After a couple of generations making phones with flip-out cameras and increasingly large displays, Asus has taken the ZenFone 8 in a totally different direction: small.
The flipping camera concept lives on in the also-new ZenFone 8 Flip, but it’s no longer a standard feature across this year’s ZenFone lineup. Instead, priced at €599 (about $730), the ZenFone 8 lands in the upper-midrange class with a conventional rear camera bump and a much smaller 5.9-inch display. As a side note, final US pricing is TBD — Asus says somewhere between $599 and $799 — but it will be coming to North America, unlike last year’s model.
Rather than an attention-grabbing camera feature, the focus of this design has been to create a smaller phone that’s comfortable to use in one hand, which Asus has done without skimping on processing power or higher-end features.
It’s an Android iPhone mini, and it’s fantastic.
Asus ZenFone 8 screen and design
The ZenFone 8 may be small, but that hasn’t kept it from offering the latest flagship processor: a Snapdragon 888 chipset, coupled with 6, 8, or 16GB of RAM (my review unit has 16GB). I can’t find fault with this phone’s performance. It feels responsive, animations and interactions are smooth, and it keeps up with demanding use and rapid app switching. This is performance fitting of a flagship device.
The display is a 5.9-inch 1080p OLED panel with a fast 120Hz refresh rate that makes routine interactions with the phone — swiping, scrolling, animations — look much more smooth and polished than a standard 60Hz screen or even a 90Hz panel. By default, the phone will automatically switch between 120 / 90 / 60Hz depending on the application to save battery life, but you can manually select any of those three refresh rates if you prefer.
The display’s 20:9 aspect ratio was carefully considered by Asus. The company says it settled on this slightly narrower format so the phone would fit more easily into a pocket, and it does. I can’t get it all the way into a back jeans pocket, but it mostly fits. More importantly, it fits well inside a jacket pocket and doesn’t feel like it’s going to flop out if I sit down on the floor to tie my shoes. The ZenFone 8 is rated IP68 for dust protection and some water submersion.
The front panel is protected by Gorilla Glass Victus and houses an in-display fingerprint sensor, while the back uses Gorilla Glass 3 with a frosted finish that’s on the matte side of the matte / glossy spectrum. The front panel is flat, but the rear features a slight curve on the long edges for an easier fit in the hand. At 169 grams (5.9 ounces), it’s heavy for its size, and it feels surprisingly dense when you first pick it up. The phone’s frame 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 my right thumb falls on it naturally with the phone in my hand. Same for the in-screen fingerprint sensor: the target appears to be positioned higher on the screen than usual, but that actually puts it within a comfortable reach of my thumb.
I’ll admit up front that I have a personal bias toward smaller phones, but the ZenFone 8 just feels great in my hand. I’ve spent a lot of time using big devices over the last six months, and I’ve gotten used to it. But the ZenFone 8 is the first device that feels like it was adapted to me, not something I’ve had to adapt to using.
Asus ZenFone 8 battery and software
The phone’s small size makes a smaller battery a necessity — 4,000mAh in this case, much smaller than the ZenFone 6 and 7’s 5,000mAh. I felt the difference in using this phone versus a battery-for-days budget or midrange phone, but I had no problem getting through a full day of moderate use. I even left Strava running for 20 hours by accident, and the battery still had some life in it the next morning. The ZenFone 8 supports 30W wired charging with the included power adapter, which takes an empty battery to 100 percent in a bit more than an hour. Wireless charging isn’t supported, which makes the ZenFone 8 a bit of an outlier in the flagship class.
Asus offers a ton of options to help stretch day-to-day battery life as well as the overall lifespan of your battery. There are no fewer than five battery modes to optimize phone performance or battery longevity on a daily basis, and different charging modes let you set a custom charging limit or stagger charging overnight so it reaches 100 percent around the time of your alarm for better battery health. You won’t find class-leading battery capacity here, but rest assured if you need to stretch the ZenFone 8’s battery, there are plenty of options.
The ZenFone 8 ships with Android 11, and Asus says it will provide “at least” two major OS with security updates for the same timeframe. That’s on the low side of what we’d expect for a flagship phone, especially compared to Apple’s typical four- or five-year support schedule. An important note for US shoppers is that the ZenFone 8 will only work with AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE and Sub-6GHz 5G networks; you can’t use this phone on Verizon, and there’s no support for the fast, but extremely limited, millimeter-wave 5G networks.
Asus ZenFone 8 camera
There are just two cameras on the ZenFone 8’s rear camera bump, and they are both worth your time. Rather than cram in a depth sensor, macro, or some monochrome nonsense, Asus just went with a 64-megapixel main camera with OIS and a 12-megapixel ultrawide. They’re borrowed from last year’s model, minus a telephoto camera and the flipping mechanism.
As in the ZenFone 7 Pro, the 8’s main camera produces 16-megapixel images with vibrant color and plenty of 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 handles moderately low-light conditions like a dim store interior well, and Night Mode does an okay job 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 on by default when you use portrait mode, and it is not good. Skin looks over-smoothed, unnaturally flat, and brightened, like your subject is wearing a couple of layers of stage makeup. Turning this off improves things significantly.
The ultrawide camera also turns in good performance. Asus calls it a “flagship” grade sensor, and while that might have been true in 2018, it’s at least a step up from the smaller, cheaper sensors often found in ultrawide cameras. Likewise, the front-facing 12-megapixel camera does fine. Beauty mode is turned off by default when you switch to the selfie camera, and thank goodness for that.
There’s no telephoto camera here, just digital zoom. On the camera shooting screen, there’s an icon to jump to a 2x 16-megapixel “lossless” digital zoom to crop in quickly, which works okay, but it isn’t much reach, and it just makes the limitations of the small sensor and lens more obvious.
On the whole, 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 before a telephoto any day.
The ZenFone 8 fills a void in the Android market for a full-specced, small-sized device. The Google Pixel 4A is around the same size, but it’s decidedly a budget device with a step-down processor, plastic chassis, and fewer niceties like an IP rating or a fast-refresh screen. Aside from battery life, which is manageable, you give up very little in the way of 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 it matches almost spec-for-spec from the IP rating down to the camera configuration. The 12 mini is actually a little smaller than the ZenFone 8, and when you factor in storage capacity, it’s likely to be the more expensive choice at $829 for 256GB. However, when you consider that the 12 mini will probably get a couple more years of OS and security support, it may be the better buy in the long run, if you’re flexible in your choice of operating system.
I like the ZenFone 8 a lot, but I’m not sure it’ll find a big 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 hate to entertain the idea, maybe we’ve 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 on it seems compared to the bigger phones I’ve used recently.
There are also a few important considerations, like the lack of compatibility with Verizon and the comparatively short support lifespan of the phone. If you need the absolute best in battery life the ZenFone 8 can’t offer that, and if you want a class-leading camera, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
All that said, the ZenFone 8 will be the right fit for a specific type of person, and I can heartily recommend it to my fellow small phone fans. You’ll get flagship-level build quality and performance quite literally in the palm of your hand.
Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge