Asus Zenfone 5 review: The mid-price phone to take Asus to the big time?
Historically, Asus hasn’t been a major player in the UK’s mid-price phone market. But times are a-changing, as the 2018 Asus Zenfone 5 shows. Fresh off the back of the recent iPhone X launch, this £350 Android handset certainly apes portions of Apple’s now familiar design, with Asus’s own visual twists and features keeping things both interesting against the likes of its similar-price Honor and Motorola competition.
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Thing is, with such a previous absence in the market, and additional quirks like the it’s-Android-but-not-quite-as-good-as-Android ZenUI operating system, does the Asus Zenfone 5 do enough to truly leap out as being the new phone you’ll want to have in your pocket? The answer is a mix of yes and no. Having used the phone as our day-to-day device for a full week, its solid battery life and interesting design are hampered by software that’s rough around the edges and a price point that doesn’t quite annihilate its better-established competition.
- Metal body frame with glass rear design
- Finishes: Meteor Silver / Midnight Blue
- Rear positioned fingerprint scanner
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- 153 x 76 x 7.7mm; 165g
From a front-on glance the Zenfone 5 could be mistaken for an iPhone X (so long as the screen wasn’t active and you couldn’t see the difference in software). That’s both a compliment and a criticism: it shows Asus is working to an accepted and established base that many phone users will want, opting for the correct in-the-palm size; but it doesn’t necessarily show heaps of originality.
Besides, it’s no iPhone carbon copy. The glass rear, for example, is delivered with a subtle off-silver colour (or there’s blue-black) which looks pleasing, while a 3.5mm headphone jack means there’s no issue with plugging in headphones (that’s been a bit of a saviour for us, given how many wired cans we own).
Furthermore the Asus’ fingerprint scanner isn’t front-positioned like the Apple home key, it’s instead positioned in a circular from to the rear. Very high up the rear. Like, far too high. We’ve started to get used to this positioning, but it’s an unnecessary reach to unlock the device and seems to have lacked thought. Still, at least it works effortlessly and doesn’t delay response like the new-fangled under-the-glass scanners found in the Vivo NEX S and Huawei Porsche Design Mate RS, for example.
There are other quirks that cost the design too: that glass back can chip fairly easily (we’ve had a small nick out of it within just a matter of days), while the volume buttons of our device became sticking and tricky to use after just 48hrs (despite never dropping the phone or putting it under unnecessary duress).
- 6.2-inch Super IPS+ display
- Full HD+ resolution (2246 x 1080)
- DCI-P3 colour support
- Notch (can be software hidden)
- 90% screen-to-body ratio
The Zenfone 5 does offers a decent 6.2-inch screen, though, which dominates the design. The 90 per cent screen-to-body ratio is achieved thanks to small bezel and not placing that scanner on the front of the device (something that Motorola unwisely does in its G6 and G6 Plus). It’s a bold look.
The divisive aspect of the screen design is the presence of the notch – that black-out ‘dip’ to the top centre of the screen, where the front-facing camera and speaker are positioned. But is that a big deal? Originally we thought it might be, but with Android’s forthcoming operating system on board with this form, it looks to be the norm for the next couple of years. Besides, it’s the kind of design feature that almost melts away from view over time, as we said of the excellent Huawei P20 Pro.
Overall the screen delivers decent sharpness, brightness, viewing angles and colour, too, without looking unnatural. And that notch can be hidden via software settings (some apps auto-hide it anyway) for a more uniform look (it’s an LCD display, however, so blacks aren’t at an OLED level of total black, which can be visible in brighter sunlight around the notch in particular).
Hardware and performance
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor, 4GB RAM
- 3,300mAh battery capacity, USB-C fast-charging
- 64GB on-board storage, microSD card slot for expansion
- Android 8.1 OS with Asus ZenUI 5 re-skin
On the power front, the UK variant of the Zenfone 5 features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor and 4GB RAM. There’s a more powerful ‘Z’ model which other territories will receive, featuring more power and more RAM.
Now, this mid-level processor is more capable than it might sound, handling apps and games with relative ease. Loading times aren’t slow, nor are they of flagship level, putting the Zenfone 5 exactly where you’d expect: in the middle of the pack.
Contextually speaking, the £349 asking price is a little on the high side when considering the larger-screen Moto G6 Plus has a similar SD630 processor, but a smaller price of £269. That could pose an issue for Asus, with Moto being a more established international phone brand with a longer history of producing some of the affordable phones to beat. And there’s Nokia, too, with its HMD Global produced handsets offering great value and similar specs (not to mention a long history that’ll resonate with brand-conscious customers).
While the Zenfone 5 acquits itself well for the most part, it’s not without its share of issues, most of which are down to the software. Yes, Asus uses the Android Oreo operating system – which is great in stock form on the Google Pixel 2 and Pixel XL 2 – but then digs in its heels and adds the company’s own ZenUI software over the top. Years ago this software was a real hindrance; in 2018, in ZenUI 5 form, it’s quite usable, but adds in minor glitches and occasional crashes that we wouldn’t expect.
Twitter bailed a number of times during our use, for example. Alerts show with non-transparent edging on the home screen, which looks scruffy. More problematic in our use was inconsistent notifications: WhatsApp being the prime example, an app that often needed to be opened to receive notifications – and this despite menu digging to ensure it had all the always-on and notification permissions active). In short: the software is ok, but it’s not as good as pure Android, therefore not as good as Motorola’s efforts and, well, it’s just not as good. Even Huawei has a more polished experience with its EMUI setup.
On the flip side, ZenUI 5 does offer some benefits. If you have two Facebook, WhatsApp or Google Play Games accounts, for example, then you can run both simultaneously with different logins via the App Twin option. It’s just like Huawei’s offering of the same name, and potentially useful for business/personal accounts.
One other area where the Zenfone 5 further redeems itself is with battery life. The 3,300mAh cell under the hood is a decent capacity, albeit not the grandest going (the P20 Pro being a better choice), lasting for in and around the 16 hour mark. It’s easily good enough for a day’s use, including with some gaming thrown in (we’ve been obsessively playing South Park: Phone Destroyer) without too much worry. And with USB-C fast-charging rapid top-ups are also possible in little time, just not Oppo Find X super-fast time.
- Dual 12-megapixel rear cameras, f/1.8 aperture
- Sony IMX363 sensor, 1.4µm large pixel size
- 4-axis optical image stabilisation
- Super-wide second lens, 120 degree field-of-view (standard is 83 degrees)
- AI photography automatic scene recognition
- 8MP front-facing camera, f/2.0 aperture
On paper the Zenfone 5’s dual camera setup sounds like one of its top features. In some regards that’s true; from another point of view it’s inconsistent to the point that competitors are steps ahead. Which is a shame given the standard and wide-angle lens potential and the top-end Sony sensor that’s under the Zenfone 5’s hood.
There are lots of buzzword features on board: AI (artificial intelligence) auto scene recognition; a wide-angle camera with broader field-of-view than the standard lens; and larger-than-average pixel size for theoretical improved quality.
Pick these features apart, however, and they don’t live up to their potential: the AI photography is too subtle to make much of a difference, except for additional colour pop (at least it’s not overzealous like Huawei’s system in the P20 though); the wide-angle camera isn’t a true form, like found in the LG G7, instead giving an ultra-long aspect ratio and lots of corner aberrations and softness that affects overall quality; while the large pixels aren’t handled with the same deftness of processing that some competitors offer, resulting in images that aren’t as clean looking as they could be.
Elsewhere the HDR (high dynamic range) isn’t as capable or wide-ranging as the best out there, while some processing oddities (a white brick-like artefact around a subject’s face, as one example – see the polo referees horse picture in the gallery) add unwanted quirks in a similar vein to the ZenUI software’s imperfections. Low-light conditions also aren’t handled particularly well, with lack of detail being a prominent take-away.
All of which might sound rather damning. But Asus hasn’t produced a poor camera, it just depends on your expectations. At this price point, in a field of ok-but-not-amazing camera phones in the £250-400 price range, there are enough positive points, such as ease of use, optical image stabilisation and results that are more than good enough for social sharing. There’s also Portrait mode for background blurring and other features, including a Pro mode for manual adjustment as you deem fit.
All in all, the Zenfone 5’s camera represents Asus’ imaging inexperience: it’s got many of the component parts right, it’s got some great ideas, but it doesn’t all gel together in the very best possible way to make for a camera that’ll knock its competition for six.