The Asus Zenfone AR certainly made an impression when it arrived in the office for review, arriving as it did in a huge box that would have comfortably housed a giant birthday cake. All that for a 5.7in smartphone?
The reason for the extra cardboard and foam quickly became apparent. Alongside the handset came a pair of AKG headphones and a Google Daydream View headset – the latter to emphasise that this is the first phone to be certified for Google’s Daydream and Tango platforms for virtual and augmented reality.
That alone makes it interesting, but any enthusiasm is quickly snuffed out when your eyes drift over to the price tag. £800. Eight hundred pounds. That’s more than the launch price of the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus and £350 more than the OnePlus 5. For a brand like Asus with very little form to speak of in the mobile phone market, it’s a pricing strategy that you could charitably describe as “bold”, or more accurately call “absolutely nuts.”
I’m going to spoil this review now and tell you that you don’t want this smartphone. But it is an interesting curiosity, so you should read on anyway to find out why.
Asus Zenfone AR review: You’ve been Tangoed
Let’s get this out of the way quickly. What makes the Asus Zenfone AR so special? It’s not the raw specifications – it actually uses an older processor than 2017’s top flagships, but more on that later. The clue is in the name: it’s designed from the ground up for augmented reality, and to be entirely fair, it shows off the nascent medium very well.
That’s thanks to the most complicated array of cameras you’ve ever seen on a mobile phone. The cluster, embedded on a protruding aluminium panel, comprises a lens for image capture, another lens for capturing motion, an infrared autofocus sensor and an infrared depth-sensing camera.
Put these cameras together and magic happens: digital objects can be placed in real world settings – like Pokemon Go, only far more sophisticated. To help you see how much more sophisticated, Asus bundles a plethora of showcase apps. These are interesting diversions, but hardly likely to prompt a rethink of what your phone can do for very long.Slingshot Island plonks an island in your living room and lets you throw virtual rocks at it, while Hot Wheels Track Builder does a similar trick, but with virtual racing tracks on the floor. Meanwhile, Dinos Among Us lets you drop dinosaurs here and there, without having to worry about a Jurassic Park style disaster. You can walk around and inspect them with your phone, and it’s as if they had never died out.
Aside from these toys, there are some more practical applications.Magicplan lets you automatically knock together a quick floor plan by pointing the camera at the walls, floors and ceiling; it’s neat, although the measurements aren’t 100% accurate, so I’d be wary of using them for anything serious.
Cool this may be, but to think this comes even remotely close to representing value for money you’d have to really love dinosaurs, toy cars, rocks and interior design. Because, unfortunately, the rest of the phone doesn’t do enough to make up the difference.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Performance
While the Asus Zenfone AR is no slouch, it has more in common with the nearly-year-old Google Pixel than the pick of 2017’s best phones. This is chiefly down to its Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor. The AmericanSamsung Galaxy S8, the HTC U11 and the Sony Xperia XZ Premium all use the newer, faster Snapdragon 835; the difference may not be immediately obvious in day-to-day use, but it shines through in benchmarks.
That’s not a good place to be, especially not for a phone that’s dramatically more expensive than its rivals. And it can’t be saved with incredible stamina: in our battery tests, the Zenfone AR lagged some way behind the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus and Google Pixel XL.
If you’re paying over the odds for a phone, you’d expect it to offer something extra. The fact that the Asus Zenfone actually offers less than the competition should kill the idea of buying one stone dead – unless, of course, the price gets slashed, which could conceivably happen in time.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Design
Despite its 5.7in size, the Asus Zenfone AR comes in quite light at 159g. Its gently rounded corners and edges don’t snag, and it’ll comfortably fit in most pockets. The back cover is made from soft-touch leather-effect material, which makes a pleasant change from glass and aluminium. In all, it’s a nice looking phone – though perhaps without the level of razzamatazz you’d want in a device costing the best part of a grand.
In fact, aside from the unusual-looking camera array, it’s a pretty regular smartphone. The 3.5mm headphone jack is present and correct, and there’s a USB Type-C charging port at the bottom. It supports dual-SIM cards, and the slot also lets you expand the handset’s 128GB of storage with a microSD card should you wish.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Screen
The Zenfone AR’s screen is good, but once again, not great. It’s a 5.7in Super AMOLED affair, topped with Gorilla Glass 4. Although the OLED screen enjoys perfect contrast, its brightness peaks at a somewhat weedy 346cd/m2, meaning you might struggle to read it in bright sunshine. Colour accuracy is some way off too, with an average Delta E colour accuracy rating of 3.48. The very best phones have a score closer to 1.
Still, there is one notable plus point. Its 2,560 x 1,440 resolution matches most flagship handsets, and although it’s overkill for day-to-day use, for VR it makes perfect sense: if you’re holding the screen an inch from your eyes, more pixels is definitely a good thing.
Indeed, it works well for virtual reality – although even with this many pixels, the whole thing still appears a touch pixelated. I detected no motion blur at all, which is definitely a good thing, as it means there’s less chance of the experience leaving you nauseous.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Camera
At the risk of overplaying the theme, the Asus Zenfone AR’s camera is good but not exceptional. On paper, things look pretty solid: it has a 23-megapixel sensor, a f/2 lens and an autofocus with infrared and phase detection.
And for stills, it’s good. Very good in fact. Low-light images – so often the smartphone camera’s Achilles’ heel – prove to be clean, detailed and relatively noise-free. They’re comparable to the OnePlus 5 in terms of colour production but – and you’re probably getting bored of me saying this – they’re not as good as the HTC U11 or Samsung Galaxy S8. Which, again, both run considerably cheaper.
Video meanwhile is a disappointment. The camera can capture 4K video at 30fps, or 1080p at up to 60fps, but the optical image stabilisation isn’t up to much, so you have to hold it very still indeed to produce video that’s enjoyable to watch.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Verdict
If you’re really determined to see the glass as half full, and are willing to squint a bit, you can just about see the outline of Asus’s thinking. Sure, there are plenty of great phones already out there, but maybe the public is secretly dying for AR, and is willing to pay a premium for a smartphone that promises to bring it into the mainstream.
Sadly, the Zenfone is held back not just by price, but by performance. Yes, it’s a competent phone, but with its Snapdragon 821 CPU, the Zenfone AR has more in common with the year old Google Pixel than the Samsung Galaxy S8 or any of its peers. Unless you really are that odd soul who places AR above all else, it’s very hard to see why you wouldn’t buy one of those cheaper, better phones instead..