Asus Zenfone AR full review

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The Asus Zenfone AR is the first smartphone to offer support for Project Tango and Google Daydream, Google’s augmented- and virtual reality platforms. It boasts an advanced sensor array to provide the best AR experience possible – but how does it perform in real life, and can it compete with the best smartphones of 2017?

We’ve spent some time with the Asus Zenfone AR, and here’s what we thought.

Update: Google has announced that it is shutting down its Project Tango program, deciding to instead get behind ARCore, the company's equivalent to Apple's ARKit. Announced in a tweet, Google will end support for Tango on 1 March 2018, at which point no more apps and games will be available to download.

This is bad news for the Zenfone AR and its array of Tango sensors, as content for the platform is already scarce and it won't be getting any better. We've adjusted the score and verdict accordingly.

UK pricing and availability

Back when the Asus Zenfone AR was first announced at CES 2017, there was no mention of a possible UK release. Asus isn’t a strong smartphone brand in the UK, so it wasn’t a huge surprise at the time.

Fast forward to July 2017 and Asus confirmed that the Asus Zenfone AR is headed to the UK, and is now available to order from Asus for £799.99.

Design and build

The Asus Zenfone AR nails the high-end look while using different materials to the glass-and-metal mashup featured on the majority of 2017 flagships. Don’t get us wrong – there’s still glass and metal, but much of the rear of the smartphone is covered in a soft touch leather.

While some may be confused by the inclusion of leather on a smartphone, it’s a smart move by Asus – along with providing a softer feel and a touch of old-school class, the leather is extremely grippy and makes it easy to comfortably hold the smartphone with one hand. Ideal if you’re planning on utilising the AR capabilities of the smartphone or if you’re simply a little clumsy.

That soft leather back is combined with a sandblasted aluminium alloy frame with all the usual bells and whistles, from high-end chamfers that run along the edges of the display to the slight curvature of the edges of the body to make it more ergonomically friendly.

While the Zenfone AR doesn’t sport the bezel-less design popular with other 2017 flagships, it’s still a gorgeous smartphone packing a 5.7in display in a surprisingly thin form factor. It measures in at 158.7 x 77.7 x 9mm due to the slightly curved rear and protruding camera setup – although there’s good reason for the extra camera bulk, which we’ll come to below.

It’s also surprisingly lightweight considering the amount of technology packed inside. In fact, it’s lighter than Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus (188g), weighing in at 170g, despite having a larger display and battery.

The Home button features a built-in fingerprint scanner for extra security, making it easier to access your smartphone. It’s a standard mechanical button that clicks as you push it down, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, most 2017 flagships feature a solid-state Home button that vibrates when touched to simulate click feedback.

The solid-state nature provides more of a premium experience, something that we don’t feel when using the standard Home button on the Zenfone AR. It’s a minor detail when the phone can do so much, but it’s still worth considering as it’s a feature of the phone you’ll be using frequently.

Potential buyers will also be happy to find out that the Zenfone AR sports a 3.5mm headphone jack at the bottom of the device, alongside a USB-C port.

If you’re not a fan of the black look of the smartphone, you’re sadly out of luck – unlike many other smartphones on the market, the Asus Zenfone AR is available in a single colour option.

Features and spec

While the Asus Zenfone AR may look like a standard flagship smartphone on the surface, it’s when you delve into its features and specification that it really shines.

Display

The Asus Zenfone AR sports a 5.7in Super AMOLED display with a QHD (1440 x 2560) resolution, boasting an incredible 515 pixels per inch. The quality of the display is amazing, offering crisp text and images with accurate colour reproduction, and is protected by Gorilla Glass 4, making it resistant (but not immune) to scratches.

It also boasts an incredibly fast 1 millisecond response time and 2 millisecond persistence, making it more than enough to provide a high-quality, lag-free Google Daydream experience. In fact, it’s one of the largest Daydream-compatible smartphones on the market at the moment alongside the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus.

Like many other 2017 flagships, the Zenfone AR supports an always-on display, although this isn’t enabled by default.

But while the display provides incredible detail, we must admit that we’re slightly underwhelmed by its brightness. Even with adaptive brightness turned off and the brightness turned to max, it’s not as bright as its rivals, making it difficult to use in direct sunlight when out and about.

Processor, RAM and storage

The Asus Zenfone AR features the 14nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, specifically optimised for Project Tango’s AR capabilities. Asus worked closely with Qualcomm to distribute the various computer vision workloads, allowing for the best quality AR experience possible – but we’ll come to that in a bit more detail below.

Alongside the Snapdragon 821 processor, you’ll find a whopping 8GB of RAM and a Qualcomm Adreno 530 GPU, which is more than enough power to handle the graphical demands that come with augmented- and virtual reality.

In terms of storage, you can choose between 64- 128- and 256GB, all expandable by up to 256GB via the included microSD card slot.

We’ll come to our benchmark results later to see how it compares to the competition, but generally speaking, the Zenfone AR is a powerful beast. It can handle just about anything you can throw at it, including AR apps and detailed 3D games available on Google Play. Accessing the multitasking menu, switching between apps, activating the camera and more – all of it was instant without even a hint of stutter or lag.

Project Tango (AR)

The Asus Zenfone AR is, at the time of writing, the only smartphone on the market that supports both Project Tango and Google Daydream, making it perfect for those that want to delve into the exciting worlds of augmented- and virtual reality.

But what exactly is Project Tango? It refers to a set of sensors and computer vision software developed by Google that allows for high quality augmented reality experiences. For those unaware, the term ‘computer vision’ refers to the technology behind allowing a computer to ‘see’ and understand spaces like humans do – a vital part of any AR experience.

The Zenfone AR tracks motion, learns the physical area that it’s in (as well as knowing where it is as it moves) and is able to perceive depth. Using this information, the smartphone can detect how far it is away from objects and walls, and remember key visual features that allow it to keep its tracking as accurate as possible.

While that’s all well and good, what does it mean for you at home? It means that the world of high-quality AR is at your fingertips.

While the capabilities depend on the app you’re using, you can do things like accurately measure walls, floors and other objects without a tape measure using the Google Measure app, or fling explosives via catapult at a floating island in the middle of the room with Slingshot Island.

We’ve played with a handful of Tango-enabled apps and we’re extremely impressed with what we saw. While the offering is admittedly limited at the moment, the technology performs incredibly well, offering near-perfect tracking and a smooth, visually pleasing augmented reality experience.

While it did occasionally stutter, the tracking would usually fix itself within a second or two – still not bad for a smartphone that requires no external sensors for positional tracking.

Update: Google is shutting down support for Project Tango on 1 March 2018, meaning the collection of apps available isn't likely to improve. 

Google Daydream (VR)

As mentioned above, the Asus Zenfone AR is also Google Daydream compatible. Google Daydream is a step up from the likes of Google Cardboard and other basic mobile VR viewers as it is only compatible with phones over a certain specification (low-latency displays are a must) and also provides a handheld control for more immersion.

The headset tracking is near-perfect, automatically tracking our head movements as we ventured through virtual worlds and watching immersive VR videos via Within.

While the controller tracking isn’t as accurate as what is provided by PC-powered VR headsets, it’s still impressive considering there’s no external tracking systems. It’s a bit awkward at times but it’s more than enough to interact with a variety of Daydream apps and games, from watching movies in Netflix VR to exploring and interacting with ancient technology on an alien world in Eclipse: Edge of Light.

Google Daydream helps bridge the gap between mobile and PC VR, and we can’t wait to see what developers come up with on the platform in the coming months.

For more information on Google Daydream, take a look at our Google Daydream review.

Connectivity

In terms of connectivity, the Zenfone AR features everything you’d come to expect from a flagship smartphone: dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2 (LE-compatible), GPS, NFC and even FM radio for those that desire it.

In terms of physical ports, you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and a reversible USB-C port at the bottom.

Battery life

The Asus Zenfone AR features a whopping 3300mAh non-removable Lithium-ion battery capable of providing all day usage with no real worry about topping up the smartphone. Of course, this will vary somewhat on what you’ll be doing with the phone as the battery will run down significantly faster when being used for Tango- and Daydream-related tasks, but we’ve found the smartphone would last pretty much all day with average use.

Even if it does require a quick top-up throughout the day, the Zenfone AR sports Quick Charge 3.0 and can provide around half the total battery capacity in only half an hour.

Benchmark results

It’s time to see how the Zenfone AR performs compared to the competition. Since there aren’t many Tango-enabled smartphones on the market, we’ll pit the Zenfone AR up against the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, LG G6 and iPhone 7 Plus.

First up was Geekbench 4, which tests the processing power of the smartphone. The Asus Zenfone AR scored a respectable 1838 and 4364 in single- and multi-core respectively. That’s only beaten by Samsung’s Galaxy S8 Plus (2014, 6475) and Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus (3377, 5516).

Next up, we ran a range of tests in GFXBench, each with varying levels of detail to test how the GPU performs. While we ran several tests, we’ll discuss T-Rex (low res) and Car Chase (high res) here - you can compare our all the results in the infographic below. The Zenfone AR scored a decent 51fps in T-Rex and 10fps in Car Chase. It beats the LG G6, but isn’t quite enough to compete with the S8 Plus or 7 Plus.

Finally, we ran the JetStream benchmark, which tests the speed of the built-in browser. In the case of the Asus Zenfone AR, that’s Google Chrome. It scored 41.1 and while that’s fairly decent for an Android smartphone, it’s miles behind the iPhone 7 Plus (168.7) and Galaxy S8 Plus (56.5).

While these benchmarks don’t necessarily show off the processing and graphical capabilities of the Zenfone AR, it’s worth noting that when it comes to high-end processors, the real-world usage is almost indistinguishable. In reality, the Zenfone AR will be able to handle pretty much anything you throw at it, AR and VR included.

Cameras and photography

Along with boasting impressive AR capabilities, the Asus Zenfone AR sports a decent camera setup. Let’s start with the rear facing camera: it’s 23Mp single-camera setup (despite featuring two cameras on the rear) with f/2.0, 4-axis Optical Image Stabilisation (3x for video) with not only phase detection autofocus but also depth & motion tracking sensors to keep your subject in focus at all times.

The company calls it ‘TriTech’ autofocus, and claims that it can perfectly focus a shot in 0.03 seconds. While we couldn’t test that claim, we can confirm that the phone does find and hold focus very well, even with macro photography.

There’s also a wide range of shooting modes available for the rear camera, from the standard (auto, low-light) to the more outlandish (children, miniature). In fact, there’s an incredible 20 shooting modes to choose from, depending on what you’d like to capture.

In general, the Asus Zenfone AR provides incredibly detailed images with great contrast and vibrant colours – take the below photo of St. Pancras Hotel, for example. The photo looks sharp and crisp on the surface, and even when zooming in to 100 percent, you can still make out the individual bricks of the hotel, and are still able to read street signs. The noise cancellation seen in many 2017 smartphones is present in the Zenfone AR, but it’s nowhere near as noticeable.  

Thanks to the TriTech autofocus, it’s a similar story with macro photography. Take a look at the below photo of a tree – it’s detailed enough to be able to zoom in and make out fine details within the bark, and it nicely applies a bokeh effect to the background of the image too.

One area where most smartphones fail is low-light photography. Low-light photography needs a large sensor to let in large amounts of light – a luxury that many slender smartphones can’t afford. In auto mode, the smartphone produced similar results to other smartphones; details were a bit blurry, but it was okay.

But when we selected the dedicated low-light mode, it was another story altogether.

Images captured were much lighter than those captured in auto mode, and while you can see the noise cancellation at work (it’s a little soft in places), there’s still a bit of detail to be found in the image. Take the below photo – you can easily make out the writing on the pink rubber, and can clearly see defined edges to Batman’s black cape.  

The videos produced on the Asus Zenfone AR are of an equally high standard. First off, it boasts a range of video shooting modes including [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected] with 3-axis Optical Image Stabilisation, which helps to keep videos nice and steady.

While good-quality 4K video capture is hit-and-miss on smartphones, the 4K footage captured on the Zenfone AR is incredibly detailed and smooth. But while the quality is good, we are slightly underwhelmed by the 3-axis OIS offering as videos are still fairly shaky in places. Take a look at our 4K video sample below.

In terms of the front-facing camera, you’ll find an 8Mp snapper with f/2.0 and the ability to record video at [email protected] It’s more than enough for the likes of video calling, and it produces fairly decent quality selfies with a number of shooting modes, but there’s not much else to say about it really!

If you're interested in seeing how the Asus Zenfone AR compares to other 2017 flagships in the camera department, take a look at our list of the best smartphone cameras of 2017

Software

While many smartphone manufacturers are backing away from custom Android skins and providing something as close to stock Android as possible, that’s not the case with the Asus Zenfone AR. First up, it features Android Nougat 7.0, although you might not be able to tell that at a glance.

While there are hints of stock Android throughout the OS, the ZenUI has a distinctly Asus flavour to it. The notification shade icons have been redesigned, and there’s quite a bit of Asus-branded bloatware too, like ZenTalk, ZenCircle and ZenUI FAQ because even Asus acknowledges that it isn’t the most user friendly interface ever.

You’ll also find a rather annoying BeautyLive app that forces itself into almost any app that allows you to take a selfie. It’s what you’ll find on the majority of Android smartphones on steroids – some airbrushing effects were so extreme that our entire face was essentially a blur.

We’d prefer some kind of opt-in system where you can select which (if any) Asus apps you’d like to install when you first set up the smartphone, but this isn’t present at the moment. The worst part is that you can’t delete these stock apps either – you can remove updates and disable the app, but much like stock apps in iOS, they’ll always be there in some form.

But while there are frustrations with ZenUI, it also brings with it some changes we’d love to see in stock Android. Simple things like being able to swipe up from the Home screen to access Home screen settings and being able to automatically organise your apps in folders within the app drawer based on what the app does, makes the ZenUI experience a little more bearable.

Hopefully we’ll see Asus release updates that fix some of these issues in the near future.