Review: ASUS Zenfone 2

In Phones by Ramon LopezLeave a Comment

(UPDATE, April 21: We spoke to ASUS Philippines country manager George Su on the sidelines of the Zenfone 2 launch in Jakarta, Indonesia, and here’s what he said about the handset.)

(UPDATE 2, May 16: The ASUS Zenfone 2 is now official in the Philippines. Even better, it’s available on Lazada Philippines’ mobile app. Pricing starts at P9,995 for the 2GB RAM variant, while the 5-inch model costs P7,995.)

Weeks ago, we wrote about scoring a retail unit of the ASUS Zenfone 2 (ZE550ML) well ahead of its official release in the Philippines, chiming in with our initial impressions and doing an unboxing video for YouTube. You know what comes after that: our review of what is likely the most important device from the Taiwan-based manufacturer after 2014’s wildly successful Zenfone 5.

Case in point: ASUS bumped up its 25 million sales outlook for the year, believing it can ship 30 million handsets globally — enough for a top-10 finish among smartphone makers — and everything hinges on how well the Zenfone 2 will be received by the public.

Right off the bat, we’ll say that the company has every reason to be optimistic about its fortunes in 2015. Because despite the all-too-likely possibility that the larger ASUS Zenfone 2 will cost more than its 5-inch predecessor (TW$5,990 or about P8,600 in its native Taiwan, more than a thousand pesos higher than the Zenfone 5’s suggested retail price of P6,995) when it finally lands in the Philippines, the follow-up to last year’s ASUS top-billing smartphone offers greater value for money.

And that speaks volumes not only about how far the Taiwanese outfit has come in a year, but also about how much of an upgrade the Zenfone 2 actually is, especially when you consider the genius of the Zenfone 5, as well as its impact on the Philippine market. (Our conversations with ASUS executives suggest that the company has leapfrogged to sixth place among local players, largely as a result of the overwhelming demand for the Zenfone 5.)

That said, this year’s release would have to be nothing short of a near-perfect effort to fill the role left by the original. And is it? Read on to find out, or watch our video below.

Specs of the ASUS Zenfone 2 (Price of the ZE550ML model, which is what we have: TW$5,990 or about P8,600):
* Dual-SIM (primary SIM slot offers 3G and 4G/LTE speeds; secondary SIM slot supports 2G only)
* 1.8GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3560 CPU
* PowerVR G6430 GPU
* 2GB RAM
* 16GB internal storage
* microSD card slot (up to 64GB)
* 5.5-inch IPS display with Corning Gorilla Glass 3 (720 x 1,280 resolution)
* 13-megapixel rear camera with dual-LED flash
* 5-megapixel front camera
* 3,000mAh battery
* Android Lollipop 5.0

[youtube link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RypWLWiz1P0″ width=”560″ height=”315″]

Watch our ASUS Zenfone 2 review

RAMON LOPEZ’S TAKE: The Zenfone 2 follows the same design principles as the smartphones ASUS built last year, only this time the result is something more refined and less bulky (well, not in the strictest sense, as you’ll find out soon enough.)

Like so many other phone makers before it, the company has opted for evolution rather than revolution, building on an already solid foundation by way of a few, small cosmetic improvements, as opposed to cramming a hundred new ideas into one sequel. The bezels around the 5.5-inch display are slightly thinner this time around. The double chin below the screen doesn’t seem to stick out as much, too, though we wouldn’t mind ASUS dropping it in favor of a more compact form.

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But that’s not to say the Taiwanese firm has stopped listening to new ideas altogether. One thing we’re particularly fond of is the placement of the volume rocker around the back, close to where your index finger naturally rests, which makes for easier access and allows you to hold the phone any way you like without worrying about your fingers pressing any buttons.

ASUS has opted for evolution rather than revolution, building on an already solid foundation by way of a few, small cosmetic improvements.

Reaching the relocated power button perched on the top edge of the device requires some finger gymnastics to pull off, though. The design choice comes across as both surprising and unfortunate, especially considering how wide the phone is, and we couldn’t help but think that maybe ASUS should have stuck to what feels natural. LG has, and thus its current smartphone line features rear-mounted controls that are a joy to use.

Thankfully, you don’t need to press Zenfone 2’s power key to wake or lock the screen, as double-tapping the display performs the said function. There are other screen-off gestures you can execute under the ZenMotion feature, such as drawing a “W” to launch the stock browser or a “C” to trigger the camera app. Including double-tap to wake, there are seven gestures in total, six of which can be configured to launch a preferred app. It’s a neat, if familiar, trick. But more importantly, it works well.

ASUS has kept the capacitive keys of the original, making no changes whatsoever to how they are arranged and how they react when you press any of them. Which is to say the navigation buttons still lack backlighting, making it difficult to continue using the Zenfone 2 once the lights have been dimmed or turned off.

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Our unit’s curved back cover has a soft-matte finish in red — and in the same shade as previous Zenfones. If red isn’t your thing, there are other color options to choose from, including white, black, silver, and gold. The latter two, we understand, is exclusive to other, more expensive variants.

The rear panel feels natural in the hand and doesn’t pick up fingerprints easily. You do get a bit of flex when pressure is applied to it. Removing the plastic casing gives you access to two SIM card slots (the primary SIM slot offers 3G and 4G/LTE speeds, whereas the secondary SIM slot supports 2G) and microSD expansion for cards up to 64GB in capacity. The 3,000mAh battery is fixed, so you can’t slot in a replacement when it conks out all too soon.

One thing we’re particularly fond of is the placement of the volume rocker around the back, close to where your index finger naturally rests.

The Zenfone 2 offers a choice of 5- and 5.5-inch versions (up to 1080p), and ours is the latter. The extra real estate means a superior experience all around: quicker typing on a virtual keyboard, less squinting when reading emails, and immersive video-watching on a bigger screen.

And videos look great on this ASUS, even at 720p resolution. Sure, the pixel density (267ppi, to be exact) seems fairly low on paper — jagged lines and individual pixels are out there, if you look hard enough — but the quality of the IPS panel is much better than what we’re used to seeing in the segment. Not once did we find ourselves wishing for a higher pixel count.

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Contrast, color reproduction, and viewing angles are all impressive, with hardly any color shifting when viewing the screen at extreme angles. Black levels are about as deep as they get on LCDs. Another attraction is Corning Gorilla Glass 3, which dominates the front of the device and makes the cover glass less vulnerable to keys, change, and other hard objects in your pocket. The phone even comes with its own display-calibration app, which allows you to adjust color temperature, hue, and saturation to your liking.

Jagged lines and individual pixels are out there, if you look hard enough — but the quality of the IPS panel is much better than what we’re used to seeing in the segment.

Also on board are 13- and 5-megapixel rear and front cameras, along with an expanded camera suite ASUS built into the default camera app. Besides the usual options — HDR, panorama, beauty, night, and depth-of-field (read: bokeh) modes — there’s an excellent manual mode on tap for advanced photographers who want full control over the main shooter. Oh, and the front-facer takes selfie panoramas with a 140-degree field of view, which basically means you can fit a lot of people in one frame, photobombers be damned.

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Then there’s ASUS’ trademark low-light mode for shooting in, well, low light and churning out serviceable shots indoors or in borderline-pitch-black darkness sans flash. The tradeoff, unsurprisingly, is a lower megapixel count and more digital noise. Still, we found ourselves enjoying both cameras. But are they any good?

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Photos taken with the ASUS Zenfone 2. Click on and expand each picture for the high-res version.

Well, that depends on what time of day you’re using them. Images taken outdoors, under a bright sun, came out crisp and detailed, with realistic colors and skin tones. However, image quality drops just as soon as the light dims, despite the Zenfone 2’s low-light mode kicking in.

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Low-light photos taken with the Zenfone 2. Low-light mode on (left) and off (right)

It also bears noting that the cameras are capable of fast shutter speeds, though you may not be able to tell as much at first glance. That’s because the phone automatically retouches your photos immediately after the fact, except when you’re shooting with manual controls. Our advice: Turn off image optimization in the camera settings menu.

Image quality drops just as soon as the light dims, despite the Zenfone 2’s low-light mode kicking in. It also bears noting that the cameras are capable of fast shutter speeds

Now, for the elephant in the room: Is the ZE550ML model — the one this review is based on — running Android Lollipop 5.0 on a 64-bit, quad-core Intel processor and 2GB of RAM, powerful enough to challenge the usual suspects at the top of the Android hierarchy? The short answer is yes. Its peak performance is comparable — albeit a step slower — to our Qualcomm Snapdragon 801-based Sony Xperia Z3, which is to say it can handle just about anything you throw at it.

And while benchmark numbers don’t usually tell the whole story, our Zenfone 2 has put up impressive numbers on AnTuTu Benchmark (43,790 points) and Geekbench 3 (753 on single-core tests; 2,372 on multi-core tests), even beating scores posted by 2014 flagships like the Samsung Galaxy S5, the HTC One M8, the LG G3, and the Huawei Ascend Mate 7.

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ASUS Zenfone 2’s Geekbench 3 score (left) and AnTuTu Benchmark score (right)

We imagine the higher-end variant of the Zenfone 2 to be a more fearsome beast of a phone. Let’s hope the higher pixel density and double shot of RAM don’t come at the cost of battery life. Speaking of which, our unit typically gives us a day and a bit’s worth of moderate use on a single charge. Of course, battery life takes a significant hit if you’re connected to a 4G LTE network and browsing the Web at breakneck speeds, provided your carrier supports faster connections, or when you’re doing something processor-intensive, like playing Asphalt 8: Airborne on high settings.

All things considered, we think the ASUS Zenfone 2 belongs to a rare group of devices that make a strong case against ponying up top money for a top-shelf product, or at least its 5.5-inch variant does. It’s a genuinely compelling piece of hardware that ticks most boxes on our wish list.

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Though it’s not perfect package just yet, as there are a few nitpicks that prevent us from recommending it to anyone in the market for a new smartphone. For one, some might find using a 5.5-inch touchscreen to be discomforting. But handling aside, it comes as close as anything else to offering the kind of user experience that, until recently, you’d only find in the premium segment.

Even if you think the ASUS Zenfone 2 is not your next smartphone, we’re positive it will make at least a slight impact on the one you will eventually end up with.

Quite simply, ASUS’ latest effort represents unprecedented value for money, and it’s products like the Zenfone 2 that will lead the next generation of industry favorites and alter the landscape to meet our expectations. And change is coming fast. So even if you think the Zenfone 2 is not your next smartphone, we’re positive it will make at least a slight impact on the one you will eventually end up with. For that alone, it is worth a hypothetical standing ovation.


Learn About This Author

Ramon Lopez

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Reviews editor: Ramon "Monch" Lopez has 12 years of professional experience creating and editing content for print and digital publications such as Yahoo. He headed the gadgets-merchandising division of one of the Philippines’ largest retail operators somewhere in between. His latest addiction is the comments section of viral Facebook posts.