Unboxing the Asus Zenfone 9 was like making a new friend and finding out that you both have a passion for the same offbeat films or that you both attended the same high school. It was clear to me from away that we would get along. “You’re water resistant to IP68 standards, and you have a headphone jack? No way! I love headphone jacks!”
The magnitude of the attraction is a significant contributing factor. Asus has set out to answer the question “what would a compact (read: appropriately sized) flagship Android phone look like?” much like it did with the Zenfone 8. The answer begins with a screen that is 5.9 inches in size, which is not even close to being as compact as the 5.4-inch screen on the iPhone Mini. However, when compared to the Android environment, it is laughably insignificant.
“Small and runs Android” isn’t the only thing going for the Zenfone 9: it offers top-of-the-line components like a Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 processor, a smooth-scrolling 120Hz display refresh rate, and a 12-megapixel main camera with a one-of-a-kind stabilization system. These are just a few of the things that make the Zenfone 9 stand out from the competition. It will be available for purchase in the United States straight from Asus in the middle of September and has a starting price of $799 with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage space. The initial price will be reduced to $699, and international models of the phone are now available on Amazon at prices that are slightly cheaper than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP). When you buy the phone from Asus directly, you get a one-year warranty on it; the imported models that are now available do not come with a warranty of any kind. Therefore, it is in your best interest to hold off on purchasing it until it goes on sale officially.
Even when you’re on cloud nine because you just made a new best friend, you’ll inevitably have to bring yourself back down to earth at some point. The Zenfone 9 is not the ideal tiny phone because it does not support wireless charging, which is included in the vast majority of phones that cost the same as the Zenfone 9. In addition, there isn’t a telephoto camera, which isn’t always included in phones that cost less than $1,000; for example, the Samsung S22, which also costs $799, has one. The Zenfone 9 is not compatible with all of the carriers in the United States. It works on the networks of AT&T and T-Mobile, but you won’t have any luck using it on Verizon’s network. Believe me, I endeavored to.
After then, there is support for software. Asus has pledged to release two updates to its platform operating system and a meager two years’ worth of security patches. If a phone is going to be sold at this price point, it really ought to have longer years of software support. Because of this, it is difficult to suggest the Zenfone 9 to a large number of people, especially when compared to the Galaxy S22, which is in the same price range but offers five years of security updates and is compatible with all carriers. However, much like certain subgenres of cult classic films, it will only genuinely appeal to a certain type of person, and I include myself among those people.
Instead of ushering in the era of rounded edges like the iPhone 6 did, the Zenfone 9 embraces the return to flat rails that will be prevalent in 2022. The display has a very tiny curvature where it joins the sides and the outer frame, which is made of aluminum. The rear of the phone is made of a composite polymer material with a textured and soft surface that makes it easier to hold the phone with just one hand. The front panel is made of glass. The whole device has a solid feel to it, and it has an IP68 rating, which indicates that it is very resistant to dust and water.
Did I mention that it’s a little thing? It is, and I really enjoy using it. As I write this, there is a selection of high-end phones on my desk, and each one of them is quite capable in its own right. But when I get my hands on the Zenfone 9, it’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Because it occupies such a small amount of space, when I put it in the pocket of my yoga trousers, I’ll keep doing that thing where I think, “Oh crap, I left my phone in the house,” and then I’ll realize to my relief that it is actually in the pocket of my yoga pants. When I have a device with a screen size of 6.4 inches like the Google Pixel 6 in my pocket, this sort of stuff does not take place. The only phone that fits more comfortably in my pocket is one that folds in half, so kudos to Asus for making that possible.
The power button on the side of the phone doubles as a fingerprint sensor and a “Smart Key,” allowing it to perform all three functions simultaneously. When you drag your finger across the button from the top to the bottom, it activates the second option, which provides a configurable interaction. It is a good method to check notifications one-handed without having to reach up to the top of the screen, which is still a stretch, especially on a phone this little. The default setting for it is to bring down the quick settings and the notification shade.
THE ZENFONE 9 STILL COMES WITH A HEADPHONE JACK!
The function is carried out successfully. Too well. When I was using the phone with both hands, my right palm would inadvertently pull the shade down, which was really annoying. Because of how frustrating this was, I decided to disable the Smart Key feature. When you want to switch off the phone, you don’t have to remember a button combination thanks to Asus; instead, you just have to press and hold the power button like they did back in the good old days. This is a feature that I really like.
The OLED display measuring 5.9 inches on the Zenfone 9 has a maximum refresh rate of 120 Hz, which is more or less par for the course in the premium category these days. It allows for a scrolling experience that is fluid, and the combination of the flagship-grade Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 engine and 8GB of RAM makes the phone feel suitably snappy for everyday tasks as well as more demanding ones. Because the screen has a peak brightness of 1,100 nits, it can be used without discomfort even when the surrounding environment is quite bright. It is a relatively little phone, so it’s definitely not how you want to watch an entire season of television on it, but the built-in stereo speakers are surprisingly good if you use it to watch video. If you do use it to watch video, it’s possible that you could watch an entire movie on it. Even something that sounds like bass may be heard emanating from them! Another piece of encouraging information regarding audio is that the Zenfone 9 maintains a headphone port. A jack for headphones! That shows a lot of thoughtfulness. Everything about this seems to be of the highest quality.
Even the software is of very high quality. On Android 12, it’s a gentle touch that keeps out of your way and doesn’t get in the way. When it does ask for my attention, it does it in a very courteous manner. For example, a pop-up message in the camera app may suggest that I take photos in environments with more light or that I enable power saving features if I intend to use the gimbal stabilization for an extended period of time. Aside than that, the experience is very similar to that of using a Google Pixel phone. The assistance, on the other hand, is not something you would expect from Pixel. However, the company would only guarantee two years’ worth of security updates despite its commitment to two OS platform upgrades. The Galaxy S22 comes with a guarantee that users will receive four OS version updates and five years’ worth of security patches for the same price of $799. If you want to maintain your phone for more than a couple of years, getting a Zenfone 9 is probably not the best choice you could make.
Even though it contains the necessary hardware, it is not totally clear whether or not the Zenfone 9 will be able to handle 5G in the United States. As of the time this article was written, Ester Suh, a representative for Asus, informed us that the rollout of 5G on AT&T was “in progress.” I checked with T-Mobile, and the company’s official position is that it hasn’t certified the device. Although the Zenfone 9 supports the appropriate bands, T-Mobile considers this a “bring your own device” situation and claims that it can’t guarantee the device’s operation. I have not been able to test it personally, and nevertheless, it is a good idea to check with your carrier whenever you buy an unlocked phone to see whether or not it will work on its 4G and 5G networks. This is something that I have not been able to do.
IN ADDITION TO SUPPORTING QUICK CHARGING, ZTE HAS INCLUDED A CHARGING BRICK WITH THE ZENFONE 9 PACKAGE.
Battery life is typically at the top of the list of complaints regarding small phones; these phones typically have smaller batteries that are unable to provide sufficient power for a full day’s worth of use. The Zenfone 9 does not have this issue; its combination of a 4,300mAh battery and the power-efficient 8 Plus Gen 1 chipset allows it to last through a day of moderate use without a hitch (clocking almost two hours of screen-on time with the always-on display enabled continuously). The “Dynamic” mode, which is designed to preserve battery life, is selected automatically whenever the phone is turned on. You have the option to choose what Asus refers to as the “optimal choice for demanding programs,” which is “High performance mode.” Although there are two modes below dynamic that save more battery life, I discovered that the default option offered an excellent compromise between performance and battery life.
On the subject of the charging of the battery, there is both positive and negative news. As was just pointed out, the absence of wireless charging is a disappointing development. It’s a very standard feature on high-end smartphones these days, so it’s a bummer that the Zenfone 9 doesn’t have it built in to begin with. Because it is included in the smaller iPhone 13 Mini, it is difficult to believe that this was a necessary sacrifice to make in order to reduce the size of the phone. In any event, the good news is that the Zenfone 9 supports rapid charging at 30W and even includes the 30W charging brick in the packaging. This is a significant improvement over previous models. This is especially helpful if you intend to put the Zenfone 9 through its paces with a lot of battery-intensive activities, including as gaming or video streaming, which can take up to four or five hours of screen-on time. In that scenario, the relatively tiny battery would require an extra boost in the late afternoon in order to make it into the evening without needing to be recharged.
I am appreciative that Asus did not cram the Zenfone 9 with pointless depth sensors and macro cameras, as this was one of my primary concerns with the device. There is only one 50-megapixel regular wide camera with some significant stabilization (more on that in a second), a 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultrawide camera with autofocus so that it can function as a macro camera, and a 12-megapixel front-facing camera for selfies. The camera does not have a telephoto lens, which is a bit of a letdown. Image quality is generally satisfactory, although the Zenfone 9 can run into issues due to some excessive over-sharpening in some situations. It’s not the worst thing that might happen, but it’s not my top choice.
The primary back camera has something that is best understood to be referred to as “gimbal stabilization.” Because it involves more than just a single lens element and more than just the sensor alone, the words “optical” and “sensor-shift” stabilization are not accurate descriptions. Stabilization is now included in virtually every other premium smartphone, and it can either be optical or sensor-shift based.
The camera shake compensation on the Zenfone 9 is superior to the approaches that are often used since it involves the movement of both the lens and the sensor simultaneously. According to Asus, its system is able to correct for much larger movements than a conventional, optical-only system: up to three degrees of motion on six axes (vertical, horizontal, and back and forth), as opposed to one degree. Additionally, it is paired with electronic picture stabilization, which helps to smooth down motion even further and adds a “predictive” element thanks to the algorithms developed by Asus.
It’s really rather remarkable in its own right. When you switch to video mode, you can really see the camera and lens moving around under the main housing if you look closely enough. This occurs whenever the mode is switched to video. That’s quite crazy. In addition to that, it performs exceptionally well. The most obvious application for its use is in video recording. The footage that was shot when the person was walking down a gravel road without the stabilization turned on is a shaky, jumbled mess, precisely as you would expect it to be. The movement is transformed into a barely discernible swaying as soon as it is turned on. In order to obtain footage of this level of steadiness, you would typically require an actual gimbal mount, like as the DJI OM 5, but the Zenfone 9 accomplishes everything in-camera. That is totally awesome to hear.
However, it is not quite a standout feature in its own right. The color processing that was applied to my video clips seems to have been too brightened while simultaneously being too flat. I’m not a fan of it. When using both electronic and gimbal stabilization, there is a severe crop that makes it very difficult to capture anything in close quarters. This makes it very difficult to film anything. The gimbal stabilization feature, on the other hand, is only accessible for 1080p HD clips and not for the 4K or 8K (lol) recording modes.
The advantages of still photographs are not quite as substantial. With improved stabilization, it should be feasible to use slower shutter speeds while shooting static subjects in low light without losing sharpness in the resulting images. It would appear that this is the case, but even if it is, that would only make it about on par with the Google Pixel 6 and its combination of optical image stabilization and computational techniques. Moving subjects will also not see any improvement as a result of this. You are not free from the constraints imposed by the way light behaves.
In any case, it’s cool, and I can’t wait to take it out on a trek so that I can shoot some footage of the ascent to the top of a summit so that I can share it with others. Due to the fact that it has an IP68 rating, I won’t even have to be concerned about the dust on the trail or the amount of sweat that it will be exposed to in the pocket of my yoga pants. In spite of how much I enjoy using the Galaxy Z Flip 4 for photography, there is one setting in which I do not feel comfortable putting it, whereas the Zenfone 9 would do quite well in that scenario.
If you’re an AT&T or T-Mobile customer and you’re looking for a really compact Android phone that yet delivers flagship-level performance, this is the one you should seriously consider purchasing, assuming that you’re okay with the phone’s regrettably limited software support lifespan. It’s a joy to work with in every way. Because the silky touch of the composite plastic used by Asus is so gorgeous, I don’t find myself missing the glass panel on the rear at all. The fact that it has a camera makes me want to get out and record some video instead of staying at home. To clarify, the residence where the (most comfortable) soft jeans and the espresso machine are located is mine. This presents a significant challenge that must be surmounted.
In all likelihood, the Zenfone 9 will end up being regarded as a cult classic in the future.
This pleasantness extends to the experience of using the phone to do things that are typical in a given day. It has a sleek and responsive feel about it. The built-in speakers are of a higher quality than is typical. It is possible for me to use wired headphones in the event that I forget to charge my wireless earbuds. When you press and hold the power button, the device actually performs the function for which it was designed.
In all likelihood, the Zenfone 9 will one day be regarded as a cult classic in the United States. It does not function on all carriers in the United States, despite the fact that the general public in the United States has made it quite apparent that they prefer larger smartphones. The Samsung Galaxy S22 is a superior option for the majority of users, with broad carrier support, a telephoto camera on every model, and a robust five-year security support policy to back it all up. It costs a little bit more money, but it is a better choice overall. For people like me who are obsessed with little phones like the Zenfone 9, I just really hope that there will still be a third alternative available in our current duopoly.