Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are two areas of huge potential, especially as all major manufacturers and platform developers are involved, whether it be for mobile or desktop.
For Google, Project Tango was the first major push towards building a compelling mobile AR platform. Sadly, it never saw a massive amount of adoption from developers, and has since been usurped by ARCore. Before ARCore happened, though, the Asus ZenFone AR was launched, with built-in Tango.
The ZenFone AR therefore represents a classic case of mistiming. But, taken for what it is, does it showcase a taste of how great Tango-based mobile AR could have been, or is it an over-engineered solution to a problem that didn't exist?
Asus ZenFone AR review: Design
- 158.7 x 77.7 x 9mm; 170g
- Leather-like back
For the first time in what seems like ages, this is a phone with a back covered in a soft, leather-like material. It's gently curved, sits in a solid metal frame and has Asus and Tango brands embossed near its bottom edge. The metal around the Asus' edges has an attractive, understated matte grey finish, while the ports on the bottom edge are finished with a subtle grey plastic lining.
The ZenFone AR is as unique in design as it is in its hardware capabilities, thanks to its unusual camera setup. There's a large metal rectangle panel on the rear with a dark, brushed grey finish. Within this are the sensors and cameras required for Tango, which comprise two main cameras, alongside depth and motion-tracking sensors.
It has the look and feel of a high-end consumer smartphone, with the faux leather making it feel more inviting and warm than your typical glass or metal-backed device.
The one element of design that we think needs improvement is the front-facing home button. As with many phones, this button also incorporates the fingerprint sensor, but the clicking mechanism and tactile feedback is among the worst we've used. It moves very little when pressed, and the clicking sound is more akin to depressing of a metal lid from a sealed jar of food, than what a button should sound like. Additionally, the vibrating motor gives off a terrible high-pitched whirr, rather than a subtle vibration that we've come to expect from a high-end smartphone.
Asus ZenFone AR review: Display
- 5.7-inch AMOLED display, 16:9 ratio
- 2560 x 1440 resolution
The ZenFone AR is also fairly large on account of its 5.7-inch 16:9 ratio screen, which dominates the front. That said, the phone is a few millimetres narrower than the iPhone 8 Plus, which makes it slightly easier to handle.
Being built to enjoy the best experience of Google's AR and VR technologies possible means the Asus phone actually has a very good screen. As you'd expect, that means it comes with a Quad HD resolution Super AMOLED panel to ensure the best detail direct to your eyes. It is undoubtedly the Asus phone's best feature.
This particular panel is bright, vivid and sharp, ensuring it's an absolute joy to consume media on. Whether we were gaming or catching up on the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery, the picture always looked bright, punchy and saturated. Just how we like it.
If there's any criticism, it's minor: whites alter colour slightly when viewed from unnaturally oblique angles. Given that this will rarely be the case, it's an infrequent issue.
Asus ZenFone AR review: Google Tango
Project Tango. If you've never heard of it, that's okay. For the benefit of the Brits: it has nothing to do with the orange flavoured carbonated drink. Tango is what Google called its AR development program. It was supposed to be the next big thing.
At the time it was announced, it was a breakthrough AR system that could measure depth, know where you were in relation to everything around you and make virtual objects interact with that environment. It could even allow you to measure real-world objects accurately by drawing lines between various points on screen.
There was one major stumbling block with Tango: to incorporate it into a smartphone meant adding a host of specific cameras and sensors. It needed the extra hardware to work, which is a cost hurdle.
Then, right as the ZenFone AR was launching, Apple launched ARKit. This did pretty much the same thing, but didn't require any extra added hardware. Anyone with an iPhone or iPad running iOS 11 can use it. In response, Google announced ARCore, announcing to the world that it could do the same without all the added cameras and sensors required by Tango.
In one fell swoop, Tango was dead. But that's not to say it's not fun to use in the ZenFone AR.
There's a game called Woorld, in which you scan an entire real-world room, with Tango understanding where the floor, walls, ceiling and other surfaces are, and in which orientation. You can then choose where to place virtual plants, the sun, moon, a little house and keep adding and growing until you have a rich virtual world that sits within the real world.
The only issue with Tango is that sometimes virtual objects shift slightly and don't consistently orientate themselves to match the surfaces they're supposed to be sitting on. It's an imperfect solution, therefore, and future AR technologies such as ARCore will inevitably improve upon it.
In the end, for Tango, it's ultimately one of those technologies that could have technically been superior to ARKit or ARCore, but the convenience for both manufacturers and consumers has meant we're likely not going to see it again in a mainstream device.
Asus ZenFone AR review: Software
- Android 7.0 Nougat
- Daydream compatible
Being an Asus phone means that, although it is running Android 7.0 Nougat, it comes loaded with the company's own ZenUI skin on top, complete with plenty of preinstalled apps. Thankfully this time, it's not predominantly uninstallable bloatware.
You have your usual contacts, phone, clock, calculator, files and sound recorder. You also get a few Asus mainstays, like the Themes app for downloading and installing extra themes and wallpapers, and the Mobile Manager app which lets you monitor power use, security, permissions and manage notifications.
Perhaps one of the more convenient extra features is called Smart Group. When opening the app drawer, you press the three dots menu button the top right corner, hit "smart group" and it automatically groups together similar apps into folders. It's surprisingly good, quickly sorting games, productivity tools and various other apps.
For parents, you'll be glad to know there's a Kids Mode. This lets you restrict which apps are available, and how long they can use your device for by setting a time out period.
As you'd expect from a phone designed to show off Google's AR/VR chops, this phone also supports Daydream. That means you can strap it into one of Google's Daydream headsets and immerse yourself in the virtual world within. It's fun, although in our experience, we had to continuously reset the centre point during use. For whatever reason, it regularly lost its original orientation.
Asus ZenFone AR review: Performance & battery life
- Snapdragon 821 processor
- 6GB RAM (8GB in some regions)
- 3,300mAh battery with Quick Charge 3.0
While Qualcomm has already released this year's flagship processor, the Snapdragon 835, its predecessor wasn't exactly a slouch. That's why it's no big deal that Asus has the Snapdragon 821 in the ZenFone AR. It's a very capable processor, especially when partnered with the 6GB RAM (some models have 8GB).
It's no exaggeration to say that this phone performs like a proper flagship, which is no surprise. With Google and Asus initially planning this to be the pinnacle of its Tango phones, everything had to be tip top. It runs just as well as any high-end Android phone we've tested over the past year.
With its large QHD screen and 3,300mAh battery, the battery life didn't exactly wow us, but it was plenty to get us through a full day without needing to be topped up. It's nowhere near being a two-day battery, but it comfortably got to the end of a busy day with 20-30 per cent of its charge remaining.
What's more, thanks to Quick Charge 3.0, it can be topped up really quickly. Just 30 minutes plugged in is enough to get you from zero to 50 per cent quite comfortably. It's particularly handy if you've come home from work and have an engagement to get to, and are getting too close to that dreaded 20 per cent mark. Pop the cable in, shower, get dressed, and you've got more than enough juice to get through your evening.
Also note that VR/AR experiences tend to be particularly taxing on battery life, so if that's what you intend to do a lot of the time with the ZenFone AR - which we suspect will be the case - then expect longevity to take a hit.
Asus ZenFone AR review: Camera
- 23-megapixel sensor with f/2.0 aperture lens
- 4-axis optical stabilisation (OIS)
- 4K video recording
Being a Tango phone means a good camera is required. As a result the ZenFone AR doesn't disappoint for regular photo-taking either.
The Asus camera app is loaded with various shooting modes, including the regular auto shot, and a manual mode for adjusting ISO, white balance, shutter speed and focus. You get to it simply by tapping the "m" icon on the screen.
To get images with extra pop and colour, there's the HDR Pro mode, which is great when a scene has heavy backlighting. At times it produces images with a little too much contrast and colour, but used in situations that benefit from high dynamic range, you can stop the subject from appearing too dark with over-exposed backlighting.
Other camera shooting modes include Super Resolution (for boosting sharpness), Low Light, QR scanner, GIF Animation, time-lapse, slow motion, and more.
That list also includes the now almost obligatory Depth of Field mode, for producing software-adjusted images with lots of background blur, similar to the iPhone 8 Plus's portrait mode. Except, this Asus one allows you to adjust the amount of blur in the image after you've taken the shot, much like Huawei does in its setup. The end results here are about as unconvincing as any other depth mode we've tested. It's possible to get nice looking images with pseudo-bokeh, but you mostly end up with at least a few unwanted edges being blurred into the background too.
The Asus ZenFone AR came just at the wrong time. It's one of those strange cases where all of its technological advancement is redundant straight out of the box. As surprised as we are to see it launched, it's still kind of exciting to see what Tango could have become.
Otherwise there's very little wrong with the ZenFone AR. This is still a fast phone, with a good camera and a great display. So what's not to like?
The answer is pretty straightforward: the price. To buy one of these from a reputable retailer - Carphone Warehouse, for example - you'll need to pony up £799. For an Asus phone - which we feel is a brand that is yet to capture the excitement of modern consumers in the UK - that's a lot of money. For a lot less cash you could get something like the OnePlus 5, or for a similar sum you could go with the much nicer Samsung Galaxy S8+ / Samsung Galaxy Note 8, or pre-order the Google Pixel 2 XL.
Overall, the Asus ZenFone AR is an interesting glimpse into the world of AR, complete with flagship features, but at a price that says you've been Tango'd.
Alternatives to consider
OnePlus' latest so-called flagship-killer is equipped with the newest Snapdragon processor, a much cleaner user interface, and nicer overall design. What's more, it costs £499 to get the specced-out 8GB RAM/128GB storage model. That's a full £300 cheaper than the Asus ZenFone AR.
Read the full review: OnePlus 5 review: The flagship-killer's coming of age
Samsung Note 8
If you want a big phone, with a big beautiful screen, all the current features and specifications, there's the Galaxy Note 8. It's an incredible device that packs in as much as is possible into a phone with very little bezel. This all stunning all-screen monster also comes with the ever useful S-Pen.
Read the full review: Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Dual camera skills meet S Pen thrills
iPhone 8 Plus
The latest iPhones are as solid as they come. As with pretty much every Apple smartphone since the beginning, the attention to detail on the design and user experience is first class. Apple's ARKit means no extra sensors and cameras required, and you get one of the best cameras in the business.
Read the full review: Apple iPhone 8 Plus review: Strong and steady