It took almost half a year to reach us, but it’s here, and we’ve spent a good deal of time with it.
The ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe is now possibly rolling out to a store near you. Is it good? Yes — it’s a solid smartphone effort. But is it brilliant? Well, it is in one way. And therein lies the rub: ASUS could, and should, have done more to make the Deluxe stand out and be memorable, pricing be damned. Those of you expecting a strong phone of the year candidate will be disappointed.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing
Let’s start off with something positive: performance. The Deluxe is, without any shade of doubt, the fastest and most capable ZenFone ever made. And you don’t have to look far for answers as to why that is; inside, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor — or 821, depending on the configuration (our review unit uses an 820) — hums along with 6GB of RAM, providing the speed and seamless multitasking you’d expect from a 2016 Android flagship.
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe is fast. Really fast. It unlocks in a fraction of a second; apps load up the moment you tap them; switching between windows is smooth and snappy; and we couldn’t find a game to slow this beast down, despite all the pre-installed apps, or bloatware, ASUS included on the handset. (A quick aside: You can uninstall most, but not all, of the preloaded stuff — and you should. While you’re at it, consider downloading icon packs from the Google Play Store; the square-ish stock icons don’t look that great.)
Charging the 3,000mAh battery from zero to 100 percent takes an hour and a half using the supplied USB-C cable and power adapter, so you can leave the device plugged in while you’re in the shower, and by the time you finish dressing in the morning, it should have enough power to keep the lights on until night time. The battery typically lasts a day on a full charge.
The flash storage goes as high as 256GB on the most specced-out (and most expensive) model, though our unit maxes out at 64GB. But then again, 64GB is probably enough for most people’s needs — it really should be. If that isn’t the case, the second SIM slot can be used to expand the storage using a microSD card.
Speed is the highlight here, and the Deluxe doesn’t disappoint in the foot race. But to say it’s the fastest phone you can buy at any price, the human equivalent of Usain Bolt, would be ignoring the brilliance of other flagships in Android land and beyond. The Pixel and OnePlus 3 are more responsive than the Deluxe; we can say the same about the iPhone 7, too.
In fact, you don’t have to think hard to find an Android flagship that can keep up with ASUS’ latest and greatest. And that’s a concern because this phone doesn’t have any other killer feature to speak of. None whatsoever, really.
Sure, the full-metal jacket is smooth to the touch and feels nice in the hand thanks to its curved rear end and contoured edges. It slides easily in and out of the pocket as well. And those antenna bands that run across the backs of metal phones? You won’t find them here; ASUS has found a way to hide them without affecting signal performance. (Psst. Did you hear that, Apple?)
These positives aside, though, the Deluxe doesn’t offer any kind of protection against water damage, doesn’t have two rear cameras or attachment points for modular accessories like the Moto Z. Its display doesn’t bend on either side, and the resolution is 1080p, whereas rivals from Samsung, Motorola, and LG all step up to Quad HD panels. Worse still, the design doesn’t stand out starkly compared to the best choices in the mid- to high-end range.
All this to say, the hardware, though undeniably capable and fit for purpose, does not impress the way others would, especially given its lofty pricing.
Missing the finer details
The front is completely flat from edge to edge — no 2.5D glass to make swiping feel more natural — and carries ASUS’ concentric-centric styling, though it is somewhat awkwardly designed: the 5.7-inch AMOLED screen is framed by thick black borders, with a bottom bar containing three capacitive keys that fall too close to the bottom edge, oblivious to the space above them. The top bar contains the earpiece and selfie camera.
The display is very good, better than what we had anticipated on a non-Samsung phone. Judged by the yardstick that is Sammy’s AMOLED technology, it measures up quite nicely, providing colors with impeccable contrast and deep blacks, as well as strong viewing angles. Brightness levels are high enough to use the phone comfortably under direct sunlight.
Of course, it won’t stack up to a Quad HD panel in terms of sharpness, but it should be more than enough for the occasional Netflix binge. What we’re not happy to see, however, are those borders: While they give the illusion of being bezel-free when the screen is off, they can be a distraction sometimes.
Just recently, ASUS issued a software update that added always-on functionality to the display. When activated in the Settings menu, this feature will display the date, time, battery status, and number of unread messages and missed calls when the screen goes black. It drains the battery more quickly, but only noticeably if it is constantly in use.
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe carries a 23-megapixel camera that has a maximum aperture of f/2.0 and a large pixel size to collect more light and improve the detail in the images. Well, at least that’s the theory; in practice, we found its camera to be no better than what Samsung, Google, and Apple have done with their mobile cameras.
When light is scarce, the gap widens, and the Deluxe finds itself on the losing end of the comparison. On a positive note, the phone got better at taking photos after a software update, so there’s hope yet.
The 8-megapixel selfie camera is pretty great — most will like its color reproduction and wide-angle lens. It struggles a bit in low light but no more than the competition.
Is this your GadgetMatch?
The unit sent to us is right up there with the latest iPhones and Galaxy S7s, price-wise, retailing for $700, or P34,995, in the Philippines. Meanwhile, the highest-end model, with a Snapdragon 821 chip and 256GB of storage, costs $900 (P44,995) locally. So if you don’t mind coughing up iPhone money for an Android flagship, then, sure, consider it. But don’t decide on anything until you’ve seen what the competition is like.
Not that we find anything inherently wrong with ASUS seeking better profit margins by asking customers to pay more. Problem is, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe doesn’t offer any compelling advantage over the premium-priced competition — besides what’s on the inside, of course — or anything superfluous, at the very least, to justify its price tag.
Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge has a gorgeous display that wraps around the sides of the device; the Moto Z is almost alarmingly thin, and has accessories that can be slapped on willy-nilly; the Xiaomi Mi Mix has a bonkers edge-to-edge, retina-melting screen; the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, LG V20, and Huawei P9 Plus all have twice as many cameras on the back; even the Pixel has a digital assistant that’s almost as capable and resourceful as a real person. And then there’s the OnePlus 3, which shares the same internals as our test phone but provides a better Android experience for a modest sum of $400. We could go on.
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe, though a worthy flagship entry by company standards, just doesn’t cut it anymore in the broad scheme of things.