Zenfone 2 (ZE551ML 4GB RAM) Review

First Impression: This thing is a brick compared to my good ol' LG G2

ZenFone 2 Official Shots
As much as I hate admitting it, my LG G2's charging port was broken and it could no longer be detected by PCs. The service center I've been to said that the channel responsible for connecting the disk to the PC broke and replacements were needed. The phone was usable, but since somehow LG made the G2 lollipop update exclusive to PC Suite (although Samsung and other manufacturers deliver it via OTA), my G2 is stuck at KitKat.

Fortunately, my father, who has been setting his eyes on my G2 due to its OIS-equipped camera, offered me an alternative. He had just bought the ASUS ZenFone 2 ZE551ML with 4GB RAM and offered me to trade it with the G2. I accepted the offer. Don't get me wrong, I love the G2 and I don't want to lose it. However, there are times when you need to say good bye. Now my G2 is in my father's good hands.

Okay, that story aside, let's talk about the new handset. My first impression said it all. The new smartphone looks like a brick before my G2. It's bigger, heavier, and thicker, too. However, that's before I turned it on for the first time. My impression quickly changed after turning it on and tested it for a few days.

Before we begin, here are the specs of the new handset (ASUS ZenFone 2 ZE551ML model number Z00AD):
  • Intel® Atom™ Quad Core Z3580 (2.3GHz) Quad-Core 64 bit Processor
  • 32GB Flash Storage + 4GB LPDDR3 RAM + MicroSD Support up to 64GB
  • Free 5GB Cloud Storage in ASUS Web Storage
  • 13MP Rear Cam + 1080p Video + Ultra Resolution + Dual-Tone Flash with PixelMaster
  • 5MP Front Cam + Wide-Angle Lens with PixelMaster
  • Full HD 1080p 5.5" IPS LCD + Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Dual SIM (2G/3G/4G SIM1 + 2G SIM2)
  • ZenUI
  • 3,000 mAh battery, irremovable with BoostMaster (60% charge in 39 minutes)
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
  • Gyroscope, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, Light Sensor, Proximity Sensor, Hall Sensor, e-Compass, G Sensor
Quite a lot of features packed into ASUS' latest flagship phone. So, how does this thing fare with newer flagships? Let's find out after the break.

Packaging: Quite Generous

ZenFone 2 Retail Box
Being the highest end in the caste, ASUS provides the most complete accessories in the box. Sliding the box out will reveal the handset, headset, a bunch of paperwork (warranty card, safety guide and quick user guide), and the adapter with Micro USB cable.

What's inside the retail package
Yes, it's your usual standard package. However, what's exceptional here is that the power adapter you get supports Quick Charging (output up to 9V/2A), while other models don't have it (only 4GB RAM models get this special adapter). We'll cover the quick charge feature later in the Battery section.

The Quick Charge Adapter

Design: Does Something Look Familiar?

Believe it or not, ASUS already has a trademark design. Ever heard of their ZenBook line of laptops? No, then what about their first-gen ZenFones? If you're still wondering what I mean, then I'm going say two words: Concentric Circle. That's ASUS' trademark design found not only in its flagship smartphones, but also their top-of-the-line premium laptops.

The half-circle effect beneath the screen makes the phone look premium. The metallic brush finish on the back also gives an impression that this smartphone isn't a cheap one. Another noticeable design feature is the removable back cover which is shaped like an arc. This gives you extra comfort while holding the phone and makes it easier for you to slip it into your pocket.

ZenFone's Front
The curved back with brushed-aluminum finish
Moving on to the buttons, you'll see something... striking. ZenFone 2 has only three buttons: two volume buttons and the usual wake/lock button. The volume buttons are now placed on the back of the phone beneath the camera lens. The back buttons were first popularized by LG with their G2 handset and it turns out to be functional. At first, I thought that the buttons would be as soft as LG's offering, but I was wrong. The buttons were harder to press; makes you get a harder grip on your smartphone as you press its back to prevent it from falling. Another flaw made by ASUS is the phone's lock/power button. It's placed on the center top of the phone. If the ZenFone 2 were a 5-incher, it would still be tolerable. At 5.5", however, it becomes awkward. You'll need to make some effort to reach the top button with your index finger if you don't want to use your other hand. Fortunately, though, ZenFone 2 supports double-tap to lock/wake just like LG, so you don't have to strain yourself locking/waking your phone that often.

Top of the phone reveals secondary mic, power button,
and 3.5mm headphone jack
Bottom of the phone yields the micro-USB port
with primary mic.
Removing the battery cover on the back, you'll see two micro SIM slots (1st SIM supports 4G/3G/2G while the 2nd only supports 2G) and a micro SD slot. Then there's the battery lying beneath the slots, even though you won't be able to remove it. This phone supports NFC so you'll find an NFC chip lying beneath the back cover.

Phone's exposed back cover
In conclusion, ASUS did quite a good job designing the phone (and it pays off by winning the 2015 IF Design Award) but button placements could better. Personally, I'd prefer to have the wake/lock button on the upper right-hand side of the phone... or if possible, between the two volume buttons just like LG.

Screen: A Sharp and Clear LCD

Normally, I should be able to notice that the ZenFone's screen isn't as sharp as my G2's thanks to its smaller size despite the same Full HD resolution. However, I can't really distinguish the difference between the two. The ZenFone's screen is almost, if not the same, as sharp as G2's. There's a slight drawback in open sunlight, which is a little bit too dark in my opinion, but hey, I'm sure that you guys are mostly staying indoors, right?

The lock screen is lollipop-based while
the screen reproduces vivid and brilliant colors.
Additionally, ASUS also allows you to change the screen's color profile to your liking. You can access the settings through the Display section in the Settings app or through a dedicated app called Splendid . You can change the color temperature and the color mode. One interesting feature here is the Bluelight Filter. Various research shows that what's actually straining our eyes is the blue light on our screen. This filter removes the blue light from our screen so that we won't tire our eyes quickly. Sure, the screen becomes a little more yellowish, but to be honest, it is more comfortable for my eyes that way. Unfortunately, I can't give a screenshot comparison as it turns out to be two identical pictures (digital rendering won't eliminate the blue) but trust me, it makes difference.

Splendid app lets you customize your screen's
color profile.
The screen is protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 3 which, you guys should already know, is resistant to scratches. However, as always, it should be noted that this kind of protection is for incidental purposes only. I strongly, strongly, don't recommend you to test it since no technology is perfect and mistakes can happen at any time. 

In conclusion, the ZenFone 2's LCD screen is of high-quality with rich colors and adjustable profile. For average uses, the screen is already on par with today's flagship--with the same resolution although sunlight eligibility could be better. It wouldn't be fair to compare a 1080p screen with a QHD screen, would it?

Camera: Decent Optics with Lots of Modes to Choose From

Powered by today's-standard 13MP camera optics without OIS, the ZenFone 2 takes better-than-expected photos. It's equipped with dual-tone flash which really helps in acquiring more natural photos in dark condition (albeit in some cases it becomes more yellowish...) and there are 18 modes to choose from including standard ones like HDR and Panorama. Unfortunately, I won't cover all of these modes--I'll just cover the essentials. Camera modes that may attract your attention are manual mode (which allows you to control ISO level, light exposures, and focus distance), beautification (to 'polish' your selfies, of course...), Depth of Field, Low Light (yields more eligibility in low light areas), GIF Animation (allows you to snap a short GIF animation), and Super Resolution (which supersize your photos to a whopping ~50MP at the cost of storage space). 

Here are some camera samples:

Lowlight outdoor without flash.
Outdoor without flash.
Indoor without flash
Indoor without flash
Indoor without flash with low-light mode turned on
Indoor with flash
From the samples above, you can see that the low light mode actually gives more brightness to the picture without adding too much noise. However, it comes with a price of lower resolution (3MP). As for the flash, although it's aimed to produce more natural photos in low light, it can make photos more yellowish.

Oh, and yes, this phone is equipped with wide-angle 5MP front cam for group selfies. Being a front camera, I don't expect stellar performance from it. Activating the front camera automatically enables Beautification mode (I see what you're trying to do here, ASUS...) although you can also change modes. Compared to the rear camera, the front takes darker pictures due to the lack of all those fancy tech (5-element lens, image processor, etc.) but hey, front cams are supposed to be used in areas with sufficient lights for better selfies, right?

Front cam sample
In conclusion, the ZenFone 2 camera is decent and performs better than anticipated. Snapping pictures is fast and with a lot of modes to choose from, you can finally unleash whatever creativity is lying in your mind. The only let down here is the lack of OIS. But if you think about it, there is no phone in this price range (seriously, phones that are initially sold in this price range) that offers OIS, doesn't it? At least not now...

Other Software Feats: ZenUI has Lots of Features

ASUS claims that their proprietary ZenUI launcher adds 1,000 features to your handset. While we can't point it out one by one, we can say that ASUS' UI is... functional. Its design is fresh with colorful icons (it even supports icon packs, something that only select proprietary launchers support) and theme support.

By default, ASUS has included quite a number of apps (aside from Google Apps) to your disposal such as Trip Advisor and Clean Master. ASUS has also thrown in their set of proprietary apps such as My ASUS for customer support and access to user forums and ASUS-related sharing apps. What's quite unfortunate here is that some of these proprietary apps are just web launchers, so there's really no point in keeping them inside that precious phone storage of yours. Some of these built-in apps can be uninstalled (thank God!)

Some built-in apps are useful, though. Here are some of them:
  1. Splendid, which allows you to control and personalize your screen color profile (including the blue-light filter which I haven't found in any other proprietary launchers yet).
  2. File Manager (you can get third-party file managers from Play Store but it's nice not having to download, isn't it?)
  3. The File Manager. Plain and simple.
  4. What's Next, which basically is your briefing app. The app would collect events from your calendar and weather information to inform you about what's next in your agenda. If there's a rain coming in the next few days, it'll warn you to bring an umbrella, etc. It even reminds you birthdays.
  5. What's next on the agenda?
  6. Backup, which does... well, backup. You can choose whether to backup only your data, app, or both. You can then later use the backup file to restore should you need to reset your phone.
  7. Being able to backup right of the box is relieving,
    isn't it?
  8. Do It Later, which is a to-do-list-slash-reminder app. To be honest, I haven't found a suitable to-do list app for me to use (yes, I've tried Wunderlist but somehow I'm not comfortable using it). It's really nice to have a built-in to-do list app which is easy and fun to use. Oh, and it syncs with your Google and email account, too.
  9. The to-do list looks legit.
  10. Auto-Start Manager, which is my favorite, is like a startup manager in Windows OS. This will allow you to restrict certain apps from running when your phone starts. This really saves memory in the beginning and might help your phone start faster. However, keep in mind that this only restricts the apps from starting when your phone turns on. What happens afterwards is up to the user.
The Auto-Start Manager
So, in short, ASUS' ZenUI does have useful features. However, not all claimed 1,000 features are useful, even though some are essential and really fits my need. I'm afraid I must say kudos to ASUS for being able to include such useful and essential features. Oh, please be noted that this is based on my preference. To be honest, I prefer built-in apps rather than third-party ones because sometimes you need to create this and that account, and that makes things complicated.

Performance: Intel Against The World

Believe it or not, the Atom processor used by ZenFone 2 is capable of running Windows, since its architecture is x86. Additionally, the chip also supports 64-bit code so you can say that the phone is already future-proof for some time. However, the real question is, how does Intel's offering fare up with the real ARM competitors out there?

Stacking up against the competition
Not a bad score, isn't it?

It turns out that Intel's offering isn't bad, after all. It 's almost on par with last year's still-worth-it flagship One Plus One powered by Snapdragon 801, which is supposed to be more powerful in terms of clock speed. However, at this price level, you can't expect it to perform as fast as high-end phones such as Galaxy S6 or Galaxy Note 4, can you? During a test using AnTuTu Benchmark, the ZenFone 2 scored 44,711 points, which can be categorized as high. If this Intel Atom is an ARM-based processor, I'm certain that it could perform better in benchmarks.

But in the end, numbers are still numbers, no? What matters is the real life performance, and ZenFone 2 quite nails it. Navigation is smooth with no noticeable lag and multitasking is superb thanks to its generous 4GB RAM. On rare occasions, however, the launcher would completely stop and you have to 'refresh' it by clearing all recent apps even though I still have lots of RAM remaining.  It seems like the software itself is still buggy as there are quite many rants in ASUS' forum stating various bugs. ASUS has delivered three firmware updates since I held this phone, so let's just cross our fingers and hope that they can completely squash the bugs plaguing their firmware.

Battery: Quick Charging Helps, but Battery Needs an Upgrade

Even though the ZenFone 2 is equipped with a rather large battery (3,000 mAh), its battery life is still worse compared to the LG G2. There are some reasons that may explain this, though:
  1. The ZenFone 2 has a larger screen (5.5" compared to G2's 5.2") so it needs more power.
  2. The ZenFone 2 is a dual-SIM phone (both can be active at the same time). More juice is absolutely needed to maintain the two simultaneously-active networks.
  3. LG G2 has the SiO+ battery technology, on which they claim increases battery life, although I'm still not sure if it makes a difference.
  4. The ZenFone 2 is powered by a x86 processor, which generally requires more power than ARM processors, thanks to its more complex design and instruction set. Sometimes ARM-exclusive codes will need to be translated to something x86 understands. Thus, it saps more power than it should compared to ARM processors. More information here.
With the LG G2, I could easily score a day battery life with normal usage. With ZenFone 2, however, I'm really struggling. One thing that catches my attention is the unusually large battery usage by "Android OS". Sometimes it scores more than 90%. It doesn't take a genius to conclude that something's wrong, does it?'

On the brighter side, the ZenFone 2 supports quick charging (dubbed BoostMaster by ASUS). The name says it all: with the correct adapter (which is included in the 4GB RAM variant of the handset), the battery can be charged to 60% in 39 mere minutes. This can be achieved by utilizing more voltage in the adapter (thus only applied to special adapters...) so that it produces more output. Sounds neat? Yes, but it'll be much, much better if the software can apply brakes to the battery usage...

Look at the timer. That's Quick Charging
for you.
Until ASUS issues a software update to patch this battery drain bug (if it was Intel's problem, then all remaining Intel phones such as first-gen ZenFones should suffer the same problem. However, they are not), this will be a huge deal breaker for those who want to purchase this handset.

Conclusion: A Mid-Ranger That Fills Your Expectation (8/10)

In conclusion, the ZenFone 2 is a very, very capable mid-ranger with little-to-none downsides. With the price of ~U$400, you'll get 4GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and quite a powerful 2.3GHz x86 processor by Intel. Oh, and don't forget the large 5.5" screen as well.

Software department really needs fixing as there are still battery problems and rare freezes. However, if you can live with all that, I'm sure you're going to be happy with the ZenFone 2. Just make sure to remove all the bloats first, though.

Well, that's all, Folks. I hope that you find this review useful, especially when you're considering to buy a new phone in the near future. Between you and me, I think in the road up ahead 


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