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The ZenFone 2 looks nice in press renders and at a glance, but when you start to get down to it you can best describe the design as "basic." There's no flashy metal, ground-breaking designs or neat hardware features. A rear-mounted volume rocker — pioneered by LG since the G2 — is the one real bit of uniqueness on the device, perhaps aside from the color if you decide to go with a bright red or faded two-tone back plate. Everything else falls where you expect it to — you won't be picking up a ZenFone 2 for its glorious design or innovative hardware features, to be certain.
You do get a few features that aren't completely standard in every phone, including an SDcard slot under the back panel, 802.11ac Wifi, and dual SIM slots (though only one can be used for 3G and LTE data). Looking at the full spec sheet the camera and display are the most notable cutbacks, with the 13MP sensor having no OIS or fancy focus mechanisms, and the 5.5-inch IPS display not having a notably high resolution (1920x1080, good for 403 ppi) or any mind-blowing features.
Whether unfairly or not ASUS, isn't often mentioned when it comes to brilliant software design or features — but I actually ended up liking the software setup on the ZenFone 2 more than I expected to going in. This is a pretty familiar "ZenUI" experience if you've ever used an ASUS tablet or phone before, with Android 5.0 Lollipop as a base.
The customizations made here fit in pretty well with the basic Material Design principles, and the interface doesn't stand out dramatically from third-party apps that have been made to fit with Lollipop. The whole interface is filled with plenty of whites, greys and simple colors backed up by shadows — a lot of what you expect to see in Android 5.0. The lockscreen and settings are surprisingly minimal and simple to deal with, cutting back on useless animations.
Unfortunately the ASUS keyboard and ZenUI launcher are actually two of the biggest non-Lollipop offenders that stand out from the rest of the system, and I really couldn't deal with either one knowing that there are better-looking options out there. I went with my standard choices of Google Keyboard and the Google Now Launcher, which really fit in nicely with the phone.
Beyond the regular interface, which isn't "stock" but is still quite enjoyable to use, the biggest issue with the ZenFone 2's software experience is the vast number of pre-installed apps and services that are littered all over the phone. The first portion of the issue is that a large number of the system utilities and basic items all get their own apps in the drawer — things like AudioWizard, Flashlight, Kids Mode, Mirror, Setup Wizard, ZenCircle, WebStorage and others really don't need app icons, they need to just be accessible in the settings. Thankfully ASUS takes the wonderful approach of putting most of its own apps in the Play Store so that they're easily updated without a full system OTA. Many of them can be completely uninstalled rather than disabled, saving you space on your phone, and it also means ASUS could've (and should've) chosen to just not install them in the first place and let you decide what you want.
The other — and considerably more annoying — part of the equation is the expanse of trial apps, utilities and virus scanners pre-installed on the phone. Apps like Clean Master and Dr. Safety are pre-installed and automatically "scanning" for "threats" on your phone, and they're paired up with pre-installed chat apps, game trials and other questionably-desirable content in an "Apps4U" folder. Thankfully a vast majority of these apps can be uninstalled, but I still wish they weren't there in the first place
Having an inexpensive phone means walking a line between affordability and quality, with the camera experience often being thrown under the bus. Camera hardware itself may be relatively cheap, but the software to make it run right takes a lot of time and money to make, and the proper licenses to process image data aren't cheap to acquire, either.
The 13MP sensor on the ZenFone 2 is just a camera — it has no fancy laser focus, phase detection, or optical image stabilization in support. In terms of interface the camera experience is pretty standard as well, with some lackluster design and a handful of buttons that do what you expect them to — the one exception being a full manual mode where you get lots of granular control over the camera settings.