A lot was made of Google’s Tango technology last year — debuting in the 6.4″ Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, the technology relies on an extra fisheye camera and a depth sensor to enable a bunch of useful new augmented reality tools. It was an interesting choice for contractors or anyone embarking on a lot of home improvement projects — among other things, the phone could measure the dimensions of rooms or objects just by scanning them and could show customers what new paint jobs and furniture would look like in their home virtually.
Since the Phab 2 Pro came out, we haven’t heard much about Tango. Asus introduced the ZenFone AR at CES in January, but for the whole first half of the year, we were left wondering when, exactly, it would be available. Well, we finally have our answer — now.
Asus announced availability yesterday, with the phone available at Verizon stores or in a GSM unlocked model from Amazon. Unlike the Phab 2 Pro, which ran on midrange specs, the ZenFone AR is something closer to a premium phone (although not quite). It runs on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 chipset we saw drop late last year — it’s not the super fast 835, but it’s still one of the best mobile chipsets available. That’s joined by either 6 GB or 8 GB of RAM and 64 GB or 128 GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot that supports cards up to 2 TB. The battery has just a 3,300 mAh capacity, though, which might not last very long with all the hardware and software this phone will be running.
The improved hardware makes the ZenFone AR better able to run some of those Tango AR applications. This phone will also be a little easier to hold at 5.7″, and like the Phab 2 Pro, it will have a 1440p display to make those AR applications look good. Asus has put scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass 4 on top of that display for a little added protection, too. The 1440p display is also well-suited to VR — the ZenFone AR is Google Daydream certified, so this is a phone that can handle AR and VR applications very well. In fact, the better hardware (especially the better GPU in the 821 chipset) could prove even more beneficial to VR programs.
Asus has made the ZenFone AR look and feel like a premium phone. It’s got an aluminum frame with a textured back, and the cameras and audio look promising. Asus has used NXP Smart Amp technology to boost the volume and the phone can play back high bitrate tunes, giving it Hi-Res Audio certification. All that’s coming out of a single downward-firing mono speaker, though, so that could be a disappointment. If you use headphones, the ZenFone AR has built-in DTS 7.1-channel virtual surround sound, so that might be the way to go (and yes, there’s a headphone port).
We’ll have to spend time with the camera to see how good it actually is, but Asus has ticked a lot of boxes here. The phone has a 23 MP sensor paired with an f/2.0 lens, and it’s backed by a lot of premium camera features — laser autofocus, continuous autofocus, phase detect autofocus, and optical image stabilization. While the f/2.0 lens might limit what it can do a little, that seems like a phone that should handle low-light shots really well. The phone can also take bokeh shots, which might be thanks to the other two cameras on the back — the fisheye and depth sensing cameras that make the Tango technology work. There’s also an 8 MP camera with an f/2.0 lens on the front.
If you want to play with the very latest in VR and AR, it does look like the Asus ZenFone AR is your choice. Granted, there still aren’t too many Tango AR apps — they count only in the 30s — but apps like the Lowe’s app could prove really handy if you’re starting up a home improvement or remodeling project.
Given the high-end specs and the high-powered AR and VR features, the ZenFone AR is far from cheap. The unlocked version is available online at $600 for 6 GB RAM/64 GB storage and $700 for 8 GB RAM/128 GB storage. Verizon is getting a 6 GB RAM/128 GB storage model for $648, or $27 per month for two years. That probably shouldn’t be overlooked — it’s the first time we can remember that Asus has launched a phone in the United States with a carrier partner, so it could give both the phone and Asus some much-needed visibility Stateside.