Asus has been on a roll this year, manufacturing three of the year’s most reasonable, understated smartphones. In fact, the Taiwanese smartphone maker revealed that the Zenfone Max Pro M1 sold more than a million units in less than six months.
Sadly, the company is also known for having one of the most difficult and unintuitive nomenclature systems among handset makers. Search Zenfone Max M1 and you’re presented only with search suggestions of the Zenfone Max M1 Pro. So, to avoid confusion, I’ll be calling the phone by its model number, ZB556KL, throughout the course of this review.
Asus ZB556KL: Design
Explaining how the ZB556KL looks is very simple—make the Zenfone Max M1 Pro a bit smaller and boot that second rear camera. I dig the small form factor—very pocketable. It’s also pretty light, weighing in at only 150g. It skips the notch and still maintains a screen-to-body ratio of most conventional smartphones—proving that you can enjoy content without an ugly cutout. The company claims it is made out of aluminium, but it feels a bit cheap to touch. The buttons stick out just enough and the clicks do not feel mushy. The trademark Asus texture is available on the lock button.
Overall, the design is pretty good for a phone at this price.
Asus ZB556KL: Display
While the Asus ZB556KL seems very similar to the Max M1 Pro on the outside, squint harder and you’ll notice bigger differences. The lower spec screen is 5.45-inches tall and has a resolution of 1440x720, hence having a pixel density of just 247ppi. Contrast and colours are alright, nothing to blow your mind. The touch response is also a bit off, but I’ll give it a pass for a phone at this price. Outdoor visibility is surprisingly good, but it’s marred by the glass, which has a tendency to become scratched quickly.
Overall, multimedia content is consumable, but not very enjoyable.
Asus ZB556KL: Hardware and performance
Getting to the more exciting part of the phone, powering the device is an aged workhorse—the Qualcomm Snapdragon 430 clocked at 1.4 GHz. It is paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage that can be expanded to 256GB.
The phone can do everything you throw at it—only a bit slower.
The phone is quick for most of the time—when you aren’t running background processes. The age of the processor starts showing once you have a few apps open in the background. I noticed a considerable delay when opening the dialer and even searching a contact. Switching between apps is also a bit slow, but hey you have app transitions to entertain you while you’re doing that.
Can you play PUBG on this?
Long answer—you have to keep it on the low graphics setting and still be ready to see a few frame drops every now and then. The load times are on the higher end of the spectrum. You will also notice heat coming off from the back of the phone during gaming sessions.
Overall, I would have appreciated a newer budget processor like the MediaTek Helio P22.
Asus ZB556KL: Software
The ZB556KL runs Android Oreo 8.1 with ZenUI atop. It’s a good interface, with quite a bit of bloatware. I never felt the need to download a standalone launcher for this phone. Several pre-installed apps can be uninstalled to make room for others. This is one of the few third party UIs out there that don’t come in the way of your experience with unnecessary gimmicks.
Asus ZB556KL: Battery
One of the key selling points of the handset is the 4,000mAh battery, which seems very good on paper. In reality, it will last a little less than a day. There’s also no fast charging, so it can take you anywhere between 4-5 hours to fully charge the phone.
Asus ZB556KL: Camera
You have two cameras on this phone—one at the front, one at the back—real old school.
The rear camera has a 13MP sensor with a pixel size of 1.12 microns, and an aperture of f/2.0. The front camera has an 8MP sensor and the same pixel size and aperture. The two cameras also get their own LED flash modules.
Both cameras are okay in the daylight, clicking photos with good contrast, colours and dynamic range for a phone at this price. The exposure is always off, though. We would, however, not suggest you use the portrait mode on a regular basis. It misses out on the edges and blurs out the background a bit too much, giving your images a very “fake" feel.
Like most budget phones, night photography is a bit difficult. There’s considerable noise and inaccurate colour reproduction. Indoor photography is also good.
Asus Zenfone Max M1: Low light sample. (Image is resized for online use)
Your social media game will not be affected if you stay indoors or in good lighting. Try not to click photos during a night party with this phone.
Videos max out on 1080p@30fps and feature electronic image stabilisation. Video quality lags behind on exposure, but videos are not as noisy as one would expect at this price range. Instagram stories turned out fine, although the zoom takes place step by step and not smoothly.
Asus ZB556KL: Verdict
At a starting price of ₹ 8,999, this is a good phone if you’re on a strict budget and aren’t around a wall socket all day long. The performance of an older processor is a letdown, but you do get great battery life instead. However, if you can afford a few extra thousands lying around, you might want to give a look at its bigger brother, the Zenfone Max M1 Pro. You can also give its rival, the Redmi 6 a look.