s 5G network in Chicago. Our speeds averaged 20.2Mbps down and 40.5Mbps up. The phone is capable of much better speeds, of course, but we only had one 5G band to work with. Frustrations like these are why we don’t recommend that US customers buy international phones.
VoLTE and voice over Wi-Fi are supported. Our test calls (using VoLTE) were crisp and clear. Noise cancellation worked perfectly as well. And with a maximum volume of 82dB, the earpiece is loud enough to hear on a busy sidewalk.
Wi-Fi 6E is on board, as is Bluetooth 5.2 with aptX and LDAC codecs for high-res audio. There’s also NFC for mobile payments.
Although the Axon 30 Ultra boosts its stereo speakers with DTS:X Ultra, they’re a letdown. With DTS:X Ultra turned off, sound is downright tinny. Audio quality is better when the feature is turned on, but it still doesn’t compare with the OnePlus 9 Pro. The mids are pushed far forward to make up for the lack of bass, and there’s noticeable distortion on the high end.
ZTE sells the Axon 30 Ultra in 128GB/8GB and 256GB/12GB models in the US. Our review unit was the 128GB model, with about 112GB of storage available out of the box. There’s no microSD slot for external storage, so you may want to spend the extra $100 for the 256GB model if you store everything on your phone.
A top-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 mobile platform powers the phone, and performance is excellent. The phone can chew through any task you throw at it with ease. We never noticed any lag while using it. Gaming is a win as well. We tested the phone with Genshin Impact and Alto’s Odyssey for a few hours and never experienced any slowdowns or skipped frames.
Benchmark scores were impressive. On Geekbench 5, a synthetic benchmark that evaluates raw computing power, the Axon 30 Ultra scored 1,116 single-core (SC) and 3,497 multi-core (MC). That beats out the Galaxy S21’s 1,001 SC and 3,046 MC scores by a healthy margin and comes very close to the OnePlus 9 Pro’s 1,131 SC and 3,667 MC scores.
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On PCMark Work 3.0, a suite of tests that emulate everyday use scenarios, the Axon 30 Ultra scored 14,861. The Galaxy S21 and the OnePlus 9 Pro respectively earned scores of 12,028 and 12,067 on the same test.
The Axon 30 Ultra’s 4,600mAh battery can easily get the phone through a day of moderate use. In our battery drain test, which streams HD video over Wi-Fi at full brightness, the Axon 30 Ultra eked out 11 hours and 21 minutes before shutting down. That’s about an hour longer than the Galaxy S21 (10 hours, 20 minutes), and nearly two hours longer than the OnePlus 9 Pro (9 hours, 40 minutes).
Unfortunately, wireless charging is missing, a significant omission in a flagship-class phone. But the 65W adapter in the box provides incredibly fast charging; it brought our dead phone to 68% charge in 30 minutes and 100% in just 50 minutes.
Five Useful Cameras
A quad camera module with a laser focus sensor is on the back of the phone. The wide-angle, ultra-wide, and portrait lenses clock in at 64MP. There’s also an 8MP periscope lens with 5X optical zoom and 60X hybrid zoom.
Of the trio of 64MP lenses, one stands out from the pack. The wide-angle lens that serves as the phone’s primary camera is a Sony IMX686 sensor with a large 1/1.72 optical format and optical image stabilization. The other 64MP lenses are Samsung ISOCELL GW3 sensors with a smaller 1/1.97 format. All the lenses perform well in good light, but there’s a noticeable difference in color and saturation between the Sony and the Samsungs.
Daylight test photos with the wide-angle lens were crisp, with excellent depth of field and contrast. Colors were natural and exposure was well balanced.
The camera excelled in low light as well. Our test photos were crisp and looked natural. Lens flare popped up in several test shots taken in very low light, but we’d expect that of most lenses.
The 64MP portrait lens (a 35mm equivalent) takes solid photos with good light. Subjects were crisp and the bokeh looked natural, but we noticed minor object mapping issues in most of our photos. Colors are slightly saturated, and reds get a big boost while greens are toned way down. Although it’s not the most accurate representation of the scene, it flatters lighter skin tones and makes the background bokeh appear a little more vivid.
Our low-light photos with the portrait lens were good, but we noticed a few issues. All the shots were slightly shallow and there was some loss of fine detail. In very low light, edge noise appeared as well. Lens flare was more prominent as well.
Daylight performance on the ultra-wide lens was excellent. Overall color and saturation are very similar to the portrait lens. Luminance seems to take a slight hit, but we didn’t notice any of the chromatic aberrations we typically encounter when shooting with an ultra-wide lens.
Of the trio, the ultra-wide lens seemed to struggle the most in low light. Our test photos were shallow, and backgrounds were a bit soft. We also noticed edge distortion in several test shots.
The 8MP periscope lens does a superb job with enough light. Our test photos at 5X had excellent detail. At 10X, test shots started to get shallow and noise creeped in. At 60X, there was significant flattening, distortion, and noise, but the photos were still much better than we expected.
The 16MP selfie camera takes a great shot in any light. We noticed colors were a little oversaturated and warm in all the photos, but they still looked great. In low light we noticed a little edge noise and loss of fine detail, but it was on par with other cameras in this price range. Portrait mode photos looked good on a small screen but, at full size we noticed object mapping issues in every shot.
Although the cameras don’t quite live up the ones on the Galaxy S21 or the OnePlus 9 Pro, the Axon 30 Ultra can take an excellent shot. The camera hardware is excellent and creative, but the image processing is not as refined as you’ll find on other phones. Portraits are a little sloppy and the color science is inconsistent between sensors. The results are certainly good enough for social media, though.
Spotty Software Updates
The Axon 30 Ultra ships with Android 11 and ZTE’s new custom skin, MyOS. Visually, the skin is heavy-handed, but it doesn’t really change the way Android operates or add a lot of additional custom apps.
MyOS is a stripped-down version of what the company offers to its Chinese customers. It definitely feels like a first-gen skin, but ZTE has made lots of updates to improve it already.
ZTE doesn’t have a formal software policy, but it says to expect Android 12 later this year or early next year. It typically offers regular security patches, but there’s no guarantee on that either. Samsung, on the other hand, offers three years of OS upgrades along with four years of security updates.
There’s also a risk ZTE may not be able to upgrade the Axon 30 Ultra at all in the future. The US has deemed Huawei and ZTE threats to national security, and in June, the FCC voted to advance a plan that would revoke their prior equipment authorizations. It’s a dicey situation that’s still unfolding. Buyer definitely beware.
Too Much of a Gamble
The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra is an excellent reminder of just how starved the US is for innovative yet affordable smartphones. It’s among the most handsome phones we’ve seen this year, and has a solid OLED display and an interesting camera stack. But despite its strengths, we can’t recommend the phone for US buyers. Poor connectivity and political uncertainty make it a risky bet that we wouldn’t take.
If you’re looking for a small, relatively inexpensive Android flagship that will just work, no matter which carrier you choose, the Samsung Galaxy S21 is your best option. Our Editors’ Choice among high-end Android phones is the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra ($1,199.99), but the S21 is closer to the ZTE Axon 30 Ultra in both size and price. If you’re a committed T-Mobile customer, the OnePlus 9 Pro is worth consideration as well. Both the 9 Pro and the S21 pack the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 mobile platform, plenty of RAM, and incredible OLED displays with adaptive refresh rates. These excellent flagship-class phones have the power and features you need now, and much more reliability down the road.