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ASUS ZenFone 3 review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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ZenFone 2 (left) and ZenFone 3 (right)

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.

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This year’s ZenFone (above) has a USB Type-C port sans fast charging

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Samsung Galaxy A6+ Review: Filling the gap

Something in between

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Samsung continues to populate the Android smartphone market just like any other phone manufacturer. Two months ago, the South Korean company announced the Galaxy A6+ along with the Galaxy A6. The Galaxy A6+, as expected, is the better phone of the two with a bigger screen, better processor, and dual rear cameras. If you’re familiar with the designs of Samsung phones, you might mistake this phone as the direct successor to the Galaxy J7 Pro because of some physical similarities.

How much better is the Galaxy A6+ for it to be above the Galaxy J series? Let’s find out.

It has a 6-inch Super AMOLED Infinity Display

Comes with a Full HD+ resolution

It has an 18.5:9 aspect ratio with minimal bezels, just like with the Galaxy A8 (2018)

The top bezel is wide enough to have a front LED flash

The top portion of the phone is clean

You can only see a couple of antenna bands here

On the left side are the volume buttons…

The opposite side has the loudspeaker

And also two separate card trays

One for the main SIM card and another for the second one and a microSD card

The bottom is pretty busy with the mic, micro-USB, and 3.5mm port

Why is Samsung still not widely adopting USB-C?

The back has the U-shaped antenna bands from the Galaxy J series

This is what makes the Galaxy A6+ look like a member of the Galaxy J series

Let’s not forget about the two rear cameras and fingerprint reader

While the body’s design is borrowed from the Galaxy J7 Pro, the camera is from the Galaxy A8 (2018) or Galaxy S9’s look

A familiar but surprisingly fresh design

The phone’s design blends both the recent Galaxy J and Galaxy A phones, specifically the Galaxy J7 Pro and Galaxy A8 (2018). Or if you wanna get picky, the Galaxy S9 too, but without the curved sides of the display. Moving forward, the Galaxy A6+ looks and feels like a premium phone. The seamless unibody has the cold touch I always look for when using a phone with a metal body. The finish of my review unit is matte, but it’s still a bit slippery on my hand.

The body has a nice rounded shape, making it comfortable to hold. When I wrap my hand around the phone, I don’t feel any sharp edges, which is a good thing. I can easily use the phone with one hand, but I find the phone more suitable for two-handed operation due to its large display.

Aside from black, the phone also comes in blue, gold, and lavender depending on your market region. It doesn’t have the most exciting colors (Huawei and Honor are currently leading in that aspect), but they look sleek and formal.

Great-performing midrange phone

Powered by the efficient Snapdragon 450 processor, the Galaxy A6+ can easily get things done. The processor is paired with 4GB of memory and Android 8.0 Oreo skinned with Samsung Experience version 9.0. During my usage, I didn’t encounter any lag, so the power that this phone has is already sufficient to provide a smooth user experience. I’m just not sure if this will get Android P in the future. Perhaps it will since it’s under the Galaxy A-series, but the timeline is yet to be confirmed.

It’s great to have a midrange Samsung phone running a Snapdragon processor since it’s compatible with most games in the Google Play Store. Not that Exynos processors don’t have the power, but developers optimize their apps (especially games) with Snapdragon chipsets more.

Since the Galaxy A6+ has been a secondary phone for me, I filled its 32GB internal storage with games and played a lot on it. I was able to enjoy Asphalt Xtreme on high settings and even some graphics-intensive titles including Tekken Mobile and Power Rangers: Legacy Wars. PUBG Mobile was automatically set to low, but you can always adjust the settings to get more details.

As for the rear fingerprint reader, it works well and can be used along with face unlock. The fingerprint reader is more secure and reliable though, since this phone doesn’t have infrared cameras like the Galaxy S9 and Note 8.

Takes more than decent pictures, plus bokeh!

Samsung is gradually putting two sensors on the back of their phones, and the Galaxy A6+ is the latest in the bunch. A main 16-megapixel f/1.7 sensor is paired with a secondary 5-megapixel f/1.9 sensor for depth sensing. Just like other simple dual-camera setups, the additional sensor helps add bokeh — there’s no optical zoom or super wide-angle lens.

I took the phone around Taipei for some sample photos. Taiwan’s capital is a colorful city which the phone continues to brighten up through its cameras. Under direct light, the photos I took are sharp or maybe too sharp at times. Even when the sun sets, the rear shooter can take good-looking photos thanks to its large aperture. Moving subjects can be a problem at night though, but that’s understandable since the phone prioritizes the exposure over speed.

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When it comes to selfies, the Galaxy A6+ continues to carry the flag of the Galaxy A series as Samsung’s selfie-centric line. The 24-megapixel f/1.9 front-facing can shoot detailed and pleasant selfies. The built-in beauty mode is not as impressive as OPPO’s or Vivo’s, but it’s there. Of course, AR stickers are also available but not the AR Emoji feature from the Galaxy S9.

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For a point-and-shoot camera phone, the Galaxy A6+ will do great for everyday shooting. Both the front and rear shooters have large apertures for bright photos and quick snaps. Selfies are also in check and there’s even a dedicated LED flash so you can still take portraits in the dark.

One for the road but…

For you to be able to enjoy what the phone has to offer all day, it’s gotta have a long battery life. Thankfully, the large 3500mAh battery sealed inside the metal body of the Galaxy A6+ delivers well enough. I used the phone as my secondary device while roaming around Taipei, mostly for taking photos and as a mobile hotspot using a local SIM card. I easily got three days of usage since I didn’t use the phone as much, but it can definitely last more than a day if used moderately on its own.

While the battery life of the handset is impressive, the charging time is not. The phone charges through the micro-USB port found at the bottom of the phone. Using a fast charger, I get only 13 percent after a quick 15 minute top-up, while a 30-minute charge gives me 24 percent. My personal charger is already Quick Charge 3.0-compatible, but that’s definitely not supported by the phone.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re looking to upgrade your old Galaxy J series phone to a more premium Samsung phone, you can test the waters with the Galaxy A6+. We’re aware of the increase in smartphone prices (especially with Samsung), so we understand if some users might find this phone to be on the expensive side. Maybe if Samsung didn’t resort to recycling the U-shaped antenna design, people (including myself) would not associate this phone as part of the cheaper Galaxy J lineup.

The Galaxy A6+ is priced at EUR 369 (US$ 430) in Europe, but is slightly cheaper in some parts of Asia: INR 25,990 in India, PhP 22,990 in the Philippines, and MYR 1,399 in Malaysia. It costs more than the competition, but the added premium is a requirement to get a more admirable phone from Samsung.

SEE ALSO: Samsung Galaxy A6 Hands-on: Repackaging the older series

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Huawei P20 Lite Review

A shy midrange phone worth paying attention to

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Amid the praises Huawei is getting for the P20 and P20 Pro, it seems like people are forgetting that there’s a shy midrange variant in the series — a variant that doesn’t have any camera branding or high price tag. This is our Huawei P20 Lite review.

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ASUS ZenFone 5Z Review: More powerful but not exactly better

Better processor and more memory than the ZenFone 5, but not much else

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After a less-than-stellar attempt at shooting for the stars in the premium smartphone segment, ASUS took a step back and came out with perhaps one of the best midrange smartphones of 2018 — the ZenFone 5. However, that doesn’t mean their done competing in the upper echelon. Enter the ASUS ZenFone 5Z.

At first glance, the ZenFone 5Z doesn’t seem all that much better than the ZenFone 5. They’re identical after all. So if you’re curious about the look and button placements, go ahead and open this link in another tab then come right back here when you’re done.

Here are a few photos of the 5Z if you’re too lazy.

All the ports are at the bottom, the buttons are on the right, and it’s a hybrid dual-SIM, which means the second SIM slot can accept a microSD card to expand the storage up to 512GB.

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See what we mean?

AI cameras need time to get better

The similarities don’t end there. Both phones have AI-powered cameras which means they analyze your scene and/or subject and apply edits to make it look better. Most of the time, it means tweaking the saturation.

The ZenFone 5 and 5Z also share the same primary camera configuration — one is a 12-megapixel sensor with a bright f/1.8 lens and the other a wide-angle which has an 8-megapixel sensor — so naturally, they take comparable photos. While that’s not entirely a bad thing, it also means they’re a tier under the likes of the P20 Pro and Galaxy S9+.

Take a look at these samples:

It was a cloudy morning in Baler, Aurora and the ZenFone 5Z did a nice job of capturing the part of the sky not covered by clouds

Here’s a closer shot of the shore showing the reflection of the couple passing by

It also captures a fair amount of detail even at night

Zooming in for closer shots, and you’ll see the ZenFone 5Z’s color reproduction is pretty accurate.

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The portrait mode on the 8MP front-facing cam does a surprisingly good job on the cutouts and blurring effect. It’s also wide enough to capture a group selfie with you and your friends as seen on the third photo.

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What I enjoy the most is taking portraits of people. The depth effect works well with a single subject, but struggles a little when there’s more than one person in the shot.

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It’s worth noting that the camera crashed quite a few times while we tried to use it in pro mode and also when the depth effect was turned on. This was fixed in a recent software update.

Faster, smoother, lasts longer

The Snapdragon 845 processor together with 6GB of RAM on our particular review unit is the only real difference from the ZenFone 5. This phone runs Android 8.0 Oreo with ZenUI 5.0 which takes away most of the bloatware that used to come with previous iterations of the ZenFone. The result is a fast and smooth browsing experience whether you’re flipping through your home screen, browsing social media, or cycling through apps. This phone performs with the best of them.

Where the ZenUI 5.0 can improve on is perhaps adding gestures instead of the on-screen navigation bar. There’s an option to keep the navigation bar visible but it defeats the purpose of having more screen.

Instead, there’s an option to hide it but then you have to swipe up on the bottom area first to make it visible. Having to do so can cause you to do things on the app you’re on like accidentally liking the 12-week old photo of your crush on Instagram. That’s embarrassing and could have been avoided! It’s an extra step that affects the whole experience and could easily be improved.

The ZenFone 5Z may not be a gaming-focused handset like the ROG Phone, but it can more than hold its own. Personally, I don’t really play on mobile a lot but the few times that I did on the ZenFone 5Z was a pleasurable experience. It handled titles like Tales of the Rays and Eternium with ease. It also had no problems running Dragon Ball Legends with maxed-out graphics.

The 3300mAh battery is no slouch, either. On average I can start a day at 100 percent and end with around 25 to 38 percent left depending on my usage. Filling it up again is also quick thanks to AI charging. From 30 percent, it can go straight up to 100 percent again in less than an hour.

Uniquely ASUS with other neat features

There are a few things on here that’s uniquely ASUS and you may or may not find them useful depending on your preferences. One of which is the Smart Group feature in the app drawer. ZenUI has had this for a while and it’s actually gotten smarter. It puts related apps in a single folder and labels them for you. It’s super convenient if you’re the type who likes things organized.

There’s also the Selfie Master app which is home to a host of beautification features which I personally don’t really use. What you’ll also find there is ZeniMoji — clearly an attempt to replicate the iPhone’s Animoji. It still needs plenty of work but if you’re curious to see what it looks like, I used it for the intro on this IGTV video.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The ZenFone 5Z is everything the ZenFone 5 is but faster and quite possibly smoother. In a vacuum, it seems like a pretty solid flagship. Unfortunately, it does not exist in a vacuum. If you consider that the 5Z is trying to compete with the likes of the OnePlus 6, Galaxy S9, and other flagships of those caliber, I find that it falls short in terms of design and camera output.

At PhP 29,995 or roughly around US$ 562, it costs nearly US$ 200 more than the ZenFone 5 which sits at PhP 19,995 (US$ 374). While there are slight bumps in processing and speed, it’s hard to justify the price gap costing that much if the device looks exactly like a midranger.

If you’re a ZenFone fan and can fork out the extra 200 bucks, then by all means take the 5Z. Otherwise, you can just opt for the Zenfone 5 which is one of the best smartphones at its price point.

SEE MORE: ASUS ZenFone 5 Video Review

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