In the United States, on-contract subsidies for phones is slowly being supplanted by leasing and "easy-pay" deals where users can get new phones for no money down--the full price of the phone is amortized over the term of the contract. It's another way that carriers are trying to hide the fact that the latest flagship phones are more expensive than most people think--$600 and up in the bottom line. That's why we take note when phones like the Nexus 5 and OnePlus One are released for half that price, off-contract and unlocked for use with any GSM carrier. The latest of these low-cost high-end phones is Asus' ZenFone 2, which I've been using for the past few weeks. Its recent US release turned heads because of its price: $200 for a 1080p phone with really good technical specs. Sounds great on paper, and I'm happy to report that there aren't many catches (at least not any you can't work around).
The Asus ZenFone 2 is also interesting because it runs on an Intel Atom processor. The quad-core SoC is on the top end of Intel's Silvermont architecture, paired with a PowerVR graphics component. It's actually the same chip found in the Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet I tested at the beginning of the year, which was a great performer. As with the Dell tablet, you shouldn't have to worry about Android app compatibility with X86--Android Lollipop's ART runtime takes care of that. And running on a 1080p smartphone, the performance of the chip is competitive with the latest ARM SoCs from Qualcomm and Samsung. My benchmarks showed it fitting between the performance of the Galaxy S6 and LG G4--definitely flagship material. At that level, I couldn't notice performance differences in day to day use, even in gaming.
I should mention that the ZenFone 2 does come at two price points, with meaningful differences. The $200 entry-level runs a slightly slower 1.8GHz processor, with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage. The $300 model I tested has a 2.33GHz Atom, 4GB of RAM, and four times the storage at 64GB. RAM and SoC are the notable differentiators between the models, since you can expand storage on both with a microSD card. Both models also have dual microSIM slots. But even at 1.8GHz and 2GB of RAM, you're going to be able to run any new Android app and game without problems.
The respectable performance doesn't come as a surprise, so we turn to the areas that really differentiate the day-to-day use of a smartphone: display quality, camera, and battery life. On these counts, the Asus ZenFone is above average, but doesn't claim any crowns. Let's start with the screen.