ZTE is probably a brand you haven’t heard much of before or unless you happened to have owned one way back when they were a bit more available here. However, they haven’t really been around much in the U.S., but they’re pretty well known globally. They’re hoping that changes, especially with the release of their new flagship, the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra, which will be available everywhere, including here. The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra ticks off all the next-generation checkboxes in terms of specs and has one very unique defining factor that separates it from the rest. The front under-display camera makes an appearance here (or should I say disappearance) as you’d be hard-pressed to even notice it. It’s so well hidden that it makes the display extra gorgeous with no pinholes or notches to ruin your experience.
The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra doesn’t really break any boundaries when it comes to design. It is a handsome-looking smartphone, but not one that really has that “omg wow” factor. Since this is a Chinese phone, we’ll compare it to what’s probably its closest competitor that I have in my stash, which is the Oppo Find X5 Pro.
Unlike that phone, the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is a lot more angular with sharper corners and a flatter top and bottom. This is similar in design to the older Galaxy Note series or the current Galaxy S22 Ultra. It’s not uncomfortable to hold, but it is noticeably sharper in your palm. It’s certainly more rectangular, but that could be a good thing because you do get more viewing area up in the corners so it doesn’t get cut off like on some other more curvier-edged devices.
From the front, the display is where the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra really shines. It’s a 6.8″ full-screen AMOLED display with “waterfall-style” curved left and right surfaces. This gives the phone the appearance that it has no borders on the left and right sides with a display that uses the maximum amount of real estate. The display has a resolution of 2480×1116 and is considered an FHD+ display. While a QHD+ display would have been welcome, most people probably wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. I should mention that the inclusion of a 120Hz refresh rate totally makes up for it, giving everything you do on it a buttery smooth feel.
You may also notice that the display doesn’t have a notch nor do you see any inkling of a pinhole camera. It uses a next-generation under-display camera that is so perfectly hidden, that you’d be excused if you thought there wasn’t one. This isn’t my first experience with an under-display camera but this is certainly the best-looking implementation. You honestly can’t even tell it’s there and that’s a huge plus when it comes to not interrupting the look of any apps or videos you’re watching.
Moving to the back, it’s also curved glass but doesn’t look like it. It’s similar to the finish of what’s on the Galaxy S21 Ultra where the glass is all matte but in the case of the ZTE, it also has some crazy sparkle to it. I don’t even know what to call it, but it shimmers in the light. It’s a really cool-looking effect and I really love the fact that it is completely fingerprint-proof.
On the back, you’ll also find a really large triple-camera setup sitting inside a huge rectangular island. It’s very large and takes up almost the entire top quadrant of the phone. It’s not as integrated and seamless as the Oppo Find X5 Pro and makes the phone a bit wobbly when sitting on its back. I will say, the cameras are massive which warrants the larger camera island.
Lastly, there’s a metal border that runs along with the entire outer frame. It’s pretty thin on the sides and thicker on the top and bottom. All the buttons are located on the right side. There is a dual sim tray on the bottom. Unfortunately, like many other new flagship devices we’ve looked at, there is no expandable storage. There’s also no AUX jack and on the top, there seems to be something that looks like an IR blaster, but I don’t see any documentation for what it might be.
For the most part, the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra has many flagship features you’d expect from an “Ultra” device, though not everything is ultra. On paper, the device has a lot going for it even if it is missing a few higher-end flagship features and specs. So what’s it have?
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 CPU
- 128GB UFS3.1+8GB LPDDR5 or 256GB/12GB
- 9-Layer Heat Dissipation System
- 5000mAh Battery – 65W Fast Charging
- 6.8″ FHD+ AMOLED with 120Hz Refresh Rate w/ 360Hz Touch Sample Rate
- WiFi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC, GPS (Dual WiFi Connect)
- Dual Sim Support
- Dual Stereo Speakers w/ Snapdragon Sound and DTS X Ultra
So as you can see, most of the major high-end specs are there. The only thing they seemed to have slightly skimped on was not making the display QHD or higher. Not only that, but the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra also doesn’t seem to be rated for water or dust proofing and the display is not Gorilla Glass. Not really sure what that means in terms of long-term durability with drops or accidental exposure to water. On the plus side, the phone did come with a case for some drop protection.
As a bonus, you also still get a fast charger, cable, and even a USB-C to AUX port adaptor in the box.
The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra runs a custom version of Android 12 called MyOS12. The specific version on which we are testing the phone is MyOS12.0.8_A2023PG_GLB. MyOS12 does some rather interesting things with Android 12 that I haven’t really seen before but it’s also quite familiar for those who have used Android phones in the past.
Before we get to that though, I want to mention just how “clean” the phone comes when you first get it. By that, I mean there’s virtually almost no bloatware and ZTE doesn’t even include ZTE branded apps. The only form of bloat you get is in the form of three apps – Booking.com, Facebook, and WPS Office. The rest of the apps are pretty much all stock Google apps, except for the camera app. That’s pretty incredible and what I expect from an unlocked, carrier-free device. This is how they all should be, but oftentimes they’re not.
This is probably as close to a Pixel device as you’re going to get aside from the custom launcher. The custom launcher on the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is MyOS12. This launcher takes some design cues from the stock Android 12 Pixel launchers while also adding a bunch of things not found there. For instance, the notification drag-down panel has some elements such as the larger shortcut buttons but also keeps the tiny circles at the bottom. Basically, the main shortcuts you use are larger while those you don’t are smaller.
The settings app is also an area where I see a lot of change. Certain sections of the settings have really cool-looking visual upgrades that make the settings app a lot more visually appealing and stimulating. For instance, the Personalization settings look really neat and give you a visual representation of what each setting would do. However, one setting no longer works after a recent update, which is the ZTE Locker. This would allow for a rotating set of Lock Screen wallpapers. It was a neat feature, but no it no longer functions and won’t even open to view the settings.
Aside from that, MyOS12 is very clean and very responsive and a great alternative to the stock Android 12 launcher.
The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra actually has an impressive spec sheet for the cameras. That’s not surprising because the cameras are one of the phone’s most touted selling points and a target for a lot of their marketing. It has a triple camera system, each equipped with 64MP. You get a wide-angle primary lens (16mm), a “Humanity” primary lens (35mm), and a telephoto primary lens (91mm). The wide-angle lens can double as a macro lens while the periscope telephoto lens can also zoom in digitally at about 40x, though optical zoom tops out at 5.7x.
While those main primary cameras are great, it’s the front selfie cam that will probably garner the most attention, and that’s mainly because it’s so well hidden. The under-display camera (UDC) is one of the best I’ve seen in terms of implementation. That’s where the greatness ends though because while it is a 16MP unit, photos with it are very underwhelming. Mainly they look a bit too soft, with colors that are kind of muddy and neutral, and not at all as good as those primary cameras.
We’ll go more in-depth with the cameras in another future post. Just know that ZTE seems to have gone that extra mile to make at least the primary cameras, fantastic.
Like most phones from outside of the U.S., the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra doesn’t quite work with AT&T. But that’s AT&T’s fault and not the fault of ZTE. Mainly, you will not be able to use features such as Wi-Fi Calling, HD-Voice, or visual voicemail. However, it still does receive calls and text messages. If you can live with that, then the other stuff is just small issues you can deal with. That could change however as the official list of working phones on AT&T did include the previous Axon 30 Ultra 5G, so it’s possible this could get certification soon for use on its network.
Aside from that, the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is incredibly fast and responsive and I’ve had zero issues with any sort of lag or slowdowns. I also really don’t mind that the display only has FHD+ and not QHD as this does give the phone a bit more battery life. The 120Hz refresh rate is super smooth and everything looks pretty gorgeous on the display.
In terms of accessibility, the fingerprint reader is super fast as is the facial recognition. I’m a big fan of multiple sign-in methods so having both of these is a welcome addition.
I will say that in comparison to the Oppo Find X5 Pro, usability is about the same despite the different launchers. You get used to them both fairly quickly and both have their neat additional features. While the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra doesn’t look as good as the Oppo device, the camera features on it I think are better. Oppo saw fit not to include any zoom factors to their camera, which was a really odd omission. The ZTE adds a 91mm optical zoom (5.7x equivalent) and 40x digital zoom.
ZTE might not be a brand you’re familiar with here in the U.S., but they’re pretty well known globally. It’s a shame that we actually don’t have more devices here to choose from other than your usually Apple or Samsung phones, which pretty much dominate here. The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra really is a great device that has a lot going for it in terms of specs and usability. The cameras for the most part are fantastic and the display is gorgeous even though it’s only FHD+. The under-display front camera is very well hidden and really does make the display look that much better.
The only thing I’d really ding the phone is the lack of waterproofing or dust proofing certifications and that the glass isn’t Gorilla Glass or equivalent. Also so lackluster selfie cam quality.
However, I’m able to turn a blind eye to some of its shortcomings mainly because the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra will retail at an astonishing $799 globally, in this configuration, when it is released on June 21, 2022. That undercuts many of today’s flagships. Not only that. It still comes with a charger!