The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra displays a lot of potential, offering up a sleek design, an excellent screen, a top-tier processor and good battery life. However, the quirky under-display selfie camera is flat-out poor.
- Strong performance
- Excellent screen
- Decent battery life
- Poor selfie camera
- Under-display selfie cameraThis phone’s front-facing camera is hidden underneath the screen, so there’s no notch to interrupt the display
- Flagship processorThe ZTE Axon 40 Ultra has a top-tier Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset
- Superb screen specsThe high-resolution AMOLED display supports over 1 billion colours, rocks a maximum 120Hz refresh rate, and offers HDR10+
There are a multitude of flagship Android handsets out there, fighting for your attention, from the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra to the Sony Xperia 1 IV to the Xiaomi 12 Pro and more; but could your ideal device actually come from a lesser-known manufacturer?
ZTE might not be a name you’re particularly familiar with, but the brand has already released some excellent smartphones such as the Axon 30 Ultra, which we awarded 4.5 stars out of 5. The Axon 40 Ultra sports an innovative design, with a hidden selfie camera that sits behind the display. The specs seem impressive, too, from a Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor to a triple 64-megapixel camera setup. So can this outsider come out on top?
Design and Display
- Attractive matte black finish
- Large camera module
- Excellent screen
- Under-display selfie camera
There’s a lot to like about the Axon 40 Ultra’s design. The matte black finish gives it a sleek and understated look that’s practical too, since it doesn’t attract unsightly fingerprint marks to the same extent as glossy phones often do. What’s more, in your palms it also has a pleasing tactile feel.
However, the large camera module certainly dominates the rear panel, even obstructing the position in which I’d normally place my finger when I hold a phone upright.
In addition, the handset doesn’t come with an IP rating, so we aren’t to know how well the Axon 40 Ultra would handle itself if exposed to dust or water, and there aren’t many optional extras such as a 3.5mm headphone jack or an SD card slot if you were hoping to use wired headphones or expand the onboard storage.
The most noteworthy thing about this phone’s design is, of course, the hidden selfie camera. When the screen is on, it’s completely invisible, hiding beneath the display so that you get an entirely uninterrupted 6.8-inch AMOLED to enjoy. This effect has been implemented very well; even upon close inspection, it’s difficult to find any giveaway of a camera lurking underneath. I was super-impressed by the visual execution.
However, the selfie camera proved poor for unlocking my phone with facial recognition. My face would rarely be recognised, and so I’d advise you to use the in-screen fingerprint scanner instead.
Even aside from the novelty of a hidden camera underneath, the screen is impressive. There’s an auto-adjusting refresh rate that can switch between 60Hz and 120Hz, depending on the content on your screen; it can support smoother rates for apps that benefit from it, or else it drops down to conserve some battery life.
The panel’s support of HDR10+ and over 1 billion colours mean that it’s entrancingly vivid to look at – and it’s sharp, too, thanks to a 1116 x 2480 resolution. Nature documentaries were a joy to watch on this screen, and video games were super-immersive as well. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of screens that curve at the sides as this one does, rather than lying flat, but it isn’t so exaggerated to be distracting.
- Decent performance from triple rear camera
- Poor Night mode results
- Awful selfie camera
The camera setup also appear impressive on paper, comprising three high-resolution sensors that should provide a good deal of versatility; there’s a wide-angle camera, an ultra-wide lens, and a telephoto sensor – and each one has a 64-megapixel resolution.
The following three pictures were taken using each of the lenses on their default settings, from the same position. We start with the ultra-wide, then the wide-angle camera, and finally the telephoto sensor:
Results aren’t bad at all, with good levels of detail and brightness – although greens can look a bit lurid on images captured with the ultra-wide lens in particular.
The plate above was captured with the main camera, and under these circumstances the detail suffers somewhat compared to those shots taken outside, most likely due to the harsh overhead lighting.
The above two pictures were taken by the ultra-wide and wide-angle cameras respectively; evidently, the ultra-wide finds the lighting conditions a little trickier – and, once again, that green stands out. However, the results from the main wide-angle camera are more pleasing.
Using the telephoto lens I managed to get the shot of swans above, and it’s certainly handy to have a 3.5x optical zoom in your pocket. However, it isn’t strong enough to rival the best zoom cameras such as the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra.
When shooting at night, I first took an image without Night mode applied – you can see the result below.
As you can see, quite a lot of detail is lost when shooting in these conditions, with dingy results. Nevertheless, I still preferred this to shooting with Night mode applied, which ramped up the lighting but also completely blew out the highlights.
Given the 16-megapixel selfie camera’s unusual position beneath the screen, you might be wondering how well it performs as a camera as well. Unfortunately, this is an area where it becomes seriously unstuck. The quality of selfies is simply awful, with images fuzzy and indistinct. If you like taking pictures of yourself with your phone, or holding video calls, opt for another one.
Given the poor quality of selfie pictures and the unreliable facial recognition feature, it seems that the front-facing camera suffers quite significantly for its unusual under-screen design, despite it looking good when the screen is in use. We can assume that the tech hasn’t been perfected yet, and we might have to wait a few years still before it trickles into the mainstream.
- Flagship-level Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset
- Excellent performance levels
- Easily customisable user interface
Although this phone sits comfortably shy of the £1000 mark, it still rocks the same Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset that many top-class Android handsets feature, including the OnePlus 10 Pro, Oppo Find X5 Pro, and Xiaomi 12 Pro, to name but a few. This means it delivers plenty of power for the price – but does it get as much out of the silicon as the cream of the crop?
In short, the answer is yes. Its scores across benchmark tests show that it can keep up with many flagship devices; scroll across the table below to see how it stacks up against the best Android handsets around. The Geekbench scores refer to CPU ability, which dictates most of the phone’s performance tasks, while 3DMark measures the GPU’s capabilities, which are important for gaming. Note that benchmarks don’t always tell the whole story, however.
Nonetheless, I found day-to-day performance on this phone was snappy and reliable, while games were also speedy and well rendered. I experienced no issues in my time using the device – it held up well, regardless of the tasks that it undertook. As you’d expect, this phone offers 5G connectivity, dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.2, and NFC.
Based on Android 12, this phone runs the MyOS 12 software. However, unlike some rival manufacturers including Xiaomi or Realme, this brand’s user interface isn’t too clunky. There aren’t many additional apps on top of stock Android, and I definitely appreciated this over the phones that come stuffed with bloatware on startup. WPS Office, Phone Switch, and the Booking.com apps are among the very few extra apps you’ll see here, but this pales in comparison to the likes of MIUI from Xiaomi.
In the Settings app, you’ll also find a range of useful Personalisation features that let you play around with app icons, fonts, wallpapers, and widgets to your heart’s content, making the phone truly feel like yours.
- Large 5000mAh capacity
- 65W fast charging
- No wireless charging
The Axon 40 Ultra includes a 5000mAh capacity battery, which is what I’d hope to see on a handset with demanding screen specs. Still, this is one spec that really needs to be tested in real life to see how it holds up, because sometimes the numbers alone don’t give the full story.
In my experience the phone held up pretty well, delivering a good day’s battery life when used both moderately and intensively. To give specific examples, the percentage ticked down by 6% when watching a YouTube video for an hour on the default screen settings, and streaming music over Spotify for an hour consumed 4% off the battery.
When it’s time to recharge the battery, there’s 65W wired charging to top up the battery again swiftly. Our unit was supplied with a European charger, so we can’t be sure how rapidly the phone could be topped up with the brand’s proprietary UK charger. There’s no option for wireless charging here, so you’ll have to do things the traditional way.
Should you buy it?
If you want a phone Attractive design, a great screen, and impressive performance: If you’re after a great looking phone for gaming and media consumption then the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is a brilliant option.
If you take a lot of selfies: The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra’s under screen selfie camera is a clever bit of tech, but sadly image quality is sub par.
The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is a good phone, but it just falls short of being a great one. The screen is excellent, the battery life very good, and performance levels are outstanding, too. However, the rear camera is decent without being exceptional, and the under-screen selfie camera is genuinely terrible, despite (or probably because of) its innovative design. If mobile photography is one of your priorities, then you’d be better off checking out a device such as the Pixel 6.
How we test
We test every mobile phone we review thoroughly. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly and we use the phone as our main device over the review period. We’ll always tell you what we find and we never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Used as main phone for a week
Tested the camera in various surroundings
Mixture of benchmarks and real-world use
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It’s available in black, gold and silver.
Yes, you’ll get 5G data speeds with a compatible SIM card and network coverage.
There’s been no IP rating disclosed by the manufacturer, so we’re not sure how it would perform if exposed to water or dust.
Trusted Reviews test data
You can see a detailed breakdown of all the test data we collected reviewing the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra and how it compares to key rivals in the table below.
You can see the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra’s full spec sheet and how it compares to rival products in the table below.
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