High end and premium smartphones might grab most of the headlines, but judging by the array of smartphones present in the budget (Rs 10,000-15,000) segment, it would not be an exaggeration if we said that this segment is the most competitive one. And one of the most challenging as well – as most manufacturers try to attract consumers by packing in more features and functions even while keeping the price relatively low. Asus was one of the players that redefined the mid-segment smartphone with its Zenfone 5 in 2014 but had a relatively quiet 2016-17 by its standards. The company, however, is back with its first major release of the year in India, the Zenfone Max Pro M1, which is gunning for the mid-segment smartphone crown, confronting the best selling Redmi Note 5 Pro from Xiaomi, a phone with which it made a number of comparisons up front. Clearly, it is out to get back lost ground, but given how competitive this segment is, can it do so?

Solid, basic, no-frills appearance

While it may seem like everyone is chasing the notch nowadays, the Zenfone Max Pro M1 has largely stuck to basics. It largely follows a tried and tested design language: 18:9 display, metal back with round fingerprint scanner and dual cameras in a capsule-shaped unit. Sounds familiar? It should.

The smartphone comes with a tall 5.99-inch full HD+, 18:9 aspect ratio display with a screen resolution of 1080 x 2160 pixels topped with 2.5D glass. The display dominates the front. It is bright and responsive, and we did not have any problems in using the phone in bright daylight. That said, it does not seem to come with any sort of Gorilla Glass protection, although it did not pick up any major scratches in our review period.

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While it does have the 18:9 aspect ratio to make it appear tall, Asus has not really worked hard enough to minimize the bezels around the display. These are pretty thick around the display, especially the one on top and base. The one on top carries the front facing camera, flash, the proximity sensor and the earpiece while the one on the base is plain – the phone comes with on-screen buttons for navigation. The metal back sports a dual camera setup in a capsule unit on the top left along with a circular LED flash just below it. The back also holds a circular fingerprint scanner and the Asus logo on the upper half. The antenna bands are present on the back, but rather than take the shiny route; they have been restricted to less prominent lines on the top and the base. The back of the phone also curves outwards on the sides, which themselves are not boxy but curvy. The left side sports the dual SIM card tray and the micro SD card slot (no hybrid slots, hooray), while the right side comes with the volume rocker and power/ lock button. Asus has left the top of the device plain while the base holds the 3.5 mm audio jack, the micro USB port, and the speaker.

The smartphone measures 159 x 76 x 8.5 mm and weighs 180 grams, which is very acceptable when you consider that it houses a massive 5000 mAh battery. No, it is not flashy, but the Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 feels solid, if slightly large. With its height and width, you would definitely require all hands on deck to use the device. Thanks to the rounded sides, the phone does not feel uncomfortable to hold or use, and as we mentioned before, is surprisingly light for what it contains.

A snappy performance by the 636 dragon…

In the performance department, the Zenfone Max Pro M1 comes with the same processor as that of the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 636. This is paired with 3 GB RAM and 32 GB storage which is expandable up to 256 GB via microSD card (there is a 4 GB/ 64 GB version of the device as well), and as we pointed out earlier, you can use a microSD card without giving up on a SIM card slot. The phone sports a dual camera set up comprising a 16 megapixel and a 5-megapixel camera on the back, with PDAF and LED flash, and also comes with an 8-megapixel front camera. Of course, it comes with the usual connectivity options: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, USB OTG and 4G VoLTE (highlighted on the box itself). Round that off with a massive 5000 mAh battery, and the numbers of the Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 are definitely impressive, and right up there with its biggest rival – the Redmi Note 5 Pro.

And it is no paper tiger. The phone breezed through all general performance tasks with no hitch whatsoever. We faced no lags while using the phone while surfing on social media, switching between apps and multitasking. It did great in the gaming zone as well, not only running casual games like Subway Surfer and Candy Crush Saga very well but even high-end titles like NFS No Limits and Asphalt Xtreme with no glitches or even significant heating.

Asus might not have gone with the notch trend on the Zenfone Max Pro M1 but has followed the face recognition one – the device Max Pro M1 comes with face unlock as well as a fingerprint scanner. The fingerprint scanner takes a bit of time to register your finger, and initially had some issues, but worked snappily enough after a few updates. The face recognition feature, on the other hand, is easy to set up and works well in good lighting conditions but can be super erratic in low light. What worried us was that it could also unlock your phone even when your eyes are closed.

Say cheese to a “moody” camera

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It might pack in the megapixels, but the camera of the Zenfone Max Pro M1 is not its greatest strength. To start with, the color reproduction was a little off, with colors in the pictures looking more warm and saturated than they actually were in reality. The camera was also a little inconsistent in terms of detail – it would not capture the kind of detail it was showing in the viewfinder. We initially thought it might be because of some movement on our part, but it surfaced time and again – we would focus well on our subject, but the result turned out blurry. That is not to say that detail was always missing in pictures. There were times when the camera focused on a subject and captured great detail, especially in close-ups. But we would call the cameras moody, at least in the detail department.

Moving on to bokeh matters. The smartphone comes with a secondary 5-megapixel camera for depth sensing in the dual camera combo. And it does work. The bokeh in the pictures was not as intense as we have seen in some other devices like the Redmi Note 5 Pro and the Moto G5s Plus – it was more a like a very soft blur in the background. The camera also did a good job in spotting edges most of the times but sometimes blurred out even part of the subject. We would not call it as good as what we have seen on the Redmi Note 5 Pro and the Mi A1, but definitely very usable indeed. The 8-megapixel front-facing camera with flash on the Zenfone Max Pro M1 also had some problem with the detail department and often softened up the skin tone even when the Beauty Mode was turned off. The colors produced also seemed a bit washed out. The results are tolerable for social network use, but again, this is not a stand-out performer.

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The camera app on the smartphone may take a while for some people to get used to. Yes, the phone runs stock Android, but the camera app is not your standard Android camera app. Most notably, the icons are not easy to decipher, and the arrangement of features and functions is unusual- something as basic as turning the flash off or on needed a visit to the settings option. We also could not discover the “depth effect” icon for a while because it basically comprised two figures one behind the other. For some strange reason, the phone does not have a panorama mode, which is pretty much expected these days.

Well stocked with battery…and Stock Android too!

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One of the USPs of the Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 is that it comes with a massive 5,000 mAh battery under the hood with support for fast charging. The number is really impressive taking into consideration that the device does not feel too heavy or bulky. And again, this is not just a figure on paper – you actually get very good battery life. On a single charge, the device can easily see one and a half to two days under heavy usage and can see two and a half days under more careful usage. This means you can easily binge-watch your favorite shows, movies, and play games without having to worry about your phone dying on you. With fast charging support, you can get battery life worth a couple of hours in 15-20 minutes, though the device itself takes around 2-2.5 hours to charge completely, which is not too bad when you consider its size.

Yes, we left one of the most interesting features of the device for last. Although Asus has made some very good phones in the past, one feature that we often did not really like about them (especially in 2017) was the not-so-zen, cluttered ZenUI. Which is why we were surprised to see things change so dramatically in the Asus world – the Zenfone Max Pro M1 runs on stock Android 8.1 out of the box. No, Asus is not giving up on ZenUI yet, even though it is cleaning up its interface considerably, but the Zenfone Max Pro M1 becomes perhaps the first Asus phone to run on stock Android. Yes, it does come with a couple of Asus apps and third-party apps pre-installed. But take it from us, this is a very clutter-free interface. There are a few rough edges and bugs (the camera app is one, we think), but the UI is super clean and uncomplicated, and the device also feels very snappy. Asus says it will provide regular software updates to the phone and judging by its excellent track record (our Zenfone 3 has been updated to Oreo), users of the Zenfone Max Pro M1 will not have issues in this regard.

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Call connectivity on the Zenfone Max Pro M1 is pretty good. We did not face any call drop issues with the device. The sound on the Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 is reasonably loud but can get distorted when pushed to the limit. Asus has bundled a cardboard Max Box, placing the phone in which can boost the volume a bit, and while it does increase volume, we did not sense a discernible improvement in quality.

The Zen is back in Phonetown!

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Starting at Rs. 10,999 for the 3 GB/ 32 GB version (the 4 GB/ 64 GB version is available for Rs 12,999, and a 6 GB/ 64 GB variant is expected at Rs 14,999) the Zenfone Max Pro M1 is perhaps one of the best value for money devices out there for anyone looking for a good smartphone in the Rs 10,000-15,000 segment. It not only poses a serious threat to one of the most popular smartphones in the budget/mid-segment, the Redmi Note 5 Pro (which has received a price bump to Rs 14,999), but also to Xiaomi’s Android One warrior, the Mi A1, and also comfortably holds its own against the likes of the Moto G5s Plus and the Nokia 6, while costing considerably lesser. Of course, its biggest competitor is the Redmi Note 5 Pro, and the Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 not only matches it in most departments like display, processor and RAM, but has a more affordable price tag (its 4 GB/ 64 GB avatar costs Rs 12,999 as against the Redmi Note 5 Pro’s Rs 14,999) and also comes with a bigger battery, a dedicated microSD card slot, and of course, stock Android with a great update record. No, it is not perfect (that camera is underwhelming, the display has no protection, and there is no IR blaster), but given what it brings to the table and the price tag it bears, Asus Zenfone Max Pro M1 is definitely a contender for the mid-segment smartphone champion title. The Zenfone 5 had made us wonder, but with this device, we can safely say that Asus has got its phone Zen back. Pun intended, of course. Them 2014 ZenFone 5 feels.

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