Mid-range phones have gotten a lot better over the past few years—you can now find an Android phone with a large, bright screen, fast processor, and an excellent camera in the $400 range without too much effort. But there remain big differences among such phones, and between the mid-range and the high-end. Over the past few weeks I’ve been carrying an , and I’ve found a lot to like, but also a number of issues that keep it from best-in-category territory.
In general, I was quite satisfied with the basic hardware. The ZenFone 3 Deluxe looks like a high-end phone with an all metal case design and a very thin bezel setting off a 5.7-inch, 1080-by-1920 pixel display. Like many Android phones, it has a home button/fingerprint reader on the back, with the rear camera protruding slightly above it. I thought the fingerprint reader was fine, although I found I had to try multiple times to unlock the phone—more often than I did with some of the other choices.
At 6.2 by 3.1 by 0.3 inches and weighing 6.0 ounces, it is about the same size as the, but with a slightly larger screen. The Galaxy S7 Edge is a bit lighter, and the iPhone 7 Plus is a bit heavier, but in daily use, you probably won’t notice the difference.
The unit I tested had 6 GB of RAM and 64 GB of flash storage, four Kryo CPU cores, and Adreno 530 graphics, so it’s quite a good performer. On benchmark tests, it does very well, in part because it has a lower-resolution screen; in the real world, it seemed quite snappy.
Like the Pixel and Galaxy S7, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe uses an AMOLED display that I found bright and clear, and easy to read from most angles. But while it is a larger display at 5.7-inches, it is lower resolution. (The other phones I mentioned sport 1440-by-2560 resolution, which is now common in the highest-end Android phones.) ZenFone 3 Deluxe has a large battery and did pretty well in PCMag’s battery tests, but in actual use, I found it to be about the same as the other Android phones—good enough to get me through a full day, but still needing to be charged every night. It supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 battery technology through its USB-C charger, and I did find it could take a fair amount of charge in a few minutes. Unlike the Pixel or the iPhone (but like the Samsung series and most other Android phones), the ZenFone 3 Deluxe has a MicroSD slot for additional storage. It comes in silver, gray, and gold.
The rear “PixelMaster” camera sports a 23-megapixel Sony sensor with optical image stabilization and an Asus auto-focus system. The concept is great, and daylight pictures outdoors generally looked very good. Indoors and in low light, the results weren’t as good—more on par with what I saw on the —but not on par with what the top-end phones deliver. The phone also has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera for selfies.
The camera has both auto and manual modes, and all the basic features you’d expect, such as the ability to set shutter speed, ISO, and white balance in manual mode; video recording at 4K 30 fps and full HD at 60 fps. Again, this doesn’t match all the options offered by the highest-end cameras and software, but the camera is quite good, and I thought the photos generally looked very nice.
It’s on the software side where I had more concerns. The ZenFone 3 runs Android 6.01 Marshmallow with Asus’s own ZenUI skin on top of it.
I appreciated some features. For instance, it has a Mobile Manger app that lets you easily track your data usage, battery life, and application performance about as easily as I’ve ever seen. I particularly liked the privacy and security manager, which makes it clear which applications can read your notifications, SMS messages, and track your location. These aren’t unique features, but Asus has made them easier to find, and I appreciated that.
On the other hand, some of what Asus has done is just needlessly complex. The keyboard you use for email is an example. By default, it is quite large, taking up about half the screen, though you can resize it. It has a series of different themes with different colors etc., for the background of the keys, and multiple layers of settings, all in different places on the keyboard. All the options are great, but it so clutters the screen that I often found myself having to pay more attention lest I suddenly ended up on a screen I didn’t want, even when just trying to type out a quick mail reply.
Overall, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe is a solid midrange phone that is trying—but not quite succeeding—at competing with the top-end models. I thought the basic phone hardware was pretty good, but the camera is a step behind, and some of the software just a bit too heavy. Still, it’s a reminder of how much more we can expect from mid-range phones today.