Tango and Daydream. Sounds like a crime-fighting detective duo from the 1980s, right?
Wrong. They’re actually the two most exciting words in Google’s smartphone master plan. Y’see, Tango uses augmented reality to bring the virtual world to life, while Daydream’s VR antics can plunge you right into it.
They’ve each made appearances in some of 2017’s biggest phones, but have never shown up as a pair. Until now. Asus has squeezed Tango’s camera-centric AR tech into the ZenFone AR, then added support for Google’s snazzy Daydream View headset, for the best of both (virtual) worlds.
Before you get lost down a virtual rabbit hole, though, the ZenFone AR has plenty going for it.
DESIGN & BUILD: HELL FOR LEATHER
Lenovo might have been first out of the gate with a Tango-ready phone, but the Phab 2 Pro was a 6.4in monster - you needed fingers like yardsticks to use it. The ZenFone AR is far easier to handle.
OK, so it’s not exactly a featherweight at 170g, but that’s light enough that you won’t need a neck massage after a Daydream View session.
That’s partly down to the leather-like back, which ditches metal for a lighter, grippier finish. With no Samsung-style fake stitching, it actually looks pretty classy, and stopped butterfingers here from dropping it on more than one occasion.
The main, depth-sensing and motion-tracking cameras are all clustered together at the top of the phone, away from where your fingers grip the phone so they don’t block the sensors Tango needs to function.
A metal frame keeps everything sandwiched firmly together at the sides, but now that the Galaxy S8 and LG G6 have started banishing the bezels, the ZenFone’s chunky screen surround up front is looking a little out of date - even if it does leave room for a handy fingerprint sensor beneath the display.
At least the USB-C port on the bottom feels more 2017 than 2007.
SCREEN & SOUND: OLED ALL THE WAY
It might not have any fancy curved edges or ultra-skinny bezels, but the AR’s 5.7in screen still makes a good impression. Asus has gone with AMOLED tech, because Google insists on it for Daydream - and the same goes for that QHD resolution.
Everything looks super-sharp, as you’d expect from a 2560x1440 panel, and contrast is superb. Games and videos have deep, inky blacks, whether you’re watching normally or in VR.
Colours are vibrant, without being overly saturated, which helps keep your photos looking natural and lifelike. Viewing angles are ace, and it can even crank the brightness high enough to be seen clearly when you’re out in the sun.
There’s a blue light filter, so you aren’t kept awake after any late-night social media scrolling, and you can tweak the colour temperature if you want to, but the default setup is difficult to dislike.
It’s every bit the premium screen, which is exactly what you’d expect from a top-spec phone.
The single speaker does a great job with podcasts, YouTube videos and even Netflix streaming shows, but you’ll still want to plug a pair of headphones in for any critical listening. Good job Asus has found space for a 3.5mm headphone port, then.
PERFORMANCE & BATTERY LIFE: LAST YEAR’S MODEL
When the ZenFone AR first showed up, the Snapdragon 821 CPU it was rocking was cutting-edge. Now, though, it’s been superceded by the quicker, more efficient Snapdragon 835.
Are you going to notice the difference? Nah, probably not - Android 7 feels plenty smooth, and the quad-core chip still rocks along at a healthy 2.35GHz. There’s no stutter or lag when swiping between homescreens, and demanding 3D games like Asphalt 8 tick along at a healthy frame rate.
On paper, the ZenFone AR is behind the times, but it can still run with the rest of the Snapdragon 835-equipped crowd.
The handset we tested has 6GB of RAM, which is more than enough for swapping between a handful of apps. Games, VR apps and AR experiences load pretty quickly, too. 64GB of on-board storage leaves plenty of room for your own downloads, and there’s a microSD card slot for adding more later if you run out.
The one downside to using last year’s chip is efficiency. The 821 uses more power than the newer 835, so the 3300mAh battery will drain a little quicker compared to its rivals.
You’ll still get a full day of use if you stick to web browsing, Facebook and music streaming, but only just. If you’re planning on hitting virtual reality hard, you’ll be out of juice in just a couple of hours.