Phab2 Pro Hands On: Lenovo's First Project Tango Smartphone

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Google's Project Tango has faded into the background since the announcement of Daydream, Google's virtual reality platform, but that doesn't mean it's been entirely forgotten. Lenovo showcased Project Tango devices at CES and we spent a night in a Barcelona museum with a Project Tango tablet during MWC.

Now the Lenovo Phab2 Pro is officially the world's first Project Tango smartphone. It's also the first Lenovo-branded phone to be sold in the US. I went hands on with it, as well as its two less expensive, non-Tango siblings, the Phab2 Plus and Phab2.

Design, Display, and Features
It's hard to understate the size of the Phab2 Pro. It measures 7.1 by 3.5 by 0.42 inches (HWD) and weighs 9.1 ounces. That's enormous, bigger than the 6-inch Google Nexus 6P the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 or any other phablet I've ever tested. It's unwieldy and barely fit into my pocket; you certainly won't be able to use the Pro one-handed.

Phab2 Pro in hand

The phone's build quality is good. It's covered in a gray or gold aluminum unibody that feels smooth and sturdy, though perhaps not as solid as the HTC 10. The front is clad in a pane of 2.5D curved glass that meets the metal frame. The back is also made of metal and contains all the modules that makes Project Tango work. From top to bottom, you'll find a standard 16-megapixel rear-facing camera sensor, a depth sensor, a motion-tracking sensor, a fish-eye camera, and the fingerprint sensor. Below this crowded setup is Project Tango and Lenovo branding.

The front is dominated by a 6.4-inch 2,560-by-1,440 in-Plane Switch display. It's the right resolution for a screen this size and sharp enough that you won't encounter graininess. Viewing angles seemed to be good. I didn't get a chance to test it outdoors, but the screen seemed to get reasonably bright, so it should be usable in sunlight.

Project Tango
For those unaware, Project Tango consists of a set of sensors, and software from Google, which are able to sense and map surroundings to create augmented reality (AR) experiences. Tango-enabled devices like the Phab2 Pro are able to sense physical motion and space, track depth, and visualize and understand surrounding objects. The Pro uses a fish-eye camera with a wide viewing angle in conjunction with the regular camera sensor to understand motion and identify where the Pro is within a 3D space. This kind of positional tracking allows you to use AR for a wide range of purposes, ranging from interior design to games to museum tours.

I played with an educational dinosaur app, which generated different dinosaurs in the room, including the Brontosaurus, Velociraptor, and the ever-popular Tyrannosaurus Rex. At this point, the app is still somewhat rudimentary in terms of the quality of graphics it generated, but I was able to change the scale of the dinosaur, making it true-to-life and move its position in the room in relation to other objects.

Other AR apps included a shooter that used elements of the room to create a level where you could fire at approaching enemies, as well as an interior designing app that allowed you to place furniture around the room to see how it would look. The phone was able to recall where an object had been placed even if you turned away. Overall, it seemed to be reasonably functional, though graphics could have used some polish.

The overall experience was a little less onerous than our previous experiences with Project Tango, where we had to use a 7-inch developer tablet. The 6.4-inch Pro is a bit smaller, and a little easier to use with the Tango camera when playing AR games, though it's still much bigger than the 5.1-inch to 5.7-inch phones I normally use.

When the Phab2 Pro launches, it will have 25 AR apps available. Lenovo hopes to have 100 apps ready by 2017.

Processor, Battery, and Network
Under the hood, the Phab2 Pro has a Snapdragon 652 processor. My co-worker, Sascha Segan, had concerns this isn't powerful enough for Tango, but according to Lenovo, it's heavily customized and should be "enough for the first generation of a Google Tango product."

The Pro also has 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage, and a microSD card slot that's capable of taking an SD card up to 128GB. I wasn't able to run any benchmarks or put the Pro through its paces, but I didn't notice any lag when I was launching apps and swiping through screens. It should perform reasonably well in most standard uses, but it remains to be seen how it'll handle high-end gaming, though I'd hope it would do well given the demands of Tango.

As you'd expect for a phone this big, there's a large 4,050mAh battery with fast charge capabilities. According to Lenovo, it should have a talk time of 18 hours and a standby time of over 13 days. Once I get my hands on a review unit, I'll subject it to our brutal video-streaming test to get a better idea of what kind of usage you can expect.

The Pro will come unlocked, supporting GSM (850/1800/1900MHz ), UMTS (850/1700/1900/2100MHz ), and LTE bands (2/4/5/7/12/17/20/30). It will work on GSM carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T. With support for band 12 and band 17, T-Mobile and AT&T customers will be able to take advantage of better range and building penetration.

Camera and Software
Despite its focus on Tango, the Pro still has a regular 16-megapixel rear-facing camera, capable of recording 4K video. It boasts Dolby Audio Capture 5.1, allowing for 5.1-channel surround sound when recording, and Dolby Atmos surround sound. I didn't get to spend much time with the Pro's camera, but my general impression is that it's likely to be a capable shooter. Pictures in variable lighting conditions, especially low-light, will be the real test. There's also an 8-megapixel front-facing camera.

The Pro runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with Lenovo's custom UI changes, which alter app icons and the lock screen and add features. Lenovo will pre-install McAfee Security, Netflix, and SwiftKey. The unit we spent time with wasn't the final retail version, but it did have a number of AR apps installed, which we got to test out.

Phab2 Plus and Phab2
The Phab2 Plus and Phab2 aren't as unique as the Pro; neither have the Tango module, but they still share many similarities. Both phones are clad in an aluminum unibody, have roughly the same dimensions as Pro, dual-band Wi-Fi, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Audio Capture 5.1, a 4,050mAh battery, are able to take 128GB microSD cards, and run Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The big differences come down to hardware.

The Phab2 Plus has a focus on photography, boasting dual 13-megapixel rear-facing cameras, set above its fingerprint sensor. The dual camera setup allows for post-shot refocusing, swapping out the background, and AR special effects. It also offers manual controls and improved low-light performance, along with fast focusing. There's also an 8-megapixel selfie camera on the front.

That said, the Plus isn't nearly as capable as the Pro. It has a MediaTek MTK 8783 processor and 3GB of RAM, so I don't expect it to perform as well in benchmarks. It comes with 32GB of storage and the 6.4-inch display only has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080. That's low for a screen this size, and you'll likely notice some degree of pixelation and graininess with text, video, and games.

The Phab2 is the entry-level offering among all three Lenovo phablets. It doesn't have unique features, like the fingerprint scanner, dual rear cameras, or fast charging. It also has the weakest hardware of the bunch, with a MediaTek MTK 8735 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage. Camera performance isn't likely to be as strong either, with a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 5-megapixel selfie shooter. The biggest downside is the paltry 1,280-by-720 display. For a screen this size, it's just not enough. App icons are noticeably pixelated, and games and video won't look so good.

Pricing and Availability
All three phones will be available worldwide beginning in September. In the US, the Phab2 Pro will start at $499, the Phab2 Plus at $299, and the Phab2 at $199. The Pro will be sold in select Lowe's stores nationwide and online by the end of 2016. It will also be available in Best Buy. It's a fairly reasonable price given the specialized nature of the Tango module as well as the build quality, though the biggest appeal will be for phablet-lovers. Stay tuned for our full review.

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