OnePlus has been pulling off premium devices at a low cost for about five years now. And in that, it has almost mastered the art. Its formula? Feed the spec-hungry Android audience (yes, you are) with the best SoC in the market, coupled with bucket loads of RAM and a decent camera with the price tag of a mid-range smartphone. And this formula has worked for it. So it’s kind of obvious that someone would have a look and pull off something similar in due time.
Huawei’s Honor sub-brand took a shot at it with its Honor 8 Pro and it lost out due to reasons like the average camera and its Kirin SoC (well, it was not a Qualcomm SoC so why buy it right?). And then it recently tried again with the Honor 10, which was a much better implementation, but for that EMUI skin. Tough luck Honor!
In the meantime, Asus did its homework after a not so successful ZenFone Deluxe, which was the brand’s first attempt at a premium flagship and now it’s back with what appears to be a winner.
With the just-launched Asus ZenFone 5Z, Asus managed to deliver a smartphone with the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC, 6 GB (or 8 GB) of RAM and a base price tag that could make OnePlus jitter, at Rs 29,999. That’s a whole Rs 5,000 cheaper than the base model of the OnePlus 6. Indeed, this should give enough reason for customers to consider the ZenFone over the OnePlus 6 and I haven’t even mentioned its AI smarts yet.
It’s time to wake up OnePlus. The ZenFone has finally arrived!
Build and Design: 8.5/10
The Asus ZenFone 5Z may not look as curvy as the OnePlus 6, but it sure is practical. The device feels premium thanks to the metal and glass finish and also feels sturdy and well built.
It’s also lighter than the OnePlus 6 by about 25 grams. Asus designers managed to shave off this weight by going in for a flat sheet of glass on the back as opposed to the thicker glass on the back of the OnePlus 6 that needed for its curved design.
The weight savings are a blessing and give the smartphone a better in-hand feel, with a better overall grip than the OnePlus.
The lipping around the glass panels are well-finished and feel seamless when you slide your fingers towards the edges of the display.
While the OnePlus 6 still looks better with a smaller chin and more rounded design, Asus sticks to its roots and somehow manages to impress with better quality.
I like how Asus has managed to keep the camera protrusion to a minimal. It’s a lot flatter than the one on the OnePlus 6 and a lot smaller as well. Moreover, the camera ring is well-finished and not as sharp as the one on the OnePlus 6.
The design on the back of the device with shiny light patterns emanating from the circular fingerprint reader looks far better than tacky stuff we have seen on previous ZenFones. All-in-all there’s little to complain here, save for the absence of an IP rating.
In short, the Asus ZenFone gets you all the major features that you would also get on a OnePlus 6 and some more. There’s a 6.2-inch IPS LCD display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC, 6 GB RAM for the base model (8 GB as well) paired with 64 GB of internal storage (there’s also a 128 and 256 GB configurations). We received the 6 GB RAM and 64 GB configuration for review.
There’s a dual camera setup with 12 MP (f/1.8) + 8 MP (f/2.0) sensors at the back and an 8 MP sensor on the front. And finally, there is 3,300 mAh battery which is same as what we get on the OnePlus 6.
But there are a few additions on the Asus ZenFone 5Z. That 64 GB of internal storage on the base model can be expanded up to 256 GB using the second SIM card slot. Asus also offers a dual speaker setup as opposed to OnePlus’ single speaker.
The dual camera setup is also different because the 8 MP camera features a wide-angle lens, unlike the one on the OnePlus 6 that is solely used to produce the bokeh effect. Asus is indeed doing more justice to its already low price tag going just by the specifications on paper.
Let’s get one thing clear. AMOLED displays are great when done right. This was the case with the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and the Apple iPhone X, but was not the case with the OnePlus 6 as Nimish rightly pointed out in his review. Asus despite having an LCD display has done a mighty good job save for a few minor issues. The display sports an FHD+ resolution and is really sharp. When I say sharp, I mean those ultra- thin fonts that Asus uses on its homescreen are rendered without any jagged edges even at the smallest display size.
The 19:9 ratio Super IPS+ panel, does a far better job with colours than OnePlus does. This is partially down to the fact that this is a well-calibrated LCD. They are quite close to accurate and can be set to display more natural colours (without getting too dull like it is on the OnePlus 6) using the Screen Mode settings under Display Settings. In here, you can adjust the colour temperature, set it to auto (which basically adapts it to the surrounding light) and adjust the colour mode, which lets you choose between Wide colour gamut, Standard and customisable one.
I preferred to keep it to Wide colour gamut for slightly saturated colours. Those who prefer more natural tones will appreciate the Standard mode. The display does not showcase any particular colour tinge and is bright enough indoors.
Simply put, OnePlus’s display is a tad bit brighter than the LCD unit on the ZenFone. Being an IPS unit the colours remained intact at all viewing angles, but I did notice that brightness levels dropping when viewed at an angle. The display notch is present here as well, but the software brings some positives and negatives, details I will discuss in the software section.
OS and Software: 8/10
I was not a fan of Asus’s ZenUI from the very beginning of Asus’s entry into the smartphone market. It was clunky and loaded with bloat, slowing down the UI and basically had no sense of design. All of that changed with the Asus ZenFone Selfie Pro, which felt the complete opposite. It’s a lot faster and a lot more responsive. And with flagship hardware available on the ZenFone 5Z, it works a lot better than any Asus smartphone I have used in the past. I did notice a bit of stuttering at times, but these occasions were rare.
At a briefing held before the launch, Asus emphasised on how it worked closely with Qualcomm for the ZenFone 5Z. That partnership led to the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in various apps, making them smarter and easier to use for a hassle-free experience.
The camera, for example, uses AI for scene detection and will switch to one of the many scene modes by recognising what’s in the viewfinder. Here I feel the AI can be a misnomer as scene detection, object detection is more a computer vision and machine learning functionality. Unless Asus, learns newer objects on the fly and applies relevant settings, AI can be a misleading term.
The display makes use of AI by smartly adjusting the colour temperature of the display when set to auto mode. The display will also remain on as long as you are staring at it. Another app that makes use of Asus’s AI smarts is the Gallery app. The Gallery app will sort photos by the person, similar to what happens on an iPhone or with Google Photos. You can even set a group so all the photos of individuals in that group will be together in one album.
And then there’s the battery which is my favourite AI-driven feature. Once plugged in, the AI bits will determine when to charge the battery depending on my daily usage so that it completes charging the battery to 100 percent just before the time I am used to unplugging it. The feature according to Asus is in place to prevent the battery from continuously getting charged overnight which in theory is said to damage the battery. You can even set the timings for the charge manually. Yes. These are handy features, but as you will notice in the camera section, it does lead to a few issues. Still then, I like how most of them work without getting in your way.
One glaring detail that I noticed about the software was Asus’s handling of software bezel to hide the display notch. It’s not symmetrical to the bottom hardware bezel that is rounded. So when switched on, it really looks like an afterthought. Thankfully, Asus is working on it and it should be solved in future software updates. Asus has also worked on one of the limitations of the notch.
A single tap on either side of the display notch will show a small extended notifications area that reveals all the hidden notifications that would normally be represented with the three dots. As for the rest, software is pretty-much updated (by Android standards) with Android 8.0 as the base.
Despite being announced with a Snapdragon 845 inside, I had my doubts about the ZenFone 5Z thanks to its software which was known for being bloated and heavy. To my surprise, things have changed drastically with the software, which means that the user experience is also pretty much on par with the OnePlus 6, if not better.What I liked is that Asus, similar to Samsung and Huawei, gives you the choice to decide which battery mode you want to use.
While the Performance mode was the best, I preferred using the Normal mode for a balanced battery life. You can even turn on AI Boost if you really want to make the best use of the device resources at hand. Once switched on from the notifications tray toggle, the device will then allocate the right amount of available resources to optimise system performance whether you are running an app or a game. I had this on for most of the time, except during benchmarks, despite the smartphone prompting me to use the boost feature.
Gaming was stutter and lag free. In fact, most of the games remained in memory so I could resume gameplay even after several hours. The smartphone did not heat up either when playing graphics-intensive titles.
I had no problems with the device’s voice quality and network reception and I can say the same about its audio chops. The dual-speaker setup is definitely better than what the OnePlus 6 has and offers richer stereo sound making it convenient for watching movies without the earphones plugged in.
As for those “Hi-Res” earphones, they honestly felt a bit cheap (the volume controller rattles) and did not do justice to the hardware inside. The device is for audiophiles and movie lovers as it comes with DTS Headphone: X and Hi-Res audio certifications. It also supports AptX HD (like the OnePlus 6 does) which works well for wireless Bluetooth headsets, offering the ability to stream better quality audio (although not as good as LDAC). The fingerprint reader and face unlock were quick and showcased almost no lag.
I did have to register my fingerprint twice though as it initially refused to authenticate. From then onwards I faced no issues. Most of the time the face unlock had already done its job before I even reached out to the fingerprint reader on the back.
The camera on the Asus ZenFone 5Z is kind of a mixed bag. Part of the reason for this is the AI integration that forces the camera to switch scene modes depending on what’s seen on the viewfinder. But first let’s begin with image quality. The images look sharp and show natural looking colour tones without going overboard like we have seen on the Honor 10.
They showcase the same about of details like the photos clicked on a OnePlus 6, but somehow lack the dynamic range of the 6. Thankfully, HDR comes to the rescue and it does a fine job, without going overboard. Although enabled automatically I had to force the camera to click an HDR image in certain lighting situations as the AI feature failed to recognise the same. A bit of software tweaking could solve this problem. But with the HDR turned on, the photos look really impressive, given the smartphone’s price tag.
The PDAF autofocus system is quick to lock focus. Add the OIS system to that and you get crisp photos in daylight. In dim lighting, things turned out to be better than the OnePlus 6 as well, with the ZenFone 5Z showcasing better details and sharper images where the OnePlus simply blurs out most of the details.
In low light or street lighting, both phones did not do too well, but you can get great results with the manual or Pro mode provided you have the patience for the same. Indeed, both the OnePlus 6 and the Asus ZenFone 5 are nowhere close to the images quality achieved by the premium Google Pixel 2XL, Samsung Galaxy S9 or the Apple iPhone X.
Moving to the wide angle camera, it is an added bonus for the ZenFone 5Z buyer. It does what it claims to do and that is to capture a wider shot, without excessive lens barrel distortion. My only gripe about it is to do with the details. The wide-angle images are great for sharing on social media, but don’t attempt to pixel peep. The results are downright horrid in low light scenarios. Indeed, these are details that can be fixed with software updates and the OnePlus 6 having launched earlier has already seen a few.
Portrait shots look great and showcase plenty of detail even though the camera does try to clean up your face. They look great when shooting selfies as well.
Video recording was not on par with the OnePlus 6. Focus hunting is immediately noticeable on panning while shooting. This is true when you have selected the Smart Autofocus mode and also with the Continuous Focus mode. So even though stabilisation is good, the hunting for focus ruins the video playback experience. Here the OnePlus 6 seemed to record much smoother video.
I will be doing an in-depth camera comparison of the Honor 10, the OnePlus 6 and the Asus ZenFone 5Z for those of you who are keen on pixel peeping.
With the same battery size as the OnePlus 6 I expected a similar battery life and the results somehow turned out to be the same.
But the Asus ZenFone 5Z also packs in some added features that should give you some peace of mind when it comes to battery care.
For beginners, the battery settings is a section in itself called ‘PowerMaster’. There’s plenty of customisation available and thanks to the AI integration mentioned in the software section, most of this can be done automatically for those who prefer not to tweak the settings.
Users also get battery modes that apart from the standard presets also come with a customisable option that lets you choose a brightness level including when you would like the network to be turned on and off (when the device is asleep).
What I liked was the how the smartphone tells you that the battery is in a good condition in the battery care section. This is something that no Android smartphone out there tells you.
With all of the above tweaking, our PC Mark Work 2.0 Battery Life test delivered a score of 9 hours and 32 minutes which is pretty much the standard for a smartphone in this price range.
In day to day usage, I did not face any problems or don’t really remember looking for a charging point to plug my phone into. In short, I usually ended my work day with about 20-30 percent charge left. Turning on the Performance battery mode does drain the device a lot faster.
Verdict and pricing in India
Asus has done a fantastic job with balancing the hardware, user experience and the price with the ZenFone 5Z.
It is both surprising and shocking to see a worthy competitor to the OnePlus 6, which not only competes but performs better on some fronts.
As mentioned at the start of this review, it’s time for OnePlus to wake up and revive its formula for success. It’s time for OnePlus to start innovating because the competition is here and its own siblings, Oppo and Vivo are turning into trendsetters.
So which smartphone should you choose?
The Asus ZenFone 5Z retails for a lot lesser than the OnePlus 6.
Asus: 6+64 GB = Rs 29,999, 6+128 GB = 32,999, 8+256 GB Rs 36,999
OnePlus: 6+64 GB = Rs 34,999, 8+128 GB = 39,999, 8+256 GB Rs 43,999
So you are essentially paying an additional Rs 5,000 for the 6+64 GB model, Rs 7,000 more for the 128 and 256 GB models, which is big difference.
Well, it all boils down to the software. If you are OK with Asus’s customisations then the Asus ZenFone 5Z actually offers more for your money and gets you additional features like a wide-angle camera, microSD card expansion, dual speakers and plenty of AI smarts.
If stock Android and quick updates are your thing, then the OnePlus 6 still has no equal in this price bracket.
Why would you “settle” for limited storage, a dual-camera setup with just a portrait mode and a single speaker? More so, when you get all of this at Rs 5,000 cheaper? You tell me!