Hands On With Asus's Zenfone AR and Zenfone 3 Zoom

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LAS VEGAS—Augmented reality isn't quite here yet, but Asus's Zenfone AR is. Someone always needs to solve the chicken-and-egg problem with new technologies, offering up the hardware for developers to start writing software for. And much more than Lenovo's giant Phab 2 Pro phablet, the Zenfone AR feels like what an augmented-reality phone should feel like. We got a look at it and its dual-camera cousin, the Zenfone 3 Zoom, here at CES.

Tango is Google's augmented reality system. Augmented reality, like in Microsoft's HoloLens, adds virtual elements and tags to the real world rather than generating a purely virtual world to replace the real world.

The Zenfone AR is a slim, handsome 5.7-inch phone with a textured back and a very bright, sharp 2,560-by-1,440 Super AMOLED screen. It runs Android 7.0 Nougat on a fast Snapdragon 821 processor and works with Google's Daydream VR platform as well as Tango AR.

Downer: the AR software didn't run on the phones in the demo area. But the key advance here is that the AR feels good in the hand, and it doesn't appear to be festooned with cameras on the back. But it is: it has a main 23MP camera, along with a motion-tracking camera and a depth-sensing camera, apparently.

Asus said the phone will come with 8GB of RAM to speed up AR processing, but the demo phones had 6GB. An Asus demo person said that there will be 6GB and 8GB models of the phone.

The key question about Tango is when good, useful AR software would arrive. Asus brought out Jeff Kirwan, president of the Gap, who showed off an app which lets you fit clothes onto virtual models to see how they'd hang on your body. Johnny Lee, Google Tango's director of engineering, showed a Hot Wheels game which lets you play with cars on a virtual table.

Both apps had the AR feature of letting you walk around a virtual object and see different sides of it. But neither had the AR value of annotating or understanding the room you're in and its furniture; the Hot Wheels game wasn't happening on an actual table. Aside from the "walking around it" aspect, it wasn't clear what AR was really bringing to the table here.

Asus Zenfone AR

"When we can allow developers to attach virtual objects to places in physics spaces and start to anchor them, we can start to leave permanent levles in places like museums. You'll start to see that later this year as we start to see the content partners," Lee said.

There are about 30 Tango apps out there right now, but "we expect dozens of Tango enabled apps to be coming out in the next few months," Lee said. "There's something growing for everyone in the app ecosystem."

The Zenfone AR is coming out in the second quarter of this year.

The Zenfone 3 Zoom looks and feels like more of a midrange phone. It's the plastic body, really, although let's note it also packs a midrange Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. The phone has a gigantic 5000mAh battery inside, which is quite surprising because it isn't very thick. Hopefully, there are no Galaxy Note-like shenanigans of trying to fit too big a battery into too small a space here.

The Zoom's major trick is that it takes an iPhone 7 Plus approach to dual cameras, with one 12MP camera at 25mm and the other at 56mm. Like on the iPhone 7 Plus, that creates a virtual optical zoom, with the second camera acting as a 2.3x zoom.

Asus Zenfone

Like on the iPhone 7 Plus, the zoom is instantaneous, because it isn't really zooming; it's just switching lenses. Asus's camera app for the Zoom also allows for bokeh effects, where you blur out the background but keep the foreground in focus.

There are a slew of other camera features in here, too. Asus advertised the camera's large 1.4-micron pixels, dual pixel autofocus for fast low-light focusing, a color-correction sensor, and a special enhanced low-light mode that I've seen on other Asus phones, which actually does work.

I wasn't able to really test Asus's camera assertions in the very controlled environment of the demo room. But the camera app did come up quickly, and the low-light capabilities—in the demo room—seemed great.

Oddly, the model I tried was running Android 6.0.1, which really shouldn't be happening in 2017. Asus said Android 7.0 Nougat is coming.

Why the Snapdragon 625, by the way? Asus says it's for power efficiency, letting the phone get an insane 40 days of standby time. But I think, looking at the plastic budy, that it's also about cost. Asus didn't announce a price for the phone, which is coming out in February, but I'm hoping it'll end up more in the $500 range than the $650 range.

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