ASUS ZenFone Zoom Review

Do we really need 3X optical zoom on a smartphone?
by Nicole on March 10, 2016
Positives
  • Technically detailed photo
  • Eye catching design with the Hoya lens
  • Smells like leather
  • ISO of 50 & 32 second long exposure - great manual control
  • 3X optical zoom
Negatives
  • Photos are not color accurate
  • Take a poor photo in auto
  • Weak battery life
  • Enormous bezels
  • Too much bloatware
  • Washed out dim display

The ZenFone Zoom was first announced over a year ago at CES 2015, over a year later ASUS finally released their much anticipated camera phone. There is a lot to get excited about 3X optical zoom 4 Stop Optical Image Stabilization, the 10P HOYA lens, 0.03 second laser auto-focus and 32 second long exposure. Photography nerds almost need to add this to their arsenal!

I wanted the Zoom to rock my world, but it took a lot of time for me to look past a lot of its flaws, find out if you’re the one that ASUS is actually targeting with the Zoom.

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Design

If you’re familiar with the Lumia 1020 you’ll feel some nostalgia when you pick up the Zoom you’ll be reminded of a handset that was actually released 2 years ago. The bulk, weight and thickness are reminiscent of an older handset. Don’t get me wrong, there is something that makes my heart sing when I see the giant circle on the back for the 10P Hoya lens. If ASUS had released the Zoom shortly after it was announced (over a year ago!) it wouldn’t have looked so out of place. With the smarpthone industry moving at breakneck speeds mid range smarpthones are nearing build quality of last years flagships and the Zoom just took to long to come out. Had the Zoom been released in a more timely nature the design wouldn’t feel outdated.

zoom

One aesthetic that is difficult to move past are the thick bezels and massive chin, if they could have removed the ASUS logo and either shrink the phone or increase the display size the overall size to display ratio wouldn’t be so drastic. As is it stands the bezels are huge which makes it easy to overlook the pleasant way that the gorilla glass 4 sits on top of the all metal bumper that surrounds the handset.

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Looking the back of the Zoom the large circle makes you think that we’ve got some serious camera chops. In hand it doesn’t feel all that premium, the back feels a bit like a Galaxy S4, which if you remember didn’t feel great. Even though I read that I was leather I thought that I had a plastic version, it looks and feels like plastic. The only way that you know that it is actually leather is smelling it. (which isn’t creepy at all…)

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Lopsided 1020 on the left

The one thing that I love about the design is that ASUS has included a bump that makes the phone sit flat on the table. If you’ve used a Lumia 1020 you’ll know that the large lens makes the phone lopsided and uneven when you put it down. The stitched seam is a nice touch all though it does feel like plastic. Though I have been a LG G4 user and know that that leather did not wear well, so perhaps a finish that feels and looks like plastic will somehow mature into the finish we wished it had now.

zenfone zoom_13

 

I have been a little hard on the Zoom when it comes to design, so there is one area that the handset really shines, and that’s the buttons on the right hand set, they are well built and sturdy. They don’t feel mid range, they have also included a hardware button for taking photos AND video!

Display
The display on the ZenFone Zoom is the most budget component on the device, specification wise we’ve got no problems, 5.5 inches with a 1080 x 1920 IPS-LCD, protected by Gorilla Glass 4 this time. It’s hard to to judge a device by the display since it’s the thing you spend the most time looking at and don’t get me wrong I’m not a spec hound, but I am after a good quality panel that is easy on the eyes in all lighting conditions. The panel it self isn’t exception, even in the budget range, it’s colors seem dull and even playing around with Splendid, the color customization app, the contrast just seems poor and it makes you wonder if the camera is washed out or the display (spoiler, its not the display, the camera does need some work). If you combined poor contrast with washed out colors but when the brightness doesn’t cut in full day light, you’re just left disappointed.

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If we look at the numbers, the ZenFone Zoom registered 383 nits, which is lower than the average for smartphones which is around 420 nits, by comparison the Moto X Pure is 479 nits or the Nexus 5X is 454 nits. The Moto X Pure and the Nexus 5X offer more colorful screens as well, both covering 106 percent of the sRGB spectrum, while the ZenFone Zoom hit 96 percent.

Hardware

The metal chassis feels good in hand even though it feels quite thick, the leather back also seems like it’s plastic to know that it’s actually leather you have to smell it (not creepy at all! lol). However, I do have to admit that my LG G4 didn’t wear very well, so having a leather that seems like plastic will probably give it a shot at actually lasting and looking half decent.  The white version I’ve got after 2 weeks still looks ok but is showing a few dirt skuffs, but that’s likely because I carried it around in a bubble wrap case. So white smartphone buyer beware, I’d go for the brown.

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Under the hood we’ve got solid mid range specifications, a Quad Core Intel Atom Z3580 with 4GB of RAM and expandable storage (up to 200GB), on board we’ve got an insane 128GB so you’ll never have to worry about running out of space if you decide to shoot RAW.

ASUS ZenFone Zoom ZX551ML Specifications

Display: 5.5″ TFT LED backlight 1080 x 1920 FHD IPS (403 ppi), Gorilla Glass 4
Operating System: Android 5.0
CPU: 2.3-GHz Quad-core Intel Atom Z3580
Processor Family: Intel Atom Z3580
RAM: 4GB
Memory Expansion Type: MicroSD card (up to 200GB)
Front Camera Resolution: 5 MP
Camera Resolution: 13 MP
Ports: 3.5mm headphone, micro USB
Sensors Accelerator/E-Compass/Gyroscope/Proximity/Ambient Light Sensor/Hall Sensor
Connectivity: GSM / HSPA / LTE Cat 6 Capable  WCDMA; nano-SIM card slot. Wireless – NFC, Bluetooth 4.0+EDR, Wi-Fi: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5 GHz), GPS/GLONASS/QZSS/SBAS/BDS
Size: 159.9 x 78.84 x 5 and 11.95 mm at the thickest point
Weight: 185 grams

Performance

There is nothing wrong with mid range hardware these days, performance is increasing so quickly that mid range processors from this year are preforming at the same level as flagship processors from last year. Intel’s Z3580 is a quad core 64 bit processor with a PowerVR G6430 that has an AnTuTu score of 65695 and this is the level of the Snapdragon 810 which was last years flagship silicon. The UI is quick and snappy most of the time but interacting with the handset is often less smooth because of spam-like apps interrupting your flow.

Camera

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The Zenfone Zoom has it all, a 3X optical zoom, dedicated hardware buttons for taking photos and video along side a 10P HOYA lens, 0.03 second laser auto-focus and 32 second long exposure make it seem like this is going to be THE camera to beat on a smartphone. The reality is that every modern camera on a smartphone lives and dies by the software post processing. Even mid range smartphone makers have access to Carl Zeiss or Sony lenses but it’s about how they process the photos that counts.  Last year I did a comparison between the Meizu MX4 Pro and Sony Xperia Z3 which had the same Exmore IMX220 lens and Meizu actually did a better job than Sony. I think that a lot of these issues can be fixed by a software update and since I waited a month after getting the unit and just downloaded a new updated days before publishing this, I think there is more work to be done.

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In auto the colors are washed out whenever there is back-light and even though the OIS is excellent in video the never really seems that crisp unless they are standing still. This is a common problem in smartphones cameras but some actually handle movement quiet well.

Zenfone Zoom

ZenFone Zoom

Huawei Mate 8

Huawei Mate 8

Zenfone Zoom 3X Zoom

ZenFone Zoom 3X zoom

Huawei Mate 8 Digital Zoom

Huawei Mate 8 Digital zoom

It’s not that the ZenFone Zoom takes a bad photo, technically the photo quality is high, but in auto and even manual you’re hard pressed to get a photo that looks good because the colors are off, the highlights are often blown out and the overall contrast is poor. It is only when you take photos side by side and zoom in that you see that the detail is higher, but this is really only useful if you want to take this photo that technically does offer you more and put it through some sort of editing software.  Let’s take a look at a series of photos that are taken normally and zoomed in, the Zoom doesn’t disappoint until you really compare it to other smartphones.

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Huawei Mate 8

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ASUS ZenFone Zoom

The ZenFone Zoom takes an unbalanced photo in terms of contrast and the colors are not accurate. The Mate 8 has clearly used a small level of HDR on auto mode to get the street to be visible with the sky, but it overall looks natural and colors are accurate. When you zoom it appears that the Mate 8 takes a better photo, which I think it does, but when you zoom in you’ll see there is a higher level of detail on the roof.  One very smart thing that ASUS has done over other smarpthone manufacturers is that the level of zoom on a photo after you have taken it is less than most other manufacturers.

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Huawei Mate 8

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In terms of general photo quality the Zoom can’t even compete, the whites are more green grey and sky is a fake un natural blue, but like we’ll see if you zoom in technically, the Zoom has taken a better photo.

screen shot mate 8

Screen shot Mate 8

Screen shot Zenfone Zoom

Screen shot ZenFone Zoom

The photos on their own don’t blow you away in any sense until to zoom into look for it or if you’re looking to post a photo of something zoomed in .. which is totally something that people do. It’s really only when you zoom in on zoomed in photos that the ZenFone stands out.

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I also took the ZenFone Zoom on a flight and took some zoomed in shots from high above, technically it takes a more detailed photo, but the Mate 8 looks better.

HuaweiMate 8

Huawei Mate 8

ASUS Zoom Side by Side

ZenFoneZoom Side by Side

ASUS wanted to stand out when using the 3X Zoom & forgot that the camera should be good to take photos from all distances.

So far I’ve been comparing the ZenFone Zoom to high end smartphones, let’s take a look at the Zuk Z1 which is Lenovo’s Xiaomi competitor. The Zuk Z1 has a 5.5 inch display a Snapdragon 801 and a 13MP rear facing camera.

 

Zenfone Zoom

ZenFone Zoom

Zuk Z1

Zuk Z1

What is really interesting about these two photos is that when we look at them on the smartphones and compared them, the Zuk was the clear winner. However, when you pull them off the phones the ZenFone Zoom seems to pull ahead in terms of tone and contrast.  However, if you take a look at the Huawei Mate 8 below you can see the building at the end of the alley.

Huawei Mate 8

Huawei Mate 8

The color accuracy are quite good in both of these photos, the Zoom actually offers more depth.

Zuk Z1

Zuk Z1

Zenfone Zoom

ZenFone Zoom

As hard as I’m being on the ZenFone Zoom, the manual controls are outstanding, ISO of 50 and shutter speed of 32 seconds. I played around a night with manual and took a few cool shots.  For someone who wants to be in manual all the time, this (or the LG G5 which is double the price) is the camera for you.

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A bus at ISO 300 shutter speed 2 seconds

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When it comes to video, the optical image stabilization is tops, it does an amazing job if you’re walking around. However, it would have been nice for 4K to be included, since if you really want to do something with the video afterward exporting shooting in 4K allows you to do more with what you’ve shot if you’re exporting in 1080p. It’s something I usually do when I’m looking incorporate smartphone footage in with professional shots. Even still I find it easier to increase the quality of the footage when I have 4K, things look less processed when I tweak things and export in 1080p.

The image processing didn’t hold up to what top-of-the-line high-end smartphones brought to the table. If you’re going to call your self a camera phone, you have to be able to take on a regular smartphone even if it is high-end.

Let’s really look at the Zoom feature and the detail that is gained, here is a pub in Bonn, low light but the wall is still well lit. I’m going to put the ZenFone Zoom up against the Samsung Galaxy S7.

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ZenFone Zoom

Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung Galaxy S7

ASUS Zenfone Zoom 3X Optical Zoom

ASUS ZenFone Zoom 3X Optical Zoom

Samsung Galaxy S7 Digital Zoom

Samsung Galaxy S7 Digital Zoom

Screenshot_2016-03-02-18-36-22

ZenFone Zoom screen shot zoomed in

Samsung Galaxy S7 zoomed in screen shot

Samsung Galaxy S7 zoomed in screen shot

When you zoom in the Zoom does in fact take a more naturally detailed photo and when you zoom on on the photo to take a closer look at the detail you’ll that Samsung is over processing the edges and the Zoom is providing a more technically beautiful photo.  Admitted it’s taken me a long time to figure out the scenarios in which the ZenFone Zoom shines, zooming in on a zoomed in photo is something that people do to show off their photos.

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Rear Camera
13 MP Rear-facing Camera
3X optical zoom / 12X total zoom
4 Stop OIS (Optical Image Stabilization)
10P HOYA lens
0.03 second laser auto-focus
32 second long exposure
Close-up macro photography (5 cm)
dual-color Real Tone flash
Back Light (HDR) mode with ASUS PixelEnhancing Technology for up to 400% brighter , and evenly exposed photos
Low Light mode with ASUS PIxelMaseter Technology for up to 400% brighter photos and videos
Manual Mode for DSLR-like camera detail settings
Super resolution mode for up to 52 X resolution photos
Real Time Beautification
Auto Focus
LED Flash
PixelMaster
10-element lens
Front Camera
5 MP Front-facing camera
Wide View
PixelMaster

Software

First off, I have to start off with the fact that I’ve been along time user of ASUS smartphones, so I think back to the days of the Padfone when ASUS had a very vanilla UI that just had smart additions. Now we’ve got so much bloatware a ZenFone could be running any version of Android, which is a good thing here since the Zoom is running on Android 5.0.  An average Android phone with all of Google’s services installed will usually see 20-ish updates when you first kick things off, the Zoom saw 46, which is crazy. ASUS has lost its way with the customized software and I’m just going to call it what it is..Bloatware. CM AppLock from ASUS tried to protect you from everything which is almost ironic since CleanMaster also comes preloaded.

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It’s hard to overlook the bloatware in the ZenFone Zoom’s overall experience, notifications appearing in the notification bar that can’t be dismissed until you go through a series of screen that try to get you to download apps. I can’t say that I’m a fan of companies like iS Technology, which provide advertising platforms and analytics. They are becoming more and more common but it feels like ASUS has crossed the line on trying to add value and detracting from the overall experience.  Forcing me to go through a series of screen pushing me to mass download apps through a 3rd party app store just isn’t ok, I don’t care how many budget smartphone makers have started doing it, the user should come first.

zoom-ui

The visuals lean are almost cartoonish looking but as long as you’re savvy you’ll be able customize pretty much everything because there is (thankfully) a high level of control built in. Fonts, transition effects, and much more are available along side Theme store which is packed with an overwhelming number of options. I did hit a moment of frustration, like I do with all Asian manufacturers, is failing in my search for a sleek clean vanilla option. It baffles that with so many options made available that they can’t offer one that gives you a notification area and basic UI structure of plain old Android. I get that you don’t want to give up your brands theme identity but many Android fans are fans for a reason and I think that catering to that market is something that should be included. Having said that ASUS is catering to that group by providing an overwhelming amount of tools and features, things like Splendid which lets you granularly control the display temperature, AudioWizard or Do it later which is a nice UI integrated to do list. I also can’t overlook Powersaver which does offer the ability to really tune down your smartphone to extend your battery life.

Battery Life

The Zoom has a 3000mAh battery but it wasn’t quite the power house I needed it to be, because it’s a camera phone you take a lot of photos so you’re taking more photos which will drain your phone faster than usual.  However, it comes to just looking at the numbers, you’ll get around 7 hours of continuous Web surfing over 4G with the screen brightness right down. When I went out to take 50 photos over the course of an hour I used up 37% of the battery.  I also have to call the Zoom out on the fast charge, it did 2 to 51% in 40 minutes, which is fast charging, you want to get the claimed 60% in 40min you’re going to have to turn the handset off.

Sound

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The single speaker on the ZenFone Zoom is loud enough, call quality wasn’t an issue in terms of clarity but I felt it could be a little bit louder. You can find the speaker on the back bottom left, it’s easy to cover up when you’re listening to something on the device and I also feel like rear mounted speakers are just plain facing the wrong direction.

Rating
Design / 7
Camera / 8
Sound / 8
Performance / 7
Battery Life / 7
Software / 7
Price / 7.5
Editor's Choice / 7
Hardware / 7.5
Display / 6.5
ASUS Zenfone Zoom

The ASUS Zenfone Zoom takes a technically detailed photo but is in every other aspect below average. The use case for zooming in and then zooming in on that photo to see that it's technically more impressive is pretty specific. Having said that ASUS can work on their software post processing to fix these issues.

7.3
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