Meet the first smartphone to run a massive 4GB of RAM – the ASUS ZenFone 2 ZE551ML. Say what you will of the phone’s bezels, but it’s hard to complain about the package – a phone that runs anything you throw at it, a camera that can literally see in the dark, a fast charge feature that puts your power banks to shame, with a price tag that’s half that of other flagships.

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ASUS Zenfone 2 ZE551ML Specs

64-bit Intel Atom 2.3GHz Z3580 quad-core processor | 4GB of RAM
5.5-inch full HD IPS display with Gorilla Glass 3, 1920 x 1080 resolution
32 internal storage, expandable via microSD up to 64GB
13 MP rear camera, f/2.0-aperture, 5-element, auto-focus lens with dual-color Real Tone flash
5 MP front camera, f/2.0-aperture, wide-angle 85-degree lens with Selfie Panorama
Dual SIM | 3G, LTE
WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, A-GPS, NFC
Android 5.0 Lollipop with ZenUI
3000mAh battery
SRP 13,995.00

LG G3 comparisons

Let’s get this out of the way. The curved brushed metal back, the lack of side buttons, the rear keys – all very G3. But if you sub out the brushed metal back with any other color, what you actually have is a thinner ZenFone 5, but without side buttons. The large chin and forehead and non-backlit capacitive keys are there – still all very ZenFone. Besides, and rarely is this pointed out, the brushed metal look has always been in ASUS’s design arsenal (just look at their metallic-looking ultrabooks). Anyway, ASUS didn’t go G3-buttonless: the ZenFone 2 has a power button on top that’s hard to reach. Good thing you rarely have to. Like the G2 and G3, you can wake up the ZenFone’s display with a double tap and put it to sleep by double tapping on an empty part of the screen.

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Left to right. The LG G3 (5.5″ display), ZenFone 2 (5.5″), Huawei Ascend Mate 7 (6″), and Oppo N3 (5.5″). The ZenFone 2 looks like a phablet here, but in reality it doesn’t feel like one in your hand.

That the G3 design elements found themselves the ZenFone 2, I think, may have been deliberate. Consider it a message from ASUS: we can go premium-ish at half the flagship price.

Everything is snappy-responsive: 4GB RAM is perfect

1GB RAM phones tend to choke when too many apps are loaded. 2GB RAM seems fair. 3GB is just right for basic greed. A 4GB RAM phone is meant for app-loading-greedy people like me and for those who don’t want to have to keep killing apps running in the background. Few of us cherish the thought of having to kill apps that hog RAM, just to avoid lags and stutters in our phones’ performance. If you could just keep on loading and switching between apps, with nothing else to worry about, that’s the DREAM. Rumors said that a phone like this would COME. Those rumors were TRUE.

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Chatting with six people on FB messenger, three on Viber, two on SMS, while catching up on my FB feed, and when talks die down, I go back to Anomaly Korea or Batman Arkham Origins. And then the chatter returns and I switch to chat back. If ever the load gets too high, and the game is resource-intensive, the ZenFone 2 “freezes” your game so that the loading time is short and it’s as if you never left the moment. How can you not be happy with that?

Oh, and the phone gets warm (but not flat iron hot) when so many apps are running and when I’ve been playing games for too long. But it doesn’t feel like a flat iron in your hand.

Fast Charging really is fast

You’ll rarely appreciate this unless you have just under an hour to charge and run off to work or to that next meeting. I am now dependent on the ASUS ZenFone 2’s fast charging. 60% in 39 minutes is just about right. If you can kill other apps and free up RAM – just pull the notification menu down and tap on Boost – the charging goes a bit faster. More importantly, I don’t have to worry about charging the phone before I go to sleep at night. Even if I wake up 45 minutes before a meeting, half an hour of charging is fine. We’re all used to bringing small power banks anyway.

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Don’t lose that charger. Just don’t. 

There’s a greed cycle I should mention. 4GB of RAM basically assures a hiccup-free experience. So you tend to load more apps and keep switching between them. This in turn eats up more power. Now, I’ve heard the whines – Intel could have used a less-power-hungry chip, or ASUS could have shipped the ZenFone 2 with a bigger battery – but right now, honestly, the stutter-free performance at the expense of having average battery life is fine with me. For one, fast charging off sets that; and two, the ZenFone 2 can be charged with any power bank – and we all bring one anyway.

See also ASUS ZenPower 10050 mAh Power Bank Review – Compact, Stylish, You Want One

Full HD is good enough

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It’s nice to have a video marathon device with 4GB of RAM. That USB OTG is here.

One of the highlights of recent flagships is the QHD display (1440 x 2560 resolution). The LG G3 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Note 4 Edge have this. But there are exceptions, like the Huawei Mate 7 and the ZenFone 2. Exceptions prove that you don’t really need QHD, which eats up more power and which can (I’ve been told) hurt the eyes of some people (some images and visuals can get too sharp when reading in the dark).

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Well, why else would you have a screen this good on a device this powerful if you won’t be gaming with it? 

Impressive camera performance

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The ZenFone 2’s rear camera is remarkable even when left completely on auto mode. I say “even” first, because the stock camera is smart enough to suggest, after inspecting the scene, either HDR (for unevenly lit or harshly backlit scenes) or low light (for obviously dimly lit subjects). And second, because while the LG G4 offers manual camera control, this is already present in the ZenFone 2 and awaits power users who want to exceed what auto and specific camera modes can do (this in itself can be another article on its own).

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I love how the ZenFone can capture both the dimly lit along with the well-exposed parts of a scene. Great dynamic range.

Outdoor day shots, cloudy indoor scenes, macro food pics, evening dimly lit interiors, against the light portraits, spur-of-the-moment selfies under unevenly lit surroundings – the ZenFone 2’s rear and front cameras took them all on and performed well.

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Even when on auto mode, you can go semi-manual and tone down exposure (reducing glare) and long press on the spot you want to focus on. Long pressing locks up auto exposure, auto focus, and auto white balance. A few tweaks get you shots like this. 

The ZenFone 2’s super low light mode, thanks to Pixel Master technology, really shines under specific conditions – namely, when nothing is moving and when most of what’s in the frame are evenly poorly lit. If you dropped a pen and want to check if it’s under your bed (or if there are monsters there), this is a good camera feature. You can do the same for when you’re visiting dark haunted houses and you don’t want to scare off the supernatural with that annoying flash. There’s a thought right there. Anyway.

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Take note that low light mode images are “brightened up” at the expense of details captured. Note also that low light or owl mode is also present in video mode, just in case you want to film your own Blair Witch Project , find out what your pet is chewing on at 3am, or to catch your lover in the act of betrayal.

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Another low light scene, but still on auto mode, with neither HDR nor Low Light mode activated. 

I know of three cameras, from experience, that both fall within the 4GB RAM ZenFone 2’s price range and which can compete with the ZenFone’s rear camera: the Cherry Mobile Cosmos One Plus (slow shutter speed, squarish two-year’s-ago design), the Xiaomi Mi 3 (thick body with non-expandable storage), and the LG G2 (which the ZenFone 2 trumps in extreme low light shooting, has non-expandable storage, and has fewer camera modes and settings). So, while each of these can offer a bit more resolved details in the images they capture, none of them run 4GB of RAM or have fast charging. So, and again, consider the entire package.

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As impressed as I am with the ZenFone 2’s rear camera performance, I have two observations. First, sometimes the camera fails to capture enough details, so that, upon zoom, the image shows artifacting or blurred parts. I hope a software update solves this. But I think this can be attributed to the ZenFone 2’s lack of Optical Image Stabilization. (And yet look at the quality of the pictures it can take!!!!)

Second, when the camera performs well, which is most of the time, the amount of detail captured is less compared to shots taken with an LG G3 (of course only nitpickers will notice this). I really feel that I’m nitpicking here, since the ZenFone 2 costs half that of the LG G3 and captures good shots despite having no Optical Image Stabilization.

See also ASUS ZenFone 2 ZE551ML More Sample Shots.

Splendid app really is splendid

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This is an often overlooked feature of the ZenFone 5 and other ASUS tablets which is now in the ZenFone 2. Splendid is an app that lets you adjust the display’s color temperature. If you love Sony’s preference for blues and cold tones, you can have that. You can drag the slider to increase warmth for more vivid colors, to get more or less the same visual intensity on the G3. Of course, getting the super AMOLED contrast of Samsung phones is out of the question, as is getting the super deep blacks of the high end Lumias. Splendid’s reading mode emphasizes comfy-to-the-eyes browns and filters out blues – for less eye-fatigue when reading. (I love reading mode!)

Just a note though, this app, when not set to “balance”, eats up battery life.

Control over apps that hog memory and battery

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If ever the ZenFone 2 feels sluggish, or if you want to save up on battery life and RAM, there are at least three places to go. Auto-start manager can deny apps from starting up so you can save on memory. Running Services lists how much memory is being used, how much is free, and which apps are eating how much RAM. Battery app power usage shows how much power which apps are consuming, so you can see the power drainers. It’s nice to know that you can always go on a RAM diet if you want to, which is how some people justify paying for gym fees and buying color-matching gym outfits and shoes and hydration bottles, because they can always go to the gym anytime they want to. Okay, enough autobiography.

Small things that matter

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Outdoor visibility is good, calls are clear (voices are distinct and I can be heard fine on the other line), and WiFi range is great. The ZenFone 2 speaker is neither that loud nor that clear (I keep cupping the back with my hand to redirect the sound toward me and I still didn’t get much of what dialogue transpired), but with the comes-with ASUS headset on, the sound is great and full. Must be that headset. The capacitive keys on the phone’s chin are also still not backlit. To offset that, the phone vibrates at every touch on the capacitive keys. I can’t find a way to reduce the vibrate strength (which is too much for me) so I turned it off.

Wrap up

The ASUS ZenFone 2 is snappy, responsive, loads apps fast, switches between them quickly; it runs anything I throw at it. And its camera (as you’ve seen) can you give impressive images for a phone in this price range. I don’t have a problem with the average battery life – a power bank can sustain the ZenFone 2 and a quick trip to the wall socket is all you need. The body, look, and handling of the ZenFone 2 aim to be “premium” but the premium price is slashed by half.

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The nitpicker would say that the ZenFone 2 is not premium at all but a price point entry, a specs-to-features compromise. Really? It’s hard to find 4GB of RAM with a display this good on a phone that charges this fast and has a camera that rivals the LG G2 a compromise. As with the ZenFone 5, ASUS wants us again to question the idea that you need to pay a lot to get a lot of features.

One thing is for sure: I can’t put the ZenFone 2 down.


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