For years, we have been hearing about the massive potential of Augmented Reality (AR). We have also seen a number of concepts and prototype devices in demos, but a practical, compact and affordable solution has always been missing. Google’s Project Tango was believed to propel the AR segment, but the adoption has been almost negligible. Sure, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro was the first Tango enabled device, but the new Asus Zenfone AR is the first to support both Project Tango (AR) and Daydream (VR) platforms from Google.
The Zenfone AR was unveiled at CES 2017, and was recently launched in India. It is exclusively available on Flipkart, and will set you back by Rs 49,999. Besides being the first device to support AR and VR, the Zenfone AR is also the first smartphone to feature 8GB of RAM. Asus has closely worked with Google to make both Tango and Daydream platforms run smoothly on the smartphone. It has also closely worked with Qualcomm to optimize the Snapdragon 821 quad-core SoC, specially for Tango platform. But, does all that help to offer a good experience, and justify the Zenfone AR’s price tag? Let’s find out.
Asus Zenfone AR specifications
Before we dive into the review, let’s quickly look at the specifications of the smartphone. The Zenfone AR flaunts a 5.7-inch QHD super AMOLED display running at a resolution of 2560×1440 pixels. As mentioned before, the smartphone is powered by the specially optimized Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core SoC paired with the Adreno 530 GPU and 8GB of RAM. The Zenfone AR comes with 128GB of onboard storage, which can further be expanded using a microSD card – via a hybrid slot.
Now, one may argue why the company has used last year’s Snapdragon 821 chipset, when the latest Snapdragon 835 has been around for quite some time now. But, it’s important to consider that when Asus started developing the device, the Snapdragon 821 was the best available chipset. Built on 14nm process, it has all the power it needs to run even the most intensive of apps, while also ensuring efficiency.
In the photography department, the Zenfone AR comes with a tri-camera system for Augmented Reality (AR) applications, but more on that later. The primary camera is a Sony IMX318 sensor of 23-megapixel resolution and aperture of f/2.0. It comes with 4-axis, 4-stops Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and 3-axis Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS). The camera lens is covered with Sapphire Crystal Glass to keep scratches at bay. Up front, you have an 8-megapixel camera of aperture f/2.0 for selfies and video calling.
Connectivity options on the smartphone include Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, GPS and dual-SIM card slots with 4G LTE connectivity. Sadly, the smartphone doesn’t feature VoLTE HD voice calling feature for the Reliance Jio network. On the software front, the Zenfone AR runs Android 7.0 Nougat with Asus ZenUI 3.0. The smartphone is armed with a 3,300mAh battery with fast-charging technology that can quickly charge the smartphone from 0-60 percent in about 39 minutes.
Asus Zenfone AR design
Now, while Samsung and LG have gone for sleek-looking design and taller displays with barely any bezel, Asus has gone with a rather traditional approach. The front is dominated by the 5.7-inch display, with the earpiece, front camera and ambient light sensor above it. Below the display, you have the physical home button flanked by capacitive Android navigation buttons for back and task switcher.
The physical home button also comes embedded with a fingerprint sensor. Now, unlike other smartphones where simply resting the finger unlocks the smartphone, on the Zenfone AR, you need to press it once to wake the device and scan the fingerprint. The scanning is quick though, and while Asus says it works with wet and sweaty fingers too, it didn’t work in my case. ALSO READ: Asus Zenfone AR is the first step in an arduous battle that lies ahead
Asus has continued to use a metal frame and it has nice chamfered edges to offer a premium look and feel to it. The left side houses the hybrid tray allowing you to either use two nano SIM cards or one nano SIM card and one microSD card. The right side has the volume rocker and power / sleep buttons. These buttons have Asus’ popular concentric circle pattern adding to the texture. The speaker grill, 3.5mm audio jack and USB Type-C port are at the bottom.
The back is slightly curved to fit properly in your palms. While other manufacturers are opting for metal or glass back, Asus has gone with faux-leather back. It not only gives a distinct look and feel to the smartphone, but the texture also offers a better grip when holding the smartphone. The upper half also houses the cameras and flash modules. Overall, the Zenfone AR is a well-designed smartphone, and it is commendable on how Asus managed to fit in all the sensors as per Tango requirements, while maintaining the sleek form factor.
Asus Zenfone AR – Project Tango
Now, let’s dive into the key USP of the smartphone – Project Tango. It is Google’s ambitious project to bring the augmented reality platform to smartphones. And the best part of Augmented Reality is that it does not need you to wear a headset.
A simple example of AR would be the highly popular Pokémon GO game. It uses your smartphone camera to scan the surrounding and digitally superimpose animated creatures on scenery that appears on your smartphone screen. So whether you are pointing the smartphone camera towards the table, or your bed, or office desk or chair, or may be out on the road, these creatures will appear as if they are actually there in the real-world.
Snapchat Lenses is another example of AR, where you point the front camera towards your face until a mesh appears and then release. Opening your mouth with tongue sticking out you have the rainbow effects popping out, or Instagram Stories with fun effects such as dog face filters and more. But these are basic AR tricks that any smartphone camera can do, whereas the Zenfone AR is capable of much more.
The setup on Zenfone AR uses a TriCam system, which includes one main camera of 23-megapixels, a second motion tracking camera and the third depth sensing camera with laser-assisted auto-focus. AR is designed to completely transform the way you see the world. It is still in nascent stages, with a limited number of Tango-compatible apps, but still, the existing apps are impressive to say the least.
All three cameras work in tandem to grant the device full spatial awareness and the ability to understand the environment around. With area learning and motion-tracking depth perception, the system opens up a number of possibilities. The smartphone came with a bunch of apps pre-installed, including Measure, iStaging and BMW Visualizer, among others. I downloaded a bunch of apps such as HoloPaint, Tango Vertigo, HotWheels and Dinos Among Us to try it out. Below is a video where you can see the demo of the apps at work.
Starting with the BMW Visualizer, simply point the camera at an open space and you will have the BMW i8 standing there in the virtual space. Now, you can explore all options and take a closer look at it. You can rotate the car to check it from all four sides, you can tap on the door to open it and take a virtual tour inside the vehicle. You can move forward or backward to inspect elements, take a closer look at the dashboard, gearbox, steering wheel, interiors, or you can look at the exteriors, change colors, and more. Basically, it lets you customize the BMW i8 to suit your needs before you go to the showroom to buy one.
Next, there is iStaging app that lets you look at furniture and home appliances. One click, and you can use the AR capabilities to point the camera at an open space in your room, add furniture and see how it looks with the existing one. You can change colors, move around the furniture through the room in virtual world and do a lot more. It gives you a fair idea as to how the new furniture will fit in your existing room.
I even tried Slingshot Island, a game that lets you create an island in virtual world, use slingshots on statues and buildings to bring them down. There is also Hot Wheels Track Builder where you can not only build car tracks in the virtual world, but also have races. And then, there is also Dinos Among Us app, that lets you add different types of dinosaurs in the augmented world; I put a couple in our work bay at the office.
Yes, the TriCam system on Zenfone AR works well in offering a good AR experience. The apps run smoothly without any hiccups, just that the back of the device gets a little warm after using the AR apps continuously for about 10 minutes or more. Also, if you look at the Tango app ecosystem, there barely are any apps, and whatever are available, they are just the demo ones. Sure, the Zenfone AR is the second phone with Tango, and the platform is still not quite as developed as it could be. But as we have more devices supporting Tango platform, the number of apps are likely to increase. In fact, the Zenfone AR could very well serve as a developer device to create and test AR-based apps.
Asus Zenfone AR – Daydream
Along with Augmented Reality, the Zenfone AR also comes with support for Google’s other ambitious project, Daydream, which is a virtual reality platform. The Daydream View VR headset was recently launched in India for Rs 6,499, and if you are buying it with a Daydream-compatible device, Flipkart is offering discounts.
The Daydream platform is a big step-up from Google Cardboard, which was more of a DIY project. It supports select Android Nougat-based flagship smartphones that meet the hardware requirements. The headset is well-built, made from premium fabric and has good cushioning to ensure a comfortable experience even with prolonged usage. It comes with a Bluetooth remote which lets you navigate through the interface, and acts as a controller when playing games.
The VR experience is really very good, but there are two key problems. To begin with, even the Daydream platform app ecosystem is too small and you only have a handful of apps to try out. These include LEGO Brick, PlayGround, Google Arts & Culture, Netflix VR, Google Photos, and Play Movies, among others. Secondly, the back of the device does get considerably warm after using the Daydream platform for over 15 minutes at a stretch.
Asus Zenfone AR – Cameras
The smartphone is equipped with a 23-megapixel primary camera (Sony IMX318 sensor) of aperture f/2.0. The camera app is pretty neat and easy to use. It has several modes such as low-light, beautification, night, panorama and a manual mode that lets you control the white balance, exposure value, ISO, focus, and shutter speed. The maximum ISO value is 3200, whereas maximum shutter speed available is 32 seconds, which is impressive.
Talking about the quality, photos captured in day light look bright and detailed, even after zooming in. The sensor is also able to capture colors accurately. Indoor shots and close-ups look good when shot in proper lighting conditions. The depth of field effect also looks good for close-up shots. Even the low-light performance of the smartphone’s rear camera is good. It may not be as great as the Galaxy S8, HTC U11 or the Pixels, but it is not disappointing at all. Below are some camera samples shot on the Asus Zenfone AR.
Up front is an 8-megapixel camera of aperture f/2.0. It is capable of capturing good selfies in broad daylight and indoors with ample amount of artificial light. The selfies look detailed with accurate skin tones. There is also a beautification mode which softens the skin, brightens the skin tone and add blush to make you look better. It does work, but the effect looks artificial. Check the sample shots below.
Low-light selfies go for a toss as some graininess is visible. The smartphone also comes with Live beautification mode, which we have seen in the Zenfone Live. It kicks in as soon as a supported live stream app such as Facebook, YouTube or Instagram is detected. You get slider apply 10 levels of beautification. ALSO READ: Asus Zenfone Live (ZB501KL) review: Move beyond selfie phones, enter live video
Basically, you can apply a bit of blush, skin brightening and skin softening effects to your face to make you look better in live videos. Thanks to a better resolution camera, the effects work well on the Zenfone AR.
Asus Zenfone AR – UI, Performance and Battery Life
On the software front, the Zenfone AR runs Android 7.0 Nougat out-of-the-box with the June security patch, and Asus Zen UI running on top. The interface is neat, and offers a lot of customization options, such as themes, fonts, icons and more. Like all other Asus smartphones, the Zenfone AR too comes with a huge collection of bloatware apps, and it is pretty annoying too.
Soon after starting the device and setting it up, I had about 42 app update notifications, out of which nearly 20 were Asus apps. And these apps get updated more frequently, so you’re likely to burn some data frequently when app updates are available. Sadly, these apps cannot be uninstalled, and the best possible solution is to disable the ones you don’t use.
Talking about day-to-day performance, the Zenfone AR is a beast. The combination of the optimized Snapdragon 821 SoC and 8GB of RAM ensure smooth functioning. During my time with the phone, I didn’t even come across a single moment when the smartphone showed any signs of lag. Even with a few apps running in the background, about 3GB of RAM is always free, which helps in ensuring things run smoothly.
Coming to battery life, the 3,300mAh battery on the smartphone and Zen UI optimizations ensure good battery life. With normal usage, which includes a few phone calls, web surfing, watching videos, social networking and playing some games, the battery lasted till the end of the working day before needing a charge. You can easily get screen-on-time of close to four hours.
However, when you run intensive AR apps, the battery level starts depleting faster. This is also where the screen-on-time is impacted, and you get a little under three hours in this case. Sure, it is bad, but it does need that amount of power to process things, so we won’t complain about this too much. Thankfully, Asus has bundled a fast charger (2A output), which quickly charges the smartphone to 60 percent in under 40 minutes, and full in less than an hour and a half.
To sum up, the Asus Zenfone AR offers us a glimpse into the future as to how augmented reality can change the way we use our smartphones. Asus has done a commendable job to ensure the Zenfone AR is a beast while setting the bar high. It has all the sheer power and performance that you would need from a flagship smartphone, and has an appealing price tag too. Asus finally has a good device that has left us impressed, but it needs to advertise and educate the masses about the AR and VR capabilities of the smartphone in order to sell more units.
The implementation of Project Tango and Daydream looks promising, but the number of apps to support the technology are still few and far between. Still, with a niche audience, the Zenfone AR can serve as a great developer device to build and test AR apps, and it doesn’t too much either. If AR and VR adoption increases, key brands such as auto manufacturers, furniture retailers, education service providers and more could use the platform to build experiences for customers using the technology. So while the hardware and platform exists, it all depends on increased adoption and popularity of the concept.
Overall, if you’re looking for a good smartphone and want to have some fun with augmented reality and virtual reality, the Zenfone AR won’t disappoint you. It is a future-proof smartphone, at least for a couple of years from now, thanks to the quality of the hardware. Otherwise, you have options such as the OnePlus 5 or Honor 8 that cost less, or you can opt for the HTC U11 or the LG G6 which are priced similarly. And if you can extend your budget a bit, the Galaxy S8 and Pixel are other good options too, but when it comes to AR and VR, you won’t find a better experience than the Asus Zenfone AR.