Post updated June 26th, 2015 at 12:52 pm
The Asus ZenFone series of smartphones are very, very popular among consumers. This is perhaps driven by the fact that there were as many as three variations of the smartphone (4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch) and more importantly: they offered value for money. The second-generation of the lineup, aptly named the ZenFone 2, however, changes things up a bit by only introducing two screen sizes: the lower-end 5-inch model, and the higher-end 5.5-inch model. As the world’s first smartphone with 4GB of RAM, is it worth all the hype?
One glance at the ZenFone 2 and you’ll immediately notice that it has characteristics of its predecessors. The front of the phone still features a “concentric circle” finish on the bottom portion, and the speaker is still placed on the same position at the rear of the device. What has changed, however, are the button placements and the curved back panel.
The volume rocker (which also has the concentric circle finish) is now at the back of the device a la the LG G4 and the G3. While it took some time for me to get accustomed to this rather unconventional placement, I do like how tactile it is. The power button, on the other hand, is placed dead center on the top side of the device. Not only is this a hard to reach position, the button itself feels very, very mushy, offering almost no tactile feedback whatsoever. However, I’m glad Asus implemented this nifty (but often overlooked) feature in the ZenFone 2: double tap to wake and sleep.
Thanks to this extremely useful feature, I almost don’t have to reach for the power button at all – except to switch off the device. I can double tap anywhere on the display of the ZenFone 2 in order to wake it up, and to put it back to sleep, I’ll just have to double tap on the notification bar. That being said, I’d still like my power button to be naturally on the side of the device.
However, I do understand why Asus decided to not have any buttons on the sides of the ZenFone 2. Because of the curved back panel and the 3.9mm thin sides, the device is very nice to hold in my hands. The curved back just feels right to be held. It feels very natural and also ergonomic while ensuring that I can get a nice firm grip on the phone. It is, however, quite a hefty device at 170g.
Speaking of which, the back panel of the ZenFone 2 has a brushed aluminium finish to it, but unfortunately, it’s merely for aesthetic purposes: it’s made out of plastic. But, it does feel nice to the touch. It also gives the ZenFone 2 a premium appearance.
The ZenFone 2 is one comfortable phone to use for long periods of time, thanks to the curved back panel and slim sides. I am, however, not a big fan of the odd positioning of the power button – though the convenient double tap to wake and sleep feature is a good workaround to this.
The main highlight of the ZenFone 2 is definitely the generous 4GB of RAM. Asus touts it as the first smartphone in the world to feature that amount of RAM, and it is not wrong to claim as such, as the Xiaomi Mi Note Pro – with 4GB of RAM as well – was announced after the ZenFone 2 had been unveiled.
In any case, the 4GB of RAM may seem unnecessary, but the fact that I can run three games (Minion Rush, Temple Run 2 and 2 Cars) along with Messenger and WhatsApp open is simply amazing. Is 4GB of RAM a necessity? Well…not for now. Seeing how most smartphone contracts last up to two years, having more RAM is always good for future-proofing the device. The Intel Atom Z3580 processor powering the device is quite a serious powerhouse as well.
I took quite a liking for ZenUI after spending some time with it. It’s snappy, very responsive, and the many customisation options are great. Unfortunately, all of these positive attributes are marred by the enormous number of bloatware.
Take the Asus ZenCircle app. Basically, it’s a social app that works almost exactly like Instagram. The unnecessary “Dr. Safety” antivirus app is also quite a nuisance, making itself known every time a new app is installed saying that it is free of any virus.
Sure, less tech-savvy consumers might see the antivirus app as a necessity to give them peace of mind, and I’m alright with that. That being said, it can be easily uninstalled, unlike the ZenCircle app.
Bloatware aside, I do like how Asus implemented a folder sytem into the app drawer as well. With just a click of a button, apps are categorised accordingly. Games will be under a folder, while social apps will be in another; very nice.
Other than that, the “ZenMotion” gestures that work when the screen is off is also a feature that proved to be very convenient. Like some other smartphones that offer “screen-off gestures”, I can simply draw a V on the screen to launch the flashlight app or any app to my liking. I did, however, accidentally activated a few of the gestures while it was in my pocket, though it can easily be avoided by making sure that the screen is facing away from me in my pocket.
I like ZenUI, I really, really do. It doesn’t feel sluggish, and it looks pretty good too. The only thing that spoils the experience of the OS is the amount of bloatware that Asus jammed into it. Otherwise, it would definitely be one of the best Android skins in my books.
In terms of battery life, the ZenFone 2 does not disappoint. Thanks to its 3,000mAh battery, I can almost always make it to the end of the day with about 10% of battery left. My usage pattern involves heavy web browsing, occasional navigation with Google Maps, and instant messaging on WhatsApp and Messenger.
That being said, I’m sure there are other consumers who are even heavier users than me. Thankfully, the ZenFone 2 supports fast charging. Asus claims that the battery can be charged up to 60% in just 39 minutes, and in my testing, it…only reached 56%, which isn’t too bad, actually. This was done by running the phone down to its last charge before charging it up without booting up the phone.
The display of the Asus ZenFone 2 is vibrant and sharp, thanks to the panel’s pixel density of 400ppi. I’m glad Asus opted for a 1080p resolution display for the ZenFone 2 instead of a 720p or 2K one. While a 720p display will definitely help with battery life, with a 5.5-inch display, a 1080p resolution is the perfect balance between clarity and battery life.
That being said, I do have one gripe with the display: the auto mode. Under bright sunlight, it doesn’t brighten the display enough. In order to make the display legible, I had to switch off the auto mode (which can be easily done from the notification shade) and turn up the display brightness.
When it comes to the audio quality of the ZenFone 2, it’s…functional. It’s not that the speaker is bad, but it’s not fantastic either. It does get loud, but it doesn’t have the clarity of more expensive flagship devices. Then again, it is an affordable device.
While I don’t like the fact that the speaker is placed at the back of the device, I’m glad it doesn’t get muffled when placed on a flat surface, thanks to the curved back cover.
Ah yes, the camera performance, the main highlight of the Asus ZenFone 2. Asus puts a lot of pride into the camera of its latest flagship, and truth be told: it doesn’t disappoint.
But I do have to point out the fact that the camera isn’t very responsive. In situations where lighting isn’t ideal, it takes the ZenFone 2 quite some time to actually snap a picture – and this was after the image has been focused. It could be a result of some optimisations to shutter speed behind the scenes, but as a result, the camera feels sluggish and unresponsive, which affect the overall user experience.
That being said, the resulting images are good. In well-lit conditions, colour reproduction is accurate. Close up images are also very detailed and sharp. Well then, how about low-light conditions? Not too bad, actually:
While it is somewhat noisy, the low-light camera performance is definitely above average. What makes the ZenFone 2 that much more interesting is the fact that it comes with Asus’ PixelMaster technology, which further enhances low-light performance. With PixelMaster, Asus claims that “through a combination of adjusting the pixel size and image-processing algorithms, we (Asus) increased the light sensitivity by up to 400%, enhanced noise reduction and boosted color contrast by up to 200%.” Here are a few comparisons to show it in action (top images are shot in auto, bottom in Low Light mode):
As you can see, more details are captured when Low Light mode is enabled. The overall image is also much, much brighter. However, it’s not all great. If there’s a light source in the image, it will be overexposed. The resulting image is also much smaller at only 3MP in this mode. That being said, Low Light mode is definitely useful to capture details that are not visible in auto mode.
The camera performance of the ZenFone 2 is admirable, and the PixelMaster technology in Low Light mode definitely has its perks. While it’s not exactly perfect, it does come in handy in certain situations. Kudos to Asus on that.
The Asus ZenFone 2 has some very, very interesting competition from various manufacturers. For starters, we have the Honor 6 Plus. Touted by Honor as one of the best smartphones in terms of camera performance, it makes the 6 Plus the perfect competition to the ZenFone 2.
With good lighting, I prefer the 6 Plus’ camera. Its colour reproduction is better than the ZenFone 2, and the camera is also much more responsive. However, in terms of low-light performance, the ZenFone 2 is definitely the better performer thanks to the PixelMaster camera.
Hardware-wise, it’s a toss-up between the two. Based on the benchmarks of both smartphones, the ZenFone 2 offers better performance. The ZenFone 2 also has 4GB of RAM against the 6 Plus’ 3GB. However, the 6 Plus actually feels like a flagship device, thanks to its premium construction of metal and glass (with bits of plastic here and there), whereas the ZenFone 2 only looks like a flagship device mainly because of the “faux-metal” back finish.
That being said, the ZenFone 2 in this review only costs RM1,099, while the Honor 6 Plus (which also has 32GB of internal storage) costs RM1,399. For those who are on a tight budget but still wants a capable smartphone, the ZenFone 2 is arguably the better buy, but a premium construction has to be sacrificed.
Of course, if we’re going to talk about “affordable flagship smartphones”, we can’t leave the OnePlus One out of the equation. In terms of hardware, both smartphones are almost neck and neck, with the ZenFone 2 boasting better scores on 3DMark. It also has more RAM than the OnePlus One (4GB vs 3GB).
When it comes to camera performance, however, the OnePlus One shows its weakness. The ZenFone 2 definitely shines in low-light situations, and the same goes for overall performance with good lighting.
However, the OnePlus One is known for its almost stock OS and relatively timely updates. Such is the case with both OxygenOS and Cyanogen OS 12. Android purists might prefer the One over the ZenFone 2 because of this, but whether or not Asus can deliver timely Android updates still remains to be seen.
The Asus ZenFone 2 is a great smartphone. It may not be the best smartphone money can buy, but for its asking price, it offers plenty, plenty of value for money. It’s a very snappy device with very good multitasking capabilities – thanks to the 4GB of RAM – and ZenUI is also a good Android skin, albeit filled with bloatware.
However, because of its affordable price tag, something has to be sacrificed, and that is its plastic construction. While a glass and metal construction will definitely make it a better smartphone in terms of look and feel, it would drive up its retail price. For a 5.5-inch device, it’s also a little heavy.
All in all, you can’t go wrong with the ZenFone 2. It’s a flagship device that won’t cost you a bomb, and you’ll be getting a very capable smartphone. If you’re in the market for a smartphone that offers the performance of a flagship and don’t mind the plastic body, the ZenFone 2 is a winner.
The ASUS ZenFone 2 is now available throughout Malaysia including ASUS Malaysia’s own online store.