Hands on: Asus ZenFone 6 review

A totally unique camera

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Image Credit: TechRadar

Early Verdict

The Asus ZenFone 6 feels both familiar and unique at the same time. The fact this handset has its unique rotating camera and a huge 5000mAh battery may help it stand out from the rest of the Android crowd.

For

  • Unique camera
  • Huge battery

Against

  • Questions about the camera
  • Brightness drops at angles

Asus makes many of the best laptops. But judging by the distribution of its phones alone, you might assume it was an upstart. ZenFones have not made it to the big time, yet. 

The Asus ZenFone 6’s job is to turn that around. It has some high-end specs and a gadget-tactic camera, but still costs a lot less than the priciest phones from Huawei, Samsung and Apple. 

Let’s take a closer look at the ZenFone 6 to see if it really deserves more attention that its predecessors. The phone starts at £499 for the version with 64GB storage and 6GB RAM. 

You’ll pay an extra £50 for 128GB storage, or £599 for the top-end one with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. 

Design 

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There are two Asus ZenFone 6 highlights, and they are linked, like siblings. These are the camera and the front-filling screen. 

The phone has a motorized camera. Two of the things sit on its back. Their housing flips around to point at you when it is time to take a selfie. 

You can’t help but notice these cameras seem a bit “high” when doing so. The ZenFone 6’s moving camera is less subtle than the pop-up one of the OnePlus 7 Pro, or the Oppo Reno’s little cheese wedge front camera. 

It takes just under a second to pop around to your face. This isn’t ultra-quick, and that this rules-out face unlocking with the ZenFone 6 is the obvious assumption. But it doesn’t. You can use face unlock if you like. It’s just not near-instant like the OnePlus 7 Pro. 

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Asus says the mechanism has been tested for 100,000 operations. And that it is made of “liquid metal”, similar to the stuff used in the hinges of glasses. It’s designed to take rough treatment. 

Liquid metal sounds like the stuff of science fiction films or, more likely, marketing nonsense. But there’s substance to it. These alloys are formed in a different manner to the usual aluminium alloys seen in standard phone casings. 

But do we fancy the ZenFone 6 hinge’s chances against an angry five year-old who bends it the wrong way? Not really, no. 

Concerns aside, this mechanism frees up the ZenFone 6 screen. Borders are slim and there are no punch holes or notches to eat into any films you stream from Netflix. You’ll likely see a lot more of these hole-free screens in 2019. 

Set aside the early bird extras and the Asus ZenFone 6 seems a fairly conventional phone. Its back is Gorilla Glass 6, the sides are aluminium. And the front glass only has a slight 2.5D-style bend at the extreme edges, not the grand swoop of a Samsung Galaxy S10 or Huawei P30 Pro.

Still, it’s a decent looker, and comes in either silver or black with a finish that shimmers when it catches light. 

The ZenFone 6 is also not obviously heavy or thin given it has a huge battery and unusual tech inside. It also has a headphone jack, which feels like hitting the jackpot now that so few phones have one.

Display

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The Asus ZenFone 6 has a 6.4-inch screen. It’s big enough to fit alongside top-end phones from the more recognizable names, but not so large the phone seems a true monolith. 

It’s a 2340 x 1080 pixel IPS screen, a level below the best in a couple of respects. Top-end phones have higher pixel density, and in a very dimly lit room you can see the glow of the backlight. You won’t see this in an OLED phone like the Samsung Galaxy S10 or OnePlus 7 Pro, because they don’t have a traditional backlight. 

In most respects this is a great screen, though. Asus says the brightness tops out at a respectable 600 nits, color is vivid. And if you don’t want the standard super-vivid look, the Asus Splendid feature lets you cool down the saturation levels. 

After an Asus ZenFone 6 test drive there’s one obvious area that could be better. There’s significant brightness drop off at an angle. The very best LCD screens show less of this effect. 

Software and specs

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Most previous Asus phones were weighed down by over-reaching software. Asus puts ZenUI software into its phones and tablets, and in the past this often meant packing them to the gills with extra apps no-one asked for and a system-slowing visual layer that degraded the overall experience. 

The ZenFone 6 has ZenUI 6, but you could easily mistake it for standard Android. Its software does not look all that different from a Pixel 3 XL’s. 

A few extra Asus apps remain, and there are some additional features under the surface. But Asus is no longer desperate to put its indelible stamp on Android. 

Outdoor mode is one of the extra features you get. It makes alert volumes rise and lower depending on the ambient noise. Pretty smart, right? 

The Asus ZenFone 6 hardware is exactly what we expected, and hoped for. It has the Snapdragon 855 CPU, the most powerful all-round processor currently found in Android phones. It’s an excellent chipset, and you get either 6GB or 8GB of RAM depending on the spec you go for. 

Storage starts at 64GB, a bit stingy next to what Honor offers. But upgrades to 128GB and 256GB are very reasonable. 

Camera 

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You already know about the ZenFone 6’s camera layout. It’s odd. But is the hardware inside the flip-out housing any good? 

The Asus ZenFone 6 has the Sony IMX586 48-megapixel sensor seen in a rapidly increasing crowd of phones. It’s best not to think of this as a true 48-megapixel camera, mind, as it’s designed to take 12-megapixel photos. 

This resolution downscaling happens through a process called pixel binning, where the information that four pixels on the sensor makes one in the final photo. 

Taking photos feels fast and responsive, but there are a few signs this may not be the best camera in its class. There’s a Super Night mode that takes several seconds to capture night shots, but they look a little less clear, and noisier, than the best. And the Asus ZenFone 6’s autofocus, while generally quite fast, has been slow to react on a couple of occasions. 

We’ll dig into this in our full review.

The motorized camera does offer tricks you won’t see elsewhere. You can shoot 4K full stabilized “selfie” video with electronic image stabilization, and the natural depth of field effect of its f/1.79 lens.

You also get manual control over the camera motor. Want to shoot at a weird angle? Just press the volume button while in the camera app and the camera creeps around like a little robot. 

Asus suggests we might want to use this to shoot low-down subjects without needing to kneel to see the screen. We’ll see if that pans out: it feels a bit odd at first try. However, you can also use it to create panoramas (remember those?) without moving, and pan on the fly as you shoot video. 

Some motor whir may be audible in quieter footage. 

You also have the 13-megapixel wide angle lens to play with. From a quick test, it doesn’t seem quite as upmarket as the wide angle camera of the Huawei P30 Pro, but that is no surprise given the price. And it does take dim indoors shots without turning them into mush.

Battery life 

Whether you’re convinced by the camera style or not, the Asus ZenFone 6’s battery is undeniably attractive. 

The phone has a 5000mAh battery, around 20% larger than that of the very long-lasting Huawei P30 Pro. We haven’t had time to test its longevity yet, but Asus says it will last for two full days of use, 33.3 hours of call time or 26 days on standby. 

If this is not a battery life trooper, we’ll be surprised and disappointed. The Asus ZenFone 6 has fast charging, a must with capacity this high, but it does not have wireless charging. This is a pretty common omission among value-packed mid-range phones. 

Early verdict

In one sense the Asus ZenFone 6 feels familiar. It’s a phone that wants to lure people away from pricier alternatives with the promise of great value and high-end specs, just like Honor phones and the OnePlus brigade.

However, it’s also unusual. It has a massive battery, a headphone jack and a motorized camera that seems ambitious even next to the Oppo Reno and OnePlus 7 Pro. Too ambitious? We’ll judge that after further testing.

Image Credit: TechRadar

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.