[Review] Zenfone 3 Max (ZC553KL) – The phone that keeps going and going

[Review] Zenfone 3 Max (ZC553KL) – The phone that keeps going and going

A new subvariant of their Zenfone 3 family of smartphones that were released  last year, the newly launched Zenfone 3 Max is a sub-RM1000 smartphone that prioritises battery life and attempts to cram in a modicum of other features like a large display and a fingerprint reader too.


Out of the box, the Zenfone 3 Max comes with the phone itself, a USB 5V/2A charger and the associated charging cable as well as a rather novel piece of kit: a micro USB to USB adaptor. This allows you to take advantage of the Zenfone 3 Max’s large battery to reverse charge other devices.


Externally, the ZenFone 3 Max looks surprisingly good for what you pay for. The front comes with a 5.5-inch-inch 1080P 401ppi display sheathed in 2.5D glass that also protects the capacitive back, home and menu buttons at the base of the display  as well as an 8-MP selfie camera perched up top.


The finish of our test unit is done up in a matte gunmetal gray that repels fingerprints though it is also available in gold, pink and silver. The right side of the phone comes with a volume rocker and a power button, both of which bear slight knurling to make it easier to find by touch. The let side of the phone is otherwise unadorned save for a hybrid SIM card slot.


The base of the phone comes with a speaker grille as well as a microUSB port for charging and docking duties. While the inclusion of a microUSB port seems dated, considering the fact that USB Type C ports are fast becoming the de facto standard for phones, it makes sense for the Zenfone 3 Max as it allows users to take advantage of the current array of chargers and other accessories still out in the market. The top of the phone bears a 3.5mm audio jack.


On the back lies a fingerprint reader and a 16-MP camera with an LED flash and an F/2.0 aperture along with several other embellishments that include their TriTech Autofocus system for a fast 0.03 second autofocus time. Of note is that the camera sensor is flush with the casing, minimising the chances of it getting scratched with regular use.


The overall build quality is sound and the matte finish repels fingerprints while offering a modicum of grip with the 2.5D glass and rounded edges adding a touch of class to the whole affair. It lacks the glass backed-finish of the higher-end Zenfone 3 but that doesn’t detract from its otherwise sturdy build and design.

 

Performance and Camera
The Zenfone 3 Max sports an efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 octacore 1.4GHz processor of recent vintage and comes with 3GB RAM and 32GB of expandable storage. The phone runs on Android Marshmallow 6.0 overlaid with their Zen UI.


Unfortunately, they’ve crammed it full of bloatware with a ton of overlapping software and Asus-centric apps of dubious utility. Some are highly situational like their ZenTalk to check up on Asus specific news while others are far more practical like their Mobile Manager that lets you tweak and manage your data usage, power management and notifications.

 

Some, like TripAdvisor and SimCity just take up space. You can uninstall some of them and disable the rest but that’s still a large footprint of stuff that you may likely not use at all.

 

In 3D Mark’s Sling Shot Extreme benchmarking test, the phone yielded a rather low score of 293. In PC Mark which measures work performance and its utility for general tasks, it served up a more respectable score of 3,360. In GeekBench, it garnered a single core score of 634 and a multicore score of 2031.

Under Antutu, it snagged a score of modest score of 44,012 while the graphics intensive Epic Citadel benchmark yielded an average 59FPS under Full HD and High Quality settings. The Zenfone 3’s Snapdragon 625 processor is markedly better under all conditions though it also costs quite a bit more.



Under general usage conditions, the Zenfone 3 Max performed in a very competent fashion. It won’t run rings around anything that costs more than it but it gets the job done, albeit with a bit of lag on loading though casual users likely won’t notice it. Otherwise general tasks like texts, a short e-mail or two and an open browser window or two are sorted out in a few seconds though something more intensive like gaming and tasks that heavily tax the processor tend to be noticeably delayed by several more seconds. Games like Fallout Shelter and Asphalt 8 were still playable though with slightly longer loading times.

One major quibble with the Zenfone 3 Max is that its capacitive buttons are not backlit, making them somewhat hard to find in the dark unless you develop sufficient muscle memory to find them by touch. The rear fingerprint reader is serviceable and did the job, unlocking the phone in a relatively swift, predictable fashion.



Camera
The rear camera on the Zenfone 3 Max has a 16-MP sensor with an F/2.0 aperture and a trifecta of autofocus tech that Asus has dubbed as TriTech Autofocus. This combines laser autofocus, phase detection and hybrid autofocus to make it, on paper, a fast and capable snapper. The camera interface also has a plethora of different modes including a dedicated HDR mode, a Low Light mode and a Super Resolution mode that stacks a series of images together to come up with a single sharp, high resolution still. Video is capped at 1080P on the rear camera.

Like what it says on the tin, image focusing was relatively fast and in brightly light daylight conditions, the camera performed well with decent colour accuracy and good detail. In areas of high contrast like shots with contrasting shade and under direct sunlight, images ended up overexposed while darker areas seemed somewhat grainy on auto mode though HDR mode addressed this somewhat. An Auto HDR mode would have been welcome rather than having to manually toggle it every time. Shots in low light mode are downsampled to 3-MP and while noisy, you can still make out broad details which is something that many other phones in its price range would struggle to even capture in the first place. On the imaging front, it’s a competent snapper for casual use though it isn’t the Zenfone 3 Max’s area of expertise.

 

Battery, Price & Conclusion
The Zenfone 3 Max’s main forte that it is touted for is its battery life and in that it didn’t disappoint. The efficiency of the Snapdragon 430 processor and the huge 4,100mAh battery meant that it has outstanding endurance. With moderately heavy usage including videos, some basic gaming, calls and social media use, the phone easily clocked in with close to two days of practical usage. The only downside is that the phone doesn’t support fast charging so fully juicing up a dry Zenfone 3 Max takes close to three hours when plugged into the mains. This is something to factor in if you are a heavy user reliant on fast charging to keep your phone battery topped up through the day. Combined with a plethora of power saving modes, the Zenfone 3 Max comes into its own as a phone that will easily last you a busy weekend and with sufficient frugality, extend beyond that significantly.

Sure, it’s not the fastest phone around the block nor does its hardware or camera elicit squeals of exuberant delight but when all the flagship phones are, pardon the pun, flagging at the end of the day  and in need of a power bank, the Zenfone 3 Max is still up and running with power to spare. The fact that it can juice other devices as well is icing on the cake though this in itself is an arduously slow process, making it more practical for use in an emergency rather than as an ersatz power bank cum phablet for daily use.


If you are a casual user looking for a relatively affordable workhorse and need something with excellent battery endurance and a large display, the Zenfone 3 Max is an easy recommendation though more demanding power users may wish to explore other alternatives.

WHAT WE LIKED Excellent battery life, can reverse charge other kit, decent looks
WHAT WE DIDN’T No fast charger provided, still has a lot of bloatware
WE SAY If you need a budget phablet that prioritises battery life, you’ll find the Zenfone 3 Max an appealing option

Specifications
Price RM999
Display 5.5-inch IPS LCD, 1920 x 1080p, 401ppi
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 1.4GHz octacore
Memory 3GB RAM/ 32GB storage
Camera 16-MP camera w/ F/2.0 aperture and PixelMaster 3.0 (rear) + 8-MP w/ F/2.2 aperture
Battery 4,100mAh
Size/Weight 151.4×76.24×8.3mm/175g
*Review unit courtesy of Asus Malaysia

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