There aren’t a great deal of premium tablets available for less than $300, but some OEMs are trying to crack that challenge. Recently, ASUS released their ZenPad 3S 10. It’s a 9.7”, 4:3 Android tablet with pretty much all the high-end specs most people would want in a tablet.
The tablet uses a 4:3 display ratio, more commonly seen by a certain Cupertino-based company – but I’m going to try to skip the whole “is this ASUS’ iPad-killer?”; that said, it’s hard to ignore the aesthetic similarities.
What’s in the Box?
The blue box that houses the tablet has a soft touch, giving an air of luxury. The brand and product name are written in gold letters across the top with all the regulatory information and logos on the bottom. The lid flips up to reveal the tablet sitting snuggly inside.
The tablet is offered with a USB type A to type C cable, a non QuickCharge 5V/2A power adapter, warranty cards and a foldable, cardboard tablet mount.
The presentation of the packaging and product overall gives a premium feel.
The Z500M has an all-metal body, which is available in either “Titanium Gray” or “Glacier Silver”. There is a clickable home button on the front which doubles as the fingerprint sensor. The back button sits to the left and the running apps button to the right.
On the top of the device is a 3.5mm headphone jack. The right side houses the volume rocker and power button just below. Both buttons have the circular texture seen on a number of ASUS products giving them a pleasant feel.
The left side has the removable micro SD card tray on its own. A USB type-C port sits in the middle of the bottom edge between the dual stereo speakers.
Between the metal body, the chamfered edges and slim profile (it’s 5.8mm thin) the tablet looks fantastic and definitely feels like a top of the range device.
The tablet is a 9.7” device with a QXGA (1536 x 2048) LCD screen. It follows the trend of current flagship devices sporting 4 GB RAM and 64 GB storage with no other storage options. That’s not a problem, as the tablet offers expandable storage in the guise of a micro SD card slot, supporting modules up to 256 GB.
The Z500M uses a 64 bit MediaTek MT8176 hexa-core processor. Two of the cores are clocked at 2.1 GHz with four cores at 1.7GHz.
The front facing camera, centered on the front of the device, is a 5MP snapper with 1080p video. The main camera is 8MP also with full HD video. There is a reasonable 5,900mAh battery powering the device which is charged by a USB type-C port that supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0.
The Z500M is also compatible with ASUS’ Z Stylus, but that is an additional optional accessory.
ZenUI is the name of ASUS’ modified version of Android. Other than some additional apps, ZenUI also changes the look and feel of the device. The notification drawer, for example, uses large blue circles for the toggles with four green circles acting as quick-access to some of the apps. ZenUI offers the ability to change the theme including colors, icons and fonts. These can be downloaded from the Play Store easily.
ASUS offers a number of apps to improve the experience of the tablet. While these apps cannot be uninstalled they can be disabled if you don’t find them to be of any use. ASUS Mobile Manager acts as a jack-of-all-trades, offering a power save feature, an auto-start manager (to control which apps can load at boot-up), a data usage monitor and notification controller. There’s also a “Power & Boost” button which frees RAM by closing background apps.
The selection also includes a fairly redundant Backup app, which I imagine is only useful if restoring from another ASUS device. When you open the app and provide it with all the permissions it needs, the app informs you that Backup no longer provides backups as of Android M (6.0) and that the Android Backup & Reset feature should be used instead. Without a backup from an older device to restore I can’t comment on whether the restore feature is functional.
The MyASUS app is useful for registering your device, contacting support if necessary and browsing other ASUS devices. The app is more useful if you have multiple ASUS devices because if you do send one in for repair, it’s pretty difficult to then use the app to monitor its repair status!
The most frustrating aspect is a problem that seems to have existed in Android since the first tablets were released. A lot of apps just aren’t designed for high-resolution displays and even fewer are designed for the more boxy 4:3 ratio. Even some of the ASUS built-in apps feel large, clunky and don’t optimize the screen estate efficiently.
Looking to the future, I am very hopeful that ASUS will release an update to Android 7.0 – Nougat. The main reason for this being the multi-window support that Nougat carries with it. On the topic of updates, if you make your way into the settings and tap “Check Update” the tablet will tell you it’s checking and then not do anything. Mine shipped with firmware version 188.8.131.52 but according to the ASUS support page there are *.8 and now *.15 versions available to download. I’m hoping to see this issue fixed as well. The update process now is a little finicky, especially for the non-technical. A zip file must be downloaded, extracted and copied to the device.
Moving on from the software to the hardware, let’s take a look at the fingerprint sensor. Setting it up is very easy and just takes a few minutes and lifting of your finger(s). The sensor supports up to five fingers which can be named individually and managed from Settings. Whether you want to use fingerprints to unlock the device or not is the only toggle available. Other ASUS devices – such as the Zenfone 3 – offer features such as actions based on single or double taps of the fingerprint sensor but those settings are not present here.
My use of the fingerprint sensor has been hit and miss, as I see “no match” more than I’d like. When it works, it’s fast and easy. I can go from standby to an unlocked device in one press of the home button. Some people online report completely functional sensors whereas others experience the same as me.
I find tablet cameras good for function, not for photography. Features like OIS/EIS are a little pointless, while scanning a QR code could be very useful. This camera sits in that region where QR codes are fine but for saving pictures it’s reasonably poor; especially in medium-to-low light.
The tablet brings a couple great features, however, like double-tap-to-wake and double-tap-to-sleep. The latter working on any screen by double tapping the status bar. The recent button can also be customized to either take a screenshot or show the menu with a long press.
The tablet’s display is bright, showing a decent image in very bright conditions. I disabled the auto-brightness, though, as the screen was too dark in bright conditions and too bright in dark conditions. When using the tablet in dark conditions, be aware that the back and recent buttons are nigh invisible unless lit – but the only way to light them is to press them or the home button. This can make finding them, when the lights are off, a little tricky.
Watching movies is a pleasure on this tablet, with it’s brilliant 2k resolution and good quality sound. The only downside is, when watching a widescreen title, you end up with black bars across the top and bottom. The stereo speakers offer good sound but as they’re only on the bottom and face straight down, the sound doesn’t balance very well. It would have been better to have a pair of speakers facing forward at the top and bottom for movie watching.
Depending on use, the tablet can last a reasonable length of time between charges. ASUS state a 10 hour battery life, but if your use is intermittent you can usually go two days without charging. If you use it frequently for videos, then it probably won’t make it through a full day. Android’s Doze mode works very well to keep battery drain when in sleep mode down to a minimum, dropping less than 8% after 24 hours in standby.
In terms of Android competition at this price range, there are a few alternatives out there such as the newly released Huawei Mediated M3. At its MSRP of $299, the ZenPad 3S 10 offers a number of high-end features for a decent price. If you need the multi-window feature of Android N, I’d suggest you hold off in case the Z500M doesn’t get the upgrade on the future. If that’s less of a concern, then $299 will get you good app performance, USB C, a fingerprint scanner and decent 64 GB of storage.
Do you have this tablet? Are you looking for an Android tablet? Are there any features you’d like to see ASUS add/change/remove? Let us know your thoughts below.