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Asus ZenFone 5Z review: The OnePlus 6 killer?

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Asus ZenFone 5Z review: The OnePlus 6 killer?

The Asus ZenFone 5Z looks better, has better cameras, has better battery life (and charges as fast as Dash Charge), is as fast and is also cheaper: in short, it's a OnePlus 6 killer

The ZenFone 5Z along with its younger sibling, the ZenFone 5, created quite a buzz at MWC this year. Both the phones received a lot of negative press as well. For copying Apple. For embracing the notch. Fast forward to mid-2018 and we have almost every brand, including Apple's arch nemesis Google, embracing the notch with arms wide open. Like it or not. Asus would of course like to believe that it got their first. It may be a little late in launching the ZenFone 5Z in global markets including in India -- the phone was announced in February -- but it's better late than never.

This is because Asus did not launch the ZenFone 4 in many global markets including in India. Which means that it has been without a true flagship phone, in India, for a very, very long time. Asus told me, it took the time off to study the market and the demands and mindset of the Indian consumer. It also admitted that its ZenFone 3 line-up sort of backfired and that its atrociously high price tag also had a lot to do with it. The ZenFone 5Z is, as a result, different. It's a lot more subdued. Not in terms of hardware specs, but in terms of hype and pricing.

Asus has launched the ZenFone 5Z in India at a fairly aggressive starting price of Rs 29,999. The ZenFone 5Z is a high-end phone with high-end specs, including Qualcomm's top-tier Snapdragon 845 processor. The Asus ZenFone 5Z is, in fact, the cheapest phone in India with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor under the hood. It is also the cheapest phone in India to ship with a whopping 256GB of internal storage. Both these titles were previously honed by the OnePlus 6. So I am sure you know, where Asus is going with this. One look at the ZenFone 5Z, and you can tell that it has every ingredient in the book to make OnePlus nervous. But is the ZenFone 5Z a OnePlus 6 killer for real? Let's find out.

Design and build quality

Yes, the ZenFone 5Z will remind you of the iPhone X. There's no escaping the elephant in the room here. The ZenFone 5Z is virtually identical to the iPhone X. From every perceivable angle. The phone is carved out of glass -- Corning Gorilla Glass 3 -- and metal, and boasts of an impressive screen-to-body ratio of 90 per cent that's 6-7 per cent higher than Samsung's Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ phones.

The phone is almost border-less, barring a notch up-top and a chin portion at the bottom. Asus says its notch is smaller than Apple's. But that's (also) probably because the notch on-board the ZenFone 5Z, doesn't get to house as much camera gimmickry inside, as Apple's. There's just the front camera -- which is an 8-megapixel with f/2.0 aperture -- and a couple of odd sensors, and the earpiece. The ZenFone 5Z also comes with face unlock -- minus the sophisticated machinery inside the iPhone X -- which is probably why it still retains a fingerprint scanner, on the back. Add to it a vertically aligned dual camera system, and what you get may be considered as a blatant rip-off of the iPhone X.

If you're someone who is nit-picky about design, well, I am not sure if you got the memo but, the clone wars are here. Not many Android phones, right now, can really brag about original design. Even the top-rated OnePlus 6 is a mish-mash of the iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy. So we can cut Asus some slack here even though it was the first big-ticket company in the world to initiate the clone wars. It certainly won't be the last, as things have turned out.

But what I really like about the ZenFone 5Z is its build quality. It's rock solid. Even though, a major portion of it is glass. The phone has considerable heft but not unbearably so. You'll feel the phone in your hands but you won't find it taking the better of you. It's just the right proportion. And it is so very pocketable. The power button and the volume rocker on the right have just the right amount of tactile give, and also the mid-frame has a smooth matte finish that ups both the premium quotient as well as the in-hand feel. The ZenFone 5Z feels like an expensive phone that isn't expensive at all. That it comes with iPhone X-like looks, at a fraction of the cost, is just an icing on the cake.

Display

The main highlight of the ZenFone 5Z, however, remains to be its iPhone-esque notch (and screen). The phone houses a 6.2-inch 1080p+ screen inside a 5.5-inch form-factor. And an unusual 19:9 aspect ratio that can be toned down -- to 18:9 and 16:9 -- via settings for specific apps to make best use of apps that don't support it for now. The screen's not OLED though, which means no VR, but the IPS LCD panel on-board can get really bright and produces rich and vibrant colours that look pleasing to the eyes. It has great viewing angles as well, unless you're out and about in direct sunlight. The ZenFone 5Z, in fact, has the best display in and around its price category. It is even better than the OnePlus 6, especially in terms of colour accuracy.

Software

The ZenFone 5Z runs Android Oreo-based ZenUI, and it's nice to see that Asus is really cutting down on all the unnecessary traits of its grossly cumbersome user interface. The software that's inside the ZenFone 5Z is the lightest piece of software that Asus has ever shipped in its phones. And that makes a world of difference. As a result, the phone feels visibly faster, and also, there are far less unwanted apps on-board which is nothing short of a welcome relief. AI is the buzzword lately, and it's safe to say that the ZenFone 5Z packs in lots of smarts inside its sleek frame. It starts with the cameras.

Asus says it's using artificial intelligence and machine learning in the ZenFone 5Z cameras that can help take better photos in varying light and scenes. Asus is incorporating AI in other walks of the ZenFone 5Z as well. AI, is in fact, one of the driving forces behind its new ZenFone, it says. The phone comes with AI boost that, as the name suggests, helps boost specific apps like games when enabled so you're likely to get even better frame-rates while playing, and AI charging, that much like Sony's adaptive charging, can top your phone to 80 per cent at night and charge the remaining slot closer to when you're likely to wake up. Then there's AI Display, that apparently keeps the screen on while you're looking at it. Asus claims its new phone, because it is so heavily focused on AI, will be able to learn and evolve with time, getting better and smarter depending on your usage patterns.

Elsewhere, Asus says it's working closely with Google to make more and more apps compatible with the ZenFone 5Z's 19:9 aspect ratio, and Google itself has said its working specifically to integrate the notch in its next version of Android, aka Android P. For now, it's safe to say that, Asus has made good use of the bunny ears -- on either side the notch -- in the case of the ZenFone 5Z. Better than other Android counterparts, including the OnePlus 6.

The bunny ears in the case of the ZenFone 5Z are interactive. They don't bombard you with icons and notifications. Instead, everything is neatly arranged and there's even a tap to view more option. This means tapping on either side of the notch takes you to a small sub-head that gives you an expanded view of all the incoming notifications. Without having you to pull them down all the way through. Moreover, Asus is open to adding more functionality to it, in the near future. Which is nice. The ZenFone 5Z, however, does not allow you to hide the notch for now. But, in the case of the ZenFone 5Z, it doesn't really matter because unlike other Android phones with a notch, the ZenFone 5Z, is the only phone that tries to makes sense of the notch.

The ZenFone 5Z has good hardware but it is the little things that Asus has done with regards to the software that sets the phone apart from its past offerings. It's nice to see Asus, finally, focusing on software: working on making it lighter, cleaner, more fluid and more responsive. And, it's safe to say that, Asus has been able to get most things right.

Performance and battery life

When paired with top-notch (no pun intended) hardware, the ZenFone 5Z literally flies like anything. It rocks a top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor and will be available in as many as three configurations: 6GB RAM and 64GB storage, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, and 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. All the versions support expandable storage of up to 2TB via a hybrid micro-SD card slot. Clearly, that's as high-end as high-end can get, at this point of time. Moreover, the ZenFone 5Z is the only phone in the world that can channelize the full potential of Qualcomm's Hexagon 685 DSP, which means that it's also the smartest Android phone in the world right now.

The ZenFone 5Z is, as a result, a great Android phone that offers great all-round performance -- largely because of its top-tier hardware -- and yes, Asus' software also has a lot to do with it. But the question is: is the ZenFone 5Z faster than the OnePlus 6? Well, no. Is the ZenFone 5Z as fast as the OnePlus 6. Well, yes and no.

The ZenFone 5Z is as fast as the OnePlus 6 in terms of regular day-to-day usage. Basic tasks are handled very well, which means you can make phone calls, text and WhatsApp, watch movies, listen to music, browse the Internet and also play less demanding games on it, without breaking a sweat. The same is true about graphical games like PUBG as well. But, every once in a while, the ZenFone 5Z, would slow down. And by slowing down, I don't mean slowing down in the literal sense: I mean when compared with the OnePlus 6, a phone that's notorious for blazing fast speeds. So chances are many users won't even notice the occasional lag or two that creeps up inside the ZenFone 5Z, especially while navigating between home screens, pulling out and closing the app drawer, even powering up the phone at times. Note that such instances are occasional, but they're there, and they're noticeable only because a OnePlus 6 exists. Also note that this isn't a hardware thing, but the last ounce of flab that Asus' skin brings to the table: it is cleaner and fluid but still high on boot animations and some of these animations are prone to stutter every now and then.

That's just me nit-picking because I have been spoiled by the OnePlus 6 and its near stock Android experience. But then, the ZenFone 5Z can get really close which is saying a lot about Asus and how it has come a long way, working and re-working on its software to reach the level that it has in its current avatar.

The ZenFone 5Z's all-round performance may not beat the OnePlus 6, but, Asus' new phone has a lot of juice inside to hit OnePlus' phone out of the ball park in almost all the other departments, including battery life. The 3,300mAh battery inside the ZenFone 5Z lasts way longer than the similarly sized battery inside the OnePlus 6, and it charges as fast as OnePlus' Dash charge. This means, most users will be able to get at least one full day out of the ZenFone 5Z, no matter how you decide to push it. If that wasn't enough, you can top it off in some one hour fifteen minutes using the bundled 18W Qualcomm Quick Charger 3.0 charger, which is nothing short of phenomenal.

Elsewhere, the ZenFone 5Z has stereo speakers that can get really loud, and also the phone supports High-Resolution audio via compatible wired and wireless headphones.

Camera

On the back, the ZenFone 5Z, comes with a vertically aligned dual camera system that's promising to the T. This dual camera system consists of a primary 12-megapixel sensor -- a Sony IMX363 -- with large 1.4um pixels, and large f/1.8 aperture, with dual-pixel phase detection autofocus, four-axis optical image stabilisation, and electronic image stabilisation for videos. The secondary camera, meanwhile, consists of an 8-megapixel wide-angle sensor that assists in portrait photography or photos with shallow depth of field as well as for taking wide-angle shots much like how things are in LG's top-tier flagships.


And it comes with lots of AI. The ZenFone 5Z comes with what Asus is calling, AI Scene Detection, that can apparently identify 16 different scenes and objects, and then accordingly its cameras can adjust the saturation, white balance, exposure, brightness, and post-processing algorithm, to make your photos look better. Then there's AI Photo Learning, that will apparently learn from the way you edit and process your photos and, over time, the phone will start suggesting similar edits to your other photos as well. The ZenFone 5Z also comes with the ability to automatically club relevant photos in groups within the gallery app, among other things.

The ZenFone 5Z is easily among the best camera phones at its price point right now. Photos clicked with it in good lighting come out well, with lots of detail and colours which are mostly true to source. Dynamic range is also spot-on. In fact, it's easily among the best in the business. The ZenFone 5Z is also capable of taking some good shots in tricky and low light conditions. The sensor manages to hold on to detail (at the cost of some noise) in such conditions, resulting in some well to-do photos. The phone also comes with an in-built night mode that ups the detail (even further) and leads to brighter photos at the cost of resolution (4-megapixel).

Thanks to the 4-axis OIS, shake is minimal (or altogether absent) in videos and the 4K clips shot with the phone also look fantastic. The phone further comes with a 3 mic system that results in fairly crisp audio recording as well.

But it's the 8-megapixel wide-angle sensor that really sets the ZenFone 5Z apart. Not in terms of sheer quality or detail. But in terms of the added functionality - including a pretty amazing portrait mode -- that it brings to the table. A wider lens means the phone's rear snapper can cover a larger area with a distinct fish-eye effect on the edges. It kind of gives you a 3D-like panorama sweep of what you're clicking without having you to move your phone in a certain manner. Much like it is in the LG G6.

Switching between the two lenses happens seamlessly with just a tap on a toggle that rests comfortably on the screen all the while that you have the camera app up and running. It's fast enough to switch and is as fast to focus and shoot. In fact you never lose a breath while switching between the two lenses which makes the ZenFone 5Z all the more fun to play around with. Every time I took a regular picture, I made sure to click the same shot again with the wider lens just to see how things looked from a wider perspective.

But then again, not everything is hunky dory. The ZenFone 5Z is a pretty capable camera phone, but, its shutter speed often brings it down. It's slow and that can be a problem when you're looking to take a quick shot, or clicking a moving subject.

The phone's front 8MP shooter, meanwhile, is also nothing special to write about. It takes good selfies in good light with the occasional softness here and there.

Should you buy it?

Let's not beat around the bush. The Asus ZenFone 5Z looks better, has better cameras, has better battery life (and charges as fast as Dash Charge), is as fast and is also cheaper: in short, it's a OnePlus 6 killer. The ZenFone 5Z is the best phone that Asus has ever made and even though there's room for improvement here (mostly in software), the price at which Asus has launched its high-end flagship phone in India makes you sit back and appreciate all the other things that it brings to the table. And it brings a lot of things to the table.

The ZenFone 5Z will be available in three versions: 6GB RAM and 64GB storage, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage, and 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. While the base version will be available for Rs 29,999, the top-end version will sell for Rs 36,999. The mid version will, meanwhile, be available for Rs 32,999.

The Asus ZenFone 5Z is the best phone to buy under Rs 30,000. It is the best phone to buy under Rs 35,000 as well, if you're looking for sheer indulgence that 8GB RAM phones bring along. But most importantly, it is the first (and only) phone in the market right now that should make OnePlus (and Nokia and Motorola) very nervous.