e year 2016 is when Asus finally decided to give its ZenFones the premium treatment. Its ZenFone 3 line-up marks an important chapter in the company’s phone roadmap, for it represents a major shift in its modus operandi. Asus, a company that has largely focused on bringing value for money to consumers, is still looking to play the value for money game, but it also wants to offer buyers the kind of premium experience they want (and deserve) in this day and age. After all, rival companies are doing just that.
Hardware and pricing do matter, but in 2016 design is also a key differentiator. It can be a deal-breaker for some, especially when someone sees a “more premium” phone being offered at a relatively lower price point.
Asus launched the original ZenFone Max in India last year, its USP being its massive 5,000mAh battery and a ‘Max’ moniker that left little to the imagination. Sadly, the Max was all about the battery, and as a result everything else took a back seat. It was quickly followed by the ZenFone Max 2016, a similar phone with a faster processor and more memory. The focus was still solely on battery life. Both the phones were however odd chunks of plastic with no regard to ergonomics.
The company has now launched the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL), or more precisely, the ZenFone Max 3.0. In line with the company’s new strategy, the ZenFone 3 Max boasts of premium design, good hardware specs and an attractive price tag. The focus, as expected, is still solely on battery life.
Design and build quality
The ZenFone 3 Max, unlike the original Max, comes with an all-metal body. Asus has taken a lot longer to give its ZenFones the all-metal treatment as compared to rival companies. It is now possible to buy an all-metal phone at just Rs 7,000. Asus has eventually got there, but in its own sweet time.
More importantly, the ZenFone 3 Max has moved past the ghastly chunkiness of the previous Max phones. It is now slim (8.3mm) and weighs in at just 175 gram, which is a rare feat for an Asus ZenFone. Also gone are its ever so loathsome chunky bezels. Thanks to a 2.25mm slim bezel line, the ZenFone 3 Max boasts of a pretty impressive 73 per cent screen-to-body ratio. All in all, the new phone from Asus can stand neck to neck with phones like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, the Meizu M3 Note and the Lenovo Vibe K5 Note in terms of all-round design and build quality.
The design may not be the most original — in fact, the phone has little undertones of all of the above-mentioned phones — but the phone has just the right amount of Asus-esque elements to ensure it’s not a copycat. The phone, especially from the behind, can be easily identified as an Asus phone: a premium Asus phone. It really helps that the ZenFone 3 Max is an equally well-built smartphone as well.
In line with the company’s new strategy, the ZenFone 3 Max boasts of premium design, good hardware specs and an attractive price tag. The focus, as expected, is still solely on battery life
Gradual curves and rounded corners form the epicentre and help ergonomics, while 2.5D curved glass on the front looks pleasing to the eyes. But, it’s an all-metal phone. It’s not the slipperiest phones in the world, but you’ll have to get used to all that extra smoothness on-board. The power button and the volume rocker on the right are well-built and offer good tactile feedback. A hybrid card slot meanwhile rests on the left.
The ZenFone 3 Max isn’t without its faults. The fingerprint scanner on the rear — which Asus claims can unlock the phone in just 0.3 seconds — is slow and definitely one of the most inaccurate ones around. Not once was I able to unlock the phone in one try, and without applying a little bit of extra force on to it. Secondly, the physical capacitive keys on the bottom of the display are non-backlit and can be hard to tell, especially in the dark.
Also read: Asus ZenFone 3 Max: Full specs, top features, India price and everything you need to know
The ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) comes with a 5.5-inch FullHD IPS display with a 1080×1920 pixel resolution roughly translating into 401 ppi pixel density.
The screen gets really bright and ambient light sensor works as it should, which is a big step up from the original Max. When coupled with its excellent viewing angles — along with its mostly non-reflective nature – that phone metes out a display that works really well even when you’re outside and on the go. There’s a catch though. Even though the screen of the ZenFone 3 Max appears to be brighter than say the Xiaomi Redmi 3S Prime (which has a meagre 720p display) colours aren’t the most accurate. They seem dull and lifeless — lacking in contrast — in comparison. There’s also no option to manually tinker with the phone’s colour saturation this time round.
The ZenFone 3 Max runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with the company’s ZenUI 3.0 on top. The user interface is heavily bloated, but thankfully receives all the key Android Marshmallow features like Now on Tap, improved memory management and more. There seems to be no word on Nougat availability for the phone for now.
Although there’s some heavy skinning, Asus has stuck with the good-old formula of ease-of-use and some thoughtful customisations through its UI which is nice. Virtually every aspect of Google’s Android OS gets a fresh coat of paint, but it’s mostly for the good.
Even though Zen UI lacks the simplicity of stock Android, it is one of the better UIs out there in terms of ease of use. It also feels slightly more polished in comparison to say Lenovo’s Vibe UI.
A number of customisation options that are available are pretty useful. The ability to tinker with the app drawer (as well as the home screen) to suite your needs is worth mentioning. So is the option to selectively lock apps for additional privacy. There’s also an option for screen pinning to keep the current screen in view until you unpin. A home-brewed theme engine — along with additional icon packs — meanwhile helps personalise your experience.
The ZenUI on-board the ZenFone 3 Max isn’t the smoothest of UIs around, however. The phone seems to be lacking in necessary optimisation which results in frequent lags and delays while navigating between home screens and opening and closing of apps.
Also, the phone’s loaded with unwanted apps, some of which cannot be uninstalled. The fact that some of these (Asus proprietary) apps keep updating by the millisecond and keep asking for permission to do this and do that, all the time, can be frustrating.
Performance and battery life
The ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) is powered by a 1.4GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 processor coupled with Adreno 505 GPU and 3GB of RAM. It comes with 32GB of internal memory which is further expandable by up to 128GB via a microSD hybrid card slot. The dualSIM phone supports 4G LTE (VoLTE-ready) and USB OTG. There’s no NFC though. Not bad, not bad at all.
Sadly, the ZenFone 3 Max isn’t able to make the best use of its “good” hardware specs and instead leaves you asking for more on almost every front. Basic tasks are handled (mostly) well, which means you can make phone calls, text and WhatsApp, watch movies, listen to music, browse some Internet and also play less demanding games on it, rather at ease, most of the time.
But it is prone to lag or stutter every once in a while, especially when being used for longer periods. Lags or stutter exist even while navigating between home screens and switching between apps. Opening and closing of apps is also accompanied by an odd delay or two. More demanding games like Asphalt 8: Airborne meanwhile are nearly unplayable at medium and maxed-out settings.
Improper software optimisation seems to be the one and only culprit here as the Xiaomi Redmi 3S Prime, which has the exact set of hardware, is faster and smoother than the ZenFone 3 Max in almost all scenarios. Phones like the Coolpad Note 3 Lite, the Meizu M3 Note and the Lenovo Vibe K5 Note also appear marginally faster than the ZenFone 3 Max.
Also read: Xiaomi Redmi 3S Prime review: Xiaomi’s greatest hit
On the plus side, the ZenFone 3 Max doesn’t heat up. It simply never gets too hot to handle, no matter how you push it. But then the Redmi 3S Prime also runs cool as a cucumber most of the time.
The mono speaker vent on the bottom edge of the phone meanwhile churns out average at best audio. It gets loud but there is some distortion at peak volume. Phone calls made with the Max 3.0 are of acceptable quality and we did not encounter any odd call drops on our review unit.
The ZenFone 3 Max is Asus’ attempt to glamorise the battery-centric Max line-up, and a very thoughtful one at that. Asus seems to have gotten at least some of the things right
Coming to the main USP of the phone, the ZenFone 3 Max uses a 4,100mAh battery which is non-removable. It’s a step down from its predecessor phones but a little compromise to make a slim all-metal smartphone in the process is understandable. Still, battery life in a word remains to be as fantastic as ever. It’s not as stellar as the previous version. But it is close. While heavy usage — that saw us playing lots of games, 1080p video playback, phone calls, web browsing and managing multiple social media accounts — gave us close to one full day (24 hours), mixed usage gave us close to two days, on the device. A more generalised usage should see most users sail through two to two and a half days effortlessly on the ZenFone 3 Max. In addition, the Max 3.0 also boasts of outstanding standby time, and loses almost negligible charge when you keep it untouched overnight.
You can also use the phone to charge other phones via OTG. The phone ships with an OTG adapter in the box for the purpose.
While battery life is phenomenal, it’s disappointing that the phone doesn’t support a fast charging technology and does not ship with a fast charger. Instead, it ships with a regular charger and takes an awfully long time to charge completely.
The ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) sports a 16-megapixel camera on the rear with f/2.0 aperture, Phase Detection Autofocus and laser auto-focus, Electronic Image Stabilisation (for video) and dual-LED (dual-tone) flash. On the front, there is an 8-megapixel camera with f/2.0 aperture.
Photos clicked using its rear camera in good lighting come out well, with good detail and colours which are mostly true to source. Dynamic range is fairly good, but sometimes there are metering (overexposure) issues. But the camera is good for only subjects that are not moving. This is because, even though the phone is pretty quick to focus, there’s an odd delay or two, or shutter lag accompanied with every shot. This means, if your subject is on the move, you’re most definitely bound to get blurry photos.
At the same time, some pixilation is observed while zooming into the images clicked using the ZenFone 3 Max, which would be more pronounced when you view them on a big screen. Still, these photos have enough detail for you to share on social media.
In tricky and low light, the phone’s built-in night mode helps achieve slightly better results, although, more often than not photos clicked in such situations have lots of noise and some metering issues.
The phone’s front 8MP shooter, meanwhile, clicks pretty-detailed selfies, even in tricky light.
Should you buy it?
The ZenFone 3 Max is Asus’ attempt to glamorise the battery-centric Max line-up, and a very thoughtful one at that. Asus seems to have gotten at least some of the things right, especially in the way the phone looks and feels in the hands, but at the end of the day, it’s still a battery-centric phone. The ZenFone 3 Max fits well inside that portfolio. Then again, everything else takes a backseat, just like it did in the previous Max phones.
Don’t mind me, the new Max 3.0 looks very good on paper, but it fails to impress in real-world usage. Its display lacks punch, and so does it is all-round performance. You can still forgive its washed-out colour palette, but performance issues are just unforgivable, especially when there are so many better phones out there. The phone has a fantastic battery life, but it doesn’t ship with a fast charger in the box, which is again a bummer.
Then there’s the pricing. The ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) will cost buyers Rs 17,999. That’s right. It’s mighty expensive and easily forgettable. Especially, when a phone like the Redmi 3S Prime offers so much more (even equally good battery life, at just about Rs 9,000) in actual usage. Not to forget, phones like the Moto G4 Plus and the Lenovo Vibe K5 Note are equally competitive.