If you’re in the market for a mid-range, cheap-yet-powerful smartphone, ASUS thinks they have the phone for you. The Asus ZenFone 3 rivals similar phones like the OnePlus and the ZTE Axon 7 that offer high-end specs, but for several hundred dollars less than other flagship devices.
You might be familiar with last year’s ZenFone 2, but this is a whole different beast. The ZenFone 2 was bulky, plastic, and had terrible battery life. The ZenFone 3 is thin, made of glass and metal, and has great battery life. It doesn’t even seem like a successor to the 2 — more an entirely different phone.
Let’s find out exactly what makes this phone so great.
- Price: $330–$370
- Chipset: Octa-core 2.0 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 (MSM8953)
- RAM: 4 GB
- Storage: 64 GB
- Cameras: 16 MP rear-facing with Optical Image Stabilization, 8 MP front-facing
- Size: 152.6mm x 77.4mm x 7.7mm (6.01in x 3.05in x 0.30in)
- Weight: 155g (5.47oz)
- Screen: 5.5″ Super IPS+ 1920 x 1080 display
- Expansion: microSD card slot up to 128 GB
- Battery: 3,000mAh
- Operating System: Android 6.0 Marshmallow
- Extra Features: Fingerprint scanner, USB Type-C
This phone feels so premium. There’s no other way to put it. For under $400, this kind of build quality is unheard of. With a glass back panel and curved aluminum sides, the ZenFone 3 feels sleek and comfortable in your hand — if a bit slippery. Asus’s signature concentric circles radiate out from around the camera fingerprint sensor on the back in an incredibly elegant fashion.
The curved glass on the front of the device leaves the edges feeling polished and high-end. Everything about this smartphone’s exterior screams modern and top of the line.
The textured power button and volume rocker can be found on the right side of the device, the headphone jack is up top, the microSD card and SIM card slot is on the left, and the USB Type-C port and speaker are on the bottom.
For navigation, the ZenFone 3 relies on capacitive keys rather than a physical home button like the Galaxy S7 or virtual keys like the HTC 10. There’s no back light for the buttons, which I actually prefer, but some folks have complained that they’re impossible to see in the dark (but, come on, you know where those three buttons are).
On the rear of the phone, the 16 MP camera juts out a little. Just beneath it, there’s a fingerprint scanner that’s blazingly fast. The only reservation I have about it is the placement — it’s great if you’re holding the phone, but if it’s resting on a table, you’ll be typing out your PIN to open the device.
Still, I’m just in shock over how nice this phone feels while still being so cheap. I’m a big fan of budget phones, but they never feel this premium.
The screen is a 1080p Super IPS+ display, which is crystal clear and brighter than most other smartphones I’ve tested, making it easier to see in direct sunlight.
That 16 MP shooter on the rear is really quite good. While the camera is usually the first thing to go when cutting corners for a cheap device, Asus really went all out here. Images are crisp and clear, and the Camera app has a plethora of features. There’s even Optical Image Stabilization, which keeps your videos super smooth and reduces blur from shaky hands. But what impressed me the most is how quickly it can take photos in succession — something a lot of phones struggle with.
I found the 8 MP front-facing camera to be better than most other smartphones that only have 5 MP front-facing cameras. Don’t worry, your selfies will be lovely.
The single speaker along the bottom of the ZenFone 3 is one of the few weak points of this phone. It’s not that loud, and the placement on the bottom isn’t as nice as a front-facing speaker would be.
Asus has included an “Outdoor Mode” feature that you can toggle on and off when adjusting the volume, but it just seems to sacrifice sound quality for a bit more volume. Overall, the audio you’ll get out of this is definitely acceptable, but it’s not the best.
Every phone has to have its Achilles’ heel — say hello to the ZenFone 3’s. While the specs and physical design might be great, the software is really what holds it back for me. Sure, it’s running Android 6.0 Marshmallow as most flagships are (aside from Google’s Pixel, which launched with 7.1 Nougat), but it has a heavily customized overlay called ZenUI.
ZenUI is a big, bright, round, colorful take on the Android experience. It reminds me somewhat of how Samsung’s TouchWiz interface used to look (Samsung has dialed it down in recent years) because it’s kind of busy, cluttered, and immature.
But, that’s personal preference. Maybe you like how it looks! There are also a bunch of new “features” that you won’t find in stock Android, like shortcuts on the lockscreen, extra shortcuts in the Quick Settings, ZenMotion gestures, themes, Easy mode, and Kids mode.
Asus has preloaded a number of apps that you can either look at as bloatware or as helpful tools. For the most part, I saw them as the former. For example, two pre-loaded Yahoo! apps display in Chinese even when the system language is set to English
ZenTalk, ZenCircle, and Webstorage are Asus’s own messaging, social, and cloud service apps that I doubt anyone actually uses. The list goes on and on with pointless software, especially when apps serve the same purpose as the built-in Google apps — like a Gallery app even though Google Photos is installed too.
It’s not all bad news, though. Mobile Manager has some useful features, like controlling which apps can automatically start when you turn your phone on. And when you tap the Recents key, you get three buttons along the bottom for quick access to certain tools like pinning apps, clearing your RAM, or viewing your list of apps.
And even if you do like all of the software customizations, they might mean that the ZenFone 3 receives painfully slow updates (because it takes longer to update the code with all of Asus’s customizations). I’d be shocked if Asus delivered 7.0 Nougat to this phone within the next 6 months, and I’d be even more shocked if it was upgraded past that. Asus hasn’t even officially confirmed that it will see a Nougat update.
Powered by the Snapdragon 625, the ZenFone 3 might not have the best processor on the market, but you won’t really notice in day-to-day usage. I played games and multi-tasked just fine, helped along by the hefty 4 GB of RAM. It never felt like it wasn’t performing well, and the 64 GB of internal storage was more than enough (plus it’s expandable with a microSD card up to another 128 GB).
Given the weak battery life of its predecessor, I didn’t have high hopes for the ZenFone 3, but it actually turned out to last quite a while. The 3,000mAh battery lasted through every day without a problem — unless I was running it down with intensive apps.
However, the best part might be that it uses USB Type-C, the new standard that is reversible and allows for faster charger and faster data transfers. Since the ZenFone 3 also support Quick Charge 3.0, it can be fully juiced up in about an hour and a half.
Should You Buy It?
To me, I feel like the Asus ZenFone 3 is an extremely well-designed phone at a low price that’s hampered largely by its intrusive and bloated operating system. If you’re a stock Android-lover, you’ll hate it. But if you’re new to the Android platform or you just like the interface, it might not be such a bad choice.
And for less than $400 (depending on which color you get), the build quality is really unmatched.
If you can put up with the look and feel of ZenUI, this is phone is an amazing value. However, if you’re really committed to having the newest version of Android and just can’t stand ZenUI, you should hold off.