The ASUS ZenFone 5 is ingenious

I think something that a lot of people forget is that in technology, it’s not about who does it first, it’s about who does it best. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Apple wasn’t the first company to come up with a “smartphone”, and Facebook wasn’t the first social media network.

Being the first to bring something into the market is severely overrated and it looks like ASUS has realised that too. With its brand new smartphone — the ZenFone 5 — the company looks like it’s ditching all attempts at being first, or even original. Instead, they focused on borrowing the good bits from several of the top smartphone makers, tweaking them (in some cases, improving upon them), then combining all of it into a smartphone.

Sure, you could say that they’re just blatantly copying their competition’s homework, but I think it’s a stroke of genius and here’s why.

First off, everyone will talk about it

I mean, come on. You can’t look at the new ZenFone 5 and NOT see the iPhone X. There’s the rounded metal frame, the glass body, the vertically mounted dual-camera module and of course, who could forget, the notch. ASUS even took the time to shave the notch’s size down by 26%  — resulting in a higher 90% screen-to-body ratio — compared to the iPhone X.

Sure, the screen’s got a little bit of a different aspect ratio — 19:9 6.2″ Full HD+ (2264×1080 pixels) — and a different screen type (IPS instead of OLED) but the resemblance is uncanny. And when there’s anything about Apple or their poster child iPhone X, you can be sure that there will be a lot of chatter. Chatter from fans, from the media and especially from the “haters”.

What does that translate to? Publicity. Suddenly, you have a whole bunch of people talking about a smartphone that they might not have taken a second glance at otherwise. It’s brilliant.

Then, there’s ZeniMoji, which sounds like a joke but is actually very real. Honestly, when I saw that, I thought I was at a parody event where ASUS was making fun of Apple’s Animoji but I was wrong. It’s going to be a thing but I can’t tell you how good it is because they didn’t have a working demo for us on the show floor.

I can, however, tell you that as a whole, I think the design works. I’ve always been a fan of the notch design since I first saw it debut on the Essential Phone, because of how edgy it makes a handset look. And when you couple that with a pretty screen that has good viewing angles — plus a B+ grade glass and metal body — you have a pretty decent premium-feeling smartphone.

I guess it’s kind of hard to go too horribly wrong when you get nice materials like glass or metal, and combine them in a logical way for a smartphone. At worst, you be left with a decent smartphone, which I guess brings us to my next point.

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You’re at least guaranteed a decent smartphone

While a great smartphone is usually better than the sum of its parts, you can easily scrap together a “good” smartphone by simply combining a whole bunch of good parts — and the ZenFone 5 has some good parts.

The regular ZenFone 5 features a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor mated to up to 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. It’s also got a 3,300 mAh battery keeping everything juiced. These are some pretty decent specs and based on my first impressions, the phone performs pretty admirably. It’s even got a pair of loud stereo speakers which is always a welcomed addition.

If you want more power, you can opt for the high-spec ZenFone 5z instead, were you’ll get an upgraded Snapdragon 845 processor plus up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage. Everything else remains the same.

You also get to use AI in your marketing material

On the ZenFone 5, hardware specs only tell half the story. ASUS has also equipped the handset with smart features that are powered by “AI” — or at least, a very broad definition of the word. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s very similar to Huawei’s approach to smartphone design. In fact, ASUS wants you to think that their phone is powered AI so much that they’ve stretched the term so much, it almost seems like a joke. According to them, there are six key “AI” aspects: AI camera, AI display, AI ringtone, AI boost , AI charging, and AI photo learning.

AI display and AI ringtone are all about adapting your ringtone volume and screen according to the situation. With the AI display, the ZenFone 5 will know when you’re looking at it and keep the screen from going to sleep — sort of like Samsung’s Smart Stay feature — while AI ringtone will dynamically adjust the volume of your ringtone so that it’s loud when you’re in a loud environment and soft in a quiet one.

From what I can tell, AI charging is designed primarily around charging your smartphone optimally. In their presentation, ASUS says that the ZenFone 5 can identify your sleep schedule and plan charging around that. Say you always wake up at 9am, when you plug in your phone before you head to bed the next morning, the phone will charge up to 80% and stop charging, timing the remaining 20% charge up so that it hits 100% as you wake up. If you feel like you’ve heard that before, that’s because Sony’s QNOVO does pretty much exactly the same thing.

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AI boost, on the other hand, has to do with performance. Apparently, when you turn on the AI boost feature in the smartphone’s quick-settings tray, the phone will optimise performance and give you about a 12% increase in performance. I asked the reps if this was achieved by overclocking the CPU or other components, but they said no. The only answer I got was “software optimisation” so for all I know it could just be a button to close all background apps or something.

Finally, we’ve got AI camera and AI photo learning. This is integral to ASUS’ dream of building the best smartphone camera.  AI camera works very similarly to Huawei’s own AI scene recognition technology, where the camera will identify a scene or subject, and tweak various settings so that you get the best possible photo depending on your subject.

In my testing, ZenFone 5 does a pretty decent job at identifying objects. Sometimes it’ll mistakenly recognise my tripod as a flower, but I can’t really blame it. In some angles, my tripod does look a little like a flower. AI photo learning is also supposed to be able to learn your photographing habits and adjust settings — or something — to better fit your style. Whatever the case, I wasn’t able to test that out.

As far as the camera hardware itself, the ZenFone 5 borrows from LG’s playbook with a regular field-of-view 12MP f/1.8 aperture primary camera (Sony IMX 363 with large 1.4-micron pixels and 4-axis OIS!) plus a 120-degree wide-angled secondary camera combo. This is also fairly similar to the setup they used on the regular ZenFone 4 last year.

From my testing, images looked OK on the phone’s screen but the handset struggles to maintain any kind of snappy response when shooting in low-light. When the going got dark, it was slow to focus and even slower to take a photo — so pretty standard ASUS affair here. Still, I’ll reserve giving it my final judgement until after I get a stab at a full review.

And that’s about all I had time to test out with the ZenFone 5 before we were pleasantly interrupted by an awesome OK GO concert.

So, I guess that leads us nicely into conclusion time

Now, what do we have here? We have a device with a brilliantly orchestrated set of specs, looks and features which have been selectively put together in a single smartphone designed to make headlines (seriously, have you seen the headlines for the ZenFone 5?). So, if that was ASUS’ plan all along, mission accomplished.

But, if their goal was to be the best — or at least, make one of the best smartphones — everything they’ve done so far has taken them, maybe, three quarters of the way there. As it stands, the ZenFone 5 seems like a good phone but the final push towards a great device is always the hardest.

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Even though they’ve tweaked some aspects and improved upon some of the features that they borrowed from other manufacturers, there’s just something missing from the ZenFone 5 — something stopping it from being a memorable phone. It doesn’t, for example, have the fit and finish that devices like Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and the iPhone X does. The ZenFone 5’s flat back and slightly wider form-factor also makes it less comfortable to hold in the hand.

However, the biggest hurdle left to cross is ASUS’ software. At first glance it looks a little better than the previous version of ZenUI, but it feels like ASUS made a number of questionable decisions when trying to help their phone stand out. One example that sticks out is the whole “smart notifications” thing. Since there’s a notch, space is limited at the top of the phone so ASUS devised a system that is supposed to intelligently know to hide unimportant notifications “under” the notch.

You can then access these notifications by expanding the top tray with a quick tap on the three-dot menu. The problem is, once you have it expanded, you can’t swipe or tap it away so you’ll just have to watch it take up valuable screen real estate until the phone decides to minimise it again. I also take issue with its “intelligence” because I want to decide what notifications are important. I don’t want, for example, to have the phone prioritise the notification that my device is on vibrate over the battery percentage because my phone is always on vibrate. I hope there’s an option to change that but I didn’t manage to find it during my time with the ZenFone 5.

That said, with ASUS’ approach to the ZenFone 5, they have a trump card of sorts: The ZenFone 5’s price. Or more specifically, the ZenFone 5z’s price. During the presentation, ASUS revealed this slide:

Which looks like means that the ZenFone 5z’s base model — with 4GB RAM and 64GB of storage — will be priced at EUR475 (around RM2,272). That’s a killer price especially considering European prices tend to be higher than the Malaysian ones. However, when we checked the 5z’s spec-sheet in the brochure, we couldn’t find a ZenFone 5z with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.

In any case, we’re also not sure which variant of the ZenFone 5 would make it to Malaysia. But, if they can give us a Snapdragon 845-powered iPhone X doppelganger for around RM2,000, I can see this handset doing very well.

At this point, only time will tell.