Unboxing the Asus Zenfone 9 was like assembly somebody new and studying that you simply like the identical obscure motion pictures or went to the identical highschool. I may inform instantly we’d get alongside. “You’re IP68 and you will have a headphone jack? No method! I like headphone jacks!”

Loads of the attraction has to do with its measurement. Because it did with the Zenfone 8, Asus has got down to reply the query “what would a small (learn: moderately sized) flagship Android cellphone appear like?” The reply begins with a 5.9-inch display screen — not almost as small because the 5.4-incher on the iPhone Mini. However so far as the Android ecosystem goes, it’s downright tiny.

“Small and runs Android” isn’t the one factor going for the Zenfone 9: it affords top-shelf elements like a Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor, a smooth-scrolling 120Hz show refresh fee, and a 12-megapixel major digicam with a one-of-a-kind stabilization system. It begins with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for $799 and can go on sale within the US instantly from Asus in mid-September. Introductory pricing will likely be decrease — $699 — and you will discover international variations of the cellphone on Amazon proper now for a bit lower than MSRP. Nevertheless, there’s good purpose to attend till it’s formally on sale: Asus supplies a one-year guarantee with the cellphone once you buy it instantly, and the imported variations floating round now don’t embody that.

For extra info on our scoring, see How We Fee.

Even once you’re driving excessive since you met your new greatest pal, you must come again all the way down to actuality finally. The Zenfone 9 isn’t the right small cellphone: it lacks wi-fi charging, which most telephones at this value embody. There’s additionally no telephoto digicam, which isn’t a given in a cellphone beneath $1,000, however the (additionally $799) Samsung S22 does embody one. The Zenfone 9 doesn’t work with each US service, both. It capabilities on AT&T and T-Cellular’s networks, however you’re out of luck on Verizon. Belief me, I attempted.

Then there’s software program help. Asus is committing to 2 platform OS updates and a paltry two years of safety patches. A cellphone at this value level ought to actually get extra years of software program help. This makes it onerous to broadly advocate the Zenfone 9, particularly with the excellent, five-years-of-security-updates, works-on-every-carrier Galaxy S22 in the identical value bracket. However like sure genres of cult traditional motion pictures, it can actually hit the spot for a particular type of particular person, and I’m one in every of them.

The Zenfone 9 embraces 2022’s return to flat rails moderately than the period of rounded edges that the iPhone 6 ushered in. This exterior body is aluminum, and the show curves ever so barely the place it meets the edges. The entrance panel is glass, however the again is a composite polymer materials with a textured, delicate end that makes the cellphone straightforward to grip one-handed. The entire thing feels sturdy, and it’s rated IP68 for sturdy water and mud resistance.

Asus Zenfone 9 on a table top

It’s small, however the Zenfone 9 options top-shelf {hardware}.

Did I point out it’s small? It’s, and I like it. There’s an assortment of high-end telephones on my desk as I write this, and so they’re all very succesful. However after I maintain the Zenfone 9, it simply appears like a sigh of reduction. It takes up so little house that after I put it within the pocket of my yoga pants, I’ll hold doing that factor the place I feel “oh crap, I left my cellphone in the home” after which uncover with reduction that it’s really in my pocket. This isn’t one thing that occurs after I’m carrying a 6.4-incher just like the Google Pixel 6 in my pocket. The one cellphone extra snug to hold in my pocket actually folds in half, so nicely accomplished, Asus.

The ability button on the aspect of the cellphone does triple responsibility as a fingerprint sensor and a “Good Key.” The latter affords a customizable interplay once you swipe your finger throughout the button from prime to backside. By default it’s set to drag down the fast settings and notification shade; it’s a pleasant solution to test notifications one-handed with out having to achieve as much as the highest of the display screen, which remains to be a stretch, even on a cellphone this small.

The characteristic works nicely. Too nicely. Every time I used to be utilizing the cellphone with two arms, my proper palm stored by accident pulling the shade down. This was annoying, and I turned the Good Key characteristic off. On the intense aspect, I recognize that Asus doesn’t make you bear in mind a button mixture once you wish to flip off the cellphone — you simply long-press the facility button like within the good outdated days.

The 5.9-inch OLED on the Zenfone 9 affords a prime refresh fee of 120Hz, which is kind of commonplace within the flagship class now. It makes for a {smooth} scrolling expertise, and the flagship-grade Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor paired with 8GB of RAM makes the cellphone really feel lots responsive for on a regular basis and even heavy duties. The display screen’s peak brightness of 1,100 nits means it may be comfortably used even in very vivid situations. It’s a comparatively small cellphone, so it’s in all probability not the way you wish to watch a complete season of tv, however the built-in stereo audio system are surprisingly good should you do use it to observe video. You may even hear one thing like bass coming from them! And there’s extra good audio information: the Zenfone 9 nonetheless has a headphone jack. A headphone jack! That’s simply considerate. All of it checks out as top-tier {hardware}.

The software program is gorgeous, too. It’s a light-weight contact on Android 12 that stays out of your method. When it does request my consideration, it’s very well mannered, like with pop-up textual content within the digicam app recommending that I shoot in brighter situations or that I activate battery saving if I wish to use the gimbal stabilization for a very long time. In any other case, it’s a heck of lots like utilizing a Pixel cellphone. However one factor that’s not Pixel-like is the help. Asus is committing to 2 OS platform upgrades and solely guarantees two years of safety updates. For a similar $799 value, the Galaxy S22 comes with a promise of 4 OS model updates and 5 years of safety patches. The Zenfone 9 simply isn’t a fantastic choice should you plan to maintain your cellphone longer than a few years.

It’s not solely clear whether or not the Zenfone 9 will help 5G within the US, both, despite the fact that it has the best {hardware}. As of this writing, Asus spokesperson Ester Suh informed us that 5G on AT&T was “in progress.” I checked with T-Cellular, and its official stance is that it hasn’t licensed the system — the Zenfone 9 helps the best bands, however T-Cellular considers it a “convey your personal system” scenario and says it might probably’t assure efficiency. I haven’t been capable of take a look at it myself, and in any case, it’s a good suggestion to test together with your service everytime you purchase an unlocked cellphone whether or not it can work on its 4G and 5G networks.

Battery life is often excessive on the record of small cellphone issues; they have a tendency to have smaller batteries that battle to ship a full day’s price of utilization. The Zenfone 9 doesn’t; its mixture of a 4,300mAh battery and the power-efficient 8 Plus Gen 1 processor will get it by way of a day of average use (clocking round two hours of screen-on time with the always-on show enabled consistently) with no drawback. By default, the cellphone operates on a “Dynamic” mode for battery optimization. You may go for “Excessive efficiency mode,” which Asus describes because the “best option for demanding apps.” There are two modes under dynamic that preserve extra battery life, however I discovered the default mode offered an excellent steadiness of efficiency and battery stamina.

There’s excellent news and dangerous information on the battery charging entrance. The dangerous information, as talked about above, is that there’s no wi-fi charging. It’s kind of a given on high-end telephones as of late, so it’s a disgrace that the Zenfone 9 doesn’t embody it. It’s onerous to think about that it is a tradeoff to maintain the cellphone measurement down for the reason that smaller iPhone 13 Mini consists of it. In any case, the excellent news is that the Zenfone 9 helps quick 30W charging and even consists of the 30W charging brick within the field. That’s particularly helpful should you do push the Zenfone 9 with a number of battery-intensive duties like streaming video and gaming — upward of 4 or 5 hours of screen-on time. In that case, its comparatively small battery would profit from a late-afternoon enhance to make it by way of the tip of the day.

Asus Zenfone 9 lying on a table with rear panel facing up

There’s simply a regular huge and an ultrawide on the Zenfone 9’s rear panel.

Asus didn’t festoon the Zenfone 9 with ineffective depth sensors and macro cameras, and for that, I’m grateful. There’s only one 50-megapixel commonplace huge digicam with some critical stabilization (extra on that in a second) and a 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultrawide with autofocus so it might probably double as a macro, plus a 12-megapixel selfie digicam. There’s no telephoto lens, which type of stinks. Picture high quality is nice, usually talking, although the Zenfone 9 generally will get into bother with some aggressive over-sharpening. It’s not disastrous however not my favourite.

The primary rear digicam consists of what can greatest be described as “gimbal stabilization.” It’s not only a lens factor shifting, and it’s not simply the sensor, so “optical” or “sensor-shift” stabilization aren’t the best phrases. Nearly each different flagship cellphone consists of both optical or sensor-shift stabilization.

All stabilization off (left) versus gimbal and digital stabilization turned on (proper).

On the Zenfone 9, every little thing strikes collectively — lens and sensor — to compensate for digicam shake, which is extra sturdy than the standard strategies. Asus says it might probably higher compensate for greater actions than a conventional, optical-only system: as much as three levels of movement on six axes — vertical, horizontal, and backwards and forwards — versus one diploma. It’s coupled with digital picture stabilization, too, which smooths out movement even additional and provides a “predictive” factor due to Asus’ algorithms.

It’s critically spectacular. For starters, should you look carefully, you possibly can really see the digicam and lens shifting round beneath the principle housing once you activate video mode. That’s wild. Extra importantly, it really works very well. It’s most helpful for video recording. With stabilization off, footage recorded whereas strolling down a gravel path is a shaky, jumbled mess, similar to you’d anticipate. Turning it on transforms the motion to a barely perceptible swaying. You’d often want an precise gimbal mount, just like the DJI OM 5, to get footage this regular, and the Zenfone 9 simply does all of it in-camera. That could be very cool.

It’s not fairly a killer characteristic, although. I’m not a fan of the colour processing utilized to my video clips — it seems over-brightened and too flat all of sudden. There’s additionally an intense crop should you use each digital and gimbal stabilization that makes it very troublesome to movie something in shut quarters. Gimbal stabilization can also be solely out there for 1080p HD clips, not within the 4K or 8K (lol) recording modes.

The advantages for nonetheless pictures aren’t as important. Higher stabilization ought to make it attainable to make use of slower shutter speeds in low mild and nonetheless get sharp pictures of static topics. This appears to be the case, however that solely makes it about nearly as good because the Pixel 6 and its mixture of OIS and computational tips. It’s additionally not going to do something for shifting topics. You’re nonetheless on the mercy of, you recognize, how mild works.

Anyway, it’s cool, and I’m dying to take it out on a hike to report some video of the journey as much as the highest of a summit. With the IP68 ranking, I wouldn’t even have to fret in regards to the mud on the path or how a lot sweat it’ll be uncovered to in my yoga pants pocket. As a lot as I like taking photos with the Galaxy Z Flip 4, that’s one setting I don’t really feel nice about exposing it to, and the Zenfone 9 would actually excel there.

Clear software program and a compact type issue? Music to my ears.

In case you’re on AT&T or T-Cellular and also you need a actually compact Android cellphone with flagship-grade efficiency, that is the one to significantly think about — offered you’re snug with the sadly brief software program help lifespan. It’s simply pretty to make use of. I don’t miss the glass panel on the again one bit as a result of the delicate texture of no matter composite plastic that Asus has used is so pretty. It has digicam capabilities that make me wish to go away my home and shoot video. To be clear, my home is the place the (softest) delicate pants and espresso machine are. This can be a critical barrier to beat.

That pleasantness extends to the expertise of utilizing the cellphone to do day-to-day issues. It feels responsive and polished. The built-in audio system are higher than common. If I neglect to cost my wi-fi earbuds, I can simply plug in wired headphones. The ability button even does what it’s imagined to once you maintain it down for Pete’s sake!

Realistically, the Zenfone 9 is destined for cult traditional standing within the US. It doesn’t work on all carriers within the US, and the American public has spoken loud and clear that it needs huge telephones. For not rather more cash, the Samsung Galaxy S22 is a more sensible choice for most individuals, with broad service help, a telephoto digicam on each mannequin, and a stable five-year safety help coverage to again all of it up. I simply hope that one thing just like the Zenfone 9 can stay an choice in our present duopoly for small cellphone superfans like me.

Images by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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