Asus ZenPad 3S 10 review

Even if sales don’t tell the same story, Android tablets struggle to keep up with the marketing clout of Apple’s iPad. The latter are excellent tablets, some of the best out there, and benefit from their closed combination of hardware and software. Android tablets, on the other hand, are an often-ponderous product.

They remain more segmented and confused in their form and function than their smartphone counterparts. The combination of Google based software and manufacturer specific hardware means they are a varied market. For every excellent iPad contender, there is a genuine stinker. Asus is hoping it’s made the former.

The Asus ZenPad 3S is similar to an iPad in name and looks, but is quite different in use. On the face of things, it is a stunningly thin, well-built 9.7in tablet that borrows a lot of design language from Apple’s iPad Air 2. Much Like Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S series, it’s trying to present Android tablets as a viable high-end option. Does it succeed?

Price and availability

The good news is that the ZenPad 3S 10 is well priced for a premium tablet. Currys PC World is selling it at its RRP of £299.99  In the US, it retails for $299 and is available from Amazon here. Oddly, it’s quite hard to buy it directly from Asus.

Design and build

Asus has done well in the design department. As an object, the ZenPad 3S is one of the most ridiculously thin 9.7in tablets I’ve ever come across, thinner even than, yes, Apple’s iPad Air 2. Much like that tablet, it has a glass front and aluminium body, weighs little and means the bold, vivid display is the main attraction.

The black and grey model I tested is actually even debatably too plain on the back; an Asus logo and camera are the only things that break the grey.

There is an oblong fingerprint sensor at the bottom of the screen as it’s held portrait, with back and recent app capacitive buttons either of it on the bezel. This is often preferable to on-screen buttons in Android that inevitably take up some of the precious display space.

Other than that, the left edge is clean save for the micro SIM slot, a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, volume rocker and power/lock buttons on the right and a central USB-C port on the bottom in between the twin stereo speakers.

I can’t quite shake the uniformity of it though, despite the thinness. . This is tablet design 101, done well, admittedly, but with nothing out of the ordinary. Sure, it’s hard to truly standout with tablet design but slates like the Huawei MediaPad M3 and Sony Xperia Z4 are bolder. Then again, those two tablets are very hard to find in the UK.

The ZenPad 3S is pleasingly premium build for something in its price bracket, but despite all that it’s not going to turn heads when you take it out on the bus.

Click here for our round up of the best tablets on the market.

Hardware, features and specs

So it’s a pretty frame, but what’s inside?

Processor

It’s powered by the Mediatek MT8176 chip, a hexa-core, 64-bit tablet specific processor. It’s pretty efficient, though curiously refused to run the GFX Bench benchmarking app; it completely crashed the tablet. Not every user will be benchmarking, but it’s odd and worth noting.

It ran Geekbench 4 no problem though, and here we benched it next to the iPad Air 2. Remember that tablet came out in 2014.

Storage and RAM

You have the option of 32 or 64GB storage with microSD expansion up to 256GB. That should be more than enough to load up with films and music.

Display and dimensions

Back to the thinness, then. It measures 240.5 x 163.7 x 7.2mm, and is 5.8mm at its thinnest point, where the frame is rounded. There’s no doubt it’s great looking. It houses a crisp, clear IPS LCD display with a resolution of 2048x1536 and 264 ppi.

Asus calls it Tru2Life technology, but it’s just generally very good at reproducing images and video. Streaming content on the ZenPad 3S is very enjoyable.

Cameras

The cameras are nothing to write home about, but then again they are hardly the marquee feature of a tablet (and it should remain that way). With a rear facing 8Mp lens and a 5Mp front facing, the latter is capable of shooting at 1080p – good news for video calling.

Battery

The ZenPad 3S has a generous 5,900mAh battery which keeps it going for around 3 or 4 days with light use, but obviously dropped down when I was hammering it with gaming, streaming and a fair few apps for work.

One thing I did notice was that it’s very bad at charging from dead. On the few occasions it ran the whole way down, the included Quick Charge 3.0 charger took an absolute age to wake it up. This isn’t rare for tablets, but with here it was absolutely infuriating; blank screens, random battery icons and not turning on for at least 15 minutes. Fun!

Connectivity and extras

The ZenPad has all the extras you’d expect, even without the 4G SIM card tray that ours did include. Opt for the Wi-Fi version and you’ll still get 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, the fingerprint sensor, but not GPS and NFC. Not that you should ever try to use a tablet for contactless payments.

Software

Frankly, the software lets this tablet down. For all the hardware effort, Asus’ Android skin is ugly and not fun to use. And don’t get me started on the bloatware.

If you are adept with operating systems it’s possible, if a slog, to turn the ZenPad into a Google tablet running Android Marshmallow 6.0. Google’s apps and services are far superior to Asus’ and will make it useable.

It’s not that Asus’ own software or apps are completely unusable, they just make extremely well designed hardware feel cheap, buggy and downright boring to use. The joy of tablets, debatably even more important here than for smartphones, lies in the way they draw you into the OS and make it as easy to use and intuitive as possible.

When you first boot it up, the ZenPad is a muddle of badly designed widgets, needless bloatware and an Android skin that twists Google’s stock option to breaking point with neon greens, blues and oranges. It’s not well thought out at all.

That said, if all you need a tablet for is Netflix, email and web browsing you probably won’t mind, at this price. But for Asus to put so much effort into the beauty of the product when it’s switched off, it’s a real shame that I felt all that magic dissipate when I turned it on. I couldn’t shake the disappointment.

SHOULD I BUY ASUS ZENPAD 3S 10 Z500M?

The Asus ZenPad 3S 10 is one of the best-designed pieces of tablet hardware I’ve yet seen. But the software made my time with it a chore, and I actively sought to not use it. That isn’t good.

If you take the time to change the theme, delete a hell of a lot of apps and remember to keep it charged then it could work for you. But you’ll be put off by intrusive bloatware and an ugly OS. Spend a bit more and get something better.