Asus has often experimented with emerging product markets such as netbooks, wearables, tablets, and of course smartphones. The company's biggest success in the Indian smartphone market was back in 2014, when it was one of the first to kick off the low-cost smartphone war. The original ZenFone 4 (Review), ZenFone 5 (Review), and ZenFone 6 (Review) were all quite popular, and plenty of people gave the then relatively unfamiliar brand a chance.
Since then, Asus has tried a number of strategies: going exclusively high-end with the ZenFone 3 series, then focusing on selfies with the ZenFone 4 series, and targeting tiny niches now and then with products such as the ZenFone AR (Review), ZenFone Zoom S (Review), and ZenFone Live (Review). However, new Chinese brands had moved in on the value market during that time, and none of Asus' recent efforts achieved the same level of success.
Now, Asus trying to going back to its strategy of delighting buyers with devices that have premium features at almost impossibly affordable prices. More specifically, it's looking to reclaim the sub-Rs. 15,000 segment where Xiaomi and Lenovo effectively have a stranglehold. It will be tougher than before, but the more options, the better for buyers.
The new ZenFone Max Pro M1 was developed specifically for India, according to Asus, and it could be the first of many such devices. Its chief purpose is to knock the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 (Review) and Redmi Note 5 Pro (Review) off their perches, and with a starting price of Rs. 10,999, we're paying attention.
We were able to spend some time with a pre-sale version of this phone prior to its official launch, and while there were a few elements that weren't quite ready for release, we can tell you quite a lot about the ZenFone Max Pro M1 - including whether or not it's the Xiaomi killer that Asus hopes it will be.
Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 design
First of all, this is quite a good-looking phone. It will be available in Grey and Midnight Black, and our review unit is the latter. It's more of a really dark navy blue than black, and you'll see that more under strong light. It feels pretty good, with a non-slippery back and rounded-edge glass on the front. Asus says that it has used "high-quality durable glass", but it isn't branded and isn't specifically described as reinforced.
The frame is made of aluminium and there's a metal backplate. There are no sharp edges and even the camera module barely protrudes at all. One problem is how badly the rear gets smudged with fingerprints. The Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 is also a bit thick at 8.61mm and somewhat heavy at 180g. Because of its size, you won't be able to reach all parts of the screen with one thumb, and it can be a little top-heavy when typing with both thumbs at keyboard level. However, the fingerprint scanner is within easy reach, and was quick most of the time. We had to deal with a few failed recognition attempts early in our review process, but an OTA update fixed most of these issues mid-way.
There's the mandatory 18:9 screen in the front, with rounded corners and narrow borders on either side. The power and volume buttons on the right are within easy reach, as is the fingerprint sensor on the back. We're slightly disappointed to see a Micro-USB port on the bottom rather than Type-C, but we can live with this. There's also a 3.5mm audio socket and a single speaker. The tray on the left has cutouts for two Nano-SIMs as well as a microSD card.
In the box, you get a 10W charger, a USB cable, some warranty and other leaflets, and a little cardboard accessory called the Max Box. This is essentially a foldable stand for the phone with a cutout in its base that helps direct and amplify sound. There's no headset, screen protector, or case of any kind bundled with the Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1.
Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 specifications and software
The big news here is the use of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 636 processor, designed for premium mid-range smartphones, in a device at this price level. It's no surprise that this is the same processor that Xiaomi chose for its Redmi Note 5 Pro. It is also interesting to note that Asus is using the same processor in its "lite" flagship ZenFone 5 (2018). We were expecting this phone to launch in India around now but it's positioned in a much higher product segment so we'll have to see how that plays out now. As a sidenote, we can now also see why Qualcomm decided to introduce a Snapdragon 700 series to fill the gap between this segment and the flagship Snapdragon 845.
The other big highlight on the ZenFone Max Pro M1 spec sheet is a 5000mAh battery. Asus has used the Max name for phones with big batteries before, so this is a fitting continuation. This explains the phone's relative bulk and weight, and considering how impressed we were with the Redmi Note 5 Pro's battery life, we hope this phone blows us away.
We're glad to see that there's no notch on the 5.99-inch screen. It has an 18:9 aspect ratio and resolution of 1080x2160. The corners are rounded, and Asus claims a 450nit maximum brightness with a contrast ratio of 1500:1 and 85 percent reproduction of the NTSC colour gamut. In terms of design, this phone isn't exactly borderless but it does look slick and modern. The screen is bright enough for outdoor use, and colours are quite vibrant. We had no complaints about viewing angles either. There's a night mode as well as manual colour temperature adjustment in the Settings app.
You can choose between two variants of the ZenFone Max Pro M1: one has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage priced at Rs. 10,999, while the other - priced at Rs. 12,999 - has 4GB and 64GB respectively. In terms of pricing, we’d say that this is pretty unbelievable value, beating the benchmark set by Xiaomi in this price segment.
In addition to two Nano-SIM slots, this phone has a dedicated microSD card slot, and capacity support goes up to 2TB. You can use two 4G SIMs at a time, but only one will run at 4G speed while the other is limited to 3G. VoLTE is supported too. There's single-band Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n which is a surprise, considering that the Snapdragon 636 supports faster Wi-Fi 802.11ac. However you do get Bluetooth 5 with aptX audio.
Asus has ditched its custom ZenUI and apps in favour of stock Android 8.1 with this model, which is quite a big surprise considering how much the company usually trumpets all the little things it pays attention to in terms of shortcuts and customisations. The company tells us that this was in response to market research, and it decided that this was the better approach for the intended market segment. Of course, it also presents a huge contrast to Xiaomi's MIUI. Asus also told Gadgets 360 that it intends to deliver updates all the way till Android Q, which would be a pretty big bonus.
You get all the Android Oreo features such as notification dots, action shortcuts on app icons, and split-screen multitasking. We found ourselves missing simple things like an auto brightness toggle in the quick shortcuts panel, and the ability to double-tap the screen to wake the phone from sleep. We do know that there are some customisations though. For example, Asus is advertising facial recognition as a feature of this phone, but it hadn't been implemented yet on the pre-release software running on our unit, so we weren't able to test it for ourselves.
There's still a little bloatware, but it's manageable. You get Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and Go2Pay preinstalled, and none of them can be removed. There are also a few useful ZenUI apps - Voice Recorder, Calculator, and FM Radio.
Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 performance, battery life, and cameras
Our review unit was the variant with 3GB of RAM and we didn't feel at any point that this was too little. The ZenFone Max Pro M1 ran all our apps smoothly, and every part of the Android UI was snappy at all times. We enjoyed watching videos and playing games. This is a pretty good phone for entertainment, although the rear did get slightly warm after some time.
Benchmark scores were very high, thanks to the Snapdragon 636 processor. Other than Xiaomi's Redmi Note 5 Pro, the Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 doesn't have much competition in its price band. AnTuTu gave us 114,096 points, and Geekbench's single- and multi-core results were 1,330 and 4,755 respectively. GFXBench's T-rex test ran at 34fps, and 3DMark Slingshot gave us a score of 1,440.
The battery was able to get us through a full working day with a fair bit of videos streaming and some time spent playing 3D games, but that isn't especially impressive considering its 5000mAh capacity. Our video loop battery test ran for 13 hours, 29 minutes which is less than what the Redmi Note 5 Pro managed with a smaller battery, and also well short of Asus's claim of 25 hours of continuous video playback. This is an odd result, and we should note that power management could improve once Asus releases the final shipping firmware.
There's a 10 Watt charger charger in the box, and while Qualcomm Quick Charge isn't explicitly publicised as a feature, our review unit did display the "charging rapidly" message. We were able to go from zero to 15 percent in 10 minutes but it took just under three hours to get to 100 percent.
The single speaker on the bottom can get very loud, but music distorts badly at full volume. The cardboard Max Box is being touted as an amplifier but it's more of a gimmick. It unfolds very cleverly into a stand with a base that channels sound towards you. There is a slight amplifying effect, but while it might be useful for music or calls, you can't use it when watching videos in landscape mode.
Camera quality is ususally where low-cost phones compromise the most so we were curious to see what the ZenFone Max Pro M1 has in store for us. Asus has outfitted the smartphone with a 13-megapixel camera and 5-megapixel depth sensor on the rear, which meets the requirement for dual cameras. On the front, there's an 8-megapixel camera with its own flash.
We found the camera app to be a little confusing, with controls that weren't well laid out at all. For example, the flash settings are in a menu and it takes three taps to turn it on or off. There's also no way to know what state it's in unless you open the menu to check. There's a "depth mode" toggle rather than a separate portrait mode, so you might also not always realise when it's enabled. It also takes three taps to get into video mode and begin recording. There are some scene modes and beautification, but no manual mode.
The rear camera can record 4K video but for some reason there are two resolution options, 4K DCI and 4K UHD, but there's nothing telling users what the difference is (the former is 4096x2160 while the latter is 3840x2160). On the other extreme, there are options to record at QVGA (320x240) and CIF (352x240) resolutions which have no use case at all these days. We saw some minor UI changes in OTA updates during the course of our review, but we think a complete overhaul is necessary.
In the daytime, the shots we took with the ZenFone Max Pro M1 were quite vibrant, with colours that popped nicely. Some details and textures at a distance weren't all that sharp, but close-ups fared relatively well in this regard. The depth mode produced visible results with smooth gradients between the foreground and background. At night, details get a little fuzzy and it takes much longer to lock focus, but things are largely under control.
Video taken during the day and at night was usable, but there was a lot of focus shifting. The front camera is pretty good as well, and people will be happy with the quality of selfies. The only trouble we had was that the front flash doesn't provide soft illumination, but is in actual flash that fires harshly in your face.
Asus has promised some camera quality improvements with software updates that should be ready by the time anyone buys this phone, but even as it stands at the time of our review, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is pretty decent.
Asus is going to get a lot of attention because of the pricing of the ZenFone Max Pro M1, and it's positioning itself squarely as a Xiaomi killer. The specifications match those of the Redmi Note 5 Pro, but there are a few extra perks such as the bigger battery, dedicated microSD slot, and front flash. However, the prices are more in line with those of the Redmi Note 5, which is one rung lower in Xiaomi's lineup. We also now know what the Moto G6 lineup will be like, and it seems that there won't be any challenge from that corner in terms of specifications, at least.
Aside from the question marks hanging over the ZenFone Max Pro M1's camera quality and slightly underwhelming battery life, Asus has managed to pull off a massive achievement. With Flipkart on board as an exclusive partner, we're hoping that the logistics of availability and distribution will not be bottlenecked. Asus is promising that it has every intention of ensuring that there's adequate supply to meet demand, and that it isn't interested in flash sales or running out of stock quickly to create buzz. That's excellent news for buyers. We can't wait to see how Xiaomi responds.
When we look back at the time that has passed since the Asus ZenFone 4, 5 and 6 were launched in India, it's incredible to consider just how much better budget smartphones have become. We would never have believed that great phones could be this affordable, but here we are with the ZenFone Max Pro M1. Asus is sending a clear message that it intends to do whatever it takes to be successful in India, and once again, buyers win.
We discussed whether Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 is a Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro killer on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.