ZTE Axon 40 Ultra: Under-display Camera gets Display part Accurate

As for “take pleasing photos,” ZTE has come to a long course since its first try, but there’s still function to be done. There are two challenges behind an under-display camera (UDC), to hide the camera under the screen convincingly and produce images that look as reasonable as traditional selfie cameras.

With its third-generation UDC on the Axon 40 Ultra, ZTE has nailed that challenge’s “hide the camera” aspect. First: this is a 16-megapixel camera rooming under a 6.8-inch 2480 x 1116 OLED panel.

On the rear of the phone are three 64-megapixel cameras: a stabilized 35mm standard wide; a 16mm-equivalent ultrawide; and a stabilized 91mm telephoto lens. In addition, ZTE has improved the computational imaging algorithms for its rear camera system.

ZTE’s press disclaimer says that the screen dimensions over the camera are incorporated with the rest of the screen better smoothly in this iteration, with some tweaks to its autonomous pixel drive technology and how those pixels’ trajectories are wired. There maintain also been some software updates to better synchronize the UDC’s part of the screen with the rest of the display.

You don’t need to understand to recognize that ZTE has worked some magic here. The selfie camera disappears into the rest of the screen almost all the time. While setting up the phone, you just forgot about it — maybe even the entire concept of punch-holes and notches. But, of course, you can’t say that about the under-screen camera in Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3, which is always obviously there.

You can see the camera while using the phone. The lens is observable outside in bright light, but it’s not distracting. Indoors, if you turn the screen brightness down, you can see it a little better, but you still have to look for it. It’s tough to spot even with white screens, which challenged previous versions of the display. Job well done, ZTE creators.

The camera flank of the UDC has seen some photo processing improvements, and in some circumstances, the results look good enough to hand as a standard selfie camera selfie. However, if you look closely, you can see some artifacts signaling that something different is going on; in some bright outdoor shots, a little bit of color is bleeding between your skin and the black shirt you are wearing.

Backlighting is also very demanding for the camera. You can see many flares and sometimes a grid pattern across the image with the sun directly hitting the camera. ZTE relies on its image processing to hone selfies and clean up some of the blooming you can catch in the live preview, which generally functions, but it just can’t contend with natural sunlight. Video is another sore site: the phone can’t perform all that processing in real-time, so clips appear very soft, even in good lighting.

Selfies indoors appear softer than selfies from a conventional front-facing camera, but in admirable lighting, they’re just standard bad — not “what the hell is running on here” foul. That’s an advancement. Light sources sometimes arise with a distracting grid imprint across them, which seems questioning to solve in software. In lower light situations, pictures get very soft, and the on-screen flash isn’t flattering.

Side by side with a typical selfie camera on a Google Pixel 6 Pro, there’s still a noticeable distinction in image quality. Glancing at the Axon 40 Ultra’s selfies in seclusion, you are not sure most people would spot that drop in image quality supplied there’s no light source behind the subject or sunlight straight on the lens. With the display piece of the mystery sorted out, maybe ZTE’s UDC tech is a pair of ages away from “good enough” for most people.

But then there’s another question: do most people hate the notches and hole-punches on their mobile displays? Or have we taught our brains to edit them from our perspective when looking at our phones? The best-case scenario ZTE has achieved in the Axon 40 Ultra is that an under-display camera disappears. Like bezels and status bars, we stop seeing them after a while. ZTE’s engineers deserve credit for what they have achieved here, but we are not sure that the problem they’re cracking bothers many people.