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ASUS sent me into the jungle to try out the new ZenFone 3 Zoom. Here are my thoughts

Intro

OK. Early last year, we saw ASUS take a stab at smashing the smartphone camera scene wide open with the introduction of a handset that had 3X optical zoom but had a form-factor that didn’t equal gaffer taping a smartphone to your DSLR. It was an interesting idea, but, as we now know, the device wasn’t a smashing success.

There were many reasons why the ZenFone Zoom flopped, so this year, when ASUS invited me to an undisclosed location in Pahang to try its successor — the brand new ZenFone 3 Zoom — my mission was to find out if they’ve learnt their lessons…and not get killed in some jungle.

Right off the bat, you’ll notice that the ZenFone 3 Zoom has taken quite the turn when it comes to design. Gone is the rasa kamera body with a textured leather back and stitching. Eliminated is the massive camera module and the included camera strap.

What you’re left with instead are a sleek metal body that feels pretty good in the hand and a much more phone-like structure. To be honest, I kinda like it, especially in this stealthy dark blue. But, I’m incredibly disappointed to find out that ASUS decided to ditch the dedicated camera and video buttons that I really loved from the old Zoom. Instead, you get the conventional power and volume rockers — which I find doesn’t have the same excellent fit and finish as it did on the original.

Still, as an overall design choice, I definitely approve of this new form factor.

Inside, the new Zoom is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 octa-core processor mated to 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage — a pairing I definitely approve of. Sure, I’ll miss the 128GB of storage on the old Zoom, but I definitely won’t miss that Intel processor. ASUS has also packed a massive 5,000 mAh battery in the smartphone which is really awesome.

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Through our testing, the Zoom powered through an entire day of photo and 4K video recording with almost 6 hours of screen on time. For some context, when we push phones this hard, they’re all dead by the afternoon — the ZenFone 3 Zoom is definitely not messing around when it comes to battery life.

But that’s not what we’re all here for. We’re here for the camera and that’s perhaps the biggest change ASUS made to this handset. The original ZenFone Zoom had an interesting camera module. It was large, but for good reason: It had to accommodate a sophisticated optical zoom system mounted horizontally across the phone’s body.

This time, ASUS has taken a simpler approach, opting for two cameras mounted side by side. The first has your regular wide-angle 25mm f/1.7 aperture lens while the second has a 59mm equivalent f/2.6 aperture lens instead. This gives you about a 2.3X zoom between the wide and the telephoto. But ASUS also advertises their crazy 12X zoom which incorporates digital zoom into the mix for some serious reach. Both cameras pack 12-megapixel sensors but vary in terms of aperture and image stabilisation (zoom lens does not have OIS nor EIS).

So, pretty much the same idea as Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus. Unfortunately, that also meant that ASUS’ setup has the same limitation as Apple’s too. Remember the whole story about the iPhone 7 Plus not using the zoom lens as often as you think? Well, the ZenFone 3 Zoom does that too.

That said, the ZenFone 3 Zoom’s camera is definitely an improvement over its predecessor. While the original was sluggish and prone to getting uncomfortably hot, I didn’t really experience any of that with the new Zoom.

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Overall operation was snappy and responsive, being quick to pull focus and capture. Sure, there were occasions where I missed a shot because the camera froze but that happened just once or twice throughout my testing period. Of course, I’m not saying that it’s Galaxy S7 edge levels of fast, but let’s be real, how many are?

Image quality is nice too. Leaving it on full auto will often net you nice photos, though I have to say the resulting images were a little too saturated for my liking. Then there’s the issue of the ZenFone 3 Zoom’s white balance being inconsistent especially in low light, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a deal breaker.

I’m definitely impressed with how much they’ve improved from its successor which leads me to believe that ASUS did take a look at what went wrong with the old Zoom and try to fix it.

However, it’s far from perfect. I get that they’re going for a more phone less camera design language, but would it have killed them to include a dedicated shutter button? Instead, the only way you can quickly launch into the camera is by double tapping the volume rocker — a setting that was buried in the lock screen settings of the phone.

Then there’s ZenUI which is definitely not a looker and comes with a bunch of pre-installed applications, many of which you can’t uninstall. Further, ASUS’s apparent refusal to include backlit capacitive keys on their phones continues to befuddle me.

Also, I think ASUS may have been a little too lax with the quality control on the phones because out of the dozen or so units they handed out to the media, there were two with defective buttons — mine was one of them.

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At the end of the day, I think that ASUS did a pretty alright job with this update. It improves on the Zoom’s core aspect (it’s camera) and brings a new and elegant design up too. But I have to say that the best part about this phone is its awesome battery life.

So, as a phone, this RM2,099 device isn’t a bad handset. You’re getting quite a lot of good stuff for your money and if you’re a power user, I’m sure you’ll be pleased with the battery life. Spec-sheet warriors will probably complain about pricing a Snapdragon 625 phone above RM2,000 but I honestly didn’t have any major problems with the handset’s performance.

It certainly performs better than the old Zoom running on that Intel Atom Z3590 chipset.

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