It feels like an awful long time ago that Jonney Shih, the Chairman of Asus, stood up at CES in Las Vegas and with no shortage of drama announced the new ZenFone range.
And it is no surprise that it feels like an age has passed, since it has been eight whole months between the announcement of the ZenFones and the units being made available for pre-order by Asus in the UK.
This is not the first time that Asus has announced products and then not delivered them in a timely fashion and it is somewhat unfortunate.
Asus has been one of the more innovative Android device manufacturers over the past few years with the PadFone and Fonepad ranges just some of the evidence for that accolade. Despite the ZenFones being fairly ordinary by Asus standards they were highly anticipated and it is with some excitement that I am able to finally deliver a verdict on Asus' efforts.
I have been looking at the ZenFone 5, the middle of a range of three (ZenFone 4, ZenFone 5 and ZenFone 6). The number in the name denotes the phone's screen size. The diminutive ZenFone 4 is the smallest, cheapest and least powerful of the three.
Its two larger siblings have quite similar specifications but, on paper, the ZenFone 6 has the best camera and fastest performance.
The three models share a strong family resemblance and most interestingly Intel Atom systems on chip powering them instead of the usual Qualcomm Snapdragon chips we have become so accustomed to. It is not every day I get to look at the back of a smartphone and see the Intel Inside logo.
The design of the ZenFone range is at first rather traditional and staid, but look a little deeper and there is an awful lot to like. The textured plastic underneath the capacitive buttons has a circular pattern to it not unlike the back of an Asus laptop and the light shines off it in interesting patterns.
It is never distracting when using the phone but it adds a little interest to an otherwise fairly plain front.
Those capacitive buttons are in the correct order for an Android phone although I would prefer them to be on-screen. The biggest problem with the buttons is that they are spaced too far apart and they are not backlit. That lack of backlighting is the first clue that this is a budget phone.
On the ZenFone 5 there is a very bright and sharp five-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel screen. It is fair to say that the bezels to the sides of the screen are a bit too large though. If you have used any other Asus five inch screened phone, this one is basically the exact same size.
There is a 2MP front facing camera, proximity sensor, light sensor and notification LED above the screen. A complete array of sensors is nice to see as the cheaper ZenFone 4 does not have the light sensor and therefore has no auto-brightness.
The back of my review ZenFone 5 is finished in this rather fetching red, but it's also available in purple, white and black. Asus says the back feels like ceramic. It doesn't. It feels like what it is: fairly basic plastic.
This is not really a criticism of the material; at this price point Asus has done well to make the phone as sturdy as this. The biggest problem with the back is how prone to fingerprints it is.
The 8MP camera with LED flash is mounted above the Asus logo with a wide speaker grille beneath that Intel Inside logo.
Asus has positioned the buttons and ports in sensible locations on the ZenFone 5 with power and volume controls on the right side, microUSB on the bottom and a standard headphone jack up top.
Prise the removable back open and you can see the non-removable 2110mAh battery, the microSD card expansion slot and the SIM slot. Some markets come with dual SIM capability, but not the UK.
There are few compromises here and even fewer when considering the power available to the ZenFone 5. That Intel Atom chip is a Z2560, which is a dual-core 1.6Ghz unit.
It supports Intel's HyperThreading technology that allows the operating system to see each physical core as two processing cores, further improving performance.
Multitasking is excellent on the ZenFone 5 as it has a full 2GB of RAM. The 16GB of internal storage is generous for a device at this end of the market and the microSD card expansion means there is plenty of room for all your media.
In equalling the screen resolution of the current lower cost Android champion, the Moto G, Asus has made the ZenFone 5 a great device for watching video and playing games. The screen is bright and sharp and nicely responsive. It is even usable outdoors in sunlight and the auto-brightness does a great job too.
All told, the ZenFone 5 package is rather excellent. The model I have here only supports 3G network bands but there is another model available for £20 (about US$32, AU$36) more which supports 4G and runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chip instead of the Intel Atom. At just £179 (around $290, AU$325), this 3G model is excellent value considering what you get.
Whichever model you get there is Bluetooth 4.0, solid GPS, and single band Wi-Fi. There is even a compass and a hall sensor, which is used for the optional cover that Asus sells that can switch the screen on and off as it is opened or closed.
Asus has done a great job with the hardware but what of the software? The ZenFone 5 runs Asus' new Android skin, Zen UI, which I find very pleasant and colourful. It has the modern flat design that is very much in vogue today and is fast to operate. Unfortunately it only runs on Android 4.3, which is a real pity.
Part of the reason for the lower Android version is that Intel has been a bit slow in providing its update that supports Android 4.4 Kitkat and Asus is not known for rapid software updates. The 4G model does run Kitkat though and hopefully Asus will get all ZenFone 5's up to date very soon.
Asus is touting a wide array of interesting features for the ZenFone 5, many of them unique at this end of the smartphone market.
The screen has a very fast touch response time and you can tell. Asus say its touch response is 60ms, which is faster than the iPhone 5S and among the best in the business. It is super responsive and a real pleasure to use.
With a fast touch response, scrolling feels more immediate and everything feels more direct. It is part of what has made some of the flagship HTC devices of late appear to be so much faster than the competition and the same trick has been pulled off here.
As the icing on the cake for the screen, it has a glove mode for additional sensitivity when wearing gloves, which will no doubt be useful through winter.
Combine this fast touch response with a fairly powerful chipset and the ZenFone 5 definitely feels faster than other mid-range Android phones. It has an immediacy in its reaction to inputs that is missing even from some phones costing more than twice as much.
Asus Splendid is a pre-installed app that allows you to adjust the colour temperature of the screen as well as its saturation and hue. I didn't find I wanted to adjust any of these settings, but it is quite unusual on a device at this price point.
Asus say that the on-board speaker provides SonicMaster audio technology that makes the speaker better quality. While it is never going to come close to HTC's BoomSound as found on the likes of the HTC One M8, it is a noticeably better speaker than most.
The output is not the loudest, but it is very clear and provides decent sound reproduction and even has a little bass to it. What a shame it is rear firing though. There is just a single speaker behind the long grille on the back but it is a good one. I noticed no distortion even at high volumes.
With the Asus music app there is a simple graphic equaliser that doesn't seem to make much of a difference to the output through the speaker but does through headphones. When listening with headphones the output is good without being great and volume levels are ok.
The camera on the ZenFone 5 comes with Asus' PixelMaster technology, which is designed to deliver superior quality in a range of conditions.
Asus says it allows for professional quality images. I am not convinced about that claim, but the camera is quite good in some conditions and very flexible with some unique features.
Asus has a rather nice looking Zen Case that is a book style flip-cover for the screen. It has a sensor that can switch the screen on and off as it is opened or closed. There is also a circular cut out on the front through which you can see the time and notifications.
Interface and Performance
Seeing a device launch at this time with Android 4.3 is disappointing but that is what has happened with the ZenFone 5, at least the model I have reviewed. The inclusion of Asus' relatively new Zen UI does soften the blow a little.
Zen UI is a full Android skin along the lines of the HTC Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz but is actually closest in design to the LG G-UI that debuted on the LG G3. It is arguable that Asus got there first with the colourful and flat design language that HTC and LG have since announced but no matter, it is enough to say that the Zen UI looks great.
The lock screen has three customisable application shortcuts – just tap them to launch the associated app. By default there is also the what's next widget which shows your next few calendar appointments too. The current weather is also shown.
There is a neat little trick to get to the camera from the lock screen by double tapping either volume button. If this is hard to discover, and it is, the usual swipe to the left is available as well.
Zen UI also allows for different wallpapers on the lock screen and home screen. I have no idea why Android doesn't support this by default.
Built-in apps on the Zen UI are colour coded and the colour for each app fills the top portion of the screen and also goes behind the status bar. It is a lovely design touch that makes the UI feel modern and fresh.
The notification drawer has been altered quite extensively. Pull it down from the left side of the screen and you get your notifications, pull it down from the right side of the screen and you get to quick settings. There is also a button to flip the notification drawer between the two just like on stock Android.
The notification view is clean and leaves loads of space for your actual notifications. Weirdly the clock refused to switch to 24-hour mode despite it being set that way in the settings, but otherwise only the new colour scheme is of note.
Quick settings are customisable and there are attractive round icons for each one. A brightness slider is a useful addition here and can be used even with auto-brightness enabled when it will adjust the centre point of the auto-brightness algorithm.
Asus pre-installs a lot of apps on the ZenFone 5 only some of which can be either uninstalled or disabled. Thankfully they are typically well designed and nice to use, but Asus should allow the end user to disable anything pre-installed in my view.
The Asus gallery app is one of the best that comes with the ZenFone 5 being both fast and flexible. There is a wide range of editing tools for your images with the usual effects available along with some cheesier ones such as being able to make eyes appear bigger or cheeks thinner.
Best of all though is that the gallery can generate highlight videos automatically from the photos you take, in a similar fashion to HTC Sense. Asus call these MicroFilms. There are five video types that can be generated that have different effects and music. It is a fun way to share your memories and the videos can be saved onto the phone and then shared in the normal ways.
It is a comprehensive set of apps that Asus is providing here but ultimately their value is limited as on any device. Similar apps can be found in the Play Store and I would prefer to be able to disable, or even uninstall the Asus apps I don't want. At least they all share a similar design language.
The performance of the ZenFone 5 is beyond reproach in day-to-day use. It does not feel like a cheap phone in any way. To verify this we would normally run a Geekbench 3 test. Unfortunately it will not run on the ZenFone 5, which I believe is due to the Intel Atom chip.
I was continually surprised at how well the ZenFone 5 performed. Of course there were the odd slow downs and dropped frames in animations, this is after all a mid-range phone at a competitive price point, but nonetheless it is impressive.
Compared to the Motorola Moto G, which is often held up as the best performing phone in this part of the smartphone market, I found the ZenFone 5 to be more consistently fast and more responsive in pretty much every way. Asus has done a superb job and it makes the ZenFone 5 a pleasure to use.
Battery and the essentials
In the standard TechRadar battery test, which involves playing a video for 90 minutes at a brightness of 300 lux (or full brightness), the 2110mAh power cell in the ZenFone 5 dropped from fully charged to 78% power remaining.
On the surface, this is a creditable result given the five-inch display and mid-range price point on offer here. As always when it comes to battery though, this is not the complete story. In my usage I have been a little disappointed with the endurance of the ZenFone 5.
Standby power drain is really very good, if you leave the phone doing nothing it seems to sip power very efficiently. But the shortcomings of the Intel Atom platform start to show themselves when you start using the device. I suspect the chip has to work hard to ensure good performance and this is affecting battery life.
I find most phones will easily last me a full day and a device like the Moto G will give me a day and a half with my normal usage. On the ZenFone 5 I will just about get through a day of typical use. This feeling is backed up by the ZenFone 5, only giving me between two and three hours of screen on time with each charge when most devices easily get past four hours with my setup.
There was always going to be a compromise in the overall package that Asus is offering and it seems that battery endurance is where it left things a bit short.
To help ameliorate potential battery woes, the ZenFone 5 comes with some power saving modes that Asus term Smart Saving. The default optimised mode keeps the network connected at all times but suggests it is doing something to optimise battery. I couldn't detect any difference in endurance with that on or off.
Ultra-saving mode makes a fairly big difference to battery life as it switches off the network when the screen is off. Of course notifications don't come through, but I used this mode to help eke out the last few percent of battery life.
Customised mode is very flexible and allows you to set specific screen brightness levels for different types of app and have some control over the network state with the screen off. In general though, I would recommend using the default option until power gets low and switching to ultra-saving mode to get the most from the last few percent.
Unusually, Asus gives access to a list of wake locks. A wake lock is a process in the Android system or from an app you have installed which is keeping your device awake even with the screen off. Wake locks are a major cause of battery drain and despite Android becoming much better at handling these over the past few years, they still cause problems.
Being able to view wake locks to the level of detail that Asus allows is very useful. It enables you to identify problem apps that are draining your battery far more accurately than the normal Android battery stats. The various statistics presented are quite complex to understand, but nonetheless this is a very unusual amount of information to be given on a phone.
Asus has done a great job giving the ZenFone 5 excellent cellular reception. I am generally saw stronger signal and better data transfer rates with the ZenFone than with other phones in similar locations. There is definitely a benefit to using plastic to build a phone.
Surprisingly though, the Wi-Fi reception can be a little weak. As I moved further from my router, the signal dropped off faster than I would expect. It is not terrible, but is noticeable.
The ZenFone 5 has a noise cancelling second microphone, which makes call quality excellent. The earpiece is very loud and other callers said I sounded clear as a bell. Using the device as a speakerphone is quite nice too although the speaker just doesn't go loud enough for my liking.
Asus provides its own dialler and contacts apps, which work well. The dialler has the T9 style predictions we have come to expect these days and the contacts app is very similar in its functions to the stock Android version.
The pre-loaded messaging app seems to be a skinned version of the normal Android version and it operates without any issues. The Zen UI helps it to look rather better than you might expect. Of course any messaging app can be downloaded from the Play Store or you can use the Hangouts app if you prefer.
Talking of the Play Store, it is of course on-board with the ZenFone 5. Some Asus pre-loaded apps are updated through the store allowing them to be updated more frequently. Books, movies, TV shows, music, apps and games are available as always from Google's extensive catalogue.
The Asus music app is attractive and includes playlist support as well as the ability to mark certain albums or tracks as favourites. You can also access your most played tracks as a special playlist. It is even clever enough to give you the option to load music up from your cloud storage provider including Dropbox, OneDrive and Drive as well as Asus' own WebStorage offering.
The video player that is part of the gallery app handles videos. It managed to play all the formats I asked it to but is a simple video player without any options at all.
The ZenFone supports Miracast wireless display for casting the phone's screen to your TV though I couldn't get it to work unfortunately. That could be because my Miracast receiver is first generation though.
Games play really well on the ZenFone in general. Any casual gaming is handled without issue. The only problems come when considering game compatibility with the Intel Atom chip in the device. There are some that simply will not open, but they are few and far between.
Even fairly demanding games such as Asphalt 8 play at acceptable frame rates on the ZenFone 5. This is a phone successfully punching above its weight.
Asus has endowed the ZenFone 5 with an 8MP camera with an f/2.0 aperture lens and an LED flash that should help it take better pictures in all conditions. It also has Asus' proprietary PixelMaster technology that is designed to help you take professional quality photos.
Using the camera is a simple but extremely flexible affair given the camera app that the ZenFone 5 comes with. On loading it up you can take a picture or start capturing a video immediately. While this dual capability can help start videoing faster, things can be hard to frame as the highest resolution images are in a 4:3 aspect ratio and video is captured at 16:9.
There are various modes available, accessed by tapping the button in the bottom right corner. Time rewind starts capturing images before you press the shutter button and is genuinely useful. You get to choose the best image from a bunch of stills captured two seconds before pressing the button and one second after.
The miniature mode is quite interesting as well. It blurs most of the image but leaves a section clear and is nice for highlighting a section of the image. There is also the ability to generate animated GIFs, a special portrait mode, and smart remove which can take moving objects out of the frame by capturing multiple images and comparing them.
There is the depth of field mode for generating bokeh effects, which are a bit fake but work as well as any other unplanned optical effect. Night mode is quite ineffective as well, but does bring out a little more detail in night shots. The HDR mode is quite fast but the output is frankly a bit weird.
Beyond these modes there are also various effects that can be applied to images and the viewfinder will show how the effect works in real time. Two different speed burst modes are also on offer, which work well enough and provide a nice interface for picking the best shot after it has been taken.
Video is captured at up to 1080p but the bit rate and frames per second are not brilliant. There is no form of stabilisation either so videos can be quite shaky.
The overall quality of the camera is a fair step better than most devices at the price point with only the LG G2 Mini coming close in my view. Daytime shots are reasonably well detailed though tend to be a bit overexposed.
In lower light, the ZenFone 5 does quite well with images remaining sharper than expected and avoiding some of the muddiness that I would normally associate with smartphone cameras in low light. It does struggle a little in these conditions to get an even sharpness across the frame though, with the focus point of the image being noticeably sharper than the rest of the picture.
Dynamic range is also lacking and sometimes the colour balance will be off, but ultimately the ZenFone 5 will do a decent job of capturing your memories.
It may have taken some time to arrive, but the Asus ZenFone 5 is worth the wait. Asus has managed to make a great mid-range smartphone that punches above its weight in many areas.
While it does cost a little more than some of the competition, the ZenFone manages to pack a lot into reasonably attractive design. There's a lovely large screen, great performance, decent connectivity and an above average camera. It is only slightly let down by its under performing battery.
The Moto G has been the king of the mid-range for some time now and the ZenFone 5 doesn't quite knock its crown off, but it comes mighty close. The Moto G with LTE is cheaper, uses slightly nicer materials and has more up to date software. Despite this, Asus has come the closest that I have seen to toppling the Motorola mid-range powerhouse.
A large bright and sharp screen with super fast touch response makes the ZenFone 5 excellent in all conditions.
Zen UI offers an attractive and useful Android skin that doesn't seem to impact performance at all.
An above average camera makes the ZenFone 5 a better all rounder than most at this price point.
Great performance and lots of RAM helps achieve a smooth feel to the user experience with no multi-tasking issues.
The battery in the ZenFone 5 is smaller than most in similarly sized phones and endurance suffers. Arriving with an out-dated version of Android dampens excitement over the nice Zen UI.
The ZenFone 5 is larger than most other phones with a five-inch screen and the bezels are quite noticeable.
No backlight on the weirdly spaced capacitive buttons can be a problem especially in dark environments.
If you are not concerned about 4G or being a version behind on the software, the ZenFone 5 is very easy to recommend. It is a very compelling package having a great screen, decent camera, good performance and a nice software skin. The only device that comes close is the Moto G.
Asus should have released the ZenFone 5 eight months ago. Had Asus done that, it might have propelled it to the top of the mid-range Android class. As it is, Asus misses out not by having a weak device, instead it is the timing that seems wrong.