Making a well-specified smartphone while keeping the price low is a tricky proposition – it has to be attractive enough to woo buyers without the bells and whistles of an expensive device.
Taiwanese company Asus seems to have found a solution – it produces smartphones to cater to just about every type of usage. Want more processing power or better camera? Chances are Asus has just the phone for you.
The only problem is that the company tends to produce a great number of models with confusingly similar names. The latest is the Zenfone 2 Laser (ZE550KL) which is an affordable model with one particularly outstanding feature – a laser-assisted autofocus.
Laser-assisted autofocus isn't something new, but Asus has to be lauded for making it available on an affordable device. At RM799, the Zenfone has more high-end camera functions than most smartphones at this price point.
The design may be mostly plastic but the company has a knack for making a smartphone look and feel more premium than the price would suggest.
The review unit is the matte black model with a curved back. It has a 5.5in display with a rather low resolution of 720p (720 x 1,280 pixels) and runs on the old quad-core Snapdragon 410. In contrast, the Zenfone 2 (RM1,099), which looks almost identical to the Zenfone 2 Laser, has a 1080p (1,080 x 1,920 pixels) display and runs on the more powerful Intel Atom processor.
However, Asus makes up for it by having an excellent IPS display which seems properly calibrated for colour accuracy.
What I didn't like is that is that the phone comes preloaded with a bucket-load of apps by default – there are so many, I lost count after 15.
While some of them are useful (such as the one that helps extend battery life by shutting down apps), some (like the Puffin web browser) should have been left to the user to install.
Also, only some of the apps can be uninstalled while the others have to be disabled.
Sizing it up
The Zenfone is pretty nice to use – the curved back and thin bezel make it comfortable to hold even with my small hands. And having the volume rocker on the back made it more accessible.
Strangely enough the placement of the power button right at the top seems to go against an otherwise thoughtful design – most times, it took two hands to turn off the device.
It’s much more preferable to have the power button on the side which is the case with most other smartphones with large screens.
Like many Android smartphones, the Zenfone has dual SIM 4G card slots and there is also a microSD card reader hidden underneath the removable back cover.
As the specifications are decidedly middle range, it’s not surprising that it didn’t rank very high on benchmark apps like Antutu and PCMark.
The Zenfone scored 24,428 points on Antutu and 3,390 on PC Mark which is in the low mid-range, and puts it just above models like the Moto X and Xiaomi Mi 2 but below older devices like the Samsung Galaxy S5.
Battery life was about 10 hours with the screen brightness set to realistic levels which is not too bad although certainly not the best.
As said before the star feature is the 13-megapixel rear camera with laser assisted autofocus although the front-facing camera is also not too bad, as it’s 5 megapixels and should serve selfie lovers well.
The camera app offers you a fair bit of control, allowing you to set the ISO and white balance, as well as manually focus via the touchscreen. If you’re not too bothered about all that, the camera does a decent job on full automatic setting.
The laser-assisted autofocus (which apparently projects a nearly invisible focus assist pattern on objects) is very good – focus was snappy and very positive even in relatively low-light situations.
In terms of quality, the images shot in brightly lit environments were well-exposed with very pleasing white balance that’s a tad on the warmer side.
The lens is also of decent quality, producing good edge-to-edge sharpness, although even at the lowest setting of ISO 50, the images underwent strong noise reduction.
Also, there was some purple fringing clearly visible on the edges of strongly backlit subjects, although it wasn’t as bad as on some smartphones.
Nevertheless, the images were pretty good considering the price of the phone.
There’s also a plethora of shooting modes, including Super Resolution mode, which produces a 50-megapixel image from the 13-megapixel sensor by taking a series of shots and combining them.
While I’ve seen some mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras do the same and with noticeably better results, the Super Resolution didn’t produce appreciably more detail.
The 5-megapixel front-facing camera was decent and you get the usual “beauty” modes which can help smooth out your skin and add other effects.
The Zenfone 2 Laser is a nice, budget phone which has a reasonably good camera.
Sure, the performance is nowhere near many of the pricer Android models available today, but you are getting good bang for your buck.
The phone also looks good and feels great in the hand which says a lot for the company’s design sense.
Pros: Good quality IPS screen; laser assisted autofocus works fast; camera produces reasonably good images.
Cons: Performance with the Snapdragon 410 is just so-so.
Operating system: Android 5.0 with ZenUI
Display: 5.5in (720 x 1,280 pixels)
Camera: 13-megapixel rear camera, 5-megapixel front-facing camera
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 410
Connectivity: MicroUSB, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi
Memory: 16GB internal storage
Expansion slot: MicroSD (up to 128GB supported)
Dimensions (W x D x H): 152.5 x 77.2 x 10.8mm
Price: RM799 (inclusive of GST)
Review unit courtesy of Asus Malaysia, 1300-88-3495