ASUS ZenFone AR review: Why choose AR or VR when you can have both?

The ASUS ZenFone AR is an augmented reality phone as the name suggests powered by Google’s project Tango. What the name doesn’t reveal is that the ASUS ZenFone AR is also compatible with Google’s virtual reality platform Daydream. So whether you’re looking to Tango or Daydream the ZenFone AR has you covered.

Design

The Zenfone AR has a sturdy metal frame with a faux leather texture on the back. Somewhere along the line, it was decided if your phone doesn’t use metal or glass on the back it’s not premium. The ZenFone AR still feels plenty premium to me and the faux leather backing provides more grip while handling the phone. This is very helpful because you don’t want to drop your phone while using Tango apps.

Besides what makes the back of this phone special is not what material is covering it, but the TriCam system ASUS used. This includes a motion sensing camera, depth sensing camera, and a traditional 23MP camera that work in conjunction to provide you with an augmented reality experience.



Even with all of the Tango tech ASUS crammed into this phone they still had room to put a headphone jack on the bottom, so no need for dongles here. The USB-C charging port and speaker are also found along the bottom. The speaker is loud and sounds decent, but as always can be easily muffled by your hand while holding the phone. The power button and volume rocker are found along the right side of the phone, both made of metal and have a nice solid feel when pressed.

For all of your AR and VR needs ASUS has included a 5.7-inch WQHD Super AMOLED display protected by Gorilla Glass 4. The screen is very bright and the colors are good but not great. For someone like myself who is a huge fan of AMOLED panels, this one was a bit underwhelming. When compared to other AMOLED screens it lacked the vivid saturated colors and deep blacks. Overall it’s a nice looking screen but reminds me more of a good LCD rather than an AMOLED display.

Under the display the ZenFone AR uses a physical home button flanked by a pair of capacitive keys. The home button also doubles as a fingerprint scanner and must be pressed in order to be activated. The capacitive keys only light up after they have been pressed or the home button has been pressed. This works fine in most lighting conditions but can be a little challenging to find in a dark room.

Performance

The ASUS ZenFone AR is powered by a Snapdragon 821, 6GB of RAM, and features 128GB of storage in this Verizon exclusive model. If 128GB of storage isn’t enough for you then the microSD card slot has you covered supporting cards up to 2TB. With these specs the ZenFone AR has plenty of power to run all of your daily tasks, games, and of course any augmented or virtual reality apps. In my usage, I never noticed any stutter or issue with the exception of some Tango apps. I attribute this more to the Tango technology than to the performance of the phone, however. Just a warning while using Tango apps the phone can get very warm though.

Software

The ZenFone AR is running Android 7.0 out of the box with ASUS’s skin over the top. It isn’t the best skin I’ve ever seen but then again it’s far from the worst. For the most part, I found the skin pretty light and easy to live with. Which helped keep performance smooth, while still offering some extra features such as double tap to wake and gestures to launch apps when the screen is off.

Augmented Reality

For those unfamiliar with augmented reality, think of the game Pokemon Go when you are capturing Pokemon with the AR switch on. You see them in your real surroundings but project Tango takes this to the next level. If Pokemon Go were a Tango enabled app, not only would you see the Pokemon on your screen but they would be able to run around and interact with your physical environment.

Augmented reality is a very cool piece of technology that so far has been underutilized. Most of the apps on the Play Store are quite simple or seem more like a proof of concept. From the time that I used the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro last year until now, there have been hardly any new apps added. It seems it is still early days for augmented reality but I’m cautiously optimistic it has a bright future. Hopefully, with the release of ARCore opening up augmented reality to more phones without the need for special hardware the app selection will grow. Making augmented reality the compelling product I believe it can be.

Virtual Reality

Unfortunately, I do not own a Daydream headset and was unable to test the virtual reality capabilities of the ASUS ZenFone AR. Unlike augmented reality, there is extra hardware required for virtual reality and Google’s Daydream headset is still way overpriced. Especially when you consider there aren’t many compelling apps for Daydream, making it even harder to justify the cost.

Camera

Of the TriCam system ASUS ZenFone AR uses, the 23MP shooter with an f/2.0 aperture and 4-axis optical image stabilization is used for photos. The images are clear with a decent exposure but lack a little in dynamic range when it comes to salvaging the highlights. As with most mobile cameras that cram 20MP or more onto a small sensor, the low light images also leave a lot to be desired. Overall the images are acceptable but they are not really worthy of a 2017 flagship. The front facing 8MP camera has an f/2.0 aperture and extensive beauty controls for all of your selfie needs.

Battery

Inside the ZenFone AR is packing a 3300mAh battery that struggles a bit to power this 5.7-inch display. With normal use, the phone can just about make it through the day offering up to 4 hours screen on time. However, if you plan on using it for augmented or virtual reality it will burn through the battery much quicker. Which means you won’t be able to spend much time playing with all of the cool tech inside of this phone. A larger battery would have been helpful here but the trade off would have been a thicker and heavier phone. At least it supports Quick Charge 3.0 so you won’t have to wait too long before you can play with it some more.

Final Thoughts

ASUS has unleashed a unique phone offering both augmented and virtual reality. Before now you had to choose between one or the other, but the ZenFone AR covers all the bases. The biggest issues I found were the camera and battery life can be a little lackluster at this price point. If you are really set on trying or using augmented reality or like having the option to use Tango and Daydream, then this is the phone for you. That is until the new ARCore takes off and more phones gain the ability to do augmented reality without all of the extra hardware required. Otherwise, there are other Daydream compatible phones out there offering more bang for your buck. 

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