We go hands-on with the upgraded ASUS ZenFone 5, the middle sibling in the ZenFone family. At just £199.99 SIM-free, this 5-inch marvel doesn’t just threaten the Moto G’s ‘best value’ title – it full-on steals it.
With thanks to ASUS for the handset.
The red, gold and purple versions of this handset pull off an impressive trick: making plastic look like metal. The back panel is soft-touch plastic anodised to look metallic, and it’s not just me that was fooled. Asking a colleague to prise the (extremely tricksy) back cover off so I could pop my SIM in, he did a double take and said “that’s plastic?” – well played, ASUS. The black and white versions aren’t so exciting, unfortunately, but you won’t be choosing those anyway, right?
Even next to a metal HTC One, it’s convincing:
It does pick up fingerprints and marks much easier than metal, though.
With its 5-inch screen, the ZenFone 5 is a fairly standard size. The bezels around the screen aren’t exactly slim, but they’re not huge, and there are 3 soft buttons underneath. No backlight on those, unfortunately.
As with the ZenFone 4 (but not the ZenFone 6, for some reason), the power button is on the top right side of the handset, with the volume rocker below. Headphones go in at the top and your charger at the bottom – all nicely standard stuff.
The ASUS trademark concentric circles make an appearance too, in a strip under the capacitive buttons. You’ll recognise that design if you’ve got an ASUS laptop, and it’s also on all the other ZenFones. It’s a nice touch, especially given the otherwise subtle branding on the handset.
On the back of the 4G version, the Intel Inside logo is missing – that’s because unlike the other version of the ZenFone 5, this one has a Qualcomm processor. It’s an interesting departure from the rest of the ZenFone range, which all have Intel chips.
The speaker on the ZenFone 5 sits on the back, at the bottom. It gives very good sound, especially for music, but its top volume isn’t loud enough for me. For instance, I use a white noise app to sleep because my neighbours are phenomenally raucous – but the ZenFone 5 couldn’t make the noise loud enough to block them out, so I had to use a different phone. Still, it does sound better than most phones, although it’s not going to beat the likes of the HTC One M8 and its stonking BoomSound speakers.
Weight-wise, The ZenFone 5 is heavy enough at 145g to feel substantial in your hand, but definitely not heavy. The plastic back will be part of the reason why, making this about the ideal weight for a phone this size.
In short, it’s not the most beautiful phone you’ve ever seen, but it does look convincingly like metal and there’s nothing hateworthy. So for this price bracket, I’m happy.
The specs on the ZenFone 5 aren’t just good for the money – they’re good, full stop. A quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor combines with a generous 2GB of RAM to create a phone that can challenge much more expensive handsets. Closely-priced phones like the Moto G 4G and Sony Xperia M2 offer similar processors but only 1GB of RAM – to match 2GB, you have to look to the likes of the Nexus 5, which is £100 more. Even flagships like the HTC One M8 and Samsung Galaxy S5 offer the same amount, albeit with better processors.
I haven’t experienced any performance issues with this phone, even with hardware-intensive games like Asphalt 8 (though the phone does get quite warm). Multitasking is seamless and apps open quickly – even Spotify, and that never opens quickl). No apps froze or hung in 2 weeks of use, and the phone didn’t need rebooting at all. Frankly, I’ve been trying to find a weak spot, and I’ve failed.
The ZenFone 5 runs Android KitKat, although it has the ASUS ZenUI skin over the top. As manufacturer skins go, it’s not bad, but splitting the notifications bar in two was a mistake. You have to pull down from the left side to get notifications, and from the right to get settings. That kind of makes sense on a phone the size of the ZenFone 6, but on a 5-incher, it’s not needed. It’s also not clear – I had to Google how to get my notifications (apparently I always pull from the right), and I still often find myself slightly on the wrong side of the invisible divide and getting the wrong thing. It’s frustrating, and not an improvement on stock Android.
ZenUI has a fairly simple aesthetic without looking childish. I’m not keen on the shadows on the stock app icons (why would a 2D phone cast a shadow?) but the lock screen looks good, and you can swipe in just about any direction to unlock. Swiping one of the three lock screen icons opens that app after a second or so’s pause:
Like Huawei’s Emotion UI, ZenUI has an ‘Easy mode’ intended for people who just want a simple phone with big icons. It’s a good option to have, especially for older users and people coming from non-smartphones:
Back in normal mode, the quick settings menu is completely (and easily) customisable:
And you’ve even got the option of hiding apps from the app drawer, or locking them with a password:
That’s going to come in handy if you lend your phone to anyone, or your little one uses it to play games.
Speaking of games, there’s plenty of space for those with the included – and again, generous – 16GB of storage. That’s double what you get in the Moto G 4G. It’s also expandable by up to 64GB with microSD. You’ll find some eaten by preinstalled apps, though – of which there are many. Story (virtual photo albums), Omlet Chat (deserted chat app), Do It Later (task manager) and Mirror (yes, just the selfie cam) strike me as particularly pointless, but one was actually quite useful. What’s Next is a heads-up widget for your home screen, letting you know what’s on your calendar (and in how many hours), whose birthday is coming up, that kind of thing. It’s an aggregate of the information on the phone, which you don’t have to go to any extra effort to set up. I found it genuinely useful, which is rare for a manufacturer app.
After the disappointing screen on the ZenFone 4, it’s a big relief to see an HD screen on the next one up. The 5-inch display has a resolution of 1280 x 720, giving it 294 pixels per inch – the Moto G 4G has the same resolution but on a 4.5 inch screen, so its PPI is higher at 329. In another upgrade from the ZenFone 4, the ZenFone 5 has an IPS panel – that means much wider viewing angles, and it won’t darken to the point of uselessness when you tilt it in certain directions.
Again, the display is covered with Gorilla Glass 3, which is always a plus point. This means it’ll be a tougher screen than most, resistant to smashing and scratching. It’s impressive that ASUS have put Gorilla Glass on all four of the ZenFones when they’re priced so affordably, but again the cheaper Moto G 4G can say the same.
There’s automatic brightness adjustment on the ZenFone 5 (again missing from the 4), which does a good job of reacting to your environment. It’s a bright and readable screen, with sharp text and bright colours even in direct sunlight. It’s quick to respond and renders colours well out of the box, though you can mess with hue and saturation to your eyes’ content with the included Splendid app. Even without adjustment, though, photos and videos look great on this phone.
I was happy to see the Reading and Glove Modes from the ZenFone 6 are also included in the 5, because these are both very handy functions to have. Reading Mode dims the screen and gives it a sepia tint to be kinder to your eyes late at night or – obviously – when reading, and Glove Mode lets you use the screen while wearing non-touch-enabled gloves. That’s right, even your £2 Primark gloves can use this screen, no fancypants tech mittens needed. Given how nippy it’s getting now, that’s a big bonus.
The ZenFone 5 has an 8 megapixel main camera and a 2MP front-facing.
The front-facing takes pleasing selfies as long as you’ve got good lighting. This one was taken standing next to a lamp:
The main camera has autofocus, LED flash and all the excellent modes I’ve come to love in the ASUS camera app.
In Auto mode, photos are average: reasonably sharp, with accurate colours and good detail:
But it’s the other modes that make this camera what it is. Try out Depth of Field for SLR-like closeups:
Miniature mode for an easy-to-use tilt shift effect (warning: addictive):
Low Light and HDR mode for tricky lighting situations (like boyband gigs – yes, that’s Blue. I was two blocks back, using zoom):
GIF mode, which shoots like video but makes a GIF animation of up to 30 frames – finished GIFs are full-size but I’ve reduced it here because the filesize would be enormous otherwise (that’s three members of 5ive, FYI):
And a selection of other modes that are fun to play with, but less likely to get used.
The ZenFone 5 can also record video in 1080p HD, and it looks really good. You can zoom in and out during filming (although it’s only digital zoom and so is vulnerable to pixellation if you go too far), pause, and re-focus during shooting. There are also video modes, namely Auto, Hi-light (for capturing brightness in low-light environments), Miniature (tilt-shift) and Timelapse. One big caveat, though – the microphone can’t handle gigs. While the picture quality is good considering the mitigating factors (low light, plus I was quite far back, not standing still and relying heavily on zoom), the microphone was completely overwhelmed. It couldn’t handle the volume or bass, so the sound is appalling and the videos are unusable. Considering you won’t watch the videos you’re filming with sound until you leave a gig, that could really break someone’s heart.
Here’s a sample of the videos I took:
And the review video is also filmed on a ZenFone 5:
There are microphone issues on the review video, too: whenever I stop talking, the microphone seems to turn off, so the first syllable of the next segment is always too quiet. The camera would have scored 8/10 if not for the mic issues, but I have to dock a point for that.
Looking at the ZenFone 5’s spec sheet, the battery is where it falls short of the higher-end phones it otherwise competes with. It’s 2110mAh, which is more on par with similarly-priced phones: the HTC Desire 610 has 2040mAh, Moto G 4G has 2070, Nexus 5 has 2300. It’s not removable either, which is a shame.
The original ZenFone 5 (A501CG, or the non-4G version) received some fairly negative reviews on its battery, but it looks like the 4G edition doesn’t have the same issue. While the battery capacity is exactly the same, it manages to considerably outperform its alter ego.
We ran our standard test of streaming a fullscreen film over Wi-Fi with GPS enabled and screen brightness set to maximum. Both phones started at 100% charge, and two hours later, the 3G ZenFone 5 had just 40% battery left. That’s a very bad result, especially considering that the £99 EE Kestrel managed 50% and the £80 Alcatel OneTouch Pop S3 scored 48%. The 4G version, on the other hand, still had 57% remaining at the end of the test. Not an amazing score, and outclassed by the HTC Desire 610 (61%) and even the £70 Vodafone Smart 4 (58%), but much, much better than the other model.
In terms of day-to-day performance, the ZenFone 5 will give you a full day’s service but not much more. It can’t compete with the super-high-end phones that’ll go more than a day on a single charge, but considering those cost three times as much, that’s more than fair. It’s just that you come to expect more of this phone, given how it punches above its weight in other areas.
Realistically, cuts had to be made somewhere, and I think the battery is the right place. If you’re using it normally (calls, some streaming, browsing and social apps), it’ll last you ably from morning ‘til night. And that’s all you really need.
I have to keep reminding myself that this phone costs £200. It’s remarkable value for money. The hardware gives near-faultless performance and the screen is excellent, the handset looks good and the camera modes will get you addicted to photography again. There are a few downsides: the battery’s not amazing, the camera in Auto mode is nothing special, and it ruined my boyband videos. But throw in 4G, KitKat, Gorilla Glass and the official ASUS case (which works with the phone’s Hall sensor to switch the screen on when you open the cover), and there’s a lot to love here.
Other than the 3G version of itself, the ASUS ZenFone 5’s biggest competitor is the slightly cheaper Moto G 4G. For your extra £40ish, you get twice the internal storage (and can add twice the external storage: up to 64GB microSD rather than 32), double the RAM, and 1080p recording rather than 720. For a few extra notes, that’s a big step up. And I can say the same for ASUS: this phone moves the brand into the big leagues.
Camera can’t handle gig sound
No backlight on soft keys