You don’t need to be much of a fortune teller to know that cheaper 5G phones are going to be a huge focus for phone makers in the next few years. While the faster 5G hardware was initially reserved for higher end hardware at first, we’re starting to see it trickle into tons of other phones in all kinds of price points, much like the $500 ZTE Axon 30 5G.
We’re taking that Axon 30 5G for a spin with its affordable price tag, powerful processor and faster network connectivity. Can ZTE make your next 5G phone, or is it better to wait for another couple generations? Let’s find out.
The Axon 30 5G plays it pretty safe, at least compared to its contemporaries. However, there’s no notch or hole punch in the screen, opting instead for a front-facing camera and fingerprint scanner underneath the screen. We’ll talk a little more about that camera in a bit.
The bezels aren’t huge, but they are noticeable, and the entire phone feels plain and light and plasticky. There’s nothing particularly good or bad here, but it’s fine. The material is an incredible fingerprint magnet, however, highlighting the difference between the premium design against its average material quality.
The bottom houses a USB-C charging port, plus the SIM/SD card tray and speakers, and you’ll find the standard volume buttons and power button configuration on the right side of the phone. The backside houses the somewhat unique camera lenses, with a smaller single lens stacked on top of a larger three-sensor module. It’s actually a somewhat standout design take on the usual circular modules we’re seeing these days.
Display and audio
ZTE has opted for a very large, good looking screen here. The Axon 30 5G sports a nearly 7-inch display that’s full HD, and it’s a 120Hz AMOLED panel. Long story short, it looks good, and you’re going to have a great time watching videos and playing games on the bright, colorful screen. It does feel pretty tall and thin thanks to its very wide, nearly full ultrawide aspect ratio, almost like Sony’s latest crop of devices.
The single downward firing speaker is also solid, sounding good and getting very loud. There’s just a bit of distortion turned all the way up, and that’s always going to make you wish for a headphone jack, but all in all it makes for a great media experience.
Gaming and performance
ZTE has chosen the more efficient Snapdragon 870 5G platform under the hood, which seems to be the smart way to build a smartphone in 2021. Yes, it’s not the absolute highest end CPU that Qualcomm offers, but it does still deliver great performance without that top shelf price tag. You typically see this on phones that try and come in at a competitive price point, instead of just the $1000 offerings at the top of the market.
Importantly, the Axon 30 5G doesn’t struggle with just about anything. It can efficiently drive the 120Hz display, multitasks like a champ even with the basic 8GB of RAM in the 128GB model, and plays high end games at higher refresh rates, when available.
Sometimes the custom skins on top of Android can be a little too aggressive with killing background apps, but at least in my experience that was never an issue. Opening a handful of Google Chrome tabs with a YouTube video playing, then hopping back and forth to a game never caused anything to reload. Good news for anyone looking to be productive or just have a good time with their phone.
You won’t be getting stock Android 11 here, for better or worse. ZTE ships the Axon 30 5G with their own brand of Android skin called MyOS 11, which does add quite a few extra features and tweaks to the operating system.
Some of these are useful, like gestures for auto answering calls and waking the screen and navigating the interface of your phone. You can set the phone to automatically turn off then back on and a certain time, and other things like that which do generally enhance your phone experience without taking anything away. There also aren’t a ton of extra apps preinstalled, mostly relying on Google Play and Google services for all your basic functionality.
But that’s not universally true, and here’s where things get subjective. ZTE is still a pretty thoroughly Chinese OEM who designs their phones with that particular Chinese flair. You’re getting lots of white and pastel color highlights, big rounded bubbles for buttons, and circled off squares for icons reminiscent of older iOS versions. It’s definitely not in line with Android 11 and especially not the revamped Android 12.
A custom launcher can tweak a lot of this, but some things, like the notification shade, are here to stay.
Battery and charging
The Axon 30 5G packs in a respectable 4200mAh battery, which does a good job of lasting throughout an entire day of all but the heaviest usage. Battery size helps, definitely, but that Snapdragon 870 also continues the trend of usually being a little better on batteries than its higher-end counterpart. Sometimes the fastest car on the block doesn’t get the best mileage, you know? The screen also has an automatic mode that can scale down the refresh rate for some extra battery life, too.
In case you do run low, ZTE has included some blazing fast 65W fast charging and Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 4+. You’ll be able to grab an extra half charge in about 15 minutes or fully recharge in under an hour, and ZTE has included one of the fast charging blocks in the box so you won’t have to buy that separately. No complaints here.
First off, we’ll talk about that in-display camera. The biggest upgrade here seems to be that it doesn’t mar the screen much at all anymore; you’ll barely know there’s a camera underneath unless you’re specifically looking for it.
However, the quality isn’t great. It’s improved, sure, but bright lights still give it fits and it’s generally just not a strong selfie taker.
The rear camera, while decent, is also a casualty of the lower price point compared to the Axon 30 5G Ultra. While it’s a very serviceable camera, low light performance is just okay, and some similarly priced and spec’d phones tend to outshine it.
It’s not the best camera for $500, but it’s not the worst, either. I’d struggle to recommend it for a camera enthusiast looking for a phone, but for the average person, it’ll get the job done.
ZTE has crafted an excellent phone that delivers incredible performance and fast 5G speeds on a nice budget. $499 is easy to swallow for a higher end phone, and it’s certainly punching above its weight as far as performance goes. You’re getting a large battery, WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1, Android 11 out of the box; they’re crossed off a lot of the small things you’d expect from a nice phones these days.
But it’s still not perfect. That camera, while good, leaves something to be desired, and the phone really does feel cheap. A nice solid case might round that out, but the cheaper materials and almost cheap-feeling weight don’t feel like a $500 phone, even if everything else about the phone is great.
This phone’s not going to make sense for everybody, but it’s definitely worth checking out for most people.
ZTE Axon 30 5G | $499 | ZTE