Smartphone displays have evolved from notches to hole-punch cut-outs on their way to the final destination: an all-screen phone. And surprisingly, it’s not Samsung leading the way. It’s ZTE, a smartphone maker that has been hit with multiple sanctions and bans.
Older smartphone enthusiasts might remember ZTE’s Axon 7 as being one of the most under-appreciated handsets of its generation, offering a slick design, dual front-facing speakers, and strong specs for an excellent price. Fast forward to 2021: The ZTE Axon 30 is very different, with the company focusing more on eliminating distractions from the phone’s huge 6.92-inch AMOLED display.
The Axon’s rear quad camera module might catch your eye at first, but its real marquee feature is what you don’t see: a 12-megapixel selfie camera hidden beneath the top edge of its screen, which is basically invisible unless you know exactly where to look (and how to hold it).
ZTE uses what it calls a special pixel matrix, along with algorithms to optimize image quality and a seven-layer screen construction, to create a phone with a camera that can capture selfies without the kind of compromises you get on devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3. Samsung’s latest flagship foldable also has an under-display camera, but after testing both, Samsung’s implementation clearly lags behind ZTE’s.
The pixel density for the section of display above the Axon 30's selfie camera is an impressive 400 PPI, compared to just 144 PPI for Samsung’s Z Fold 3. The end result is that finally, there’s no sacrifice in screen quality or anything else that might take away from what a lot of people really want from a phone: a big, unblemished slate for watching movies, gaming, or anything else you want to do on a phone. And while we might be able to cut Samsung some slack for installing an under-display camera on a phone with a flexible screen, the Axon 30's implementation still feels more polished.
While not everyone will care, kudos to ZTE for figuring out a way to do an under-display camera right, especially considering that the rest of the Axon 30's specs are more than solid. There’s a 120Hz refresh rate, a Snapdragon 870 5G chip, 8GB of base RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 4,200 mAh battery with 65-watt fast charging. The price starts at just $500, and unlike a lot of other Chinese phones, the Axon 30 is technically available for sale in the U.S. You’d expect to see a high-quality under-display camera in an experimental flagship phone, not a mid-range one.
So what about the photos? Well, the selfies you get from the Axon 30's under-display camera aren’t half bad, especially compared to what you get from the Galaxy Z Fold 3. Pics are relatively sharp, and while I feel like ZTE’s special algorithm isn’t doing the fine lines on my face any favors, it does seem to significantly reduce the effects of shooting through an OLED screen with all of those circuits and pixels in the way.
Going forward, this is will be the standard most smartphone makers will be aiming to hit for an under-display camera. Credible rumors indicate even Apple will be phasing out the Face ID notch in favor of a hole-punch camera, although some iPhone fans have speculated as to whether Apple will (or should) keep the notch or not. Think about it: If a smartphone maker could hide all of a phone’s front-facing cameras and sensors without any significant drawbacks, why would you ever want to keep the notch? Imagine if gadget makers started putting notches on laptops and TVs just because they liked the way it looks—sounds ridiculous, right?
The question isn’t if smartphones will transition to under-display cameras or get rid of notches. The question is when the technology will be good enough to make the jump. Right now, Apple doesn’t want to compromise on the accuracy or functionality of Face ID, which is totally fair. Apple is almost never first to a technological innovation, but instead adds a feature once it’s been honed and perfected. The Axon 30 is a milestone in its own right, but perfection it ain’t.
Part of the reason why it might seem like Samsung is lagging behind is simply because the company didn’t release a new Galaxy Note or other non-flexible screen flagship this fall. Given the level of tech ZTE put in the Axon 30, I fully expect Samsung to hit back hard with the Galaxy S22 (or whatever it will be called) early next year.
With the Axon 30, ZTE has shown that not only is it still kicking, but it’s also still got some impressive cards to play. The phone’s spotty band compatibility and uncertain software support might make the Axon 30 a hard sell in the U.S., but ZTE has cleared one of the last remaining hurdles for modern smartphone design, and that’s worth celebrating.