ZTE Axon 20 5G review: World’s first under-display camera takes second-rate selfies

Like

  • Novelty factor of an under-display cam
  • Unobstructed display
  • Battery life
  • Fast charging

Don’t Like

  • Washed-out images of under-display camera
  • Single downward-facing speaker
  • Fingerprint reader unlocks inconsistently
  • No IP rating for water- and dust-resistance

ZTE released the Axon 20 5G on Monday, capping off 5G phone launches in this rollercoaster of a year. Unlike its predecessor, the Axon 20 5G will not be made available in the US or Canada. Skip to the end of this section if you just want to see where you’ll be able to buy it. 

Starting at $449 (£419, or about AU$590), the A20 5G falls squarely in the midrange category, but it’s loaded with premium features typically seen in fancier flagships. Those high-end touches include a zippy and crisp display (90Hz, FHD Plus), fast charging (30 watts), a large battery (4,220 mAh), and a versatile camera module. But what undeniably separates this phone from its peers (even the ultrapremium ones) is its under-display camera. In fact, according to ZTE, the A20 5G is the world’s first commercially manufactured phone with such a cutting-edge camera feature. Despite that, the phone still comes in at an affordable price. ZTE saved on costs by going with a midrange Snapdragon 765G chipset and built the phone with a plastic frame. Still, the processor is good enough to let you sail through everyday tasks without any feeling of sluggishness. 

One of the clear compromises of ZTE’s under-display camera, however, is image quality. Photos taken in low light with the front-facing camera weren’t the best I’ve ever seen. Photos were often either washed out or grainy. But overall, I think the images are passable, especially when you factor in the price and the novelty tech this phone offers. Another trade-off is it forces all audio to be outputted through a single downward facing speaker, which makes it difficult to hear. And there’s no IP rating for water- and dust-resistance. 

That said, the under-display camera is a unique selling point of the ZTE A20 5G and likely offers a window into the future of smartphone design, even if it doesn’t take the most color-accurate or detail-filled photos. If you’re looking to impress your friends with a phone with an unusual camera, you might consider this phone since the photos are good enough. However, if you’re looking to take crisp and detailed photos, the A20 5G just isn’t the right phone. Oppo’s Reno 4 Pro uses a midrange chipset too, the Snapdragon 720G, but I prefer its photos even without the novelty of an under-display camera.

The Axon 20 5G has a single downward facing speaker. 


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Preorders, which start Monday for the black color option, are invite-only, and the lucky few who’ve been invited will also get a complimentary pair of TWS earphones (worth $40) from ZTE. The black devices, which have a limited supply of 200 units, begin shipping starting Jan. 4. By then, a new yellow color option will also be available. There’s just one variant of this phone: a 8GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage version, which supports up to 2TB of expandable storage if needed.

Read more: Which phones take the best selfies? We compare iPhone, Samsung, Pixel, OnePlus

The Axon 20 5G won’t be made available for sale in North America, but because ZTE is focusing on a massive international launch, it should be easy to import stateside. ZTE is working on a staggered rollout across parts of the EU, the UK, Asia (Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines), the Middle East (UAE and Saudi Arabia), and South Africa. 

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If you look closely, you can see the squared screen area above the under-display camera is pixelated. The under-display cam is located on the top-center of the panel.


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The Axon 20 5G’s under-display camera 

Using the under-display-camera, you can take pictures and shoot video using either selfie mode or portrait mode. The camera, which uses a 32-megapixel lens, captured decent photographs in brightly lit environments, but it had room for improvement in low-light scenarios. Daytime selfies showed enough facial detail, including tiny freckles, but the camera whitened and air-brushed my face resulting in photographs that weren’t exactly true to life. In darker conditions however, the under-display camera showed signs of a struggle. Those photos hardly contained any detail. In fact, they turned out blurry, especially near the edges, and lacked the crispness of a quality image. But because of the phone’s sub-$500 price and the novelty of the under-display camera, I think these imperfections are forgivable even if the technology isn’t quite there yet. As I mentioned earlier, this is the first mass-produced phone to come equipped with an under-display camera. Chinese rival Xiaomi has launched its third-gen under-display camera tech, and Vivo even launched a concept phone, but neither of them have yet gone to market.

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Taken during the day with sunlight pouring through the window. Even though the photo isn’t super crisp, the camera captures the veins on my plant and the moles on my face.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

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Taken at night with living room lights on using the A20 5G’s under-display camera. You can see that the background of this picture is quite blurry.


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Selfie taken at night with the 32-megapixel under-display camera.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

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Sareena Dayaram/CNET

ZTE says it used a mix of five technologies to get the camera to work. To balance performance of the display and the front camera, ZTE added a special material using “organic and inorganic film,” which improves light input for the lens. The A20 5G also uses a dual-control chip and driver circuit that synchronize color and the phone’s display to prevent the camera and the display from interfering with each other. It also has what it calls a “special matrix” for more natural pixel transitions. Finally, ZTE says it spent over a year developing an in-house “selfie-algorithm” that optimizes the camera’s performance under dark, bright and glare scenes, and it can intelligently adjust the dynamic range.

Apart from the fancy under-display camera, other welcome premium touches on this midranger include facial recognition and a fingerprint reader. Although I was happy with the overall performance of the facial scanning, the fingerprint scanner was all but dysfunctional. I wasn’t able to unlock the phone a single time during the three days I tested out the device.

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The Axon 20 5G has a quad-camera module on its back, headlined by a 64-megapixel snapper.


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4 rear cameras

The A20 5G is equipped with four rear cameras: a 64-megapixel standard shooter and three 8-megapixel cameras in the form of ultrawide, macro and depth lenses. I loved the fact that this camera system lets you take a versatile range of photographs. With the macro lens, I could photograph tiny details in subjects that I couldn’t see with my own eyes. On the flip side, using 5x digital zoom let me capture detail in faraway objects. In general, the Axon 20 5G took detailed, crisp photos in both bright and dim places, but most of the time photos weren’t color-accurate, and appeared as if the color was enhanced by a filter.

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Taken with the macro camera. Although the purple shade here isn’t quite true to life, the lens still manages to capture some intricate detail.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

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Took this photo indoors in dim lighting. The texture and detail of my dog’s fur is blurred compared to the detail seen in the photo below this one.

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Taken in a brightly lit environment.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

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Taken on an overcast day here in Singapore.


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Zooming in.


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My plant baby. This photo was taken at night while the yellow living room lights were switched on.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

The Axon 20 5G’s entirely unobstructed display

At first glance, the Axon 5G may look like a run-of-the-mill Android phone. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that its long screen is completely unobstructed. Because of the phone’s under-display camera, there’s no need for the notches or hole-punches that would normally house a front-facing camera. Instead, the under-display camera is part of its colossal 6.92-inch screen. In fact, you can (kind of) see the camera sitting in-screen on the center top of the panel, above which, a small squared portion of the screen looks highly pixelated.

Speaking of the display, the A20 5G relies on a high-res OLED panel complete with a speedy refresh rate that serves up a smooth user experience whether I was scrolling through news feeds, playing games, or watching YouTube videos. You can choose between a 60Hz or 90Hz screen depending on your needs. 

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A 64-megapixel lens leads the pack of rear cameras on the Axon 20 5G.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

This is a chunky phone at 198 grams (6.98 ounces), and its size left me navigating the device with both hands. At 6.7 inches tall, it surpasses the iPhone 12 Pro Max in height. Surrounding the display is a plastic frame, sandwiched by glass on both sides. The review unit I was given is the black model, which has a glossy finish that ultimately was covered up by the phone case. 

As I’d mentioned earlier, a tradeoff is that all audio is outputted through one speaker located on the bottom of the device. As a music lover, I found that tough to accept. 

MiFavor 10.5 has dark mode 

The A20 5G runs MiFavor 10.5 on top of Android 10, which brings six new themes, a gaming assistant, and other new features including smart screencasting. It also has dark mode and split-screen mode. Like most skins built over an Android system, it’s intuitive and user-friendly — but overall the experience still felt a cut below skins like OnePlus’s OxygenOS or even Oppo’s ColorOS, which has steadily improved in recent years. Most of my gripes were cosmetic rather than functional. Many of the screen savers look amateurish when compared to other user interfaces, for example. There are easy fixes to a lot of these issues.

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The app drawer of the Axon 20 5G.


Sareena Dayaram/CNET

The 4,220-mAh battery

In our battery test, which involves looping an HD video on half brightness until the battery runs out, A20 5G lasted around 17 hours, an impressive result. I’m still putting the phone through tests to confirm that, but anecdotally, the battery lasted me throughout the day with mild usage. That means I checked my email, WhatsApp and social media apps, watched YouTube videos for a few minutes, took photos and made a few phone calls and WhatsApp or Zoom video calls, while I had my display set to 50% brightness and 90Hz. ZTE’s 30-watt fast charging didn’t disappoint either, allowing the large 4,220-mAh battery to complete a full charge in less than an hour.

Under the hood, the Axon 20 5G carries the Snapdragon 765G chipset, which is backed by 8GB RAM and 128GB of expandable storage. Although Qualcomm’s midrange processor doesn’t offer the fastest speeds out there, performance was good enough to easily get me through everyday tasks. Compared to other phones that use the same chipset, the A205G stacked up well.

ZTE’s Axon 20 5G

ZTE Axon 20 5G
Display size, resolution 6.92-inch OLED; FHD Plus (2,460×1,080p pixels)
Pixel density N/A
Dimensions (Inches) 6.77×3.06×0.31 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 172x78x7.98 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.98 oz; 198 grams
Mobile software Android 10
Camera 64-megapixel (standard); 8-megapixel (wide angle); 8-megapixel (depth); 8-megapixel (macro)
Front-facing camera 32-megapixel under-display camera
Video capture 4K
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G
Storage 128GB
RAM 8GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TB
Battery 4,220 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In-screen
Connector USB-C
Headphone jack No
Special features Under-display camera, 5G enabled, fast charging (30W), 90Hz display
Price off-contract (USD) $449
Price (GBP) £419
Price (AUD) AU$590 (converted from USD)

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