Reviews

ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Click, click

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.

[irp p[irp posts=”3880" name=”ASUS ZenFone 3 review”]p>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.

Gaming

Kingdom Hearts III review: More for long-time fans

It didn’t spark joy

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I played the first Kingdom Hearts game for a grand total of around 40 minutes, so I don’t think I can qualify that as actually playing. I didn’t have my own PlayStation 2 at the time so I was mostly watching my friend play, waiting for him to wrap up so I could beat him on NBA Live.

However, it’s such a popular game that it was impossible for me to not at least be familiar with the premise. I did play my fair share of Final Fantasy games and like most people, Disney titles and characters aren’t complete strangers to me.

Ready to take on some Heartless!

I didn’t have any major expectations jumping into Kingdom Hearts III, but I thought the way the Disney levels are woven in would at least be clever. It was not.

The backstory is massive

The first thing you need to consider when coming into this game is that you’re stepping into a massive pile of backstory. It can be hard to catch up to. If, like me, this is your first game in the franchise, it will be like watching Avengers: Infinity War without seeing even at least a quarter of the movies that led to it.

That said, the game is aware that it has tons of lore to get into. Right in the title screen you’ll see a Memory Archive which is a chapter by chapter summary of the Kingdom Hearts story. It’s best watched in its entirety which means sitting through over 20 minutes of backstory. For the most part, it does its job of catching you up. If that’s not enough, there are several story-so-far videos on YouTube. This one I liked in particular.

Despite all of these recaps available, no amount of summarizing can truly prepare you for the tangled mess that is the Kingdom Hearts lore. During certain parts, it even feels like the game is self-aware of how much of a mess it is and pokes fun at itself. That’s one of the more entertaining aspects of the game, intentional or not.

The story just isn’t gripping enough

This is my main gripe with the game. After playing titles like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man — all of which had stories and characters that you will inevitably invest in as you play — Kingdom Hearts III’s story pales in comparison.

I understand the comparison may not be fair. The games I mentioned are either standalone stories (Detroit and Spider-Man) or a fresh start to a long-running franchise (God of War). Given all of that, I can’t help but feel the storytelling could have been so much better.

The way I feel about Kingdom Hearts III is similar to how I felt about Final Fantasy XV which, coincidentally, was initially helmed by the same guy behind Kingdom Hearts — Tetsuya Nomura. The story’s pacing felt off and it went into places that maybe it shouldn’t have.

There’s also something off about the dialogue during cutscenes. I felt the characters were talking so much slower than usual and it invites zoning out if you’re not that into the story.

That’s a thing? Okay.

If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise and have played most, if not all, of the games and feel differently than I do, then that’s all good. In fact, I’m really interested to hear what the likes of you thought about the game.

The Disney stuff can be fun

It’s not all bad. After I realized the story isn’t gonna spark joy in me whatsoever, I started treating each Disney level as a non-canon mini-game. That made me enjoy it for what it had to offer.

Some levels felt like rushed versions of the original films with Kingdom Hearts lore thrown into the mix. Others offered some value-add to the stories we already know and love, and that truly made it more fun to play.

There’s also enough variation in each level that can make you forget you can get through most of the game by just smashing X and pressing △. The animations during battle look super flashy and the combat has a few other options you can tinker with if you get tired of smashing X.

Might be made more for long-time fans

I suspect this game was really made as more of a pay-off for long-time fans than an opportunity to acquire new ones. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, playing Kingdom Hearts III made me crave another good Final Fantasy game, but perhaps one that features tight turn-based combat versus an action RPG (role playing game) type.

Is there a game where Kairi actually does something?

There are plenty of ways to have fun with Kingdom Hearts III, but the story — which I believe should be paramount in RPGs — just isn’t one of the them. If you’re just coming into the franchise through this game, I suggest you play it for the fun Disney levels and just push the overarching story to the side.  The visual spectacle in this game is off the charts, so go ahead and enjoy that too.

By now, long-time fans would have already bought the game. If you’re one of those who are still deciding whether to get it or not, I suggest waiting a little longer for the price to drop. If you simply can’t wait, I recommend getting a second-hand copy which would also be cheaper. But whatever you decide to do, may your heart be your guiding key.

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Laptops

ASUS ZenBook 15 review: Everything you need in a laptop?

With great power, comes all the caveats in between

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Very few laptops have everything a person would ever need out of it. Whether it’s just for typing Word documents or playing all the latest games, only a handful of laptops fit the bill. ASUS has one laptop to offer, which was announced back in IFA 2018.

The ASUS ZenBook 15 has almost every piece of hardware for everyone. But is a device powered by a powerful Intel processor and a gaming-ready graphics card really worth it? Let’s find out.

Same premium design through the years

ASUS dubs their ZenBook lineup as its top-of-the-line Ultrabook. Through the years, ZenBooks have retained their premium design and feel. So when I got the chance to try the new ZenBook 15 (UX533) out, I expected nothing less — and I was impressed. The build quality of the device is great, with a sturdy metal-plastic chassis that shows little to no flex. It even feels light to bring around, at only 1.59kg.

My unit has the Icicle Silver finish that shows off the elegance of the laptop. There is an option to get it in the bolder Royal Blue color, but it will definitely feel like you own a premium device the moment you set your eyes on it.

The only real change the company implemented was the addition of the ErgoLift. Essentially, it frees up space for the laptop to release hot air instead of blasting them on the table or your lap. It’s also supposed to make the bottom-facing speakers sound better, although this really wasn’t the case when I used it.

It almost has everything for everyone

The ZenBook 15 is one powerful machine, from the inside out. My unit comes with an eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8565U processor and 16GB of RAM. This configuration alone guarantees superb performance, and the ZenBook 15 did not disappoint. Typing Word documents, surfing the web, even photo and video editing felt like a breeze with this machine. You can play games here too, but let’s save that discussion for later.

On the outside, you have a 15-inch Full HD anti-glare NanoEdge display — perfect for outdoor use at full brightness. It comes in a resolution of 1920 by 1080, a full 16:9 display with tiny bezels on the side.

It’s also equipped with a full-size backlit keyboard, with the number pad separated from the trackpad — unlike its 13-inch and 14-inch variants.

The ZenBook 15 does come with three USB Type-A ports and one USB Type-C port that supports external displays; however, it would have been better to make it as Thunderbolt port to fully maximize the potential. The laptop also comes with a dual-band Wi-Fi card, although an additional Ethernet port would have been nice, as well.

It’s got game, but it really destroys your battery life

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ZenBook 15 is the fact that it comes with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Max-Q. With this graphics chip, gaming on this laptop actually feels pretty damn good. It managed to get competitive frame rates for fast-paced games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Rocket League, all with high settings. But, don’t expect the same from AAA titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

Also, there is a significant increase in the laptop’s overall temperature with longer than 30 minutes of play time. The left side of the laptop felt so hot, it’s almost like you could fry an egg on it. Of course, playing for long hours on this device drains the 73Wh battery significantly faster. I got about nine to ten hours on regular use, and only two to three hours on full game mode.

The camera is honestly only good for Windows Hello

The ZenBook 15 comes with an 3D infrared HD camera that supports Windows Hello. The infrared sensors were great at facial recognition, and Windows Hello felt really easy to set up and use. But, the camera was lackluster when taking photos and videos. It only seems passable to use for video calls, but the overall image quality just doesn’t equate to HD.

The bottom-facing speakers could be better

The two Harman/Kardon speakers on the ZenBook 15 are placed on the bottom side, facing the table or your lap. Sound quality is impressive until you turn it to maximum. Apart from that, I was expecting that they would sound better because of what ErgoLift supposedly does for them.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

For PhP 89,995 (US$ 1,720), the ASUS ZenBook 15 jams almost everything you need in a premium device. And for that price you get the highest, most powerful configuration possible. Anyone can do pretty much anything with the hardware that comes with it. Apart from that, its elegant design and lightweight body make it a perfect on-the-go device. 

If you’re low on cash, you can also get the 14-inch ZenBook 14 for PhP 77,995. It only has 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce MX150 graphics card that offers similar, but less powerful overall performance. But, you do get the illuminated number pad on the touchpad.

Of course, that is if you don’t mind the otherwise average camera and fryer-like temperatures with heavy gaming. However, if you’re looking for a laptop that can handle anything, the ZenBook 15 is for you!

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Apps

Trying out the Gixo Fitness App: A personal fitness trainer on your smartphone

Get fit on your phone!

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I know how demanding working out can be. Especially for those who are just about to start their fitness journey, it can get pretty hard learning even just the basics. And then, there’s also getting yourself to the gym — believe me, I know how it feels to drag my feet out the door on the way to an exercise class.

What if you could make it all easier for you? Saddle up, ladies. This is an app that will allow you to get exercising all through your smartphone.

Introducing: The Gixo Fitness App

Like most exercise apps, Gixo will allow you to pick out different workouts depending on your exercise preference.

Because I was in the middle of a crazy work week when I tried out the app, I figured yoga would be a great way to clear my mind and get my body relaxed.

I picked out a class I liked and it was as simple as that. Of course, there were different classes available ranging from kickboxing to strength training, to HIIT, and even weight training — perfect if you’re not into only one activity.

Since I was working out to an app, this meant I got to exercise anywhere! I set up a yoga mat in a corner of that week’s office space-slash-studio (like I said, busy work week!) and started the class.

It was a very relaxing 15-minute class, just what I needed to refresh my mind and get the blood flowing.

For a mid-week work breather, these short classes are perfect. But, if you want a more intense workout, Gixo still delivers. There are different fitness levels and class length also vary with some classes running up till 60 minutes.

As good as this all sounds, however, it’s not even Gixo’s best workout feature.

Trying out a live class

Gixo’s strength lies in the fact that you can sign on for live classes. You heard that right: You can look through a number of different scheduled classes and join whatever tickles your fancy.

These live classes are headed by actual coaches that will instruct you as you go. For this beginner class, Coach Aaron was facilitating.

The beauty of it all is that this isn’t just a person who will talk you through the exercise — watching a YouTube video can do that! The app actually allows you to communicate with the coaches during class via chatting. Communication is two-way which allows for more interactive classes.

So how it works is you have a live coach facilitating a class and based on what you signed up for, you can follow along and ask questions. On the screen, you’ll have your coach and exercise visuals to help you along.

You can also turn on your phone camera so your coach can check in on you and give you comments about your form and the actual workouts you’re on.

And because it’s highly involved, you also get to input the number of reps or even change workout locations — perfect for coached running classes!

Changing to an outdoor location switches up the workout screen

Though I’ve used fitness apps (and a lot of them) before, I’ve never really had a live coach walk me through things via an app. In fact, I don’t think any other exercise app offers the same thing. It’s a pretty cool fitness innovation, really, and I’m still geeking over how no one has thought about this setup before.

For those who want even more fitness motivation, there are also exercise challenges that span weeks that you can sign up for. Gixo allows you to pick out a set time for weekdays and weekends and you simply follow along

Final verdict

So will the Gixo app actually get you those rock hard abs you’ve always dreamed about? Well, yes and no.

The whole experience can seem pretty weird at first but it doesn’t take long for you to get used to the setup. Think of it as video calling your fitness coach; you basically get the same interaction without having to leave the comfort of wherever you are. Gixo basically takes away one big step from the working out equation and, as we all know, any help in the exercise department is a big help.

Some would contend that having and being on your phone during workouts is counterproductive. But, think about it: You’re still working out and it’s an app that will allow you these workouts anywhere at your own convenience. There’s literally no excuse now because you only need to fire up Gixo on your phone and you get live, personal fitness exercise training right then and there. Talk about not having excuses! In addition, Gixo will send you workout summaries so you’re always reminded of just how much exercising you’re actually doing.

Of course, the bottom line is that Gixo can only do so much. It’s up to you to do those exercises and get your body in tip-top shape with the inclusion of those abs you dream about so much. To be perfectly honest, though, Gixo already does a lot: It’s an app that has someone literally watching you (in a non-freaky, coaching way) while you do your exercises. If that’s not making it easy for you to meet your fitness goals, I’m not entirely sure what will.

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