Asus ZenFone AR
A top-quality phone that fully embraces AR and VR, but a price of £800 is too much to pay
SCORE ✪✪✪✪✪ PRICE £667 (£800 inc VAT) from uk.store.asus.com
The Asus ZenFone AR is, on the surface, an impossible product to sell. At £800, it’s the most expensive phone to grace these pages, with only the Google Pixel XL (£719) and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus (launched at £779) coming close. Yes, if you pre-order the Asus ZenFone AR from the Asus website then you’ll receive it in a huge presentation box with a £69 Google Daydream View headset included – but even this barely softens the blow.
Yet it’s intriguing at the same time. This is the first phone to be certified for both the Google Tango augmented reality and Google Daydream virtual reality platforms, so represents an important step forward for these fledgling technologies.
Time to Tango
So, how will Tango and Daydream View improve your life? It’s all about the 23-megapixel camera cluster on the rear. Flip the phone over and you’ll see two camera lenses (one for capturing image data, the other for capturing motion), an infrared laser autofocus sensor, and an infrared depth-sensing camera.
Using the three cameras in conjunction with each other unleashes the Tango experience, with the sensors used to place digital objects in real-world scenes, and map and measure the real world.
On one level this is pretty frivolous. There are various games you can try, such as Slingshot Island and Hot Wheels Track Builder, that place elements from the game onto surfaces nearby. The former places a floating island into the middle of your living room that you can walk around and ping rocks at for points; in the latter, you can build virtual Scalextric-style tracks on the floor.
But there are also more serious, practical apps you can download via the Google Tango app. Measure employs the triplecamera array to help you measure items from distance without a measuring tape. With Magicplan you can aim the camera at walls, floors and ceilings to create a quick floor plan. With a little practice, both these apps work well, but you wouldn’t rely on them to form the basis of proper building works because the measurements aren’t accurate enough.
My favourite, however, is Dinos Among Us, which lets you select and place virtual dinosaurs in your living room and get a real sense of scale by walking up to them. If only there were more than four models.
“This is the first phone to be certified for both the Google Tango AR and Google Daydream VR platforms, so represents a step forward”
Looking beyond the Tango headlines and glitzy packaging, you’re buying a big phone with a 5.7in Super AMOLED display, Android 7 Nougat, 128GB of storage, 6GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 821 CPU.
While it’s a plainlooking design compared to the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, at 159g it’s surprisingly light – and, courtesy of its gently rounded corners and edges, will slide into even the tightest pockets without snagging or catching. The rear is clad in soft-touch leathereffect material, which is a nice break from scuffable aluminium and crackable glass rear panels.
The buttons and ports are all in sensible places: the volume rocker on the righthand edge, just above the power key; the 3.5mm headphone socket on the bottom edge on the left-hand side, just next to a USB-C socket; and there’s a dual-SIM/microSD card storage tray mounted on the left end of the phone. A physical button-cum-fingerprint protrudes a tad from the surface of the glass, flanked by off-screen capacitive back and recent apps keys.
Another plus point is the screen itself. With a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440, it looks sharp from normal distances and, as with every other AMOLED display you’ll come across, it has bright, vibrant colours and effectively perfect contrast. (It’s protected by Gorilla Glass 4, too.)
One benefit of OLED you definitely won’t notice until you mount the phone in a VR headset is the lack of motion blur. This is an effect that, in regular handsets using LCD panels, can cause nausea, but here the experience is far more fluid. Despite the high-resolution panel, though, VR views still look pixelated.
The display performed as expected in our tests. Contrast is reported as perfect by our colorimeter, but peak brightness isn’t as high as the very best IPS LCDs (it maxes out at 346cd/m2), which means you’ll need to
shade the screen with your hand to read it in bright, sunny conditions.
Its default Super colour profile is oversaturated, so I recommend switching to the more accurate Standard colour mode. It’s still far from perfect, though, as an average Delta E colour accuracy rating of 3.48 goes to prove.
The most disappointing aspect of the ZenFone AR is its processor. Instead of a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, which the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, HTC U11 and US variants of the Samsung Galaxy S8+ come with, it has a Snapdragon 821. It’s no slouch, but I’d expect the best of the best for this sort of money, not silicon that’s a generation behind, especially when AR and VR apps are so computationally demanding. As can be seen from the graphs to the right, this lack of power means it trails behind its rivals in all the key benchmarks.
Indeed, while the ZenFone feels responsive in day-to-day use, it lags behind 2017’s best smartphones on pretty much every metric, pulling up alongside 2016’s Google Pixel XL for general performance.
For capturing regular photos and video, the Asus ZenFone AR is again competent but not exceptional. The specifications are all in place. The resolution of the rear camera is 23 megapixels, it has an aperture of f/2 – not the brightest, but sufficient for decent quality low-light snaps – and with autofocus running to infrared and phase detect. It also has four-axis optical image stabilisation for photos, three-axis stabilisation for video and can capture footage at up to 4K.
For stills, the ZenFone’s camera is a cracker. In low light, it produces clean, relatively noise-free images, which are on a par with the OnePlus 5 for colour reproduction (so not quite as good as images produced by the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus).
Outdoors, compared head-to-head with the OnePlus 5, its 23-megapixel sensor captures more detail and slightly more naturally saturated colours, although again I prefer the output of its plus-sized competitors.
Video is disappointing. Although the camera can capture 4K video at 30fps and 1080p at up to 60fps, you’ll have to hold it steady to avoid an attack of the shakes in your footage, despite the presence of optical image stabilisation.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this phone. Indeed, it’s nice to see a smartphone company branching out and doing something different. The screen, camera, design and performance are all strong.
It’s just that, for £800, you can do better. The Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus is now £630, is faster, has a better stills and video camera, and is a simply stunning thing to behold. I could say the same for the HTC U11 and Sony Xperia XZ Premium.
The simple fact is that, while the Asus ZenFone AR is an interesting experiment and a competent smartphone, it isn’t good enough to justify that price.
ABOVE The star of the show is the complex trio of cameras on the ZenFone AR’s rear
BELOW Look out! A dinosaur is running rampant in the Dennis Publishing offices!