If you favor jumbo smartphones, your best choice in today’s market, in my opinion, is Apple’s 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus. Another popular, well-regarded option is Samsung’s Note 4, with its 5.7-inch screen.
But these beasts are expensive, especially when purchased without wireless carrier subsidies that tie you to a two-year contract. When purchased off-contract, as more and more Americans are doing, the iPhone 6 Plus will set you back $750, and the Samsung Note 4 is around $700.
This week, I’ve been using a new name-brand alternative that’s drastically less expensive. It’s the Asus ZenFone 2, from the Taiwan-based company known mainly for its reliable laptops and tablets.
The Android-based ZenFone 2 has a 5.5-inch screen, a 13-megapixel camera, 16 gigabytes of memory and plenty of other bells and whistles for just $199, without a contract. A higher-end model, with 64GB of memory and a faster processor, is $299, also off-contract.
To put that in perspective, the least you can pay up front for a new iPhone 6 Plus is $299 with a two-year contract and just 16GB of memory.
What’s the catch? Sure, the new Asus phone is a bargain, but is it any good?
The ZenFone 2 is not in the same class as your giant iPhone or your Samsung phablet. In my tests, it was a bit slower than the iPhone. It’s also made of plastic, while its competitors have aluminum casing or framing. But if you’re price-sensitive, the Asus ZenFone 2 actually gives you a lot for your money.
As to how Asus can afford to charge so little, the company isn’t saying. My guess is that it’s willing to make little or nothing on this model, since it’s the first real Asus smartphone to be sold in the U.S. (the company previously sold an odd combo phone and tablet). Also, the phone’s processor is made by Intel, instead of the more popular mobile processors from Qualcomm. I suspect that Intel, which has been struggling to catch up in mobile devices, may be helping Asus make the pricing work.
The ZenFone 2 isn’t available from any carriers or major physical stores. It’s only being sold online at a few sites, including Asus’s own Web store and Amazon.com.
If you do buy one, your options for cellular plans or SIM cards will be limited to AT&T, T-Mobile and a few others that use a network technology called GSM. The ZenFone 2 doesn’t work with Verizon or Sprint, which employ a different technology. (I did my tests using a T-Mobile SIM, and found that I got good voice-call quality and respectable data speeds around Washington, D.C.)
In most respects, the ZenFone 2 is a pretty standard Android phone running the latest version of the Google mobile operating system, Lollipop. Asus won’t promise that the phone will be upgradeable to the recently announced next version of Android, called “Android M,” due later this year.
It has a bright, vivid, high-resolution screen that I found fluid and sensitive. On the rear, the phone is curved to fit in the hand (unlike the iPhone 6 Plus). The back cover comes off to provide access to the SIM and memory-card slots.
In my tests, the phone handled every app I tried, and music sounded good with or without headphones.
The 13-megapixel camera has a complicated variety of features, including one called “beautification,” which is supposed to do what its name implies, but made little difference in my tests. Asus brags that the camera is superior in low light, but in my tests at dusk, shooting a flower arrangement in a dim room, I found that the iPhone 6 did a bit better. The same was true for sunlit shots of my garden outside. Still, the ZenFone 2 camera is fine, certainly for a $199 phone.
While I didn’t do a formal battery test, the phone lasted me a full day, after performing a variety of tasks.
The ZenFone 2 has a few interesting features.
First, it can accept two different SIM cards — something common outside the U.S., but rare here. This means you could have two different phone numbers in the same phone, and two different carriers. For instance, you might have one for work and one for personal use.
The ZenFone 2 allows you to choose which phone number is the default for voice calling. But there’s a limitation: Only one of the two SIM cards can be used for data.
The phone also has its volume control on the rear, beneath the camera, instead of on the side. Asus, which isn’t the only company with this design (LG does something similar), claims this is a more natural location. The rear button can also be used for other things, like snapping selfies. This button took some getting used to, and I’m still not sure I like it any better than a side-mounted controller.
Asus also built in easy ways of waking up the phone. For instance, from a blank screen, you can just double-tap, rather than pressing the power button. You can even get to specific apps from a blank screen by making letter-shaped gestures, like “C” for camera or “E” for email.
I had two big frustrations with the ZenFone 2. One was the plethora of preloaded software that comes with the phone. Some of this is from Asus, some from third parties. Among them are numerous apps that duplicate the standard Android functions, like an extra browser, calendar, contacts and photos app. Others are things like “50+ games,” which isn’t an age reference, the company says. This app contains a bunch of games like Hangman, many of them ad-supported. Ugh.
The second was the difficulty of removing the back cover to get to the SIM and memory-card slots. Granted, you only do this a few times in most cases, but both I and someone else I asked to try found it almost impossible to do this without a tool, which ended up scratching the plastic.
Still, the ZenFone 2’s remarkably low price, and its name brand, make this a smart choice for anyone looking for a good Android phone that won’t bust the budget.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.