Given the somewhat yo-yo approach Asus has taken with its Zenfone series over the years - the 2018 Zenfone 5 was a fine-but-whatever mid-ranger, the Zenfone 4 was overpriced and somewhat forgettable, while previous models introduced firsts but failed to impress the western market - it's an entirely pleasant surprise to see the Zenfone 6 go all-in for the high-end flagship position in its own unique way.
When Asus invited us to take a look at the Zenfone 6 a month prior to its launch event, we didn't expect it to feature a large notch-free screen, mechanised Flip Camera to counter the front/rear cameras conundrum - a really unique take in the world of slider phones, punch-hole selfie cameras and a glut of notched devices - and huge battery capacity featured alongside the top-end Snapdragon 855 processor.
Even more surprising is that Asus's so-called ZenUI is more-or-less dead; ZenUI 6 is, for all intents and purposes, stock Android Pie with some additional camera controls and algorithm layers for dark mode and battery management. That, to us, really shows that Asus is looking to target the smartphone world anew, to attract a different audience of users who might otherwise be buying a Google Pixel 3 of Huawei P30 Pro.
Sure, the Zenfone 6 is still a relatively unknown proposition, but it's a great flagship in its own right with a lot of potential. Here are our thoughts after spending half a day with the device.
No notch display
- 6.4-inch IPS LCD 'all-screen NanoEdge' display
- No notch, 92% screen-to-body ratio
- 2340 x 1080 resolution
- Gorilla Glass 6 front
- 100% DCI-P3
- 600 nits max
The Asus take on 2018/9's now well-established notch - that black-out area at the front of many current smartphones where the selfie camera is typically housed - is that it's just not necessary. It just takes a bit of creativity and a whole new camera mechanism - which we'll get to in a moment.
When the Zenfone 6 was first thrust into our hands it was impossible to ignore this giant-screened device's lack of front-facing camera distraction. It's a display-forward proposition with no notch and small bezels overall - we side-by-sided it with our P30 Pro and the ‘chin' bezel is more-or-less the same, while the side bezels are perhaps a millimetre or so more on the Zenfone 6 - that makes the large 6.4-inch panel a dominant force thanks to that 92 per cent screen-to-body ratio.
As Asus has chosen to ditch the notch, however, there's one perplexing hardware choice in our view: this is an IPS LCD panel rather than OLED. Now, it looks totally fine - nay, good - but a punch-hole notch solution would have to be LCD because of how the panel is cut. Surely Asus should have taken on the advances of an OLED panel - with richer blacks and more pronounced colours - to really show-off its notch-free solution?
Still, there are lots of positives to be taken from the Zenfone 6's solution as it stands. It's big, it's bright and even when eyeing-up content particularly close its Full HD+ resolution is plenty sharp - sure, others go higher resolution, but there's an argument that it's nothing but detrimental to battery life, even at this larger screen scale. Sit the Zenfone 6 next to its notched competitors and it stands out in a largely positive light.
There's no in-screen fingerprint scanner to be found here either, with Asus going somewhat old skool in its use of a rear positioned sensor. The positioning of this is fine and it works really well - but it doesn't exactly scream flagship given the in-screen solution is the norm for so many these days. There may be some implication to screen-to-body ratio if squeezing such a solution in - after all, it utilises a camera for a fixed position solution such as this, which takes up space - but we think it should have been the route Asus went for.
- Pop-up mechanism with geared steps for full control through 180 degrees
- Dual camera unit: 48MP standard (26mm) and 13MP wide-angle (11mm)
- 48MP (Sony IMX586), f/1.79, 26mm equivalent
- Laser autofocus, Dual Pixel autofocus sensor
- 13MP (Omnivision), 11mm equivalent
- Motion tracking & Panorama modes
- 4K video capture (to 60fps)
- No optical stabilisation
So what of the front-facing camera? Well, it's the rear camera. It's just that, with the touch of a button in the camera app, the rear camera unit - comprising a 48-megapixel sensor (which quad samples for 12MP shots), alongside an ultra-wide 13MP sensor - flips forward, hence its Flip Camera name.
We've never seen a solution quite like it; the closest thing is the Samsung Galaxy A80, but that phone's auto-slider mechanism and flip-around camera ‘bar is binary, i.e. it's either facing forwards of backwards. Asus goes one better.
Flip Camera rotation and modes
This is where the Taiwanese company has really delved into its box of creativity. Not only does the Flip Camera rotate around on its hinge mechanism - it's pretty quick, too, we're talking maybe a third of a second to get into position - its gear system means it can also be step controlled throughout its 180 degree rotation to any angle that you wish.
Why would you want to control the camera in such a way? Well, there are lots of potential options here, some of which are realised within the app. Press-and-hold the selfie camera button and an on-screen slider appears, meaning you can position the camera at, say, 90 degrees for waist-level shooting - ideal for getting down lower to shoot scenes in a more square-on fashion or be at the level of animals and kids to shoot in a more creative way.
Beyond that, Asus has also implemented a Motion Tracking mode which locks onto a subject and then physically moves the camera around in real-time to keep that subject in the frame as they also move. It works pretty well, too, although fast moving subjects are outside of its capabilities - something we'd love to see improved upon.
Furthermore the Pano mode also takes advantage of the camera's rotating motion. You needn't pan your hands/body to take a panorama - simply hit the start button and the camera handles the rotation until you request it to cease, with up-to-180-degree panoramas in either vertical or horizontal format possible. It's kind-of trippy to use because it almost gives you that sensation of falling when looking at the screen, as it shows the movement despite your body being stationary. It introduces some bugs, too, but then no multi-frame sampling panorama mode is perfect (we caught a hilarious shot with someone walking through the frame and their legs ended up being stretched all over the show, like Stretch Armstong).
There's more too. Because the Zenfone 6 has a variety of sensors on board, including a gyro and proximity sensor, the device knows the camera's position and orientation at all times. Therefore it won't slam shut into your ear/hair when making a phone call, it won't pop out when the phone is flat on a table and see the device go crawling off onto the floor and smashing to pieces. The Flip Camera even has a default defence mechanism if you drop the phone by auto-retracting in 0.1 seconds to ensure it's stowed and won't be damaged - something we tried out (nervously, in case we didn't catch the device) and found mighty impressive. It's perhaps strange, however, that it can retract this fast but doesn't get into position as expediently for selfies - although this will be for the sake of longevity (Asus says the unit is tested to 50,000 cycles).
A rotating camera does bring its share of burdens, though, including the fact that Face Unlock is so much slower that it's unlikely to ever be used. The mechanical process also means the gear system and motor makes a little bit of noise and some physical grinding in operation. You can add additional sound presets for added entertainment to mask this though. Oh, and there's no optical image stabilisation - with Asus saying this feature would add physical constraints that wouldn't be possible to feature within the existing design.
We also don't think it's fully realised in software terms just yet. The manual slider for rotation is too short and fiddly, while preset positions (say 90 degrees at a tap) aren't available. But the potential for a variety of additional features - including things like time lapse and association within third-party apps (something yet to be realised, as no SDK is available) - is potentially great. There's nothing else like it on the market in a phone format.
Image quality and modes
Having fancy modes is one thing, but what of the camera itself? Asus has opted for a dual sensor setup, the main sensor - a 48-megapixel unit sourced from Sony - offering a larger physical size, an interesting colour sampling methodology and wide f/1.79 aperture to up its quality potential, while the wide-angle lens opts for a 13-megapixel sensor with automatic barrel correction to keep shots looking less distorted.
Obviously 48 million pixels is one heck of a lot, but by default the camera shoots 12 megapixel shots. The reason is down to how this Sony sensor offers oversampling, whereby four pixels will become one in a final image - but can draw from wider colour information and neighbouring pixels to extract optimum detail, sharpening and colour. At least that's the theory. The full resolution is available, too, if you want to capture massive files, while the sampling method can also be utilised the other way by shooting multiple frames for 109 megapixel results (which are so huge they take a little while to load at full resolution on the Zenfone 6's screen).
Having used a pre-production Zenfone 6 we can't categorically say how the results will be just yet. We've taken a handful of shots around Asus HQ and having zoomed into the final results there's plenty of detail and lots of dynamic range (HDR+ taking care of this) to balance exposures. But at the time of writing Asus has another month to tweak and perfect its software and processing, ironing out any bugs and quality issues that may be present. We doubt things will change significantly, mind, but we need to do some more digging with the final unit to get a better sense of this camera setup.
Asus has pushed into some additional modes to utilise that sensor's potential, with Night Mode being one such example. This functions much like Huawei's equivalent mode of the same name, capturing multiple frames at different exposure levels and combining them for a well-exposed shot even in the dead of night. We shot a couple of frames inside Asus HQ's sports hall - which was closed at the time with very little light - and the mode works well, even handheld, although we could see colour noise and artefacts in the lighter areas that aren't present in our cited Huawei P30 Pro competitor (we had both phones side-by-side to see how they coped).
Furthermore Night Mode is no Google Night Sight, i.e. the Zenfone 6 can't shoot in very low light and magic exposure and colour detail out of nowhere like its Google competitor. Fortunately the Zenfone 6's fast aperture means shooting in dim conditions is no bother and the autofocus is decent - another benefit of that Sony sensor with on-sensor phase-detection autofocus pixels - thanks to a laser AF module also present on the camera.
Ultimately, with many competitors now running with a 48MP sensor - the Honor View 20 and Xiaomi Mi 9 being two such examples - the Zenfone 6 establishes itself alongside those equivalent flagships. The hardware is present enough to offer high quality results, and Asus has the keys to continue to improve on that quality over time with even more software enhancements. No, there's no the elaborate triple of quad camera setup as you'll find on a Huawei P30 and P30 Pro, but that's not precisely what Asus is looking to compete with here.
Flagship hardware and software
- Android Pie 9.0 - Android Q & R updates promised
- Smart Key to upper right (Google Assistant button)
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform, 8GB RAM
- Up to 256GB storage, microSD expansion
- 5,000mAh battery capacity, 18W charge
- Connectivity: LTE Cat 18, no 5G
- 159.1 x 75.4 x 8.4-9.1mm; 190g
- IP waterproofing rating lacks
- Built-in 3.5mm jack
- Stereo speakers
Compared to its Zenfone predecessors the Zenfone 6 dramatically changes its software approach too. Although Asus is still calling it ZenUI - here in its sixth iteration, ZenUI 6 - it's so far removed from what you might expect that to mean.
Stock Android solution
In fact, it's stock Android with just a couple of extras that are necessary for the camera and Smart Key controls (think of this as the Google Assistant shortcut key).
We've long said that the earlier ZenUI formats were too heavy handed with different styles, pre-loaded apps and extras, which is completely removed in the Zenfone 6. We actually find it confusing calling this software anything other than what it is: stock Android Pie.
But let's not get too bogged down with the naming convention as this software approach runs gloriously. It's smooth, it's sleek, it's easily on par with how well it runs on the Google Pixel 3 XL - seriously, the rapidity of screen rotations and app loads is great - and we commend Asus for changing its approach here (ZenUI fans may mourn its loss, but a wider audience will welcome the changes).
There's also a dark mode for Asus apps, which gives you a sort-of sneak peek of what to expect from Android Q - which Asus is already signed up to be one of the first to implement, as announced at Google I/O 2019 in early May.
Beyond the software the Zenfone 6 is a fairly large scale phone. Inevitable given its 6.4-inch screen size, for sure, but also part and parcel of one of its other significant features: a 5,000mAh battery. Yep, Asus has gone large on that front, being the first manufacturer to pair such a capacious battery with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 platform (paired at launch with 'up to 8GB RAM' - but, we suspect, a 12GB RAM special edition will come out later in the year as part of Asus' 30th birthday, although we're best-guessing here as the company wouldn't elaborate further).
To put 5,000mAh into perspective: the Huawei Mate 30 Pro has a 4,200mAh battery and it lasts an absolute age, easily beyond one day. Take that into consideration and the Zenfone 6 - which uses a combination of Google's adaptive battery monitoring for individual apps, paired in hybrid with Asus' own OptiFlex algorithm solution - ought to be knocking on the door of being a two-day use situation. That's pretty much unheard of in the flagship space. As is the 3.5mm headphone jack, which features on the bottom next to the USB-C port and dual speaker output.
But a big battery comes with some degree of compromise. If you want fast-charging then the physical size of the battery has to be far bigger to accommodate swell thresholds and remain safe. Asus has avoided this by opting for an 18W charging solution - so it's a lot slower than the 40W Huawei SuperCharge that you'll find on the P30 Pro. But having heard Asus' reasonings for its selection we think its a fair compromise. After all, given how long the battery will last anyway, you're unlikely to be anxiously rushing to the plug socket during the day, so night-time top-ups are perfect for a device such as this.
Of course such a battery capacity requires physical space, but the Zenfone 6 is nigh-on identical to the Huawei P30 Pro in terms of dimensions. It's a tad thicker near the camera unit, but it's barely noticeable. It's not too big, nor too heavy and is part and parcel of buying a large-screen device with epic battery life.
Smart Key for Google Assistant
With Google Assistant becoming ever popular, Asus has a dedicated key - called Smart Key - for controlling the voice control assistant. That's not an uncommon feature - although others integrate it into the power button, giving dual functionality, which is a simpler solution - but why Asus has chose to position this key about as far away from a finger or thumb we can't fathom. It makes the Smart Key almost useless because one-handed use isn't plausible.
That's a shame, as Asus has implemented some really nice tweaks over the standard Google Assistant use. For example, Private Listening allows Assistant read back to occur through the speaker earpiece rather than aloud for all to hear; while Smart Volume is always monitoring the ambient sound in the room around to output sensible volume levels rather than ultra-loud and embarrassing ones. Great ideas.
Furthermore the Smart Key has its name because it can go beyond just calling Google Assistant into play. Asus calls it customisable, we'd call it semi-customisable because you can't assign specific app launches to it - only certain features such as, say, torchlight. More would be better, although, as we say, the position of the button is totally in the wrong place - it should be on the opposite side of the phone, where it would be reachable with ease.
The Asus Zenfone 6 is an unexpectedly impressive flagship from a company that's an underdog in the smartphone world. But just because Asus isn't a major player in terms of volume can't take away from what the Zenfone 6 represents: it feels like a reset; a fresh start for a company looking to attract a new audience.
No, you won't get some niceties such as an in-screen fingerprint scanner, waterproofing, fast-charging or more cameras for greater shooting versatility. But you will get a great flagship phone with some major attractive points. It's got that massive screen with no notch distractions. It's got the most powerful current Qualcomm chipset. It's got a huge battery capacity beyond any other flagship we've ever seen. It's got a clean stock Android software experience - which was entirely unexpected from a brand that's been so far from this in the past. And then there's that unique selling point: the Flip Camera.
The Zenfone 6 might well be the surprise flagship success of 2019 thanks to its heap of attractive features. It doesn't get everything quite perfect, though, and it might not sell in big volumes. But that's kind of besides the point - we love a turnaround story and Asus is right on the heels of exactly that with this new approach. With a price of £499 for the 6GB RAM / 128GB storage option it's cracking good value too.
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