Reviews

ASUS ZenFone 3 Max 5.5-inch review

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ASUS is coming out with a bigger, updated version of the ZenFone 3 Max that keeps the design of the 5.2-inch Max announced in mid-2016 but improves on the latter in every possible way.

It’s gonna cost more, of course — around $80 more for the base model with 3GB of RAM, quite an ask for a budget smartphone.

But does the 5.5-inch ZenFone 3 Max rise to the occasion? Oh, yes. Absolutely.

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Different, from head to toe

2016 is the year that ASUS, after much criticism and even mockery, truly doubled down on design and came out with guns blazing. The ZenFone 3 is, by far, the best-looking of the (traditional) ZenFone bunch. It’s no surprise, then, that ASUS has revealed a major facelift of its ZenFone Max range, this time opting for metal on the back instead of glass, like on the ZenFone 3.

Placed side by side, one may find it difficult to believe that the ZenFone Max is only one generation older than the ZenFone 3 Max. Really, the new Max seems at least two update cycles ahead, with its curvier styling and sand-blasted finish. The stark departure from last year’s model is, among other things, what makes this refresh hard to ignore.

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ZenFone Max of the past (left; 2015 model), present (center; 2016 model), and future (right; 2016 model with 5.5-inch display)

The ZenFone 3 Max ditches the polycarbonate and basketball-leather material of the original in favor of a more upscale identity that underscores ASUS’ newfound design prowess and fits in with other ZenFones released this year. The updated design means the back cover is no longer removable. A hybrid SIM and SD card tray is located on the left side; it can hold two SIM cards or one SIM and one SD card at once.

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A piece of ever-so-slightly curved glass sits atop the front panel. The tapers along the edges not only makes the transition from glass to metal seamless, but also gives the user a better feeling when holding the handset.

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Around the back, the larger variant of the ZenFone 3 Max retains a laser-assisted autofocus for the camera, and adds a fingerprint reader. The latter unlocks the phones almost instantaneously, but it isn’t as accurate as the sensors found in the OPPO and Vivo smartphones.

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But arguably the best news of all is that the 5.5-inch Max refresh fits in the hand well, in a way that doesn’t necessarily apply to other phones its size. We were able to wrap our fingers around the entire width of our unit for a secure grip.

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A thinner design is partly to credit for that; however, it comes at the cost of a larger battery. The original Max carried a 5,000mAh power pack, while the 2016 editions cram a 4,100mAh cell inside their more slender frames. But, of course, the question is how does not having the same, high-capacity battery impact the phones’ longevity in day-to-day operation, and we’re going to get to that in a bit.

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For now, let’s discuss how different the 2016 ZenFone 3 Max 5.2- and 5.5-inch models are from one another. Apart from the size, the larger Max steps up to a sharper LCD panel (now of the 1080p variety) and boasts a snappier octa-core processor with up to 4GB of RAM and a rear camera that doesn’t disappoint.

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On the hardware front, one would find a few nuances, like the row of capacitive buttons on the 5.5-inch Max. The buttons are not backlit, and will likely leave users fumbling in the dark.

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A single speaker can be found at the bottom of the bigger Max, a location we actually prefer. It didn’t get in the way of anything we did while we held the phone vertically. Naturally, it didn’t get muffled when we placed the device on its backside.

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The 5.2-inch Max’s camera lacks laser autofocus, which could be the most probable reason for its wonky focusing work.

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Despite the obvious difference in screen size, the 5.5-incher’s footprint is barely larger — in no small part thanks to those narrow bezels around the display.

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Casual photographer

The 5.5-inch Max has that big eye of a 16-megapixel camera in the middle of the rear; the 5.2-incher’s camera sensor, meanwhile, is a 13-megapixel affair. They have an f/2.0 and f/2.2 aperture lens, respectively. Hence, the former can let in more light, resulting in more detailed snaps with less noise. Both cameras are capable of good color and contrast reproduction.

Graininess, however, is a concern for the smaller Max, whether shots are taken in broad daylight, indoors, or in low light. Focusing is a bit of an issue, too, as the focus tends to recoil and subsequently default to the center of the frame. A good workaround, we found, is to manually focus by long-pressing the subject in the viewfinder until a green crosshair pops up.

As for their front-facing cameras, the 5.5-inch Max sports an 8-megapixel shooter, while the smaller model takes 5-megapixel selfies. Colors are accurate; details are fairly sharp; and shutter lag is negligible.

For users seeking more control, the default camera app has manual settings for ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and more.

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The difference in image quality between the two Max phones can be seen in the sample shots below. No doubt, we prefer the photos taken with the 5.5-inch Max, for reasons that should be too obvious to many. The normal Max is good for casual photography, but we don’t recommended making it a primary option.

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Samples taken with the 5.2-inch ZenFone 3 Max

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Samples taken with the 5.5-inch ZenFone 3 Max

Mr. Big

The larger Max offers a notable upgrade over its predecessors, moving up to an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor that’s backed by either 3GB or 4GB of memory. The 5.2-incher, by contrast, uses an entry-level chip from MediaTek that simply isn’t up to par with its rivals. Many other phones could outpace it for far less money. Last year’s iteration now finds itself in a similar situation.

The Snapdragon 430 has ASUS flexing its performance muscle in the category again, with the 5.5-inch Max scrolling through menus, executing tasks, and launching programs without obvious delays. Our unit comes with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and it handles demanding games well.

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All ZenFone Max models, including the original, run Android Marshmallow, or should be upgradeable to the semi-recent Google operating system. As per usual, ASUS’ heavily customized interface comes bloated with extra software, most of which can be uninstalled.

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Now, on to that question on everyone’s mind: Does this year’s bigger, better Max match the stellar battery life of the previous model? Simply put, no — but it still lasts long. Two days with normal use, even if you’re pushing the phone real hard, is our collective observation.

Interestingly enough, the 5.2-inch Max doesn’t seem to be up to the task of doing marathon runs; we’re seeing about a day and a half of doing the same stuff on a single charge.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The short answer is yes. ASUS’ 5.5-inch ZenFone 3 Max is one of the best all-around choices on the block, and the expected price hike should be justified by the improvements outside and under the hood. The version with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage is expected to retail at around $260, after taxes. We’re told it will come with a price tag of P10,995 when it goes on sale in the Philippines in the second week of December. An amazing price for a phone of this caliber.

The smaller Max, currently priced at $180 (P8,995 in the Philippines), is a good phone, and you shouldn’t kick yourself for not waiting long enough. Outside of ASUS and industry insiders who are heavily moderated by non-disclosure agreements, who could’ve known that something better (and more expensive) would eventually come out? But it’s already coming to stores. Soon. Chuck it to experience, and move on.

If you’ve already decided on the 2016 Max but haven’t bought one yet, wait for the 5.5-inch version. You won’t regret it.

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This article was updated to reflect the price and availability of the 5.5-inch ZenFone 3 Max in the Philippines. 

Reviews

Google Pixel 4a Unboxing & Review: Unbelievably Good?

A direct contender of the iPhone SE and OnePlus Nord

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Google’s ‘a'(ffordable) line-up may be long overdue because of the pandemic — but after several months of waiting, we finally have one on our hands.

Cheaper than last year’s US$ 399 Pixel 3a, the US$ 349 Pixel 4a might just be the most affordable flagship killer contender you can get over the 2020 iPhone SE and the OnePlus Nord.

But can the mid-tier specifications and less-fancy phone features justify its affordable price tag? Head over to our in-depth Pixel 4a review here.

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Nike Air Max 2090 review: Incredibly comfortable everyday sneakers

Really cool, too 😎

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The 2090 is the latest in Nike’s Air Max line. It’s supposed to be related to the Air Max 90 — but more futuristic — hence the name Air Max 2090. In fact, you’ll actually see that Nike maintained many key aspects of the Air Max 90 in this shoe as we go along.

The Air Max 90 of course first dropped in 1990, exactly 30 years ago. The new Air Max 2090 retails at US$ 150, which is higher than what we usually pay for, but Nike is positioning this as a premium lifestyle sneaker.

Even though the Air Max series is historically meant as a running shoe, and Nike is kind of loosely pitching this as a performance shoe, the Air Max 2090 is still a lifestyle shoe.

Design and construction

What I have is the launch colorway, pure platinum, but the Air Max 2090 also comes in a whole bunch of colors including a really cool ice Blue colorway, volt green and blue, and fuchsia purple and yellow.

If you want something really low-key there are all-white and all-black versions as well. If you want something more similar to the OG Air Max 90 colorways, there is a Duck Camo Air Max 2090.

Starting with the upper, it’s mostly covered by translucent mesh. The mesh is pretty lightweight and somewhat see-through. I actually really like this because it means whatever socks you wear under this shoe will slightly change the look of the shoe, which is pretty cool.

This textile liner goes right up against your feet, and generally feels okay but doesn’t really have as much stretch as Nike’s flyknit uppers.

Towards the toe box area there’s an additional layer of protection to prevent your toenails from poking through the mesh, and it has a slightly glossy finish to distinguish itself.

You’ll see a similar kind of fused overlay near the lacing area, surrounding the eyelets, to strengthen the durability of the upper. It’s also accented with a neat cyan blue stitching that I really like.

The lacing and eyelets are in a loop style mechanism where the black, flat laces intertwine through them.

Underneath the laces, there’s black mesh tongue, which has a strange rubberized ring inside a diagonal cutout, the Nike swoosh, and the lowercase air logo which are cut off halfway. This is a weird design element and I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to do, but it looks cool — kind of.

Coming to the inside of the shoe, there’s a black sock-liner and you’ll notice it’s a one piece, internal bootie construction, and the tongue is attached.

The insoles are the usual Air Max insoles, which are in black, and with 2090 printed on top towards the heel and the Nike swoosh in cyan.

Moving on to the mid-panel, there’s a black Nike swoosh outline that is embedded within the outer layer. Like the Air Max 90, the swoosh here is slightly cut off at the bottom, which is accented with this red stitching.

The red stitching is on the mud-guard, which is another element borrowed from the original Air Max 90, but this time around it’s a white synthetic plastic material which runs across both sides of the shoe. Towards the back of this area, there’s an air logo in lowercase and cut off halfway.

The back of the shoe has a ton of padding on the heel. The foam padding definitely adds to the comfort of this shoe, but it’s also rigid enough to give support to the back of your heel, and help with a secure heel lock.

On the outside of the heel area, there’s another mesh-like finish, this time in black, covered with a rubberized heel-tab bumper with grooves that protrude out, which is another element reminiscent of the Air Max 90. You’ll also notice the air and swoosh logos within.

Above that, you have this bright red pull-tab rope loop, which is in the same color as the accent on the mudguard.

Coming to the midsole, it’s pretty chunky with a white colored foam on the forefoot, and a thick air unit towards the heel. It feels like the React foam but Nike has not mentioned it anywhere so there’s no way to be sure if they are similar.

The Air window on the back is 200 percent bigger than the standard Air Unit used before on the Air Max 90, and it’s housed within this silver-colored TPU shell that has the same ridge pattern as the heel-tab on the back of the shoe.

Coming to the outsole, it’s made of a grey rubber with grooves on the forefoot that are similar to the waffle outsole on the Air Max 90. This groove pattern was meant to give you better flexibility with the shoe, and they seem to allow just that.

Towards the very top of the toe area, there’s another hint of cyan, with the Nike Air Max logo towards the center of the outsole, and the Nike swoosh towards the heel area.

Fit and Comfort

Coming to fit, the Nike Air Max 2090 seems to fit true-to-size. I’ll give you the usual disclaimer that if you’re like me and you have wide feet, you might want to go up half a size since these do run a little narrow and the upper isn’t very stretchy, but they’re also long so you end up with more space in the toe box area.

In terms of comfort, these were actually surprisingly really comfortable to wear. They’re a lot more comfortable than the OG Air Max 90, or even the newer Air Max 270s.

The combination of that huge Air Unit and the secret foam Nike is using here makes for a shoe that has great, soft cushioning. This shoe is actually incredibly comfortable to wear and I think these would actually make great everyday wear sneakers.

Is this your SneakerMatch?

Nike has made a lot of Air Max shoes over the years but I really do feel like this is the best Air Max we’ve seen in years.

Not only is it one of the most comfortable Air Max shoes, it’s also a really cool-looking shoe. I love how they made all these tiny little callbacks to the OG Air Max 90.

Nike has been killing it with their sneaker releases lately and I think this is just another great shoe in the collection.

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Accessories

Redmi 9A review: A match for online learning

Does everything you expect it to

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We recently reviewed another budget phone and gauged how well it would do as a student’s companion for distance learning. Seeing as the Redmi 9A fits squarely in that peg, we’re going to do the exact same thing.

This might seem like a cop out way to test the device, but given everything that’s happening, it also seems appropriate.

The status of the pending school year in the Philippines seems like it’s up in the air at the moment. Regardless, if you still choose to equip the young student in your family with a smartphone for online learning, can the Redmi 9A play that role?

Baseline specs

Let’s first see how it stacks up specs-wise to the minimum specs requirement laid out by the Education Department of the Philippines.

Distance Learning, Smartphone Minimum Tech Specs Redmi 9A 
Processor Octa-core 2 GHz MediaTek Helio G25

(Octa-core 2 Ghz)

Memory 2GB 2GB
Display 6”, IPS LCD 6.53”
Storage 32GB 32GB
Network GSM / HSPA / LTE

Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n

Bluetooth

Dual 4G

Wi-Fi

Bluetooth

Ports Micro USB or Type C, 3.5mm Audio Jack Micro USB port, 3.5mm Audio Jack
OS Android 8.1 Android 10, MIUI 12

 

We asked a teacher some questions about how this smartphone will be used by the student in a distance learning setup. Answers have been edited for brevity.

What will students need to access for distance learning?

It depends on the platform the school will use. These can be Google Classroom, Edmodo, Zoom, etc. But certainly, the most accessed sites will be Google and Wikipedia.

Facebook and Messenger may also be used for communication and publishing of some projects. However, this is also dependent on the teacher handling the class.

What are the must have apps? 

Youtube, Google Apps (Docs, Sheets, Slides) or any office app, Dictionary, A notepad app, Web browser, and Email.

How long will they need to be on the phone?

Our planned schedule will start at around 9AM and will end at around 2PM. That’s five 45-minute classes with 15 minutes of break in between. There’s also a 30-minute lunch break at 11:45AM. It may vary from day-to-day but that’s the general plan.

This also does not yet include consultation time. For us, we’ll do 15 minutes at the start and at the end of the day to help make-up for the interaction that will be lost due to the nature of an online class.

Any final notes? 

It’s certainly possible to have online classes despite the student only having a smartphone. Given of course that the smartphone can access everything mentioned previously.

Usually for lectures, the students will only really have to listen to the lectures on video. The teacher can opt to pre-record the classes and make it available for on-demand viewing so the students can access it even after class hours. The rest of the activities will be handled offline and be disseminated via communication apps.

How does the Redmi 9A handle the activities mentioned?

The Redmi 9A almost looks like it’s the exact phone that the Education Department had in mind when they drafted the minimum requirements specs. It fits every spec to a T. So how does it perform?

Like most Android phones, a lot of the Google apps mentioned by the teacher already come pre-installed. And they’ve been optimized to run smoothly on the device’s configuration.

Curiously, the MediaTek G25 struggled a bit more overall compared to the MediaTek G35 on the previous budget phone I put through this test. Although, this could also be a function of the skin (MIUI 12) making things feel slower than it ought to be.

For the record, MIUI 12 is actually one of my favorite Android skins. It’s little design decisions make a lot of sense to me.

For instance, the animation for recent apps is unlike any other Android skin. Instead of making you go left to right to switch, the apps are arranged vertically and you continue with the up-down motion you started with when decided to jump from one app to another.

But as far as apps go, Google is your best friend if you want to maximize budget phones.

Lite apps should be your go to

Budget phones are light on power so it’s prudent to go for Lite apps to not put too much stress on your phone.

Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, and even Spotify all have lite versions. You still get most of what you need from these apps without hogging too much memory.

Same is true for gaming apps. While looking for more Lite apps to use, I found PUBG Lite. It’s gonna eat over 500mb of storage but if you’re really into first-person shooters, this is probably the app to download.

Battery fared nicely

At 5000mAh this thing has plenty of juice. It also helps that it doesn’t have any exorbitant features to support thereby extending the battery life even further.

I simulated the 9AM to 2PM video on demand class sessions by letting the phone marathon through a bunch of YouTube videos. After 6 hours and 23 minutes, I ended up at 68% from a full charge.

Yes, that’s Heejin. Stan LOONA.

Absolutely no issues here. This phone should be able to keep up with you for a day and then some.

Good build quality

This is again one of the more pleasant surprises here. The last time I used a budget phone extensively was about half a decade ago. It felt nowhere near this good.

The Redmi 9A feels sturdy and not the type that will break after a fall or two. Unlike yours truly. It’s hard to see on the black variant but it also has this tiny concentric circle design thing going on at the back. Much like the one found on the Redmi 9.

Fair post-processing on photos

You’re not gonna blow minds with the 13MP rear and 5MP front-facing cameras on this thing. But it does what it’s supposed to. To make sure you get good photos make sure you have a decent light source.

These were taken in the afternoon near a window.

This one was when it’s about to turn into night time.

Is the Redmi 9A an online learning GadgetMatch?

I was really skeptical about the specs laid out by the Education Department. However, this test with the Redmi 9A proved that as far as the necessities go, this gets the job done.

If you’re able to spend more, that’s great. But for people who absolutely can only spend under PhP 5,000 (US$ 100), this is a good enough choice. The Redmi 9A retails for PhP 4590 (US$ 93) and it’s already capable of a lot without forcing you to spend too much.

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