When Asus announced the Zenfone 3 at Computex 2016, everyone was excited to see how the new Zenfone had matured into what many would call a mid-range smartphone.
While the flagship capabilities were reserved for the Zenfone Deluxe with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chipset and 6GB RAM, all eyes were indeed on the Zenfone 3, its lower priced sibling.
Soon enough, the Taiwanese manufacturer brought the Zenfone 3 along with the Zenfone 3 Deluxe and the Zenfone 3 Ultra to India. While the Zenfone 3 Deluxe with its Snapdragon 821 sits at the very top of the current flagship smartphone pyramid (in terms of specifications) the Zenfone 3 (5.5-inch and 5.2-inch models) and the Laser sit at the bottom end of Asus’ Zenfone offerings in India.
With that said, Rs 18,999 is a pretty hefty price tag for a Zenfone Laser and the same can be said about the smaller Zenfone 3 priced at Rs 21,999. But what happens to the 5.5-inch Zenfone 3 that's priced at Rs 27,999? It's price tag puts it in the same league as the OnePlus 3 or LeEco's Le Max 2. Does it hold its own? Let's find out!
Build and Design: 8/10
I have to hand it to Asus, this is indeed the first Zenfone that actually feels truly premium and it gathers plenty of attention from onlookers as well. While I am not a fan of gold coloured smartphones (I would have been happier with the black or the white model) it is the build quality and finish that would easily fool anyone into believing that this is a premium, flagship smartphone.
Hold it in your hand and there are no bumps or breaks in the construction. Asus seems to have found its sweet spot with the combination of metal and glass in what feels like a seamless design. And seamless it is!
There appear to be no antenna bands running across the back of this smartphone; all you will find is some well rounded 2.5D glass on the front and the back that’s made by Corning. As for the antenna bands, they run at the top and bottom parts of the metal frame, which is again well-rounded, with a 40-degree bevel-cut edge that adds to the seamless feel.
The left side is mostly clean with just a single cavity for the SIM tray while the right showcases some well-designed buttons made of metal that feature the Zen’s signature concentric-circle pattern similar to that on the front bezel and under the back glass.
While everything looks premium, there’s just one big problem. The Zenfone 3 is just too slippery! Place it on a any table (face down) that is inclined by about 5 degrees and you will see your Zenfone 3 sliding downwards. Place it on its back on a pillow and it slides down as well. Holding it in your hands, well it slips out really easy and this applies more for the 5.5-inch model than the smaller 5.2-inch model. The Xperia Z3 had a similar problem, more so because it was entirely flat, Sony fixed the same by extending the metal edge of the smartphone’s back with the Z5. The simple fix prevented the glass (which was also matte) from making contact with flat surfaces leading to fewer or no slip ups.
While the Zenfone has evolved from its budget and plasticy past, there are plenty of upgrades under the hood as well. The specifications of the Zenfone 3 (ZE552KL) include an updated Snapdragon octa-core 625 (64-bit) chipset that is paired with 4GB RAM and offers 64GB of internal storage. The smartphone even offers expandable storage and will support microSD cards of up to 2TB in capacity.
On the front we have a 5.5-inch Full HD Super IPS+ display and an 8MP camera for selfies, while the back features a f/2.0 aperture, 6 MP Largan Lens with the Sony IMX298 sensor.
The smartphone features the usual radios including 4G, 3G, Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n/ac), GPS and an FM Radio.
Coming to the software, Asus continues to stick with its ZenUI and offers Android 6.0 Marshmallow as the base. The Zenfone 3 features a 3,000 mAh battery that should work in its favour since the chipset is built using the 14nm manufacturing process. The chipset supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology that Asus calls 'Fast Charging'.
The display on the Zenfone 3 is indeed one of the best we have seen on a Zenfone till date. I have reviewed the premium Zenfone Zoom in the past, but this new display that uses 'Deep Trench Isolation' is unique as it also packs in a colour correction sensor. Simply put, these result in better and natural looking colours no matter what the lighting situation.
In the testing phase I found no flaw with the display. The colours remained natural (unlike most AMOLED panels) and text appeared sharp and pixelation free. The IPS display performed well indoors and outdoors (including under bright sunlight).
What I liked was that it maintained its brightness and colours no matter how steep the viewing angle, which made it an excellent device for watching movies or as portable media player. This is to be expected from an IPS panel, but the results are impressive nonetheless.
Colour shifting was minimal and a pink tinge was only visible from the most extreme viewing angles and that too when viewed from the top and bottom.
Coming to the screen it features an oleophobic coating and managed to resist fingerprint no matter how greasy my fingers were. One thing to note is that the glass on the back of the device was a fingerprint magnet and it looks like Asus decided to skip on the oleophobic coating on the back.
Asus’ ZenUI functions smoothly with no lag and responds quickly while opening and closing apps. The software felt light but we had to keep the device in performance mode to keep the frame rates from dropping. Thanks to Asus’ optimisations, even the drop in frame rates were consistent and this is worth applause as it helps extend the battery life of the device drastically (more in the Battery section).
So why the bad rating you ask? This has been my complaint since my first brush with ZenUI, but I still find ZenUI to be tacky at best. With the Zenfone 3, I expected a drastic change. The price tag did go up after all and Asus has gone for a premium look and feel. But ZenUI, albeit with Android 6.0 Marshmallow onboard, appears bloated just because of the way it looks.
The icons with the Zenfone 3 have gone from squares with rounded corners to rounded squares (similar to Samsung’s TouchWiz) and while that iconography has changed to an extent, everything inside is still the same. Animations and transitions are kept to a bare minimum but there is really nothing that excites or makes it worth using the custom ZenUI skinning on board. I’d rather use a Zenfone with stock Android or an almost stock Android version similar to what we have seen on Motorola or OnePlus devices. Even the theme selection in the theme store did not seem to help.
Asus could learn a few things from Huawei out here.
There was always a problem with Asus’ Intel chipsets and the company's switch to Qualcomm chipsets has indeed turned out to be beneficial. With the 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 onboard, the Zenfone 3's performance was not a problem. Apps opened and closed without a hitch. There were no skipped frames in transitions and part of this could also be attributed to the underlying Android 6.0 base that Asus offers out of the box. Multi-tasking is no big deal either with 4GB of RAM on tap.
Gaming was not a problem on this smartphone either. Everything from Dead Trigger 2 to Real Racing 3 and Asphalt 8 to Run Sackboy! ran perfectly fine with no hiccups. Temperatures were under control as well as so was the battery life.
Coming to calls, audio quality was clear and loud and the caller on the other end could hear me clearly as well. I had no reception problems whatsoever. As for the speaker, it was loud and loud enough to place a call in traffic and hear the other person. It may not be the clearest one around, but it sure is loud.
I was thoroughly impressed by the Zenfone 3’s daylight imaging capabilities considering that it is a 'Zenfone'. Having used mid-range and premium Zenfones in the past, I always had my reservations about Zenfones having unimpressive sensors. This time around things have changed and we do have a winner. Well sort of.
This is because Asus’s new Zenfone 3 packs in a Sony IMX 298. The sensor is quite a capable one and also makes an appearance on the OnePlus 3 and the Xiaomi Mi 5, two smartphones that this Zenfone 3 will be pitted against when it comes to pricing.
While the sensor is the same, it all comes down to processing and this time around, Asus seems to have done a better job. But it's not without its flaws.
The images look balanced and showcase proper colour reproduction. In fact, I loved how the images reproduced on the phone’s display looked identical to the one on the desktop monitor. An accurate display is a big plus indeed and avoids the surprises that you'd usually encounter when you shoot with smartphones with saturated AMOLED displays.
In daylight, the images are stunning and Zenfone upgraders will indeed see a seachange in image quality. The images reproduced come quite close to that of the OnePlus 3, although they're not as sharp. The colour saturation was fine, purple fringing was non-existent and sharpness levels were perfectly fine in Auto mode.
The same cannot be said about the camera's performance in low light situations. Noise levels are in control and will not ruin an image provided there is some light in the scene. In pitch dark situations however, the photos are almost unusable. But there is a solution for that.
Switch to the manual mode and you get plenty of controls to fidget with. You can set a lower ISO level and get some pretty decent images and long exposures thanks to the OIS system.
Moving on to video, the Zenfone 3 offers something different in the form of real-time HDR video. This works in Full HD and 4K video recordings and the results are pretty good for a mid-range smartphone.
With 64-bit octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, battery life was not expected to be a problem with the Zenfone 3 thanks to the chip’s 14nm manufacturing process. With that said the software too seems to play a big role here and helps optimise the performance levels to deliver the required battery life.
To be fair, almost 12 hours on our battery life test is an achievement. We had it set in Performance mode which keeps operations super smooth and the smartphone certainly seems to have delivered. You can expect much better battery life with other, less power hungry modes.
As a bonus, the 3,000 mAh battery can also be fast-charged. In daily use, the smartphone easily lasted more than my usual work day (9 hours) with two email accounts on sync, WhatsApp messaging, calls and some photography. In short, I was more than impressed with the Zenfone 3’s battery life.
There’s a lot that’s new and improved with the new Zenfone 3. There’s the camera that’s improved by leaps and bounds, a premium metal and glass body and a brisk Qualcomm chipset.
But with all of this also comes higher price tag and in the case of the 5.5-inch Zenfone 3, it creeps pretty close to the Chinese flagships like the OnePlus 3 and the Mi 5.
The Xiaomi Mi 5 (Rs 22,999) and the OnePlus 3 (Rs 27,999) pack in plenty of processing power (Snapdragon 820) and quality construction as well. We compared the camera samples as well, and found those on the OnePlus 3 to be a lot better in most cases even though I still prefer the display on the Zenfone 3.
This is where it makes little sense to recommend the 5.5-inch Asus Zenfone 3 (ZE552KL). It packs in a budget chipset found in budget smartphones like the Redmi Note 3 (Snapdragon 650) and the LeEco Le 2 (Snapdragon 652), both of which are priced at Rs 12,000.
Pricing is always critical and with a barrage of Chinese smartphones flooding the market, it's hard to explain to consumers why a smartphone with such specifications would be priced so high.
Asus' Zenfone 3 stands tall with its premium looks and great display, but with the boring old software and anaemic hardware, it's hard to recommend it over the OnePlus 3 that is priced exactly the same and comes with plenty more. Go for the 5.5-inch Zenfone 3 if you prefer premium looks over raw power!