ASUS has been making premium Padfone smartphones for the past years. Now, they have introduced a new value-priced smartphone range. The ZenFone series are not only affordable, the user interface has undergone a positive rework to improve usability on the Android OS.
Zenfone comes in 3 sizes: Zenfone 4, Zenfone 5 and Zenfone 6. Currently on hand with me is the Zenfone 6, retailing in Singapore at a mere S$329, and the hardware specs are pretty impressive for the price.
What's With ZenUI
ZenUI is ASUS new UI for Android smartphones. It has claimed to have made over 200 modifications to the basic Android OS, but the fonts and menu designs largely follow Android. What ZenUI offers are:
- Customised Quick Settings. Pulldown from the right of the notification bar and the screen will be filled with circular quick setting icons. The top 4 icons in green - Flashlight, Memory Boost, Calculator, Quik Memo - are non-modifiable. The rest may be customised and re-arranged. Pulldown from the left of the notification bar and you will see the usual system notifications.
- Background Image. Have you wished your background image is not so bright so that it does not clash with your home screen app icons? ZenUI allows you to adjust the transparency when selecting your image, saving me effort to edit the image before selecting as my background image.
- What's Next. This feature highlights your upcoming tasks and activities, and it even does countdown. At first I thought it was just another calendar reminder app, but I later found out that the app is intelligent enough to inform you of changes to upcoming appointment. For instance, when the original appointment date is postponed, it will show on the notification. Similarly, when the location of your next appointment is changed, it will remind you the moment the meeting organiser changes.
- Do It Later. This feature allows you to set aside notifications or events into a task list when it arrives, e.g. missed calls, SMS, emails. When you visit the Do It Later task list, you may choose to mark as important, or click to read the original message. Once you do, the task automatically disappears, thus saving you effort to remove them.
- Remote Link app converts your Zenfone into a remote device to work with your PC via Bluetooth. It can act as a mouse trackpad, a keyboard, a media remote controller, and a Powerpoint presenter with slide preview.
- PC Link app lets you access your Zenfone on your PC via USB. You see the exact screen on your PC and you can make use of the PC keyboard, mouse and touch to interact with the Zenfone remotely.
- Share Link and Party Link apps let you send and receive files to other devices via Direct WiFi. Unlike the Android Direct WiFi which is slightly more difficult to get it running, these apps works in a snap. The best part is that it works with other Android brands, iOS and Windows Phone under SHAREit app (developer is Lenovo).
- One-hand Operation. ASUS understands some consumers might find the 6-inch screen size too large for single hand use. So it devises this feature to allow user to resize the display. The resize is permanent, all the action will be contained within the window, including the 3 capacitive buttons.
- Voice Call option buttons. I've never seen so many call option buttons on a voice call screen. Other than the usual buttons to mute, add caller, there is an option to record the call natively.
- Easy Mode. This seems to be a de-facto feature for recent Android phones to combat consumer concerns about the complex home screen. The Easy Mode home screen displays the apps in 3x3 layout. I quite like the Zenfone Easy Mode layout, as its icons are pretty and does not look as plain.
Now that I have completed describing the ZenUI, let me talk about the Zenfone 6 itself.
- Processor: Intel® Atom™ Z2580 Processor 2.0 GHz with Intel Hyper-Threading Technology
- Operating System: Android Jelly Bean 4.3 with ASUS ZenUI
- (Upgradeable to Android 4.4 KitKat)
- Network: GSM 850/900/1800/1900, UMTS/DC-HSPA+ 850/900/1900/2100MHz ( DL: 42Mbit/s / UL: 5.76 Mbit/s)
- Display: 6" 1280 x 720 (HD), LED Backlight IPS+ Panel (400nits), Corning® Gorilla® Glass 3, Synaptics Touch IC, support GloveTouch
- Graphics: PowerVR SGX 544 MP2
- Dimension: 166.9 (L) x 84.3 (W) x 5.5~9.9 (H) mm
- Weight: 196g
- Battery: 3300 mAh, Irremovable polymer battery, up to 28hrs 3G talk time
- Memory: mDDR2 2GB RAM
- Storage: eMMC 16GB, Micro SD Card Support (Up to 64GB), Lifetime 5GB ASUS WebStorage
- Sensors: Accelerator/Gyro/E-Compass/Proximity Light/Hall Sensor
- Wireless: Integrated 802.11 b/g/n WiFi-Direct, Bluetooth V 4.0
- GPS: Support GPS, A-GPS and GLONASS
- SIM: Dual Micro-SIM
- Connectivity: Micro-USB 2.0, 3.5MM headphone, Mic-in
- Cameras: Front: 2MP Camera F/2.8; Rear: 13MP, F/2.0
- Colours: Charcoal Black / Pearl White / Cherry Red
Before you continue, this is the first thing I would like to mention. The Zenfone series are competitively priced, and the priciest and largest Zenfone 6 is retailing at only $329. There is no way that ASUS can sell this device with top-grade hardware, but as I use the device, it does not feel like a low-priced low-spec smartphone in most aspects.
Build and Design
The Zenfone 6 feels very well-built and solid, with 6-inch of Corning Gorilla Glass 3 screen and the iconic concentric circle finish at the bottom strip of the front surface. The rear matt plastic cover is removable - with much effort - to reveal slots for 2 micro SIM cards and 1 microSD card. The battery lays hidden beneath the inner casing, a somewhat disappointing move. The volume rocker and power buttons are located on the right which are easily accessible by your index finger when you hold it.
After getting used to Full-HD screens, the Zenfone 6 screen fonts appear soft. While the colour and contrast is good from the front, the colour tones change as you look from different angles.
The camera app is rather intuitive. Sometimes it would detect the scene and recommend the HDR or Low Light mode, which you could otherwise activate it manually. There are 2 separate shutter buttons for still and video capture, as well another button to activate "Turbo" burst shot mode.
ASUS claims its PixelMaster technology with f/2.0 five-element lens helps to capture low light images with good brightness and low grain by downsampling the images. Yes I do find the images are not grainy but I find it overprocessed and lacks details. No matter, you can choose not to enable the low light mode and shoot in normal 13MP size. The auto-mode images may appear conservatively exposed, but zoom-in and you notice sufficient details. With today's photo-editing tools, you would have no trouble enhancing the images before posting.
The camera can be easily activated from standby mode by pressing the volume button, which is good. I like the GIF Animation mode where I can easily capture a 30-frame sequence and save it as GIF easily. I also like that the Gallery app easily displays the EXIF via pop-up menu. Time Rewind also allows you to choose the correct moment to save - 2 seconds before and 1 second - after you press the shutter.
The Zenfone 6 is one of the softest smartphone I have reviewed so far. Turning on the AudioWizard improved the volume but produced compressed and distorted audio. I could barely hear anything for some YouTube videos in a noisy environment.
Battery life is nothing to shout at, despite a large capacity 3300mAh. For my kind of usage, it comfortably lasts through my waking hours of about 18 hours, a little longer than other review phones.
The most apparent difference when I switch from a top-end smartphone like HTC One M8 to the Zenfone 6 is the overall speed, which is understandable due to a relatively slower processor. Despite capable of connecting up to HSPA+ (42Mb/s) network, I seem to have to wait longer for data content to be loaded. After a few days of adjusting my expectations, it feels fine without any stutter. So while overall experience is smooth, it's just a little less snappy than top-end devices.
Another inconvenience is that the permanent soft keys at the bottom of the screen have no backlight. I find myself missing the keys when using in the dark, as the buttons are rather spaced apart.
Conclusion: Great Price, Good Quality
Zenfone 6 is one of the larger smartphones in the market, but somehow I get accustomed to it without major issues. Personally I'm not concerned with weight, and what wins me over is the rock-solid build quality. The removable rear casing is great as I could replace if it gets worn. The ZenUI brings a lot of useful and unique features to the end-user. The processor runs the device smoothly without hint of struggle. Available without contract in Singapore for S$329.
Reviewed by Chester Tan
Rating: of 5