Smartphone survival test: ASUS ZenFone 2 Laser

This $199 handset is loaded with features and should satisfy any consumer on a budget looking for value in an Android phone.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Image: ZDNet

After I published my list of smartphones I was going to use for the Smartphone Survival Test, I caught a lot of flak from readers and other observers that I was somehow disingenuously "loading the deck" to set up Android for failure in this experiment.

I was told these devices could not possibly stand up to a flagship device like the iPhone 6S or iPhone SE, that I could not possibly be satisfied with such sub-par phones.

Well, they were wrong.

When it comes to Android phones, regardless of price, you need to look closely at the BOM, or Bill of Materials, because not all Android devices are the same at identical or similar price points.

One of the biggest and most common complaints against Android is that it is more resource-intensive than Apple's iOS, that the Dalvik/ART virtual machine (JVM) and the user-space processes eat up a lot of memory by comparison.

This is not an accusation that is completely unfounded, this is the truth. An iOS phone with 1GB memory is much, much more responsive than an Android phone with 1GB of memory. You could also argue that even 512MB iOS phones are more resource-efficient than an Android with 1GB of memory.

Current generation iPhones such as the 6S, 6S Plus and SE have 2GB of RAM, whereas the iPhone 5, iPhone 5S, iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus have 1GB of RAM, The 4S has 512MB of RAM.

There are other architectural considerations regarding how iOS and Android behave and affect overall performance, such as how certain types of processes are prioritized, but memory utilization is the big one.

So how do you mitigate this problem? You buy a phone with more memory. Guess what, memory is cheap.

Source: GSMArena

The first phone I picked for the Survival Test is the ASUS ZE551KL, which was released late last year during the holiday season. I chose it specifically because I wanted a baseline device to compare to at a specific price point that had as many features in it as possible.

As a consumer, you would be hard pressed to find as much Android phone as this for $200-$230. I actually spent $199 for this phone when it was onsale at Amazon only a few weeks ago.

If you can find this phone for $199 it's a very good deal.

There's a lot to like about it. First, the memory and storage. 3GB is plenty of breathing room for Android to run with quite a few apps running in the background. It makes all the difference in the world when it comes to general OS and application responsiveness.

I would argue that for most applications in my workload, as well as those for most end-users, memory is much more important than processing speed.

The device also comes with 32GB of flash storage as well as an microSD card slot that can accept up to 128GB cards. If you shoot a lot of photos and video this is a great inexpensive device to take on vacations and other trips. No frequent searching for Wi-Fi hotspots needed.

Second is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615, which is not on the high-end of what SoCs are being put into Android smartphones these days but is not at the low-end either. It's a good mid-range chip package with decent performance for the price.

It's an octa-core chip that uses the big.LITTLE principle of using four smaller cores with four larger cores to balance power consumption based on the actual application workload demand.

Third I'll point out is the battery which is 3000mAh and removable. I had no problems using this phone all day without running out of juice before having to plug it in for the night.

So what do you miss with this phone over a more expensive device like a iPhone SE or iPhone 6S?

Well, first of all, there's no denying that the A9 in the iPhone SE/iPhone 6S is a much, much more powerful chip than the Snapdragon 615. If you're used to the instantaneous response of a high-end iPhone you need to scale back your expectations considerably.

And if you use a lot of CPU-demanding apps such as 3D arcade games this phone is not going to deliver.

Also, while the 13MP rear-facing camera with dual LED flash and laser autofocus on this device is surprisingly good, it's nowhere near the quality level in terms of low-light performance and optics quality that you're going to get on a $400-$500 iPhone SE.

The Wi-Fi is strictly 2.4Ghz and single antenna, so no connecting to faster 802.11ac networks -- I was able to cap out at about 30-35Mbps download speeds on my 802.11ac Wave 2 router on my 100Mbps broadband connection.

That's a far cry from what the iPhone SE and iPhone 6S can do, which can max out the connection when on 5Ghz 802.11ac.

The 4G LTE transceiver in the Zenfone 2 Laser ZE551KL is rated for LTE Cat4 150/50 versus the LTE Advanced Cat6 300/50Mbps in the iPhone SE/6S.

I was able to reliably get about 45Mbps on AT&T on it with five bars in an unsaturated coverage area. Your mileage is going to vary greatly with any device depending on your carrier, how saturated the network conditions are in your coverage area, current atmospheric conditions and what radio bands you actually lock on in your coverage area.

The phone supports LTE bands 1(2100), 2(1900), 3(1800), 4(1700/2100), 5(850), 7(2600), 8(900), 17(700), 20(800) so you will want to check your carrier for compatibility. In my case every AT&T LTE band is supported with the exception of Band 12, which is fairly new.

There's no NFC, so no Google Wallet support.

And the display, while very nice for the money, is no comparison for a $400 or $500 device's screen.

However, let's look at this in perspective. If you're looking to outfit your kids with smartphones, do they really need such a theft magnet or something that you're gonna regret when they eventually drop the thing? No.

If you shop smart, you can buy two of these things for the price of a 16GB or 32GB, not memory expandable iPhone SE. And fairly decent protective cases like the one I bought go for under $10.

Do you need the iPhone's best-of-breed camera sensor and lens package for the type of shots that are most typically taken by the average person and posted on Instagram? No.

Do you need the fastest CPU in the world to run your line of business email app, Twitter, Facebook and Candy Crush? Absolutely not.

Is 802.11n 30Mbps speeds over 2.4Gz Wi-Fi and LTE Cat 4 more than adequate for most applications? Totally.

All of my core apps run perfectly fine with BOM in this phone's hardware. I have no complaints when it comes to that. So when it comes to the Survival Test, can this run my application workload? It's a pass. Big time.

Budget smartphones: Cheaper alternatives to the iPhone SE

Aside from the overall value in BOM, there are some design elements of this inexpensive phone I like a lot, which I think its more expensive competitors should closely examine.

Despite the low price, the build quality of the phone is excellent, it uses a combination of plastic and metal and doesn't feel junky at all. It has a nice solid heft to it.

Additionally, ASUS chose to put the power button center top of the phone casing and the volume rocker on the back of the device below the lens. This results in a button configuration that despite the 5.5" size, allows you to easily use the phone one-handed.

Because of this comfortable configuration I often find myself reaching for this device first despite having other Android devices and my iPad Pro nearby.

So what about the OS and software overall?

So I've had to opportunity to use both Marshmallow, the latest Android release, version 6, on two devices we have here in-house, the LG Nexus 5X and the ZTE Axon Pro, versus the Lollipop 5.0.2 that is on the Zenfone 2 Laser.

Is Marshmallow "better" than Lollipop? Hard to say. There aren't enough Marshmallow-optimized apps out yet to make a difference yet and the improvements are mostly around security, not visual or UX changes.

Most of the major UI changes occurred when Lollipop was introduced with Material Design, and a lot of applications are still catching up to that. Most of the core applications I use such as Facebook, GMail, Outlook, Plume and RadarScope take advantage of this now.

Some have spoken to the issue of UI enhancements versus a "Pure" Google experience on the Nexus, which gets much more frequent software and security patch updates and whether that is actually worth paying more money for.

I think it depends how much money you're paying for it, how many years of use you plan to get out of the device, and how much additional value you're getting in the BOM. I also think the issue of running a "Pure" Google UI experience versus the UI changes most Android vendors make is overblown and I don't think it factors much into user acceptance.

You can change your Android launcher program to the default Google Now one at any time, and turn off apps that you don't want to use, which is what I did. Yes, there will still some differences in the way the UI works from a "Vanilla" Android, but not enough to care about.

Certainly if you're comparing the Zenfone 2 Laser for $199 versus the LG Nexus 5X at $199 promotional pricing if you are willing to test out Project Fi (which has now been extended through May) it's worth considering, although there are hardware BOM differences that may weigh into your decision making.

The ZE551KL has more RAM and more flash at that price point, and has a removable battery, two SIM slots and an SD card slot, whereas the Nexus 5X has a fixed battery, 1GB less RAM, one SIM slot, half the amount of flash and no SD expansion.

However, the LG Nexus 5X has a somewhat faster processor, somewhat sharper screen at the same resolution (the display is also smaller), more comprehensive wireless band support (it supports CDMA networks as well) and has 802.11ac 5Ghz Wi-Fi capability, Category 6 300/50 LTE support and NFC, and also a fingerprint reader.

The cameras on both are more or less the same although the video capture resolution on the Nexus 5X is higher.

I think I would definitely appreciate it if the Zenfone 2 Laser got the same timely updates as the Nexus 5X, but for me it isn't a deal-breaker and I suspect for most end users, as long as a phone actually runs the apps they want to run and it runs well, it's not a deal-breaker that it doesn't yet run Marshmallow.

OS updates and patches are important, but it's hard to sell the value of these things to consumers when generally speaking, they tend to be reactive to issues related to security and patching rather than proactive.

The device is supposed to be getting its Marshmallow update before the beginning of the summer, in the next 2 or 3 months. That's going to be welcome indeed.

I would say to companies like ASUS and some of the others whose phones I am looking at over the next few weeks that while slow roll-outs of security patches and Android version updates are not necessarily deal breakers today, as it is generally hard to sell updates and software upgrades to consumers at a premium (which is what Google is doing with Nexus) it's going to be harder and harder to justify not being on the ball when the iPhone SE is $400 at its new entry point.

While not every phone can be a Nexus, companies like ASUS might wish to consider partnering with CyanogenMOD -- which has a very frequent update process.

We originally had a CyanogenMOD phone on our list to look at, the Lenovo ZUK Z1, but it had radio compatibility issues in the US that prevented us from using it outside of Wi-Fi. Still, we liked what we saw.

I think as our benchmark device, the ASUS ZenFone 2 Laser ZE551KL is a good example how it's possible to build an inexpensive phone with a good feature set and considerably better than acceptable levels of performance.

It's also apparent to me that the gap between inexpensive and premium is closing rapidly and that within a few years that gap is going to be very small indeed, particularly when you see the economies of scale related to the volume manufacturing and integrated supply chains Chinese companies are going to be able to materialize in the near future.

Do you use an inexpensive Android smartphone? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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