For eight hundred notes, you've a right to expect something a bit special. While the Asus ZenFone's screen certainly is, and the support for virtual reality is solid, everything else about the device screams 'mid range'. And the lack of proper waterproofing and poor battery life is a real let-down.
Good VR/AR abilities
23MP camera takes good shots as a regular camera
Highly customisable UI
Fast fingerprint sensor unlock
Not all the Asus UI additions are worthwhile
Disappointing battery life in normal usage
The Asus ZenFone AR touts a number of high-end partners and is the first to offer certified support for both Google Daydream VR and Tango augmented reality (AR).
However, with a retail price at the iPhone 8-end of the market - around £800 - combined with a more mid-range design, is the Asus ZenFone AR really good enough to compete with the best that Samsung, Huawei, or even Apple has to offer?
I spent the last couple of weeks living with it as my primary phone to find out, during which time my actual primary phone (a Galaxy S8+ suffered a terminal failure), which leaves me in the rare position of reviewing a phone, while considering which one to buy myself.
Design and Hardware
Eschewing the trend for curved screens and luxurious lines, the ZenFone AR takes an altogether more traditional approach to design, which isn't to say it's bad - just somewhat uninspired. Clearly, the focus here has gone on integrating technical features, rather than wowing with design.
On the front, you have a home button with an integrated fingerprint sensor flanked by software app switcher and back buttons. The fingerprint sensor worked flawlessly for me, instantly unlocking the phone rather than leaving you waiting.
On the right of the phone, you have a volume rocker and the power button. On the left, just a dual SIM/microSD slot.
The 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display offers a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution with Corning Gorilla Glass 4. Above the screen is an 8-megapixel front-facing camera with an f/2.0 aperture for wider-angle selfies.
The screen is one of the stand-out aspects of the device, delivering an excellent viewing and gaming experience, in both regular 2D and VR environments.
On the rear of the phone, you have a 23-megapixel camera, a motion-tracking camera and a depth-sensing camera, which are all required to enhance the AR experiences.
Under the bonnet, you have a 64-bit Qualcomm Quad Core processor (the slightly older Snapdragon 821 model) clocked at 2.35GHz and the Adreno 530 GPU.
Naturally, a phone designed for AR and VR experiences needs a fair amount of storage and RAM to keep it ticking along nicely too, so there are two hardware variants to choose between: either 6GB of RAM and 64GB onboard storage or 128GB and 8GB of RAM. Both have support for microSD cars up to 2TB.
While the overall package is undeniably slim and light - 1.73mm and 170 grams - the impression the ZenFone AR gives isn't one of high-end luxury, but that's not to take away from the achievement of packing all that tech into the ZenFone AR's chassis.
Software-wise the ZenFone AR runs Android 7.0 with Asus's ZenFone UI 3.0 at its core. This will be familiar for any existing Android user, but whether or not you'd prefer a stock Android experience depends on your own preferences. For me, the additional features offered by many manufacturers UI tweaks just aren't worthwhile.
For the ZenFone AR, it's not a case of a few minor changes here and there, either - it's a fully overhauled UI that's entirely customisable in almost every way you could want. And if you want a less hands-on approach to customisation than tweaking every aspect manually, it's simple to download and apply new themes. Both free and paid-for options are on offer in the ZenUI store.
Customisation options aren't something that I have any problem with, but needless pre-installation of more than a dozen apps isn't something that I welcome when I switch on a new phone for the first time either. Maybe you want Asus' BeautyLive features and yet another proprietary social network to connect to, but I didn't.
Asus isn't alone in bloatware - it's the reason many people prefer a stock Android experience - but you do have the option of uninstalling or disabling any of the features you don't want to use. Some of these include a MiniMovie maker, ZenFit, Do It Later, ZenFone Care, PhotoCollage, Mobile Manager and a whole bunch more.
There are a number of different audio modes on board too, designed to tweak the settings depending on how you're listing. In the most part, you probably won't play around with these too much though. Overall, the single speaker isn't very satisfying to listen to, but is louder than some single output rivals, and helped by the additional options.
The core appeal of the ZenFone AR, unsurprisingly, lies in its altered reality experiences - whether that's virtual reality or augmented reality.
Support for Tango experiences is the best around - with the Hot Wheels Track Builder and Domino Run apps providing some fun use of the camera array on the back of the ZenFone AR.
Moreover, the 23-megapixel main camera sensor takes some sharp, colourful images without any shutter lag. It does a great job with white levels, too, which not all its rivals can say. In particular, the graffiti sample photo that also shows the sky has retained the subtle shades of the sky that day, rather than just an overblown whiteness on an otherwise overcast day.
On the Daydream side of things, the ZenFone AR's Super AMOLED non-pervasive display does a good job of reducing motion blur effects in VR. The review model arrived with a bundled Google Daydream headset too, which, perplexingly still doesn't allow for any focal adjustments.
One of the problems with both Daydream and Tango on the phone is a lack of compelling ‘must try' experiences. Sure, there's some fun to be had, but it comes at quite a premium in terms of the ZenFone AR's retail price compared to something like a similarly priced Samsung Galaxy S8.
The general experience is to look for new AR and VR apps and games to download, try a few of them out for a few minutes and then move along to the next. Whether or not any of them are really compelling enough to return to time and again remains to be seen, but that's not specifically a fault of the Asus ZenFone AR - it's just a potential negative for any early adopters.
Battery and Performance
The AR and VR abilities of the handset are undeniable, but beyond a lack of compelling content, there's one other reason you probably won't find yourself using them as much as you might think - they're an incredible drain on battery life.
In the best of circumstances, not using any Tango or Daydream features, the battery life on the ZenFone AR simply isn't good. If you want to start playing games in 2D or VR you can kiss goodbye to any ambition of getting through a day without charging.
Obviously, the main culprit for much of this drain is the otherwise great 5.7-inch display, so if you're willing to dull the display you'll get a little longer out of it.
On the plus side, it doesn't struggle to provide great media experiences, whether that's games or watching movies, delivering a lag-free experience on HD, fast-moving games. You'd hope so with 6GB (or 8GB) of RAM powering things along.
Those media abilities are delivered with grace on the 5.7-inch display, with deep blacks and rich, vibrant colours without jaggies.
The ZenFone AR feels like a phone for early adopters willing to put up with (or embrace) its foibles, bloatware and disappointing battery life in exchange for potentially great virtual and augmented reality experiences.
On paper, its specs put it in line (in most ways) with big-name rivals, but it doesn't deliver the same level of luxurious design while commanding similar prices.
A lack of waterproofing also made my experience less than optimal, as it will for you if you've got used to taking your phone into the shower to listen to music or podcasts. In that situation, the single speaker setup was barely audible.
Admittedly, maybe this isn't an issue for you - but if you live in the UK, how your phone deals with rain is probably something you should keep in mind, both for accidental drops into puddles and how the screen responds to water.
As a phone, it's a solid experience, but nothing really stands out apart from the screen performance, which as we've already noted, comes with its own cost in terms of battery life. The overriding impression isn't one of particularly good value, despite its zippy performance.
Nonetheless, if you want the best phone on the market to support both Tango and Daydream, this is it. If you don't want that, you probably don't want the ZenFone AR.