The original ZenFone would be two years old this month, but I doubt many of them are still in use. It was highly anticipated before release, and widely panned shortly thereafter. I have friends who bought the first generation ZenFone, and the issues were obvious right from the start: the battery couldn't last half a day, the UI was clumsy and unresponsive, it got so hot you could barely hold it, and the build quality and design really weren't up to par.

A lot has changed in the last two years. The ZenFone 2 was well-received by our team and continues to be a good buy for the price. But ASUS has been hard at work, and I am happy to tell you that today, the ZenFone 3 is getting me that much closer to smartphone Nirvana: a good phone, and it's cheap. Doesn't look too bad, either.

ZenFone 3 - Front 3
ZenFone 3 - Front 2

There are a lot of models to choose from in the new ASUS ZenFone lineup. Six, actually; or seven, if you count the ZenPad 3. The mid-range "vanilla" ZenFone 3 hit the shelves in Taiwan a couple of days ago, and I picked one up to replace my aging Sony Xperia ZL. I was torn between the 5.2" ZE520KL and the 5.5" ZE552KL, but eventually decided on paying the extra $60 and I'm glad that I did. Let me cut right to the chase: everything that was wrong with the ZenFone 2 Laser from our previous review has been fixed with the ZenFone 3, and then some. Well, almost everything: the software bloat remains.

Specs

Model ZE520KL vs. ZE552KL
Size 5.2" (146.9 x 74 x 7.7mm, 144g) vs. 5.5" (152.6 x 77.4 x 7.7mm, 155g)
Display 1920 x 1080 Super IPS+, Gorilla Glass 3
Processor 8-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 @ 2.0GHz
RAM 3GB vs. 4GB
Storage 32GB vs. 64GB (but 11.3GB is reserved for the system)
Battery 2600mAh vs. 3000mAh
4G LTE Cat. 6, FDD band 1/2/3/5/7/8/18/19/26/28, TD band 38/39/40/41
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.2
Dual SIM Slot 1: Micro SIM, Slot 2: Nano SIM OR microSD up to 128GB
Cameras 16MP f/2.0 rear, 8MP f/2.0 front
Extras Fingerprint reader, laser (for autofocus and can be used to measure distance)
Bonus 2 years 100GB Google Drive storage
Price 7,990 NT (~$250) vs. 9,990 NT (~$310)

The Good

Battery Life This was the same with the ZenFone 2 Laser, and apparently ASUS has made some huge strides since the original ZenFone. Battery life is great. I'll have no problem going all day, and I use my phone a lot. It took about 90 minutes to go from 4% to 97% charge.
ZenUI I almost never like skins, but the new ZenUI is not bad at all. It has some quirks, but overall very clean.
Camera The picture quality is pretty good, even in the low light scenes, and the camera app has just about every manual feature I could want. It probably can't compete with the Galaxy S7, but then again, the S7 can't even come close on price. Oh, and it shoots in 4K.
Screen It's bright. Very bright. Clearly visible in broad daylight, unless the screen is pointed directly at the sun.
Price Yet again, ASUS has put out a great bang-for-your-buck device. $250 for the 5" version, and around $310 for this 5.5" ZE552KL - a great price for a very solid phone.

The Not So Good

Capacitive keys Granted, these are not unique to ASUS, but coming from Sony (soft keys FTW), I am not a fan. I like to have that extra bottom bezel to hold the device with my thumb. Also, there's no backlight, so they are impossible to see in the dark. (Yeah, I know, there are only 3 and they're pretty easy to remember, but a backlight would be nice - doesn't Taiwan overproduce LEDs anyway?)
Glass back Why? Just why? And why does this seem to be so popular these days from many different manufacturers? It looks good; not great. It gets smudged to hell, instantly, every time you hold the device. It can shatter, just like the front, and would be just as difficult to replace. I'll take unbreakable, unsmudgeable plastic over glass on the back of a budget phone any day of the week.
Audio It's loud, but that's about it. The speaker quality is not something I would be able to listen to for any length of time. The included equalizer software helps a little bit.
ZenSocial ASUS is pushing its own two social apps, ZenCircle and ZenChat, as basically Facebook and Messenger equivalents. Except no one uses them. And everything on ZenCircle is in Mandarin (possibly because I have a Taiwanese device, but it's set to English). I already have at least a dozen different messaging and social apps, I certainly don't need another one specific to people who have ASUS phones.
Other bloat Better than previous generations, but there were still 8 pre-installed 3rd party apps on the phone, none of which I wanted. These apps can be uninstalled. There are also around 25 ASUS apps in total, that can only be disabled (but not uninstalled). Some of them are useful (system-wide audio equalizer, FM radio, note pad); many are not.

Features & Highlights

If a phone falls in the woods with no-one around to hear it, does the screen still crack?

This phone is slippery. It's glass on both sides. The ring around the edge is smooth but ever-so-slightly-rubberized plastic. I really think ASUS should have gone for a more tactile plastic instead of the glass, or at least something more grippy around the outside. I guess it looks and/or feels more premium with glass, but it just doesn't make any sense. Thankfully, I bought a case together with my phone, and I strongly advise you to get one. If you just want a rubber bumper case, that would be fine. I went for a 3rd party flip case. ASUS is making their own flip case for this phone, but it's more expensive. Apparently you can see the clock through a circular cut-out on the front, a feature that I don't really care about.

But before you tuck your phone into its case, and before you smudge your grubby little hands all over this fingerprint magnet of glass, take at least a little while to admire it - it is actually quite good-looking. The buttons on the right side of the phone are very tactile. They're raised enough and patterned enough to be obvious, and very satisfyingly clicky.

ZenFone 3 - Right

The fingerprint reader placement is also pretty good, but it's almost a double-edged sword. Without a case, the placement is perfect. With a case, or at least with my thicker 3rd party flip case, you end up trying to stick your finger in the cut-out to hit the fingerprint reader just right. It feels rather clumsy. Surprisingly though, it works. My fingerprint works about 9 out of 10 times, and I'm still getting used to it.

ZenFone 3 - Back 1

Size-wise, this phone is big - for me. If you're used to 5.5" phones or larger phablets, it's probably nothing new, but I'm coming from a 5" phone with soft keys. The extra half-inch of screen size, combined with the capacitive buttons being below the screen rather than at the bottom of it really makes a difference. It is just barely possible for me to reach either the bottom row of capacitive buttons or the notification bar without feeling like the phone is going to pop out of my hand. I'm glad I didn't wait for the 5.7" Deluxe model. This one is big enough, and I've got big hands.

The rest of the phone is pretty straightforward:

  • USB Type C and speaker on the bottom
  • Headphone jack on top
  • SIM tray on the left, which you need a pin to pop out.

ZenUI: Clean, straightforward. Very Zen. (Except for the bloat.)

So the first thing to do when you get a ZenFone is open up your app drawer, tap the menu, and tap Uninstall. Then you can uninstall or disable any apps you don't want with a single tap & confirm dialog.

The pre-installed apps for the Taiwanese version include: Amazon Kindle, a couple of Taiwan-specific shopping sites, Yahoo Auctions, Puffin Browser, Instagram, a Taiwan game app store and some games (Need For Speed & The Sims). There were 8 of those in total, which I removed.

Here is a list of all of the included ASUS Zen apps:

  • ASUS Game Center
  • AudioWizard (Equalizer)
  • Calculator
  • Camera
  • Clock
  • Contacts
  • Do It Later (Todo List)
  • File Manager
  • Flashlight
  • FM Radio
  • Gallery
  • Laser Ruler
  • MiniMovie
  • Mobile Manager
  • MyASUS
  • Phone
  • PhotoCollage
  • Quick Memo
  • Share Link (WiFi file transfer)
  • Sound Recorder
  • Splendid (Screen calibration)
  • System Update
  • Themes
  • Weather
  • ZenChat
  • ZenCircle
  • ZenFone Care.

I've disabled all but 10 of those. Curiously, when using the ZenUI home screen, the phone, camera, and a couple of other Zen apps always display in Chinese even with the device set to English. The English names show up if I switch to another launcher.

zenfone3-launcher1 zenfone3-launcher2

Note: some of the apps in the screenshots were installed when I synced my Google account.

One of the things I like about ZenUI is the multi-purposing of various buttons. Smartphones generally don't have more than a couple of buttons, but the whole idea of Zen is that sometimes less is more. Here are some shortcuts I've found to be useful:

  • Double tap home to enter one-hand mode (partially solves the "bigness" issue)
  • Long press the app switch button to take a screenshot (beats the pants off volume down + power finger gymnastics)
  • Double tap the fingerprint sensor to open the camera; single tap to take a picture
  • Double tap the home screen to sleep / wake
  • Double-click either volume key to jump into the camera from sleep
  • Customizable "ZenMotion" touch gestures for launching apps from wake.

The are even a couple of "ZenMotion Motion Gestures" (yes that's what they are called on the phone) you can do without touching the screen. For instance, when you get a call, you can turn your phone face down to silence it, or put it next to your ear to answer.

Mobile Manager, ASUS's version of an Android housekeeper, does a really good job of cleaning up all of the mess and gunk that builds up on a phone over time. From one app, it is super simple to clean up apps that spam your notifications, apps that start on boot, apps that take too many permissions, or apps that eat too much mobile data. You get fine grained control over all of those things in a very intuitive interface. It also has a "speed boost" app that supposedly clears your RAM. You should not use a task killer on Android, but since many people don't know any better, maybe at least including it with the phone will prevent people from downloading one of the junk, spyware-like versions from the Play Store.

zenfone3-mobman1 zenfone3-mobman2

Here are a couple of other cool features ASUS provides that someone might want to know about:

  • Any app can be placed behind a lock screen using the aptly named AppLock
  • Themes. Lots and lots and lots of themes. Some free, some cost a buck or two, but there are many themes to choose from. And icon sets.

zenfone3-applock zenfone3-themes

  • Easy Mode, which, let's face it, is basically Old Person Mode, complete with extra-large font and a maximum of 9 non-movable homescreen apps
  • Kids Mode, which is almost the same as Easy Mode except you need to enter a PIN to access other apps, answer phone calls, or leave Kids Mode.

zenfone3-easy zenfone3-kids

One thing I found rather frustrating was that the quick launch buttons (the ones in the notification shade) are divided into two sections, labeled ambiguously as "tools" (green) and "items" (blue), and you must have exactly 4 "tools" (one row) and either 8 or 12 "items" (2 or 3 rows). I found that I only wanted 2 of the "tools" but 10 of the "items", which also adds up to 12, but is not a possible choice. This is pretty stupid.

zenfone3-quicksettings1 zenfone3-quicksettings2

Zenning out with some games

I tried Need For Speed: No Limits and as a (very) casual gamer, I am more than satisfied with the performance of the ZenFone 3. Sure, it's not as fast as the Snapdragon 820 (or now the 821), with undoubtedly slower benchmarks and all of that jazz. But you know what? It runs smoothly without any discernible lag or choppiness, and the graphics look about as good as they get on phones. Good enough for me, and I would say good enough for the majority of casual gamers.

Indirectly related to gaming, there is also a pretty cool feature ASUS has included called Game Genie. As the name suggests, it's meant for gamers, but you can in fact use it in any app. It's essentially just a screencasting tool that allows you to simultaneously record the screen, the front facing video camera, and microphone in a single video. Watch me play Need For Speed:

Note: the slight choppiness in the video is not there with Game Genie turned off - I guess the graphics rendering struggles a bit while simultaneously recording the screen and front-facing camera.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden ZenFone

I stopped by the local zoo to test out the camera, and I'm very happy with the performance for the price of this device. Manual focus, exposure, and shutter speed definitely allow for some better looking pics than the auto mode, although auto is OK for a quick point and shoot. One thing is noticeable about the camera immediately: it's fast. For the autofocus and for the actual image capture; both feel very, very fast. You can even shoot in rapid fire succession and sort through your pics afterwards to find the best ones, I got up to about 15 photos before the camera app finally paused for a moment to work on the processing. After 1-2 seconds it was ready to go again.

Night time pics are not great. There is a lot of blooming, and backlit signage is practically invisible. The picture looks a bit grainy as well if you zoom in, presumably because of the higher ISO setting. Daytime pics, however, look really good. These pics were taken "mostly auto," i.e., in manual mode but with most of the options set to auto. You can see in the filename whether or not the photo was taken with HDR mode on (if the filename ends with "HDR_On"). The video camera records in 4K, and the clip below was shot in full auto mode and uploaded directly to YouTube.

Conclusion

ASUS ZenFone 3 ZE552KL
7.3/10
design and build
6/10
screen
7/10
audio
6/10
camera
7/10
zenui skin
8/10
price
10/10
Overall, the ZenFone 3 is an excellent mid-range, mid-2016 smartphone. The low points for me are some aspects of the design, the audio quality, and the software bloat. The high points are basically everything else: it's fast and smooth, the screen is bright (but could be better in direct sun), the camera shoots 4K video, and some of the ZenUI apps are actually useful. Best thing about it? It's only $250-300, unlocked.

I would definitely recommend this phone to someone who is not a phone snob, but who would appreciate a quality phone at the right price. I almost never buy phones that have just been released as the prices drop so quickly, but the ZenFone 3 was cheaper than almost anything comparable, even against other phones that have been out for 6 months or a year already.

It will be important to see how the ZenFone 3 holds up after a few months of daily use, and since it was just released we really have no way of knowing. But I am keeping my fingers crossed. While it hasn't brought me directly to Phone Nirvana, I've been pleasantly surprised by the Zen of the ZenFone 3.