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ASUS ZenFone Max Pro M1 review: The other go-to

Intro

I’ll be the first to admit that during my first impressions with the ASUS ZenFone Max Pro M1, I may have hyped the handset up a little too much. But, there was good reason for it. Not only did we have a smartphone that could stand toe-to-toe with the Redmi Note 5 in most of the major hardware specs, but it also ran a near-stock version of Android Oreo.

However, once I got to spend some time with the handset, this idea of it being the perfect budget smartphone quickly started to fade. Two issues in particular stick out to me.

The first of which has to do with the ZenFone Max Pro’s software. In a nutshell, this isn’t a pure stock version of Android, and the ZenFone Max Pro M1 isn’t an Android One device either. That’s why I used “near-stock” to describe it because the ZenFone Max Pro M1 that I reviewed came with a bunch of preinstalled apps.

There were ASUS apps like the calculator, voice recorder and FM radio, sure, but there were also apps like Facebook, Messenger and Instagram preloaded too. Granted, these are very popular applications and odds are you’re using all three, but it is a bit of a bummer that you don’t have the choice to completely uninstall them — a problem I wasn’t expecting to face on a “stock” Android phone.

My initial concern was with how good ASUS would be about with Android updates, but to my surprise the ZenFone Max Pro is already on Android 8.1 Oreo (compared to the Mi A1 that’s still stuck on 8.0), which is great news. That said, the Max Pro’s security patch is still two months behind what it should be so I hope to see this updated more frequently in the future.

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With software out of the way, let’s talk about the camera — or more specifically, the camera app. Unlike ASUS’ other phones, this device doesn’t feature the PixelMaster camera app. Instead, ASUS opted for the Snapdragon camera because they claimed that PixelMaster was too deeply integrated into ZenUI that they couldn’t port it out.

Unfortunately, the Snapdragon camera app on my smartphone was absolutely atrocious. It was sluggish to launch and capture images, slow at processing portrait photos, and was prone to crashing for no apparent reason.

I will note that out of the three ZenFone Max Pros we have in the office, 2 of them have this issue while the third was problem-free. I’m not entirely sure what the problem is, but ASUS has since released two updates to improve camera stability and performance. From what I can tell, there has been an improvement, though the app is still far from perfect.

Thankfully, images captured with the 13MP + 5MP dual camera module on my base model ZenFone Max Pro do look reasonable. I’d say image quality is about what you’d expect from this price point while the dual-camera Portrait mode is a nice added touch.

But, I don’t think it can compete with the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5’s camera, especially not with portrait mode photos. If you want the best camera at this price range, I’d personally pick the Redmi Note 5 despite its own set of camera app issues.

Beyond that, the ZenFone Max Pro has been a solid device for me. Performance from that Snapdragon 636 processor is reliably smooth even when paired with 3GB of RAM. There’s also 32GB of internal storage with the option to expand it further via microSD through a dedicated slot which is always a nice touch.

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The only real negative about the performance is the fingerprint scanner and face unlock, both of which are pretty slow to unlock the phone by modern-day standards. This slowness — at least, for the fingerprint scanner — is most prevalent when the screen is off. Otherwise, it’s snappy and accurate. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about face-unlock because in my experience it’s slow and inaccurate pretty much all the time.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the ZenFone Max Pro the most when I watched videos on it. Its 5.99” Full HD+ IPS panel is sharp and pretty good looking while its speaker put on an admirable performance despite being a single bottom-firing unit.

But, the most impressive thing of all about this handset is its battery life. With a 5,000 mAh cell, I was easily ending my 18-hour days (moderate usage) with 30% of charge left. When I pushed it harder, I went about one day and seven hours on battery with about six and a half hours of screen-on-time.

Yes, it doesn’t have fast-charging, so fully charging the smartphone from 5% takes nearly three hours via its microUSB port. And yes, 30 minutes on the plug only gives you a 29% charge. But, because the ZenFone’s battery was so solid, I never really needed to fast-charge it halfway through the day. I could always put off charging until I went to bed and if it were up to me, I’d always pick a long battery life over fast charging.

Despite not living up to the lofty — and frankly unreasonable — standards I initially set for this handset, ASUS’ ZenFone Max Pro M1 is still an excellent budget smartphone. Does it simultaneously manage to beat the Redmi Note 5 and also be cheaper than it? No, it doesn’t, and in hindsight that may have been an unrealistic expectation.

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If we’re looking at the broad strokes, stuff like processor, RAM, storage and battery capacity, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 will trade blows with the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 for days. But if you actually use them, you’ll start to notice the little things that just give the Redmi Note 5 the edge over the Max Pro M1.

Its metal back, for example, wraps around the sides of the smartphone as well so your hands are always greeted with the cool, premium touch of metal, while the ZenFone uses a less satisfying plastic frame. What’s more, even though I don’t like MIUI, I can’t deny how smooth the OS is to use — it just works.

So, despite being a huge stock Android fan, the objective reviewer in me has to admit that Xiaomi’s even managed to match one of the ZenFone Max Pro’s biggest selling point. Then, when you factor in features like like 5GHz WiFi, a snappier fingerprint scanner and a better camera, all of that adds up to give you more complete smartphone experience.

But, of course, that comes at a cost because the Redmi Note 5’s RRP of RM749 is RM50 more than the ZenFone Max Pro’s retail price of RM699. That, I think, puts them on pretty even footing if we’re looking at it from a value-for-money perspective, so you can’t go wrong with either.

Unless you can pick up the ZenFone Max Pro M1 at one of ASUS’ borderline ridiculous flash sales on Lazada. During this sale, the phone will be retailing for just RM599, which at that point is just an absolute no-brainer.

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