ASUS ExpertBook B9

Last year, we reviewed the critically-acclaimed ZenFone 2. It is by far one of the better smartphones of yesteryear, considering that the price is at about RM1,200. This year, ASUS is stepping up their game with the ZenFone 3. Today, we’ll be taking a lot at the ZE552KL – the 5.5-inch version.

At first glance, the ZenFone 3 box is radically different from its predecessor – featuring only the a black with the “ZenFone 3” branding hotstamped in gold right at the middle.

Acer Nitro 5

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Unboxing the ZenFone 3 reveals that ASUS is generous enough to include a pair of in-ear monitors with 3 different eartip sizes too.

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Unlike what Huawei included for the Nexus 6P, ASUS only gave one USB cable, and they don’t sell any Type-C cable themselves. More on this later.

[nextpage title=”Design”]

Recently, the ASUS ZenFone 3 won the Good Design Award. That surely must mean something, wouldn’t it? One thing I realize that the ZenFone 3 has zero visible screws. Maybe that’s the reason why it won the award?

The ZenFone 3 has a glass front and bank, which is what I like to refer to as “glass sandwich”. Both front and back are actually 2.5D glasses (with curved edge) and wraps around the rounded metal sides pretty nicely. The ZenFone 3 feels like it’s perfect as a skipping rock – just because of how flat it is with those rounded edges.

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Personally speaking, I have mixed feelings toward glass sandwich smartphones. Firstly is because of how fragile it is, secondly is because of how slippery it can be, and lastly is how it can be scratched easily.

Despite the fact that smartphones always tout that they use Corning Gorilla Glass, it’s still glass and glasses can still get scratches much more easily compared to a metal phone, or at least in my experience. Sure, it’s comfortable, but one slip off the table or hand might be the most expensive drop ever. Together with oleophobic coating, it might look better, but generally causes more slip-ups.

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For a smartphone that is advertised to have “Sapphire Black” colour, I found that it predominantly looks black. In moderately-lit conditions though, the phone does show off ASUS’s signature concentric circle design alongside with its blue colour at certain angles.

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ASUS took a much more simple design cue this time around, with all the buttons placed on the right side, and the SIM/SD card tray on the left. There’s only a 3.5mm audio jack at the top and one USB-C port at the bottom, flanked by a microphone at the left and speaker on the right.

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At the back is where the humongous camera bump is found alongside with the fingerprint sensor. I think because of the large slab of glass at the back, that camera bump is necessary to lift the phone up at an angle to prevent scratches. More on this later.

[nextpage title=”Connectivity”]

We’ve seen the wholeness of supported connectivity standards on the previous ZenFone flagship, the ZenFone 2. It was the best one of yesteryear flagship smartphones, with support on GPS/GLONASS/QZSS/SBAS/BDS positioning systems. However, this year around the ZenFone 3 supports GPS/A-GPS/GLONASS/BDSS. Throughout my usage though, the GPS locks in spot-on instantly.

Then comes the SIM cards. The ZenFone 3 still supports dual-SIM card, but this time with a much needed upgrade and a little twist. Opening the tray up reveals a potential deal-breaker for many people.

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As you can see, the first SIM card slot is a micro SIM card, and the second one is a combo slot. What that means is that there is no possible way to use both SIM cards and the microSD card together. It’s a bummer, I know.

The twist here is that both SIM cards now support 3G/4G LTE bands too, unlike the ZenFone 2 where the second SIM card only supports 2G.

Currently, there’s a surge in the need of a fingerprint sensor nowadays, and yes – the ZenFone 3 does have a fingerprint sensor, and it touts a 0.2 second unlock with up to 5 finger recognition, and can scan fingers accurately at whatever angle.

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However, the only thing that the ZenFone 3 doesn’t have is NFC. Now I know many smartphones don’t have NFC anymore, but I think that it’s a feature that’s just nice to have whenever needed.

[nextpage title=”Display”]

Let’s talk about the screen. it’s a 5.5-inch IPS display with full 1080p resolution, and has a serious 600 nits brightness. I’ve used the ZenFone 3 under direct sunlight before, and it can still be completely visible, yet hurts my eyes too. It’s just way too bright at full brightness.

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Apologies for the ejector tool.

In comparison with its predecessor, the ZenFone 3 has a contoured 2.5D edge around all its sides, covering the entire front and back of the ZenFone 3. The earpiece is also contoured. When it comes to the capactive keys at the bottom of the phone is covered with that glass. Do keep in mind that if the screen is broken (probably the way will break together too), it’ll be very expensive to replace, because everything is just integrated together.

Just be extra careful with the ZenFone 3.

[nextpage title=”Camera”]

As what I’ve been told that the ZenFone 3 is built with photography in mind, and ASUS included a lot of technology for its camera alone. A 16MP Sony IMX298 sensor, 6P Largan lens with f/2.0 aperture, OIS and EIS, and protected with sapphire glass. On the software side of things, it has something called TriTech autofocusing technology, which results in a quick 0.03 second focus time. It is a combination of continuous AF, PDAF, and laser AF together. Not sure about its specifics, but it sure does work really well.

Enough talking, let’s see some camera samples.

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To be honest, I think that the camera is the biggest improvement from the previous generation. With the latest TriTech autofocus and a brand new 16MP Sony sensor, I think ASUS really stepped up their game this time. Pictures turned out to be really fantastic, and it took me only about 5 seconds to take these shots.

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HDR on the other hand, seems like it needs a tad bit of adjustment. Throughout my test I tried to force enable HDR and force disable HDR, but I see no difference. Pictures turned out to be very similar to the naked eye, if not identical.

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Overall, I can say confidently that I’m pretty happy with the picture quality that comes out of the ZenFone 3. I took all these photos in full auto mode, actually. Colour reproduction is on point in my opinion, but images are rather dark. Cranking the exposure a little higher will be really nice.

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Just needs a little more exposure. When it comes to camera modes though, the ZenFone 3 doesn’t disappoint at all. It comes packed with many picture modes – ranging from manual, HDR Pro, Low Light, Depth of Field, GIF Animation, Smart Remove, Slow Motion, Time Rewind, and  my favourite of all – Super Resolution.

This time around, the Super Resolution works the same. It still takes 4 different images and stitch them together to become a humongous image. However, with the ZenFone 3’s brand new 16MP sensor, it makes up a 64MP picture. Take a look at the end result!

From what I can see, Super Resolution on the ZenFone 3 can create much more sharper images at in less time. I’m really surprised how much the camera has improved in just a year.

We did mention that it has a piece of sapphire glass to cover the entire camera. It is indeed necessary to use sapphire, because the camera bummp is just humongous. Without a case, putting  the phone facing up would be disastrous without the bump. It helps to elevate the phone and prevent scratching the glass back.

Yes, the 3.5mm audio jack is still there.
Yes, the 3.5mm audio jack is still there.

[nextpage title=”Software”]

ASUS is seriously trying to improve their user experience with the all new ZenUI 3.0. I found out quite few improvements here and these, and they really do improve in terms of eye candy.

The ZenFone 3 has some of the finest hardware out there, and ASUS is leveraging on that to improve the user experience. Introducing some real-time animation icons for both weather and clock widgets. They’re dynamic, and it changes based on the data gathered. Then, there’s motion wallpaper, where the wallpaper will slightly move back and forth when the phone is moved around.

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However, despite how much ZenUI 3.0 betters its previous version, the amount of bloatware is still there. 3rd party apps can be uninstall, and some of the ASUS apps can either be disabled or uninstalled too. Overall, the bloat management this time is a lot better than my previous experience with ZenUI.

In some ways, I feel that ZenUI needs some sort of overhaul. Changing app icons ala the CyanogenMod theme engine method is possible, but it’s another untold feature. There are many other hidden menus that pop up everywhere that I find real annoying too, like the “Tap to manage notifications” on the notification bar itself. There is no way to hide that. The quick settings menu still has some ridiculous “must have 8 items” limitations too. To be honest, ZenUI 2.0 and ZenUI 3.0 has more under-the-hood changes than UI changes. The user experience is still pretty much the same as before.

ZenUI has some power management app too. This ties in very well with the next section – performance.

[nextpage title=”Performance”]

Comes equipped with Snapdragon 625 chipset with 64-bit octo-core processor that is clocked at 2.0GHz and Adreno 506 graphics, the ZenFone 3 is pretty much set for gold out of the box. This is because the ZenFone 3 uses the FinFET process. We’ve explained it in detailed here, so check it out. The version I have here for review is the ZE552KL, and it has 4GB of LPDDR3 RAM and 64GB of eMCP storage. Let’s not forget that it has a 1080p screen.

There will be 2 sets of benchmarks for the ZenFone 3, because there is a power option to change the power management from “normal” to “performance”, which presumably has a higher performance output. Let’s start off with Epic Citadel as usual.

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As we can see from these two screenshots, both power modes aren’t really different other than a couple of FPS. If the average FPs is struggling to climb over the 30FPS mark at “normal” power mode, then switching over to the “performance” mode might be more worthwhile. But as the ZenFone 3 stands tall and mighty above the 40FPS mark in Epic Citadel, I don’t see the point of “performance” mode at all.

On Vellamo however, the performance difference is pretty significant throughout all the 3 tests.

The grey ones are on "normal" power mode, and the white ones are in "performance" mode.
The grey ones are on “normal” power mode, and the white ones are in “performance” mode.

This is a little strange. While the scores did increase, I felt absolutely zero difference while using the ZenFone 3 on both modes.

After doing multiple repeated benchmarks, I quickly jumped over to CPU-Z to look at the thermals. To my surprise, the phone is well below 45℃ mark all the time. The hottest area of the smartphone doesn’t even feel warm to the touch. That’s just fantastic!

[nextpage title=”Battery”]

I should repeat again that the ZenFone 3 is manufactured using the FinFET process which is explained here. This is very important, as it is a literal game changer when it comes to smartphone battery lives.

While the ZenFone 3 only has a 3,000mAh battery, it lasts at least double the duration of its Intel-based predecessor. Thanks to FinFET, the ZenFone 3 can actually last for the entire day without any problems. I played Pokemon Go and Angry Birds 2 throughout the day, and it survived. Words can’t describe how much battery it saved, so just take a look at this comparison.

The above is the comparison between the ZenFone 3 (left) and its predecessor (right). The difference is just insane! On that day itself, I tried to drain the battery, but it’s just way too difficult. Even after 12 hours of usage, the battery barely dropped below 50%.

Job well done to ASUS on this!

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The included 5V 2A charger that has a USB-A port.

Then comes the charger. I guess ASUS took a different approach when it comes to compatibility. Instead of including a USB-C charger, ASUS gave us a USB-A charger instead. Everything is done with only one USB-A to USB-C cable. Nexus 6P on the other hand, includes a USB-C charger alongside with a USB-C to USB-C cable, and another USB-A to USB-C cable.

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However, this might be the reason why the ZenFone 3 doesn’t have any faster charging beyond 5V at 2A. As far as I can test, the ZenFone 3 doesn’t support quick charging, be it the usual 9V 2A or any other forms of faster charging.

[nextpage title=”Wrap up”]

The ZenFone 3 is certainly a beautiful phone and there are no visible screws at all. It just feels fantastic on my palms. Performance and battery life is great thanks to FinFET. The display used here is definitely a lot more vivid than its predecessor. Camera is brilliant too.

The only single problem I have with the ZenFone 3 is its grip – or lack there of. IT can literally slide off any surface, like off the table if it’s at a slight angle. I have to be really careful while handling the ZenFone 3, just because I’m afraid it’ll slip off my hand.

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Other than that, there’s are no issues to complain about. The ZenFone 3 is just great.

As for the price, ASUS’s official online store sells it for RM1,499 or RM1,699, depending on what screen size and battery you want. For some people, the price might be a little steep, so be smart. Get it here from Lazada at only RM1,169 for the 5.2-inch version. For the larger 5.5-inch version, get it here for less than RM1,500.

If you’re looking to get a brand new smartphone with the latest generation of hardware, look no further. The ZenFone 3 looks and feels expensive, but it’s actually a smartphone that doesn’t cost much. I’m sure that you won’t regret your purchase on the ZenFone 3.

To answer one more question – should you upgrade from the ZenFone 2 series? I think the answer is a definite yes, especially if you’re using an Intel-powered ZenFone 2.


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