ASUS ZenFone AR review: A 'better' Tango phone doesn't mean much

Google’s vision of a future with devices that sense the world around them is a potentially game-changing one, and now one of its biggest rivals is embracing it too. Needless to say, there’s a real chance that your next phone (or maybe your next-next phone) will support augmented reality. For Tango, though, the progress has been slow. It’s been a little less than a year since the first Tango phone launched, and the number of available apps hasn’t grown much; there are around 50 now, as compared with 40 or so in 2016. Some of Tango’s functional issues haven’t been solved, either: a decent chunk of available apps still have trouble detecting surfaces and remembering where objects or markers are.

ASUS ZenFone AR review: A 'better' Tango phone doesn't mean much

Generally speaking, apps fall into three buckets: games, utilities and miscellaneous stuff. Tango games like Phantogeist, a first-person AR shooter, remain a lot of fun — I spent about an hour wandering through the office, disrupting meetings in search of foes to blast with my lightning gun. It’s perhaps the most action-packed Tango game you’ll find, but it also highlights some of the biggest challenges for developing Tango content: Enemy orbs still float through walls the phone should be able to detect, and there’s nothing to keep you coming back once that initial wave of novelty wears off. Hot Wheels Track Builder plops you into an ersatz workshop where you can tinker with elaborate racetracks and launch cars on them. Unfortunately, the bits you plop down are prone to wandering, forcing you to reset your view once in a while. That’s the thing about Tango games right now: Even the stuff that’s been out since Tango launched can feel a little unfinished.

The utilitarian apps haven’t changed much, which is fine, since they worked fairly well the first time around. You can still measure things with Google’s Measure app with some degree of accuracy, or plop virtual Wayfair furniture into the space around you to see how it all fits. Maybe the most impressive new addition comes from BMW, which lets you virtually poke around a mostly life-size i3 or i8; you can even fire up the windshield wipers. Occasional tracking issues aside (Measure sometimes offers incorrect figures because it’s harder than expected to place the first marker), these apps were generally free of major issues. That’s more important than you’d think: While the games offer a brief respite from reality, Tango’s potential to help people get things done is what will drive more people to embrace AR.

ASUS ZenFone AR review: A 'better' Tango phone doesn't mean much

Then there’s the other stuff. The best current example in the Play Store is an app from the Wall Street Journal that shows you a three-dimensional table visualizing the rises and falls of the US stock market. It works, but using it isn’t particularly intuitive, and the app offers little extra functionality; once you home in on a company, you can check its stock price and glance at a few relevant headlines. If anything, it demonstrates one of the most crucial challenges facing augmented reality developers: How do you present information in a way that makes valuable use of the “space” AR provides? With augmented reality being such a nascent technology, good answers are hard to come by.

Like the last time I tested Tango, the experience felt like a slice of the future when everything worked the way it’s supposed to. Unfortunately, the novelty of most Tango apps wears off quickly. That’s partially a sales problem — if there were more Tango phones out in the world, developers would have more of an incentive to build great experiences for it. For now, though, the Tango remains a promising platform held back by its limited appeal.

Performance and battery

ASUS ZenFone AR review: A 'better' Tango phone doesn't mean much

As mentioned, the ZenFone AR packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 821, a chipset from last year that still packs a punch. Despite ASUS’s heavy touch with its software, the ZenFone ran smoothly whether I was launching apps or furiously multitasking in an effort to stymie the phone. In day-to-day use, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this thing and a Snapdragon 835-powered device … unless you’re a fan of visually intense games and VR content. I noticed occasional moments of lag and some visual tearing while playing high-end titles like Afterpulse, as well as when I had the ZenFone plugged into Google’s Daydream VR headset. These instances are the exception, not the rule, though, and it’s nice to finally see a Tango phone that doesn’t skimp on the horsepower.

ASUS ZenFone AR Galaxy S8 Plus LG G6 OnePlus 5 Moto Z Force
AndEBench Pro 13,711 16,064 10,322 17,456 16,455
3DMark IS Unlimited 30,634 35,626 30,346 40,081 28,964
GFXBench 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 46 55 42 60 49
CF-Bench 30,409 64,441 29,748 78,935 45,803

I only wish I could say the same about the ZenFone’s battery. There’s a 3,300mAh cell tucked inside, which just barely got me through most workdays; I’d pull the phone off the charger between 7 AM and 8 AM, and it would be right on the edge of death by 6 PM. Things got worse when I spent time playing Daydream VR games or using Tango apps for more than a few minutes. Unless you’re very judicious, you’ll have to charge the phone promptly every night. Meanwhile, in Engadget’s battery rundown test, the ZenFone AR looped an HD video with screen brightness set to 50 percent for just over 10 hours before finally dying. That’s well short of the Galaxy S8 and OnePlus 5, and even the HTC U11, a device with a smaller battery.

The competition

ASUS ZenFone AR review: A 'better' Tango phone doesn't mean much

I’m obliged to mention Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro, since it’s literally the only other choice for would-be Tango users, but there’s little reason to take the plunge. Sure, its software is a little tidier, and it has a bigger battery, but otherwise, we’re working with a bigger, slower phone that will never get a Nougat update. At $499, it’s markedly cheaper than the ZenFone AR, but anyone considering splurging on a Tango phone should definitely shell out the extra money.

If you’re not strictly looking for a Tango device, you have plenty of powerful alternatives. As fragile as it can be, I’m a big fan of the HTC U11 — it sports one of the nicest smartphone cameras around, and the company’s Android skin is much, much cleaner. There are plenty of gimmicks on board, but don’t let them distract you: At its core, the U11 is an undeniably great smartphone. Ditto for either of the Galaxy S8s, which often go on sale and pair top-tier performance with some of the most beautiful mobile hardware available today.


ASUS ZenFone AR review: A 'better' Tango phone doesn't mean much

Lenovo’s Phab2 Pro might have been first, but the ZenFone AR’s superior hardware makes it the best Tango device yet. That’s not really saying much, though: The Tango experience isn’t much better than it was a year ago, and there still isn’t much there to win over people who haven’t already bought into Google’s AR vision. If you’re already tantalized by the potential of augmented reality to change how we see the world, the ZenFone AR is worth looking into. For literally everyone else who just wants a damn good all-around smartphone, there’s little here for you.

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