Lenovo Phab 2 Pro review: Exciting possibilities, unexciting phone

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New Atlas reviews the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro, a massive phablet with Google's Tango technology(Credit: Emily Ferron/New Atlas)

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Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro is billed as "the world's first Tango-enabled smartphone." But after just one look at this massive device, it's hard to imagine anyone using it as a phone. It raises the question – what is Tango? Is it worth it?

Build & hardware specs

I'm not sure what to call the Phab 2 Pro, but since "Phab" is likely a play on "phablet," let's go with that. That's true enough – it is a mobile device larger than any phone, with a big tablet-like touchscreen. But by any standards, it's monstrous. At 179.8 x 88.6 x 10.7 millimeters, it's 17-percent taller than a Galaxy Note 5.

The huge 6.4-inch QHD (2,560 x 1,440) display is its best feature. While the adaptive brightness setting has a tendency to overcompensate, its size and resolution otherwise make for a very pleasant viewing experience. The sharpness and clarity are favorable, plus there's none of that overly-blue white balance or oversaturation that leaves eyes feeling fatigued. Trained eyes immediately pick up that this is an IPS display, not an AMOLED one.

The Phab has capacitive home, back and recent apps buttons; the fingerprint sensor is on the back. Back placement is always a little harder to access, but on a phone this size, it's extra unwieldy. I found myself dumbly thwacking the camera lens instead of the sensor on more than one occasion.

Due to its size, the Phab 2 could make a fairly good multimedia player, as long as you could find a way to prop it up. The audio backs up the big screen well, especially if you use headphones. There are twin grilles at the bottom of the phone, though there is only one speaker. It's louder than many others, but its low fidelity is especially noticeable at lower volumes.

The camera 16 MP rear/8 MP front camera has ample resolution and auto-focuses well, but it lacks the kind of software and hardware tricks that are making phones like the iPhone 7 Plus and Google Pixel rock the photography world. And with the camera being mounted on such a large device, we run into increased clumsiness and camera shake. The camera's not out of date per se, but it's nothing special.

Lastly, this behemoth phone has a hulking battery to match. The 4,050 mAh battery means major staying power for non-Tango applications. In our standard battery test (streaming one hour of video over Wi-Fi at constant luminescence) the phone's battery life dipped only 8 percent, better than any other phone we've tried. But bear in mind that Tango demands much more battery power than video streaming. I'd estimate that battery life drops 2-3 times faster while using Tango apps.

Software & performance

Software is Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and the OS is near-stock (but without the charming simplicity of the HTC 10 or Google Pixel experience).

Its Snapdragon 652 octa core processor may be optimized for Tango, but according to benchmarks, it falls short of speedier and less specialized processors. Geekbench 4 has it clocking in at 1.40 GHz with a 1481 single core score, which ranks behind many of this year's big-name flagships like the Galaxy S7, S7 edge and OnePlus 3.

Without going into more painstaking nerdery, it's sufficient to say this device can handle common tasks like web surfing, social media and video streaming handily, but don't expect a careful or glitch-free presentation. I've run into a fair amount of small, temporary issues, such as the inability to sign into my Google account, the phone showing a landscape display when it should be in portrait mode, and the occasional crashed app.

What is Tango?

Now that we've got Phab 2 basics covered, we can dive into its headlining feature. Tango is a Google technology that only recently shed its "project" moniker. Without relying on external signals like GPS or Bluetooth, Tango determines the device's position and orientation as well as the measurements and positions of objects in the surrounding environment.

Although Tango has a number of exciting possibilities, such as indoor navigation and the ability to measure physical objects from a distance, its main focus is mobile-based augmented reality (mobile AR), or the ability to superimpose virtual objects into real-world surroundings. Just hold your phone up and look through the display to see virtual elements populated within the environment around you.

If augmented reality makes you think of Pokémon Go, you're not wrong – Pokémon is a prime example of a mobile AR game. But it is not Tango-reliant, and it has several shortcomings that Tango could mitigate.

For example, Pokémon relies on a GPS signal, so play is limited to the outdoors. With Tango, the critters could hide indoors, even behind household structures like counters or furniture. Tango is also capable of placing creatures and objects more convincingly into their surroundings, with a dramatic reduction in the "hovering" look pervasive in Pokémon.

Tango also enables a certain degree of object permanence and smarter maneuvering of virtual objects. Plop down an object in one area, look away, and it will still be where you left it. Because of the 3D mapping capabilities, you shouldn't see virtual objects stuck inside walls, crossing into other objects, or spliced onto something else. If a person or animal walks in front of your screen, the virtual object will be rendered in front of or behind it accordingly.

And there's more than a modicum of utility in mobile AR, apart from gaming. What would your home look like decorated a certain way? Will this couch fit in that space? Current Tango apps hint at the overwhelming amount of possibilities.

Not worth it – yet

At this point, Tango apps are very limited, and they fall under a few different umbrellas – entertaining, useful or proprietary. Many of them are silly apps and games, where the biggest draw is simply being amused at something incongruous – like a dinosaur or spandex-clad wrestler – in your living room.

Screenshot generated from Dinos Among Us, a Tango app created in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History

Woorld is a game/app along these lines with the most developed and absorbing premise. Essentially, you're just creating a mini-world prompted by a helpful-yet-confused block character. Pin clouds, the sun and moon to your ceiling; plant flowers and build houses on the floor. Eventually, you develop a thriving cartoon ecosystem. Phantogeist is an example of a game that misses its mark. Walk around your space to fight off alien creatures that pop out from nowhere. But performance is glitchy. In my case, foes would sometimes get stuck in walls and around furniture, or walk through my dog.

There are also utilitarian apps like Measure and MagicPlan, which use Tango's space-mapping abilities to take measurements and lay out floor plans without needing a ladder and a tape measure. If these tools worked without a hitch, they'd be tremendous, but as they currently stand, they need some polishing.

Screenshot from Measure, a promising yet imperfect Tango app 

For example, Measure (which comes pre-installed on the Phab) doesn't always let me begin and end a measurement where I'd like it to be. On a window with a corner partially obscured by a planter, I couldn't get an periphery measurement of the window. The cursor works in a manner similar to the magnetic lasso tool in Photoshop, automatically locking to the boundaries of objects. The problem is, it doesn't always lock to the boundary I have in mind, like measuring a window pane instead of a sash or sill.

Current offerings in proprietary apps are made by Lowe's Home Improvement and Wayfair. These are essentially interior design apps that let you "try on" products in your home. It is rather amusing and effective way to visualize a space, but the major limitation of these apps is that they work best in empty rooms, since you can't move or alter objects that are already there.

Intriguing, but a tough sell

The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is officially a consumer smartphone, but really it's more of a Tango prototype, a crystallization of the current state of technology. It helps push mobile AR into the popular imagination, but that's not reason enough to buy it. Even at a relatively low price of $500, it's too unwieldy, and not particularly well-suited for anything beyond Tango. And Tango's not at the level it needs to be to send these phones flying off the shelves.

The best part about the Phab 2 Pro is that it helps us sneak a glimpse into the future. Will Tango tech become a commonplace smartphone feature? Will Lenovo manufacture a mobile AR headset to pair with the Phab 2 Pro or one of its future generations? These questions are fun to ask, but you don't need a Phab 2 to wonder. There's no telling what the future holds, but we would be very surprised if mobile AR and Tango do not gain some serious momentum over the next couple of years.

Product page: Lenovo Phab 2 Pro

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