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Zenfone 2 REVIEW: hardware prowess, software slump

by Mark Burstiner | August 31, 2015August 31, 2015 2:00 pm PDT

When you think about high end affordable smartphones, I’m willing to bet Asus isn’t the first brand that comes to mind. The company is looking to change that with a high-end device at an affordable price.

Asus clearly takes a lot of pride in the build quality of the Zenfone 2, and with good reason. This device is a delight to hold in the hand. It feels strong, has a bit of heft, and the curved back makes it really just nestle right in but not too curved that it can’t be comfortably used when laying flat, which is a pleasant surprise.

Despite the back actually being plastic, it has no flex at all and feels wonderful and grippy thanks to this brushed aluminum finish. Though, the finish does result in a louder touch. Yes, I said a louder touch. It seems like a tiny thing, but it’s worth noting. Your fingers running across the back are loud enough with this texture that my wife can hear it from the bathroom and thought I was filing my fingernails in bed.

Asus isn’t the first to put the volume rocker on the back, but it works really nicely here. It frees up the sides of the device to taper off for a thinner edge. It really feels like the kind of phone iron man would use. Remember the OG Droid? That heft? It’s here. It feels like it has punch to it. The backs are changeable and that’s also where you’ll get access to the dual micro sim slots and the micro SD slot. You can see the battery, but the 3000mAh pack is not removable. Around the front, you’ll find your hardware nav buttons and your wide angle front facing camera.

It does have dual sim slots if that’s something you need, but no biometrics so if you’re looking for something with a fingerprint scanner, you’ll need to keep looking, but it does have NFC. I really like the build quality. It’s a strong offering that feels like it’s worth more than the price point. My only complaint with the hardware/build is that the Wi-Fi connectivity had a really hard time staying connected to networks that my Nexus 6 had no problem staying in range of. That was annoying, but hardly a dealbreaker.

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Specs

Ok, let’s talk about the brains of the operation.

I’m not a spec fiend. We’re at the point in tech where just having the newest highest clocked processor is only part of the equation. The Intel silicon in the Zenfone 2 is a strong contender. While it certainly doesn’t score as highly on benchmarks as modern flagships (in fact, it lands somewhere around last year’s flagships), in practical everyday use, I didn’t experience a single jerk, stutter, or slowdown. I’m sure the 4GB of RAM doesn’t hurt at all, though.

The only major hiccup I encountered was a random reboot after the device got a bit hotter than I think it would have liked. Overall, performance was great. Through multitasking, video watching, downloads, emails and photos, it never had a problem tackling anything I threw at it.

$200 model:

  • Intel® Atom™ Quad Core Z3560 (1.8GHz)
  • 2GB RAM
  • 16 Gb Storage, SD slot up to 128 GB

$300 model (which we tested):

  • Intel® Atom™ Quad Core Z3580 (2.3GHz)
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64 GB Storage, SD slot up to 128 GB

Display

The screen is a 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD. This is a great display. Not the best I’ve seen but super smooth to look at, indistinguishable pixels, and great color. But, let’s say you don’t like the color; the best part is Asus gives you an app to make the screen look the way you want it to. I like my screens to lean a little cooler than warmer if I have the option and I like colors a little teeny bit over saturated, but not crazy high. The app lets me tweak to exactly where I want it.

The only thing I wish it had is a contrast slider, but that’s being picky. I mean, they even give you color bars so you can help tweak to your heart’s content. While it’s not the best screen I’ve ever seen, it’s certainly no slouch either and it’s about as good as you can expect to get at this price point.

Asus Zenfone 2-13

Asus Zenfone 2-9

Asus Zenfone 2-8

 

Camera

The rear camera is a 13 MP shooter and and the front facing is a 5 MP wide angle lens. Really impressive here. Great optics and a plethora of actually helpful features in the camera app. I snagged some really great shots in all kinds of lightning scenarios. The low light mode does a decent job of lightening up an otherwise murky photo.

The HDR mode was a little bit too aggressive for my taste. A lot of the campier features here are definitely a bit much. For example, the ‘beautifucation’ mode on the front facing camera which is on by default is way too much. The smoothing on skin make everything feel pre-photoshopped. The wide angle lens is delightful, though, and overall, I’m really happy with the quality of the photos I’m getting from the Zenfone 2 despite some overprocessing at times.

At first the 3000mAh battery was really impressive, getting 2 and a quarter hours of SoT during a full day of moderate usage, but it did slip really hard on one day in particular. While on AT&T’s 4G, navigating in the car, browsing a lot of internet and posting a lot of photos to Instagram, the battery life tanked. I thought it was just heavy usage before I took a look in the battery stats and found that the Android OS was going haywire. It’s a serious bummer this is still running Android 5.0. The bugs present in these versions are very much present here and really seriously impact the battery life.

Software

While there are some really great ideas and implementations here, Asus needs to take a deep breath and take a step back. Everything is skinned, and there is an outrageous amount of bloatware on this device. Though, I do commend Asus for breaking most of its apps out into their own entries in the Play Store to make for quick updates, there is just too much in the way of useless icons floating around that adds very little to the user experience.

The note taking app, for example, is a bit like typing as if you’re using Graffiti on a Palm Pilot. It’s painful to use, and leaves me wondering if that time wouldn’t have been better spent polishing details elsewhere. Then, of course, there’s the Asus exclusive social network ZenCircle… I’m not even going to touch that one. Of course, Asus has made sure none of these apps can be disabled, so if you’re not interested in them there’s no way to get rid of them. At least is had the decency to include the ability to hide apps in the launcher.

Speaking of the launcher, I like to try and use devices as I would use them if I owned them, so I usually immediately install Nova Launcher and get things looking and behaving the way I like them. For reviews like this, though, I think it’s worth giving the launcher that comes with the phone a fair shake, because not everyone goes straight to Nova. While it’s definitely not my cup of tea, the Asus Launcher is one of the least offensive launchers on an Android skin that I’ve seen. Icons and folders are a bit big for my taste and some of the UI elements come across as gaudy, but it’s a perfectly serviceable launcher with its own set of handy features like smart grouping, and even the ability to modify the grid size.

This is a great phone. I think Asus is on to something here. Asus really seems to care about what it is creating. Though, I’d recommend dialing back the amount of customization dumped onto android. That could be similar advice to all manufacturers. Don’t add an app unless the app really adds something to the experience. Modifications need to either improve on an experience or offer one that isn’t available in stock android. For example, the Asus calendar app offers nothing the Google Calendar doesn’t offer. Stop worrying about making all of Android look like you made it and start focusing on improving it and maybe the Zenfone 3 will be able to tango with the big boys next year.

All that said, I can still very much recommend the Zenfone 2 to someone looking for a budget device in the same vein as the OnePlus 2, without having to give up NFC and doesn’t mind a less than stock android experience.

Despite some shortcomings, the Asus Zenfone 2 is easily one of the phones to beat in the value category.

The Zenfone 2 is a device that flew under the radar of many in 2015. As the year closes out, it’s still a fantastic phone at a great price and compares very naturally to the OnePlus 2 that is oh so hard to get your hands on. I can very easily recommend this phone to anyone shopping in the $300 or under price range.


Mark Burstiner

Mark is a former entrepreneur from New York by way of Chicago. He's a tech enthusiast and heavy gamer. If it's bleeding edge, he wants it. If it's...

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