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Hands-on with the Asus ZenFone AR, which is arriving just in time to compete with ARKit

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It’s one of two Tango phones you can get

Google has been working on Tango, its AR platform for smartphones, since 2013. Since then, only one smartphone has shipped that supports Tango: the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, which I reviewed back in December. Now, the second Tango phone is here.

Well, sort of.

Asus still hasn’t said exactly when its Tango-equipped smartphone, the new ZenFone AR, will ship, nor has it said how much it will cost. But the company did host a press event in San Francisco yesterday afternoon, inviting people like myself to come and try out production-ready units of the ZenFone AR, which suggested that its actual launch is imminent.

The first thing that struck me about the ZenFone AR is how thin and light it is compared to the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. It has a normal-sized, Super AMOLED 5.7-inch display, compared with the Phab 2 Pro’s 6.4-inch display, and a leather-like back compared with the Phab 2 Pro’s thick, solid body of aluminum alloy. Unfortunately, its size also means that the ZenFone AR also has a 3300mAh battery, while the giant Phab 2 Pro can hold a 4000mAh battery.

But it’s still impressive that Asus has managed to fit all of the Tango requirements into a phone that feels like a phone you’d use every day, not a phablet that you’d have to try to accommodate. It has a TriCam system — three rear cameras, a motion-tracking camera, a depth-sensing camera with an IR projector, and a 23-megapixel camera — that makes all of the 3D AR possible. But again, it’s all crammed into a relatively small package. Asus also made a point to say that the phone runs on both Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 processor and Adreno 530 graphics chip, to support all of the image processing that’s supposed to happen on a Tango phone.

Most of the apps I saw during this demo event were the same ones I’ve seen before — things like Wayfair’s furniture “try out” feature, and holographic puppies in the Holo app. But, unlike the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, the Asus ZenFone AR supports Google Daydream, which means I was able to plop the phone into a fabric Daydream headset and enjoy a short Simpsons skit in VR. (My six-second take: it works, but don’t quit your daydream, er, day job for it just yet.)

Of course, this very nice, potentially very accessible Tango smartphone is hitting the market at a time when Apple’s ARKit has launched within the developer community and is very likely to launch more widely within a couple months. Apple’s ARKit will work with existing, newer iPhones — no additional phone hardware required — which instantly puts Apple at a distinct advantage over Google and its hardware partners.

Last week during a podcast taping, I had the chance to ask Clay Bavor, Google’s head of VR and Tango, what he thought of Apple’s ARKit and whether Google might consider launching an AR platform that wouldn’t require so much hardware in the phones. Bavor, not surprisingly, was non-committal on the topic, but he did say that he thinks there are “paths to having far more devices than just those with the dedicated sensors, having them running things like Tango. So I think that’s something we’re excited about.”

Until then, I suppose, enjoy the new ZenFone AR photos — and stay tuned for our Verge review once the phone is available.

Photography by Lauren Goode / The Verge