Review: Asus Zenfone Zoom – smartphone that’s all about the camera

Taiwanese manufacturer deserves credit for trying something new, but exposure issues and poor low-light performance let this phone down. The innovative lens technology it uses is likely to make a return, though

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 1:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 February, 2016, 3:43pm

As its name suggests, the main selling point of the Asus Zenfone Zoom is its camera, advertised as having the ability to zoom in without sacrificing quality or size. And judging by the larger-than-usual camera on the back of the phone, it sure looks the part. Can Asus craft a niche in the crowded market for Android smartphones?

Design and specs

On first impression, this is a premium product. The phone has a leather-on-plastic back cover, with a chassis that looks metallic, shiny and chamfered. While it appears slim at first, I soon realise it’s actually quite thick by today’s standards (that added camera bulk makes it 12mm, compared to the iPhone 6S’ 7.1mm). Credit to Asus’ design team for creating the illusion of a slimmer phone via a tapered back.

The guts, however, are a letdown. The Zoom feature is powered by the Intel Atom Z3580, which was new ... in 2014. Two years in the smartphone world is a lifetime.

Camera

With a 13-megapixel camera and an innovative periscopic zoom lens, the Zoom appears on paper to have the perfect combination. The periscopic zoom lens, instead of protruding outwards like the lens of a conventional camera, moves laterally across the chassis to get more light through the optics.

During the day, the camera does its job. On auto mode, colours appear accurate, though detail can be sparse and therefore objects appear more soft than sharp. At full optical (lossless) zoom, the camera gets 3x closer to the subject (with a lossless zoom, unlike a digital zoom, magnification results in only a negligible loss in quality). This gives you more detail, but grain becomes a little more visible, and the edges are still soft. It appears the softness is caused by minor overexposure (where excess light is being let into the optics), so for things that reflect light particularly well, like white objects, the issue is quite noticeable.

The camera tries to compensate for the loss of detail on zoom with a feature dubbed “super resolution”, which artificially fills in the blanks and sharpens edges. Digitally altering a photo is not the ideal solution, but could be he difference between legible text and a blob of squiggly lines, for example.

Unfortunately, the camera disappoints in low-light situations. In Auto mode it tries to compensate for the darkness to reduce the amount of noise. Noise is not as big a problem as graininess, but this doesn’t improve the quality of your shots.

The resolution is also forced down to 2080 x 1170 (2.4 megapixels) in order to reduce noise and the ISO is cranked up to increase sensitivity to light.

Conclusion

Considering that the camera is this phone’s top selling point, it is undoubtedly a disappointment. Asus deserves some kudos for having the courage to try something new – that periscopic zoom design will make a return in the future, possibly in an improved (slimmer) implementation and paired with better optics. The void in the smartphone lossless optical zoom space remains unfilled.

The Asus Zenfone Zoom, with a 64GB memory, sells for HK$3,499.