Asus ZenFone 2 review: Don't judge this phone by its cover

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Credit: Florence Ion

It may look bulky and cheap on the outside, but its 1080p screen, generous storage options, and solid performance is worth its $300 price tag.

At a Glance
  • Asus ZenFone 2

    Greenbot Rating

    If you're looking for something a little more powerful than the Moto G with a slightly better camera, the ZenFone 2 is worth considering.

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I did not like the Asus ZenFone 2 at first. It looks chunky and feels cheap, and the user interface reminds me of all the annoying ways companies take advantage of Android’s open nature.

But after some time with it, the ZenFone 2 eventually grew on me. I used its Themes app to customize the interface. I took some pretty neat low-light photos of my cat wistfully looking out the window. I played through many levels of Peggle Blast before I ran out of lives. It wasn’t so bad after all. 

I haven’t used a budget phone in a while—not since I took the Moto E out for a spin back in February. I did not expect that the ZenFone 2 would grow on me as much as it did, but in the end it won me over. Its hardware is powerful enough to do almost everything a flagship phone could do, and its camera abilities are capable enough for posting to Instagram. After a period of time, however, I started to experience some of the limitations of Asus’s inexpensive device. For everything it does as well as a pricier, high-end device, there’s still bits of the ZenFone 2 that come out and remind you that it’s still just a middle-of-the-road kind of Android phone.

Priced at $200 (unlocked and off contract) for the version with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, or $300 for the 4GB/64GB version (reviewed here), the price is definitely right on Asus’ latest.

An underwhelming design

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Ta-da! It’s a phone. Just a phone. Nothing extraordinary to see here. 

Brushed metal is nice, but you need more than that to pass off a phone as premium-looking. The Asus ZenFone 2 is a solid, study smartphone, but compared to comparably-priced devices from the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi, it’s so…PC looking. It’s like Asus took some of the materials its used for its cheaper laptops and pasted it onto an Android device.

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It looks more interesting from the backside, though the button configuration drove me bonkers.

What’s up with this rear-facing button trend that’s taking over the market lately? Asus hopped on that bandwagon, too, but while it works wonders for LG, it doesn’t work too well in Asus’s implementation. The volume rocker on the back is too thin to press comfortably without cradling the phone with the other hand, and the power button on top is awkward to hit.

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Underneath the backside cover is a bunch of ports and things, but no removable battery.

The ZenFone 2’s back panel is removable. It features dual SIM card slots and a MicroSD slot. The battery is tightly nestled underneath the slots, so it isn’t removable. At least you can tack on a neat Asus-made folio case or other backings to customize the phone to your liking. 

A capable 1080p display

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The ZenFone 2 has a nice looking 1080p display. 

Let’s get back to what I like about the ZenFone 2. Its 5.5-inch screen reminds me of why I prefer bigger phones. The 1080p display has great viewing angles for watching videos and reading ebooks, though you can tell that it has its quirks. The colors may not be as saturated as Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, for example, and the blacks are simply not black enough—you can tell where the display ends and the bezel begins. If you decide you want more vibrant colors, however, you can use the ZenFone 2’s built-in color calibrator to play around with the display’s color settings. At the very least, the ZenFone 2’s display doesn’t look cheap.

As fast as last year’s flagships

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What is the ZenFone 2 cabable of? Let’s find out.

The ZenFone 2 comes in two configurations: a 2GB of RAM version with a quad-core 1.8GHz processor (and Intel Atom Z3560), and a 4GB of RAM version with a quad-core 2.3GHz processor (Intel Atom Z3580). I’m in possession of the latter, so that’s the one we benchmarked.

Any mid-range device should be capable of running memory-intensive applications without crashing on you. The ZenFone 2’s processor is mostly good for it—I say “mostly” because while it performed on par with last year’s Samsung Galaxy S5 in our benchmark tests, it also threw several minor tantrums along the way. As soon as I tacked on a theme with the built-in Themes app, the interface became a little sluggish. Apps would hiccup here and there, and Peggle Blast took a while to load when it’s usually up and running in just a few seconds on other devices. 

zenfone2 benchmarks 3dmark1 Jason Cross

In our 3D benchmarks, the ZenFone 2 performed on par with last year’s Samsung Galaxy S5. 

zenfone2 benchmarks vellamo1 Jason Cross

This is an inexpensive device, and while its 64-bit processor does wonders for its graphics capabilities, it still performs on par with other phones in its class for day-to-day operations. 

zenfone2 benchmarks pcmark1 Jason Cross

Overall, performance is better than last year’s phones, so it’s not like the ZenFone 2 is a dud.

Of course, once an application did load all the way, the ZenFone 2’s processor pulled through: Peggle Blast was smooth during gameplay, photos and videos were quick to edit within Instagram, and Hulu streamed beautifully through Wi-Fi while I laid out in the backyard. There are moments when the phones feels like it’s just another mid-range device that’s over promised on performance, but once that Atom processor gets its bearings, it’s nice a speedy. I’m curious to see what this phone performs like after a few months of daily usage.

Battery that could be better

Asus equipped the ZenFone 2 with non-removable 3000mAh battery pack—that’s as big as the battery in LG’s G4 flagship, and bigger than the battery pack that’s packed into both the Samsung Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9

I constantly forget to charge phones when I’m reviewing them. It’s a bad habit, because I’m usually juggling a few phones at a time. However, I was pleased to see that even with my forgetful nature, the ZenFone 2 was holding on for dear life with at least 10 percent battery life every time. I’d leave it in my bag over night and into the next afternoon and it’d still be kicking and syncing notifications. I used it to play games and peruse Twitter while watching TV and was surprised at how little power it ate up. 

zenfone2 battery pcmark Jason Cross

The ZenFone 2 is on par with battery life in last year’s flagships too, though that’s not necessarily a good sign.

The PCMark battery testing suite said otherwise. The ZenFone 2 performs as well with battery life as the Galaxy S5, but that’s not the best thing in this case. However, it’s worth considering that other inexpensive devices don’t use up as much power because they’re not as powerful. It’s worth pointing out that Intel’s mobile CPUs aren’t known for battery efficiency, either. 

A slow camera with low-light abilities

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The ZenFone 2’s camera capabilities were only so-so.

I’m a bit perplexed by the ZenFone 2’s 13-megapixel rear-facing camera. It’s pretty good at taking photos, both in the lab and outside in the real world. The color composition is on point when the lighting situation is agreeable and I was pleased that it lived up to its low-light promises. However, the shutter speed on the camera is excruciatingly slow at times, and the phone constantly had issues focusing on the subject ahead. The ZenFone 2 is slow to snap shots when the flash is in use too.

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With plenty of light, the ZenFone 2 takes passable photos for sharing online and with friends. 

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Very low light will result in a really dark, gritty-looking photo. The flash kind of drowns out the color, too.

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When you switch over the low light mode, the photo resolution dumps down to 3-megapixels and the app takes this intensely long exposure, which eventually produces this (with a little help from the flash).

Oddly, the ZenFone 2 defaults to shooting photos at 10-megapixels in a cropped 16:9 aspect ratio, though the sensor is capable of 13 megapixels at a 4:3 aspect ratio. I don’t like the fact that it doesn’t shoot at full resolution by default. Also, there’s no optical image stabilization, so even the slightest shake of the hand could ruin that low-light shot you were hoping to take.

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I begged Gabriella to hold still for this shot because the shutter took so long.

Regardless of its kinks, the ZenFone 2 takes passable photography compared to a majority of other inexpensive phones out there. Its low-light capabilities will come in handy in many situations, but don’t solely rely on this phone to capture the most essential moments of your life.

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My colleague and I took a selfie with the beautify mode on. It also thinned out my face and brightened my eyes a bit, though I was squinting so that didn’t work. 

The ZenFone 2’s 5-megapixel front-facing camera is also worth talking about it. It works well for snapping a headshot and its instant-beautification features actually work rather nicely. I did manage to do some extreme post-processing with the camera’s built-in editing software, though, which made me look like an alien. We had some fun with that feature here around the office.

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Hello I am an alien.

There’s also a GIF animation feature that records up to 50 frames. You can edit the animation speed before saving it, and then share it to social networks.

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So many modes, including a Manual mode, which is hardly as capable as what the LG G4 offers. 

As far as camera interfaces go, the ZenFone 2 could be worse. There’s an overwhelming number of built-in features available to use, but I’d prefer that the extra camera modes were optional to download.

Just a little bit of Lollipop

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I really liked the fact that I could tack on whatever icon pack I wanted on the ZenFone 2. It made its version of Lollipop much more palatable.

Kudos to Asus for not completely abandoning Google’s idea of what an Android interface should look like. However, be prepared to spend some time disabling bloatware.

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I actually deleted some apps before snapping this screenshot. The number of apps that come preloaded with this phone is not okay. 

The ZenFone 2 comes with a bunch of software pre-installed. Only some of it is useful—like the Amazon Kindle and Zinio apps, which you might have installed yourself anyway—while the other apps will drive you bonkers. The whole point of Android is that it’s a blank canvas for which the user can customize to her liking. Leave it that way—please! 

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I love, love, love the Themes app on the ZenFone 2. Quite easily my favorite part of the interface.

Despite the bloatware, the best part about the ZenFone 2’s user interface is its Themes application. I’m so excited about this. I invested in dozens of icon packs when Beautiful Icon Styler was alive and well in the Google Play Store, but now that the app is no longer compatible with Lollipop, I have no way of easily skinning my icons without installing a separate launcher. Asus lets you customize the heck out of the interface with your favorite icon packs, though. In the screenshot above, I’m using the Cryten icon pack. It’s awesome! I love looking at a Home screen with colors and icons that match my mood for the day. It’s one of the perks of being an Android user. 

Should you buy this phone?

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This phone is pg, ngl.

As I mentioned earlier, there are two versions of this phone: a $200 variant with 2GB of RAM and a $300 variant with 4GB of RAM. My experience with the 4GB variant was relatively positive—enough that I feel like the ZenFone 2 is worth its $300 price tag right off the lot. It’s an unlocked phone with dual SIMs and a memory expansion slot, in addition to 64GB of storage. It supports a large library of LTE bands around the world, so you’re covered almost anywhere you go with the ZenFone 2 in tow. And you can swap out those back covers and personalize the phone the way you see fit.

As far as mid-range phones go, the Moto G still succeeds for its fantastic front-facing stereo speakers and clean near-stock Android interface, but if you’re looking for something a little more powerful with a slightly better camera, the ZenFone 2 is worth considering. 

greenbot rating 35

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At a Glance
  • Greenbot Rating

    If you're looking for something a little more powerful than the Moto G with a slightly better camera, the ZenFone 2 is worth considering.

    Pros

    • Generous amount of storage offered—64GB in addition to a MicroSD expansion slot!
    • The UIs native theming capabilities are seriously so cool

    Cons

    • Too. Much. Bloatware.
    • It isn't the prettiest phone on the block, but it will do
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