Letís play some word association: Computers, Motherboards, Asus. About 5 to 10 years ago when I was a huge computer nerd I spent way too much money on Asus parts. I even used to have a stack of Asus Motherboard boxes.
After Microsoft, Intel and Apple, Asus is one of the brands that comes to mind when I think about computers.
However, when I think about Smartphones, Asus donít usually come up.
Still, when I think about Computers and Smartphones, the next word is Tablet.
When it comes to Tablets, Asus does come to mind - unfortunately, the tablets that I think of are usually the cheap 7 or 8Ē sub $150 Black Friday specials, you find at Walmart/Staples/TigerDirect.
They typically come with a processor thatís a few generations behind, a dim screen and a version of Android that will likely never be updated. Yes, Asus makes more fancier models but then they get lost in the discussion with the likes of Samsung and Apple.
So when it comes to Smartphones, Asus as a brand has a bit of an uphill battle. Until now, the North American market for phones was pretty much controlled by the carriers. You signed a contract and then got a subsidized phone through them.
Still, lately phones have gotten very capable to the point that you donít have to spend top dollar to get a decent phone. Since you don't have to spend as much as you used to, the need for a subsidy isnít as important as it used to be.
This opens the door to unsubsidized, unlocked phones which loosen carrierís grip which in turn allows manufacturers to sell phones via other channels. Some interesting phone include Googleís Nexus line, The OnePlus One and now Asusí Zenfone 2.
Note that in North America, the Zenfone is available in 2 different trims each with many colours. You can pick up the base model which has a 1.8Ghz processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage and a regular 10 watt charger or the step up with a 2.3Ghz processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and an 18 watt fast charger.
To me, at $250 the base model is the more interesting model. You do get more with the step-up model and at around $379, itís still reasonably priced but the thing is, if youíre price sensitive, than $250 is already stretching it.
Iíd also contend that from a future proofing perspective, 2GB of RAM will be sufficient for quite a while. Youíre better off banking the price difference and upgrading a little sooner.
What about the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3?
When I look at the Zen phone, the first competitor that comes to mind is the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3. It costs about the same money, and has very similar specs. Both are rocking 13 megapixels cameras, 5.5Ē 1920x1080 displays, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage.
The Zen pulls ahead with a processor thatís about 30% faster, dual SIMs and a slightly better camera. The Idol counters with itís powerful stereo speakers which just happen to be the Zenís weakness and more durable finishes.
One question mark is how diligent Asus and Alcatel will be when it comes to Android updates. I donít have any experience with Asus, but according to Wikipedia theyíve updated many of their recent phones from KitKat to Lollipop so I give them the advantage here.
Still, while the Zen will attract a lot of notice because of its powerful processor and to a lesser extent, its dual SIMs, I think the Idol is a more balance package. While it lacks the Zenís raw processing power, it still possesses enough for most people. I guess itís more that the Zen has a significant weakness (its speaker) while the Idol doesnít.
Anyways, itís hard to go wrong with either phone.
What about the Motorola Moto G 2014?
Itís funny how fast the market has moved. When the original G came out, we were all awestruck by how much you got for your money. Fast forward 2 years and its successor, the 2014 Moto G is now looking a little over-priced.
The 2014 Moto G is around $249 unlocked from Staples up here in Canada.
While it does have stereo speakers which are more powerful, thatís the only thing it has going for it. The Zen has a higher resolution screen, a much more powerful processor, LTE, a noticeably better camera, more storage, more RAM and just way more bang for your buck.
5.5Ē IPS LCD 1920x1080 display
Gorilla Glass 3
1.8Ghz Intel Atom Z3560 64bit quad-core
PowerVR G6430 GPU
13 megapixel rear camera with AF and dual tone flash
5 megapixel front facing with wide angle
LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/17/20
LTE Cat4 support (up to 150Mbps)
Dual SIM (one is 2G only)
152.5 x 77.2 x 3.9-10.9mm
The design reminds me of my LG G3. From the faux metal back to the rear mounted volume buttons itís not a terribly original looking design.
The speaker grill looks like it was lifted from an HTC One.
The back is plastic with brushed metal finish. While it's an interesting finish because you can actually feel the grooves left behind by the brushing process. Unfortunately, it also feels cheap because it reminds me of a 3D picture where you can feel the ridges.
Annoyingly, the entire back comes off to reveal a non-removable battery - oh you tease! Note the dual SIM cards and MicroSD slot.
While it has a nice finish, the back itself is pretty cheap. First off, the center of the back can be pressed - this doesnít exactly instill confidence.
Next I noticed the plastic actually dented when I used my fingernail to pry it off. The worst however was when I attached the cover on in the wrong order. I actually managed to break one of the plastic latches on the cover off. Iím not joking! I hope Asus saved a lot of money using such thin plastic because Iím not impressed.
Iím not crazy about the back but most of this problem can be solved by buying a case for the Zen. If youíre going to do that then this really isn't a big deal.
While a lot of phones have curved backs, something about the Zenís is different - when I put it on my table and try to use it, rocks around like crazy. Iíve used other phones like the HTC One M7, M8, M9, LG G2, G3, G4, Motorola Moto X, X2, G, G2 etc and havenít really noticed this problem, so Iím not sure why itís so pronounced on the Zen. To my eye, the curve isnít that extreme. Maybe the Zen has more heavy components located near the sides.
Anyways, I spend a lot of my time in front of a desk and find the fact that it rocks around quite irritating.
I did notice that the finish on the sides (that arenít part of the back cover) are quite soft and scratch quite easily, I tried to plug it in in the middle of the night and noticed the area around the MicroUSB port is all scratched up now.
At this point, I've only been using the Zen for about a week and I haven't done anything to abuse it so this is pretty shocking.
The bottom part of the front has an interesting grooved finish. Unfortunately, it also attracts a lot of dust.
While Iíve made the Zen out to be a really cheaply built phone, itís really just the back cover and sides. The rest of it is reasonably solid - when you squeeze it, it doesnít really shift anymore than other phones and it resists twisting well.
For some reason, the power button is located at the top and in the middle, away from the volume buttons which are located on the back.
Given the large screen, itís not the greatest spot for a power button. Still, you can double tap the screen to turn it on which makes it less of an issue.
After I got used to the top-mounted power button I thought the Zen handled quite well. The lack of buttons on the sides really let you focus on using the phone.
The front is large enough that thereís plenty of room for the physical menu buttons so I never once pressed them by accident.
The thickest part of the phone is 10.3mm which is a little thicker than Iím used to. If youíre going to toss it in a case, itís going to feel a little chunky.
Nothing to see on the sides:
I have no major complaints about the display. With 401PPI, itís way past the point where youíll see individual pixels; practically speaking, you wonít see a much difference if any between it and something with higher PPI.
Colour seems fine - by default, itís just a tiny bit washed out. You can fine tune it in the settings if you want.
Off-angle, it loses a bit of light but not enough to complain about. Outdoors, the display is excellent.
There are 2 minor problems; First off blacks arenít very deep. Still, theyíre darker than Rachel Dolezal so I guess as far as Iím concerned, thatís black enough.
Secondly, it's not the brightest screen on the market. That said, I didn't really notice this until I had it next to competitors like the Moto G 2014 and the Idol 3 so I guess it's not a big deal. More importantly, the screen works well outdoors so this problem isn't too major.
You get a 13 megapixel sensor from Toshiba on the back with a f/2 lens and a dual-tone flash.
I recently reviewed the HTC One M9,which had a higher-spec Toshiba sensor so to be honest, I wasnít expecting much from the Zenís camera.
I mostly compared it to the Idol 3 which costs similar money and also has a 13 megapixel sensor (an IMX314 from Sony which can also be found in the OnePlus One and the pricey Google Nexus 6).
As it turns out, I was relatively happy with the Zenís camera. While I did find it rather noisy - Iíve never been too bothered by some grain so long as the picture itself looks fine. In that sense, I prefer the Zenís camera to the Idol. While the Idol pictures were cleaning looking with noticeably less grain, there was usually less detail.
I donít think itís due to excessive sharpening because some of the tell tales of over-sharpening like sharpened-looking noise arenít present
Colour is hit and miss. While it never really completely missed white balance, I generally though the Idol did a better job in the colour department. The Zen usually requires some some adjustment after the fact.
Here the Idolís colours are much closer, the can on the right is too purple in the Zenís picture, while the bin on the left is too blue.
I also found that I preferred how the Idol exposed scenes. The Zen had a tendency to underexpose slightly which results in slightly darker pictures.
The bottom line though is that I was generally happier with the Zen and found I got more keepers from it.
Remember, how I said the Zen tends to be more noisy? It actually because it does less noise reduction. Hereís the proof. These are hand-held shots of my family room built-in. Thereís still daylight but itís not shining directly into the room.
The Moto G does really poorly here and is obviously the worst of the 3. If you look carefully, the Zen bests the Idol here. Thereís more detail in the picture frame and the flower. Interestingly, both use the same shutter speed but the Idol has to use a much higher ISO. Part of this is due to the slower f/2.6 lens which requires it to use a much higher ISO value.
The software itself has a lot of options - too many in my opinion but they donít really intrude on the user experience so I wonít hold it against the Zen. My only gripe with the software is the burst mode is horrible. Itís not very fast and afterwards, you HAVE to choose which pictures you want to keep before it will let you shoot again. Someone needs to tell Asus that the point of a burst mode is for spontaneity. Forcing you to choose which ones you want to keep completely kills that.
Video mode is quite noisy and colours can get compressed plus thereís no optical image stabilization so you need to be very careful when you hold it. Otherwise I thought it was quite serviceable.
The Zen is currently running Android 5.0 with Asusí interface on top. While current trend is for OEMís to slim down their included software, Asus bucks the trend with a UI thatís pretty heavy.
It creates an interesting dilemma; On one hand, if an OEM doesnít use one at all then, all theyíre competing on is hardware. While this is a good thing for customers, it makes it much harder for them to differentiate since theyíre all drawing from the same pool of parts as everyone else.
All they have to do to compete is release a device with higher specs than the competitor at a competitive price and suddenly the competitor is obsolete.
I guess in a cynical way, the idea of an overlay is to stop this from happening because it creates just enough confusion that customers are tricked into choosing a phone with lesser hardware because they think the overlay is more useful.
Still, some times overlays are genuinely useful but thereís a balance between making something useful and just making a device thatís incredibly cluttered, out of the box.
Unfortunately, the later is true for the Zen. Hereís a list of included software:
- Clean Master
- 50+ Games
- Dr. Safety
- Amazon Kindle
- Asus Support
- Auto-start Manager
- Data transfer
- Do It Later
- File Manager
- FM Radio
- Kids Mode
- Omlet Chat
- Party Link
- PC Link
- Power Saver
- Quick memo
- Remote Link
- Setup Wizard
- Share Link
- Sound Recorder
- System update
- Whatís Next
- Asus Cover
Worse yet, since I started using the Zen a week ago 3, new apps mysteriously appeared. Iím sure thereís a setting somewhere that keeps this from happening but the fact that it does this by default is worrisome.
Perhaps Asus is trying to emulate the experience you got from a PC 5 years ago which typically came loaded with bloatware. The only thing thatís missing is a trial for AOL and Bing Bar.
Some of these programs are useful but not all of them and thatís the problem. Some extra programs are okay but no one needs this many. Iíll pick on a couple, why is there a need to a dedicated update program? All Android phones automatically alert users as to when thereís a new update. The dedicated flashlight app is another example; when you use the flashlight shortcut from the pull down it doesnít turn it on. Instead it launches an app with useless settings like a flashing setting, multiple flashes, etc. Whoís going to use those options?
I did like the Asus Link app, once youíve installed the companion app on your computer you can use the Zen on your computer. I think it uses Miracast to project it onto your computer. It works quite well and while there is a slight lag, I was still able to play a few games like Plants Vs Zombies 2 on my desktop using my mouse.
Anyways, I can handle extras so long as you can uninstall them and reclaim the space they take up but most of these apps canít be removed
Under the hood is an Intel Atom Z3560 1.8 GHz, 64bit, quad-core SoC. My inner-computer nerd just loves the idea of an Intel powered phone - my last 3 desktop computers all had Extreme Edition CPU's.
Graphics are handled by a PowerVR 6430 GPU @ 533Mhz.
Computing power excellent while graphics performance is pretty good.
The Peacekeeper browser benchmark scores are right up there with Qualcommís 805 SoC which can be found on the Google Nexus 6 and 30% higher than the Snapdragon 615 in the Idol.
It also does very well in PC Mark:
Gaming scores are also excellent outscoring the Idol by over 100% and just slightly lower than Note 4 and Nexus 6. Yes, the later phones have much higher resolution displays but thatís their disadvantage.
Hereís the Antutu score:
Please note that I wasn't able to run 64bit Antutu on the Zen. This likely would have yielded a higher score.
All in all, the Intel processor turns in an excellent performance. Considering the Zenís price point, its SoC offers way more value similarly priced, Qualcomm powered offerings.
Given Intelís absence from other flagship phones, I suspect Intel maybe subsidizing the Zenís cost which makes it an even better value.
As a Phone:
The earpiece is slightly louder than normal.
Speakerphone volume is average. Since the built-in speaker has no bass at all, it actually works well here since itís only suitable for peopleís voices.
I tested the RF performance on the TELUS HSPA network (which is shared with Bell). RF performance is very strong, it was able to keep a call with very few drop outs in a spot in my basement where the Nexus 6 was struggling.
I donít normally talk about phone dialers much but the Asus one has a really strange behaviour. Like many phones, the Zen will automatically search through your phone book as you dial a phone number and display matches at the top. If you see a match, you can tap it and the Zen will dial in. So far so good. However, after you hang up, it reverts back to the dialer page with the partial phone number on it. What this means is if you press the dial button again, it will dial the partial phone number instead of redialing the last number you called. It doesnít sound like much but for me, a lot of the time Iíll dial the same number back so itís really irritating.
While there are dual SIM card slots, one of them is 2G (GSM/EDGE). Another way to put it is that one is strictly for voice or super slow GSM/EDGE data. In Canada, this means that one SIM card will only work on Rogers and you wonít be able to get speeds above 236Kb/s (LTE goes up to 150,000KB/s). Just to clarify, the other SIM card will work just on Rogers, Bell, TELUS, etc's LTE network.
In the states, the 2G SIM card slot is only for AT&T or T-Mobile and any MVNOís operating on their networks.
The Intel processor can get quite warm when you use it but itís not as bad as phones with Cortex A57 cores.
Battery life really depends on how much you use it. When youíre gaming, battery life can drop really quickly.
I thought the large 3000mAh provides enough juice to last most users the entire day. Power users will probably need to top-off towards the end of the day.
Despite the impressive looking speaker grill on the back, the built-in speaker is one of the worst things about the Zen. Itís tinny-sounding so thereís no bass at all plus itís not very loud.
The built-in music player has a pretty strong bass boost by default. It strong enough that that the boominess can sometimes take away from music at times but I have to admit that I thought it was pretty fun. If you have a pair of headphones that can keep up itís punchier than Chris Brown.
If youíre old enough to remember, it kind of reminds of Sonyís Mega Bass switch which used to be on their old Walkmans, Discmans and MiniDisc players.
If you donít want heavy, under-water sounding music, you can disable the bass boost using the AudioWizard function which has its own app, separate from the music player.
You get 16GB of built-in store of which around 11GB is available. If thatís not enough you can get a higher-specíd Zen with 64GB and or you can toss a MicroSD into the mix.
All in all, Asus has really shaken things up with the Zenfone 2. If it had a fancier badge on it, they could have charged double for it - itís a phenomenal value and is really going to make things tough for other companies.
The Zenfone 2 effectively puts a limit on how much lesser competitors can charge for their phones now. If youíre not Samsung/HTC/Sony/LG and are going to ask for more than $250 for a phone with lesser specs - Game Over - you should just quit now.
Conversely, it also highlights just how hot the market for non-flagship devices is getting. Phones are only going to get better and cheaper.
You get computing power that rivals a flagship and blows away most of Qualcommís offerings save for their latest 800 series processors.
Itís not just a powerful processor attached to a mediocre phone either. The display is also quite good. Itís not quite flagship material but itís easily good enough for most users. Itís as sharp as a flagship (to my eyes anyways) and colour is reasonable.
The rest of the Zen however is a bit of a compromise. The plastic on the back cover is cheap and very easy to damage. Still, this is pretty minor, after all, how often do we take our SIM and MicroSD cards? Plus you can put the Zenfone 2 in a case and suddenly the cheap plastic isnít a big deal.
As for the camera, itís not bad but itís not that great either, Iíd say itís a good for the price point but not a great deal like the processor is.
Thereís no nice way to put it but the rear facing speaker sucks - speakers donít get a lot of notice but when itís this bad itís going to cause problems when youíre sharing videos or you just canít hear the phone ring.
So you have to decide if the savings are worth a phone that should be seen but canít be heard.
Either way, the Zenfone really punishes the Moto G 2014 as far as value for your money goes and is a clear leader when it comes to bang for your buck.
3.5 Howies out of 5.
- Powerful processor
- Decent Camera
- Dual SIM
- Lousy Speakers
- Too much included Software
- Body not very durable