The quick take
ASUS is offering a good phone with a big screen, better-than-average camera and solid internals that offer great performance. It's doing that while retaining a $299 unlocked price for the highest-end model, and even offering a cheaper option at just $199. The hardware isn't going to blow you away, and it's clear that's where ASUS saved some money in the build, but at these prices we're okay with that. In this bracket of devices you would normally put up with many more shortcomings, and that's where the ZenFone 2 shows its strength.
- Excellent performance
- Long battery life
- Camera is good, but not great
- Great value for the money
- Weak speaker
- Software is filled with bloat
- Hardware feels cheap
- Button placement is awkward
Affordable power and performance
ASUS ZenFone 2 Full Review
ASUS is far better known in Android circles as a company that makes a successful lineup of tablets — of course including both Nexus 7 generations — than a manufacturer of desirable phones, particularly when it comes to Western markets. In the larger world of consumer electronics the Taiwanese manufacturer owes far more of its brand recognition (and revenue generation) to laptops, desktops and peripherals than it does the entire Android segment, with most likely only knowing ASUS phones for its few splashes with crazy Padfones and Fonepads.
But ASUS has also made plenty of "normal" phones before, falling under the ZenFone brand, including a low- to mid-range lineup at various sizes announced back at the beginning of 2014. The ZenFone brand is focused on offering affordable performance and solid features, and the new device for 2015 that embodies that pursuit is the ZenFone 2.
With a big 5.5-inch screen, powerful quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and large battery, it comes as a surprise that ASUS is asking just $299 unlocked for the ZenFone 2. We've seen manufacturers ask far more for less of a device, but since ASUS has kept the price of the ZenFone 2 down it has put it in a great spot to be in consideration for price-conscious phone buyers who still want a device they can be proud of. We're going to see just how that strategy has worked out in our complete ZenFone 2 review.
About this review
We're publishing this review after a week using a red ZenFone 2 model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, running exclusively on the T-Mobile network in areas with great signal coverage. After an OTA update on the first day, we used the phone on the same software — 126.96.36.199 — the rest of the time.
You have to cut back somewhere
ASUS ZenFone 2 Hardware
Your first impression of a phone is how it looks, shortly followed by how your hand reacts to the materials it was made out of and how they were crafted together into a functional layout. With a less-than-flagship priced phone you're likely to lose out in one or more of those three areas, and ASUS has done a pretty good job in terms of both looks and design, while coming up a bit short in terms of feel and functionality on the ZenFone 2.
The phone looks good at a glance, but it isn't going to fool you into thinking it was an expensive purchase.
This is a very standard all-plastic affair, with glossy plastic edges surrounding the screen and a slightly-textured removable back plate that's made out of stiff and very thin plastic. The cover is removable (albeit with some effort) to expose two SIM slots and an SDcard slot, and while you can see the battery underneath it isn't designed to be removed. The bezel below the screen holding three capacitive keys is also plastic, with a trademark ASUS concentric circle design that gives it a bit of flair.
The ZenFone 2 looks nice in press renders and at a glance, but when you start to get down to it you can best describe the design as "basic." There's no flashy metal, ground-breaking designs or neat hardware features. A rear-mounted volume rocker — pioneered by LG since the G2 — is the one real bit of uniqueness on the device, perhaps aside from the color if you decide to go with a bright red or faded two-tone back plate. Everything else falls where you expect it to — you won't be picking up a ZenFone 2 for its glorious design or innovative hardware features, to be certain.
No phone with a 5.5-inch display is going to be particularly small or easy to manage in one hand, but even with that being the case the ZenFone 2 is quite large for its screen size. Having capacitive keys (which don't light up, by the way) taking up room under the display isn't helping any, but beyond that the entire build is a little on the bulky side. It's just a sliver smaller than a Galaxy Note 4 despite having a smaller screen and no physical home button, and considering how thin the plastic is all around you're not getting much in the way of sturdiness for the extra thickness.
You're getting a lot of screen size for your money, but the phone is a bit tough to hold onto because of it.
The nonstandard placement of volume rocker on the back of the phone is something we've seen before, but ASUS hasn't quite executed as well as the other manufacturer has. The volume rocker is narrow and tougher to click because of it, and while LG puts the power button between the two volumes the ZenFone has a top-mounted power button that's quite tough to hit. Thankfully a double tap on the screen will turn it on or off, saving you from the awkward reach to the top.
Regardless of button placement the size and thickness make the ZenFone 2 a bit tough to hold onto, and while the back plate has some grip to it the whole phone is still slick. Combine that with large dimensions and you may have trouble holding onto the phone with one hand for long periods — something that could have been solved with a bit smaller screen or some more thought on a grippier back and sides. But people do want the most screen size for their money, and I understand why a 5.5-inch display was chosen. For most people the extra room to work and play is worth the usability trade off of the large frame.
More than you expect for your money
ASUS ZenFone 2 Specs
ASUS seems to have made it a point on the ZenFone 2 to lure in potential customers with lots of buzzwords an a robust spec sheet, and for the most part they've accomplished that well. A high-powered quad-core Intel processor leads the way, backed up by 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. If you opt to save $100 on your purchase you can get a lower model with a slightly slower processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.
|OS||Android 5.0 Lollipop|
|Display||5.5 inches IPS LCD @ 1920x1080, Gorilla Glass 3|
|Processor||Intel Atom quad-core 1.8GHz Z3560 or 2.3GHz Z3580|
|Storage||16GB or 64GB, 5GB ASUS webstorage|
|Memory||2GB or 4GB DDR3 RAM|
|External storage||Up to 64GB microSD|
|Colors||Black, white, red, gray, gold|
|Dimensions||152.5 x 77.2 x 10.9 mm|
|Connectivity||802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, dual-SIM (one 2G/3G/LTE, one 2G only)|
|Network||UMTS/WCDMA/LTE FDD Cat4; HSPA+ UL:5.76 Mbps/DL:42 Mbps; DC-HSPA+ UL:5.76 Mbps/DL:42 Mbps; LTE UL:50 Mbps/DL:150 Mbps|
|Bands||2G EDGE/GPRS/GSM 850/900/1800/1900; 3G WCDMA 850/900/1900/2100; 4G FDD-LTE 700(28)/900(8)/1800(3)|
|Other||G-Sensor/E-Compass/Gyroscope/Proximity/Ambient Light Sensor/GPS/GLONASS|
You do get a few features that aren't completely standard in every phone, including an SDcard slot under the back panel, 802.11ac Wifi, and dual SIM slots (though only one can be used for 3G and LTE data). Looking at the full spec sheet the camera and display are the most notable cutbacks, with the 13MP sensor having no OIS or fancy focus mechanisms, and the 5.5-inch IPS display not having a notably high resolution (1920x1080, good for 403 ppi) or any mind-blowing features.
A basic audio-visual experience
ASUS ZenFone 2 Display and Speakers
We're at a point in smartphones where the highest-end devices have absolutely stunning displays, with Quad HD resolution, wonderful brightness and colors that really pop. This boost in display quality at the top has acted as a rising tide to lift all displays, though, and even mid-range devices now have really solid panels to work with.
The 5.5-inch IPS LCD on the ZenFone 2 doesn't have amazingly-high pixel density, superb contrast or a wide brightness range, but it really serves its purpose on a phone like this. The 1920x1080 resolution works out to an acceptable 403 ppi, which unless you're looking too hard will give you sharp lines on text and images, and has the upside of not taxing the GPU as hard as a QHD panel would. The ZenFone 2 ships with a "balance" color setting enabled that offers accurate colors without too much extra punch, but if you want a bit more out of the display you can hop into the display settings and choose a reading, vivid or custom mode instead — I personally liked the balance of the default look.
I can easily live with the display in daily use despite the fact that its a step below something like the Galaxy S6, and the little things like viewing angles, display lamination and touch response were all well above my expectations. The one point where the ZenFone 2's display comes up unnecessarily short is in brightness range, where it gets a bit washed out at its highest brightness — which still isn't all that bright — but just as importantly doesn't get dim enough in dark environments. Not being able to always use your phone late at night because it's just too darn bright for your eyes is annoying — and I'd say it's just as important as not being able to see the phone outside in all situations.
The speaker, which can be found in a strip along the bottom of the back of the phone, has the same feel to it. It's quite large and can get pretty loud, but the sound is hollow and really best suited to YouTube videos and podcasts or spoken word radio. It failed my standard test of cranking up the volume on my bathroom counter and making a podcast audible while I was in the shower, which is something that not all phones can handle but is a good line for measuring both loudness and clarity. While the curved back of the phone helps give it a bit of room to breathe when the phone is on a table, the best experience is unfortunately to have it face-down on a surface, which is hard for us to recommend you do.
A good experience at its core, covered in a lot of unnecessary cruft
ASUS ZenFone 2 Software and Performance
Whether unfairly or not ASUS, isn't often mentioned when it comes to brilliant software design or features — but I actually ended up liking the software setup on the ZenFone 2 more than I expected to going in. This is a pretty familiar "ZenUI" experience if you've ever used an ASUS tablet or phone before, with Android 5.0 Lollipop as a base.
The customizations made here fit in pretty well with the basic Material Design principles, and the interface doesn't stand out dramatically from third-party apps that have been made to fit with Lollipop. The whole interface is filled with plenty of whites, greys and simple colors backed up by shadows — a lot of what you expect to see in Android 5.0. The lockscreen and settings are surprisingly minimal and simple to deal with, cutting back on useless animations.
Unfortunately the ASUS keyboard and ZenUI launcher are actually two of the biggest non-Lollipop offenders that stand out from the rest of the system, and I really couldn't deal with either one knowing that there are better-looking options out there. I went with my standard choices of Google Keyboard and the Google Now Launcher, which really fit in nicely with the phone.
The interface isn't an issue — but the vast number of pre-installed apps are.
Beyond the regular interface, which isn't "stock" but is still quite enjoyable to use, the biggest issue with the ZenFone 2's software experience is the vast number of pre-installed apps and services that are littered all over the phone. The first portion of the issue is that a large number of the system utilities and basic items all get their own apps in the drawer — things like AudioWizard, Flashlight, Kids Mode, Mirror, Setup Wizard, ZenCircle, WebStorage and others really don't need app icons, they need to just be accessible in the settings. Thankfully ASUS takes the wonderful approach of putting most of its own apps in the Play Store so that they're easily updated without a full system OTA. Many of them can be completely uninstalled rather than disabled, saving you space on your phone, and it also means ASUS could've (and should've) chosen to just not install them in the first place and let you decide what you want.
The other — and considerably more annoying — part of the equation is the expanse of trial apps, utilities and virus scanners pre-installed on the phone. Apps like Clean Master and Dr. Safety are pre-installed and automatically "scanning" for "threats" on your phone, and they're paired up with pre-installed chat apps, game trials and other questionably-desirable content in an "Apps4U" folder. Thankfully a vast majority of these apps can be uninstalled, but I still wish they weren't there in the first place.
Once you've taken the time to clean up everything that's pre-installed, the ZenFone 2 performs quite exceptionally, as you would expect with so much CPU power and RAM to work with. Apps launch quickly and perform well, and I never experienced any app crashes or funky behavior. I also didn't find any app compatibility problems with the Intel processor, which we really need to give up on worrying about — the phone worked just as well as an ARM-powered device with similar power.
More than enough to get you through a day
ASUS ZenFone 2 Battery life
Great battery life isn't a given at any price point, even with the most expensive of devices, but the ZenFone 2's 3000mAh battery performs quite admirably. While Intel and mobile together historically haven't been a recipe for great battery life, the quad-core Atom chip on-hand doesn't suck down power at an alarming rate. Neither does the display, which runs at a relatively sane 1920x1080 resolution and doesn't have an amazing brightness level. Together with a large battery I had no problem going through an entire day with plenty of battery left to spare.
My phones are all set to sync and notify me of every email, social network, news story and update from several accounts, while I spend most of my time on Wifi and use the phone for bits of prolonged podcast and music listening throughout the day. Even after a full 17 hour day (registering somewhere between two and three hours of screen use) I regularly had 30 percent or more battery left, which is quite superb. When I needed to fire up the mobile hotspot for a while or take a ton of pictures the battery didn't seem to drop too considerably either, which is also important.
I never once worried about battery life on the ZenFone 2, which just can't be said for every phone out there today. And while there are battery-saving customization options and an "ultra-saving mode," I didn't find any of it necessary to get what I needed out of the 3000mAh battery.
With quick charging being all the rage nowadays — and a truly useful feature to have — ASUS has its own "BoostMaster" technology that helps the battery charge quickly with the included (at least on the $299 model) 9V / 2A charger. Despite the terrible name, BoostMaster actually works just like the other technologies you'll find in use on modern Samsung, HTC and LG phones — plug in when your phone is dead, and you'll hit 60 percent battery in under 40 minutes. That's right on par with Quick Charge 2.0 specs, and it's no surprise that the ZenFone 2 charges the same with QC 2.0-certified chargers, while phones with Qualcomm's tech charge quickly with the ZenFone 2's charger as well.
Plenty of imaging capability with a less-than-stellar software experience
ASUS ZenFone 2 Camera
Having an inexpensive phone means walking a line between affordability and quality, with the camera experience often being thrown under the bus. Camera hardware itself may be relatively cheap, but the software to make it run right takes a lot of time and money to make, and the proper licenses to process image data aren't cheap to acquire, either.
This is a very run-of-the-mill 13MP camera, with a standard set of software and features to match.
The 13MP sensor on the ZenFone 2 is just a camera — it has no fancy laser focus, phase detection, or optical image stabilization in support. In terms of interface the camera experience is pretty standard as well, with some lackluster design and a handful of buttons that do what you expect them to — the one exception being a full manual mode where you get lots of granular control over the camera settings. There's also an absolutely massive scrolling list of general camera settings, which was enough to have me confused and closing them right away.
With a tap of a button you can switch between 17 (yes, seventeen!) different shooting modes, though the basic Auto, HDR, Depth of Field and Low Light (which apparently is different from Night) are the only ones likely to be used by most people. There are other crazy modes like "Time Rewind" and "Smart Remove," but thankfully you don't have to deal with 'em if you don't want to. Auto mode works quite well, but unfortunately there's no auto-switching available to let the camera move to a macro, HDR or night mode automatically — the best you'll get is a suggestion and a button to manually toggle modes.
I was actually surprised by the quality of photos I could get out of the ZenFone 2 considering its price and somewhat lackluster camera specs. Still shots outside in a variety of lighting conditions were good, and while they didn't offer much of the punchy colors and contrast I see out of higher-end phones, they were quite acceptable. Having to manually switch to HDR is something I got annoyed with quickly after being spoiled by auto-HDR on other phones, but when you did switch the results were pretty good.
Low light photography wasn't great considering the lack of OIS, but because there's a relatively bright f/2.0 aperture available you could get some decent shots if you really kept your hand steady. I didn't notice either Low Light or Night modes producing anything much better than the auto mode, with any of the three giving somewhat-noisy shots with a little bit too much over-sharpening to try and smooth them out.
While images seemed to hold up well despite the lack of OIS, video takes a bit of a hit in quality due to the lack of physical stabilization (electronic image stabilization never proves to be a direct replacement). There's a video setting to choose between "performance" and "quality" also, which is odd since I don't think you should have to choose between those two. Particularly considering the ZenFone 2 can only handle 1920x1080 video, rather than the 4K you see in many phones nowadays.
You can take good photos in a variety of situations, but it takes a little work and isn't particularly fast to do it.
The one major issue with the ZenFone 2's camera is speed, where it really seems to just chug along on some of the most basic tasks. While it doesn't seem that there's much shutter lag between pressing the capture button and taking a photo, there's considerable processing time between when you take a shot and when the viewfinder comes back up and you can review your photo or take another. It gives the impression that there is going to be a shutter lag, and it lowers your confidence that you can get a shot in an instance.
I also noticed that after a week of use the camera lens on my ZenFone 2 picked up a few scratches, which was a little unsettling. The camera doesn't bulge out dramatically from the back of the phone but it isn't exactly protected either, and it's bothering to see scratches after just a week with no particularly rough use.
A big unlocked device worth considering at the $300 price point
ASUS ZenFone 2 Bottom line
The ZenFone 2 clearly isn't trying to go head-to-head with the likes of Samsung, HTC, LG and Motorola in the flagship space, but instead aims squarely at OnePlus, Xiaomi and Huawei by offering the best value for your money in the mid-tier unlocked phone space.
For a maximum of $299 you're getting an unlocked phone with nearly-flagship specs and a really good software experience, along with a camera that can take solid photos you won't have any problem posting to social networks. While the hardware may not be up to speed with others in looks or feel, you'll probably be okay with it when you realize you just saved $300 (or more) compared to one of the latest high-end devices.
If you're looking for a larger phone and don't need to have the absolute bleeding edge in every single aspect of the one you pick, looking instead at the price tag and value, the ZenFone 2 is here for your consideration — and it's a good choice.
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