Asus has been busy in 2017, but amongst the madness that is the Zenfone 4 family, the company took some time to partner with Verizon to launch another device exclusive to Big Red. This is the Zenfone V, a phone that bears some resemblance to one of Samsung's older phones, but it packs 2016 flagship specs into a small, manageable frame all for just $240 ($10/month).
The basic gist of this phone is that it gets the job done, like the title of this review states. There's nothing truly spectacular about it, except what you get for your money (hint: which is a lot). At the same time, it's not particularly bad for the most part, but as with any Asus device, especially in a partnership with Verizon, there's a lot of update anxiety to be had. I mean, this phone isn't off to a good start since it ships with Android 7.0 and the August security patch.
For me, it's difficult to get excited about the Zenfone V, but it represents a fantastic bargain if you're on Verizon.
|Display||5.2" FHD AMOLED; 424 ppi|
|Software||Android 7.0 Nougat; ZenUI 4.0|
|Camera||23MP rear, 8MP front|
|Connectivity||802.11 a/b/g/n/ac dual-band, Bluetooth 4.2; LTE Bands 2/4/5/13|
|Misc||USB Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack, fingerprint sensor|
|Measurements||146.6 x 72.6 x 7.6 mm; 147.1 g|
|Ergonomics||This phone feels very nice in the hand. It’s a tad slippery, though, not to mention being a fingerprint magnet and easily scratched.|
|Performance||With the lighter version of ZenUI, the Snapdragon 820 carries this phone along well for the most part.|
|Value||Originally priced at $384, Asus and Verizon dropped the price to $240, which is an insanely good deal.|
|Software||The Zenfone V launches with Nougat, but just 7.0 (versus the 7.1.1 on other recent Asus phones). This being a Verizon-exclusive also doesn’t bode well on timely software updates. This version of ZenUI may be the best yet, but it still has its problems.|
|Performance again||Asus has made great strides in terms of software design and UX, but there is still a lot of tomfoolery in name of battery life with the ZFV. Lag and stutter don't happen frequently, but they are noticeable when they do occur.|
Design & display
I immediately recognized the design of the Zenfone V when I pulled it out of the box. It’s eerily similar to the Galaxy S6 of 2015, right down to the camera module shape and hump. It almost feels the same in the hand that Samsung’s renaissance did. Honestly, I chuckled a bit when I picked it up, especially since the phone also suffers from some of Asus’ design flairs which we’ve addressed before here at AP. It’s inoffensive, though it feels quite dated by today’s standards.
The Zenfone V is very light, but its plastic frame feels sturdy. The weight, when combined with the small size of the phone, makes for a very enjoyable ergonomic experience — the chamfer that runs around the screen is a nice detail, too. The only problem I have is that the corners on the back of the phone are a bit sharp, meaning that my hand has a difficult time forming itself around the ZFV.
Only one color is available and Asus calls it “Sapphire Black,” which is the best way to describe this color. Photos have a difficult time doing it justice, but under the glass is a very, very dark blue background. In most lighting conditions, it looks like a shiny black coating, but in direct sunlight or something like that, you can really see the blue. It looks fantastic. With this beauty come a lot of fingerprints and a vulnerability to scratches. We can't have everything, can we?
Like every other Asus phone, you’re stuck with capactive/physical navigation keys. The back and recents buttons are backlit, fortunately, but the home button/fingerprint sensor requires a physical press to activate. Also like other Asus phones, the vibration motor in the ZFV is more annoying than useful – I don’t know where Asus sources these motors, but they’re not great. It feels hollow, you hear it more than you feel it, and even people who like haptic feedback (like me) will find themselves turning it off. Both the power buttons and volume rocker feel a bit cheap when pressed. There’s some wiggling as the buttons travel with very unsatisfying clicks at the end.
The fingerprint sensor is reasonably accurate (most of the time), though it’s slowed down by the fact that you need to press in the home button to wake the screen in order for the reader to scan your finger. I do not like this setup. Accuracy, like I said, was on point most of the time, but it struggled to read either of my thumbs at various points during the day. There was a point when it failed to recognize my fingerprints at all, requiring me to retrain all of them. I don’t have this trouble on other sensors, like the ones on the OnePlus 5 or Mi Mix 2.
Audio quality from the single bottom-firing speaker is okay, though you’ll find that notifications will get very distorted if the volume is set to max. I have no complaints about Bluetooth or wired sound performance, either. The optional "Outdoor Mode" amplifies the tiny speaker to a ridiculous and obnoxious level. I suppose if you need to hear your phone in a loud area, you might turn this on. Otherwise, ignore it.
The Zenfone V connected to each of my Bluetooth devices, like my Gear S3, Watch Urbane, and various headphones and speakers without a hitch. I had no range issues, connectivity problems, or other weirdness.
Asus gave this phone an adequate, inoffensive display. It looks nice and has good viewing angles, though the colors are rather muted and dull. Even with Asus’ Super Vivid mode active and 100% brightness, it looks lackluster even next to the OnePlus 5 (on sRGB), not to mention other nicer screens. When watching YouTube videos or playing games, I noticed it less – photos, though, were disappointing when viewed on this display.
It’s nothing to get excited over; I’d call it inoffensive like the rest of the phone’s hardware. It gets the job done and won’t bother most of the people who’d be interested in picking it up.
Performance & battery life
With a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM, the Zenfone V should be a good performer, and most of the time, it is. However, there are enough lags, hiccups, and stutters to leave me scratching my head. I don't remember SD820 devices running like this — my OnePlus 3 was a beast in its day. So what's going on?
ZenUI has tons of power management stuff, since Asus shares an obsession with battery longevity with its other Asian competitors. While I respect that, and appreciate it in many cases, I find that this implementation is detrimental to the overall experience of the ZFV. In the default power setting, the phone randomly slows down, most notably when the battery dips below 40%. I had to wait for the homescreen to redraw two times out of five, two more than I'd like to see, ideally. This is a problem I have on most Asus devices, though it usually takes longer to show itself (this review did take me longer to get out than I would have liked, so maybe that explains it). In short, the performance isn't bad, not by any means. However, the issues were common enough for me to actually notice them and take note.
So all of that means the battery life is good, right? It's alright, but not great. On Verizon LTE, I was able to get about a day's worth out of it — I took the phone off the charger at 4:30am and had to top off at about 6:00pm, well after most of my day's affairs had completed. For some, this will be adequate, but it was noticeably short after reviewing Xiaomi and Huawei phones (with similar performance quality). In an interesting turn of events, the Zenfone V supports USB Power Delivery, meaning that the included cable is a USB-C/USB-C. It's a small thing, and I doubt many will even notice most of the time. But if you're in the habit of connecting your phone to your computer, you need to make sure that you either have USB-C ports on your PC or have a USB-C/USB-A cable.
Asus has a shaky history with camera performance, usually leading to underwhelming, mediocre photographs. The Zenfone V does not necessarily buck that trend, but for the price, it does quite well. The 23MP rear camera (obviously) favors well-lit outdoor shots, providing good exposure and reasonably sharp focus. It even handles mixed lighting conditions well.
Details are excellent, as one might expect from all those megapixels. Colors were inconsistent, varying between vibrant (but not oversaturated) to dull with a yellowish tinge. It wasn't too noticeable in scenes with adequate lighting, but low-light and nighttime shots showed it more. Turning on HDR does help a lot, though, so I recommend you leave that setting on for most cases if you care about color accuracy. Noise with indoor pictures was minimal, something that should be commended. Also, I'd just ignore the depth-of-field mode; it's subpar at best.
All of this is to say that many people won't mind the Zenfone V's camera. It's not even close to the level of top-tier 2017 phones, or even those from 2016, but it gets the job done. The front shooter is okay, offering plenty of options to snap a good selfie. Beautification is on by default, annoying me like it always does.
The camera app UI has a lot going on, from a manual option to a myriad of filters to a large selection of other shooting modes (most of which, I'll warrant, no one will use). It's a lot of take in and play with, often leaving me feeling overwhelmed whenever I opened the camera. For the average user, that's not good — having a feature-rich camera app is fantastic, but the UI shouldn't be cluttered or anything like it. People who care will find the settings and stuff they want when they need them.
Overall, I think that most people interested in the Zenfone V won't have many complaints with the pictures it can put out.
One of the biggest bummers is that it's only Nougat 7.0.
When talking about Asus' software, I feel like a broken record — a feeling I get with a lot of the phones I review. ZenUI has always been on the list of "pretty terrible" Android skins, with Asus sticking to it stubbornly as the years pass. Still, I have to give the Taiwanese company credit where credit is due: the software is improving.
The Zenfone V ships with ZenUI 4.0, the same version we saw on the Zenfone AR. It's much leaner and less intrusive than the garish design of past iterations. Teal and grey are the main colors, except in the settings menu (which is still a chaotic mix of mismatched colors). Animations are smooth for the most part, transitions are usually quick, and the whole thing feels a bit more mature. The stock launcher is also pretty good, with plenty of options for things like icon and grid size, scrolling effects, label colors, and others.
However, one of the biggest bummers is that it's only Nougat 7.0 running underneath the skin; come on, Asus. I know that the company is capable of getting 7.1.1 on some of its devices. I did just review one. The other major shortcoming is that, this being a Verizon phone, there is a ton of bloatware: Bank of America, Caller Name ID, Message+, NFL Mobile to name just a few. You'll also find that a few Asus apps are missing, notably the theme store — trust me, you're not missing out much. When talking about any Verizon-exclusive device, especially one made by Asus, there is always a stipulation about software updates. One of my other Asus/VZW products, the ZenPad Z10, only got Nougat a few months ago. The fact that the tablet launched with Marshmallow in the first place was annoying, but that's long past now. The point is that neither of these two companies are trustworthy with updates.
Fans of Zenfones, or people who the read the reviews of them, should know the deal by now. In case you're not among either (or both) of those groups, I'll go ahead and walk you through some of the additions that Asus includes with ZenUI. Zenmotion allows for you to define some offscreen gestures, like drawing a 'C' to open the camera. This is where you'll find toggles for double tap to wake and sleep, which is nice. Like most phone manufacturers these days, Asus is pretty obsessed with power management, which often comes at the cost of performance. I don't want to rehash one of the previous sections, but battery longevity is not helped much at all and performance takes several nosedives repeatedly if you're on any mode other than High Performance. That's what I call a failure on all fronts.
ZenUI 4 is the best version yet, doing a much better job at not getting in the user's way. That doesn't make it good, though; there are still plenty of areas where Asus can improve. For example, I should not see this much lag and stuttering on the Snapdragon 820, and I'm sure that ZenUI's power management is partly to blame. But even I have to admit that Asus is seemingly on the right track, especially with toning back the cartoonish/Fisher Price look that ZenUI used to have.
While I was putting off this review, Asus and Verizon decided to lower the price of the phone. At launch, it was going for $384 or $16/month, but now the Zenfone V will cost only $240 ($10/month). At that price, this is a steal, there's no way around it.
At $384, I was ready to recommend this, but at $240, I'm much more enthusiastic. It's a phone with very few issues, though the update situation is certainly dubious (my unit is sitting on the August security patch, and I haven't gotten a single update since receiving it). Still, if you're a Verizon customer and need an inexpensive phone, then look at this. ZenUI is not my favorite, but this is the best version by far. The camera also does quite well, all things considered.
What I'm getting at here is that you'd be hard-pressed to find a better value. At first, when trying to think of a worthy competitor, my mind went to a used OnePlus 3/3T, but there are two problems with that: 1. Used phone, 2. no Verizon support on the OP3/3T. Some Android purists may prefer a Moto G5 Plus, which has its advantages for roughly the same price. There is also some update anxiety with Lenovorola devices, though I'd say that situation is still better than an Asus/Verizon partnership.
If you decide that this phone is something you want, I think it'd be $240 well-spent.
Update anxiety is certainly warranted here. I do not trust Asus on its own to provide timely updates, let alone with Big Red in the mix. If you're unbothered by the latest OS version or up-to-date security patches, then I think you need not worry about the Zenfone V — I'm sure that you'll quite like it.
Price is a huge consideration here. Like I said above, at $384, I felt pretty good about recommending the ZFV to Verizon customers. At $240, however... well, I bet you catch my drift. It's a good buy and will serve very well for those to whom a phone in this price bracket appeals.