TAIPEI, Taiwan - The Zenfone 2 was one of my favorite mid-range smartphones, but after 18 months on the market, Asus' flagship handset was looking a little long in the tooth. That's why, when Asus announced the Zenfone 3, the company did it in style with not one but three new versions, ranging from a 5.5-inch mid-range model to a 5.7-inch flagship with up to a whopping 6GB of RAM and a massive 6.8-inch phablet.
Starting at $499, the Zenfone 3 Deluxe is clearly the star of the family with its luxurious all-aluminum body, Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 23-megapixel rear camera, 6GB of RAM, up to 128GB of flash storage, rear fingerprint sensor and vibrant 5.7-inch full HD Super AMOLED display.
Next comes the vanilla Zenfone 3, which features an attractive starting price of just $249 for a FHD 5.5-inch Super IPS+ display, 16-MP rear cam, 4GB of RAM, Snapdragon 625 CPU, fingerprint reader and a glass, not metal, back plate.
Finally, the Zenfone 3 Ultra rounds out the family featuring the same specs at the regular Zenfone 3, but this time, mated to a 6.8-inch full HD screen, giant 4,600-mAh battery and a special 4K UHD image processor to help every pixel on that big screen look its best.
Every version of the Zenfone 3 features Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 tech via their USB Type-C ports, although only the Ultra has the ability to act as a power pack and send excess juice back out and into another device.
At its press conference in Taiwan, Asus made a special effort to point out that unlike a lot of other all-metal handsets, the Zenfone 3 Deluxe doesn't have any of those unsightly antenna lines like you get on an iPhone. It's a feature that definitely adds a bit of class, and is pretty impressive considering that the Zenfone 3 Deluxe packs a lot of the same specs, or better, as a Samsung Galaxy S7 or HTC 10, but for $200 to $300 less.
While the harsh conditions of Asus demo area made it difficult to get real in-depth looks at the screens on all the Zenfones, I came away feeling pretty good about Asus' AMOLED and IPS displays. Even the Ultra, which I initially feared might look a little lackluster as it spread a 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution across a huge 6.8-inch display, looked pretty fantastic, even when compared side-by-side with an iPhone 6S Plus.
All three Zenfone 3s also come with 4-axis image stabilization to reduce the nasty blurriness you get from shaky hands, and a tri-focus system that switches between phase detect autofocus, laser autofocus and continuous focus, depending on the situation. Asus says this new autofocus system should help every Zenfone 3 model achieve focus times of as little as 0.03 seconds.
Other improvements on the new Zenfones include Asus' ZenUI 3.0 running on top of Android 6.0, which adds slick animations when scrolling between pages, a mobile management app to help boost overall performance, and the Game Genie app that allows you to stream any app on the Google Play Store directly to YouTube or Twitch.
Asus seems to have cut down on the amount of bloatware loaded on the Zenfone 3, which was one the major complaints I had about its predecessor, although we'll have to wait to see if that minimalism gets carried over to the final, consumer-ready models.
In the end, if I could choose only one model to take home with me today, it would definitely be the Zenfone 3 Deluxe. But even so, it's clear that the entire Zenfone 3 line has a lot of offer, in terms of both value and performance.