The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is a phone that should make you sit up and take notice, but maybe not for reasons you expect. It’s the first handset with Google’s Tango augmented-reality (AR) software, which can add cool virtual objects and realities to the world you see on the phone screen. Think of it as a more accurate, grown-up version of Pokemon Go. The Phab 2 Pro does this by measuring and tracking the space around you. But (and it’s a big one), the dozen or so available apps are buggy, inconsistent or just plain bad, and the phone hardware itself fails to stand on its own.
If you’re really into building AR apps and testing them, the Phab 2 Pro is your only real-world tool — at least until the Asus Zenfone AR hits store shelves (scheduled for sometime the second quarter of 2017). Previously leaked by Qualcomm, the ZenFone AR will support Google’s Daydream View VR headset and apps, and feature a revamped tri-camera system that can achieve depth sensing 3D scanning and augmented reality through Google Tango. If nothing else, the Zenfone AR demonstrates that AR can be delivered in a slim, lightweight package. Still, we don’t know whether it will improve the issues we experienced with Tango’s limited content and inconsistent quality.
And even if it sounds unbearable to wait until the ZenFone AR makes its debut, I nevertheless recommend you avoid the Phab 2 Pro. It truly feels like a work in progress — not a full-fledged system for either the hardware or the software. And, because it fails to live up to its single purpose, AR, it’s not something you should even consider buying.
Here’s what’s good:
- The 6.4-inch screen makes everything easy to see
- There’s a high-capacity 4,000mAh battery and a fingerprint reader
- The phone’s $500 price keeps it relatively affordable (it converts to about £400 or AU$670)
- You get a sense for how AR can enhance your life (more below)
Here’s what’s bad:
- The phone’s huge and heavy — I have small hands and couldn’t comfortably type
- It runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, not the current 7.0 Nougat
- Photos can be grainy and dull, and take 5 seconds to process fully, even in abundant lighting
- I often smudged the camera when trying to use the rear fingerprint reader to unlock the phone
- There’s no NFC, which also means no Android Pay
- Call quality was sometimes awful (the other end couldn’t hear me), and once, it took three attempts to eject the SIM card tray. The aluminum body and glass screen sustained fine scratches
- The battery dies a quick death when you use AR
- AR apps are sometimes confusing and can be buggy. For example, graphics on some games are terribly low-fi and some are prone to freezing. Apps that measure and track the room, like Lowe’s Vision, don’t always work accurately or easily to measure and place virtual items.
- Apps superimpose items like virtual pets, dinosaurs and dominoes over the real-world surroundings you see through your screen, but don’t interact with them convincingly. Dominoes hang off a table’s edge instead of falling to the ground. Virtual dogs and cats run through their loops without being aware of people or objects that exist in the scene.
Battery life and speed stats
The Phab 2 Pro may have a humongous battery, but you’ll get less life out of it than you’d think. Part of that is because complex AR software sucks up a lot of power, and that’s completely understandable. Even without background software running, Lenovo’s phone only logged 11 hours of battery life on our continuous video loop test. That’s just about average, but you’d expect more raw power from a phone with such a big honking battery.
Lenovo’s AR phone can show you what isn’t really there
In fact, the phone’s speed lagged severely behind high-end phones like the Google Pixel XL and iPhone 7 Plus, in both benchmark testing apps (we use Speedtest.net, Geekbench 4 and 3DMark) and day-to-day usage. The speed is fast enough that most of the time you probably wouldn’t know the difference — unless you’re trying to take back-to-back shots with the camera.
It might still make you an AR believer
Even though you shouldn’t buy the Phab 2 Pro, the large-screen phone does unlock the terrific possibilities of augmented reality and why you might want to experience it. And believe me, it’s coming. Apple is already rumored to be including some AR elements in next year’s 10th anniversary iPhone.
Everyone I showed the phone to, from real tech-heads to casual users, immediately understood the promise behind those built-in cameras and sensors (regular, wide-angle, infrared sensor). Anyone who’s bagged a Pikachu can tell you that AR can be a lot of fun. And as we move to the inevitable next level, it’s exciting and creative, and could, with the precise calibration of hardware and software, be immensely useful for household and professional tasks.
Take, for instance, the Lowe’s Vision app that can help you measure the space around you and virtually insert furniture into your room that you can then walk around to see how it looks and fits. You can color coordinate and narrow down paint samples before ever leaving for the store. But even these apps, while making measurements and furniture-shopping easier in a sense, are still hard to figure out — and had some accuracy issues. Measurements didn’t line up easily, and objects don’t always rest perfectly.
There’s also a strong element of entertainment and immersion involved. Your view of things changes depending on where you stand, or how many people you encounter. Some experiences will only work if you walk around.
We saw AR bring joy to Snapchat users (through filters) and Pokemon Go players when the little monsters appeared in improbable and often funny real-world places: Next to a fire hydrant. Getting its haunches all over your spaghetti and meatballs. But you didn’t need special equipment to use that type of AR. What the Phab 2 Pro and future phones like it can do is use the cameras to more tightly map the virtual objects on the screen to things that exist in real life. What if the monsters in Pokemon Go recognized your dinner plate and started licking their lips? What if it saw the hydrant and slowly lifted a leg?
Each app’s limitations felt like a hard door slam on what could have been a more open vista. They were all less impressive than even the earliest clunky VR apps, probably because they’re still spiritually similar to what we can already get on our phones.
Google’s Tango software certainly helped unlock my imagination. Unfortunately, the problematic Phab 2 Pro just isn’t a worthy vessel for this promising new technology. Consider this a beta product (or worse), and wait for better augmented reality in the months and years to come.