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.
Asus ZenFone 2 is equipped with a 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD. 1080p is really an ideal resolution for a phone this size; side-by-side comparisons with my 1440p phones prove that you'll strain to distinguish the pixels with the naked eye. As an IPS display, it has good color reproduction, filling the full sRGB gamut. Contrast and saturation are also good, though I noticed that the reds appear more orange on the ZenFone 2 than on the LG G4 and Galaxy S6. Also, it doesn't get nearly as bright as Samsung's AMOLED screens. Those nitpicks are far from deal-breakers, though. At no point during my testing did I feel like the display quality was compromised. I also like that the LCD sits pretty close under the Gorilla Glass.
The size of the screen, along with dedicated Android buttons on the chassis, make this a pretty big phone. It's taller and thicker than the LG G4, which also has a 5.5-inch screen. We're well accustomed to large phones these days, but the ZenFone 2 does stick out from my back pocket a bit. And at 170grams, it does feel bulky in the hands, a design tradeoff that's perhaps a byproduct of its price. (Another design decision I disliked: the placement of the power button at the top of the phone, which makes it difficult to press in one hand).
On the camera side, we have a 13MP rear camera sensor and 5MP front-facing sensor, both paired with f/2.0 aperture lenses. That's a fairly wide aperture for a smartphone lens, and the 28mm equivalent focal length matches the GS6 and iPhone 6. Technical specs are of course only part of the story; Android OEM camera apps and processing algorithms are largely responsible for the photos you're able to take. I'm happy to report that on the app side, Asus' camera software is pretty robust. You get lots of manual camera settings in addition to a responsive auto mode.
On the processing side, there's HDR and auto-optimization toggles, which unfortunately yielded mediocre results. The photos I was able to take with the ZenFone 2 never looked great when transferred over to the desktop for scrutiny. With optimization turned on, edges were crunched and the finer details too muddled in the compression for my taste. With optimization turned off, the edges looked too soft. The phone can't shoot RAW photos, and there's no OIS either. Given the fantastic quality of the Android cameras I've tested recently, this mild disappointment was a reality check. ZenFone 2's photos aren't bad; they simply don't stand out. I would rank it well above the Nexus 5, and only on par with the OnePlus One.
Battery life doesn't stand out, either, despite the use of a 3000mAh battery. In my testing, I was able to get just under 7 hours of continuous web browsing, and a full day of sporadic twitter and email use. It couldn't last a full travel day, which entails heavy use throughout, including internet tethering. The non-removable battery can however be charged quickly with a Qualcomm Quick-Charge certified charger, though only the $300 model comes with one in the box. I found a compatible Anker charger for $16.
But whereas the middle-of-the-road camera and battery life are excusable, the bloatware on the Asus ZenFone 2 really isn't. I'm not talking about the custom launcher and interface--Asus Zen UI actually has good lock screen widgets and notification shade shortcuts. (I also swap out the launcher for Google Now, anyway). What's frustrating is the sheer number of Asus and third-party apps pre-loaded onto the phone. Over three dozen, by my count. Some are Asus' alternatives to stock Google apps (though they're not better), and some are completely unnecessary. You can uninstall or disable many of them, and hide the rest so they don't fill up your app tray. It's manageable, but time-consuming. (Here's a list of the apps that come pre-installed.)
I know people have given Asus a tough time for the bloatware situation on the ZenFone 2, but it shouldn't dismiss the fact that from a performance and daily use standpoint, the phone is an incredible value at $200. The $300 model may be tempting, but consider that the $100 difference is a 50% upsell, and you may not even need the extra RAM or clock speed. The base model is what I would get if I needed a new phone mid-upgrade cycle, or broke my on-contract phone. I don't think it's going to change how Samsung, LG, and Sony price their flagships, but the Asus ZenFone 2 should put into perspective what kind of hardware you can get at a great off-contract price.
Thanks to B&H for providing this phone for our review.