Asus had surprised us all very pleasantly with the ZenFone 5 last year. Priced below Rs 10,000, the device nevertheless was a brilliant performer, and outshone even the likes of the Moto G. It was an outstanding product, but was squarely aimed at the budget smartphone market segment. Well, its successor, the ZenFone 2 (we got the ZE551 ML, with 4GB RAM, 32 GB storage model and are referring to it throughout the review) has slightly higher aspirations – it pretty much aims to mix it up with the likes of the flagship challengers, like the Xiaomi Mi 4, the Honor 6 and the OnePlus One. Oh yes, the aspiration ante has been well and truly upped – if the ZenFone 5 was aimed at being your first decent smartphone, its successor is looking to be one of the best around in tech town.

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Memories of the Wall…

And guess what, it actually succeeds in that very lofty aim. Which brings us to an explanation of that headline we have used, as it might have confused those who do not follow the game of cricket (it is supposed to be a religion in India). Allow us to digress slightly.

In the period of 1996-2011, Rahul Dravid was a key member of the Indian cricket team. He ended up with one of the best records in the game and was acknowledged as the best players of his era. And yet, while he was playing, it never really seemed as if he was doing anything special. He would go about his business in a very correct, unfussy manner, never seeming to do anything exceptional and yet, somehow, always ending up with a very high score. Some players are born with extraordinary talent and do spectacular deeds. We are sure Dravid had his share of talent too, but he seemed to revel in the routine instead of running after the spectacular. His sheer consistency earned him the name “The Wall.”

Well, the Asus ZenFone 2 is a bit like that.

Smart, but not a traffic stopper

We had covered what we had thought of the appearance of the ZenFone 2 in our first impressions piece. It is definitely a large-ish phone, only slightly shorter than the OnePlus One and wider than that worthy, thanks to its 5.5 inch display. And in an era in which phones are trying to crack the 5 mm barrier when it comes to thickness, the ZenFone 2 might be considered to be on the fatter side with its 10.9 mm thickness. That it does not look fat is due to the fact that its back slopes out gently, making it appeat thinner at the sides. The design aesthetic in front is largely the same as that seen in the ZenFone 5 – display in front, with three touch buttons – back, home, running apps- below it (sadly, they don’t light up in dark), and further below it a shiny plate with a concentric pattern that is becoming Asus’ Zen series trademark.

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It is not the slimmest or lightest phone out there and is definitely on the big side, although the curved back does make it comfortable to grip. While on the subject of the back, it is silver-metal in colour and features a volume rocker, a bit like the G3 and G2 did, allowing Asus to leave the sides of the phone relatively bare. Interestingly, unlike those of many of its rivals at this price point, the back of the ZenFone 2 does come off to reveal dual SIM and a micro SD card slot as well as a 3000 mAh battery. The material of the back panel might raise the hackles of the Anti-Plastic-Phones lobby but we had no problems with it as it seemed solid enough. All said and done – the ZenFone 2 will not attract as many looks as the ZenFone 5 did, but is reasonably smart. The red versions of the phone will turn heads, but the more routine ones will not get similar attention.

Intel Inside with 4GB RAM!

It was its hardware, not its design, which got the ZenFone 2 the tech limelight initially. Yes, the 5.5 inch full HD display is a good one, and Intel’s 64-bit quad core processor clocked at a brisk 2.3 GHz promises impressive performance, and the phone comes with the usual sensors and connectivity options (4G LTE is supported, as is NFC), but what made people take notice of the device was the fact that it was the first smartphone ever to come with 4 GB RAM. Asus claims that this will lead to faster data transfer speeds and better multi-tasking. The 13.0-megapixel camera on the rear comes with a dual LED real tone flash, and the front facing camera is a 5.0-megapixel one. Storage stands at 32 GB for the model we got (there are 64 GB and 128 GB models as well), expandable by another 64 GB using a memory card. And running on top of this is Android Lollipop (5.0), flavored and layered with Asus’ ZenUI.

All said and done, we have to admit that in pure hardware terms, the Asus ZenFone goes pretty much toe to toe against the likes of the Xiaomi Mi4 and the OnePlus One – Qualcomm fans might point to the Snapdragon 801 processors on those worthies, but the ZenFone 2 scores with that additional dollop of RAM and the expandable memory.

Mr Consistency

Consistency, thy name is the ZenFone 2. While we are accustomed to the odd lag and crash even on super high end flagships like the Galaxy S6 and the HTC One M9 Plus, leave along the likes of the OnePlus One and Mi 4 (which are slightly more mortal in that department, although they are superb performers at their price points), the ZenFone 2, well, just seemed to purr along smoothly. The display was very good, if not quite in the Mi 4 class in terms of brightness (although some would say it had more realistic colors), sound quality was decent on loudspeaker and call, and well, the phone did not seem fazed by any task we gave it – from playing FIFA 15 to running multiple apps. We did find the placement of the power/display button right on top of such a tall device a tad awkward, although you can tap on the display to wake it up – and on our unit it came turned on by default. We have been fans of LG’s using the volume rocker on the back of their devices and like the fact that Asus has followed them in this regard, although newcomers will find their fingers straying to the sides whenever they want to tweak the volume.

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The camera, which was laggy in the ZenFone 5, has been given turn of speed and comes with some very handy options, including the panorama selfie (which stitches together multiple shots) and the option to shoot selfies using the volume buttons on the back. In terms of performance, we would place the ZenFone 2’s shooter closer to the OnePlus One than to the Mi 4 – those who love detail will like the camera while those looking for eye-popping colours will be a bit disappointed. Honestly, given how good the ZenFone 5 had been in its price segment, we had expected a bit more from the ZenFone 2’s camera. We are not saying that it is bad – it can churn out some very good results in good light conditions, but it is not really a stand out performer.

Camera Samples

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And frankly, we have the same to say of Asus’ Zen UI. Yes, the company has added stacks of new features to it, but we think it might just have erred on the generous side here. Used simply, it is a very good Android overlay, but try and get deep into it and it starts getting complicated – a classic example is the never ending notifications bar, which not only gives you alerts from emails and social networks but also reveals a number of settings icons if pulled down further. We also found ourselves at our wits’ end with the default keyboard, although changing to the classic Google Android keyboard fixed that. There are some very neat touches though – we loved the option to double tap on the home button to shrink the business area of the display to a more manageable-by-one-hand-size and also to further resize the display in that mode, if needed. No, ZenUI is not going to jump out at you the way MIUI does (Asus needs to work on wallpapers, themes and icons, although we loved the very cute Bunny Angie theme) or is not going to be as easy to tweak as Cyanogen, but on the flip side, it works just fine and seems to be a lot less resource hungry than some of the competition.

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We did have the odd occasion of the phone heating up a bit when we left the camera running or played Asphalt, and truth be told, we had expected a bit more from the battery which saw us through a day of mailing, browsing, some gaming, and a few photography sessions, but would start wobbling towards the evening and would need careful handling from there onwards. But in terms of performance, there were hardly any stutters – not even when we had something like 25 apps running at the same time and were playing FIFA 2015 on it. We don’t know whether it is the 4 GB RAM that does it or the processor or if the UI is well-designed. What we DO know is that in terms of sheer consistency, this Zen(Fone) is in a Zone of its own. We have seen phones take better pictures, last for longer on a single charge, and have better displays, but in terms of sheer solid performance, especially when you look at routine tasks, the ZenFone 2 pretty much lays down a new benchmark in its price segment. And well above it too.

Conclusion

It has decent benchmark scores, it ticks most performance boxes, and well, the Asus ZenFone 2 (the 32 GB, 4 GB RAM version, 2.3 GHz processor version) does all this at a price that is only slightly above that of the 16 GB fixed memory avatars of the likes of the Xiaomi Mi 4 and the OnePlus One – Rs 19,999. No, it does not exactly blow your mind away by its magnificent design, stunning display or amazing performance, but the ZenFone 2 grows on you. And it does so because unlike many Android devices out there, it simply does not seem to slow down or stutter. It is not going to turn heads in rooms. It won’t make geeks sigh with delight at its record breaking performance. It won’t take on and batter point and shoot cameras into submission.

No, the ZenFone 2 will just go on and on. In its calm manner. And it is only when you have been using it for a while that you will notice the absence of slow downs, hangs and the fact that you can keep almost any number of apps running in the background without worrying about the phone stuttering.

We had a saying in Indian cricket: if you want flashy strokes, go for Virender Sehwag; if you want lots of runs at a fantastic pace, go for Sachin Tendulkar; if there’s a crisis, ask for VVS Laxman; but if you want sheer, inexorable, unflappable consistency, come hell or high water, go down on your knees and pray for Rahul Dravid.

The Asus ZenFone 2 is like that. It does not do the spectacular. But it does routine like no other Android phone does. It might not be utterly outstanding in any one department but performs across many like few of its competitors do. This is a warrior with no noticeable Achilles Heel. People will say the Xiaomi Mi 4 has a better camera and display, the OnePlus One has a more customisable interface, the Honour 6 Plus a more eye catching design. Those with the Asus ZenFone 2 will however, claim to be unacquainted with the word ‘slow down’ and ‘inconsistency’. They will not flaunt their phones as much as those with other brands, but it is a fair chance that they will use them heavily. Simply because the phone just is so consistent in terms of performance.

The world of smartphones has found its Rahul Dravid.

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Associate Editor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.