Battery life is the number one concern when people think about buying a new smartphone, to the point that if a phone had nearly double the longevity of even the most expensive flagship handsets, it would be easy to overlook some of its faults. But at some point deficiencies start to drag down the novelty of having a really big battery, which is precisely the problem with the Asus ZenFone 4 Max. This thing has one of the biggest batteries you can find in a smartphone — and it's only $US200! Yet budget components take all the fun out of it.
All images: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo
AU Editor's Note: The Asus ZenFone 4 Max isn't officially coming to Australia, but you can buy it online through grey importers for around $290 before shipping at the time of publishing. — Cam
I don't feel like I ask for much when it comes to budget phones: I'm mainly looking for a solid build and quality components new enough to not make the handset feel dated. At first glance, the $US200 ZenFone 4 Max seems to fit the bill. It's got a mostly aluminium build with a big 5.5-inch screen, a built-in fingerprint sensor and even dual cameras in back, a feature that's all the rage among phone makers nowadays. Asus also gave the ZenFone 4 Max a card tray with room for two nano SIMs and a microSD card, so you don't have to choose between easy multi-country cell service and expandable storage.
You even get capacitive touch buttons for Back and Recent apps, which would normally seem a bit weird in an Android ecosystem that's slowly trying to kill off anything that isn't onscreen nav buttons. However, considering all the room next to the ZenFone 4 Max's front home button/fingerprint reader, I'll take those touch buttons as a welcome addition.
Micro USB ports on new gadgets is not OK, even budget ones.
But there are other a number of features on the ZenFone 4 Max that feel off on a phone in 2017. Asus' use of a micro USB port instead of USB-C is simply not OK, and saddling a display this big with a 1280 x 720 resolution is almost criminal. Say what you want about optimal pixel density, but when I hold the phone reasonable distance a from my face (one to one and a half feet), I shouldn't be able to see how the screen's big pixels make text and pictures look rough and jagged. Then there's the ZenFone 4's clunky skin for Android Nougat (last year's build of Android), which with its huge icons, pastel colour palette and massive text looks like it was made for children or octogenarians — I can't figure out which. (Thankfully you can partially address my last two complaints using the phone's included theme app and adjust the font size setting.)
It feels like that second camera is there just to fill a bulletpoint.
And there's the matter of the ZenFone 4 Max's dual rear cameras. In bright light, the main 13-MP camera is fine, but at night you start to run into a lot of issues with noise, graininess, and a general lack of sharpness. But what really annoys me is the secondary 5-MP wide angle cam. In pretty much anything other than well-lit outdoor environments, its performance is disappointing. Shots come out very underexposed to the point where it's hard to make out one object from another, and then you add in some significant fisheye distortion and you'd often left with a pic that's not good enough to share anywhere. If you're not going to make the second camera worth using, don't put it on the phone at all.
Neither of these pictures are very good , but check out how much darker the wide angle camera's pic is in the exact same conditions.
(Click to enlarge)
I should also mention the ZenFone 4 Max's performance. Even on most budget phones today, there's enough processing power to keep most people happy. However, when I can literally count up to three Mississippi between tapping the shutter and being able to take a second HDR photo, it makes me feel like I should just put the phone down and be like "Don't worry, I'll wait."
Having room for a dual SIM and a microSD card is nice.
But this phone exists because of the giant battery, not because of an ugly display or bad cameras. Thanks to a whopping 5000 mAh capacity, the ZenFone 4 Max lasted 16 hours and 13 minutes on our battery test, which is way longer than what we saw from the Samsung Galaxy S8 (9:12) and Galaxy Note 8 (10:21), and double the longevity of the LG G6 (7:28) and Moto Z2 Force (8:42). And since it's actually pretty hard to kill the ZenFone Max 4 in a single day, Asus thoughtfully included a reverse charging feature (and a cable), so you can use the phone's excess juice to recharge other devices like a camera or someone else's less resilient handset. The only problem is that if those other devices use something besides micro USB port for charging, you're going to have to carry around extra adapters. (That's another reason Asus should have gone with USB-C).
Buttons are great, because I'd rather have that bottom bezel used for something other than just blank space.
And for those who might think a phone with a battery this big would take a while to recharge, you're partially right. If you use something other than the included charger, it's a crapshoot. When I connected the ZenFone 4 Max to my work laptop for recharging, power transfer was as fast as molasses. However, when plugged into the wall, the ZenFone 4 Max went from 25 per cent charge to 44 per cent in 30 minutes, which might not sound quite as impressive as the Note 8's recharge rate, which went from 25 per cent to 55 per cent in the same time. But when you consider that the ZenFone 4 Max's battery is 40 per cent larger than the Note 8's 3500 mAh power pack, you realise that's actually pretty good.
It's not a bad looking phone, but it's not terribly exciting either.
So now we're back to our original dilemma: how much is amazing battery life worth to you? If it wasn't for the ZenFone 4 Max's ridiculous longevity, its other flaws would have ruled it out completely. And even when you factor that 5000 mAh battery back in, there's at least three other phones in this price range I'd rather have. The Moto G5 Plus has a smaller screen, but its got way better performance, and it's compatible with every major carrier, while the ZTE Blade V8 Pro and Honour 6X are both more well rounded handsets that do a better job of making you care about budget phones with dual cameras. The ZenFone 4 Max's battery life might be extraordinary, but the rest of the phone is anything but.
- The ZenFone 4 Max's battery life is some of the best I've ever seen.
- Many components and specs are a little too budget, even for a phone that costs $US200.
- Reverse charging lets you use the ZenFone 4 as a battery pack, but you'll need a dongle to charge devices with a USB-C port.
- Not compatible with CDMA networks (i.e. Verizon and Sprint)