There’s no escaping the notch, is there? Once Apple unleashed the iPhone X, it was inevitable the Android competition would do something similar.
Even if the Essential Phone was technically first to do it, the ZenFone 5 wears its X-inspired notch with enough pride to make any iPhone fan do a double-take.
There’s a lot more here than simple imitation, though: with some AI-assisted camera cleverness, optimised hardware and (hopefully) an affordable price, the 5 could be Asus’ best ZenFone yet.
We got the chance to try one out ahead of the official reveal at Mobile World Congress, and walked away impressed. Here’s why.
Asus ZenFone 5 DISPLAY & SOUND
By shifting the front camera, phone earpiece and other sensors into the notch, the entire rest of the front of the phone is filled with screen. That leaves the ZenFone 5 with a whopping 90% screen-to-body ratio - something you’ll struggle to find on any other mid-range handset. The operating system has been adapted for the notch, too, so none of the UI elements disappear into it, and watching a video in landscape mode automatically covers it up with a letterbox view.
Asus has gone with an LCD panel, squeezing 6.2in across a 19:9 aspect ratio into a phone that feels much smaller once you get it in your mitts. The FHD+ resolution means there are enough pixels to make text and images look sharp, and with 100% DCI-P3 colour gamut coverage, everything should be vibrant too.
Asus has added an Automatic colour balance mode, which tweaks the display based on ambient light - just like Apple’s True Tone. It makes a big difference, with photos that look realistic rather than overly saturated. The 500nits max brightness is enough to see the phone clearly on a bright sunny day, too.
It might not have the contrast or deep blacks of an AMOLED panel, but it still looked pretty good for a device that’s over half the price of the phone it’s trying so hard to imitate.
The dual speakers are a great match, too, getting seriously loud when you play music or videos. Asus reckons it’ll distort less and have more bass than last year’s ZenFone 4, but there’s good reason to use headphones: DTS Headphone X, aptX HD and LDAC support are all on-board.
Asus ZenFone 5 DESIGN & BUILD
The iPhone similarities don’t end with the notch. Flip the ZenFone 5 around and its dual cameras are stacked to one side, just like on the iPhone X. You do get a fingerprint sensor here, though, and the familiar Asus diamond-cut sheen covering the rear glass.
It looks particularly slick in Meteorite Silver, but the effect is a bit more subdued in the Midnight Blue model. Both use a metal frame, sandwiched between glass, and feel every bit the premium device.
The ultra-skinny display bezels help keep the phone’s physical size in check, so you’ll have no trouble slipping it in and out of a jeans pocket. It’s not exactly ultra-thin, but that at least leaves room for a USB-C charging port and 3.5mm headphone jack at the bottom of the handset - there are no dongles to worry about here.
Asus ZenFone 5 CAMERAS
Last year’s ZenFone 4 had a pretty kick-ass camera for the cash, but its successor is looking to step things up again with some machine learning cleverness.
The pixel count stays the same, with a 12MP, f/1.8 main snapper and 8MP, f/2.2 secondary, wide-angle sensor. Asus has swapped the sensors out for Sony’s newer IMX363 this time around, and added dual-pixel PDAF for quicker focusing.
You still get optical image stabilisation on the main sensor, too - so basically everything you could want from a phone camera.
We didn’t get a proper chance to test out image quality, but did put the new AI scene detection to the test. The ZenFone can recognise 16 different scenes, including food, flowers landscapes, and animals - even the difference between dogs and cats.
Each one gets picked up in under a second, and automatically tweaks things like colour saturation, white balance, exposure, shutter speed, sharpness and noise to improve your pics. Or at least that’s the theory. And that’s on top of all the other extras you get with dual cameras, like portrait mode for adding blurry backdrops to your shots.
Will it make all the difference? With lots of other phones doing a similar trick, and scene recognition being a staple of digital cameras for years, it all sounds a bit gimmicky at the moment. We’ll have to wait until a full review to find out.
Asus ZenFone 5 PERFORMANCE & SOFTWARE
CPU grunt isn’t always guaranteed in a mid-range phone, but the ZenFone 5 should deliver, thanks to some neat software tweaks.
The hardware itself, a Snapdragon 636 and up to 6GB of RAM depending on the model, might sound middling, but an AI Boost mode can dynamically shift resources around to give a performance step-up when you need it. Asus reckons it delivers as much power as a Snapdragon 660, without the higher price.
Don’t need that performance? Toggle the mode off and save battery. Here, the 3300mAh cell should be good for at least a day between top-ups. Want things to respond that little bit quicker? Toggle it on and speed everything up.
The ZenFone 5 certainly felt nippy when we tried it, but part of that could be down to the new, streamlined ZenUI interface, which is now built on Android 8.0 Oreo. Asus has stripped out almost all of its duplicate apps, sticking with Google’s own superior versions instead.
That’ll leave plenty of room for your own apps and games, either on the 64GB of on-board storage or with a microSD card.
ASUS ZENFONE 5 INITIAL VERDICT
Get past the iPhone-inspired looks and there’s lots to like about the ZenFone 5. It’s got capable cameras, a simplified OS and makes clever use of its modest hardware.
We’re not yet convinced by the camera scene recognition - it’s something digital cameras have been doing for years, after all - but last year’s ZenFone 4 delivered great photos for the price. Bear in mind that this one was a pre-production model and the final retail device should be even slicker and neater.
Although, without knowing an Indian price it’s difficult to say what its main rivals will be, or if that Snapdragon 636 will feel outpaced by the competition. Fingers crossed Asus is able to get it right when it launches the phone later in the year.