By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. June 24, 2015
The recent arrival of a new ASUS ZenFone 2 review unit sparked a number of thoughts and memories. I was at CES 2015 in January where ASUS announced the product, and was impressed by the ZenFone 2’s overall look and feel. I was also particularly interested in the role Intel played in its development since the ZenFone 2 is the first “phablet” handset the company’s silicon has occupied. It is also just the second Intel-based phone sold in the U.S., becoming available for purchase in late May via ASUS’s company site and other online retail outlets.
Additionally, similar to many other ASUS products, the ZenFone 2 is designed to deliver quality experience at aggressive price points. But after using it extensively for the past week or so I’ve come to believe that the new handset actually marks an inflection point of sorts for phablets in general and luxury smart phones in particular. Those same points make the ZenFone 2 what I consider to be an intriguing Android-based option for business users. Let’s consider these points.
Under the cover
Like other ASUS smart phones, the ZenFone 2 leverages Google’s mobile OS (Android Lollipop v5.0). Unlike them, it offers a 5.5 inch full HD (1920v1080) display in a body about the size of a standard 5 inch handset which ASUS achieved via a narrower than average bezel. The rear of the body is gently curved and feels comfortable in the hand, and the standard back is plastic machined and colored to emulate anodized metal. In the evaluation package it provided, ASUS included a View Flip Cover accessory designed to protect the display surface that also offers a touch sensitive view port for checking calls, messages, etc. Since the ZenFone 2 utilizes Gorilla Glass 3 (rather than the tougher v4), the View Flip Cover is a good option to consider.
The ZenFone 2 comes in two versions; 1) a budget model sporting a quad core Intel Atom Z3560 (1.8GHz) processor, 2GB DDR3 and 16GB storage for $199 unlocked, or 2) a premium model leveraging a quad core Intel Atom Z3580 (2.3GHz) processor, 4GB DDR3 and 64GB storage for $299 unlocked. Both versions include a Power VR G6430 GPU capable of supporting 1080p video rendering. Both models include a microSD slot that allows owners to add up to 64GB of additional storage. ASUS proudly notes that the ZenFone 2 is the first smart phone to offer 4GB of RAM, a critical point for some tasks and apps.
Both models incorporate a non-removable 3000mAh lithium polymer battery that supports ASUS BoostMaster fast charge technology, allowing up to 60% recharge in 39 minutes (note: the BoostMaster charger is a separate option for the budget ZenFone 2). Both models support 802.11ac, WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and GPS, as well as GSM, 3G and 4G LTE. That means that in the U.S., the ZenFone 2 is limited to ATT, T-Mobile and other GSM-based carriers, not Verizon or Sprint. Both models also offer two SIM card slots, allowing a handset to support two separate accounts (though only one line can be used for data).
Like virtually all smart phones, the ZenFone 2 includes rear (13MP, f/2.0 aperture, auto-focus with dual color Real Tone flash) and front (5MP, f/2.0, wide angle) facing cameras. The controls include the auto and manual operations common in most smart phone cameras, along with a few special ASUS apps such as Selfie Panorama, which allows users to stitch together group selfie shots. The f/2.0 aperture setting offers decent depth of field, and ASUS claims the camera works especially well in low light circumstances.
So how did the ZenFone perform? The review unit I tested was the premium edition with an Intel Atom 2.3GHz CPU, 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, and my experience ranged from very good to excellent in some tasks. Of especial note was the overall performance, which was peppy and seamless for tasks, including multi-tasking with common applications and running multimedia and game apps. I attribute that mainly to the quad core Intel “Moorefield” processor and bountiful RAM. ASUS’s pride at being the first vendor to deliver a smart phone with 4GB of RAM seems well-placed in this regard, and the fact that it comes in a $299 product is remarkable.
The bright 5.5 inch full HD display makes the ZenFone 2 a good choice for streaming video and its onboard storage capacity (especially with an additional microSD card) could support plenty of dedicated films or TV episodes for long plane flights or trips to the DMV. Battery life was average to good – I didn’t have any issues with moderate use over the course of a full day but I can imagine problems in prolonged circumstances without access to an outlet or backup battery. Then again, that’s a normal enough scenario given the commonality of non-swappable batteries in most smart phones.
The camera was fine for normal circumstances though like many other reviewers I ran into some problems in low light settings and with excess noise. The ZenFone 2’s responsiveness and ease of use is generally good, but the non-standard location of the power and volume controls (the former on the top of the handset and the latter on the back beneath the camera lens) took some getting used to. The phone feels good in the hand, but like many other phablets, its overall size (especially with the optional View Flip Cover) makes it a bit bulky to carry in a front pants pocket.
My dislikes were mainly on the software side. The ZenFone 2 comes loaded with a good deal of “bloatware” — apps designed to generate ad-based revenue. That’s common enough in budget phones and is completely understandable given the aggressive pricing of the ZenFone 2, but it’s still a bit of a pain. Also along this line, ASUS decided for some reason to develop homegrown apps for common tasks/functions, including browser, keyboard, calendar and photos that aren’t all that great. In fact, the keyboard is awful. But it’s easy enough to replace them with apps from Google’s Play Store.
On the hardware side, the ZenFone 2’s speaker/sound quality is mediocre, at best, a point I hope the company will correct in future. That said, I didn’t rhave much trouble with issues noted by some other reviewers. Many dinged the quality of the camera which I found to be perfectly adequate for snapshots. Most whinged about the bloatware, but those apps were largely easy to uninstall or disable. All commented on ASUS’s use of plastic in the frame and case (in contrast to Apple and other vendors using metal or glass) but that doesn’t appear to detract from the phone’s durability.
The ZenFone of business
Going back to my introduction, why do I think the ZenFone 2 is an intriguing business solution? For three reasons. First and foremost, the dual SIM cards can allow the handset to effectively support separate personal and business accounts. That feature is fairly common in smart phones sold in Europe and Asia but not in the U.S. Second, like other phablet-style smart phones, the ZenFone 2’s size enhances its effectiveness for comfortably using business applications and documents.
Finally, both of the Intel Atom chips (Z3560 and Z3580) ASUS used support Advanced Encryption Standard New Instructions for encryption/decryption, Secure Key (a random number generator) and Execute Disable Bit (which can reduce exposure to/damage from viruses and malicious-code attacks), Intel features that should allow the ZenFone 2 to support advanced functions critical for security-minded businesses.
Finally, consider price – the real inflection point (or exclamation point) related to the ZenFone 2. Sure, luxury phablets like the iPhone 6 Plus, Google Nexus 6 and Samsung Note 4 offer premium features, like Retina HD displays, near-professional quality cameras and better sound reproduction. But are those really worth the 2X-3X higher price these stylish products command? I would argue not, especially when it comes to cost-sensitive businesses looking for powerful mobile solutions.
ASUS’s ability to deliver very good to excellent performance at a jaw-dropping $199-$299 price point makes the ZenFone 2 a classic example of the IT industry’s ability to support and sustain continuing product and category disruption. In a market as increasingly moribund as smart phones, where incremental innovation is defined by exotic composite metals and fractional improvements in pixel count, the real question isn’t whether ASUS’s ZenFone 2 is “good enough” to compete with companies like Apple and Samsung. Instead, consumers and businesses should be asking why they are paying luxurious prices for products that look increasingly unimaginative and mundane.
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