With thanks to ASUS for the handset
2014 is all about the giant phones, and the ASUS ZenFone 6 is certainly one of those. With a mammoth 6-inch screen, this mid-ranger is half an inch bigger than the iPhone 6 Plus, so firmly in phablet territory. But unlike its competitors, at £250 it won’t cost you an arm and a leg – just an extra-large hand.
First thing’s first: this is a big-ass phone. People look at it in the street and you’re not quite sure if they’re admiring it or considering nicking it. Making a call feels quite a lot like holding a laptop to your head. And all your friends pick it up and go ‘Ooh, is this the iPhone 6 Plus?’
The branding, then, is pretty subtle. There’s a small silver ASUS logo at the top and under the rear camera, but on first glance, the black version does look quite iPhone-esque. As do most black phones, to be fair. Looking closer, there’s a rather lovely metal panel below the screen with ASUS’s trademark concentric circles etched into it, somewhat resembling a giant fingerprint. The rest of the case is covered in fingerprints, too – mine. The matt plastic back panel is very smudge-friendly.
As well as the ‘Charcoal Black’ shade of my review model, the ZenFone 6 comes in three colours named like nail varnishes: Pearl White, Cherry Red and Champagne Gold. Having seen the ZenFone 5 in Cherry Red, that’d be my choice: it has a bright sheen that could pass for metal at a glance. (ASUS say this is because it’s ‘anodised seven ways to create an unconventional metal coloured finish,’ but that’s not evident on the black version, which just looks black).
The whole thing weighs 196g, which is quite a bit more than most phones, but also not as much as you’d expect when you first pick it up. Despite the gargantuan screen, ASUS have chosen to include three buttons on the bezel – they could have copped out and gone for software buttons, but I’m glad they didn’t.
In fact, all the buttons and ports on this phone are sensibly placed: the charging port is at the bottom, the headphone jack is at the top, and the volume rocker and power button sit on the right-hand side. You’ll need the volume and power keys close at hand with a phone this big, and the headphone and charging ports are exactly where they should be. I can’t say the same for the speaker, which is at the bottom of the rear panel and doesn’t give great sound. Developed by the bizarrely-named Golden Ear Team at ASUS, it makes music sound static-y and thin. It’s not terrible by any means, but I’d rather listen on headphones than this speaker.
One of the ASUS ZenFone 6’s big points of difference is that it has an Intel processor. This makes perfect sense coming from a manufacturer best known for its laptops (second most common comment I got: ‘ASUS make phones now?!’). There’s a subtle Intel Inside logo on the back, and an Intel Atom Z2580 dual-core 2.0 GHz chip under the bonnet. Dual-core might seem lacking when many flagships come with quad, but this processor does include Intel’s trademark Hyperthreading tech to improve efficiency. It’s paired with a generous 2GB of RAM, and together they make for a lag-free phone with no performance issues that I could find. Multitasking is no problem, switching between apps is seamless, and I didn’t see any hanging or freezing in a week of use.
The ZenFone 6 runs Android Jelly Bean, which you might not actually notice because it’s got a substantial ASUS skin over the top. ASUS say that an update to KitKat is on the way, but there’s no due date and it’s not available yet. I’ll be interested to see how much difference it makes, given that this phone doesn’t feel like Jelly Bean anyway.
One of the ASUS UI’s most irritating features – even after a week – is that the notifications bar has been split in two. I had to Google how to see my notifications, because every time I pulled down the bar, I got Settings. Turns out you have to pull from the left side for notifications, right for Settings. I still haven’t got used to this. ASUS UI does have some thoughtful inclusions, though – like one-handed mode, Reading Mode, and even Glove Mode for winter! You can see it in action in the video review:
There’s a giant bundle of preinstalled apps, from standard functions like note-taking and weather to task manager Do It Later, and the actually quite useful What’s Next?, which tells you how many hours ‘til the next thing on your calendar, right on the lock screen. There’s also a fantastically useless chat room app called Omlet which claims to be a secure way to message people. Astonishingly, not a single one of my phone contacts was using it, so neither could I.
The ZenFone 6 comes in 16GB and 32GB versions, and has a MicroSD expansion slot for up to 64GB more. I can’t honestly say I noticed the difference between the Intel processor and the more usual Snapdragons, but either way, the phone performs well – especially at this price.
So, how good is that beast of a screen? Well, it’s HD, but not full HD: the resolution is 1280×720. That’s the same as the Sony Xperia T3, but on a larger screen, so it only has 245 pixels per inch to the T3’s 277. Yes, it would have been nice to see a 1080p panel, but at this size and price, it’s not a very realistic ask. And actually, the size of the screen does the resolution a favour – since it’s so big, you naturally hold it further from your face, and so you really don’t notice that it’s not as sharp as it could be.
Films and videos look good, text is extremely readable and viewing angles are decent, though you do get some darkening in all directions. Icons look ever-so-slightly soft next to a full-HD screen, but using the phone in isolation, you don’t notice. And a 6-inch HD IPS panel at this price is excellent, especially given that it’s made of Gorilla Glass 3. That means you won’t have to baby your phablet too much, because it’s much less likely to crack or scratch.
The screen loses some readability in bright sunlight, but it’s still usable, and the brightness goes up high. If you like to adjust your display, the terribly-named Splendid app lets you tinker with colour temperature, hue and saturation, but I didn’t find it necessary as the defaults work well.
If resolution is a dealbreaker for you, all of the ZenFone 6’s big competitors offer higher, with prices to match. But this is more than good enough for most of us – just as long as you never put it next to an LG G3.
Mid-range phones often fall down badly on the camera section, and it’s refreshing that this isn’t the case on the ASUS ZenFone 6. It comes with a 13MP main snapper and a 2MP front-facing, neither of which are stellar performers but both more than good enough for the price.
There’s also a quite astounding array of software features, almost rivalling the Sony Xperia Z2 for sheer number of options you never knew you needed. There’s Auto, Time Rewind (which records 31 pictures over 3 seconds either side of the shutter press), HDR, Panorama, Night Mode, Low Light Mode, Miniature Mode (tilt-shift), Depth of Field, Smart Remove (which takes moving objects out of your shot, like if someone’s walking past the building you’re shooting), All Smiles (similar to BlackBerry’s Time Shift, where you can dial people’s faces back and forward in time to get the best eyes-open smile), Beautification (the usual Vaseline-on-the-lens approach) and – my personal favourite – GIF Animation.
I gave the GIF mode a shot at the EGX games convention and got this lovely animation of female Loki on the cosplay stage:
Twitter and Tumblr fans will be all over that feature.
The problem with all these modes, though, is that while they’re a great idea in theory, it’s unlikely you’d ever remember you wanted to use them until after the event. Taking a shot of my friends and finding that one had their eyes shut would make me think ‘damn, should have used All Smiles,’ but I’m not likely to have switched into that before I took the photo. Especially since there’s a handy shortcut to the camera, which opens in Auto mode: double-press the volume key quickly and it’ll open, press again to take a photo.
As you’ll see in the photos below, distance and up-close pictures both came out well, with fairly accurate colours (neon pink flowers notwithstanding) and good detail. It’s a slow shooter, though – be prepared for a good ‘one-Mississippi’ delay before you can take another photo:
The selfie camera is grainy but works fine in brightly lit environments. It’s still not as good as the one on my 18-month-old HTC One M7, though, which only has 0.1MP more.
The ASUS ZenFone 6 comes with a real workhorse of a battery. It’s 3300 mAh, beating the LG G3’s 3000 and even the OnePlusOne’s much-lauded 3100. But it’s also got a much larger screen to power, so it doesn’t go as far as it would in a smaller handset.
Battery performance is nonetheless impressive. On a heavy-use day (including streaming music and video and making calls), it still lasted longer than I did – by the time I was ready for bed, the ZenFone 6 had a third of its power left. On low-use days, you probably wouldn’t even need to charge it overnight.
The results of our standard battery test bear this out, too – after 2 hours of streaming a film over Wi-Fi with brightness set to max and GPS on, the phone went from fully charged to 58% remaining. That’s not an amazing result, especially compared to flagship phones, but it means you can watch an entire film on that gigantonormous screen and still have more than half your battery left. As predicted, though, smaller phones perform better in this test – the HTC One M8 has a 2600 mAh battery and scored 66%, for instance. But you don’t get nearly the same film-watching experience as on this mini-TV.
Unsurprisingly, the battery can’t be replaced by the user. You can see it when you take the back cover off, but it’s going nowhere. This is more of an issue on phones with weak batteries, but I’d appreciate the option nonetheless.
In case you get a bit too relaxed about charging your phone and end up in a power crisis, there are some useful battery-saving modes on the Settings menu. Ultra-Saving disables data when the phone screen is off, Optimized Mode keeps data flowing but improves battery life, and Customized Mode lets you choose what is and isn’t allowed. It even gets as granular as letting you change the screen brightness setting for each individual task you might do on your phone – recommending 90% brightness for reading emails but only 60% for watching videos, for instance. This level of control probably isn’t needed, but for tinkerers like me, it’s very welcome.
Phablets are pretty big this year (sorry!), particularly now that Apple have jumped on the bandwagon. The ASUS ZenFone 6 is a very well-priced option that performs ably on all fronts. It doesn’t have any features that’ll rock your world, but there are no major downsides either, and it’s just £250 sim-free.
The main thing to think about before you spring for it is whether you can live with a phone this big. I have fairly small hands and it’s easy enough to hold, but you can’t really use it with just one. And you do feel daft making calls, with hand fatigue setting in fairly fast. If you usually keep your phone in a bag rather than a pocket and you’d appreciate the extra screen space for films, videos, reading and shopping, this is a good choice – especially if you’re interested in phablets but don’t want to shell out £600+ for your first one. Just be aware that it’ll draw attention until people are more used to massive phones, and it probably won’t fit in your clutch bag or front pocket.
And a final word of advice: don’t get the black one. If I had a pound for every time someone asked if it was the iPhone 6 Plus, I could buy one right now.
Excellent battery life
Lower resolution than competitors
Hard to use one-handed