ASUS ZenFone 3 ZE552KL Review: Bigger, Better, Probably the Best Midrange Phone of 2016 (Video)

With 2016 coming to a close soon, we can’t help but judge each and every phone we come across as a potential entry in the top 10 of...

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With 2016 coming to a close soon, we can’t help but judge each and every phone we come across as a potential entry in the top 10 of the year. And ASUS ZenFone 3 certainly deserves a spot, no matter the version you’re talking about. So, after reviewing the 5.2 inch model, today we have a glance at the 5.5 incher. It’s dubbed ASUS ZenFone 3 ZE552KL and it’s a 5.5 inch metal and glass phone priced at $450.

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It’s an upper midranger launched at the end of summer and packing 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of storage. Available in black, white or gold, the handset adopts the same design traits as its smaller version, with a 2.5D glass panel upfront and one at the back. The 5.5 inch screen has a 77.3% screen to body ratio and it’s quite slim, at 7.69 mm in waistline, the same as the ZE520KL.

It’s also 0.39 mm thicker than the Huawei Nova Plus, probably its biggest rival on the market. The phone weighs 155 grams, meaning it’s 5 grams lighter than the Nova Plus and the same weight as the LG G4. There’s a dual glass panel (front and back), a solid metal frame and a protruding back camera. This phone is wide and big, certainly not easy to use with a single hand.

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It has a solid build and it’s made of premium materials, also flaunting a very nice concentric circle pattern when it catches the light. Buttons are quite comfy to press and use and the device has an overall great look and build. It kind of sits weirdly on the camera, that protrudes a bit, though. Now as far as the display goes, we’re getting a 5.5 inch Super IPS+ panel with a Full HD resolution and a 2.1 mm bezel.

178 degree view angles are available here and we are promised 600 nits of brightness on paper. There’s also Gorilla Glass 3 protection here and oleophobic protection too. There’s no video player, so we had to resort to the Gallery for video playback purposes. The viewing experience brought us OK colours, solid brightness and wide view angles, plus good contrast, but the black was not very deep.

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Pixels have an RGB Stripes arrangement and the brightness we measured is 500 LUX, which is very nice and all, but not quite constant since some areas of the screen offer 479 LUX or 488 LUX of brightness. Luckily you can’t notice the difference with the naked eye. With the above mentioned value we surpassed the OnePlus 2, LG G4 and Lumia 950 XL for example.

We also scored below the iPhone 7 and Xiaomi Mi 5. Settings include brightness, font style, font size, as well as screen color mode. There you’ll find a color temperature slide and Modes like Balance, Blue Light Filter, Vivid and Custom (hue and saturation sliders). What’s key here is that we register a big brightness growth from the ZenFone 2, but we do remain inferior tot he ZenFone 3 ZE520KL, that had 547 LUX to offer.

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Now we look into the internals of the smartphone and we find an octa core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 CPU, a 14 nm unit at 2 GHz, the same one as the chipset from the ZE520KL and Huawei Nova/Nova Plus. There’s an Adreno 506 GPU in the mix and 3 or 4 GB of LPDDR3 RAM. We’ve got 64 GB of storage, a microSD card slot and luckily no trace or lag, plus fluid functioning. Performance is good and the apps start up fast.

Games like Riptide GP Renegade run fine, without any frame drop or hassle. Benchmarks like AnTuTu or Quadrant also delivered solid results. We even beat the Galaxy S6 Edge+ in Quadrant and the Galaxy Note 5. In AnTuTu 6 we surpassed the HTC One A9 and scored in identical fashion with the ZE520KL almost, but below the Huawei Nova. 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited also brought a score above the Huawei Nova Plus and iPhone 5S, but below the Vernee Apollo Lite and Xperia Z3.

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We’re happy with the performance, so let’s talk temperature. We achieved 31.2 degrees Celsius after running GFXBench and 34.6 degrees after Riptide, so there’s no overheating here. Time to talk battery! We’ve got a 3000 mAh Li-Ion unit here, an upgrade from the ZE520KL’s 2650 mAh unit. Our HD video playback test brought us to 11 hours and 31 minutes of playback time, which is very good.

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It surpasses the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Lenovo Vibe X3, but scores below the iPhone SE and Xiaomi Mi5. In PCMark we reached 9 hours and 46 minutes, which is the eighth best performance from all the models we’ve tested. It’s a great result and it certainly beats the Galaxy S7 Edge and Huawei Mate 8 for example. Still, it’s inferior to the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Pro and Xperia X compact.

Charging is done in 1 hour and 49 minutes, which is quite nice and superior to the ZenFone 2. Still, we charged slower than the Nexus 6P. Settings include Battery Optimization and the following modes: Performance, Normal, Power Saving, Super Saving and Custom. The first two let you adjust the CPU and brightness, while the Power Saving disables the Internet in sleep mode and Super Saving disables all networks.

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Custom lets you tweak brightness and Internet. It’s a great battery overall and there’s not much to object about here. Now let’s get to the speakers. We’ve actually only got one, at the bottom of the device and we’re using Play Music to well… play music. There’s also an Audio Wizard app, that will offer modes like Movie, Music, Gaming, Outdoor, Smart and Vocal, depending on your needs and the content you play.

There’s also an Advanced section, with tweaks for volume, bass and treble, as well as dialog enhancement and a 5 channel EQ. The listening experience brought on a loud and clear sound, no distortion and a pretty good bass, plus a crisp rendition of songs. The outdoor mode does distort things a bit, though. We proceeded to do a decibelmeter test and achieved 80 dBA, using our typical audio sample, as well as 92.8 dBA running Riptide GP Renegade, which is quite a solid result, actually one of the biggest.

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We surpassed the Galaxy S6 and the ASUS ZenFone 3 ZE520KL, but scored below the LeEco Le Max 2. The bundled headphones are comfy and loud, they have a clear sound and the bass is quite good. FM radio is also here and overall acoustics are fine. Moving on to the camera, you’d expect that we said the same findings of the ZenFone 3 ZE520KL would apply here.

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Well, even though the exact same pair of cameras is here, somehow the 5.5 incher feels better when it comes to the actual capture. There’s a 16 megapixel back camera, with F/2.0 aperture and 1.12 micron pixels, plus Pixel Master 3.0 tech and a 6 element lens. There’s also sapphire glass protection for the camera, laser focus, PDAF and 4 axis OIS.

Then there’s a dual tone flash and RGB sensor, plus you should know that the camera is capable of 4K video capture. Finally, the front camera is an 8 MP shooter with F/2.0 aperture. The camera app starts up fast and the cam itself offers fluid zoom, fast focus and fast picture taking. Lots of modes are available here, as per usual for a ZenFone. Here they are: Auto, Manual, HDR Pro, Beauty, Super Resolution, Children, Low Light, QR Code, Night, Depth of Field, Effect, Selfie, GIF, Panorama, Miniature, Time Rewind, Smart Remove, All Smiles, Slow Motion and Time Lapse.

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The Manual mode brings a few sub options, like white balance, exposure, ISO, shutter and focus. We then get to the gallery, starting with day time shots, taken in mod November on a sunny day. The results are very crisp and clear, brightness is great and exposure is quite good. Focus was proper all the time and we really have nothing to complain about here.

We achieved some great closeups of flowers and a nice zoom in quality for that picture of a flag and colors were realistic and well calibrated in general. There was absolutely no blur here and selfies were also bright and crisp, with a good texture of the face. We also achieved one of those shots I like to call a 10 out of 10, featuring those colorful toy balls. Truly excellent:

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Panorama has a rather modest resolution of 9600 x 992 pixels and it came out rather clear and clean, in spite of the shiny sun. We also shot some very nice looking autumn leaves, with a very interesting texture. The HDR is great and it eliminates all the washed out bits of the shots. We also pulled off an HDR of the sunset, that looked mighty fine.

This one is a very pragmatic camera, with excellently calibrated colors and brightness. Somehow it feels better than the camera of the ZE520KL. We achieved great details in landscape shots and registered a solid texture for the graffiti pics. It can equal and surpass the Huawei Nova and Nova Plus, also it beats the Galaxy A5 (2016) and can even fight the iPhones on equal terms, clarity-wise.

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Low light pictures feature great details, they’re very bright and so is the flash by the way. Street light halos have OK sizes and the texture of monuments and brick walls is nice and all. There’s no violet or blue hue here, or it’s present in very little manner, compared to the Xperia XZ for example. This is certainly one of the top phones of 2016, when it comes to low light capture, especially among midrangers. Very solid lighting and clarity!

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As far as videos go, we filmed in MP4, Full HD, at 30 FPS and 20 Mbps, or 4K at 43 Mbps. The result was rather crisp, but the background was a bit blurry. There were also some sudden exposure changes and colors felt a bit too vivid. The sky was basically white, but at least clarity was OK and focus was good. The microphone also behaved in exemplary fashion and we registered a nice zoom quality on those seagulls.

The OIS test brought on a case of flicker and focus loss for some reason, but clarity remained solid. Indoors I used the phone to film a local Watch Dogs 2 launch and met with a nice mic, good colors, clarity and even good stabilization. Low light video capture featured some flicker, good clarity and also reasonably sized street light halos.

Brightness was just fine for night time capture, colors were also quite good and overall everything was fine, but somehow below the champions like Huawei Mate 8 or the last year Nexus models. Still, video capture is totally superior to the ASUS ZenFone 2 generation. Now that the camera is done, let’s talk about the browser. The browser of choice here is Chrome, that’s very fast and also registers good benchmarks, such as SunSpider and Vellamo.

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We also get the typical ASUS virtual keyboard with numeric row and comfy arrangement of keys, as tested in the video review below. As far as connectivity goes, there’s an USB Type C port here, WiFi a/b/g/n/ac, GPS, Glonass, Bluetooth 4.2 and WiFi Direct. This one is a dual SIM phone, with a microSIM and a nano SIM card slot, the latter also being used to host the microSD.

Only one SIM is able to connect to 4G at one time and we get LTE Category 7 support here, with up to 300 Mbps in download speed. That’s the Chinese version at least, since the international model offers LTE Category 4, with up to 150 Mbps download speed. Getting to the Dialer, it has a Block List, Speed Dial and Call Recording, plus a ton of other options.

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Calls are loud and clear, they sound great and the signal is also good. We also did a SpeedTest, achieving 165 Mbps in download on WiFi and 25 Mbps in upload. On 4G we reached 77 Mbps in download and 47 Mbps in upload, which frankly speaking could be higher, for both 4G values. The WiFi is inferior compared to the ZenFone ZE520KL, but the 4G is above it, so all’s good in the end.

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This smartphone runs Andrid 6.0.1 Marshmallow, with Zen UI 3.0 on top, that sports a flat UI and tons of customizations and options. Multitasking is still done via carousel and there’s also pinning here. The dropdown bit includes notifications and Quick Settings, which are shown as flat and lightly colored bubbles, as usual for ZenFones.

If you keep pressed the homescreen, you will trigger sections like apps & widgets (transparent and blue-ish ones from ASUS), options used to edit the homescreens (icon size, icon align, scroll effects and font size), plus icon label color, font type, wallpapers, icon packs, themes and lock apps. Folder options are here and even the animations can be switched.

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A swipe down on the homescreen shows both a search window for apps and what’s trending online. Now getting to the Settings, they include functions like ASUS Cover, Do Not Disturb, ZenMotion (Double Tap to Wake, Draw Letters to open apps, One Hand Mode and Flip). Finally, there’s a Glove Mode here and options related to Game Genie, the gaming feature of the phone, that lets you record gaming sessions or stream them live via Twitch or YouTube, with facecam included.

And we’re not even done with the Settings, that include Themes, Easy Mode, Kids Move, Screenshot and the fingerprint scanner options. The latter has a 10 step setup, lets you unlock the device in a fast and accurate manner and also lets you answer calls, take pics and more. The preinstalled apps list is as usual filled with apps, around 52 of them this time.

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Lots can be uninstalled luckily. On the list we find names like Kindle, Facebook, Do It Later, Laser Ruler, Mini Movie, Mobile Manager, Photo Collage, Quick Memo and Web Storage. All’s fine and dandy, so now it’s time for the verdict.

Here are the Pros:

  • premium design
  • bright screen
  • great performance
  • solid battery
  • loud speaker
  • great pictures and selfies
  • welcome gaming functions

And the Cons:

  • many apps preinstalled
  • too many options, settings, functions
  • optical image stabilization brings on flicker and focus loss when filming
  • not many changes from older Zen UI to the new one

Overall, the ASUS ZenFone 3 ZE552KL is the best midrange phone of the year, standing our through camera, display, battery, audio and performance. It can easily replace a flagship, without regrets or remorse and also by spending much less. It totally rivals and even surpasses the Galaxy A 2016 models, fights the Huawei Nova Plus on equal terms and looks prettier, plus has an excellent battery.

It’s a total evolution from the ZenFone 2 and opens the door to a perfect ZenFone 4 next year. The updated price of this ZenFone is here.

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