ASUS ZenFone 5Z review: criminally underpriced for a great flagship experience

ZenFone 5Z 1

Rating: 8.4/10

Yay:

  • Unbelievable pricing
  • Use of artificial intelligence for battery longevity
  • Competitive camera performance
  • Well-optimised software
  • Extreme performance
  • Well-calibrated IPS LCD panel
  • Great audio performance with extremely loud speakers

Nay:

  • No gesture navigation
  • Hiding the notch creates an asymmetrical top portion
  • Overuse of the term AI to describe mundane features

Introduction

ASUS is on a resurgence this year. The Taiwanese tech major is also trying its hand at disruptive pricing for well-specced phones. After the ZenFone Max Pro M1 – a phone that completely took the market by surprise with its aggressive pricing by undercutting the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro – ASUS is following the same strategy for its flagship as well. 

ZenFone 5Z 3

Also read: Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro review: how the hell is it priced so low?

The newly launched ZenFone 5Z comfortably undercuts the price of the OnePlus 6 by a good margin. Therefore, putting consumers in a fix. 

I’ve been using the ZenFone 5Z for a while now and might have an answer to the question – should you consider the ZenFone 5Z over the OnePlus 6? 

Also read: OnePlus 6 review: upholds its legacy of being the fastest phone on the planet

ASUS ZenFone 5Z design: apart from looking good, the design is also functional

The ZenFone 5Z is an evolution of previous ZenFone designs. What’s typical about the design is how the light refracts in concentric circles of off the back. It is pretty damn unique.

Moving on, except for the glass sandwich design format, the ZenFone 5Z and the OnePlus 6 have major differences in other aspects of their construction. While the OnePlus 6 goes for a curved glass back, the ZenFone 5Z has a boxier design (with rounded edges) instead. The metal rim has a matte finish and is broader, adding a lot more to the in-hand feel of the phone. Additionally, the ZenFone 5Z weighs only 155g, which is a lot lighter than the 177g weight of the OnePlus 6. Quite honestly, the ZenFone 5Z has a far better weight distribution across the length and the breadth of the device, when compared to the OnePlus 6. 

ZenFone 5Z 2

The glass back of the ZenFone 5Z is a smudge magnet for sure. And, it also slips off a surface easily. Thankfully though, the ZenFone 5Z is protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 3, which should save it from scratching easily. The dual camera setup sits on a raised module on the rear. Since the module juts out only slightly, I really have no problem as such. The fingerprint scanner on the rear is easy to reach and works fairly fast as well. The ZenFone 5Z can also do facial recognition but I am not convinced by ASUS’ implementation. The OnePlus 6 is faster and more reliable. For example, the ZenFone 5Z struggles to recognise your face in the dark. However, I like the fact that like the iPhone X, ASUS lets you hide notifications and shows it only after it has recognised your face. 

Also read: ASUS Zenfone Max Pro M1 review: ASUS is back with a bang!

As for the physical buttons, the power button and the volume rocker are slightly flush with the right edge but they are adequately tactile and offer a good “click” sound as well. The hybrid SIM card tray lets you add either two Nano SIM cards or swap one for a memory card. You get a USB Type-C port at the bottom, along with a 3.5mm jack as well. The speaker grille sits right next to the USB port but the earpiece on the notch also acts a speaker, creating a stereo setup.

Overall, the ZenFone 5Z not only looks good, but it is also an exceptionally functional design. Definitely, ASUS’ best effort yet. 

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ASUS ZenFone 5Z display: the best IPS LCD panel on an Android phone in 2018

The ZenFone 5Z has a 6.2-inch 18.7:9 aspect ratio IPS Super LCD panel with a notch. But, this is by far one of the best LCD panels I’ve seen on an Android phone. By default, the display is set to a Wide Color Gamut mode. This means you get the wider DCI-P3 colour space, and it looks pretty damn good. You can switch to the Standard mode…but why would you? 

Even the brightness levels are great, along with the viewing angles. I have no complaints, and you wouldn’t either. Now, why do I think the ZenFone 5Z has the best panel? Well, because the touch substrate, the display glass, and the Corning Gorilla Glass 3 Protection are packed in so tightly together that the icons pop out at you. It feels like the icons are floating on the display and you are actually touching them. 

ZenFone 5Z 10

Additionally, despite being an LCD panel, the blacks can get pretty deep. And therefore, hiding the notch looks good on the phone. Oh yeah, you can hide the notch. But when you hide the notch, the cut-off line on the top is not symmetrical with the curved edges at the bottom of the display. In fact, it is a sharp edge on the top. That just triggers my OCD a lot. By the way, there is a feature called ‘Smart Screen on’ that keeps the display on at all times when you are looking at it. This feels like a normal feature a bunch of phones can achieve, don’t know why ASUS had to go and tag it as an AI feature. 

ASUS ZenFone 5Z software: improved ZenUI experience

I know that a lot of folks are apprehensive about ASUS ZenUI, and have concerns about bloatware and such. I am happy to tell you guys that the new ZenUI – based on Android 8.0 Oreo – is extremely efficient, swift, and feature-rich. Even without all the AI embellishments, ZenUI offers far more features compared to Oxygen OS on the OnePlus 6. Let’s break down what I like and don’t like about ZenUI.

 

Stuff I like

  1. At the outset, I love the amount of flexibility with ZenUI. For example, you can add your custom icon packs and change icon grids (slightly). I haven’t seen many custom skins do that. In fact, I didn’t use Evie launcher once on the ZenFone 5Z.
  2. Also, simple things like a one-handed UI is easy to invoke. You just have to double tap on the Home button to do that. You can also long press the Recents button to enter split-screen mode. Or, actually configure it to do any action of your choice, from a pre-defined list, of course. You can also swipe down on the fingerprint reader to pull down the notifications shade.
  3. Let’s start the AI conversation. First up is AI ringtone. It works really well. Essentially, if you are in a closed, quiet environment, the AI ringtone feature figures it out and reduces the sound levels for initial 5 seconds. 
  4. ASUS’ Optiflex tech is super cool. Essentially, the phone uses AI to figure out which apps you often the most and allocates more RAM resources, so it can open faster. I am not kidding, this thing works like a charm! In fact, apps like Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp, which I open at least a 100 times a day open much faster on the ZenFone 5Z compared to the OnePlus 6. 
  5. The level of involvement of AI in the battery life is to improve the longevity of the battery unit itself. Remember how Apple was recently in the news for degrading batteries in its iPhones? Looks like ASUS wants to prevent that. Essentially, if you have the ZenFone 5Z connected to the charger all night, it will only charge it up to 80 percent using QC 3.0. From 80 to 100, it will start to trickle charge the phone until you take it out of the charger. You can also schedule the sleep timings if you don’t want AI interference. In fact, you can switch off all the AI features in case you want to save battery life.
  6. ASUS also uses AI in the Gallery app. The Moments section of the app shows you two different variations — mostly differences in colour reproduction — of the same photo and asks you to choose one. It tunes the camera app to shoot pictures, accordingly. Unfortunately, that feature hadn’t kicked in yet during my usage. It needs time to learn your usage pattern.T
  7. I really like ASUS’ Game Genie. It actually lets you stream your gameplay live on YouTube or Twitch directly. How cool is that?

     

Stuff that’s not so cool

  1. I can’t, for the life of me, understand why ASUS hasn’t included gestures on the phone. Yes, you can hide the capacitive buttons, but that’s just a cop-out. ASUS did take my feedback at a product immersion session, so I hope the next ZenUI update brings it. Fingers crossed.
  2. ZeniMoji is really pointless. The slow motion animations look laborious and I don’t think many folks are going to use it. Thankfully, you can switch it off if you don’t want it.
  3. Do you guys really want Beautification in a Live video on Facebook or YouTube? Maybe, it’s meant for the musical.ly crowd. I am definitely not a part of it.

I am sure there are more than a couple of features that I am missing. But all in all, whether you like the feature-rich experience ZenUI on the ZenFone 5Z, or the minimalism of Oxygen OS on the OnePlus 6, really does boil down to personal preference. I am finding it difficult to pick one over the other. 

ASUS ZenFone 5Z camera: surprisingly competitive

The ZenFone 5Z has dual cameras on the rear. The primary 12MP Sony IMX363 sensor has bigger 1.4um pixels compared the OnePlus 6’s 1.22um sensor. Now, I have extensively compared the two cameras and found it difficult to actually pick a winner. You can read the comparison here and you will actually find more samples there. 

P.S. Click on the images below to view the full resolution samples

Let me sum up the salient points of the camera performance on the ZenFone 5Z for you. 

  1. The ZenFone 5Z offers a decent dynamic range in daylight landscape shots. Even the colour reproduction is pretty good, with a great detail retention across the board. In fact, unlike the OnePlus 6, the ZenFone 5Z manages to curb the noise levels at the corners of the image.  
  2. But, the portrait performance on the OnePlus 6 is league ahead of the ZenFone 5Z. But even at the time of writing this review, the ZenFone 5Z received an update claiming to improve the portrait performance of the rear cameras. So, the portrait issue can be solved with a software update. 

  3. The ZenFone 5Z can shoot 4K 60fps videos (without EIS) but the image quality is not as good as the OnePlus 6. However, the 1080p video recording is decent. If only it didn’t hunt for focus so often. 
  4. The ZenFone 5Z takes way better night shots because the AI kicks in and it reduces the shutter speed. Essentially, the camera manages to take in more light and the subject is better lit. The colour temperature is also spot on. 
  5. The 8MP front camera is a miss. It has trouble in focussing accurately and the selfies don’t look very good either. 


  6. The HDR mode is over aggressive and not something I really like. 
  7. Whether you like it or not, AI can’t be switched off. 
  8. Also, weirdly enough, I noticed that the camera app has trouble with exposing right in Auto mode. In my testing, I noticed a lot of overexposed shots. This happened more after the FOTA update. Just choose the exposure point yourself.
  9. The wide-angle 8MP camera can add to the drama and is good for adding some perspective. However, the image doesn’t look as impressive as the one shot using the primary camera. 

Overall though, I really think that the ZenFone 5Z is a couple of software updates away from optimal camera performance. But even in its current state, the ZenFone 5Z is a competent shooter. Just that you need some patience to shoot images. 

ASUS ZenFone 5Z performance: blazing fast is an understatement

The ZenFone 5Z is a phone meant for performance enthusiasts. And, why wouldn’t it be? I mean it comes packing the latest Snapdragon 845 SoC, 6/8 gigs of RAM, and at least 64GB of onboard storage. In fact, unlike the OnePlus 6, you can also swap one of the Nano SIMs from the hybrid SIM tray for a microSD card. The phone supports up to memory cards of up to 2TB in size. 

ZenFone 5Z 4

As for the performance, I am not even delving into the benchmark figures. It offers one of the best AnTuTu scores. Even if it is a couple of points lower than the Mi 8 and the OnePlus 6 — I’m not saying it is — does it really matter? Because even graphically intensive games run insanely fast on the phone. Additionally, if you want a sudden spurt of power there is an AI boost option. It will help allocate memory in the RAM for your game or any resource intensive task that you might want your phone to do. In fact, this AI boost setting pops up when you are running benchmarks of any sort.

And like I said before, the ZenFone 5Z’s Optiflex technology actually helps the phone open oft-used apps faster. I really cannot praise it enough. That is the kind of AI usage I expect from more expensive flagships from the likes of Samsung, LG, and HTC. 

Another stellar aspect of the ZenFone 5Z is the stereo speaker setup. It gets loud…extremely loud! And to top that, ASUS offers an ‘Outdoor Mode’ that actually cuts the bass and raises the levels even more. It is not meant for clarity, but it works in case you want to a loud sound. But even by default, the speaker offers decent definition and clarity. ASUS has also added two NXP amps in the phone, which offers a great warmth to sound from the 3.5mm audio jack.

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I am not a fan of the bundled in-ear earphones and I will strongly suggest you upgrade to a pair of better earphones. Because trust me, your reference-grade earphones paired with a ZenFone 5Z will definitely sound better. I tried it with my 1More Triple Drivers and they do sound good. You get a nice warmth with a good amount of spaciousness to the sound as well. Moreover, with Bluetooth 5.0 you get support for aptX and this meant that even wireless audio sounds good. If audio is important to you, the ZenFone 5Z is a better bet than the OnePlus 6.

Powering all this is a 3300mAh battery, which is the same size as the one inside the OnePlus 6. One a couple of occasions during my usage, I did manage to squeeze 6 hours a couple of times but that was with AI turned off. The battery life in my experience is slightly worse off when compared to the OnePlus 6, especially considering the ZenFone 5Z packs in so much. But, you can choose to extend battery life by switching on the Power Saving mode. You know what ASUS, in the next iteration of the flagship ZenFone series, I wouldn’t mind a bigger battery even if it adds to the weight and the girth. But, I do like the fact that you can charge the phone to full capacity in under 1 hour 45 minutes using the bundled charger.

Coming to the call quality, I found it to be decent. But for some odd reason, I faced more call drops than I did on other phones I’ve reviewed recently – including the OnePlus 6. The sound quality through the earpiece above average. I did face one problem where the phone would keep switching to 3G, even though I have an Airtel 4G connection.  

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Should you buy the ASUS ZenFone 5Z?

Yes, you must buy an ASUS ZenFone 5Z if you are in the market for a flagship phone. You get an SD845 phone with 6 gigs of RAM and 64GB of internal storage – with the ability to expand storage, no less – for as low as Rs 29,999. Moreover, for a short period – until August – you can snag a Rs 3,000 instant discount using ICICI Debit and Credit cards. Moreover, even the top end 8GB/256GB variant is not as expensive as the OnePlus 6. You can get one for Rs 36,999. So, that’s a major plus too!

Coming to the most important question – should I buy the OnePlus 6 or the ASUS ZenFone 5Z? Honestly, as far as the ZenFone 5Z has a price advantage, it really feels like a better bet at the moment. I went into the review hoping to find some dealbreaker in the ZenFone 5Z, but that didn’t happen. Don’t get me wrong the OnePlus 6 is a superb phone for its price and is even be better than the ZenFone 5Z in many aspects. But, is the price difference justified? Maybe not. Reviewing the ZenFone 5Z reminds me of an idiom in Hindi – “unnees bees ka farak hai.” Which translates to, there’s a very little difference (between the ZenFone 5Z and the OnePlus 6) and it is not worth highlighting. 

What do you think of the ZenFone 5Z? Do let us know in the comments section below. 

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Ershad Kaleebullah
ershad.kaleebullah@u2opiamobile.com

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?