ASUS revealed to the world its new ZenFone smartphone series at CES 2014, but it was not until April 15th that the affordable handsets became available, with an initial roll out here in South Asia. We have had our hands on the ZenFone 6 for more than a week and we feel it is now time to appraise the device in all its detail. Will it live up to its billing as a real contender that will propel ASUS as a genuine player in the rapidly expanding and competitive budget device space? Or is it just another cheap as chips Android phablet? Allow Mobile Geeks to reveal all…
ASUS and the Road to Mobile
Firstly, before we dig deep in the specifications and features of the ASUS ZenFone 6, let’s examine in brief the aspirations of ASUS in creating the ZenFone series. ASUS has been a relatively peripheral player when it comes to phones in general, having entered the feature phone market as far back as 2005, they initially failed to find serious traction will major global carriers in a market still dominated by Nokia, Samsung and other major handset players.
ASUS is not a company to give up easily however and and managed to forge a wholly new direction with its rang of very affordable EeePCs, arguably the first real blow to the notebook PC market and the forerunner for the exploding tablet market on Android just a few years later.
Since the EeePC, the Taiwanese company has continued to prove that its thirst for innovative, game changing device design has not waned. The company’s manufacturing prowess and reputation was enhanced with the launch of the Nexus 7 tablet, personally the most complete and well crafted 7 inch Android tablet of 2012.
ASUS marched headlong into uncharted territory with its PadFone range, combining a larger tablet and full sized smartphone in a hybrid device that excelled in proving that devices categories were both pliable and fickle. The FonePad series of phablets again blurred lines and mindsets. It is here that we see Intel arise (not for the first time) as a key partner in ASUS’ battle for relevance in a quickly changing technology landscape.
ASUS won the hearts and minds of many with a growing reputation for competency covering an almost complete portfolio of products. ASUS had traditionally succeeded in the DIY PC space with Motherboards, Graphics cards, Gaming peripherals, DVD ROMS and PC digital displays. More importantly, they had also managed to carve out a substantial slice of a notebook market in which larger vendors had struggled and exited.
Yet regardless of its substantial efforts, the smartphone market remained unbreachable.
With its ZenFone line up of three handheld Android devices, ASUS are ready for another run at Smartphones. By the end of this article, we will have a better idea of the company’s chances of success.
You can also watch a video review below featuring Nicole Scott and myself examining all aspects the ZenFone 6 accompanied by our opinions:
The ASUS ZenFone Series
The ASUS ZenFone series spans three separate devices sizes that correspond directly to the device model names. Thus we have the ZenFone 4, ZenFone 5 and ZenFone 6 each with 4, 5 and 6 inch displays. I think here we should bring home the target in terms of price; the ZenFone 6 will be the most expensive in the series, hitting stores for a retail price of below $200. This is of course an incredibly aggressive price point, adding massive context to what follows in this review.
One significant characteristic that goes a long way to defining the series against the backdrop of its competition, is the integration of Intel’s Clovertrail platform. The ZenFone 6 is powered by an Intel Atom Z2580, a 2GHz dual-core system-on-chip that uses a PowerVR series graphics processor. This platform has been available for almost a year, yet Intel have seen relatively low volumes with notable, but perhaps less lucrative design wins in the Windows tablet space. Indeed ASUS is one of a small group of manufacturers that has experience of using Clovertrail with its VivoTab Windows convertible devices.
Delving deeper in to the specifications, the general feeling we have is that these middle ground components are actually pretty incredible for a device of this price point and there certainly are few genuine highlights. The decision to integrate a really good quality rear camera that really excels in low light, makes surprisingly substantial impact while the new ASUS ZenUI also has genuine moments of success.
Let’s take a more thorough look at the specifications of the ASUS ZenFone 6.
ASUS ZenFone 6 Specifications:
• 6 Inch IPS Display
• 720 x 1280 (245 ppi)
• Dual-core Intel Z2580 Atom (2.0GHz)
• 2GB DDR2 RAM
• 16GB / 32GB Storage
• MicroSD up to 64GB
• 13MP Rear Camera
• 2MP Front camera
• WLAN 802.11 b/g/n
• Bluetooth 4.0
• GSM/GPRS/EDGE & WCDMA/HSPA+
• Dual Micro SIM
• 166.9mm x 84.3mm x 5.5-9.9mm
• 196 grams
• 3,300 mAh Battery
• Android 4.3 Jelly Bean (Upgradable to 4.4)
• Black, White, Red, Blue and Yellow color options
A few things immediately stand out. Firstly, the display used is a 720p resolution IPS LCD – not Full HD, but decent enough for most users. The 13MP rear camera, while not quite in the same league as the Sony Xperia Z2 and its 20.7MP cam, seems generous on a sub-$200 device. Secondly the Dual SIM support is something that I am a fan of and gives users much more flexibility. Great to see it employed here.
Aside from those remarks, we are getting what we would expect to see with the majority of the above which paints a pretty balanced picture in terms of components and features. The 3,300mAh battery will do well to provide at least a full day’s usage, the microSD slot is great to see (especially on lower end devices where larger capacity 32GB versions can be scarce) while weight and dimensions are totally acceptable, if not exceptional.
General Design and Look
The front face of the device, as you would expect consists of the 6 inch 720p display, there are hardware Home, Back and Menu buttons at the base of the display with thicker bezels at the top and bottom compared to a moderately thin bezel edge around the side of the display. The top bezel houses the front facing camera and voice call speaker. The bottom bezel or panel has a circular, metallic spiral effect that is clearly an attempt to add some glam to the over look of the ZenFone – I’m not saying it lacks finesse but once you get it in your hand it kind of feels less refined than it looks. You can feel where the edge of the bezel and the Corning Glass 3 meet – there is a definite edge there.
Moving around the device, the power button has been placed almost midway up the right side edge while the volume rocker is just a few millimeters above that. The buttons feel sturdy enough with plenty of spring too which can be an issue with some cheaper handsets. The USB (2.0) port is located centrally on the bottom edge with the headphone jack on the top left side. I have no issue with the layout of the buttons and ports. Not having the power button above the volume rocker is a reasonable design decision considering the length of the device. I would have to stretch a little to reach the top right side. HTC users and southpaws may disagree however.
The ZenFone 6 is available in four colors, or more accurately four different back covers. I will indulge ASUS in their marketing speak for a moment; Charcoal Black, Pearl White, Cherry Red and Champagne Gold. ASUS sent us two covers, which I shall refer to as simply black and red. The finish on both is described as having a ceramic feel – something Nicole tells me stems from actual design input from Johnny Shih himself. The back covers certainly give the device a nice, no-slip feel in the hand and are impervious to fingerprints and general scratching. We both preferred the look of the red cover which seems to almost glimer in the light. The ceramic or porcelain finish feels good to the touch. Good work Johnny.
Overall the ASUS ZenFone 6 is a good looking phablet and it will offer a satisfactory and solid feeling when you pick it up. Comparing the ZenFone 6 to the HTC One M8 or the Sony Xperia Z2 will yield a more negative conclusion, but put in its correct perspective, the ZenFone 6 holds up well.
When it comes to general build quality and overall durability, we did find one major issue, but before we tackle that, lets first look at the display in some detail.
The display on the ZenFone 6 is a 6 inch IPS capacitive touchscreen with a resolution of 1280 x 720, giving you a pixel density of 245 ppi. The front of the device sports a Corning Gorilla Glass 3 panel which may help a great deal with scratch resistance and durability, but there are plenty of folk out there with experience of Corning Gorilla Glass being eminently smashable – looking at you Nicole.
Overall the display looks fantastic, even more so within the context of price – good looking displays are not cheap, this is a fact. So although the ZenFone 6 might not stand up well sitting next to a Full HD AMOLED device that we see in the high-end space, but the color saturation and vibrancy is great, the blacks are very dark, the brightness is excellent and the viewing angles are totally decent.
Up to this point, we are thinking this is a pretty good display, especially within the context of its price range. And then we noticed a major issue that we will cover here, even though it amounts to a fairly serious design and build quality flaw.
When you hold the device tightly in your hands around the edge, if you apply a bit of pressure on the back of the chassis you will notice rainbow effects appearing on the side areas of the display.
It is a kind issue you would see on older LCD laptops if you applied pressure on the lid, and it indicates to us that the display is not sufficiently protected by the actual chassis itself. The rigidity of the chassis is essentially dependent on the non-removable battery within the device, but the problem arises because the battery does not follow to the edge of the handset, leaving an area on the edge with considerable give. Too much give in our opinion.
Once you notice this design flaw, it certainly affects the overall impression you have of the ZenFone 6, finally revealing a cheaper side to the device. It also puts considerable doubt in our minds as the long term durability of the ZenFone line as a whole.
As mentioned above, the ASUS ZenFone series is quite special in terms of its processor platform, with ASUS opting to go for Intel Clovertrail Atom SoC in the form the Intel Atom Z2580. The Z2580 is a dual core processor that has a top clock speed of 2.0GHz and incorporates licensed graphics processor from Imagination Technologies with the PowerVR 544MP2 which is clocked at a generous 533MHz compared with other SKUs in the Intel CloverTrail catalog.
The ZenFone 6 is also available with 2GB of low power DDR2, which is reasonably generous considering several mid-level devices today offer just the 1GB, plus the fact that both the ZenFone 4 and ZenFone 5 receive only 1GB. Having that extra 1GB of RAM will help with multi-tasking and apps or games with reasonably larger memory footprints. Here in Taiwan the standard version is giving 2GB. I like that.
We ran our regular suite of mobile benchmark apps on the ZenFone 6. These include: AnTuTu, Quadrant, GFXBench, 3DMark, Anomaly 2, Sunspider and Vallamo.
In the chart below you can see a comparison between the Intel Clovertrail platform used in the ZenFone 6 and two other popular processor platforms; today’s ultra high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 as featured on the Sony Xperia Z2, and the MediaTek MT6592 which currently dominates the entry-level smartphone space in China and was benchmarked on the Xiaomi Redmi Note. The results are worthy of some consideration for sure.
Qualcomm vs Intel vs MediaTek
|Snapdragon 801 (Xperia Z2)||Intel Atom Z2580 (ZenFone 6)||MediaTek MT6592 (Xiaomi Redmi Note)|
|GFX Bench TRex||26.9fps||9.1fps||N/A|
|3DMark - Ice Storm||18753||8041||6008|
|Sunspider (lower is better)||762.4||962.4||1316.9|
It is no surprise to see the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 on the Sony Xperia X2 dominates throughout, taking a pretty serious lead against the competition in (almost) all benchmarks. 3Dmark, Anomoly 2 and GFXBench show a clear disparity in graphics processing performance with the Adreno 330 GPU from Qualcomm beating the both PowerVR and Mali-based GPUs from Intel and MediaTek respectively.
If we compare Intel and MediaTek, it’s more of a mixed story with Intel performing better in the single threaded benchmark apps, using all the raw grunt of the Intel Atom Saltwell cores to push past the MediaTek MT6592 and its octa-core SoC.
But as we get to multi-threaded applications that make better use of the many cores that we see on today’s processors, we see MediaTek make serious in roads giving Intel a good solid beating in Geekbench 3 Multicore testing with a score of 2033 compared to 1264 points for Intel. MediaTek clearly benefits from their octa-core architecture when apps can take advantage of all those extra cores. MediaTek also beat Intel in AnTuTu and Quadrant benchmarks.
With the Vellamo HTML benchmark however we see one very notable exception where Intel actually pulls ahead, scoring 1907 points compared to the 801 which achieved 1583 points. This obvious discrepancy is even more puzzling when you take into account the fact that Vellamo was developed by Qualcomm themselves. A real head scratcher, that makes you wonder if Intel have ‘optimized’ for this app as a show of deadly intent towards Qualcomm.
You can check out an article dedicated to assessing the performance of the ASUS ZenFone 6 here:
Check out this video with the ASUS ZenFone 6 going head to head with the Xiaomi Redmi Note:
I guess the major take away is that benchmarks are useful tools to use when comparing processor and device performance but they should only really be used as general indicators of performance, not of a definitive user experience. One area where we have certainly found this to be true, is in mobile gaming performance.
Almost as soon the ZenFone 6 arrived at our offices, we put it the through its paces with some of the latest gaming titles. We found that overall it did an exceptional job with most games, with less artifacting and rendering errors than some Snapdragon 801-based devices. One major issue however we found was that one game simply would not load – GTA San Andreas. We are assuming it was a simple driver glitch and something that will be worked out with subsequent updates.
Check out a full ZenFone 6 gaming article below:
Here is a video featuring gameplay on them ASUS ZenFone 6:
If one was to argue that the spec sheet of the ASUS ZenFone 6 felt pretty middling, with few really exceptional features to point to, I would have to argue that the device’s 13MP rear camera actually punches considerably above its weight – certainly when you consider the device’s price tag. A 13MP shooter on a sub $200 device is an absolute steal. In terms of products new to the market, only the Xiaomi Hongmi Note is offering a similar quality sensor to we are getting on the ZenFone 6, and it doesn’t stop with the sensor. ASUS have put plenty of effort in to developing a sophisticated camera app which delivers plenty of solid features.
At the heart of it all we have ASUS Pixelmaster, a combination of software, hardware and optical lenses that conspires to give you more than you’d expect from a device in this price bracket. Let’s take a look at a few of these features in more detail, starting with the Low Light Mode.
Low Light Mode addresses a fundamental issue that plagues all cameras everywhere in situations where the device sensor is starved of sufficient light. With low light environments, you end up with either a grainy image or at worst an unusable load of blank blackness. The ZenFone 6 will actually prompt you with a short dialog box which detects when the sensor is struggling with the light conditions and takes you direct to Low Light Mode (of course you can also access Low Light Mode in the camera app menu). Once enabled, Low Light Mode will make shooting decent photos in less optimal environments much easier – you will even be able to shoot half decent pics in the dark!
Low Light Mode works by enhancing the light available to the sensor, employing image processing algorithms that maximize available light from all pixels. The down side is that the shot will be a lower resolution, meaning the 13MP rear cam will output 3MP photos in Low Light Mode.
ASUS marketing people gave us some numbers to explain what they have achieved; 400% better light sensitivity, 200% boosted color contrast with enhanced noise reduction. Other solutions on the market, even high-end cams on flagship devices will struggle to achieve what ASUS have done here. Nokia’s PureView is possibly the only real contender.
Check out the images below and see for yourself:
You can also check this video that we shot during the ASUS zenfone launch event in Taipei a few months ago which demos the Low Light Mode test.
One other feature available within the ZenFone 6 camera app is the Depth of Field Mode which attempts to mimic what we have seen on recent UFocus and Selective Focus on HTC One M8 and Galaxy S5 devices. The results are a little inconsistent because you really have to make sure you get your distances just right. I would say that Samsung’s Selective Focus is marginally more effective than the ASUS feature, while the genuine depth of field sensor HTC One M8 puts it streets ahead in terms of accuracy and allows the you to alter images after you have taken them.
Selfie Mode is another interesting feature which allows you to take better quality selfie images using the 13MP rear camera. Once in Selfie Mode, input the number of faces you want the device to detect, click shoot, turn the camera around and smile. You will hear a kind of musical drum roll followed by a snap shot sound. Turn the camera around again and you have the option to select one from several selfie shots. You can even configure how many faces to detect for group selfies.
One other cool feature is Time Rewind which takes multiple shots before and after you tap the shoot button. You are then offered all the available shots so that you can select the exact moment you were after. Smart Remove mode is interesting too, allowing you to remove an unwanted background item by merging several photos. Might not help with photo bombing, but could be handy when taking building shots on holiday.
Other modes include more standard photo app fare with Night, HDR, Panorama, Miniature, All Smiles, GIF animation and Beautification. Actually with Beautification Mode we managed to take some seriously scary pics. One other neat trick is that you can unlock the phone with two clicks of the volume rocker, taking you directly into the camera app.
Not all the features work as advertised. Here is a pic of yours truly after the Beautification Mode has had its way. Truly terrifying…
Overall the camera on the ZenFone 6 has plenty of features that you would expect of a high-end model. It performed exceptionally well and offers tons of fairly advanced features. Kudos to ASUS.
More ZenFone Photos:
As we reveal in the video review (above), the audio playback on the ZenFone 6 is reliant on one mono speaker located on the devices rear bottom left corner, despite having a full length grill along the bottom of the back panel.
The volume of the audio playback is pretty far from exceptional, especially if you compare it to the king of the audio hill, the HTC One M8. The clarity is reasonable, without too much distortion at full volume, but there is very little bass to talk of. Generally speaking the ZenFone 6 is not going to raise any eyebrows with its audio playback.
The battery life of the ASUS ZenFone 6 is nothing short of exceptional. Nicole basically got the best part of a weekend out of the devices substantial 3,300mAh battery. Intel has clearly worked very hard to optimize its Clovertrail SoC for this device, making sure that all four cores enter a deep c-state during downtime, allowing the system to gently sip mere milliwatts of power over extended periods.
The only downside for me is the non-removable nature of the Lithium Polymer battery, which sits within view, but alas, out of reach.
The ASUS Android experience is something that we have warmed to over the years, so it was some initial trepidation that we delved into their wholly new ZenUI which debuts on the ZenPhone series. Our fears it turns out were not wholly justified, as the new ASUS ZenUI is an impressive Android implementation that combines a simplified layout and menu system with vibrant colorful icons and some reasonably well executed ASUS apps.
Plenty of the more common apps that you’d expect from any Android device look good and are well implemented with a simple design philosophy that is indeed quite Zen. Calculator, Flashlight, Camera, Music and Quick Memo look great and are indeed simplistically defined, but others such as My ASUS, Omlet Chat are less welcome. What’s Next is interesting offering reminders for call backs and messaging etc.
One disappointment is that the ZenFone 6 currently runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, although Asus have told us they plan to offer an upgrade to 4.4 Kit Kat soon. In the grander scale of things, I’m happy to say that the ASUS ZenUI is a very competent, well thought out and attractive looking Android skin.
ASUS ZenUI Gallery:
ASUS ZenFone Smartcover
One of the accessories available for the ZenFone series smartphones is the smart cover which basically integrates a back panel and front cover to create a cover which has built-in intelligence. It knows when it is closed and will display date, time and messages pending and phone calls.One swipe reveals weather info. There are other features too, including an 8-Ball feature which offers random yes no question answers – kind of like flipping a coin digitally.
The pricing of the ASUS ZenFone series is so aggressive, we are actually struggling to see how the company is making any margins on the device. At around $200 it is incredible to see that in hardware terms, you are getting something that is more than mid-range, at something very close to current entry-level pricing.
In fact, the pricing of this device is so crucial to our overall thoughts, so lets move on.
The upshot of all the above is that the ASUS ZenFone 6 is a remarkable 6 inch smartphone for this price point. The performance is great, the UI zips along without a glitch and the gaming performance is solid (except for one driver issue on one game, which hardly indicative). The camera is truly exceptional and certainly ‘best-in-class’. The battery life too is nothing short of brilliant.
The one area we had serious reservations was with build quality, specifically in regards to the screen not being support well enough by the devices’ housing. This is a glitch for sure and one that adds a serious tarnish to an otherwise exceptional and attractive smartphone. Would it stop us recommending the ZenFone 6? Possibly.