ASUS Zenfone Max Pro M1 Review – Guess Who’s Nailing The Game This Time!

When we talk about “budget smartphones”, one usually needs to really lower their expectations, as they are built to a certain price point, therefore there are lots of sacrifices. But in 2018, we’ve came across lots of devices that have lower price point, but rather impressive spec list and experience. After Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 5, ASUS is on a mission to regain some market share, and one of the important devices that is responsible for that is the Zenfone Max Pro M1, and this time round, they had to take different route in order to have a higher chance of success.

The model that we have here comes with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, which starts at around RM699. There’s also one with 4GB of RAM, coupled with 64GB of internal storage, which will set you back at RM849. The latter can also be paired with 6GB of RAM, and price will max out at RM999.

Specifications:
Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor, Octa-core 1.8GHz
3GB RAM + 32GB internal storage / 4GB RAM + 64GB internal storage / 6GB RAM + 64GB internal storage, microSD card support up to 2TB
6-inch 18:9 IPS display, 1080 X 2160 resolution, 403 ppi
13MP/16MP + 5MP rear camera, up to f/2.0 aperture, 4K video recording
8MP/16MP front-facing camera, softlight LED flash
5000mAh non-removable battery

Unboxing

The Zenfone Max Pro M1 (in this review we’ll just call it the M1 from now on) comes in a pretty standard packaging, mostly dominated by blue and grey colours. Removing the top cover off reveals a box, which contains a clear case, a SIM tray removal tool and a few documentations, and the phone sits right below the box. Despite its low price, the M1 still comes with the usual bits and pieces, which include a microUSB cable for data transfer and charging, a pair of earphones and a USB wall adapter, and its plug can be easily interchangeable depending on different plugs in different countries. Of course, ours comes with a 3-pin head that we use in this country.

Design

Simple and understated.

Being an ASUS product at this price point, the looks of the M1 isn’t too bad at all. Yes, it’s simple, understated and nothing to scream about, but at least there’s nothing offensive about it. ASUS have tried a slightly different design route this time, but there are still bits and pieces that reminds you of previous Zenfone devices. The proportions are alright too, and while it can be on the thicker side at 8.5-mm, let’s not forget that it packs a large battery for this type of smartphone, and ASUS claims that the M1 is the most compact phone with a large battery.

With such a low-priced device, you’d still need to lower down your expectations on the build quality. The display is protected by a sheet of glass which actually feels pretty premium. It even has the 2.5D curve effect on all 4 sides. The rest of the chassis surrounding the metal back is actually made of plastic. The build quality of the M1 isn’t really bad either, and is rather close to its main rival – the Redmi Note 5. Still, packing such a huge battery means that it can be on the heavier side, and with a weight of 180-grams, it actually is. But, it feels like any other smartphones out there at this size.

On the front, ASUS has opted for an 18:9 display, on the M1, leaving minimal bezels on both sides, plus curved corners. On the top, there’s an 8-megapixel shooter, an earpiece, a LED notification light, a couple of sensors and a LED softlight to go along with the selfie camera. There’s nothing at the bottom, as with the longer display, ASUS can go with on-screen navigation controls.

There’s a removable tray on the left, and ASUS is pretty proud of the fact that the M1 can take 2 SIM cards and a microSD card at the same time, which we appreciate as well. This means that you can have dual-SIM functionality and storage expansion, without sacrificing anything. This is also a plus over the Note 5. There’s nothing on the top of the device, while the power and volume buttons are to the right.

The bottom of the M1 houses the rest of the ports, including a 3.5mm headphone jack, a microUSB port and a mono bottom-firing speaker.

The design of the back is really minimalistic. The top left houses the pair of 13-megapixel and 5-megapixel camera, sitting in their own housing arranged in a vertical manner. The bump of the camera housing is so minimal that one can hardly know it’s there. Below that is an LED flash. There’s also a round fingerprint reader in the middle, followed by the ASUS branding.

All variants of the M1 comes only in 2 colours – Deepsea Black like our review unit here, or Meteor Silver.

Specs and Performance

Here’s what the M1 is good at.

The M1 is designed to be a good performer for its price. Spec wise, it’s not surprising to see the M1 packs pretty much the same internals as the Note 5, since the Note 5 is the M1’s main competitor. The M1 is powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 636 – a processor designed for budget and mid-range devices. It has 8-cores, all clocked at 1.8GHz. In our case, it’s paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage.

Another route that ASUS decides to take is to go with pure stock Android experience, instead of putting their ZenUI over it. We can see where this idea is going – less customization & unnecessary things to run, less strain on the processor, which translates to better performance.

On the M1 though, performance is very good for most cases. The vanilla Android interface is a blast to use, and we’re really happy to see that ASUS has gone for this route. But, there are still some sudden judders here and there, especially when unlocking the device or dealing with third-party apps, which should be able to be solved with an over-the-air update. ASUS also markets the M1 as a serious gaming performer, and they are proud to have benchmark scores higher than the Note 5. Credit where credit is due, the M1 surprisingly holds its performance rather well. We rarely seen any performance or framerate drop. Under full performance, you do feel the heat from the battery, but it’s not too bad.

The base model of the M1, like the one we have here, comes with 3GB of RAM, which sounds little by today’s standards. Really, there are apps that can’t be left in the background due to its of RAM, often times it takes longer to fire up the app, which explains the lag we’ve experienced when firing an app. Seriously, spend the extra money to get the version with at least 4GB of RAM, which should be better. Of course, the top-of-the-line is the one to go with, as it comes with a whopping 6GB of RAM. You’d better off with either one of those.

While ASUS claims that the M1 is a better performer than the Note 5 when it comes to benchmark numbers, it’s slightly different on our case, and with single-core score at 1329 and multi-core score at 4806, both numbers are still lower than the Note 5.

All M1s are fitted with eMCP 5.1 storage, which is good enough for speed. Sequential read speeds are at around 250MB/s, while write speeds are close to 150MB/s. The M1 is offered with 2 storage options – 32GB or 64GB of storage. As for storage expansion, it will also take microSD cards up to 2TB, if you can find one with such a large storage.

The M1 is packed only packed with a 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n single-band Wi-Fi connectivity, which is a shame as its main rival comes with full-blown dual-band. Nonetheless, it still has the usual Wi-Fi Direct and hotspot functionality. ASUS also packed the M1 with the latest Bluetooth 5.0, and this means better speed and more bandwidth. It does lack NFC, but at this price point, we’re not really expecting that. Data transfer and power are also handled by the ancient microUSB port at the bottom, which as usual, supports only up to 2.0 speeds.

The fingerprint reader is located at the back, and it’s a very basic fingerprint reader – usual round shape and matte surface. It’s conveniently located as well, and easy to reach. The fingerprint reader is quick and pretty accurate, even with little finger grease, it’s able to work really well for most of the time.

The M1 is also packed with face unlock, and it’s a basic one. Setting it up is very easy, but the speed could be improved. There’s still a slight delay when using face unlock. If you want to unlock the device without picking it up, face unlock is the way to go. It does not have raise to wake function, so you’d still have to press the power button or double-tap on the screen, if you have that function turned on. As always, it doesn’t like any accessories that you put on your face, and at low-lighting conditions, since it doesn’t have any hardware to aid in lighting, it can be a hassle to use.

Display

No notch!

Like the Note 5, the M1 is packed with a 6-inch display, and unlike modern smartphones that chases crazy screen-to-body ratio numbers, it’s a regular 18:9 display. This allows more vertical content to be displayed, and without having the ugly notch on the top. It has a resolution of 1080 X 2160 pixels, which brings it to 404 pixel-per-inch screen density. It’s definitely above average at this price point, and using it isn’t a problem since it’s sharp enough, and hard to pick up the pixels.

The display is also backed by an IPS panel, and it’s an average panel. Colours do pop since IPS panels have a deeper black, but nowhere near what a good IPS panel can do, or even an AMOLED panel. For the price, there’s nothing to complain. The colours are accurate, it has good viewing angles and it goes pretty bright to be able to use it comfortably under bright sunlight. The auto-brightness works well too, keeping the brightness spot on at pretty much most of the time.

While ASUS’s own ZenUI comes with lots of settings for the display, the M1 is only packed with an option to adjust the display’s colour temperature.

Speaker

Quite poor.

The M1 had to make do with a single mono-speaker at the bottom. While it gets pretty loud, it definitely sounds harsher at higher volumes. Seriously, it could use more clarity, but if you’re really concerned about audio quality, hooking up an external device to the M1 is a better option, since we’re not really into what the audio offers.

Camera Performance

Kinda goes with its price tag.

In typical budget smartphone fashion however, the camera performance of the M1 is pretty much the elephant in the room. And, it’s quite confusing as well. Unlike other smartphone which sticks to one camera setup, the M1 comes with 2. Our base variant comes with a 13-megapixel main sensor, coupled with a 5-megapixel sensor purely for the variable aperture effects. Stepping one notch up will upgrade the main sensor to 16-megapixels.

In broad daylight, it’s really not too bad! It’s 2018, so there’s no reason for any new devices to take photos, doesn’t matter how cheap they are. You do get vibrant colours, and they are pretty true to life. The sensor really likes it when there’s good lighting. The HDR is a separate mode on its own, and doesn’t kick in automatically. But in HDR mode, it works really well.

The 5-megapixel secondary sensor is there purely for the assisting in portrait mode by sending depth information to simulate depth effect. The blur effect makes it look artificial, and while most of the time it gets the shapes alright, it really struggles with complicated shapes or multiple objects at different distance.

Stepping into conditions with lower lighting really shows the M1’s cheap price tag. To be honest, it still can take decent photos, but it’s not as easy as pointing and shooting. In its auto settings, images tend to be slightly overexposed, resulting in detail loss and good amount of noise. Since there’s no any form of image stabilization, you do really need very steady hands to reduce the motion blur. It’s not entirely unusable in low-light conditions, but just require more steps to take a good photo.

Believe it or not, the M1 will record videos up to 4K resolution, and there’s even 2 modes – 4K DCI and 4K UHD. After that, you’ll have your usual 1080p and 720p, and it will go all the way down to QVGA resolution, all at 30 frames-per-second. To be honest, we don’t really think it’s a native 4K resolution, as it looks more like upscaled 1080p resolution. There’s not much difference in terms of details between 4K UHD and 1080P. It does seem like there’s some sort of stabilization in 4K UHD resolution, but it does look like some weird drunk effect. But as always, lighting is spot on, and colours are vibrant. And it doesn’t go crazy with focus hunting too.

The front-facing 8-megapixel front-facing camera works alright too, and again, stepping up one notch will bump it up to 16-megapixel. It works alright, but as always – only in good lighting. You can expect the M1 to take decent selfies. The software beautification is a little bit of a hit and miss though, as the effect looks pretty artificial the moment when it’s turned on.

As for the camera app, we’d wish that ASUS just stick to Google’s own camera app instead of their own, and it’s not the same as previous ASUS designed camera app. The shortcuts are towards the left of the viewfinder, and there’s the usual shutter, preview and mode change buttons on the right. The camera app can be slow at times, and it misses some important settings such as grid, watermark and a proper pro mode.

Software

First ever Vanilla Android from ASUS.

We’re surprised when ASUS announced that the M1 is going to come with vanilla Android, which is something they don’t usually do. While it’s not under Google’s Android One project, it’s still a pretty vanilla operating system for most of the part. The ZenUI influence is little to none. There are ASUS designed apps like the sound recorder, FM radio and calculator, but that’s it. There’s no unnecessary blotware, and the rest of the apps are from Google themselves.

We have high hopes for the M1’s performance seeing that it’s pretty much a vanilla system. But, it still could use some better optimization, since there are still some minor hiccups here and there that we’re not expecting to see in a device like this. Hopefully, ASUS will fix those in the future.

Battery Life

This is what the Max stands for.

The most impressive part of the M1 is its battery life. Under their Max line-up, the M1 packs a whopping 5000mAh battery, and for most lighter users, you can expect close to two days of usage. Yes, two days. ASUS knows that most of the M1’s users will be making full use of its performance for most of the time, which is a good thing that they pack it with such a large battery.

But, on the other hand, the M1 does not support any quick charging capabilities. The included charger doesn’t really do much justice, as a 30-minute charge will take a flat battery to 25%, and a full charge takes around three hours.

Our Verdict

To be honest, we’re not sure where ASUS is heading with their 2017 line-up, but it’s glad to see that they’re back on track for 2018. The Zenfone Max Pro M1, despite its long name, has proven to be yet again, one of the best bang for buck smartphones out there. Just a quick advice: if your budget permits, avoid the base model at all costs. You might really want to spend more on the better equipped models, as we believe that the RAM, storage and camera configuration are the bottleneck for our base model, causing the small little issues that we’re facing. But overall, the M1 definitely is one of the better choices in its price range.

No doubt, the M1’s direct competition is Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 5, which is another impressive device at the same price point, offering pretty similar setup. But, doesn’t matter which variant that you choose, the Max Pro M1’s offers more for the same price. It is also hard to recommend other devices either. Xiaomi’s own Mi A1 offers vanilla Android as well, but it’s RM100 more than the most expensive M1, and it’s close to a year old. Other devices include Nokia’s latest Nokia 6.1 and Samsung’s new Galaxy A6 is within the price range and offers pretty much similar specs, but the M1 still has a clear advantage here.

Things we like:
• Value that it packs
• Overall impressive performance
• Vanilla Android experience with no bloatware
• The understated looks
• It’s massive battery

Things we’re not sure of:
• The camera performance
• Loudspeaker performance
• No quick charging
• Low RAM and storage configuration
• Random lags on our model

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