If it feels like we've been talking about the ASUS ZenFone Zoom for over a year now, it's because we have. There's been delays on top of delays, but now that the phone is days away from being available to the public there's some reason to get excited. ASUS has done some impressive things with budget-focused hardware over the last year, and the Zoom takes that idea and adds a 3X optical zoom lens on the back.
If you're looking at this phone as something you'd consider picking up for your next phone, there's a few things you should know.
Zen UI hasn't changed much
If you've used a phone or tablet released by ASUS within the last year, you're familiar with how unfortunately bogged down with largely unnecessary things their Android-based ZenUI can be. If you've used the ZenFone 2, or if you've read our review, you have a rough idea of what you'd be getting yourself into with the ZenFone Zoom.
Take the set-up process, for example. Just getting to the home screen on this phone means navigating through 14 pages of device setup, and once you get to that home screen you're greeted with a pop-up inviting you to install some extra apps from ASUS software partners. Dismissing that screen brings you another pop-up, this time inviting you to explore some of the unique gestures and folder setups for ZenUI. More tutorials await you in the launcher and camera app, though each can be easily dismissed and only have to be viewed once. Once you've finally navigated all of that mess, your notification tray will let you know that 14 apps have been detected by the Auto-Start Manager service, with a button for you to manage those apps and decide what to do.
On their own, each of these things is irritating but manageable. Together, it's 20 minutes of setup and clutter before you can do things like install apps, confirm your contacts are syncing, and actually have some fun with your phone. Everything has a setup process, but ASUS goes out of their way to shove as much information as possible at you during this process, and it's hard to respond with anything other than regret.
The back grip is mostly there for looks
The leather backplate on the ZenFone Zoom comes with a small raised section towards the bottom with stitching on either side of the bump. The leather texture and stitching isn't Note 3 bad, but it also isn't nearly as functional as ASUS might want you to believe.
The whole right edge of this phone meets with this raised bump on the back to give the look and feel of a proper camera. You've got a pair of shutter buttons, the volume rocker sports W and T symbols for the optical zoom, and that raised section on the back is supposed to be a grip so you can hold the phone steady while gripping that one side. It's a nice visual, but not exactly reality. You get more grip from the surrounding leather texture than you do the little grip hump, especially if you spread your fingers out and apply pressure from multiple points.
It's hard to fault ASUS for going all in on the "real camera" look and feel though, especially with the button layout on the right side of the phone.
The giant circle is mostly out of the way
Despite the visual similarity to some of the large cameras Nokia stuffed in phones not long ago, the big puck shape on the back of the phone holds a special slide mechanism for the 3X optical zoom and stabilization setup needed to give this phone its enhanced photo capabilities. While that designs adds some obvious bulk to the phone, the shaping of the backplate and the added leather texture around the camera module compensates for any issues that would have otherwise arisen in holding and using the phone.
The smooth surface of the puck area lines up nicely with the backplate, and the lenses are off center enough that your fingers don't settle on the lens when holding the phone portrait and using this thing like a phone. It's still a bulky phone when compared to the Nexus 6P or Note 5, but ASUS managed to ensure it's comfortable to hold both in portrait and landscape.
Also, if you look real close, the optical zoom in the lens is kinda cool to look at.
ASUS defaulted the camera app to 10MP
Our screens are wide rectangles, but our smartphone camera sensors aren't always as wide as the screens. This means the viewfinder in the camera app either isn't showing you everything you're taking a picture of, or you see black bars on either side of the image being shown to you by the sensor. Frequently we see manufacturers try to "fix" the black bar problem by cropping the image you're taking, leaving you with an image that is both smaller and cropped so it looks a little nicer on your screen.
For reasons passing understanding, the company making a phone specifically for taking photos with a whole outer shell designed to emulate a real camera, has also made this decision.
The ASUS ZenFone Zoom defaults to 10MP instead of the 13MP the sensor is capable of capturing, just so the image can be cropped from 4:3 to 16:9. It's an easy enough thing to fix in the camera settings, but still a fairly silly thing to do on a phone designed to take nice pictures. Highest resolution by default, ASUS. No one cares about the black bars.
This phone runs almost unbelievably smooth
Like the ZenFone 2 before it, the ASUS ZenFone Zoom is a genuine pleasure to use when it comes to the performance of the phone. While the UI is cluttered, it's never slow. This $400 phone launches apps faster than several phones that retail for much more when put side by side, and that's significant.
The most impressive example of the capabilities of this phone can be found in the camera app. The ZenFone Zoom features a "super resolution" mode that stitches together several images to make a single massive 52 megapixel image, and it can capture one of these photos and have it ready for you to share before the Nexus 6P can complete a low light HDR+ capture. The difference between the two captures in less than a second, but when you consider what the Zoom is doing compared to what the 6P is doing, it's nothing short of impression.
Here's that super resolution photo, for those interested. We'll be taking a closer look at everything that makes this phone special over the next week, so if there's anything you want to know now is the time to sound off in the comments.