Back in 2014, ASUS debuted its own line of smartphones amid declining PC sales. And despite being the new kid on the block, the Taiwanese electronics maker managed to do relatively well in a market that has tripped up so many others, some of which had been in the business for decades and were considered infallible.
And it did so without reinventing the wheel like Apple or trying lots of different things and learning from what works like Samsung; ASUS instead took a page from its playbook on selling computers and parts and focused on undercutting the competition for the lowest-priced phone with decent specs. The effort paid off to the tune of 8.5 million ZenFones.
The following year, in 2015, ASUS adopted a similar strategy for the ZenFone 2 and sold over 20 million units. Not quite iPhone numbers, but not bad for a first and second run. The success of the ZenFone range put ASUS on the map as a serious alternative to the usual mainstream suspects and a brand to watch for 2016.
Now on its third iteration, the ZenFone is back, better than ever, as smartphone sequels tend to be. The game plan hasn’t changed — the ZenFone 3 base model is about as specced out as it can get under a reasonable price ceiling — but the competition has improved dramatically. In particular, Chinese OEMs have improved to the satisfaction of Westerners and the international tech community.
So the question now is: Has ASUS done enough to keep the momentum on its side, or has it fallen behind the curve? We’ll get to that later.
First, let’s get one important thing out of the way: The unit we have carries the model number ZE552KL; it has a 5.5-inch screen and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 system-on-a-chip with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of expandable flash storage. That said, our observations only apply to the said variant, and that your mileage may vary depending on which ZenFone 3 version you purchase.
The biggest change to the third-generation ZenFone is also the most obvious; the exterior has been tweaked and refined for 2016, with ASUS ditching plastic for a slab of glass and metal that’s begging to be touched and cradled in the hand. The ZenFone 3 is by far the prettiest smartphone the company’s ever created — and possibly the prettiest in its class.
It’s thinner and lighter than its predecessor; the polished, precision-cut aluminum frame that holds the two parts of the enclosure together is a thing of beauty; antenna bands that may otherwise detract from good design are almost inconspicuous. And to make it stand out even more, the concentric-circle detailing — a signature feature of ASUS smartphones — has been pushed to the back of the device, along with the ASUS branding.
Speaking of the back, there’s a pill-shaped fingerprint reader that looks like a home button but isn’t. The hardware isn’t as accurate as the one on the iPhone 6s, and isn’t as fast as the Vivo V3 Max’s. But it works surprisingly well enough on its own merits. Not to mention, you can use it to answer a call or quickly fire up the camera app for candid, casual shots.
There’s nothing ostentatious about the phone’s front, except for maybe the thickness of the bezels; it’s plain, like the set of non-backlit touch buttons below the 5.5-inch display. The screen is bright and vibrant and evenly lit, which translate to good visibility outdoors or in a well-lit environment.
Colors are rendered with fidelity, and images and text appear sharp despite ASUS’ decision to turn down a 2K panel at a time when 1080p is no longer the gold standard. And to be fair, the screen is one of the better ones we’ve seen all year. Besides, it’s a big ask for the untrained eye to genuinely care about the extra pixels.
Audiophiles may be pleased to know the ZenFone 3 has a five-magnet speaker for improved audio clarity and quality. It’s also capable of playing uncompressed music at higher-than-CD quality. At least, that’s what we’ve been told.
We tested a couple of high-res tracks using the provided earphones, then compared the audio quality to that of a premium Samsung phone. Both sounded pretty decent, though we probably could have come up with a winner had we slipped on a pair of studio headphones. Still, that the ZenFone 3 can hang with a product twice its retail value is reason for cheer and optimism.
Deeper inside the assembly sits an octa-core Snapdragon 625 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of flash storage that can be expanded using a microSD card. At this point, it bears noting the microSD expansion slot doubles as a cutout for a nano SIM card, meaning you’ll have to choose between having two mobile numbers in one phone or providing more space for your apps and files.
The ZenFone 3 runs smoothly on Android 6.0 Marshmallow and the latest ZenUI overlay that’s been updated with new icons and wallpapers and the Game Genie app. The latter allows you to record game clips or stream games directly to YouTube or Twitch. Bloatware is still very much alive in ZenUI; thankfully, ASUS gives you the option of deleting or disabling almost every app that comes preinstalled.
Gaming performance is top-notch; AAA games like Asphalt 8 and Modern Combat 5: Blackout play at optimal frame rates; even NBA 2K16 for Android runs without a hitch when settings are toned down. More impressively, even during a prolonged gaming session, the phone remains cool to the touch, which is something we can’t say about the Intel-based ZenFone 2. ASUS made the right move switching to Qualcomm’s chips.
You get a megapixel bump on the ZenFone 3, too; the rear-facer steps up to a 16-megapixel sensor, while the selfie camera now goes up to 8 megapixels and can record 1080p video.
In case you’re wondering, both cameras offer a maximum aperture opening of f/2.0. The main shooter combines optical image stabilization and digital image stabilization to reduce the annoying blurriness caused by shaky hands. Its improved autofocus system, on the other hand, allows it to lock onto subjects in a fraction of a second in ideal situations.
Under a bright sun, the ZenFone 3 provides plenty of detail and some shallow depth of field. In low light or challenging light conditions, it’s capable of producing serviceable photos and video where other midrange devices would flounder.
The stock camera app offers a Manual mode that lets you tinker with the finer points of photography, such as ISO, shutter speed, and white balance, but that’s not to say ASUS’ intelligent Auto mode isn’t dependable. There are several other camera modes to help you get the right shot, like HDR, Low Light, and Panorama; there’s even one for creating GIFs, the internet’s favorite medium of expression.
Battery life is another massive plus. We found the 3,000mAh cell can stretch to a day and a half of moderate to heavy use. Even the most demanding users should be able to get at least a full day out of the ZenFone 3.
In our testing, we ended up with a screen-on time of 7 hours and 40 minutes, or almost double the average of some Android phones we’ve used in the past — including the ZenFone 2. And that’s without even activating Power saving or Super power saving mode.
We’re overly impressed with the longevity of the battery — to the point that we’re willing to overlook the fact it takes between 100 and 120 minutes to get it to 100 percent capacity, and that the new Type-C port on the bottom doesn’t support quick charging, unlike last year’s model.
What a difference a year makes: 2016’s ZenFone is an across-the-board improvement over what came before. It’s not perfect, but the shortcomings are easy to overlook this time around. The ZenFone 3 is prettier and nicer to hold and more capable and longer-lasting; in short, it’s everything you want in a sequel.
ASUS hasn’t released pricing information in most countries where the ZenFone 3 will be sold. We do know the 5.5-inch version officially sells for 9,990 Taiwanese dollars, the equivalent of $320, in its country of origin. That’s excellent value for a phone of this size and caliber.
However, despite that glowing endorsement, recommending anything north of $300 is getting harder and harder these days, as companies like OnePlus and Xiaomi continue to weaken the influence of established brands and rock the market to the core with products that are as cheap and as pleasurable to use as possible. The ZenFone 3, however exceptional it is, is not insulated from this reality.
If you can wait a bit to see what else comes out in the next couple of months, you may be rewarded with something better, say, a discounted OnePlus 3.