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ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra review : more of a tablet, less of a phone

Asus is a company that is always motivated and charged up to bring the best of capacity in any of their product. Asus Zenfone series has witnessed continual improvement in all departments. Never did Asus get complacent or loose steam. Since the first Zenfone, the evolution of this lineup has been phenomenal. Since 2016, we have seen many variants of the 3rd generation of Zenfone mobiles and among them, I have the Zenfone 3 Ultra with me. At first look, I wondered ‘Is it a phone? Is it a tablet? Is it a TV?’. Thanks to a display that is 6.8 inches in size and a price tag of 50,000 rupees, I wonder if this phablet is worth buying! Let’s check out!

Design

The Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra has metal rim with predominantly plastic body and a very flat back. The display is 6.8″ in size and this makes the Zenfone 3 Ultra more of a tablet than a phone or phablet. Due to this, we are going to approach this review considering Ultra as more of a tablet. The 23 Mp camera at the rear is very similar to the camera we saw on Zenfone 3 but this time, the camera bump is negligible. The rear camera is flanked by laser focus sensor and dual tone LED flash.  The camera module is moved to top corner to make way for the back mounted volume rocker. It also has a RGB color sensor for measuring the color temperature.  The ASUS branding is etched below the volume slider and the Zenfone branding is at the bottom part of back panel. ASUS has moved the fingerprint sensor to the front side and integrated it into the home key. The speaker grill is on the bottom along with USB-C port and mic. The battery is sealed in the body and is not user replaceable. The top has the 3.5 mm jack and noise cancelling mic. The power key and SIM trays are lined up on the right. The upper SIM tray takes a nano SIM card and the lower SIM tray is a hybrid slot that takes either microSD card or micro-SIM car. The 8 MP camera is on the front.

There are some design quirks. Given that huge size of the phone, we really wonder why ASUS went with a hybrid SIM card slot when they could’ve easily provided a dedicated microSD card slot and two dedicated SIM card slots. Rear mounted volume control looks good but given the size of the phone, it is hard to change volume without accidentally pressing the power key. When I hold the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra like a phone and try to change the volume, my thumb (when I am using right hand) tightens and I end up pressing the power key. It is better when I use my left hand. Another problem with the volume rocker is that its longer than necessary and it is a one flat key with no separation between up and down. When I press the volume up and try to immediately reduce volume, it takes time to get the grip right due to the length and flat key. ASUS should’ve used side mounted more traditional volume slider. The navigation panel at the bottom is not aligned and it looks a bit awkward.

The material feels premium, the build feels strong. The weight distribution is very good and you will not feel either the top or the bottom heavier. Advantage with this weight distribution is that the phone will be less slippery with less strain on fingers or wrist. The rear panel is the best looking part of the phone. The matte surface does not attract any fingerprints and the phone looks clean all the time (unless you hold it with right hand while eating dal or sambar). The diamond cut rim, the rounded frame gives the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra a classy look. Move to the front and its bland! There is no branding. A 2.5D glass would’ve made this phone look stunning but it’s just a flat glass that goes into the metal frame. When you look at the back side, the phone shows character and looks like a zenfone. From the front, end users cannot differentiate this with countless other phones out there. Do make sure that you buy a tempered glass screen protector as accidental drops of a device of this size is quite common and you do not want to run to a service centre after dropping this phone face first on to hard floor (concrete, road etc).

Display

The mobile has a 6.8 inch Super IPS+ capacitive touchscreen capable of 1080p resolution. A dedicated app called Splendid can be used to change the saturation and warmth of the display . This ap[p lets you get a fine grain control on the display white balance and saturation level. There is also a dedicated blue light mode to aid reading on the mobile. The display has excellent brightness levels and contrast on indoors. The ambient light sensor is quick and responsive to change the brightness and contrast under direct sunlight. The display was very smooth and responsive to use. It has Corning Glass 4 protection and the bezel is just 2.4mm wide. Even though the resolution is 1080p only for a 6.8″ display, you will not feel the same while using the phone. This emphasizes my feeling that a 2K or 4K resolution display for a smartphone is not needed. FullHD resolution also helps with the battery life, the strain on CPU/GPU will be much less.

Hardware

Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra is powered by Qualcomm MSM8976 Snapdragon 652 chipset with Octa-core processor clocked at 1.8GHz. My review unit has 4GB or LPDDR3 RAM and 64 GB of eMCP internal storage. It has Adreno 510 for graphics processing. The performance of the Zenfone 3 Ultra matches that of a high-end android mobile. I installed quite a number of games and apps on it and the mobile was able to handle everything I threw at it, with ease. The Zen UI is handled smoothly and never did I notice any lag or stutter. I play a lot of resource intensive games on my mobile and the Zenfone 3 Ultra proved that it has good gaming performance. The speaker in the mobile is of good quality. Asus has included a 5 magnet speaker with special HD sound encoding chips. Be it games, media or telephonic calls, the speaker does a really good job.

Telephony was good on the mobile and I have no issues using the 4G VoLTE SIM on this mobile. Network latching was spot on and the call quality was perfect. The fingerprint sensor was fast and accurate. It unlocks the mobile from the sleep screen instantly if a valid print is detected. Do remember that using the Zenfone 3 Ultra for long duration calls is not ideal. The size and weight of the phone will cause wrist pain in long term. We strongly advice you to use a headset if you are going to talk for long duration. And yes, it looks really awkward in public if you put this phone next to your ear. Brings back all those memories of people using 7″ tablets for phone calls (few years back). The Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra may not have the top specs of other competitors in this price range, but it offers comparable performance with slightly better user experience.

Benchmark Scores

The fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate. It is placed on the front and it is very convenient to operate. The loudspeakers on the mobile is quite powerful and has good quality sound output, thanks to the 5 magnet speaker design. Also the supplied Zenear S headphones are of very good quality. It has good separation between the highs, lows and the mids. I particularly liked the lows as the base was thumpy and racy. It is one of the best earphones that has been shipped with and Android mobile.

Software

The Zen UI as usual comes with a truck load of pre-installed applications and a few can be uninstalled. The base android version is 6.0.1 and it gets all the goodness of Android marshmallow. Asus Zen UI has not gone through major evolution over the years, but it is certainly refined. The UI is a lot smoother and snappier than the earlier versions. Here are about few among the 30 apps that comes preinstalled with the Zen UI.

  • Audio Wizard – Audio presets for different situations
  • Backup – Port data and apps between Asus devices
  • Do it Later – To do reminder that syncs with native applications like Dialer and messenger. I found this really useful. If you miss a call, it goes to your “do-it-later” list and you will reminded to call the number later.
  • My Asus Service Center, ZenFone Care – Helps you with locating a service center and get online support
  • Zentalk – Asus Forum
  • Photo Collage – Make interesting photo collages
  • Mini Movie – Cool movie editor
  • Puffin – a crappy browser
  • SIM city – An useless game
  • Splendid – Must have been part of the settings. This feature lets you adjust the colors of the display
  • WebStorage – Cloud storage
  • Mobile Manager – Cache cleaner, Notification management, privacy and data control, Permissions manager – All in one mobile management app which I found really useful.
Zen Apps, Kids Mode, Lite Mode
Zen Apps, Kids Mode, Lite Mode

While most people may not like pre-installed software, there are a set of people who are not going to download apps from app stores. For them, these pre-installed apps would make a lot of sense. Some of these apps can be uninstalled and can be re-installed from the app store. The Zen UI supports a whole bunch of touch gestures and motion gestures. There are plenty of options under themes to customize and personalize the mobile as per your liking. The Easy mode is a mode with a minimal set of large icons that are easy to accessed. This is an accessible theme for senior citizens and people with special needs. Kids mode is my favorite mode. I can choose a set of apps that my kids can access and put the mobile on Kids mode and hand it over to them. I can also block calls while in Kids mode. Kids mode can also control the play time duration for the kids. This mode may also make you the most hated parent, but its a need of the hour.

Device Manager
Device Manager

The Zen UI is a very useful and functional skin. It is a maximal design with loads of features and pre-installed applications. For people who love minimalism, there must be a minimal mode. But I am not complaining a lot, because the UI is sensible and if you are not liking it, you can uninstall all the apps and go for a minimal launcher like Nova, which is exactly what I did. The hardware is optimized for the software and the interaction is not laggy. Zen UI on ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra is smooth, snappy and functional.

Camera

The mobile has some major upgrades in terms of camera. The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra has a 23MP sensor at the back and an 8 MP front facing camera that can auto-focus. The primary camera can record videos at 4k resolution, but only at 24 fps in 4k, and with 30fps in HD or Full HD mode. The front lens has a wide aperture of f/2.0 with 84˚ field of view. The rear camera has tritech auto focus(2nd-gen laser auto-focus, phase detection auto-focus and continuous auto-focus). The focus modes are chosen by the camera based on the situation and the subject. Zenfone 3 Ultra has 4 axis 4 stops optical image stabilization for images and 3 axis electronic image stabilization for videos.The camera UI has gone through a facelift. It is sleeker, simpler and faster. The app launches instantly and on the face of it, it has all the required controls with intuitive icons. A simple tap on the shutter icon or the volume buttons can be used to click a picture. The UI supports touch to focus and long touch locks the focus and you get controls to adjust the exposure compensation. Together with a sensible UI, the camera gives a pleasant user experience. The camera is fast and intuitive to use. Time between shots are very less and this camera is a breeze to use. Apart from the auto mode, there are 19 interesting modes to explore photography on the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra.

  1. Manual mode – gives you fine control on your shots. It can control, focusing, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and white balance.
  2. HDR Pro – Though the auto mode has Auto HDR, HDR mode give you enhanced HDR shots
  3. Beautification – as the name suggests, this mode tends to enhance skin smoothing
  4. Super Resolution – interlaces pixels and converts the 16 MP shot to a 50 MP shot. For best results, turn off optimization under the image settings
  5. Children – Scans for children in the frame and automatically clicks pictures
  6. Low light – Owl mode is a low resolution shot used to click better detailed pictures under low light
  7. QR Code – scans QR code
  8. Night mode – Clicks pictures with slow shutter speed at low light, without compromising on the pixel count
  9. Depth of field – Clicks a series of pictures with multiple focus distance and lets you control the depth of focus
  10. Effects – adds interesting effects to your shots
  11. Selfie – Clicks selfies with the primary camera
  12. GIF animation – Clicks a series of pictures and converts them into animated GIFs
  13. Panorama – As the name suggests
  14. Miniature – Clicks a picture emulating a miniature
  15. Time rewind – Clicks a series of pictures and lets you choose the right frame
  16. Smart remove – removes any moving object from the background
  17. All smiles – Clicks pictures only when everyone in the frame smiles
  18. Slow motion – Shoots slow motion videos, but there is not frame rate control
  19. Time lapse – Shoots videos of time-lapse and the time interval between shots can be from 1 second to 5 seconds

There is one feature which many may miss as it is hidden. Long press on the shutter will click a burst of images. These burst of images can be combined to form a single image, which I found to be a better quality. The images can also be converted to GIF image. Alternatively, you can choose one of them and discard the rest.

Check out the camera samples below

I found the Manual mode, the best mode to click pictures on ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra. In the auto mode, the colors saturation is faded, but the details are preserved. The shots have amazing depth of field The exposure is on the higher side and the dynamic range is less. All of this shortcomings can be controlled with the manual mode, if you know what you are doing. The optical image stabilization helps to a large extent in clicking sharp images. The performance of the camera is great under low light conditions as well. Asus camera performance has always been satisfactory and the Zenfone 3 Ultra does not disappoint me. It is an exciting camera to be used by both amateurs and professionals.

Battery

The Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra has a huge 4600 mAh batter, under its huge hood. It supports Quick Charge 3.0. It can also reverse charge another mobile or device, from it USB-C port. The reverse charging cable is not provided in the box. The mobile lasted for 7 hours and 5 min from 80 to 12% on my continuous video loop test. On a regular day’s usage, the mobile lasts for more than a day with almost 30-40% of charge left at the end of the day. It could also give you a screen on time of about 6 hours. Battery life is good, if not impressive.

Verdict

The ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra is not a phone nor a phablet. It ideally is a tablet. You cannot call it anything else given that it comes with a 6.8″ display. If you approach the Zenfone 3 Ultra as a tablet, you will love it. It is snappy, does not heat up, has very good battery life, can be carried in pocket most of the time.The camera performance is excellent and the battery can charge really fast when you use a Quick Charge 3.0 adapter or even with a Quick Charge 2.0 adapter. Consider using the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra as a tablet, use it like how you use a tablet and you will be happy if you also forget about the price tag.

If you consider the ASUS Zenfone 3 Ultra purely as a phone, you cannot operate it using one hand, you cannot keep it in your pocket while riding a bike or while seated (especially when you are wearing jeans). If you keep it in pocket of a formal trouser, it will stick out making it easy for thieves to pull out and run. Hold it up against your ear and talk for exteneded period and you will get wrist pain. Another problem is the price. At Rs.50,000/-, ASUS has placed the Zenfone 3 Ultra out of reach of most prospective buyers. Phone like the Xiaomi Mi Max, Samsung C9 Pro are much smaller. I am against using anything more than 5.7″ as a daily driver phone. If you want a big phone, stick to those with 5.7″ or smaller display size form factors. If you really want a phone with 6″ or higher display size, wait a bit and we are going to get these bezel less phones that will redefine the display size that is packed into phones. For example, the Xiaomi Mi Mix with 6.4″ display is way smaller than the Zenfone 3 Ultra and LG G6 with 5.7″ display is smaller than Zenfone 3 with 5.2″ display. We expect ASUS to bring out a bezel less phone in the future and that is when you should consider a big screen Zenphone.

Design - 7
Performance - 7.8
Camera - 8.4
User Interface - 7.3
Battery - 7.6
Value for Money - 5.7
Display - 8.3

7.4

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About bandla

Co-Founder of GadgetDetail, gadget lover, addicted to American TV shows, fan of Ferrari and Federer, Bengalurian, FOOD LOVER, multiplex hater.

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