Asus announced the ZenFone 3 series during Computex 2016. The company launched three devices, and Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra is on of the three smartphones announced today as part of the ZenFone 3 lineup, to start selling in India. We have already reviewed Asus ZenFone 3 Max and ZenFone 3, and in this review, I will be talking about the Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra.
ZenFone 3 Ultra is only exciting for people who want more real estate and bigger battery life to use a device with a 6.8-inch screen size to probably replace their ageing 7-inch tablets.
I have a Surface Pro 3 and OnePlus 3 as my primarily mobile devices, and I didn't feel the need to find any device in between these two display sizes. Using a smartphone with the 6.8-inch display was unnerving in the beginning, but now as after spending a solid week with the device, I love the device for the massive screen that it provides. So without further ado, let's jump straight into the review.
Build and Design: 8 / 10
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra comes with a somewhat dull industrial design without any frills. Despite the lack of any fancy design element like textured back or sides, the smartphone manages to look beautiful. It is quite a handful to hold though, thanks to the large screen form factor. It feels sturdy. And although it weighs 233 g, the weight is well distributed along the body of the device, so that it doesn't feel heavy to hold. It measures around 6.8mm thick.
The build quality of the smartphone is brilliant. The company has used premium metal to construct the smartphone instead of any plastic.
The front of the smartphone includes a home button with built-in fingerprint sensor and two soft backlit buttons in the form of back and multi-task switcher beside it. The top of the front screen includes a speaker, proximity sensor, front camera module and LED indicator.
There are no buttons on the left side of the smartphone, and instead, you find the power button and the two separate SIM trays on the right side of the screen. The top SIM tray can house a nano SIM while the second SIM tray can house either the second nano SIM or a microSD card slot. The top side of the smartphone has the 3.5mm headphone jack along with a mic.
The speaker grills are on the bottom side of the smartphone along with the second mic and the Type-C USB 2.0 port in the middle. Asus has decided to add the volume rocker at the backside of the smartphone which somehow works for this form factor.
The volume rocker is located right in the middle towards the top portion (ideally in place of the camera module for some smartphones) with the Camera module along with dual-tone LED towards the top on the left corner of ZenFone 3 Ultra.
You can find the Zenfone branding at the bottom side along with the ASUS logo right in the middle at the back of the device.
Features: 8 / 10
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra packs a Qualcomm MSM8976 Snapdragon 652 chipset with an octa-core processor clocked at 1.8GHz with Adreno 510 GPU. Our review unit came with 4GB RAM with 64GB internal storage. If you are running out of storage space, then you can add a microSD card up to 256GB in the second SIM slot. The ZenFone 3 Ultra comes with a 6.8-inch IPS LCD with an effective resolution of 1080x1920 at 324ppi display density covered with Gorilla Glass 4 for additional protection.
Asus has added a 23MP camera module along with phase detection autofocus, 4-axis Optical Image Stabilization and a Dual-LED dual tone flash on the back. This camera module has f/2.0 aperture so that it can capture more light in low lighting conditions and it is capable of 1080p at 30fps. Also, the phone sports an 8MP camera module with f/2.0 aperture on the front with 1080p capability.
ZenFone 3 Ultra is equipped with Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Wi-Fi Direct, hotspot, Bluetooth v4.2, GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS and BDS, Type-C USB v2.0 port with Quick-charging support and USB On-The-Go support. It also has a 3.5mm headphone jack, Infrared Port and FM Radio support along with hybrid SIM slots. The company has also added Fingerprint sensor on the front home button along with an accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity and compass sensors. You get a 4600mAh Lithium-ion non-removable battery in the device.
Display: 7 / 10
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra has a massive 6.8-inch Full-HD display with 324ppi pixel density. The display has an IPS LCD panel which may not seem amazing on paper, but the display seems to hold on its own during daily usage. The screen is extremely reflective, and you will face discomfort while working in direct sunlight and will need to re-adjust. But still, the display is one of major unique proposition for the device.
Even though I thought that the display is going to disappoint me and the large screen size will be a major issue for me, this is the secret weapon for Asus here. After using the device for about 10-days, I started getting used to the size and it wasn't such an issue anymore.
With the 5.8-inch display, you must be concerned about the pocketability of ZenFone 3 Ultra and to clarify that concern, yes you can get the device in the pocket of a normal adult sized denim. No, you can't make a run for your life with the device in the pocket in case of a Zombie apocalypse. Yes, you will end up destroying your earphones or the 3.5mm audio jack if you try to sit and work in the office. So it's better to take out the phone while sitting down on a chair and a brisk walk would do with the Ultra in your pocket.
Gaming, typing and general work like editing photos or browsing through social media on the device are brilliant because of the screen real estate the device provides. I can only imagine how brilliant the device will work once Android Nougat 7.0 brings Multi-window workflow to the device. I was quite impressed after using FX File manager to experience the split-screen view.
The LCD IPS display provides decent viewing angles, despite seeming a bit dim, regarding brightness, when viewed from sides. But overall, I had a good time while reading, web browsing, gaming or watching videos on display.
The colours, contrast and vibrancy of the screen was fairly decent at all times. There is no particular mode for outdoors despite having a separate 'Screen colour mode' which only tweaks the colours of the display. I wish that Asus had added something for the direct-in-sun workflow which could make working easier.
Software: 7 / 10
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra runs Android Marshmallow 6.0.1 out of the box along with the custom ZenUI on the top of the OS. There are elements like the three quick-launch options on the lock-screen and the folder-style on the home screen that could have been better. Thankfully ZenUI does give you the option to turn the quick-launch options off which helps it give more AOSP like experience.
During the setup process, Asus prompts to add apps from a curated list of categorised apps ranging from Popular, Useful and Entertainment which gave me a serious deja vu of the Karbonn Mall. The integrated search bar on the app drawer gives you most used apps and trending searches from Google India which is a great addition to check the latest trending topics on the internet without opening any third-party app.
I love 'Easy Mode', this needs to be mentioned because easy mode can transform the complex Android 6.0 experience along with ZenUI into a cake walk for people like my parents who don't mind a large screen but want everything to be simple and upfront.
The smart folders on the home screen is a great touch where if you group different apps, the software automatically detects the type of apps and names the folder. ZenUI launcher gives you the option to use third party icon packs and the ability to change the icon size, alignment, font size of the icon labels and the home screen animation with regards to customisability. It also allows you to lock apps along with support to unread count badge. ZenUI also has a curated list of themes that can be applied system wide, even though I did not find anything pleasing on the themes store.
Asus has packed 'Mobile Manager" as part of its ZenUI which gives you information on data usage, power saving modes, notifications and privacy and security. Which works amazingly in principle as it gives you quick access to everything important that you need to take control of. ZenUI also provides a One Hand Mode for people who find it difficult to use the 6.8-inch screen - well it's not meant for one-handed use in the first place. The skin has an 'Auto-Start Manager' which helps manage what apps start on boot, this helps conserve a lot of battery life when the device is not being used.
Then, you have the 'Cleanup' and 'Boost' options on the 'Mobile Manager' which doesn't make sense to me. Primarily because anyone who is familiar with Android architecture and the changes done since Android Kitkat 4.4, the OS has evolved sufficiently to make sure that user experience remains unaffected in the long run. The 'Boost' mode, in particular, does not provide any benefit and may indeed worsen the battery life and break cross-app operations. The company has even added a shortcut for the same labelled 'Power & Boost' which claims to 'Boost' your smartphone.
The company has added other apps like ZenTalk, Themes, Puffin, MyASUS Service Centre, ZenFone Care also in-house apps like Gallery, Contacts, File Manager, MiniMovie, PhotoCollage, Weather, Do It Later, Clock, Calculator, Flashlight, Share Link and WebStorage. One thing to note is that you will get 100GB storage free with the device for one year as a promotion by Asus.
Another thing that is a good touch is that ZenFone 3 Ultra prompts an 'Optimised Audio effect' with predefined audio equaliser options for wired in-ear earphones, wired over-ear earphones in addition to the 'Featured Models' which included ZenEar S, ASUS EL33, ZenEar and others.
One thing to note is that the MyASUS and ZenFone Care are the best-looking apps that I have seen for smartphone care by any company and it would be great if other companies displayed similar effort in the after sale services.
A few points to note, though, I don't know why Asus default keyboard needs to have the Chinese language selected in the 'Input languages' options. On multiple occasions, I accidently switched to Simplified Chinese language and had to cycle back to English US.
Last but not the least, ZenUI has a Screenshot menu in the Settings Menu which turns off the notification of a new screenshot from the notifications menu. The inclusion of this setting was brilliant according to me for people who take a lot of screenshots and prefer not to have the additional notification of the previous screenshot.
Performance: 8 / 10
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra performs well when compared to my real life experience with Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, Snapdragon 810 and Snapdragon 820. Obviously, Snapdragon 800 series is the top end series for Qualcomm while the 600 series is the mid-range series by the chipset maker, but at no point during my testing did I feel that 652 was stuttering or lagging behind. It provided me with consistent performance as I gamed a lot more than I did on any of the review devices because of the 6.8-inch screen.
Racing in the newly released Gear Club or Asphalt Extreme or the generic Temple Run 2 including heavy hitters like Modern Combat 5 or DeadTrigger 2 here and there, ZenFone 3 Ultra zipped through all of it, without any noticeable frame-drops.
The 4GB RAM certainly helped matters as there was no lag except the overall game loading times for Gear Club. ZenFone 3 Ultra scored 1451 in the Single-core benchmark on Geekbench 4 and 2997 on the Multi-Core benchmark.
Just for comparison's sake, the smartphone scored better that Samsung Galaxy S7 edge in the single core department and Huawei Nexus 6P in the multi-core department which is pretty impressive for a mid-range smartphone.
The device scored 17669 in the Ice Storm Unlimited while maxing out both the Ice Storm Extreme and Ice Storm benchmarks in 3DMark. ZenFone 3 Ultra further scoring 6369 in the 'Work performance 1.0' and 4763 in the 'Work 2.0 performance' benchmark. The smartphone did get heated up during extended gaming session with the temperature reaching 33 degrees but cooled down quickly (6-8 minutes at normal room temperature) because of the metal back.
I need to give the fingerprint sensor of ZenFone 3 Ultra a special mention as it works fast and works in most orientation. The sensor may not be the absolute best in the market, but detection is accurate and exceeded my expectation.
ZenFone 3 Ultra comes with weirdly huge charger and ZenEar S earphones which perform nothing out of the ordinary despite the featured 'Optimised audio effect'. I was expecting them to be great, but sadly that was not the case. The sound was still a bit muffled and lacked the dynamic range.
The speakers on Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra were decent. They are perfect for consuming content in small rooms and did not seem to be that effective in noisy large room or hall.
Camera: 6 / 10
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra includes a 23MP camera module with f/2.0 aperture along with phase detection autofocus, 4-axis Optical Image Stabilization and a dual-tone LED flash on the back. Also, the phone sports an 8MP camera module with f/2.0 aperture on the front with 1080p video capability.
The 23MP camera module on the back is unimpressive at best despite taking some decent shots because of the auto HDR mode where the pictures look great till the time you zoom in the images. Once zoomed in, the images are marred with smudgy, mixed up outlines along with plenty noise during low light. Surprisingly, some images shot around 7 AM also appear to have noise in the shadows of the pictures.
The focusing is accurate and the number of options provided in the Camera UI are numerous ranging from Manual, HDR Pro, Beautification, Super Resolution, Children, Low Light, QR code, Night, Depth of Field, Effect (really?), Selfie, GIF Animation, Panorama, Miniature, Time Rewind, Smart Remove, All Smiles, Slow Motion and Time Lapse.
The manual mode gives the option to control ISO with a range from 50 to 3200, shutter speed with a range from 1/50,000th of a second to 32 seconds, Exposure Value from +2 to -2, White Balance options ranging from the icy cold 6500 K to 2500 K temperature and manual focus from macro to infinity. You also get an level bar in the middle of the screen that helps you frame levelled shots. One good thing about the manual mode is that also shows the status of GPS and battery level in the viewfinder.
The front camera also provides various modes, even though not as extensive as the rear camera offering. They range from default Beautification to Selfie Panorama, Auto, Night, HDR Pro, Effect, Low Light, GIF Animation, Slow Motion and Time Lapse. The Beautification mode gives you options to tweak options like Cheek thinning, eyes enhancement, skin glow, Skin softening, Blush with colour options and Skin tone with colour options. I am not sure what customer group the company is targeting with these options in India.
Battery: 7 / 10
I expected the battery life of Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra to blow me away because of the size and the power efficient Full HD display, but sadly that was not the case. Even though the smartphone managed 9 hours and 26 minutes on the Work battery life test in PCMark under Normal mode, I still expected this to beat its competition.
There are custom options to select the power usage mode in the "Power saver" menu inside the Battery menu. These modes range from Performance mode to Normal, Power saving, Super saving and a customised mode where you can select what all settings that you can turn off.
One thing to mention is that I was afraid if Asus will add Quick charge to Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra with that 4600mAh battery or not, but I was extremely pleased that they added the support. Type-C USB 2.0 port is another delight (inconvenience at first but still) along with a reverse-charging mode where you could charge other devices with the ZenFone 3 Ultra. During my testing, the battery took 1 hour 40 minutes to 1 hour 58 minutes to charge from 3 percent to 100 percent. However, despite all this, I wished that Asus had included a slightly longer Type-C USB cable, the wire was considerably smaller that what I have grown accustomed to.
Verdict and Price in India
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra is priced at Rs 49,999. This price alone is enough for me not to recommend you this device, regardless of how good the build quality is and how amazing it runs through daily tasks. Asus could have captured the market for phablets, but the pricing is horribly out of sync with the competition. I would instead ask you to buy Xiaomi Mi Max. There are options from Lenovo as well in the PHAB series of phones which are priced under Rs 30,000, if you really want to look at large display phones.
Barring the camera and the battery life performance, there are no noticeable flaws in the ZenFone 3 Ultra. In fact, you quickly get endeared to the display size and it is a pleasure to play games, or watch movies on this device.
If you are not sold on the large screen phenomenon, then you can look at the OnePlus 3 or the upcoming OnePlus 3T while saving over Rs 15,000 which will get you Xiaomi Mi Max as a backup device. You can add some more cash (if you can stretch your budget) and get Google Pixel or Google Pixel XL, the best Android smartphones out there.
I was excited and happy while using this device as it was different and gave Android the much-needed breathing space on a spacious 6.8-inch display. But it's a real pity to see Asus price the ZenFone 3 Ultra at the 50k price tag.