Saturday, 7 July 2018

Asus Zenfone 5

I’ve never played with a Zenfone before! This is the Asus Zenfone 5 and it really does have quite a lot going for it, with some annoyances thrown in for good measure! First off, it arrived with Android 8.0.0. and Google’s April 2018 Security Update. Then update after update after update, all Asus stuff...resting after 4, the 5th being the May 2018 Google Security Update. It has a very capable Snapdragon 636 chipset with 4GB RAM and 64GB of storage space (with more expandable with microSD Cards).

Physically, it reminds me very much of Huawei/Honor devices, trying really hard to cash in on Apple design language not only in look and feel, but also in font, UI design and layout/menus/navigation. It’s a glass/aluminium/glass sandwich which is not anywhere near as slippery in the hand as many devices out there. It does, however, come with a clear TPU case in the box which fits nicely and, of course, should be employed. As devices go these days, it’s in the middle somewhere for weight at 155g.

There’s a SIM Card tray on the left which will take either two Nano SIM Cards or one SIM Card and a microSD. The aluminium is broken up as we go round the device by antenna lines, microphones, volume and power buttons (also made from aluminium) and on the base, speaker, 3.5mm audio-out socket and USB-C charging/data port. On the back, there’s the dual camera lump, top-left, with LED flash under it and a very good but slightly undersized fingerprint scanner in the middle.

The 6.2” IPS LCD 1080p screen defies its large size by keeping the device tall with that 18:9 (plus notch) ratio. It is protected with GG3 and really is a very good bright screen. I just tested it in bright sunshine and was able to continue using all functions with no problem at all. Many devices these days seem to be completely useless outside, so it’s good to see that’s not the case here.

You probably knew I was going to say this, but the notch is just silly! It’s the first time I’ve actually seen one and, yes, I get the purpose of course, maximising screen space and taking bezels out the edges and making our pocket computers all screen on the front, so there’s nowhere to actually hold it, but it just looks daft. Fortunately, it can be turned off. But I’d much rather have a chin and forehead, like most previous phones, where the stuff that needs housing has somewhere to go. And you get to put your fingers somewhere! On playing YouTube video, incidentally, with Notch turned on or off, the pinch-to-fit-screen option doesn’t work properly at the forehead end anyway! On both settings, it cuts off at the line of the bottom of the notch. What a foul-up!

The UI is Asus’ own ASUS ZenUI 5.0. Which is a shame really. The opportunity to make another AndroidOne device here would have been wonderful - but these Chinese manufacturers just all seem to think that they have to wow their customers by making their own tweaks, icons, themes, enhancements and personality. I guess I’ll be in danger of being the party-pooper with this Vanilla approach, but this kind of spoils things, I’m afraid, and does nothing but encourage me to hide as much of it as I can and use Nova Launcher. The Notifications area drop-down is white with blue icons, again, very Honor. It’s nice enough, but if you want to change it, you need to download a Theme. Which is easy enough - and many are free and very attractive. This can also be used in conjunction with Nova.

In terms of bloat, it certainly could have been worse. Facebook and Instagram can’t be uninstalled, just disabled, but apart from the aforementioned Asus stuff, there’s nothing much else. Like Honor/Huawei/LG there are oodles of options stuffed into Settings which would keep a person tinkering for months! There’s all sorts of layers of controls and software to optimise this, that and the other, from battery and memory management to wallpapers (slideshow) and themes, PowerMaster, Auto-start manager, Power-safe options, Display switches, calibrations, fonts, colour gamut, Assistive tools like Page Marker for offline web page reading (saved to Google Drive via Chrome), multiple App sign-ins, specific game settings to optimise for best experience and gesture controls galore - even drawing on the ‘off’ screen to launch apps (like 1+ did a few years ago). Pocket Mode, Glove Mode, turn over this way and that, to do this and that. As I say, it’s a tinkerer’s paradise which I’m afraid only raises the fear in me of delayed updates to Google core software and security updates. But then I’m a pessimist!

Asus seem to have missed a trick with no Glance Screen or Always On functionality. It’s true that there’s all sorts of gesture controls and lift-to-wake and so on, but not the ultimate. Maybe they were afraid of the battery drain given this LCD panel needing to be always on in its entirety to support such a venture, but I’d once again quote the LG G6 here - they did it very well and I noticed no hit on battery. It’s a shame that there’s not even double-tap-to-wake, or at least I can’t find it in the ocean of options and settings!

The dual speaker set-up is one of those front-firing earpiece/bottom-firing arrangements. I don’t really care how speakers are arranged - as long as the resulting sound is good. I ran a stereo test in YouTube as usual and the earpiece speaker alone is tinny and horrible but quite loud, the bottom speaker is bass’y, nice sounding and loud - put them together and the resulting output is really very good. It’s certainly loud and has very reasonable quality. There’s a system-wide equaliser called AudioWizard which allows output manipulation and is feature-packed much like Dolby Atmos. The stereo separation is reasonable with the unit placed in front of the head, but doesn’t swing the magic that Razer have achieved with the clever 5.1. implementation.

Talking of which, I put the sound up against the Razer and London and this Asus is louder! The equaliser allows for fine tuning but, as usual, some of that volume is sacrificed in making it better-sounding. The Outdoor boost option just boosts the treble in order to make it louder (by not much) and makes sounds shrill and horrible! Leave it turned off! I was very pleasantly surprised by the overall sound output and I think that you would be too. I prefer the Razer/London but it’s really not far away.

The sound output from the 3.5mm audio-out socket benefits from 24-bit/192kHz audio and DTS Headphone X, 3D surround whatsit! I’m no audiophile with my wonky ears but using my AKG headphones it sounds fabulous with genuinely immersive sound, good separation and control options via software. The ordinary guy/gal experiencing this will be blown away with the top notch sound. Bluetooth 5.0 is present along with an FM Radio, for those of us who dwell sans broadband!

The camera is very LG - in that it has the 120 degree wide-angle option, which remains very useful for me and much more value than a 2x secondary lens. Twin lenses enable the wide-angle but also the Depth function, which works really well, doesn’t keep moaning about being too close/dark like the Nokia Live Bokeh seems to, and is also a ‘live’ function with slider. Google Lens is integrated and works as well/badly as most devices! The camera interface in Pro Mode is great fun, very LG, with bells and whistles to play with, and will make the user feel like they are actually using a camera, not a phone. The two sensors are 12MP f/1.8 with OIS and 8MP f/2 without. The Selfie is an 8MP f2 unit with all sorts of toys and Zenmoji animation and GIF creation tools for children to use and there’s 4K video at 30fps from the main camera. But much more coming from +Steve Litchfield when he hounds the camera performance including an appraisal of how the AI Photography performs (or interferes) no doubt!

Talking of AI, Asus has gone to town rather with the notion and included, apart from the above, AI Boost (for speed and power over battery during gaming), AI Display (screen stays on when it knows you’re looking at it), AI Charging (the unit learns your charging habits and reduces the power when fully charged but still plugged in, in order to extend the battery’s lifespan) and AI Ringtone (environmentally aware volume control of ringtones)!

You might be interested to know, given what I’ve said about AI Display, that Face Unlock just won’t work with my face! I’ve had this before with my full beard, so Asus are not alone. But if this feature excludes people with full beards, it’s a bit of a generalised wide loss - and presumably people who, into the bargain, want to use AI Display!

The battery is a 3300mAh unit and has optional (yes, you can tell it not to!) fast charging. No wireless charging. I shall report back in the coming days on battery performance, but on Day 1 I’m guessing, also based on other users’ reviews on the matter, it will be good for a day of my normal use, but not for 2 - which I’m now coming to expect from my phones. Once again, it’s quite a chunky device and it wouldn’t have made that much difference to thickness to get it up to 4000mAh to really make it stand out, much like Nokia have done'ish with the 7 Plus.

So far, so good though. I really like this Asus Zenfone 5. Even though it’s full of Asus ideals and littered with add-ons, it doesn’t feel so removed, somehow, from Vanilla like Honor devices have become. With strategic use of Themes and Launchers, the plethora of added features and controls could actually be considered of benefit to the user without being an irritation. It’s quite hard to get one of these in the UK just now, but no doubt they’ll come. This one was bought in from Europe for about £350 and at that price, I think it’s pitched about right. The Honor 10 is lurking around that area and must be a contender, as would be my choice, the Nokia 7 Plus. It’s a sound device though, with lots going for it (particularly sound) which, pending Asus’ commitment to keeping the software up to date, I’d recommend.

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