ASUS, the company more known for its laptops and gaming peripherals, jumped into the smartphone division and managed to raise eyebrows in the budget segment. With the launch of the Zenfone series, the Taiwan-based tech company began climbing its way into the industry and started leaving its mark sooner than expected. With a sturdy and unique design and Intel’s Atoms and Qualcomm’s Snapdragons under the hood, ASUS soon became one of the recommended smartphones in each segment.
Towards the end of January 2016, ASUS announced its first, and one of the best innovations in the smartphone segment yet, a high-end photography-centric handset, the Zenfone Zoom. Though there are other premium smartphones under the Zenfone brand, the Zoom commands the flagship title simply because of a powerful hardware under the hood and a 3x optical zoom camera on its hump. So what does the Zoom show off and is it something great—let’s find out.
For many who must have previously witnessed the Zenfone series, this one may seem a tiny bit different. Though the rear panel is something you may have never seen on any smartphone before, the front panel will immediately spell out an ASUS Zenfone—thanks to the iconic ASUS design with the concentric-circle detailing just below the display panel. The anodized chassis is made of metal with a sand-blasted finish and a chiselled edge that flushes with the display and the rear panel.
The right side features all the basic, necessary controls. Including the usual power and volume, the manufacturer has also provided two individual physical camera buttons—one each for the shutter release and video recording. A well thought of feature especially for a smartphone that has been designed with concentration on the camera. On the bottom lies the micro USB port and a microphone along with a slot for using a wrist strap (something that other smartphone manufacturers seem to have wiped out totally). The top features a secondary microphone and an audio jack as usual. Sadly, ASUS has not placed an IR module for using the device as a remote control.
Moving on to the rear panel, you will notice a difference in design altogether. ASUS has tried to concentrate on the looks of the smartphone to be similar to that of a camera. The unique circular design around the camera gives the Zoom a premium look. To add to the premium look, the rear panel (basically made of plastic) is coated with a layer of thin, handcrafted leather. The rear panel features the primary camera, a twin LED dual-tone flash and the mono speaker. The rear panel is also designed well so that the camera lens is not damaged when the phone is kept on its back. Below the rear panel are two slots, one each for the Micro SIM card and the Micro SD storage card. The NFC antenna is built into the rear panel and is fused on the back side of the plastic.
The ASUS Zenfone Zoom measures 11.95 mm thick and weighs a hefty 185g. (Ouch!)
Under the hood is a powerful Intel processor which is as good as the one that you would find in standard entry-level laptops. With an Intel Atom Quad Core Z3590 processor guzzling at a whopping 2.5GHz along with PowerVR 6430 graphics unit and 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM, the Zenfone Zoom is sure to keep you up and running smoothly and in full speed. To add to the performance, ASUS has also provided a whopping 128GB of internal storage which is further expandable using a micro SD card (up to 128GB). This means, you can hold a maximum of (up to) 200GB+ of photos, videos, movies and music on your smartphone and won’t need to backup anything for longer periods.
ASUS seems to have given the product a good thought on the storage front. Since the device is aimed more towards photography, the storage requirements are sufficiently met. To make the deal even sweeter, ASUS has also provided a lifetime free storage of 5GB on its own cloud (ASUS WebStorage) and an additional 100GB of ASUS WebStorage for 2 years from registration. This deal gets even sweeter when you start the phone for the first time—ASUS also helps you gain additional free 100GB of Google storage for two years. What more do you need—a whopping 300+ gigabytes of storage is what you get on buying this device.
The new Intel Atom chip is tuned to give you better performance (of up to 37% increase) and better power saving (up to 50%).
Moving ahead, the ASUS Zenfone Zoom provides 2G/3G and 4G network compatibility along with Wi-Fi connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac on the connectivity front. As for the display, I thought ASUS would give us a little better as the competition has already stepped on the future, but they did not. The Zenfone Zoom features a Full HD 1920x1080 pixel display in a 5.5-inch panel and protected with a Corning Gorilla Glass 4. Though the Gorilla Glass 4 is supposed to be stronger (better scratch resistance) than the predecessor, Glass 3, our take on the same is in the other direction. My Zoom’s (review unit) display was easily scratched within the first two days itself. I am pretty sure I was careful with the handling of the device, but am still clueless about how that scratch got there. In fact, I personally own a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge with Gorilla Glass 4 and also found scuffs on the display. My previous Samsung (Galaxy S4) handset is still going strong with a Gorilla Glass 3 and has absolutely no scratches, even though I don’t use a screen guard. Well, I am still clueless.
The ASUS Zenfone ZOOM is powered by a 3000mAh Li-Polymer battery and is non-removable. The battery should provide you a comfortable full-day use since ASUS has managed to fix dome of the battery drain issues found in the earlier Zenfone 2 series.
As for the performance of the Zoom, I had absolutely no complaints. The powerful processor with 4GB of RAM operates smoothly and multitasking was absolutely good too. However, I am yet to witness the performance after a few months of usage when the demand of applications increase with the next version of Android being loaded on the device. ASUS is yet to serve the latest Android Marshmallow and the device is still running on Android 5.0 (Lollipop) out of the box.
The display is crisp and clear with great viewing angles and vibrant colours. The brightness and contrast a well balanced and watching a movie, viewing photos or playing games are good enough. The only place I was disappointed was when I took the device in broad sunlight—I could just not see anything on the display. The display visibility is pretty bad in bright sunlight even with the display brightness turned up to the highest.
As for the usual feature-list, I did have a word with the ASUS team about features that are (probably) missing or indirectly the ones that they could have actually implemented. Firstly, since the ASUS Zenfone Zoom is proclaimed to be a near DSLR-like smartphone, it lacks a proper flash similar to those seen on conventional cameras. ASUS could have introduced a xenon flash into the body itself, but has opted to sell the Zenflash separately. The company has places an offer on the Zoom—for an additional price, you can have the Zenflash and a mini tripod bundled with the phone during purchase. Though the deal is a steal, I still think ASUS could have done it better. Lastly, since the Taiwan-based tech giant stressed on the Zoom having PC-like hardware, I still think they should have shipped it with a Windows operating system rather than going with Android. This would (probably) make it a nice combination of a mini PC and a camera in a pocket-able smartphone. Simply connect a keyboard, mouse and a display and you can have a full-fledged desktop-like PC on your desk.
ASUS has also worked a little more on the sound output for the device. The built-in speaker (featured on the rear panel) is not a conventional speaker like those found on other smartphones. The one on the ZOOM features a five-magnet speaker system with ASUS-exclusive SonicMaster 2.0 technology. This is to ensure better bass and voice clarity. The speaker also uses a dedicated sound chamber for better audio performance. Clubbed along with AudioWizard 2.0, a powerful audio suite, ASUS has aimed for better audio enhancement while gaming and watching movies.
The user interface on the Zoom is ASUS’s own ZenUI. The UI is crisp and clean with a lot of themes and fun elements. The UI also holds a load of useful tools and apps which can be beneficial for daily use. However, there are many out there who may either find these apps useless or will want to use their own preferred apps, thus making these apps as good as bloatware. Sadly, ASUS has given no option to uninstall these apps, but only disable them, utilizing precious data space on the app zone. The ZenUI features the following: Touch Gesture, Tap-tap Motion, Motion Gesture, PhotoEffects, PhotoCollage, MiniMovie, ZenCircle, Launcher, Themes, Font, Color Style, Bluelight Filter Mode, SnapView, Easy Mode, Kids Mode, Power Saving, Browser and Private Contact and Messaging.
Now heading to the main USP of the Zoom—the camera. The ASUS Zenfone Zoom features a 13MP with an aperture of f/4.8, clubbed along with a 10-element Hoya lens with a 4-stop OIS (Optical Image Stabilization). The 13MP camera is a little less for a smartphone camera that hopes step into the DSLR segment. The camera has an optical zoom of 3x and a digital zoom of 12x, giving you the ability to zoom into a subject from a distance without losing out on image quality. The camera also features a laser-assisted focussing system which can quickly focus on a subject ion under 0.03 seconds. The camera also uses a twin (dual-colour) LED flash for enhancing real tones on portraits and close-ups. ASUS has also implemented Back Light (HDR) mode with ASUS PixelEnhancing Technology for up to 400% brighter images than usual and also a low light mode with ASUS PixelMaster Technology for better photo capture in low light environments. The low light mode automatically flashes to alert you when the ambiance light is low. Additional features of the camera include a super resolution mode for photos up to 52MP resolutions. The Zoom also features DLSR-like camera features, which includes a manual mode for better control on the shutter speed, EV, ISO, white balance and auto focus area.
As for the camera’s performance, I would say that ASUS’s development team has definitely done great job. Photos taken by the Zoom are crisp, sharp and clear with a great balance of brightness, contrast and colours. Photos come out rich and vibrant and the camera handles the intake of light with finesse. However, though the low light mode is said to give you the ability of capturing a subject in low light environments, the photos still come out with a lot of noise. The low light photos are also restricted to a 3MP resolution. Though the photos are viewable, they are not usable for printing and alike.
In broad daylight, photos are great. Zooming into a subject with the optical zoom feature gives you better photos as compared to conventional high-end smartphone cameras without an optical zoom lens. Macro modes are even great—with a minimum distance of 5cm from the lens, the Zoom can take excellent macro (close up) photos with great ease. Before I leave you with a few too many samples of photos captured by the Zenfone Zoom, here is a list of features from the camera modes—Real Time Beautification, Night mode, Depth of field, Selfie mode, Photo Effects, Panorama mode, Miniature, Time Rewind, Smart Remove, All Smiles and Time Lapse, including video modes of 1080p full HD capture with 60 fps. The front camera of the Zenfone Zoom features a 5MP sensor with an f/2.0 aperture and a wide angle selfie capture capability of up to 14-degrees with low light, time lapse, HDR and GIF animation options. Finally, check out the images I managed to shoot with the Zoom.
Problems with the camera: As for the issues I noted with the camera (or the app in reality), the Zoom’s camera was a bit erratic when switching between modes. Especially when using the manual mode, you tend to set the camera's ISO, shutter and other areas to get that perfect shot. But when you switch back to auto mode, the manual mode settings remain on the auto mode and the camera is not able to set the values according to the automatic AI mode. This leaves you with possibilities of bad and dull images if you have not reset the camera’s settings in manual mode before switching to another mode. The same issue was also noted in the earlier Zenfone models, which means that the camera app needs to be worked on by the ASUS team. I did get a firmware update after two days of receiving the phone for a review, but the issue still exists. Hopefully ASUS’s team releases a camera patch at the earliest.
Another issue I faced was that the camera takes quite a while to start up from the time you click on the camera icon. The lag is not something that I like and would definitely tend to lose my desired shot before the camera is even ready.
Lastly, I also noticed that the optical zoom is pretty slow when used from the display (pinch to zoom feature). It takes a while for the lens to zoom in after using it from the display. However, when using the physical volume buttons, the zoom is faster.
The camera also tends to heat up after a while, but marginally. However, it should not be much of a concern and is pretty expected from a high-end device and an aluminium body.
Hope ASUS rectifies these minor issues in its next software patch.
Expectations: As mentioned earlier, I thought the Zenfone Zoom would probably ship the Zoom with a Windows operating system as the company touts it similar to a PC-like device since it features desktop-equivalent hardware. Also the Zoom could have incorporated the Zenflash (or a xenon flash) within the unit itself.
Verdict: The ASUS Zenfone Zoom is a great smartphone for travellers. Ample storage, powerful hardware and a great camera, all packed into one single portable device makes it a true value for those who are constantly on the move and need to travel light. The performance of the device and the camera put together make the ASUS Zenfone Zoom a must have smartphone, but the price seems to be a tad too heavy on the pocket. If you have a large enough wallet and are looking for a great all-in-one gadget, then the ASUS Zenfone Zoom should be on your shopping list. The ASUS Zenfone Zoom is available for an MRP of Rs 37,999, and for an additional Rs 2,000, the smartphone is clubbed along with a Zenflash and a mini (portable) travel tripod.