Asus Zenfone 6 Hands-on review

The absolutely mad Asus Zenfone 6 is a flagship phone that you'll flip for

The Asus Zenfone 6 is a flagship phone like no other
The Asus Zenfone 6 is a flagship phone like no other
The Asus Zenfone 6 is a flagship phone like no other

Highs

  • Massive battery
  • Flip camera is fun, and has useful features
  • New ZenUI is almost stock Android
  • Powerful processor
  • Dual SIM and MicroSD card support

Lows

  • No IP rating
  • Photo quality hasn’t impressed yet
  • Screen isn’t very bright

For the Zenfone 6, Asus didn’t want to make a phone that’s the same as all the others. But it hasn’t just come with a new look, Asus has also approached the core technology in a way that’s different from everyone else. The result is not only one of the most interesting Asus phones in a while, but also one of the most versatile.

Digital Trends visited Asus in Taipei, Taiwan, to take a close look at how the Zenfone 6 was developed, and to get an early hands-on with the new phone. Just ahead of the launch in Valencia, Spain, a final review model was placed in my hands, ready for an in-depth look before our final review verdict.

Concept

The Zenfone 6 was conceived around four principles: A big-screen viewing experience, long battery life, fast and smooth performance, and photographic creativity. Lofty goals, but hardly unique. However, Asus has delivered on them in some unusual ways. To achieve the big-screen view and the creatively enabling camera, it has built an impressive motorized flip-around camera, so the 19:5.9 aspect ratio screen doesn’t have a notch or a hole punch. It gets its performance from a Snapdragon 855, and for the long battery life, the Zenfone 6 has a giant 5,000mAh cell inside.

That’s the largest battery in any flagship smartphone at the moment, but does that make it the thickest and heaviest flagship at the moment? It’s definitely thick at 9.1mm, but at 190 grams, it’s relatively light compared to its rivals. The phone’s 3D, curved Gorilla Glass 3 rear blends into the metal chassis, while the Gorilla Glass 6 over the screen stands proud of the body. This technique masks the size of the phone both visually and when you hold it.

If, like me, you admired the uniqueness of the Asus ROG Phone, the Zenfone 6 also has its own identity, while being more usable on a daily basis than the gaming phone.

Flip-around camera

The motorized flip-around camera system is the feature everyone will talk about. To facilitate the notch-free screen, Asus has made its own interpretation of the pop-up motorized camera. From the back of the phone, the dual-lens cam looks like any other, but to take selfies, it flips over the top of the phone. Almost everything you can do with the rear camera, you can do for selfies too.

The motorized flip-around camera system is the feature everyone will talk about.

A Sony IMX586 48-megapixel camera sensor is the star of the Zenfone 6’s lens array, and it’s joined by a 13-megapixel ultra-wide lens, all wrapped up inside a wonderfully complex module made of highly durable, super-lightweight liquid metal. How complex? There are 13 gears inside delivering the torque needed to flip the camera around. In a regular pop-up camera, there are usually only five gears. The tiny module also has 17 power cables and 32 signal cables, which have all been wrapped up inside a single 2mm-thick cable. That’s before you count the gravity sensor, the gyro, the hall sensor, and the camera sensors.

Liquid metal was chosen for durability, as it’s four times more resilient than stainless steel, and the mechanical movement has been tested to 15,000 cycles. It’s really clever, too. For example, it works with the proximity sensor so it won’t accidentally open or close when it’s against the side of your face — helpful if you’ve got long hair and don’t want it caught in the mechanism — and the gyro automatically flips the camera closed when it senses the phone is being dropped. Asus has examined more than a hundred different scenarios to make the camera system user-friendly and not just a gimmick.

What’s it like? Using it is so much fun. Yes, fun. The rotation moves through 180-degrees, and you can stop it at any point by using an on-screen slider or even the volume keys. We love the automatic panorama mode, where the camera itself moves to capture the scene, rather than you following directions on the screen. It even tracks movement, so you can follow a subject on the move without always being concerned about watching the viewfinder. Finally, Asus has added its own pop-up camera control overlay so you can use the feature in apps like Instagram and Twitter.

So far, only a few dozen test images in, the camera hasn’t impressed in the way I hoped.

It’s quirky, fun, unusual, and genuinely serves a purpose. It’s totally different from any other pop-up camera, as it offers creative opportunities you don’t get from a single pop-up camera on phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro. It’s really quite mad, but clearly conceived and engineered by those who understand how to make mad features useful, and that’s a rare combination in the smartphone world.

All these features will be for nothing if the quality isn’t there. So far, only a few dozen test images in, the camera hasn’t impressed in the way I hoped. Pictures are a little washed out, and lack the pop many will expect to see, even on a bright and sunny day. The HDR+ works well though, especially for selfies. Oddly, I liked the selfies I took more than the shots when the camera is facing the back. Panorama shots can be enormous and almost unusable because of it, while the portrait mode has adjustable blur while taking the shot, and edge recognition is decent but not remarkable. There’s a good chance that improvements will come, as the ROG Phone’s camera is a strong performer, and the 48-megapixel Sony IMX586 sensor is capable of taking great shots too.

asus zenfone 6 hands on 8
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There are some other downsides to the camera. It doesn’t include optical image stabilization, only electronic stabilization, because the additional weight would have drastically affected the size and weight of the motorized module. Face unlock is onboard, but it’s not automatic — you have to slide up the screen to make it work, which is slower and less convenient than other systems. It’s early days for the Zenfone 6 and its software, and our tests are only just starting.

Build and durability

Within a few hours of beginning to use the Zenfone 6, the rattle caused by the camera module as the phone vibrated began to annoy me. I know it’s the camera module, because when you hold it down, the phone vibrates normally. It doesn’t flap about, but it obviously doesn’t sit against the body tightly enough when not flipped over.

asus zenfone 6 hands on 4
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The movement when it does flip around is highly mechanical — in that you can hear and even feel the gears working. When activating it in the camera app, it’s a smooth, nicely dampened motion. If you slide the camera view button up and down, you can control the camera’s angle yourself, and even the speed of the movement. It feels very well engineered.

It’s Gorilla Glass 3 on the back of the Zenfone 6, and I managed to crack the rear panel when taking photos. It fell backwards on a stand onto a wooden surface, which I would not normally expect to break a phone. It’s entirely possible the early version we have for review may have suffered in transit. The phone is also slippery to hold, even in the supplied hard-cover case. Finally, there is no IP rating. Asus says it’s protected against rain and general damp conditions, but not from taking a dip. The Zenfone 6 may end up being a delicate little thing.

Software and screen

ZenUI is history, and in its place comes a clean, almost Pixel-like Android experience. Deep inside are a lot of speed improvements, from clearing apps to memory management, and even a faster initial launch time. The work has paid off — it’s quick, fluid, and there are no irritating slowdowns when switching between multiple apps.

ZenUI is history, and in its place comes a clean, almost Pixel-like Android experience

The simple Android experience means you have a slide-up app tray, a slide-down notification screen, and Google Assistant to the left of the home screen. App icons are consistently designed, the design is pleasantly coherent, and there are only a few pre-installed Asus apps. It’s a massive step forward in gaining mainstream appeal for the Zenfone 6.

A Smart Key on the side calls Google Assistant, and can be remapped to carry out other functions too. It’s set near the top of the phone’s side, so you won’t mistake it for the sleep/wake key. The notch-less, 6.4-inch LCD screen has a Full HD+ resolution, and although Asus calls it NanoEdge, the bezels are similar in thickness to an Apple iPhone XR or a Galaxy S10e. It also has a slightly larger chin. It’s good quality, but I miss an always-on AMOLED screen, and it isn’t very bright when viewed outside in sunlight.

Security, battery, and specifications

Asus went to some length to explain to Digital Trends why it has made certain decisions on the Zenfone 6. It has a rear fingerprint sensor and not an in-display sensor because it would have made fitting in the large battery and a 3.5mm headphone port impossible. The rear sensor is a tried-and-tested method of securing a smartphone and it’s fast and reliable here; but it doesn’t keep up with the latest design trends. Some may find the Zenfone 6 looks dated because of it.

asus zenfone 6 hands on 9
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

There’s no wireless charging because it impacts the life span of the battery over time, which is also the reason it doesn’t have charging faster than 18W. Asus opted for a higher-capacity battery instead, cutting down the need to recharge so often, or so quickly. We’re still using the phone, and cannot comment on usage times yet. Signs are good though, and on the first full day of use, the Digital Wellbeing app shows 3 hours, 8 minutes of use over a 12-hour period, with 51% battery still remaining.

The Zenfone 6 embodies everything that’s great about smartphones in 2019

No such compromises have been made on the specifications. The Snapdragon 855 processor is inside with 8GB of RAM and up to 256GB of storage space. Asus worked hard to redesign the PCB, creating a two-piece board, so it can fit in a triple-slot SIM tray with room for two SIM cards and a MicroSD card as well. This is very welcome, and more preferable than having to choose between storage and a second SIM. The phone has been fast and smooth so far, and we don’t expect to come across any situation where it lacks power.

Finally, Asus has decided against launching dozens of different Zenfone 6 models. There will not be a midrange or an entry-level version of the phone. If you want a Zenfone 6, this will be the only choice. It’s a very sensible decision, and avoids confusing you with multiple models with only a few differences.

Conclusion

The Zenfone 6 embodies everything that’s great about smartphones in 2019. It doesn’t follow trends set by Apple and Samsung, it doesn’t just adopt the features other manufacturers have  chosen, and it doesn’t repeat mistakes that have hurt Zenfone models in the past. Asus has taken a step back, relaxed, and thought about what it needs to do to compete this year. The Zenfone 6 is the result, and it goes its own way in a very special fashion.

Is that direction a success? It’s still early to pass complete judgement; but first impressions are very positive regarding the performance, battery, and software. The screen isn’t as beautiful as some others, due to it being an LCD rather than an AMOLED, and we have some concerns over durability. The flip-over camera is not a gimmick and does come with some interesting features.

The phone appears to be able to hold its own, even among this year’s serious competition,  but a lot is going to depend on the price, which isn’t known at the time of writing. Asus says it will cost less than the $900 ROG phone, which will remain the company’s flagship. To ensure the right amount of attention, it may need to match the $750 OnePlus 7 Pro. We’ll update here when we know more, and you can expect a full review in the near future.

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