ASUS ZenFone 3 Zoom (ZE553KL) Review – The Camera isn’t its best feature

The ZenFone Zoom entered the fray as a smartphone-cum-DSLR, a serious contender for the photographer that doesn’t want to lug bulky photography gear on a quick jaunt. It resembled a camera with a circle representing a faux lens, a leather exterior, and a sleek design. ASUS’ redesign as the ZenFone 3 Zoom maintains sleekness while taking the device in a more minimalist direction.
by Corey Sanderson on April 21, 2017
Positives
  • Long battery life
  • 4GB of RAM
  • Quality, aesthetically pleasing build
  • AMOLED screen with beautiful, rich colors
  • Dual SIM card support
  • MicroSD card
  • Good Camera
Negatives
  • Android Marshmallow
  • Low system specs means longer load times
  • Fingerprint scanner a little high
  • Tons of apps preloaded
  • Camera works better in situation specific modes than Auto

Design

  • Sleek Curves, Stylish Design

The ZenFone 3 Zoom has ditched the leather of its previous generation for an aluminum body. At 6.07”x3.03” and 170g, it is both smaller and lighter than the iPhone while sporting a smooth 5.5” AMOLED, Gorilla Glass 5 screen.

The chassis is actually a mix of metal and polycarbonate, the plastic sits on the top and bottom of the handset. We actually like that the corners aren’t metal, this slightly more forgiving material actually acts to absorb the impact of any accidental drops.

Every button is positioned in such a way as to allow quick travel around the device. The volume buttons are above the power on the right side. At the bottom of the handset you’ll find a USB Type-C port, 3.5mm headphone jack, and speaker. Continuing around the phone, a pinhole on the left reveals a dual-Nano SIM card / microSD tray. To take advantage of the second SIM, though, you’ll have to go without the microSD card.

The bezel is large, especially the bottom where you’ll find the capacitive touch buttons. As a result, it has a pretty poor screen to body ratio of 70.2%. The dual camera at the top-back is far less obtrusive than the large circular bump of its predecessor. The placement of the physical buttons in one location and back, home, and menu buttons at the very bottom makes navigation and use very simple and convenient.

We don’t want to harp on it, but it is worth mentioning that during the review period a few people have commented on my using an iPhone. Seeing them side by side it’s easy to see how they made this mistake. With the dual camera placement and the rounded corners, we’d have to agree, though ASUS has done a better job with the camera bump than Apple.

Hardware

  • Good highend build quality with solid specifications.

In my tiny, tiny hands, the ZenFone 3 Zoom fit perfectly. In fact, one-handed use was a breeze. The rounded corners, smooth look, and comfortable feel of the device lead to an aesthetically pleasing design and satisfying handheld device.

Inside, the Snapdragon 625 / Adreno 506 GPU combo brings speed and efficient power consumption. The fact that the S625 supposedly consumes 35% less power than its predecessors really shows in the device’s overall performance. After hours of gaming in a single session and despite the metal chassis, I was not feeling the burn in my hand from internal heat. Heat management and battery life seem to be qualities ASUS took into deep consideration when designing the ZenFone 3 Zoom.

Outside, the fingerprint sensor positioning is about an inch from the top of the phone, so about 1/4″ too high. My index finger got quite the workout stretching in efforts to unlock my phone. However, once found, I had zero problems with accuracy. The sensor is very accurate, and almost too sensitive when handling the device, vibrating unnecessarily when merely brushing against one’s palm.

ZenFone 3 Zoom Specifications

Dimensions 154.3 x 77 x 8 mm
Weight 170g
Display Size 5.5 inches
Display Type AMOLED, 16M colors
Display Resolution 1080×1920, 404ppi
Chipset Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
Internal Memory 32/64/128GB, 4GB RAM
External Memory microSD to 256GB
Front Camera Dual 12MP, with laser/phase detection AF, 2.3x optical zoom, dual-LED flash
Rear Camera Single 13MP, 1080p
Battery 5000mAh
OS Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with ZenUI 3.0
Additional ASUS ZenEar with Mic, USB Type-C connector, 3.5mm jack

The full spec sheet can be found at ASUS’ ZenFone 3 Zoom page.

Display

  • Good Quality Display with good viewing angles & outdoor visibility. 

The 5.5” AMOLED screen is bright and natural at a 1080×1920 resolution and 404ppi. Colors are unsaturated, which is often a concern with AMOLED displays. Also, the display’s oleophobic coating means that your fingerprints and the oils of your hands won’t be as much of a problem with the ZenFone 3 Zoom. I actually noticed a lack of smudges on my screen, so color me impressed.

Brightness can be turned up/down satisfying both night and day, outdoor and indoor moods. The auto-brightness was somewhat of a disappointment, especially on rainy days, when it often became darker than my eyes found pleasant. In general, it works and I didn’t find myself needing to adjust manually besides two instances of outdoor, rainy days. Since the 3 Zoom has a peak brightness of 500nits, the display has no problems in direct sunlight.

The default color temperature of the display is a little yellow, but its default setting in Screen Color Mode is “Super Color,” meaning it will make everything a little more vibrant and the reds are definitely pulled up quite a bit. To make the display a little more color accurate, I customized the colors to be a little cooler or blue to get higher color accuracy in vivid display mode.

Sound – With Headphone Jack

  • Great high-quality sound.

The device is loud. Period. Powered by the efficient and high-output NXP Smart Amp, the device uses a 5-magnet speaker with expanded sound chamber and metal voice coil. What does this mean? Less distortion and clearer, more powerful audio. When I used the speaker to take calls or play music, there was no muffling or static. That tinny quality experience in lower-quality speakers was absent here.

Listening to podcasts without earphones was no problem because of the crisp, clear delivery of the base-positioned speaker. The ZenFone 3 Zoom includes DTS Headphone:X 7.1. This method of software encoding converts your game’s or movie’s surround sound into stereo, simulating surround sound in your headphones. I can say that they’ve mostly succeeded, though the bass left me a little wanting. The subjectivity of sound may lead to some disagreement at this point.

Software

  • ZenUI is running on Android 6.0 and offers smooth performance with a lot of great features.
  • Too much preloaded bloatware. 

The Zen UI 3.0 is largely smooth and functional. Long-pressing on a blank area of the homescreen brings up a host of features from system management and performance to themes and other customization options. Call me old-fashioned, but I like their continued use of an app tray to keep the home screen uncluttered.

The icons are large and cartoonish in feel, flying in the face of the ZenFone 3 Zoom’s modern aesthetics. You are given the option to resize icons, adjust folder layout, change font types and sizes, customize the look a bit, and change count badges (which are the small numbers that appear on an app letting you know that you have new notifications) by going into the All Apps preferences, but it’s not enough. If you don’t like the default setup, ASUS has lots of themes in their theme store to customize your interface.

If you want to customize your homescreen there are several options available if you long press on any free space. To resize the icons, choose Home – Edit, but you’ll still be limited to 50% original size. Also, you don’t have the option to add rows even though you have more screen real estate to work with; you’re stuck at maximum 5×5. ZenUI allows you to get rid of the All Apps button, but you’re still limited to four icons at the bottom of the home screen. (Long Press – Preferences – Home Screen – Grid Size)

If you would like to use the phone without an App Drawer, you can opt to get rid of it in Preferences – Home Screen – Layout. ASUS calls it Layer Mode. There are a ton of customization options available, too many to go through here, but when getting to know your phone this is a great place to start.

Settings Long-Press Settings

Double-Tap to wake up a device is the first thing that I try out on a new phone, but by default it is disabled. Gestures and motions can be turned on by going to System Settings – ZenMotion – Touch Gesture.

Double-tapping now serves two functions: turning the display on and off. The device can also be woken up by swiping across the screen. Further, you can trace capital W, S, C, Z, V, or lower-case e on the dormant screen in order to active a particular app. These six gestures can be remapped to whatever you use the most.

Motions are also present. Flipping the phone over allows you to end a call and “Hands Up”—lifting your device and touching it to your ear—lets you answer a call automatically. To activate, you’ll have to head into ZenMotion – Motion Gestures.

ZenUI’s Bloatware: What is actually useful

One of my biggest gripes with this product is the setup process and bloatware. After the initial power-on, you are greeted by a large number of screens and additional “features.” Within the phone customization setup are terms agreements and promotions for Google Services. I get that Android OS is developed by Google, but the initialization process does not seem the time for as placements.

The device comes loaded with software. Loaded. A plethora of ASUS apps and utilities come pre-installed. Some serve useful functions, but others merely take up space. It’s a good thing that ASUS has made uninstalling and disabling apps very easy: Go to the app tray, press the top-right menu button (vertically placed dots), then select Uninstall/Disable. Only ZenChoice and ZenFit can be uninstalled, but the rest can be disabled. That means they will be unobtrusive, but still remain on your device and show up on Google Play as apps needing to be updated.

Here’s a list of what I would keep:

Mobile Manager: Actually a useful app for stopping unnecessary apps from running, looking at data usage, cleaning your system, and managing permissions.
Game Genie: A great companion for gaming on your ZenFone 3 Zoom. It allows for linking with Twitch or YouTube, either streaming or recording your screen while gaming.
PhotoCollage: Make photo collages with downloadable themes, cute stickers, and text. The 360 Collage option, where one can create a room with framed photos that you can look at, is neat, but I can’t see myself using it beyond saying, “Huh, neat.”
MiniMovie: Make videos and slideshows with your photos using various themes and check out those made by others for inspiration.
FM Radio: Works well, but won’t function without a headset.
Sound Recorder: A simple, no frills recorder that does as it says.
Laser Ruler: It uses a laser to determine how far away something is, though if it’s closer than 10cm it will just show <10cm.
Do It Later: A decent task manager that allows maintaining multiple lists that are, separated into normal and app-related, though there doesn’t seem to be a difference.

Here is a list of apps that you might find useful, but I would personally uninstall:
Quick Memo: ASUS’ answer to Google Keep with less functionality.
WebStorage: ASUS gives you 5GB of cloud storage using your ASUS account, it’s not as seamless as Drive which actually offers you more free space.
Backup: Utility to backup contacts, apps, settings, etc. Google’s solution is the same and happens automatically.
ZenTalk: A forum app for discussing ZenFone-related topics in multiple regions.
Service Center: This is intended to help diagnose problems or find someone that can. It’s a knowledge base of phone numbers, e-mails, and repair status updates. If I need this information I’ll just look it up online, having a dedicated app just in case I need to find information if something goes wrong seems like a waste of space.
ZenUI FAQ: A redundant Service Center minus the status updates.
ZenCircle: Where you can connect with other users and share 360-degree photos
ZenFit: For use with ZenWatch
ZenChoice: Intended to help you discover apps you may enjoy using.

Not to be outdone, Google supplies its Android devices with numerous apps from the Google Suite. Google Duo app, which is now available for global calling, makes an appearance alongside mainstays like YouTube, Drive, Calendar, Photos, Maps, and Gmail. In total, I found 16 Google apps included. This amounts to a grand total of 32 stock apps when combined with ASUS’ own offerings. This is a lot of bloatware.

My biggest complaint about the preloaded software is the keyboard. It’s called the ZenUI keyboard and after one week I still find it’s frustratingly inaccurate. What’s more frustrating is that I have to go through the same thing every time I go through a new ASUS phone. There is no way to log in to update it with your words; at least when they were using TouchPal you could log in and not have to spend weeks coaching your new keyboard. It’s an easy fix to just select another keyboard, but their choice here ruins the initial experience of the handset for me.

ZenFone 3 Zoom Camera Deep Dive

  • The Zoom lives up to its name, the 2.3X optical zoom offers a similar amount of detail as its standard lens and usable photos when using the Zoom to its fullest.
  • Not a solid point and shoot camera, the ZenFone 3 Zoom works best in modes specific to the situation. For example, SuperResolution or Night Shot for low light situation or Manual for anything that has a lot of backlight. 

The ZenFone 3 Zoom is named after the camera. This dual-camera setup is reminiscent of the iPhone 7 Plus. One is a f/1.7-aperture, 25mm wide-angle lens, while the other is a 59mm version offering a 2.3x optical zoom. Like Apple’s latest smartphone, you can instantly bounce between lenses to retain clarity in your shots.

Both cameras shoot 12-megapixel stills, using what ASUS calls an improved “TriTech+” autofocus system to keep your images sharp. These include dual-pixel phase detection autofocus (PDAF), subject tracking autofocus, and a new, revamped laser focus system. The ZenFone 3 Zoom is also the first device from ASUS to feature its new “SuperPixel” technology, a process which involves “intelligently adjusting ISO levels” and applying noise reduction in post. Such a system, the company claims, gives the phone two and a half times greater light sensitivity than the iPhone 7 Plus. We’ve got a few comparison shots in the low light section, so keep scrolling.

It’s ambitious for ASUS to go after the exact same setup as the iPhone, even though they were leading with the Zoom well before Apple with last year’s version. Last year’s model did see significant improvements to the camera after launch, which is why we’re cautious to be too hard on the camera.

The Zoom works very well, I do have to hand it to ASUS, these books are a prime example, the text on the 5X is clear and usable.

Standard lens

2.3X Zoom

Now let’s take a look at the photo on the phone, the colors are punchier and the text does seem to be a little sharper, all though the glare on the “How to Buy Stocks” book seems very digital and not at all natural. Even thought I’m not crazy about the quality considering how far away we were, I have to admit, I’m impressed. 

Low light

  • Strong low light performance in manual, night shot or Super Resolution, Auto yields below average results

It takes a lot of work to get good low light photos out of the Zoom, but it’s worth the extra time and effort, it’s extremely annoying that the Auto mode doesn’t actually suggest that you go into low light or SuperResolution (a mode that is meant to have an extremely high sensitivity to light). The photos are very vibrant and offer a good amount of detail.

ZenFone 3 Zoom

The 2.3X zoom has slightly more digital noise than the standard lens, the peanuts look good for 2.3x zoom, but the standard lens does feel more clear.

Now, let’s compare the ZenFone 3 Zoom to the iPhone 7+, the ZenFone 3 Zoom is clearly more natural, however when you look at the photos on your phone the iPhone 7+ appears to be superior.

We did find issues with the way the Zoom handles red in low light, it’s often orange and you really do start to lose photo quality when you Zoom in.

Standard View

5X Zoom – It took 4 attempts & a lot of playing with exposure to get it to this shade of red

Usually, I don’t like to compare one phone to another so much during a review, but with a phone that values the Zoom so highly it’s put it in the name, it can’t be helped that you want to see how it stands up to Apple’s latest sweetheart of a feature.

When it comes to the amount of detail available the Zoom does often outperform the iPhone.

Depth of Field

  • Needs Work

Depth of Field is that amazing blurry background and the reason why so many people love their DSLR. Smartphones attempt to replicate with the digital Bokeh, it’s not the real deal, but it does add a lot of drama. It’s also sadly an area that the Zoom pretty much fails completely.  First off, the subject can’t move because the Zoom takes 2 photos, there are two visible and audible pictures taken. Then you have to wait 3 or 4 seconds for the phone to process the two photos to create the Bokeh. It’s painfully slow and if you’re trying to take candid photos it’s nearly impossible.

It was easy for me to forget that the photo quality of the Zoom could be on par with the industry’s top flagship phones because the photo failure rate was so high. You need to have the actual patience of a photographer to make this smartphone camera shine.


In the right conditions the Zoom is capable of a good depth of field photo, but more often than not you’ll find uneven edges and errors in processing.

Putting the ZenFone up against the iPhone in the nightmarket was a disaster for the Zoom, here is the best photo I could take of this gentleman waiting for his wife, he stood there for about 5 minutes and ignored me trying to take his photo, here are the best 3 shots. I even changed angles to try to get closer without putting the phone in his face.

This is what the iPhone could do in a quick shot, if taking candid people photos is very important to you, this is the king. Having said that, is it worth spending twice as much for this one capability?

iPhone 7 Plus portrait mode

Selfies

  • Good front facing camera

The Zoom takes a very decent selfie, beautify mode is extreme but can be very natural if you turn down the settings.

Battery – It’s a beast!

  • Great battery life, not surprising since it’s sporting a 500mAh battery. 

6 hours screen on time + 1.5 hours streaming music + 2 hours Hot Spot = full day battery life for an aggressive user

The battery is truly amazing; I came to the point where I was actively trying to kill it since it lasted so long. The massive, bulky 5000 mAh battery will last a light user two days and a heavy user will have room to spare at the end of the day.

To give you an idea of just the battery life beast we are dealing with here: 6 hours of screen on time, which included 5 hours of gaming, plus 1.5 hours of streaming music (we count streaming music as screen on time), AND we shared a WiFi Hotspot with our laptop for 2 hours! The 3 Zoom lasted a day and a half under heavy use.

Airplane Mode on a night + 45min of streaming music +10min of camera +20min maps navigation = average use

On a day where we weren’t trying to drain the battery gaming and just checked Facebook, Instagram, chatted on WhatsApp & Messenger, along with 2 hours of streaming music and viewing maps to get around town, we easily saw our day ending with 50% battery left.

We see 36-40 hours of light use, with ASUS claims 48 hours of talk time, 25 hours of Wi-Fi browsing, and a little over 6 hours of video watching. Notably, ASUS states that the phone can idle for 42 days. With an OTG adapter, the ZenFone 3 Zoom could be used as a powerbank for other devices without worry that it’s going to run out of juice.

Unfortunately, there is no quick charge, which is something you’d expect at this price point. The battery takes two hours and 20 minutes to charge and from 0-50% takes about an hour.

Price

At launch, the expected price for the ZenFone 3 Zoom in India will be ₹25,995 (about US$388). In the United States, customers can expect around US$471 for an unlocked phone. The price tag is a little high, but considering the good camera performance and battery life, it’s competitively priced.

 

Rating
Design / 8
Camera / 8
Sound / 9
Battery Life / 9
Software / 7
Price / 7
Editor's Choice / 8
Hardware / 7.7
Display / 8.5
ZenFone 3 Zoom

The ZenFone 3 Zoom is a solid phone with battery life that puts it at the top of the list for phones we would recommend. The UI is buttery, the performance can’t be faulted, the display is brilliant, and the sound quality is excellent; these qualities are all first rate. The Camera is great but it takes a lot of patience, it's not a fast acting point and shoot. Like a real camera you often to have to tweak the settings to get the best shot.

If you are looking for a handset that has a good camera and exceptional battery life, the ASUS ZenFone 3 Zoom is your next smartphone.

8.0
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