They might have been claiming to match and even outdo ‘proper’ cameras for a while now, but phone manufacturers know that even the most humble point and shooter in tech town has something that most phone cameras do not – the optical zoom. Stripped of jargon, optical zoom lets you get closer to the subject of your photograph, without you having to move an inch or even having to compromise on image quality. Seen those cameras in which the lens protrudes whenever someone zooms in? That is optical zoom. The bit of camera magic that lets you get close to a subject without losing detail or image quality.
And that, alas, is something that has been a bit of a pain for smartphone manufacturers. For no matter how good the lens and sensors they place within their cameras, optical zoom has been cited as a shortcoming time and again. Companies have been trying to tackle this in different ways – Nokia tried to bring in lossless zoom in its PureView series, allowing users to crop large resolution images, while Samsung literally added a lens that extended and retracted to the Galaxy Zoom series of phones. The former solution was too complex and laggy, the latter aesthetically displeasing for phone users. So optical zoom was something of a bridge that smartphone users simply could not cross without compromising either on speed or appearance.
Well, Asus is the latest to try its hand at getting an optical zoom into a phone – the rather appropriately named Asus ZenFone Zoom. And rather commendably, the company has tried to do so without compromising in terms of design and performance. No, we would not say that the ZenFone Zoom has a pathbreaking design – if anything, it is a little on the large and bulky side, with a length of 158.9 mm and a less-than-svelte thickness of 11.95 mm (the much-publicised 5mm thickness is that of the aluminium frame all around the phone – the rear, alas protrudes beyond that). The front follows the Asus ZenFone template that we have now got accustomed to: the Asus logo above the (5.5-inch) full HD display with Corning Gorilla Glass 4, three touch buttons beneath the display and the shiny trademark concentric circle pattern on the ‘chin’ at the lower part of the front.
That is where the familiarity with recent ZenFone models ends, though. For unlike in most ZenFone models released of late, the volume rocker is not at the back of the phone, but on the more conventional right hand side, and just below it are three keys, the first of which is the power/display button, but it is the two on the lower part of the side that give away the core competence of the device – a small, dot-like button that lets you switch between video and still mode and a camera shutter button below it. Right you are – those two rarely-seen buttons betray the fact that this phone has a camera that is considered special (more on that later). The left side is totally bare, the base has the micro USB port and bang on top is the 3.5 mm audio jack.
The back of the phone however is easily its most striking part. Not only does it feature a rather large circle with steel accents within which are the camera, dual LED flash and laser focus, but it is also made of “burnished leather,” and even has a token (very token) grip at the base. For those interested, the back does come off to reveal a non-removable 3000 mAh battery, an expandable memory card and a SIM card slot (4G is supported, fear not). Some might find the back classy because of the leather touch but we are not sure we do – that said, it cannot be denied that it does make the phone very easy to grip and does not pick up smudges and scratches. And yes, it does look a lot better than the faux leather we have seen on some devices. We doubt if it will turn heads with its appearance – it looks rather routine, to be brutally blunt – but it feels very solid and is smart enough. .
The spec merchants might notice the iconic “Intel Inside” logo near the camera unit – yes, this is indeed and Intel device, and is powered by an Intel Z3590 64-bit processor, backed up by 4 GB RAM. It comes with 128 GB storage, which is expandable using that memory card slot. Connectivity options include 4G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS. And the phone supports Fast Charge too. The display as we pointed out before is a full HD one and has an impressive 403 ppi pixel density. Rather surprisingly, Asus has stuck with Android 5.0, heavily skinned with its ZenUI interface. An update is in the works, evidently – and in our opinion, it cannot come fast enough: such high-end hardware does deserve a newer OS.
But what makes the ZenFone Zoom special is the camera on its rear. A 13.0-megapixel affair, it comes with a 10-element lens from HOYA, and four stage image optical stabilisation (more steady pictures even in low light, in simple English), several shooting modes, and most remarkably, a 3X optical zoom that does not jut out when used. Yes, you can actually zoom in without losing image quality and without the lens moving out from the phone’s body when you do so. This is evidently made possible by what Asus claims is a periscopic lens arrangement. And judging from our first few days with the device, it does seem to work (there will be a camera review, rest assured). It also somehow makes the phone appear a lot less bulky than our first impression of it was – remember how those optical zooms jutted out of the Galazy Zoom devices!? This is indeed the first phone with an optical zoom that manages to look more like a phone than a camera with calling stuffed into it!
It has the specs, it feels solid to hold and its 185 grammes weight, while heavy for a phone, is definitely reassuring for a device that claims to being as much camera as phone. The question of course, is whether it lives up to its rather tall “DSLR level camera, PC-grade performance” boast. At Rs 37,999, it is the most expensive Asus ZenFone we have ever used, and goes up against some very high-profile competition, not least the great Nexus 6P itself. Stay tuned for our detailed review, and of course, our look at its camera. And that zoom. Pun intended.