Asus’ ZenFone range can be a bit confusing at times, primarily because of the number of different devices and product codes. However, each phone fits into a specific niche, and Asus indeed has something for everyone on offer. At the beginning of this year, Asus launched the battery-centric ZenFone Max, which received a slight refresh in June in the form of the ZenFone Max (2016). And now we have the Asus ZenFone 3 Max, which is available in two variants.
Today, I’m reviewing the larger and more expensive of the two variants from Asus, the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL). Featuring the same design language of the rest of the ZenFone 3 range, the Max comes with a large 4,100mAh battery and a focus on power efficiency. Priced at Rs 17,999, the phone offers a combination of looks, specifications and above-average battery life. Take a look at our review of the Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) to find out how it fares.
Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) Design
One of the most notable changes in the ZenFone 3 range this year is the use of metal, and the ZenFone 3 Max is no different. It features a metal unibody, with slim silver antenna lines near the top and bottom. All the edges of the phone are rounded, which gives the phone a great feel in the hand. It comes with a hybrid SIM tray, with the option to have either two SIM cards (nano + micro) or one micro-SIM and one microSD card for expandable storage.
The right side of the phone has the power and volume buttons, the bottom has the microUSB port and speaker grille, while the top has the 3.5mm jack. The use of the micro-USB port at a time when most phone manufacturers are switching to USB Type-C comes as a bit of a surprise, but we don’t really mind considering vast majority of smartphones still use the micro-USB standard, making it easier to charge the phone wherever you are, or use it to reverse charge other devices using an OTG cable. The ZenFone 3 Max also supports reverse charging, and even comes with an OTG cable in the box to make it easy to do this.
The phone has a 5.5-inch full-HD screen, which occupies a significant 72.3 percent of the front. It’s a decent screen in terms of sharpness, but the colors do appear a bit unnatural and over saturated. However, it’s very bright, and we had no issues with sunlight legibility. Right below the screen are the three Android software keys, which are in the form of capacitive buttons rather than on-screen keys. Unfortunately, the keys aren’t backlit, so it can be a bit difficult finding the right key when using the phone in the dark.
The ZC553KL variant is most similar in appearance to the Asus ZenFone 3 Laser, which was launched in India last month, and is a massive improvement in looks over previous ZenFone devices in our opinion. However, the metal chassis is prone to scuffs and nicks, so it’s advisable to use the phone with a protective case.
Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) Specifications
Apart from the difference in screen size and resolution (the more affordable ZC520TL variant has a 5.2-inch HD screen), the ZenFone 3 Max has some other notable differences, the biggest of which is its use of the octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 SoC. The Snapdragon 400 series has always been one of Qualcomm’s go-to options for affordable devices, with a focus on power efficiency. Naturally, this comes at the cost of performance, which I’ll talk about in detail later in this review.
There’s also 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage (expandable by up to 128GB using a microSD card) and 4G LTE with VoLTE support. As previously mentioned, the phone has a large 4,100mAh battery, which while notably less than the previous editions of the ZenFone Max series, is still quite a large battery in its own right. The process of charging the phone is unfortunately still a bit slow, with the phone taking about three hours to charge with the bundled 10W charger. Although the Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 SoC is Quick Charge 3.0 compliant, Asus has bundled a slow charger with the phone, which comes across as a disappointment, especially considering the price.
Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) Software
The Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) runs on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, with the company’s Zen UI layered on top. The interface has undergone some significant changes with the launch of the ZenFone 3 range, but is still fairly bloated thanks to its large list of pre-installed apps. While some third party apps and games can be uninstalled, a lot of Asus’ own apps can only be disabled. While some are genuinely useful, others are likely to just occupy space unnecessarily.
ZenUI’s general style and functioning remains the same as always, and the system of keeping key apps separate from the interface allows individual apps to be updated when needed, without forcing a larger system update. This keeps things efficient, but the clutter might bother some people. Apps such as Mobile Manager, Back-Up and Asus Web Storage are genuinely useful and do their bit to improve the phone and offer handy services. It’s an efficient interface as well, and we experienced no lag or crashes during our time with the device.
Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) Performance
The Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 SoC, despite being priced at a significant premium over the Snapdragon 650-powered Xiaomi Redmi Note 3. While this means that the ZenFone 3 Max doesn’t have the same raw-power-per-rupee as the Redmi Note 3, it does ensure battery efficiency thanks to the use of eight A53 cores clocked at a relatively low 1.4GHz. While definitely considered a low-end SoC, the chipset does strike a decent balance between performance and energy efficiency.
Most apps work fairly well, and we didn’t face any trouble in everyday use of the phone. While the difference in pure speed between the ZenFone 3 Max and my own powerhouse OnePlus 3 is certainly noticeable, it’s never too bothersome. I had the phone running on 4G network or Wi-Fi the entire time, and connectivity or Internet usage wasn’t often a problem. We did experience occasional bouts of stutter when playing graphically intensive games, but this usually normalized after a few seconds. Ordinary tasks such as phone calls, social media and web browsing, as well as multi-tasking with multiple apps running, are handled with ease most of the time, thanks to the 3GB of RAM under the hood.
There’s also a fingerprint sensor at the back of the phone, which can read up to five stored fingerprints. It’s usually accurate, works directly from standby without needing to first wake your phone, and doesn’t need too much effort to trigger when unlocking the phone, but it is a bit slow when it comes to actually unlocking. The fraction of a second between putting your finger on the sensor and the screen lighting up is quite clearly perceivable, and other competing phones offer a bit more in those departments.
The device does generate some heat when being used heavily, but this only has the device feeling slightly warm rather than uncomfortably hot. On the whole, performance is on-par with most devices under the Rs 10,000 mark, which makes us question Asus’ pricing strategy yet again.
Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) Camera
With a 16-megapixel rear and 8-megapixel front camera, the ZenFone 3 Max is above-average when it comes to camera specifications. There’s also an f/2.0 aperture, hybrid autofocus using phase detection and a laser, and up to full-HD video recording with both cameras. The camera app is a bit confusing at first, but has plenty of tweaks and settings to let you set the camera up to your preferences. When it comes to modes, the app offers most of the popular options, including HDR, time lapse and panorama, but we couldn’t locate a slow-motion video mode. Additionally, recording video is a one-step process, with a record button directly on the camera’s home screen.
The camera is a bit confusing, with images appearing sharp at first, but zooming in reveals that there is some grain visible in pictures taken even in ordinary daylight conditions. Focusing is quick regardless of whether you’re shooting objects up close or at a distance, with the laser and phase detection autofocus working well together to ensure that images are properly focused and correctly composed. colors tend to appear a bit dull and faded, and if we had to put our impressions of the camera in a single word, it would be ‘boring’.
[Click to see camera samples shot by the Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL)]
Video recording is acceptable as well in ordinary conditions, and pictures taken with the front camera are just about satisfactory in all conditions. If you’re an occasional photographer or tend to take most of your photos in good light, you won’t have too much trouble with the Asus ZenFone 3 Max. However, people that shoot often or take a lot of selfies are likely to be disappointed by the performance of the Asus ZenFone 3 Max.
Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) Battery
The Max sub-range has always been known for its above-average battery life, and the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) is no different. Apart from having large batteries, the phones have also used hardware that is efficient to ensure that the battery life issue is adequately addressed. The range has always been for users who can’t or don’t want to charge their phones too often, and the ZenFone 3 Max sticks to that position effortlessly.
Asus has reduced the size of the battery, now using a 4,100mAh unit. However, this doesn’t have too much of an impact on battery life, and with careful use, it’s possible to get up to two full days of use on a single charge. Even with heavy use, a full charge will last you over a day-and-a-half, and it’s refreshing and satisfying to see the battery percentage drop slowly even while playing heavy games such as Asphalt Xtreme.
Additionally, there are software-based power saving modes, which disable some functions to stretch battery life on essential functions. A ‘Super Saving’ mode claims to offer 2.5 times as much battery time as the normal mode, by keeping only the phone, SMS and alarm functions active. You can also set schedules for power usage, or have the phone switch to Super Saving mode when the battery level drops under 10 percent. All of this will help you get the most out of a full charge.
What is noteworthy though, is the fact that the ZenFone 3 Max manages to remain power-efficient despite the fact that it has a large 5.5-inch full-HD screen to power. As such, the ZenFone 3 Max may not be able to run for as long as earlier Max phones, but it does succeed in offering a bit more in the form of performance and screen quality while remaining efficient on the whole.
While the first Asus ZenFone Max was built to stretch its battery as far as possible, the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) strikes a better balance between power-efficiency, performance and hardware quality. The Asus ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) does have some weaknesses, including bloated software, only 23GB of usable internal storage, a camera that can be called average at best, and a charger that while not terrible, is certainly not the most ideal option considering the size of the phone’s battery. However, it is a decent looking smartphone that’s built well, and is likely to find takers thanks to its standout battery.
But priced at Rs 17,999, the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) does not quite offer a bang for your buck. The use of Snapdragon 430 SoC for a smartphone at this price is quite baffling considering there are better performing phones such as the LeEco Le 2, Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 and Motorola Moto G4 Plus available for quite less. At around the same price as the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL), you could also get the Lenovo Z2 Plus, which by far offers much better hardware and performance.
The biggest USP of the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) is its battery, but that’s no longer unique with many smartphones offering stellar battery performance. We could have overlooked the specs-versus-price comparison if the smartphone offered something that others don’t. Unfortunately, that is not the case. At the end of the day, the ZenFone 3 Max (ZC553KL) is a well-rounded smartphone that just got its pricing wrong.