Last year’s flagship, the Asus Zenfone 5Z was a top notch phone with great hardware and an even better price. The Zenfone 6, however, takes everything its predecessor did well and ups the ante to a whole new level with a wholly original design, powerful hardware, and a motorized flip-up camera, all while starting at $500 like the 5Z.
This all-screen smartphone represents the greatest that 2019 has to offer, even sporting the absolute best version of ZenUI yet, a back-to-basics, “stock+” Android experience with Asus’s own tweaks and modifications. A perfect competitor for the One Plus
Design, Hardware and what’s in the box
The Zenfone 6 is nothing short of gorgeous. It’s the product of several excellent design elements: the incredibly minimal bezels, the subtle curve of the back, and the two beautiful color options. If you like the size of the Galaxy S10+, you’ll like this phone; conversely, if you don’t, the Zenfone 6 might be a bit much for you with its 190g weight and tall frame. That’s down to personal taste, though.
Asus went with an LCD instead of OLED, likely to keep the phone ‘cheap’ at its $499 starting price. On paper, yes, that’s a bummer, but after using the phone, it’s not that bad. Colors definitely pop and brightness is spectacular, even in direct sunlight. It’s a very good display (unless you’re wearing polarized sunglasses) and most of you will be fine with it.
All of the buttons feel nice to press, giving a satisfying click upon doing so. In the top right corner is the new Smart Key, then the volume rocker, and finally the power button in the center.
The Smart Key itself is an interesting addition. By default, it acts as a means to activate and interact with Assistant. A single click brings up Assistant like normal, a double press shows you your updates, and holding it activates a continuous speaking mode where you’ll get a response as soon as you let off the key. If that isn’t to your liking, you can customize the presses to a few other system actions like opening the camera and turning on the flashlight, which is what I went with.
In the box, you get a clear shell case, a SIM tool, earbuds with extra tips, a QC4.0 charging brick, a USB-A to USB-C cable, and the usual manuals.
Software, performance, and battery
Asus’s phones, while often excellent pieces of hardware, choke on software. However, ZenUI 6, the latest version of Asus’s implementation of Android, is a whole new level of great for the company
What you get is very reminiscent of OnePlus’ OxygenOS. It’s a clean and minimal user interface at first, but it has a bunch of tweaks and additions in the settings for you to play with. Most of the previous ZenUI features like gestures and such are all in the Advanced section, including Smart Key customization. Some of the other additions are sprinkled in other areas, like the system-wide dark theme in Display, etc.
Everything is snappy with just enough of Asus’s software design DNA to separate it from a Pixel experience. Oh, you get Digital Wellbeing, too. For updates, Asus has committed to getting Q to the ZF6 as soon as possible and the phone will get Android R next year.
As far as performance goes, the device is packing some top-end stuff that gives it really solid performance. It has a Snapdragon 855, 6 or 8GB of RAM, 64-256GB of storage, and a big 5,000mAh battery. I won’t spend too much time here, since we’ve seen other SD855 devices, but the ZF6 has a ton of horsepower and never skipped a beat, no matter what I did.
With that massive 5,000mAh battery, the Zenfone 6 is an endurance champ. After about a week, it evened out and I regularly finished each day with 45-60% of the battery left, depending on what I had been doing; most of the days, I saw anywhere from 3-6 hours SOT, again, depending on what I was doing. I had less sometimes if I had been out a lot, but on Wi-Fi with occasional trips out, I could easily go two days with enough to spare.
Asus has done a pretty good job with cameras in the last couple of years. I liked what the Zenfone 5Z could do — in later updates, I thought it performed better camera-wise than the OnePlus 6 in most cases. Though I can’t directly compare the Zenfone 6’s camera to the OnePlus 7 Pro’s, I can point you to that section of the latter’s review.
With excellent dynamic range and generally great color reproduction, the Zenfone 6’s photos often exceeded my expectations. The Zenfone 6’s camera is among the best right now. Asus’s night mode, however, is nowhere near Google’s Night Sight. While it does help shots come out brighter in low light, the added noise and blurriness are both somewhat disappointing after seeing how well the camera performs otherwise.
Since the main camera setup flips around (and also features manual control and motion tracking), you have access to the same awesome hardware for selfies. The wide-angle lens is great for those big group photos, while the 48MP main sensor can capture every fine detail of your face.
Should you buy it?
Yes, most definitely, but with a few caveats. Sure, the Pixel 3a/3a XL is cheaper, but the Zenfone 6 packs significantly more horsepower for $30-$100 more. The camera comparison is, however, important and if you prefer better photos, then the 3a may be the better option for you. Had Google not just released those two phones, I’d say the Zenfone 6 is the best camera in this price point.
On the other hand, it lacks the better display on the OnePlus 7 Pro, but it starts at $170 less. For that price difference, the ZF6’s LCD is more than acceptable, I think, especially for most people.
Rarely do I enjoy using a phone as much as I have the Zenfone 6, despite some hiccups along the way. Here are some of my final thoughts on the flip-up camera module: while a cool novelty, it gets extraordinarily warm during use, such as in a Duo call; it also gets loose at times, rattling extremely loudly when the phone vibrates; dust and lint get in the little cavity when it’s popped up, meaning you need to clean it out every so often. You can manually move it, too, though you will get a warning message telling you not to.
Face unlock is also here, but the camera takes longer to flip around than your phone takes to unlock, so it’s just easier to use the fingerprint sensor in my opinion. Any other problems I have with the phone are personal nitpicks, such as button placement and configuration.
In short, Asus really nailed it with this one. We should hear more about US availability in the next few weeks or so.
Buy it if:
- You want the best available phone value in the US right now
- You don’t use the front-facing camera all that often and want more screen real estate instead
- You like the Galaxy S10+ size, but don’t want to pay that kind of money
- You need a huge battery in your phone
- You like a stock Android experience with added tweaks
Don’t buy it if:
- You want the best camera — get a Pixel 3a instead
- An OLED and/or high-res display is important to you
- You’re unsure about Asus’s update track record and speed
- You don’t like big, heavy phones
- You’re perturbed by a motorized flip-up camera