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ZTE Axon 40 Ultra review: all that glitters is not gold

This might as well be a gaming phone in disguise.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra
(Image: © Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Our Verdict

It's sleek, it's upscale, it's fast. The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra packs some powerful hardware, kept in check by a dedicated cooling system. You'll enjoy that edge-to-edge 120Hz AMOLED panel with an invisible front camera under the screen. Weirdly, it also skips some of the most popular features that define a flagship: waterproofing, wireless charging, and consistently great cameras.

For

  • Luxurious construction
  • Drop-dead gorgeous display with UDC
  • Snappy 120Hz refresh rate
  • Cooling system with SD 8 Gen 1 work like magic
  • Stellar battery life with 65W charging
  • Perfect for gaming and media consumption
  • DTS: X Ultra audio and stereo speakers

Against

  • Triple 64MP lenses shoot inconsistent photos
  • No wireless charging
  • Lacks water and dust resistance
  • Front camera has a long way to go

ZTE has been in hot water multiple times over the years, earning it a heavy eye of scrutiny from the U.S. and Canada. Despite its many skirmishes with the powers that be, ZTE has continued to push forward, bringing us the brand's latest flagship offerings in the form of the Axon 40 series.

Politics aside, ZTE did a fantastic job with last year's ZTE Axon 30 family of phones. The company has done much to advance under-display camera technology, and we found the Axon 30's front camera quality to be even better than the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3's under-display selfie snapper.

Now, the Axon 40 Ultra sports the next generation of ZTE's UDC technology. It's almost impossible to spot the concealed under-display camera, and the image quality of the hidden sensor has improved as well. 

When I was starting out this review, I was honestly expecting the Axon 40 Ultra to bump up every aspect of its predecessor. Spoiler alert: it doesn't. This is a spectacular phone in many regards, but several of the staple features of the best Android phones are missing.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra: Price and availability

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

ZTE announced the Axon 40 Ultra along with the Axon 40 Pro on June 8, 2022, and sales went live a month later on July 11, 2022. Interestingly, the phone is available in Canada and the U.S., excluding American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Other regions include Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and Africa.

You can purchase the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra 8GB/128GB variant for $799, and the 12GB/256GB model for $899. The ZTE is available in a single black colorway, and you get a region specific charger in the box.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra: What I love

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

I would be remiss if I kicked off this segment without mentioning the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra's achingly beautiful backside. The entire phone is super slim and speckled with a smooth matte-meets-glitz texture on the rear. Combine that with the rectangular camera bump made of metal, and three vertically aligned camera lenses, and you've got yourself an S22 Ultra-esque feel, but more glamourous.

Clearly the display doesn't miss out in terms of style and fashion either. The 6.8-inch AMOLED panel cleverly hides an under-display camera on the top instead of a cutout, and it's as good as invisible to the naked eye.

With curved edges and narrow bezels all around, it's a delight to look at. The Axon 40 Ultra's display touts a 120Hz screen refresh rate and a 360Hz touch sampling rate. In simpler terms, that means that this phone is extremely responsive, and it shows.

CategoryZTE Axon 40 Ultra
Display6.8", FHD+, 2480x1116, 120Hz, 400PPI, AMOLED
Rear Camera 164MP, Sony IMX787, 16mm, ƒ/2.35, wide-angle
Rear Camera 264MP, Sony IMX787, 35mm, ƒ/1.6, OIS
Rear Camera 364MP, Sony IMX787, 91mm, ƒ/3.5, OIS, telephoto
Front Camera16MP, under-display
Operating systemMyOS 12 (based on Android 12)
ProcessorSnapdragon 8 Gen 1
GraphicsAdreno 730
Memory8GB/12GB, LPDDR5
Storage128GB/256GB, UFS 3.1, not expandable
AudioDolby DTS: X Ultra, stereo speakers, no 3.5mm jack
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.2, Wi-Fi 6E, NFC, LTE/CDMA/GSM/5G, Dual-SIM
Battery5,000mAh, 65W fast charging

Laying onto the concept of snappiness, ZTE went with the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chipset and coupled it with a nine-layered cooling system. The Axon 40 Ultra supports that hardware with lightweight software in the form of MyOS 12. 

It's based on Android 12, and even though there's no Material You dynamic theming here, you still get to personalize the accent colors, icon shapes, fonts, Always-On Display, fingerprint animations, and more.

The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is a superb Android phone for media consumption and gaming.

The ZTE Axon 40 Ultra has a humungous 5,000mAh battery that provides all-day battery life and then some. When that does run out, the bundled 65W USB-C charger tops it back up in 45 minutes. ZTE's generosity doesn't end with the free charger though; you also get a soft silicone case, a C-to-C cable, a USB-C headphone adapter, and weirdly, a pair of wired earphones in the box.

The fusion of powerful processing power, a snappy AMOLED display, and a gigantic battery goes so well with the outstanding stereo speakers of the device. Dolby DTS: X Ultra refines already well-seasoned wine, and the end result is spectacular audio production. This is also why the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is a superb Android phone for media consumption and gaming.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

Multitasking is a matter of no consequence for the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra. The phone delivers reliably great performance without stuttering. There's a useful accessibility tool called Z-POP buried into the OS, along with gestures like "Raise to wake" and "Snooze/dismiss an alarm," where you can tap the screen or turn the phone over to close an alarm.

The list of features that I love about the Axon 40 Ultra is almost over, but I do feel the need to mention the third-gen UDC technology used in the AMOLED panel. 

ZTE has gone above and beyond what it pulled off last year. The 16MP front camera is nothing compared to the Pixel 6 Pro or the S22 Ultra, but it is a far cry from the blurry dumpster fire that we got the last time.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra front camera sample

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra front camera sample (Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

As you can see in the sample above, the color accuracy is way off and the entire picture looks overly saturated. However, these selfies are actually usable, so they get a green card from me. The UDC's improvement deserves applause, and makes me excited for the next generation of ZTE's under-display camera technology.

Let's move our focus to the main cameras now. When the Axon 40 Ultra was first announced, there was a lot of talk about the trio of 64MP lenses that make up the rear camera setup. While I'm not entirely sold on the idea, I do like most of the images shot by the main cameras.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra main camera samples

What's also really cool is that one of the 64MP lenses is a periscope telephoto camera. Here's the sort of results the telephoto lens can yield.

Under the right lighting, you can produce some decent results with the 91mm 64MP telephoto lens. The hues look a little washed out and the dynamic range suffers, but the images retain sufficient details and clarity at up to 3.5x telephoto zoom.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra: What I don't love

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

ZTE's triple camera setup might have seemed super smart during the phone's initial days, but I wish more thought had went into it. Although the main cameras all work together to capture nice enough shots, there is a detestable elephant in the room.

See, the standard 16mm 64MP lens has some skeletons in the closet. While you approach a subject, closing in on the subject at a certain distance automatically triggers the macro photography feature. Anything captured in the macro mode is absolute trash, and I found myself disliking it even more than the dull 16MP selfie snapper.

The worst part is, you might have the perfect shot in front of you, but the camera software erratically jumps mid-way through that take. I lost so many potentially great photos because the Axon 40 Ultra's brains warped and decided to switch lenses last minute. You then have to readjust the angle and start from scratch. It's very frustrating!

Thankfully, the AI-powered "smart" macro mode can be turned off. That helps the case, but the cameras are still pretty inconsistent and suffer in low light. Night mode exists but the results are so over-processed and blurry that you won't end up using it anyways.

My other qualms about the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra are nothing new. However, in no way does that disqualify them as unreasonable wants. How many flagship phones have you seen that feature no IP rating? And yet, the Axon 40 Ultra is not waterproof or dustproof. It borrows the UDC from the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3's book, but can't adopt waterproofing?

The Axon 40 Ultra looks and feels like a premium phone, so much so that I almost forgot that it isn't resistant to the forces of nature, almost wetting it in the process. Imagine what a horrendous disaster that would've been, which makes it all the more important that all phones sport some level of resistance to water.

The Axon 40 Ultra is a niche product in an overcrowded market.

Another upper-tier spec that this gigantic slab of glass and metal lacks is wireless charging. The ZTE device boasts amazing battery specs, so I don't understand the absence of wireless charging. If budget Android phones like the Nothing Phone 1 and the Google Pixel 6 can do it, so can ZTE's top-of-the-line Axon 40 Ultra.

Lastly, I have a trivial complaint about the included case. The soft silicone case does nothing in the way off protection, and it looks like a disposable cup. It also kept slipping off during my testing, which made me wonder why did ZTE bother to include it anyways. 

I don't see many big case makers like Spigen or Otterbox flocking to cater to the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra, as it's is a niche product in an overcrowded market. So the poor quality of the included phone cover is a sore spot.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra: Competition

Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra Burgundy And Green

(Image credit: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

ZTE better hold on tight, because this is about to be a scary ride. We don't just have your run-of-the-mill flagships anymore, even that sector has been broken up into various segments. There are budget flagships, mid-tier flagships in the form of "plus" or "pro" models, and insanely beefed up flagships under the "Ultra" or "Pro Max" banners.

Samsung's latest and greatest S22 Ultra is the best upscale Android phone that you can buy. It doesn't sacrifice anything, and you even get an S Pen with the device. Of course, it's also ridiculously expensive, though you do often find deals from Samsung (opens in new tab) every once in a while.

If you want a value flagship, the Pixel 6 Pro is your go-to alternative. The Google phone captures incredible shots, and has some powerful on-device AI features thanks to the Tensor chipset.

Those of you who are after big bad boys for gaming will like the ROG Phone 6 Pro and the Red Magic 7S Pro. The Red Magic gaming phone delivers even more robust internals than the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra, and starts at a lower price tag.

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra: Should you buy it?

ZTE Axon 40 Ultra

(Image credit: Namerah Saud Fatmi / Android Central)

You should buy this if...

  • You want a notch-less 120Hz AMOLED display
  • You need a lot of firepower under the hood
  • You like phone speakers with high-end sound quality
  • You're partial to the S22 Ultra's design
  • You want a big battery with 65W fast charging

You shouldn't buy this if...

  • You want water and/or dust proofing
  • You want flagship cameras
  • You like wireless charging
  • You don't like large phones
  • You take a lot of selfies

The Axon 40 Ultra offers a good value proposition, but it misses some key features that make up a flagship in 2022. There's no wireless charging or any sort of ingress protection against water damage. Even if you don't care about the former, the latter has become nearly essential nowadays.

The ZTE phone's cameras are decent in the right conditions, but they're inconsistent. You don't get accurate color reproduction, the front camera is still a work in progress, and the macro mode is a disaster. Low light photography isn't even worth your attention. If I have to struggle to make full use of my $800 Android phone's lenses, was that money well spent? You be the judge.

After much thinking, I've concluded that the ZTE Axon 40 Ultra is a pretty gaming phone posing as a flagship Android device. It has a really powerful processor that performs incredibly well. The phone even has a unique cooling system to keep overheating at bay, and fantastic battery specifications.

Namerah Saud Fatmi
Namerah Saud Fatmi

Namerah Saud Fatmi is a contributing writer for Android Central. She has a passion for all things tech & gaming and has been an honorary Goodreads librarian since 2011. When she isn't writing, she can be found chasing stray cats and dogs in the streets of Dhaka or slaying dragons in the land of Skyrim. You can reach her on Twitter @NamerahS.