A Moment of Zen
Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of using two different Android handsets – an HTC One X and a Samsung Galaxy S4 (Cat4 Edition) – but with a change in circumstances, I needed to invest in a new smartphone.
With a budget of approximately $400 New Zealand Dollars, the ASUS Zenfone 2 ($349 NZD, $220USD, £160GBP) seemed like an ideal fit. The Zenfone 2 would appear to pack an impressive punch – an Intel Atom quad core CPU clocked at 1.8GHz, 2GB of RAM, a 5.5 inch display and 4G LTE radios on board. But at such a low price point – surely there is a catch? Read on to find out!
Straight out of the box, the Zenfone 2 feels like an impressive piece of kit. It offers a good weight (approx 170 grams) and thanks to the large 5.5 inch IPS display, the total device is around 15 centimetres in length and nearly 7 centimetres across.
In addition to the big display, the front of the device sports a 5 megapixel selfie shooter and ambient light sensor, along with three hardware buttons for home, back, and multitasking. The back contains the primary 13 megapixel camera, volume rocker, and speaker grille. The top of the device has the power button, noise mitigation microphone and 3.5mm audio port, and the bottom has the primary microphone and USB port, which does double duty as charging and data port.
Despite its price, this feels like a mid-range to premium device. The soft touch plastic on the back the device ensure that the Zenfone doesn’t jump out of your hand. And that is often the danger: Due to it’s tall and wide stature, the Zenfone can be a bit ungainly to handle. It’s a fact you get used to quickly – even though fitting it into a normal sized jean pocket seems like an impossibility (the top or bottom will typically pop out).
The sides of the Zenfone do not contain any buttons (the volume and power buttons are moved to the back and top respectively) meaning its fairly thin, which makes up for its overall size. Speaking of the buttons – they aren’t all that good. The location of both means they are a pain to hit; the power button on the top is a little sponge-y and the volume rocker, whilst being nice and clicky, is just awkward to hit.
Finally, Asus has been sure to include a secondary SIM slot (which is 2G only) and a micro-SD slot for cards up to 64GB.
Despite minor annoyances, the hardware punches well above its price point. This looks and feels like a $600 device.
The Zenfone 2’s 5.5 inch 1280×720 IPS display does have it’s share of issues. The brightness, even on higher settings, just isn’t high enough, and the screens colour reproduction is hit and miss. But even with these small issues, the Zenfone once again amazes; the display is incredibly responsive, is crisp and sharp, and has excellent viewing angles. One of my favourite features is the double tap to wake and sleep feature, essentially mitigating any requirement to use the poorly placed power key for anything bar-turning off the phone.
Video on the device comes through well, but some edges and features are muted. As mentioned before, colour reproduction does look a little off (a little of the warm side), but is generally unnoticeable when viewing videos or photos. If all else fails, temperature can be adjusted within the software to suit the users preference.
The screen on the Zenfone 2, once again, show itself to punch well above its $350 price tag.
Software and Performance
The Zenfone 2 runs a skinned version of Android 5.0 Lollipop, and much of the standard functionality built into Android remains in this build. However, Asus provides a large variety of software and customization options for users, and it has left me impressed. A note taker, a digital organizer, photo editing and fitness tools are all available here, and although the base google apps cover a lot of what Asus is providing, it is nice to see the effort they have gone to, to improve the user experience.
The basic UI is influenced by Googles push toward a material design philosophy, but users can choose to modify the look and feel of the OS by using additional themes, and even the ability to download font and icon packs from Google Play. This granularity seems to be absent in smart devices from bigger OEMs, and it is refreshing to see this ability to customize in the Zenfone 2.
Also present are a bunch of welcome usability functions. There are options for one-handed operation, an on-board memory booster and even a “glove mode” which boosts the sensitivity of the display.
As for performance, the quad core CPU and 2 gig of memory means that the OS flies along. There is no noticeable video lag, and apps load up instantly. Although I did not run any benchmarks as part of this review, most average users will find the Zenfone 2’s performance to be more than adequate, and would certainly feel right at home with its higher-end compatriots.
Data and Call Quality
With both 2, 3 and 4G radios on board, call quality and data speeds are excellent on the ZF2. Web browsing, messaging and video streaming all ran well, with no hickups or issues with lag. The only noticiable issue: A lack of HD Voice. Whether this was due to the coverage I had, or simply a lack of support from the device, I could not tell.
Overall though, the quality of calls was excellent and I had no issues with data throughput.
The Zenfone 2 has two cameras – a 13 megapixel primary on the back, and 5 megapixel selfie shooter on the front. The 13 MP primary is what I’ll focus on here: It’s of an adequate quality, but doesn’t offer anything partiuclarly special. Asus claims that due to the build nature of the camera, it excels in low-light conditions. Unfortunatly, I didn’t have this same experience – there wasn’t anything specifially excellent about low-light photos over other smart phone cameras I’ve used.
On the plus side, the Zenfone 2 offers a variety of shooting modes, including HDR, Depth of Field, Super Resolution, GIF shooting, smart remove and time lapse amongst others.
Overall, the Zenfone 2’s camera gets a pass, but it’s nothing write home about.
Packaging a 3000 mAh battery, the ZF2 shines in everyday use. During my first week of testing, the ZF2 consistently lasted up to 18 hours with constant use – including facebook, youtube, messaging and camera. Much of this comes down to how the ZF2 handles its battery conservation: Asus has included its own suite of battery saving tools, enabling you to choose whether to stick to performance, battery conservation or somewhere in between. Using the “balanced” mode yielded 18 hours of good use for me, and it’s likely you could get even more use out of a smart saving, or ultra saving mode.
The battery life of this device then is exceptional – and one of the most impressive features of this $350 package.
At $350 NZD, the Zenfone 2 is an incredible package. During my time using the device, friends and colleagues have remarked on their surprise that you can get so much in a smartphone for so little money.
Asus truly are on to a winner here. Sure, more expensive smartphones may include more granular features, or slightly better performance, or brighter screens, but those same devices cost twice or even three times as much.
If you are a looking for a high performing, affordable smartphone – the Zenfone 2 is for you.
- Quick UI
- Powerful Hardware
- Excellent feature set and included software
- Great Price
- Display could be brighter
- Camera is average
- Button placement is odd, but understandable