Monday, Jan 22, 2018 | Last Update : 02:07 AM IST
Tango is the keyword here and ASUS Zenfone AR is not a phone for the masses.
Seeking a flagship device? Well, there are plenty out there — from Samsung to Apple, and OnePlus to Xiaomi, there’s a handful to choose from high-end premiums and mainstream ones. However, if you are looking for something unique, and probably future-proof, the ASUS Zenfone AR is something that could interest you.
After Google announced its big entry into Augmented Reality (AR), Tango was the keyword and AR soon took off. Lenovo was the first smartphone to take advantage of AR and released a super-large smartphone, which did not really catch up. ASUS chose to wait a little longer and has finally worked on something better with a seasoned smartphone, specially catered to Tango. Out came ASUS’s first AR smartphone, ready with Tango and aimed for developers around the world who are looking to work in the AR space. As mentioned earlier, the Zenfone AR is not for the masses as it is a flagship-specced handset, built especially for Tango.
For starters — what’s an AR phone for? An AR smartphone is specially built for Augmented Reality and ASUS’s Zenfone AR is one of the first smartphones to sport the technology that is required by Google’s Tango and AR. The Zenfone AR is built for AR and VR together, so that users can take advantage of both worlds, on a flagship device. In short, this one is the world’s first Tango-enabled and Daydream-ready smartphone in the world. So does the Zenfone AR have the necessary guts to fulfil Tango’s requirement? Read on.
Let’s begin with the design — aesthetics is one single, main, and important factor that drives sales for any product. With respect to design, ASUS has not worked too hard. It is a simple slab of glass and metal sandwiching the powerful internals in between. As usual, one would expect a phone as expensive as this one to have a ‘sexy’ design to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy flagships or the Essential phone. Sadly, it does not. It pronounced a strong body frame with a minimal design, aimed for work rather than ‘show off.’ The phone has a large display that is flat, unlike the curved ones found on the Samsung. It has an aluminium frame and sports a soft, black leather back panel. The frame has a chrome trim to give it a premium look and is coated with a black powder finished exterior for added aesthetics. The right sports the power and volume buttons, the left houses the hybrid SIM tray, the top features just a secondary microphone and the bottom has the USB Type-C port and a bottom-facing speaker. And yes, this one retains the much needed 3.5-mm headphone jack. The front receives a 5.7-inch display with the regular selfies camera and sensors on the top, while the lower end has the two touch buttons with a fingerprint integrated physical home button.
The rear panel where all the action is — the ASUS Zenfone AR sports a massive camera/lens array, within which lives three cameras — a 23MP rear, a depth sensing rear and a motion tracking camera, along with a dual LED flash and an IR laser. The entire lens is covered with glass and is raised a bit from the rear panel.
Under the hood — specifications in detail:
Display: 2K WQHD 2560 x 1440 super AMOLED 5.7-inch, with Gorilla Glass 4.
Processor: 64-bit Qualcomm Quad-Core Snapdragon 821 @2.35GHz, optimised for Tango.
GPU: Adreno 530.
RAM: 8GB LPDDR4.
Cameras: 23MP PixelMAster 3.0 primary camera with f/2.0 aperture, Sony IMX 318 sensor, OIS, EIS, an 8MP front camera with f/2.0 aperture and screen flash.
Networking: 82.11ac, BT v4.2, NFC.
Navigation: GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS, BDSS, Galileo.
Mobile: FDD-LTE, TD-LTE, WCDMA, UMTS
Sensors: Accelerator, E-Compass, Gyroscope, Proximity sensor, Hall sensor, Ambient light sensor, RGB sensor, IR sensor (Laser Focus), Fingerprint, Barometer.
Audio: 5-speaker magnet with NXP Smart Amp, DTS Headphone:X 7.1 virtual surround sound.
Battery: 3300mAh non-removable, QC 3.0 compatible.
Operating system: Android Nougat 7.0 with ASUS ZenUI 3.0.
Bundled accessories: Headset, USB cable, Power Adapter, ejector pin.
Now since you know what the internal guts are, let’s talk a little about the phone. While the ASUS Zenfone AR is built specifically for Tango, it is also a great high-end device. So let’s leave Tango aside for a while.
The Zenfone AR has a great display panel. Sporting a WQHD 2K Super AMOLED panel, the display is ready for VR and also for all your multimedia content with a bright and vibrant screen and good viewing angles. The fingerprint sensor is present under the home button right up front but we found it a tad slower than the regular mid-range smartphones out there. Also, you need to press down on the Home button in order to wake the device and read your finger.
Going behind, the TriCam system setup is where all the action lives. Under that unique, large brush-finished chrome metal is an array of three cameras, an LED and IR blaster and a regular, yet high-end primary camera. The motion tracking camera lets ZenFone AR track its location as it moves through space, the depth sensing camera with an infrared (IR) projector measures its distance from real-world objects, while the high-resolution 23MP camera lets you view virtual objects in your actual environment in stunning detail. The three combine their powers with great speed and accuracy to give you a Tango experience in AR. The three cameras are supposed to be covered or protected by a strong scratch-resistant glass, however, a few days of use and we have already witnessed scuffs on the glass. ASUS should look into this at the earliest, as this is the main element of the entire phone and one cannot afford to hinder the view of the sensors with scratched lenses.
Getting under the hood, we first were taken aback with the last year’s hardware that powers this baby. However, when we were told that the processor has been customised and fine tuned especially for Tango, it all started making sense. The Snapdragon 821 chipset may be around a year old, but there’s plenty of juice in that silicon that has the potential for today’s applications. Together with a massive 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, this piece of premium hardware can take a beating with almost any application that you throw at it. High-end games run flawlessly, the user interface is slick, multitasking is a breeze and you will never find a stutter when using the phone. Most applications today require a lot of loading time because of the high amount of data they hold, and here is where the 8GB RAM comes into play. It stores most of the data on the RAM so that it does not need to poll the slower storage when needed. The result — seamless app boot up and run. So using this smartphone as a gaming device, an entertainer or for productivity, you will have no complaints, whatsoever.
Tango — the foundation, on which ASUS has built the Zenfone AR, is the limelight and USP here. However, we did find that there are not many Tango-based applications out there. A bunch of applications to play around and experience Tango and AR is all you can find and most of the time, we ended up playing around with them rather than having any use for them. Certain apps for AR could be useful, such as measure and some shopping apps, but since Tango and AR are presently at a nascent stage, they still have to be realised.
Where can Tango be used?
Tango is basically an Augmented Reality mode which converts your smartphone into a device that allows you to mix a virtual world onto a real world. Just hold up your phone and watch as virtual objects and information appear on top of your surroundings. No matter where you are, there's always a richer, deeper experience to engage with. With applications built on Tango, you can do a lot. You can measure your surroundings with 3D tools, using which you can reimagine your home with virtual furniture, appliances, and a lot more. For example, you can place virtual furniture in your room and know and judge how they would look and fit into your real world, before actually buying and placing them in your home.
Apart from tools, you can also use Tango to have fun with games. You can bring virtual objects into your screen and place them onto your real-world. For example, you can play with virtual toys, or bring on screen a pet — in short, you can interact with them as though they are actually there.
Lastly, with Tango, you can also experience the world without actually being there. Virtually being in a shopping mall, or a museum, or another indoor, by simply being on a couch at all times.
The applications that we received on our test device were a handful of Tango AR and VR based test apps. We had fun with the measuring application where we could simply hold the phone and point the camera at an object, or a wall or door and mark points to measure them without actually moving from your place. However, you need to be at a short distance in order for the depth sensors to measure them. The IR laser bounces off the walls and objects and heads back to the depth sensors. The time it takes for the IR light to reach back to the sensor is calculated and the distance is finally measured. This is how the camera senses objects in terms of dimensions and distance, and hence the TriCam setup on the rear panel is the main hard working element.
Apart from the measuring app, we also had the Visualiser, a BMW app, which actually puts a huge life-size car in front of you. With the phone, you can check out the entire car from all around the exterior, step inside the car, check out the upholstery, the floors, change colours of the car, change wheels, and a lot more. This helps you check out the car almost in real before you even purchase it, and in the luxury of your home. The same can be experienced in future for almost all of your shopping needs. For example, you could experience your new home without moving from your old one. Or you can experience a hotel room before booking one. Check out some of the Tango-based apps that you could experience with the new Zenfone AR.
We did manage to download a few more AR apps from the Play Store, which was fun to experience. However, most of them turned out to be just initial demos and experience apps which are not completely useful.
While AR and Tango are currently in a development stage, may developers who are building apps for these smartphones will take a while to get some useful apps out there. However, we expect bigger giants such as Amazon, Flipkart, Urban Ladder, Pepperfry, OLX, and other similar platforms who can build their platform on AR and Tango so that the consumers can shop from home with the convenience of being at home. So just imagine, if this was mainstream, you could check out that old bike on OLX before even heading out to buy it. However, sadly, you cannot scan your bike in AR for listing — at least not yet.
Augmented Reality is presently waiting for companies to capitalize in this space. Development on AR is not cheap as it needs a lot of resources to be in place. AR is the future for now and with just two smartphones out there (Lenovo and ASUS) there aren’t many takers. It will still be a while when this technology goes mainstream and reaches the hands of end users. We hope to see what Apple can do since it is presently touted to bring AR into existing smartphones (iPhone 7) which (allegedly) won’t need the expensive tri-cam setup.
Coming down to the VR zone, the Zenfone AR is also ready for virtual reality and is fully compatible with Google’s Daydream. Users can purchase the Google Daydream headset with the ASUS Zenfone AR at a discounted rate. The Zenfone AR has a 1ms refresh rate on 5the display with a 2ms persistence and along with the Daydream VR headset, users can enjoy a smooth experience without any nausea or motion sickness. The VR experience is great on the Google Daydream headset. Unlike most other VR headsets around, the Google one is soft and comfortable and comes with a wireless air remote, which makes using VR apps easier than usual. When using the VR headset, the smartphone switches to 90Hz refresh rate, making easier on human eyes to reduce any motion sickness.
Coming back to the camera, the rear 23MP camera is definitely a high-quality camera as opposed to others with a similar package. It uses a 4-axis optical image stabilizer and a 3-axis electronic image stabilizer, along with phase-detection autofocus to get great quality photos. And thanks to the good old laser-assisted focusing system, focusing on subjects is very fast. However, focusing and locking on images that are in close range and close proximity to each other is a bit tough. But that’s not much of a problem…
Images captured by the sensor are good with ample details and good contrast. Colours are close to nature too. Broad daylight photos are good, but some images shot in bright sunlight tend to get overexposed. Night shots do capture a significant amount of grains, however, in comparison with other cameras, it still does a fair better job. As for the optical image stabilization, the AR has a bit of an issue with videos — the OIS does not work as hard as it is supposed to. Hopefully, a software update will help that area.
Overall, the Zenfone AR’s camera performs above average but does not perform on par with other flagships from rivals such as Samsung or Apple. However, since this smartphone is catered for Google’s Tango, these factors can be ignored.
As for the battery life, we were a bit surprised as well as disappointed with the standard 3300mah battery provided. The battery is good enough for getting through the day with usual stuff such as browsing, calls and alike. However, when you use AR-based apps, you should see yourself rushing to the charger pretty often than usual. The phone also tends to heat up a bit more than normal when using AR-based apps and games — all thanks to the continuous laser, TriCam setup and the EIS/OIS being in use — which is pretty normal. The phone is made with a high-grade aluminium frame is designed to keep the heat dissipation at maximum and hence the processors are well cared for. The Zenfone AR is also Quick Charge 3.0 compliant and you can charge your smartphone from min to max in around an hour.
To wrap up the entire experience with the ASUS Zenfone AR, we come to a conclusion that this phone is not for the masses. Should you buy this phone? Our answer is ‘Probably’ and ‘definitely’. If you have almost Rs 49,999 in your budget and are looking for a phone with high-end specifications with a futuristic technology as a showpiece in your hand, then you should probably opt for the ASUS Zenfone AR. The phone is ahead of its time and the AR experience will definitely help you gain some brownie points with friends. The futuristic camera on the rear is definitely going to attract a crowd around you as the phone does look unique. Also, if you are looking for flagship features such as 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage for multitasking at ease and a high-end camera with a 2K display compatible for VR apps, then the ASUS Zenfone AR will fit your needs. If you are one of the developers who intend heading down the AR zone or if you are the one who would want to be an early adopter of the AR/VR technology, then the ASUS Zenfone AR is definitely our suggestion. However, the price for this phone does seem pretty steep, considering that there is nothing more than just play apps for AR and Tango based technology. If the phone price is dropped within a few months ahead, then the ASUS Zenfone AR is definitely worth picking up. And yes, future app development will force other smartphone players to enter into this space, which will bring more Tango-based smartphones into the mainstream segment. However, till then the ASUS Zenfone AR will remain the king of Tango.
(Also published on Deccan Chronicle)