Hands on: Asus Zenfone AR review

Virtual reality and augmented reality in a reasonably-sized phone

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Our Early Verdict

Asus Zenfone AR doesn't make you choose between augmented reality – it has both. This specs-leading smartphone is powerful, yet reasonably sized for 2017. Just don't expect the absolute best camera.

For

  • Both VR and AR in one phone
  • Extremely powerful specs
  • First reasonably sized AR phone

Against

  • Zenfone 3 Zoom's camera is better
  • Tango AR software needs to prove itself beyond furniture apps

The Asus Zenfone AR is ready for whatever futuristic reality you’re about to throw at it, acting as the world’s first augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) smartphone.

It’s a sensor-filled Android device, first seen at CES 2017, that runs Google Tango AR software and the Google Daydream VR platform using the Daydream View headset. It’s also a phone.

Asus Zenfone AR has a lot of cool technology behind it to get this done, including three rear cameras, the 8GB of RAM, the Snapdragon 821 chipset and up to 256GB of internal storage.

Yet it looks and feels like a more convincing everyday handset vs the first Tango phone, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. Its name is also way better so everyone understands what it does from the start.

The augmented reality software wasn’t up and running on Asus Zenfone AR yet, sadly. But we know how the rest of the phone handles thanks to an early hands-on session with it in Las Vegas.

Design and display

Every ZenFone has a different look, from the super-cheap plastic ZenFone 2 we didn’t like to the aluminum unibody ZenFone 3 Deluxe we did. This one is outfitted in leather.

Right away, you’ll notice the Zenfone AR has a soft, burnished-leather back, which is different from the usual aluminum- or glass-backed phones we’ve been seeing over the last two years. 

You might not need to get a protective case for this phone, as it didn’t slip from our hands nearly as much as a naked and case-demanding iPhone 7 Plus or Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.

What’s more, it has a 5.7-inch display that isn’t unheard of. That contrasts with the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro and its gargantuan 6.4-inch screen. The Zenfone AR is still big, but reasonable in 2017.

There’s metal here, thanks to the smooth metal frame and brushed stainless steel accents on the back camera. It’s close to feeling every bit of a flagship as a glass or all-metal phone.

Interestingly, while the front of the Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom features all capacitive buttons, this one has a physical home button flanked by capacitive keys. It’s likely going to save you from a few false touches while using it as a AR viewfinder.

AR capabilities

Asus promises that the Zenfone AR will allow you to ‘witness the world with a new set of eyes.’ Unfortunately our old eyes couldn’t see the unfinished augmented reality software in action yet.

What’s planned, however, is the ability to mix virtual objects into the real world by simply peering through the phone’s display screen. Things will appear as if they’re right in front of you.

How? Google’s computer vision software and Asus’s many sensors allow for spatial awareness and motion detection, enabling accurate tracking, depth perception and area learning.

In other words,  your phone will be able to detect how far away it is from the floor, walls and objects, and also remember key visual features in a physical 3D space, according to Asus.

We’ve seen a few convincing uses for Google Tango’s augmented reality platform, including too many furniture shopping apps that allow you to place and measure virtual sofas in your existing physical home. There are seriously five apps that do this out of 33.

Also fictitious, you owning a place that looks like this

More interesting are the learning experiences and games. The Solar Simulator app and the Dinosaurs Among Us app bring space and prehistoric creatures into your room.

AR games like Domino World, Slingshot Island and Woorld turn your tables, chairs and other household objects into fun puzzle platforms for virtual objects and characters.

There’s a lot of promise, including expanding into museums, but we need a component phone to run Google Tango in order to make augmented reality more than a pipe dream.

Google Daydream VR

Virtual reality is the other half of the story for the Zenfone AR. This mighty big phone, with its impressive 5.7-inch display, hangs out of the Google Daydream View headset like no other.

That, of course, doesn’t matter to you because you’re cocooned inside of a VR headset and already look like a total weirdo. What matters is how everything looks inside.

Good news, it runs all of the same software as existing Google Daydream-compatible handsets, including the Google Pixel, Pixel XL and Moto Z (and we’ll soon to add ZTE Axon 7 to the list).

It’s actually better than the standard Google Pixel thanks to its Quad HD resolution and Super AMOLED display. Only the Google Pixel XL has that same super-rich display resolution.

It also uses the VR-optimized Snapdragon 821 chip, the same as Google’s phone, but not used by the slightly older Moto Z or ZTE Axon 7 phones. It’s another best of both worlds aspect for this Asus phone.

Asus is also promising that the Zenfone AR uses an ‘Advanced Vapor Cooling System.’ That’s actually a huge relief because all mobile VR handsets run really hot. No exceptions so far.

Camera and other specs

Asus Zenfone AR has a unique TriCam system includes a 23MP camera as part of its AR setup. It has a f/2.0 aperture lens, fast 0.03 second auto-focus, OIS and EIS and records 4K video.

The Sony IMX 318  camera sensor may not be as advanced as the one found in the Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom, but we’re waiting to see what the TriCam system can do outside of CES.

We’re also interested in testing out Asus’s claims of a 92MP Super Resolution that’s supposed to stitch together a massive photo that’s deserving of the ‘Super Resolution’ name.

The front-facing camera is 8MP with an f/2.0 aperture lens and is capable of 85 degree wide view angle selfies and HDR. It’s another way the Zoom bests this AR and VR-focused phone.

The battery capacity is 3300mAh, which is a decent battery size for any normal phone, but significantly less than the Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom, which has a massive 5000mAh battery. 

You can’t get everything you want. But at least this phone runs Android Nougat out of the box and that should help decrease battery consumption when the phone is idle. If RAM is a concern, this phone will ship in 6GB and 8GB variants.

Early verdict

Asus Zenfone AR is one of the most powerful smartphones we’ve seen in 2017. Its futuristic VR and AR capabilities push the specs beyond anything we’ve experienced in a phone before.

It’s also the world’s first AR and VR phone, and it’s one of the few that has the VR-optimized Snapdragon 821 chipset with a Quad HD Super AMOLED display.

No, this isn’t the world’s first AR phone, a distinction claimed by to the nearly-tablet-sized Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. But that may be a huge plus. Asus Zenfone AR is more conveniently sized and hopefully, now that more time has passed, Tango may be more bug-free. We just have to wait to test out the AR software promised.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.