As many of you know by now, ASUS recently announced the ZenFone 9, its latest Android phone. That is the company’s new flagship smartphone, and one of the very few compact phones on the market that are also powerful at the same time. I didn’t get a chance to review the device, as my colleague got the phone before me, but I have plenty to say about it. After using this device for about a week, I can safely say that ASUS basically made a perfect phone, at least for my needs.
Due to the nature of my work, I tend to switch phones often. There is always that one phone that I come back to between reviews, my daily driver, if you will. For quite some time now, that has been the Google Pixel 4a. That may sound quite weird, as I have a lot more powerful, and newer phones at my disposal. Well, with the industry’s trend of making huge phones, I find it hard to find one that would fit my needs. I prefer more compact smartphones, and finding those has been a pain. The Pixel 4a is basically the only one in quite some time that fit my needs. I’ve been using it for a long time, but it was time for a change.
I wanted to switch phones quite some time ago, but nothing compelling came out. I briefly used the ZenFone 8, which was a good phone, but it wasn’t exactly as great as it could have been. In comes the ZenFone 9, which is an improvement in almost every way over its predecessor. The ZenFone 9 managed to keep the same display size as its predecessor, while improving in the camera and design departments, first and foremost. In addition to that, ASUS also added some interesting features to the mix, considerably improved the battery life, and voila… an almost perfect phone, for my needs. Well, we know nothing is perfect, but this comes close enough. Let’s break it down, shall we.
There was nothing wrong with the ZenFone 8’s design. Many considered it to be even too minimalistic, and bland, to be quite frank. I did as well, though it did not bother me so much. What did bother me to an extent, was how slippery it was. That’s not the case with the ZenFone 9. Not only is it considerably grippier, but it also looks a lot better.
The ZenFone 9 replaces glass with polymer on the back. Its backplate feels like paper, but smoother, that’s the best way I can describe it. ASUS also replaced a considerable curve on the back plate with a less steep one, while combining it with flat sides of the frame. The phone feels extremely nice in the hand, while it’s also smaller than its predecessor. That’s also a feat that I have to give ASUS credit for. It managed to shrink its height and width, while keeping the same weight and display size.
The backplate also looks better than before. The two camera islands are quite large in comparison to the ZenFone 8’s, but they are well designed. The disadvantage is that the phone rocks on the table when you place it down, as one camera island is larger than the other. So, it rocks even more than the ZenFone 8, and more than it would if they were identical in size. That doesn’t bother me all that much, to be quite honest, but it’s worth noting.
Another thing worth noting is that the backplate may become nasty to look at after a while. I noticed it started to fade for my colleague, and some other people who bought it, after a short period of time. That is not the case with my unit, yet, but I expect it to happen. I’m glad to make that sacrifice to avoid a more slippery backplate, though.
The ZenFone 8 battery life wasn’t bad per se. It was average. I was able to get 5.5-6 hours of screen on time, usually. Well, the ZenFone 9 pushes the limits, it completely obliterates its predecessor. I’m constantly able to get over 7 hours of screen-on-time, with plenty of battery to spare. I usually have over 20-30% left, which is crazy for such a compact phone. On compact smartphones, you have to get ready to get not-so-great battery life. That’s not the case here at all.
ASUS also included 30W fast wired charging here, which is plenty fast. You can get a full charge in an hour and 15-20 minutes. It’s not nearly the fastest charging, but it’s fast enough. Also, considering how good the battery life is, you’ll likely never feel like you need to charge it fast. Do note that ASUS did not include wireless charging here, which may bother some of you. Considering the size of this phone, and everything it offers, some sacrifices needed to be made. Wireless charging would make the phone thicker than it was and create more heat, so… I’m glad it wasn’t included. The space is limited in phones with sub-6-inch displays.
Sheer power & heat management
One of the complaints people had about the ZenFone 8 was heating. For some people, the phone heated up way too much, especially if graphically-intensive tasks were at hand. Well, you’ll be glad to know that’s not the case with the ZenFone 9, at least during my usage. I’m actually amazed at how cool the phone runs. I’ve reviewed quite a few phones in the last couple of years, and this one is one of the coolest ones. It does get very mildly warm, but that’s about it. That changes when you play games, but it never gets too warm.
Why is that? Well, the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 runs cooler than the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, that’s one of its main advantages. On top of that, ASUS reworked the internal cooling inside the phone. The company replaced heat pipes with a vapor chamber, and included an advanced heat spreader that uses copper, graphite sheets, and thermal paste. All of that seems to have done the trick. Oh, and yes, the phone is blazing fast, no matter what you do. Jittering that is present on some phones with 120Hz displays, that’s not the issue here.
The cameras will surprise you
One of the areas I was most surprised with are the cameras. The ZenFone 9 comes with two cameras on the back, wide-angle, and ultrawide angle units. ASUS included the Sony IMX766 camera sensor for the main camera. That’s a 50-megapixel camera, and is used in the ASUS ROG Phone 6 and Nothing Phone (1) as well. The thing is, it performs better in this phone than it does in the other two. The pictures end up sharp, with plenty of detail, good foliage representation, and handle HDR decently well. In low light, shooting without night mode will give you darker images, closer to what you see, while Night Mode makes them a lot brighter. It all depends on what you prefer. Those shots are not amazing, but they’re really good.
Even the ultrawide camera does perform well. It keeps the same color style as the main camera, and provides quality shots. I was actually surprised by this. Many smartphone OEMs mess this up, and pictures from main and ultrawide cameras look considerably different, style-wise.
Not everything is great, though. The phone tends to mess up HDR situations from time to time, when too much sun is included in the equation. Not often, but it happens. It also loves when you use touch-to-focus in certain scenarios, to balance things out. The selfie camera is not great, I personally don’t really care about selfies, and often use main cameras to shoot them, when I do shoot them, so that’s a non-issue for me. It may be for you, though. All in all, the cameras are really good, but a step behind the Pixels and the Vivo X80 Pro, which are the best mobile cameras out there, in my book, at least.
The Smart Key factor
Unlike the ASUS ZenFone 8, the ZenFone 9 has a side-facing fingerprint scanner. That fingerprint scanner is included inside a power key, and that key has more functionality, actually. ASUS refers to it as ‘Smart Key’ for a reason. So, not only is it a regular power/lock key, and a fingerprint scanner, but you can assign different actions to it. You can assign a double tap action, and long press action, but that’s not even all of it.
This button has a touch sensor included inside of it, which enables something really cool. You can assign an action for a swipe-down motion. So, for example, you can call upon your notification shade with a single swipe regardless of what screen you’re on. The Galaxy S10e offered something similar to this, and it’s actually really useful in use. I don’t find it gimmicky at all, as I used that exact feature on the Pixel 4a constantly, though its fingerprint scanner was placed on the back, not the side. There are several actions on offer, you don’t have to use it for the notification shade, or use it at all, it’s up to you.
Additional gestures & back tap
On top of everything we’ve already talked about, ASUS included some additional gestures and tricks to make using this phone as snappy as possible. You can lift the device to check your notifications, flip it down to mute it, double tap the screen to shut it off, double tap to wake it up, set a swipe up for wakeup instead of a double tap, and so much more. You can even assign specific letters for specific apps/actions, and write them on the display when the screen is off. That way you can quickly launch your music player, camera, or whatever else.
The ZenFone 9 also has a back tap function. It’s called ‘Back double tap’ and you can use it to take a screenshot, open up the camera, launch a flashlight, launch Google Assistant, and more. This actually works really well too, unlike on some other phones where it’s either too sensitive or not sensitive enough.
Aside from the camera-related stuff that I talked about, there are some additional annoyances when it comes to this phone. Nothing is perfect, even though some things come close to it. I’ll list them below.
The punch hole is usually distracting enough on its own, but ASUS, for some reason, decided to include a silver ring inside it. Right around the camera, you’ll see a silver ring, which does poke you in the eye when you’re using the phone. If they didn’t do that, that punch hole would blend away into the darkness. This silver ring doesn’t really have a special use, and it’s the same one the company used in the ZenFone 8.
The power key is immensely useful, as I mentioned earlier. What I would love, however, is if it were more clicky. The button feels a bit mushy, and it doesn’t have a lot of travel. I’d prefer it to stick out a bit more, and be more rugged, in a way.
The ZenFone 9 is a great compact Android phone
That’s basically it, for now. As you can see, I don’t really have any major complaints. That may change in time, but for now, this is the phone of the year in my book. It gives an option to people who don’t want huge phones annoying them throughout the day. The ZenFone 9 is not small, but it’s compact. It’s compact enough to feel great in the pocket, in the hand, and to have a decently-sized display that doesn’t make you feel like you’re missing out. That’s, at least, my experience with it, and my opinion on it.
I truly hope that the ZenFone 9 will sell (even) better than the ZenFone 8, and that ASUS will see success with this phone. I’d love to see more such devices in the coming years, that’s for sure.