Asus has undercut the undercutters. It has launched a mid-range phone that’s more than £100 cheaper than chief rival OnePlus and delivered a phenomenal phone in the process. Sure, it’s made a couple of sacrifices, but as our Asus ZenFone 5 review will reveal, it’s made those cuts in exactly the right places.
Asus ZenFone 5 review: scorching screen
This is an astonishing screen. A screen worthy of a phone costing £600 or more. It’s not simply that it’s 6.2in in size or has a super-high 2,246 x 1,080 resolution, but photos look amazing.
It proved a great performer when I subjected it to tests using a spectrometer too. It hit 99.6% of the sRGB colour gamut, and 97.5% of the DCI-P3 gamut, which means it can display all the colours you’ll see when browsing the internet or viewing films.
Mix in a 1,763:1 contrast ratio and you can be confident every last detail lurking in the shadows will come through. It’s bright too, measuring a scorching 603cd/m² peak brightness. I tended to keep it at mid-range brightness, but you can choose adaptive brightness if you wish.
We should talk about the notch – the blacked out section at the top of the screen. Some people find this offputting, but after a few days it becomes part of the furniture. The only irritation is that there isn’t much room for notifications, as can be seen in the photo above. You may find yourself swiping down to find out what isn’t shown more often than currently.
Asus ZenFone 5 review: mod cons
So what extras do you get? First, the face recognition. This works slickly in good light – even in the relative darkness of my office it worked nine times out of ten. As things get darker, though, forget about using facial recognition. Instead, enter your PIN or use the speedy fingerprint reader.
I should also mention the presence of a 3.5mm audio jack at the bottom of the chassis. Although you may not need it as much as you expect: the speakers are combative little units that produce a surprisingly loud sound. There’s even an outdoor mode if you want more oomph.
Asus ZenFone 5 review: cracking camera
Cameras are often sacrificed in mid-range phones, but that’s not true here. It scored a 93 rating in the DXMark test, which is on a par with the first Google Pixel, and while it does struggle in low light I can’t think of a camera that will outperform it at this price.
First, some specs: the ZenFone 5 includes a dual 12MP/8MP camera. There are no fancy zoom features, but it means you can capture wide-angle scenes better than a single camera.
Once you take it outside, it does a superb job. HDR mode kicks in automatically, which will help for those sunset Instagram pics, with Asus taking advantage of the AI capabilities built into the Qualcomm chip to recognise scenes.
Purists may actually find this annoying – colours can look hyper-real, as with the yellow of the Hoselock above – but for those of us who just want to capture the moment quickly and easily this is a great phone.
Besides, if you really do want to take control, there’s a Pro model that lets you adjust exposure, ISO, shutter speeds and produce RAW files rather than JPEGs.
The front-mounted camera takes nice shots, too, and if you’re a selfie-addict then you may find Asus’ BeautyLive feature handy. This applies a “beauty filter” from a scale of 0 to 10, and can even be applied to live streams on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Asus ZenFone 5 review: performance
Inevitably, there isn’t a top-of-the-range processor in the ZenFone 5. Instead, it’s the mid-range Snapdragon 636. This can be made to look very ordinary in a graph that compares it to phones with faster processors, but will you notice the difference in real life? I don’t think so.
Web pages load near-instantly and scroll smoothly, and I’m yet to find an app that doesn’t fly along. I don’t even think it will appear slow in two years’ time: Snapdragon chips tend to age much better than MediaTek ones.
The slight drawback is when playing games that demand faster chips than the supplied Adreno 509, but I selflessly put it through its paces in CSR Racing 2. The outcome? Slick frame rates, despite the detailed animation.
As a rule of thumb, expect it to cope with 90% of Android games at their top settings. On the 10% where it struggles – think PUBG and the forthcoming Fortnite – you’ll need to dial down to medium.
Asus ZenFone 5 review: battery life
Finally, to battery life. With a 3,300mAh battery inside, this was always going to be good rather than gob-smackingly great – but I was pleasantly surprised.
If you’re a heavy phone user, you’ll be down to between 20% and 40% by the end of play. I’m more of a casual lightweight, though, and found it lasted two days between charges.
Inevitably, the battery will degrade over time, and while Asus claims “AI Charging” will slow down the ageing process, that’s tough to prove at this point.
Asus also claims it will go from 0% to 60% in 38 minutes using the supplied USB-C charger. While I haven’t been able to duplicate this yet, I can say it charges rapidly, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be true.
Asus ZenFone 5 review: the software
Asus now takes a light-touch approach to its Android overlay, and I think it gets the balance right. For example, it provides its own useful file manager but and a Clock that adds little to Google’s. It’s a little annoying you can’t remove such apps, but at least there’s plenty of storage space thanks to the 64GB supplied and a microSD slot.
The biggest issue is speed of updates. Android 8.1 was released way back in December 2017, yet this phone still runs Android 8.0. Will it ever get upgraded to the just-released Android 9? I wouldn’t take that bet.
You do get regular security updates at least, albeit not as quickly as Google-branded phones. For instance, my review unit just installed July’s security updates (after I prompted a manual update).
Asus ZenFone 5 review: verdict
There are signs that this isn’t a flagship phone. You don’t get waterproofing or wireless charging, for instance. And, as I mentioned above, it could have a faster set of chips inside.
But so what? This looks like a flagship phone. Performs like one in everything except benchmarks. Takes amazing photos like one, most of the time. Frankly, it makes the OnePlus 6 look overpriced at £469.
Where the OnePlus 6 wins is photo quality and outright speed, so if those are important to you then it’s worth the extra £119. But to everyone else out there, the ZenFone 5 is a brilliant choice.
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