We've been critical when it comes to Android Go-powered phones in the US, but Asus' new Zenfone Live L1 is set to change our mind. It's the first genuinely good experience I've had with the platform, and combined with a Snapdragon 425, 3,000mAh battery, and price-defying 5.5" 720p IPS display, I think it could be the best phone you can buy for $110. At least, it will be once Asus fixes a serious issue it has with randomly locking up, which the company promises with a future update.

Until the issue is resolved, I'd have to advise prospective buyers to steer clear of the phone, and that's a pity. Outside it randomly locking up while I was out and about, I had only positive things to say about it, and if Asus had managed to squeeze in a fingerprint reader, it would have undoubtedly earned our "Most Wanted" award — even if its inclusion resulted in a small bump in price.

In my investigation of other reports of the "lock up" problem, it seems to be tied to specific carriers like T-Mobile and MVNOs piggybacking off 'ol Magenta. During one particular night out on the town, it seized up in my pocket more than 7-8 times. When it does, it remains unresponsive until you power cycle the device with a (very) long-press of the power button. Add in a longish boot time, and you'll be waiting for a couple minutes before it's usable, and it's also prone to locking up again as soon as the screen is off again.

A representative speaking on behalf of the company told us that "ASUS is aware of the reports and is actively working on a fix to be included in next week’s software update." The estimate probably isn't hyperbole, either. Since I've gotten the phone, updates have come at about that frequency. If an OTA is released that fixes this issue, we'll update our review.

Specs

SoC Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 425
Display 5.5" 18:9 720x1440 400nits IPS screen
RAM 1GB
Storage 16GB (microSD expandable)
Battery 3000mAh
Software Android Oreo (Go Edition)
Rear camera 8MP, F/2.0, phase-detection autofocus, LED flash. Up to 1080p video @ 30FPS w/simultaneous photo capture
Front camera 5MP, F/2.4, "Softlight" LED flash
Connectivity Dual-SIM, FDD-LTE bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 17, 28; WCDMA bands 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8; GSM 850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz. Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (2.4GHz only)
Headphone jack Yes
Charging Micro-USB
Dimensions 5.8 x 2.83 x 0.32" (147.26 x 71.77 x 8.15 mm). 4.94 oz (140 g)
Colors Space Blue, Rose Pink, Shimmer Gold, Midnight Black (only the last seems available in the US)
Other features FM tuner

The Good

Screen An incredible display for $110. It's big, it's reasonably high-resolution, and it's IPS.
Performance The Snapdragon 425 is ostensibly on the same level as the MediaTek MT6739 in other Android Go phones I've used, but this phone feels much faster.
Software Asus' ROMs generally aren't the best, and it's common knowledge we're stock Android fanboys here at AP. The Zenfone Live L1 is surprisingly unadulterated.
Build quality/design Feels nicer and more sturdy than you expect. It's a simple, understated look.

The Not So Good

Phone randomly locks up Kind of a dealbreaker.
No USB-C I know it's generally forgivable at low price points, and I understand why OEMs choose to go with Micro-USB, but I still prefer to see USB Type-C.
No FP Reader In 2018 it's a nice amenity to have for quickly unlocking the screen, and it saves a lot of time.
No 5GHz Wi-Fi If you live in a congested area, 2.4GHz just isn't always reliable.
Finish Plastic gets greasy fast.
RAM 1GB might be Google's limit for Android Go, but it really isn't enough for multitasking, even with Go apps.

It's annoying that ASUS has three phones that share this name. One was a thoroughly mediocre phone released last year, and the current "L1" model has two different versions: one with Android Go/1GB RAM/16GB storage and an 8MP camera, and another with ZenUI/2GB RAM/32GB storage and a 12MP camera. But in this review, we're looking at the 2018 Android Go-powered/1GB "L1" model.

Design, hardware, what's in the box

Build quality for the Zenfone Live L1 is surprising. While the texture of the plastic is a bit too smooth, resulting in a greasy feeling as fingerprints build up, the handset is super solid: no creak, no flex. I also like the overall shape and how well it fits in hand. The entire design is simple and surprisingly elegant for such a cheap device. To the casual observer, it certainly doesn't look like you're using a $110 phone — if you care about that sort of thing.

The Zenfone Live L1 is surprisingly big, with narrow bezels to better accent the 18:9 display, but it's also thin. In fact, it's only about half a millimeter thicker than the OnePlus 6.

Often on cheaper phones, we see OEMs slapping distasteful, tramp stamp-like logos under the screen in a tacky effort at advertising (I'm looking at you Lenovorola). Asus didn't do that here, and they deserve praise for it. The face is just flat glass — good for screen protectors — with the front-facing camera at the top left, earpiece cutout top center, and sensors and the front-facing flash at the top right. The chin is also precisely the same height as the forehead, which pleases my sense of symmetry when watching videos in landscape.

The screen is quite good. At 5.5", the 720x1440 resolution won't blow your mind, but it's IPS, it's sharp enough, and it has an oleophobic coating. That beats the Alcatel 1X on (at least) three fronts for a mere $10 more. The display even seems reasonably well-calibrated to an sRGB-like space. I would have expected a ton of oversaturation to try to make it compare better at a glance with more expensive OLED-equipped phones, but Asus resisted the temptation. The Zenfone Live L1 doesn't have a Samsung-made, 1440p+, 1000nit AMOLED screen, but it's still a pretty good display.

If I had one complaint when it comes to the screen, it would be brightness: Asus says it's 400 nits, but it can sometimes be a little hard to see outside. The auto brightness setting also tends to behave oddly, and I was often blinded randomly at night while using it. For $110, I think that issues like these are forgivable, though.

The glass front is buffered from the body by a beveled black plastic frame. Around the sides, the lines and shape of the curved edges of the body are strikingly reminiscent of the OnePlus 3.

 

The headphone jack is up top (I usually prefer them on the bottom, but beggars can't be choosers). Volume and power controls are on the right side in that order vertically. The combination dual SIM and microSD tray is on the left side, and the bottom features the Micro-USB port and a pair of grilles: left for the microphone, right for the speaker.

The back is mostly bare with an Asus logo where the FP sensor would be (if it had one). The camera lives in the top left corner, raised a bit from the back of the phone with a glossy metallic plastic ring and a glass cover. The LED flash is centered directly beneath it.

The phone is rated for 5.2V, 1A input, so there's no fast charging. Anecdotally, I can confirm that it charges very slowly, requiring well over 2 hours to fill up from empty. If it's a major consideration for you, haptic feedback is notably weak, but at least it isn't noisy.

In the box, all you get is a power brick and a USB-A to Micro-USB cable (plus the standard plastic wrapping, manuals, warranty card, etc.).

Software, performance, battery life

Asus made very few modifications to stock Android/Android Go on the Zenfone Live L1, and that was the correct decision. In general what you get here is the same experience you'll see on other Android Go-powered phones, with lightweight "Go" versions of Google apps pre-installed on a trimmed down Oreo-based image. Some of them are more limited than their fully-featured cousins, but they consume much less memory.

 

It may have been mostly stock, but there were a few peculiarities in the software. Keyboard height out of the box is strangely low. The navigation bar is also shrunken, and notification text spacing and padding seems broken. In Settings, Asus also bundled in its "ZenMotion" options to launch apps via gestures while the screen is off, plus a "glove mode" for increasing touch sensitivity.

Unlike the Alcatel 1X, Asus went with a Launcher3-based home screen, which provides a much better out of the box experience. I'd be hesitant to install a heavier launcher replacement like something with Feed integration given the limited 1GB of RAM, but the one Asus' includes with the Zenfone Live L1 has a look that's pretty close to stock, if you dig the Googly aesthetic.

 

Asus sped up animations to make the phone feel a bit snappier than it actually is, setting all the options by default to .5x scale. It's sneaky, and while it does feel a bit faster, it also highlights the dropped frames during animations even more noticeably. Asus also disables the godawful touch sounds by default (which every OEM should do), so they're forgiven.

Performance won't hold a candle to a flagship, or even an older mid-range device, but compared to every other Android Go phone I've used, it was like night and day. According to benchmarks, the Snapdragon 425 should be on about the same level as the MT6739 used in phones like the Alcatel 1X. Even so, the Zenfone Go felt palpably faster. Don't expect a very smooth experience, though. The Zenfone Live L1 has its hiccups, but I rarely felt like I was waiting around for my phone to finish doing something, as in the case of the Alcatel 1X. Performance was mostly fine, and at $110, fine is high praise.

Multitasking definitely isn't the Zenfone Live L1's forte, and 1GB of RAM feels very limiting in use. Apps still got pushed out of memory when I'd get past 2-3, but it never happened while they were in the foreground — unlike the phone I'm using full-time personally.

Battery life is highly subjective. Short of specific use cases like navigation, I typically don't spend a lot of time on my phone. I spend most of my day working and I don't need more than 2 or 3 hours of "screen-on time" in a day. With that disclaimer out of the way, battery life on the Zenfone Live L1 has been quite good for me.

At the end of the day, I'd turn in with ~3 hours of SoT and ~60% still remaining. With my usage patterns, that's easily two days of battery life, and more if I'm careful. Even people that might demand 5+ hours of active use should comfortably get over a day out of it. Unless you don't charge every day, you probably won't even need to think about battery life with the Zenfone Live L1.

Camera

I had very little hope that the camera on a $110 phone would be worth praising, but it's capable of surprisingly okay results. Even in good lighting, expect plenty of oversharpened mud and noise, combined with some really terrible compression and a lot of strange reflections and halos depending on the content of a scene.

Color reproduction covers a range from surprisingly accurate to hilariously oversaturated/muted, and it can take a few tries to dial things in tapping around the scene. The preview in the viewfinder is also weirdly oversharpened, but thankfully it isn't accurate to the actual photos. Asus' HDR can produce decent results, but it has a tendency toward halos around contrasting areas.

$110 is still "at least it has a camera" territory in pricing, where the most one can expect to capture is check deposits or receipts. The Zenfone Live L1 does better than that, but with any crop factor whatsoever, the photos you take are probably going to be unrecognizable. The camera also has some issues focusing accurately: it seems to want to grab something just a tiny bit closer than whatever you tap to select.

It was able to pull some surprisingly usable photos, and for the price, it's a good camera, but in no way will this compete with an older, higher-end phone.

Should you buy it?

No, not right now. It's a great phone at a stunning price, but the current issue with randomly locking up is a total deal-breaker. When Asus is able to fix it, the Zenfone Live L1 may be the best you can buy for $110, and I'll be falling over myself to recommend it to those on a budget, but even then it won't be without its faults. A fingerprint sensor and an extra gig of RAM would be a nice start.

I previously used an Android Go phone for a whole month as my only personal device, and it left a very sour taste in my mouth when it came to the platform. I still believe Android Go phones are generally too expensive for the project's apparent goals, and OEMs should be aiming for something closer to $50 than $100, but the Zenfone Live L1 has convinced me that Android Go has a future.

Previously I considered the Alcatel 1X my last-ditch choice if you were on a really tight budget. But the Zenfone Live L1 is just $10 more, better in almost every way, and the only omission is a fingerprint reader.

In fact, that and the random freezing issue were the only things that kept me from giving this our "Most Wanted" accolade. It's a good phone at a stunningly low price, and the first Android Go phone I've used that I consider worth the cost. While I'd still prefer to see Android Go handsets pushing the envelope with lower-end hardware around $60, this phone's improved specs more than justify the $110 asking price. And once Asus fixes its problems, the Zenfone Live L1 will be the king of budget phones.

Buy if:

  • Having a phone that randomly locks up isn't a problem for you.
  • You're on a tight budget but you're still concerned about security, so an older phone won't do.

Don't buy if:

  • Randomly locking up is a problem.
  • Your budget is higher.
  • Your workflow is heavy on multitasking — the 1GB of RAM makes itself known.
  • You really want a fingerprint reader.

You can buy this model of the Zenfone Live L1 at the retailers below: