Last week I packed up my laptop, some clothing, toiletries and a handful of smaller gadgets and made the 30-minute trip to my parents' house in an effort to escape a particularly brutal New York summer heat wave. Unfortunately, that meant leaving my awesome projector TV setup behind, but it turns out I had a perfectly suitable replacement on hand.
The Asus ZenPad Z8 (on loan from Verizon) came to my rescue that week. This 7.9-inch tablet is perfect for streaming videos, playing mobile games and surfing the web. It's not without a few flaws, but at just $249 (or $149 with a two-year Verizon contract) you'd be hard-pressed to find a better Android slate for such a low price.
Design isn't the ZenPad Z8's biggest selling point, but it's not an eyesore either. Asus opted for a simple plastic frame with a soft touch back and a polycarbonate ring around the edges. The corners have a slight curve, but the tablet still felt angular in my hands. The metallic volume and power buttons along the side are bright spots in the deisgn; they're placed perfectly and have a nice clicky response. The front panel features what seem like unnecessarily thick bezels, leaving plenty of room for a big blaring Verizon logo below the display.
The device is extremely light to the point that it flexes slightly if you apply too much pressure. I don't think it would take much effort to do some serious damage, but I never saw any issues caused by regular wear and tear over the course of a couple of weeks. The ZenPad Z8 is easy to hold in one hand, and you can throw it in a small bag without adding much weight. It's too big to slide into my back pocket, but it fit nicely in the larger pouch on a pair of cargo shorts.
The ZenPad Z8's pride and joy is a 7.9-inch display with a 2048 by 1536-pixel resolution. It's absolutely gorgeous and so accurate that I actually started to notice how poorly filmed one of my favorite raunchy sitcoms, The League, really is. Colors look crisp and the blacks are deep, offering a great experience no matter what you decide to watch. Personally, I still prefer to view more cinematic movies and shows on a bigger screen, but this pint-sized Asus tablet is a great substitute in a pinch. The dual front-facing speakers are also a nice touch.
The device hums along on 2GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 650 processor. I never encountered any issues, even when running multiple apps and games at once. I've noticed a few other reviews claiming the ZenPad Z8 sometimes pauses or struggles when jumping from one app straight into another, but that wasn't an issue for me. You also get a meager 16GB of storage, though that's fine since you can add 128GB of extra space through the microSD slot.
Battery life is also great thanks to a 4680mAh power pack, and the ZenPad Z8's battery kept me going for multiple days per charge despite heavy use. The reversible USB-C charger is also a delight to use and quickly powered the tablet back up. My biggest issue with USB-C is that it's still not very common. That became a real issue when I misplaced the cord at my parent's house. There wasn't another suitable cord in sight, and it took a full day of searching before I was able to find the missing cable and rescue the device from low power mode.
The ZenPad Z8 runs a pretty clean version of Android Marshmallow with a bit of bloatware from Verizon and Asus. You can ignore the Verizon apps, which are all relegated to the second homepage to begin with and are easy enough to hide completely, but Asus actually has a few helpful tweaks and additions worth checking out.
Tapping the display twice will wake it up. That's one of my favorite gesture controls, but it actually wasn't that reliable on the ZenPad Z8. Asus also offers quick-launch capabilities for specific apps, which seem to work a lot better. You can draw a W with your finger to launch the stock Weather app, draw an S to jump straight into the camera app, or scribble a Z for the Chrome browser. There are also a few decent stock Asus apps for things like email and notes, but nothing particularly exciting or innovative.
The tablet's 8-megapixel rear camera took some surprisingly good photos. I was able to snap a few nice pictures of the flowers in my parents small garden, along with some decent shots of their adorable pet rabbit. There's also an onscreen button for quickly switching into HDR mode, which made it easy to take crisp pictures even under intense sunlight.
Still, I wouldn't really recommend the ZenPad Z8 for its photo-taking abilities. Chances are the smartphone in your pocket will take a better shot, but it's good to know this Asus tablet can still come through in a pinch.
I didn't expect to be impressed by the ZenPad Z8, but Asus clearly knows what it's doing when it comes to making budget-friendly Android tablets. There's a bit of the classic Nexus 7 buried somewhere in there, serving as a sturdy foundation for modern hardware and software enhancements. The real issue with this tablet is that it's only available from Verizon, but if that's not a problem for you, there's nothing else to hold you back from picking one up.