The Zenfone 9 is striking thanks to its diminutive size. We got more comments about it from acquaintances than we normally do when sporting a new phone, even when we rock the best of the best flagship devices. And all of the comments were relating to size. "Wow, that's a small phone" is probably the thing we heard the most. And it is small, compared to what qualifies as 'normal' size these days.
At 68.1mm wide, it's narrower than pretty much any other flagship smartphone out there, including Samsung's otherwise similarly sized Galaxy S22. It's only half a mm taller than that model, and marginally thicker, but perhaps the measurement that best translates into actual one-hand usability is width, hence why we started with it. For comparison's sake, note that 'normal' size devices all hover around the 72-76mm mark. A few mm may not seem like much on paper, but the difference in use is very obvious.
We can't really say if the size is a plus or a minus here, since that's a matter of personal preference. Logically speaking, as we laid out in the introduction, given that the display is the main interaction point with the smartphone, you'd theoretically want the most screen area you can get - but obviously, that can't scale indefinitely, otherwise, we'd all carry TVs around with us.
And then there's the 'hand size' discussion, which should be had too, as if your hands are small, you will struggle to use any 'normal' handset one-handed, or simply won't be able to at all. Some people have no issue going two-handed, others, however, do, so again - it's all a matter of personal preference.
There are also those who just think phones should be smaller than they are, regardless of hand size or any such considerations. If you're one of them, we hope you bought a Zenfone 9 or a Galaxy S22 to prove your point and support your idea - the proverbial 'putting your money where your mouth is', as they say. If not, then sales numbers for smaller devices will continue to disappoint, and at some point, these will be gone from the market entirely. You don't want that, do you?
We assume you don't, and neither do we. It's always great to have a different thing in for review, and phones have been getting pretty same-y recently. The Zenfone 9, thanks to its size, isn't like every other device out there, and that's refreshing. It's also different when it comes to the rear's finishing.
You'd expect to find some sort of glass on the back panel since this is a flagship in specs, but you'd be wrong. Asus went with matte plastic instead, which might sound controversial in theory. Once you hold a Zenfone 9, we venture to guess that you'll love the idea. The plastic has this paper-like texture, for lack of a better descriptor, which makes it feel unlike any other plastic back we've ever touched. In a good way, that is.
While some may scoff at the use of such a "non-premium" material, it feels great to the touch, and has the added benefit of not being slippery and not showing fingerprints (with the exception of the black version, for some reason). What more could you want? Oh, yeah, and it obviously won't shatter when you drop the phone either. If people weren't obsessed with the 'premiumness' of glass, logic would dictate this would be viewed more positively, since it has more advantages. Alas, we don't live in a logical world, so some people will inevitably get stuck on "plastic=cheap" and never let that go.
Even so, we assume a case will go on top of Asus' experimental back for most people, so you'll only have to deal with the textured plastic for a short amount of time. There's a case in the box, but it's weirdly plasticky (in a bad way) feeling and rather slippery - both things that the 'naked' phone isn't, at least in this reviewer's opinion.
That's unfortunate, but there are some third-party options out there for the Zenfone 9, so it's not like you're stuck with the included case. The gesture to bundle it is nice anyway, since the Zenfone's No.1 competitor doesn't - nor does it ship with a charger, of course (we're talking about the Galaxy S22).
Handling is outstanding for literally anyone who isn't a small child. That's hardly surprising given the size of the Zenfone 9, but we had to say it anyway. You won't ever complain about not having a secure grip on this one, and thus chances are you won't ever be afraid of dropping it. And that's in spite of the rather slippery frame - not the worst offender we've ever handled, but not great for grip either. And still, that's pretty much a moot point because of this phone's size.
Speaking of the frame, it's flat - surprise, surprise. The very predictable way in which Android device makers get 'inspired' by Apple every now and then is rather hilarious, we have to say. The point is - we'll probably see many more flat frames in the near future, and as we mentioned in a previous long-term review, we're neither for nor against these. For very large and heavy phones (think Pro Max level), they can impede usability for people who don't have very large hands, but otherwise, they're... fine.
The front is all-screen, as you'd expect in this day and age, with the chin being thicker than the other three bezels - a very often seen combo at any price point, but one that does ever so slightly cheapen the look of what is supposed to be a flagship device.
The position of the hole-punch camera cutout is rather unique in this day and age, when all phones seem to want to have it in the middle - it's a throwback of sorts to a time when Samsung Display was only selling panels with centered hole-punches to Samsung Electronics and all the other smartphone makers were stuck with the left-aligned holes in one of the weirdest artificially (yet purposefully) created differentiating points we've ever seen in the mobile world.
On the back, there are two huge circular camera islands, one for each snapper. We really appreciate Asus' decision not to include pointless extra sensors like so many other companies do. Fans of dedicated macro cams and depth sensors will be very disappointed, unfortunately, but that's a price Asus was willing to pay, and we support that. If you like macro shots, you can use the ultrawide camera for those, as it has autofocus.
The text under the cameras is puzzling, especially the large "09" inscription, as are the two triangles that supposedly frame an imaginary one-piece camera island. If the Zenfone 10 ends up looking identical, only with "10" instead of "09" written in the same spot, then that part will make more sense. Eventually. As for the advertised camera specs, we find them superfluous and pointless as usual, but at least the words here work together and make sense, unlike some other recent examples we've reviewed long-term.
Overall, we find the Zenfone 9 to be tastefully designed (if you can get past the quirky text on the back), and while it doesn't scream for attention from across the street, upon closer inspection, it does stand out from most smartphones out there in both its size and the look and feel of its rear - not to mention that for some colors the frame is painted black, which is a nice little unique touch.