The Asus Zenfone 2 fills an interesting niche as an Android phone full of deep customizations, yet one that sells for half the price of similarly sized phablets.
Typically, Android tinkerers who want to invest a lot of time into customizing their phone also have to pay full price for a flagship. But the Zenfone 2 turns that concept on its meditating head.
At $300 (about £210, AU$408) unlocked and now available in the US, it's a bargain for a 5.5-inch display that's as big as a the LG G4 and iPhone 6 Plus, and specs that include a speedy Intel processor and 4GB of RAM.
There's an even cheaper $200 (about £139, AU$272) model with a slower Intel chip and just 2GB of RAM, but the 4GB version is the one that's going to last you some time – if it holds up.
Where Zenfone 2 makes its compromises to hit that price point is in its build quality and camera. It's easy to spot the flaws of its cheaper plastic construction and poor 13-megapixel sensor.
That said, the Zenfone 2 remains one of the most inexpensive ways to upgrade to Android 5.0 Lollipop with enough processing power leftover, so long as you don't care about style or feel.
Zenfone 2 is true to its unintentional theme of finding internal strength and beauty because, on the outside, this isn't a very pretty or strong phone.
It feels more cheaply made than it looks. This is thanks to the artfully deceptive, brushed metal design on the back cover and its 5.5-inch display made with Gorilla Glass 3 and an anti-glare coating .
But holding the phablet in my stretched out hand, I could tell the difference between it and the glass-backed Samsung Galaxy S6 and aluminum-backed iPhone 6 Plus right away.
I could also see the difference in quality as my stretched out hand accidentally dropped the phone, and its top-right corner met pavement. Cracks spread across the screen's surface and a frown stretched across my face.
This unintentional drop test was a tumble at 32 inches (81cm), rather than a direct drop, from my pocket. The phone's bulkier-than-normal dimensions didn't fit in my jeans as well as I had expected.
While Samsung and HTC upgraded their flagship phones to Gorilla Glass 4, Asus stuck with the previous generation's less durable material. LG G4 kept Gorilla Glass 3 too, but at least it features a slight curve that might have saved this phone from its now unsightly blemish.
Despite the plastic body and cheaper glass construction, the Zenfone 2's dimensions and weight are less svelte, as expected given its price.
Its curved back gives it a thickness of 10.9mm. By comparison, the Galaxy S6 is 6.8mm, the HTC One M9 is 9.4mm and the LG G4's thickest point is 9.8mm.
The rest of the measurements are actually competitive. It's 152.5mm in length with a 77.2mm width. But, at 170g, it weighs slightly more than everything but the iPhone 6 Plus.
Zenfone 2 also cheaps out on the power button. It sits at the top of the phone, in an odd center location, and has little tactical feedback, almost as if it's broken. Luckily, the phone's software makes use of the handy double-tap-to-wake screen feature introduced in the LG G2.
While the power button is annoyingly squishy, the volume buttons have the necessary clicky feedback, taking cues from LG with their location on the back.
Three capacitive buttons for back, home and recent line the bottom of the display, but are neither on-screen buttons, like on some Androids; nor do they light up, like on Samsung devices. This makes it difficult if you're moving from a Samsung phone (where the back and recent buttons are swapped), as you may have trouble getting used to this order in the dark.
There's a single loud-sounding speaker, but it stretches across the back of the phone, which means calls on speakerphone and music point in the wrong direction. Costlier phones, like the Galaxy S6, have moved the speaker to the bottom of the phone. Better yet, the HTC One M9 has stereo speakers on the front.
The Asus Zenfone 2 can compete on size, especially for the price. Its large 5.5-inch display, which is slowly becoming the norm among Android phones, feels quite roomy.
Everything from typing out messages to getting work done on the spacious, LED-backlit LCD is a little bit easier, and this phablet has enterprise-ready specs to back up that work.
But don't expect a super-rich screen for fun multimedia. Its diagonal measurement matches the 5.5-inch LG G4, but its resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 cannot compare to a quad HD display.
More importantly, while its the same resolution as the 1080p iPhone 6 Plus, the brightness literally pales in comparison to Apple's Retina or Samsung's Super AMOLED displays.
That becomes a real problem when in sunlight. Taking a photo at the sun-drenched beach is nearly impossible when you can't use the display as a viewfinder. For better or worse, the Zenfone 2 isn't a great camera phone, so the point is kind of moot anyway.
I do like how, even when selecting the "auto" ambient light mode, the brightness can be adjusted ever so slightly. But overall, the screen looks half as bright as it should be.
Specs, performance and software
This is where the Asus Zenfone 2 shines for its price. Its spec sheet includes an Intel processor, when other major phones boast popular Qualcomm Snapdragon chips at their heart.
The Intel Atom Z3580 quad-core processor is clocked at 2.3GHz, meaning it's fast enough to handle games and multitasking along with its PowerVR Series 6 G6430 GPU.
Asus gave its phone some nice overhead when it comes to memory, with 4GB of RAM when almost every other phone tops out at 3GB of memory. The cheaper variant, also a quad-core, is slower at 1.8GHz and 2GB.
Intel's 2.3GHz quad-core chip and 4GB of RAM combination doesn't make the new Asus phone the fastest – far from it. But it's competitive for its mid-range price by beating almost all of last year's top phones.
It does trail this year's flagships, though. Google's Nexus 6 averaged a 2,986, HTC One M9 scored a 3,005 and the Samsung Galaxy S6 pulled away from the pack with a 4,100 score.
Zenfone 2's performance is fairly smooth, save for its long 45-second boot up time. And, with 64GB of internal storage (16GB for the cheaper model) and a microSD card slot under the back cover, it's certainly well equipped for your photos and music.
Call quality, likewise, remained excellent. Though, again, the speaker shouts out of the back of the phone, like too many other smartphones that fail to avoid this pet peeve again and again.
Android 5.0 Lollipop and apps
The Zenfone 2 is a cheap way to upgrade to Android 5.0 Lollipop, if you're stuck with a phone that hasn't received (or will not get) Google's new operating system update yet.
Upon booting up the phone, you wouldn't really recognize the Material Design theme that the search engine giant created for its Nexus 6 and other stock Android phones. This isn't a pure Android phone.
Instead, it has Asus's ZenUI overlay that cranks up the customization for a more complicated layout, but one that people who root Android phones will appreciate.
The quick settings drop down panel, for example, is chock full of options arranged in a 4 x 4 grid. It's just two swipes down and one button press to turn on the flashlight or airplane mode.
Best of all, the grid of 12 quick settings can be customized to your liking. Not all Android phones let you tinker with this panel, which is one of many reasons why people end up rooting their phones.
Zenfone 2 gives users control over icon packages, themes, scroll effects between panels, folder icon sizes and styles – heck, even app title font sizes and colors.
There's even an pre-loaded app called Splendid that let's you change the color temperature of the phone display ever so slightly, as if it were a TV screen with customizable controls.
There's an "Easy Mode" within the main settings menu for everyone who doesn't want all of the complexity of ZenUI. But really, that's its killer app – thanks to ZenUI, there's less of a reason to root this phone.
Asus also includes over a dozen homegrown apps in addition to the more familiar Google apps that it's forced to carry with the Android-based Zenfone 2.
Notably, File Manager provides control over the internal storage and microSD card files, Do It Later supplies an app-integrated task list and flashlight beams out an SOS help signal – just in case.
More fine-tuning of this Android device can be found in Asus's other ZenUI apps, like Auto-start Manager, Power Saver and Autowizard.
There are also plenty of repeats of what Google already provides: a web browser, gallery app, contacts list, calendar, clock, music, weather, calculator, notes and web storage.
That's where I ran into a real problem with the ZenUI apps: They can't be uninstalled from the cluttered Android app launcher menu. They can be hidden or put into smart groups, but wiping them from the interface remains impossible outside of rooting.
Calls and messages
I normally default to Hangouts and don't mention the phone call app unless there's something truly novel, and on the Zenfone 2, both messages and the dialer are special.
Both incorporate the dual micro SIM cards into their interface, making it easy to switch back and forth between calling and sending messages between phone numbers.
It's fairly seamless to use when traveling abroad. I can easily imagine eating up cheap data with an international number via SIM 1, but keeping my phone number intact for calls and texts via SIM 2, which can only handle voice and texts.
While there's no way to seamlessly transition from a phone call to a video call, a feature I do appreciate on the more locked-down iOS within the iPhone 6 Plus, there are some extra buttons when on a call.
Namely, being able to record a phone call is handy for interviews, or if you're trying to point out horrible customer service to the world. Sending files to the contact while they're on the line is also a button integrated into this screen.
Camera and battery life
No need to add grain via Instagram with the Zenfone 2. This 13-megapixel camera takes photos that are full of noise, especially in dimly lit locations.
Its tiny, iPhone 5-level 1/3.2-inch sensor size, made by Toshiba, requires ample amounts of light for passable photos, which only look good enough when zoomed all of the way out.
Shots in my local bar, for example, were grainy and muddy all around except for brightly lit neon signs that were completely overexposed. The bright, dual LED flash only does so much.
Testing the Zenfone 2 outdoors isn't perfect either. Yes, sunlight improves clarity, but the colors are often oversaturated. Its depiction of an aqua blue sky stuck out next to photos of the natural blue, as seen in the Samsung Galaxy S6, iPhone 6 or even cheaper phones, like the Moto X and HTC Desire Eye.
The 5-megapixel camera on the front was no better for selfies, and both cameras take 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Regardless, both lack the fine detail and crispness of today's standards.
There are some manual controls and modes, from ISO settings (50 to 800) to a selfie mode that takes three photos with the always-superior back camera.
This mode also lets you add the skin-smoothing beautification effect in post, which is nice because too much of that makes everyone's skin look waxy and fake.
More photos tests are needed in the full hands on, but so far, the camera isn't the reason to buy the Zenfone 2.
Zenfone 2 contains a 3,000 mAh battery, which is larger than the iPhone 6 Plus, Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9 batteries, and it ties the LG G4 battery size.
But as we have seen from the poor LG G4 battery performance, a big juice pack doesn't always equate to all-day battery life. This Asus phone falls in the middle of the pack.
Our battery life tests prove that this Intel-powered device drained 23% while running a non-stop video loop. That ties with other last-generation flagship devices, like the Nexus 5 and the Sony Xperia Z3 compact.
The better news is that, when it really matters, this Zenfone packs a smart saving mode that balances the device's performance and battery usage.
It also charges more quickly than other inexpensive smartphones out there, thanks to Intel's fast-charging functionality, which is equivalent to Qualcomm's QuickCharge 2.0.
Sadly, while I could see the battery by taking off the back cover of the phone, it is not user-replaceable. It just peaks out of the back like a big tease.
The Asus Zenfone 2 is like that out-of-shape guy at the gym who pushes harder than anyone would have expected. It's more powerful than it looks.
But that unsightly build quality proves that, if it's trying to offer the flagship experience for less, it isn't quite there yet – and it's definitely not ready for selfies. *Wince*
Its best features are a large 5.5-inch display, a solid CPU provided by Intel and 4GB of RAM. The deep ZenUI customization that sits on top of Android 5.0 Lollipop will be a plus for users that want options but don't know what a ROM is.
Zenfone 2 may have inner peace, but its cheap plastic shell doesn't add up to outer beauty. The display isn't bright enough for sunny outdoor conditions, which is ironic, because ample light is required to make its shoddy camera's photos look at least passable.
The Zenfone 2 is half of the price of a top-tier smartphone and offers, thankfully, far more than half the performance. Its power finishes just behind the current pack of best phones.
That said, the screen could be brighter and sharper, the construction could be more durable and less cheap-feeling, and the camera could use retooling.
If the top phones don't seem worth 600-plus bucks to you – and if you're better at holding onto a slippery 5.5-inch phone than I am – then parting with $300 (about £210, AU$408) puts this big Android Lollipop phone in your pocket and more money back into your (Google) wallet or purse. It's that simple – just level your expectations.