The ASUS Zenfone 3 series is officially announced on 30 May 2016 at Computex Taipei, and since then, ASUS has launched gradually across the region like Vietnam and Malaysia. There has been no lack of coverage by major tech sites, because ASUS has built up a strong branding on the Zenfone series since its first-generation models in 2014. Zenfones are some of the best value Android smartphones manufactured by an internationally-established tech brand. After Samsung and Xiaomi, ASUS is the next popular Android phone among my colleagues.
ASUS made it easy for me to convince people to get a Zenfone with distinct benefits and features. The top-spec Zenfone 2 running on Intel quad-core 2.3GHz with all the bells and whistles (including NFC) was priced just S$429 at launch. The Zenfone Selfie with 13MP front camera was also below S$400. The Zenfone Go TV with built-in TV tuner was a mere S$259. Even the huge Zenfone Max with 5000mAh battery is below S$300. The Zenfone Zoom with one-and-only thinnest 3x optical zoom lens is below S$600, a steal considering the innovation behind it.
For 2016, ASUS has refreshed their smartphone series with new designs but retaining the product lines. They have the mid-tier Zenfone 3, the top-tier Deluxe, the large-battery Max, the budget Go, and a new Ultra line with huge screen.
ASUS has designed the new smartphone series with premium materials and looks – all glass and metal, without plastic. Personally I prefer the previous Zenfones because they are more practical and are more customisable with swappable battery cover that negate the need for casings to protect the phones.
In this review, I will write about the Zenfone 3 that I have on hand for the past 4 weeks. This is the 5.5-inch 32GB 4GB RAM ZE552KL model.
On hand, the Zenfone 3 ZE552KL feels premium. It is the only Zenfone model in the 2016 line-up with Gorilla 3 glass on both front and back, while other models are metal-back. The glasses are treated with a coating that minimises grease marks, sandblasted aluminium alloy frame with rounded corners add to the silky feel. My hand tells me it feels similar to the latest Samsung Galaxy series but more secure on hand because the Zenfone 3 is bulkier. I am one who prefers a beefier smartphone than a super-thin one because I get a better grip and it prevents the expensive gear from slipping out of my hand.
Also, because the screen lightly curves at the sides (2.5D), they are less exposed compared to the Galaxy S7 edge and Galaxy Note 7. My practical side definitely prefers the more conservative design of the Zenfone 3, and unlike the subconscious fear of dropping the S7 edge review unit, I never had that thought throughout my review period of the Zenfone 3. I do notice hairline scratches on the rear of rear glass, and the metal frame will dent and ding unlike plastic, so I suppose you might want to apply protection.
The Super IPS+ Full-HD display is noticeably brighter than previous Zenfones at 600 nits. Comparing to LG G5 (which has a slight green tint), the Zenfone 3 is brighter and exhibits cleaner colour balance.
I won’t be too concerned with any colour cast variant because the human eye is capable of auto-correcting, unless you are among the minority with super-sensitive vision. I would highly recommend activating Bluelight filter on the Zenfone 3 to make the screen appear warmer and certainly more comfortable for your eyes.
Zenfone 3 has moved on from the trend of rear volume buttons to the tried-and-tested side buttons. The power button is located below the volume rocker at a good distance away that is easily within reach of the finger while holding the phone. The metallic buttons are protruded and offers firm clicks, a vast improvement from the predecessors.
Replacing the volume button position is the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone. It also has other functions like activating camera, shutter button. Using the fingerprint sensor is not just for security but for convenience. Instead of pressing the power button or doing ZenMotion touch gesture, all I have to do is to place my finger on the sensor and the phone will unlock and turn on instantly. The sensor is extremely reliable and sensitive, and detects the finger in any orientation, even upside down. When it could not recognise the finger, the phone would vibrate. If all is well, the phone screen will turn on. Even when it is not convenient to unlock with the finger (like when the phone is laying flat on the table), I can still use the traditional pattern unlock mode.
A slight disappointment is missing NFC. Proponents of e-wallet and Android Pay would have to settle for the flagship Zenfone 3 Deluxe that will retail at S$998 when it launches in September.
Interface: Android 6.0, ZenUI 3.0
The Zenfone 3 is the first smartphone that runs on the new 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor at 2.0GHz, with 4GB RAM and Adreno 506 GPU. Overall speed is good and responsive for multi-tasking and loading apps, a great balance of performance and battery consumption.
The ZenUI has made quite a bit of changes to further improve the UX. It remains my favourite launcher with a massive library of features. You can even install the launcher on non-ASUS phones on the Google Play store (which I did on some phones where I do not like the launcher). While the visual aspects like parallax wallpaper are attractive, I disable them to conserve memory and battery.
The new Mobile Manager is the single portal that lets you manage the Zenfone 3 performance, from app permissions, app notifications, storage cleanup, data usage control, to power management, memory boost and privacy settings. The Mobile Manager is a one-stop location with user friendly screens to allow me to do each of the tasks.
Another enhancement is that I can make changes to the connectivity settings from the notification drawer without leaving the page. So when I press and hold the Bluetooth icon, the screen pops-up the list of Bluetooth devices. Likewise for WiFi. Also, when I enable the Hotspot, the notification drawer displays the usage summary without having me to open the Hotspot settings page.
In a bid to make the phone user friendly and guided for the mass consumer, almost all the ZenUI pre-installed apps have push notifications pre-selected which the user will receive regularly. Like the PhotoCollage to remind you about the photos you have taken to create collages, ZenTalk to update you on latest discussions, MiniMovie to generate automated movies from your photos, Themes on latest downloads. The apps are useful, and do get rather annoying with the notifications, but it is possible to turn them off by opening up each of the app and go to the app settings to remove the check. Let this be one of the tasks you should do when you receive the new Zenfone.
Manage Child App and Data Usage
ZenUI is also the main reason why I switched my daughter’s smartphone from her current phone, because the Zenfone allows me to monitor her app usage. The App Data Usage list can be easily sorted and I can also review her daily data usage and specify which apps are allowed to connect to mobile data or WiFi. I will also lock the apps using App Lock if she exceeded her usage.
Besides App Lock, Zenfones come with Kids Mode where I can activate and pick selected apps that my kid can access from . This is a simple way to let my child play selected apps (like Pokémon Go) without fear of accessing the entire phone contents.
Camera and Image Quality
The Zenfone 3 camera’s 6-element f/2.0 Largan lens is protected by sapphire glass cover, one of the hardest minerals. The sensor size is 16 MP, 1/ 2.8″ with deep trench isolation to minimise light bleeding to adjacent pixels. The TriTech auto-focus (laser, phase detect, continuous AF) claims even faster focusing, 4-axis optical image stabilizer for photos, 3-axis electronic image stabilizer for video. The colour correction sensor captures images with more accurate colours, the 32-second long exposure option offers more creative shoots.
Despite so much imaging tech, I feel there are little significant differences from any premium smartphone camera. The real-time HDR mode is a lot faster than previous Zenfone models, but the effect is not as pronounced as previous Zenfones, and appears to work only within a small dynamic range. HDR Pro shooting mode is slightly better.
Focus is fast but not supremely, continuous focus is not always at work, so occasionally I have to tap the focusing point to get the camera to re-focus. In low light situations, it still requires a steady hand as the camera opens the slow shutter to let in light. The result is good, suffice to say.
Areas might get overexposed in night photos if the light is too harsh. The Zenfone 3 exposes the night scene at little too aggressively. HDR did not seem to work under such situations.
OIS is also not aggressive, and there will still be blur sometimes because the shutter speed on smartphones are not always fast.
However, what really matters are the images details, colour tone and noise, and Zenfone 3 manages that very well. Camera start-up is also quite prompt so that helps to capture the moments.
Image details are limited by the relatively small sensor (can’t compared to mirrorless or DSLR) but noise is natural and does not make images dirty or muddy, and that makes post-processing look less artificial.
Shooting in Super Resolution mode will capture into 64MP image and increases details. The above image is cropped, with the result showing in the following image.
If you want the depth of field to be more pronounced, shoot with the Depth of Field mode.
ASUS camera continues to be conservative in the exposure, which is again good to preserve highlights. But if you really prefer a higher exposure, it is possible to global-adjust the image parameters like saturation, contrast, sharpness, noise reduction, backlight, detail enhancement.
Front camera remains excellent for selfies, with the beautification mode set as default so you can whiten the face, slim the face, make eyes bigger, all in real time.
Hi-Res Audio and Speaker
The Zenfone 3 supports 24-bit 192kHz audio so you can enjoy your high-res audio collection and audiophile headphones. However, the default Google Play Music app is not fully compatible with 24-bit 88.2kHz FLAC files. The songs can play but with random skips. Other music players like PowerAmp and Onkyo HF Player can play them on the phone.
The speaker has a 5-magnet construction, metal voice coil and sound chamber, and the result is a rounder audio quality instead of the tinny ones in most smartphones, though bass remains absent. The audio signature is similar to the HTC M8, but the Zenfone 3 sounds more natural because the HTC M8’s mandatory BoomSound compressed the audio at high volume while the Zenfone 3 allows me to disable AudioWizard to eliminate that characteristic. The SonicMaster AudioWizard has several audio effects to boost the sound, but when plugging in headphones, remember to turn it off as it alters the audio dynamics and over-emphasises on mid-treble.
Yes, the Zenfone 3 uses USB Type-C port, which will cause inconvenience in the beginning. But this is a good opportunity to start investing in this future cable standard.
A brand new feature of ZenUI, it appears as a floating icon on game screens. When you click on it, there are options appearing, like Booster to clear RAM, record the screen gameplay with live camera pointing at you to record your expressions, search for game tips.
The screen recording feature is something that I can imagine myself using. From the settings, I can even enable the Game Genie on any app, so potentially this is a workaround as a screen recording app.
The battery life of the Zenfone 3 (3000mAh) is well-managed. Throughout my 3-week review period, the phone can comfortably sustain a normal work day, remaining 20% after 17 hours. When I have a night out, I would charge up the phone till about 60% just in case. The phone does not heat up or drain excessively, so it appears the power management is working rather well. Occasionally, notifications come in late, perhaps because it does not do realtime data connectivity to conserve battery.
Here are 3 random days where I get about 17 hour battery duration.
The Zenfone 3 does not come with quick charge capabilities, only 2 Amp fast charge. Still, the charging is adequately speedy, achieving full charge in 2 hours. If you are in a hurry, a 30 minute charge will boost the phone by 30%, and I always advocate frequent charging of the phone because Lithium Ion batteries have no memory effect and benefits from frequent charging between 40-80%. Charging at short duration also mean you do not have to wait at length to get the phone fully charged.
The Zenfone 3 series marks the departure of low-cost smartphones from ASUS. Lower-priced models from below S$300 will be announced for Singapore market soon, but the price will not be able to match the second-generation plastic-back Zenfones. After reviewing for a month, I feel the latest Zenfone series are priced reasonably for its premium design materials, user-interface quality, and hardware performance.
Overall, Zenfone 3 5.5 inch ZE552KL is an experiential improvement from Zenfone 2, except for the missing NFC. It retails in Singapore for S$498, just S$69 more than the precedessor launch price. The 5.2-inch ZE520KL is selling for S$398. Available colours: sapphire black (dark blue, review unit), shimmer gold, and moonlight white (white with gold trimmings).
Official product website and specs: https://www.asus.com/Phone/ZenFone-3-ZE552KL/