How do you make a smartphone stand out from the crowd? With Asus’ newest handset, the ZenFone 9, the answer isn’t to stand out, but to be small. Small and powerful. Has Asus cracked the oft-forgotten code to build a compact flagship? I spent time with the phones ahead of today’s launch to find out.
Summarizing the Asus ZenFone 9 is pretty easy. It’s a small smartphone that sports premium specs. Packing will take a little more time.
Compared to the current pack of smartphones, the Zenfone 9 is a smaller smartphone. The 5.9-inch display is designed so that the phone can be held comfortably in one hand and fit into any reasonably sized pocket. The phone is thicker than the current fashion, accentuated by the two giant camera lens rims.
The package seems about right. There’s a nice size to it, and the compact design means this phone doesn’t feel clumsy in my hands. It is IP68 water and dust resistant and uses Corning Gorilla Glass Victos for the display.
Speaking of that display, it’s a custom 120 Hz refresh AMOLED screen provided by Samsung Display. The bright and colorful screen runs up to 1100 nits…thankfully the font can be slightly increased to help my aging eyes.
The ZenFone 9 takes many of the lessons learned from the ZenFone 8 and builds on them, the biggest lesson being that there is a market for this balance of form and function. There is some inevitability of the specs (so last year’s Snapdragon 888 has been refreshed with the new Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 system-on-a-chip). Memory and storage options are again expected to be 8/128, 8/256, or 16/256 for memory and storage, and there is more stability in the camera housing.
In general, everything seems to be correct. The size gives it the feel of a pocket phone rather than a very small tablet, which some flagship Ultra models seem to be striving for. The textured back surface provides more than enough impact protection to provide a secure and stable fit in the hand. It does not feel any stretch when used. It is very convenient.
The most notable change on the ZenFone 8 comes with the camera. There is no attempt to pack in a ridiculous number of lenses. Instead we get a pretty normal-feeling 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera and a 50-megapixel main camera. While the Zenfone 8’s main camera sports one-axis optical image stabilization, the Zenfone 9 works in x, y and z six, allowing the lens to float in place while taking a photo. This allows to capture more light and, therefore, more details, and you can see in the images, although there is a touch of more processing on the images than I can. The look is far from the natural feel I prefer.
There’s no telephoto lens, which you might see on a standard high-end handset. This is no doubt due to the lack of space on the move to a smaller handset. It is a clear consensus that consumers can balance themselves against the small size. Should I change my phone’s photo to international? I think so, but this is based on the number of cat pictures I take, and a phone photo helps me get in.
Finally, there is the battery. Asus packs a 4300 mAh battery in a svelte package. You get the feeling that this is an area where Asus has decided not to compromise, and even in mixed gaming you’ll easily get by on a normal day. I think carefully about the selection of apps and if you use them you will get two working days from the phone.
Charging-wise, the box comes with a 30W charger – a lot less than some Android smartphones coming out these days, but on par with Apple’s iPhone options. As for charging time, you’re looking at somewhere around zero to a full hour.
Another compromise here is the lack of wireless charging. That’s something I really like, but that’s not widely accepted as important. Compared to the Zenfone 9 when it comes to battery usage, the bigger battery makes more sense given the phones focus.
Asus’ Android implementation is called ZenUI. The surface has been changed very slightly, and you might be led to think you’re using stock Android. The additional settings and adjustments you get will allow you to make better use of your environment. Asus has brought Game Genie software to its gaming phones from ROG Republic of Gamers to enhance the gaming experience on the phones… It’s not a full blown gaming phone, but it helps you get a little more out of the big brand gaming titles.
Asus has done a lot on the audio side, with audio tuning by specialists Dirac and a customizable graphic equalizer to adjust to your preferences.
Two features are worth mentioning. The first is the one-handed mode, in which the top edge of the screen is pulled down so that one thumb can reach all the controls as needed before returning to the position.
The second is the power button, or as Asus has labeled it, the smart button. Not only does this feature a fingerprint sensor and function as a power button, it also offers two additional functions: swipe up or down, long press and double click to activate a custom function. This makes the UI feel more personal, and you can quickly cycle around your key apps with minimal physical movement.
“It’s a small smartphone that sports major specs,” Asus ZenFone offers in its mission statement. The two biggest improvements are wireless charging and a detachable phone lens. Both are meaningful, although they affect a set of users. The latter is becoming more popular for the flagship or flagship monkey hive, but is a luxury for others.
Camera selection is more challenging. Smartphones are marketed around their cameras, and any weakness here has a stronger pull than in most phone areas. The lack of a telephoto lens is not noticeable in close-up situations (family home, for a night in a pub), but there are even times when this feature is needed. Digital zoom is not a substitute. Coupled with the software, which is above average and doesn’t match the flexibility of Apple, Samsung, or Google, the camera is the weakest part of the package.
But the rest of the package is solid, so if the camera isn’t at the top of your priority list, it’s good enough. And there are many things you like. It’s hard to get away from the Zenfone 9, its top chip, bright and vibrant screen size.
Sometimes agreement may not be consensus.
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