Want to buy the latest flagship phone from Apple, HTC, or Samsung? You’ll have to spend $600 or more. Want the latest flagship from Asus? You can pick one up for $299 or less.
But can a phone in that price range be any good? Yes.
The Asus Zenfone 2 is a smartphone with a mid-range price tag. But it has features you won’t find on most high-end phones from other companies.
A $299 Asus Zenfone 2 features 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a full HD display, and a fairly powerful quad-core, 64-bit processor. That’s the price for a carrier-unlocked phone that supports 4G LTE networks including AT&T, T-Mobile and other GSM carriers in the United States and abroad.
Asus unveiled the Zenfone 2 in January, started selling it in Asia a few months later, and brought the phone to North America in May, 2015. Asus provided Liliputing with a phone at the launch event in New York City, and I’ve been using it as a replacement for my Google Nexus 5 for the past month.
There’s a lot to like about this $299 smartphone, especially if you’re coming from an older device like the Nexus 5. But the Asus Zenfone 2 does have a few quirks: it might not be the best phone for everyone.
Note that Asus also offers a $199 model with the same screen size and resolution, but less memory, storage, and a less powerful processor.
The Asus Zenfone 2 Z551ML featured in this review has a 5.5 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel IPS LCD display, an Intel Atom Z3580 quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 3,000 mAh battery, a 13MP rear camera, a 5MP front camera, 802.11ac WiFi, Buetooth 4.0, NFC, a microSD card slot, and dual SIM card slots.
Want a cheaper option? There’s a $199 model with an Atom Z3560 processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and a few other differences that set it apart from the higher-priced model. And while it isn’t available in the US, Asus does offer a smaller model with a 5 inch, 720p display in some parts of the globe.
Each model has the same basic design, with a plastic case that features a removable back cover, an edge-to-edge glass touchscreen, and touch-sensitive home, back, and recent buttons below the screen.
Asus borrowed some design cues from LG, by placing the volume buttons on the back of the phone, below the camera.
Fortunately Asus also borrowed another idea from LG: double-tap to wake. Just tap twice on the screen to wake the phone from sleep, or tap twice on the home screen to turn the screen off.
This comes in handy because the physical power button is placed awkwardly at the top of the phone.
It can be tough to reach the power button with the same hand you’re using to hold the phone, but you don’t really have to since you can just tap the screen twice to turn the display on or off.
You can remove the plastic cover from the back of the phone to access the microSD card slot and two SIM card slots. This lets you add removable storage and use the phone with multiple networks.
That’s something that’s more commonly done overseas than in the US, but it could come in handy if you’re traveling. Note that only one of the SIM card slots supports high-speed mobile data though. The other is limited to 2G speeds, but you can make calls or send text messages on two different networks by using dual SIM cards. .
What you won’t see when you open the case is a way to remove the battery. It’s crammed in there in such as way that you’d have to break the phone to get it out.
Once the cover is off, you can replace it with a different cover to change the look or feel of the phone. Asus offers a range of rear panels in different colors and textures. And there’s also a $40 Asus View Flip Cover Deluxe which protects both the front and back of the phone when you snap it into place.
The Flip Cover also has a few special features, including the ability to wake up the phone automatically when you open the cover, or to show the time, weather forecast, or other info in a small window even when the lid is covering the screen.
You don’t need the Flip Cover to use the Zenfone 2, but I’m a fan of using some sort of case with my smartphones, and while the Asus cover is pretty clearly inspired by the LG Quick Circle line of covers, it’s a nice option for folks looking to add a little protection and functionality without adding much size or weight to the phone.
Speaking of size… phones with 5.5 inch screens aren’t for everyone. I can slide the phone into the pocket of my blue jeans a little more easily than the 6 inch Google Nexus 6. But it’s a pretty tight fit (incidentally, it fits much more comfortably into my pair of rarely-worn khakis… so pocketability clearly depends on the size of your pockets).
The screen is also too large to easily slide my thumb all the way across when holding in one hand. Asus does have a “one hand operation” mode which shrinks everything until it’s taking up just a small portion of the screen so you can easily reach one thumb across the screen. But it feels silly trying to pretend that a 5.5 inch phone has a 4 inch screen.
On the other hand, the big screen is nice when you’re watching videos, surfing the web, playing games, reading eBooks, or performing activities where you either don’t have to reach across the screen or where you’d be holding it with two hands anyway.
After using the Zenfone 2 for a few weeks, every time I pick up my Nexus 5 smartphone I’m struck by how small it feels. I also keep wanting to wake my Nexus 5 by double-tapping the screen.
Note that there’s some evidence Google is building support for tap-to-wake into Android M, which means it might eventually be available for Nexus devices and other handsets, but right now it’s something that’s only available on phones from a handful of companies including LG, HTC, and Asus.
The screen can get pretty bright and looks great indoors, but it can be a bit tough to view outdoors on a sunny day, even at its brightest setting.
Below the screen are touch sensitive buttons for home, back and recent functions. Since they’re built into the bezel below the phone, you won’t see on-screen buttons and the buttons won’t rotate when you change the phone from portrait to landscape mode. That would be fine… but the thing that kind of bugs me is that these buttons don’t glow. That means if you’re using the phone in a dark room, you’ll have to remember where each button is located, because you won’t be able to see them.
Other accessories include a Quick Charge power adapter, which lets you charge the battery from 0 to 60 percent in about 40 minutes. You can charge the phone using just about any micro USB cable and adapter, but things will go much faster if you use the Quick Charger that comes with the Zenfone 2. Charging the phone by connecting it to a laptop USB port can take practically all day.
Asus also sells an external battery pack and “Lolliflash” dual-LED flash bulb that you can connect to the headphone jack of the phone to use when snapping selfies (or when you want a brighter flash bulb for snaps with the rear camera).
The Zenfone 2 ships with Android 5.0 Lollipop and the Asus ZenUI user interface and suite of apps. Under the hood, the phone has all the features you’d expect from an Android phone including support for the Google Play Store, Google Maps, Google Now, and more. But it has a custom home screen and app launcher, a modified Quick Settings pull-down menu, a Theme Engine (which changes the wallpaper and the colors in some areas of the user interface) and a few other modifications.
But one of the most noticeable differences between the software on a Zenfone 2 and the software on a phone running stock Android (or Samsung TouchWiz, HTC Sense, or another variation of Android) is the sheer number of apps Asus loads on its phone.
Here’s a partial list of apps that come pre-loaded on the Asus Zenfone 2:
- Asus Email
- Asus Do It Later (Task manager)
- Asus Share Link (File transfer tool)
- Asus Calendar
- Asus Browser
- Asus Splendid (Display color utility)
- Asus PixelMaster Camera (This is the default camera app)
- Asus Launcher (Home screen and app launcher)
- Asus Sound Recorder
- Asus File Manager
- Asus Weather
- Asus Calculator
- Asus Gallery
- Asus Quick Memo (Note-taking app with support for hand-written notes)
- Asus ZenUI Services
- Asus Messaging
- Asus Keyboard
- Asus What’s Next (Agenda, weather, etc)
- MiniMovie (Slideshow Maker)
- Asus PC Link (Connect to your PC via USB or WiFi)
- Asus Clock
- Asus Flashlight
- Asus Easy Mode (Simplified user interface with big icons, fewer options)
- Asus SuperNote (Another note-taking app)
- Asus Music
- Asus Backup (Backup and restore system apps and/or installed apps and data)
- Asus Support (News, updates, and tips related to all of these apps)
- Asus LiveWater Live Wallpaper
- Asus PhotoCollage (Create collages, magazines, etc from your photos)
- Asus ZenCircle (Share content with other users)
- Clean Master (Storage and memory cleaner)
- Dr. Safety (Trend Micro malware and security scanner)
- Omlet Chat (Social/chat app)
- TripAdvisor (Travel planner)
- Jawbone Up (Fitness tracker)
- Zinio (Digital magazine store + reader)
Fortunately, if you buy the $299 version of the Asus Zenfone 2 you’ll have a phone with plenty of RAM and storage space for all those apps, whether you need them or not. You can uninstall some, but not all of the apps. And you can disable some of the apps that can’t easily be removed.
But it’s kind of ridiculous just how man apps come pre-loaded on this phone.
Clearly some were designed by Asus in an effort to provide real value: and there are some apps and features that are actually pretty nice. Want to be able to capture a screenshot by long-pressing the Recents button? There’s a setting for that.
Want to use the phone while you’re wearing gloves? Enable glove mode to increase the touchscreen sensitivity. You can also dig into the settings to find an Auto-start manager that lets you choose which apps can load when you first boot the phone.
The camera app has a bunch of settings that let you do things like capture HDR photos in vivid colors or create 52MP images by snapping multiple photos in quick succession using the 13MP camera.
The Audio Wizard lets you adjust sound settings for music, movie, game, or speech modes. And the Splendid app lets you adjust color temperature, hue, and saturation.
Other apps seem like needless replacements for Google apps that work perfectly well. There are Asus calendar and clock apps, an Asus browser, and an Asus email app.
Some apps can best be described as bloatware. There’s an icon for 50+ Games in the app launcher. Tap it, and you’re taken to the Gameloft website where you can download third-party games… I’m not sure if Gameloft paid for the placement, but it certainly feels like a sponsored link.
One app that confuses me is the Clean Master utility that comes pre-loaded. It’s designed to let you free up RAM or storage space. Over the past month, I’ve seen a Clean Master notification pop up repeatedly to let me know that I’m running low on free RAM, and that I can tap a button to close some apps and free up memory.
But free memory is wasted memory. Android automatically manages RAM and pauses or closes apps running in the background in order to provide a smooth experience for apps running in the foreground. And one of the key selling points of the $299 Zenfone 2 is that it has 4GB of RAM, which is more than you’ll find on almost any other Android phone. That means you’re rarely ever really at risk of running out of memory.
You know how if you open some video games on your phone, play for a few minutes, and then switch to another app to check your email or respond to a message, when you go back to the game it’ll reload as if you were just launching it for the first time? That’s because your phone ran out of memory, which is why you now have to sit and watch the splash screen and game loading screen all over again. That doesn’t happen nearly as often with the Zenfone 2.
In fact, at one point I loaded four different games: Asphalt 8: Airborne, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dead Trigger 2, and Wind Up Knight 2. Then I played each game for a few minutes… and then switched between games. Each one picked up exactly where I’d left off. None of the games closed in the background.
Eight hours later on the same day, after using half a dozen different, non-game apps, I opened the Star Wars game again… and it still didn’t need to reload. Asphalt 8, did return to the opening screen when I tried to launch it next.
The point I’m making here is that a memory-booster app like Clean Master is arguably pointless on most Android phones. But it’s really pointless on a model that ships with 4GB of RAM. But it comes pre-loaded on the Asus Zenfone 2.
That said, Clean Master is one of the apps you can uninstall. If I planned to keep this phone, I’d certainly remove the app.
I like the stock Android user interface. I’ve been using Nexus phones since the Google Nexus One was released in 2010. So I’m not a big fan of custom skins like the Zen UI that Asus uses for the Zenfone 2. But it really didn’t take long to get used to, and if you’re not wedded to stock Android, Zen UI isn’t bad at all. And while you can’t easily get rid of some Zen UI features, you can always replace the home screen/app launcher with a different app such as Nova Launcher or Google Now Launcher.
One app I replaced almost as soon as I started using the phone was the Asus Messaging app. That’s because I couldn’t find a way to enable audible notifications for text messages while silencing the default notification for all other apps. I don’t get a lot of SMS alerts, so I like to hear them as they come in. But I don’t want to hear notifications for Hangouts or other less important apps.
Unfortunately, when you open the notifications settings in the Asus messaging app, you’re taken to the “Default notification ringtone” setting for all Android apps.
So I installed Textra for test messaging, assigned a ringtone for SMS, and set my default notifications as Silent for all other apps.
Zen UI does have some nice touches, including a customizable Quick Settings menu. Don’t need the Flashlight or Calculator apps in your pull-down menu? Just open the settings and uncheck their boxes. Want to change the order of items in Quick Settings? You can drag and drop them in the settings menu to change their positions.
Asus also gives you an option to “prefer external storage” when installing apps. This only works with apps that support installing data to a microSD card, but it could help free up internal storage.
There’s also an Asus Keyboard app which is set as the default keyboard. It has a few nice features including a dedicated row for number keys, support for swiping gestures, and auto-correction sensitivity settings. But if you don’t like the Asus keyboard, you can always download and install the official Google Keyboard or a third-party option such as SwiftKey or Swype from the Play Store.
One problem I’ve had typing on the Zenfone 2 isn’t really the keyboard’s fault though: I often end up tapping the home button and exiting an app when I meant to hit the space bar. That’s because the Zenfone 2 has capacitive touchscreen buttons for home, back, and recents just below the display. That means the home button will be below the spacebar in most on-screen keyboard apps.
Asus has been making Android tablets for years, but the Zenfone 2 is one of the company’s first phones to be made widely available outside of Asia. And it’s one of the first phones to ship with an Intel Atom Moorefield processor. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started testing the Zenfone 2.
After using it for a month, I have no complaints about performance. I have yet to find an Android app that won’t run on this phone. WiFi and cellular performance are strong. HD video playback isn’t a problem. And games run smoothly.
Since this model has 4GB of RAM, multitasking is also a breeze: as mentioned above, I was able to open four different resource-intensive games and switch between them without any of the games reloading.
Want to see some benchmarks?
I ran the 3DMark, AnTuTu, and CFBench tests, and the Zenfone 2 blew away my aging Nexus 5 smartphone (with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor) in all of them and also came out ahead of the the Asus MeMO Pad 8 ME181C tablet with an Intel Atom Z3745 processor as well.
The Google Nexus 9 tablet with an NVIDIA Tegra K1 came out ahead of the Zenfone 2 in most (but not all) benchmarks. But the Zenfone 2 was pretty competitive with the Google Nexus 6 smartphone which has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor and which usually sells for twice as much money as the Asus phone.
Benchmarks like these don’t always tell you much about real-world performance, but they do provide one means of comparison. And I can confirm that in day-to-day operation, the Zenfone 2 never feels sluggish, never struggles to load an app, and generally feels a least a little faster than my Nexus 5.
On the other hand, it has a bigger screen, an older version of the Android operating system, and a bunch of unnecessary apps. So it’s not necessarily a better phone than the Nexus 5. But I’m not sure it’s any worse.
Anyway, speed is only one measure of performance. We can also look at wireless performance, battery life, and a few other things.
The phone features dual-band 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and 4G LTE. I haven’t had any problems using any of those wireless features: the phone gets a strong WiFi signal from anywhere in my house and I haven’t had any problems connecting to my Straight Talk/AT&T cellular connection in Philadelphia. I’ve used Bluetooth to connect headphones and a wireless speaker for extended listening sessions.
When I use the phone around my house it gets pretty good battery life: I can leave the phone unplugged all day, use it on and off throughout the day for about 1-2 hours of screen-on time, and still have around 40 percent of the battery capacity left when I go to bed at night.
Play games for a few hours or stream a few TV shows over Netflix and the battery will run down more quickly (and the back of the phone might start to feel a bit warm too), but use it periodically throughout the day to check your email, get news updates, make appointments, and check the weather and you could easily get all-day battery life when connected to WiFi.
Things are a little different when I leave the house: it seems that the Zenfone 2 may use a little more energy when it’s connecting to (or searching for) cellular data. If I spend the day traveling or working remotely, I’d be lucky to make it through a full day without stopping to charge the phone.
I’ve heard a lot of people complain that the Zenfone 2 gets less-than-stellar battery life, but it really seems like battery performance can vary greatly depending on how, and where you use the phone. Then again, I’m used to my Nexus 5, which pretty much never makes it through a full day without charging, so maybe any phone would feel like a step up to me.
Likewise, the Nexus 5 can take decent photos under some conditions, but it’s not exactly known for its amazing camera, so the Zenfone 2 feels like an improvement to me. And it can take some pretty great shots… sometimes. When you’re outdoors or in a well-lit environment and a shot is perfectly framed, you can end up with some excellent photos.
The Asus camera app has plenty of options you can tweak in an effort to take better shots. You can adjust the white balance, ISO, and exposure. Ther’es an anti-shake feature, burst mode, smart or continuous auto-focus options, and a low-light mode. You can also use software to capture HDR photos, Super Resolution (52MP) images), capture animated GIFs from a series of photos, or enable other shooting modes such as Night, Panorama, or “Beautification.”
There’s a manual mode for folks that like to adjust their settings on the fly.
Theoretically all of this could help you take better photos… if you have time to adjust all of your settings to get the perfect shot. But many of the features are software-based, which means they can’t always make up for the quality of the camera hardware itself, which is acceptable, but not amazing.
You can check out some of the photos I took with the Zenfone 2 during my month with the phone below. Most of these were taken using the Auto setting, because like most people, I’m too lazy to dig into all of the settings most of the time and I just want to be able to grab the camera that’s closest to me when I feel the urge to capture an image of my cat or my strawberry garden.
Want to use the phone for multimedia? You might want to get a good pair of headphones or a Bluetooth speaker: while the speaker on the back of the phone is fairly loud (as smartphone speakers go), I had a much more enjoyable experience streaming music from TuneIn, Spotify, and Google Play Music when I paired the phone with a Logitech UE Mini Boom Bluetooth speaker, or when listening to podcasts and other audio on the go through headphones.
Like the idea of a powerful phone with an affordable price tag, but find yourself underwhelmed by the software that comes with the Zenfone 2? The first thing you might want to do is uninstall some of the Asus and third-party apps that come pre-loaded, and disable others. The next thing you might want to do is install a third-party app launcher.
But what if you want to go a bit deeper?
Note that the Zenfone 2 has an Intel Moorefield processor based on x86 technology. Most smartphones on the market have ARM-based chips. So while many Xposed modules will work, there are some that may not: proceed with caution and try installing modules one at a time in case you run into any problems.
Want to replace the operating system with a custom ROM? That might be a bit more complicated.
As of mid-June, 2015 there are no custom ROMs available for this phone and it could take a while before we see any, since most folks who create custom firmware for Android phones are used to developing for devices with ARM-based chips. But you may want to keep an eye on this thread at the xda-developers forum for information about installing a custom recovery and any custom ROMs as they become available.
Update: It’s now possible to unlock the phone’s bootloader.
The Asus Zenfone 2 is a pretty good phone with some features that make it borderline great. It has a processor that’s fast enough to handle anything you can throw at it, a big screen that looks great for reading, web surfing, gaming, or watching videos, and a nice array of wireless features, including support for connecting to two different cellular networks at once.
While the phone might not have the best camera or battery life you’re likely to find, it certainly doesn’t have the worst. And it’s hard to complain about the price. For $199 and up, the Zenfone 2 is a heck of a bargain.
The cheaper model has a slightly slower processor and less memory and storage. It’s probably worth considering if you don’t have $299 to spend or if you don’t think you’ll need the bonus features that come with the higher-priced model. But if you can afford the version featured in this review you get some of the features that I think really make the Zenfone 2 an amazing bargain.
With 64GB of built-in storage, I never felt like I was going to run out of space, even after installing a few games that took up 1GB or more of disk space each. If you do need more storage, you can always throw in a microSD card for music, videos, and some app data.
What really impressed me is the fact that one of the first phones to ship with 4GB of RAM is also a phone that sells for about half the price of most 2015 flagship phones. There are few Android phones on the market that can handle multitasking as well as the Zenfone 2, and while you might not need 4GB of memory today it could come in handy in the years to come if developers get used to the idea of phones with large amounts of memory and start to create apps and games that hog more resources.
But there are a few things to consider before spending your money on a Zenfone 2. It ships with Android 5.0 at a time when Android 5.1 is available and Android M is on the way.
It features the Asus Zen UI experience which runs on top of Android and comes with more bloatware than any other phone I’ve seen. And while there’s a community of hacker/developers looking for ways to make the phone more customizable, right now it’s not as easy to replace or modify the stock software on this phone as it is on many other Android phones.
With its 5.5 inch screen, the Zenfone 2 is also a rather large phone. It’s getting harder and harder to find a decent phone that doesn’t have a screen that’s too large for single-handed operation. But while I’ve enjoyed using the Zenfone 2 for the last month, I’m looking forward to picking up my Nexus 5 again because I prefer its screen size and software.
If Asus offered a Zenfone 2 with a 5 inch, 1080p screen and the same processor, memory, and storage as the 5.5 inch model though, I’d be sorely tempted to leave my Nexus 5 in a drawer.