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This phone has an 'invisible' selfie camera, but is it any good?

ZTE's Axon 20 5G is the world's first phone with a selfie camera embedded underneath the display. The $450 question is whether the selfies are fire or trash.

Selfie camera in the screen

The technology goes by several names — UPC (under-panel camera) or in/under-display camera) — but they’re all trying to achieve the same thing: embed the selfie camera underneath the screen.

Doing so allows phones to have a true all-pixel display without forehead bezels, notches, or hole punches.

Raymond Wong / Input

The ZTE Axon 20 5G is the world’s first phone that puts the selfie camera under the screen.

Raymond Wong / Input

On dark backgrounds, the area where the selfie camera is hidden is well disguised. But on light backgrounds, you can see the layer of pixels that cover the camera.

Straight-on, the camera can look invisible from a distance. Viewed from angles, there's a visible amount of pixelation in the square patch that covers the in-display camera. This is the unfortunate downside to first-gen in-display cameras.

This unsightly imperfection is by design: The space between the pixels needs to be wide enough to allow the camera to see through them.

Raymond Wong / Input

I know some people would be more forgiving of the Axon 20 5G's first-gen UPC selfie camera tech if the images are good. I have bad news: they're really bad.

Bad selfies

A lot of selfies from the 32-megapixel under-display camera look like this: hazy and just not good. Even budget phones like the Nord N10 5G have better selfie cameras. I'll let some comparisons do the talking.

Axon 20 5G

This first set was shot indoors. Normal lighting from a standing lamp. But look at how soft this image looks. And I even had the beauty mode turned off.

Nord N10 5G

Pixel 4a

iPhone SE 2020

Axon 20 5G

This next set of selfies was taken outdoors. A clear day. Again, there's a glow around the edges, the HDR is not very good, and everything is so soft.

Nord 10 5G

Pixel 4a

iPhone SE 2020

Axon 20 5G

Moving on to a low-light scenario. The shades were pulled down and the only light was from the kitchen behind me. This looks like a photo taken from a smartphone in 2009, not 2021.

Nord N10 5G

Pixel 4a

iPhone SE 2020

See? I told you they were bad. Image quality is hazy, soft, and in low-light, terrible — absolutely potato quality. The $300 Nord N10 5G, $350 Pixel 4a, and $400 iPhone SE 2020 all take better selfies and cost less than the more expensive $450 ZTE Axon 20 5G.

The under-display camera is really the only reason to buy the Axon 20 5G. With that not living up to the hype, there’s not much to the mid-range phone.

The Axon 20 5G is powered by a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 5G chip, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of storage (expandable via microSD). The 4,220 mAh battery is large at least.

So why does this exist?

Other than for bragging rights — ZTE being able to claim "world's first" — I’m honestly not sure. Rushing to market makes even less sense since ZTE just announced a second-gen version of the in-display camera with twice the pixel density (400 ppi vs. 200 ppi on the Axon 20 5G.

ZTE really should have waited before releasing this half-baked tech. Time will tell if in-display cameras have legs like in-display fingerprint readers or will fade into obscurity like so many phone gimmicks.

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