Hands-on: Asus ZenFone 4 review

Asus wants to get back into the smartphone game and has already launched a high-end Project Tango phone – the ZenFone AR back in the Summer. Now it’s aiming for mid-range appeal with the new ZenFone 4 and we've been hands-on at the launch even in Rome.

Standing out in a crowded market is tough, so what does the ZenFone offer?

Asus ZenFone 4: Price and availability

It costs £449.99 which is at the top end of mid-range. It puts it in competition with the OnePlus 5 and several other cheaper phones, including the Moto Z2 Play and Xiaomi’s Mi Note 3.

You can pre-order a ZenFone 4 from 6 October, and it goes on sale in early November.

Asus ZenFone 4: Design and build

There’s more than a hint of iPhone 7 Plus in the ZenFone 4’s design: it’s the same size, has a 5.5in full HD screen, a fingerprint scanner on the front and two cameras around the back. It’s also very like the OnePlus 5, with its lozenge-shaped home button.

It has a glass back (like the iPhone 8 Plus) and Asus’ trademark diamond cut finish that makes the light reflect differently as you tilt the phone in your hand.

Asus Zenfone 4 review 2017

It’s well built but quite slippery in the hand, so the fact that a transparent rubbery case is included in the box is handy.

Unlike some other phone makers, Asus has kept the 3.5mm headphone jack but puts a modern USB-C port alongside it on the bottom edge.

Power and volume buttons sit on the right and there’s a SIM tray on the left. It’s a dual-SIM phone but if you want to expand the internal storage, you’ll have to use the second tray for a microSD card.

What’s missing is waterproofing and wireless charging, features that are becoming standard on many phones, even at mid-range prices. However, the OnePlus 5 also lacks these too.

Asus Zenfone 4 review 2017

Asus ZenFone 4: Specs

Going down a similar road to OnePlus, Asus aims to offer decent specs inside a phone that's a lot cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy and iPhones of this world. Let's take a look at what's on offer.

Hardware and performance

Being a mid-range handset, it’s not hugely surprising to find a Snapdragon 630 processor rather than the 800-series chips in flagship models. You get 4GB of RAM, though, and there’s certainly nothing sluggish about the phone’s responsiveness in general use.

There’s actually a second version of the ZenFone 4 with the new Snapdragon 660 processor and 6GB of RAM, this won’t be sold in the UK.

The 630 version managed 859 (single thread) and 4215 (multithread) in Geekbench 4. These results are way behind the OnePlus 5, which is equipped with the Snapdragon 835 – and 6GB of RAM.

Similarly, in GFXbench, the ZenFone could muster only 5.3fps in the Car Chase test. The OnePlus 5 storms ahead with 25fps. The browser benchmark JetStream returned a score of 26 for the ZenFone, while the OnePlus scored 73.

Although it may not set the world alight for benchmark results, the ZenFone 4 does have decent connectivity. For one thing, there’s Bluetooth 5 which offers much better speeds and range than previous versions.

Plus, it has the Qualcomm X12 LTE modem which means blistering Cat 12 speeds of up to 600Mb/s if you’re near a cell tower that supports it and have a suitable mobile provider and tariff. The SIM tray takes two nano SIMs and it works on a dual-standby basis. Both slots support 4G, but not simultaneously.

And if you want more storage than the provided 64GB, you’ll have to forego the second SIM and use the slot for a microSD card.

As with the OnePlus 5 you get Hi Res audio support in the ZenFone 4, and AptX Bluetooth audio. The fingerprint sensor works quickly, but we’ve already had to re-register a fingerprint after the phone stopped recognising it. This might be a freak occurrence, so we’ll update this once we’ve tested it for longer.

Battery life isn’t bad, but it’s not the best. Expect to get a day out of it with normal use, but no more.

Asus Zenfone 4 review 2017

Cameras

Cameras are really the focus of this phone – no pun intended. You might expect the second rear camera to have a telephoto lens, but instead there’s a wide-angle lens that offers a 120-degree field of view and a 12mm-equivalent focal length.

This means you can get much more in the frame without the wild distortion you get from an action camera lens (and which LG uses on the G5 and G6). It’s particularly handy indoors, or anywhere you can’t move further back.

The only slight snag is that it’s an 8Mp sensor, which means less resolution and detail than you’ll get from the main 12Mp camera. The default setting is actually 6Mp (a 16:9 aspect ratio) but you can get the full 8Mp by changing this to 4:3 in the settings.

That main camera has a Sony sensor with dual pixels for super-fast focusing. Asus reckons it can focus in 0.03 seconds, and it’s certainly quick in use. There’s also the expected two-tone LED flash for more natural skin tones at night.

Here's a couple of test shots to show you how the two cameras compare.

ZenFone 4 camera test

Asus ZenFone 4 camera test wide angle

At the front you get a decent 8Mp selfie camera and Asus’ SelfieMaster app for beautifying yourself in strange Asian ways. Although it’s a separate app, it launches when you flip to the front camera and the settings are preserved so you don’t have to keep changing things once you’ve found a combination you like.

Video-wise, there’s support for 4K recording from the main rear camera, even if it’s only at 30fps. You can step up to 60fps if you switch to 1080p, and there’s 120fps slo-mo at this resolution too (it doubles to 240fps if you drop down to 720p).

The problem is that stabilisation isn’t all that good for video - only EIS is used in 4K. You’ll get the smoothest and most cinematic footage if you use the wide-angle camera, but this limits you to 1080p at 30fps.

Overall, video quality is decent and audio quality is also impressive.

We’ve had limited time with the phone, but initial impressions are that the cameras are capable of taking good quality pictures when there’s plenty of light, but shots at night show plenty of evidence of noise reduction (lack of detail) and any moving objects are blurred due to the long shutter speeds.

If you keep the phone really still and there’s no movement in the scene you’ll get better results, but it’s not a step up from the One Plus 5.

Asus Zenfone 4 review 2017

Asus ZenFone 4: Software

Asus has already said that it will update the ZenFone 4 to Android Oreo, but out of the box it ships with 7.1.1 Nougat and Asus’ ZenUI.

ZenUI is now on version 4 and has been overhauled to make it simpler, easier to use and faster. There are also far fewer pre-installed Asus apps and third-party apps, which is nice to see.

We’ve mentioned the SelfieMaster already, but you’ll also find a memory booster utility, Game Genie – which offers a macro tool and a screen lock to prevent accidentally switching apps – an AI-based Gallery app which lets you sort photos by person and Twin Apps.

The latter is special versions of Facebook, Messenger and Instagram that allow you to use two accounts without signing out when you want to switch between, say, work and personal accounts.

Asus ZenFone 4 review ZenUI

There’s the expected theme manager which includes a few animated backgrounds for the ZenFone 4. ‘Living’ themes can change the photo of a scene throughout the day, perhaps showing a sunrise in the morning and a night time view late in the day.  

It’s all fairly intuitive, but you’ll probably change the default keyboard to Google’s G Board fairly quickly.

Asus ZenFone 4: Specs

  • Android 7.1.1 Nougat
  • Moonlight White, Midnight Black
  • 5.5in (1920x1080, 401ppi) IPS
  • Snapdragon 630, octacore at 2.2GHz
  • Adreno 508
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB + microSD up to 2TB
  • Main cameras: 12Mp f/1.8 OIS + 8Mp (120° wide-angle) + 8Mp, f/2.0
  • 2160p at 30fps EIS, 1080p at 60fps
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5
  • NFC
  • Cat 12 LTE
  • Dual nano-SIM (second slot shared with microSD)
  • Finger-print reader
  • 3300mAh, non-removeable battery
  • Dimensions: 75.2x155.4 x7.5mm
  • Weight: 165g
  • Android 7.1.1 Nougat
  • Moonlight White, Midnight Black
  • 5.5in (1920x1080, 401ppi) IPS
  • Snapdragon 630, octacore at 2.2GHz
  • Adreno 508
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB + microSD up to 2TB
  • Main cameras: 12Mp f/1.8 OIS + 8Mp (120° wide-angle) + 8Mp, f/2.0
  • 2160p at 30fps EIS, 1080p at 60fps
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5
  • NFC
  • Cat 12 LTE
  • Dual nano-SIM (second slot shared with microSD)
  • Finger-print reader
  • 3300mAh, non-removeable battery
  • Dimensions: 75.2x155.4 x7.5mm
  • Weight: 165g

OUR VERDICT

The ZenFone 4 is a well-built phone with some forward-looking specs. It also has good cameras, with the option of standard or wide-angle at the rear.

However, it’s the same price as the OnePlus 5 which has considerably better performance. That phone has a telephoto instead of wide-angle lens, but it’s not a difference that would persuade many to go for the ZenFone 4.

If the price drops after launch, it will be a better deal.

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