With the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 in the midst of a fiery recall, the market is down a supersized unlocked phone. The $499.99 Asus ZenFone 3 Deluxe shows up at a perfect time to take advantage of Samsung's misfortunes. It's a massive 5.7-inch Android phone with a sleek metal build, a high-end processor, and tons of RAM. Unfortunately, it's also riddled with bloatware and has one of the heaviest UI layers we've seen. You're better off with our Editors' Choice, the ZTE Axon 7, which offers similarly powerful hardware, a sharper display, and less fussy software at a lower price.
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Design, Features, and Display
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe lives up to its classy sounding moniker. Its has a sleek metal unibody design with no visible antenna lines, giving it a smart seamless look, similar to the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.
In terms of size, the Deluxe is very much designed for people who want a big phone. It measures 6.2 by 3.1 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 6.0 ounces, putting it on par with other metal phones like the ZTE Axon 7 (6.0 by 2.9 by 0.3 inches, 6.2 ounces) and the upcoming LG V20 (6.3 by 3.1 by 0.3 inches, 6.2 ounces). For the most part you'll need to use the phone with two hands, despite the fact that it's relatively thin and the bezel is practically non-existent. That said, there is a one-handed mode available that resizes what's displayed on the screen for easier reachability.
Along the sides of the phone you'll find the standard ports and buttons. The right houses a clicky volume rocker and power button. A USB-C charging port sits on the bottom, next to the speaker. The top has a headphone jack, while the left side has a combined SIM/microSD card slot (alternatively, it can take two SIM cards). It worked fine with a 256GB Samsung Evo+ card.
The back of the phone is home to a rectangular fingerprint scanner with a variety of programmable functions. You can tap it twice to launch the camera, tap once to take a picture, and tap and hold it to answer phone calls. The scanning function is fast and responsive, but because of the unusual shape of the sensor, my finger didn't fit into it neatly, and I often had to reposition it several times to get it to register.
The Deluxe has a big, bright 5.7-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 AMOLED display. The resolution works out to 386 pixels per inch, which isn't nearly as sharp as the Quad HD AMOLED panel you'll find on the Axon 7 (538ppi), or the smaller 1080p OnePlus 3 for that matter (401ppi). Still, the Deluxe hold its own thanks to good brightness and excellent viewing angles. It's easily visible outdoors, and colors are rich and saturated with options to adjust temperature. There's a set of brightly backlit capacitive buttons beneath the display that can also be set up with programmable functions, like taking a screenshot.
Network Performance and Connectivity
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe is an unlocked phone with support for LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/18/19/20/26/28/29/30. Unlike the Axon 7, which has both CDMA and GSM bands, the Deluxe will only work on GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile. We tested it on T-Mobile in midtown Manhattan and saw strong network performance—the phone registered a top download speed of 36Mbps outdoors. It also supports Wi-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, as well as NFC.
Call quality isn't great. Earpiece volume is loud, but transmissions are on the muddy side, with intermittent pops and crackles. Noise cancellation is decent, though, for those on the other end of the call.
Performance, Battery, and Camera
The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor clocked at 2.15GHz. In terms of benchmarks, the Deluxe scored 148,587 on AnTuTu, which tests overall system performance. That's higher than both the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (121,906) and the Axon 7 (141,989) due to its lower-resolution display resolution and increased RAM.
Like the OnePlus 3, the Deluxe has 6GB of RAM under the hood, so multitasking and gaming are a breeze. It's worth noting that despite never hitting the RAM usage limit, the phone had a higher RAM utilization than most other phones we've reviewed, using an average of 2.2GB even when only running a few apps. That's likely due to the heavy software layer, which I'll discuss in a bit.
See How We Test Cell Phones
Battery life is good. The phone clocked 7 hours and 13 minutes in our rundown test, in which we stream full-screen video over LTE at maximum screen brightness. It's not as high as the S7 Edge, which managed 10 hours of streaming on its higher-res display, but it's longer than the Axon 7's 6 hours. The phone comes with a Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 adapter and should charge to 60 percent in 39 minutes, which is about what we saw in testing. There's also a slew of power-saving modes and a battery manager, allowing you to extend battery by lowering screen brightness, restricting background data, and closing power-sucking apps.
There's a 23-megapixel rear camera that takes decent pictures outdoors, but proved unreliable in more challenging circumstances. Despite the presence of laser autofocus and optical image stabilization, many pictures I took in low light or indoors came out muddy, blurry, or out of focus. It's no match for the overall reliability of the OnePlus 3. It also records 4K video at 30fps.
There's a solid 8-megapixel sensor on the front that takes clear shots in good light, though the automatic Skin Brightening setting tends to oversaturate tones.
The ZenFone 3 Deluxe runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow buried under a heavy layer of Zen UI, which changes just about everything you know and love about Android. Visual elements like app icons and the app drawer are different, but the heaviest alterations are to the notification shade and the settings menu, which are so full of options, toggles, modes, and programmable functions that it's easy to get confused. There's a truly bewildering array of menus baked into the phone.
The problem is made worse by pop-ups that appear out of nowhere, like a memory manager informing you how much RAM was "released" when you closed your apps, or periodic updates that your system is optimized. To add insult to injury, you can't turn them off.
In addition, most of the added functionality is either redundant of flat-out unnecessary. One of the more absurd additions is OptiFlex, a "smart tool" in the Settings menu that can selectively enhance the launch performance of up to ten apps. It's barely clear what this even means, and it raises the question: Shouldn't all apps launch efficiently?
There are 11 non-removable Asus apps, and a great deal of space is taken by the UI, custom launcher, and extra features. You're left with 48.72GB of storage out of the 64GB total. You can add a microSD card, but Asus has disabled Marshmallow's Adoptable Storage feature.
At $500, the ZenFone 3 Deluxe is a good-looking piece of hardware that falls short in the software department due to an overwhelming array of customizations, tweaks, and built-in managers. Factor in a mediocre camera and a relatively low-resolution display, and most people looking for a premium phablet will be better served elsewhere. For $100 less, the OnePlus 3 gets you a better camera and almost stock Android software. Our Editors' Choice, the ZTE Axon 7, has a higher-resolution display and is compatible with every major US carrier—and it's $100 less.