Great Smartphone For Selfie Haters

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ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is the latest attempt from ZTE to create a notchless display. And I must say that the third time is a charm. Their first under-display (UD) camera was on the ZTE Axon 20 5G followed by last year’s ZTE Axon 30 5G.

ZTE has made significant improvements in its UD camera technology since the Axon 20 5G. So this time around they are adding the Ultra moniker to the name. And to live up to the Ultra name the processor of choice is the latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 processor instead of a mid-range one found on prior versions.

So let’s get the device unboxed to see how the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra performs as a daily smartphone during our review period.

Unboxing the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

The unboxing experience hasn’t changed much over the three years of the under-display camera on the Axon series. The big difference is the black color box with the ’40’ logo in ultra large font. Inside the box is the phone, insert with the clear case, SIM tool, and paperwork. The 65W charging brick and headphone jack dongle are in one box and the USB-C cable is in another box just like last year.

Hardware design is stellar and gorgeous

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR HW1

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra takes a page out of the Samsung Note series for its overall design language. Hey, imitation is the best form of flattery, right? In terms of in-hand ergonomics, this is probably one of the best devices you can buy in 2022. It feels compact yet has a large uninterrupted display and the weight distribution is excellent.

However, ZTE has added its own flair to the rear of the smartphone to set it apart from the device it takes inspiration from. The main thing is the absolutely monstrous camera island on the top left corner. The camera module is huge, I mean it takes up almost two-thirds of the width and a third of the length of the device.

Camera module is a monstrosity

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR HW2

Some folks will like the in-your-face camera module and others might prefer something subtler. But there is no denying the fact that you need a distinguishing feature to stand out in a sea of smartphones floating around these days.

Besides the camera module, the one other feature on the rear that is unique is the sandpaper texture on the back which resists fingerprints and provides excellent grip. I also am a fan of the subtle ZTE branding on the rear of the device.

On the front is the uninterrupted display with curved edges and uniform top and bottom bezels. There are dual speaker grilles on the top and bottom rails. Taking a page out of the Xiaomi playbook there’s also an IR blaster up top. The power button and volume rocker are on the right-hand side rail and are easily accessible.

To unlock the phone there’s an optical fingerprint scanner under the display. There is a dual-SIM slot on the bottom rail next to the USB-C charging port. Overall, the design is clean and uncluttered and is a good improvement from the previous generation.

Uninterrupted 6.8-inch AMOLED display with 120Hz refresh rate

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Display

If you compare the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra to the predecessor then the display sees a bump in size but compared to the ZTE Axon 30 the screen size gets a slight reduction. Regardless of which phone you are coming from, the 6.8-inch display is still plenty large in practical terms.

The AMOLED display supports a 120Hz refresh rate and a 400 ppi pixel density which should be good for browsing, streaming, and gaming. However, the color accuracy could definitely be a bit better on this display. I hope that ZTE can fix that with a future software update.

What is good is the uninterrupted display thanks to the third-generation under-display camera technology. This time around it is extremely difficult to try and discern where the selfie camera is. In the first two generations, it was quite obvious with a slight off-axis view of the screen, not so much with the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra.

Performance wise the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is good

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Performance

Like most other top-shelf Android devices, the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra uses the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 as the CPU. We have covered various smartphones running the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip. But just to recap, this is an octa-core CPU in a 1+3+4 configuration with the prime core topping at 3.0GHz and has the Adreno 730 as the GPU.

As usual there are multiple RAM and storage configurations available. The review unit sent by ZTE to AndroidHeadlines has 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. ZTE is offering a higher spec 12GB/256GB version globally whilst even higher versions are probably just for China.

Benchmark scores are in line with other Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 smartphones, albeit on the lower side. Not sure why ZTE is unable to extract higher performance out of the Qualcomm chip compared to the other smartphone manufacturers. Perhaps the 8GB RAM might be the issue.

Unless you are a hardcore gamer, there shouldn’t be any noticeable issue in terms of performance for daily use. Although the thermal management is good during gaming, the phone does get quite hot to handle under extended periods so that is something to watch out for.

Software is MyOS 12 on top of Android 12

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Software

The Axon 40 Ultra is running MyOS 12 on top of Android 12 and the July 2022 security patch. So software wise it is up to date with the latest and greatest in terms of OS and security updates.

One thing I like about ZTE is that they basically try to give you as few apps as possible. There is basically zero bloatware aside from Facebook and you can uninstall it if you want. I believe out of the box there are fewer apps than what you get on a factory-unlocked Google Pixel device.

There are quite a few options in personalization settings to adjust themes, wallpaper, lock screen settings, icons, etc. Z-Pop and the one-handed mode are still available in the ‘Features’ section of the menu. I actually like Z-Pop and use it quite frequently to access the most used apps. I also like the location of the fingerprint scanner (someone please tell this to Xiaomi) on the device which allows for quick and easy unlocking.

The overall software experience is fluid and thankfully ad-free. I would go ahead and say that for the most part the software experience on the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is very close to what you get from a Google device.

Let’s talk about the cameras on the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Camera

That crazily huge camera island on the rear of the Axon 40 Ultra houses three 64 MP – yes that’s correct, all cameras on the rear are now 64MP – cameras. There’s a 35mm equivalent standard or main camera, 16 mm focal length equivalent ultrawide, and a 91mm focal length telephoto camera that has optical image stabilization.

On the front, there is a 16MP selfie camera which for the most part I think we should ignore because the whole reason to buy this smartphone is for the rear cameras and a notchless display.

Daylight pictures are great from all three cameras

All three cameras take great pictures in daylight. And since the main camera has a 35mm equivalent lens it gets good background separation/blur without any software tricks. I did notice that the AI toggle in the camera app did not produce any meaningful changes to the pictures so I did leave it in the off position for most of the review.

For those looking for punchy pictures – Samsung or Xiaomi – might have to use a filter or two because the results are pretty close to what you see with the naked eye. I prefer the results from this smartphone but some people want pictures from the camera to be shared right away on social media. For these folks, there might be an extra step or two before they can share those pictures from the Axon 40 Ultra.

Nighttime pictures are excellent using the Night photography mode

The trend with good pictures from all three cameras continues in low light as well. However, turning on night mode helps improve shadows and balances the exposure in most situations. In certain cases, though the night mode results might look artificial and in that case maybe you can snap another picture with the night mode off.

The ultrawide camera has autofocus so you can use it to take ‘macro’ photos by getting up close to the object. The results aren’t dedicated macro camera level but still good enough to share with friends via messaging or social media apps.

ZTE AXON 40 Ultra Camera Samples – Flickr Gallery

Selfies aren’t that great

The downside of having a screen that completely hides the selfie camera is that the photos from the selfie camera are barely okay. ZTE has tried quite a few tricks to improve the selfie camera and the display yet the end result is still what was there in the first generation Axon 20 5G.

It takes quite a bit of practice to take decent selfies with this phone. The main issue is to not have any direct source of light behind you while taking a selfie and moving around for quite a bit of time till you get the exposure and light correct. Once that is done, you will be able to get a passable selfie.  So if you are into selfies stop right here and get a different smartphone.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra Battery life is quite good

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Charging

One big improvement on the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra, is the large 5,000 mAh battery capacity. This is easily a 2-day battery life device for a moderate use case scenario. Even for heavy users, you should be able to get by a whole day without issues.

Charging speeds are reasonably good too. The 65W charging brick included in the box will get you to 100% from zero in under 50 minutes. Half an hour of charging should get you to 80% from zero which isn’t shabby. So even about 15 minutes of charging should get you between 6 hours to half a day of use without much trouble. One irritant is the lack of wireless charging from a device that bears the Ultra moniker in its name. I wish ZTE had gone the extra mile and included that in this device.

There are other devices that charge much faster but they all have proprietary charging bricks/cables and thermal management. In addition, kudos to ZTE for supplying what I think is one of the most compact 65W charging bricks available in the market. You can use this brick to charge some of the newer laptops and tablets as well.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra Audio Impressions

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Audio

The Axon 40 Ultra has a stereo speaker setup with one speaker on the bottom and another one at the top. There is a slit for the earpiece and a separate grille on the top rail for the loudspeaker for top speaker unit.

In terms of loudness, these speakers get very loud. The vocals and mid-tones come through quite clearly. The bass is a bit lacking compared to what Google and Samsung have to offer. Also, the lack of good bass is a bit of a head-scratcher since the sister company Nubia’s RedMagic series tends to have speakers with great low-range frequencies.

Audio output from the headphone dongle and Bluetooth is quite good as well. In addition, there is support for DTS built in the Sound settings and it does offer a great audio experience with headphones.

Connectivity is excellent out of the box

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Connectivity

The review unit of the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra connected to the T-Mobile 5G signal right out of the box. As soon as I put in my SIM card I was able to see  VoLTE 5G/4G on the phone depending on where I was. Data speeds were low but identical to what I get on my Pixel 5 device so basically no issues in terms of data connectivity.

Similarly, there were no issues with calls or texts/MMS on the Axon 40 Ultra on T-Mobile here in Southern California. I used the device in Puerto Rico and Arizona without any trouble during my trips there during the review period.

There is NFC, IR blaster, Screen Cast, Nearby Share along with Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.2 support built in so you should not encounter any issues in terms of connectivity on this smartphone.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra Verdict

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra AH HR Verdict

The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra gets a lot of things right. Stellar hardware design, uninterrupted and curved 6.8-inch AMOLED display, a large 5,000 mAh battery, loud stereo speakers, and great rear cameras. Not to mention USA availability and out-of-the-box 5G support. In addition, it has a clean software experience with zero bloatware and 65W fast charging support.

With the Ultra moniker in the branding and improved hardware along with the curved uninterrupted display, the price is $799 for the base version. So if you want a unique-looking device and are not into selfies then the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra makes sense.

But if selfies are important to you then for about the same price you can get the Samsung Galaxy S22 or for a bit more get the Google Pixel 6 Pro with a small cutout and a large curved 4K AMOLED display. And outside the USA you can look at plenty of devices from Xiaomi and Oppo/Vivo to compare against before settling on a smartphone of your choice.

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