Budget flagships are all the rage these days. After all, why would anyone pay $769 for something like a Google Pixel XL when similar or only marginally worse performance can be had from a $439 OnePlus 3T? The category has come a seriously long way since the Nexus 4 first pioneered it, largely thanks to loads of new entrants in the past few years from both new and storied nameplates.

ASUS has historically been known as more of a budget phone manufacturer, but the ZenFone 2 introduced the company into the realm of the budget flagship. However, although the ZenFone 2 Laser improved upon the ZenFone 2, and the ZenFone 3 upon the ZenFone 2 Laser, all of these phones have the same major sticking point - ZenUI.

The ASUS Zenfone 3 Deluxe model I've been using is the ZS570KL, which sports a 5.7-inch 1080p AMOLED display, a Snapdragon 820, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of internal storage. Despite its monstrous specs and numerous talking points, it falls victim to the same Achilles' heel that its predecessors had. It also doesn't help that the camera is subpar. In a world with so many good options, a purchase of this phone is hard to justify.

Specs

Processor 2.15GHz Snapdragon 820, quad-core
RAM 6GB, DDR4
Storage 64GB, UFS 2.0 with microSD expansion
Display 5.7-inch 1080p, AMOLED
Battery 3000mAh with Quick Charge 3.0
Software Android 6.0 Marshmallow with ZenUI 3.0
Camera 23MP f/2.0 with laser autofocus and OIS (rear), 8MP f/2.0 (front)
Dimensions 156.4 x 77.4 x 7.5mm, 192g
Other fingerprint sensor, headphone jack, NFC

The Good

Display It's not QHD, but the 1080p AMOLED display has decent viewing angles and gets pretty bright.
Performance Despite the heavy skin, the phone remains speedy and rarely slows down.
Design It may not appeal to everyone, but it's definitely unique. Nobody's mistaking this thing for an iPhone.
Dual SIM If you need two phone numbers for whatever reason, this phone can handle it.

The Not So Good

Software ZenUI is as bloated as ever. There are some highlights, but most of the software is just plain bad. Also, no Nougat yet? Come on.
Camera A ton of megapixels, laser autofocus, and OIS sound impressive on paper, but pictures frequently come out blurry.
Audio The speaker gets loud, but it's easy to muffle and doesn't sound all that great.
Value It doesn't offer as much bang for the buck as any of its competitors.

Design and materials

It's refreshing to see ASUS take a new approach to design, especially since so many phone designs these days are slammed for being too derivative. ASUS specifically touts the Deluxe's lack of antenna lines on the back, which is impressive for a metal phone. LG tried this with the G5 and pretty much fell flat on its face, so I guess you could call this a success, but ASUS highlights this frankly minor detail far too much on its website.

The front glass panel features minimal bezels, backlit capacitive keys, and a sort of ripple effect on the top and bottom, which can be a bit distracting at times. The power and volume buttons feature the same ripple effect, which I guess is an effort to make the phone feel "zen." Topping off the look are shiny chamfers on both the front and the back, and a matte "Sand Gold" finish on the metal back that allows for minimal fingerprints. (It is worth noting that the sides of the Deluxe, as YouTuber JerryRigEverything discovered, are coated with a thick layer of primer or plastic.) The USB-C port is centered on the bottom, with the single bottom-firing speaker to the right. The headphone jack placement looks a bit awkward to me, and it's hard to explain why, but at least there is a headphone jack.

I must admit that I didn't quite like the design at first, but it's grown on me. Despite the decently thin 7.5mm body, the build quality is solid, with no creaks, bends, or unexpected scratches occurring during use. There is a dent on my review unit from accidentally ramming the phone into a table (oops), but overall, this is definitely a well-made device.

Display

Most phones over $400 nowadays pack 1440p displays, but the $499 ZF3 Deluxe proudly sports a 1080p panel. There are a number of reasons that ASUS might have chosen to go with a 1080p display (performance, battery life, cost), but at the end of the day, it really doesn't compromise the experience too much. Sure, it's a little lower-res than the norm, and no, it isn't ideal for use with virtual reality, but it still looks very nice in regular use. As is typical with AMOLEDs, blacks are black, and viewing angles are quite good. It can get decently bright outside, but don't expect it to outshine (ha, pun!) the Galaxy S7 or iPhone 7.

The only real complaint I have about the display, and it's a minor one: colors pop just a bit too much for my liking. While there is an option in Settings called "Screen color mode" that should allow me to adjust this, it's grayed out. As a result, the phone is stuck in the "Super Color" setting. I haven't been able to figure out how to fix this. But unless you're a display snob or you plan on using the phone with VR headsets, you won't be disappointed with the ZenFone 3 Deluxe's screen.

Battery

One of the most important aspects of a smartphone is battery life; after all, you can't really use a phone and any of its amazing features if it's dead. In this regard, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe is... alright. The battery is pretty small by today's standards at 3000mAh, especially since it's a phablet, but in its defense, it is using a more battery-efficient 1080p display.

Battery life's a mixed bag.

That being said, this is not the phone to buy if you want an endurance champ. With my mixed use of web browsing, texting, gaming (if you can call it that on mobile), mobile data (the WiFi connections in places I frequent are unreliable), and constant Bluetooth use, I normally got between three and five hours of screen-on-time. By comparison, I was usually able to eke around six to seven hours out of my US Galaxy S7 edge, which is well-known for having great battery life.

Storage, wireless, and reception

UFS 2.0 is loved by storage enthusiasts these days for its sheer speed, and ASUS has capitalized upon this by including it in the Deluxe. Since I don't do many file transfers (thanks, Google Photos), I couldn't tell you if it's significantly faster than eMMC, but the few videos that I've moved between the Deluxe and my laptop have been pretty quick. Good work here, ASUS.

My ZenFone 3 Deluxe came with 64GB of storage, but it's also available with 32GB or an absolutely massive 256GB. Out of the box, the system takes around 12.6GB. Add in the 13GB I've taken up, and I still have around 38GB left over. Obviously, I don't need many gee-bees to operate, but it's nice to know that they're there if I need them.

I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary with calls or signal reception. For the few voice calls that I've made, the person on the other end sounded fine to me and made no complaints about the volume or quality of my voice. As for signal reception, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe clung to my WiFi and T-Mobile service just as well as most other smartphones I've used. Speeds were solid as well. I didn't have a chance to try out the dual SIM functionality, but I imagine it'd work just fine.

Audio and speakers

The ZenFone 3 Deluxe is pretty vanilla in this area. The sound produced by the headphone jack isn't as bassy or pleasing to the ears as something emitted by an HTC 10 or LG V20, but it sounded perfectly fine. Volume seemed to be average, and the experience with the bundled in-ear headphones is nothing special. Again, it's solidly average.

The speaker is located on the bottom-right of the phone, and it's mediocre. It can get decently loud, but if you crank the volume all the way up, you'll get a lot more muddiness than you'd want. There's also an "Outdoor Mode" you can turn on that makes the sound slightly easier to hear in loud environments, but much more tinny. It's not really worth the tradeoff.

Camera

You know that age-old saying about how more megapixels don't necessarily equate to better pictures? Yeah, that reigns true here. ASUS may claim that their 23MP "PixelMaster 3.0" camera shoots excellent photos (they have an entire page dedicated to it), but real-life results are rather disappointing.

Excuse the awkward phone holding, please.

Just like every other flagship smartphone has been able to for the past few years, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe shoots perfectly serviceable photos in well-lit conditions; colors are pretty rich, detail is great thanks to those 23 megapixels, and there's not too much to complain about.

However, ASUS's image stabilization is absolutely atrocious. While it may sport both optical (OIS) and electronic image stabilization (EIS), it sure as hell doesn't seem like it. Even the slightest movement in your hand while taking a picture will yield a blurry mess. It also doesn't help that because the shutter is noticeably slower than phones like the Galaxy S7 and Pixel, even more incomprehensible photos will ensue.

Here's a larger gallery of pics:

In an ideal world where everyone has super-steady hands and/or carries tripods around everywhere, this would be fine, but this is not acceptable for a phone of this price.

Software and performance

I'm going to be straightforward here: I don't like ASUS's ZenUI at all. I'm not a huge stock Android fanboy, but I do think that companies that significantly build upon it should at least throw in some nice additions. ASUS makes very few to no discernible improvements.

  

left: Annoying prompts. middle: Bloat. rightI don't need you to tell me this, ASUS.

Cosmetically, ZenUI is quite polarizing. I can see how some people might like it, as it does have somewhat of a consistent "zen" look going on, but the circles and status bar icons just aren't my cup of tea. The launcher's dated look made me download Nova Launcher almost immediately after setting the phone up.

The recent apps screen, though somewhat more functional than most other skins', is just... ugly. Additionally, many parts of the system, such as the descriptions in settings and the low battery notification, are written in broken English. For instance, the descriptions for the "Vibrate on touch" and "Glove mode" toggles are "Vibrate when touched navigation bar(Back,Home, Recent apps) and other system actions" and "Increase touch sensitivity when you wearing the gloves," respectively. I could understand seeing this on a phone that isn't being sold in English-speaking markets, but this is just sad.

Functionally, the skin is even worse. There are loads of pre-installed ASUS apps, most of which I was able to disable shortly after trying them out. I repeatedly get notifications for an app that is supposedly draining my battery, yet uninstalling it left me with no noticeable boost in battery life, and I haven't found a way to disable the notification. For some reason, there's a hierarchy of sorts in the quick settings; only four functions are permitted to be in the top row, and the other legitimately important ones (WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) are forced to go in the second row. With a system update from a few weeks ago, ASUS sped up all of the animations to something like 0.75x to give the impression of speed, which would be fine if there were a way to revert it completely (changing the speed to 1.5x makes the animations too slow, if you were wondering).

  

left: The ugly recent apps screen. middle: Quick settings. right: The incredibly annoying flashlight app.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to complain about the flashlight. If you hit the flashlight quick setting under the notification bar, you're brought to ASUS's own flashlight app, which contains a number of controls that most people will never use. Then, if you leave the flashlight app and hit the quick setting again, you're taken to the app again, at which point you have to toggle it off there. This adds a ton of steps to a process that should be incredibly simple, and it's especially annoying when you toggle the flashlight from your lockscreen and have to unlock the phone to turn it off. Boo.

left: Game Genie. right: Always-On Panel.

ASUS also blatantly copies Samsung with features such as Always-on Panel and Game Genie. Game Genie works decently (it functions exactly like Samsung's Game Tuner), but Always-on Panel allows for so many pixels to be left lit up that I shudder when I think about the potential battery drain.

Speaking of system updates, my Deluxe is still on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with the October 5th, 2016 security patch, despite having installed an update from January 7th just a few days ago. For a 2016 phone that is supposed to be ASUS's flagship, this is rather embarrassing.

On the plus side, the phone does usually move itself along with ease. I've experienced little to no lag (even before the sneaky animation speed boost), and apps launch themselves quickly. There is some hesitation when the phone is picked up after a long period of rest, though. An ASUS-made program called OptiPlex allows users to choose which apps to launch more quickly, and it does seem to work. The only real slowdown that I consistently notice is from the camera.

Value

Is this phone a better value than the current budget flagship king, the OnePlus 3T? Absolutely not. It has inferior specs, a similar display, worse software, a slower fingerprint sensor, a less capable camera, and a higher price tag. It's less appealing in almost every single way.

But is it a better buy than a larger mainstream flagship like the Galaxy S7 edge? My answer to that would still have to be no. The S7 edge's superior display, significantly better camera, improving software, Samsung Pay, water resistance, and Qi wireless charging capabilities more than make it deserving of its heftier price, and that's not to mention that the S7 edge in new or mint condition can be found at around the same price as the Deluxe online if you shop around. In contrast, so few people are buying the Deluxe that even used models really can't be found for much cheaper than its MSRP of $499.

Conclusion

The ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe isn't a terrible phone, but it's extremely hard to recommend over its competitors. While its specs are decent, its software and camera drag it down. The price is also a problem; it is lower than most flagships' from larger companies, but other phones offer justification for their higher prices in the form of useful features. I would honestly hesitate to recommend this phone even if its MSRP were $100 lower, thanks to the existence of phones like the ZTE Axon 7 and the heavily-mentioned OnePlus 3T.

Most phones have at least one specialty. For the Axon 7, it's dual front-facing speakers and audio. For the LG V20, it's also audio, as well as a removable battery and a wide-angle camera. For the Galaxy S7 edge, it's water resistance, an excellent camera, and a best-in-class display. For the Pixel, it's quick updates, great battery life, and a great display.

A successful device needs to excel in at least one arena; the ZenFone 3 Deluxe is merely okay to good in every aspect. And that's not enough to cut it in 2017.