The ZenFone AR is known for two things: being the first smartphone to have 8GB of memory, and first to come with both of Google’s Tango AR and Daydream VR platforms. That’s a problem.
While the abundant amount of memory makes sense to boast about — we have a full explainer for that — what exactly is so special about having two mixed reality systems on a single phone? I’ll begin the review by explaining each one.
What is Google Daydream?
In a nutshell, it’s the search giant’s virtual reality (VR) program. But Daydream isn’t something any smartphone can just start using; in fact, there are only five handsets with official support, two of which are Google’s very own Pixel and Pixel XL.
So, how did the ZenFone AR get near-exclusive access to the platform? With the combination of a high-resolution Quad HD AMOLED display and powerful (yet slightly outdated) Snapdragon 821 processor. Simply insert the phone into a compatible Daydream headset, pair it with the bundled wand-like controller, and fire up the Daydream app.
We already had some fun with it last January:
Daydream has experienced more development since then, and the platform has a lot more supported apps now. I had fun playing games using the controller, which I found simple to handle thanks to the simple three-button layout and accurate detection. But honestly, I spent more time watching 360-degree videos on YouTube, wherein I could just sit back and enjoy some shows.
As for how the ZenFone AR performed, it never skipped a beat, but the smooth performance came at the expense of overheating. You can’t use Daydream for more than an hour at a time, and you definitely can’t play while charging.
What is Google Tango?
Not to be confused with VR, Tango’s augmented reality (AR) system doesn’t need a headset or controller to work. Instead, you hold the compatible phone — the ZenFone AR in this case — and point the multi-camera setup on the back at your surroundings for graphics to show up.
Again, the ZenFone AR is in special company; it’s just the second commercial device to support Tango. That’s because the requirements are a lot stricter, requiring motion-tracking and depth-sensing camera modules on top of the ZenFone AR’s 23-megapixel main shooter to record surrounding data.
We were fortunate enough to try out The Sims in AR during this year’s Google I/O:
So yes, you can have fun with Tango and the ZenFone AR. Early builds of Google’s platform showed off mostly interior design apps and basic games during demos. While practical in application, it was only when we tried out the latest Tango-compatible games when we were sold on what ASUS and Google were promoting.
But like any developing system, Tango has a long way to go. On top of there being only two available smartphones supporting this, the Tango store is terribly lacking. There were a few fun AR apps to play with, but the novelty quickly wore off and I found myself charging the ZenFone AR more than I normally had to.
What else is there to the ZenFone AR?
Now that we have the two headlining features covered, we can talk more about the phone itself.
From the interface alone, you can tell not much has changed from previous versions of ASUS’ signature ZenUI styling. It’s still bloated with useless apps you’ll want to uninstall the moment you start up the phone, and even though ASUS finally applied Android 7.0 Nougat at its core, the overly large, somewhat cartoonish icons are still there.
On the bright side, the 5.7-inch AMOLED panel makes the interface pop like no other. It’s a little on the large side, and reaching for the fingerprint scanner-embedded home button below it can be a pain, but this is way more pleasant to look at than ZenFones before. Only the ZenFone 3 Zoom can compete.
It’s only when you turn the unit around when you forget for a second that this is a ZenFone. There’s nothing typical of ASUS here, from the rough back to the overbearing multi-camera setup. It’s solid, grippy on both glass surfaces and hands, and has that Tango logo near the bottom — no Daydream branding for some reason.
Can it take great photos?
More cameras mean improved image quality, right? It’s not that simple.
Despite being high in resolution, the single main camera struggles with the same issues that plagued previous ASUS smartphones, namely mushy shots under poor lighting and artificial-looking dynamic range when HDR mode is on.
Check ’em out:
It’s not all bad. I liked how the ZenFone AR didn’t oversharpen photos under noontime daylight, which is something a lot of smartphones are guilty of. The 8-megapixel front-facing shooter was a pleasant surprise. Despite its low pixel count, my selfies exhibited great quality even in the worst indoor environments I could find and it had lots of beautifying features — but I preferred leaving the filters off.
It’s no ZenFone 3 Zoom. But really, did we expect ASUS to top its own camera-centric flagship?
Does it last more than a day?
And here we have the biggest question (well, before the last and most important section): Can it handle a full day’s worth of usage?
Short answer is: it depends. If you buy a ZenFone AR, you’re sure to abuse the heck out of Daydream and Tango, or else you lose out on most of your investment. With those two features constantly on, you’re looking at an afternoon of playtime on a single charge. Without any AR or VR fun, getting over a day of usage with at least five hours of screen-on time is possible.
Since this is a Qualcomm-powered gadget, fast charging is available through Quick Charge 3.0 and it works well enough on the 3300mAh battery. Using the bundled charger, I reached close to a hundred percent in two hours’ time. At that point, the flow of energy slows down and requires an additional 15 minutes to get to full.
Is this your GadgetMatch?
Based on the opening lines of this review, the purpose of the ZenFone AR was already clear: to be the first in multiple aspects and show off what ASUS can do. This is a statement product from the Taiwanese company, and proves that its phones aren’t mere copycats of established brands.
A price of PhP 44,995 in the Philippines (roughly $900) for the variant with 8GB of memory and 128GB of storage only compounds the fact that this is not a mainstream device. It’s in absolute premium territory with a processor from last year and user interface from years ago. Think about that for a moment.
So, whose GadgetMatch is the ZenFone AR? The early adopters, VR and AR enthusiasts, loyal Google followers, and die-hard ASUS users who must have the most ambitious ZenFone to date.
With rumors pointing to a July launch for the next-generation ZenFone series, there isn’t much sense in getting a ZenFone AR right now, unless you must have a one-of-a-kind smartphone with the most advanced mixed reality integration today.