ASUS ZenFone 8 review: A small flagship phone filling big boots
Design & Handling, Display & Audio, User Interface
Note: This review was first published on 14 June 2021.
Cornering the compact flagship segment
While we’ve been treated to flashy, powerful ROG Phones by ASUS of late, the Taiwanese tech brand was quieter on the mainstream phone front - until this year. ASUS was chuffed to announce and bring the ASUS ZenFone 8 to the Singapore market. In its product introduction, the brand said that it not only packs the highest-end parts that make a flagship phone, but also several key features that make it ideal for folks who don’t want massive phones.
That’s right - the ASUS ZenFone 8, despite packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chipset within, has a really small and compact body. It’s even smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S21 and just a touch larger than the Apple iPhone 12 Mini, making it one of the smallest Android flagship alternatives from 2021 we have here. You could probably say Android fans who've been hugging a Samsung Galaxy S10e, now finally have a high-end compact phone that doesn't skimp on flagship experiences. ASUS also piled on several optimisations, like One-Handed Mode, to make the phone’s design language sensible for folks who like their phones small and powerful.
The ZenFone series also saw some grafting of the ROG Phone heritage to its series. In a bid to stay competitive, ZenFone 8 offers an 1080p AMOLED display that not only has 120Hz refresh rate, but also 240Hz touch response rate and 1ms response time. So, if you like having a super responsive phone that’s also great at graphics, ZenFone 8 has that corner covered.
If the past is any indication, ASUS also prides itself on its phones' imaging quality. This time, ZenFone 8 offers a triple camera system (dual rear, single front) that uses Sony IMX sensors across all modules. The 64MP main camera is backed by a Sony IMX686, while the 12MP ultra-wide camera has a Sony IMX363. The front camera is also 12MP and it runs on a Sony IMX663 sensor. It’s not as crazily outfitted as many other Android alternatives, so it’s really down to testing to see if ZenFone 8 holds up for photography.
The greatest drawbacks to small phones are the limits of size. Not only will we be paying attention to any trade-offs in favour of miniaturisation, but the ZenFone 8 can also only fit a 4,000mAh battery with 30W fast-charging (same battery size as the Galaxy S21 base model). Also, ZenFones have had a history of having strange or bloated user experiences thanks to its love for packing in one-trick ponies, so we’re also on the lookout for that, too.
Will the S$999 ASUS ZenFone 8 hold up in a competitive market with the likes of Xiaomi Mi 11, Samsung Galaxy S21, and other S$1,000+/- alternatives threatening to deny its return? Is the ASUS ZenFone 8 even a good, flagship-grade compact phone for the Android camp? Let’s find out.
|ASUS ZenFone 8|
Design & Handling
Durability and comfort are at the forefront of the ZenFone 8’s appearance and handling. ASUS is very insistent that users know it’s optimised for one-handed use through its form factor and interface tweaks.
It’s dimensions (148 x 68.5 x 8.9mm) makes it one of the most compact modern Android smartphones available in Singapore. It’s slightly smaller than the regular Samsung Galaxy S21, and the closest physical match to a ZenFone 8 is the Google Pixel 4a (144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm). While the Pixel 4a is mid-range phone, the real comparison would be against an even more compact phone from Samsung, the Galaxy S10e (142.2 x 69.9 x 7.9 mm), which is a true compact flaghip Android from 2019 that hasn't seen a suitable candidate to displace its class, until now. Despite the ZenFone 8's tad larger dimensions, it truly fits in one average-sized hand that there’s no need to stretch your opposable thumb to reach the other side of the screen.
The same thumb can cover about 75% of the screen’s length. Despite its compact size, the ZenFone 8 is still larger than an Apple iPhone 12 Mini, making the ASUS flagship feel less claustrophobic than Apple’s during use.
The added touch to comfort comes from ASUS’s One-Handed Mode. Flicking a finger downwards at the display’s bottom end would bring the upper extremities of the app down - within thumb’s reach. It’s almost identical to the iPhone’s Reachability display - only that the latter is triggered by double-tapping the bottom instead of swiping down. One-Handed Mode is applied throughout the phone’s interface, so it works on non-app functions, like accessing the Quick Settings pull-down menu.
One-Handed Mode’s height (or rather, the amount it pulls down) can be customised under the Settings app. Simply go to Advanced, and then tapping on the words One-Handed Mode (not the toggle), followed by Change Height Settings. The lowest it goes is mid-way of the screen’s length, with room to reduce the amount it drops down. Hitting the toggle would disable the feature entirely if you’re not keen on using it.
ZenFone 8 uses a plastic rear with frosted glass appearance, and a matte aluminium frame. Both are popular material choices for flagship Android phones consummate with its asking price.
The extra touch comes from the front panel, which uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass Victus for added scratch resistance. The rear’s glass panel uses Gorilla Glass 3. For comparison, the Mi 11 also had the same glass technology at the front, but the Xiaomi phone uses a newer and more durable Gorilla Glass 5 for the rear.
What the ZenFone 8 does have against the Mi 11 is IP65/IP68 rating, a feature we’ve come to expect in any smartphone that calls itself flagship-grade.
All in all, ZenFone 8 has a very safe and comfortable design, if a little dated, when placed next to other splashy, high-end handsets like the ROG Phone 5.
Display & Audio
A small phone begets a small display. The ASUS ZenFone 8 has a 5.9-inch, Samsung E4 AMOLED display rated at 2,400 x 1,080 pixels resolution. That works out to a pixel density of 445 PPI, making it plenty sharp to the eye.
The display also packs plenty of features worthy of its flagship status. It has 120Hz refresh rate, 240Hz touch sampling rate, 112% reproduction of DCI-P3, 151.9% of sRGB colour gamut, with a ΔE of less than 1.0. In English, that means the ZenFone 8’s display is not only super responsive and fluid, but it’s also colour-accurate enough for professional use. The cherry on top is the certification for HDR10 and HDR10+, making it suitable for HDR streamed content from your favourite video-watching platforms.
Unlike most flagship Android phones with adaptive refresh rates that only goes up to 120Hz when called upon, the ZenFone 8 offers toggles to fix the display’s refresh rate at 60Hz, 90Hz, and 120Hz. This granularity is on top of offering a default “Auto” toggle which refreshes based on the app’s intensity (e.g. text-based or apps brings it down to 30Hz). It’s great having control over refresh rates, but know that forcing 120Hz is likely going to deplete your battery faster than usual. If you’re coming from other modern Android phones, most of them have adaptive refresh rates enabled by default.
The ZenFone 8 features two linear speakers that have dual Cirrus Logic Mono amplifiers. At the same time, its 3.5mm audio jack is further supported by a built-in Qualcomm Aqstic DAC (one of the perks of using SD888). For us, having a 3.5mm headphone port is a nice touch, even if we’ve come to terms with wireless personal audio (ZenFone 8 offers Bluetooth 5.2).
UI & Features
Given the phone’s size, One-Handed Mode is arguably the most important software feature of the ZenFone 8. However, we’ve covered that under the Handling portion of our review.
That leaves us with the rest of the ZenFone 8, which comes with Android 11 cloaked under ZenUI - the brand’s proprietary user interface for its smartphones and tablets. The current version of ZenUI is the cleanest smartphone UI we’ve seen out of ASUS thus far, because it retains some of stock Android 11’s design and ‘bloatware’ was kept to a minimum. The UI is slightly cleaner than the 2018 ZenFone 5, with the ZenFone 8 using a neutral palette and bold primary colours.
ASUS’s onboarded apps aren’t very intrusive since they offer additional functions. For example, ASUS ShareMe is a local file transfer app that uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, without needing to go online. ASUS Data Transfer facilitates importing and exporting between old and new Android/iOS devices. There are also extra file management and video player apps, but they can be easily removed if you’re already comfortable with ASUS’s or Google’s default ones.
A small, yet notable feature is Smart Key. In typical Android devices, the Power button is usually not customisable - either it locks and powers off the phone, or it can be used to summon its voice assistant when held down (usually Google Assistant). ZenFone 8’s power button can be programmed to bring two shortcuts instead of Google Assistant. The shortcuts let you fire up an app of your choice, or to do an action (like toggling your hotspot/Wi-Fi, taking a screenshot, enabling or disabling auto-rotation, etc.). This feature is hidden under Settings > Advanced > Smart Key.
An odd behaviour on the ZenFone 8 lies in the phone’s default wake-up routine. When in standby, the ZenFone 8 will show its always-on display, and you need to hit the Power button once to begin unlocking your device. The delay between AOD and proper lock screen is almost a full second, which is unlike other Android or iOS smartphones - auto-wake upon pick-up, or near-instant wake after pressing the button.
If you want a more seamless user experience with the ZenFone 8, we highly recommend enabling both “double-tap to wake up” and “swipe up to wake-up” under the the Gestures sub-menu of Settings app. These are display commands that bypass the Lock button. The delay in waking the phone up with either of those options is also much shorter than the wait after hitting the Lock button.
The actual unlocking itself (PIN, in-display fingerprint sensor, and face recognition) were all otherwise fast and responsive. NFC itself had no hitches either.
The ZenFone 8 has two SIM card slots for folks on two mobile plans, but the phone lacks a microSD card slot. Recent Android alternatives like the Xiaomi Mi 11, Vivo X60 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S21 also do not have physical expandable storage, so it’s a trend we’re seeing in phones of late.