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ASUS Zenfone 9 Review: Android's Answer to the iPhone Mini

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ASUS is making a case for small phones to make a comeback with the Zenfone 9.

ASUS Zenfone 9
€799
Rating
star star star star star
Pros
  • Compact Size (even smaller than its predecessor)
  • Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 inside
  • Impressive battery life
  • Charger still included in the box
  • Headphone jack
  • Upgraded cameras
Cons
  • Display refresh rate can feel a bit jumpy at times
  • Not available in the US yet, with no indication of when

ASUS sent over a review unit of the Zenfone 9 for us to review, we’ve been using it for about 10 days before writing this review. This is the 16GB/256GB model, and it is on version WW_32.2004.2004.78 of its software.

Last year, when ASUS announced the Zenfone 8, many of us were shocked at the size of the phone. Especially when compared to the capabilities of that phone, and of course the battery life. Now, ASUS is back with another small phone. The Zenfone 9 is somehow smaller than the Zenfone 8 (about 2% smaller), however the battery is larger, the cameras are larger, and the thermal material is also larger.

So I guess the real question here is, is this the best compact smartphone ever made? Let’s answer that in our full review.

One of the best displays we’ve seen in 2022

It’s not the best display, but one of the best. Samsung always takes that “best display” crown, since it makes the displays and keeps the best for their own phones. But this is a Samsung AMOLED panel. It’s a 5.9-inch FHD+ display that is also a 120Hz display. So as you can expect, the colors are nice and vibrant, and the display gets pretty bright too.

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ASUS claims 1100 nits of peak brightness, that’s still below what Samsung offers, but it does work well in direct sunlight. During this current heatwave, I have used it outside quite a bit, and had no issues seeing it with the sun glaring down on the screen.

There is one complaint I have about the screen, and this should be fixable with a software update. When scrolling on things like Twitter, Instagram and such, the screen seems to do a lot of jumping around. It’s almost as if you are seeing the screen jump from 60 to 90 to 120Hz in real-time. It makes for a janky experience. Fortunately, a fix for it right now, is to set the refresh rate to either 120 or 90Hz, or 60Hz if you really want to conserve battery life. Keep in mind that this is still pre-release software, so things can change before retail units go out.

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Small phone, small compromises

It’s a small phone, so that means lots of compromises right? Wrong. There’s virtually no compromises here, besides this having a small display. But ASUS has made sure to make this mostly all display. It is a 5.9-inch display, with a 90.02% screen-to-body ratio. Which is rather impressive for such a small phone.

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The build quality here is, dare I say, better than the Zenfone 8. The big difference that ASUS made with the Zenfone 9 was to ditch the curved sides and back. So it’s now flat, which also improves durability. But more importantly, that gives ASUS more space inside which can be used for a larger battery, larger cameras and more thermal material. Which is what ASUS has done. Sure, they are copying the iPhone here, but it’s a good thing.

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Unlike the iPhone, the Zenfone 9 does not have sharp corners where the sides and the back or front meet. Which makes it feel a lot more comfortable in the hand, compared to my iPhone 13 Pro Max. Of course, a big part of that is the size and weight.

ASUS went with a textured material on the back, one that reminds me of sandstone from OnePlus. Though, I have noticed that it does wear in a bit, kind of like leather. Just after a week of use, I can see it starting to wear on the edges.

Surprisingly, ASUS kept the headphone jack, though it’s at the top, when it should be on the bottom. But it is here, and that is great to see. Additionally, the USB-C port, speaker and microphone are all on the bottom. ASUS went with dual speakers, using that bottom speaker and the earpiece.

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Sound is top-notch

Despite not adding Dolby Atmos here, the Zenfone 9 has impressive sound quality. ASUS has added their own software for adjusting the sound called, AudioWizard. This defaults to Dynamic, which will automatically give you the best sound experience for music, videos and gaming. It’s tuned by Dirac, which is a very popular company amongst audiophiles.

While I would have rather have Dolby Atmos here, this is not a dealbreaker.

Power button = fingerprint sensor

Last year, the Zenfone 8 had an in-display fingerprint sensor, the ROG Phone 6 that was released earlier this month also had one under the display. So color me surprised when ASUS told us it is in the power button for the Zenfone 9.

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The power button scanner is by far the best way to implement a fingerprint sensor. It’s fast, you press that button to turn on the display anyways, and you don’t have to worry about pressing in the right spot.

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Because of that, the power button is flat, and concave. It does take a second to get used to, but just feeling for the button is enough to unlock the Zenfone 9 anyways. So it’s not an issue at all. I really wish more phones went this route instead of using the in-display sensor.

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The Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 is a beast

As far as performance goes here on the Zenfone 9, there’s no complaints. None whatsoever.

The Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 performs beautifully, and I did not see any issues with this processor. It would tend to get hot after watching videos for a long time (normally close to an hour at full brightness). So it’ll definitely get hot during some intense gaming sessions.

With 16GB of RAM, apps being killed in the background shouldn’t be an issue, but it is. I’ve noticed a few times that TikTok would reload after opening a couple of other apps, instead of just staying in the background. Sure, TikTok isn’t the most lightweight app out there, but with 16GB of RAM, it should not need to reload about 5 minutes after last using it. So it appears that ASUS is prematurely killing background apps, before it actually needs that extra RAM.

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Otherwise, performance is great. And that’s how it should be with the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 and 16GB of RAM here.

Battery life has gotten even better

Battery life on the Zenfone 9 has somehow, improved over the Zenfone 8. Which is surprising since there is a more power-hungry chip inside, and the battery is only 7.5% bigger. But, I’ve been getting better numbers than I did with the Zenfone 8. So that’s impressive.

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With the Zenfone 8, I was able to cross seven hours of on-screen time, but only when it was near 10%. With the Zenfone 9, I was able to do that with still about 35-40% left on the charge. So it could easily hit 10 hours on a single charge. Now that is impressive. Nevermind the size of the Zenfone 9, most phones struggle to hit 10 hours, even with a massive battery.

ASUS has also added some features to make charging your Zenfone 9 easier, and better on the battery. Like Scheduled Charging, which will keep the battery at a lower state of charge overnight, so it is not trickle charging at 100% for hours on end. That helps to reduce stress on the battery.

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Needless to say, you won’t need to charge this phone throughout the day. Just charge it at night, and you’re good to go.

ZenUI 9 is basically stock Android with a few features sprinkled in

Since ASUS has really stepped back and changed its approach to smartphones, we’ve seen them doing a lot of good things. Like limiting how many models they release each year. Now we’re down to a single Zenfone and the ROG Phone. Two very niche markets that ASUS wants to take a hold of.

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They also changed their approach to software. I remember on early Zenfone models, the ZenUI was pretty overpowering. But now, it’s basically stock Android, with a few ZenUI features sprinkled in. You get things like Material You here, which will change the accents to match your wallpaper.

ASUS also allows you to change up the Smart Key (aka the power button). So you can choose what it does when you press twice or press and hold. For example, I set it to press and hold for the Google Assistant, and press twice to open the camera. So I can quickly access both of those.

There’s a few other features that ASUS has added in under “Advanced” in Settings. Like Game Genie. This brings over some features from its ROG Phone 6, where you can get real-time info management, navigation blocking, and more. To give you a better gaming experience on the Zenfone 9. It even forecasts remaining time on the battery, based on your gaming. Which is really useful.

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But there is one issue with the software here. And it’s something we used to complain about with Samsung and its software, so we can’t give ASUS a pass here either. And that’s duplicate apps. Just opening the App Drawer, I see two Clocks, two Calculators, and two Contacts apps. Sure you can disable these, but if you’re going to go fully stock Android, you don’t need to recreate some of these very basic apps.

At first, I thought I was crazy here. As I don’t recall this being an issue last year on the Zenfone 8. And while I don’t still have the phone to check, I did check my review, and nope, it was not an issue last year. So maybe this is just a pre-release software issue. Or perhaps an issue from me copying over my content from my Pixel 6 Pro. Which if that is the issue, then this is something a lot of people will run into.

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Nevertheless, the software here is really good. It’s snappy, which is what you’d expect on a Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1, but it’s good to see. And ASUS allows you to force everything into dark mode, which is really nice.

Nice improvements to the camera

Over the years, ASUS smartphones have never been known for their cameras. I’ve been reviewing the Zenfone since the Zenfone 2 came out in 2015 (and ran on an Intel processor!), and the camera has never impressed me. But ASUS is getting closer.

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With the Zenfone 9, ASUS added in 40% larger camera sensors. This allows for the cameras to take in more light. So expect better images in low-light environments, and with its night mode. And that’s what we found with the Zenfone 9 actually. Night Mode has been pretty impressive, I’d still rank it just below the Pixel’s night mode, and perhaps a tie with Samsung’s night mode. So it’s not the best, but still impressive.

The Zenfone 9 does do macro, but I wouldn’t promote that if I were ASUS. Macro mode isn’t a dedicated mode. Basically, if you get close enough to a subject, macro mode will kick in. But you still need to be fairly far away for it to take a macro shot. Now this is likely to make sure it has enough light, but I wouldn’t really call it a macro shot. More of a portrait shot. Here are some examples of the macro mode on the Zenfone 9.

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Speaking of portrait mode, it’s pretty decent here. I’ve always liked smartphone cameras that allow you to adjust the Bokeh. And ASUS let’s you do that. You can adjust it all the way to f/0.95. Which will give you lost of Bokeh, but remember, anything above f/1.9 is going to be digital bokeh. So you won’t get the best picture, and likely get plenty of noise. In my experience, f/1.7 to f/2.0 is the sweet spot here. But you can open it up to get a larger subject in focus too. Portrait mode does a good job of making sure the entire subject is in focus, but like with most smartphones, it does struggle with glasses and long hair.

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This year, ASUS is debuting a new feature for the camera, Light Trail. It’s in beta, but it basically lets you use the manual shutter, or you can use a preset shutter time, to capture moving scenes. This works on things like traffic trails, light graffiti, waterfalls and much more. It’s in beta, so it’s not amazing right now, but ASUS says that they will be continually updating it.

Here are some more samples taken with the Zenfone 9.

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Should I buy the Zenfone 9?

For us in the US, it’s tough to recommend the Zenfone 9. I really like this phone, and if it had the Pixel’s camera, it’d be my new daily driver. But in the US, it’s tough because we don’t have a release date or a price yet. It is coming to the US, but we don’t know when. And it’ll also only be available unlocked, as ASUS does not have carrier relationships, which means it’s not going to sell super well here. That also means ASUS is likely not in a huge rush to bring it Stateside.

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But if you are in Asia or Europe and are looking for a good, small and compact smartphone, then look no further than the ASUS Zenfone 9. At €799, it’s pretty competitive. Considering the smallest Galaxy S22 is €50 more. Keep in mind that the €799 price is for 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, not the 16GB/256GB model that we have here.