ASUS' new LTE phablet gives plenty of bang for the buck

It's been exactly one year since ASUS launched its ZenFone line of relatively affordable Android phones, and having shipped 8 million units so far, the Taiwanese company is keen to keep the momentum going. The new ZenFone 2 announced today isn't just better-looking, but it's also packed with great specs: 64-bit quad-core Intel processor, 5.5-inch (1080p) IPS display, Gorilla Glass 3, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, fast-charge technology, up to 4GB of RAM, microSD slot, Android 5.0 (with ASUS' pretty ZenUI) and more. Better yet, this dual-SIM LTE phone starts from just $199 unsubsidized when it hits the US in Q2. This is surprisingly aggressive -- even more so than the flagship devices from Xiaomi and OnePlus.

The ZenFone 2's base model comes with a 1.8GHz Intel processor (Z3560), 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, but it can be maxed out to 2.3GHz (Z3580) with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of local storage. Impressively, all versions come with a 3,000mAh fast-charge battery that can go from 0 to 60 percent in a mere 39 minutes (that's close to the Oppo Find 7's speed: from 0 to 75 percent in 30 minutes). Much like the latest LG flagship phones, the ZenFone 2 features a rear-facing volume rocker right below the camera. This way, ASUS can give the phone clean vertical edges that are tapered from 10.9mm in the middle to just 3.9mm thick, thus giving this "Ergonomic Arc" design a nice feel. The brushed-metal finish -- offered in Osmium Black, Sheer Gold, Glacier Gray, Glamor Red and Ceramic White -- and the 170-gram weight are nice bonuses as well.

Camera performance can be hit or miss for ASUS' non-flagship Android devices, but in this case, the ZenFone 2's cameras seem decent enough on paper. On the back you'll find a 13-megapixel f/2.0 camera with a dual-color "Real Tone" flash, and the front side comes with a 5-megapixel f/2.0 imager. Like its sibling devices, this new phone touts the PixelMaster package that offers a super-effective Low Light mode (as we first saw on the new PadFone Infinity), Beautification mode and Manual mode. On the video side, the main camera does 1080p with stabilization.

In this new version of ZenUI, ASUS has added some handy new features, including a single-hand mode that shrinks the entire screen, work/personal environment switching, Trend Micro Security integration in the browser, ZenMotion touch gestures and more. We'll learn more when we get to play with one in depth later this year.

For just $199 off-contract, the ZenFone 2 is set to be a sincere attempt to offer a great mobile experience to the masses. Of course, we won't know for sure until ASUS actually ships the phone, and only time will tell how stable and intuitive the new ZenUI is, as this will be the company's first time toying with Android 5.0. But we think it's going to be a good one.