Asus isn't a name which springs instantly to mind when you think about the major players in the smartphone arena. The company isn't a total unknown to the average consumer thanks to its successful alliance with Google on the popular Nexus 7 tablets has granted it a level of fame which many of its Eastern rivals will be very envious of. And of course it's a household brand in the PC and laptop sector. However, it's not until now that Asus has tried to make serious inroads into the smartphone sector, and just like the aforementioned Nexus tablet, it has gone for the lower-cost end of the market in an effort to gain market share as quickly as possible.
The resultant Zenfone range features a 4-inch, 5-inch and 6-inch offering, each appropriately named to reflect the size of their screens. There's different power under the hood of each handset too, with the subject of our review - the Intel-powered Zenfone 5 - sitting squarely in the middle. Can this budget challenger give the likes of the shiny new Moto G (2014) a run for its money, or is it more in line with the less appealing phones at the lower end of the spectrum? Let's find out.
Asus Zenfone 5 review: Design & Display
The first thing that you notice about the Zenfone 5 is its size - it's a massive phone, even when compared to other 5-inch handsets. This is largely due to the pronounced bezel above and below the screen; not only does the Zenfone have capacitive Android controls, it also has a large gap below which adds to the total height of the device. Placed alongside the Google Nexus 5, the Zenfone 5 looks positively enormous - but the screen size is the same.
Of course, having such a large footprint does bring its advantages - the Zenfone 5 is easy to grip, at least - but the almost entirely plastic casing makes it feel cheap. No more so than the likes of the Moto G or Moto E of course, but it's almost impossible to not compare it to other 5-inchers - and when set against this competition, the Zenfone 5 is found somewhat wanting.
On the plus side, the soft-touch rear panel offers good grip, and it's also removable to allow you to customise the phone as you see fit. It's worth noting that while the rear of the phone can be taken off, the battery inside is not removable.
Oddly for a 5-inch screen, the Zenfone 5's display comes with a 720p resolution. While the lack of detail isn't all that apparent unless you look really closely, a 1080p screen would have made better use of the massive viewing area. Grumbles aside, the IPS panel produces bold colours with decent contrast, proving that the days of budget phones being saddled with awful displays are thankfully well behind us.
Asus Zenfone 5 review: Software & UI
Like so many handset makers out there, Asus has created its own user interface - called ZenUI - and placed it on top of Google's Android OS. The tone is very muted and minimalistic, and to be honest it's not a bad alternative to the likes of Samsung's TouchWiz and HTC's Sense.
Android fans will be well at home as most of the key features are intact, but Asus has introduced some of its own innovations. I like the way that calendar appointments are displayed on the home screen, giving you a visual timeline of your next key event.
The drawback here is that the Zenfone 5 is using Android 4.3 as opposed to the latest version, 4.4. While the differences between the two are slight, it means that the phone is already one step behind many others on the market - and with Android 5 on the horizon, there's no solid guarantee that the Zenfone 5 will get an upgrade.
As far as the basic user experience goes, the ZenUI system is fast and largely intuitive. The bold use of colour and simplified visual style make it easy to find your way around, and because it's Android you can customise everything to suit your taste. Don't like the Asus keyboard? Swap it out for Google's official option, or something else entirely. The same goes for the core applications and even the home screen launcher. You're not tied down to the same extent that you as with other mobile operating systems, like iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone.
Asus Zenfone 5 review: Battery, Memory & Camera
The Zenfone 5 comes equipped with a 2110mAh battery, which as mentioned earlier cannot be removed and replaced from the handset - despite the fact that the back of the phone can. The capacity sounds impressive when compared to other budget blowers, but the Zenfone 5 is having to power a much larger screen than its rivals in the same price bracket, and as a result stamina isn't as good as it could be.
A day of average use saw the battery level drop to near-critical levels by the time the evening came around, but judicious use of ZenUI's "Power Saver" application - which comes with various presets - helped us grab a little more time in-between charges.
There's 8GB of onboard storage of which just under 5GB is available for use. Predictably, that fills up pretty quickly. Thankfully there's a MicroSD card slot - something often missing from other low-cost phones - which can be used to boost the total on-board memory.
The Zenfone 5 has an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash which is accompanied by a raft of custom shooting options afforded by ZenUI's own camera app. There are gripes - shots can look a little blue and the time between pressing the button and the phone actually taking the snap is just slightly too long, but it's one of those situations where you need to remember that this is a phone which costs £150. Compared to the quality we see in handsets of £500 or over, the Zenfone 5 more than holds its own.
Asus Zenfone 5 review: Conclusion
The budget smartphone market is becoming increasingly competitive - and things are only going to get hotter as Google rolls out its Android One initiative. However, there's room for quality products and the Zenfone 5 - while not perfect - certainly deserves to find an audience. There are few 5-inch offerings in this sector of the market and while the screen isn't 1080p, it's sharp enough to stand out from its rivals. The ZenUI has some intelligent features and the Intel-powered internals are able to provide a mostly smooth user experience. It would have been nice to see Android 4.4 onboard and a beefier battery - and maybe 4G as well - but beggars really can't be choosers when the price is this low.