It wasn’t long ago that ASUS, while beloved by many on the desktop computing scene, was hardly a player when it came to smartphones. Some early Android tablet adopters will remember their Transformer books, but the ZenFone line is relatively new and has been the most serious attempt by ASUS to break into phones. It would be easy to overstate the popularity of the ZenFone, especially in western markets, but there’s no doubt that lovers of Android now have ASUS on their radar.

We at Android Police have looked at several ZenFones and the latest entry is the ZenFone Zoom, which is a characteristic mixture of uniqueness, ambition, value, and zaniness that we have seen before. As the name would suggest, the big differentiating factor of the Zoom is its high-quality camera sensor that comes with 3x optical zoom, something very unusual—though not unheard of—for a serious smartphone.

More than just a cheap phone fitted with a nice lens, the Zoom also has a 64-bit Intel processor and 4GB of RAM coming standard. When I say it is a serious smartphone, that’s what I mean; ASUS is positioning the device as more than just a fancy camera that runs Android, but rather a top-flight phone that has a camera to match. But does it live up to that kind of billing?

Yes and no. ASUS’s ZenUI, which is reminiscent of Samsung’s TouchWiz in ways both good and bad, is going to be a non-starter for many people. And 1080p resolution on a 5.5” display doesn’t scream “flagship” like some of the other specifications. On the other hand, a starting sticker price of $399 USD doesn’t sound so much like a mainstream brand flagship either.

The Good

Camera The Zoom mostly delivers on its promise of a top-notch camera.
Battery life The 3000mAh battery is good-not-great in terms of raw capacity, but OS optimizations make charging an every other day activity.
Performance The 64-bit Intel SoC with 4GB of RAM does not disappoint in daily use, handling all of what I threw at it without so much as a stumble.
Metal frame Just a touch of metal, similar to the Galaxy S6, really classes things up on the design front.
Price Much like the rest of the ZenFone line, the sacrifices feel much easier when you see the sticker price. The Zoom is $399 though you could mistake it for a $599+ flagship killer.

The Not So Good

Display It’s big, it looks nice and gets brighter than cheaper ZenFone variants, but we’re rapidly approaching a point where 1080p on 5.5” canvas is budget quality.
Faux Cheap leather I’m not a fan of plastic, but I’d prefer the high-quality plastics of other ZenFone models to the you-have-to-read-the-promotional-material-to-know-it's-real leather back plate on the Zoom.
Giant camera You have to make some tradeoffs to get 3x optical zoom and this is it. The back of the Zoom looks like a camera, not a phone.
Heft At 185g of weight and a hair under 12mm thick, it just doesn’t compare to the majority in terms of the sleekness. This is, in large part, another tradeoff for having optical zoom.

Specs

Dimensions 159 x 78.84 x 5 ~ 11.95mm (LxWxH)
Weight 185g
CPU Intel® Atom™ Quad Core Z3580 (2.3 GHz)
RAM 4GB LPDDR3
Storage 64GB eMMC Flash/128GB eMCP Flash (upgrade model)
Memory expansion microSD (up to 128GB)
Connectivity WLAN 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.0+EDR, NFC, Single SIM 2G/3G/4G/LTE
Display 5.5”, 1080p IPS LCD (403 PPI), Corning Gorilla Glass 4
Camera (front) 5MP Wide View
Camera (back) 13 MP, 3x optical zoom, 4 Stop OIS, 10P HOYA lens, laser auto-focus, macro support up at distances equal or greater than 5cm
Android version Android 5.0 Lollipop

Design and Hardware

My first inclination is to say that this is no engineering marvel, which is mostly correct. Nobody will be asking how ASUS could possibly fit a modern smartphone’s internals into a package 12mm thick or weighing 185g. On the other hand, the Zoom does, well, zoom. A non-standard feature does in some ways call for a non-standard setup.

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To keep the optical zoom in a relatively tight package, ASUS compares the method employed to a periscope. Rather than expanding out and toward the object, it is happening laterally. It is quite complicated and took some highly original thinking along with the camera hardware partner, HOYA, to implement.

On the aesthetic side, a big fat camera on the back is still a big fat camera. Indeed, it could bulge out far more with a less impressive design. But if you’re comparing it to smartphones that lack optical zoom—and chances are that you are—then the one thing you see when you look at the Zoom is the fact it looks a lot like a slim point-and-shoot camera upon first glance. This is the tradeoff, of course. The redeeming detail is a metal band around the edge of the phone that makes the look and feel much better than it would be without it.

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Less critically, ASUS used a real-but-feels-faux-leather material for the rest of the removable back plate. I’m no fan of the way this looks, and unlike Samsung’s vaguely leathery texture from a couple product generations ago, the feel to the Zoom’s back plate is more like plastic. This is probably better than Samsung’s implementation in the sense that you aren’t forced into thinking about what a pale imitation of a nice leather it is every time you feel it in your hands. For what it's worth, ASUS has lots to say about the leather on their ZenFone Zoom micro-site, but I had to be corrected by a reader to be able to tell that it wasn't fake.

Included are dedicated shutter and record buttons, which serve no other function. When shooting in landscape mode (which you always should be!), this is very useful and perfectly justified on a phone like the Zoom. The volume rocker doubles as a zoom toggle, which is again a nice addition. Like other ZenFones, there are capacitive buttons in place of the more dynamic navigation bar built into Android’s OS. The power button, unlike the ZenFone 2 and ZenFone 2 Laser, is along the side instead of the top.

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Display

Compared to the various ZenFone 2 Laser and Selfie models I have used, the display on the Zoom beats it. Colors look better and even more important than that, the overall maximum brightness is noticeably higher. The aforementioned ZenFone models were tough to see on a bright day outdoors, but that is not true of the Zoom, which has enough oomph.

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However, the auto-brightness is too conservative for my taste and there aren’t straightforward ways to deal with that fact. There are some third-party applications but it is always much better to get those details right in the stock OS.

While pleasant and functional enough, the display isn’t selling this phone. At and even below this price point, you will likely find higher resolution and perhaps more technically impressive displays in devices cheaper than this one. To me, it meets a minimum standard for the phone it is trying to be. If that’s what is keeping the price down, then it seems like a logical tradeoff.

Camera

It’s the ZenFone Zoom after all, so does the camera work well? Indeed, it is a very good camera. I am not a firm believer in the superiority of ASUS’s software implementation, as it is noticeably slower to zoom than my familiar Galaxy S6, and things like HDR take far more time to complete and do not occur automatically.

However, I do appreciate the manual mode that allows for toggling the white balance, focus distance, exposure, and a few other odds and ends. Importantly, in several situations in which I expected to need to make those adjustments, the automatic mode did just as well. I attribute this in large part to the laser auto-focus.

Here is a shot of what is known as “the oval” at Ohio State University, shot in automatic mode without zoom. In general, I don't think it excels at this kind of photo, though maybe it simply stresses my shaky hands.

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And here is an equivalent shot with maximum zoom (3x).

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Last but not least, some HDR versions for comparison.

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To give a sense of a medium-distance subject, I just picked out a broken tree branch on the ground. First you'll see the 1x zoom, then the 3x zoom. I think it drives home just how helpful the optical zoom is.

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One night in my apartment, which is very poorly lit once the sun goes down, I caught my cat doing an adorable thing. And this isn’t just any cat, it’s my black cat. Getting a good exposure on a photo with this cat in it is far from straightforward. Often, you just end up with a black silhouette. Other times, everything surrounding the cat is overexposed after focusing on the dark black fur. I feel that this situation posed a legitimate challenge to a supposedly top-of-the-line smartphone camera.

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It nailed it, even without the aid of the (mostly useless) low-light mode, which drastically reduces the resolution in an effort to do a longer exposure. Even without HDR, which could have been helpful, it captured a nice moment that I wanted to preserve. There's a bit of over-exposure of the surrounding items, given that the lighting was fairly dim, but it all looks realistic.

Another challenge I threw at the camera was taking a macro shot through glass. I was taking some photos of my fish tank and noticed that my show fish were becoming very curious. Okay, I thought, let’s put the lens right up against the glass (to cut the glare) and try to get an up close and personal shot of this beautiful fish.

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In this case, it was really closer than the 5cm minimum distance for macro shots recommend by ASUS. Pretty impressive.

In these latter two situations, the macro shot through glass and general photo in poor, indoor lighting, the ZenFone Zoom did noticeably better than what I have come to expect when using the (also-excellent) Samsung Galaxy S6 camera.

Performance

With 4GB and a 64-bit, quad-core processor, performance better be pretty great. Indeed it is, as there’s no everyday kind of activity that could produce even much of a stutter from the Zoom. In my own tradition of passive aggressively complaining about my Samsung Galaxy S6, I’ll say the Zoom blows the S6 out of the water when it comes to UI smoothness, task switching, and the like.

Battery life is very good as well. Obviously, the usual caveats apply here: everyone uses phones differently, there are variables we cannot know or control for, etc. Rather than relying solely on my subjective impression, I have had GSam Battery Monitor keeping tabs on things. Over about two weeks, the average life on a charge has been 1 day, 20 hours, and some change with an average of 2 hours and 33 minutes screen-on time. For comparison’s sake, the averages for my S6 are 16 hours, 46 minutes per charge with a mere 1 hour, 8 minutes screen-on time. For the record, I made sure to install all apps I use on my daily driver S6 so the comparisons could be relatively meaningful.

Software

Related to performance is the software, which is certainly responsible for some of the smooth use and long-lasting battery. As for the latter, there are several proprietary features available for managing the battery. I appreciate being able to customize when the phone goes into a power-saving mode, particularly having it turn on and off depending on the time of day.

Less useful is the “auto-start manager,” which purports to keep chosen apps from running when the phone boots. This is enabled by default and prevents nearly all user-downloaded apps from running without first being manually opened. This causes some bizarre syncing behavior and if you don’t go in yourself and mess with it, you will miss some notifications.

I made a comparison to TouchWiz earlier and it is due to ZenUI’s similar “more is more” approach that sometimes gives you unique features and other times redundancy, needlessly altered interfaces, and the like. I certainly wonder how tiresome ZenUI would be if used over a longer period, but I’m one who doesn’t get quite as bent out of shape when software developers dare deviate from vanilla Android.

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Still, you get some oddities and bloat. Seemingly moreso than previous ASUS models I have tested, this one engaged in a great deal of self-promotion, which erodes the sense that you are using a high-end phone. In the second screenshot above, you can see what appears to be an odd translation built into one of the promo notifications, something which isn't too uncommon.

If there’s a reason to not buy the Zoom, this could easily be the top one. Beyond what is already mentioned, I do not see evidence that ASUS is going to be particularly fast with updates. This device is still on Android 5.0.

Conclusion

ASUS has made a nice phone here and to be perfectly honest I was operating under the assumption that it was far more expensive when I began testing it out. What a pleasant surprise to see it is more along the high-midrange, which helps to justify some of its drawbacks. There’s no fingerprint sensor, the display is middling, and ZenUI will alienate a lot of the people who are savvy enough to know about ASUS’s line of phones. It’s not an aesthetic knockout, either, even if it looks way better than you would expect a phone with optical zoom to look.

On the other hand, the positives are noteworthy. The camera is for real, even if the software side seems as if it might benefit from under the hood improvements. The Intel SoC runs speedily and without getting warm under most use cases. 4GB of RAM means multi-tasking is painless and could offer a degree of future-proofing.

Is it time to sell off your Nexus 6P or some other current flagship to get this phone? Maybe not. But if you want to save a bit of money, really appreciate an excellent camera, and are not an Android OS purist, you should take a long, hard look at the ASUS ZenFone Zoom.

It has just released in the US, but it's a little difficult to find at this point. You can get more info at ASUS's online store, where it is listed at $399, or pull the trigger at B&H Photo for the same price.

Note: The unit used for this article was provided to us by ASUS on a temporary basis for the purposes of the review.