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September 14, 2016

Unboxing & Review: ASUS ZenFone 3 Ultra


ASUS announced the third generation of its ZenFone lineup at the Computex Taipei 2016 on 30 May 2016, with the primary focus on the trio devices - ZenFone 3, ZenFone 3 Deluxe and ZenFone 3 Ultra.

Today, what we have in the labs is the ZenFone 3 Ultra, supersized phablet with a massive 6.8-inch display. Read on to find out what kind of behemoth ASUS has created.

The ASUS ZenFone 3 Ultra retails for RM2599.00 at DirectD.

Specifications Overview

General

  • Dimension: 186.4  x  93.9  x  6.8 mm (7.34  x  3.7  x  0.27 in)
  • Weight: 233 g (8.22oz)
  • SIM: Dual SIM (Nano / Micro)
  • Connectivity:
    • GSM / HSPA / LTE
    • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
    • Bluetooth 4.2, A2DP, EDR, LE

Display

  • Size: 6.8 inches
  • Resolution: 1080  x  1920 pixels (~324 PPI) IPS LCD, Corning Gorilla Glass 4

Under the hood

  • CPU: Qualcomm MSM8976 Snapdragon 652, Octa-core (4x 1.8 GHz Cortex-A72, 4x 1.4 GHz Cortex-A53)
  • GPU: Adreno-510
  • RAM: 3/4 GB
  • Storage: 32/64/128 GB, supporting MicroSD up to 256 GB
  • Battery: Non-removable 4600 mAh Li-Ion

Camera

  • Rear:
    • 23.0 MP Sony Exmor IMX 318
    • f/2.0
    • TriTech AutoFocus Technology (Laser AF, PDAF, CDAF)
    • Optical Image Stabilisation (4-axis)
    • Dual-LED dual tone flash
  • Front:
    • 8.0 MP
    • f/2.0

Software

  • OS: Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
  • UI: ASUS ZenUI 3.0

Packaging


The ZenFone 3 Ultra comes in a premium black packaging with Gold lettering on the box.


The SKU sticker at the back of the box.


Premium packaging as displayed. The box cover is magnetically secured and the accessories are placed in a drawer tray instead of normal "in-the-box" design.


In the box:
  • ASUS ZenFore 3 Ultra
  • 2pin USB charger (2A)
  • USB Type-C cable
  • ASUS Zen Ear in-ear earphones & replacement ear tips
  • Product guides and warranty

Build Quality


Let us start from the hands-on build quality.

The ZenFone 3 Ultra is a massive phablet even comparing it to other manufacturer's phablet devices. It easily outsizes any of them with its crazy footprint and the massive 6.8-inch display.

The front of the device looks different from its brothers - the ZenFone 3 and ZenFone 3 Deluxe, due to the placement of the fingerprint scanner as the home button.

Oh, the iconic spun-aluminum texture is also missing from the ZenFone 3 Ultra. That makes me think whether is it the Ultra is designed by another team in ASUS.


Having a closer look at the bottom section shows that the home button is now a physical button, ala Samsung style. Heck, even the capacitive Back and Multitask buttons are now backlit, albeit they are not really evenly light up.


At the top of the device lies the earpiece at the centre. Ambient light and proximity sensor at the right, closer to the earpiece while the front facing 8MP f/2.0 camera at the farther left.


Elegant full metal aluminium unibody with a smooth sandblasted surface finish.


Rear facing 23MP f/2.0 camera at the top right corner of the phone, accompanied by the laser autofocus and dual tone flash.

Volume rocker received the same placement as the previous ZenFone which is at the back of the phone, but I personally find it is not that ergonomic especially during video playback or gaming session.


The corners are rounded which makes the phone a pleasant to hold in the hands. Closer inspection shows the shiny chamfered sides for the back and front.


The ZenFore 3 Ultra I received has quite a bit of scratch which is completely normal for a loaner device. To my horror, the front chamfer is actually chromed plastic instead of aluminium. Is this how ASUS manage to claim the ZenFone 3 as the world's first unibody without antenna lines? By concealing them under the chromed plastic?


Moving on to the top of the phone, there are 3.5mm audio jack and a microphone for noise cancelling during phone calls.


At the bottom of the phone, there are stereo speakers, USB Type-C port and microphone.

With 4600 mAh battery, the phone can be doubled as a power bank that supplies juice to another device at 1.5A.

The pair of 5-magnet driven speakers is powered by NXP Smart AMP technology that is capable of delivering up to 4 times the sound volume compared to normal speakers. In layman terms, they are extremely LOUD and clear at the same time. Even if I pump the volume to the max there's little to none distortion to the sound.

But then, there's a problem, the decision of placing both left and right channel speakers at the bottom is rather puzzling. They sound OK when you use the phone in portrait but when you watch movies or play games in landscape mode, all the sound are now coming from either left or right depending how you orient the phone.


The power button with Zen spun aluminium texture is located at the right of the phone.


The ASUS ZenFone 3 Ultra supports Dual SIM (Nano/Micro) where the second SIM slot doubles as the microSD card slot. Yes, that means you have to either choose to have Dual SIM or Single SIM + microSD.

Display

The 6.8-inch display only comes in Full-HD 1080p configuration even though the Adreno 510 GPU is fully capable of pushing a Quad-HD 1440p display. High chance that ASUS don't want to push the GPU to the limit with the QHD display, hence the decision to have the 1080p screen.

Thanks to the IPS panel, the display's viewing angle covers almost 178 degrees without any discoloration. Speaking of colour,  the IPS panel is also covering up to 95% of NTSC colour gamut, making it one of the best colour reproduction screen.

ZenFone 3 Ultra also comes with a dedicated display processor like those found in high-resolution TVs, dubbed as the ASUS Tru2Life+ technology. The major selling point of the mentioned technology is that it brings high-end HDTV HDR technology to a smartphone's screen. Tru2Life+ brings increased contrast and blur-free motion for extra sharp and smooth video playback.

I have absolutely no complaints at the screen because it is really great for movies and games. The only drawback that ruined the overall multimedia consumption experience would be the bad speaker placement. Ah, well.

Camera


The rear camera comes with 23MP Sony Exmor IMX 318 sensor. That's quite a jump in megapixels from last year ZenFone 2's 13MP sensor. The camera package, dubbed by ASUS as the PixelMaster 3.0, comes complete with 4-axis OIS and TriTech AF.


An intuitive and straightforward user interface.


Various camera modes are available for beginner users.


Advanced users get the Manual mode to play with. I particularly like the addition of the histogram and the horizon levelling diagram which are really useful for advanced shooters.


Switching to the front-facing camera, the app will automatically launch the Beautification mode.

Then moving on to the megapixel war, ASUS equips the PixelMaster 3.0 package with Super Resolution technology where it burst captures FIVE 23MP images and then combines them to create a single 92MP image.

Here's a sample of two images, one captured using the manual mode, while another captured using the Super Resolution mode. Blogger auto-resizes the uploaded image, so I included the 800*600 pixel crop for detailed on-the-fly comparison.



Normal 23MP, ISO100 1/1.3 f/2.0



Super Resolution 92MP, ISO2787 1/14 f/2.0

That's quite a surprise even with that high ISO, Super Resolution is capable of keeping the noise down to a reasonable level. Then, there's extreme compression being implemented in the final image for Super Resolution. How can a 23MP image shot with manual mode takes 7MB while another literary same Super Resolution image takes 5MB only?

The TriTech AF where ASUS claims the capability of obtaining sharp focus in 0.03 seconds with the combination of the Laser AF, Phase Detection AF and Contrast Detection AF. No doubt the autofocus works great even in low light and exceptionally well in good lighting situations, but do take the 0.03 seconds benchmark with a grain of salt as it depends highly on the lighting condition.









Performance & Battery Life

The spec sheet of the ASUS ZenFone 3 Ultra might be disappointing for a phone with a price tag of RM2599. Instead of packing a flagship SoC such as Snapdragon 820, the Ultra only comes with Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 octa-core SoC with Adreno 510 GPU.

We ran a few benchmarks using the Antutu Benchmark and Geekbench 4.




Something must have gone wrong with my review unit because the Geekbench 4's multicore score is rather low, but that doesn't really matter as my user experience of using the phone is rather positive.


Throughout my testing period, I am really satisfied with the 4600 mAh battery. It easily lasts for 1-day heavy use with extra to spare.


The above screenshot is a perfect example of 18 hours of usage and still having 35% juice left.


5 hours of Screen-on-time throughout the span of 18 hours is really great, consider that I purposely left everything running in the background without killing any of the apps.

Final Thoughts

I've been using the ZenFone 3 Ultra for 2 weeks, and throughout the whole testing period, I had numerous encounter as follow, "Wow! That's a massive phone you have there!". When the smartphone design has come to a stagnant where almost everyone is having the same phone, this 6.8-incher will definitely spark conversations.

The phone is well designed and great to hold in the hands, but usability wise, I struggle a lot while using the ZenFone 3 Ultra because it is just way too big for single handed use, even if I turned on the single hand mode. Oh yeah, the pocketability of this phone is definitely a concern.

ASUS certainly need to pay more attention to the software department as there are quite a few bugs here and there.


For instance, the icons would disappear from the pull-down menu occasionally.


Then, for some reason, the phone will keep itself awake throughout the charging period. The screenshot above shows that I unplugged the phone halfway through the charge after discovering the phone being held awake. Then weirdly the battery percentage will not drop even after half an hour of usage. Weird, but this will not be a problem if you unplug the phone after a full charge.

Lastly the price, at RM2599 that shouts "flagship", that is not very convincing for a phone that only comes with mid-ranged Qualcomm Snapdragon 652. If and only if ASUS were to pair this phone with a flagship worthy SoC, it will definitely hold back quite a few potential customers because, at the same price, they can instead get a high spec ZenFone 3 Deluxe. Unless you're looking for a phone that is larger than a phablet for your day to day usage, then you might consider having ZenFone 3 Ultra in your pocket.

Pros:
  • Excelling build quality
  • Dual SIM
  • MicroSD card support
  • Excellent display for multimedia consumption
  • Reasonably good performance
  • Loud and clear speakers
  • Amazing battery life

Cons:
  • Massive size, impossible for one-handed use
  • Chromed plastic rim 
  • Buggy software
  • Wrong speaker placement
  • Price


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