So after using the +ASUS Zenfone 2 (64GB storage / 4GB RAM) for a few days, I have some initial reactions to the hardware and the software. Summary: It's a really nice phone for $299.
The Zenfone 2 is an interesting beast mostly because it boasts a 2.3GHz Intel Atom Z3580 quad-core processor with 4GB of RAM (pretty much unheard of in the realm of Android phones). All its other specs -- 5.5" 1080p display, microSD expansion, 3,000mAH non-removable battery, etc. -- are pretty much par for the course for high-end Android phones these days. You can see a full rundown of specs at http://www.asus.com/Phones/ZenFone_2_ZE551ML/specifications/
On the hardware front, other noteworthy features include dual-SIM card support (something increasingly common outside North America) and an IPS display covered in Corning's Gorilla Glass 3. That said, you can read about specs all day on other sites. I'm going to focus here more on the user experience.
Hardware-wise, the phone is thicker than the OnePlus One I used to have. But, because of the slightly rounded back and slightly shorter (although wider) aspect ratio, it seems to fit in my pocket better. The rounded back does make it slightly annoying to use when laying on a table --- it tends to rock a bit when you're tapping on the screen.
The Zenfone 2's volume buttons are on the back, much like the LG G-series phones. I am still getting used to this, but I haven't yet figured out why this is an advantage. It might be easier to design around, but I find myself unconsciously hunting around the edges of the phone to adjust the volume. I'm sure I'll get used to it, but it makes me wonder why they did that.
The camera seems good, if not excellent. I really haven't had enough time to make a thorough investigation of it, but the few snapshots I've made with it (including this one: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-7mEEozVXYeI/VV-9IzYcLMI/AAAAAAABh5c/Q3ML7Wu_4DY/w643-h857-no/P_20150522_154306.jpg
) look really good. Will post more about it later. It maxes out at 13MP on the rear and 5MP on the front.
One of the features that the Zenfone has that I really like is screen gestures. For example, a double-tap on the screen will wake the phone up. Drawing a 'c' on the screen will wake the phone up and launch the camera. Drawing an 'e' on the screen will wake the phone up and launch the email app. And so on. And, unlike the OnePlus One's attempt at this feature, it actually works really well on the Zenfone 2.
My only real gripes about the hardware are minor ones. The textured area below the menu buttons reflect light in a way that changes constantly, and it distracts my eye from the screen. It's attractive, but unnecessary -- the engineer in me disapproves. More functionally, however, is the fact that the menu buttons (back, home, and recent apps) are not backlit. They're just silkscreened on. So, if you're using the phone in the dark, you'll have to rely on muscle memory to initiate any of those commands.
When it comes to software, the phone is mostly a stock Android 5.0 Lollipop experience, but with a lot (I estimate about 45) of additional apps included. Many of them, such as Calendar, Email, Gallery, and File Manager, are typical OEM substitutes and things you'll probably ignore in favor of whatever apps you've adopted to fill those roles. It's very much like Samsung in that regard, but I actually think Asus' apps work better and look better than Samsung's do (which often tend to want to reinforce Samsung's own ecosystem at the expense of functionality...but I digress).
However, Asus has included a whole suite of utilities that could be useful in getting the most performance out of your Zenfone 2. For example, Auto-start manager lets you see a list of apps that are set to start up every time you restart your phone, and then close down the ones you don't want to have immediately accessible. Power Saver is a power-management utility, specifically built to support the Zenfone's hardware. AudioWizard is an audio-settings profile manager on steroids, and Splendid helps you tweak the display's color profile for various use cases. All told, they're nice looking and totally usable -- not typical for OEM apps, I've found. Granted, many of these functions can be found in 3rd-party apps, but it's nice to have decent ones already on the device that you know are 100% compatible.
During setup, the Zenfone 2 invokes a handy, albeit limited, Data Transfer wizard that made transferring accounts from my Nexus 5 to the Zenfone really easy -- I wasn't forced to recall account emails and passwords for the various accounts tied to my phone. But that was all it did -- it didn't bring over app lists or text messages or photos, so it is definitely limited in its usefulness.
The default launcher, called Home, is also an Asus development. It's nice. Not overly powerful, but tidy and reasonably full-featured. If you've spent hours customizing a 3rd-party launcher to fit your needs, this probably won't supplant that, but I find it completely adequate for my needs.
In terms of usage, the Zenfone 2 is mostly excellent, but with one big weakness. I'll talk about the weakness first. The Zenfone, because it uses the Intel Atom CPU, relies on a PowerVR G6430 for graphics support. Maybe Android apps just haven't been optimized for this hardware, but I found that graphics-intensive games lagged a little and juddering was pronounced when moving around quickly in games like Clash of Clans. I ran the phone through a couple of benchmark apps (AnTuTu and Quadrant) and they both showed that the graphics subsystem was not quite as swift as other premium Android smartphones out today. So, if you're buying an Android phone and intend to do serious gaming on it, I would recommend sticking with one that uses either the Adreno 420 or Tegra K1 for graphics.
Now, the good: Everything else. Just using
the phone for, you know, phone stuff,
it felt great. Everything happened very quickly, it was responsive, and changing screens and moving items around happened very fluidly without any graphic or performance lag that I noticed. The storage and memory chips in this phone are quite fast and writing and reading operations seem to happen about as quickly as you could hope for. I was 100% pleased until I started with the graphics-intensive games (which are still playable), so if you don't do those much, if at all, then you probably will feel the Zenfone performs like a champ.
How well Asus will do in terms of keeping the Zenfone 2 current with Android OS and other software updates remains to be seen. The phone already had two OS updates waiting for it when I got it out of the box, so hopefully that's a good sign.
All told, I'm pretty impressed. Except for gaming graphics performance, the Zenfone 2 is a really
nice premium smartphone that offers a compelling combination of hardware and software for an incredible price. At $299 for the 4GB model (which also has a faster CPU), it's hard to find a better value for the dollar.