This year is undoubtedly the year of the budget smartphones, with the prices of mobile devices getting cheaper by the day, yet still offering consumers a fair share of features and a reasonable level of quality.
It's against this backdrop that Asus launched its Zenfone series earlier this year, comprising three phone sizes: four inches, five inches and six inches.
For this review, we'll be looking at the five-inch version. As there are already several variants of the Zenfone 5 available in the market, it's worth mentioning that the one we have on our hands is of the 3G variety with 2GB RAM and 8GB of storage.
Light and easy
As its name implies, the Zenfone 5 has a five-inch screen, and I found this to be just the right size for doing the usual fare of smartphone activities.
I had good experiences watching videos, listening to music and browsing the Web on the device. In general, the phone's performance did not pose any problems for me and I could run most of my favourite apps on it without fuss.
The phone runs on a built-in battery. Subject to my moderate usage (I am not a heavy video watcher although I do check my social media apps often with an occasional gaming session or two), it would usually last me throughout the day, with about 20 per cent or 30 per cent of power left to spare by the end of the day.
Asus offers a pretty nifty looking keyboard that provides access to the whole range of alphanumeric keys without requiring me to switch back and forth whenever I needed to include figures with my text.
This is a great alternative to the default Google keyboard where you'd have to tap onto a separate keyboard screen in order to access number keys.
I did not face any issues with viewing angles, but the auto brightness setting did not work well for me. Instead, I found that I normally would end up having to turn up the brightness to about 70 per cent to 80 per cent in order for it to be comfortable.
Anyway, Asus has included an app on the device called Splendid which allows you to adjust the colour temperature, hue and saturation on your display. This, at least, gives you some flexibility to adjust things to your liking.
Meanwhile, I found the phone was lightweight enough to be taken around with me without becoming too cumbersome. However, I did feel that it was a little too long, as it was sometimes a challenge fitting the device into some of my smaller purses or pockets.
Besides that, given my small hands, the phone's width made it tough to use the phone comfortably with only one hand.
As for the camera, I was pretty satisfied with it and didn't face any issues while trying to capture photos on the go. I was not able to try out all of the 18 features that has been included for the camera, but I did check out the Low Light function.
I've included a sample of some photos I took with the phone's camera with and without the use of the Low Light setting so you can see the difference. I was genuinely impressed with the results, to be honest.
The device has dual SIM capabilities, and I found this a handy thing to have when I took it along for a brief overseas trip. You are at liberty to select which of the two SIMs will run on a 3G network. The other SIM will automatically be assigned to 2G.
For me, it was a little disappointing that this particular model of the Zenfone 5 did not have the ability to run on LTE networks though.
In my opinion, most Malaysians seeking out a new phone would probably want to opt for an LTE enabled device nowadays, as LTE network coverage continues to grow nationwide.
Anyway, if you're among those who don't want to lose out on LTE connectivity, you may want to look out for the LTE variant of the Zenfone 5 which will be making its way onto our shores pretty soon.
That model will feature a different set of specifications compared to the one I'm reviewing, so I think it's best to leave that discussion for another time. Suffice to say for now though that the LTE model will come at a higher price of RM709.
The Zen approach
One of the main highlights of the Zenfone series is the fact that it is the first range of Asus smartphones to feature the ZenUI.
Attempts by phone manufacturers to customise the Android OS don't always work out well, but in the case of the ZenUI, I was pleasantly surprised.
I especially loved the fact that swiping the finger downwards at different points at the top of the home screen would produce different results. Swiping down on the left side would bring up all your system notifications, whereas swiping from the right gave you access to your Quick Settings, which can also be customised to show the icons you prefer.
Tapping on the clock on the homescreen would bring up an interface where you can adjust not only your time and date settings, but also set alarms, timers or run the stopwatch within the same interface.
There is also a range of Asus apps that come with the phone and I found several of them to be quite useful. I especially liked the Do It Later app, which works in tandem with other phone functions - it allowed me to set reminders for myself to reply SMSes, return calls or even read certain Web content later.
The What's Next widget was a great help, as it enabled me to see at a glance any upcoming appointments, public holidays and special dates right from the phone's main screen.
Although the Zenfone 5 delivered a mostly reliable performance throughout the time of my review, there were, however, incidents where it crashed randomly several times within the same day.
When I contacted Asus about this issue, I was told that they were in fact in the process of fixing outstanding software issues, but that this would be sorted out really soon as the company had plans to provide the upgrade to Android 4.4 (KitKat) by around the end of this month.
Several system upgrades came in for the phone later on, and the problem did not seem to occur afterwards so perhaps the cause of the problem may have been addressed.
On the whole, I'd say that the Zenfone 5, with its selling price of RM599 ($236), is a very affordable and fuss-free device, offering you a pleasant spin on the Android operating system.
It definitely isn't the cheapest budget phone there is out there but for what you're paying, I'd say that it's worth it.
Pros: Good screen size; stable performance and battery life; affordable.
Cons: Auto brightness is not satisfactory; length and width a bit awkward; lacks LTE feature, software issues still a work in progress.