Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 review: A new challenger has arrived
You can say that Xiaomi enjoys a monopoly in the budget smartphone segment in India. By budget segment I mean phones that cost around Rs 15,000 and under. Every phone that Xiaomi has launched in the budget segment has had a knack of becoming a super hit among buyers, so much so that Xiaomi has been unable to meet the demand. Just to ensure, it can have enough Redmi Note 5 Pro units in stock, Xiaomi recently hiked the price of the phone by Rs 1,000. One big reason behind Xiaomi's sheer dominance is, of course, the fact that almost all of its budget phones -- take for instance the Redmi Note 5 Pro -- have been really, really good. But the lack of a formidable opponent also has a lot to do with it. Honor has tried to break ground, but, it hasn't been able to crack Xiaomi's code yet.
An unlikely rival has now stepped forward to challenge Xiaomi's dominance in the Indian budget smartphone segment. The company in question is called Asus, and its weapon of choice is called the ZenFone Max Pro M1. Weird naming aside, the ZenFone Max Pro M1, is unlike any Asus phone that we've seen in the past. It's different.
The ZenFone Max Pro M1, in sharp contrast to Asus' past budget offerings, has a modern design, modern hardware, modern software, and most importantly, a sensible price tag. The ZenFone Max Pro M1, in fact, brings many industry firsts for an Asus smartphone, the biggest one perhaps being the fact that, it runs pure Android 8.1 Oreo and not the company's custom ZenUI. Honestly, Asus had me sold, on that very fact the first time I saw the ZenFone Max Pro M1 in flesh. But, there's much more to it, than what meets the eye. Both inside and out. And that should make Xiaomi very, very nervous.
Design and build quality
The ZenFone Max Pro M1 uses metal and plastic in equal measure in its construction. While the back-plate is carved out of Aluminium alloy, the upper and bottom ends as well as the outer frame and buttons, are made of polycarbonate. The phone comes with a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner (which I'll have to admit isn't that fast), and curved 2.5D glass (unspecified) on the front with on-screen navigation keys.
Asus is highlighting the fact that the ZenFone Max Pro M1 comes with three different slots: two for two 4G SIM cards, and an additional one for micro-SD expansion. The same way, that it is highlighting the fact, that the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is the slimmest phone in the Indian market right now to house a massive 5,000mAh battery.
The ZenFone Max Pro looks generic at best. It won't win any design awards, but that's alright. That's not really what it's gunning for anyways. The ZenFone Max Pro is designed for the road, it's designed to take a beating. It's very utilitarian, is what it is. Something on the lines of the Nokia 6 although I'd like to add that, that thing is a whole different beast in terms of build quality. I like how the ZenFone Max Pro feels in the hands, and how easy it is to maneuver even though it isn't a small phone. I like that it has a flush dual camera module among a sea of phones where it sticks out like a soar thumb. I wish that it did not accumulate so many fingerprints on the back though.
Design is subjective. I really, really like the Xiaomi Mi A1 even though it looks a lot like the iPhone. I don't really like the Redmi Note 5 Pro/Redmi Note 5 that much because both of them have a dated design, one that has been used and reused by Xiaomi, over and over again. I like the Honor 9 Lite but then again, it doesn't feel solid enough. The ZenFone Max Pro, I'd say, hits the sweet spot in terms of both looks and feel. Which is a welcome change among budget phones.
Asus is joining the all screen and no bezel bandwagon with the ZenFone Max Pro M1. In the affordable segment, that is. The ZenFone Max Pro M1 comes with a 5.99-inch 1080p+ display with an unusual aspect ratio of 18:9, much like the Redmi Note 5 and Redmi Note 5 Pro. Unlike Xiaomi's phones, however, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 offers greater contrast (1500:1), according to Asus. The screen also offers 85 per cent NTSC colour gamut, and a screen-to-body ratio of 83 per cent.
The screen of the ZenFone Max Pro is actually quite good, offering punchy colours and good viewing angles. Also its brightness levels are at par with the best in the business, in its price segment. The phone, in addition, gives you an option to manually correct colour temperature, as well as a Night Light features that turns them to the warmer end of the spectrum for comfortable night-time reading.
The biggest USP of the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is that it runs pure Android 8.1 Oreo, and not Asus' custom ZenUI software. The ZenFone Max Pro M1, just to be clear, is not an Android One phone like the Xiaomi Mi A1 or the Nokia 6.1. Not branding the ZenFone Max Pro as an Android One device, helps Asus, to offer some custom features on top of Android, according to the company.
The software inside the ZenFone Max Pro is broadly in line with what HMD was offering with last year's Nokia 6, which means it's stock Android with some Asus stuff thrown in. The ZenFone Max Pro ships with a sound recorder, an FM radio and a calculator, that are in-house Asus, and also a camera app that has been given some extra treatment. The phone also comes with Facebook and Instagram, pre-loaded, but apart from that everything is vanilla Android. A stark departure from other Asus phones, that run the company's custom ZenUI.
Asus is also promising two major software updates for the ZenFone Max Pro M1 as and when Google is out with both the versions which means the phone will be getting both Android P and Q in the future, and because it's running stock Android, chances are it may get them faster than any other Asus phone out there, and also faster than competition like the Redmi Note 5 and Redmi Note 5 Pro.
Unlike other budget phones with custom ROM, and even Asus' own phones, the ZenFone Max Pro gets each and every feature of stock Android 8.1 Oreo out-of-the-box. From improved RAM management to neat battery saving tricks. From enhanced Picture-in-Picture mode to new emojis. From notification dots to Android Instant Apps. The ZenFone Max Pro gets them all.
Performance and battery life
In terms of core hardware, the ZenFone Max Pro M1, is powered by a 1.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor clubbed with Adreno 509 GPU, the same deal that's inside the Redmi Note 5 Pro. The Snapdragon 636 is notable for bringing Qualcomm's Kryo 260 CPU cores into the Snapdragon 63X range, bringing more raw CPU power to the mid-range segment. The Kryo 260 CPU inside the Snapdragon 636 can deliver roughly 40 per cent more power than the Snapdragon 630 inside phones like the Nokia 6.1, according to Qualcomm. Additionally, the Snapdragon 636 also crams in a bumped up Adreno 509 GPU that gives it a 10 per cent performance boost over the Adreno 508 inside the Snapdragon 630, Qualcomm adds.
The ZenFone Max Pro M1 further comes with up to 4GB of RAM and up to 64GB of internal storage which is further expandable by up to 2TB via a dedicated micro-SD card slot. The dual-SIM phone supports 4G LTE (VoLTE-ready) and also USB OTG. Asus will also be launching a 6GB RAM and 64GB storage version of the phone in India in the days to come, should you be looking for that sort of thing.
The ZenFone Max Pro is the most powerful phone that you can buy at around Rs 10,000 right now. Period. And stock Android only makes things faster still.
The phone is quick and responsive in every sense of the word. There have been no visible lags or stutter while navigating between home screens and/or multitasking in my review unit. Just so you know, I have been using the base 3GB RAM and 32GB storage version, and it has managed to handle almost every task that I have thrown at it -- both basic and hard-grinding -- with a marginal hickup or two on occasions: but mostly it has been smooth sailing.
The ZenFone Max Pro, courtesy the Adreno 509 GPU, also excels at graphical intensive tasks like gaming, although you're likely to have some frame rate issues at maxed out settings during extended playback. The phone has a tendency to get warm when pushed (and while charging) but it is also quick to cool down, so that's nice.
The 5,000mAh battery inside the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is claimed to offer 35 days of 4G stand-by and 20 hours of 1080p video playback, and up to 42 hours of 3G talk-time. The ZenFone Max Pro M1 supports fast charging, and the charger that Asus is bundling in the box, can apparently charge the phone up to 30 minutes faster than a Redmi Note 5 which ships with a smaller 4,000mAh battery, according to the company. The ZenFone Max Pro M1, sadly, charges over standard micro-USB and not via USB Type-C.
The ZenFone Max Pro, let me tell you at the onset, offers great battery life but it's nowhere close to what Asus claims it to be, which is a little surprising and a tad disappointing too. Even though the ZenFone Max Pro has a bigger battery and stock Android, it does not exactly better the Redmi Note 5 Pro, in both standby and actual usage. It's more or less on similar lines, which is fine, but then again it should have been better. Possibly, it's a software optimisation thing and hopefully, Asus will correct it through an update or two, in future.
While users with a more generalised usage pattern will get at least one and a half days out of the ZenFone Max Pro, even hardcore users should get one full day with ease. Even though the ZenFone Max Pro supports some form of fast charging -- not Quick Charge 4.0 which is supported by the the Snapdragon 636 -- it takes up to three hours to fully charge the phone. But given the low price, I believe that's a small price you pay, considering you're getting such a large battery to tag along anyways.
Phone calls made with the phone are of excellent quality and we did not encounter any odd call drop issues with our review unit.
Elsewhere, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 also comes with outstanding audio credentials, according to Asus. It comes with a 5-magnet speaker and an NXP smart amplifier. Asus, in addition, will be bundling a Max Box passive amplifier with the ZenFone Max Pro M1, that can apparently amplify the audio up to 1.7X naturally without any electronics involved in the accessory.
The single speaker out on-board the ZenFone Max Pro can get loud but there's digitisation at peak volume. The bundled amplifier serves well for amplifying music and calls, although watching videos in landscape can be a cumbersome experience.
In terms of optics, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 comes with a dual rear camera system on the rear consisting of one 13-megapixel camera (f/2.2 aperture) and a secondary 5-megapixel camera for depth sensing. The dual camera system is assisted by PDAF and LED flash, and is capable of shooting 4K videos as well, something that is missing on the Redmi Note 5 Pro (but present in the cheaper Redmi Note 5). On the front, the ZenFone Max Pro M1, comes with an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. The front camera on-board the ZenFone Max Pro M1 can shoot software-assisted bokeh photos, and going forward it will also enable face unlock.
The 6GB RAM and 64GB storage version of the phone, Asus has announced, will ship with a 16MP+5MP rear and 16MP front setup.
Budget phones have had a tendency to disappoint in terms of all-round camera performance. The Redmi Note 5 Pro (and the Mi A1) has changed some of that, bringing outstanding camera credentials -- vis-a-vis budget segment -- to the masses. The ZenFone Max Pro has comparable camera hardware and a camera that delivers somewhat, but, it doesn't really better the benchmark set by Xiaomi's phone. It does better the Redmi Note 5 cameras though, which is nice, since technically the price of the ZenFone Max Pro is closer to it and not the Redmi Note 5 Pro.
The ZenFone Max Pro, captures some good-looking photos -- with some metering issues here and there -- in good light with good amount of detail and mostly spot-on colours. Dynamic range could have been better, but overall, the ZenFone Max Pro should suffice in ideal lighting. Asus' new phone is also able to capture some well to-do photos -- with occasional softness -- in tricky light situations although low light photos come out mushy and with lots of noise.
The front camera is also more or less a similar affair although it does shoot slightly better selfies than the Redmi Note 5. The Redmi Note 5 Pro, with its whopping 20-megapixel front camera, meanwhile hits the ZenFone Max Pro right out of the ball park in this regard.
The ZenFone Max Pro cameras may not set benchmarks but at least they should get the job done for most users. What I don't like about the phone, in particular, is the camera app. The cameras, although they're mostly a point and shoot affair (there's no manual mode in the phone), are marred by what is possibly the most non-intuitive camera app I've seen in years. It's bad. There's no other way to put it. It looks bad, it works bad. Even by budget phone standards. While I would personally have liked Asus to have put in its own camera app inside, things would have been better even if it had gone with the stock Android camera app. The ZenFone Max Pro camera app, which is essentially a reworked Qualcomm Snapdragon camera app, will take a lot of time getting used to. With even the most basic things like the flash hidden away inside a cornucopia of options, I simply have no clue what Asus was thinking.
Should you buy it?
Asus phones in the past, especially those belonging to the budget segment, have been bogged down by uninspired design, uninspired hardware and uninspired software. Asus has also, so far, not managed to get the pricing right often overcharging users for what its phones have been actually worth of. The rise and rise of Xiaomi has only made things worse for the Taiwanese company that once created quite the buzz in the Indian market with successful phones like the original ZenFone 5.
With the ZenFone Max Pro M1, however, Asus is going back to those times. In almost all the departments. The ZenFone Max Pro M1 is a modern smartphone. It's the most powerful phone at around Rs 10,000 right now, and stock Android adds a third dimension to it. It has a neat display, and dual cameras with potential. Not to forget, that 5,000mAh battery is more than what the doctor can order for anybody at its price point. The Redmi Note 5 and the Redmi Note 5 Pro have built a decent fan-base for themselves, and the Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1, has every ingredient in the book to build its own. In fact, the Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 should make Xiaomi nervous. At least until the time, Xiaomi is out with the Android One-backed Mi A2.
So here's the thing. If you're planning to buy the Redmi Note 5, you should drop that plan, and get yourself a ZenFone Max Pro M1 instead. If you're planning to buy the Redmi Note 5 Pro, you should go buy it, but make sure you check out Asus' new phone too, just in case. For now, even Asus is selling the ZenFone Max Pro M1 through weekly sales on Flipkart. Like Xiaomi with its Redmi Note 5 Pro. To say that the ZenFone is more readily available than the Redmi won't exactly be fair for now. Both the phones have their own merit, and while I still like the Redmi Note 5 Pro more, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is the most formidable opponent it can get at this point of time.