ASUS ZenFone AR review (ZS571KL); the smartphone that plays with your reality
+ Very comprehensive package
+ Burnished leather is a great finish, offering a great feel in hand and extra grip; protruding metal block makes for a nice contrast to the leather
+ 8GB RAM!
+ Strong performance in all benchmarks
+ Stays cool during gaming and also benchmarks
+ Fast charging is supported
+ Fingerprint sensor is fast, but will require a press to wake up the device first
+ ZenUI 3.0 is intuitive and has seen a lot of upgrades over time, with a promising future of even more enhancements later
+ Great camera performance; easy-to-use camera with a lot of advanced features
+ Audio output is customizable, even for the loudspeaker and Bluetooth devices
+ AptX support promises better audio quality with supported devices
+ DTS Headphone:X will offer a better experience watching movies, simulating surround audio through stereo headsets
+ Support for both Google Daydream VR and Tango AR standards
- 2.5D curved glass is missing for some reason
- Poor battery life
- Flexible SIM tray is annoying to insert
- AR and VR content heats up the device considerably, limiting the duration you can enjoy your jaunt out of reality with throttling
- Always-on Panel feature could use some polishing to make it relevant
- Very pricey
In the world of technology, the worst thing that can happen for us as consumers is stagnation. Iterative upgrades year over year, promising small worthless increases each time. But that’s just the way things work. At the rate smartphones are launched, manufacturers are hard pressed to even design a unique device, much less throw in mind blowing innovations. With that said, we have here the ASUS ZenFone AR, the first smartphone to support both Google Daydream VR AND Tango AR, while also holding the title of being the first smartphone to feature 8GB RAM. Being first is nice and all, but is it good at what it does? Let’s take a look.
The ASUS ZenFone AR definitely comes with a lot of stuff, as you can see for yourself in the video. It comes with the standard set of accessories, including a QuickCharge 3.0 (18W) charger, USB Type-C cable, some protection in the form of a clear plastic case and a tempered glass screen protector and also a pair of ASUS ZenEar S IEMs with support for Hi-Res audio. Much less standard is the inclusion of VR glasses right in the top half of the packaging. A great way of ensuring that you get to use VR functionality right out of the box. An exclusive package is also available, which at the time of writing will not be marketed in Malaysia.
The ASUS ZenFone AR is the second smartphone from ASUS to feature a fingerprint sensor that doubles as the home button. The first was the ASUS ZenFone 3 Ultra, which was rather difficult to manage with its 6.8″ display. The ASUS ZenFone AR is decidedly smaller with a 5.7″ display, making the front fingerprint sensor a lot easier to reach and tap on. Two backlit capacitive buttons flank the home button. A glaring omission here is 2.5D curved glass. The last time I handled a device without a 2.5D curved glass panel was when I owned my trusty old ASUS Padfone S. That was some two years back, and this is now 2017. Thankfully the bezels are minimal, which makes the missing 2.5D curvature at the edges a little more bearable.
The back is finished in burnished leather, a finish which ASUS has borrowed from its past generation’s ASUS ZenFone Zoom. Leather is a great material for grip as well as a unique premium feel, but it definitely remains to be seen how well will it withstand our moist environments and wet hands. The back curves ever so gently into the sides, offering a comfortable hold. The chunk of brushed stainless steel sticking out of the leather back like a sore thumb is where you will find all the camera hardware as well as the necessary sensors to feed Tango the information it needs to build an AR environment. Definitely a lot neater than what resulted from Google’s first partnership to produce the first commercial Tango smartphone. Fans of Nokia device may see this as homage to the Nokia N8, the camera king of yore.
Over on the bottom we find an increasingly endangered item, the 3.5mm jack, as well as the future proof USB Type C with support for DisplayPort over USB. The lonely loudspeaker finds itself here too, as does the primary microphone. Oddly enough ASUS did not make the antennae on the ASUS ZenFone AR invisible as they did on the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe and Ultra, so we have nice plastic lines breaking up the monotony of the dark grey metal band wrapping around the sides of the device. The lines are polished in, so they are seamless to the touch unlike the ASUS ZenFone 3‘s antenna lines.
Nothing much to see here at the top, with the secondary microphone making itself at home here. Two more antenna lines are visible here, for a total of four antenna lines, two on the bottom and two at the top. The NFC sticker marks where the NFC chip in the ASUS ZenFone AR will be, so you gotta touch that part of the device to pair/sync/connect with the other NFC device. While the offset position here near the top puzzles me a bit when I am used to having them closer to the center of the device, at least this is better than having it on the front of the device.
The right side of the device is home to the power button and volume rocker, both finished in a fancy concentric circle pattern. Note the chamfered edges too, running along the front and back edges of the metal frame, a great job by ASUS here. Over on the left we will find the SIM tray. Overall, the ASUS ZenFone AR looks good with nicely chamfered edges, unique back design with a nice chunk of brushed metal standing out like an island in a stream of leather, but the missing 2.5D curved glass knocks off a point from what could have been a superb design.
|CPU/Chipset:||Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (2 x Kryo @ 2.34 GHz, 2 x Kryo @ 2.19 GHz)|
|GPU:||Adreno 530 @ 653 MHz|
|Display:||5.7″, WQHD (1440p) Super AMOLED display, 79% screen-to-body ratio, Tru2Life technology, over 100% NTSC color gamut coverage, Corning Gorilla Glass 4|
|Storage:||128GB UFS2.0 (expandable with microSD up to 2TB)|
23MP f/2.0, 1/2.6″ IMX 318, 27mm (35mm equiv.) 6P lens, TriTech AF, RGB sensor, OIS + EIS, 92MP Super Resolution, dual LED flash
8MP f/2.0, 1/4″ OV 8856, screen flash, Beautify Mode
|OS:||Android 7.0 Nougat with ASUS ZenUI 3.0|
|Connectivity:||Dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac|
Bluetooth 4.2 with A2DP, AptX
Cat.11 3CA 600 Mbps (DL) and 75 Mbps (UL) LTE
|SIM:||Dual nanoSIM (one nanoSIM slot doubles as microSD slot)|
|Battery:||Li-ion 3300 mAh|
The Snapdragon 821 is no longer the fastest horse in Qualcomm’s stable, but it is still a great deal beefier than a lot of SoCs in the market. The four custom Kryo cores were designed in-house, and are clocked to a lofty 2.34 GHz for its “performance” cores and 2.19 GHz for the “efficient” cores. The Adreno 530 is a monstrous GPU with strong compute and graphics performance. Paired together, the Snapdragon 821 is still going to be one of the best performing smartphones out there. We will run our usual suite of benchmarks, so sit tight as we go through the numbers.
Starting off with the standard Antutu tests, the ASUS ZenFone AR performs really well, topping most of the other devices we have tested. It fails to best the latest Samsung Galaxy S8 though, but that’s understandable considering the faster GPU and CPU, as well as the fact that the Exynos 8895 has eight cores instead of the four in the Snapdragon 821.
The ASUS ZenFone AR scores well in 3DMark too, especially in the Ice Storm Unlimited test where its within range of the Galaxy S8. Surprisingly, it lags behind the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe by a slight bit. With all that said, it is still the top three in our GPU benchmark chart. Long story short, the ASUS ZenFone AR will not leave you wanting in terms of graphics performance, that’s for sure.
The CPU performance of the ASUS ZenFone AR is very good too, with strong numbers in single and multi core tests. It bests every device other than the Galaxy S8 here, which shows what kind of a beast the Snapdragon 821 is.
Work performance is great, besting even the Samsung Galaxy S8 by a sizeable margin. This shows that despite the fact that the Snapdragon 821 may be last year’s news, it is still capable of duking it out with the new kids on the block.
Battery life is a sore point for the ASUS ZenFone AR. With a large WQHD SuperAMOLED display with white used heavily throughout the benchmark run, four very powerful and equally hungry cores, the ASUS ZenFone AR only manages 6 hours and 20 minutes before the battery bar hit 20%.
An interesting thing to note is that the ASUS ZenFone AR features an “Advanced Vapor Cooling System” that seems to effectively cool the Snapdragon 821 in the ASUS ZenFone AR, stopping it from literally breathing fire. It remained relatively cool throughout our benchmarks, with 3DMark and PCMark reporting that the device never broke 40°C in any of the benchmark runs. Gaming was also a comfortable experience as the device didn’t really heat up drastically in games like Asphalt 8 and Iron Blade. Then again, coming from a brand that has the ability to design cooling solutions capable of keeping massive GPUs and CPUs cool under heavy loads, this is really not surprising.
In real world usage, the battery life is not great either, but apparently the extra 300 mAh manages to make up for the increase in screen resolution, giving me some identical endurance figures as compared to the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe. I squeezed out 16 hours away from the plug with 3 hours and 14 minutes of on screen time. During this period the cameras were used frequently for selfies and photos, with my usual use of Whatsapp, Facebook and Messenger on WiFi and mobile data. Mi Fit was running in the background too. I wouldn’t call these battery life figures impressive, but I have yet to have a day where I left home with a full charge and had to resort to using my powerbank to keep the ASUS ZenFone AR alive.
Well, guess what I found when I first switched over to the ASUS ZenFone AR. We are off to a bad start with a plastic SIM tray. While the rest of the device was truly premium, this is downright cheaping out. The plastic is flexible too, making it flex a bit too much and causing the cards to dislodge from the tray and causing the entire process of inserting my cards into the device more troublesome.
Thankfully, most of what comes next is good. Holding the ASUS ZenFone AR is a great experience, which can be considered a given with the burnished leather back providing an excellent feel in hand. Putting on the clear case mars the experience, so if you want to enjoy the ASUS ZenFone AR to the max, live on the edge and go naked. I mean the phone, not you. As you can see here, the display colors are still very usable despite me using it in sunlight. We aren’t talking about direct sunlight here, although I would say the ASUS ZenFone AR’s display holds up really well under bright lighting. Colors are typical of Super AMOLED panels, so you get punchy, vivid colors.
If you need the fastest fingerprint sensors in the world, I am sure the one in the ASUS ZenFone AR can rank highly in your shortlist. However the home button is not the more recent solid state kind, but instead is of the conventional tactile variety. Also, ASUS needs you to actually wake the device before the fingerprint sensor will scan your finger. Resting your thumb on the button when the device is asleep will do absolutely nothing until you press down on the home key. The ASUS ZenFone AR wakes up quickly, so basically this is just a minor grouse I have with the device, and absolutely does not affect the device’s usability at all. I wish ASUS went with a solid state home button here though, as they will definitely prove more durable than the kind we have here. The fingerprint sensor is not protected by glass, and it collected quite a number of scratches over the time I used it. The flanking capacitive keys are backlit here, so anyone who were grieved by the fact ASUS forgot to add backlighting to their ASUS ZenFone 3 and ASUS ZenFone 3 Zoom‘s capacitive keys will be pleased with this device. They are as sensitive to the touch as anyone can wish for too.
ASUS ZenUI 3.0 has been updated to Android 7.0 Nougat recently, and luckily the ASUS ZenFone AR comes with sweet Nougat out of the box. It’s not the latest Android 7.1.1, but at least we are seeing ASUS is dedicating some effort to release updates for their devices. I first noticed the dark translucent background behind the quick settings icons when I pulled down the notification shade, a major step up from the stark white background in Marshmallow. The icons themselves are still a little too cartoonish for such a premium device,so feel free to customize the look with the various themes available in the aptly named Themes app. You can even create your own theme with your own favorite colors, so the potential is there.
Bloatware is now officially a problem of the past, as ASUS has finally listened to their users and omitted their usual suite of bloatware that finds their way out of my phone as soon as I set it up as my daily driver. They decided to hide the nifty AudioWizard and Splendid apps which are used to customize the sound and display of the device in the settings menu too, which is a step backwards to me. Now I have to tap a few more times to reach the options in the above apps. Not cool, ASUS. The other included apps are retained, with a heavy reliance on Google’s apps instead of developing their own. If this can help them push updates faster, I am all for it. Not like I have much use for homegrown apps since I change devices pretty frequently and would rather have everything synced on Google’s apps.
So, it’s time to talk about the hump on the back of the ASUS ZenFone AR. We have the large lens which is the motion tracking camera, the smaller one which is the actual imaging sensor, the laser autofocusing system beside the dual LED flash and RGB sensor for more accurate colors and also the two dark windows below the cameras are for depth sensing, consisting of an IR projector and a receiver. The large lens is actually for Tango, so no joy for those hoping to see a wide angle lens from ASUS…yet. Basically we have here a similar camera setup as the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe, all the way down to the sensor itself. We have PDAF, Deep Trench Isolation (DTI) and both optical and electronic image stabilization promising up to 4 stops of stabilization. This is coupled with the laser autofocusing system and continuous autofocus which are all part of the TriTech AF technology which ASUS claims to provide focus acquisition in 0.03 seconds. Nice and fancy jargon thrown all over the place here, but how does it perform when it comes down to the actually taking photos?
Hold on for a moment as we take a look at the camera UI and features offered. The camera UI has not seen much change since the time of the ASUS ZenFone 2, but then why fix something that isn’t broken? Most features are available within a tap like the real-time HDR modes, video recording and manual mode switch, with others probably a mere touch or two away. Super Resolution uses some software magic gives you massive 92MP shots to allow you to zoom and crop to your heart’s content, while Low Light does the direct opposite, and uses software magic to reduce noise in low light conditions, giving you stunningly clean 5MP images in poor lighting. HDR Pro does exactly what it says on the box, giving you enhanced HDR beyond what the real-time HDR can offer. There’s even a Depth of Field mode to add fake bokeh, which is all the rage right now.
Finally, let’s talk about the image quality. The software must have been optimized over time, as it definitely feels like the ASUS ZenFone AR can deliver better shots despite featuring similar hardware. The experience was also better, with the entire device feeling snappier when taking photos. Videos are also not a problem, with support for 1080p60 and 4K30 videos. With videos, your choice of storage becomes much more important. The UFS 2.0 built-in storage works flawlessly, but my Sandisk Ultra Class 10 microSD definitely choked when I recorded 1080p60 videos. All in all, despite the 1.0µm pixel pitch of the IMX 318 sensor, I am impressed by the output of the ASUS ZenFone AR. In auto the shots are impressive, and if you can play around with the manual settings or even shoot in RAW for greater freedom in post processing, the ASUS ZenFone AR will give you even more control over the camera output, with better flexibility in post processing. While I am very happy with the output now, I am not saying ASUS couldn’t have done better with a sensor with bigger pixels.
It is definitely not without it’s flaws though. The RGB sensor while proving its worth in most conditions, can occasionally be fooled to report a false white balance if an image features a single color predominantly throughout the frame. HDR Pro yields images that can look slightly overdone, with the real-time HDR picking up most of the slack, providing fast HDR shots with consistent results. HDR Pro does deliver better dynamic range, with the aforementioned drawback every once in a while as well as needing slightly more time to process than real time HDR.
A perk of having a Super AMOLED display is the ability to turn on pixels individually to save energy. This allows for displays with infinite contrast ratios, or always on displays showing you your notifications, but ASUS’ implementation is still very lacking. The Always-on Panel feature on the ASUS ZenFone AR still does not show any other notifications, and you are stuck with missed calls and unread SMS counters and a battery meter. This can easily be solved by a software update, so here’s hoping that ASUS does it right with the Android 7.1.1 Nougat for the ASUS ZenFone AR.
Audio wise, the ASUS ZenFone AR is about as good as it gets. AudioWizard allowed me to tune the sound of Bluetooth audio devices, including my Sudio Vasa Bla something few other brands can boast with their built-in audio enhancers.Support for the AptX codec is also available, promising better quality with wireless audio devices that support the standard. You also get DTS Headphone:X if you want to use more conventional wired 3.5mm headphones, which was something I believed was sorely missed in the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe. For louder audio through the mono loudspeaker, there is the Outdoor Mode toggle, easily accessible via the drop down volume slider. It boosts the mids and higher frequencies, for a louder perceived sound. It works for any kind of audio output, making it great for boosting your notification tone’s volume in noisy environments. The loudspeaker isn’t particularly loud so this feature definitely helps. Quality wise I would not recommend using it for listening to music, as it is quite hollow sounding.
AR and VR
The ASUS ZenFone AR is named after one single feature supported by the device: Augmented Reality. Augmented reality basically adds objects to your view of your surroundings, making for gaming opportunities like shooting stuff in the real world through your phone, adding furniture to your room to see if they fit your existing decor or just explore a car’s interior in the middle of nowhere.
There are a handful of gaming applications that make use of AR like Towers for Tango and Slingshot Island, but I have yet to see the practicality of the games. Especially when the device immediately heats up once you fire up any Tango applications. AR applications heat up the device quite quickly, which means you can’t play around in your false reality for long at all before the Snapdragon 821 reaches its thermal limits and throttles to maintain safe operating temperatures. This is surprising as the ASUS ZenFone AR barely broke a sweat running through our benchmark suite, with the device barely getting warm at all.
Sure, adding furniture virtually won’t be the last we see of AR, but as of now, there aren’t really that many stuff to play around with yet.
Google Daydream support is yet another great addition to the ASUS ZenFone AR, opening up the opportunity to use the very comfortable Daydream headset to enjoy VR content. However with similar heating issues and slightly more but still unimpressive number of interesting apps to play around with, I don’t think that support for Daydream nor Tango will make the ASUS ZenFone AR fly off the shelves. The fact that Samsung has their own take at VR with their Gear VR also makes for a fragmented market. Apps that support Gear VR are not cross-compatible with Daydream VR, so developers will have to choose sides. Daydream VR does have more potential though given that it is Google’s own standard, and even Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ support it. Also worth noting that the Daydream headset is not available here in Malaysia, at least not officially yet.
The ASUS ZenFone AR is an amazing device, but I would consider it both ahead of its time and also a little too late. ASUS decided to work with a Snapdragon 821 as it was the most powerful SoC they could get their hands on when designing the ASUS ZenFone AR to optimize the AR and VR functionalities. No doubt this is a well thought out device, unlike the first Tango device which looks like Lenovo slapped on a few extra sensors and called it a day. But it is already too late to the market, with the Snapdragon 835 making its mark at the top of benchmark charts. While AR and VR features are nice to have, I believe that it is still too early to really make it a solid selling point. By the time AR truly takes off, the Snapdragon 821 may not even support the latest features which might be added in the future.
I strongly feel the ASUS ZenFone AR is what the ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe should have been, and it could have been a lot more appealing if it was launched back then when the Snapdragon 821 was still the top dog, rather than now. The lofty RM3799 asking price is also doing it no favors, placing it in the company of more popular devices like the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and the iPhone 7 Plus. If you are looking forward to be one of the pioneers to experience and maybe develop AR applications, the ASUS ZenFone AR is the best you can get right now. Otherwise, you may want to consider waiting for a while, as ASUS’ next generation of beasts are about to be unleashed. As it stands, the ASUS ZenFone AR is worthy of our Silver Pokdeward.