There was a time when a smartphone with a 5.3-inch screen (the original Samsung Galaxy Note, back in 2011) was considered large and classified as a phablet. As is the case with a lot of things in the smartphone industry, definitions formed five years ago have absolutely no meaning anymore, and today smartphones with 5.2-inch screens are considered compact. And although everyone’s seen someone that walks around with a 7-inch tablet as their primary connectivity device, up to what point do we still allow a large device to be classified a smartphone?
Asus seems to have an answer to that with the Rs 49,990 ZenFone 3 Ultra. Simply calling this device a large smartphone would be a gross understatement; the ZenFone 3 Ultra has a massive 6.8-inch screen. It feels as large as it is, and while this may be excellent in some ways, it also leads to some impracticalities and inconveniences that make it hard to think of this device as a proper smartphone.
However, is its price tag of Rs 49,990 really worth it when you can get similar devices such as the Xiaomi Mi Max for as little as Rs 15,000? Just what does the Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra offer that you don’t already get in the much more affordable Mi Max? I review the good and the bad of the phone and tell you whether paying thrice as much for this giant-screen phablet is a sensible thing to do.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra: The Good
There’s no denying that the large 6.8-inch screen is what defines the Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra. The device is visibly and noticeably larger than practically every other smartphone I’ve seen, and this naturally helps in stand out. Let’s first take a look at all the good things about the device.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Design
While the ZenFone 3 Ultra undoubtedly needs two hands to use, it still sports enough in terms of design to make it feel like a smartphone and not a tablet. Asus’ designers have made a conscious effort to keep the device looking and feeling like a smartphone, from the narrow bezel to the minimal non-screen space at the front. Additionally, it’s a slim device that doesn’t feel excessively bulky; in fact, it actually feels fairly light and easy to handle for its size.
What really works for the Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra is its all-metal build and stylish design. From the rounded corners and curved sides to the chamfered edges and flat back, the phone is fantastically built and feels absolutely fantastic in all ways. When being used as a phone, it never felt foolish or difficult to hold up, purely because of the combination of stunning looks and sensible ergonomics.
The Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra has its USB type-C port at the bottom, the 3.5mm jack at the top and the power button on the right side, but where it departs from typical ways is in the volume buttons. Asus is known to have its volume button at the back on many of its smartphones, and the ZenFone 3 Ultra uses this layout as well. I believe that this is a very good implementation of the rear-volume keys, considering the size of the phone. Because it’s quite a handful, volume keys on the side would have likely been hard to reach, and having these at the back makes it a bit easier to adjust the volume even if you’re holding the device with just one hand. Having said that, I’d also liked to have had the power button at the back, since that is a bit difficult to reach when using the phone with one hand at its position on the side.
The back of the phone is entirely flat, with a slight camera bump. The volume keys sit flush with the device and don’t stick out, while the laser autofocus window and flash sit alongside the camera lens at the top-left. It looks very classy thanks to the matte finish and chamfered edges, and the Asus and ZenFone branding is also tasteful and in the proper place. The speaker grilles are at the bottom, and the dual-speaker effect ensures loud audio output.
However, one of the largest issues that I faced with the Ultra was its lack of pocketability. This device simply does not fit in the pockets of my jeans, sticking out uncomfortably and dangerously. I had to store the device in my bag when out and about, instead of in my pocket where it would normally sit. But that’s a choice one has to willingly make while going for a phone with such a massive display.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Software
Asus has been continuously improving its user interface, and what you get on the ZenFone 3 Ultra is a polished version of ZenUI (powered by Android Marshmallow) that is vastly better than what we were used to seeing till recently. The app drawer, pull-down menu, settings menu and general look and feel of the interface is all excellent, and doesn’t feel excessively ‘blingy’ anymore. However, Asus’ interface structure remains focused on separating system apps from the firmware itself, so there are lots of system apps cluttering up the phone. All of these apps also need constant updates via the Play Store. While this has advantages in that individual apps can be tweaked without needing a system update, it can also be particularly annoying and heavy on your Wi-Fi when you have to frequently update apps.
What’s also worth mentioning is that the software has been tweaked to ensure that all of that screen real-estate is put to optimal use. More apps are visible on screen, while text and web pages are geared to show more content on screen at an easy-to-gauge size rather than simply magnifying the content on screen, much in the same way a tablet does it. This actually lets you properly use the big screen, and it’s definitely something to praise the Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra for.
The metal body, large battery and powerful innards do generate some heat when using the phone a lot, particularly with gaming. However, most functions don’t generate more than a mildly warm sensation at the back of the device, and this also ensures battery life is efficient. Even while charging with the bundled 18W charger, the phone barely goes beyond slightly warm.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Battery Performance
Speaking of battery life, the phone has a massive 4,600mAh battery that keeps it going for hours on end. I easily got two full days of usage on a single charge, which on occasion went even beyond that. Apart from the large battery itself, this is also because of the general efficiency of the hardware. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 SoC strikes a decent balance between efficiency at ordinary tasks and power, with its combination of Cortex-A53 and Cortex-A72 processor cores. Despite the large screen to power, the phone still gets between 6-7 hours of screen-on time with everyday use, making this a media powerhouse. The sheer size of the battery makes it a worthwhile option if battery life is important to you.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Camera
Another department where Asus has gone big is the camera, and the ZenFone 3 Ultra has a 23-megapixel primary camera. There’s also hybrid autofocus using laser and phase-detection methods, four-axis optical image stabilization and dual-tone LED flash. The front camera of the ZenFone 3 Ultra is an 8-megapixel shooter which can record video at up to 1080p resolution, while the rear camera can shoot at 1080p@60fps as well as at 2160p (4K) resolution.
The camera app is Asus’ standard affair, and it’s fortunately improved over the years. The layout is comfortable and easy to get used to, and there are plenty of modes including panorama, slow-motion, time-lapse, gif animation and more. The only problem I have is the fact that the front camera defaults to beauty mode, and it requires a few steps to get it to auto mode which allows you to capture video. There are plenty of tweaks and settings to control the camera as well.
Pictures are reasonably good, as you would expect from a 23-megapixel camera. Apart from the obvious ability to zoom deep into pictures without fear of pixilation, images are also bright and accurate with colors. Although a bit of grain is visible in pictures taken even in good light, this is well within acceptable levels. Also excellent is the level of contrast, which contributes to the excellent color levels.
With close-ups, much of the grain disappears, and images are incredibly good looking provided you’ve composed them well. From colors, to detail, to getting the light right, the ZenFone 3 Ultra does a great job. Even in low-light, pictures are well composed and look great at normal resolution. Focusing is also excellent, and the camera’s autofocus usually gets it right on the first attempt.
Videos are fantastic when shot at 4K, but this heats up the phone a fair bit and eats into the battery, apart from occupying a lot of space on the phone’s storage. Even at 1080p, videos are clean and optical image stabilization ensures they are smooth and mostly jerk-free.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra: The Bad
Unlike the majority of devices, which are decent in most ways and have a few USPs where they really shine, the ZenFone 3 Ultra is an amalgamation of extremes. Most of these extremes are a result of the outrageous pricing, which feels a bit high when you analyze what you are getting for what you are paying. Here are some of my pet peeves about the ZenFone 3 Ultra.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Display
The phone’s biggest feature is of course its large 6.8-inch screen. It’s a full-HD screen with a pixel density ratio of 324 pixels-per-inch. It’s a good screen in terms of brightness, vividness and color reproduction. While many will argue that it’s impossible to see the pixels at this density, I can’t help but feel that a 2560×1440-pixel screen would have been excellent here, particularly given the screen size and price. The Xiaomi Mi Max has a screen that is nearly as large and has the same full-HD resolution, but is priced at less than a third of what the ZenFone 3 Ultra goes for, so a QHD screen may have made all the difference in setting the device apart here and justifying the price tag.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Hardware
Although the defining feature of the phone is its massive screen, the ZenFone 3 Ultra has a bit more to it that makes it a capable device. Powering the phone is the Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 SoC, which while not quite up to the same performance level of the top-end Snapdragon 820 and 821, is a capable SoC in its own right. The ZenFone 3 Ultra also comes with 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage which can be expanded by up to 256GB with a microSD card, hybrid dual-SIM connectivity with 4G support on both SIMs, and a massive 4,600mAh battery that keeps the phone going longer than usual. It provides enough power to keep the large screen running for times that are comparable with those of smartphones with smaller screens, and often a bit better too.
This all sounds good, until you hear what its rivals are providing. Take the Xiaomi Mi Max Prime, for instance. It comes with a 6.44-inch 1080p display, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, Snapdragon 652 SoC, 4,850mAh battery and a hybrid dual-SIM card slot. All it costs is Rs 19,999 and features double the internal storage, a marginally larger battery and the same processor-RAM combination. The Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra is 2.5 times more expensive.
While the smartphone is listed as having support for VoLTE, I wasn’t able to get this running on my Reliance Jio connection. While I was able to use data services, I couldn’t place any calls or receive messages without using the Jio Voice app, which was a bit of a disappointment.
The ZenFone 3 Ultra’s fingerprint sensor is at the front of the phone, sitting on the physical home button. The sensor is not always active, needing you to wake the phone first before it can read your fingerprint to unlock the device. While this can sometimes be bothersome and time-consuming, it’s useful that the home button itself can be used to wake the device, and keeping your finger in place then unlocks it. It’s usually accurate and unlock the phone quickly once it’s been woken, but there were occasions where I had to try multiple times before I got an accurate reading, even with clean and dry fingers.
The Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra runs Android 6.0.1 out of the box, which is a pity considering that Android Nougat has been around for months now. Although Asus can be reasonably counted on to release a software update in the coming months, the price of the phone leaves us wondering why an effort wasn’t made to have the device running the latest software already.
Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra Verdict
The Asus ZenFone 3 Ultra’s biggest USP is its size, and Asus has built this phone to take advantage of the size in every way. All of that additional screen real-estate is used to give you a tablet-like experience, while sticking to a form factor that while undoubtedly large, still feels more like that of a smartphone than a tablet.
The Rs 49,990 price tag is a lot to fathom, and the phone doesn’t quite live up to expectations considering this price, offering no compelling reasons to convince us it’s worth it. While Asus believes it has the brand-name advantage that lets it command a premium, it’s hard to be convinced to pay Rs 49,990 for an Asus smartphone when you can get Samsung, HTC and Motorola flagships for less money right now.
It also runs an SoC that can also be found on a Rs 12,000 smartphone, and is strangely running Android Marshmallow even at this stage. There is plenty of storage and RAM, the camera is excellent and the device is built fantastically, so there is enough reason to call this a good device, but then you have to consider that many of these features are also available on the Rs 14,999 Xiaomi Mi Max, leading us to question why you should want to pay this kind of money for the phone. To be honest, we’re struggling to find any truly compelling reasons to justify the price of the phone.
While it may seem that this phone fits into an interesting niche, there isn’t much on offer here that isn’t already in the much more affordable Xiaomi Mi Max, making this a hard phone to recommend to many people.