Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
As more people are fed up with smartphones that cost well over $600, some manufacturers are taking notice. ASUS brings us the ZenFone 2, a $299 phone with internal specs that easily trump its competitors. But to get the price that low, surely cuts had to be made somewhere? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Be sure to read until the end to find out how you can win an ASUS ZenFone 2 for yourself.
- Price: $299 from Amazon
- Processor: 64-bit 2.3Ghz Intel Atom Quad Core Z3580
- RAM: 4GB
- Storage: 64GB
- Screen: 5.5″ Full HD 1080p LCD
- Size: 6in x 3.04in x 0.43in (152.5mm x 77.2mm x 10.9mm)
- Weight: 170g (6oz)
- Cameras: 13MP rear-facing, 5MP front-facing
- Battery: Non-removable 3,000mAh
Note: there is a $199 version that substitutes a 1.8Ghz Z3560 processor, 2GB, and 16GB of storage — but we have not reviewed that model.
In a nutshell, the ASUS Zenfone 2 is big and plasticky.
With a 5.5″ screen, it’s easily in phablet territory, but it’s the 10.9mm thickness and 170g weight that really make this thing feel big in the hand. For a weight comparison, the 5.1″ Galaxy S6 (our review) weighs 132g, and even the all-metal 5″ HTC One M9 (our review) weighs 157g.
However, the device does have a nice curve to it. It’s much thinner along the sides and feels nice in the hand, despite the large size. The power button and headphone jack sit up top, but that placement definitely makes it awkward to hit the power button one-handed. You’ll most likely either be wielding this thing with two hands, or using the double-tap feature to wake and sleep the device (which we’ll get into more later).
The micro-USB port is along the bottom, and there are no buttons on the sides of the ZenFone 2 at all. Instead, ASUS has gone with a button layout that is clearly borrowed from LG (see our review of the LG G3 as an example). The volume buttons are on the back of the phone.
Honestly, this is a design choice you’re either going to love or hate. For me, I actually found that I adjusted to them pretty quickly. They’re certainly easier to feel for than the buttons on the LG G2 or G3, simply because there is no power button in the middle of the volume rocker. It’s also a small benefit to be able to hold the side of the device without worrying about pressing buttons.
And while the brushed metal design looks nice, it’s really just a nicely dressed-up plastic. As far as plastic goes, it is better looking than most and doesn’t collect fingerprints.
The camera and flash sit at the top, just above the volume rocker. Along the bottom of the back is the speaker grille, which provides for decently-loud audio, though it’s not particularly amazing. The placement on the back of the phone can make it a bit awkward to hear while holding the device.
The backplate is removable with a bit of prying, which is where you’ll find the two micro-SIM trays and the microSD card slot.
The front of the device is basic. ASUS has managed to keep the bezel at the top pretty small, but the sides are a bit thicker than most phones, and there’s a thick bumper at the bottom beneath the three capacitive keys.
The keys you get down here are Back, Home, and Recents — though they don’t light up like Samsung’s buttons do, so you might miss them a few times if you’re using the phone in the dark.
All in all, it feels pretty bulky and cheap. It certainly won’t be challenging any high end phones with its design, though the internals might be a different story.
Though advertised as having a 13MP rear-facing camera, that resolution is only available if you want to shoot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you switch to 16:9, you’re looking at a 10MP resolution. This might seem small in comparison to the 16MP Galaxy S6 or 20MP One M9, it still manages to take quality photos (and don’t forget that the iPhone 6 has a very capable 8MP camera). Sometimes it’s worth looking past the megapixels.
Above is a photo I took using the automatic settings on an overcast day. In general usage, it was just as good as any other flagship camera out there today.
In addition to the usual camera features, however, the ZenFone 2 has preset modes of different kinds of shooting, like a high-resolution mode that can stitch together a 51MP 4:3 photo, an HDR mode, a depth of field mode, and more. The most useful, however, was the lowlight shooting mode.
Above is a photo I took in the automatic mode of a pair of shoes sitting inside with dim lighting — just overcast lighting coming in from a window around sunset. You can barely even see the shoes.
However, with the lowlight mode turned on, it looks as if there was some decent lighting on these shoes. They don’t look too falsely lightened, and I have to applaud this camera for its performance in less-than-ideal lighting conditions. When it senses that your subject is dark, it will even pop up a little notice to ask you to switch to lowlight shooting.
As you can see above, the homescreen has some rounded, colorful app icons as well as some bloatware under the Apps4U groups. Overall, though, the ZenFone 2 mostly comes with limited bloatware — just a lot of ASUS-branded apps for things like transferring media, using their cloud storage, etc.
The Recents panel (above right) has mostly stayed the same, only with some confusingly-labeled quick access buttons at the button. They are the running apps button, pinning button, and remove all button respectively. There’s also a search bar up at the top, though search can also be accessed by holding the home button and then swiping up.
The notification panel has been colored white with mostly light blue accents. The green accents are for the tools like flashlight and calculator, and all of those are customizable.
Notifications appear on the lockscreen, as is customary in Lollipop, but you also get three quick access buttons that you can tap and swipe away from to access (mine shown above are Camera, Google Now, and Facebook Messenger).
Double-tapping anywhere on the lockscreen will put the device to sleep, as well as double-tapping on the status bar from any screen. Waking the device can also be done with a double-tap anywhere on the screen.
The phone app has been stylized with a photo of snowy trees, which doesn’t seem to be customizable, and the trees get blurred out once you enter a call. It’s a nice design, just a bit random.
Overall, the user interface manages to stay out of the way while making the phone a bit uniquely ASUS. I don’t think it offers anything particularly useful, but it also doesn’t hinder the experience — though it does mean you might be waiting a while for a 5.1 update.
ASUS’ website states that the ZenFone 2 supports 4G LTE, including the bands necessary to work on the major GSM carriers in the US like AT&T. However, even after going into a store and talking to an AT&T employee, I wasn’t able to get more than HSPA+ speeds on the phone.
This may have been a fluke, and HSPA+ speeds aren’t awful, but it was disappointing not to be able to get 4G LTE speeds. Obviously, your mileage will vary with this one based on your location and carrier.
With a 3,000mAh battery, this phone has a lot in common with the OnePlus One (a phone with its own pros and cons). Considering the great battery life I get on my OnePlus One, I was expecting great things from the ZenFone 2.
And I was disappointed.
On an average day, I could make it from morning to night with minimal usage (minimal for me is two hours of screen on time or less). Considering that I could get four hours of screen on time and still make it through a day on the OnePlus One, or over three hours on the HTC One M9, that’s nothing to write home about.
Most notably, look at how much battery the Android OS itself is draining. Whereas the screen is normally the biggest drain on any device, ASUS’ version of Android was actually wreaking the most havoc on my battery. Even following our most thorough instructions on how to improve your battery life and keep your battery healthy, I was getting less-than-stellar battery life.
And then this happened:
I woke up around 7am, and by 9:30am, my phone was halfway dead, with less than half an hour of screen on time. A restart seemed to snap it out of this rapid drain, but that wasn’t the only time this phone drained fast. Some days it did okay, and other days it would die before I got home.
The point being: if the 3,000mAh battery had you excited about its lifespan, you should lower your expectations.
In case you didn’t notice, this phone has 4G of RAM. That’s an insane amount of RAM for a phone. In fact, that’s more than a lot of computers. Do you really need that much RAM?
Well, probably not.
Most flagships are shipping with 3GB of RAM nowadays, though even phones on 2GB are chugging along just fine. 1GB seems to be on the line of where you’ll run into issues. 4GB is certainly overkill, but it also means that you’ll never have problems multitasking, no matter how many apps you pull up.
In addition to that, the Intel processor is fast and able, even though Intel is playing catchup in the mobile processor world. The ZenFone 2 even has 64GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot, so you’ll never run out of storage here.
Should You Buy It?
That really depends on your needs. If you’re looking to buy off contract phones, then this phone really should be on your radar. For the price, it packs some incredible specs.
However, the disappointing battery life is a big drawback, and phones of comparable price and quality do exist that might be better alternatives, like the OnePlus One or Moto G.
Buy it if you really want a lot of storage for a cheap price as well as a large screen. Don’t buy it if you’d prefer a smaller, lighter device with better battery life.
Send your products to be reviewed. Contact James Bruce for further details.