Review: Asus Zenfone 2 Is A Bit of Cellular Nirvana

In a hectic world, we're all searching for a bit of peace. We have appointments to keep, kids activities to get to, bills to pay, calls to make, we're multi-tasking all the time and relying heavily on our mobile devices to help us accomplish it all. Well, Asus wants to bring a little calm to your hectic existence with their Zenfone 2. Can a piece of hardware tame the task beast and bring you some peace? Maybe, maybe not, but one thing you won't be losing your Zen over is the price you're going to pay for great performance!

Only have a quick, few minutes? Check out our Quick Look video, then come back and dive into the in-depth review!

Out of the box, the first thing you will notice is how heavy the Asus Zenfone 2 is. Like, seriously heavy compared to competing devices and for some of us, that's a good thing. To this day, one of my all-time favorite handsets was HTC's Touch Pro 2. It had a reassuring heft that felt like the device was made of stern enough stuff to hand down to your grandchildren. And, you know what? Years after having it, I trusted it enough to give it to my daughter to use when she traveled abroad. The Asus Zenfone 2 has the same reassuring presence. It just feels like a robust, high quality product not made with planned obsolescence in mind. And that it feels this way, at the price points it's available at, says a lot to me about what Asus is trying to accomplish in the market.

The front of the Zenfone 2 features a 5.5" Full HD 1920x1080 Gorilla Glass 3 IPS display that is a tad dimmer than some of the competing displays but still looks great, even in direct sunlight. Just be sure to turn the screen brightness all the way up outdoors. There's minimal bezel around the edges of that full HD panel, except for the top and bottom. Above the display, you'll find the speaker, sensors and a 5 megapixel camera. Below the display you'll find three capacitive buttons instead of the on-screen "soft" buttons used by many Android handset manufacturers. Some people will like that while others won't, but the buttons are very responsive and didn't miss a beat in my testing. Also on the bottom bezel and around the back, you get that machined circular texture that you see in other Asus Zen products, keeping the design language consistent across that product line. Speaking of the rear of the device, the back cover is removable and reveals the 3000mAh non-removable battery, dual SIMs and microSD slot (up to 128GB). You also get a 13 megapixel camera and volume rocker. My only complaint on the hardware design comes in where they chose to place the power button on the top of the device instead of the rear with the volume rocker. It's kind of awkward reaching for the power button up top when your hand is positioned in such a manner as to access the rocker on the rear.

The internals on the Zenfone 2 are where the phone really shines though! Qualcomm is generally the king when it comes to mobile processors but Asus went with an Intel processor for the Zenfone line and it is blazing fast. This is the first phone in the States to use one of Intel's Atom processors. There are two models of the Zenfone 2, one with an Intel Atom Quad Core Z3580 running at 2.3GHz, the other with an Intel Atom Quad Core Z3560 running at 1.8GHz. Another first is that the top model comes with 4GB of DDR3 RAM (2GB in the 1.8GHz version). I'll tell you that you will easily get performance out of this device that rivals flagships with much larger price tags as a result of this hardware.

The speakers, though loud, are rear-facing and if you've been reading any of my reviews here long enough, you may already know how I feel about that. Put them on the front already! But, I digress. Rounding out the rest of the hardware specifications, you can buy this phone in either 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB versions, equipped with 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth V4.0 and NFC.

Last note on the hardware, battery life. It's been great for me. I've been getting all day battery life, which for me always means 12 hours or better. One interesting note on battery life was that the Android OS seems to be eating up most the battery life and I couldn't find the exact cause. I can't tell if it's an OS issue with Lollipop, which has been known to have a bug or two that should be fixed with the release of 5.1, or if its an issue with Asus' ZenUI overlay. Either way, we should actually see battery life get even better with an update to Lollipop or from Asus. Or both.

Right out of the gate, it should be noted that there is definitely some Asus bloatware on the Zenfone 2. It isn't crazy, but it is definitely there. Some of it you'll wish wasn't there and others, are actually thoughtful additions to the phone. We'll come back to those useful apps in a moment. ZenUI is responsive and for the most part follows Android convention, making it a pleasure to use as a daily driver. It's a small thing I know but, when you're trying to move the cursor between words to correct a spelling error, or copy/paste, iOS has Android beat with their magnifying glass that pops up. ZenUI uses a similar "magnifying glass" tool to help you get around text easier and that little element makes working with text much more enjoyable. Another thing that really works well on ZenUI is their "knock on" style feature which allows you wake the device with a simple double tap on the screen. In my daily use for the week I had it in my rotation of devices, the feature worked flawlessly. Among the best of its competitors in fact!

Although I'm not one much for changing up the icons on my phone and swapping themes, there are many Android users out there who are into that. For them, life is easy with the Zenfone 2. Swapping out your current theme and icons is as easy as a swipe up from the bottom of your screen and when presented with several options, choosing the one that says Themes. From there you can customize things to your heart's content. You can choose your background colors, icons packs and load up new themes even. It's pretty nice and very straight forward, making it a fun addition to the phone, if you're into that sort of thing.

Like I said earlier on in the review, there is a decent amount of added software. Some you'll like and some you call bloat. There are some apps from Asus which are a welcomed addition in my use. Specifically those in the Zen Link family and Do It Later task manager. Some of the software, like the one which allows you to control your PowerPoint presentations from your phone, can be quite useful. It does require you to download Asus' Zen Link app to your laptop though. Once that's done, you can connect your phone to your laptop either via bluetooth or wifi and use your phone as a remote. I definitely recommend getting into some of Asus software and poking around a bit to see if any of the extras are functional pieces that will work for your needs. What may not work for your needs is a stable of bloat in a folder called Apps4U. These are games, third-party apps and more.

One thing that is always important to me when it comes to my smartphone choices is the native calendar app. I know I can hit the google Play store and get a third party app but I'm buying an expensive phone/organizer and I would rather it have something built-in. For me, the one I've always liked best has been Samsung's implementation of calendar functionality. Asus may have just raised the bar with one of the features of their ZenUI calendar implementation with their Countdown feature. It's something so simple and seemingly innocuous that many people might miss it but for those of us with a lot on our plates and the "out of sight, out of mind" complex, having the feature is a boon. When you create a calendar entry, you can choose to launch the Countdown function which does, literally, what it sounds like. It places a countdown to the event in your notification bar. This is great for events where you may have to do some planning or packing prior to the event date. Heading out of town and need to pack? Seeing the countdown to the date you're leaving may be a good reminder to start packing early and pick up some travel items. Love it!

The last thing I'll touch on in the software department is the well thought out ZenMotion set of functions, specifically Touch Gesture! With the display off, you can swipe on the screen to perform specific functions. Basically, there is a list of letters you can assign apps to, whose shapes you can swipe on screen to launch the app you've associated with that function. For example, draw a W to launch an app, S to launch an app, E, C, Z, and V. For those apps you access most often, this is actually a brilliant shortcut. I highly recommend you jump into that settings menu and hook this up! Great thing is that just like the knock on feature, the screen is responsive enough that these shortcuts work quite well, without having tons of times when you're swiping and nothing's happening, or where you're having to draw that letter a few times to get it to launch.

The Asus Zenfone 2 is another phone that makes me rethink flagship phone pricing. Look, they say that copying something is the best form of flattery and the Zenfone definitely takes some design cues from another well known brand. But, so what! That brand took its cues from another well known brand initially. What's important here is that this phone is a very high quality Android phone with a stellar processor, enough RAM that you'll rarely ever wait for the phone to do anything and a build quality that feels solid enough that you can pass this thing on as an heirloom all for $300 or less. That's a great deal! With very few compromises, this is among a very short list of phones to beat. So, before you go out and buy that $400-$600 phone, you'll definitely want to get your hands on a Zenfone 2 first and see if it's the right fit for you. I already know it fits your bank account better than some pricier phones. Now you just need to see if it better fits your personal use.

Disclosure: Asus provided me with a demo unit of the Zenfone 2 for the purpose of this review.