Tuesday, 7 September 2021

ZTE Axon 30 Ultra

Here's something a little off the beaten track for the UK. A ZTE device. In this case, the Axon 30 Ultra, which is pretty well priced based on specs and may even be pretending to be a £1,000+ flagship. We played with other Axon devices previously and I remember them having excellent stereo speakers, so I approach my time with this one full of hope!

Firstly, a nod to our PSC MeWe Group member Andy Moon for loaning us this unit for review. Do come and join us at MeWe if you're reading this and haven't. We have a cracking little community and you'd be welcome to try us out. Anyway, back to the phone..!

The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra arrived just as I was completing my Sony Xperia 1iii vs Motorola Edge+ comparison review in which I was saying how much those two devices looked like each other (in a global sense). Well, blow me down if this couldn't have met the very same criteria! A little wider but otherwise, in many ways similar. Anyway, that boat has sailed so we'll press on here with a straight bunch of thoughts.

I can just about get my finger and thumb to join around the waist of the device, with TPU in place or not. The
supplied in-the-box TPU is clear, fits perfectly and only leaves the front edges exposed. The edges are slightly curved from front and back meeting the aluminium surround with quite a sharp edge, like the Nokia 8 Sirocco. Along the right side there's a power button and volume rocker, both of which feel sturdy and very well made. On the left, there's nothing, the top is all-but clean and the bottom houses the central USB-C port, SIM Card Tray and speaker. There's no IP-rating with this phone and maybe we're heading towards the territory where that might be expected and included.

On the Gorilla Glass 5 back there's a huge camera island! It's top-left (in portrait) and looks/feels very Samsung. There's a cluster of 3 lenses, a fourth periscope 'square', flashes and sensors and labels! There's also a 'tab' label coming from the side which only appears to be that - a label with NEOVISION PHOTOGRAPHY marked on it. The other label boasts the presence of 3x64MP shooters with their apertures. The ZTE/5G logo is in 'landscape' which gives the impression that the phone should be held in landscape orientation when using the camera.

The camera island sits proud of the back by about 2mm, but this doesn't seem to detract from the phone's balance in the hand. It's actually a surprisingly light phone at 188g and very pleasurable to hold for those who are OK with (yet another) 6.67" screened device! The front is Gorilla Glass 5 again and has virtually no bezels left and right as the screen starts to slide around the curve - with just a small amount top and bottom to aid with Gestures. There's a tiny-weeny Selfie camera hole top/centre which sits below the second speaker (creating stereo) for calls.

The phone has a really nice design, though it could be argued that it's pretty much like any other phone out there these days with little to differentiate it from many, many others. Except for perhaps that camera island on the back. It sits nicely in the hand, feels well made, classy and premium. I guess that without a TPU on it does feel different from some others which make use of plastics - and miss out on that final aspect of quality. But then the TPU goes on! I'm not sure if other variants differ, but this one has Dual SIM (back to back), both for 5G data.

The front panel is an AMOLED one, 1080p and a 20:9 ratio returning 395ppi. It looks perfectly good to me and I love OLED - there's something special about it which I personally have never seen from an LCD. The refresh rate of the screen can be wound up to 144Hz in settings - or anything you like along the way to preserve battery - 120, 90, 60 or Auto - where it decides for you, based on what you're doing. Regular readers here will probably know what I'm going to say here with my near-60 year-old eyes - that I really need to look closely to see any difference. I'm sure younger people into gaming will disagree, but I'll plump for the battery savings!

The screen gets very bright when increased manually or on adaptive and out in bright ambient light. The colours are rich and saturated, but for those not happy, there are plenty of settings to tweak with the way it looks. It must be a Samsung panel, I'm guessing. One of the clear advantages of OLED screens is of course Always on Displays and ZTE don't miss the flight here!

There are a good number of options to choose from with the Always on Display along with settings to have always on, briefly after touching the screen or scheduled. My Nokia XR20 could really do with that feature! There are a nice bunch of options from analogue to digital, pretty graphics or text. The AoD shows whatever you choose including time, day, date, battery state and icons for notifications. If you double-tap (anywhere) you then get the 'lock screen' with cards showing a bit more detail about the notifications (like Pixel) or you can press the in-screen fingerprint scanner to open up fully.

The in-screen optical fingerprint scanner is supported by Face Unlock. They are both quick and easy to set up and work flawlessly in my tests here. There is a very, very small delay when you place your finger on the target (which is placed about 25% of the way up the screen) but only the picky (and capacitive die-hards) would complain!

This review unit has 128GB storage and 8GB RAM but you can buy one up to 1TB and 16GB RAM if you can find one! There's also a middle-ground option of 256GB of storage. You should be careful when choosing storage however, as there's no microSD Card expansion here so what you buy is what you get. You can, of course, use streaming and cloud-based data these days - as long as you're connected and/or plug in adapters and storage to the USB-C port (with a charging split if needed). I have tested this on-the-go with my usual 512GB microSD with adapter and my 2TB Extreme SSD and all is well with both. Watching a film on this glorious screen is a treat, especially with the stereo sound.

I was surprised to discover that HDMI-Out (by cable) is working perfectly too, which means that all that lovely content can easily and readily (armed with a cable and adapter) be sent to whatever big TV/monitor you fancy! This feature is slipping away with many, so I was pleased to see ZTE including it still.

The data I spoke of above is exchanged quickly when plugged in, assisted by the all-but bang-up-to-date SnapDragon 888 chipset. It really is fast. Just now and again that can be useful and helpful to get things done in a hurry. Speed around the UI is blazingly fast with this 5nm SoC and I saw no slowdown anywhere during my test period. Didn't have to wait for anything to open/re-open with the 8GB RAM, which is clearly more than adequate for the latest version of Android to run sweetly. I did run Geekbench 5 and found the results to reflect a very high rating, only trailing the Sony Xperia 1iii and Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max of the current sample phones kicking around PSC Towers recently.

Android 11 is present here of course, as we're not into 12 territory yet, but I was a tad concerned that the Google Security patches wouldn't update past May 2021, when we're now in September. Maybe ZTE don't prioritise these monthly updates like others now seem to, but it was certainly a mark down in my eyes. I remain hopeful that going forward they will keep it up to date more and that (at least) Android 12 will come along, if not 13.

I'm delighted that the Axon 30 Ultra has stereo speakers of course and further, that they appear to be 'real' stereo and not a hybrid software-driven mix which actually end up more like just dual speakers. What is done in software is very clever of course, but there's nothing like the real thing! The output really is very good with DTS:X Ultra engaged, up there with the Motorola Edge+ for volume and not far off for bass. It's more harsh and top-heavy without it engaged but the hit on volume when turned on is minimal. Once you're inside the 'personal audio preferences' you can get to a bunch of pre-sets and graphic equaliser via a custom setting. You can also switch the stereo effect from Traditional or Wide to 'In-front'. YMMV but I found the Wide setting useful when watching a film, to throw the stage wider and make separation more pronounced. The speakers don't 'turn round' so the left stereo channel always comes out of the earpiece and right, bottom. Net result is that the sound ain't half bad. Certainly good and loud, good stereo and adjustable to make quality better.

There's no 3.5mm audio-out socket here, so we're relying on either a USB-C ear/headphone set or Bluetooth. There is 24-bit audio enhancement for output and you can tell the difference between this and some more ordinary. It's certainly louder than non-enhanced units with good strong bass and a good balance, tested here with my reference headphones. It wasn't quite too loud for me at top volume, but it wasn't far off. Turning to Bluetooth, as we have come to expect, tested here with various headphones and earphones, it's boomingly bassy and ludicrously loud for my ears, depending on the attached gear, of course! I settled on 50% volume.

The ZTE headline here for this phone is that it has 200 MILLION PIXELS! That's what the camera units add up to if you exclude the Selfie, so 64MP+64MP+64MP+8MP. Nothing is quite as it seems however, in intent. It's all well and good to shout about your hardware, but the question is whether or not the software supporting it renders usable (or dare we hope) excellent pictures. To run through the shooters, there's a 64MP f1.6 main camera with OIS, a 64MP f1.9 (35mm equivalent) secondary, a 64MP f2.2 wide-angle third and an 8MP f3.4 5x Optical Zoom unit with OIS. There's a 16MP f2.5 Selfie up-front in that very tiny hole (compared to many others' manufacturer's resting point).

I was most interested in the 5x optical zoom, like most people probably, and went on out for the shoot full of enthusiasm. Mixed feelings really on return. It's great that the facility is available of course - and if you don't want to crop or enlarge, the photos are absolutely fine. Social media will be a great platter to show off some great zoom shots. But I didn't have to zoom in very far to find fuzzy edges, artefacts and noise. I've seen much better - and maybe 5x is still just a bit too far yet. The results from the 3x on my Edge+ hold up to much closer pixel-level scrutiny. But, as we often say, who wants to pixel-peep with photos from phones? That's not what they're for - except for those watching closely for improvements as we move forward on a technical basis.

Much more useful is, in fact, the 35mm secondary shooter, the preferred focal length for me back in the day for all sorts of street photography and some level of interior work without going to 28mm. The shots from this lens, unlike the periscope, on closer inspection are much better, surviving much more pixel-peeping, are colourful and very nice. I think that ZTE have majored on this lens as the best of the bunch as it also seems to be even better than the main shooter. The close-focus is nothing to write home about and won't challenge Xiaomi in that respect.

The camera interface is clean enough with Google Lens built-in from the Home screen position. There's the usual line of options to slide/select from, with a Zoom Slider on-screen to the right. This defaults to 1x of course but can easily be tapped for 0.5x wide-angle, 2x Zoom (which upscales the 35mm lens), 5x (for the periscope) and to ludicrous 60x lengths at the top for all-but unusable photos - even on social media to be viewed on a small screen!

The bokeh in the portrait lens (35mm) is very well implemented with a virtual aperture slider across the bottom of the screen so you can adjust the level - and in my tests here, when across to the "F1.0" side, the artificial/hybrid blurring is well done, impactful and doesn't look horribly induced. There's a Multi-Camera option so that you can use toggles on the screen to quickly switch between the lenses and their focal length options and a Night Mode which actually seems to do a very good job pulling light from nowhere! There's always the payoff of course with noise and wrecked pixel-level detail, but you can't defeat physics! For the average user shooting night-time shots, I think that it does incredibly well and makes what should be unusable, usable!

Then there's all sorts of other stuff going on in the More tab, like a fully manual mode which lets the user play with settings of ISO, EV, WB, SS and focusing (doesn't help close-focus though), Panorama, Mono, 64MP to force the full-res rather than Quad Bayer down to 16MP in most cameras, Long Exposure and so on. There's a bunch of Quick Settings available from the hamburger menu en route to the main settings where you can drill down to even more, less often used ones. There's a spirit-level horizon aid if you want it and loads of other stuff. It's a nice enough camera app which stops short of becoming confusing and unclean. As Steve Litchfield will not be getting hands-on with this unit (he's busy reviewing the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra) I'll link you here to GSMArena's appraisal of the camera capabilities over two pages on their website starting here as they get down to the nitty-gritty and do some serious testing.

ZTE's MyOS 11
sits on top of Android 11 here and it's surprisingly clean and logical compared to many phones coming out from the far-east which seem to do everything in their power to confuse, lock people in and keep well away from Vanilla flavouring! There were a couple of pre-installed apps to deal with, but really not very many. The usual FaceBook, browser et al. They uninstall nicely so we can move on. Google apps are employed and nothing doubled-up, so no ZTE email, contacts or calendar for example. There is a useful File Manager (which often work better than Google's Files, I find).

There is an additional item which is becoming more common these days, making a shortcut cluster from a floating button/slider on the screen. Like Sony's Side Sense or Samsung's Edge Panel. ZTE call theirs Z-Pop but it works in much the same way. When you turn it on, you can assign a bunch of system functions to five buttons (though unlike the others, not apps). The 'main' button sits on the screen, dragged to where you want it, then if you tap-hold, drag away from the edge and then let go, you get the other 4 of the 5 buttons in a semi-circle to execute. Works well and is simple. Not sure I'd bother with it, but it's clean enough.

There's a Google Feed option for the left of home for those who want it, a home screen Google Search widget which is removable, a bunch of wallpaper via the long-press home and even Effect - which allows for a choice of animation when switching screens or returning to base. The Widget-picker is far from standard, being a carousel across the bottom of the screen rather than full-page vertical list, but it works well enough. You can change the grid-layout for rows/columns and even opt for all-apps on home screens rather than App Drawer if you like. The app drawer is vertically-scrolling with an A-Z index down the right for quick-picks with, thankfully no Recent Apps list at the top taking up space!

Pull down from anywhere gets you the Status/notification area which is very Android 12/iOS in terms of having big buttons and blue colours when engaged. A secondary swipe gets down to the other buttons which are editable and sideways-scroll if you have too many for one page. There's a ton of stuff in there to choose from, so customise away!

The Settings screen is also pleasantly uncluttered and rearranged too much from Vanilla with no nags to open a ZTE account, for example, often blighting other manufacturers' offerings. Having said that, when you drill down into various settings, it becomes obvious that ZTE have put the MyOS touch on some stuff. But I'm not complaining. It's close enough! There's useful stuff additionally too in there - and some things changed and missing. For example, Display time-out max is 10 minutes instead of the standard 30 minutes.

There's a ZTE Locker which appears to offer a daily change of wallpapers fed by HQ and a very basic set of three Themes, a few tweaks to the Status Bar like not/showing/locating battery % and connection network speed, Dark Mode, Reading Mode and Night Light - we know the drill by now and these kind of additions are all-but standard for Android, certainly v12. Settings are all very pretty with colourful graphics and icons - and nice graphs and charts here and there depicting battery and storage - very Samsung again in many places.

I actually like MyOS 11 very much indeed. A bit like what Motorola/Sony/Nokia do, keeping it pretty much as Vanilla as possible - but add some really useful (and often pretty) enhancements. Yes, there are a few changes and omissions, but I really could live with that. Give me a choice of this and what Oppo, Xiaomi, Realme, Redmi, Samsung (and more) offer, and I'll be all over this, every time.

Connectivity is good with all the usual suspects performing very well indeed. Cellular connectivity appears to be strong, tested here with voice calls where all parties report good and strong reproduction even in a known weak-spot for Vodafone. Data via cellular is very good and strong. Wifi 6e is supported but I have no way yet of testing that advancement - with an ordinary WiFi on a domestic router the signal is strong with a long-reach connection. NFC seems to be present and working fine connecting to other gear, though I couldn't test Google Pay. Similarly, GPS locked on quickly in supporting apps and services and tracked me well, whilst moving. Bluetooth 5.2 seems to offer a decent enough range via the phone's aerial and held onto the signal pretty well with break-up only present when pushed to longer distances or through very thick walls.

The supplied battery is a 4,600mAh unit. Not the biggest out there, but still decidedly decent. In my test period of my average usage I found that I could quite happily get to the end of the day with 30-40% remaining, so if pushed maybe lunchtime on Day 2. My 10% Reading SoT Test returned me 1 hour and 45 minutes, which again, is not the best but certainly far from worst. As always, battery longevity depends very much on what you're using the phone for and how you're pushing it or not, so YMMV for sure. On balance though, there's no reason to fear a poor performance. In the box you get a 65W charger which zips through charging, offering a full charge from flat in under an hour and two-thirds in half-hour. Wow! Having said that, i
t's a shame that there's no Qi Charging - something I might have expected at this price-point - but something that many seem to be dropping and supplying super-fast-chargers instead.

At time of writing the phone can be bought direct from ZTE in this 128GB/8GB version for £649. There's a lot of phone here for that price. But there are also a couple of items that you might expect, like Qi Charging and an IP-rating (and being fussy, microSD and 3.5mm)! Having said that, this feels very much like a flagship at half the price of many others, it has a super bright and colourful screen with a very fast refresh-rate, it's much cleaner than many in terms of Android, it has a bunch of interesting and fun cameras (highlighted for me by that 35mm shooter), a super-fast processor, great sounding speakers and booming 24-bit audio for headphones. I would be very happy to use this phone as my main unit with my only concern being the commitment by ZTE to monthly security updates. Laying that aside, very highly recommended.

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