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The thought that has been on developer’s minds in recent years has been can we fit it under the screen? You can see this throughout mobile evolution, incorporating the keypad buttons into a touch screen to award the screen double the space, quadruple even. fit under the surface of smartphone displays. Phone designs seem to have been propelled by the principle. We see so many hardware integrations being put into displays to maximize the screen-to-body balance. 

Apple’s iPhone X kicked it up a notch with its creme de la creme bezel. SmartPhone competition is fierce.  But now the latest release from ZTE the Axon 20 5G tried to trump it with the world’s first under-display selfie camera. In-screen fingerprint sensors have been seen for a while but integrating a front-facing camera- Until now, hadn’t been explored. Oppo and Xiaomi have been developing and even demonstrating some phones for a while now but it seems that ZTE has won the race to the marketplace. Their tangible commercial model went on sale earlier this week and its new tech positioning isn’t a selling-point according to Sam Byford’s article for theverge.

He posits that an un-broken display that requires no space cut into for hardware should theoretically be advantageous. Better still, would be for it to just magically work in-display without the hardware present at all.

Let’s talk about the display that lies on top of the camera, first. First of all, Axon 20 5G is definitely one of the biggest smartphones on the market. The 90Hz OLED panel is a massive 6.92 inches diagonal, which means its 1080p resolution is not as sharp as you’ll find on other phones. The colors can appear to shift at the very edges but are a non-issue. In general, it is a good looking phone and the size makes no difference to regular use. 

The same can’t be said about its ugly lower bezel. Considering the phone is boasting a breakthrough design, it is nowhere near as streamlined as we had expected. It is so much bigger that we can’t help but wonder whether or not it undermines putting it under the display in the first place. There are plenty of space-conscious mini selfie cameras on large-screen phones that are much slimmer.

Another gripe to mention is the set-up process for the Axon 20 5G really does the cutting-edge design no favors. You can see all the hardware quite well when your screen is brightly lit. With the settings screens, you can clearly see the ‘invisible’ camera the company is ranting and raving about. An exposed square of what appears to be lower-resolution than the rest is a dead giveaway.

Axon 20 5G
The above image shows how visible the camera is on colorful, white, and black backgrounds. Image credit: theverge.com

If you’re simply looking at the photos on your smartphone screen you won’t probably notice any difference. Yet, if you’re looking at the pictures in a bigger size, let’s say on a full-color wallpaper, there are going to be some low-resolution areas but they won’t be too distracting. Aside from the bright setting screens, it is pretty incognito. ZTE has adopted a black background for notification and status menu, as default. Like on an iPhone, this helps hide a regular integrated camera. By using the same technique to hide their under-display ‘invisible’ camera, again questions over the point of the exercise arise.

Image credit: theverge.com
Image credit: theverge.com

Now, you probably want to know everything about the camera’s performance. Well, there isn’t much good to say about it: it’s not great. It is definitely a technical achievement to get a camera under an OLED screen, as it involves new types of transparent materials, pixel filters, and demosaicing algorithms to make sense of the light that hits the 32-megapixel sensor. But the result, unfortunately, is a bad selfie camera.

Unfortunately, even in good light, the photos taken with the selfie camera are hazy at best. Colors seem faded and less vibrant and there is a big discrepancy between highlights and shadows. Besides, the details are definitely lost. Taking photos in low-light conditions results in a lot of noise.

It doesn’t even fair well against a Pixel 5’s with its night mode disabled. To be honest, the under-display camera is not as functional as you may want it to be, it’s rather merely-functional, and that’s being generous. Yes, it is able to capture the pictures through the screen but you won’t probably want to share any of those pictures whatsoever.

Price tag for ZTE Axon 20 5G with hidden selfie camera

Disappointing breakthrough selfie camera aside, the ZTE Axon 20 5G is actually more tempting if you aren’t interested in an in-display camera. It is priced reasonably at $499 (€449 EU and £419 UK) and is a top phone choice. Its specs and other features are fine.

While the Axon 20 5G has a huge footprint, it’s still slim at just under 8mm thick, and ZTE has included a reasonably large 4,220mAh battery inside. The processor is a Snapdragon 765G with an integrated 5G modem, same as the Pixel 5 and the LG Velvet, and it can be configured to have up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

The optical in-display fingerprint sensor works perfectly it uses a USB C connection to provide a 30W fast charge and has a headphone jack. The rear camera array is pretty commendable. It sports a 64-megapixel bolstered by a 16-megapixel ultrawide lens. They are supported by 2-megapixel macro and depth sensors. The company has cut a couple of corners. Their downward-firing speaker has been scrapped and their haptics system has seen a bit of tweaking. But they weren’t all that impressive anyway.

Even though it’s quite a noticeable milestone that ZTE has finally got a phone with an under-display camera to the market, it’s still unclear who it is for. The quality of the pictures is quite low and the under-display selfie camera often looks worse and more distracting than a notch. The key selling point for the Axiom 5G was meant to be its front-facing in-screen camera. This was meant to make it iconic instead we fear it is more ironic. Given the fact that it’s one of the worst features, the rest all with merits the users probably won’t be buying it for the intended tech-leap.

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