How do you make a smartphone stand out from the crowd? In the case of Asus’ new handset, the ZenFone 9, the answer is not to stand out but to be small. Small and powerful. Has Asus cracked the oft-forgotten code to building a compact flagship? I’ve spent time with the handset ahead of today’s launch to find out.
Summing up the Asus ZenFone 9 is pretty straightforward. It’s a small smartphone that sports flagship specifications. Unpacking that takes a bit more time.
Compared to the current pack of smartphones, the ZenFone 9 is a small smartphone. The 5.9 inch display is designed so the handset can sit comfortably in one hand and fit in any reasonably sized pocket. The phone is thicker than the current fashion, accentuated by the two huge camera lens rims.
The package feels right, though. There’s a good amount of heft to it, and the thicker styling means this phone does not feel as fragile in my hands. It sports IP68 water and dust resistance and uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus for the display.
Speaking of that display, it’s a custom 120 Hz refreshing AMOLED screen supplied by Samsung Display. It runs up to 1100 nits with a bright and colourful screen… thankfully the font can be zoomed in a little bit more to help with my ageing eyes.
The ZenFone 9 takes many of the lessons of the ZenFone 8 and builds on them, the biggest lesson will be the existence of a market for this balance of form and function. There is a certain inevitability of the specs (so last year’s Snapdragon 888 is renovated with the latest Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 system on chip); memory and storage options are again an expected 8/128, 8/256, or 16/256 for memory and storage, and there’s more stability in the camera housing.
All in all, everything feels right. The size gives it a feel of a pocketable phone rather than a very small tablet that some flagship ultra models seem to be striving for. The textured rear surface offers more than enough tactile resistance to offer a secure and stable fit in the hand. In use there doesn’t feel like any stretch when using it. It’s very comfortable.
The significant change over the ZenFone 8 come with the camera. There’s no attempt to pack in a ridiculous number of lenses. Instead we get a pretty standard feeling 12-megapixel ultrawide camera and a 50-megapixel main camera. While the ZenFone 8’s primary camera sported one axis of optical image stabilisation, the ZenFone 9 will work in x, y, and z six, allowing the lens to effectively float in place while taking a picture. This allows more light and, therefore, more detail to be captured, and you can see that in the pictures, although there’s a touch more processing on the images than I would. The look tends away from the natural feel I prefer.
There’s no telephoto lens, which you might expect to see on a regular high-end handset. No doubt this is down to the physical lack of space in the move to a smaller handset. It’s an evident compromise that consumers can balance for themselves against the small size. Would I trade a telephoto for the ultrawide? I think so, but that’s down to the large number of cat pictures I take, and a telephoto helps me get closer in.
Finally, there’s the battery. Asus have a 4300 mAh battery in the svelte package. It does feel like this was going to be an area Asus decided it would not compromises on, and you will easily get through a typical day, even with some gaming in the mix. I reckon with careful choice of apps and use you’ll get two working days from the phone if required.
Charging wise, the box ships with a 30W charger – which is far less than some other Android smartphones coming out at the moment, but it’s on a par with Apple’s iPhone options. In terms of charging time, you’re looking at around an hour from empty to full.
One other compromise made here is the lack of wireless charging. That’s something I am particularly fond of, but that’s not widely accepted as important. Balanced against the ZenFone 9 being careful with battery usage, the larger battery makes more sense given the focus of the handset.
Asus’ implementation of Android is called ZenUI. It’s very lightly altered on the surface, and you might be led to think that you are using stock Android. What you find is that more settings and tweaks available allow you to better use your environment. Asus has brought over its Game Genie software from its ROG Republic of Gamers gaming phones to bolster the gaming experience on the handset… it’s not a full-blown gaming phone, but it helps get a bit more out of the big brand gaming titles.
Asus has also put in a lot of work on the audio side of things, with audio tuning by specialists Dirac and a customisable graphic equaliser to tweak it to your tastes.
Two features are worth calling out. The first is the one-handed mode, which brings the top edge of the screen down so that a thumb can reach all the controls as needed before being flicked back up into place.
The second is the power button, or as Asus have branded it, the smart key. Not only does this house the fingerprint sensor and act as the power button, but you can also swipe it up or down to activate a customised function, with a long press and double click offering two more functions. This makes the UI feel far more personal, and you can drive around your key apps quickly with minimal physical movement.
“It’s a small smartphone that sports flagship specifications” The Asus ZenFone delivers on that mission statement. The two big compromises are the lack of wireless charging and a missing telephoto lens. Both make sense, although they do impact a subset of users. The latter is becoming more popular and seen as de rigour for a flagship or flagship apeing handset, but it’s a luxury for others.
The camera choice is more challenging. Smartphones are marketed around their cameras, and any weakness here has a stronger drag than most other areas of a phone. The lack of a telephoto lens won’t be noticed in close circumstances (the family home, out for a night at the pub), but even there are times this feature is needed. Digital zoom is not a replacement. Coupled with the software which, while above average, doesn’t quite meet the flexibility of an Apple, a Samsung, or a Google, the camera is the weakest part of the whole package.
But the rest of the package is strong, so if the camera is not at the top of your priority list, good enough is enough. And there is a lot to like. It’s hard to get away from the size of the ZenFone 9, the top-end chip, the bright and vivid screen.
Sometimes a compromise doesn’t feel like a compromise at all.