“The ASUS Zenfone 5 manages to stand out with its useful software features”
The budget performance segment is revolutionalising the Indian smartphone landscape like never before, and ASUS, a brand known more for its stylish laptops and hybrids, has chosen this very area to try and revive its phone fortunes. Its new Zenfone series, unveiled first at CES and then updated with newer models at Computex this year, has just launched in India, comprising three primary models, with multiple variants in different screen sizes and storage capacities.
All these devices are powered by Intel processors, support dual SIMs, and feature ZenUI, ASUS’ custom layer that runs atop Android and brings quite a few features to the table – over 200 changes over and above stock Android, as per the company. That’s saying a lot, but after spending lots of quality time with the Zenfone 5, the 5-inch smartphone that sits in the middle of the series, it’s clear that ASUS wasn’t kidding. For your information, the range also includes the Zenphone 4 and the Zenphone 6, but its the 5-inch version that’s the object of our affections today. So join us as we take it for a test drive and check out its real prowess.
Specs at a glance
- 5-inch, 1,280 x 720 display
- 8MP primary camera, 2MP front shooter
- 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Atom Z2560 processor
- PowerVR SGX544MP2 graphics
- 2GB RAM, 8 / 16GB expandable internal storage
- 2,110mAh battery
- Dual-SIM 3G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, A-GPS, Miracast, Wi-Fi Direct
- Android 4.3 with ZenUI
- FM radio
Ups the ante in the looks department
Clad in matte black (it comes in other colours like white, red and gold too), the Zenfone 5’s chassis is made out of polycarbonate, and features a curved rear that feels quite ergonomic in the hand. In fact, it reminds us of last year’s HTC One, and at first glance, looks like it sports a similar unibody design.
That’s not the case however, and the rear shell of the Zenfone 5 is actually removable. Doing so won’t let you remove the 2,110mAh battery though, but it will give you access to the pair of micro-SIM slot and the microSD card slot.
The black unit we got for review looks rather staid, especially when viewed from a slight distance. On close quarters however, the concentric circle pattern on the chin below the screen looks quite scrumptious, and imparts a premium look. ASUS uses the same design on its Zenbook laptops, and has successfully managed to make it a design mainstay of this smartphone too, even carrying it to the metal-finished power key and volume rocker placed on the right.
The fascia, apart from the screen and the aforementioned concentric circle design, also sports three backlit navigation keys below the display, and ASUS branding, the earpiece, sensors, front camera and notification LED on top. The bezels are a tad wide, making the device reasonably large in size, though one-handed usage shouldn’t be an issue unless you have really tiny hands.
The top is where the 3.5mm audio socket is, while the micro-USB port is at the bottom.
Flip the device over and you’ll be greeted by the primary camera lens along with an LED flash, with an ASUS logo below it, and as you move your gaze closer to the bottom, Intel Inside and Zenfone logos, followed by a speaker grille.
We love the concentric pattern design, but much to our chagrin, discovered that its prone to scratches, especially closer to the edges. This ruins the look and makes it look tacky, so you need to be quite careful in case you do decide to buy one. ASUS smart flip covers should be able to help a bit. These covers will feature circular windows that’ll give you access to common functions without opening. You’ll still need to be careful about the edges though – we haven’t tried one of these flip covers yet, but we assume they won’t cover the edges.
A yummy screen that’s a visual treat
The 5-inch screen size, once considered to be quite large, has now become the bread-and-butter offering from most smartphone vendors. While we still consider 4.7-inches to be the sweet spot, 5-inch displays are quite handy too – not too small to make usability an issue and not too large to affect portability and handling. The ASUS Zenfone 5 offers exactly this, and the resolution it sports is 1,280 x 720 pixels, resulting in a pixel density of 294ppi.
The screen outputs sharp visuals, crisp text, and colourful graphics, and while we’ll get to it in a bit, ASUS’s colourful ZenUI also adds up to the apparent vividness. The viewing angles and sunlight legibility are reasonably good too, with ample brightness levels on offer. The screen supports glove mode for enhanced touch responsiveness, and via the preloaded Splendid app, you can also tweak the display settings in terms of colour temperature and saturation. Suffice to say that you won’t find the screen quality lacking at all, and the display is certainly one of the Zenfone 5’s stronger points.
Master of pixels, and a creature of the night
ASUS touts the 8-meg shooter on the Zenfone 5 as one of its highlights. Sporting a 5-element optical formula lens and an f/2.0 aperture, it also comes loaded with PixelMaster tech that promises great low-light imaging.
When it comes to features and frills though, the custom camera app is loaded with everything you can imagine. There are a host of colour filters, digital image stabilisation, and also the option to tweak everything from ISO, to exposure and white balance. The range of modes available include burst, HDR, panorama, miniature, depth of field, beautification, night, and a special low light mode. There’s a Smart remove mode that shoots five images in succession and eliminates moving objects. There’s even a GIF animation mode available that captures 30 shots in burst mode and then combines them into an animated GIF, even letting you control the speed of the animation before saving. Deviating from the norm, ASUS has also provided a selfie mode that uses the rear camera, and utilises face detection to shoot.
A unique feature of the camera is that it automatically detects ambient conditions and prompts you to activate modes like HDR and low light, as the case may be. On the flip side, the camera is quite slow to activate and shoot. Handily though, you can choose to launch the camera straight from standby by double pressing the volume key – either up or down works.
When it comes to the all-important image quality though, the camera is a bit of a mixed bag. It shoots very good images, especially in daylight. It can capture colours and detail well, though the colours do tend to look oversaturated at times. However, the low light mode is quite amazing, seemingly churning up a usable image when there’s nothing to capture but darkness. The PixelMaster technology seems to be at play here, using proprietary wizardry to full advantage. Shots captured in low light mode are only 2-megapixel in resolution and quite grainy, but they’re definitely usable and could make for some share-worthy party and club shots.
Overall, we feel that the Zenfone 5’s shooter is quite capable and one of its strong points, thanks to its decent results, a loaded feature-set, and surprising low light mode. Here are a few image samples, click on the thumbnails to view them in full resolution.
|Need some more details on the ASUS Zenfone 5’s primary camera? Here’s the camera review|
A state of Zen
Samsung has its TouchWiz. HTC has its Sense. These, and quite a few others, have figured out that UI skins are a great way to differentiate. Even domestic vendor XOLO has been teasing its HIVE UI. ASUS’ effort is termed ZenUI, and it runs on the Zenfone 5 (and on the other models in the range) in all its colourful glory. ZenUI offers colourful icons, but its mainstay is the feature-set it brings to the table, both with the help of stuff which is baked in and also via preloaded apps. In the case of the Zenfone 5, this skin runs atop Android 4.3, and there will be a KitKat update for the device eventually.
The lockscreen, apart from displaying the time and weather, also sports shortcuts for accessing the phone, messages and the camera, along with a What’s Next widget. What’s Next is also available as a widget on the home screen, plus a standalone app, displaying your upcoming schedule and appointments. It’s a useful app, also capable to providing you a countdown to a certain event.
The pull-down notification bar has also been modified, giving you notifications when you swipe down from the left side of the screen and a customisable quick settings menu with circular icons if you swipe down from the right. You can also switch between notifications and quick settings from within the two screens.
Looking at the options available in quick settings, you might notice a Reading mode toggle. As the name suggests, it changes the backlight and screen settings to make it more suitable for reading, useful while browsing the web or reading documents and e-books. Yet another option is labelled Boost, and it’s a one-touch shortcut to clear out RAM. A slider for controlling screen brightness is available too.
Coming to the app drawer, it provides the useful option of locking any of the apps you want, protected by a password. Further, it can even suppress notifications from the apps you choose to lock. An option to hide apps is also provided. Tabs at the bottom of the app drawer let you view all apps, or just the ones you downloaded or those you access frequently.
Delving into the main settings menu of the device, you’ll notice an Easy Mode option. Similar to what Samsung offers on its premium Galaxy smartphones, it switches to a simple launcher with large icons, suitable for the elderly or those who’re still trying to come to grips with the workings of Android.
Something called ASUS customized settings lets you tweak various settings, such as changing the long-press option for the recent apps hardware key. You can set it to display recent apps, capture a screenshot or show the menu on long press. Speaking of screenshots, you get the choice to save captured ones in either JPEG or PNG format. The other options available here include customising quick settings, choosing a default location for app installation, and enabling the glove mode for enhancing the touch sensitivity of the display.
ASUS has also customised the default apps such as those for the dialler, messaging and gallery too. The device even sports a built-in call recorder, and you can access that via the in-call screen. An app called AudioWizard lets you tweak audio settings, while Splendid is an app that lets you control the display, letting you change parameters such as the colour temperature, hue and saturation, or activate a Vivid Mode.
The picture gallery, apart from letting you rotate or edit photos, also provides the EXIF info of the images, even including details of weather when the images were shot.
Not stopping there, a bunch of other preloaded apps are available too. Key amongst them is one dubbed Do It Later, as the moniker indicates, could be really handy for serial procrastinators. Not only does it give you a nifty task manager, it also integrates with a few other apps like the call log, messages and the default browser. If you miss a call or receive a text message, you can push it to Do It Later, and then respond at leisure later. Not only that, you can respond directly from within the Do It Later app.
Other preloaded apps include a nifty note-taking app dubbed SuperNote, access to ASUS’ cloud storage, and a suite of linking apps that make it easy to hook up and share. The latter include PC Link, Remote Link and Share Link. The first two require additional client software to be loaded on your PC, and let you control the device from the PC, and the other way around, respectively. Share Link is a usual file sharing app.
A power saver that, apart from offering an optimised mode and a custom mode, even offers an Ultra-saving mode, is also on offer. The latter prolongs battery life by switching off the network connections when the smartphone is on standby.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are a smorgasbord of other tweaks and features. With its ZenUI, ASUS has not only managed to differentiate its smartphone offerings from others well, the UI comes across as a refreshing change, and provides a slew of apps and features that should be useful to a vast majority of users. A big thumbs up to ASUS for this.
Intel inside, smiles outside
The Zenfone 5 is powered by a dual-core Intel Atom Z2560 processor clocked at 1.6GHz, which is mated to 2GB of RAM and PowerVR SGX544MP2 graphics. While it doesn’t support USB OTG, you do get either 8 or 16GB of internal storage depending upon the variant you buy, and thanks to the presence of a microSD slot, can add up to 64GB more. Our review unit was the 8GB variant, and offered about 4.8GB available to use for apps, files and media.
The device supports 3G on both its SIM slots, but doesn’t feature smart SIM capabilities for convenient call forwarding between the two numbers. You also get Miracast display mirroring, along with the other usual connectivity options like Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi hotspot and A-GPS.
The performance remained smooth throughout our review period. The device handles routine tasks and multitasking with ease, and heavy games like Dead Trigger 2 were playable too, with only the occasional signs of lag.
Battery life however, isn’t one of its strong points, and the 2,110mAh battery holds enough juice to last you through the day only if your usage isn’t heavy. The power-saving modes should be able to help in times of need though.
The 8GB variant of the Zenfone 5 will be yours for Rs 9,999, while you can opt for the 16GB version if you’re willing to shell out Rs 12,999. At this cost, it’s a worthy alternative to the Moto G (review), which has so far been ruling the roost in this price bracket. The Zenfone 5 trumps over it because of the larger screen and double the RAM, not to mention a better camera. The other 5-inch options available in a similar price bracket as the 16GB Zenfone 5 include the Huawei Honor 3C (first impressions) and the Micromax Canvas Turbo, but the Zenfone 5 still stands out thanks to its camera and software features. And if you consider its 8GB variant, it hardly has any rival in the sub-Rs 10,000 range that can match its specs.
From a capable shooter to its smooth performance, and a software interface that’s not only refreshing, but also offers loads of useful apps and features, the ASUS Zenfone 5 is a solid option that looks like great value for money. As we write this, the Xiaomi Mi 3 hasn’t landed in India yet, and that also looks like a game-changer for the specs it offers and for the price it’s listed at. However, that doesn’t take away anything from the fact that ASUS has managed to come up with a very worthy option if you’re looking for a capable daily driver.
Price: Rs 9,999 (8GB), Rs 12,999 (16GB)
Editor’s rating: 8 / 10
- Stylish looks
- Smooth performance
- Lovely display
- Feature-loaded and capable snapper
- Fresh-looking UI with tons of useful features
- Host of handy apps
- The design’s mainstay, the concentric circle pattern, is prone to scratches
- Average battery life
Photos and video by Pratik Vyas