ASUS Zenfone Max Plus M1 review: A big battery alone does not a good phone make
Back at CES, Asus showed off a follow-up to the not-so-old Zenfone 4 Max, which was a phone that ultimately disappointed me. Attempting to capitalize on the love for big batteries, the Taiwanese company decided to spin off the Zenfone Max line into its own device family. These phones will offer large batteries and many of the latest smartphone trends for budget prices.
So here we are with the first, the Zenfone Max Plus M1. Besides the ridiculous name, this phone sports a 4,130mAh battery, an 18:9 display, dual cameras, face unlock, and so on. But, as you, dear reader, probably know, ticking all of the specification and feature (read: buzzword) boxes doesn't always make for a good phone, especially since nothing exists in a vacuum. In the end, the Zenfone Max Plus M1 is nothing special — simply, a big battery alone doesn't necessarily mean that the phone will be good, nor does it always make up for the other shortcomings.
Design and display
The Max Plus M1 looks and feels quite similar to the Zenfone 4 Max. The body is mostly metal, with plastic pieces at the top and bottom of the phone. This time around, the phone doesn't feel so cheap, so kudos to Asus for addressing that. The ZF4 Max had a lot of flex in the metal back, which would creak and sometimes crack under pressure (like sitting down with the phone in your pocket).
Asus once again created a generic-looking device, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Looking at the Zenfone Max Plus M1 (ZFMPM1????) doesn't evoke any feelings of awe at the design, sure, but at least it isn't ugly... unlike the Zenfone AR.
Though it might look like a OnePlus 5T, to a degree, the shortcuts and compromises to hit the $229 price become readily apparent very quickly. The metal picks up grime, smudges, and other such things immediately upon being touched or set down; basically, like the ZF4 Max and Honor 7X, the metal seems to be of a lower-grade quality (which makes sense).
Following on that, the construction itself still feels a bit suspect. On several occasions, my facial hair would catch in the seam between the 2.5D glass and the frame, leading to frustration and a minor statement of pain. This happened on both the right and left sides of the phone.
The power button and volume rocker on the right side of the phone feel cheap and soft, with barely any travel and hardly any tactile response. Squishy is how I'd describe them, often getting accidentally pressed without me realizing it (until I noticed the screen turn on/off).
The fingerprint sensor is nothing short of abysmal. Its first issue is that it's way too small and recessed into the phone; I had a hard time placing my finger just right to get it to read properly. On the times that I managed to succeed, I ran into a frequent failure to read. Accuracy and general speed – it is unbelievably slow, sometimes taking several seconds to unlock the phone – severely limit the usefulness of the Max Plus M1's sensor, and while I have not had the best luck with Asus' sensors in the past, this one takes the cake for being the worst. In the end, I often elected to not use it.
Another smartphone trend lately is the resurgence of face unlock. Though some companies, like OnePlus and Huawei, are managing to implement it quite well (certainly better than it's ever been on Android since its inception back in the Ice Cream Sandwich days), Asus didn't quite make it. Setting up face unlock on the Zenfone Max Plus M1 was a chore, more cumbersome than registering my fingerprints. The front camera is so bad, it can barely see my face in many dimmer lighting conditions (environments where my OnePlus 5T does just fine). Like the fingerprint sensor, I stopped using this after it started to hamper my ability to use this phone.
One area where Asus did a decent job is the display. The 5.7" 2160x1080 IPS LCD produces nice colors and sports excellent viewing angles. Brightness, even outdoors, is good, too; though like most phones with LCDs that I get in, I wish that this display was a bit dimmer in the dark. Even at the lowest setting, it feels a bit too eye-searing for use in bed or other dark rooms. Of the budget Asus phones that I've tested so far, this is by far the best display.
Asus talks a big game about its phones' camera performance, and it usually is all just hot air. While not bad, per se, the Zenfone family doesn't typically hold well against most of the competition. Poor dynamic range is the typical complaint, though I distinctly recall slow and soft focus and white balance issues, too.
Once again, Asus has failed to impress with the camera on the Zenfone Max Plus M1. The biggest problem is that the 16MP main lens produces photos that look washed out, even in scenarios where something like the Honor 7X takes pictures with good color reproduction. When colors are captured well, which often requires just the right scene, detail is sorely lacking. The secondary 8MP sensor sits behind a 120° wide-angle lens, which defaults to shooting in 18:9 at 5MP. If you choked at that, I understand — the camera app lets you go up to 4:3 8MP.
It also flops in low-light. Though well-lit performance could sometimes redeem itself, I could not get a single decent shot in dim rooms or other nighttime environments. Each photo was noisy with very soft focus.
Continuing the trend of disappointment, the front camera is underwhelming. Colors are bland, detail is lacking, and the beautification, which is on by default, creates a harsh and unflattering picture. Asus' portrait mode is also pretty bad; on most photos, it couldn't focus well enough on the subject to create even a semi-passable bokeh effect. Granted, the Honor 7X didn't do much better, so we can probably chalk this up to budget phone cameras being... well, not the greatest.
ZenUI's camera app isn't too bad, though it's teetering on the edge of being too cluttered. Above the shutter button is the toggle between the main camera and the secondary wide-angle one, though it takes a significant amount of time to switch between the two. The other side of the viewfinder has six options for different functions, which feel too clustered together.
On the left screen of the app are the very few modes, like Pro, GIF Animator, and Super Resolution; to the far right are nine filters to mix things up (though Instagram's are usually better, just saying). There's one more thing to mention before we move on: if you turn off the display while still in the camera app, sometimes when you unlock it, you'll get tossed back to your homescreen with the toast message that another app is using the camera. It didn't happen every time to me, but often enough for me to notice.
Performance and battery life
In some circles, when you mention the name MediaTek, you're usually met with varying levels of derision, disgust, and mockery. The chip manufacturer is not well-loved in the Android community, often for its failure to publish the kernel source codes for its SoCs. Performance is never MediaTek's strong suit, either; rather, the company has made its name in providing low-cost system-on-chips to device manufacturers for less than Qualcomm or Samsung. While this position is laudable to a degree, MediaTek has earned its reputation for underwhelming performance.
All of this to say, the MT6750T in the Zenfone Max Plus M1 struggled to keep up. While theoretically contemporary with the Snapdragon 625, which itself isn't all that exciting anymore, this SoC hung on basic tasks like opening and switching apps, making calls, and replying to text messages. Using the Facebook app, for instance, really bogged down the phone, especially when Messenger displayed a chathead when I received a message (a setting I always forget to disable immediately).
The 32GB/3GB unit I received was not pleasant to use on most occasions. When it wasn't lagging on opening Slack or hanging when trying to reply to a message in Telegram, it felt crippled and lame. Throughout using it, however, heat was a problem. Even at idle, the phone was very warm in my hand or pocket, reaching temps of mid-80s to low 90s (Fahrenheit). I can't recall a phone getting that hot while idling (the LG G6 gets mighty warm, but only under load). Pushing it with intensive games became uncomfortable after a few minutes, something that isn't as common with the Snapdragon and Exynos devices I've tested recently.
Battery life is the primary marketing focus of the Zenfone Max Plus M1. With its 4,130mAh capacity, you'd expect the phone to be an absolute champ for longevity. It certainly lasts quite a while, especially on standby, but I couldn't bring myself to be impressed. When compared to devices from the likes of Huawei and Xiaomi, most of which often have smaller batteries, this Zenfone doesn't really stand out from the crowd.
With heavy use, I managed to get just over two days, having to charge after waking up on the third day. That's very good — it's often difficult to express how nice it is not worrying about your phone dying while you're out for an evening. And when you need to top up, the Zenfone Max Plus M1 supports 10W fast charging over microUSB. Charging to full takes about three hours, spot on with what Asus claims. Definitely not the blistering speed of OnePlus Dash Charge or Huawei's SuperCharge, but it's serviceable.
Software is Asus' greatest weakness – even more so than hardware – with its poor choices frequently hamstringing its devices. Though recent versions have vastly improved the experience (the KitKat days of ZenUI were terrible, indeed), the skin remains chock full of additional "features" that either hinder the user experience or add nothing at all. Asus also has a problem with continuity and a unified design — each of the four Asus devices on my desk has a different iteration of ZenUI, even if they're on the same Android version. It's a disjointed, and dare I say fragmented, approach to software design and an overall product portfolio.
Besides the confusing lack of uniformity, ZenUI is not kind to lower-end devices. It consumes a lot of resources, often presenting lag, animation stuttering, or things of that sort. Obviously, these problems aren't too uncommon with low-tier hardware, meaning that the software should probably be more spartan to compensate. I digress, so let's get back to ZenUI on the Zenfone Max Plus M1.
The lockscreen is one of the things I like the most. The two-line clock isn't my favorite, but I like having the weather easily readable. The most interesting feature to me is that, in the bottom left corner, the phone displays the estimated time remaining on the battery. While obviously not totally accurate, it gives you a nice indication of how much you can expect to get out of the phone. And if you use the default rotating wallpaper, it displays what the picture is below the battery estimate.
Unlocking the phone drops you on the ZenUI launcher homescreen. It now features a Pixel-like pull-up app drawer, so the dock has room for five icons. In a blast from the past, the app drawer is paginated, which threw me off for a bit. In the very full overflow menu are the launcher settings, which surprisingly contain a lot of customization options.
One of the more momentous things about the Zenfone Max Plus M1 is that it's Asus' first 18:9 phone and, despite the thick bottom bezel, the company finally dropped the capacitive keys (this is good because the last budget phone, the ZF4 Max, had no backlight on its navigation buttons). The navbar defaults to a grey background in apps, but transparent on the homescreen, and it sports buttons that feature a bit of Asus' custom design.
ZenUI still has the PowerMaster app, which acts like a hub for all things power-related. It tells you the time remaining on the battery, the temperature, and has options for energy-saving, reverse-charging, autostart manager (think of startup options in Windows Task Manager), and performance-boosting. All in all, it's crowded and most of the options don't do anything noticeable — the performance-booster did cause the phone temps (idle and load) to increase a few degrees.
The true problem with the Zenfone Max Plus M1, as you might have guessed, is that it launches with Android 7.0 Nougat, a year and a half old OS version. Oreo has been available since October, so shipping a phone with Nougat at this point is unacceptable, especially since no 8.0 update has arrived at time of writing. Basically, Asus should be ashamed — combine the fact that the Zenfone Max Plus M1 comes with Nougat with Asus' abysmal update reputation and you get a major drawback. Shipping with outdated software is not a good way to start things off.
At $229, Asus is trying to appeal to a very specific demographic: those who want premium-like features and a big battery, but don't want to spend much money. That's a difficult group to appease, and Asus attempted to do so. But when compared to its competition, the Zenfone Max Plus M1 is just not a compelling product. Let's talk about why.
Shortcuts and compromises are inevitable, as we all should know by now — if you want to have everything in a phone, you're going to pay a pretty penny (or several) to get it. Budget phones have gotten so much better in recent years, however, especially the Moto G family. And with Huawei making some inroads with its Honor brand, which often presents a fantastic value proposition, Asus has some strong competition. Unfortunately, ticking all the buzzword boxes doesn't necessarily mean that the device will be good or successful.
At this point in time, I'd say the budget phone to beat (in the U.S.) is the Honor 7X. It also has a metal body, dual cameras, a fingerprint sensor, portrait mode, an 18:9 FHD+ display, and fantastic battery life, but it costs $199. It also struggles with software issues, though EMUI 5.1 runs smoother on it than ZenUI does on this Zenfone. The camera is also much better, the performance is leagues stronger, and the battery life is close enough even though the battery itself is smaller. You also get 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM, and Nougat (though the Oreo beta is in full swing, but still). Internationally, we have to factor in Xiaomi and the excellent value propositions its phones present.
Though it far surpasses its Zenfone 4 Max predecessor, Asus did not quite meet the expectations that the Honor 7X set for me, and it certainly isn't worth spending another $30 on. I hope that the Zenfone Max Plus M1 is not an indicator of what to expect from Asus in the rest of 2018.