Hands-On: The First Under-Display Camera Smartphone, ZTE Axon 20 5G – Forbes

Does the future have a notch?

Last week I received a pre-release version of the first commercially-available smartphone with a camera under its display, the ZTE Axon 20 5G. Not only is the selfie camera under the screen, so is the biometric fingerprint sensor. The result is essentially a phone with a full-face screen. And what a screen: almost seven inches of high-resolution OLED screen with a 90 hertz refresh rate.

And, importantly: no notch!

There’s a lot to talk about with this phone and we’ll get to all of it. But the first and most obvious question everyone has when they hear about an under-display camera is not a shock: what kind of quality are we talking about here? I’ll share some pictures below, but spoiler alert: the answer is pretty much what you’d expect. No, the selfie camera on the front of the ZTE Axon 20 5G is not going to win any National Geographic awards for picture quality.

But, and here’s a big but: it’s not horrible.

So if selfies aren’t that big of a deal to you, that should not deter you from buying this phone. Especially if screen size and quality is one of your most important factors — along with, perhaps, 5G speed. I’m personally not a big selfie taker, so I’m much more focused on the quality of the main camera, which we’ll get into as well.

First off, the specs:

  • 32-megapixel selfie camera
  • Massive four-camera array on the back, including a 64-megapixel main camera, an 8-megapixel wide angle, a 2-megapixel depth lens, and a 2-megapixel macro lens
  • In-display light sensors, camera, fingerprint sensor, and sound
  • 6.92” OLED screen at 2,460 by 1,080 pixels and 90 hertz refresh
  • 10-bit color depth
  • 4K, 60 frames/second video recording, with video stabilization
  • 5G cellular technology, with a 360-degree surround integrated antenna which improves signal stability “up to 50%” and download speed “up to 30%”
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 756G
  • 4220 mA battery with quick charge: 30 minutes to 60%
  • 7.98 millimeters thick, 198 grams
  • $449

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While the phone is for sale now, ZTE has opted for a somewhat complicated subscribe-to-join invitation system to join a “club” to get a code with which you can buy the phone. Initially it will be available in most of Europe and plus Japan, Korea, and a few other countries. It won’t immediately be available in the U.S. or China.

OK. The selfie cam

Putting a camera under a screen is not easy.

In other to pull it off, ZTE had to invent a series of new technologies, including a transparent cathode, a new type of OLED screen, and a transparent pixel matrix for high visibility. ZTE says all together it forms a high transparency “nano-level material.” Also, the company worked on a new algorithm — the “triple selfie algorithm” — to get better shots.

Does it all work? That’s up to you.

First off: fair warning. The selfies I took for testing are of me, and I just had surgery for skin cancer. So I still have some stitches and swelling, plus the surgery caused a nasty black eye. If you’re squeamish, scroll past quickly!

The ZTE Axon 20 5G is on the left; my daily driver iPhone 11 Pro is on the right.

It doesn’t take a photographic genius to see the differences: much deeper color in last year’s iPhone Pro camera, and better resolution from a lower megapixel count camera. The iPhone Pro 11’s camera is 12 megapixels; the Axon 20’s is 36 megapixels. My ugly mug is clearly fuzzier and seemingly less in focus. In neither case is the lighting ideal, but the iPhone 11’s picture is clearly superior.

That said, I’m not a teenage girl.

So I may take a few fewer selfies than your average person, and the quality of the selfie camera doesn’t matter that much to me. Sure, we’re working remotely now and that means a lot of video conferencing, but that’s all happening on my laptop.

The other question with a selfie camera under the screen is whether it impairs screen quality, and the answer to that is a resounding no. You can find the selfie camera if you look closely at an angle in some lighting conditions, but it’s certainly not obvious or even visible head-on.

The other cameras

Given that, I have to say that the other cameras on the Axon 20 5G are impressive. There’s four of them, first of all, and the main one you’ll use most of the time is clear, sharp, fast, and bright.

Christmas trees are hard photographic subjects, with plenty of light and dark spots, twinkly objects, and fine detail. The Axon 20 5G did a great job here — perhaps better than my iPhone.

I need more time to take some shots with the Axon 20 5G and compare them against the iPhone and other smartphone cameras, but the early returns are very positive. So: more on that later.

Suffice it to say for now that you’ve got wide angle and macro shot capability, plus night mode that makes dark conditions pictures look amazing, if somewhat unreal. And there’s 4K video recording, plus video stabilization.

That massive screen

I do have to spend some time on the phone’s massive screen. It’s one of the biggest I’ve held in my hands: a massive 6.92” OLED screen at 2,460 by 1,080 pixels. That’s bigger than the new iPhone 12 Pro Max, which is 6.68 inches, although the new largest iPhone has slightly higher resolution at 2,778 by 1,284 pixels. The newest iPhone, however, still has only a 60 hertz refresh rate, while the ZTE refreshes 90 times per second.

Simply put: it’s an impressive screen to watch full-screen videos on.

Additional benefit: my existing phone feels tiny in my hand compared the Axon 20.

The phone’s screen is sharply curved at the bottom, with a larger chin than I expected — and wider than the bezel at the top or sides — but it’s not horribly objectionable.

Oh, and playing games on the massive screen is a different ball game. Games that I tried worked well on the device, thanks to Google’s work on Android and game publishers’ efforts to support multiple screen sizes and resolutions, and it changed some of how I played mobile games to have more space … in a good way.

As an iPhone user who now uses Face ID to unlock my phone typically — which doesn’t play well with masks — I loved having the ability to unlock my phone with my thumb. And placing it on the screen was easy, quick, painless, and very natural after just a few sessions.

All that and oh yeah, 5G too

It’s not too often that you look at a 5G phone and the 5G features are one of the last elements you focus on. At least not now, when 5G phones are not yet the standard. But extra speed is always welcome, and ZTE says that the new antennas it put in the Axon 20 are not just thinner, they’re 50% better. They go all the way around the phone and improve download speed, ZTE says.

Again, I’ll need to do more testing to see what that means in the real world.

One good thing: ZTE has integrated cellular communications with WiFi, which it says reduces latency for games by more than half. For instance, if WiFi latency is around 115 milliseconds, using WiFi and 5G together can reduce it to 54 milliseconds. Again, your mileage may vary.

Summing up

My initial thoughts: this is a good phone for those who want a (very) large screen, 5G, and good main camera performance. If you take a lot of selfies and that matters to you, you may have to settle for a notch or other solution so that your photos pop just a little bit more.

Battery life was impressive in testing, the sound quality (and volume) was among the best I’ve heard from a phone, and overall build quality is impressive.

I’ll update with further impressions as I go, but I do recommend this phone for Android users. And it might even entice a few iPhone owners as well.

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