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ZTE Axon 20 5G review

The world’s first phone with an under-screen selfie camera

ZTE Axon 20 5G
(Image: © TechRadar)

Our Verdict

The ZTE Axon 20 5G is the first phone you’re able to buy with an under-screen selfie camera, and while it may not provide you with the best selfies you’ll find right now, it’s exciting nevertheless. The phone as a whole is a solid experience for anyone looking for a big screen device that comes at an affordable price, but there’s nothing aside from the selfie camera that really makes the Axon 20 5G stand out from the crowd of great mid-range devices.

For

  • Under-screen selfie innovation
  • A big screen
  • Includes 5G support

Against

  • Too big for many
  • Middling speakers
  • Selfie camera isn’t great

Two-minute review

The headline feature of the ZTE Axon 20 5G is that it’s the first commercially available smartphone with an under-screen selfie camera, therefore there’s no notch or punch-hole selfie camera.

The bad news is that this isn’t the strongest selfie camera on the market right now, but it’s still an interesting innovation that we’re sure to see a variety of manufacturers embrace in the years to come.

Is it a reason to buy the ZTE Axon 20 5G? Not really, unless you’re desperate to be one of the first to try out that innovation and you think the rest of the smartphone is designed for exactly what you need. Away from the innovative selfie camera, the ZTE Axon 20 5G is full of specs many will be looking for from a new smartphone with a mid-range price.

It’s not for everyone though - the Axon 20 5G is a remarkably large phone, with a 6.92-inch display, and as you’d expect that can make it a difficult device to use on a day-to-day basis for those who prefer smaller phones.

The screen itself provides an enjoyable experience - you won’t get a QHD resolution here, but the picture quality remains strong - and we found it worked well for watching movies and a variety of other content, unlike some smaller smartphones.

The rear camera isn’t as revolutionary as the Axon 20 5G’s front-facing selfie shooter, but it still performs well, with a sensor that can keep up with a variety of other phones around this price. Just don’t expect photos that can rival premium top-end smartphones.

The power is a little less here than some will be looking for, with ZTE opting for the weaker Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chipset to keep this device running, and we found battery life to be middling at times as well.

Overall, the ZTE Axon 20 5G is made for a very specific type of person and we’d only recommend buying this handset after you’ve considered the negatives in our review. If you’re looking for a big phone that includes a brand new type of selfie camera though, this could well be a great choice for your next smartphone.

ZTE Axon 20 5G release date and price

The ZTE Axon 20 5G was first revealed in China in 2020, but soon after that the company revealed the phone would be coming to other markets including the US and UK. We’ve yet to hear whether the ZTE Axon 20 5G will be available in Australia, but we’ll update this review when we learn more.

The phone costs $449 / £419 (around AU$750), which puts it in a similar price bracket to the Google Pixel 4a. That’s for an 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage variant, and it doesn’t seem the company is selling other models in these regions. 

Design

The ZTE Axon 20 5G is a remarkably large smartphone, and if you’re looking for a device with a big screen you’ll be getting it with this option, as it features a 6.92-inch Full HD screen. We’ll dive into that a little more below, but the design of the handset feels premium considering the price.

It features a glass rear, which isn’t something you’ll always get even on more expensive Android phones. The rear is a bit of a fingerprint magnet itself, but it feels premium to the touch and it has metal edges to make it feel a touch more high-end as well.

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ZTE Axon 20 5G

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G

(Image credit: TechRadar)

You’ve got lots of options for the color of your phone; it comes in black, gold, blue, purple and yellow, although we’ve used the black version of the handset that you can see pictured in this review.

The rear of the handset features a camera module that juts out from the back, which means this won’t suitably lay down on a desk without a bit of rocking back and forth. This is a large camera housing as well, so it won’t prove comfortable for everyone.

There’s also ZTE and Axon 5G branding on the rear of the device, which doesn’t add much to the look of the phone. The right edge of the phone has the power button and volume rocker, which can sometimes be a little difficult to reach if you’re using the phone one-handed.

In fact, you’ll likely want to use this phone with two hands at most times as it can be a little unwieldy, with dimensions of 172.1 x 77.9 x 8mm. It’s not particularly heavy considering its size - it’s 198g - but it can be a little difficult to control if you’ve got smaller hands.

The speaker also sits at the bottom edge of the handset, and we found this to work okay but it doesn’t give particularly great sounding audio. If you listen to a lot of audio directly from your phone’s speaker, this may not be up to scratch for you.

Display 

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ZTE Axon 20 5G

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G

(Image credit: TechRadar)

 The screen on the ZTE Axon 20 5G is a larger option than many other Android phones as it almost reaches 7 inches. If you’re looking for a smartphone with a larger screen that doesn’t cost as much as a flagship, this could be a top choice.

It features a Full HD+ resolution - so that’s 1080 x 2460 - and that equals 388 pixels per inch. The phone’s screen looks crisp, and it’ll give you a resolution similar to most phones at this price point.

It’s an OLED display too, which we found to offer some strong brightness as well as an easy to view screen in direct sunlight.

ZTE has also adopted a 90Hz refresh rate, which means images refresh quicker on the display than your average smartphone giving you a smoother picture when playing games or scrolling through feeds. A lot of phones now offer a faster refresh rate, and while this isn’t the fastest on the market this is one of the cheaper phones to offer this functionality

We’ve found the ZTE Axon 20 5G to be an enjoyable experience in terms of its screen, and while the size may put some off, if you’re looking for a smartphone that can offer a fantastically large display with a smooth refresh rate this could be a top choice for you.

Camera

Unlike our other phone reviews, we’ll be focusing on the front-facing selfie camera first. That’s because there’s no cut-out here, as this handset is the first phone in the world to feature an under-screen selfie camera.

How has ZTE made that possible? It’s by using two screens simultaneously, but one of those is a small square screen on top of the selfie camera and the phone's main OLED display. You can learn more about how it works in a teardown video here.

What are the results like? They’re not fantastic, and despite its high spec of 32MP f/2.0 you’re unlikely to get better shots out of this smartphone than many others on the market.

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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)

That said, other selfie cameras aren’t hiding under the screen. Generally they’re in a cut-out which you can still see when the camera isn’t in use, and some are even a notch jutting into the screen, so the ZTE Axon 20 5G’s is at least an aesthetic upgrade.

You mostly won't notice the under display camera, but it is visible at some times when you're in certain apps. For example, when viewing webpages in Google Chrome we found the selfie camera was visible due to the light images around it.

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ZTE Axon 20 5G

You can see the selfie camera in the center of the top edge (Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G

Similar results when viewing a webpage (Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G

Darker wallpapers allow ZTE to hide the selfie camera from view (Image credit: TechRadar)

On the rear of the phone there’s a powerful camera, especially considering the price of the ZTE Axon 20 5G, though it’s more conventional than the selfie snapper. 

There’s a 64MP f/1.8 main shooter that’s flanked by an 8MP f/2.2 ultra-wide, 2MP f/2.4 macro and 2MP f/2.4 depth sensor.

This isn’t going to give you photos that compare to the likes of the best camera phones, but we found this to be a satisfactory experience that especially excelled in strong lighting. Darker shots are where this camera will begin to struggle more than its competition.

If you’re looking to film lots of video, you’re able to record in 4K at 30 frames per second or 60 frames per second, and there are a variety of other modes as well.

Camera samples 

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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)
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ZTE Axon 20 5G camera samples

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Specs and performance

The ZTE Axon 20 5G isn’t the most powerful smartphone on the market, but it’s capable enough with a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chipset powering the device and the choice of 6GB or 8GB of RAM.

This isn’t going to be as fast as flagship smartphones, but we found it capable of running top apps, playing games smoothly and taking on a variety of tasks with ease. We used the 8GB of RAM variant of the device, so we can’t comment on the 6GB model.

You’ll likely be limited to one handset with 128GB of storage with 8GB of RAM, but the company also sells a variant with that storage and 6GB of RAM as well as 256GB storage variant with 8GB of RAM. Those aren’t readily available in most markets though. There’s also microSD support if you want some extra space at a later date.

Benchmarks found the ZTE Axon 20 5G was capable with a score of 1910, and we found that to be reflected in our average usage of the phone. Don’t expect a top-end handset, and you’ll likely be happy with what the Axon 20 is capable of.

As the phone’s name suggests, it is also capable of 5G connectivity. 5G coverage isn’t commonplace for many at the moment, but it’s a useful spec for the phone to have as it will futureproof your handset even if you’re not yet able to access the feature.

Battery life

ZTE Axon 20 5G

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The ZTE Axon 20 5G comes with a 4,220mAh battery, and while this won’t offer the best battery life we’ve seen on a smartphone, we’ve found this handset is able to last a whole day even with lots of use of its big screen.

We were initially surprised by the fairly modest battery in the Axon 20 5G, but it lasted a full day every time we recharged the device and on some occasions with more minimal usage we found it would last even longer.

Considering it’s powering such a big screen, we found this to be a solid amount of battery life, but it isn’t going to be a handset you can use for two days straight after recharging it once. That is, unless you’re very light in your usage.

The handset features fast-charging tech which we found worked well in our testing, but there’s no wireless charging included here. There’s also a charger included in the box, which isn’t a guarantee with smartphones anymore.

Should you buy the ZTE Axon 20 5G?

ZTE Axon 20 5G

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Buy it if...

You want to try this new selfie tech

If you’re excited by a disappearing selfie camera, you may want to buy this smartphone. While it may not be the best shooter itself, it’s still an exciting addition to smartphone technology and is worth a look if this sounds like something for you.

You’re looking for a cheaper large phone

This is far from a budget smartphone, but the ZTE Axon 20 5G is a cheaper device than a lot of flagship choices and is one of the most affordable large phones you’ll find on the market. If that’s something you’re looking for, you should consider this ZTE handset.

You need a cheaper 5G phone

This isn’t the cheapest 5G phone money can buy, but it’s one of the more affordable 5G handsets you’ll be able to find at the moment. If you don’t want to spend lots but you do want the next generation of connectivity then this is a great place to start.

Don’t buy it if...

You don’t want a large phone

This is a huge smartphone, and for anyone looking for a smaller handset you won’t enjoy how unwieldy this handset can be. It will be perfect for some for this exact reason, but seriously consider how big is too big before you opt for the ZTE phone.

You need the top-end spec

The Axon 20 5G comes with some strong specs and features considering its price, but it won’t give you the best performance or offer the best screen resolution. If you’re after a handset that can do that, you’ll want to look elsewhere to brands like Google, OnePlus or Samsung.

You need a truly great selfie camera

The selfie camera on the ZTE Axon 20 5G is a thrilling new piece of technology that will be a positive for smartphones in the coming years, but this isn’t the best selfie camera you’ll find on the market. If you want that, you can find alternative Android phones with better selfie shooters.

First reviewed: February 2021

James Peckham

James is Phones Editor for TechRadar and covers all the big announcements from the best manufacturers making mobile phones, tablets and wearables. Based in London, James is often testing out the latest and greatest mobile phones, smartwatches, tablets, VR headsets and - when he can be motivated to go outside - fitness bands. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for all the latest from the mobile world.