ASUS ZenFone Max Pro M2 review: Better, but it should have been much better

If you looked at the ZenFone Max Pro M1 on paper, ASUS had what looked like an unreasonably good smartphone on their hands. It was almost like they’d assembled all the pieces of Exodia and just won. It had the same kind of specs as the class-leader in that affordable mid-range category, yet it somehow also managed to be cheaper.

But then, when I actually got to using the smartphone, a couple of obvious flaws definitely brought the device back down to Earth. It was still an excellent smartphone, don’t get me wrong, but it just wasn’t the same divine-level device I initially thought it was.

Now, though, it’s time for round two. Not even a year has passed since the launch of the M1, ASUS has come back swinging with its successor, aptly named the ZenFone Max Pro M2. And, while I thought Xiaomi slept a little on their Redmi Note 5 successor — the Redmi Note 6 — the ZenFone Max Pro M2 feels like a significant upgrade.

More of what you liked

With this upgrade, it looks pretty clear that ASUS’ goal was to give you more of what you loved with the original M1. That means you get more performance under the hood as the ZenFone Max Pro M2 upgrades the mid-range Snapdragon 636 processor on the M1 to an upper mid-range Snapdragon 660 processor. You also get 4GB of RAM as standard, with a 6GB RAM option at the higher tier. Both devices unfortunately come with the same 64GB of internal storage, so ASUS hasn’t quite jumped on the 128GB storage wagon in Malaysia the way Realme has with the 2 Pro. If you do need more storage, the M2 does have a dedicated microSD card slot for memory expansion plus dual SIM support.

That said, I can’t objectively say that the M2 is noticeably faster, at least not with my daily usage. I can say that it feels faster, but I can’t tell you whether that’s more placebo or if it performs noticeably better. Operation feels like it’s faster and more responsive, but that could be down to any number of reasons. However, don’t think of this as a knock against the ZenFone Max Pro M2 — it’s more like a retrospective thumbs up to the M1 for being so smooth in the first place.

I suspect you’ll see more of these performance gains in-game if you’re a big mobile gamer since the SD660 is the more gaming-friendly platform. On that note, my colleague does note that the ZenFone Max Pro M2 doesn’t suffer from the same screen related issues in-game that the M1 did. He notes that it’s much more responsive without any unwanted jumping when you’re aiming in shooters like PUBG. In my experience, the Max Pro M2 does seem to suffer from gyro issues with racing games like Asphalt 9 — forcing me to use the touchscreen to steer — but those gyro inaccuracies don’t seem to show up in PUBG. Whether this is a big issue to you really depends on how much of a gamer you are.

While I think the performance aspect of this smartphone depends more heavily on whether you’re a mobile gamer, the ZenFone Max Pro M2’s signature feature is one that everyone can enjoy. Like its predecessor, the M2 still packs that massive 5,000 mAh battery — something you hardly ever see in a modern smartphone. Naturally this means that you get excellent battery life. In my experience, I’m getting anywhere between six to six and a half hours of screen-on time (SOT) with fifteen to nineteen hours between charges. Keep in mind this is with lots of Netflix, YouTube and Spotify, plus some light gaming. If you’re not as heavy of a user, you should be able to last over a day (24 hrs+) between charges. It is still a little unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any fast-charging support, so it will still take over 3 hours to fully charge. But, considering the excellent battery life, fast-charging is more of a “nice to have” than an absolute necessity.

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Besides the performance bump and excellent battery life, ASUS has also made a number of smaller scale upgrades with the Max Pro M2 to push it closer to that “complete” smartphone experience that its predecessor couldn’t reach. And of that, my favourite change is its body.

“WHAT? Are you crazy? This new phone’s made of plastic! The old one had a metal back!”, I hear you say.

Yes, the new Max Pro M2 is made of more plastic components than its predecessor. Gone is the metal back and in its place you’ll find a shiny glass-like curved panel with a fingerprint scanner and camera cut into it. This back panel curves into the shiny frame the way a flagship smartphone does, but don’t mistake this for a flagship smartphone because all of that is plastic. But the question I have for you is: What matters more? The fact that it’s plastic, or the fact that this new body feels way better in the hand than the old cheap-feeling metal-backed body of the M1?

I think the latter. The entire device feels more robust and better put together than the last. Yes, the components are plastic, but they’ve been designed to feel like expensive materials and I think ASUS did a pretty good job. My biggest concern with the plastic back is that it will likely be more prone to scratches than a glass equivalent. Case in point: My Realme 2 Pro, which also has a glossy plastic back, already has a tonne of scratches on it. So, you might want to slap a case on this guy before using it.

Next, I have to say that the ZenFone Max Pro M2 has one of the best single speaker setups I’ve heard on a smartphone. Not because the audio quality is super excellent or anything — a good stereo setup (like the Pixel 3 XL) will still have better audio quality — but because it gets really, really loud. And on a smartphone, the main thing I want the speaker to do is get really, really loud. When I’m watching videos on the can, I’m not looking for a Dolby Atmos experience, I just want to be able to hear my content and the Max Pro M2 does a great job here.

Besides, if you do want a better audio experience, you can always hook up a pair of wired headphones to the device via the 3.5mm headphone jack the M2 retains alongside its micro USB port.

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Unfortunately, however, the Max Pro M2 doesn’t just keep the good stuff. It also keeps many of my main issues with the original Max Pro M1 — issues that I was hoping they would have fixed with a sequel.

More of the same problems

And the biggest of the lot is software. As surprising as it was the first time I reviewed the M1, the M2’s stock-line Android experience hasn’t changed much. It still looks and feels pretty stock, but it comes with preloaded apps. And while I can still forgive the useful ASUS apps like the sound recorder and calculator, I’m just not down with the other bloat like the pre-installed Facebook, Instagram and Messenger apps. The Indonesian set I’m reviewing even comes with an app called Caping (which you can’t uninstall) that caused a whole host of issues with my device. But, since ASUS Malaysia has assured me that the local Malaysian sets won’t have this particular app installed, I won’t dwell on this any further.

Now I personally don’t know what deals were struck that led to the preinstallation of these apps on the Max Pro M2, but it’s definitely disappointing to see. Almost as disappointing as the fact that this near-stock Android smartphone launching in December of 2018 doesn’t come with Android Pie out of the box. ASUS’ reasoning was that they would only update software once it’s stable, but I would have loved to see Pie on this phone especially after loving it so much on the Mate 20 Pro and Pixel 3 XL.

Rounding out my problems with the Max Pro M2’s software is its atrocious notch optimisation. Oh yes, did I mention that the Max Pro M2 now comes with a notched display? Yes, it’s larger, measuring 6.3 inches diagonally, and it still pushes a Full HD+ resolution, but this new panel comes with a cutout right in the middle. I honestly don’t mind the notch — it’s even smaller than the Pixel 3 XL’s and that phone’s notch didn’t bother me either. Plus, I think that the display is pretty OK with good sharpness and reasonable viewing angles. If I had any complaints it would be that it doesn’t get very bright and you can’t use it in landscape with polarised sunglasses on.

But the biggest issue for me is how poorly optimised the software is to handle this particular notch. I’ve seen my fair share of bad notch optimisations, but this one takes the cake. Not only does it eat into stuff like Instagram Stories, but it also eats into system specific functions like the volume controls and stuff like YouTube videos that haven’t been stretched to ultra-wide screen (18:9 and above) format yet. It’s almost as if ASUS was off by a couple of milimetres when they designed the UI around this notch.

For the most part, it’s a cosmetic issue, but I think this small yet incredibly noticeable problem is just a perfect representation of how poorly executed the software is on this handset. The good intentions are there, but they just lost the plot somewhere along the way.

Next, we’ve got the camera. Realistically, this was never going to be a flagship killer, so my expectation was for it to be better than its predecessor. But, after using it for a couple of days, I think the best I can give it is that it isn’t worse than its predecessor. OK maybe that was a little harsh, because the camera app on the M2 is marginally snappier. Though, they do seem to produce the same kind of images.

Photos look reasonable in bright light, but it does start to struggle when it comes to scenes with strong backlighting.

When the going gets dark, everything quickly begins falling apart. The camera struggles to pull focus and is very susceptible to handshake blur. The images themselves lack saturation and are peppered with luminance noise.

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And then you factor in the fact that the Max Pro M2 still doesn’t have 5GHz WiFi — a problem that will only get worse as more people get faster WiFi connections — nor does it have NFC, and you are painfully reminded yet again that this is still very much a budget smartphone.

But does that make it a bad phone?

No, I don’t think so. If I thought the first Max Pro M1 was a good device for the money, then I think that this M2 is definitely a worthy successor. It ups the ante where it counts for a phone in this price bracket, like performance and build, while also maintaining what we loved about the original, like its awesome battery and relatively stock Android experience.

Yes, it is peppered with issues in the software department, but I wouldn’t consider that as it completely bombing out of the competition. Besides, these are all things I believe ASUS can patch with future software updates.

The hardest thing I forsee people living with would still be the camera, but then again, you’d be hard pressed to find a good camera at this price point anyway. And if you consider the other strengths of this smartphone, I believe that you’ll find that they balance out this particular weakness. Especially when you look at the price.

For this first wave of products, ASUS Malaysia is only bringing in two variants, the base model with 4GB of RAM and the more capable model with 6GB of RAM. Because both these smartphones have more memory, they also start at a higher price tag, with the 4GB RAM variant retailing at RM859 while the 6GB RAM variant has an RRP of RM999. If you compare it with the first Max Pro M1, the only difference is that there’s no entry-level 3GB/32GB model, and the 4GB/64GB model is now RM10 more expensive.

And RM10 for what I’d consider is a pretty significant upgrade doesn’t sound like a bad deal at all. In fact, it sounds like a great deal. The only real competitor here is the Realme 2 Pro (sorry, Redmi Note 6 Pro) which sports the same kind of specs for a little bit less money, but you’ll have to sacrifice the 5,000 mAh battery on the Max Pro M2 if you opt for the Realme. Also, I’d pick the Max Pro M2’s near stock Android — bugs and all — over Realme’s heavily skinned ColorOS any day of the week.

So, is the ZenFone Max Pro M2 worth your money? Yes, definitely.

Photography by Rory Lee with the Fujifilm X-T20.