Asus Zenfone 5 hands-on review

It shamelessly apes the iPhone X, but the Asus Zenfone 5 is no iClone

More than just an iPhone X clone, the Asus Zenfone 5 could be a mid-range master.
More than just an iPhone X clone, the Asus Zenfone 5 could be a mid-range master.
More than just an iPhone X clone, the Asus Zenfone 5 could be a mid-range master.

Highs

  • Stylish design
  • Gorgeous display
  • Dual main camera
  • Loud dual speakers

Lows

  • Derivative
  • Unstable camera app

The Asus Zenfone 5 was just unveiled at Mobile World Congress 2018 in Barcelona. It’s the middle sibling of the new Asus trio, flanked by the budget Zenfone 5 Lite and the flagship Zenfone 5Z. Asus has been rethinking its mobile strategy, and keeping a keen eye on smartphone trends as it tries to revive its mobile fortunes. We went hands on with the new phone to find out what it’s all about.

An unoriginal design

Asus doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to smartphones. The last two phones we reviewed, the Asus Zenfone 4 and the Zenfone AR, both scored 2.5 out of 5 stars, and we criticized the frustrating software and dull design. There’s some evidence that Asus was listening, because it has taken a very different approach with the Zenfone 5.

Let’s tackle the elephant in the room straight away – the Asus Zenfone 5 looks a great deal like the Apple iPhone X. At the press event, Asus pointed out that Apple didn’t invent the notch, mentioning the Essential phone, but we can’t help feeling it’s being a bit disingenuous. The average person on the street, upon seeing the Asus Zenfone 5 slide out of your pocket is going to think it’s an iPhone X and that’s no accident.

The 6.2-inch IPS display is Full HD with a 19:9 aspect ratio. It’s really eye-catching. We found it bright and sharp. It has the same distinctive notch as Apple’s flagship at the top, but the bottom bezel is a fair bit thicker.

More than just an iPhone X clone, the Asus Zenfone 5 could be a mid-range master.

Flipping it over, there’s a dual camera module at the top left corner of the glass back, but that’s where the iPhone X similarities end. The flash is below the camera lenses and there’s a fingerprint sensor in the middle. The glass catches the light in interesting ways, but it was quickly covered in smudged fingerprints. It’s a common problem for glass phones, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

On the bottom edge, there’s a USB-C port and a 3.5mm audio jack. You’ll find the power key on the right spine with a volume rocker above it.

The Asus Zenfone 5 is a comfortable phone to handle, with a satisfying heft, and it’s definitely attractive.

Mid-range specs

When you dig under the arresting display, you find the mid-range heart of this smartphone in the shape of the Snapdragon 636 processor, with Qualcomm’s Adreno 509 GPU. Asus saved the cutting-edge Snapdragon 845 chip for its flagship, the 5Z, but the truth is most people will find the 636 fast enough to handle everything they need to do. There’s also an AI Boost option in the quick settings, which we’re told is for demanding games or heavy multitaskers.

Speaking of multitasking, the Asus Zenfone 5 comes in two versions with 4GB or 6GB of RAM. Unusually, both have 64GB of internal storage – manufacturers tend to pair extra RAM with extra storage, but Asus does things a little differently.

Promising dual cameras

One of the headline features for the Zenfone 5 is the dual main camera. There’s a 12-megapixel, Sony IMX363 image sensor with an f/1.8 aperture, and a second 120-degree wide-angle lens. If you’ve used an LG phone in the last couple of years, you’ll know exactly what to expect. The wide-angle option is great for capturing big scenes and there didn’t seem to be much distortion when we tested it.

Asus Zenfone 5 review
Simon Hill/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The front-facing camera is rated at 8-megapixels and has a Portrait mode that allows you to capture selfies with a blurred background. We shot a couple and it was instantly clear that the software needs some fine-tuning – in one portrait photo it cut out a random portion of hair as it was clearly struggling to correctly identify subject and background.

We found the camera app to be a bit unstable. It crashed and stuttered a little, but this is a pre-production model and an Asus spokesperson explained that the software isn’t final. We hope they can refine it a bit further before release.

One of the headline features for the Zenfone 5 is the dual main camera.

The camera app isn’t particularly intuitive either — it took a while to identify the portrait mode. There are also options enabling you to create GIFs, slow motion video, and a few other bits and pieces, as well as a Pro mode that lets you tweak every facet of the camera performance.

There is some AI scene detection at play here as well, which is something we’re hearing from every manufacturer at the moment, but we didn’t have much time to assess it properly.

A couple of the shots we snapped in our short time with the Asus Zenfone 5 looked promising, so the camera certainly has potential, but Asus has some work to do to nail the software side.

Intelligent charging

There’s another AI feature in the Asus Zenfone 5 that we found appealing – intelligent charging.

We’ve looked at the question of whether you should charge your phone overnight before and the short answer is that it’s safe, but not ideal. For optimum battery health and longevity, you should keep it between 20 and 80 percent. The problem with charging overnight is that it strains the battery by keeping it at 100 percent for a prolonged period.

Asus Zenfone 5 review
Simon Hill/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Asus has applied AI to the issue, so your Asus Zenfone 5 will charge up to 80 percent and then wait. It can learn when you usually get up in the morning and time the last bit of charge up to 100 percent for when you wake, ensuring minimal battery strain. We’ll test it out properly when we do a full review, but it’s a smart idea that could allow your battery to last a good while longer. The battery in the Zenfone 5 is rated at 3,300mAh, which should be plenty to see you through an average day and into the next.

Through a partnership with DTS, Asus developed louder than average stereo sound on the Asus Zenfone 5. It has dual speakers and Asus played a quick audio demo, comparing it with some other popular phones. The Zenfone 5 was definitely louder, but whether it sounded better is arguable.

We’re pleased to see that Asus has scaled back its ZenUI Android skin and stuck with Google apps for all the main phone services, dispensing with superfluous doubles. There’s also a satisfying lack of bloatware, and the Zenfone 5 runs Android 8.0 Oreo.

Price and availability

We enjoyed our time with the Asus Zenfone 5 and it should appeal to anyone who appreciates the iPhone X design, but prefers Android to iOS, or simply lacks the spare cash to spring for Apple’s flagship. The phone will be available from April, but we’re waiting for final confirmation on the price. Assuming it comes in around the $400 mark or less, we think it’s a compelling prospect.

The flagship Asus Zenfone 5Z is almost identical, but it packs the more powerful Snapdragon 845 processor inside and comes in three varieties: 4GB of RAM with 64GB of storage, 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage, and 8GB of RAM with 256GB of storage. Prices on the 5Z start at $500 or 479 euros and it will be available from June.