Clever hardware elevates an already great phone line even higher, but the execution stumbles a bit.
The quick take
ASUS has taken the the already impressive ZenFone 2 and turned it into something fun for anyone who enjoys the control of a DSLR camera but isn't planning on walking around with one every day. That means you get a solid, snappy phone with a decent display and some clever camera hardware with matching visual styling to support the experience. Unfortunately that clever hardware experience is coupled with the kind of camera sensor you expect to find in a mid-range, $400 phone, and when you combine that with the outdated software on the phone the end result is decidedly mediocre.
- Amazing performance
- Great battery life
- Leather back feels nice
- Shutter buttons rock
- Camera bump adds bulk
- Camera sensor is mediocre
- Software is filled with bloat
- Android 5.0 in 2016 is unacceptable
Clever hardware with a software problem
ASUS ZenFone Zoom Full Review
Anyone who has touched the ZenFone 2 knows that ASUS is doing a couple of things amazingly well when it comes to building an Android phone. That excitement grew exponentially as the year progressed and the company showed they weren't afraid to play with unusual hardware designs in order to create new and interesting experiences. If you look at the ZenFone 2 as a starting point, the addition of laser autofocus and better build materials in subsequent models quickly revealed fascinating progress in hardware development, but their latest phone takes all of that cleverness and points it all at the camera.
The ASUS ZenFone Zoom is much more than a ZenFone 2 with a weird camera strapped to the back.
The ASUS ZenFone Zoom is much more than a ZenFone 2 with a weird camera strapped to the back, though there aren't many who would fault you for thinking that at first glance. It's a phone designed entirely around people who want to have fun with their camera, especially those who know their way around the more complicated settings of a DSLR. While a great deal of that experience can be — and is — expressed in software, the addition of a 3X optical zoom lens and a custom backplate with a single hand grip and buttons for zoom control and shutter activation complete this look in a way no other company has ever done quite so completely.
Making a phone look like a camera isn't the same thing as making a phone that takes great photos, and while this past year has been incredible for pushing the envelope when it comes to what a smartphone camera sensor is capable of we've yet to see anything quite that impressive from ASUS. Whether the ZenFone Zoom is the phone that pulls ASUS from average to exceptional when it comes to camera quality seems to be the whole point of this phone, and putting that to the test is exactly what we set out to do in our ZenFone Zoom review.
About this review
We're publishing this review after nine days with the ZenFone Zoom model ASUS_Z00XS with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. This phone has been running entirely on T-Mobile's LTE network in Baltimore, Maryland, an area with great coverage and strong connectivity from this carrier. It was running Android 5.0 with build number 18.104.22.168 the January 1, 2016 security patch was running on this phone during the review.
ASUS ZenFone Zoom Video Review
Clever, if a little bulky
ASUS ZenFone Zoom Hardware
Due in no small part to their focus on the budget market, ASUS has a reputation for building phones that are a little on the cheap side. Corners need to be cut somewhere, and that usually ends up meaning flexible plastics and build quality that ends in creaks and gaps when comparing multiple versions of the same phone side by side. It's easy to shrug most of that off when you're talking about a $200 phone, but when you double that price tag for the ZenFone Zoom there's a greater expectation of quality. Fortunately, the company delivers in a big way.
The aluminum band around the outside of the ZenFone Zoom is cool to the touch, exactly as sturdy as you'd expect, and offers just the right amount of grip. Across the back of the phone you have stitched leather over a plastic frame, which leaves the back of the phone with plenty of grip and a nice texture to go with it. Meanwhile the front of the phone starts out as a glass panel and ends with a glossy, textured material just under the capacitive buttons. Along the right side of this phone you have power, volume, and a pair of shutter buttons all made to feel similar to the aluminum band that wraps around the phone.
Obviously the main event here is the camera. The massive metal disc protruding from the back of this phone is balanced by a small bump along the bottom of the phone, which ASUS calls the grip. The leather stitching and rigid feel certainly seems to suggest a place to rest your hand when holding the phone in landscape to grab that perfect shot, but laying the phone down on its back reveals the other purpose this bump serves.The ridge allows the phone to rest flat, and since the exterior lens is not flush against the lens casing you can comfortably set the phone down like this and not worry about damage coming to the camera.
Even when fully zoomed-in you'll never see the lens leave its protective housing.
ASUS managed to stuff a 3X optical zoom in this somewhat awkward-looking camera bump, but even when fully zoomed-in you'll never see the lens leave its protective housing. This is by design, and when you see what ASUS did to make this work, it's difficult to be anything but impressed. When the light is right and you stare deep into this lens mechanism, you can see the lenses moving into place to allow everything to work. From a technical perspective, it's fascinating. From a functionality perspective, it adds a noticeable amount of bulk and weight to the ZenFone Zoom.
|Display||5.5-inch Full HD (1920x1080, 403ppi) IPS LCD
Corning Gorilla Glass 4
|Processor||64-bit 2.5GHz Quad-core Intel Atom Z3590 CPU|
|Graphics||PowerVR G6430 GPU|
|Internal Storage||64GB eMCC Flash or 128GB eMCP Flash|
|External Storage||microSD (up to 128GB)|
|Cameras||13MP rear-facing camera, 10-element Hoya 3x zoom lens
5MP front-facing camera
|Software||Android 5.0 with ASUS ZenUI|
Bluetooth 4.0+ EDR
|Battery||3000mAh non-removable Li-Polymer|
|Dimensions||6.26 x 3.1 x 0.47 inches
158.9 x 78.84 x 11.95mm
The rest of the internal hardware on the ZenFone Zoom doesn't differ wildly from the ASUS ZenFone 2. The 5.5-inch 1080p display looks nearly identical, the bump from Intel's 2.3GHz Z3580 processor to the 2.5GHz Z3590 processor isn't really noticeable, and the same 3,000mAh powers the whole kit. The biggest difference is size and weight, adding more than a millimeter in every direction and 15g from its predecessor to make room for this camera.
It would be incredible to see ASUS go with this level of build quality on everything moving forward. It feels like a solid, well-made phone and still maintains its own unique flair in its design. There's also something to be said for a company not afraid to make their phone a little thicker and heavier than the average in order to try something cool, especially when it means there's still a sizeable battery and plenty of grippable space around the design. If nothing else, the ZenFone Zoom gets points for breaking the mold and making it look good in the process.
Better than it has any right to be
ZenFone Zoom Software
ASUS is using a heavily-modified version of Android 5.0 they call ZenUI with more than a couple of extra apps pre-loaded and deeply integrated into their interface. That sentence is enough to make just about anyone who has never used this software before cringe. The Android base is embarrassingly outdated (5.0 was released in October of 2014), deviating from Google's vision for Android usually means sacrificing performance in some measurable way, and bloatware is bloatware. Somehow, with all of these marks against it, ASUS has once again managed to deliver one of the fastest, smoothest, and most complete alternatives to "pure" Android to date.
ASUS's ZenUI is fast. Faster than it has any right to be.
ZenUI is fast. Faster than it has any right to be. Launching apps, navigating the interface, and even the extra pop-up menus for things like theming your desktop or adding widgets are all incredibly snappy. It's smooth too, easily as smooth as the Nexus 6P animations without all of the Android 6.0 goodness to help it get there. ZenUI is a strange blur of colors and bubbles and occasionally overcomplicated menus, but it works. It's a complete thought that doesn't break the way Android is supposed to work, even though there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Clean Master, for example, works in concert with the ASUS software manager to warn you when apps are consuming power or running at startup when they maybe shouldn't, but both apps are set to wait for your action to do anything that would alter performance.
Bloatware is always something we're going to complain about a little, but ASUS has clearly been listening to criticism in this department. There's only a couple of apps that aren't made by ASUS or Google on this phone out of the box. ASUS is quick to recommend other apps from their partners as soon as the phone launches the first time, but the apps aren't pre-loaded and there's no stub icon sitting in the launcher. It's easy to dismiss or take advantage of, depending on your position. With exception to TripAdvisor, all of the bloatware apps are all in the Apps4U folder in the launcher, which means getting rid of them is quick and easy if that's what you want to do. Also, like on the ZenFone 2, none of the apps we've come across have been system apps that can't be uninstalled.
Launching a phone with Android 5.0 — released well over a year ago — is unacceptable at this point.
Many of the ASUS apps running on the ZenFone Zoom are maintained through the Play Store, which is excellent. It means core products can be updated without major system updates, so new features can be brought to life much faster. This is great news for potential ZenFone Zoom owners, especially since there's a good chance you'll likely be waiting a while for an update to Marshmallow. ZenUI is more than a little behind on major software updates due to how thoroughly different it is from "pure" Android, but there do seem to be updates where it is the most important. The ZenFone Zoom is using Google's new Security Patch system already, and is currently updated to January 1, 2016. It'll be interesting to see how frequently ASUS is able to stick with Google's monthly plan here.
ASUS really needs to get on the ball and push Marshmallow to their phones, because launching a phone with a version of Android released well over a year ago is unacceptable at this point. That having been said, what ASUS already has with ZenUI is remarkable. It's not clear how much of this is deep optimization with Intel, but what is clear is just how bad it is when phones that cost nearly twice the ZenFone Zoom can't keep up even with simple stuff like using the browser.
Tripping at the finish line
ASUS ZenFone Zoom Camera
A smartphone with optical zoom, manual camera functions, and a host of extra features that let you take photos in either the dead of night or big enough to hang on your wall sounds like Candyland to anyone who knows what to do with a real camera. DSLR users don't take their cameras with them everywhere, and with a decent smartphone they don't have to. Laser autofocus and snappy software ensures you're getting where you want in order to grab the right shot as well. It couldn't be more clear that the purpose of the ZenFone Zoom is to give everyone DSLR-like control over their smartphone pictures, complete with an optical zoom and image stabilization to make getting that shot as enjoyable as possible.
Unfortunately, none of this means the ZenFone Zoom takes great pictures.
All of the mechanical parts are there, and the camera app ASUS has been working on for a while is actually one of the better experiences you'll find on a phone today if you want more than just the ability to take a quick picture. In the end it all comes down to the execution, and ASUS has not demonstrated the ability to bring all of this awesomeness together to create a great photography machine. The auto settings aren't quite capable of competing with the best we've seen this year from Samsung and Google.
Manual Mode is marred by a display that isn't quite crisp enough and absolutely not bright enough outdoors to ensure you've got the right focal depth. Macro photography doesn't exist at all due to the inability to focus on things that are closer than 30cm. HDR photography misses the mark way more often than it should. The things this camera does really well we've already seen ASUS pull off on the ZenFone 2, namely the ability to detect and recommend what specialty mode you should be using for the best shot and the quality of the images you'll get in Super Resolution and Night mode. The ZenFone 2 camera just isn't appreciably better.
It all comes down to the execution, and ASUS has not demonstrated the ability to bring all of this awesomeness together to create a great photography machine.
It's not just photography, either. There's no 4K video mode on this camera, and you lose optical image stabilization (OIS) when trying to capture video above 720p. The optical zoom in video is incredibly useful, and the transition is nice and smooth when you use it, but the ability to capture video is still noticeably lacking when compared to the other smartphone cameras out there. The best part of shooting video on this phone is the camcorder button — pressing it launches the camera app from anywhere and making it easy to get video when you need it. It'd be amazing to see ASUS offer the same level of control in video that we see in photography, but right now that isn't the case.
For a phone whose focus is the ability to take great photos, it's a little frustrating to see something like the Nexus 5X, which is $100 cheaper for the base model, outperform this camera is just about every way. ASUS has a great foundation with all of the things that surround the ability to take a photo, but there's a real need to invest in higher quality sensors and better image signal processing to bring this experience to the level it feels like it should be.
ASUS ZenFone Zoom Experience
I didn't expect to like the ASUS ZenFone Zoom as much as I have. My favorite phones of the last year have been the BlackBerry Priv, the Nexus 6P, and the Moto X Pure Edition. Clearly, I have a thing for Google's vision of Android. I also like it when companies take those ideas and build upon them, and that's something ASUS has taken to delightful extremes. Everything is bright and bubbly and functional, and it's that last part I truly appreciate. ASUS has figured out how to make just about everything a feature you can turn on or off, and with that comes some an amazing level of control over the interface. There's also a healthy selection of themes, just in case you're not a fan of the default rainbow bubble barrage.
ASUS has taken Android to delightful extremes — everything is bright and bubbly and functional.
For a 5.5-inch phone, the Zoom is a little on the thick side. It makes using the phone with one hand a little challenging for me, but surprisingly not as challenging as the bigger-but-thinner Nexus 6P. Most of this has to do with the leather back, giving the grip needed to feel comfortable holding the phone. Resting my index finger on the cool aluminum of the camera casing is almost like resting my finger in the trademark Motorola "M", so it's easier to feel comfortable and enjoy the phone with one hand.
One of the smaller complaints from the ZenFone 2 was the mediocre speaker, and that is something ASUS improved big time in the Zoom. It's still a rear-facing speaker, but it gets nice and loud and the quality isn't bad at all. Since the speaker is down near the faux camera grip on the back, it's actually fairly easy to find the right place to cup your hand so all that audio gets bounced around to the front, which is nice.
Battery life isn't earth shatteringly good or anything, but there's a better-than-average chance you'll get through a whole day with plenty of battery to spare. On an average day for me, starting at 5:30am and winding down around 10:30pm, I was returning the Zoom to the charger with 30-35% of the battery remaining. One can only imagine how this phone would handle the battery management and additional functionality found in Android 6.0.
A little too late
ASUS ZenFone Zoom: the bottom line
In more ways than one, the ZenFone Zoom feels out of its time. When it was announced a year ago this would have been an incredible phone at a time when smartphone cameras were just starting to get good and $400 was great high point for a mid-range phone with some cool features. But it's not early 2015 anymore, and we've seen launch of the Nexus 5X and 6P as well as the dramatic reduction in the price of the LG G4, all three bringing a phenomenal camera experience.
Asking $400 for a cool concept phone with a mediocre camera in this climate isn't going to get you far, not when there are clearly better options available with more current software and the promise that you'll see more software updates down the line. At the same time, if ASUS were to come back with a ZenFone Zoom 2 I'd be first in line to see what the company had done to make the phone feel a little more future-proof.
Should you buy it? Probably not.
For the not-so-low price of $400, ASUS is delivering a phone with outdated software with a focus on a camera that isn't as capable as similarly priced phones. While it's possible ASUS could quickly update to Marshmallow in the next month or two, it's unlikely this phone will every see whatever comes next.
The only people this phone should appeal to right now are users who don't care about updates who also like the idea of an optical zoom on a phone and rely on a proper DSLR for "real" photos. If that's you, have at it.