ASUS, Project Tango, and what could have been (ASUS ZenFone AR Review)

Dat leather, tho.

Though it was released back in the second half of last year, the ASUS ZenFone AR remains an intriguing device, sporting Google’s now-defunct Project Tango on board. Though Tango is gone, its spirit will live on in ARCore – and we can, perhaps, derive a few insights on the ARCore from the apps and functionality built-into Tango on the ZenFone AR. What follows is an honest and unbiased assessment of ASUS’ Project Tango phone, both in the perspective of the past and with the benefit of hindsight.

Build

The last few months of smartphone releases have seen a rather sudden about-face in design standards. Where we used to see unibody, milled alloy frames we now see full-body glass designs – Samsung, HTC, and LG are all firmly on-board that train, because absolutely no one pays attention to Apple’s terrible decisions from 2012, apparently. Crafting a shell out of of glass – no matter how “durable,” as if that’s a thing that a millimeter thick piece of glass can be – was an awful idea when Apple did it, and remains an awful idea with the iPhone X, Galaxy S8, V30, and U11/+. Glass frames may be gorgeous and feel fantastic and absolutely reek of premium, but let’s be blunt with ourselves – when you build a phone with glass, the first thing anyone is going to do is slap a case on it, eradicating all that Fancy in one fell swoop.

Fortunately, the ASUS ZenFone AR wasn’t released in the last few months, so it missed the memo. Instead of that shiny-but-fragile glass exterior that’s en vogue, it’s got the milled, alloy unibody of yester-month. In addition, the back surface is also covered in a soft, burnished black leather that’s quite delightful to the touch. I honestly didn’t know I wanted this in a phone until I handled the ZenFone AR – now I never want to put a case on it.  Unfortunately, my review unit also came stamped with a Verizon logo (which is really a nice touch, but a carrier quite literally imprinting its name on a phone reeks of insecurity to me – and insecurity is not sexy), which hurts the aesthetic a little.

Carrier interference aside, the ZenFone AR is a handsome device – sturdy in the hand and with a feel that’s truly pleasing in-hand. I can’t say there’s many phones I’ve touched just to feel them in my hand, but this is one of them.  The phone is mostly made of sleek, clean lines, with two exceptions – the camera bump, and the fingerprint sensor. The former of these is understandable; in a phone that has invested so heavily into its camera – detailed below – it’s perfectly reasonable that it’ll have a larger-than-average impact on the overall frame of the phone. The camera itself is surrounded by a heavy-duty-looking metal plate, which gives it almost an industrial look.

Now for that latter problem; instead of a soft button, a la OnePlus, or a recessed hard-key, like LG’s V30, the fingerprint sensor/Home button is a raised, rectangular hulk of a key that shatters the otherwise elegant profile so lovingly crafted by ASUS.

In older Android devices, we saw a lot of protruding physical buttons – the original devices even had trackballs. But for the most part, we’ve seen a shift to capacitive, software or (at the very least) flat buttons in lieu of physical ones to keep the sleek profile and flat surfaces of a phone unblemished. Why, then has Asus deigned it necessary to have a physical button as its fingerprint sensor/Home button? On a phone with a front face that’s otherwise 100% smooth, there is one, single rectangular button that crushes the dream. Asus likely made it protrude to make the sensor easy to find by touch – and I totally accept that design logic. But after using the OnePlus 3T and its flat, capacitive fingerprint sensor rimmed by a barely-perceptible plastic bumper, the ZenFone AR’s solution just feels like a blunt instrument.

Display

The display on the ASUS ZenFone AR is among the prettiest I’ve ever seen on a smartphone, point blank. It doesn’t have the edge-to-edge display or the 18:9 aspect ratio that’s become so popular since the Galaxy S8 was released, but the quality of the display itself is excellent. At 5.7″, the Super AMOLED screen displays colors with startling vibrancy and, while the 2560 x 1440 resolution renders graphics with great clarity. It’s got solid maximum and minimum brightness settings, performing equally well in bright sunlight and darkened rooms.This performance can possibly be attributed to ASUS’ integrated Tru2Life technology – which sounds suspiciously like a buzzword, but it can call it whatever it likes when the screen looks this good.

Build-wise, the display is a little disappointing when viewed through the lens of modern trends. It’s got a mere 79% screen-to-body ratio, which is a fairly far cry from the 90% we’re seeing on newer releases. Viewed from the time of release, though the display is perfectly adequate. ASUS went with Corning Gorilla Glass 4 on the ZenFone AR – always a good decision when looking to shore-up the (relative) durability of a smartphone’s display. It likely won’t survive a direct drop, but Gorilla Glass 4 is definitely scratch resistant and weathers everyday use admirably.

Internals

When it comes to internal hardware, the ZenFone AR is an interesting beast. It runs a Snapdragon 821 processor with a whopping 8GB of RAM (6GB on the lower tier model), meaning that it can handle all but the most system-intensive apps and multitask like an absolute champ, even in split-screen. Two iterations of Snapdragon processors have hit the market since the 821 was released (with the 845 having just been announced in December), but the 821 is no slouch. Even when pitted head-to-head with LG’s latest and greatest – the V30 – ASUS’ ZenFone AR more than holds its own. While it isn’t quite the bleeding edge, the 821 is still a formidable processor in today’s market. It’s the same chip used in the original Pixel, OnePlus 3T, and LG G6, and a step up from the 820 used in the Galaxy S7, LGV20, and Moto Z Force. The upper tier of the ZenFone AR also features 128GB of storage (64GB on the lower); more than I, personally will ever need and more than enough for most users.

In terms of connectivity, the AR features modern, though not bleeding-edge, standards; Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. It would have been great to see Bluetooth 5, since the standard became available for implementation last year – and, apparently, can be enabled via software update – but we can’t rightfully blame ASUS for going with the more mature 4.2 standard when the ZenFone AR was released back in July.

The USB-C connector on the ZenFone AR features QuickCharge 3.0 and BoostMaster Fast Charging which, according to Asus, can take the AR’s  3300mAh battery from 0 to 60(%) in just under 40 minutes. Not quite the speed of Dash Charging on OnePlus phones, but still impressive. That same USB-C connector is also Display-Port compatible, meaning it supports Video Over USB – something that early USB-C adopters like the Nexus 6P didn’t support, much to my chagrin.

Sound-wise, ASUS throws a bunch of buzzwords at consumers to make the ZenFone AR sound like an audial beast; 5-magnet speakers (how many magnets to smartphone speakers normally have?), 140% louder (than…what, exactly?), 17% low-frequency extension (what, even?), and 7.1 channel virtual surround sound (hey, I know what that means!). In practice, the AR’s speakers are noticeably louder than those on my trusty OnePlus 3T, and there’s even a toggle-able “Outdoor Mode” that boosts volume further for use in loud environments – though, why they didn’t just make that boosted volume the top-end of the volume slider, I’ll never know (maybe ASUS’ version of turning the volume up to 11, perhaps?).

The AR also sounds fantastic when plugged into good quality headphones – so while I can’t independently confirm the fancy buzzwords above individually, I can sing the praises of the sound performance of the ZenFone AR as a whole – it’s great. Best, perhaps when plugged into the 3.5mm jack with a high-end, over-ear headset to take advantage of those aforementioned buzzwords, but solidly performing regardless of how you listen – be it the internal speakers, Bluetooth buds, or a full-size headset.

Camera

Craziest camera sensor ever.

Aside from – or perhaps because of – Project Tango, the ZenFone AR’s most impressive feature is its camera – or rather, cameras. Many higher-end phones these days have dual rear cameras for producing Bokeh and Depth-of-Field effects; the ZenFone AR adds one more. The primary sensor is a 23MP beast designed to make your photos look as good as the real world does to your eyes. The other two sensors are more specialized; a depth sensor and a motion-tracking sensor. Individually, these sensors are neat little tricks – combined, though, the trifecta allows the ZenFone AR to track itself in space, measure distance, and – in ASUS’ words – “…to a create a three-dimensional model of its surroundings and track its motion, so it can see the world just like you do.”

In practice, I’ve found the camera to be very impressive, albeit a bit convoluted. There are a total of 17 modes across the rear and selfie cameras, each with its own set of completely customizable options; Auto, Manual, HDR Pro, Beautification, Super Resolution, Children, Low Light, QR, Night, Depth of Field, Filter, Selfie, Panorama, Miniature, Time Rewind, Slow Motion, and Time Lapse. Some of these (like QR, for example) are so wonderfully obvious its a small marvel that Google’s own AOSP app doesn’t have it yet, while others (Child) seem like they should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Modes

  • Automatic: Detects the environment and dynamically scales settings for the best possible image. In my experience with the camera, this setting works well for 90% of all the pictures you’ll take.
  • Manual: Tweak all the settings in the Automatic mode (of which there are Legion) to your heart’s content to find that perfect shot.
  • HDR Pro: “Expands the dynamic range and enhances details in high-contrast or strongly backlit screens” – think shooting into the sun. Honestly, I didn’t notice a whole lot of difference with this mode from Automatic.
  • Beautification: Takes your face – with all its beautiful flaws and perfect imperfections – and makes you look like a china doll. When people talk about Instagram filters ruining our perception of beauty, this is what they’re talking about.
  • Super Resolution: According to the description of this mode, the camera takes multiple shots and stitches them together to form the best possible image – which sounds a lot like the HDR Burst that Google uses, with a different name.
  • Children: This mode takes a picture of people’s faces when they stand still for a moment – why it’s called Children mode, I don’t know. But it works as advertised.
  • Low Light: Rather self-explanatory; this mode enhances light sensitivity for clearer pictures in low-light environments without using the flash.
  • QR: This one should be in literally every camera app known to man. Scan a QR code.
  • Night: This mode features a slower shutter speed – and longer exposure – to capture more light in night-time shots.
  • Depth of Field: This is what the cool kids are calling Bokeh – in-focus foreground, out of focus background.
  • Filter: Apply one of a dozen or so overlays to your photos.
  • Selfie: While it sounds fairly standard, this mode is actually one of my favorites. Using the 23MP rear camera and its sensors, the ZenFone AR detects a number of faces you determine, then starts an audible countdown when everyone is in focus. Very useful for taking group selfies.
  • Panorama: Android’s had this one a while.
  • Miniature: As someone that likes to paint pewter and plastic miniatures, I assumed this one would help me take pictures of them – in reality, it’s designed to make life-sized objects look like small-scale model. Why? I’m not actually sure.
  • Time Rewind: This mode essentially functions as a pre-emptive burst, taking photos up to 3 seconds before and a full second after the shutter is pressed. The phone automatically analyzes the resulting images and shows you the best one – but allows you to choose from any of them. Very interesting, though I have not found a real-world application for it yet.
  • Slow Motion: I was really happy with the result of this mode, which is like standard video, but slows down fast-moving objects into slow-motion.
  • Time-Lapse: A classic. Renders video in a slower-than-normal framerate and plays it back at normal speeds, so it looks like time is moving much faster than normal.

Project Tango

The idea behind Project Tango was great; pair robust, innovative hardware with software to turn your phone into an augmented reality playground sophisticated and fine-tuned enough for games applications alike. Google saw Tango as a platform that would revolutionize gaming, design and, really, how we interact with the world. Though no longer in development (having been unceremoniously dumped for ARCore last year), we can still glimpse what Tango could have been by exploring the fledgeling ecosystem in the last of the ‘Tango’s – the ASUS ZenFone AR. Even with the project dead, Tango still has a number of functional apps and games still available for download; games. floor-plan mapping, interior design, and virtual reality are all represented in the Store, making use of the ZenFone AR’s additional sensors to craft immersive experiences.

In practice, though, it’s easy to see why Google decided to go in a different direction. Project Tango is a cute trick, but it hardly justifies the need for a ridiculously high-tech camera on a phone that will likely not make near enough use of it. Project Tango, as shipped on the ZenFone AR, is a niche product – it was never going to make a splash with the common consumer, and probably not even with its intended audience. Google’s new solution, ARCore, shouldn’t need the specifications that Tango did – and as such, will not require the (likely expensive) extra hardware that ASUS managed to admirably cram into a smartphone.

Value

At $600+, the ZenFone AR is no budget phone – but with a strong CPU and 6GB of RAM (at minimum!), it still competes with some of the heavyweights on the market at a price that’s a bit lower than most of them, with the added benefit of the very impressive (albeit now-defunct) Google Tango technology. With Tango no longer in development, this is a hard purchase to justify, but the ZenFone AR is an extremely well-performing phone for its price point with gorgeous build quality, an impressive camera, and a beautiful display.

Buy the ASUS ZenFone AR at Amazon

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Build
Display
Internals
Sound
Camera
Tango
SHARE
Obsessive Tech and Sacramento Kings fanatic. Snarky and prone to random, lengthy asides. Contributor for AndroidGuys.com.