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Hands On: Asus ZenFone 5

If we hadn’t read the Asus press release, it would have been fairly easy to convince us that the phone would sell for twice its $150 asking price, or more.

One of the best things about the Consumer Electronics Show is that in the midst of the insanity of rushing from press conference to meeting, to show floor booth, you occasionally run into something cool and unexpected.

That happened for us at an early 7:30am meeting at Intel’s CES booth, where we stumbled onto Asus’ just-announced ZenFone 5, the Intel-Atom-powered Android smartphone that sits in the middle of the company’s new lineup, between the smaller, four-inch ZenFone 4, and the ZenFone 6 phablet.

There’s no indication that Asus ZenFone 5 will make it to the United States, but we hope it does

Aside from the fact that these models run on Intel processors and borrow their styling from Asus’ high-end ZenBook Ultrabook line, the ZenFones stand out most for their aggressive pricing. According to the company, the lower-end ZenFone 4 will sell for $100, the ZenFone 5 will land at $150, and the ZenFone 6 will set you back $200. Those prices are all off contract.

It’s unclear if or when these phones will officially make their way to America. But with AT&T deciding to pick up Asus’ PadFone X smartphone/tablet hybrid, we would not be surprised to see the ZenFones land in the U.S. sometime this year as well.

The ZenFone 5 in particular, could give the Moto G some serious competition on the solid budget-priced smartphone front. Based on the brief amount of time we spent with it, the Asus ZenFone 5 feels more like a mid-high-end device, rather than a budget-priced smartphone.

Not-so-stellar specs

To be clear, while the ZenFone 5 borrows its aesthetics from Asus’ high-end Ultrabooks, none of the ZenFones sport high-end hardware. But the ZenFone 5 does have an interesting mix of internals. The phone runs on a dual-core Intel Atom Z2580 processor, clocked at 2GHz. This chip is part of Intel’s last-generation Clover Trail+ architecture, rather than the newer Bay Trail chips, which are more power efficient. That’s likely one of the major ways Asus is keeping costs down. But as far as anecdotal performance goes, the phone felt very responsive while we played with it on the CES show floor.

We’re a bit worried about how well the 2050mAh battery will hold up, considering the older CPU. But the phone’s other modest specs may work in its favor on the longevity front. There’s 1GB of RAM inside, along with a 720p display, an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera (and a 2 megapixel front-facing shooter), and a GSM/GPRS radio that supports WCDMA/HSPA+. A MicroSD card expansion slot is also included for adding up to 64GB of extra storage – a feature you won’t find on the Moto G.

Another not-so-common feature Asus is bringing to the ZenFone line may come in handy for those in cold climates. The company includes their PenTouch and GloveTouch tech, which ramps up the screen’s sensitivity, so you can use the smartphone’s screen through a gloved hand or with any stylus, according to Asus. We didn’t have any gloves with us in Las Vegas (it averaged about 60 degrees while we were there), but if the tech works as advertised, this could be a very useful feature, and one we wouldn’t expect to see on a budget smartphone.

Attractive aesthetics inside and out

As we said earlier, the ZenFones’ design borrows heavily from the company’s ZenBook high-end laptop line. It’s strange that the company chose to import the aesthetics from one of its established high-end brands to a line of budget-priced smartphones, but the end result is, for the ZenFone 5 at least, a device that doesn’t look or feel at all like a low-end phone.

The model we looked at in Intel’s booth has a red soft-touch back that feels very comfortable in the hand. Asus says black, white, and champagne-colored backs will also be offered.

The ZenFone 5 is a device that doesn’t look or feel at all like a low-end phone.

On the front of the phone – the lower edge – there’s a silver metal strip with an attractive radial etching, much like the lids of Asus’ ZenBook laptops. The same design carries over to the silver volume and power buttons on the right side of the device as well. The headphone jack sits on the top edge, and the Micro USB charging port lives on the bottom, as we’d expect.

The finalized ZenFone devices will also ship with Asus’ ZenUI Android skin, with a focus on messaging tweaks (using the Omlet Open Messaging Platform), as well as what looks like some fairly attractive aesthetic tweaks that look at least as pretty as HTC’s Sense.

Unfortunately, though, we weren’t able to get a good sense of how drastic Asus’ ZenUI departs from the Android norm, as the ZenFone 5 that was on display at Intel’s booth was running stock Android 4.3. Like many of the ZenFone’s features, we’ll have to reserve judgment until we get a change to spend more time with a fine version of the phone.

Conclusion

With its experience making both the original and current Nexus 7 tablets, we know Asus can make attractive Android devices at appealing price points. The ZenFone 5 looks to build on that experience and move that expertise into the budget phone market.

We were impressed with the ZenFone 5 in the handful of minutes we spent with it. If we hadn’t read the Asus press release, it would have been fairly easy to convince us that the phone would sell for twice its $150 asking price, or more. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what performance is like on the largely untested (in a U.S. device, at least) Intel dual-core processor, and how well battery life holds up.

As of this writing, there’s no indication that Asus ZenFone 5 or either of its siblings will officially make it to the United States. But even if they don’t, they may be appealing as a low-priced import. And wherever they land, they should be give some solid competition to low-cost alternatives like the Moto G and Alcatel One Touch Fierce. And some success in the smartphone market would be a very good thing for Asus at the moment. According to research firm Gartner, the company’s PC shipments worldwide fell nearly 20 percent in the last quarter of 2013, versus the same quarter of 2012.

Highs

  • $150 off contract
  • Nice looking UI for an Android phone
  • Styling resembles Asus’s sleek Ultrabooks

Lows

  • $180 Moto G may still have an edge
  • Older Intel processor may have battery life issues
  • No idea when or if its coming to U.S.