The history of Android on tablets is complicated. Just as Apple had done in 2007 with the first iPhone, the iPad's release in 2010 set a very high standard for the rest of the market. The next year, Google released Android 3.0 Honeycomb on the Motorola Xoom, designed specifically with tablets in mind. The Xoom wasn't the iPad killer that Motorola had hoped for, and there have been very few Android tablets that could stack up to Apple's iPad line.

Since Honeycomb, Android has shifted away from most tablet-specific features in favor of a shared UI on all screen sizes. There's still a large number of major applications clearly not designed for tablets (Hangouts comes to mind). When even Google doesn't care for tablet users, it's not surprising that app developers and manufacturers follow suit.

Despite the dismal state of the Android tablet ecosystem, ASUS has continued to offer their own tablet lineup over the years. The ZenPad 3S 10 is the company's newest WiFi-only tablet, and there's no denying it looks very much like an iPad.

Specs

Display 9.7-inch IPS, 2048x1536 (roughly 2K)
CPU Mediatek 8176 Turbo Dual CA72 2.1GHz + Quad CA53 1.7GHz
GPU IMG GX6250 650MHz
RAM 4GB LPDDR3
Storage 64GB internal, expandable via MicroSD
Cameras 5 MP Front camera, 8 MP Rear camera
Battery 5900mAh battery
Ports USB Type-C (with QC Quick Charge 3.0), Headphone/microphone jack
Software Android 6.0 Marshmallow

The Good

Display The 2K-resolution screen is fantastic, and is easily the best feature of this tablet.
Speed This tablet is incredibly fast. Boot time is around 20 seconds, apps open instantly, and switching between apps is very snappy.
Connectivity USB Type-C ensures the tablet is future-proof.

The Not So Good

Speakers The tiny speakers on the bottom are loud, but I always end up covering them with my hands. Front-facing speakers would have been much better.
Navigation buttons The fingerprint sensor on the physical home button can be finicky at times, and the capacitive Back and Recent buttons are impossible to see in the dark.
Software Only a few of ASUS' customizations to Android are improvements, with the rest ranging from acceptable to annoying. In addition, the tablet still has not been updated to Android 7.0/7.1 Nougat.

Design

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The ZenPad 3S 10 next to the original iPad Air.

First, allow me to address the elephant in the room - this does look incredibly similar to an iPad Air. Just like the iPad Air 2 and the 9.7" iPad Pro, it has a 9.7" IPS display with the same 2048x1536 resolution. The ZenPad also shares much of the iPad's design language - a physical home button, an aluminum body with rounded corners, and identical placement of the charging and headphone ports. The back camera is even in the same top-left corner.

The tablet ships in two colors - Glacier Silver and Titanium Grey (ASUS sent me the grey model for review). The silver model has white bezels surrounding the display, while the grey model has black bezels. The back side is marked only by a centered ASUS logo, and FCC information in small text near the bottom.

The top of the ZenPad (while holding it in portrait mode) has a headphone jack at the top-left corner, so you won't have to deal with adapters or Bluetooth audio if you don't want to. On the left side is a microSD card slot, and on the right are volume and power buttons.

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The bottom of the tablet features a USB Type-C port, which I definitely consider a plus. With most of this year's flagship Android devices adopting the port, as well as countless PCs, the ZenPad is certainly future-proof when it comes to buying cables and other accessories. The tablet comes with a USB Type C-to-A cable as well as a power adapter. The port also works with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, but is limited to USB 2.0 speeds (but I doubt many will care).

Flanking the charging port on both sides are what ASUS calls "NXP Amp powered speakers." The speakers can become incredibly loud while maintaining a decent level of audio quality, but the placement is one of my largest annoyances with this tablet. My hands always cover at least one of the speakers while holding it in landscape mode, muffling the sound and leading me to use headphones when I can. This is one aspect of the iPad's design I wish ASUS had not taken inspiration from.

The front of the tablet has a gorgeous IPS 2048x1536 display, with 5.3mm bezels on each side. The display is easily the best aspect of this tablet - it has incredible colors and contrast, and the 2K resolution definitely shows while reading text or watching high-definition content.

Below the display is a physical home button, in the same shape as the home button on countless Samsung devices. It pulls double-duty as a fingerprint scanner, which can be a bit picky compared to my Nexus 5X's scanner. Capacitive back and recent buttons are on each side of the home button.

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Frankly, I wish ASUS had stuck with on-screen navigation buttons for the ZenPad. The capacitive keys are difficult or impossible to see in dimly-lit rooms, often causing me to press the wrong button while holding it in landscape. The buttons only light up when pressed, further adding to the frustration of using this tablet in the dark.

The tablet itself is only 5.8mm thick, just barely beating out the 6.1mm thickness of the iPad Air 2 and 9.7" iPad Pro. It weighs about 0.95 pounds, a hair lighter than the 0.96lbs iPad Air 2 and 0.97lbs smaller iPad Pro. As you might expect, holding the ZenPad for extended periods of time with one hand will work just fine.

I don't really mind that the ZenPad 3S 10's design shares so much with the iPad lineup, but the physical navigation keys and side-firing speakers can be annoying at times. Overall, it is a well-designed tablet and easily has the premium feel ASUS was aiming for.

Performance

Enough about the outside of the ZenPad, what about the inside? The tablet is powered by the six-core Mediatek 8176 CPU, with two 2.1GHz ARM Cortex A72 and four 1.7GHz ARM Cortex A53 cores. The Imagination Technologies PowerVR GX6250 GPU is responsible for the ZenPad's graphics performance, capable of boosting up to 700MHz.

All that processing power results in the ZenPad being extremely fast with most tasks. Booting up the tablet takes about 20 seconds, applications open extremely quick, animations are smooth, and switching between apps is instant (the 4GB of RAM helps a lot here).

Geekbench 4 gives the ZenPad 3S 10 a score of 1589 for single-core performance, and 3642 for multi-core performance (full results here). The Single-core score is closest to the Galaxy S7 at 1550, and multi-core score is closest to the Xiaomi Mi 5 at 3721.

The ZenPad's GPU should be enough for most games. Tales from the Borderlands hovered around 50FPS, with dips to about 35FPS during intense scenes. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was almost always at 30FPS with dips to 25FPS (with the frame limiter off), with all settings (including Draw Distance) to 100%.

In my time using the ZenPad, I only encountered a major slowdown when trying to play 1440p video through the YouTube app. I would have expected the tablet to play video content matching its screen resolution, so that's somewhat of a disappointment.

Battery life

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The ZenPad 3S 10 has a 5,900mAh battery, which ASUS estimates will last about 10 hours in average use. As with any battery-powered device, this will change depending on how you use it. In one test, I charged the ZenPad all the way to 100%, then left it unplugged for the whole night.

As you can see, Doze kept the battery usage overnight to a minimum. The next day, I almost exclusively used the tablet for streaming video - mostly YouTube, Plex, and Netflix. By the time I hit 12%, I was only at about four hours of screen-on time. This is the end result of ASUS designing the ZenPad to be marginally thinner than the iPad, without the battery optimizations that iOS offers.

The Verizon-exclusive ZenPad Z10 is slightly thicker than the 3S 10 (7.1mm vs 5.8mm), but has a larger 7,800mAh battery. I think a few extra added millimeters wouldn't have hurt for that larger battery on the 3S 10.

Camera

The ZenPad 3S 10 has an 8 MP rear camera and 5 MP front camera. To be blunt, they are absolutely terrible. Low-light performance is especially awful, color balance is non-existent, and as you might imagine, there is no flash. I don't think many people would prefer to use tablets to take pictures, but with the ZenPad 3S 10, you will definitely not want to.

Software

The software experience of the ZenPad is unfortunately underwhelming. I'm personally a fan of the "stock" Android experience, as many here at AP will agree, but I was interested to see if the ZenUI 3.0 skin from ASUS could improve upon it. While I ended up not being a fan of ZenUI as a whole, some aspects of it are very nice.

ZenUI Launcher

Let's start with the home screen. The ZenUI Launcher is surprisingly excellent, with a high degree of customization. Like most launchers, there are multiple pages of homescreens that can be filled with apps and widgets, with an app drawer for everything else. Holding down on the homescreen reveals settings for adding/removing pages, icon alignment, changing icon size, page scroll effects, and font size/color. You can even set launcher themes and icon packs, and every icon pack on the Play Store I tried worked without a hitch.

The launcher also supports an unread counts badge on icons and folders, similar to iOS. Twitter and Gmail were the only third-party applications I installed that seemed to support it. Although I prefer to use the Google Search widget, you can swipe down on the homescreen to search your installed apps, or perform a Google/Yahoo search. Folders expand to fill the whole screen by default, but can be set to smaller popups (similar to the Google Now and Pixel launchers) if you prefer.

Of course you can install another one if you don't like it, but the ZenUI Launcher is very good by itself. In my time using the ZenPad, I haven't really felt the need to replace it.

ZenUI skin/included applications

ASUS has made a number of UI changes to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which the company has dubbed ZenUI 3.0. The skin is most notable in the notification tray, default apps, and recents view - the rest is largely unmodified from stock Android.

The notification tray is decent, but I'm not sure if it's an improvement. While there is more customization than the stock 6.0 tray, it has been changed to a white background with grey text. This is slightly more readable, but looks much uglier in my opinion. The Clear Notifications button has moved to the top, which is a nice change. Thankfully ZenUI does not change the appearance of notifications, unlike some other skins.

Like the notification tray, the stock Settings app has been changed to a solid white background. The same goes for most of the included apps (Clock, Calendar, etc); ASUS really likes plain white backgrounds. Again, I'm not a fan, but the apps ASUS has modified aren't downright awful.

ZenUI also has its own custom keyboard, fittingly called ZenUI Keyboard. It has most of the functionality of Google Keyboard - voice dictation, swipe typing, etc. Just like the launcher, you can customize the keyboard with a multitude of settings, from changing the keyboard size/screen position to a toolbar you can add/remove icons to. There are also dozens of keyboard themes to choose from, ranging in price from free to $1.99.

If I had to describe ZenUI in one word, I would use "acceptable." There are some nice changes compared to stock Android Marshmallow, and I like the focus on user customization. But just like many OEM skins, many of the alterations feel like change for the sake of change.

Updates

The ZenPad 3S 10 currently ships with Android 6.0 Marshmallow and the October security patch. It would be much easier to recommend this tablet if it was running Android 7.0/7.1 Nougat, especially with the added multi-window functionality. Samsung and LG both had limited split-screen support in their Android skins before stock Android implemented it, but ZenUI unfortunately does not. That's not to mention all of the other features that Nougat brings.

ASUS is far from perfect when it comes to updating its devices in a timely manner, with the ZenFone 2 finally receiving a Marshmallow update just after the release of Nougat. ASUS told me they plan to update the ZenPad 3S 10 to Nougat, but could not provide any sort of time frame.

Conclusion

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The ZenPad 3S 10 is a mixed bag. While I found it good enough for what I use a tablet for (primarily media consumption and light productivity), there are so many areas where ASUS could have improved it. The bottom-firing speakers and physical navigation buttons are mild annoyances, but the lack of any multi-window functionality is a huge issue for anyone looking to be productive. In addition, the smaller battery means you might have to bring a charger for long car trips or extended binge-watching sessions.

So for $299, is the ZenPad worth it? Honestly, I'm not too sure. I think most will agree that Apple is the main competition in the tablet market, and the ZenPad beats the iPad Air 2 and 9.7" iPad Pro in pricing ($399 and $599 for the base models respectively). But iOS now has multi-window and a far better ecosystem of tablet applications. I think the ZenPad is one of the best Android tablets on the market, but that doesn't mean much these days.