ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra review — super-sized for super viewing enjoyment
+ Large 6.8" 1080p IPS display with a good 79% screen-to-body ratio for better usability
+ Clean looking design with hidden antenna design
+ Tactile hardware keys
+ Decent performance
+ ZenUI 3.0 looks better than before; less bloatware present
+ 23 MP rear camera is a great improvement over its predecessors
+ Blue Free Motion thanks to ASUS Tru2Life+ technology really works and is not just a gimmick
+ Stereo speakers are really loud and clear; powered by dedicated NXP Smart AMP
+ DTS Headphone:X technology allows for enhanced soundstage and sound quality
- Massive size is difficult to handle even with large hands
- Side bezels could be thinner
- Rather expensive asking price
ASUS has come a long way since the time they launched their Zenfone 5, an affordable smartphone with great performance but not-so-great battery life. The second generation, starting with the Zenfone 2 offered excellent performance for its price, but due to the double-edged sword which is the Intel SoC, the superb processing power also came with the price of higher heat output and power consumption. Nonetheless, the Zenfone 2 still enjoyed strong sales, and was joined by many new models that target specific niches the Zenfone 2 was unable to reach. Well, that is the short history of the Zenfone series. This is 2016, and it is high time ASUS targets the premium crowd too. Well, the Zenfone 3 series announced at Computex 2016 may just be ASUS’ ticket into the big game. Today we have the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra, their largest smartphone yet. Is it capable of duking it out with the big shots of the industry? Size wise, it has already won. In other aspects, well, we will find out soon enough.
I did not get the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra in its full retail package. In fact, I received only the device itself, nothing else. So we will start right off with how it looks.
The massive 6.8″ display dominates much of the front, with a 79% screen-to-body ratio. The front facing camera, call speaker and proximity sensor are visible up top, while on the lower edge we see the capactive back and app switcher buttons along with the physical home button. The physical home button also doubles as the fingerprint sensor, not a new design by any means. ASUS has also ditched the Zen chin which was the signature of the previous Zenfone series, for better or worse. The side bezels look rather slim this time around, but do not let them fool you as the screen has a black frame that is as thick as the visible bezel. The front actually makes the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra look very generic, and the loss of the Zen chin as well as no labelling doesn’t help anyone identify as a member of the ASUS Zen-family.
Over on the back, it looks like an nice flat slab of pink sandblasted aluminium. The monotony is only broken by the rear mounted volume rocker — which features the signature Zen concentric circle pattern — and the camera system in the upper left corner. It is really so flat, that the only thing sticking out is the camera’s cover glass.
Speaking of which, the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra is definitely a phone you want to protect with a case. The protruding camera lens is sure to score some scratches as the weight of the device actually lies on the edge of the glass when you put it down on a flat surface.
The right is devoid of any slots or buttons, all of which are on the left side of the device. The power button also sports the Zen concentric circle pattern, and offers a nice click when pressed.
The bottom is home to the USB Type-C port, two really loud and clear speakers — we will talk about that in further detail later — and a little microphone hole.
The 3.5mm audio jack shares the top edge with the secondary microphone. By the way, did you notice that this device didn’t have those unsightly antenna lines you see on the fruity smartphones as well as most other metal unibody devices? In what I believe is a feat of engineering, they managed to hide them in two very easily missed nubs on the top, and a single one on the lower edge. It truly features invisible antenna.
|CPU:||Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 (4 x A72 @ 1.8 GHz + 4 x A53 @ 1.4 GHz)|
|Display:||6.8″, FHD (1080p) IPS display|
|Storage:||64GB internal (expandable with microSD up to 128GB)|
|Camera:||23MP f/2.0 rear camera (Sony Exmor IMX 318) with TriTech AF technology (Laser AF, PDAF, CDAF), OIS, dual real-tone LED flash, RGB color correction sensor|
8MP f/2.0 front camera
|OS:||Android 6.0 Marshmallow with ZenUI 3.0|
|SIM:||nanoSIM (dual SIM support, one nanoSIM slot doubles as microSD slot)|
|Battery:||4600 mAh (non-removable)|
Numbers on a spec sheet mean something, but the numbers that we get from the hardware are a bit more meaningful. The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra packs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 652, a nice little SoC that we first encountered in the vivo V3Max. 4 A72 cores and 4 A53 cores are running in a big.LITTLE configuration, with the Adreno 510 GPU pushing pixels. The SoC is mated to 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM. Overall the configuration is pretty similar to the vivo V3Max, a Snapdragon 652 coupled with 4GB of RAM, so let’s do a little comparison between the two.
Geekbench tests CPU and RAM performance, and here the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra posts nice
figures thanks to the Snapdragon 652 SoC. However it loses out slightly here to the vivo V3Max. Nonetheless, it still scores better than the Nexus 6P powered by the Snapdragon 810 here.
Well the vivo V3Max bested it in the CPU department, but the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra seems to have better GPU performance. It doesn’t lead by much, but it consistently scores more than the vivo V3Max despite both having the same Adreno 510 inside, leading me to think that ASUS optimized the GPU performance, or Android 6.0 Marshmallow really allows the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra’s GPU performance to shine over the vivo V3Max which runs on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.
Antutu tests overall performance, and here the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra loses out to the vivo V3Max once again, because of its slightly weaker CPU scores. In 3D, the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra actually one ups the V3Max, which is consistent with what we saw in the 3DMark benchmarks.
In PCMark it tests the performance in work-oriented tasks, and the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra scores quite a lot better than the Nexus 6P, but loses slightly to the vivo V3Max. This is understandable since few workloads actually use the GPU.
Battery life is great, it powered me well throughout the day during which I connected to my home WiFi network and used the mobile data connection when away. Overall I managed nearly 6 hours of on screen time, over close to a full day away from the charger. The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra features BoostMaster Fast Charging, to juice the 4600 mAh up to 60% in 45 minutes. I didn’t get the charger in the box to test this out, but I do believe it since the ASUS Zenfone 2 was the fastest charging phone in 2015, and I am not surprised if ASUS managed to repeat its success again with this year’s Zenfone 3 series.
I think 6.8″ is really pushing the limit of the “smartphone” category. We used to call 7″ devices tablets, but smartphones have pushed the boundaries of what we can comfortably hold. Sure, slim bezels help in cases like the Huawei Mate 8, but even that is not comfortable to be used with a single hand. The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra? I believe certain people with small hands would even struggle to use it with both hands.
Even pocketability is affected due to the massive size. I am wearing some easy-fit jeans, that have pretty deep pockets, and yet the Zenfone 3 Ultra manages to peek out of my pocket. I think guys who prefer slim-fit jeans may encounter issues with lugging such a huge phone around, but I am sure the fairer sex will fare better here with their handbags, or “Doraemon pouches”, as a certain writer is adamant on calling them.
A little saving grace comes in the form of the one-handed mode which shrinks the screen area to make it more usable with a single (large) hand. The 6.8 mm thickness helps a little, but the flatness of the entire device doesn’t help. What happened to the ergonomic curved back that has been one the defining features of the Zenfone series? I don’t think we will face any problems with the smaller ASUS Zenfone 3 and Zenfone 3 Deluxe, but the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra definitely needs something to help with the grip.
The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra offers dual-SIM support, with the second SIM slot doubling as a microSD slot. I don’t really like this configuration but it is the most popular one. ASUS put the microSD and main SIM on separate trays for some reason, when most smartphones put both of them on a single tray and be done with.
The front fingerprint sensor requires you to wake the device first before it works, essentially meaning if you want to use the fingerprint sensor, the power button on the side will not see much use at all. It works really quickly, with no noticeable delay after pressing the button and it unlocking immediately after that.
Talking about the UI, let’s start off with the navigation keys under the screen. Finally, after 2 generations in the darkness, the back and app switcher keys are now backlit. The home button is not backlit but it protrudes from the surface, so it will be impossible to miss it anyway. And oh the arrangement is “correct” as per Google’s guidelines. I absolutely deplore phones with the back button on the right.
ASUS has slapped their brand new ZenUI 2.0 over Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which brings a few improvements over the previous version of ZenUI.
The most noticeable change is that the notification shade blurs the surrounding area instead of the darkening it in previous versions. Less ASUS apps are pre-installed, but can be gotten from the Play Store if you want them.
The new default icon set is slightly improved with more pastel colors now, for a more matured look. The launcher also lets you choose whether you want an app drawer or not. I am quite the traditionalist, so I do prefer having an app drawer to hide my lesser used apps away. Overall, I would say that ASUS did a good job, offering a lot of customization options to please almost everyone. Except that “purist” who just won’t get a Nexus device and installs Nova launcher on every Android phone he gets. Don’t be that guy. Take a look at more images of the overall UI of the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra as well as some of the pre-installed apps.
The camera is a 23 MP Sony Exmor IMX 318 sensor, with OIS and TriTech AF technology, which as you can decipher, combines three autofocusing technologies to obtain pin sharp focus in 0.03 seconds. It is quite a huge leap coming from last year’s 13 MP module, both in terms of resolution and also the number of technologies working together to get you the best image it can. If you want to go further, Super Resolution mode will give you an insane 92 MP through some software magic behind the scenes.
Looking at the UI, I don’t see much changes coming from the previous generation, but why fix something that works? The UI is clean, with all the necessary settings a tap away and a manual mode is available if you are feeling particularly “professional” that day. Also worth noting is the real-time HDR mode that is accessible on the right side of the camera UI. The Beautification mode is also further enhanced in this iteration, with more options to choose from. I am not a fan of selfies, but then I am sure someone will be greatly pleased by that.
So yeah, as we expected, the quality of the images is really a lot better than what the ASUS Zenfone 2 could produce. The real-time HDR mode is quicker, but it seems to have a tendency of slightly “flattening” out the image to keep everything in the image well exposed. HDR Pro is a bit better but processing takes a while, keeping contrast where it is needed while also bringing detail out of the areas that are usually under/over-exposed. Even with no HDR, the dynamic range is pretty sufficient for most usage anyway, and the contrasty effect is quite preferable actually. The 23 MP sensor by Sony is pretty good in low light too, but static objects are the only thing that can be captured as the phone will pick a really slow shutter speed. The Low Light mode introduced is also here, and a 5MP image results due the use of supersampling for better detail in low light. It really boosts the brightness, but in terms of details there really isn’t much difference actually. For more camera samples, head over to our Flickr depository of full-sized unaltered images.
Now you can take all the nice photos you want, but when you want to view or show them to your friends, you are gonna need a good screen. The 6.8″ display is perfect for that, featuring IPS technology for the wide viewing angles you need so everyone can see the display clearly. The panel covers 95% of the NTSC color gamut, so you won’t be losing out on any colors here. Sure, if it’s resolution you are after, the 1080p resolution may not be enough for you, but in most cases it is quite nice.
Viewing angles and resolution isn’t the say all end all in media enjoyment. Have you ever noticed that on certain television sets, movements seem smoother than on other screens? Well the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra features a similar technology, which they have aptly called Blur-Free Motion, so your music videos and movies will look smoother. And does it look good! This is thanks to a special dedicated display processor which ASUS calls its Tru2Life+ technology that they has incorporated in the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra, so that you can enjoy your videos even better, with them now blur-free. The difference is really one you have to experience yourself to understand what I am talking about.
Visual is one thing, and audio is another. Once again, ASUS doesn’t disappoint. The ASUS features TWO speakers, configured in stereo, pumping out some seriously loud and clear sound waves. It was good enough that I and Firdaus enjoyed a whole episode of some perverse Japanese serial with the audio pumped out of the two stereo speakers. After listening, we were intrigued to find out what made these speakers sound so damn good. Apparently the speakers each feature five magnets. and are driven by a dedicated NXP Smart AMP for the excellent sound quality we were enjoying. Seriously, do try this phone when you get the opportunity to.
If you want to keep your audio to yourself, the preloaded AudioWizard will enhance your listening experience through headphones, more so if you are using ASUS earphones. Even if you aren’t, there are three modes to choose from to configure the virtual soundstage to your liking. You can tune the output too with the 5-band equalizer. If you aren’t using earphones, the AudioWizard app will also allow you to change the audio output according to the type of media you are listening to. What do we think about the output? Stunning. While I did not get the ZenEar S earphones that are supposedly fine-tuned by DTS, connecting my Mi In-Ear Headphones Pro to the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra yielded excellent sound quality. Not a surprise actually, considering that the device is the world’s first smartphone to feature DTS Headphone:X.
The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra may not be the most pocketable or one-hand-friendly smartphone out there, but it is fully capable of taking over the duties of a small tablet for media consumption, while also performing wonderfully as a smartphone, albeit an oversized one. The hardware enhanced video playback capabilities as well as great audio definitely shows that ASUS plans on you getting this one for watching movies and videos while on the go. And with that battery, you are going to be watching a lot of them before it runs flat. Well, everything boils down to it’s pricing in the end, and the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra is pretty pricey at RM2599. Do we think it is worth the money? Sure. If you want a smartphone that doubles as a tablet, and plan to enjoy lots of media on it, then yes, the features that ASUS has packed into the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra to make it one of the best — if not the best — smartphones for multimedia consumption is absolutely worth the asking price. Still, I wish ASUS has made the design more comfortable to hold and use, as well throw in a beefier CPU at this price, which is why I will give it a Silver Pokdeward instead of a Gold one. Well, ASUS has clearly separated itself from the “affordable” crowd, so let’s see if it will be as popular as the previous generations.
DISCLAIMER: This review of the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra was completed with a late engineering sample from ASUS, which means that certain details and performance measured may be different in the final retail units.