ASUS's ZenFone Zoom's camera system is unique, but is it a strong enough selling point?

It's been over a year since the ASUS ZenFone Zoom was announced at CES 2015, and now at CES 2016 we got to spend a bit of time with the ZenFone Zoom and its zooming camera. This isn't the first time we've gone hands-on with the ZenFone Zoom — we spent a bit of time with it at IFA 2015 — but this was the first time we've been allowed to actually use the camera.

Let's take a look.

So what's the deal here? Unlike other optically zooming smartphones (such as the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom), ASUS has opted for a traditional smartphone sensor paired up with a periscope-style 3x optically-zooming lens. Samsung's approach was more in line with slapping a smartphone onto the backside of a telescoping zoom lens point-and-shoot camera — bigger sensor for better images, plus a thicker body to hold that (sideways!) lens.

That's not to say that the ZenFone Zoom isn't thicker than your average smartphone. It is — by all measures it's a standard ASUS ZenFone 2 plus the camera module. That brings the thickness up to 11.95mm, a good 40 percent thicker than your average smartphone, but your average smartphone also doesn't have a zoom lens going on. And it's still notably thinner than previous camera/phone efforts from Samsung. Inside you'll find the same Intel Atom processor, 5.5-inch 1080p display, and 4GB RAM with 64GB internal storage.

ASUS has changed up the ZenFone Zoom since we last saw it, swapping out the hard matte-finish plastic back for a hard leather back. This new back gives it a more sort of "classic" look, especially coupled with the new miniature "grip" that runs along the bottom. This ridge is nowhere near as prominent as you'd get on a traditional DSLR, but it does give you something to grab onto when holding it in landscape as a camera. These backs also come in new colors: black, white, and orange. Amusingly, the orange color plus the leather texture makes it look more like an orange fruit.

So let's talk about the camera. Operationally, ASUS put a camera button on the bottom right corner. Press it down and the phone launches into the camera, even with the phone off or in any app. It's a proper two-stage button — press it halfway to focus and all the way to capture the photo. A few millimeters above that is a small round button dotted with red: video recording. Same deal: press and hold to launch straight to video recording.

There are three (three!) more buttons on the right side of the phone. The power button sits roughly in the middle with a volume rocker towards the top. This volume rocker also doubles as the zoom control — volume up zooms in (T for telephoto), volume down zooms out (W for wide-angle).

And then there's the camera module itself. This is where the extra bulk comes from, and it's a unique solution to the question of how to fit a zooming lens into a normal smartphone. Essentially, it's a periscope arrangement. Turn the phone onto its side (putting the exterior lens at the top of the camera disc) and the light that goes through that lens is refracted through a prism, travels down across the back through a series of lenses that manage the zooming, and then is refracted through a second prism that directs the light away from the phone into a backwards-facing sensor.

The ASUS ZenFone Zoom camera module includes 10 separate lenses

It's actually somewhat unique to have a mechanical motorized component of this magnitude on a smartphone. Most have a few buttons that click and a vibrator motor that whirs. But in the ZenFone Zoom the lenses inside the camera module move when you zoom and you can feel the subtle vibration as they do. It doesn't shake the phone or create any noise that we noticed, but it is a component that actually moves.

So how well does it zoom? In point-and-shoot parlance, you're looking at a "3x" zoom, which is to say that you'll zoom into the middle third of the widest angle. If you want to get technical, you're looking at a 28-84mm focal length, which will give you roughly the same range as the 24-80mm focal length lens I used to shoot most of these photos. That 24mm gives you an image that's a bit wider than your standard smartphone (usually 28-29mm), but not tremendously so. Those are equivalent focal lengths, by the way — pulling up the details in the ASUS photos app tells us that the actual focal length range is 3.0-11.4mm.

Zooming with the volume buttons has a very old school feel to it. You press and hold a button and there's a result displayed on the screen. In either direction, zooming takes roughly 1 second to traverse the full 3x zoom range. The reaction time on zooming in was instantaneous, with the image matching the zoom indicator on the display. Zooming out was less so — the indicator said we were zooming while the lens (and thus the image) lagged behind by about a quarter second. It's not the biggest deal, but when the selling point of this phone is the zoom lens, it's something that could use a bit more polish.

ASUS ZenFone Zoom camera sample: 1xASUS ZenFone Zoom camera sample: 3x

(Our apologies for the blue cast of the images — the gold plating on the windows (*cough*trump vegas hotel*cough*) made it difficult to get a good exterior photo.)

That rear-facing sensor is a 13-megapixel unit sourced from Panasonic, as opposed to the 13MP Toshiba sensors found in the ZenFone 2 and the rest of the ZenFone family. Like its stablemates it takes adequate photos, though it falls short of the top-tier competition from the likes of LG and Samsung. That said, neither of those Korean powerhouses offer a zooming lens like this — the optical zoom of the ZenFone Zoom is far preferable to the blown-up pixels of digital zoom on, well, practically every other smartphone.

While we're planning to spend some more quality time with the ZenFone Zoom's camera, in the short time we played with it we came away optimistic. It's certainly a unique proposition, and paired with a better sensor or image processing it could actually be quite impressive. There are trade-offs, of course. It's thicker, it's heavier, and at $399 it costs $100 more than a standard ASUS ZenFone 2.