ASUS ZenFone Max Pro: Make way for the usurper

It’s easy to get caught up in the amazing new features modern-day flagship smartphones have to offer. Triple cameras, the latest processors, gorgeous displays and crazy-looking designs are all easy things to drool over, so I don’t blame you. I do that sometimes too.

Personally, I’ve grown far more interested in the mid-range segment of the market than I have with the RM3,000+ handsets that grab all the headlines. Although I do love myself a good flagship, it’s always a delight to find phones that can give you a very similar day-to-day experience for a fraction of the price.

And 2018 looks like the year for the affordable mid-range.

I will admit that I didn’t see this coming. I did not expect a company like ASUS — who are so proud of their heavily skinned ZenUI — to launch a device like the ZenFone Max Pro (M1). For them to ditch all the R&D and development that they put into their Android skin in favour of a basically stock Android experience seems like a bold move, one that I like to believe was spurred on by stock Android fans like you and I.

Whatever the reason, ASUS has done it and the device we’re left with is one killer handset for what I believe you can buy for under RM1,000. It’s so good, in fact, that ASUS may just have dethroned Xiaomi’s latest, and greatest, Redmi Note device who has been the reigning champion in this segment of the market for the longest time.

Recently, I got the chance to spend some time with the ZenFone Max Pro and by the end of the short press briefing, I really couldn’t find much to complain about.

Let me begin with the specifications. ASUS’ ZenFone Max Pro features a 6-inch Full HD+ display in front that pushes 2160×1080 pixels. It’s crisp and had good viewing angles as far as I could tell and was nearly indistinguishable in quality from the Redmi Note 5 — which is a good thing. Much like most of the handsets that have launched this year, ASUS opted for the 18:9 aspect ratio so you get a slimmer device with slim bezels all round.

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It’s the kind of screen that you’d expect from a handset looking to topple the Redmi Note 5 and that’s not a bad thing at all. I’m glad they didn’t shackle it with a half-arsed 720p panel.

Inside, the smartphone’s also got a pretty no-compromise set of hardware specifications too. It’s powered by a Snapdragon 636 octa-core processor, a choice of 3GB, 4GB or 6GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. These are pretty much the same kind of internals as the best handsets in this segment of the market so you can expect a similar experience — only it may be that little bit better thanks to the lightweight nature of stock Android.

One aspect that the ZenFone Max Pro has over pretty much all its competition is its massive 5,000 mAh battery, which continues the ZenFone Max legacy of maximum battery. It will be interesting to see how long this smartphone can last on a single charge when coupled with its frugal Snapdragon processor.

Interestingly, the ZenFone Max Pro features two main camera setups. The base model and the mid tier model has a 13MP+5MP dual main camera at the back while the high-spec variant features a 16MP+5MP dual camera module instead. The unit I had came with the basic 13MP+5MP dual camera and they look OK, at least as far as my first impressions go.

Click on each to view its full resolution.

It’s a serviceable camera that’s reasonably snappy and produces rather decent images. I managed to squeeze one quick comparison shot between it and the Redmi Note 5:

ASUS ZenFone Max Pro:

Xiaomi Redmi Note 5:

I’d say that they both look very similar but this was a bright scene. It’s interesting that ASUS isn’t using their signature PixelMaster camera on this handset, instead defaulting to the Snapdragon camera. The reason they gave was that the PixelMaster was too deeply integrated in ZenUI that they couldn’t find a way to port it over to this handset. I will definitely give the camera proper spanking in my full review so stay tuned for that.

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While camera and hardware specs are always fun to nitpick and debate over, the handset’s biggest defining feature is its stock Android operating system. However, there are a few caveats with this “stock Android”.

Despite its stock Android software, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is not an Android One device. The reason for this, according to ASUS, is that the requirements needed to be called an Android One device is very strict especially around the apps you can include in a device.

On the unit they let us test out, the ZenFone Max Pro didn’t come completely stock. There were a few preloaded ASUS apps including a voice recorder, an FM radio and a calculator. To be honest, I’m not particularly bothered with the inclusion of those apps because they can be useful. Like I said, I’m not a stock Android purist so I do appreciate the inclusion of useful apps as long as the overall experience is still slick, buttery and smooth — which it is.

That said, not being an “Android One” smartphone goes beyond simply having a stock interface. Having this moniker also ensures that a device gets at least two years of software support including timely security patches and Android version updates.

When I asked ASUS about this, their answer left a lot to be desired. The rep told me flat out that they would not make any promises for future software updates because they didn’t want users to be disappointed if they don’t meet it. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds about as non-committal as a college student after a one night stand.

Nevertheless, he did urge us to look at ASUS’ update history and how devices like the ZenFone 3 are getting upgraded to Oreo (and possibly Android P) despite launching with the then latest Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. Of course, there was a little bit of a delay, but the fact remains that these handsets are receiving Oreo updates.

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It’s a pretty solid track record so far with Android version updates, but if we’re talking about security updates, that’s something the company has lagged behind. The ZenFone 3 Zoom I have, for example, is still on the February 2018 security patch despite it being May already.

Still, I’m willing to give ASUS the benefit of the doubt this time. This is, after all, their first stock Android handset so if they were willing to change for this, there’s a chance they could step up in other aspects too. I guess, only time will tell.

For now, I’m mighty impressed with the ZenFone Max Pro. Everything I’ve seen so far puts the device pretty much on par, if not surpassing, the best devices in this category. Of course, it isn’t without weaknesses. I think the fact that the ZenFone uses a plastic frame with a metal back plate puts it a few rungs below the Redmi Note 5 when it comes to feeling premium in the hand, but that’s about it.

There are, of course, a couple of other weaknesses like the lack of fast-charging and support for 5GHz WiFi, but to me — at least, for now — those don’t seem to be dealbreakers. Maybe the lack of fast-charging might grow very annoying when I start using it as my daily driver, but I don’t think I’ll be particularly bothered by the lack of 5GHz WiFi.

Couple all of that with the fact that ASUS claims the device will retail for less than the Redmi Note 5 in Malaysia, and the ZenFone Max Pro is one of the most interesting smartphones to launch locally in a long time. A killer price, great specs and an apparent lack of deal-breaking flaws usually results in an excellent handset.

Let’s just say I’m looking forward to the 31st of May when this device officially launches. What about you? What are your thoughts regarding the ASUS ZenFone Max Pro M1? Let me know in the comments below.