Review: Zenfone Zoom – Delivers Genuine Zoom in Compact Body

The Zenfone Zoom is special – there’s real optical zoom, not the digital enlarge typically found in other phones. Basically, most other phones are just cropping away the unnecessary pixels. Another feat is that ASUS achieves this in a relatively compact phone size, with their best ever specs in the Zenfone 2 series.

Design

ASUS delivers a polished and sleek look to their Zenfone series with aluminium side trimming and a leather back. The camera cover dominates the removable back, as the Zoom is not shy to emphasize that this phone is all about the camera. The ridge on the back is also a nice inclusion, as it provides a better grip, as your fingers naturally rest on it when attempting to take a landscape shot. The ridge actually is to allow the phone to rest flat, to compensate for the camera bump. On removing the back cover, you can access the SIM slot and micro SD. The 3000 mAH battery is not replaceable.

At 158.9 x 78.84 x 11.95mm, and 185g, it’s a little bulkier than others in this category, but the phone feels solid and well made. However, like the other Zenfone 2 series, the Zoom features hardware capacitive buttons, WITHOUT backlight. It’s especially irritating when you are trying to use the phone at night. For a flagship phone, the least ASUS could do is to throw is some simple LEDs.

Btw, the Zenfone Zoom design video is pretty good.

Specs

The Zoom is powered by the Intel Z3590 2.5 GHz chip, 4 GB of RAM, and a generous 64 or 128 GB storage. The storage comes in handy especially if you plan to take many photos. The display is a 5.5″ 1080P IPS, with good colours and brightness. However, the auto brightness could do some tweaking as it seems to under compensate most times in outdoor or low light settings.

The Zoom runs on Android 5.0 software, and during my review, the system software was upgraded twice. There was an initial period where the software was a little buggy which prevented the camera from turning on (restart required), but that has since been addressed with the latest software. ASUS uses it’s own Zen UI which is generally OK, but purists would find the bloatware disturbing. That being said, it has been greatly reduced since the original Zenfone days, when there were a ton of Taiwanese apps. All the additional apps can be uninstalled though.

Camera

The Zoom uses a Hoya-designed lens with a 13-megapixel Panasonic sensor (f/2.7-f/4.8 aperture lens). If you have been following recent news, Samsung is offering a f/1.7 lens in the latest S7, which offers better low light performance. There’s laser autofocus, which is a nice inclusion for near-instant picture focus, especially in poor lighting conditions. Unfortunately, video recording is limited to 1080P on the Zenfone Zoom, which is strange, since 4K recording shoul have been standard. Standalone controls are offered through dedicated shutter and video buttons on the lower right side of the phone. They are very useful to have, tactile, responsive, with the typical half-shutter focus like a normal camera. The volume controls double up as Zoom In / Out controls but you are better off just pinching on the screen directly. Unlike other phones, you would notice a distinct lag when zooming, due to the actual lens moving inside. In fact, if you spin the phone around, you can see the lens sliding around.

Optical zoom trumps digital zoom anyday. A typical 12MP image (say taken with an iPhone) at 3x digital zoom is only 1.3MP in terms of resolution. You get much clearer definition with the optical zoom. With the focus on the camera, ASUS doesn’t disappoint with quite an impressive camera app, with manual control of aperture, shutter speed, exposure, etc possible through the app.

Here’s an image I took at Keppel Bay zoomed out, and subsequently zoomed in.

But that being said – image quality is absolutely important to the target audience. Unfortunately, that’s a little hit and miss with the Zenfone Zoom. In bright day conditions, I was quite happy with the images I took – accurate colours, good balance between highlights and shadows.

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It’s low light conditions that the Zenfone Zoom struggles. Colour tends to be more washed out, and the higher f-stop means shutter speeds tend to be a little longer, and images captured had a tendency to be blurred, despite having OIS onboard.

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For the full image gallery: https://goo.gl/photos/i98tTAoaFYKupeuVA

The Zenfone Zoom is priced at US$399. Like the Zenfone 2, it offers great value, and offers a unique proposition in delivering Optical Zoom to smartphones. However, it is not the best phone camera out there, which falls short, especially for those who are looking for real optical zoom in a phone.

Conclusion

It’s a great piece of technology, offering actual optical zoom in a compact phone body, without the need for any protruding lens. I am impressed with ASUS for delivering the world’s thinnest 3X optical zoom smartphone. It’s a promising showcase of what the Zenfone 3 might have to offer. But it begets the question of whether optical zoom an important criteria? For most, the answer is likely no, and that limits the audience that might be interested in such a phone, which is unfortunately not helped by the average camera performance.

That being said, the Zoom is still worth considering, given the specs, build quality and price point.

Sean

Sean is a tech geek and star wars fan. He loves playing with new gadgets, writing little code snippets in Python, JS, and dabbling with Android programming from time to time, while keeping a lookout for the next biggest happening in the world of tech!

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