After several generations of phones with fold-out cameras and increasingly larger screens, Asus has taken the ZenFone 8 in a completely different direction: small.
The reversible camera concept lives on in the also new ZenFone 8 Flip, but it is no longer a standard feature in this year’s ZenFone series. Instead, priced at € 599 (about $ 730), the ZenFone 8 lands in the upper mid-range with a conventional rear camera and a much smaller 5.9-inch screen. As a side note, the final price in the US is under wraps – Asus says somewhere between $ 599 and $ 799 – but it will come to North America, unlike last year’s model.
Rather than a standout camera feature, the focus of this design was on creating a smaller phone that can be used comfortably in one hand, which Asus has done without skimping on processing power or advanced features.
It’s an Android iPhone mini, and it’s fantastic.
Asus ZenFone 8 display and design
The ZenFone 8 may be small, but that doesn’t stop it from offering the latest flagship processor: a Snapdragon 888 chipset paired with 6, 8 or 16 GB of RAM (my test device has 16 GB). I cannot fault the performance of this phone. It feels responsive, animations and interactions are smooth, and it keeps up with demanding usage and fast switching between apps. This is a performance modification of a flagship device.
The display is a 5.9-inch 1080p OLED panel with a high refresh rate of 120 Hz that makes routine interactions with the phone – swipes, scrolling, animations – look much smoother and polished than a standard 60 Hz screen or even a 90’s Hz panel. By default, the phone automatically switches between 120/90 / 60Hz depending on the application to save battery, but you can manually select one of these three refresh rates if you prefer.
The 20: 9 aspect ratio was carefully considered by Asus. The company says it settled for this slightly narrower size so that the phone would fit in a pocket more easily, and it does. I can’t get it all the way to a jeans pocket at the back, but it usually fits. More importantly, it fits well in a jacket pocket and doesn’t feel like it will fall out when I sit on the floor to tie my shoes. ZenFone 8 has an IP68 rating for dust protection and some water immersion.
The front panel is protected by Gorilla Glass Victus and includes a built-in fingerprint sensor, while the back uses Gorilla Glass 3 with a matte finish that sits on the matte side of the matte / glossy spectrum. The front panel is flat, but the back is slightly curved at the long edges for a better grip. At 169 grams (5.9 ounces) it is heavy for its size, and it feels surprisingly compact when you first pick it up. The frame of the phone is aluminum, giving the whole package a high-end look and feel. There’s even a headphone jack on the top edge as a treat.
The power button (an exciting shade of blue!) Is well positioned so that my right thumb falls on it naturally with the phone in my hand. The same goes for the on-screen fingerprint sensor: the target appears to be positioned higher on the screen than usual, but that actually puts it within a comfortable range of my thumb.
I’ll admit up front that I have a personal preference for smaller phones, but the ZenFone 8 just feels great in my hand. I’ve spent a lot of time using large appliances over the past six months, and I’ve gotten used to them. But ZenFone 8 is the first device to feel like it has been modified me, not something I’ve had to adapt to.
Asus ZenFone 8 battery and software
The phone’s small size necessitates a smaller battery – 4,000 mAh in this case, much smaller than the ZenFone 6 and 7’s 5,000 mAh. I felt the difference between using this phone and a battery-for-days budget or midrange phone, but I had no problem getting through an entire day of average use. In fact, I accidentally let Strava run for 20 hours and the battery still had some life the next morning. ZenFone 8 supports 30W wired charging with the included power adapter, bringing an empty battery to 100 percent in just over an hour. Wireless charging is not supported, which makes ZenFone 8 a bit of an outlier in the flagship class.
Asus offers a ton of options for extending the daily battery life and the overall life of your battery. There are no less than five battery modes to optimize phone performance or battery life on a daily basis, and several charging modes allow you to set a custom charging limit or charge overnight so it reaches 100 percent around the time of your alarm for better battery status. You won’t find class-leading battery capacity here, but rest assured if you need to stretch out ZenFone 8’s battery, there are plenty of options.
The ZenFone 8 ships with Android 11, and Asus says it will offer “at least” two major operating systems security updates for the same time frame. That’s on the low end of what we would expect from a flagship phone, especially when compared to Apple’s typical four or five year support schedule. An important note to US customers is that ZenFone 8 only works with AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE and Sub-6GHz 5G networks; you cannot use this phone on Verizon and it does not support the fast, but extremely limited millimeter wave 5G networks.
Asus ZenFone 8 camera
There are only two cameras on the ZenFone 8’s rear camera bump, and they’re both worth it. Rather than cram in a depth sensor, macro, or some monochrome crap, Asus just went for a 64-megapixel main camera with OIS and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera. They are borrowed from last year’s model, minus a telephoto camera and the flip mechanism.
As in ZenFone 7 Pro, the main camera of the 8 produces 16-megapixel images with vivid colors and great detail in good light. Images can lean a little too far into unnatural-looking territory, and some high-contrast scenes look a little too HDR-y for my liking. But overall, this camera does fine: it can handle moderately low-light conditions, such as a dim shop interior, and the night mode works fine in very low light, provided you can hold the phone still for a few seconds and your subject isn’t moving.
A skin smoothing beauty mode is enabled by default when using portrait mode, and it is not good. The skin appears too smooth, unnaturally flat and bright, as if your subject were wearing a few layers of stage makeup. Turning this off will greatly improve things.
The ultra-wide camera also delivers good performance. Asus calls it a ‘flagship’ quality sensor, and while that could have been true in 2018, it’s at least a step up from the smaller, cheaper sensors often found in ultra-wide cameras. Likewise, the 12-megapixel front-facing camera is doing fine. Beauty mode is off by default when you switch to the selfie camera, and thank goodness for that.
There is no telecamera here, only digital zoom. On the camera recording screen, there is an icon to jump to a 2x 16-megapixel “lossless” digital zoom for quick cropping, which works well, but it doesn’t have much range, and it just makes up for the limitations of the small sensor and lens clearer.
Overall, the camera system is good, but not great. The lack of true optical zoom or a telephoto camera is a disappointment, but you can’t have everything on such a small device, and I’d personally take an ultrawide for a telephoto lens every day.
The ZenFone 8 fills a void in the Android market for a small, full-spec device. The Google Pixel 4A is about the same size, but it’s definitely a budget device with a step-down processor, a plastic chassis, and less fun things like an IP rating or a quick-refresh screen. Aside from the battery life, which is manageable, you give up very few flagship features to get the ZenFone 8’s small form factor.
You have to look to iOS for this phone’s most direct competition: the iPhone 12 mini, which fits almost spec-for-spec from the IP rating to the camera configuration. The 12 mini is actually a bit smaller than the ZenFone 8, and when you consider the storage capacity, it’s probably the more expensive choice at $ 829 for 256 GB. However, considering that the 12 mini will likely get OS and security support for a few more years, it may be better to buy in the long run if you are flexible in your choice of operating system.
I really like the ZenFone 8, but I’m not sure it will find a large audience, at least in the US. Apple is having trouble selling the iPhone 12 mini, and if there’s one thing Apple is good at, it’s selling phones to US customers. As much as I like the idea, we may have gotten used to giant phones. I love how the ZenFone 8 feels in my hand and in my pocket, but I do notice how much smaller the screen and everything looks like compared to the larger phones I’ve used recently.
There are also a few important considerations, such as the lack of compatibility with Verizon and the relatively short lifespan of the phone’s support. If you need the very best in battery life, ZenFone 8 can’t offer that, and if you want a class-leading camera you’ll have to look elsewhere.
That said, the ZenFone 8 will be the right choice for a specific type of person, and I heartily recommend it to my little fellow phone fans. You literally get flagship build quality and performance in the palm of your hand.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge