The ASUS ZenFone AR is a device that cannot really be compared with anything else in the market. This is because it supports incipient Google platforms dedicated to emerging technologies. The Lenovo Phab2 Pro is the only other phone with support for Google Tango. Daydream is supported by the Google Pixel, Samsung Galaxy S8, Samsung Galaxy S8+, Huawei Mate 9 Pro, ZTE Axon 7, and the ASUS ZenFone AR. ASUS ZenFone AR is the only phone currently available that supports both Tango and Daydream. There is nothing yet like the ASUS ZenFone AR, but it is every phone of the future.
Build and Design: 8.5/10
The ASUS ZenFone AR looks and feels every bit like an alternative premium device, unlike any other flagship you have seen. The most noticeable feature is the TriCam setup on the back, which protrudes very slightly from the “burnished leather” back casing. The back is like a softer version of the Sandstone finish available in the OnePlus cases. The finish definitely feels premium, but appears like it could act as a gunk magnet, especially in hot, humid and dusty conditions.
The screen is on the larger side, at 5.7-inches, with a 79 percent screen to body ratio. The glass on the front is the Corning Gorilla Glass 4. All of this is framed by aerospace grade aluminum. The profile is pretty slim and tapers towards the edges making it appear even slimmer. The width is 4.6 mm, and the device weighs only 170 grams. Considering how big the device is (158.7 mm by 77.4 mm), the phone seems impossibly light and thin. The lightweight device is ideal for long VR and gaming sessions, as fatigue would set in sooner with heavier devices. The phone still feels solid, and looks like it can take a bit of abuse.
The SIM card tray feels a little flimsy though, and liable to break easily unless handled delicately. Considering how rarely this part is used though, it is an acceptable part to compromise on. The SIM card tray is on the left side of the phone. The SIM card tool itself has a nice rounded design, which allows for a strong and steady grip, much like the phone itself.
The snappy and accurate fingerprint sensor is housed in the home button itself. The volume rocker buttons and the sleep/wake button are to the right of the device, towards the top. Along the bottom edge are the 3.5 mm jack, the reversible USB-Type C connector that supports DisplayPort, and the speaker grille. The top and bottom edges have two antenna cuts each, which are discreetly hidden and not visible from the front or back of the device.
The phone is available in only in black, which is really the only colour option this device needs.
The main features on the phone are the support for Tango and Daydream. The TriCam system on the back powers the AR capabilities of the device. The main camera is a 23 MP shooter, with support for RAW images. There is 128 GB of internal storage, which is a necessity considering the heavy file sizes of AR and VR applications. The expandable storage option is ample, supporting up to 2 TB of external storage. Users also get 100 GB of cloud storage on Google Drive along with the device.
The phone has a 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 quad-core processor clocked at 2.35 GHz. While this may not be a top of the line offering from Qualcomm, the 821 processor has been optimised for Tango, which makes it the ideal platform to use for this phone. The Phab2 Pro, the only other Tango enabled smartphone has a Snapdragon 652. The ASUS ZenFone AR uses an Adreno 530 GPU. There is 8GB RAM on the device, which is enough to handle the demanding AR and VR applications.
The device has a hybrid SIM tray. One slot supports a nano SIM, and the other can be used for either another nano SIM or a microSD card. If a dual SIM setup is used, only one of the SIM cards support 3G or 4G connectivity at a time. Either of the SIM card slots can be used for 3G and 4G connections. The device supports VoLTE.
As far as connectivity options are concerned, the phone has Bluetooth, Wi-Fi direct, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and NFC. The Bluetooth standard is 4.2, which is not the latest but very few phones have the state of the art 5.0 standard. Both the Bluetooth and NFC connectivity options are required for interfacing with the Google Daydream VR headsets.
A number of navigation systems are supported by the device including GPS, A-GPS, GLONASS, BDSS and Galileo. The phone is packed with almost every kind of sensor used in smartphones including an accelerometer, a compass, a gyroscope, a proximity sensor, a hall sensor, an ambient light sensor, an RGB sensor, an IR sensor for the laser autofocus, a fingerprint scanner and a barometer.
The phone has a 5-magnet speaker with NXP smart Amp, with support for hi-res audio. An ASUS ZenEar S headset with a microphone is included in the box. Both the device and the headset support Hi-Res audio. The audio output on the device supports DTS Headphone: X with virtual 7.1 surround sound. There are two internal microphones on the device that are used for the noise reduction technology.
The display is one of the strong points of the device. The screen is on the larger side, at 5.7-inches. Normally, I prefer smaller displays, but the large screen makes sense on this device considering the Tango and Daydream capabilities. The WQHD screen has a resolution of 2560 by 1440, or 2K, and it is a super AMOLED display.
The colour representation is also pretty accurate with support for over 100 percent of the NTSC high colour gamut. The display is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4, which has a fingerprint and smudge resistant oleophobic coating. The display has a screen to body ratio of 79 percent, and the bezels are only 1.73 mm.
The device is clear, bright and vibrant even at noon, in the outdoors. This is apparently enabled by the Tru2life technology for high contrast and outdoor readability. The display is crystal clear from almost every viewing angle, and there are minimal reflections even in outdoors, and in bright sunlight. The daylight performance of the display is impressive, as long as you crank up the brightness to max. There is a Bluelight filter which can be toggled, a feature meant to reduce eye strain over prolonged use, such as reading or viewing VR experiences.
OS and Software: 9/10
The ASUS ZenFone AR comes with Android Nougat 7.0 out of the box, along with ASUS ZenUI 3.5. I remember having some problems with how bland and functional the UI was in previous generations of the ZenFone, and am happy that the latest version of ZenUI does not suffer from these problems. There is a theme market as well, and especially the paid themes offer both quality and variety. There are a number of built-in applications, some of which are useful enough to prevent users from having to download additional applications. One of these apps that I found useful was the Photo Collage app.
The Indian languages supported out of the box are Assamese, Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Malayalam (Traditional), Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. Users who require switching to another Indian language offered by Google can do so later after initially picking one of the default available languages during the initial startup of the device.
The phone has a bunch of applications that persist even if you reset the device, which is great because you do not have to download Asphalt 8. A number of the pre-installed applications are to showcase the AR and VR capabilities of the device. These include iStaging, Slingshot Island, BMW visualiser, Towers for Tango, Within and Twilight Pioneers. Out of these, the fun ones are Slingshot Island, a 3D AR game where you use a slingshot to destroy towers on islands, superficially similar to Angry Birds and Twilight Pioneers, a Daydream-only first person ARPG.
The Tango framework uses computer vision technology to approximate how humans perceive their environments. The smartphone can track motion, be aware of its physical surroundings, how it moves through the physical surroundings, and perceive depth. All of this is powered by machine learning algorithms that are run right out of the smartphone.
Real-time inputs are taken from the three cameras on the back of the ASUS ZenFone AR to support the Tango applications. The main 23 MP camera just pipes through the environments to the phone’s screen. The depth sensing camera is supported by an infrared projector that throws out infrared beams and calculates how long it takes for the beams to come back. This allows the phone to recognise distances from objects. The third camera is used to track the movement of the phone through space and is a motion-tracking camera.
Together, the three camera setup is known as the ASUS TriCam. Once the phone processes all of these various kinds of information in realtime, the augmented reality assets are overlaid on the physical surroundings, opening up a whole world of innovative experiences, as well as practical applications.
In these examples of a water heater and a plug, the phone can be seen handling a particularly challenging environment for AR. In blank spaces with not too many details, AR technologies tend to glitch. However, if you want to see how a plugpoint will look on your wall, you need to do it against a mostly blank surface. The phone managed to overlay the AR graphics even in these challenging situations.
There are a number of Tango applications available on the Play Store. In terms of entertainment, apart from games, AR technologies support a number of rich multimedia “experiences”, which are essentially digital playgrounds. There are productivity tools as well, for measuring distances, or figuring out if a particular piece of furniture can fit where you want it in your home. Education-based applications can let you explore artifacts, creatures, or celestial bodies in your own home, in three dimensions.
The Dinosaurs Among US application by the American Museum of Natural History for example, lets you see exactly how large a velociraptor would be if it were in your living room. There are commercial applications as well, which basically allows you to experience purchases you are interested in before you make them. With the BMW Visualiser app, for example, you can see if vehicles can fit in your garage, and change the colour choices of the trimmings, and even enter the vehicle. You can also check out clothes in AR and see if they will fit you.
The measurement tool is less accurate for very small objects, but manages to handle objects larger than about 10 cm sufficiently accurately. There were a couple of times when we needed to use the measurement tool without a scale around. It is good enough to give an idea, but not always very accurate. You can take images of the measurements for later reference, but it is not always the case that the entire object is visible during the measurements. At times, the tool glitches, in some peculiar angles or if the subject being measured is too close to the camera.
Tango is really the most important function the phone has to offer, and it totally changes the way you use a smartphone. Apart from entertainment, it adds a ton of practical uses to the devices.
A Daydream VR headset by Google is necessary to enjoy the Daydream capabilities of the device. This is separately available for about Rs 11,000. Daydream falls in the middle ground between a basic Google Cardboard and a room scale VR setup such as the HTC Vive. Daydream is meant to be a “sit-down” VR experience, and is unsafe to use standing up. There are no warnings for boundaries of rooms, as seen in roomscale VR rigs.
The controller, however, allows for immersion. Basic controls are available on the cardboard, by a combination of pointing and triggering the one button available. The daydream controller has motion tracking, along with a touchpad area and volume rocker buttons. The controller is charged using the same USB cable as the phone.
There are a number of VR applications available, some of which are also available on the cardboard. The Fantastic Beasts application allows you to enter Newt Scamander’s briefcase and have a look around. You can see a virtual representation of your wand when you move the controller, which allows for some degree of immersion. However, one cannot help but think that Fantastic Beasts is an experience that would have been so much better in AR, on the lines of Pokémon GO.
The headset itself is soft, and allows for much longer video watching or gaming sessions than the cardboard. There is a strap on the back that allows you to adjust the fit so that it sits firmly and tightly on your head. The ZenFone protrudes a bit from the casing, but this does not interfere with the experiences in any way.
To use and download the VR applications from Daydream, Google requires users to feed in a payment method. This means that you have to key in credit or debit card details, even to install free applications. Carrier billing is available as an option, but may not always work.
One hiccup we experienced was the Daydream controller malfunctioning after refusing to update. No matter what troubleshooting steps we tried, we could not resolve the problem. The team tried to update the Daydream controller with the Galaxy S8+, and that did not work as well, confirming that the problem was with the Daydream device, and not the ASUS ZenFone AR. The smartphone cannot be blamed in any way for this, and such problems are expected from new technologies. In a pinch, another Android phone can be used as the Daydream controller.
The Tango and Daydream applications remind me of the very early days of the Apple App Store. The market is not flooded with dime-a-dozen clones, as of now. There are a limited number of applications, and very few of them are low-quality offerings. The free apps are not burdened with advertisements, time sinks or excessive in-app purchases.
Particularly exciting are the social applications, AltspaceVR is a virtual reality environment for people to interact and attend live events together, and has relatively fewer people in it at this point of time. Many of the applications and experiences that come out now will be AR and VR mainstays for a long time into the future. This is a great time to get on.
However, it must be noted for sake of clarity what users are not getting. While the capabilities of the device and the available applications are impressive, they are still limited compared to experiences available for room-scale VR rigs. Three of Google’s most mind blowing VR applications, TiltBrush, Blocks and Google Earth VR are only available on the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
In every benchmark, the ASUS Zenfone AR outperformed the Google Pixel XL, which has the same Snapdragon 821 chipset. The HTC U11 which is available for about the same price, however, outperformed the ASUS ZenFone AR on every benchmark. Here is a comparison of the ASUS ZenFone AR benchmarks with other flagships.
The ASUS ZenFone AR got a score of 5921 on PC Mark Work 2.0, 3212 on PC Mark C Vision 2.0, and 3157 on PC Mark Storage 2.0. In the Slingshot and Slingshot extreme benchmarks on 3D Mark, the device scored 3461 and 2527. In the GFXBench Car Chase benchmark, the smartphone got a score of 622.5 at 11 fps, and 1,124 at 19 fps in the off screen version. Practically, The device runs smooth, starts up most applications quickly, has a fast fingerprint scanner, and reboots speedily as well. Graphic intensive VR and gaming applications run smoothly and without a hitch. The AR applications take just a little time before firing up, and there is a noticeable lag before the digital assets are overlaid on the video screen in very few AR applications. Overall, this is a speedy phone that is not hindered by lags and glitches. The sound output supports virtual 7.1 surround sound, which comes into play while experiencing VR content using earphones. The sound really gives a sense of depth and direction, which makes earphones preferable to the phone audio for use in VR sessions. The speakers on the phone are clear even at full volume. The phone is alarmingly loud at max volume, and the sound can easily be heard in every corner of a fairly large room, even when the volume is set at half. The phone has 5-magnet speakers, but the grill is on only one side of the phone, and the grip can muffle the sound while gaming in the landscape orientation. The bundled ASUS ZenEar S headset is pretty good and has a fairly neutral sound. The phone does not heat up too much in gaming sessions, even for graphic intensive titles. However, the AR and VR applications do tend to heat up the device.
Camera: 8.5/10 The primary camera supports an image resolution of 23 MP, with the lens having an aperture of f/2.0 and a focal length of 27mm. The TriTech autofocus is really fast, and it does not take much time to get the camera from your photo to take a shot. The camera uses a 1/2.6-inch Sony IMX 318 sensor. There is a dual-tone LED flash, and the primary camera is protected from scratches by a sapphire lens cover. The front camera is a 8MP shooter, also with an aperture of f/2.0. The front camera is satisfactory for almost all the use cases. There is a 4-axis optical image stabilisation for photos and a 3-axis electronic image stablisation for videos. The camera can record 4K videos at 30 fps. There is an option to take still photographs even while recording videos, but the frame-grabs from the videos are almost always nearly as good. The camera supports a number of shooting modes out of the box. There is a miniature mode to simulate tilt-shift photography, which is available in two options. Parallel bars can be turned around or placed anywhere on the screen, with options to adjust the area of blurriness. There is also a circular blurring effect possible in this mode. The full manual mode lets you control focus, shutter speed, ISO, exposure and white balance. In this mode, the exposure can be set to 32 seconds, which is among the longest offered by smartphone cameras. In this department, the higher end Huawei smartphones perform admirably, including the Huawei Honour 8 and the Huawei Honour 8 Pro with dedicated modes for various kinds of light painting and star trail photography.
There is a low light mode, as well as a night mode. The children mode makes funny sounds to capture kids reacting to the camera. There is also an option to save images as RAW files. The camera can also be used to produce 92 MP images by comparing four snaps on the 23 MP shooter.
The AR functionality here is one of the big reasons the camera here is different. Almost every Tango based application has an on screen camera button to take a snap, even applications meant for shopping or measuring. Tango based AR camera apps such as Holo allow users to carry around a number of interesting subjects in their pockets, allowing for creative use of even mundane environments. The image resolution and quality varies according to the application. In some of the AR applications, such as Holo, it is necessary to save an image after snapping it, otherwise the image is just shown on screen and discarded.
The ASUS ZenFone AR has a 3300 mAh battery with support for Quick Charge 3.0. Unfortunately, our standard Work 2.0 battery test crashed three times. The battery appears to last for around 8 hours under very heavy use – that is while running the benchmark. You can easily go through a day without having to charge. If you are using an AR application, in broad daylight, with the screen on full brightness, only then will the battery drop alarmingly fast. Otherwise, the drop is pretty slow and steady in most regular use case scenarios. The biggest battery hog, in either case, is the screen. You can see a graph below of heavy use towards the left, and regular use towards the right.
Verdict and Price in India
So who is the phone for really? For AR and VR enthusiasts, it makes sense to wait for the technology to mature a bit, so that it becomes more affordable and has a wealth of offerings in terms of content. Daydream is not just a platform for “tasting” VR content, as offered by applications for cardboard and 360 degree YouTube videos. The soft cloth headset combined with the controller allows for much longer and engaging VR sessions.
The Daydream platform already has a number of applications, and this can only grow. Daydream offers immersive “sit-down” VR experiences, and is a good investment for those who do not want to be burned as early adopters for emerging technologies, by investing in more expensive VR rigs. The smartphone along with the Daydream VR headset costs a little less than a PlayStation 4 with the PlayStation VR. It is also the perfect device for those who want a portable VR setup.
The Tango platform also has immense potential for commercial applications, particularly in the real estate, home interiors and auto sectors to give customers an idea of the offerings before they buy the product. The technology can be used for providing product demos, or showcasing the products in showrooms where they might not be physically available. The BMW Visualiser for example, allows you to plonk a car just about anywhere, look into the interiors, and instantly change aspects of the vehicle such as interiors and rims.
That said, this is a phone for anybody who wants a flagship that offers something extra, not just AR and VR enthusiasts. AR and VR technologies are going to get increasingly mainstream in the coming few years. The Global AR and VR market is projected to hit $215 billion by 2021 according to the International Data Corporation. Most of this growth is expected to be fuelled by smartphones.
The ASUS ZenFone AR is a future-ready device and will allow users to get the benefit of being early adopters. Eventually, every phone is going to support AR and VR technologies using one framework or another. The ASUS ZenFone AR is available for Rs 49,999.