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ASUS Zenfone 5z Review – Big Value with Small Compromises

ASUS Zenfone 5z Review

Big Value with Small Compromises

When we saw what ASUS did in 2017 with their Zenfone smartphone line-up, to be honest, we’re not really sure what was ASUS doing. Not only there’s way too much variants, most of them didn’t really lead them to anywhere. Spending time with the Zenfone 4 Selfie Pro didn’t really wow us that much, and luckily, ASUS noticed that too, with their sales figures. They soon rectified with the problem, with the announcement of the Zenfone 5 and Zenfone 5z in MWC 2018, and a few months later, brought it into Malaysian market. We have high hopes for the Zenfone 5z, especially after just spending some great time with the Max Pro M1. So does the Zenfone 5z, which is ASUS’s current flagship smartphone, lives up to our expectation and the keeps up with its rivals? Continue reading to find out.

The Zenfone 5z is offered in 2 variants – 6GB RAM paired with 128GB internal storage configuration, which goes for RM1899, or the 8GB RAM and 256GB configuration, which tops at RM2299. In this review, we will be looking at the 6GB RAM and 128GB storage configuration.

Specifications:
Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, 4x 2.7GHz + 4x 1.7GHz
6/8GB RAM, 128/256GB internal storage, microSD slot up to 512GB
6.2-inch 18.7:9 ratio IPS LCD display with notch, 83.6% screen-to-body ratio
1080 X 2246 pixels, 402 pixels-per-inch
12MP + 8MP rear camera, f/1.8 + f/2.0 aperture, video recording up to 4K 60fps
8MP front-facing camera, f/2.0 aperture
3300mAh battery

Unboxing

Like most other premium devices, the Zenfone 5z comes in a blue box, with gold writings and sketches of the device. The entire outer shell of the packaging looks clean. The box that is immediately present once the top cover is off contains the documentations, a SIM tray removal too land a clear soft case, and the phone is right below it. The rest of the packaging contains the usual bits – a USB wall adapter, a USB-C cable and a pair of earphones.

Design

A Generic Design Device

At first glance, the Zenfone 5z looks, pretty much like other generic smartphones out there. Its design makes it look boring from a distance, and in a sea of smartphones that looked pretty similar to each other, the Zenfone 5z can hardly stand out. There are still touches here and there which makes it clear that it’s a ASUS-designed device, but for the most part, it looks pretty similar to many other smartphones out there. We also should point out that there’s very little difference between the cheaper Zenfone 5 and the Zenfone 5z as well, so most people can’t really tell what kind of a device you have. But this also translates to a clean, simple, no-nonsense design, and for most people, the design isn’t offensive at all.

While it might not look good, the Zenfone 5z does feel rather good in the hands. For starters, the Zenfone 5z has a metal chassis which gives it a rigid and solid feel, meshed in between by 2 pieces of Gorilla Glass. It’s one of the better feeling devices out there at this price point, and at with a weight of only 155-grams, it doesn’t feel cheap at all.

The front is largely taken up by the 6.2-inch display, and since it’s 2018, ASUS has decided to go with the questionable notch design. The bezels around the display are well-sized – small enough to look good, big enough to avoid accidental inputs while holding the device. The lip at the bottom is slightly on the larger side, and we’d hope to see that got smaller, especially with the on-screen Android controls. The notch on top isn’t the smallest as well, and it contains the earpiece, the front-facing 8-megapixel camera and the usual sensors.

To the left of the device reveals the removable SIM trays, and once it’s removed with the removal tool that’s in the box, you’re presented with 2 slots – a primary nanoSIM slot, or a secondary hybrid slot, which either takes a nanoSIM or microSD card for storage expansion. To be honest, ASUS can give you three slots in the Max Pro M1 with a dedicated storage expansion slot, but we’re surprised to not find it on the Zenfone 5z. The top of the device just has the secondary microphone and some antenna lines.

On the right there’s the conveniently located volume and power buttons, and for some reason, the special texture that are used to be on the power buttons of other Zenfone devices are no longer on the Zenfone 5z, which is odd. But you can still tell that you’re hitting the right button without looking at it.

At the bottom is where the usual ports live – which includes the 3.5-mm headphone jack, a USB-C port for power and data, as well as the bottom-firing loudspeaker.

The design of the rear panel of the Zenfone 5z is pretty special. It has this aurora effect which changes design depending on the lighting position, and the lines connects to the fingerprint reader in the middle. It does look cool, and makes it look slightly different than the metal unibody offered on other devices. On the top left is where the 12-megapixel rear-facing camera sits, paired with the 8-megapixel wide-angle camera, both sitting on each other in their own housing, which bumps out a little. There’s also a dual-tone LED flash right below them. There’s also an ASUS branding right below the fingerprint reader.

Both variants of Zenfone 5z are available in 2 colours – Meteor Silver and Midnight Blue.

Specs and Performance

What A Powerhouse Underneath!

The Zenfone 5z is ASUS’s flagship for year 2018, so of course, they had to pack a lot in this phone. For starters, Qualcomm’s flagship Snapdragon 845 has been put in charge to power the Zenfone 5z, and come to think of it, this is the third time in a row that we’ve come across a device powered by the Snapdragon 845 processor, and is the cheapest one so far, making the Zenfone 5z the cheapest smartphone out there to be powered by that processor. The good news keeps getting better – our base model is already equipped with 6GB of RAM, paired with 128GB of internal storage, while you can still opt for the higher equipped model with 8GB of RAM and paired with 256GB of RAM, and both models costs even less than Vivo’s NEX.

As for real world performance, the Zenfone 5z performs as expected. Even with its lower price, it’s not slower than any of the more expensive devices that we’ve tested with the same processor. General use and lighter task is nothing for the device, and it will take it even if it involves third-party applications. It’ll also hold up well when it comes to power-intensive tasks. To be honest, the overall experience felt a lot smoother compared to either the NEX or OPPO’s Find X, and part of that can be contributed to the light-feeling ZenUI and its integration between software and hardware.

The Zenfone 5z’s impressive performance also had to be contributed to ASUS’s own AI Boost feature, and it all comes down to the Mobile Manager app that’s preloaded onto the Zenfone 5z. The PowerMaster app that is included in the Mobile Manager app allows you to switch between battery modes, battery saving options, full battery stats and more. The AI boost feature will know when you’re launching a power-intensive task (such as game or benchmarks) and offer you to switch to Performance mode, which offers slightly more performance, and ASUS claims that with AI Boost, it outperforms other devices with higher price tag but similar processor. On our test though, the difference is so small it’s barely noticeable. While heat is kept at a right amount, battery drain can sometimes be an issue when running those heavy apps.


Results from Benchmark Apps: Geekbench 4, AndroBench, 3DMark Sling Shot, Antutu

The results obtained from our usual Geekbench benchmarking app is about what we’d expect. Single-core score tops at 2429, while multi-core score sits at around 9084. Both numbers are slightly higher than the NEX or Find X, and pretty much costs half of those device.

It is ideal for the Zenfone 5z to come with at least 6GB of RAM, as we can see that most of the time, 4GB of RAM is being used for background apps. It’s still not a big deal though, as good amount of apps will still run in the background, and we didn’t see the need to clean it from the Mobile Manager app all the time, or ever. The 128GB internal storage is plenty for most people, and it’s a UFS 2.1 unit, with sequential speeds close to 700MB/s, and write speeds at 200MB/s. There’s also an 8GB RAM + 256GB internal storage version that you can step up to, and doesn’t matter which version you go for, there’s still microSD card support for storage expansion, and it will take cards up to 512GB.

Thankfully, ASUS hasn’t feel the need to skim the Zenfone 5z’s connectivity options. A dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi is here as per usual, along with Bluetooth 5.0. There is also NFC on board, and props to ASUS for even including that. At least it does support 4G+ on most networks, which is pretty much a must these days. The connectivity list finishes off with the USB-C port at the bottom for charging and data transfer, although it’s only of a USB 2.0 standard.

In typical Zenfone fashion, the fingerprint reader is on the back, and instead of the usual matte finish, the top layer is now glass, which gives it a smooth, glossy and premium look. It is responsive and quick, and for most of the time, it is accurate too.

Apart from the fingerprint reader, there’s also facial recognition too. Unlike the Find X, it’s only a simple, non-sophisticated facial recognition. To its credit, the speed is rather quick, and is pretty accurate for most of the time, provided that you’re in a well-lit condition and you’re not wearing any facial accessories.

Display

Pretty good for an IPS panel.

The Zenfone 5z is equipped with a large 6.2-inch display up front, in a 19:9 display ratio. ASUS is pretty proud of the fact that the screen-to-body ratio rating is at an astonishing 90%, which makes the Zenfone 5z not only looks good on the front, it’s also better for content consumption as well. The 1080 X 2246 resolution of the display translates to a rather adequate 401 pixels-per-inch density, which allows images and text to be adequately sharp, unless you’re nitpicking. A lot of its competitors are offering a display like this, so there’s really not much to complain about.

The display is also backed by what’s called a Super IPS+ display, and it’s the same panel shared with the Zenfone 5. At first glance, you might think that it’s an AMOLED panel, given how vivid and accurate the colours are. Plus, it does go pretty bright, which makes it marginally usable under bright sunlight. Credit where credit’s due, it’s definitely one of the better IPS displays out there, especially when you add the price into the mix.

As with ZenUI, ASUS did include a huge amount of software tweaks which allows you to adjust the display to your liking. Like all other smartphones with notch, the Zenfone 5z allows you to hide its notch by blacking out the top part where the notification icons are. Those icons will remain at the same location so that it’s not wasted, and it still looks rather realistic. You can also adjust the colour temperature to your liking, as well as customizing the colour mode instead of using the usual “standard” or “wide colour gamut” options.

Speakers

It has stereo speakers!

Surprise, surprise! “Flagship killers” like the Zenfone 5z usually had to give up on stereo speakers in order meet that price point. Heck, even the Find X and NEX doesn’t even have those features, but surprisingly, it’s available on the much cheaper Zenfone 5z, and the news keep on getting better when you consider that it’s already available on the Zenfone 5. It works the same way as any other smartphones with stereo speakers – with the earpiece and loudspeaker acting as individual channels.

We will be honest, although it’s a stereo speaker, don’t expect both channels to blast at the same volume to give you the most immersive effect. The volume on the earpiece is still lower than the loudspeaker, which slightly gives it that imbalance effect. The imbalance effect is more noticeable on music rather than speech. Nontheless, the speakers are loud, but could use a little more clarity.

Camera Performance

It’s fine for what it is.

The main camera on the Zenfone 5z consists of a pair of 12-megapixel and 8-megapixel sensors, but this setup is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Let’s start off with the main 12-megapixel camera. ASUS has once again turned to Sony’s help in the sensor department, which results in the IMX363 sensor present on the Zenfone 5z. It has a f/1.8 aperture, along with a regular 78-degree view angle. The secondary camera is an 8-megapixel unit, and unlike most cameras where it’s a telephoto unit, the secondary camera offers a 120-degree wide angle lens, so that you can capture a wider view image.


Standard photo from main camera and wide-angle photo from secondary camera.

There’s more sophisticated technology on the Zenfone 5z’s camera department too, and for the first time, ASUS has also implemented AI-assisted scene recognition as part of what’s offered on the Snapdragon 845 chipset, and it can identify up to 16 different scenes and adjust the photo accordingly. Not only it will constantly improve itself from the cloud, it can learn from existing images in the device to be more efficient and accurate.

The final results? Pretty impressive actually. Images taken from the Zenfone 5z does look pretty good, with well-rendered details and wide dynamic range. The only lacking point is the colours, where it’s a little on the dull side on original images. That’s where the AI-assisted scene recognition comes in and do the magic work, bumping up the colours and make it look true to life. The AI scene recognition is handy and accurate for most of the time, and there’s no harm in leaving it on all the time.

In low-light conditions, the Zenfone 5z performs within expectation. The f/1.8 aperture allows quite a lot of light into the sensor, and makes the image look pretty bright. Combining that with the AI assistance, you’ll have image with pretty close to accurate colours, good details and low noise. It really struggles when there’s not enough light, and that’s where the details got hurt, visible noise and dark images. The secondary camera doesn’t perform the same as the primary sensor, so you’ll need to expect darker images without AI assistance.

With two cameras, the Zenfone 5z will also do portrait mode, and it’s on the primary sensor as well, with the secondary sensor assisting in providing depth information to simulate a bokeh effect on the background of an object. On the Zenfone 5z, the portrait mode works quite well. For most of the part, the effect looks pretty convincing, but as usual, it doesn’t really like objects that are of different distances or complicated shapes.

Believe it or not, the Zenfone 5z will actually record videos up to 4K resolution, in 60 frames-per-second! That’s pretty much unheard of apart from the real premium flagships. Very quickly, 4K 60fps has become our favourite resolution to shoot in, as not only it’s smooth and non-choppy, the details are very rich too. You do lose a little of those details in 1080p mode, so if storage space isn’t a worry, maxing out the resolution and frame rate is the way to go. There is an Optical Image Stabilizer on board, and for videos, there’s even an Electronic Image Stabilizer to further assist in videos, and as far as we can see, both assistances are available for 4K and 1080p. In low-light conditions though, things do get pretty dark, so that’s a sacrifice right there.

Over on the other side is an 8-megapixel camera, with an aperture of f/2.0. It’s a standard viewing angle unit, and that’s pretty much it. Selfies turned out to be rich and sharp, if you leave the software “enhancements” alone. One way to mess up your beautiful selfies is to turn on software beautification and depth effect, as both effects pretty much ruin the image even on standard settings. If you really want those features, we suggest you to tone those settings down.

As for the camera app, it’s pretty straightforward. The shortcut controls are to the left, while the shutter/record, Pro mode, preview and camera switching buttons are to the right. There’s also an option to switch between the regular and wide angle cameras. Swiping up on common areas will reveal multiple modes to play with, while swiping down will bring up the various filters. You’ll have complete control of all the settings in Pro mode, which allows you to play with the white balance, EV, ISO, shutter speed and focus.

Software

ZenUI is now lighter and faster.

The Zenfone 5z is powered by Android 8.0 Oreo, and ASUS went ahead and add their own ZenUI customization on top of it. It does look pretty similar to its older firmware, but with improvements on speed and usability. The transitions is fast, and feels light too. It operates pretty much the same as most other Android devices, but has their own look, feel and features. It is also packed with lots of AI-assisted features. Apart from the AI Boost which gives maximum power when needed, there’s also things such as AI Ringtone, AI Charging and a lot more. While it comes with full suite of Google Apps, there’s not much for their own bloatware. Most of the apps are utility apps where it’s actually useful when needed. Overall, we’d prefer this over any Chinese-designed or vanilla interface.

Battery Life

Average battery size, average battery life.

The 3300mAh battery performs marginally alright for our use cases. Our usual 12-hour routine ended up at around 25-30% at the end of the day, with no problems getting a full day out of it with lighter usage. Mind you, constantly running heavy tasks will drain it much quicker. For this price, there’s really nothing much to complain about. The Mobile Manager app offers lots of solutions to prevent it from draining quickly – which includes throttling the chipset, killing background applications and more.

But even if you run out of juice, charging the Zenfone 5z isn’t a problem at all, since it supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, which like the Vivo NEX, isn’t the latest quick charging solution. But it’s there when you need it. It only takes about 30-minutes to get a flat battery to 55%, and of course, it will gradually slow down as it reaches maximum capacity. There’s also AI-charging feature packed with ZenUI, where it will learn your charging pattern, and limits the charge to 80% until when it feels suitable to charge it to the max in order to maximize the battery lifespan.

Our Verdict

Since the OnePlus 6 is the “flagship killer”, the Zenfone 5z is definitely the “flagship killer…. Killer”. The Zenfone 5z offers everything you want for RM2000, and it’s a shockingly value-friendly device. To be honest, we’re not really sure about its look, since it’s pretty much identical to the cheaper Zenfone 5, and there are lots of parts shared as well. At the end of the day, it is an easy device to recommend, and the base 6GB RAM and 128GB internal storage is probably enough for most users. If you have the budget for the 8GB RAM and 256GB internal storage model, go ahead then, as it might be more futureproof too. Bravo ASUS for being back at offering value for money devices to the masses.

The Zenfone 5z’s worst enemy is probably Xiaomi’s Mi 8, as it offers pretty much the same setup with a smaller storage at only RM1599. If you’re looking for something other than MIUI interface, there’s the slightly more expensive Honor View 10 at RM2099, or the cheaper Honor 10 at RM1599. If you want a bigger device, there’s always the OnePlus 6 which starts at RM2399. The Zenfone 5, which is the device that the 5z was based on, is only RM1299, but that’s totally out of the league.

Things we like:
• Overall great value for money
• Camera performance in daylight
• Surprisingly capable loudspeaker system
• Smoothness of ZenUI
• Real Life Performance

Things we’re not sure of:
• Battery life could be better
• Improvements on the Stereo Speaker setup
• Battery drain in performance-intensive tasks
• Camera performance in low-light
Overall looks of the device.

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