What is the Asus Zenfone 5?

The Asus Zenfone 5 is one of Asus’s first phones headed for true mainstream distribution. Has it hit the jackpot first time?

Offering a good 5-inch screen, respectable hardware and a decent camera for under £200 SIM-free, it certainly seems so. After the major disappointment that was the Asus Zenfone 4, this is a bit of a revelation. And a superb bargain too. Battery life isn’t fantastic, but most other elements are for the money.

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Asus Zenfone 5 – Design

At around £150 SIM-free, the Asus Zenfone 5 is one of the biggest phones you can get at the price, at least until the Motorola Moto G2 turns up – it’s rumoured to have a 5-inch screen. Asus has tried to give the entire new Zenfone range the same kind of signature look, too.

The Zenfone 4, Zenfone 6 and this 5-inch version all have slightly curvy plastic backs that come in a few different colours, and a little metal lip below the screen that has a slightly shiny finish textured with concentric circles. This design has been an Asus staple for years, and can be seen on the lids of its Zenbook laptops.

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It’s a look that smacks a bit of inexperience in the Zenfone 5. While simple, a few of the subtler finishing touches are missing, giving a slight clunkiness to the look that we didn’t see in the smaller Zenfone 4. Mostly because it just suited the smaller size better.

Still, it’s not bad looking, and in comparing the Zenfone 5 to phones of the same size, you’re generally looking at rivals around twice the price.

Compared to the smaller Zenfone 4, this phone’s rear cover colours are a lot more vivid. It comes in red or purple as well as white and black. They’re bold, slightly metallic shades that would look out of place on a painted fingernail. The coloured versions won’t be for everyone, but we do like the ever-so-slightly shiny finish used.

SEE ALSO: Best Android Phones Round-up
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The Asus Zenfone 5’s rear is a removable plastic plate that has a soft touch feel. On first getting hold of the phone, we found the edges a little bit severe, but once you’re used to the shape you start to notice the nice, tactile finish more.

After the usual bed-in period that comes with any larger phone, we also found the Zenfone 5 fairly easy to use one-handed. While it doesn’t have a super-slim screen bezel like the LG G2, and it’s not exactly small at 72.8mm width and 10.3mm thick, the curvature of the phone’s back makes it easier to handle. And the power/volume buttons are kept on the side, within (mostly) easy reach of your thumb.
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Before we praise the Zenfone 5 too much, it is a little bit trickier to handle than the smaller Samsung Galaxy S5, and as its soft keys do not light up it’s can be a bit tricky to use in the dark. But this _phone_ is a third of the price and therefore gets a whole bucketful of the benefit of the doubt.

How is the _phone_ so cheap? Asus has had to price the phone aggressively as the company has effectively no track record of making mainstream phones, and the version we’re looking at lacks 4G. We have seen an LTE version advertised, but as it sells for £250 – a similar price to the Nexus 5 and LG G2 – it seems a lot less attractive. Cheap is the key word when it comes to selling the Zenfone 5.


Asus Zenfone 5 – Screen

Recently, we took a look at the Asus Zenfone 4, and one of its numerous disappointments was that the screen was pretty rubbish. A TN-type panel and low display resolution led to universally uninspiring experience.

The Asus Zenfone 5 is a completely different beast. It has a 5-inch IPS display of 720p resolution.
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Ideally, a 5-inch phone screen should have a 1080p screen, but we’re very happy with resolution given the asking price. Sharpness is pretty good, and the lower screen resolution is only totally obvious if you get very close up.

For all you pixel peepers out there, this resolution and screen size gives you pixel density of 294ppi. That’s not bad and not much less than the Retina 326ppi sharpness of the iPhone 5S.

Other aspects of the screen are also great, given you can get on-board for as little as £150. Contrast and colours are strong but natural-looking fresh out of the box, and you even get a bit of control over how the display looks.

The Asus Zenfone 5 comes with a little screen customisation utility called Asus Splendid. It lets you tweak the colour temperature and saturation, giving you very easy and effective tweaking over the character of the display. There’s also a hue control, but it’s pretty much useless as you can only really make your display look worse with it.

Asus Splendid


From an image quality perspective, the Asus Zenfone 5 has an extremely satisfying screen, one that – like the Motorola Moto G – sets a standard for what we’ll expect (or at least hope for) in the screen of a budget 5-inch phone.

The one clear indication that this isn’t quite a super-high-end screen other than resolution is that there’s pretty significant blue colour shift when you view the display from an extreme, awkward angle. But that’s not exactly a natural, comfortable or healthy position.

It’s impressive, and really not all that far off the top 1080p phones in terms of the experience you get.

It also solves a few other issues we saw in the Zenfone 4. The Zenfone 5 has an auto brightness setting, meaning you don’t need to change the screen brightness manually when you go outdoors.

Visibility in sunlight is pretty good too – extremely good for a £150 phone. A fairly good slimline screen architecture and very good top brightness make this phone a joy to use just about anywhere. If anything, we found that the auto brightness setting can be a bit generous at times – but this is only a concern for battery life.

There’s no scrimping on the screen’s top layer either. The Zenfone 5 has a Gorilla Glass 3 top surface. It’s hard, scratch-resistant, and shows none of the flexing of the Zenfone 4 (even though that phone supposedly has a Gorilla Glass screen too.

Asus Zenfone 5 – Software

The Asus Zenfone 5 does not have the very latest version of the Android OS. It uses Android 4.3, which we think might be down to the fact that these phones have been waiting for release for a while now (we saw them just-about-finished in January). However, as they use a full custom interface, called ZenUI, the differences in base OS aren’t necessarily that important.

ZenUI gives the Zenfone 5 a full re-skin, but it’s one that feels fairly familiar. There’s still the standard Android layout of home screens and the apps menu. Asus has given the phone a different look, not too much of a functional change.

We see this throughout the system too. The settings menu, the notifications drop down, the separate drop-down features toggles – they’re all here, they just look a little different from default Android.

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ZenUI does add some slightly fiddly elements, though. There are two very obvious ones. First, the Zenfone 5 has two drop-down menu bars rather than one. Flick down from the left side of the screen and you get your notifications, flick from the right and you get your features toggles.

It’s not as fiddly as it seemed in the much smaller Zenfone 4, but we’re not entirely convinced by this choice. The thing is, you really need to get a second hand involved to reach your notifications menu, which is the one you’ll probably use the most.
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We’re also a little unsure about the Zenfone 5’s keyboard – the phone uses a custom Asus one. When typing text messages it’s perfectly fine – it looks good, it’s clear and with a tweak in the settings menu it supports gesture typing.

However, head to the browser and the keyboard layout changes, chopping down the space bar in order to fit in web-centric keys like the forward slash and ‘.com’ shortcut. We get the idea, but it encroaches on a key you use too often just a bit too much. And as you’re constantly flipping between this one and a ‘normal’ keyboard, you don’t get used to it quickly either.

It feels as though Asus has tried a bit too much to plug in its own unique features into the interface, and not all of them work completely. Still, it’s far from a bad interface, and you can easily change several of Asus’s little ‘innovations’ by switching the keyboard or even switching for the Google interface (it’s available through a Google Play app these days).

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Asus Zenfone 5 – Performance and Games

The main reason we don’t mind ZenUI as a whole, though, is that it does not slow down the Asus Zenfone 5. It's nippy, giving you fairly similar everyday performance to something like the Nexus 5 or Moto G – which are vanilla or near-vanilla Android phones.

Specs-wise, the Asus Zenfone 5 is a pretty interesting phone. As with so many of Asus’s mobile devices, it uses an Intel chipset rather than a more popular one from Qualcomm. It’s a real pairing of underdogs – a phone from a company not known for making mobiles using a chipset from a CPU-maker only really known for its non-mobile CPUs.

The exact CPU it uses is the Intel Atom Z2580, a dual-core CPU clocked at 2GHz. This is a faster-clocked version of the processor used in the smaller Zenfone 4.

How does it fare? Reasonably well, given the price. As already stated, general performance is pretty good, with no annoying lag to the usual sorts of light operations you’ll perform a hundred times a day. This will doubtless also be helped by the 2GB of RAM. The vast majority of phones at the price only have 1GB (although this is actually enough for good general performance).

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Before trying out our usual high-end 3D games, we gave the Zenfone 5 a spin with the Geekbench 3 benchmarking app.

It scores around 1,031 points, which is around (or slightly below) the performance you’ll get from a Snapdragon 400 CPU, used by a good few phones in the £100-300 bracket including the Sony Xperia T3, the Moto G and EE Kestrel.

It’s not a patch on the Snapdragon 800 used in the Nexus 5, but it’s decent.

What about gaming performance? It’s reasonably good, but over-stretches itself on some occasions.

A good indicator of how much power your GPU has is to run Dead Trigger 2 and see how flashy the graphics are. If there are colour highlights in the floor and fancy water effects, the game thinks you have a high-end processor.

Here’s the weird bit – Dead Trigger 2 doesn’t think the Snapdragon 400 is high-end, but does think the Intel Atom Z2580 is. You get all the visual bells and whistles of a top-end phone here. In the Zenfone 4, we found that adding these visual effects had a pretty significant effect on performance. But here the extra power minimises the frame rate issues.

There are some frame rate drops, though – high-end games with everything turned up to 11 do challenge the Intel Atom Z2580. It’s not perfect, but is better than the cheaper Zenfone 4.

Asus Zenfone 5 – Camera

The Asus Zenfone 5 has an 8-megapixel main camera, and it has a flash to help out in low-light conditions too.

The camera is one of the areas where the ZenUI software really sticks its oar in too. A custom camera app gives you loads of extra features and a slightly different interface to the standard Android one.

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It’s pretty easy to use, and handily suggests modes you might want to sure (the most useful being Night) just before you shoot. It doesn’t do so with the annoying insistence of a backseat driver, either.

Most of the extras are fluffy things like fake depth of field effects, tilt shift and portrait enhancing, but they’re fun and sensibly laid-out – a bit like the Galaxy S5 camera UI in fact. There are also very handy low-light modes that, as we’ll see in a minute, are pretty useful.

Here's a quick look at the app:

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Shooting performance is reasonable, but it’s where we see the Zenfone 5’s only real camera issues. Focusing seems to be a little faulty. With subjects around 1m away, the phone often seems to misreport being in focus, leading to blurry pictures. This should be easily fixable with a software update.

Shooting speed is also not lightning fast thanks to slightly slow focusing/processing speed – among phones in general if not phones at the price. There’s about a 1.7sec delay between shots, which is not super-fast.

The Asus Zenfone 5 mitigates by offering a Turbo mode that holds focus and shoots up to 100 shots at about 5fps, at 2MP. It’s dead easy to access having its own button right by the shutter, and is perfect for shooting fast action. While not quite a full replacement for slightly faster shooting, it’s nice to have.

How’s image quality? It’s rather good, for a phone that starts at under £200.

We’re impressed with the metering of the Asus Zenfone 5. It generally produces quite nice and bright photos, without having a particular habit of heading into serious overexposure.

It’s easy to take good shots, and you can clearly see the extra detail you get over some 5-megapixel cameras at £100-150. We think it has a much better camera than the Motorola Moto G, for example.

The inbuilt HDR mode is effective, very effective, but can be a little heavy-handed. While it brings out additional detail, you often lose out on some contrast in brighter areas and it does cause a slight halo’ing around objects. This reduces how natural your shots look.

Here are a few samples:

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Here's a great example of the Zenfone 5's sensible exposure and decent dynamic range. The skeleton is clear despite the bright window highlights above, which are overexposed but not destructively so.

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The HDR mode is effective, but does not produce hugely natural-looking shots, with clear outlines 'drawn' around objects.

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HDR... it makes a difference

What’s also interesting is the pair of low-light modes in the Zenfone 5. There’s a standard Night mode that boosts sensitivity at full resolution, and a special super-power low-light mode that reduces resolution to 2MP in order to produce a much cleaner-looking image.

It’s not just down to the reduction in resolution as it also ramps-up brightness quite substantially (resulting in overexposure is there are lighter areas), but we found it very useful. It’s great for making low-light images look much brighter, where they might otherwise be a murky smudge.

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This room was a good deal darker than it appears in this shot. The Zenfone 5's extreme low light modes can produce minor miracles not common in budget phones.

While the Asus Zenfone 5 camera experience is a little buggy at present – the focus issue being the worst offender – we do appreciate what Asus is trying to do. And much of it is great.

Asus Zenfone 5 – Battery Life

There are lots of things to like about the Asus Zenfone 5. If you don’t care about 4G it’s a top budget option.

However, the battery is a slightly weak link. The phone has a 2110mAh battery, which is similar to the capacity of the Motorola Moto G despite having a significantly bigger display.
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The Zenfone 5 battery is non-removable

In use stamina is reasonable, but we wish it was slightly better. With normal usage, running off 3G all day, you’ll have around 20-25% battery left by bed time. It’s not a terrible result, but it’s not quite as strong as the more famous 5-inch phones.

It is much better than the Zenfone 4, though, which struggled to make it though the day.

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The Zenfone 5 can make it thorugh the day, but without a huge buffer

Left to play a looped 720p MP4 video with mid-level brightness, the Zenfone 5 lasts for seven and a half hours. It’s not a patch on what we got out of the Xperia M2 (11 hours), but is a respectable-ish score that’s way clear of the danger zone 4.5 hours the smaller Zenfone 4 manages.

Asus Zenfone 5 – Call and Sound Quality

What about the basics? Asus has not put all that much attention into the call quality or speaker quality. They are fine, but nothing more.

Calls exhibit a slightly scratchy treble, although clarity is otherwise perfectly good. And the mono speaker on the back does not excel in any particular area – it’s not tremendously loud and doesn’t offer greater bass or power than the norm. It’s not a horrible, harsh mess, though.

That may not sound like a compliment, but it is something to check in a new, unknown phone range.

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Should I buy the Asus Zenfone 5?

After the searing disappointment of the Asus Zenfone 4, the Zenfone 5 is a real relief. It’s better in almost every respect, and easily merits the extra cash. It's an excellent phone in most respects, and should help put Asus on the map as a phone-maker to watch out for if you want a good-value phone. For now it’s a pretty good alternative to the Motorola Moto G if you want a slightly larger screen. If that sounds like you, stick it on your shortlist.

There are just a couple caveats. One is the 5-inch silhouette of the Motorola Moto G2, expected for release soon. The Zenfone 5 is the best-value 5-inch phone on the market right now, but that it's a tentative award so long as the Moto G2 is waiting for release. If you can, it's worth waiting for.

The other is if you demand 4G. If you do we'd consider the more powerful Nexus 5 or LG G2, or the 4G version of the Moto G, which costs about the same as the Zenfone.

Verdict

There are a couple of little bits to tweak in the Asus Zenfone 5, but the value on offer here is fantastic. Other 5-inch phones at the price don’t get you screens anywhere near as good as this.

Next, check out our best mobile phones round-up