In a perfect world, everything fits under the surface of smartphone displays. That is the principle behind the past few years of phone design. At least, ever since the iPhone X escalates, the bezel wars with its conspicuous notch. From in-display fingerprint sensors to pop-up selfie cameras, phone manufacturers take creative approaches to achieve the highest possible screen-to-body ratio.
The latest advancement in the bezel wars is the ZTE Axon 20 5G, which goes on sale today. And is the world’s first phone to integrate its front-facing camera underneath the screen. While in-display fingerprint sensors are commonplace now, companies like Oppo and Xiaomi show off demos for years now. But ZTE seems to give a punch with the first commercial device.
In theory, the advantages are apparent. You get an unbroken display that doesn’t need to account for a notch or hole-punch. And you don’t need to build in a motorized mechanism for a pop-up camera module.
What is the perfect world in the ZTE Axon 20 5G?
Before we talk about the camera, we must talk about the display that lies on top. Experts doubt this has anything to do with the camera technology itself, but the fact is that the Axon 20 5G is one of the biggest smartphones. The 90Hz OLED panel is a massive 6.92 inches diagonal, which means its 1080p resolution is a little less sharp.
It’s not a problem in regular use, though, and the screen generally looks pretty good beyond some rough off-angle color shifting. What does not look good is the comparatively huge “chin” bezel at the bottom. That feeling only intensifies when you go through the ZTE Axon 20 5G’s setup process, which shows the camera in the worst possible conditions. The under-display integration is exceptionally noticeable on light backgrounds, like what you tend to see on settings screens. There’s a square patch of the screen that exhibits an apparent dithering effect, making it appear much lower resolution than the rest of the panel.
In more general use, it’s harder to notice. If you are viewing photos or a full-color wallpaper, you can see the lower-resolution area if you look closely. But it isn’t quite as distracting. And as with other companies who ship Android phones with notches or hole-punches, ZTE’s default software uses a black background. It is mainly for the top part of the screen where status and notification icons are displayed. But it does make the camera near-invisible.
How does the camera function?
The news here is not great either. It is a halfway functional camera under an OLED screen at all. It involves new types of transparent materials, pixel filters, and demosaicing algorithms to make sense of the light that hits the 32-megapixel sensor. But the result, unfortunately, is a lousy selfie camera.
The ZTE Axon 20 5G’s selfie camera takes hazy, soft photos with weak colors and blown-out highlights in a good light. The disparity is just as stark in low light, with a ton of noise and obliterated detail. This under-display selfie camera is merely functional, and that’s being generous. It can capture images through the screen, yes, which is indeed a minor miracle. But you probably can’t post them on social media for sure.
But the ZTE Axon 20 5G is actually a much better proposition if you don’t care about selfies or video calls. It’s otherwise a pretty credible phone for $449, though, despite providing a dollar price. ZTE says the phone will not be available in the US and Canada. While the Axon 20 5G has a vast footprint, it’s still slim at just under 8mm thick.
ZTE features a reasonably large 4,220mAh battery inside. The processor is a Snapdragon 765G with an integrated 5G modem, the same as the Pixel 5 and the LG Velvet. And you can configure it up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.
Other specs include an optical in-display fingerprint sensor that works fine, 30W fast charging over USB-C, and a headphone jack. There’s a 64-megapixel primary camera and a 16-megapixel ultrawide, along with 2-megapixel macro and depth sensors that you can probably ignore. The main areas where ZTE has cut corners are its mediocre haptics system and an unimpressive downward-firing speaker.
The ZTE Axon 20 5G is the first smartphone with an under-display camera. The Selfie shooter usually resides in a notch or some pop-up mechanism. These combine to achieve a 6.92-inch OLED display with no notches or obtrusions whatsoever. It has a resolution of 2,460 x 1,080 (20.5:9) with a refresh rate of 90Hz and 10-bit color output. Needless to say, it is a very tall panel.
The selfie camera has a resolution of 32MP, while the back sports four other cameras – a 64MP primary camera, an 8MP ultra-wide lens. It also has a 2MP depth sensor and a 2MP macro shooter. Currently, it is only available in China. It starts at CNY 2,198 for the base variant with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage and goes up to CNY 2,498.
Shall you buy it?
The ZTE Axon 20 5G is the world’s first commercially available smartphone with an under-display camera. And if you live in the UK, you can buy it from today. The handset was revealed back in September for those in China. And now it’s coming to a host of countries around the world.
There is currently no news on the US or Australian release date, and ZTE has yet to confirm about the worldwide release. The under-display selfie camera often looks worse and more distracting than a notch. And the image quality is clearly compromised. It’s ironic that a phone might be more appealing to an audience that actively doesn’t care about its key selling point.