Review: Asus ZenFone AR focuses on extras, but isn’t the ideal flagship for the company

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Asus is trying to crack the premium smartphone segment, with a new phone called the ZenFone AR. What makes it stand out are the built-in sensors for Google’s Project Tango and compatibility with the Google Daydream View VR headset.

The smartphone is named after the Tango AR which basically allows smartphones to superimpose digital images over real world objects. Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is the only other smartphone which supports Project Tango, while the Daydream VR works only with Google Pixel devices, Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphones, ZTE Axon 7 and Huawei Mate 9 Pro as of now.

The ZenFone AR is available through both online and offline stores at Rs 49,999 and competes against Samsung Galaxy S8 (Rs 57,990) and HTC U11 (Rs 51,990) .

While AR apps work right on the smartphone, to access VR content, users will need Google Daydream View VR headset.

While AR apps work right on the smartphone, to access VR content, users will need Google Daydream View VR headset.

AR and VR delivers on most promises

At the heart of the new Asus smartphone is Google’s Tango augmented reality (AR) and Daydream virtual reality (VR). The former uses a 23-megapixel primary camera and two separate cameras for motion sensing and depth tracking. Together they can track distance, movement, and position of the smartphone to objects around it. Using this information, it allows specific AR apps to place a virtual image on a real world object. For example, the Measure app can tell the actual length of a physical space. Similarly, the Laser Ruler app can calculate the smartphone’s distance from any object.

The iStaging app can “fit” (or augment) any piece of furniture into a real world setting and see whether its colour and design matches the rest of the decor or how much space it will actually take.

Then there are the AR games one can play.

While AR apps work right on the smartphone, to access VR content, users will need Google Daydream View VR headset (Rs 6,499). This works by projecting a virtual game or video from YouTube or Netflix inside the VR headset. The games and videos look more immersive and the viewer gets the feeling of being inside the content rather than watching it. One can control the content and menu using a hand-held remote which comes with the VR headset. The overall VR experience is pretty impressive. AR apps were quite accurate, though the phone heats up pretty fast when they are active.

Asus ZenFone AR is just 9mm thick and weighs 170g which makes it very handy.

Asus ZenFone AR is just 9mm thick and weighs 170g which makes it very handy.

Plain Jane, but handy design

When it comes to looks, the ZenFone AR is clearly no match to the more stylish looking Galaxy S8 or the LG G6. However, the leather back finish and flat side offers better grip and feels more reassuring. The phone is just 9mm thick and weighs 170g which makes it very handy. The volume and power button are placed together on the right side panel and are easily accessible, while The USB Type-C connector and audio jack are placed side by side at the base. The finger print sensor is integrated with a clickable home button below the screen. It is accurate most times and you don’t have to lift the phone to start using it.

Asus ZenFone AR’s 5.7-inch screen has a resolution of 2,560x1,440p.

Asus ZenFone AR’s 5.7-inch screen has a resolution of 2,560×1,440p.

Big and bright display, ready for VR

Like most rivals, Asus has managed to include a slightly bigger than usual 5.5-inch screen. The 5.7-inch screen has a resolution of 2,560×1,440p. It provides ample space for gamers and people who type a lot. The AMOLED panel makes the colours pop out in videos and games. The text in webpages and ebooks look crisp. The phone offers a few customisation options too, so users can switch on the blue light filter, adjust colour temperature, even enhance colour contrast manually. The display works well under bright light too.

Fast performance, average battery

The ZenFone AR runs Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 Quad-Core processor. It is not the most powerful option out there but can handle most tasks smoothly. Coupled with a whopping 8GB RAM, it was able to handle multi-tasking and heavy games such as Asphalt Xtreme and PES 2017 without any niggles. We noticed occasional lags and heating up while using AR apps, though. Internal storage stands at 128GB and users can add up to 2TB more via a microSD card.

Battery backup is average. The 3,300mAh battery barely lasts a day when used a primary device. With non-stop VR playback, it lasted just two hours.

New Android, cluttered UI

The smartphone runs Android 7.0 with Asus’ Zen UI 3.0. New Android is a bonus, but the interface looks cluttered with lots of apps and features, which are hard to remember. Also, Asus hasn’t made any changes to the interface to highlight the VR or AR capabilities. The two layer mode is handy and offers the option to switch to an app drawer mode where you can segregate you primary apps from the rest of the clutter. Clearly, the Zen UI needs a bit of trimming down.

The camera has some useful modes such as 92-megapixel super resolution.

The camera has some useful modes such as 92-megapixel super resolution.

Camera is ideal for daytime shots

The 23-megapixel camera is powered by a Sony IMX 318 sensor. It has an aperture size of f/2.0 and supports optical image stabilisation. The camera is fast and can deliver crisp and rich looking shots if the lighting is good. Even in landscape shots, it was able to reproduce plenty of detail. Colours stood out well from each other. Low-light shots look blurry. The camera has some useful modes such as 92-megapixel super resolution, which can upscale images by taking several shots and combining them. Then there is depth of field, beautification, time rewind, smart remove, and time lapse. The smart remove is unique and can remove moving objects in an image to minimise blur.

The 8-megapixel camera on front supports wide angled shots but works best in well lit conditions.

The camera is fast and can deliver crisp and rich looking shots if the lighting is good.

The camera is fast and can deliver crisp and rich looking shots if the lighting is good.

How it compares with rivals

The ZenFone AR faces direct competition from the likes of Samsung Galaxy S8 (Rs 57,990) and HTC U11 (Rs 51,990). The Galaxy S8 offers a slightly better design. It weighs just 153g, fits more comfortably in hand and looks more stylish. It is also water proof and can survive water up to a depth of 1.5 metres. It runs Android 7.1 with an improved TouchWiz UI, which looks less cluttered compared to Zen UI. Also it supports Google’s Daydream VR technology. The HTC U11 has some unique feature such as squeezable side panels to open apps. It is also water-proof and runs on a more powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset. It also runs the new Android and Sense UI is one of the best designed custom UIs. Overall, ZenFone AR is an impressive addition to the premium segment but lacks the good looks or the sophistication of the U 11. For regular usage, the other two are better options, but if you are looking for a dose of AR and VR, the ZenFone AR is worth a try.

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