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Asus Zenfone 5 Review – High Five

“Cheap phones are getting good, and good phones are getting cheap”, a famous tech YouTuber once said to describe the state of smartphones today. No doubt about the first statement. The second statement though is an interesting one and as much as we are blinded by the Apples and Samsungs who keep increasing the price of their flagship products year after year, we are starting to see an emergence of a countertrend. The Asus Zenfone 5 is part of this countertrend.

To put things into perspective, the Zenfone 3 was launched here at a starting price of RM1,499 nearly two years ago. The Zenfone 4 which came a year later carries the RM2,099 price tag. Nobody could have guessed that the Zenfone 5 goes for only RM1,299.

So what gives? Does this Zenfone 5 offers a lesser experience than its costlier predecessors? Quite the opposite.

The Zenfone 5 is as feature-packed as any flagship Zenfone of the past, if not more so. This year we saw the addition of plenty AI features that screams overkill at first glance. Before we get to that let’s start off by talking about its build and design. As noted in my first look at the device, the Zenfone 5 is a solid and nice-looking device. But it is also a tad wider than many of the tall, narrow and slim phones currently dominating the market. In the past weeks I have been alternating between the Zenfone 5 and iPhone X and the wider form-factor of the former always feels a little jarring on the hand by comparison. Not a problem though if you are used to wide phones or you have large hands.

Another talking point is the notch and no this isn’t be a rant about how notches is ugly and such. We have already gotten over that and you should too. What could be annoying is that the notch severely limits the number of notification icons that can be presented in the notification tray. Besides the Wi-Fi connected icon (which will almost always present), you get only a maximum of two icons shown. More than that and you will get a triple dots icon which tells you to pull down the notification panel to reveal the rest of the notifications.

With the deluge of notifications we get on a daily basis, it means we would have to pull down the notification panel a lot throughout the day. There is no option to tweak things around unfortunately and “hiding” the notch doesn’t help either. In case you are wondering, the notification icons do not spill over to the right side of the notch, which is sorely reserved for the time and battery icon. A waste of space if you ask me. Hopefully there will be a future update to fix this.

In the past I’ve always approach a Zenfone phone with conflicting minds. While the hardware is always decent and sometimes even serve up sweet surprises (the leather-back Zenfone Zoom and Zenfone AR are a personal favourite), I was less enthusiastic about the software. Packed with unwanted bloatware apps and carrying an outdated look, the ZenUI of yesteryears has always been the biggest factor holding back the Zenfones from being really great smartphones.

This year Asus has started to seriously do something about it, finally. We first see this on the Zenfone Max Pro (M1) which ditches ZenUI completely and goes full stock, pure Android. The Zenfone 5, while not as dramatic, has also been pulled into the same direction. The result is a Google-heavy UI that should please Google and Android fans. For me, it translates to the most enjoyable Zenfone I’ve ever used, software-wise.

As a fan of stock Android myself, the new ZenUI 5.0 is great to the eyes and touch. Everything just feels quick and snappy. I like the modern swipe-up gesture to bring up the app drawer and the fact that I can swipe down on practically anywhere on the display to bring down the notification panel. One-hand navigation is also made easy with the one-handed mode, which can be quickly and easily activated by tapping on the home icon twice. Likewise long-pressing on the Recent Apps icon will either activate multi-window mode for working on two separate windows or quickly snap a screenshot of whatever is on the display. A new element in the UI is the iOS-like dock sitting at the bottom in the app drawer that puts the five most-used apps for quicker access. A nice little feature but I would’ve like to customise which apps go into the dock. Unfortunately that’s not possible.

Fingerprint and face unlock are pretty standard stuffs these days. The fingerprint reader on the Zenfone 5 is good, fast and generally works well but it is the face unlock that really, really impresses me. I’ve said that I alternate a lot between the Zenfone 5 and iPhone X during the course of this review and while the iPhone X’s FaceID overall prowess is undoubted, the Zenfone 5 takes things up a notch by actually outperforming the iPhone X in certain situations, with unlocking speed, distance and face angle the determining factors.

Speed – the Zenfone 5 unlocks fast, not the fastest I’ve seen per se, but still fast enough to get you right into the home screen/currently opened app. You can choose that option for the speediest result that bypasses the lock screen or opt for the iPhone X-like option that will reveal the content of your notifications on the lock screen, with an additional swipe-up to go into the home screen.  Distance – the simple test to this is to hold both phones at my arm’s length at full stretch. The iPhone X fails to detect my face at that distance. The Zenfone 5 does. Every single time. Face angle – The Zenfone 5 was able to successfully detect my face at more obscure angles. I can turn my face around 45 degree angle looking away from the phone at all four directions (up, down, left, right) and not making any eye contact with the display and it still manages to detect my face and proceed to unlock. The iPhone X, again, couldn’t manage that.

All these impressive facial tracking technology couldn’t transfer to ZeniMoji, however. ZeniMoji is a poor and seemingly half-hearted attempt to imitate the iPhone X’s excellent Animoji. The animations are slow and in low-resolution, with only three characters to choose from as of now. Unless you have immense adoration for Zenny the Asus mascot, it is hard to see anyone going back to using this feature once the novelty wears off.

We talked about the Zenfone 5 being feature-packed and many of the new features introduced bears the AI tag. There are AI Boost, AI Photo Learning, AI Gallery, AI Ringtone and AI Charging just to name a few, which may seem excessive and looked like Asus’ attempt to jump in the AI bandwagon while its hot. All these AI features when taken in a whole do offer slight improvements in how the device operates in a day to day basis but they are nothing groundbreaking or life-changing. Strip the phone of all its AI features and you may not even notice their absence.

To their credit, some of them do sound promising. AI Boost, for example, is touted to provide an instant performance boost by up to 12.7% when activated. AI Charging claims to be able to extend battery life and make for faster charging speed by analysing the user’s usage pattern. But its hard to gauge their true usefulness when the results are not something that are really visible to the eyes. I personally do not yet see how they add value to my usage and haven’t had the need to put them to good use, but that’s because the phone is already running fine for me as it is. The performance is decent without any noticeable lag and the battery life is stellar in itself, often providing with me enough juice to last through a whole day, and then some the following day.

Perhaps in the long run they will play a more visible factor. I can envision feature like the AI Boost coming in handy for those who are heavy mobile gamers. As things stand from what I see right now, the AI features are nice little assistants at best. At worst, they are negligible.

The cameras on the Zenfone 5 comprises of a 12MP main camera and a 8MP wide-angle lens together with a 8MP front-facing selfie camera. There’s a lot going on in the camera but my favourite feature is the wide-angle shooting option. A quick access on the camera viewfinder provides a fast and convenient one-tap switch between the standard view and the wide angle view and I found myself going for wide angle shots a lot. Take a look at how much extra view you’ll get with the wide-angle lens from the same shooting position.

The Zenfone 5 takes great photos. FYI, it get a high overall score of 90 in the current DxOMark list, which is on the same level of the much-lauded Google Pixel. The HDR mode helps too by increasing the overall brightness, which is especially useful for night shots. The cool thing is HDR mode is shown real time on the viewfinder so you’ll know what you get before hitting the shutter button. For those who likes to tweak things exactly to their liking, the camera comes with a fully customisable Pro mode.

Without HDR

With HDR

Without HDR

With HDR

Without HDR

With HDR

Like any other phones with dual rear cameras, the Zenfone 5 is able to do portrait mode/depth effect shots. The system allows for a real time adjustment and preview of the depth effect, which is always a great feature to have for users who desire complete control over how their shots will turn out.

Its no surprise that AI also found its way in into the camera with the AI Scene Detection feature. What it basically does is it detects different shooting subjects out of 16 predefined categories and automatically applies the most ideal settings onto them. Besides the most common one that is night view, there are also “scenes” for food, dog, cat, sky and lots more. As a result, you’ll get bluer skies, greener fields and such. For people who are not bothered enough to edit their shots and just want a quick solution to get good-looking photos on common everyday subjects, AI Scene Detection is a welcome feature that helps you do all the work effortlessly.

AI Scene Detection at work.Notice the little icons at the top left corner

Other available shooting modes include slow motion (at 240FPS HD resolution), time lapse, GIF animation as well as the ability to shoot photos in RAW format.

Pro Mode

The Zenfone 5 is clearly a step up from the any of its predecessors. The software is finally given a modern makeover that is a joy to use. Certain features like the face unlock and camera are fantastic. The phone is also bogged down by little things that seem unnecessary but thankfully none are dealbreakers. Asus did more rights than wrongs on this one.

The biggest winner though is the price. Here you are getting the full flagship experience at a midrange price. In a time where the cost of buying a good flagship is ever-escalating, the Zenfone 5 is a breath of fresh air, a very welcome change. It bodes well for the future of smartphone pricing and it has now set a precedent for other players to follow.

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