Asus ZenFone AR

A top-qual­ity phone that fully em­braces AR and VR, but a price of £800 is too much to pay

PC Pro - - November 2017 Issue 277 - JONATHAN BRAY

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”

Su­per­size me

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.

Mon­ster camera

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.

Vir­tual bar­gain?

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!

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