Take a winning model and a solid price, make a few improvements, and you have the ZenFone 2 Laser.
ASUS made a pretty big splash in the affordable unlocked phone market with the ZenFone 2 earlier this year, and now the U.S. is getting a new model — the ZenFone 2 Laser. You may recognize the name as a phone that's already available elsewhere in the world, but in an interesting turn the ZenFone 2 Laser that's hitting here in the U.S. — that'd be the ZE551KL model — actually has some considerable spec bumps over the international version.
We've had an opportunity to use the new ZenFone 2 Laser for a few days — read along to learn a bit more about it.
A video review
We have some deeper thoughts on the ZenFone 2 here, but for a condensed wrap-up of the phone, be sure to check out our review video above.
You'd be able to carry around a ZenFone 2 Laser and nobody but the extreme ASUS faithful would know the difference between it and the original ZenFone 2. It has the exact same build of plastic all around and nicely textured faux-metal plastic on the back, and the same dimensions all around.
Externally not much has changed; it looks and feels true to its $199 price.
The only meaningful physical change is in the top-mounted power button and back-mounted volume keys, which are far easier to press and give a satisfying "click" when you do so. The back buttons still aren't as easy to use as those on the LG G4, and I'd still prefer the power button be on one of the sides, but at least they're easier to use now than before.
Under the removable back plate things are a little more interesting. ASUS has moved things around to allow for the 3000 mAh battery to be removed without losing capacity, which is great, and both SIM slots can now access LTE. You'll notice the same rather small speaker on the bottom-left side, though.
On the inside ASUS has made a few other spec changes, which on the whole add up to be about the same quality of the original ZenFone 2. The processor drops down a bit to a Snapdragon 615 from one of two Intel chips, and you now get 3GB of RAM and 16GB or 32GB of storage instead of your choice of configurations with 2GB/16GB or 4GB/64GB on the original. The only complete loss here is quick charging, which is important to many out there.
The 5.5-inch 1080p IPS display seems identical between the two ZenFone 2s to my eyes, which is a good thing. I think it's plenty bright and has good color reproduction, as well as solid viewing angles (ASUS claims 178 degrees there).
Just like the original ZenFone 2 I'm not blown away by the material quality in the ZenFone 2 Laser, but I'm at least impressed by how it's all put together. At a starting price of $199 (and $249 for 32GB storage) you can't expect too much more than you get here, and everything is executed well.
Software and performance
Perhaps the most glaring issue with the original ZenFone 2, the full software experience, has carried over almost completely to the ZenFone 2 Laser. While it was slightly more understandable for the first ZenFone 2 to launch with Android 5.0 on board it's nearing unacceptable for the ZenFone 2 Laser to come pre-loaded with it in November 2015, and all of ASUS' customizations don't help my feelings about the software.
It's a step behind the high-end ZenFone 2, but the only real issue is the interface and apps.
The ZenUI 2.0 interface feels cohesive and kind of borders on Material Design colors and principles, but is just a bit too busy and cluttered for my taste. There are so many buttons, so many options, so many utilities popping up, and so many little things to understand it'll take you weeks to figure everything out. Installing your keyboard and launcher of choice from the Play Store will make a big difference in the usability of the ZenFone 2 Laser, but I would hope ASUS would scale back the clutter in future releases.
ASUS has made an important decision to put almost all of its pre-installed system apps in Google Play to be updated independent of the rest of the operating system, but unfortunately those apps are also accompanied by several pre-installed apps and utilities of questionable quality. Apps like Clean Master and Dr. Safety really have no place being pre-installed on a phone — but thankfully most can be uninstalled or disabled in the end.
Performance-wise ASUS seems to be getting everything it needs out of the Snapdragon 615 processor, but side-by-side it's just a touch slower than the high-end model of the original ZenFone 2. That's expected from this lower-end chip, and in regular use on its own it isn't noticeable. Things may be a bit closer together if you were to compare to the lower-end ZenFone 2, which has a slower processor, only 2GB of RAM and shares the $199 starting price of the ZenFone 2 Laser.
Camera, now with lasers
Not much has changed in the camera department on the ZenFone 2 Laser aside from the feature that gives it its name — the laser autofocusing system. Using an infrared light for super fast autofocus isn't anything new in the world of smartphones, but it's a welcomed addition sitting right next to the camera lens on the back of the ZenFone 2 Laser.
Add quicker focus to the same basic camera — you won't be too disappointed.
Autofocus is definitely quick on this phone (ASUS says 0.2 seconds), and should be more consistent than standard autofocus systems in a variety of lighting conditions, but I never thought of the first ZenFone 2 as being slow in the focusing department.
It's a nice addition to the same 13MP camera sensor we saw before, but the overall camera experience isn't punching above its price point. The camera app is the same, with plenty of manual controls and a dozen shooting modes, and it's quick to capture when you open and press the shutter. Much like the first ZenFone 2 the resulting images are pretty middle of the road in quality, and still show a bit of grain in lower light situations even with the low light and HDR modes.
You're not likely to buy a $199/$249 phone and expect the world from its camera, and I have to say the ZenFone 2 Laser performs just as well as you'd expect. You're getting social network-quality images, and not much more.
Which model do you get?
ASUS makes it an interesting decision for anyone who was considering a ZenFone 2 in the U.S. today. Compared to the base model of the original ZenFone 2 it really seems like the new ZenFone 2 Laser is a better choice at $199, with its faster focusing camera, extra gigabyte of RAM and removable battery.
But if you need more storage and were considering the 32GB model of the ZenFone 2 Laser for $249, the decision is a bit tougher. The high-end model of the original ZenFone 2 gives you a faster processor, an extra gigabyte of RAM, 64GB of total storage and quick charging (plus a quick charger in the box) — all for just $50 more.
Thing is, you can't go wrong with either model considering all of their similarities. But it is worth considering buying the original ZenFone 2 depending on which features are most important to you and how much you have to spend on an unlocked phone.