Hands-on with Asus' budget Zenfones

Asus reveals a US$100 Android smartphone at CES – and we've got our hands on it
Asus Zenfone

Thought the Motorola Moto G was cheap? Think again.

Asus has taken the wraps off its new line of Zenfone smartphones at CES – and they'll barely make a dent in your wallet.

Coming in 4, 5 and 6in variants, the Zenfones start at a mere US$100 (RM327) for the 4in Zenfone 4.

The phones run Android 4.3 on a dual-core Intel Atom processor; the Zenfone 4 packs a 800x480 LCD screen, 1.2GHz Z2520 processor, 1GB RAM, 1170mAh battery and a 5MP camera (plus a VGA front-facing snapper). You only get 4GB of onboard storage, but there's a microSD card slot that'll take up to 64GB. 

The Zenfone 5 gets a 5in 720p IPS screen, 2GHz Z2580 processor, 1GB RAM, a 64GB microSD slot, an 8MP f/2.0 front camera and 2MP front camera – all for US$150 (RM490). It also features a nifty GloveTouch feature that lets you tap away at the screen even when you're wearing gloves. Sadly, we didn't pack mittens for our trip to sunny Las Vegas, so testing this feature will have to wait until we're in chillier climes.

The Zenfone 6 phablet features similar specs to the 5, with a bigger screen – 6in 720p IPS – and battery, at 3230mAh. You also get a 13MP f/2.0 camera and Asus' PenTouch technology that lets you use an ordinary pen as a stylus, Sony Xperia Z Ultra-style. It's priced at US$200 (RM654).

First impressions

Asus Zenfone
Asus Zenfone
Asus Zenfone
Asus Zenfone

The Zenfones are cheerful as well as cheap – all three come in an array of bright colours with a grippy soft-touch finish; we're particularly taken with the teal one. That soft-touch back does seem to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but it's easily wiped clean.

Asus has skinned the Zenfones with its own ZenUI interface – it's a stripped-back affair that goes for simplicity, with big, bold expanses of flat colour (matched to your phone hardware) and simple icons. 

It integrates reminders from your various apps into a single screen, letting you mark different items to follow up later – everything from calls to emails, tasks and even photos. It's clever, but at one point we got the dreaded "unfortunately Calendar has stopped" message, which is depressingly familiar to this Transformer Prime owner – hopefully those intermittent crashes will be sorted out in the final release.

Swiping and swooshing away on the Zenfones didn't seem to tax the Intel Atom processor overmuch, though we'd want to experiment with some more demanding apps and games to see how it bears up.

The camera app gets some some fun features; you can save a burst of shots as a gif, and there's a low-light mode that, according to Asus, will offer a 400 per cent improvement in brightness. Certainly a couple of snaps in the dim environs of the show looked reasonable enough, if a little grainy.

Initial verdict

Asus Zenfone

Make no mistake – these are budget smartphones, but the build quality and design are nice for the price. 

Of the three, the Zenfone 5 is the stand-out; the 4in version's low-res screen fails to impress, with limited viewing angles. And the Zenfone 6 suffers from having a massive 720p screen. But the mid-range model seems, on first impressions, to compete on an even keel with the likes of the Motorola Moto G. 

Asus' ZenUI adds some interesting features, too – albeit quite business-focused, with its to-do lists and tasks. If you're not married to stock Android – and if you're on a tight budget – these phones are definitely worth a look.

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