Asus made news waves when it launched the Zenfone AR earlier this year – touting it as the world’s first smartphone to support Augmented Reality (Google Tango) and Virtual Reality (Google Daydream) together. AR seems to be the buzzword right now for smartphone makers, Apple boasted about it in the iPhone 8 & X, even Google gave a demo and talked a fair amount about AR in its Pixel 2 event. However, the Zenfone AR is different. It houses special hardware which makes it a full-fledged AR/VR phone. Asus has also positioned it right along the top flagships in the industry.
But can it be a good overall device even if you don’t care about AR/VR? Is there enough AR content to make this phone worth its additional premium price? Let’s find out.
Design & Display
The design of the Zenfone AR definitely counts as one of the phone’s best merits. It looks utterly premium in the leather back, deviating away from the usual metal or glass that we see on most smartphones. The aluminium frame on all sides bearing a gunmetal finish further adds up to make the phone look elite.
Although the Zenfone AR houses a 5.7-inch display, it feels very comfortable and ergonomic to hold, mostly because of the firm leather back. The phone is quite sturdy and well-built too. The display is protected with a Corning Gorilla Glass 4 but a flagship offering must have had the Gorilla Glass 5.
There’s a physical home button on the front which doubles up as the fingerprint sensor. The capacitive buttons are placed alongside it for navigation and for some reason, all three of them are misaligned. To charge the phone, there’s a USB Type-C port provided at the bottom edge. The volume as well as power button are both placed on the right, and they can be reached conveniently. The phone has (fortunately) got a headphone jack too.
The Zenfone AR has an AMOLED display which comes with its own benefits, such as the always-on feature. The screen is quad HD and it produces a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels. The brightness is sufficient in all cases and the colour reproduction is pretty good too. Watching videos or playing games in the phone is a visual treat. More importantly, compatibility with AR and VR requires a good screen which the Zenfone AR seamlessly complies with.
The major highlight to this phone is its camera setup located on the back. The Zenfone AR sports a set of sensors that work together to capture great images as well as aid in its AR capabilities. The lens setup at the back includes a 23-megapixel sensor, a depth sensing sensor and a motion tracking sensor. Asus’ camera app brings in some neat camera tricks further adding to the its prowess. The camera module is also enhanced with 4-axis OIS when capturing images and a 3-axis OIS for capturing videos, thereby allowing us to capture blur-free images and stable videos.
In our experience with the phone, we were able to click photos with great detail and accurate colour reproduction. The phone also focussed on objects really quickly, thanks to its complementary sensors. The manual mode in the camera app should be a professional photographer’s delight giving the user a lot of options to tweak multiple parameters as per their desire. Other worthy modes bundled with the app include Panorama, HDR, Low Light Mode Super Resolution, Slow Motion and Depth of Field among others.
The rear camera is not only just great with capturing images, but records some great video samples as well. The 23-megapixel sensor is capable of recording 4K and even in Full HD @ 60 FPS. We however noticed the camera module to heat up to a point where it was untouchable while capturing videos. This may be a drawback and the heating is a more pressing overall issue with the device, more on that in a bit.
The 8-megapixel front camera does justice to the phone and clicks some really good selfies. There are ample number of modes provided to make selfies look better, for instance HDR Pro, Slow Motion, Selfie Panorama and even a Low Light mode.
Performance & Software
I was pretty happy with the overall performance throughout the time I used the Zenfone AR. There was never a moment where it felt that the phone could use more power. It packs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, which Asus claims is a modified version for running AR/VR which has been achieved by working with Qualcomm. The 8GB RAM is probably the best one could get in any smartphone (and most laptops) currently and it sails through even the heaviest of the apps quite seamlessly. Gaming is a delightful experience in the phone as well, there was no lags or frame drops in any of the games we tried. I loved the app startup times and the RAM management. Asus has done a pretty good job there. Almost any app once opened fires up in an instant even when you reopen it again after a few minutes.
On the software front, the phone runs on Zen UI 4.0 which is built on Android 7.0 Nougat. Whether this phone will be upgraded to Oreo is still unknown. The Zen UI offers tons of customizations and is one of the better Android skins out there. You would certainly not demand any more features than this custom UI already offers.
AR & VR Experience
Finally, coming to what the phone is primarily meant for, augmented and virtual reality.
It is worth mentioning that although the AR experience in the phone is quite impressive for most parts. However there are very few VR apps currently on the Play Store, which to their credit do make for some brilliant use cases. You can augment almost anything into your living room, provided there’s an app for it.
This is the first time I experienced VR in a full-fledged manner and I am pretty impressed. It almost brings back the childhood memory of getting hands on a video game console for the first time. The Google Daydream View headset was provided to us with the phone. It is pretty comfortable and aids in viewing VR content conveniently. Most of the apps in the Daydream store are paid and we guess rightly so. But even some of the free apps are quite enjoyable and intriguing. Google is constantly helping developers to create better VR experiences through its Daydream platform.
However, using AR and VR on this phone comes with its own drawbacks. The device heats up excessively just within a short time frame and it can be felt sharply on the aluminium frame as well as the metal camera casing. This is kind of expected owing that AR/VR demands heavy use of almost every aspect of the phone. The same can be evident in the battery performance, it drains down very quickly while using VR.
In a surprising and unfortunate move, just a few weeks after the Zenfone AR launched, Google killed its Tango project. It was replaced by ARCore, an initiative through which Google plans to put AR in almost all of its Android smartphones, without requiring any special sensors. Since the Zenfone AR was based on Google Tango, we can’t really expect any more developments or updates on that front.
Battery is probably the weakest aspect of the Zenfone AR. The standby time is terribly low, we tested it by keeping the fully charged phone and tweaking many default things such as eliminating all background processes, leaving the phone on airplane mode overnight, etc. but nothing seemed to work. The next morning, the battery had almost reached 30% which is quite worrisome. However with normal usage, the battery backup held up pretty decently and didn’t have any major hiccups. The best part about the battery is that the phone charges up really fast. Even this only advantage is slightly flawed as the phone drastically heats up while charging.
So, after an in-depth review of the phone, let’s boil it down to the most important questions one might have before purchasing the phone:
Can it be a good overall device even if you don’t care about AR/VR?
Yes, it is. It can easily be counted as a good premium flagship phone with all the necessary features and specifications. The camera is pretty good, performance is snappy and even the display lives up to the mark.
Is there enough AR/VR content to make this phone worth the additional premium price?
At a price of Rs. 49,999, the answer would be no. Both the sectors are still in their nascent stages and there are very few useful apps out there, especially for AR. On the VR front, like mentioned, Google is trying its best to put new apps on Daydream and the efforts can be witnessed but for now you wouldn’t be amazed by the number of apps.
However, if you’re an AR or VR developer, this might be one of the best phones out there, packed with the necessary sensors and specifications required to pull off even the most consuming apps.
All-in-all, the Zenfone AR is a good overall phone. It gets most of the things right and misses out on a few things. That said, I would have loved to see some better heat management and battery performance. If you are somewhat inclined towards using AR/VR and are among those who love to try out new technologies, this might be a phone worth its money. If not, there are better smartphones out there, including the newly launched Pixel 2, the iPhone 8 or even the much low-priced OnePlus 5.