Hands-on with Asus ZenFone 2: An affordable phone with plenty to offer

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How do you get excited about a phone that was announced almost six months ago? You try really, really hard to remember what made it so special in the first place. In the case of the Asus ZenFone 2, that special something is a bundle of almost-flagship features for a fraction of a flagship price.

The Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, and HTC One M9 have all arrived since the ZenFone 2 was announced in January, and each touts its own special thing. Still, none of those phones is particularly affordable without a carrier subsidy, and that's where Asus hopes to have an edge. 

To compel you to choose ZenFone 2 as your daily driver, Asus includes a 2.3GHz, 64-bit Intel processor and a 13-megapixel PixelMaster camera that promises fantastic low-light performance (or so Asus claims). There's also a 5.5-inch FullHD display, dual SIM capabilities, and a stylish, ergonomic design. 

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The ZenFone 2's backside. 

The ZenFone 2 has certainly got something, and those premium-like features cost only $299, unlocked and off-contract, for the 4GB/64GB version with QuickCharge support. 

A plastic and metal hybrid design

The ZenFone 2 was originally intended to have a polymer-coated body, but since it was first announced, Asus opted for brushed metal instead. That's a good choice, because not only does the ZenFone 2 feel as premium as the HTC One M8, for instance, but it's also got a removable back. My only issue with the body is that the phone feels a little slippery.

The ZenFone 2 also looks completely different than how it was originally reported to look. It doesn't have a large, circular camera lens on the back, akin to the Nokia Lumia 1020. Instead, it simply features a small, innocuous camera lens above a slim volume rocker.

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I'm not too keen on the top-facing power button.

The rear-facing volume button is sort of maddening. I don't like the rear-facing buttons on any of LG’s last three flagship phones, and I'm not keen on Asus' button design either. Just as annoying: The power button is top-facing and it’s kind of hard to press without cradling the entire phone. I’m more of a side-chassis button person, though I know some won’t mind this button setup at all.

Meet the PixelMaster

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The camera is called the "PixelMaster."

Asus says its 13-megapixel PixelMaster camera sensor features an f/2.0 aperture lens that's capable of producing “industry-leading" low-light shots. This is apparently due to the PixelMaster’s pixel-merging technology, which can capture up to 400 percent brighter photos at night, or in low-light scenes, without the need of flash.

I haven't yet had time to test this claim, but I can already tell you that on pure specs alone, Asus is playing catch-up. The Galaxy S6 and G4 both feature rear-facing 16-megapixel camera sensors with f/1.9 and f/1.8 apertures, respectively. These—on paper—already allow in more light than the ZenFone 2. 

I’m going to take the ZenFone 2 into the lab with both Samsung and LG’s flagships, and then out into the field, and report back on my findings. We’ll see if Asus’s PixelMaster really is the industry leader in low-light photography. For now, here's a test shot with the phone out in the real world:

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A test shot with the ZenFone 2. Click to see the photos in their full resolution.

At least Asus’s camera software isn’t totally barebones, like some other mid-range phones in its price range. The app comes with Backlight HDR capabilities, and some manual mode settings, like control for ISO, shutter speed, and exposure.

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I'm really impressed with the ZenFone 2's beautification features. So many options! 

The front-facing camera on the ZenFone 2 is 5-megapixels, with a wide, 85-degree field of view. I also appreciate the variety of options offered in the app’s beautification mode. In the brief time I spent with the front-facing camera, it feels just as capable as the Galaxy S6—and they do have the same megapixel count.

Stop it with the bloatware already!

Asus, why do you do this? Didn’t you just read my article pleading with carriers to stop bundling bloatware with new phones?

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Asus's Home screen carefully hides the fact that there's bloatware lurking underneath those folders.

The minute I synced up my Google account with the ZenFone 2, I was bombarded with different app folders on the Home screen. There’s a folder aptly titled Apps4U with apps like Zinio, TripAdvisor, Dr. Safety, and Kindle. Those are nice applications to have, but I should be allowed to download them on my own if I want to. Asus also bundles CleanMaster with the device, which goes to show that old habits die hard with PC makers.

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Asus bundled a ton of its own branded apps with the ZenFone 2.

There’s also a folder of Asus apps, including a weather app, flashlight app, file manager, clock, calendar, and gallery app. I’m okay with apps like this coming bundled with a phone, as long as they have a direct hook into your Google account, which they do. However, the apps only loosely follow Material Design, which is quite a bummer. At this point in Lollipop’s life cycle, that’s absolutely not OK.

Asus’ Android interface is passable. I wouldn’t have said this a while ago, but since my mom switched to the Galaxy S6 Edge, I can now see why OEMs try their hand at skinning Android. For some of the less technologically inclined (hi, Mom), having icons that all look alike and a blown-up Quick Settings menu makes an interface easier to use.

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This Quick Settings menu is very obvious about what each button does. 

Regardless, I wouldn’t stick with Asus’ interface, even if it does offer a variety of cute Themes. I’d install another Launcher instead.

The verdict so far?

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Will the ZenFone 2 give other mid-range phone producers a run for their money?

Based on its specifications, I think the ZenFone 2 is a worthy unlocked phone, especially if you want something that’s affordable and a little on the premium side. There's still a lot about it that I need to test, however. It runs an Intel-based processor rather than a Qualcomm one, so performance tests should be interesting. I'll have a full review for you after Google I/O later this month.

Asus announced the phone will be available at B&H, NewEgg, Amazon, and through its own online retail shop. The phone will vary from $199 for 2GB of RAM, an Intel Atom 3560 processor, and 32GB of storage to $299 for 4GB of RAM, an Intel Atom 3580 processor, 64GB storage, and QuickCharge capabilities. 

This story, "Hands-on with Asus ZenFone 2: An affordable phone with plenty to offer" was originally published by Greenbot.

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