Back at CES, Asus debuted its $599 ZenFone AR smartphone, a device that features built-in sensors and the proper specs for compatibility with both Google’s Tango augmented reality and Daydream virtual reality platforms. It was this device that marked the first of its kind, and since then we’ve seen no other company or OEM try to compete in the same category. Admittedly, it’s probably not a great idea to do so anyway. Because at least in our week’s testing, this phone is pretty much nothing more than a novelty.
For starters, Tango hasn’t really budged since we last played with it during our review period with the Lenovo Phab2 Pro, the very first smartphone to feature the technology. There’s been about ten more apps to hit the Play Store since then that include augmented reality experiences powered by Tango, but they’re all still basically showcases for what the technology can do. All the games powered by Tango don’t have anything interesting that will keep players coming back for more, and moving around furniture from Lowe’s is getting a bit tiresome. I have to say, BMW’s new app that lets you preview the inside of an i-series car is really cool, but even that is still gimmicky.
Tango hasn’t really gotten that useful either. With Google’s own measuring app, you can supposedly measure different objects and find out how long they are, but the lack of accuracy kills me every time I try it. Really, Tango still needs to mature more. Until then, it’ll be a simple novelty you’ll use once or twice with your friends and put away because it sucks your battery dry. I’ll explain later.
The ZenFone AR also sports Daydream VR which we weren’t able to test because we lack a Daydream headset. However, those of you familiar with the technology may be pleased to see it here. This feature isn’t exactly a gimmick, but it’s still novelty since you’ll have to pull out a headset, strap it on your face, and slide your phone in for a few seconds while you look around a virtual world. Overall, the two shining features of the ZenFone AR are just novelties, which may seem like the phone isn’t worth picking up. But putting these features aside, you actually have a pretty nice handset in front of you.
Starting with the design, the ZenFone AR feels premium. It has chamfered edges, an aluminum border, a Corning Gorilla Glass-covered display, and a faux leather back that, yes, is cheesy but looks really sophisticated. Its camera array is a bit ugly, but it does have a brushed metal finish which looks very handsome.
Touching on the front of the device, there’s a 5.7-inch Quad HD AMOLED display which looks great. Colors are vibrant, blacks are black, and it’s extremely customizable thanks to Asus’ software. There’s a physical home button that integrates not the best fingerprint sensor in the world, while on either side sit back and recent capacitive keys. An earpiece and notification LED sit up to alongside a selfie camera.
There’s also the right amount of ports. You’re getting a USB-C connector and headphone jack in this case alongside a microSD card slot. All in all, you won’t be disappointed when you go to plug your headphones or SD card into this guy as it’ll support both input methods.
Powering the show is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor that, while isn’t the latest and greatest, is plenty fast to power everything. Pair that with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, and you pretty much have a phone with the amount of specs that can carry you into 2018 and beyond without suffering depreciation very soon. What you might have to worry about, however, is the software as Asus has skinned every single part of Android 7.0 Nougat. There’s an odd cartoonish look to it, and everything feels like a cheap skin a lesser-known developer cooked up for, like, an anime fanbase. The notification looks fine, I guess, but everything else is basically trash.
I hate to sound that harsh, but it’s true. When compared to any other OEM’s skin, Asus’ ZenUI looks dumb. Luckily, it doesn’t bog down your experience while using the phone, but you’ll still not want to look at it every chance you get. Luckily, it’s Android we’re talking about so you can do your own customizations and tweaks to get things right. But for me, I prefer something like Samsung’s Experience UI.
On the back of the ZenFone AR sits a 23MP camera with an f/2.0 aperture. When snapping photos, it’s not the fastest experience, but I blame this on the camera app itself and its lack of optimization. That said, photos tend to come out pretty nice and a lot nicer than I was expecting from this smartphone. There’s even a special night mode that, while it reduces the photo’s resolution, increases the light intake and processes things very nicely.
Sure, the ZenFone AR isn’t gonna win any awards and isn’t as good as the iPhone 7, Galaxy S8, or Pixel, but it’s definitely in the ballpark. The same goes for its 4K video output.
For those of you wondering, the phone can also take decent selfies. I mean, I hate how it over softens your face with its beautification filters, but other than that things are fine for Snapchat or Instagram.
A pretty serious problem with the ZenFone AR sits in the battery department. This device sports a 3300mAh battery which, while sounds pretty big, doesn’t last all day at all. I have yet to get through a day starting at 7 AM and ending at 9 PM, because I tend to have to plug in at around 5 or 6 because I’m at 10%.
Using Tango doesn’t help, either. Having an AR app open and using it for just a few minutes resulted in a 10-20% drop in battery capacity. This, friends, really stinks. The main selling point of the ZenFone AR is its AR capabilities, but if the phone takes a serious hit in the battery department because of it, what good is it?
Unfortunately, I can’t speak for how long the battery will last when using Daydream with it, but I’d expect it to decrease faster than you’d expect.
Recharging the ZenFone AR, luckily, is a pretty fast process. I can top up from 0 to 60% in around 25 minutes or so. As long as you don’t go on the phone while it’s charging, expect to have a similar use case.
It’s worth mentioning we received our review unit from Verizon with whom we tested network coverage. Our results weren’t very good, as our speeds tended to stick around the 30Mbps mark for download and 5-7Mbps mark for upload. Call quality was clear, however, and so was coverage. I just wish we were seeing numbers closer to 55Mbps and 10Mbps, respectively.
To me, the ZenFone AR is nothing more than a novelty. It has Google Tango, Daydream VR, 6GB of RAM, and last year’s processor. It has a nice screen and camera, and performance is great. But there’s that janky software experience, and let’s not forget Verizon piled on all of their bloatware to remind you this is a Verizon-exclusive phone. Overall, where the ZenFone AR shines can be found in other smartphones, and likely to an even better degree. For instance, the Pixel has a better camera, the Galaxy S8 has a nicer screen, and even the LG G6 has a better software experience for what it’s worth. So unless you have to have augmented reality cameras in your pocket or need something to go with the Daydream View headset that isn’t a Google, Samsung, Moto, ZTE, or Huawei device, skip this one. You won’t regret it afterward.