Asus’ Zenfone Zoom was one of the hottest smartphones back at the CES 2015. It sure took its time to hit the streets, almost a year, but as they say, better late than never. I spent a couple of weeks with the Zoom as my daily driver and almost had a love and hate relationship with it.
Innovation in the smartphone industry has been stalling. If we go back in time a couple of years, one can easily see that all that manufacturers have been doing is cramming in the highest number of screen pixels, processor cores and sheer gimmicks. They aren’t to blame either. Rather than buying something that is functional, consumers race for specs. Rarely does a smartphone has that extra edge that not only puts it a cut above the rest, but actually serves the needs of the end-user. With the Zenfone Zoom, Asus has just tried to achieve that. For those who have been living under the rock for the last two weeks, the Zenfone Zoom is Asus’ flagship smartphone aimed at photography enthusiasts.
If you’ve ever used a Zenfone device before, you’ll feel right at home with the Zoom. Don’t get me wrong here, Asus did go back to the drawing board to design its camera flagship but the essence of the family is evident. Gone is the brushed metal plasticky back. The Zoom comes with a unibody aluminium frame with a leather stitched back panel. The metallic body has its curves in all the right places with dark antenna bands that just add to the appeal. The front has the iconic Zen family looks with the signature metal finished chin. There is a large 5.5″ 1080p display with 403 ppi. Just below the display lie the capacitive sensors and Asus, being Asus, has stubbornly decided to not use backlit sensors for the umpteenth time (guys, if you are listening!) but if it’s any consolation they are shiny -_-
The display is quite reflective and even at highest brightness settings, it was quite a job reading off the screen. The screen to body ratio is 72% not that anyone cares or worries about it, but had Asus opted for on-screen navigation buttons, the overall experience would have been much better. Deja Vu, anyone?
Flip the phone and you’ll find a dominating camera module reminiscent of the Lumia family. The company wanted the users to feel the warmth of the leather and the coolness of the metal, creating a perfect harmony and they delivered. A small yet punchy speaker sits beneath the camera. The phone is way too slippery and for
clods people with clumsy hands, the device can be a bit of a nightmare thanks to its extremely large camera module. Thankfully, Asus supplies a wrist strap, made of leather. With the strap attached, it is fairly easy to mistake the Zoom for a slim point and shoot. A standard 3.5 mm jack is present at the top and the wrist strap holes at the bottom edge along with the standard micro USB connector. The right hand side has the volume buttons that double up as a zoom toggle and surprise! a dedicated shutter button along with a small record button.
Let’s cut to the chase and get to the most interesting aspect of the Zoom, the Camera. Asus has managed to fit a 13 MP sensor with 3x optical zoom in a phone that is barely 11.9mm thick. The camera assembly at the back does not protrude even at the maximum zoom. While there have been many phones with an optical zoom since the N90, the major gripe they all shared was that they were heavy, bulky and mostly ugly, for the lack of a better word. The Zoom manages to shake all that off. The company markets the Zoom as the best camera in a smartphone on the market and with specs like these, it is hard to argue. The Zenfone Zoom comes with a 10 element Hoyalens arranged to form a periscope.
We played with the camera at the historic City of Taj, capturing in some breathtaking shots and almost fell in love with it. The level of detail the Zenfone Zoom camera managed to capture simply blew off my mind. Some of the images looked as if they were shot by a professional photographer on some super high-tech gear but that was simply the Zoom flexing its muscles.
Switch the camera to the manual mode and you are in for a real treat. You have a whole new world to explore without having to lug around a hefty dSLR. A photographer friend of mine was mightily impressed with the phone and I quote,
Being a photographer I am biased towards a dSLR. For me the smartphones are never good enough, you cannot capture the depth or the vibrant colours. Smartphones can only act as an on the go alternative camera for a specific moment but using the Zoom, I might just have to rethink!
It’s not only about the level of zoom, what surprised me the most was the crazy fast laser assisted autofocus. At 0.03s you can try moving the camera around and it can easily refocus. The camera performed really well in well-lit environments however there was a minor but noticeable shutter lag in almost all cases. Shutter Speed is something Asus really needs to work on right now as the entire purpose of having fast auto focus is defeated with shutter lags.
In low light conditions, it’s a bit of a mixed bag – some shots turn up near perfect while some are absolutely worthless. Thankfully, Asus’ PixelMaster technology and the incredible Low Light Mode are there to save the day. There is also a dual tone LED flash that does a fair job. I had a photographer friend of mine take the Zoom out on the streets of Delhi and will definitely post her perspective in a follow-up review.
Moving on to the camera interface, the Zenfone Zoom has hoards of tricks up its sleeve. There are loads of shooting modes viz. Manual, HDR, Super Resolution, Depth of Field, Selfie, Panorama, Miniature, Smart Remove and many more. The beautification mode is an icing on the cake for the selfie lovers. The camera can record 1080p videos which is a shame as the wonderful OIS and the processor could have easily handled 4k. Another problem with the camera module is that the lens itself is not protected against dust and daily wear and tear by a shutter. While the rest of the handset is pretty solidly built, I doubt that the lens will hold after a few months down the line.
The Zenfone Zoom sports an Intel Atom Z3950 processor. Clocked at an astonishing 2.5GHz, the 64-bit SoC is fast. The Zoom zips through apps and multitasks without breaking a sweat. The traffic is handled by a massive 4GB LPDDR3 memory. The Zoom may not be able to record 4K videos but it can play them with ease. In my brief stint with the Zoom, it didn’t even lag once. Be it the fast paced intense racing of Asphalt or the very demanding graphics of the Modern Combat 5, the Zoom takes it all like a pro. The visual appeal is a bit of a letdown but that’s more because of the screen. Note that all the games ran at the highest settings and even switching between them was a breeze. Well there is no surprise here because Intel Atom is a very decent processor seconded only by the likes of Snapdragon 820, the Exynos and with Intel being in the processor business for decades now, nothing less is to be expected. Despite the 3x optical zoom camera being its main focus, in the performance domain the Zoom manages to keep its competitors on their toes. There is 128GB internal memory on board with an option to expand it up to whooping 256GB (yes, you read that right) which is the total space I have on my laptop as of now!
For those who love their numbers, we ran the Zoom through a series of our usual benchmarks – Geekbench 3, Antutu and Vellamo. The Zoom scored 66018 on the Antutu Benchmark which is on the lower side for a smartphone with this hardware. Geekbench scores show 946 for single core and 2874 for multi-core. These tests are based on 3D, UX, CPU, and RAM performance. Even though the scores are on the lower side, the real world performance of the Zoom is at par with its competitors.
Well, while there are loads of positives for the Zoom, it does have a few negatives. The first and foremost: heat. Infact the heating problem is so profound that the phone heats up at every chance it gets. Play for more than 15 minutes at a stretch and the heat starts to creep in. The presence of the massive camera module at the back makes matters worse as you cannot take a good amount of pictures in a row without the phone heating up. The heating of the phone takes a toll on the performance as well. The games begin to lag and so will the videos. It might sound as if we are nitpicking here, but you will need a cooldown for a couple of minutes if you don’t wanna scald your hands.
The second brings us to battery life. The Zenfone Zoom comes packed with a non removable 3000mAh battery. While a battery of this capacity might sound enough, given the large screen and the camera it powers, it does run short. The battery never lasted me for a day. One scenario that I specifically remember is when I ventured out with 80% on the indicator at around 9 in the morning. With an hour and a half of travel, all the while streaming music over LTE and replying a couple of emails, it was down to almost 40%. I remember reaching back home around 2 in the afternoon with 1% of charge with Super power saving mode on.
Asus does provide multiple battery saver modes, five to be precise. Performance, Normal, Power Saving, Super Saving and customized mode. The Zoom also supports fast charging thanks to the 2A power adapter. The battery goes from 0 to 60 in about half an hour. This is continent and the microUSB port ensures you never have to hunt for a Type C adapter.
I won’t talk much about the UI as we have already covered the ZenUI in detail in our Zenfone 2 Review. The ZenUI hasn’t changed much and given the fact that the Zoom runs Lollipop, it’s almost using the Zenfone 2 all over again. There are several preinstalled apps, several of them which I deleted even before I inserted my SIM. The rest of the in built apps are actually pretty useful, given you can make you way around the phone. I found myself using the simple Notes app and Reminders app for several tasks. The ZenUI has always been one of the most stable skins for quite some time and the Zoom is no exception.
With a rock solid build quality, 3x optical zoom and zippy performance, its hard to not recommend the Zoom to anyone looking for a great phone. However, it all boils down to the pricing. The Zenfone Zoom is priced at Rs. 37,999/- which is quite steep considering that smartphones at the sub 25k mark can easily offer similar performance at a very competitive price. The company boasts of the Zoom to be the slimmest phone in the world with optical zoom and to fit that into a smartphone which is light, slim, powerful and looks stunning is a feat in itself. The Zenfone Zoom is a luxury that every photography enthusiast would love to afford. However, if you are in the market with 40 odd grand to spare and absolutely want a camera phone, the Zenfone Zoom fits the bill perfectly.