Premium build, 4GB of RAM, 3x optical zoom, and $399 price tag – is this the smartphone to beat?
Asus has been trying to crack the market’s smartphone code for a while now. Prior to its current lineup, the company tried again and again to get consumers on-board with an unconventional but innovative smartphone/tablet integration concept with the PadFone. Alas, the Taiwanese manufacturer finally gave in to the lackluster sales and redirected its smartphone efforts to the ZenFone.
2015 was a good year for Asus; when the ZenFone 2 managed to catch the market’s attention with its newfound value. It packed bangin’ specs for the competitive price. Asus phones were finally selling. But while the company later used this success as an opportunity to introduce ZenFone 2 variants, one of its offering quietly slipped out of view – the ZenFone Zoom.
First announced at CES 2015, Asus boasted a smartphone with a camera that could optically zoom. In hindsight, it seems like that project was a bit too ambitious for the manufacturer, as it’s taken a whole year of extra development to finally get it into our hands.
Is the ZenFone Zoom better late than never, or should it have remained as a concept? Let’s find out.
If you recall the ZenFone Zoom’s CES 2015 announcement, you may notice that the back cover is slightly different to the production unit. The former had a smooth plastic cover while the latter looks leathery. Due to the Zoom’s aggressive pricing, I suspected that we would actually be dealing with faux leather.
When I got a hold of the review unit, I was convinced that my assumption was correct. The entire back cover feels like a leather-textured hard plastic. However, Asus states that it is in fact a “premium”, burnished leather. Because the material doesn’t quite feel the part, I’m left ambivalent about the effort.
Nonetheless, the texture and rounded back feels great in hand. Yes, the phone is in no way trying to be slim, but it’s not a brick either. OEM obsession over phone thinness is overrated in my book (especially when it’s traded for features), and the Zoom’s extra girth is no way impugns phone ergonomics.
We can’t talk about the back of the phone without addressing the elephant in the room – that large circular camera housing. I’m not quite sure why the camera component has to take up so much space, but I won’t question the engineering magic that Asus had to pull off to gain 3x zooming from a lens that doesn’t telescope (more on the camera details later). I do appreciate that the odd module is just about the same thickness as the thickest portions of the phone. It doesn’t have that disruptive appearance that previous optically zooming smartphones have beared (i.e. Samsung’s Galaxy Zoom series)
The camera lens is recessed, so you don’t have to worry about the protective glass getting scratched and ruining your pictures. However, on a usability note, the len’s placement on the back isn’t conventional (it’s lower than on most phones). I find myself often touching it with my index finger, then having to swipe off the fingerprint smudge before taking pics.
Because the curved back tapers on the sides, towards the bottom you’ll see a raised lining for stability (it keeps the phone from wobbling when set on a table). Subtle leather stitching surrounds the protrusion, for that convincing look. Right below it is a rear-facing, mono external speaker.
Oh, and that back cover is removeable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that you’ll have access to the battery (it’s barricaded in), but you will get a micro-SD slot. This is where the SIM slot lives as well.
Before receiving the Zoom, I wasn’t aware that Asus had now evolved the ZenFone’s build with a metal frame. It’s excellent and as premium as they come. It’s rounded, similar to the iPhone, and feels great in-hand. The finish is smooth and matte, the color has an interesting deep purple-ish tone. The metal is chamfered on both edges of the frame to show off its shine. The whole presentation says classy and complements the leathery backing well.
Regarding ports, you’ll find the headphone jack on the top and micro-USB port on the bottom. And because the Zoom is camera-centric, Asus included a lanyard opening on the bottom-left corner, for safety from drops during all those photo shoots.
The physical buttons are all on the right side (there’s nothing on the left side). Asus not only fitted a camera shutter button but also a record button adjacent to it. Holding down on either button launches the camera app whether the phone is off or on. Cleverly, the volume buttons double up for zooming when you’re in the camera app. They even have “T” (Telephoto) and “W” (Wide Angle) labels etched on them, like on a dedicated camera.
The front of the phone keeps traditional ZenFone fashion. There’s an Asus logo squeezed in between the earpiece and display, capacitive buttons, and the signature bezel plate along the bottom (which has a circular texture that produces a light ray effect from the center of the pattern). The Zoom’s bezel size is fairly average; it’s not the best screen-to-body ratio. It is just about as tall as the LG V10, which isn’t a good thing. The V10 has a 0.2″ larger display and a secondary screen on top of that.
But I suppose that when you factor in the $399 price and optical zoom, it can be forgivable.
Asus continues its partnership with Intel on the ZenFone Zoom. It packs an Intel Atom Z3580, which is comprised of a quad-core processor (running at 2.3GHz), PowerVR G6430 graphics processor, and 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM. Yes, you heard correctly – 4GB in a $399 smartphone.
But do those specs mean as much as they sound like they mean in the real world? Mostly. The Zoom is a speedy animal. Even despite the heavy ZenUI, it still manages to chug through Android without hesitation.
However, there were moments that frame rate drops were noticeable. I’m not talking about lags or delays, but rather, the fluidity was interrupted at times. In digging around, I noticed that ZenUI’s default “Normal” power management system says that it “Smartly adjusts CPU performance and brightness”. You can switch it to the “Performance” mode, in which it will utilize the entire CPU’s capability (at the cost of battery life).
A great thing is that the standard internal storage capacity of the Zoom is 64GB. I wish that every OEM would follow suit. And what makes that even sweeter is that micro-SD expansion is supported. You can only add on 64GB more, but at least you can.
Audio performance on all front is nothing to write home about. The rear placement of the external speaker is not ideal, and it’s thin-sounding. And there is nothing special to my ears from the audio out of the headphone jack.
The ZenFone Zoom has a 5.5″ sized IPS LCD screen. Its resolution isn’t saturated with the QHD pixel count that many flagships boast these days, but 1080P is sufficient (403 PPI). I don’t find the difference between QHD and 1080P on a 5.5″ display that telling anyways, and would much rather not waste the extra battery life on something that frivolous.
The panel’s quality is above average. It particularly excels at keeping its composure at even extreme viewing angles. Colors look a tad dull to my eyes, but that’s just me being nit-picky.
The brightness does leave to be desired though. I feel like the max brightness should be able to go an extra 20-30% further (based on my experience with other phones). This mostly becomes a concern outside on a sunny day. But in digging around, I did find out that you can gain more brightness from within the Battery settings. Putting the phone in “Performance” mode increases the max brightness slightly (we’ll talk about this more in the Battery section).
Now the moment you’ve probably been waiting for – the ZenFone Zoom’s camera performance. Asus boasts a lot of technological achievement about the Zoom’s sensor on paper, but all that awesomeness deliver in real world use? We’ll get to that.
Firstly, something to know about the Zoom’s optics is that the lens doesn’t telescope like with traditional optical zooming. I didn’t know that upon receiving the phone. So when I opened her up and stared at the lens while zooming, you can probably guess the look on my face.
Asus says that the 3x optical magnification is achieved by some 10-element HOYA periscopic lens arrangement trickery. You can get more details about the technology (which Asus dubs PixelMaster 2.0) on the manufacturer’s site.
The sensor itself has a 13MP capture resolution. It is also supplemented by 4 stops of Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and an ultra-fast (0.03 seconds) laser auto-focus. The len’s f/2.7 aperture isn’t particularly great (compared to significantly larger sizes from the latest flagships), but Asus tries to assist the low-light performance from the software side with a Low Light shooting mode.
Without further ado, let’s get into the photo samples. Click on the collection below to see zoomed in (3x) and out samples.
The optical zoom does work, and the camera quality is maintained when zoomed. Check out this comparison with the LG V10, both zoomed at 3x (but the V10 can only do digital zoom).
LG V10, 3x zoom
Asus ZenFone Zoom, 3x zoom
To my eyes, the Zoom’s camera performs fantastically in good lighting. But the results can take a dubious turn otherwise. Areas of concentrated lighting can too easily be overexposed.
HDR helps to a point (mostly to even out the overall contrast), but the blown-out areas will still be there. On the other extreme, there is an expected struggle when light is taken away. But the camera doesn’t try to force it and give you grainy images, things are just less visible. Thankfully, there is a Low Light shooting mode in the camera interface, which produces decent results.
Auto shooting mode
Low Light shooting mode
There’s no strings attached to the optical zoom’s use. It still works in special shooting modes, such as HDR and Low Light, as well as while recording. If you find that you need to zoom more than 3x, the len’s mechanism also allows it to go all the way to 12x (but via digital zooming).
Speaking of shooting modes, Asus makes sure the hardware is well supported on the software front. On the bottom-right corner of the camera interface is a shortcut to a barrage of modes.
Some of these options are commonplace, but there’s a couple standout features. Super Resolution combines the detail from four simultaneous shots into a result that simulates 4x the capture resolution. Miniature mode gives the user finer tuning over the depth of field effect. Time Rewind takes simultaneous burst shots before and after the shutter button was tapped.
The ZenFone Zoom packs a modest 3,000 mAh capacity battery (non-removeable). It’s been sufficient in my use. I’ll go ahead to show you a battery usage graph, over a 9-hour period (the first half on T-Mobile‘s network and the other half on WiFi).
50% battery drain over 9 hours is fine in my book. My usage covered a lot of use cases, such as internet browsing, music, maps/navigation, social media, and camera (screen brightness varied between max and 75%). But I didn’t play any games.
Do be aware that ZenUI packs battery modes that can largely determine what your battery life outcome will be. By default, the system is set to “Normal” (this is the mode that I used for the results above). It’s nice that Asus gives the user choices. Most UI’s have some form of Power Saving settings, but ZenUI actually lets you maximize performance if you want to (at the cost of battery life of course).
There are two tiers of power saving modes: “Power saving” and “Super saving”. The former disables networks when the phone is on standby, while the latter only keeps the basic phone functions going (calling, texting, alarm). Or you can select “Customized” and pick and choose the system behavior yourself, such as CPU performance, screen brightness, and network and app activity. Lastly, “Smart switch” allows automatic battery mode switching based on either a certain battery percentage or user-specified schedule.
The ZenFone Zoom runs off of Android 5.0 (Lollipop). Sadly, it’s not the latest version of Android and not even Android 5.1 (which was a crucial update in Lollipop). ZenUI is the user interface (UI) overlay and is no doubt as heavy as they come. But I will admit that after some time with the UI, I’ve started to open up to it. I don’t find that performance is hindered by ZenUI (which gives me confidence over Asus’s software competence), and I’ve discovered several useful functions that aren’t on other UI’s.
But I will always complain about unnecessary changes to Android’s aesthetics; it’s a waste of effort when changes don’t add any value. Things like the notification shade, app drawer, folder layout, and panel transitions all get a ZenUI fix. In fact, there’s no trace of true Android that I can spot.
Adding more insult to injury, Asus throws in a ton of home-brewed apps that get in your face. At the phone’s first startup, you get a barrage of notifications from these apps to let you know that they’re present (and they pop up again over time). The Asus apps range from system management (data cleaner, power settings) to media features/tools. Fortunately, if you’re like me and don’t care, the system allows you to disable the apps (but not uninstall).
But ZenUI does redeem itself through a couple ways. One of these is gestures (which stock Android has yet to implement).
There are two categories of gestures: Motion and Touch. There’s only a couple of motion gestures; shaking the phone to take a screenshot or bringing the phone to your ear to pick up a phone call. The touch gestures are far more interesting. Firstly, tap-to-wake is present (thank you, Asus!). What’s also cool is that you can draw a letter on the screen when it is off to launch one of the specified apps.
One other neat action is when you swipe up from the home screen. A “Manage Home” area pop ups, which contains various functions you may often use. You’ll also run into other nice useful features throughout the UI. For instance, you can set a tap and hold on Recent Apps button to take a screenshot or open up an app’s menu. The display’s coloring is alterable via presets or user customization. And there’s a useful “Auto-start Manager”, where you can save system memory by controlling which apps are allowed to run automatically.
Theming is something that I think every UI should be able to do. ZenUI has a “Themes” app with a vast library of free and paid options. This includes a library of icon packs and third-party support to grab a pack from the Play Store.
When I reflect on everything that the ZenFone Zoom offers and then recall its asking price of $399, I can’t help but think that the value is great. I could most definitely replace my daily driver flagship phone (which costs almost twice as much) and not regret it. That’s where the ZenFone line has the upper-hand, and the 3x optical zoom is icing that you won’t get on most cakes out there.
As long as your expectations aren’t sky-high, the ZenFone Zoom is definitely recommendable. I just emphasize that the camera’s general performance is good but not the best you’ll find, and that ZenUI may be too heavy for Android enthusiasts (although, it functions just fine).