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Why the Asus ZenFone AR will bend your reality

In January at CES in Las Vegas, we got our first look at the Asus ZenFone AR. It’s the first phone that lets you use Google Tango AR and Google Daydream VR, and on Wednesday we were finally able to get our hands on it to review. 

We’ll need some time to test the phone, along with all its AR and VR goodies, but it’s exciting to see it’s available to buy. The ZenFone AR comes in two different unlocked models, one with 64GB of storage and 6GB of RAM for $599 (which converts to £455 or AU$755) and another with 128GB of storage and 8GB of RAM for $699, which converts to about £530 or AU$880.

In the US, Verizon will sell an exclusive model with 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM for $648 which converts to £490, AU$815.

See the world in new ways

If you’ve ever wanted to try virtual or augmented reality, the Asus ZenFone AR is worth a look. It’s compatible with Google’s Daydream View VR headset and apps and has a revamped tri-camera system that can achieve depth-sensing 3D scanning and augmented reality through Google Tango.

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Google Tango AR allowed us to measure the distance between the chair and the coffee table by overlaying line segments in real time on the phone’s display.Josh Miller/CNET

The only other Tango phone in existence is the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, a huge 6-plus-inch monster phone about the size of the Nintendo Switch display sans Joy Cons. Last year, we reviewed the Phab 2 Pro and had mixed feelings about it

The ZenFone AR, however, has a little more going on under the hood. It has a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor and 6 or 8GB of RAM compared to the 4GB of RAM on the Phab 2 Pro.

It’s also smaller than Lenovo’s Tango phone, with a 5.7-inch screen inside a body that’s just a bit taller than the iPhone 7 Plus. The ZenFone AR’s normal size is due to a trimmed-down Tango camera design. The “Tri-Cam” system combines motion, depth-sensing and a 23-megapixel camera into a smaller housing on the back. It makes a difference.

Metal, glass and leather

One of the first things I noticed about the ZenFone AR is that the front is glass and the back is soft leather. It reminds me of an old analog SLR camera wrapped with a leather grip. But then there’s the rear camera enclosure, which lacks utilitarian elegance and looks more like something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory.

Asus ZenFone AR is Daydreamy to look at

Asus ZenFone AR

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There’s a raised home button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor. Across the bottom there’s a USB-C port and a headset jack. Other than the rear three-camera enclosure, the ZenFone AR looks like most premium Android phones.

The ZenFone AR can take 23-megapixel photos and 4K videos. Asus built in a bunch of photo options ranging from common camera modes like auto, manual, HDR, panorama, time-lapse and slow motion to more advanced modes that take advantage of its multiple rear cameras and 3D tracking:

  • Low-light mode: Creates a 5-megapixel image with less image digital noise (those specks in the shadows of photos)
  • Depth of field: Adds bokeh effects (blurry backgrounds similar to dSLR or Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7 Plus)
  • Super resolution: Stitches together a 92-megapixel image
  • Children mode: Captures kids’ faces when detected
  • Beautification mode: Gives you a digital makeup smear
  • GIF animation: Creates GiFs out of a burst of photos
  • Smart remove: Cuts out objects from photos

Bridging the app

The ZenFone AR runs a lightly skinned version of Android Nougat 7.0. Setting up Tango and Daydream for the first time was straightforward. Both setups only took a couple minutes, including the time it took to watch tutorials explaining how it all worked.

Is the ZenFone AR any use to you in real life? That comes down to the available apps for Tango and Daydream. Within minutes of setting up the phone, I was using the Lowe’s Vision app to refurnish my actual office with AR versions of new lamps and planters. It’s worth noting that Lowe’s is also rolling out Tango guided shopping experiences in 400 of its stores.

Another addictive Tango app was Hot Wheels Track Builder, which lets you create racing tracks for Hot Wheels cars in an AR “studio.” It’s definitely not as dangerous as the Hot Wheels tracks my brother and I built as kids in our living room, yet the AR version was just as fun.

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