The budget smartphone game keeps getting intense with smartphone manufacturers trying to squeeze out maximum performance from the new and updated chipsets, while also trying to perform a balancing act with above average battery life.
It’s just the first month of the year and both Lenovo and Xiaomi have already announced their new budget offerings with the Lenovo P2 and the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4. While the P2 is the much awaited update to the Vibe P1, the Redmi Note 4 like its predecessor won our hearts and proved once again to be the budget king of smartphones in India.
But with the launch of the Asus Zenfone 3S Max, there is a new contender. The latest addition to the Zenfone 3 series, the upgraded 3S Max builds from the ranks of the Zenfone 3 Max, which was announced late last year. We reviewed the 5.5-inch variant of the device that packed in a Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 chipset, which not just felt underpowered but also lacked a capable camera (even for the sub Rs 13,000 price bracket). So how much has the Zenfone 3 Max improved with the 3S Max? And is it worth the Rs 14,999 price tag? Let’s find out!
Build and Design: 8/10
I had recently reviewed the Asus Zenfone 3 (5.5-inch) and the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe as well. While the Zenfone 3 impressed with its sandwiched glass construction, I honestly found the Deluxe’s design rather boring. But as many will put it, design is subjective, which is why I tend to look for ways in which manufacturers innovate to make smartphones look unique and special.
In the case of the Asus Zenfone 3S Max, there is something special here. In short, it’s not what I expected from a budget smartphone, which will compete with the recently launched Redmi Note 4.
To begin with, the design of the 3S Max looks and feels premium with a 2.5D glass on the front and a well-rounded, sandblasted, matte finished metal back.
Thanks to the weighty 5,000mAh battery at the back, it feels heavy and solid which adds to the premium in-hand feel.
The front reminds me of the Zenfone 3 and the addition of the fingerprint reader on the front of the device is a move I and many others will truly appreciate. The 2.5D contoured glass gives the metallic finished bezel a premium look and also lets your finger glide onto the smartphone when you swipe-in from the edges.
Moving to the back, I expected the usual metal back with plastic caps at the top and bottom, but Asus has implemented this in a rather unique way. Look at the smartphone from the back and you will not notice the top plastic cap at all, the one at the bottom has a really good fit and finish and maintains the rounded look and feel of the device, without looking out of place.
While the camera has moved from top centre to top left, the plastic antenna cap at the top end has moved out of sight at the very top edge of the device. This smart move lets Asus use a whole chunk of metal for about 90 percent of the back instead of the 70 percent like on the Redmi Note 4. The finish of the camera module and the LED cut outs are polished and are much appreciated on a device priced in this range.
The speaker grille moves from the back (where it got muffled when placed on a surface) to the bottom right that now lets you hear the output no matter what the use case (watching movies, playing games, reading, etc.)
All-in-all I was impressed by the design and build quality of the Zenfone 3S Max, which somehow managed to remain pretty slim despite that massive 5,000mAh battery on the back.
The sub-Rs 15,000 segment is a big deal for any smartphone manufacturer today. However, the key here is to offer a wallet-happy smartphone with the best specifications possible (at least on paper). As with the Redmi Note 4 and the P2, the 3S Max is no different.
You get a 5.2-inch display on the front with HD (1280x720 pixels) resolution and a 2.5D contoured glass to protect it. Inside, there is a MediaTek 6750 chipset which is accompanied by a Mali T860 GPU. There’s 3GB RAM and 32GB of internal storage along with 2TB of expandable storage (which is a lot) using the microSD card slot in the hybrid SIM tray.
The camera department sees a 13MP PixelMaster module with an f/2.0 aperture on the back and an 85 degree wide-angle 8MP PixelMaster camera module for selfies on the front. The rear camera is accompanied by a dual LED Real-tone flash.
Coming to connectivity, we get a dual SIM set up (micro SIM 4G+Nano SIM 4G), Wi-Fi 802.11ac, CAT4 support, GPS, AGPS and Bluetooth v4.0. Like with every other smartphone in this range, we get a microUSB 2.0 port for charging and data transfers.
There is a fingerprint reader, and unlike the past, it sits on the front, which is a welcomed move. Lastly, there’s the huge 5,000mAh battery.
The Asus Zenfone 3S Max features an HD (1280x720 pixels) LCD display which got the job done, but was not impressive by any means. At the price, keeping in mind the competition, I did expect something a lot better, or at least a Full HD unit, but Asus may have had its reasons for this choice.
At 282 PPI, it's not the clearest display out there and certainly cannot compete with the offerings by Lenovo and Xiaomi. While it showcases close to accurate colours when viewed from the front, the colours get dull and the brightness level drops when you look at the display from any other angle. This is annoying. In fact there is a noticeable yellow or a blue tinge to the display when it viewed from any other angle.
Text looks sufficiently sharp, but nowhere near the Redmi Note 4. The colours looked natural but only when viewed straight on. It was however bright enough to combat direct sunlight outdoors so there’s this one thing that was going for it.
Sticking to HD resolution has its advantages when it comes to pushing pixels. The lower resolution should see it do better in the battery section and let it perform better in games as well.
The Asus Zenfone 3S Max comes with Android 7.0 Nougat out of the box. This is a big deal, because nobody in the market currently offers the same with their smartphones. Xiaomi for example has promised an update to Android Nougat, but the update is still a few months away.
Delivering Android 7.0 out of the box is impressive. However, the implementation of its core features is not exactly the way I expected it to be.
To begin with, the processor is not exactly the fastest one on the block even with eight-cores on. Combine this with Asus’ heavy and bloated ZenUI and the results are well… not up to the mark. The combination of hardware and software is not a good one, even though it appears that way on paper. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 outdoes the Zenfone 3S in this department (although not by a large margin) but it the Redmi Note 3 blows it out of the water!
The UI performance is not consistent (even in the Performance mode). At times it runs smoothly (not buttery smooth) and at times it lags a lot. Then comes the bloatware apps that Asus so conveniently bundles with every one of its smartphones.
The ZenUI 3.0 onboard the 3S Max has changed. While it does not score any points design-wise, it is practical. Android Nougat brings the ability to multi-task with the multi-window feature that works in the same way as on Pixel devices. You also get better notifications with the ability to tackle every notification individually and even reply to them straight from the notifications bar. More importantly, we now get the privilege to choose the display size which makes plenty of sense and lets you view more content on the same screen (no more giant fonts and icons).
The ZenUI along with its themes, icons and bold fonts remain unchanged with just a translucent screen placed in the notifications tray.
The key here is optimisation and these are indeed the first builds of the software, meaning that a few timely performance and stability updates could solve these abnormal performance drops.
The Asus Zenfone 3S Max packs in everything one would need in a budget smartphone save for the performance bit. The MediaTek 6750 coupled with 3GB of RAM along with an HD display indeed seems like a killer combination when you have battery life in mind. So this smartphone is less of gaming machine and is leans more towards a casual user looking for better battery life and decent performance.
The smartphone had no trouble playing casual games, but did show signs of stutter when the settings were maxed out in graphic-heavy 3D games. At medium settings games ran absolutely fine. Heating was not a problem since the cores are clocked at just 1.5GHz. Software performance as mentioned in the Software section above, did see a couple of hiccups. Even pixel peeping into the Gallery images shot by the smartphone took some time for the blurry zooms to clear up. Asus could have included 4GB of RAM to smoothen things out.
Call quality was pretty good and the noise cancellation tech using two mics did a splendid job of delivering crystal clear voice quality.
Audio quality while listening to music was pretty good as well. The audio is however a bit too bass heavy through the headphones and I would have preferred something more balanced.
The speaker was pretty loud, loud enough to hear someone on the speaker in the middle of a traffic jam. But the quality of the audio sounded empty and tinny and completely lacked any sort of bass.
A glance at the Asus Zenfone 3S Max’ specifications and you get quite a handful that looks pretty good on paper. But upon using the both cameras over a few days, the reality is far from what the numbers reveal.
The 13MP, f/2.0 aperture PixelMaster camera on the back is far from average and does not even come close to the unit on the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4.
While the camera is quick to focus is good lighting conditions, it keeps hunting to lock focus in dim or low light situations. This results in images that are often out of focus or blurry even in daylight scenarios.
More importantly the focus was not even. If you look at the wall painting in the album, half of it is in focus while the other half is not, even though they both exist on the same plane.
The dynamic range of the camera is a problem as well with plenty of clipping in a majority of the images that I clicked. The HDR mode could not save the day.
Detailed textures are only available in close-up or macro shots and anything (subject or scenery) more than a few feet away from the camera will not showcase any texture or detail. This goes from bad to worse when you step into a dimly lit parking lot where images appear murky at best.
The reason for this is the over processing which is a similar problem I faced on the Zenfone 3 Deluxe as well. The ISO shoots up higher than necessary in Auto mode and then the noise cancellation algorithms kick in to clear the noise resulting in flat images even when there is decent lighting.
Images coming from the selfie camera too have a similar problem with over processing and showcase lots of luminance noise with blotched results. Video recording is strictly OK.
Battery Life: 8.5/10
The Asus Zenfone 3S Max packs in a massive 5,000mAh Lithium-polymer battery. Asus claims that it delivers up to 34 days of standby on 4G networks and up to 28 hours of talktime on 3G networks. During my testing, the large battery easily managed to get me up to two days of moderate usage. Add some gaming to the mix and I would be able to get more than whole day of use, with services like Slack, WhatsApp, two email accounts, Telegram and the usual downloading of apps running almost full time which is commendable.
Charging that 5,000mAh battery however took a good 2 hours, but once it was up and running, it almost felt like a feature phone. Add to this the reverse charging feature which I could not test, since dongle was not included in the package.
The smartphone features a Mobile Manager app that lets you squeeze the maximum battery life out of the device's 5,000mAh battery using 5 power modes. With a battery that large I rarely found myself switching to the other modes, or even the Performance mode for that matter as the manager delivered a balanced mix performance and battery life in the Normal mode.
Indeed, the highlight of this smartphone is the battery life and its does a really good job at it destroying the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 in this category.
Verdict and Price in India
The Asus Zenfone 3S Max surely impressed when it came to quality construction and stellar battery life. In fact, it could have hit the performance balance as well, provided Asus had reduced on the bloat ware and increased the RAM to 4GB. But it did not and for now the Zenfone 3S Max cannot hold its own against the mighty Redmi Note 4 (or even the Note 3 for that matter).
As mentioned earlier in my review, good budget smartphones come with the right balance of software and hardware features. The Asus Zenfone 3S Max struggles to find that balance with its below average camera and stutter-happy performance, both of which are covered by the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4. In the battery-happy smartphone segment your only other option would be the Lenovo P2 which was recently launched and packs in a 5,100mAh battery and is also available in 3GB and 4GB RAM options. At this point in time, if you are looking for a quality smartphone with just battery life on your mind, the Asus Zenfone 3S Max certainly fits the bill, but if it's an all-rounder that you are looking for, then you will need to look at the other two options mentioned above.
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