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. 

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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