Ever wonder what a velociraptor in your office would look like? Or if that new couch will fit in your apartment? The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro has the answers. The phone—or rather the 6.4-inch phablet—is the first device to support Google Tango, giving it unique augmented reality (AR) functionality for a reasonably affordable $499. Right now it serves more as proof of concept than a must-have device, in part because the phone's large and unwieldy build limits its usability, but also because there aren't many compelling uses for Tango just yet. That said, the technology already shows lots of potential, and the Phab 2 Pro is a solid phone in its own right.
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Design, Features, and Display
The Phab 2 Pro is a massive, heavy metal unibody slab at 7.1 by 3.5 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and 9.1 ounces. It's significantly larger and heavier than any other phablet we've seen this year, including the LG V20 (6.3 by 3.1 by 0.3 inches, 6.2 ounces) and the Google Pixel XL (6.1 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches, 5.5 ounces).
You definitely need two hands to use the Pro, and probably a bag to carry it around in; while I was able to stuff it into my jeans, walking around and sitting with it in my pocket was awkward and uncomfortable. Unlike many large phablets with a resizable screen mode, the Pro only lets you move the numbers of the dialer over to one side. There are no other accessibility features to aid in one-handed use. On the plus side, the phone has a sturdy, premium-feeling build.
Available in gunmetal gray or champagne gold, the Pro has a significant amount of bezel on the front, with a set of capacitive buttons underneath the screen. On the right side it has a clicky volume rocker and power button, the top has a 3.5mm audio jack, and the slot on the left gives you access to a dual SIM slots, one of which can be used with microSD media upt o 256GB in capacity. The bottom sports a micro USB charging port with a speaker and microphone grille on either side.
The speakers themselves aren't exceptional. They get reasonably loud, but sound is tinny. Plugging 3.5mm headphones into the audio jack is better. The phone uses Dolby Atmos HD audio software, which simulates a not-too-convincing surround sound. You can customize audio profiles for Music, Movies, Games, and Voice Calls, as well as two additional profiles of your own. Listening to music with the included JBL earphones I noticed some boosted bass and a bit of sculpting in the highs compared with other phones, but it's not quite as impressive as audio heard through the V20 or the ZTE Axon 7, both of which have digital-to-analog converters for genuine hi-fi playback.
Contrary to most phones, the back of the Pro is where all the really interesting features are located. From top to bottom you have the standard RGB rear-facing camera sensor, a depth sensor, a motion-tracking sensor, the fish-eye camera necessary for Tango, and a fingerprint sensor. If this sounds like a crowded setup, that's because it is. My finger's natural resting place was smack-dab on the fish-eye lens. Activating the fingerprint sensor required bending my finger down at an awkward angle.
The Pro has a massive 6.4-inch, 459ppi, 2,560-by-1,440 IPS display. Due to the panel's large size, it's not quite as sharp as smaller Quad HD phones like the 5.5-inch Pixel XL (534ppi) or 5.7-inch V20 (513ppi), but it's still crisp enough that you won't really notice a difference. Viewing angles wash out a bit from the sides, though not enough to significantly impact visibility. Maximum brightness could stand to be higher, however, as the screen is a bit reflective and hard to see in direct sunlight.
The phone's supersized dimensions are easier to understand when you consider what's happening under the surface. Google Tango, formerly known as Project Tango, consists of a set of sensors and software that work together to map your surroundings and provide the basis for augmented reality (AR) experiences. Tango-enabled devices like the Phab 2 Pro are able to sense physical motion and space, track depth, and visualize and understand surrounding objects. This kind of positional tracking lets you use AR for a wide range of purposes, from interior design, to education, to games.
I put Tango to the test using preloaded AR apps and some downloaded from Google Play. The Tango app itself doesn't do much except show you featured apps and the apps you have installed. One of the most functional tools is Measure, an app from Google that allows you to determine the measurements of objects in front of your camera lens. It worked great to measure walls, windows, ceilings, boxes, and just anything else you can draw a straight line across, making it a good tool for interior decorators, carpenters, contractors, and anyone else who needs measurements on the fly.
Another app I found remarkably useful was AR Home Designer, which lets you place furniture in your room to see how it looks. Objects appear in true-to-life size, giving you an idea of how well a new couch might fit into your apartment. To use the app, simply drag and drop any furniture you want into place, though you're limited to fairly generic sets of furniture and you can't save the room for later reference. The Lowe's Vision app is more functional in that regard, giving you access to furniture, appliances, and even flooring. You can pin notes and save an entire room. Naturally, it's limited to products you can buy at Lowe's, though I can image other companies following suit if Tango takes off.
Another cool app is Dinosaurs Among Us, made by the The American Museum of Natural History. Instead of furniture, the app has full-scale 3D models of dinosaurs, meaning you can literally have a velociraptor appear in your living room. The app is limited to just four dinosaurs (no T. rex!) and is somewhat rudimentary in terms of graphics, but the educational potential is easy to see.
Most of the other apps available are simple games. Shooters like Tango Targets renders targets in an AR shooting gallery, while AR Pets simply adds a dog or cat to your surroundings (there's no interactivity). Some of them are fun, but the size of the phone inhibits gameplay, making it difficult to reach controls while also keeping the phone held aloft.
This also brings up the main issue I have with Tango—there simply isn't much to do with it. Currently there are only 35 Tango-centric apps in the store. Lenovo hopes to have 100 apps by 2017, but that's still not a huge number. Of the apps currently available, only a handful have offer genuinely useful functionality, and those still have a raw, unpolished feel.
The Phab 2 Pro is sold unlocked for use on GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile. It supports GSM (850/1800/1900MHz), UMTS (850/1700/1900/2100MHz), and LTE (2/4/6/7/12/17/20/30) bands. With support for bands 12 and 17, T-Mobile and AT&T users can take advantage of better range and building penetration. I tested the phone on AT&T in midtown Manhattan and recorded decent network performance with an average download speed ranging between 5Mbps to 10Mbps. Other connectivity protocols include Bluetooth 4.0 and W-Fi on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. There's no NFC, restricting you from using mobile payments, a bit of a letdown for a $500 phone.
Call quality is solid. Transmissions are a bit muddy, but voices remain audible and noise cancellation is good at blotting out everything except the occasional wind noise. The earpiece is fairly loud, but in a very noisy environment you might have a little trouble carrying on a conversation.
If you're expecting the Pro to pack a monster chipset to go along with its size, you're in for a surprise. The phone has a modest Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor clocked at 1.8GHz, with special optimizations to work with Google Tango. The chipset is no slouch, scoring 83,884 on AnTuTu, which measures overall system performance, but it's not nearly as powerful as the Snapdragon 820 processor in the Axon 7 (141,989), or the Snapdragon 821 in the OnePlus 3T (159,144). Also of note, the Pro crashed during PCMark's work performance test and was unable to complete GFXBench's graphic tests.
Benchmarking hiccups aside, general performance on the Pro is smooth. The phone has 4GB of RAM with a built-in memory manager, allowing it to handle multitasking without any stuttering. Despite its struggles with Open GL 3.1, it played games like Asphalt 8 and GTA: San Andreas without significant latency or dropped frames. I did encounter some slowdown when initially launching or switching between AR apps, but while using the apps themselves the Pro handled like, well, a pro.
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Battery life is good, taking into account the phone's huge, high-resolution screen. In our battery rundown test in which we stream full-screen video over LTE at maximum brightness, the Pro clocked a respectable 5 hours, 31 minutes. That's better than the LG V20 (4 hours, 38 minutes), though about an hour less than the Pixel XL (6 hours, 43 minutes). It should be good for a day's worth of use, and fast charging lets you top up the 4,050mAh battery in about 90 minutes. That's important, because if you make extensive use of Tango, battery drains rapidly. The phone dropped from full to 72 percent after thirty minutes of Tango testing.
Despite its many Tango-related sensors, the Pro is a bit of a letdown when it comes to regular camera performance. The 16-megapixel rear sensor takes clear, but bland, photos in auto mode. Turning on HDR brightens colors a bit, at the cost of adding several seconds of processing after every snap. The bigger issue is with low-light shots. In dim light autofocus becomes sluggish, resulting in shots that are blurry, grainy, or out of focus. The 8-megapixel front camera is fine for selfies and video calls, though it also struggles in low light.
Video recording isn't a strong suit either. The phone is capable of recording 1080p video at 30fps, but it's very jittery. There's no optical image stabilization, and even slight motion causes video to lose focus. It's no match for the fantastically smooth and stable video the Pixel XL records, nor can it match the XL's stellar low-light shots. There's also no 4K video recording, a feature you might expect on a phone with several specialized camera sensors.
Tango apps aside, the Phab 2 Pro is a fairly standard Android phone. It comes running 6.0.1 Marshmallow instead of the newer Nougat, which is a bit surprising considering the cutting-edge Tango functionality. Fortunately, Lenovo has left its touch on the UI light. There are some minor visual transparency changes, but for the most part this is a relatively stock build of Android that should be familiar to most users.
You'll find AccuWeather, McAfee Security, Netflix, and Syncit preloaded, but they can all be uninstalled. The only other preinstalled apps are related to Tango. Overall, out of 64GB of internal storage you're left with an ample 50.74GB available for use. The phone also takes microSD cards and supports Android's Adoptable Storage feature, treating the card as part of the internal memory.
The colossal Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is the biggest phablet we've reviewed in years, and one of the most unique. For $500 you get a crisp Quad HD display, promising AR functionality with Google Tango, and a premium build. But Tango still has some ways to go before it's truly ready for widespread usage. There just aren't many apps available yet, and those that are have limited functionality.
That said, the Pro is a much more accessible introduction to AR for most people than the Microsoft HoloLens, which is very expensive and limited to developers right now. And you can't wear HoloLens all the time, but it's conceivable to carry the Phab 2 Pro with you, greatly expanding the range of possibilities for AR.
If you're simply looking for a good phablet, there are a number of better options in this price range. The ZTE Axon 7 offers the best combination of price and performance, boasting a premium build, powerful hardware, and flagship-level features. On the higher end, the Google Pixel XL and LG V20 are both worthy contenders, each with its own strong suits. The 5.5-inch XL gets you stock Android with guaranteed software updates, the latest Snapdragon processor, 24/7 live support, excellent camera performance, and an unbeatable voice assistant. For something bigger, the 5.7-inch V20 is packed with features including a unique "secondary" display, a durable build, a removable battery, high-resolution audio, and a wide-angle camera lens. But if you're looking to get in on AR early and you don't mind the bulk, the Phab 2 Pro is a solid phone, with the potential to become even more interesting in the future.