Asus Zenfone 3 Ultra Review: The phone that’s trying to be a tablet

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Manufacturers these days had to try really hard to make their phone stand out in the massive sea of smart devices out there. That’s what Asus did to its Zenfone 3 line-up. Instead of just releasing 1 device, there are 5 different devices for you to choose from. The 5 devices – the base Zenfone 3, Zenfone 3 Laser, Zenfone 3 Max, Zenfone 3 Ultra and Zenfone 3 Deluxe are all available in Malaysia now, and all of them have totally different prices, different standing in the market, different designs and different purposes. You can’t just say that you own a Zenfone 3. In this review, we’ll be looking at the largest and most expensive Zenfone in the line-up – the Zenfone 3 Ultra. Priced at RM2599 (which is the same as the more premium Zenfone 3 Deluxe ZS570KL), should you be choosing big screen over higher specs?

Unboxing

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Following Asus’s footsteps in making the Zenfone product line more premium and up-market, the packaging that came with the Zenfone 3 Ultra is pretty interesting. The dark blue box with gold lettering does give it a premium feel. We’ve definitely never come across such an interesting packaging before. Opening the top, the large phone is presented on the top along with some documentations. To access the accessories, there’s a drawer that you have to pull out. In there, there’s a USB-C cable, USB wall adapter and a pair of premium earphones that comes in a nice carrying case. Manufacturers can learn a lot from this type of packaging for their flagship devices.

Design

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First of all, you’ll probably need some time to let that huge phone sink in. It measures 94mm wide and 186mm tall, and 6.8mm thick. It’s more of a hybrid – a combination of smartphone and tablet, instead of just being a smartphone. It’s designed specifically for a better media experience. It’s hard to fit it in the palm of our hands, and its barely usable one-handed. You definitely need two hands to operate the phone, especially in landscape mode.

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The design of the Zenfone 3 Ultra is pretty premium. Even though it has its own unique design compared to its other siblings in the Zenfone 3 line-up, it follows the premium styling theme that Asus has implemented on its smartphones in order to make it more upmarket. Even though the choice of material used is pretty much the same with its Zenfone 3 Deluxe sibling or every other smartphone out there with front glass and metal back, it feels much more solid and well weighted for such a big phone. With the size and weight in mind, its probably advisable to give the phone a good protection when you first get it with tempered glass screen protector and a case as it has higher chance of accidentally slipping out of your hand due to its weight and slippery back metal.

The front is dominated by a 6.8-inch Full HD display. There’s hardly any bezels on either side, and sometimes it will pick up unnecessary touch input especially when trying to operate the phone one handed, and it can be really annoying. It’s so huge that we’ve no idea what to call it – a phone or a tablet. On the top there’s a 8-megapixel front facing camera, along with an earpiece and couple of sensors. For the Zenfone 3 Ultra, Asus hasn’t implemented on-screen Android navigations, and unlike it’s siblings, it has a physical home button with a blazing fast and accurate fingerprint reader built-in. On each side there’s touch capacitive navigation buttons for back and opening up recent tasks.

There’s nothing located on the left side of the device, and the right side houses 2 ejectable slots and a conveniently located power button. The primary slot is for a nanoSIM slot, and the secondary slot is for either a secondary microSIM card or microSD storage expansion. This kind of setup is getting more and more common among most smartphones out there. If you’re looking for a phone which can run both SIM cards and still able to still put in microSD card, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The 3.5mm earphone jack is located on the top along with an IR blaster which allows control over devices with IR receiver. The bottom is where the USB-C port lives for data transfer and charging. On either sides of the port are a pair of stereo speakers. It’s loud, clear and crisp and sufficient as a media device, even though we’d like to see a somewhat similar stereo speaker setup like the Apple iPhone 7 Plus, which works better when playing audio in both landscape and portrait mode. Nevertheless, it’s a good speaker setup and it works along with software to improve it further.

The top left corner of the back is where the 23-megapixel camera lives, along with a laser focus sensor and a two-tone LED flash. The volume up buttons are located at the back as well, which is totally different from its Zenfone 3 siblings. The rear design is rather plain and the volume buttons really break it apart.

The phone comes in 3 different colours: Glacier Silver (which is more like a champagne gold), rose gold and titanium grey. The latter one also has its front glass in black instead of white which is found on the other 2 colours.

Specs and performance

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The Zenfone 3 Ultra is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 652 processor. It’s an octa-core unit made up of 2 quad-core processors, one of which is clocked at 1.8GHz and 1.4GHz. The variant that we get here in Malaysia does come with 4GB of RAM.

In real world performance, it performs well to daily tasks without any hassle, even though at times it might slow down a little performing relatively easy task. Step up to more heavy tasks and you’ll start to notice it’s weaknesses. It struggles to handle heavy tasks such as heavy gaming, which totally defeats the whole purpose of a media device. When all 8 cores are fired up, the phone tends to overheat, and you can easily feel it with the metal body. The 4GB RAM runs well along with the CPU to improve the user experience.

Using Geekbench 4 to measure the performance figures of the Zenfone 3 Ultra, single-core score is at 1457, and multi-core score is at 4541. Both numbers are quite close to the Honor 8 and Huawei P9, but still lacks behind other phones at the price point.

In Malaysia, the Zenfone 3 Ultra comes in 2 flavours: 32GB and 64GB of storage, and you can expand that with a microSD card, which Asus says it will take up to 2TB, even though you’ll have to sacrifice using second SIM card on this thing. Other connectivity options include a dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, 4G LTE and Bluetooth 4.2. It does not have NFC, but it does have IR blaster on the top of the device.

Display

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The main purpose of this phone is to deliver better entertainment experience, hence the huge 6.8-inch display. Asus claimed that this phone has 79% screen-to-body ratio. But, nothing onwards in as impressive as they claimed. It’s still only a Full HD display, with a screen density of only 324 pixels-per-inch. Let’s be honest – its not sharp. While it looks fine at a distance, you’ll still notice the lack of detail. It’s pretty similar to the Apple iPhone 7.

The Zenfone 3 Ultra only comes with a IPS display, although as an entertainment device, we would like to see a Super AMOLED panel as found on its more premium sibling- the Zenfone 3 Deluxe. The IPS display in the Zenfone 3 Ultra seems to produce a darker colour, and thanks to the less sharp display, its colour reproduction is rather poor and less vivid. There are many software aids and settings to help adjust the colour, but often they have little to no effect.

Camera performance

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The Zenfone 3 Ultra shares the same sensor as some of its other siblings. The sensor is sourced from Sony, and it’s a full 23-megapixel unit with f/2.0 aperture. It works well in daylight or sufficient lighting, with vivid colours and sharp detail. To be fair, it does not really require such a high megapixel sensor. The camera starts to struggle when it comes to indoor lighting or low-light condition. It tends to blow the exposure too high making everything a mess. With that, autofocus also struggles in those conditions, often having a hard time to figure out what’s going on. A simple tap on the object will kind of solve the problem, but its always best to go full manual mode.

The camera is accompanied by lots of flagship features. The main feature is its laser focusing, which allows accurate focus on a near object by measuring the distance between the sensor and the object. Other features such as HDR, 4-axis optical image stabilization and dual-tone LED flash are also thrown in to complete the full camera experience. The 4-axis optical image stabilization works really well with the aid of digital image stabilization.

The Zenfone 3 Ultra will only shoot videos up to full HD resolution (1920 X 1080). We’re disappointed to not find 4K video recording in here, especially at this price point. While the video produced is sharp and clear, colour reproduction is slightly lack behind, and it has the same problem when the lighting is not sufficient. Plus, it will only record 30 frames-per-second videos, which is lackluster.

The front facing 8-megapixel camera with same aperture of f/2.0 as the rear camera works well. Although colour is vivid and details are spot on, noise level is quite high when things start to get a little darker. It also comes with software enhancements to “beautify” your face by removing unnecessary details and it can even do chin thinning.

To view sample photos and videos shot on the Zenfone 3 Ultra, click here.

Software

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The Zenfone 3 Ultra comes with Android 6.0 Marshmallow right out the box, and it includes Asus’s Zen UI skin on top. Not only it includes lots of software customizations and design tweaks, it also comes with huge amount of bloatware. Right out of the box you’re presented with a huge amount of apps, where some of them can be removed. There’s just too many different apps that does almost the same job, and it’s not very convenient. Asus should’ve just let the users choose what to install during initial setup. The heavy skins and huge amount of bloatware can be blamed for the slow UI response. The overall UI also looks dated and in need of some new livery, even though its pretty familiar and works the same way with vanilla Androids.

Battery life

With such a big phone designed for battery consuming tasks, it packs a massive 4600mAh battery. With standard usage, we’re able to push it to 30 hours on a single charge. Asus claimed that a single charge is enough for 12 hours of constant video playback. With such a huge battery, Quick Charging is necessary in this case. Using the included or equivalent 18W charger through the USB-C port, it will charge from 0 to 60% in 45 minutes.

Conclusion

Even though we’re pretty disappointed by its specs and its capability to be an ultimate entertainment machine like what Asus liked to claim it to be, the Zenfone 3 Ultra is a pretty good phone in general, except the fact that it’s carrying an oversized screen all the time. It has premium materials, solid construction and good battery life. If you’re looking for a better performed device or devices with similar usage, we recommend to jump straight to 8-inch tablets which can be a better entertainment device.

Recap:
Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 Processor, 4x 1.8GHz, 4x 1.4GHz, octa-core
4GB RAM, 32/64GB internal storage, microSD storage up to 2TB
6.8-inch IPS display, 1080 X 1920 resolution
Dual-SIM, dual-standby
23-megapixel rear facing camera, 1080p video @ 30 frames-per-second
8-megapixel front facing camera
4600mAh non-removable battery, quick charge 3.0
Blazing fast and accurate fingerprint reader

Pros:
Use of premium materials
Fast and accurate fingerprint reader
Good battery life
Good camera (in sufficient lighting)
Solid build quality

Cons:
Huge display is a bulk to carry around
Size of phone is huge
Low specs for its price
Display colour not accurate and not sharp
Lackluster user interface