Asus Zenfone AR Review: Time to Tango, Dare to DayDream

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The Good

  • Tango and DayDream
  • Feature-packed
  • Premium specs

The Bad

  • Expensive
  • Bettered by rivals in most areas

We review the premium, feature-packed Asus ZenFone AR smartphone, the first Android mobile to boast full support for Google DayDream and Tango, which has finally come to the UK.

Asus certainly isn’t one of the first names to leap to mind when you talk about premium smartphone tech. However, the new ZenFone AR handset is set to make a big splash when it hits the UK this August, thanks to its premium tech and unique, innovative features.

So far only a handful of devices support Google’s DayDream platform. Google’s Pixel phones and some of the Motorola Moto Z handsets are basically your only choices to get involved – as well as the ZenFone AR, now that it’s hit the UK at last.

Which is a shame, because DayDream is rather good. You can play a growing selection of exclusive VR games and enjoy thrilling and immersive virtual experiences, a definite improvement on the bog-standard Google Cardboard offerings.

As well as its DayDream support, the ZenFone AR also comes packing full Tango functionality. Two tiny camera lenses on the back of the phone act together to accurately map out your surroundings and then add in virtual objects, which can be viewed through your smartphone’s screen. Tango isn’t simply a crazy gimmick used for innovative games and other time-wasters, either. You can use it to do everything from virtually furnish your new flat to pimp out a sexy sportscar, right there in your living room.

Of course at £800 here in the UK, this mobile is definitely one for AR and VR enthusiasts only. That’s more expensive than many of the best Androids out there, including the 4K HDR-ready Sony Xperia XZ Premium and the fantastic HTC U11. At least you get a bundled DayDream headset for that cost, though.

So what about the rest of the phone? Does the 23-megapixel camera tech with its Sony sensor rival other flagship snappers? And what about the everyday performance and battery life? Here’s our full Asus ZenFone AR UK review, so you know whether to invest in this premium Android blower.

Read next: Best Android phones in 2017

Asus ZenFone AR Review: Design

At 5.7-inches in size, this sure isn’t a compact handset. That’s to be expected of course, as the ZenFone AR has a strict focus on its AR and VR functionality. Therefore you need a spacious screen, to get the full, immersive experience.

What that means for everyday use is that you’ll struggle somewhat to use the phone with a single hand. Those bezels surrounding the screen aren’t thick by any means, although this is far from an edge-to-edge experience, unlike the beautifully constructed Galaxy S8. However, Asus has thankfully added in a couple of bonus UI modes to help out in this area. You can minimise the desktops to make them easier to play with one-handed, for instance, while the notifications bar can be dragged into view by swiping down at any point on the display.

Beneath the ZenFone’s massive screen you’ll find the narrow home button, which doubles as a fingerprint sensor. In many phones this is slightly indented, to make it easier to find without looking, although Asus has done the opposite and raised the button from the surface. Of course this method works just as well, so you can find the scanner easily in the dark. It’s a fast-acting and efficient sensor, although you do have to push the button in for it to read your print; you can’t simply tap your thumb to the surface.

Tough metal edging gives way to a soft-touch, textured backing with a proper leather finish. This feels pleasant enough against the palm and helps to prevent slippage as well, even when your hands are on the moist side. The overall effect isn’t quite as sexy as the premium glass and metal construction of the Galaxy S8, although still attractive enough. Plus, you won’t get any smudges or greasy marks ruining the aesthetics here.

Except for the metal camera bar, that is, which smears up a storm. This juts out of the rear of the ZenFone AR, up near the top end. This design helps to protect the camera lens glass, at least, in case the phone is accidentally dropped.

You don’t get full water resistance, something found on many premium rivals. However, the ZenFone can survive a splashing without any ill effects.

What works?

Those one-handed modes are definitely an essential addition, given the size of this phone. Plus, that leathery rear offers good grip and quite a unique finish for a premium handset.

What doesn’t?

The ZenFone AR is an absolute beast, which makes it rather unwieldy for a quick scan of your messages. No water resistance, either.

Asus ZenFone AR Review: Screen and media

Media fans and gamers will immediately be on board with that mighty 5.7-inch screen. It’s a Super AMOLED display, which means punchy colour reproduction and respectable contrast levels, while the Quad HD resolution matches most rivals and keep the visuals perfectly crisp.

HD movies really do look amazing, while that spacious panel makes for comfortable viewing. It’s just a shame there’s no support for HDR content, something you get on the LG G6 and Galaxy S8 (to name just two), as the likes of Netflix will be offering a growing catalogue of HDR video to mobile devices as the year ends.

You can choose to have the screen constantly display the time and date, as well as any waiting notifications. This ‘Always-on Panel’ feature works as you’d expect, showing unread messages and missed calls plus the current battery life. However, this feature does drain the battery at a faster rate when active. You also won’t get any notifications from third-party apps such as Twitter or Facebook showing up.

Sadly there’s no support for Bluetooth 5 speakers and headsets, something you get on rivals like the Samsung Galaxy S8. However, you do get a 3.5mm jack for plugging in ‘phones and speakers. The ZenFone AR also offers up Hi-Res Audio and DTS Headphone X 7.1 support, so you’re covered when it comes to music quality.

What works?

That spacious screen pumps out sharp, great-looking visuals and proves well up to the task of AR and VR functionality.

What doesn’t?

No support for HDR means some rivals have the upper hand for video streaming.

Asus ZenFone AR Review: Features

Asus may have used Android as the ZenFone AR’s OS, although Google’s software has been heavily customised with a whole bunch of bonus features. These would take a long time to run through in full, so we’ll try and give you some of the highlights instead.

For one, Asus has added lots of different ways to interact with your phone, many of which we’ve seen on handsets from the likes of Huawei. As well as those one-handed modes we previously mentioned, you can launch apps from hibernation with a specific swipe of your finger, or flip the phone to silence any incoming calls. Some of these are quite useful, others will no doubt never be used.

Other additions include the Game Genie feature (which is very similar to Samsung’s Game Launcher), for streaming your gaming session online.

You also have an Easy Mode which simplifies the interface and boosts the size of icons, which could be useful for anyone with disabilities such as degraded eyesight or arthritis. That said, we’re not sure why anyone with these conditions would choose to sport an £800 premium smartphone that’s geared around AR and VR. Likewise, there’s a Kids Mode which can be fully controlled to protect your little treasures (and keep them from buying stuff without permission) – if you’d actually dare to hand this expensive device to a youngster.

While a lot of these bonus features will probably go untouched by the majority of users, the ZenFone AR does boast full DayDream VR and Tango AR support. Check out our complete guide to DayDream to see why Google’s platform is one of the best virtual reality experiences on mobile right now, giving the ZenFone AR instantly appeal for anyone who wishes to try it out. Just bear in mind that Samsung’s flagship phones offer up the also-excellent Gear VR platform, which is a very strong rival indeed.

As for Tango, this Augmented Reality feature has strong potential for designers and other creative users. You can fill a space with virtual furniture, for instance, or easily measure distances using a virtual tape measure. Of course, the majority of experiences right now are silly games and you don’t have a huge catalogue to choose from, but this will hopefully change with a bit of time.

What works?

Anyone interested in AR or VR should seriously consider the ZenFone AR, as it’s the only smartphone which does both right now.

What doesn’t?

A lot of the bonus features may well be superfluous, although you might get use out of the odd one.

Asus ZenFone AR Review: Performance and battery life

As the ZenFone AR was launched around three months ago, this phone sports the slightly older Snapdragon 821 chipset instead of the fresh new 835. Still, while the 821 lacks some of the impressive innovation in the 835, including 1Gbps peak download speed support, it’s still a pleasingly powerful processor.

Read next: Snapdragon 835 vs 821, what’s the difference?

Backed here by 6 to 8GB of RAM, you can expect a smooth performance from the ZenFone AR at all times. You’ll positively glide through menus and apps, with no pauses to break your flow. Asus has even added some features to speed up your favourite apps, by allocating them extra memory.

Of course, you’ll need some serious power to blast through VR games, so rest assured; this handset can handle the latest processor-pummelling virtual reality titles with ease. You can also blast through standard Android games from the Google Play store, which again play with a solid frame rate.

Battery life is respectable considering the ZenFone AR’s 3300mAh cell needs to power that enormous Quad HD screen. You can happily make it through a full day of use, even with some gameplay, plenty of camera use and a lot of general web browsing and messaging. If you’re a bit more restrained, this mobile will last a lot longer, as the charge holds well.

When the phone does finally bite the dust, you can get close to a full charge in just an hour thanks to the Quick Charge 3.0 support.

What works?

Nippy performance no matter what you’re up to, including blasting through VR and AR titles.

What doesn’t?

Not the latest, freshest Snapdragon platform sadly, while we’ve seen longer battery life from some rivals.

Asus ZenFone AR Review: Cameras

As well as those two Tango cameras on the back of the ZenFone AR, you’ll find a standard 23-megapixel shooter for capturing photos and video footage of your everyday life. This is a feature-dense camera, stacked with all kinds of bonus shooting modes to fit pretty much any conditions and situation you can imagine. You can shoot RAW images and up to 4K resolution video, as well as humorous GIFs and plenty more besides.

There’s also an 8-megapixel selfie camera around the front, to snap your gorgeous mug. As you might expect, this comes packing the usual beauty mode to iron out any little blemishes. Not that you’ll need this feature of course, because it’s been scientifically proven that Recombu readers are the most damn attractive people on the internet.

So is the camera tech any good? Like, can it beat rival smartphone snappers such as the Galaxy S8 and HTC U11? Well, the ZenFone AR is certainly very capable, while those bonus modes help to sort out any deficiencies in the standard auto mode. However, we have a few complaints, including the dodgy image stabilisation when shooting video.

Check out our full Asus ZenFone AR camera review for samples and our full in-depth thoughts.

What works?

Tons of features and full manual controls, as well as a nippy autofocus and accurate sensor

What doesn’t?

You’ll need to swap to some of the special modes to get a good shot in certain conditions, while the image stabilisation is frankly disappointing.

Asus ZenFone AR Review: Verdict

The ZenFone AR is one of the most expensive smartphones to hit the UK in 2017, although also one of the more unique handsets we’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.

In terms of performance, camera tech, battery life and media chops, you’ll find rival blowers that offer that little bit more for the same price or less. All the same, the Zenfone AR doesn’t disappoint in any of these areas, giving a well-rounded user experience.

In terms of features, this ZenFone flagship is absolutely stacked to the gills. However, it’s two in particular – the DayDream and Tango support – that really help this Asus phone to stand out from the crowd. Both function well and you’ll struggle to find other phones that offer even one of these platforms, let alone both.

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