Google has partnered with another manufacturer to produce a phone with Tango on board, for better or for worse. Stepping up to the plate this time is Asus with the ZenFone AR. The first phone ever to support both Tango and Daydream VR comes in a much, much smaller package than last year'sPhab2 Pro from Lenovo, and accomplishes both things in an arguably better manner.
The ZenFone AR comes with a pretty good camera, a nice Super AMOLED screen, Nougat, and the least offensive version of ZenUI to date. Unfortunately, it's the battery life that really drags this phone down. And Tango remains a mystery; that is, why it's touted as a major, defining feature on a consumer device when it's obvious a back-burner project.
I think that may give you an inkling of where this review is headed.
Design and build materials
Much like the Phab2 Pro before it, the ZenFone AR is striking in its own way. Part of that is thanks to the very complex-looking rear camera array, but another major portion of its 'wow' factor is the construction. There's a leatherette backing that feels very nice to the touch and provides a solid grip, giving the phone a premium quality. I do think that the bulky camera and sensor cluster somewhat mars the otherwise smooth look, but that's just me.
Now, let's just be real here: Asus, despite its good reputation in the PC hardware market, is not really known or lauded for its mobile device design. The ZenFone AR, from the front, looks like the bezel-happy phones of the past few years. It has a utilitarian vibe and it lacks any sort of elegance — there's no fancy 18.5:9 screen, it has those thick top and bottom bezels, and even capacitive keys make an appearance. While I respect the design of the ZenFone AR, it's not going to win any awards from an aesthetic standpoint. However, the phone does feel extremely solid and well-constructed; it has a nice heft to it without being too heavy.
One of my two complaints with quality stems from the vibration motor. It's quite loud, it feels weak (when compared to other phones that I have), and it gets annoying very quickly. For example, the capacitive keys give haptic feedback when pressed (no real surprise there), but the phone makes a "yip" sound that is impossible to un-hear once someone points it out to you (thanks, Ryan). It reminds me of the OnePlus 3, where you would hear the vibration more than you would feel it. Even while in my pocket, it made a lot of noise, which is not ideal for students who have strict professors.
My other complaint is the physical home button, which also contains the fingerprint sensor. The reader itself is pretty good; it's accurate and quick, and only gave me a few errors every now and again. I am not a fan, however, of the fact that you need to press the button before the sensor will start reading your finger. While I strongly prefer soft keys for navigation, I can usually deal with either the capacitive home button/FPS or the physical button that is also capacitive (like on theXiaomi Mi Note 2). The ZenFone AR has neither of those, which took some time to get used to. Despite the fact that this button does not feel hollow or cheap when pressed, I think that it's less premium than the other options I just mentioned.
Corning's Gorilla Glass 4 on the ZenFone AR holds up very well to general use. I accidentally put my car and house keys in the same pocket as the phone and it came out fine; I used it at the gym, where my phones frequently see abuse, and there was no apparent damage to the glass. On the other hand, the metal camera array did seem to get tiny scratches rather easily. They're difficult to see except under the right light and viewing angle, which is a plus. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but I figured I'd mention it.
Taking a tour of the phone, we'll start with the bottom along which sit the 3.5mm headphone jack, USB-C port, and single speaker. On the back is the camera array, which contains the tri-LED flash, laser autofocus, 23MP main camera, Tango's secondary camera, and the necessary depth and motion sensors for AR. The Asus and Tango logos are embossed into the leatherette down at the bottom. Both the power button and volume rockers are on the right side of the phone, volume on top of power. They provide great tactile response, with adequate travel distance and resistance, and also have a nice texture to them. Out front you have the 5.7" WQHD display, the 8MP front camera, the earpiece, all the standard sensors, the capacitive keys, and the physical home button.
I want to briefly talk about those bezels. While I don't bear any particular enmity toward them, I do think that they make the phone look dated. The top bezel, especially, is quite thick. Not only does it bear the camera, earpiece, and sensors, but it also has another Asus logo. This practice feels out of place in a 2017 high-end smartphone; we've clearly seen that phone manufacturers can promote their brands without plastering their large logos on the front of their devices (even LG's implementation isn't all that bad on the G6). Is this truly that important in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, but I wanted to get it in before people start crying about bezels and such.
Asus is touting this phone as the first with both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) capabilities. To accomplish the latter, the phone requires a high-resolution display, which is exactly what you get here. Versus the 6.4" QHD LCD behemoth on the Phab2 Pro (which wasn't Daydream-capable), Asus opted for a 5.7" Super AMOLED panel, which I have become a fan of in recent years. Colors are vibrant across the spectrum, blacks are very dark, and I didn't get any sense of oversaturation during my time with the phone. It strikes a wonderful balance.
Even though it can't hold a candle to the Galaxy S8's display, I found that there is really nothing to complain about. Viewing angles are great, contrast is really nice, and brightness is more than adequate, even outdoors.
Performance and battery life
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 821 is almost a year old at this point. Even though the 835 is the latest and greatest, the 821 is still a very respectable SoC that holds up quite well today. I use the LG G6 as my daily driver (which has the 821) and have no complaints about the performance , and I feel the same about the ZenFone AR.
Asus sent me the 128GB/8GB model — that's a lot of RAM and I haven't even come close to using it all. Once I hit about 4GB or so, the OS leveled itself down to about 3.4GB and stayed there until I cleared the apps in the recents menu (which lowered it to about 2.3-2.4GB). That being said, I never noticed any apps getting dropped out of memory, nor did I see my homescreen get redrawn once. The ZenFone AR absolutely flies through everything; animations are solid, transitions are tight, and I saw no lag whatsoever.
Gaming was also great, as I would expect from the Adreno 530 GPU. Framerates in Myst and Riven never dipped in any noticeable fashion, though the phone did turn into a hand warmer when playtime exceeded fifteen minutes or so.
Battery life, on the other hand, was not so great. Under both normal and heavy use, and especially when Tango got involved, the longevity of the 3,300mAh cell was disappointing. Even after letting it settle following the initial setup and all that, I found that the ZenFone AR lasted about as long as the G6 with light usage (occasional messaging and emails) and much worse with heavier use (gaming, watching YouTube, lots of messaging and emails, etc). During my time with the phone, I often had to recharge in the mid-afternoon to make it through the rest of the day and evening. Thankfully, Quick Charge 3.0 is supported so those recharging times were pretty short.
And don't even get me started on battery life while using Tango; it's pretty much the same story as the Phab2 Pro's. Tango obliterates the battery in no uncertain terms — even using the introductory demo was hard on it. Among the reasons to not use Tango, this ranks as one of the highest.
In addition to the Tango stuff, you get a 23MP primary sensor with an f/2.0 aperture, 4-axis OIS, and EIS. The depth sensor from the Tango array can also be used for messing with foreground/background focus in the photos during post processing, because that's still a thing. Overall, the ZenFone AR's main camera is pretty good. The color reproduction is accurate for the most part, though it can be a tad oversaturated sometimes. Auto mode works very well in many cases; the white balance, focus, and exposure were all fine.
Outdoor photos, especially in bright light, turn out very well, most notably when taken with Asus' continually-improving HDR. Indoor shots were still decent, but the white balance shifts toward the warmer side a smidge. Asus' low-light solution helps the end results look a bit better, though the OIS/EIS don't seem to work with that solution for some reason — every photo that I tried to take came out really blurry.
Asus' camera UI has a lot going on, some of which I really like. One of those things is the manual mode; it's full of sliders and useful information to get a great shot. There is quite a large selection of other shooting modes to choose from, too; one of the weirder ones is "Super Resolution," which does what you would expect. Whereas the normal landscape photos come out to 5488x3088, the super resolution ones that I took were bumped to 10,976x6176... that's a lot of pixels.
Video recording was a pleasant experience, as well. The OIS+EIS really helps, especially if you have shaky hands like I do. The sample videos that I took looked good and smooth, free of stutter or wobbling. As I said in my last review, I am not in the habit of recording video very much, but I liked what I saw here with the ZenFone AR.
Like its smartphone design, Asus is not well-known for good mobile software and UX, but it's worth noting that the company has improved over the years. ZenUI 3.0 is the best version yet, I'd say, with only a few annoyances. However, most of the customizations are innocuous — the settings menu has randomly colored icons and the notification shade is fairly normal (the default theme gives it some translucence). The toggles in the Quick Settings are large icons, which are easy to press and they contrast nicely against the background.
ZenUI uses a rich teal and light grey combination as its primary theme colors, as well as an aquamarine accent, which looks great on the AMOLED display. Animations have also improved over previous versions of ZenUI; it's amazing what smooth transitions and the like can do to improve the user experience.
One of the things that I like about ZenUI is that it generally stays out of the way. I don't use many of the Asus apps and the ones that I do are inoffensive, like the Dialer. One of the most annoying things, though, is the 'clear all' notifications button. It sits above the QS toggles, a place that I don't think is well-suited to this function. The true irritation comes from the size of the touch target — if you don't tap precisely on the word "Clear" (versus the button around the word), the phone won't register that selection and instead closes the shade altogether. It's a very minor thing, but I'm annoyed the see that it's carried over from the Marshmallow build of ZenUI.
Another improvement that I've noticed in v3.0 is that memory and power management have gotten better. Asus still includes the annoying RAM booster like we see from other OEMs, but it's easily ignored (especially if you remove the QS toggle for it). I've already discussed performance and battery life up above, but I wanted to give Asus kudos for relaxing a bit. Maybe we'll see other manufacturers do the same. One can hope, right?
The settings menu, despite its eclectic, asynchronous color scheme that doesn't match the rest of the system, contains a few interesting tidbits from Asus. ZenMotion includes three submenus: Touch Gesture, Motion Gesture, and One-Handed Mode. Touch includes double-tap to wake/sleep options, as well as OnePlus-style gestures when the screen is off. Motion has only a few choices like answering a phone call by lifting the phone to your ear and the unexplained "Flip" option (maybe for muting a call or alarm?). My big hands saw no need for One-Handed Mode, but it's there if you want it. Auto-start Manager allows you to deny apps from starting at boot to "save battery and memory." Considering that the base model of the ZenFone AR comes with 6GB of RAM, the latter concern seems unfounded. The Power Saver section gives you several battery modes from which to choose: Performance, Normal, Power-saving, and Super-saving. It's pretty obvious what all of those entail, so let's continue.
Asus offers two "customized settings" in their own submenu: what happens when you long-press the recents key and a glove mode. ZenUI also offers you an always-on panel option and different customizations for it, as well as options for "Asus Cover" if you have one of the supported cases. Finally, we have what the Taiwanese manufacturer calls OptiFlexTM . This "smart tool" is supposed to decrease the amount of time it takes for certain apps to load. You can add up to 10 to this list and apparently boost their launch performance. I added Telegram, Chrome, Google Voice, and Slack to OptiFlex and noticed no difference. In short, I think that it's a waste of time, but that's just me.
ZenUI also supports themes. There aren't any very good ones and they don't change much beyond the notification shade's color and opaqueness, but they're there. Finally, Bluetooth worked very well in my experience (a nice change of pace). All of my smartwatches paired and functioned properly, I did not have problems with connecting/staying connected to either earphones or speakers, and range was pretty good (depending on the device, obviously).
That's ZenUI in a nutshell. It's significantly better than previous versions, it doesn't get in the way, and it runs very smoothly. I think that a lot of Asus' additions could have either been left out or placed into the "Display" menu or whatever, instead of having their own entries. As it is, the settings app has a lot going on.
My biggest concern, however, lies in OS updates, both in actual occurrence and timing. Asus is notoriously awful about those, especially when it works with Verizon (who is the U.S. carrier-exclusive). This phone ships with Android 7.0, but given it was announced 8 months ago, was 7.1 too much to ask? It's a legitimate concern to worry about updates when looking at an Asus mobile device. To be fair, I did get an update shortly after receiving the ZenFone AR, but it was mostly bug fixes.
ZenUI is all well and good, but what about one of the central marketing points for the ZenFone AR? Tango has been featured in a couple devices over the last few years, and while it sounds awesome in concept, I still fail to see where Tango fits in the wider, general consumer space. Using and playing with it is a lot of fun for the first few minutes, but the battery life impact and pathetically small app selection overshadow that fun factor — seriously, how many times am I going to measure a room or place different furniture (hint: maybe once)? Plus, having experienced Tango on the Phab2 Pro, I was much less impressed this time around because it's the exact same thing.
Tango does not seem to offer anything different than it did a year ago. The initial demo hasn't changed, there were only a few apps that I didn't recognize from my time with the Phab2 Pro, and I still get bored with it all after a few minutes. Again, it's cool to show off to friends and family, but that alone does not justify its existence in a general consumer device.
I do recognize that Tango has its place in niche settings. However, I still fail to see any compelling use case that would cause me to buy or recommend a device solely because of it. But if you're looking for some more thoughts on it, be sure to go back to this section of the Phab2 Pro review. It's still valid because nothing has changed in a user-facing sense... at all.
So here we are at the penultimate question to answer: Is the ZenFone AR worth the cost? You can get the 128GB/6GB model from Verizon for $648; Amazon has the 64GB/6GB version for $599.99 and the 128GB/8GB (what I have) for $699.99. That's flagship-tier pricing, which is a bit hard to swallow. Let me explain why.
First of all, Tango alone is not worth the cost, nor should you buy a phone solely based on its presence, as I've said already. Second, you can get a comparable (or better, depending on how you look at it) phone for less. Just look at the OnePlus 5: 64GB/6GB for $479, 128GB/8GB for $539. Whether you're into the ridiculous amount of storage and RAM or not, OnePlus does seem to have the upper hand. OxygenOS is more cohesive than ZenUI, battery life is better on the OP5, and OnePlus is faster about updates than Asus (think about that for a second) — and if it matters to you, the OP5 has the Snapdragon 835. The only things that the ZenFone AR has over it are the higher-resolution screen (which is quite nice and makes the phone Daydream-ready) and maybe the camera. The inclusion of Tango is not an advantage in my opinion.
Asus is asking entirely too much for this phone. At a starting price of $499, I'd be a little bit more lenient, though the OnePlus 5 would still be a better buy. $599 to start is too much for a phone with Tango; I imagine that we'll see this phone drop in price over the coming months as Asus struggles to clear inventory. One might be able to overlook the Taiwanese company's update troubles, or even the so-so/shoddy battery life, for a phone that ranges in the $300-$500 area. $599, however, is a lot to ask for the shortcomings present here.
I think that paying $599-$699 for a device that may not even see Android O until next summer (hyperbole... hopefully) is not a wise investment, especially when compared to some of its competitors. I honestly don't know why anyone would buy this phone from a value standpoint, unless they really want Tango. In that case, more power to you.
So where does this leave us? The ZenFone AR isn't a bad phone, but it isn't a great one, either. In the end, I don't that it's worth buying currently. Tango is cool and all, but you'll likely play with it a few times and never open it (or the apps) again. And even though ZenUI is better than it's ever been, there's still the issue of Asus' OS update track record to consider.
For a phone whose existence is predicated on Tango and Daydream, the ZenFone AR struggles to justify that existence. Having the AR/VR capabilities is great, I admit, but they alone should not be the basis for the marketing of many given devices. What does this phone do, besides those two things, that makes it great? Well, nothing. It's pretty mediocre in most regards.
This is not me saying that the ZenFone AR shouldn't exist; frankly, it's me equating the story of this over-priced device from Asus to that of Lenovo's Phab2 Pro (which has already hit its end-of-life, sadly). Tango is still not a good reason to build and market a phone, especially since it seems like it's a back-burner project for Google. As has been said here on AP, I'll believe that Google is behind Tango 100% when we see it on a Pixel. Until then, it feels like just another experiment.