Asus ZenFone 6 hands on: Flipping the script to take on the OnePlus 7 Pro

This isn't another forgettable Asus handset.

asus zenfone 6 camera angle
Christopher Hebert/IDG

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Even if they hadn’t released within days of each other, it’s impossible not to compare the Asus ZenFone 6 to the OnePlus 7 Pro. They both have Snapdragon 855 processors, funky selfie cams, and near-stock Android skins. And they’re both a whole lot cheaper than their premium counterparts.

But while we expected the OnePlus 7 Pro to stand out in the field, the Asus ZenFone 6 may be one of the most surprising phones of the year so far. Where last year’s ZenFone 5z was an iPhone imitator with an ugly notch, forced AI camera gimmicks, and a heavy-handed skin, Asus has completely reimagined its smartphone experience for this year’s model: The camera cutout is gone, the AI scene detector is little more than a toggle, and ZenUI has been all but jettisoned. It’s a refreshing change that makes the ZenFone 6 feel more like a reboot than a annual refresh. That’s exactly what Asus needs to take on OnePlus 7 Pro, the ZenFone 6’s most obvious competitor. 

asus zenfone 6 back Christopher Hebert/IDG

The back of the Asus ZenFone 6 is glass, but there’s no wireless charging on board.

Let’s start with the specs. The ZenFone 6 is an incremental upgrade over the 5z, but Asus has added enough to keep pace with OnePlus’s upgrades:

  • Display: 6.4-inch FHD+ LCD
  • Processor: Snapdragon 855
  • RAM: 6GB/8GB
  • Storage: 128GB/256GB
  • Camera: 48MP, f/1.79 + 13MP ultra wide (125 degree FOV)
  • Battery: 5,000mAH

While the ZenFone 5z had relatively standard dimenseions of 153 x 75.65 x 7.7mm, the ZenFone 6 is slightly larger, measuring 159.1 x 75.44 x 9.1mm. The girth is especially noticeable, though the ZenFone 6 has a slightly tapered design that brings it down to a respectable 8.4mm at the edges. When you hold it, however, you can definitely feel that it’s substantially thicker than other phones. At 190 grams, the ZenFone 6 weighs a good deal less than the 206-gram OnePlus 7 Pro, but the uneven weight distribution makes the ZenFone 6 feel heavier and more cumbersome.

asus zenfone 6 front Christopher Hebert/IDG

The Zenfone 6’s 6.4-inch LCD screen isn’t nearly as bright or balanced as other OLED phones.

Asus has given the ZenFone 6 a near-all-screen design, with slim bezels and a dramatically reduced chin. The blue Asus logo stands out nicely against the black or silver glass back, as does the only other splash of color: a metallic blue rim around the power button. It even has a headphone jack. All in all, it’s a solid design that departs from the excesses of the ZenFone 5z. 

The ZenFone 6’s 6.4-inch display may be only a touch smaller than the 7 Pro’s 6.67-inch one, but the chasm between OnePlus’s Fluid AMOLED technology and Asus’s NanoEdge couldn’t be wider. The inherent differences between OLED and LCD are obvious, and the 1440p screen on the OnePlus 7 Pro is crisper and far more vibrant. The ZenFone 6’s display is substantially dimmer than the OnePlus 7 Pro’s, and what brightness it has isn’t nearly as uniform. When looking at a solid color, it’s easy to spot dark areas, especially near the edges. 

New dog gets new tricks

But the screen and the size may be tradeoffs most buyers will be willing to make to get the ZenFone 6’s flagship features: the camera and battery. While the OnePlus 7 Pro has a respectable 4,000mAh battery, the ZenFone 6 ups the ante to 5,000mAh, besting even the Galaxy S10 5G.

We’re still running tests, but Asus estimate up to 2 days of “non-stop use,” with 21 hours of Wi-Fi web browsing and 33.2 hours of talk time. For comparison, Apple estimates that the iPhone XS Max gets up to 13 hours of Internet use and 25 hours of talk time. So the ZenFone 6 will likely top the list as the longest-lasting of its Snapdragon 855 peers.

When you need to charge it, the ZenFone 6 supports QuickCharge 4, which fills up the phone incredibly fast. Asus says the ZenFone 6 will charge as fast with an 18W adapter as other phones will with a 27W one, and we’ll be putting that claim to the test. But in our unscientific observations, the ZenFone 6 charged very quickly.

asus zenfone 6 button Christopher Hebert/IDG

Like the Pixel 3, the Asus Zenfone 6 has a splash of color on the power button.

What really sets the Zenfone 6 apart is the camera. It’s not just that it pairs a 48MP, 1.6 μm lens with a 13MP ultra wide one, or even that has a 0.03s laser auto-focus—it’s that the front camera has the exact same specs as the rear one. How? Because when you flip to the front camera, the entire mechanism rotates.

It’s a neat trick, and somewhat more impressive than the OnePlus 7 Pro’s rising selfie cam. The whole camera literally flips around to face front when you tap the button to switch views, and while it’s a half-second slower than the OnePlus 7 Pro, it still happens very quickly.

asus zenfone 6 selfie Christopher Hebert/IDG

Technically, the Asus Zenfone 6 has a 48MP selfie cam.

The ZenFone 6 one-ups the OnePlus 7 Pro by letting you stop the camera’s rotation at any point, allowing for “free angle” videos and photos and automatic vertical panoramas. It’s one of the most unique camera features I’ve ever seen, one that will surely come in handy when shooting tall buildings and mountains.

I do wonder how long the mechanism will last. Asus says it’s built a custom stepper motor with a liquid metal gear box, but it’s a heck of a moving part, with lots of crevices to store dust and dirt. The OnePlus 7 Pro’s is relatively secure from the elements, but the flip camera on the ZenFone 6 seems more vulnerable.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the ZenFone 6 is its Android skin. Previous ZenFones have been slathered with the Zen UI skin, which added confusing options and ugly icons to put Asus’s stamp on things. The ZenFone 6 discards all that in favor of a near-stock Android Pie experience. Some Zen UI features remain, such as Smart Key for re-mapping and customizing the side Google Assistant button and Smart Volume, which adjusts the ringtone and media levels based on ambient noise, but they’re much more bearable set against a clean and speedy Android skin.

asus zenfone 6 camera Christopher Hebert/IDG

The dual camera on the Asus Zenfone flips around to take selfies.

The ZenFone 6 has a lot to offer for its for its $500 price. Like OnePlus with its 7 Pro, Asus has built an affordable flagship that has more to offer than a big screen and a Snapdragon 855 processor. With its bigger battery, unique camera, and nice, clean Android skin, the ZenFone 6 is a real alternative to the OnePlus 7 Pro, and it costs $170 less to boot.

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