AT&T has a special version of the ASUS ZenFone 2 for their GoPhone prepaid network plans named the ZenFone 2E. It's a very scaled-back version of the ZenFone 2 you've seen people on the Internet gushing over, and at just $120 out the door, with no contracts and no strings attached, it's something we wanted to take a long look at.

So what do you get when you buy a smartphone that costs about the same as a good dinner and a movie for two? That was our question as well. While it's not in the same class as the very expensive phones you'll see lining the shelves at the AT&T store, or even the great mid-range phones we've seen in 2015 and grown to love, it's not too terrible if you've tempered your expectations a bit.

The ZenFone 2E hardware

Externally, the ZenFone 2E is a slightly miniaturized version of the standard ASUS ZenFone 2. It's a bit shorter (148 mm), noticeably more narrow (71 mm) and the same thickness (11 mm) when compared to it's bigger cousin. The rear features a very nicely done soft-touch coated plastic that will instantly remind you of the HTC One X if you ever had the pleasure of holding one. I'm not one to go overboard with things like plastic coatings, but when it's done exceptionally well, I will mention it. This one is done exceptionally well.

The front of the phone is a solid glass affair, dominated by the 5-inch 720p LCD. The display isn't bad, but it's not spectacular. The IPS panel gives decent viewing angles, and up to 16,000,000 colors can be reproduced fairly well — the "vivid" setting in the standard Zen UI settings helps here — slightly oversaturating things so that they look a bit more pleasing. The LCD does struggle a bit displaying blacks and whites (the former being a bit too bright and grey, the latter being a bit too dark and grey) like we've seen in many other inexpensive displays. For a $120 phone, though, it's more than acceptable.

You'll find three capacitive buttons (Back, Home and multitasking, in the correct order) on the front of the phone. The power button is centered on top, and just like the bigger ZenFone 2 proper, it's awkward to find and use. You almost get used to it, but it's still something that's a bit of a pain to use.

The volume buttons are around back (again, this is basically a smaller ZenFone 2 from a design perspective) and are great for some of us — I love buttons on the back — and a nuisance for others. They work well and are fairly easy to find with your index finger. You'll also find the camera sensor and an LED flash on the rear of the phone.

The power button is a bit unfriendly, and the rear buttons might not be your cup of tea, but the phone is designed well and — more importantly — feels nice while you're holding and using it.

ASUS ZenFone 2E

Internally, the ZenFone 2E differs quite a bit from the larger, more robust ZenFone 2 proper.

Category Features
OS Android 5.0 Lollipop
Display 5.0 inches IPS LCD @ 720x1280 (295 ppi)
Processor Dual-core Intel Atom Z2560 @ 1.6 GHz
Rear camera 8MP
Storage 8GB
Memory 1GB
Battery 2,500 mAh non-removable Lithium Polymer
External storage Up to 64GB microSD
Dimensions 148.1 x 71.4 x 10.9 mm
Connectivity 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, Wifi Direct
Other Accelerometer, proximity sensor, compass, A-GPS

Of course, the real measure is how it performs.

The performance is pretty much as you would expect. We don't want to be too hard on a phone that only costs $120 out the door, but none of us here at AC would be satisfied with this one. The less-capable processor and 1GB of RAM just aren't enough when you're dealing with a fairly heavy interface like ZenUI — especially once you start adding in software from Google Play.

Heavy apps like games or even Google Chrome stutter and lag quite a bit

Things are a little sluggish navigating around the home screens, applications take longer to load than we would like, and "heavy" apps like games or even Google Chrome stutter and lag quite a bit. While it's doesn't reach the point where you want to turn it off and never use it again, it's a bit frustrating.

On the plus side, the connectivity of the ZenFone 2E is the opposite of stressful. The phone holds a cellular connection as good or better than anything else out there, Wifi was consistent and solid, Bluetooth range is excellent and transfer rates were great. Google Maps navigation took me where I needed to go, with nary a hiccup. Even phone calls are top-notch, with clear connections that sound good on both ends. ASUS (and AT&T to some extent) deserve praise for how well the ZenFone 2E works as a connected device.

ASUS ZenFone 2E

The battery life seemed to be hit or miss with the ZenFone 2E. While I could always stretch it out until bed time by using the included Power Saving utility, some days were just better than others. This again mimics the experience many have with the bigger ZenFone 2, so I'm going to guess there is a bit of software optimization to be done.

The ZenFone 2E software

ZenFone 2E user interface

The ZenFone 2E runs ASUS' ZenUI — a feature rich interface that's filled with stuff you'll find useful, and stuff you probably won't. The base of the interface fits well with the Android Lollipop design guidelines, and you'll find simple colors, flat style and shadows that mesh well with other applications that follow the Material Design principles. One place you won't find the material-inspired design in the launcher, but since it's themeable, you'll be able to find something that fits your style while looking good.

I want the Audio Wizard to be available, I just don't want to see it as a separate application outside the settings

The application launcher itself is chock full of options, and deserves a lot of the praise it gets. Because it's not the most simple interface in the world, ASUS has also included what they call "Easy Mode." Activate it, and you'll find large blocky application icons, big lettering and labels, and an intuitive (and very simple) interface. While it's not something I would use, it is done rather well and we're glad to see it as an option.

The real problem with the ZenUI on the ZenFone 2E (So. Much. Zen.) is all the extras that are tossed into the mix. You'll find flashlights, multiple note-taking apps, audio wizards, power saving tools and more stuffed into the app drawer. Some of these apps are nice to have (the flashlight) while others duplicate functions already provided in Android, and some even duplicate ASUS addons themselves. The biggest issue is the inclusion of a dedicated icon outside of the settings for apps that really are just settings. I want the Audio Wizard to be available, I just don't want to see it as a separate application outside the settings. Being able to hide apps in the drawer through the launcher settings helps fix most of this, and being able to disable or uninstall most ASUS applications is also a big plus. That's just not very beginner-friendly.

Of course, since this is a carrier branded phone, there is a mountain of AT&T crap preinstalled.

  • AT&T Live
  • AT&T Locker
  • AT&T Mail
  • Drive Mode
  • Wild Tangent games (This evil should have died with Windows 98)
  • Keeper
  • Lookout
  • Mobile TV
  • myAT&T
  • Uber
  • AT&T Visual Voicemail
  • Yellow Pages
  • AT&T Navigator

BloatwareSome of this may be useful, but all of it could have been left to the user to install from Google Play. Drop a shortcut right on the home screen that opens the relevant page in the Play Store application. The user (you and me) can then decide which applications they want to install. We've moaned about this when looking at most every phone you can buy in a carrier's store, and it's not likely to change. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea, though, and in this particular case it would make for a better user experience.

You can disable most of these applications, and you probably should.

In the end, the software isn't terrible. There's a lot of debris that maybe isn't needed, but a power user will know how to disable, uninstall or hide it. The problem is that the ZenFone 2E isn't a phone a power user is going to be buying.

All the stuff running all the time, with things like Facebook or Twitter that users have downloaded and installed from Google Play that are also going to run all the time, means the entry-level Atom 2560 and measly 1GB of RAM is going to disappoint. Out of the box, the ZenFone 2E is capable, but just barely. Once you add more into the mix, things turn south.

The camera

ASUS ZenFone 2E

The 8MP camera on the ZenFone 2E is adequate. Pictures you take will make your friends and family ohh, ahh, laugh and cry on social media, but you won't be taking pictures to print on roadside billboards.

The camera application is friendly, and you have plenty of modes and effects available if you're in to that sort of thing. I never want to take a selfie again unless I can use "Romantic" mode, though my wife says the novelty wore off quickly. There's even the "Turbo boost" mode we first saw in the ZenFone 5 that lets you take burst shots. The camera app is fun. Nice job, ASUS.

There's not much we can say here, other than the camera is average. Don't buy the ZenFone 2E because of the camera capabilities.


ASUS ZenFone 2E

The ZenFone 2E costs $120. You have to keep that in mind when you consider all the pros and cons here.

For someone who has very basic Smartphone needs — mail, messaging, contacts and calendar — and isn't going to install a bunch of extra applications from Google Play, it's a pretty good deal. You walk out having spent about what a good dinner and a movie with your significant other would cost you, and you have no financing or monthly payments besides the cost of AT&T's GoPhone service. We all know someone that fits this scenario, and we can feel good about recommending this one to them.

Past that — for the person who wants Facebook and Words with Friends and Asphalt 8 and this, that and the other — things are not to be so rosy. It's fairly easy to bog the phone down, and the experience can be frustrating.

Figure out what you need from a smartphone. The ZenFone 2E just might fit those needs, and you'll save a bunch of cash.