Asus seemed to have turned a new leaf when the company showcased a barrage of new smartphones, at Computex 2016 in Taiwan back in June. Since then we have seen more premium looking devices come from Asus featuring metal construction (instead of plastic bits) and Qualcomm chipsets (from Intel chips). Asus basically moved from the budget segment into the mid-range and the premium smartphone market in India. After smartphones like the Zenfone 3 and the Zenfone 3 Max Asus finally announced the phablet-sized Zenfone 3 Ultra and the Zenfone 3 Deluxe, its first flagship smartphone.
Asus' hardware and software choices in the past may have not been the best, but in the flagship space things get pretty competitive and even the smallest drawbacks can and will make buyers look at another brand. Things can only get worse when you’re under the radar for being a new entrant in a segment flooded with established brands. So does Asus’ first flagship smartphone cut it? At Rs 49,999 (for the Snapdragon 820 model) how does it compete with premium offerings from LG, Sony, HTC and Samsung? Let’s find out!
Build and Design: 7.5/10
I am impressed by the fit, finish and the precision of the build quality of the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe. I liked how Asus managed to conceal the antenna bands as well resulting in a rather clean layout that makes one wonder whether the rear cover is made of plastic or metal? Well, it’s metal and it surely feels premium when holding it. The company calls this Asus PureMetal technology and for now, no other manufacturer out there offers the anything close to it. However, with the ‘Deluxe’ tag, I expected something more than impressive, and this flagship Zenfone is anything but that.
Look at it from the front and it looks similar to the Zenfone 3, minus the 2.5D glass. Flip it over and the back looks similar to every other new Asus handset including the Zenfone 3 Laser. My problem with the design is that it’s not something that anyone around me in the office tagged as premium or different, something that stands out.
There’s no curved edge display and those bezels aren’t exactly razor thin either when you consider the thick black border that sits between the display and the frame. This flagship smartphone is not water and dust resistant either and this is a concern when you keep the competition in mind.
In fact, I can easily say that the Asus logo on the back is off by 2-3 millimetres and not perfectly straight by just glancing at the smartphone’s back. In short, it’s not exactly what one would expect when you pay Rs 49,999 for a flagship.
Customers expect flagships to look different (if not attractive). In fact, I found the Zenfone 3’s design a lot better looking and pleasing even though the bezels at the top and bottom where thicker.
Features: 8.5 / 10
If not for the design, the hardware specifications of the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe will surely impress any customer. You get a 5.7-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display on the front along with an 8MP f/2.0 camera that sits at the top. On the back, you a 23MP camera with OIS, EIS, and Laser focus.
Inside, there is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset clocked at 2.15GHz coupled with an Adreno 530 GPU, clocked at 624MHz. There’s 6GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage along with support for microSD cards of up to 128GB in capacity.
Connectivity options include, support for 4G, LTE bands, Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth v4.2, NFC and yes, it includes a 3.5mm headphone jack and a USB Type C port at the bottom. There’s support for a micro SIM and a nano SIM and one of them holds the microSD card as well, thanks to the hybrid layout out of the SIM slot (I would have preferred dedicated ones). Last but not the least there’s Asus’ ZenUI 3.0 with Android 6.0 Marshmallow powering the device and a 3,000mAh fuelling all of the above.
Display: 8 / 10
Asus for the first time has gone with a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display and this is good, because the Zenfone 3 Deluxe is a flagship after all. It features Full HD resolution and gets pretty bright (although not the brightest) and looks great. Being an AMOLED unit, it also showcases that pink tinge, but I’m not complaining. The viewing angles are great and the display maintains brightness even at the steepest of angles which is commendable.
Asus claims that its AMOLED display is 100 percent NTSC. While the claim is pretty tall, I did like the image quality and the almost accurate colour reproduction. While the display was set to Super Colour (or vivid) by default, I switched to the standard mode, which showcased more natural looking colours even though they did look a bit dull (once you have used the Super Colour mode).
Considering its size (5.7 inches across), Asus could have offered a QHD unit, but that would lead to some other problems mentioned in the battery section. And that is the only gripe I had about the display, because one can notice the jagged edges while viewing text up close. However, from a normal viewing distance, the pixellation is barely visible.
Software: 7 / 10
The software on board the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe is the same old story. Asus sticks to its Zen UI which like every other handset developed in the past, still looks dated. While having a theme center and plenty of customisation options (including the ability to build your own themes) the Zen UI still has a widget section in the app drawer. I mean this is 2016 and this is a flagship smartphone, come on Asus!
Other than the boring and ageing skinning which has barely changed since the first Zenfone, it also feels bloated. OnePlus 3 owners for example will notice minor stutters and it feels like a smartphone with 3GB RAM instead of the actually available 6GB.
There’s tons of bloatware (apps can only be disabled) and contrary to what most manufacturers are doing today, which is to trim down their OS, Asus goes the other way.
But there are a few positives. There are plenty of options. You can get everything customised the way you want it. There’s the Mobile Manager app that has one too many tweaks to either get more performance out of the chipset, or squeeze more battery life using power saving modes. I mostly ran the device in the Normal mode and did not feel the need to switch to Performance mode.
Another good use of the Super AMOLED unit is the Always-on Panel. This is a software and hardware feature that keeps some active pixels lit up to show some notifications. It’s customisable to an extent using the different clock styles, but I would have preferred something that is more customisable than just showing the missed calls, text messages and battery life. The Always-on display function did not affect the battery life.
Performance: 7.5 / 10
Performance on the Zenfone 3 Deluxe was not a problem. As per the benchmarks it’s a flagship through and through. But thanks to the bloated software, it lacks fluidity. In short, it doesn’t feel as smooth as the OnePlus 3 even in Performance mode.
It is blazing fast! In a side-by-side comparison it opened apps faster than the OnePlus 3, but it general usage, it could not maintain that momentum and showcased micro-stutters, in short, not buttery smooth as I expected it to be.
Inside games and apps, the performance was top notch. It could run any game I threw at it including graphically demanding titles, such as Dead Trigger, Asphalt 8: Xtreme, Gear Club, Warhammer 40K: FreeBlade and more. It ran them on the highest settings at good framerates without a hiccup, showcasing no stutter or lag. It did get a bit warm but not unbearably hot.
The fingerprint reader was fast at unlocking the smartphone, but not as fast as the rest of the flagships out there. But there were a couple of hiccups as I often found myself placing my finger twice to unlock the device. I think this is more to do with finding the rectangular sensor on the back than anything else.
Call quality was good with both the caller and the receiver being able to hear one another loud and clear. The speaker at the bottom was really loud and was clear even at maximum volume. Listening to audio on through the headphones was a good experience with rich sound quality that went a little heavy on the bass. This could however be adjusted and tweaked thanks to the built-in AudioWizard app.
Camera: 7 / 10
The camera onboard the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe sounded amazing... on paper. You get a 23MP unit that comes with Laser Autofocus Assist, PDAF, OIS, EIS and much more. What is not impressive are the images that it produces.
Whether you shoot in broad daylight, or shoot in dim lighting, the images lack depth. You barely get a sense of distance (even with f/2.0 aperture) when you look at a low light image and they always somehow seem to appear flat.
Leaving the camera in Auto mode most of the time, I often had to tap to focus more than once to get the camera to lock its focus especially in dim or low lighting. This is a bit surprising because handset features laser focus assist. In fact, the image samples will show you that camera does in fact take its own sweet time to decide which object is closer to it. In the meantime I have tapped the on-screen shutter button and have not one but plenty of images that have failed to focus.
Part of the reason why such a great hardware set fails, is the lack of software tweaking. Even at around evening, the camera cranks up the ISO and will then run an algorithm to kill the luminance noise, making the images look flat and lacking any texture whatsoever.
With HDR set to Auto, I did end up taking plenty of HDR photographs. The result of the combination of multiple exposures was quite subtle and one could barely tell that the mode had a role to play it rarely improved the image with many of the daylight shots having blown out highlights.
Moving to the front camera, the images churned out were passable while video quality in Full HD 60fps and 4K was decent, but nowhere close to the best smartphones in this price range and segment.
Battery: 7.5 / 10
For some odd reason we were not able to pull off our standard battery life test, which kept quitting a couple of minutes into the test.
In terms of real world usage, the battery life I got from the Zenfone 3 Deluxe was enough to get me through a day of work. This would include using Hangouts, WhatsApp, Slack, two Gmail accounts on sync with minimal camera usage. It would almost die out after 9 hours of use if I happened to play a couple of 3D games (which it did flawlessly). All of this was in Normal mode. Switching to Performance mode in the Mobile Manager app would give me noticeably faster app launches and multi-tasking, but this would also reduce battery life to about 7-8 hours. Playing games or streaming video would showcase a noticeable drop in battery life.
I would have appreciated a slightly bigger battery considering its size, but then the Deluxe also packs in Quick Charge 3.0 that makes charging the 3,000mAh battery pretty quick (about 60 minutes for a full charge).
Verdict and Price in India
At the end of it all Asus's first flagship offering falls short of the competition. While the top-of-the-line specifications look great on paper, it's the software experience that is either lacking, or gets in your way. I noticed how the software felt unnecessarily bloated. It seems to have taken away what should have been a buttery smooth software user experience. The same software showed its ugly face once again in the camera section where over processing leads to some flat-looking images. Asus really needs to take a complete u-turn when it comes to software keeping in mind where it’s headed (the premium segment).
As I have mentioned in the very beginning of this review, we have all adjusted with the unpolished software and hardware choices with Asus' budget smartphones in the past. But with the company now looking at the premium segment, nobody including myself is going to forgive the Zenfone 3 Deluxe for its ageing software that has barely changed over the years, or its average camera performance that comes at a really high price tag of Rs 49,999. I'd rather pick up the HTC 10 or the OnePlus 3T instead!
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