The Asus Zenfone AR is, on the surface, an impossible product to sell. It’s £800, which is as much as the launch price of the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, and it doesn’t even come with the latest generation processor.
And yet it’s intriguing at the same time. It’s the first phone to be certified for the Google Tango augmented reality and Google Daydream virtual reality platforms and as such represents an important step forwards for smartphones and VR/AR in general.
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Asus Zenfone AR review: What you need to know
Beyond the headlines, this is a pretty straightforward Android smartphone. It’s a big phone, with a 5.7in Super AMOLED display, runs Android 7 Nougat and has a Snapdragon 821 CPU inside with 6GB of RAM.
The rather complicated camera cluster on the rear, apart from unlocking AR features, gives you a 23-megapixel f/2 camera with all the mod cons and, if you ignore the augmented elephant in the room (he’s not that big, by the way), the phone is a decent all-rounder.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Price and competition
And then you consider the price: £800 is a lot of money for a phone – more than any other Android handset I’ve ever reviewed – and it puts the Zenfone in direct competition with the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, which launched at £779, but can now be had for a much more reasonable price of around £630 from Amazon.
The only other Android phone residing in the same price bracket is the now ageing Google Pixel XL, which costs £719 from the Google Play Store.
If you pre-order the Asus Zenfone AR from the Asus website, you get it in a huge presentation box with a £69 Google Daydream View headset included, but even this isn’t enough to soften the blow of that price.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Tango and smartphone AR
So, to business: what exactly do those rather nebulous buzzwords Tango and Daydream View bring to the party? It’s all about the camera cluster on the rear. Flip the phone over and you’ll see, embedded on a slightly protruding aluminium panel, two camera lenses (one for capturing image data, the other for capturing motion), an infrared laser autofocus sensor, and an infrared depth-sensing camera.
Using the three cameras in conjunction with each other is what unleashes the Tango experience (and, no, this has nothing to do with a large man with his belly painted orange), with the phone able to use the sensors to place digital objects in real-world scenes and map and measure the real world so it be brought into the digital arena.
On one level this is pretty frivolous. There are various games you can try, such as Slingshot Island and Hot Wheels Track Builder, that place elements from the game onto surfaces nearby. The former places a floating island into the middle of your living room that you can walk around and ping rocks at for points; in the latter, you can build virtual Scalextric-style tracks on the floor.
But there are also more serious, practical apps you can download from the Google Tango app. Measure employs the triple-camera array to help you measure items from distance without the need to find a measuring tape. With Magicplan you can aim the camera at walls, floors and ceilings to create a quick floor plan. With a little practice, both these apps work reasonably well, but you wouldn’t want to rely on them to form the basis of proper building works because the measurements simply aren’t accurate enough.
My favourite, however, has to be Dinos Among Us, which lets you select and place virtual dinosaurs in your living room and get a real sense of scale by walking up to them and around them. I’d like a few more than four models to play with, though.
The question is, would you pay £800 for a phone with access to these apps? The answer to this has to be no. It’s an interesting demonstration of what is a very cool new technology, but without the killer app to complement it, or the phone to justify the high price, you’re better off concentrating on getting the best phone you can, rather than one riddled with gimmicks.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Design
And although this isn’t far off being a brilliant phone, it’s no match for the very best on the market. For starters, it’s a pretty plain looking design that doesn’t really catch the eye like the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus does.
As I mentioned above, this is a large phone but it isn’t a heavy one, weighing 159g and, courtesy of its gently rounded corners and edges, will slide into even the tightest pockets without snagging or catching.
The rear is clad in soft-touch leather-effect material – a nice break from easily scuffable aluminium and crackable glass rear panels – the frame is gunmetal grey aluminium and the front is flat Gorilla Glass 4.
The buttons and ports are all in pretty sensible places: the volume rocker on the right-hand edge, just above the power key; the 3.5mm headphone socket on the bottom edge on the left hand side, just next to a USB Type-C socket; and there’s a dual-personality dual-SIM/microSD card storage tray mounted on the left end of the phone.
Below the screen, is a physical button-cum-fingerprint reader that protrudes a tad from the surface of the glass, flanked by off-screen capacitive back and recent apps keys. It’s all good stuff, it’s just not quite as glitzy as I’d like for £800.
Asus Zenfone AR review: Display and VR
The Asus Zenfone AR is equipped with a 5.5in Super AMOLED screen, topped with Gorilla Glass 4. It has a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440, so it looks sharp from normal distances and, as with every other AMOLED display you’ll come across, it has bright, vibrant colours and effectively perfect contrast.
One benefit of OLED you definitely won’t notice until you mount the phone in a VR headset is the lack of motion blur. This is an effect that, in regular handsets using LCD panels, can cause nausea but here the experience is far more fluid. Despite the high-resolution panel, though, VR views still look a little pixelated.
In testing, the display is as expected. Contrast is reported as perfect by our colorimeter, but peak brightness isn’t as good as the very best IPS LCDs can produce (it maxes out at 346cd/m2), which means you’ll need to shade the screen with your hand to read it in bright conditions.
Its default “Super” colour profile is a little oversaturated, which might take your fancy but for me it’s far too in-your-face. Fortunately, there is a more accurate “Standard” colour mode you can choose, which is more accurate and much less horribly vivid – it’s still far from perfect, though, as an average delta E colour accuracy rating of 3.48 goes to prove. I’d like to see as low a score as possible in this test; anything approaching 1 is excellent.
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