ASUS ZenFone 3 Max review: Battery capacity isn't everything

Overview

With the ZenFone 3 headlining the current batch of ASUS handsets, many other variants will follow shortly. One of them is the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max, where the Taiwanese company packs a massive 4,100mAh battery into the device as its key feature.

If that trick sounds familiar, it's because the ZenFone 3 Max was based off the old ZenFone Max, which managed impressive battery life performance in our review. This second iteration kept all the core battery features, and it’s now equipped with an entry-level MediaTek processor to power the phone. To make the phone even more attractive, the new Max uses the ZenFone 3’s design language, and it’s still affordably priced at the same price point S$248.

So, how does the ZenFone 3 Max fare as a battery juggernaut? Will it be as good as before, or will it be even better? That's what we intend to find out!

Design & Handling

Since the ZenFone 3 Max follows the design language of the base ASUS ZenFone 3 model, this low-cost phone actually looks good and feels good despite its lower price point. ASUS said that the ZenFone 3 Max uses a sand-blasted aluminum alloy body, while the front shows off a 2.5D curved glass that ends off in diamond-cut edges. Instead of neglecting the antenna lines, the ZenFone 3 Max makes those lines highly polished, which accentuates the overall premium-looking finish of the smartphone.

The phone’s rear camera lies nearly flush against its back – something that their star model, the ZenFone 3, couldn't achieve because of better optics and a slimmer profile. We certainly didn’t expect much from an S$248 phone, but the ZenFone 3 Max really shows other phones how to make your design appealing yet sensible, even at this price range.

Aesthetics aside, the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max has the appeal of a graceful, lightweight phone despite its massive battery capacity. It’s 8.55mm thin, and it’s light to the touch (at 148g) despite it all. For reference, the preceding ZenFone Max weighed 202g, and it shed a whopping 54g at the cost of only 900mAh in this new iteration. The 5.2-inch body makes one-handed operation more manageable. Its girth and width make the phone feel secure when you grip it, and the important buttons are at convenient spots – your index finger rests on the rear fingerprint sensor, while the middle finger goes to the power/lock button when it’s in your left hand. Yes, your read right, this entry-level phone not only sports an aluminum build, but it also sports a fingerprint sensor - something that wasn't present in its predecessor.

Display & Audio

The ASUS ZenFone 3 Max uses a 5.2-inch HD (1,280 x 720 pixels resolution) IPS display. According to ASUS, it’s capable of 400cd/m2 brightness. Color reproduction and clarity on the display is excellent, even if it leans towards a warmer tone. Our peeve, however, is the amount of “unused” space that’s in between the bezel and the image – notice how the test image doesn’t quite maximize the phone’s display? The black borders are unevenly noticeable and it prevails all through using the phone - be it in the Home screen, snapped photos, or the app interfaces.

Audio on the ZenFone 3 Max is functional, but the maximum volume isn’t as loud as we’d like it to be.

UI & Features

ZenUI 3.0

If you’re familiar with the ZenFone range, the proprietary ZenUI 3.0 that cloaks the Android 6.0 OS (Marshmallow) should be no stranger to ASUS smartphone fans. While a 5.2-inch screen may seem generous, the UI makes the phone feel cluttered. Out of the box, the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max packs two pages’ worth of apps inside the App Drawer. There’s an even split between proprietary apps and third-party apps. Uninstalling the third-party ones should free up some of your limited 16GB internal storage, which is already limited by the 6.32GB taken up by the OS itself.

Remaining storage space after loading benchmark apps and materials. Yikes.
Remaining storage space after loading benchmark apps and materials. Yikes.

Fingerprint Sensor

The inclusion of a fingerprint sensor makes it the second ASUS device in our office to have one – the honor of being first would be the ASUS ZenFone 3 (which is what the ZenFone 3 Max is based on). It’s responsive and fast, just like the ZenFone 3’s sensor.

USB On-The-Go

Your typical smartphone hogs all the battery for itself, and rightfully so, since it requires every watt for maximum uptime. Not the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max – this smartphone supports USB OTG, and it allows the phone to charge other mobile devices when they are plugged in to the 4,100mAh handset. This feature was also available on the preceding ZenFone Max, so it made sense that ASUS brought it onto their renewed model too.

By default, the phone charges other connected USB devices at 0.5A. It has an optional Rapid Reverse Charge function that turns off the phone’s functionality and charges said devices up to 1.5A. The Rapid Reverse Charge mode can monitor charging levels, and the phone won’t allow itself to go below 30% capacity while charging other gadgets. You can disable reverse charging in the Settings, which will stop other devices from drawing power from your ZenFone 3 Max during sleep. This sets the USB OTG feature apart from other capable USB OTG Android smartphones.

Mobile Manager

One of the useful pre-loaded apps found on the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max is the Mobile Manager. Here is where you find five power-saving modes that can really stretch the uptime of your 4,100mAh battery. Performance mode and Normal mode are pretty straightforward, with the former using 100% screen brightness at all times. Power Saving mode disables network connection when your device is asleep, while Super Saving mode only keeps your Phone, SMS, and Alarm functions awake with everything else disabled. The last mode allows the user to customize their own power saving style, but it’s not as detailed as one would hope – it’s a matter of choosing between High or Smart screen brightness, and selecting how you want your phone’s network to behave – there are no micro-management options beyond this point, but it should be sufficient for the everyday smartphone user.

Other power-saving options include a scheduled timer where it will switch the phone to a chosen power-saving mode at a time period designated by the user. The Battery Level option automatically switches the phone’s power mode when it goes below 10% charge.

Within Mobile Manager, you’ll find other controls, such as App Permissions and Data Usage. These are handy – App Permissions allow the user to limit the apps that can auto-start when the phone is booted up, while providing a handy way to disable individual permissions for individual apps. Data Usage lets you limit specific apps to certain data privileges – mobile data only, Wi-Fi only, or none. As such, Data Usage is extra helpful when you have simple game apps that waste cellular data to show advertisements but do not require data to play. Similarly, you can limit the apps so you get fewer surprises on your phone bill.

Benchmark Performance

The ASUS ZenFone 3 Max uses an entry-level MediaTek MT6737 quad-core processor clocked at 1.25GHz. On the processor is a Mali-T720 GPU. Our review unit has 16GB internal storage, which means our model contains 2GB RAM. We’ll compare it to older ZenFone units (like the preceding ZenFone Max), and other low-priced alternatives.

Quadrant

Quadrant evaluates a device's CPU, memory, I/O, and 3D graphics performance. The ZenFone 3 Max has an average performance on paper, with some disappointing results - the Redmi Note 3 actually beats the ZenFone 3 Max by a large margin despite sitting in the same price bracket.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited

3DMark Ice Storm is designed to test the gaming capabilities of a device, putting its GPU through a rigorous OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark test that uses fixed off-screen rendering with high quality textures and post-processing effects. The Unlimited version of the benchmark disables v-sync, display scaling and other OS factors, making it ideal for chipset comparison.Since all the recent flagship smartphones max out the scores for the Standard and Extreme tests, we will only be comparing results for Ice Storm Unlimited.

While it's been established that the phone has entry-level performance, we're pleased with how it beats the preceding ZenFone Max. However, it still has one of the lowest scores compared to its rivals.

For your own reference, the ZenFone 3 Max scored 177 for the 3DMark Sling Shot benchmark – we're still gathering companion results for this new benchmark, but as with 3DMark results, the higher the score, the better.

SunSpider JavaScript

SunSpider JavaScript measures the browsing performance of a device when processing Javascript. It not only takes into consideration the underlying hardware performance, but also assesses how optimized a particular platform is at delivering a high-speed web browsing experience. Seem like the ZenFone 3 Max managed a decent showing here, but not by a large margin.

For your reference, the ZenFone 3 Max scored 19.328 for the JetStream benchmark – again, this is a new test where we're gathering test data, so we'll be a while more before we can transition. But as usual, the higher the score the better.

Generally speaking, the ZenFone 3 Max doesn’t have the smoothest user experience. It struggles with basic navigation and app loading occasionally times, while running flawlessly otherwise. To play the devil’s advocate, the ZenFone 3 Max is built entirely around delivering a long-lasting uptime, making raw performance less of a key feature for this smartphone.

Camera Performance

The ASUS ZenFone 3 Max uses a 13-megapixel PixelMaster camera on the rear. It has an f/2.2 aperture lens. They’ve also included a bunch of features. Backlight (Super HDR) mode is a fancy name for High Dynamic Range shooting. Super Resolution mode is far more interesting – in one tap, the phone shoots multiple shots simultaneously before digitally stitching it for a single photograph with 52-megapixel detail. We’ve included one Super Resolution shot of our usual Auto mode testing, just for kicks.

Auto mode. Click to view full-resolution image.
Auto mode. Click to view full-resolution image.

From the test image, we can see that the camera is capable of good color and contrast reproduction. Sharpness and noise are the bigger issues here, unfortunately, with the noise grain interfering with the details across all of the figurines. As such, the phone’s camera is functional at best, but it does look more impressive than expected on the phone display.

Super Resolution mode. Click to view full-resolution image.
Super Resolution mode. Click to view full-resolution image.

The only noticeable difference between an Auto mode shot and the Super Resolution mode shot was the significantly reduced noise grain. There isn’t much more you can tell with the naked eye.

Battery performance

Our standard battery test for mobile phones includes the following parameters:

  • Looping a 720p video with screen brightness and volume at 100%

  • Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity turned on

  • Constant data streaming through email and Twitter

The results look nothing like a phone with a 4,100mAh battery; in factm it's considerably less than the outgoing ZenFone Max’s 5,000mAh battery. Previously, we reported that the old model was able to clock in more than 19 hours of uptime. The ZenFone 3 Max managed a modest uptime of just 460 minutes, which is slightly better than what the Sony Xperia X managed (it only has a 2,600mAh battery and is a mid-range product). Even the ZenFone 3 clocked a better battery mileage of 720 minutes. The ZenFone 3 Max is therefore not as power efficient as the others.

This isn’t the first time where a phone had a larger-than-average battery capacity with disappointing battery life – take a look at this Leagoo Shark 1 and you’d agree. If anything, we observe that phones that pack an entry-level MediaTek processor seemed to penalize a phone’s battery life adversely. Interestingly, the older ZenFone Max used an up-to-date entry-level Qualcomm processor.

Leagoo did not release their battery's discharge voltage, and hence we have no number to determine how efficient it is at consuming power over time.
Leagoo did not release their battery's discharge voltage, and hence we have no number to determine how efficient it is at consuming power over time.

As the power consumption figures above reveal, clearly, the ZenFone 3 Max is sipping way too power, and thus the overall poor battery performance. Combining these above factors, our Portability Index agrees with us that even the heavier and thicker ZenFone Max from last year is more worth your time than carrying around the new ZenFone 3 Max, despite the fact the newcomer is sleeker and lighter. For those who aren't too familiar with our Portability Index, it factors key attributes such as battery life uptime, physical dimensions and weight into consideration to bring about the below ratios:-

It’s worth noting that our battery test really pushes the phone to its limit with maximum brightness and volume. When the ZenFone 3 Max was sleeping and untouched for three days, it still had 85% battery left. Your real world usage may vary, but our battery test tells us it’s nowhere as efficient as the ZenFone 3, which had a smaller battery capacity but far better battery uptime.

Conclusion

The ASUS ZenFone 3 Max will have a tough time measuring up to its own past model and rivals. For an extra S$50, you get a 1080p display and better battery life with the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, but the same price will net you the older ZenFone Max that comes with a larger battery capacity and significantly longer battery life - exactly what we expect out of a "Max" class ZenFone product.

Given the flexibility of Android OS customization, most of its software packaged features can be replaced with other apps on the Google Play store, while the rest would be better off deleted in favor of precious internal storage. The phone’s real-world performance makes it a harder sell than it really needs to be. The ZenFone 3 Max has several nice aspects like the good design and build quality, a fingerprint sensor, USB OTG functionality, and its accompanying larger battery capacity. However, the choice to use Mediatek processors has stripped the phone's potential considerably. After all, who would knowingly get an underperforming device when other options won't suffer this aspect?

If you simply want a phone, the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max is definitely usable and at S$248 for a pretty phone, it helps to make it marketable. However, most discerning phone enthusiasts would likely pass this up for other alternatives.

On a side note, the ASUS ZenFone 3 Max really helps to emphasize how great the base model ASUS ZenFone 3 really is. At just S$200 more, you get a significantly faster and smoother phone with better battery life, higher-tier hardware, and a 1080p resolution display. This base model punches above its weight, and this keeps us excited about the performance of the premium ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe.

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