Asus recently shocked all of us here in the office when we opened the combination lock and were treated to a 5-month old Zenfone Max. However, all of the confusion was cleared with online soft launch, as we learned that it was a new model that packed in an updated chipset with additional RAM (depending on which model you purchase). But then again, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 is now old, and this becomes obvious when you realise that there are newer and faster smartphones out there sporting the same Rs 9,999 (Rs 12,999 for the 3GB RAM 32GB storage combo) price tag. So with older hardware and a massive battery, how does the Zenfone Max stack up against the current competition? Let's find out.
Build and Design: 6.5/10
The Asus Zenfone Max neither impressed us, nor disappointed us when it came to construction and design. While many may assume that it features a metal frame it is simply made of plastic, while the buttons on the right side are made of metal.
The design is not exactly a step back for Asus since this is a part of the previous generation of Asus devices, but it isn't winning any awards either. Best described as 'bland' this is indeed a well constructed device, that comes with the heft of a premium quality device. This is in part thanks to its creak-free construction, which is something that we have been used to on most of the budget and mid-range offerings from Asus so far.
We have a glass screen on the front, with the receiver, front-facing camera and sensors taking up the top part, while the capacitive keys take up the bottom bit below the display. The back is fairly simple with the centered camera module up top. The textured back cover is removable to access the microSD card slot and dual SIM slot. The 5000mAh battery is visible but cannot be removed.
Overall the build is sturdy and feels reliable, but that massive battery also adds to the weight of the smartphone, bringing it to a hefty 202 grams.
This is not the same Zenfone which was launched earlier in January. Well almost, as it's just a few hardware bits that have changed inside. We have a 5.5-inch TFT LCD (IPS) HD display sporting a resolution of 1280x720 pixels and a pixel density of 267 PPI. Inside, we get an updated (not up to date) Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core chipset that is a bump up from the previous Snapdragon 410. There's 2GB of RAM (we received the 2GB model) and 32GB of internal storage along with a microSD card slot.
Coming to the cameras we get a 13MP unit with laser autofocus assist and a dual tone LED flash on the back and a 5MP unit on the front for selfies. As for the connectivity options, the device features 3G and 4G LTE bands (dual SIM slots), Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth v4.0 and GPS GLONASS. Powering all of the above is the highlight of the smartphone, the 5000mAh battery. The device runs the Asus ZenUI along with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, which is a biggie for this segment. All in all there is nothing apart from the battery that will surprise a few, since these are specifications commonly found in most devices in this price bracket. It's just that we wished that Asus went in for a newer processor instead of something that already more than year old.
We do understand that budget smartphones are all about give and take. There are no miracles but just shortcuts and Asus's choice of a display on board the Zenfone Max is one of them. The device features a 5.5-inch HD IPS LCD display. While we appreciate the IPS bit and we have few complaints the display's resolution at 1280x720 for a 5.5-inch screen is a bit too low. Xiaomi offers plenty of smartphones like the Mi 4, the Mi 4i and many more with Full HD displays at a similar price range. And while the Zenfone Max's display is not all that bad one can easily notice the pixelation in images and especially in text throughout the UI.
Pixelation aside, the display fared well in sunlight and did not accumulate too many fingerprints. Viewing videos on the smartphone was not all that pleasant as the darker spots often lacked depth. Black were not exactly blacks either so we would not call the colour reproduction accurate. The built-in Spendid software did allow for plenty of tweaking and this helped to an extent, but the resolution did not.
Hardware specifications in Android give manufacturers a competitive edge only in the premium and mid-range segments. In the budget segement, things do depend a lot on smooth software. We are not exactly fans of Asus' ZenUI, but the presence of Android 6.0 Marshmallow will give many (including Asus fans) a reason to give the Max a closer look.
While Android 6.0 Marshmallow, does deliver a level of smoothness, the software certainly feels bloated, with the plethora of Asus apps and other third-party apps that come pre-installed on the smartphone. Like Samsung smartphones, there is an alternative Asus app available for every Google app installed here. Two Google apps that came pre-installed was the Messenger and Calendar apps. And while you can download an Asus alternative for those from the Google Play Store, you cannot uninstall the pre-installed ones that come from Google.
Overall there is much to be appreciated from the Asus ZenUI and its alternative set of Google-like apps. While they do gel well with the rest of the UI, Asus needs to move on and cut down on plenty at least for their budget smartphones with just 2GB RAM to spare. Using the Power & Boost app did get rid of the stuttering and lag from time to time but it would start showing signs of slowing down after opening a few more apps.
The Asus Zenfone is not expected to be a mobile gaming machine but it is expected to perform on par with the Moto G3 or the Motorola Moto G Turbo edition as it comes with similar hardware. Unfortunately, it does not.
While we had complaints about it in our software section, graphic intensive games did not play too well. While Real Racing 3 stuttered enough to look like gif image, games like Dead Trigger 2 worked fine with a few skipped frames, but the game kept crashing every now and then. Asphalt 8 worked fine but on low settings. Casual games like Mekorama however worked pretty well.
One could indeed blame the 2GB RAM, but we think its more to do with Asus's software and battery saving techniques that seem to throttle down the processor. Switching between Power Saver modes did not help either.
Voice quality was great on both ends with both the callers being able to hear each other clearly. The audio from the receiver did sound a bit tinny. Listening audio through a good pair of headphones was great and we had little to complain about. But with default settings, it did go a bit heavy on the bass notes. One thing that we happy about was that we did not experience any heating problems with this smartphone. This has been our common complaint across manufacturers using the Snapdragon 615 chipset, but there were no signs of heating up out here. We guess this has something to do with the kernel settings for better battery life.
The 13MP unit on the Asus Zenfone Max did a decent job at clicking photographs. Image quality is average as best, but you can get the camera to click some good pictures provided you jump into the manual mode. Colour reproduction was borderline and you could blame the display in part for this. Images looked saturated on the display, but when viewed on the desktop monitor, looked average and dull at best.
The photographs were not sharp either. While there was little or no blurring, Asus' camera software somehow managed to make every single image look a bit too dull. There were blown highlights everywhere and the HDR mode was the camera's saving grace. But even the HDR mode managed to produce plenty of ghosting in some shots.
Rarely did we get a great shot. The ones that were good and properly focussed ended up being the ones shot in brightly light conditions. The focus mechanism has some issues as well. The laser assisted focus often the skipped the subject right in front to focus on a plane or the background behind it. Low light or dimly lit conditions made things far worse.
Video quality is nothing to talk about and the camera struggled to maintain steady framerates even in bright lighting conditions.
Battery Life: 9/10
If there is one feature that the Asus Zenfone Max does get right, it would have to be battery life. As you can see from the PC Mark work battery life tests, we managed to get a commendable 16 hours of continuous screen on time from it with 20 percent battery life still left. This was not a surprise as the phone arrived from Asus switched on for 13 days before we could open the box. Even more impressive was that the smartphone still had 30 percent of juice left after being switched on for 13 days.
The smartphone did a great job at charging other smartphones as well. We managed to charge an Apple iPhone 6 Plus pretty quickly with the reverse changing mode which turns off the smartphone to provide a rapid reverse charge. This the Max would allow only if its battery charge was above 20 percent.
What was not impressive (and we do mean below standards with this one) was the bundled charger. With a 5000mAh battery, we did expect Asus to package a Quick Charge compatible charger. This is more so as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 does support it. But they did not. As expected, the smartphone takes a good 6-7 hours to charge the battery from a dead smartphone to a fully charged state. We really wished that Asus had bundled something better than the 1.0A charger packaged in the box.
As you may have guessed by now, the only feature that we did like about the new Asus Zenfone Max was its battery. We also understand that no other smartphone offers a 5000mAh battery in this segment. So we think that the big battery is the only reason one should go in for it. If battery life is your priority and all you do is make calls, send WhatsApp messages and shoot emails this could be your smartphone.
For the rest of the features, you are better off with a Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 starting from Rs 9,999 (2GB RAM model), that packs in a Qualcomm Snapdragon 650 chipset, that is twice as powerful as the 615, even though its uses the same manufacturing process. The newer 2x ARM Cortex A72 and 4x ARM Cortex A53 core setup could have breathed some life into the Zenfone Max had Asus gone in for it. The Note 3 even packs in a better display and a fingerprint reader on the back along with a 4000mAh battery. While it may not be a roadwarrior, it will offer more value for money in comparison to the Zenfone Max.
Looking for something bigger? Then you look at the Gionee Marathon M5 Plus. The device packs in a decent MediaTek chipset paired with 3GB RAM, 64GB of internal storage, a massive 6-inch AMOLED display and a 5020mAh battery at Rs 26,999. You do however have to settle with Android Lollipop similar to the Redmi Note 3.
With the new Zenfone Max, Asus has taken a gamble. Asus should have left the old model alone and come up with a redesigned version a few months later instead of half-baked effort. One could call it a smartphone with a charging feature, but in our eyes its more of a battery with a smartphone built in.
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