Asus took a page out of Xiaomi's book by offering powerful hardware at an affordable price point when it brought the ZenFone Max Pro M1 (Review) to the market earlier this year. We were impressed with the device when we reviewed it, since it offered stock Android and a powerful processor, and it even managed to undercut the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro (Review) in terms of price, making it excellent value for money. With the ZenFone 5Z, Asus seems to be at it again, this time at a higher price point and against a very powerful smartphone, the OnePlus 6 (Review).
The newly launched Asus ZenFone 5Z sports a flagship-class Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and dual cameras at the back, and starts at a surprisingly low price in India. With the ZenFone 5Z, Asus is not only creating competition for the OnePlus 6, it is also promising more features and benefits at a lower price point. But does the ZenFone 5Z have what it takes to be our new choice of budget flagship? We are about to find out.
Asus ZenFone 5Z design
The Asus ZenFone 5Z is available in Meteor Silver and Midnight Blue colour options. The phone has 2.5D glass at the front and the back, while the frame between these layers is made of aerospace-grade aluminium. Pick it up and you will feel the premium materials used in its construction. The glass and metal get cold to the touch in an air-conditioned room. While the ZenFone 5Z has a glass back, it doesn't make the most of it as it lacks wireless charging. Also, there is no mention of any sort of waterproofing, so you will need to shield this phone from the elements.
Asus has opted for a 6.2-inch display with a 19:9 aspect ratio, making this phone tall and narrow. It has a notch at the top which houses the selfie camera, the earpiece, and a couple of sensors. The ZenFone 5Z has a vertically stacked dual camera setup at the back, placed above a single-LED flash. The flash unit houses a colour temperature sensor just like the one on the Huawei P20 Pro (Review). The fingerprint scanner is well positioned and is quick to unlock the phone.
The positioning of the power button is spot on. Hold the phone in your right hand, and your thumb should rest on it naturally. The volume rocker is positioned higher, needing you to shuffle the phone in the hand to reach it. The SIM tray is positioned on the left, along with one of the three noise-cancelling microphones on this smartphone. At the bottom of the ZenFone 5Z, you’ll find a USB Type-C port, a speaker grille, the primary microphone, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You can spot antenna lines running through the frame, and the third microphone is on the top.
Asus ships the ZenFone 5Z with a case and an 18W charger in the box. You also get a USB Type-A to Type-C cable and a pair of Hi-Res-certified in-ear headphones. These headphones sound really good, and you can tweak the sound using the Audio Wizard software built into the phone.
Asus ZenFone 5Z specifications, software, and features
Just like the OnePlus 6, the ZenFone 5Z is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC. This is a flagship-grade octa-core processor clocked at 2.8GHz. The ZenFone 5Z is available in three variants: 6GB of RAM with 64GB of storage, 6GB of RAM with 128GB of storage, and 8GB of RAM with 256GB of storage. Our review unit had 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage on board.
Storage is expandable using the hybrid dual-SIM slot, and the 5Z can support cards of up to 2TB. The ZenFone 5Z is a dual-SIM device and supports 4G and VoLTE on both slots. Connectivity options on the smartphone include Bluetooth 5.0, dual-band WiFi 802.11ac, NFC, GPS, GLONASS, and BDS. The ZenFone 5Z has support for FM Radio but there isn’t an app icon for it. Instead, Asus has put a shortcut in the notification drawer which is easy to miss.
The front of this device is dominated by a 6.2-inch full-HD+ display which uses Corning Gorilla Glass 3 for protection. It has good viewing angles and the display gets bright enough to be usable outdoors. Asus uses the camera’s colour temperature sensor to adjust the screen automatically to suit the current ambient lighting, a feature that worked as expected. You do have the option to switch this off and adjust the colour temperature manually.
The display on the ZenFone 5Z supports the DCI-P3 colour gamut and you can switch between this and a standard gamut, or go ahead and tweak it as per your preference. There’s also the Smart screen feature which keeps the display on when you are looking at it.
Asus ships the ZenFone 5Z with Android 8.0 Oreo and ZenUI on top. Asus hasn’t laid out a timeline for updates, which a lot of companies are now doing. The ability to mask the notch with a black band is built in.
Asus is also promoting a lot of AI-driven features in the ZenFone 5Z, though the use of the term 'AI' is a stretch in some cases. AI Charging uses machine learning to adjust the charging speed based on your established patterns to avoid stressing the battery, something other OEMs like Sony have shipped for a while without marketing it as 'AI'.
For example, if you leave the ZenFone 5Z plugged in overnight, there’s no need for quick charging. The phone will charge itself up to 80 percent, then pause, and then trickle charge so that it’s full when you wake up. Asus says this is better for battery health. Alternatively, Scheduled Charging uses times that you set manually instead of what the phone learns about your usage patterns. AI Charging mode needs more than a week to learn your charging patterns, and so it did not kick in on our review unit. The Scheduled Charging option worked as expected.
AI Ringtone makes use of the microphones on the phone to determine the noise level around you and set the ringtone volume accordingly. We observed that in quiet rooms, the phone rang at a lower volume and that increased gradually, but it started off loud if the environment was noisy. We found this feature to be helpful.
Most of the custom software additions on the Asus ZenFone 5Z have been listed under an Advanced submenu in the settings. Here you can find Twin Apps, which lets you create two instances of compatible apps such as WhatsApp. Game Genie gives you the option to record gameplay or even livestream it to YouTube or Twitch. You also see a Game toolbar in the navigation bar when you launch games, giving you options to lock the navigation bar, disable alerts, and clear up RAM. A display scaling option lets you force games to run at the 19:9 aspect ratio. There’s even a way to create macros to record and automate specific actions or gestures, which is unique and might be helpful if a game you play requires the same repetitive input.
BeautyLive, a feature we first saw on the Asus ZenFone Live (Review), allows you to use beautification while streaming a live video. ZeniMoji is Asus' take on Animoji, and lets an emoji mimic your facial movements. While it isn't as good as Animoji on the iPhone X (Review), it is better than Samsung’s implementation on the Galaxy S9 (Review) and the Galaxy S9+ (Review). ZenUI Safeguard is a slightly enhanced safety feature that lets you send out an SOS along with your current location either to emergency services or to specific contacts by quickly pressing the power button thrice.
ZenMotion lets you interact with the ZenFone 5Z using gestures. You can double-tap to wake the phone or put it to sleep. You also have the option to wake the phone and launch apps directly by drawing alphabets when the screen is off. Just like with Google’s Pixel smartphones, you can swipe down on the fingerprint scanner to pull the notifications shade down. You can mute an incoming call by flipping the phone over, or answer it automatically when raising the device to your ear. The Advanced submenu also lets you set up the Kids Mode and an Easy mode, which simplifies the UI.
Like older Asus phones, the ZenFone 5Z has support for themes and comes with a Mobile Manager app that lets you manage the phones resources. You get a number of Google apps, plus Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and Asus WebStorage. While the WebStorage app can be uninstalled, all the others can only be disabled. Face recognition is available. It was easy to set up but is a little slow to unlock the phone. The OnePlus 6 is quicker and the Vivo X21 (Review) is even faster.
Asus ZenFone 5Z performance, battery life, and cameras
The Snapdragon 845 at the heart of the ZenFone 5Z pretty much guarantees top-of-the-line performance. The only other smartphone currently in the Indian market with this processor is the OnePlus 6, which makes this phone its direct competitor. We did not face any lag or stutter while using the ZenFone 5Z, and this SoC goes through apps and tasks like a hot knife through butter. With 6GB of RAM, our review unit kept apps running in the background, saving some time when reloading ones we’ve used previously.
Asus says that it uses 'AI' to predict which apps you might want to use and offers suggestions in the app drawer. It also has an OptiFlex feature that helps speed up launch times for your selected apps by allocating the maximum possible resources to them.
We ran benchmarks on the ZenFone 5Z and found that it scored 2,451 and 9,111 in Geekbench 4’s single-core and multi-core tests respectively. In AnTuTu, the phone scored 271,861. The phone also managed 60fps in GFXBench T-Rex and 33fps in Car Chase. In 3DMark Slingshot Extreme Open GL, it clocked 4,681 points. Asus' emphasis on AI shows up when you run benchmarks on the phone, as it subtly drops a notification asking you to enable AI Boost mode. We did also try this feature and saw a bump in benchmark scores.
The ZenFone 5Z is capable of playing most new game titles without breaking much sweat. We played PUBG, Clash Royale, and Asphalt 8, and they were all quick to load. The phone did not show any signs of stress when running them. Clash Royale, being the most basic of these tiles, had no issues running on the ZenFone 5Z. Asphalt 8 ran fine even at the highest settings without any lag. PUBG was quick to load and was running with the graphics set to HD and framerate set to High by default. The game ran fine and we did not notice any stutter while playing.
With our day-to-day usage consisting of WhatsApp, an active email account, and playing a few games, the phone lasted us one day with 20 percent left by 11pm. In our HD video loop test, the phone ran for 10 hours and 42 minutes, a little less than the OnePlus 6, which clocked nearly 11 hours. We observed that playing games for extended periods does result in faster battery drain.
You can choose between Performance, Normal, Power Saving, Super Saving, and a customised battery saver mode that lets you pick how exactly the phone optimises battery life. The charger bundled with the Asus ZenFone 5Z is rated at 18W and it takes close to an hour and a half to charge the phone completely.
The dual camera setup on the ZenFone 5Z consists of a 12-megapixel primary camera and a secondary 8-megapixel camera with a wide-angle lens. The primary camera has an f/1.8 aperture and dual-pixel technology for PDAF, resulting in quick autofocus. The selfie camera has an 8-megapixel sensor. We took the ZenFone 5Z outdoors on a cool, rainy day in Mumbai, and observed condensation on the inside of the selfie camera’s lens after returning to an air-conditioned room. It disappeared after a few minutes, and Asus told Gadgets 360 that this isn't normal. It might be an isolated problem with our review unit, and the company is looking into this.
The camera app on the Asus ZenFone 5Z is pretty straightforward and easy to use. You get a switch to toggle between the two rear cameras, and multiple quick toggles at the top for HDR, Depth Effect, Timer, and Flash. Swiping left from the main screen shows you all the available filters, while swiping right lets you switch to Pro, Super Resolution, Beauty, Slow Motion, GIF Animation, orTime Lapse mode. You also have the option to pin a mode, giving you quick access to it from the viewfinder.
AI is also built into the camera software on the ZenFone 5Z in the form of AI Scene detection and AI Photo Learning. AI Scene detection kicks in when framing a photo. The phone can recognise certain objects or scenes, and set up the camera accordingly. In testing, we found that the phone could recognise animals, flowers, and people before we hit the shutter button.
With the second feature, AI Photo Learning, the phone suggests edits to a photo within the Gallery app. Asus says that if you choose to apply the suggested edits, the phone makes a note of your preferences and can apply the same settings to future shots. Since it is AI-driven, it could take a week or two for enough samples to be collected for the phone to learn from. During our review period, we did not see any suggestions pop up.
Photos taken with the ZenFone 5Z are quite good, and we found that it was quick to focus and gets the exposure right in the daytime. It is also quick to gauge the scene and enable HDR automatically. Photos had good amounts of detail, and objects at a distance were still recognisable. Macro shots are easy to take, and the phone manages a sharp image with good separation between the subject and the background. We also liked the colour accuracy of our macro samples.
When shooting at night, the AI Scene feature automatically switched to Night View mode, which decreases the shutter speed and enables night HDR if required. The shots we took had a good amount of detail and noise was kept under control. While shooting with Depth Effect turned on, you get the option to simulate different apertures. Face detection is on when shooting in this mode and we found that while outer edge detection was very good, the ZenFone 5Z had trouble with things like the gaps between a person’s fingers.
Selfies shot with the ZenFone 5Z looked good, and the front camera does support HDR. In low light, you can use a screen flash which isn't very bright but is enough to illuminate your face. The beautification mode offers different parameters to adjust, or you can set it to auto.
Video recording maxes out at 4K 60fps with the primary camera of the ZenFone 5Z. You can use the wide-angle camera but the footage will top out at 1080p just like with the selfie camera. There is EIS for all the cameras, which helps deliver stable output. 4K shots were stabilised well, and there didn’t seem to be any time restriction, letting us record for well over 10 minutes. Do keep in mind that the phone gets hot when recording video for a long time.
The Asus ZenFone 5Z is priced starting at Rs. 29,999 for the variant with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage which we reviewed. The higher variants with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage and the other with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage are priced at Rs. 32,999 and Rs.36,999 respectively. Asus has hit the ball right out of the park when it comes to pricing, considering that you get a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 845 processor, good cameras, lots of features, and AI-enhanced software.
Some of the AI enhancements are useful and make the overall experience better. The cameras perform well in different lighting conditions. Asus has aimed the ZenFone 5Z squarely at the OnePlus 6 (Review), and at Rs 29,999 it undercuts this popular option by quite a bit.
Asus has told Gadgets 360 that the ZenFone 5Z will be available through an open sale, but that’s the same thing it said about the ZenFone Max Pro M1, so availability might be a problem. If you are looking for a powerhouse on a budget but find the OnePlus 6 to be a bit out of reach, you can choose the ZenFone 5Z, and you won’t feel like you’re settling.
Will Asus Zenfone 5Z force OnePlus to slash the price of the OnePlus 6? We discussed that on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.