Asus ZenFone 5 review: A mid-range handset with hidden depths

asus-zenfone-5header.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $315.28

Pros

  • High quality 6.2-inch screen
  • 90% screen-to-body ratio
  • All-day battery life
  • Some clever AI features
  • Well placed fingerprint sensor

Cons

  • Slippy glass back
  • Second SIM is sacrificed for MicroSD

Asus has made some nice smartphones in the past, without ever managing to break into the top league. The £349.99 (inc. VAT) ZenFone 5 might just change that. Priced towards the upper end of the mid range, this is a nicely designed handset with some compelling features, not least of which is its AI-driven camera system. But competition is tough in this market segment, so how does the ZenFone 5 fare?

The ZenFone 5 looks like many other current handsets: tall and narrow format, Meteor Sliver or Midnight Blue livery (my review sample was the latter, which really looks black), rounded corners, no physical button on the front... you get the idea.

Looking a little deeper, this on-trend ethos is even clearer. The aluminium chassis incorporates a glass back, to which Asus has added a zircon-sandblasted finish and an eight-layer optical coating process. There's a varnish under the back that allows concentric circles to show through and catch the light, centering on the fingerprint sensor. There are two practical points to make about all this: the fingerprint sensor is very nicely positioned for the forefinger, and that glass back is not as slippery as some.

asus-zenfone-5main.jpg

The 6.2-inch Asus ZenFone 5 runs on the Snapdragon 636 chipset with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. It's 7.7mm thick, has dual 12MP and 8MP rear cameras, weighs 165g and comes in Meteor Silver or Midnight Blue.

Images: Asus

More familiarity comes in the positioning of the power and volume buttons on the right side of the chassis, the dual SIM/SIM-plus-MicroSD caddy on the left. There's a 3.5mm headset jack on the bottom edge, and Asus throws in some earbuds too.

The ZenFone 5 is 153mm tall, 77.65mm wide and 7.7mm thick, and weighs 165g. That thickness can't quite cope with the dual camera lenses at the back, which protrude somewhat -- not unusual to see these days.

The screen is a 6.2-inch 18:9 Super IPS panel with a resolution of 2,246 by 1,080 pixels (402ppi) and 550-nit brightness. According to Asus there's a 90 percent screen-to-body ratio -- a high figure because there's no front button or fingerprint scanner, minimal bezels and a notch. The latter seems to divide opinion, but I'm relaxed about it -- and if you don't like the notch, you can simply hide it via the display settings.

Top ZDNET Reviews

Asus has fiddled with the bottom touch buttons, which can be made to disappear by tapping a small downward-pointing arrow to their left, giving a taller display area, and pulled up again with an upward sweep onto the screen. It's not exactly rocket science, but the system is simple and efficient.

The Super IPS screen doesn't have the 'poppy' colours of OLED, but it delivers a high-quality image and I was as happy viewing video as reading web pages. If you're into e-book reading late in the day, there is a blue light filter -- but it can't be set to automatically kick in when you start selected apps. Instead, you have to make (and unmake) a manual setting, which is tedious. A preferable solution would be an app-specific 'reading mode' that can also be toggled manually from display settings.

Asus has opted for Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 636 chipset, with 4GB of RAM. This combination delivers moderate Geekbench 4 benchmarks: the average of three multi-core runs was 4579 -- little better than the Moto G6 Plus, whose older Snapdragon 630/3GB platform delivered an average of 4167.

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back (cover story PDF)

Still, everyday performance was good enough, although if you want to play demanding games you might want to look for something more powerful -- even taking AI Boost into account. This is one of a number of 'AI' features, and can be toggled by sweeping down on the notifications area; it allocates handset resources to optimise system performance for gaming and compute-intensive apps.

The ZenFone 5 comes with 64GB of internal storage. Right out of the box there was a system update to apply; having done that, I was left with 51.33GB for my own use.

I've already noted that there's a second SIM slot that doubles up to provide for MicroSD storage. If the latter option is taken, the spec sheet says the ZenFone 5 supports up to 2TB, although you'd struggle to find one, and even 512GB cards are expensive. You might be better off taking up the offer of 100GB of Google Drive storage for two years, which comes up as an option during setup.

The ZenFone 5 runs Android Oreo with an updated version of Asus's own skin, ZenUI 5. This adds a lot of extras into the mix, some of which will be welcome, some not so much, depending on individual tastes. I'll just pick out two apps here.

asus-zenfone-5zenui.png

Among the many ZenUI 5 extras are Twin Apps (left), which lets you open two account instances of an app, and Selfie Master (right), which lets you get creative with selfies.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Twin Apps lets you open two instances of the same account with different passwords at the same time. Out of the box this is only on offer for pre-installed apps Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and YouTube, but others are added as you bring apps onboard. Meanwhile Selfie Master adds features to the front camera -- add emojis to photos, make selfie collages and slideshows, and so on.

Asus is bigging up the cameras, and the twin rear cameras in particular. The main 12MP-f/1.8 and secondary 8MP-f/2.0 pairing offer, through that second camera, the ability to shoot wider-angle shots than usual, which makes for nice panoramas and better group shots in particular. And there's bokeh (sharp subject, blurred background) too, of course.

Several camera features get the Asus 'AI' label. For example, the camera learns from the tweaks you make to photos, so that it can make presets as time goes on. Unfortunately I've not been using the handset for long enough to see how well that works in practice.

With auto scene detection, the camera makes a guess at what's being photographed, and makes settings accordingly. There are 16 different scenes in all: people, food, dog, cat, sunset, sky, green field, ocean, flower, plant, snow, night view, stage, text, QR code and tripod. It did a good job of recognising those from this selection I photographed. If you want to make your own settings adjustments, simply switch into Pro mode by tapping a button below the viewfinder.

Meanwhile, the 8MP front camera lets you take advantage -- if that's the right word -- of 'real-time beautification', which works for snaps and streaming.

In the short time I've been using the ZenFone 5's cameras, they have proved serviceable, and image quality is fine. It's easy to access the pro settings, and point-and-shoot images were usually good.

The 3,300mAh battery generally managed a full day's life during the test period, and fast charge is supported, so a quick late-afternoon boost can be given as required. Asus says five minutes' charging will deliver two hours of talk time, and claims 17 hours of wi-fi web browsing.

Asus has gone big on AI for this handset. I've already mentioned the camera and processor features. The ZenFone 5 can also 'learn' how people use it, and predict what apps they might want next, with the aim of serving them up faster. AI Ringtone will even take a stab at knowing where you are, raising the ringer volume in noisier environments and lowering it when things are quiet.

asus-zenfone-5in-hand.jpg
Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Conclusions

The Asus ZenFone 5 is a bit of an enigma. On the outside it looks like a pretty standard handset, but it starts to reveal more as you delve into what's on offer. The various elements under the AI banner are often scattered across different settings, which is a missed opportunity. Asus should bring them together somewhere, even though they aren't really deal-makers.

If you're after a new handset in the £250-£350 price range, the ZenFone 5 is well worth considering -- but you should also consider similarly priced phones from Motorola, Honor and Nokia.

RECENT AND RELATED CONTENT

Samsung to open world's largest smartphone factory in India
Samsung will be expanding its existing mobile phone manufacturing facility in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, to enable the factory to produce 120 million devices per year.

Folding iPhone: Apple's next big thing?
Apple's next big thing could very well be a new take on the iPhone.

HTC experiences largest sales drop in two years as flagship U12 Plus gets universally slammed
Terrible sales figures, a production estimate of only 2 million units for 2018, massive layoffs, a flagship phone getting slammed by reviewers for its non-functioning non-buttons, and a high entry price VR experience make it tough to count on this company lasting too much longer.

7 things to know about Leica and Huawei's partnership
I finally learned everything I want to know about what goes into the Leica and Huawei camera partnership.

Smartphone fingerprint sensor checks body temperature to boost biometric security (TechRepublic)
New fingerprint sensor detects both tactile pressure and skin temperature to unlock smartphone, according to Nature Communications.

Read more reviews

Specifications

Cellular
Type Smartphone
Operating System Android 8.0 Oreo
Processor
Manufacturer Qualcomm
Processor Core Qty Octa-core
Display
Diagonal Size 6.2 in

Top ZDNET Reviews

Where To Buy

Asus Zenfone 5 (2018 - Meteor Silver)

Part Number: ZE620KL-SIL