Asus ZenFone 4 Review: Not Bad… But It’s No OnePlus 5T

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In a market dominated by Apple and Samsung, it’s often hard to see how other firms can get a look in. Long-standing companies like Sony and HTC continually churn out fairly decent handsets, but despite this still command a tiny sliver of sales compared to the industry titans.

Others such as OnePlus are more successful thanks to clever social media marketing and close interaction with their fans – they’re proof that an upstart or an underdog can get in on the action if it is wily enough.

Meanwhile, although Google has a ton of clout in the smartphone space in terms of software, apps, and ecosystem thanks to its ownership of Android, its Pixel phones have not picked up the kind of iPhone-like traction it had hoped for. Google can afford to take the hit and keep trucking, of course. Not everyone has that luxury.

Asus has been around for donkey’s years and consistently has a foot in the smartphone market. While laptops and the like make up much of its business, the firm’s ZenFone series is now long standing. The company’s latest model is the ZenFone 4.

Does the ZenFone 4 have what it takes to draw attention away from Apple and Samsung? Or will it fade into the background?

Asus ZenFone 4 Review: Design & Display

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If there’s one thing Asus consistently gets right, from its laptops and tablets, down to its smartphones, it would be the design and aesthetic. There is something very reassuring about picking up an Asus device and feeling the solid metal and glass build in the hand, and the ZenFone 4 is no exception. Asus says the handset features a “solid aluminum unibody”, built “using advanced Nano Molding Technology (NMT)”, it adds this allows the phone to be “thin and light, yet incredibly strong”.

I found it rather interesting to learn that the phone was indeed edged with aluminium, because to the touch metal phones typically feel cold and hard, and instantly recognisable; picking up the ZenFone 4 I didn’t get that cold shock and it actually felt a little bit like a high quality polycarbonate. Regardless, as mentioned, it feels solid and high quality, certainly worthy of the premium label.

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Both the front and back are clad in glass, although Asus has done something interesting with the back panel.

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With its laptops, Asus had a habit of using aluminium milled with a circular pattern radiating from the centre, and this is something it has emulated in the glass backing. Instead of being milled with a ridged texture like aluminium, Asus describes it as having a “micro-etched, concentric-circle detailing that catches the light,” which I’d say is fairly accurate.

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Either way, it looks pretty appealing.

The display is a standout feature. It’s not one of those 18:9 aspect ratio setups but it’s still got extremely narrow bezels along the sides making it virtually edge-to-edge. The tech is a 5.5in Super IPS+ LCD with a whopping 600 nits brightness level and despite my penchant for OLED displays I am very impressed by the visual quality here.

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Colour is rich and vibrant, the blacks and dark hues have a lot of depth, whites are vivid, and the brightness levels are indeed robust enough for outdoor viewing in lots of natural light. Viewing angles are nice and wide also, and the sharpness and picture clarity are most impressive, including the text fidelity.

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Is it better than Samsung’s Super AMOLED? No.

Don’t let that put you off though. It is still a fantastic display in its own right and one of the better IPS LCD setups as they go. Watching films and viewing multimedia is an absolute joy on this screen – for me the colour richness and sharpness are particularly compelling.

Asus ZenFone 4 Review: Battery Life

Battery life is one of those tricky things because different users run their handsets to different levels and have different expectations. I know, for example, that even my heaviest use-case scenario is nowhere near as rigorous as KYM Editor Rich’s – he really puts phones through their paces on the daily.

I think the thing that is worth noting as useful information is the rate of drain – in terms of percentage points – when running a handset in different scenarios; you can basically get an idea of how much juice is going to drip away when the phone is on and doing something demanding, like streaming video for instance, as well as when a handset is in a more docile, idle state.

For that reason we like to run a video test. From 100% charge, with the default settings on the phone (including Wi-Fi switched on), but with brightness ramped up to maximum, I ran The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug from start to finish. This film was played from a “saved to device” state in the Google Play Movies & TV library, rather than being streamed over Wi-Fi.

With the credits rolling at the end of the film, the battery life had depleted down to 76%. In my view this is a highly respectable rate of discharge for this use scenario; it’s by no means the best we’ve seen on the market, but it is up there in the high end of the battery life category – it is better than the HTC U11 and Huawei Mate 9, for example, but below the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and BlackBerry Motion.

When left largely to its own devices and prodded occasionally, I noticed the ZenFone 4 drops perhaps somewhere between 8-10% over a typical day. Meanwhile, as noted above, for intensive tasks such as movies it’ll drop about 17% in an hour (34% during a near two-hour film).

From my time with the phone using it normally for my daily tasks (which as I mentioned, is not as intensive as Richard’s typical phone use, so your usage case may vary) I’ve found it’ll last a good day or two on a single charge, again, in line with some of the better offerings we’ve seen in the last couple of years, such as the Huawei Mate line.

More intensive activities like gaming (which require touch input) or those which require constant streams of data to and from the web are going to up the kind of consumption you see on the movie test as well, but either way whether you’re watching a film passively, web browsing all day, or playing games, you’re probably looking at a charge being needed by bedtime. The phone does feature fast charging via Type-C USB, allowing 50% charge in around 30 minutes.

The long and the short of this? With the ZenFone 4 you’re looking at decently above average battery life and it should, on the whole, be pretty reliable.

Asus ZenFone 4 Review: Camera

The camera is one of those fancy dual-sensor setups we’re now quite familiar with. It uses a pair of Sony IMX362 12MP sensors with f/1.8 apertures, 120-degree wide-angle six-element lenses, 1.4µm pixels,  1/2.55″ sensor size, optical image stabilisation (OIS) and electronic stabilisation (EIS), dual-pixel phase detection autofocus (0.03 seconds), and a Qualcomm Spectra 160 image-signal-processor (ISP).

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There’s also a bunch of other features including 4K UHD video capture, object tracking, portrait mode, RAW support, 24 million focus points, ¼ second long exposure, and RGB colour correction.

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All in all, that feature set is looking very similar to the kind of setup we’ve seen on the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 series, except with the addition of a second lens, making it more like the Galaxy Note 8 in many respects. What does that mean? On paper at least; good things.

In practice it’s a mixed bag – it has its moments, and is impressive in some areas more than others.

To get the bad out of the way, I wasn’t too impressed by the wide-angle capture mode which, compared to images captured in regular mode in the same light, turned out looking a bit overexposed and washed out; that’s because it actually caps out at 6MP resolution, so you’re not leveraging the camera’s full capabilities in wide-angle mode.

See the four shots below as an example; the first two are 12MP standard capture, the following two are wide-angle (at maximum resolution for that mode, which is 6MP).

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My other gripe is the low light performance. Despite being promoted by Asus as a standout feature of the phone, compared to other setups I’ve tested I found this somewhat lacklustre, primarily it’s an issue of colour accuracy; again, Asus flaunts that the camera has RGB colour correction presumably calibrated by the dedicated ISP, but I found the results were pretty poor, often putting a yellowish hue on things, too dark, bad contrast, and some washed out images in not even particularly bad indoor lighting.

Aside from this the camera experience was fine. In outdoor lighting and in decent lighting conditions it performed admirably with very good sharpness and clarity, and nicely rich colours.

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Overall, in my view, the ZenFone 4 has a decent camera, it just doesn’t cope well with varied and sub-par lighting conditions.

Asus ZenFone 4 Review: Performance & Software

The onboard software package is Android 7.1.1 Nougat with Asus’ ZenUI 4.0 overlaid on top.

The result is very clean and smooth in terms of the visual style, although a little overly colourful in terms of app shortcuts in its default state for my liking, however, you can customise the appearance with a wide selection of themes (many of them at a cost, mind you).

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App shortcuts aside, I’m reminded of the HTC Sense UI here in terms of how Asus has adhered quite closely in my view to vanilla Android while still putting its own stamp on things – most of the UI elements use a very tidy font with white or black text.

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The UI is also satisfying in terms of operational smoothness – again similar to HTC Sense – it glides around with really fluid latency and zero snagging.

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This performance isn’t just reserved for the UI, however, unlike with so many phones out there on the market. Nope, the Asus ZenFone 4 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 octa-core CPU clocked at 2.2GHz, together with 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 508 GPU.

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OK, so compared to the latest Snapdragon 835 (or the soon to arrive Snapdragon 845) that might not seem so amazing, but the setup is well-optimised here; I fired up a few fairly graphically intensive games (Hitman Sniper and Shadow Fight 3) fully expecting them to stutter or lag at least a little bit, but no, this did not occur. Smooth sailing all the way.

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Asus Zenfone 4 Review: Hardware & Connectivity

I must make mention of the built-in audio hardware. Although it’s not the best I’ve heard (again, HTC BoomSound), it’s up there with one of the better speaker setups I’ve encountered. It features dual stereo speakers with Hi-Res Audio certification at 24-bit/192kHz. There’s also an onboard AudioWizard app allowing audiophiles to fine tune the sound, and it supports DTS Headphone:X connectivity for 7.1-channel virtual surround sound via compatible headphones.

There’s the usual all-round package in terms of connectivity, with 4G LTE, Dual-Band WiFi, WiFi Direct, WiFi Hotspot, Bluetooth 5.0, Type-C USB, GPS, and even an FM Radio.

You also get a decently sized 64GB of onboard storage plus microSD support for card expansion up to 256GB.

Asus Zenfone 4 Review: Verdict

I was quite pleasantly surprised by the ZenFone 4. It’s not perfect, as compared to much of the competition it lacks the “future proofing” in the processor department, and although the camera is fair, it’s has some problems that aren’t going to be easily glossed over, particularly if you’re a real photo buff – if so, this phone is pretty much a no-go.

Otherwise though, there is a lot to like here. The performance is more than capable for the current market, the display is superb, and the battery life is very good indeed. I also like the fairly straightforward but solid design, though it would have been nice to see some waterproofing.

There is a kicker though. This is a mid-ranger in terms of specs, even though it’s Asus’ flagship Android phone. By mid-ranger standards it’s very good indeed, but the RRP of £450 is, in my view, somewhat steep for what’s on offer here considering that’s similar to OnePlus 5T prices with a fraction of the processing power and camera capability.

I’d say the ZenFone 4 was a great value proposition if it was cheaper than this, say about £100 cheaper.

If you’re not in the market for flagship prices and can find the ZenFone 4 reduced somewhere, this could be a great little handset for you.

Otherwise I can’t really recommend it.

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