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Asus Zenfone AR Review

Asus Zenfone AR Review

The Asus Zenfone AR is the first phone to be certified for both Google Tango and Daydream. These are the augmented reality and virtual reality platforms that set some standards for AR and VR on Android. So we’re not just left with barrel-scraping stuff that makes phone VR seem hokier than those blue and red 3D glasses that used to come free in cereal boxes.

Asus Zenfone AR Review

It comes with the Google Daydream View headset if you pre-order from Asus, which helps to take at least one spike out of the porcupine attack-like sting of the price.

At £799 (around AU$1,320) the Asus Zenfone AR is a direct alternative to the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus in the UK, though early US pricing puts it at a slightly more palatable $648.

The price sticks out further when you realize the Asus Zenfone AR doesn’t even have a latest-generation chipset, with the Snapdragon 821 instead of the 835 you get in the Samsung Galaxy S8 (US version), OnePlus 5 and HTC U11.

To get on with the Asus Zenfone AR, you need to disconnect the phone from its price. And as we’re here to deliver buying advice above all else, that’s a problem.

However, if you find a good deal for the Zenfone AR or just don’t care about spending an awful lot of money on a phone that won’t necessarily make that many friends jealous, it is a very strong mobile.

The screen is great, the camera array very good and it’s one of the best phones in the world right now for VR, beating the Sony Xperia XZ Premium and LG G6, and at least matching the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus.

Asus Zenfone AR price and release date

  • Shown to the world in January 2017
  • Among the first wave of AR plus VR Google phones
  • High price puts it in competition with the biggest names

The Asus Zenfone AR was first shown in early 2017, causing a bit of a fanfare as the first phone to arrive primed for both Daydream and Tango, rather than just a promise of support in the future.

In the UK, you’ll pay £799 SIM-free, making it one of the most expensive phones not inlaid with gold or diamonds. That amounts to around AU$1,320, though in the US you can pre-order it for the relatively low (but still high) price of $648.

AR plus VR and other high-end goodies

  • Triple rear camera for augmented reality
  • Large OLED screen
  • Powerful, but not the most powerful around

The Asus Zenfone AR is a large, high-end Android phone with an important “first”, as a phone that launches with Tango and Daydream support. Daydream in particular at first seemed something that would quickly filter through to loads of Android phones. But it hasn’t.

The Asus Zenfone AR has what it takes for good phone VR thanks to its high-resolution OLED screen. It’s 5.7 inches across, with a resolution of 1440 x 2560.

The CPU is a high-end, but no longer top-end, quad-core Snapdragon 821. While there are versions of the Asus Zenfone AR with a mammoth 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, the phone we’re reviewing has 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.

That’s a lot, but no more than some competitors, such as the OnePlus 5.

The camera does have more to show off than most, though. Instead of keeping the megapixel count low to improve low-light performance, the Asus Zenfone AR has a very high-res 23MP main camera and 4-axis optical image stabilization to help out at night.

There are two extra cameras on the back too. One is a lower-quality depth-sensing camera with IR, the other used to track motion. This trio is what makes the Asus Zenfone AR ready for Tango-grade augmented reality.

On the front, you get an 8MP selfie camera, but the rear team is what grabs our attention.

Other neat parts worth noting are a fingerprint scanner on the front, a leather-effect finish on the back and a dual-LED flash on the back.

The big question of the Asus Zenfone AR is whether these features are worth the price. Having spent a good while using the Zenfone AR, it’s a great phone but a tough sell.

Design and display

  • Big, bold, high-res 5.7-inch OLED screen
  • Stainless steel sides, faux-leather back
  • Front-mounted fingerprint scanner

The Asus Zenfone AR is a big phone made for the enthusiast. Who else, after all, would be willing to spend this much on an Asus phone? No-one we know.

From a distance, it’s not as striking as something like the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus. There’s some screen surround, which is rapidly disappearing from the most expensive phones, and the front of the Zenfone AR is not curved. Flat is so 2013.

The Asus Zenfone AR is also less stylish than some other phones at the price. Other top phone makers resist plastering their brand on the front as it’s not a great look, and the stainless-steel camera housing on the back has a whiff of Swiss Army Knife to it. But there is a lot of tech to show off.

Get closer and you’ll see it’s not the mostly-plain rectangle of black it may at first appear. The sides are smartly-finished aluminum and the back has a leather-effect finish rather than glass, basic plastic or metal.

While it’s synthetic rather than real leather, it looks and feels similar to the real stuff. And it’s less of a cringey show-off than previous leather phones like the LG G4.

It’s nice to handle. It’s well-made. But the Asus Zenfone AR doesn’t quite have the visual impact of other phones at the price.

One of the main practical omissions is water resistance: there isn’t any. The Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6 and HTC U11 can all survive a soak.

Hardware-wise you get a clicky finger scanner below the screen that acts as a normal home button if you don’t use finger security, and light-up soft keys to either side.

This isn’t the fastest fingerprint scanner around, a beat slower than something like the Honor 9, but only those who have spent altogether too much time with phones will notice.

The nanoSIM lives in the usual tray that pops out of the Asus Zenfone AR’s side, and there’s space for a microSD card if the 64/128GB of storage isn’t enough for you.

The phone’s screen is a 5.7-inch 1440 x 2560 OLED panel. It’s big, sharp and punchy, with an excellent 515ppi pixel density.

Like most OLED screens, colors are vivid and contrast is superb. Asus also gives you comprehensive control over how the display looks.

As standard it’s set to a mode called Super Color, which has a classic OLED-style oversaturated look, much like a high-end Samsung phone. There’s also a Standard mode with slightly calmed-down color and a manual mode that lets you choose the color saturation and even the hue.

You can make the Asus Zenfone AR completely monochrome, or its colors flat-out wrong. Less wide-ranging control would probably be more useful, less off-putting. However, as with any of these controls most people are likely to leave it on the default setting anyway.

The Asus Zenfone AR also has a blue light reduction mode, designed to cause less eye strain and be kinder to your circadian rhythms if you go on a late-night Facebook binge.

Battery life

  • Somewhat poorer battery life than its rivals
  • Fast USB-C charging

The Asus Zenfone AR has a 3,300mAh battery. As usual for a new high-end phone, you can’t remove it and it’s speedily charged using a USB-C port on the bottom.

That’s only a little smaller than the 3,500mAh battery of the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, but the Asus Zenfone AR’s stamina isn’t great. It’s not bad either though. It’s fine, and will get you through a day’s use as long as you don’t spend too much time listening to podcasts, or Spotify, or do a lot of gaming.

90 minutes of video playback with the brightness set to maximum takes 20% off the battery. The Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus lost just 11% in the same test, the LG G6 14%, despite using the same CPU.

It seems clear old hands like Samsung and LG use battery-saving smarts Asus doesn’t. There is a Power Saver app that helps you drag out the battery life, but it uses classic battery-saving moves rather than ones that don’t impact your use.

For example, the Power Saving mode stops network access after the phone has been asleep for a while. Super Saving disables network access and only lets basic apps like SMS and the alarm work when the screen is off. They’re compromised ways to prolong battery life.

Camera

  • Very versatile high-resolution camera
  • Quick and feature-packed
  • Tri-camera setup not used well for photos

The Asus Zenfone AR has a rear camera with seriously impressive-sounding specs. It has a tri-camera setup on the back led by a 23MP main camera, a Sony IMX318. As it’s a 4:3 shaped sensor, you’ll actually take 16MP shots if you shoot widescreen.

Top features of the camera include optical image stabilization for good low-light photo quality and a super resolution mode that merges several exposures to make a huge 92MP image.

Let’s start with the basics, though. For the most part, the Asus Zenfone AR camera is quick to shoot and fun to use. When you shoot in HDR shots take a little longer to take, but not to the extent it seems you’re being held back by the processing tax.

Shots look punchy and bold, with good dynamic range when using the standard Auto HDR Mode and powerful, mostly-natural color. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is better at dynamic range optimization, but the Zenfone AR fares better than the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.

With close-up shots, the Asus Zenfone AR also has rather nice bokeh (background blur) from its f/2.0 lens, even if others are wider. That’s without any software trickery, just the natural character of the lens.

Detail is excellent too, although when you look close you do see the cost of having rather small sensor pixels (1 micron across), which is what you get when you pack a lot of megapixels into a 1/2.6-inch sensor.

Tight-packed textures like grass start looking like an oil painting when you zoom right into the pixels and the fine detail in macro images appears slightly grainy or dithered.

This is the effect of the image processing making up for the fact the Galaxy S8 has 50% larger photosites, the little light-sensitive parts of a camera that take in light to make up a photo. However, images look better than those of the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, which suffers from similar but uglier pixel-level fizz.

It doesn’t get dramatically worse as the light level decreases, in part thanks to optical image stabilization (OIS). Asus says the phone has 4-axis stabilization, although this is part of the Sony IMX318 sensor rather than something special to Asus. Some of Sony’s compact system cameras have 5-axis stabilization.

The Asus Zenfone AR’s is not as good, but still effective. You can shoot handheld with an exposure of 1/2 a second and get sharp results. Most non-OIS phones don’t dare to let the shutter speed go below around 1/10 of a second on Auto, and even then it can be tricky to get pics pin-sharp.

In other words, the Asus Zenfone AR has what we need for high-quality night shots. However, unlike top-end Samsung phones it doesn’t tend to push the OIS to the max to keep the ISO sensitivity low, and therefore avoid noise. There is a Low Light mode that does this, but you have to switch to it manually.

That said, we’re pleasantly surprised by night photo quality even when the Auto mode takes control. Detail levels are impressive, contrast is good and OIS makes it easy to get sharp results. Still, for the best results you’ll want to use the Manual mode and switch the settings to suit the occasion.

The Asus Zenfone AR has one of the easiest-to-access manual modes around, with a little M button that sits just above the shutter. It’s great, not least because it also has a level indicator to let you know if your horizon is straight. You can even slow the shutter speed down to 32 seconds.

Just like feature-packed ZenUI, the camera app is fat with features. And, again like ZenUI, most of them are hidden until you open up the mode menu. Standard shooting is clean and quick, featuring just basics like HDR and the flash toggle.

Let’s dig into some of the extra modes. The most attention-grabbing is 92MP Super Resolution, which merges four photos to produce a huge image. It takes a little white to process one of these, but you don’t have to keep the Asus Zenfone AR still the whole time.

Looking between a standard shot and one of these supercharged ones, the mode doesn’t actually add lots more detail, but is rather good at reducing the grainy noise that comes with indoor shooting.

It’s not so much a 92MP photo collage as a kind of informed smoothing. There’s a dead giveaway too: these ultra-resolution images often take up fewer megabytes than a standard one.

HDR Pro is another mode that promises a little more than it delivers, turbo-charging the HDR effect to increase color potency and mid-tone detail. In almost all cases, though, standard HDR shots look significantly better and HDR Pro doesn’t reduce highlight clipping.

Other modes include the slightly creepy Children mode, which lets you attract their attention with a sound effect and then takes a pic when it recognizes a smile, and the now-common Depth of Field.

A complete failure to make use of the Asus Zenfone AR’s hardware, this doesn’t actually use the triple camera to detect the depth of a scene, instead using the low-fi approach of taking multiple photos with different points of focus.

It’s no surprise, then, that the results are rubbish compared with those of the iPhone 7 Plus or the latest Huawei/Honor phones. Most of these modes are clearly just part of the ZenUI software package, not anything specific to the Asus Zenfone AR.

Unlike Asus’s lower-quality phones, the Zenfone AR can shoot 4K video, though. There’s also electronic (software) image stabilization for video.

The phone’s front 8MP camera is rather good, capturing quite a lot of fine facial detail without too much grain or over-processing.

That said, if you like your selfies processed to the max there’s an advanced beautification mode that lets you break down how bulged-out your eyes are, how sucked-in your cheeks look and even the shade of virtual blush to put on your cheeks.

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