From the moment Asus announced its ZenFone 3 lineup in India way back in August, I was worried. Asus appeared to be charging a premium for decidedly mid-range specs and it was with that fear at the back of my mind that I approached the new ZenFone 3 Max.
This phone is the successor to Asus’ own ZenFone Max. The Max gets its name from the humongous battery it packs in. The original Max came with a 5,000mAh battery while this new ZenFone 3 Max packs in a smaller 4,100mAh unit though. The ZenFone Max was also a decidedly budget smartphone with a starting price of just Rs 9,999.
There are two units of the ZenFone 3 Max available. The first is a 5.2-inch variant with a MediaTek chip and 5.2-inch screen that costs Rs 13,999. The other is a 5.5-inch variant with a Snapdragon 430 for Rs 17,999. The smaller one is called the ZenFone 3 Max 5.2 and the larger one the ZenFone 3 Max 5.5.
The ZenFone 3 Max we received for review is the 5.5-inch model.
So what has Asus done to justify that 80 percent bump in price over the original? More importantly, has the company done enough?
Build and Design: 7/10
There’s nothing much to say about the design. All smartphones look largely the same these days and the ZenFone 3 Max is no different.
You get a white, rectangular slab of a phone with 2.5D glass on the front. The back panel is made of metal and there are two plastic panels at the top and bottom to allow for wireless connectivity.
The buttons on the front face are capacitive, but are not backlit, making them a little difficult to use in the dark. The upper half of the front portion features the earpiece speaker, front camera unit and ambient light sensor. An LED is embedded under the surface of the front panel as well and it serves as a notification LED.
The rear features the camera and fingerprint sensor, both of which are aligned to the centre-line at the back. A dual-LED flash and laser focus-assist sensor grace the sides of the camera unit.
Given that the back panel is made of an aluminium alloy, the phone gets bonus points for build quality. The finish isn’t very good, however. The border where the metal meets plastic is rough, as is the transition from glass to metal on the sides.
That said, the build quality is leagues better than the cheap, plasticky feel of the original ZenFone Max.
The dimensions are also great. The phone is just 8.3mm thick and weighs 175g. The iPhone 7 Plus, by comparison, is 7.3mm thick. The ZenFone 3 Max also has a much better screen-to-body ratio of 73 percent as opposed to the iPhone 7 Plus’ 65 percent.
The phone feels nice to hold, if a touch too slippery and it’s way more pocketable than many phones with the same screen size. The buttons are also nice and clicky, which I like.
I’m personally not in favour of a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner, but I can’t really dock points for a personal preference of that nature.
The feature-set for this phone is very confusing. You get 3GB RAM, 32GB of storage, an expansion slot that supports microSD cards up to 128GB in size, a massive 4,100mAh battery, a Full HD 5.5-inch display that’s actually not bad and a 16MP rear camera unit.
Countering this very reasonable spec sheet is an entry-level Snapdragon 430 processor and a mono speaker.
As you’ll see in the performance section, the SoC ruins what could have been a great phone.
The star of the show is the battery, however, which can be even be used to juice other devices via an OTG cable. Asus claims that the ZenFone 3 Max can provide 1.5A of current for charging, which is quite commendable.
The phone’s display is as confusing as the specs of the device. At 5.5-inches and Full HD (1920x1080) resolution, the size of the screen and pixel density is quite nice. You’ll need a higher resolution for VR, but at this price, that’s asking for too much.
Colour reproduction is also good enough and you won’t have any complaints unless you place it side-by-side with something like an iPhone. In such a scenario, you’ll notice that the Max’s screen is on the cooler side (tending to blue).
My real complaint with the screen is with its brightness. Asus claims to be using a 400nit screen (nit being a measure of brightness) and while it should be adequate for reading in bright light, it isn’t.
The screen is fine indoors, but in bright sunlight, I was always left wishing that I could boost the brightness just that little bit more.
The phone runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with ZenUI on top. Android’s core functionality remains unchanged — you can still access Google Now and use Now on Tap, for example — and Asus adds layers of functionality and design on top of it.
Again, this is my personal preference, but I like a stock Android experience as opposed to a custom one, especially if it’s not done well. To its credit, Asus’ interference with stock Android is minimal. You get a bunch of new icons, a completely new set of animations (which I didn’t like because they were too slow) and other little touches like notification bubbles on app icons.
You can also download themes from Asus’ Themes store, which is nice.
You’ll find a plethora of new options in the settings menu. These help customise the Android experience to your taste and let you add or remove software features. You can enable settings that will let you take photos with the fingerprint sensor (or double-tap to wake the camera). You can also enable touch-screen functionality that lets you draw on the screen to open specific apps.
Other functionality such as double-tap to wake or sleep, motion gestures like placing the phone on your ear to answer a call and even a glove mode to increase the sensitivity of the screen can be enabled or disabled at will.
By default, most of these gestures and features are disabled and I just wish the opposite were true. I know too many people who’re too intimidated by the settings menu to bother going into it.
An interesting addition is the GameGenie app. Think of it as a Steam overlay or the DVR bar in Windows 10. You can keep GameGenie as a persistent icon when gaming and tap on it anytime to stream your screen on something like Twitch or YouTube. You can also use it to quickly access a browser to look up something online.
It’s thoughtful of Asus to not force these features on you and let you decide whether you want something or not. However, it might have been better if Asus had simply enabled some of the more useful features by default.
One feature that I rely heavily upon, raise-to-wake, is absent. Double-tap almost makes up for it though. Almost.
Great software needs to be paired with great hardware and that’s the one thing Asus failed to do. While everything else falls into the “good” or “not bad” category, Asus’ decision to go with a Snapdragon 430 SoC falls into the “terrible” category.
The phone feels sluggish at all times. There’s a kind of hesitancy to the UI. You tap on something and then wait half a second for the phone to process the input. Opening apps, tabs, the multi-tasking menu, the notification drawer, they’re all slow and jittery.
Even YouTube doesn’t run smoothly on this phone at HD resolutions and randomly freezes while viewing.
Switching to performance mode under Power Saving options noticeably speeds up some actions, but the overall experience is still a juddery one. Animations are rarely smooth and there’s a perceptible lag to everything.
On a phone under Rs 10,000, the performance might be acceptable. On a phone going for twice that amount, it’s not.
Making things worse is the fact that there is no phone in the market today that carries such an abysmal SoC at this price. The Redmi Note 3, which starts at Rs 9,999, packs in a Snapdragon 650. The older Nexus 5X packs gets a Snapdragon 808. Phones like the Vibe X3, Xperia XA and even the Moto X Play pack in better specs than this one.
If you think about it, the Rs 6,999 Redmi 3S packs in a Snapdragon 430. That phone sells for a third of the price of this ZenFone 3 Max. The Rs 8,999 Redmi 3S Prime offers almost the same specs as the ZenFone 3 Max. Let that just sink in for a bit.
In terms of value, the only phone I can think of that’s worse than the ZenFone 3 Max is the iPhone 5S, which released in 2013.
All of this is still not as bad as the typing experience. I'm not bragging, but I do type very fast on a phone. With the ZenFone 3, there are times when the keyboard just freezes up and I have to stop typing till the words catch up. This happens with third-party keyboards like Swiftkey as well. It's not a very frequent occurrence, but it does happen and when it does, it's very frustrating.
Benchmark figures also bear this out, indicating performance that is on par with some of the lowest performing devices in our charts.
To its credit, the phone doesn’t seem to heat up much, only getting noticeably warm under heavy load and camera use. If only Asus had seen fit to include a Snapdragon 650 or equivalent SoC, it would have been the perfect complement to the rest of the device.
The speaker’s performance is just about acceptable. It’s a mono-speaker and not very loud, but it’s loud enough to be useful. In fact, the speaker is like the display, it’s not bad, but it needs that little bit more oomph.
Camera: 6.5 / 10
The camera unit on the device has a lot going for it on paper. The rear camera is a 16MP f/2.0 unit with PDAF and Laser-assist focussing. It also features EIS (not as good as OIS), a super resolution mode, HDR, low-light mode, etc. Asus also claims that the camera can focus in 0.03 seconds.
In real-life, however, the camera isn’t that impressive. The camera does focus and meter quickly and consistently, but nowhere near the claimed 0.03 second speed. I would estimate that the camera takes a good half second to one second to establish focus. Focussing is about as fast as on an iPhone 6s Plus, but without the seeming fluidity of the iPhone’s camera.
Images are noticeably washed out and lacking in detail. They look all right on the phone’s screen, but zoom in even slightly and all you’ll see is a painting rather than a photo. Competing phones like the Redmi Note 3 and Nexus 5X produce relatively better images.
HDR and night mode also didn’t do much to help shots that required them. While images in HDR did show more dynamic range, the washed out colours remained.
Night mode is supposed to reduce the resolution of the image and enhance light sensitivity while toning down noise, and it seems to do that, but the results aren’t worth mentioning. The camera also struggles very hard to focus in low-light.
The Super Resolution mode was also disappointing.
Frankly, I preferred the auto modes to both low-light and HDR modes because the increased contrast in that mode serves to offset the washed out images a bit.
Battery life is impressive, the only good thing about this phone I’d say.
My daily driver is an iPhone 6s Plus, which packs in a 2,750mAh battery and lasts me a full day of use. My daily use consists of at least 2-3 hours of video playback (I have a long commute), a couple of calls, dozens of e-mail, 50+ messages (sometimes more) and at least 2-4 hours spent browsing the web.
Where the iPhone lasted me a full workday (about 16 hours), at default settings, the Zenfone 3 Max lasted over 30 hours, and that’s after charging my iPhone by 10 percent with the OTG charging feature on the Max.
Our standard PCMark battery test failed to run on the phone so I can’t tell you, objectively, how it compares to the competition. I can however say that no phone, barring the original ZenFone Max and the Redmi Note 3, has ever smoked my iPhone in the battery life department. The fact that the ZenFone 3 Max can do it is testament to its capabilities.
I do have one complaint about the battery and that’s to do with its charging rate. Charging is extremely slow with the bundled charger and I only saw the battery go from 3 percent to 40 percent in 2 hours. My iPhone goes from 0-100 in 2 hours and I thought that was slow.
Verdict and price in India
I can’t for the life of me figure out why Asus has priced the ZenFone 3 Max as they did. I appreciate the battery life and the build quality at this asking price of Rs 17,999, but that sluggish SoC completely ruins the experience for me. The camera is also lack-lustre.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the Redmi Note 3, and that device sells for about Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 less than the ZenFone 3 Max. It also offers a massive performance bump, a better camera and the same battery life. Why would anyone in their right minds pick a ZenFone 3 Max over the Redmi Note 3, at the current pricing?
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