The Lenovo Phab2 Pro is not the first device to have Google's Tango augmented reality platform, but it's the first one to be aimed at consumers. It's also the first Lenovo-branded smartphone to launch in the US. With the Phab2 Pro, you can see virtual items overlaid in the real world, or explore virtual worlds by moving around in the real one. But let's not forget, this is a phone too. People will presumably buy this product to carry around with them on a daily basis, but it's only available as a $500 unlocked device. So, it's up to Lenovo to make a good pitch to US phone buyers who have more choices than ever before. Although, I think the company might have taken the cliché "go big or go home" a bit too literally.
The Lenovo Phab2 Pro is a gigantic phone—that's the first thing you notice picking it up, and it ends up being the defining feature. To even consider buying the Phab2 Pro, you first have to cope with the size. Even if you think you're fine with the size of this phone, the reality is much different. The ergonomics take a backseat to Tango, and the result is a phone that feels like yet another tech demo.
|Display||6.4-inch 1440p IPS LCD|
|Camera||16MP rear, 8MP front, Tango motion detection and position sensors|
|Wireless||Dual SIM with LTE bands 2, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 20, 30|
|Measurements||179.8 x 88.6 x 10.7 mm, 259g|
|Build quality||A very solid device made from aluminum.|
|Battery life||As long as you don't use Tango too much, the Phab2 Pro gets great battery life.|
|Fingerprint sensor||It's accurate and fast.|
|Software||Lenovo managed to avoid burying Android under layers of junk like it normally does.|
|Design||The Phab2 Pro is gigantic and heavy. It's not comfortable to hold, and it won't even fit in my pockets. It's like a little tablet that makes phone calls.|
|Performance||It's just okay. The lag isn't too frequent, but I feel like the Phab2 Pro doesn't have a lot of headroom if it slows down as it ages.|
|Fingerprint sensor again||It's too low on the back of the phone. I touched the Tango camera module almost every time I went for the sensor.|
|Tango||There are no truly compelling experiences for Tango. It's just a novelty right now.|
|Still microUSB||A phone this expensive should not be using microUSB in late 2016.|
|Value||$500 can get you a better unlocked phone without Project Tango.|
Design and display
To say the Lenovo Phab2 Pro is a big phone would be a profound understatement. I don't want to beat you over the head with this, but many of the Phab2 Pro's design aspects come back to the massive overall size. Of all the smartphones I've used, this one is by far the biggest. It has a 6.4-inch display with a width of 89mm and a mass of 259g. In fact, I'm not aware of any mainstream Android phone that is larger. Even the Samsung Galaxy Mega had a smaller 6.3-inch screen and was much lighter (199g) with a slightly narrower frame.
The Phab2 Pro's display takes up a high percentage of the surface, so at least you're not also dealing with big bezels too. The width of a device is the most important ergonomic aspect, and the Phab2 Pro is simply too wide to be used comfortably in one hand for any length of time. It's even worse if you're holding the phone out in front of you to use augmented reality apps.
The Lenovo Phab2 Pro has an aluminum unibody frame with antenna lines on the back. You've probably seen phones with very similar designs, just smaller. The edge of the phone has chamfers that ease the transition to the front and back sections. The front glass panel is more of that "2.5D" glass that curves downward at the edge. The rear aluminum shell has a slight curve that would make a smaller phone more comfortable to hold. However, it makes little difference in this case.
The bottom of the phone houses the single speaker and the charging port. One unusual quirk of the Lenovo Phab2 Pro is that the port is a microUSB instead of USB Type-C. I thought we were past the point a premium phone would ship with microUSB, but I guess Lenovo didn't get the memo. I'll give Lenovo points for the exposed torx screws, though. I think they give the phone a neat industrial vibe. On the right edge are the power and volume buttons. They are clicky and easy to press, but the volume rocker rattles around quite a lot. It's the only part of the build that feels lacking in quality.
Even a quick glance at the back of the Lenovo Phab2 Pro and you'll realize there's something different about this phone. That's where all the Tango sensors are housed. In addition to the standard camera, there's also a motion tracking module and depth-sensing camera. The regular camera is at the very top, with the other modules extending downward from that. The large module just north of the fingerprint sensor is the motion tracking camera, which I've smudged up with my finger approximately 30,000 times. The layout of the modules on the back of the phone pushes the fingerprint sensor too low on the back leaving the motion tracking camera where you'd naturally expect the fingerprint reader to be. It's just another example of this behemoth phone's poor ergonomics.
Speaking of the fingerprint sensor, it's on-par with the sensors we've seen on recent Nexus and Pixel phones. That means (if you can find it), the Phab2 Pro's sensor is reasonably fast and very accurate. It takes longer to train than most phones I've used, but it almost never fails to read my finger.
There are no on-screen buttons on the Phab2 Pro (aside from a floating button menu feature). Instead, Lenovo has added capacitive buttons to the bottom bezel. I prefer on-screen buttons, but I'll give Lenovo a pass on this one because the icons are all correct for stock Android and the positioning low on the phone is actually helpful with the device's large size. A rare ergonomic win for the Phab2 Pro.
This phone is large enough that people will definitely notice you using it in public (be prepared for a lot of awkward interactions with strangers). Even with my normal pants pocket, the Phab 2 Pro sticks out the top. Sitting down with the phone in my pocket is also rather uncomfortable. Maybe this won't bother you if you carry your phone in a bag of some sort. Just on the basis of needing to carry my phone in a pocket, the Lenovo Phab2 Pro is not a phone I would buy.
There isn't a great deal to say about the Phab2 Pro's display, aside from noting again that it's massive. At 6.4-inches and 1440p, the image is crisp and the viewing angles are excellent. This is an LCD, meaning the Lenovo Phab2 Pro won't ever get support for Daydream VR. I suppose you'll have to choose one form of non-standard reality—augmented or virtual. The display uses an "assertive" technology that can tweak colors and contrast on a pixel-by-pixel level. Supposedly this should improve readability in varying lighting conditions. I do have to admit that the display looks better outdoors than most LCDs I've seen lately. The colors do feel generally muted, though. The screen is fine for the price, though I'd prefer to have an AMOLED
Performance and battery
The Lenovo Phab2 Pro is powered by a Snapdragon 652, which is a rung or two lower than I'd expect for a $500 phone. I'm sure the Tango modules eat up part of the cost, though. While a Snapdragon 820 or 821 might be more desirable, Lenovo did a good enough job optimizing for the 652. Here are some benchmarks.
The Snapdragon 652 pops up mostly in mid-range phones, but here the Phab2 Pro has been specially tuned to timestamp all the data captured by the phone's sensors. This ensures that the orientation and visual sensors remain in sync as you're using augmented reality apps and features. I'll get more to Tango performance shortly, but the device generally performs okay. The Lenovo Phab2 Pro is not what I'd call a fast phone, but neither is it annoyingly sluggish. It clips along at a reasonable pace during use, only occasionally lagging with heavy multitasking or when opening/closing a game.
With a 4050mAh battery, I expected excellent battery life out of the Lenovo Phab2 Pro. For the most part, that's what I've been getting. You'll easily get two days of moderate use with 3-4 hours of screen time. Over 6 hours with heavy usage in a single day is doable as well. There's one big caveat, though. That assumes little or no augmented reality usage, but that's really what the phone is all about. Tango gobbles down the battery. It goes from above average battery life to middling. The Pixel, which I've also been using a lot, gets slightly better battery life. It doesn't have to power Tango, though.
Part of the Tango hardware is the regular camera, which produces the "reality" part of augmented reality. It also takes regular pictures. Sadly, the pictures aren't very impressive. It's an experience you'll be familiar with if you've ever used a mid-range phone with "good" camera hardware and poor optimization.
The main camera is a 16MP sensor with phase detection autofocus. It sounds good, but the photos this camera spits out are usually throwaways. In bright light with HDR mode on, the Phab2 Pro takes acceptable photos. The HDR mode is kind of necessary to pump up the colors and keep things from looking washed out. However, HDR captures take upward of two seconds on this phone.
In anything but bright light, I'm seeing plenty of focusing issues. It can take multiple seconds to focus, by which time you could miss the shot. Even if you take a photo in medium indoor light, there will be noise. Some of these images are salvageable, but I wouldn't even bother using the Phab2's camera in low light. If you were hoping the 8MP front-facing camera would redeem the phone in some way, sorry. It has poor color reproduction and the photos are too dim.
For fans of augmented reality, there's a whole AR mode in the camera. It's very limited, though. You can have the phone add characters like a dog, fairy, or a dragon to your photos. There are a few animations each one can do, and some have "landscapes" to go with them. For example, the jungle seen above with the dragon. Although, notice how the landscape is just a single flat layer? It doesn't take into account the presence of any obstacles like my shelving unit on the left. It just seems like Lenovo didn't put a lot of thought into this.
Software and Tango
The Phab2 Pro runs Android 6.0.1 out of the box, which strikes me as a little odd. Why is a phone that is supposed to introduce Tango to consumers running an old version of Android? I'm surprised Google let Lenovo move ahead without Nougat on this phone, but it's not like Marshmallow is unusable. It is a bit... unusual.
Lenovo has a habit of really messing up Android on its phones and tablets: the UI that's a clear iOS ripoff, the feature set is geared toward Chinese consumers, and they're crawling with bloatware. With that in mind, I have to congratulate Lenovo for toning it down with the Phab2 Pro. This phone runs a mostly stock build of Android. The home screen is a very basic AOSP launcher with an app drawer, and the settings menu is unaltered. The quick settings has been skinned lightly, as have the notifications. The notifications might be my least favorite thing about the Phab2 Pro's software. For some reason, the snippet text in expanded notifications is black, whereas all the other text is white. It's very hard to read on dark backgrounds. Ambient display is enabled on this phone, but the display lights up with a dimmed version of the background wallpaper instead of using a clean black and white UI. This is an LCD, so battery life shouldn't be an issue. It's just more distracting.
There are very few pre-installed tools that take advantage of the Tango augmented reality features. If you want to do more than play around with augmented reality characters in the camera or measure things, you need to hit the Tango demo app. It lists featured Tango apps and provides a handy list of all the Tango content you have on your phone.
Augmented reality apps have existed before, but they have a tendency to lose track of where objects are supposed to be. These apps (like Pokemon GO) are just based on the device's orientation—they don't know how to track position in the real world. Tango apps can do that, and they do it well. I really can't fault the technical implementation of Tango; it's undeniably cool. That's really as far as it goes, though. Tango is cool. Is it useful or necessary? Not right now.
If you need to measure some things or try out some furniture in augmented reality, I'm sure Tango will offer a neat experience. Beyond that, I struggle to find a compelling use case. The Wayfair furniture visualizing app is a good example of Tango apps. It lets you place furniture in a room to see how it'll look. It works well, and I could see people actually getting some use out of it. But... how often are you shopping for furniture? I'd wager most people have had the same couch for at least five years. Are you going to buy a smartphone because of this feature? Probably not. The Dinosaurs Among Us app is probably my favorite Tango app right now. It's like the furniture app, but with dinosaurs instead of dining room sets. It's really fun! For about five minutes. It gets boring after you've put all four included dinos in your living room.
There are games, of course. In fact, most of the Tango content we have right now consists of games. My issue with the games is that they feel like tech demos. You do the same thing over and over, which is fun at first because Tango is new. However, eventually you get bored with the shallow gameplay. For example, Fury of the Gods is a tower defense game where you rain down lightning on humans as they approach. It's one of the more elaborate Tango titles. You walk around the room, pointing the phone down at your targets. After a few minutes of gameplay, you realize you've been hunched over the floor walking in circles for what is essentially a mediocre tower defense game. Once the novelty wears off, there's nothing there.
The size of this phone is a problem, but I'm sure some people with big hands will disagree with that. In fact, some of them will probably be in the comments below to complain about the tyranny of bloggers with normal-sized hands. For most people, the Phab2 Pro is absolutely impractical. It's bigger and heavier than any other mainstream device that dares call itself a phone. I mean, Amazon sells a tablet that's smaller than the Phab2 Pro. This is one instance where I kind of wish the phone was made of plastic just so it wouldn't be so damn heavy.
The size combined with the placement of the Tango sensors on the back make the Phab2 Pro extremely awkward to use. The motion tracking camera is in the perfect place to get smudged with fingers every time you go for the fingerprint sensor. Aside from the ergonomic issues, the Phab2 Pro has very good build quality. It may even make a more effective murder weapon than the Cat S60.
If all you want is a big phone, there are better options. The reason this phone exists is the Tango augmented reality hardware. The specs are otherwise unremarkable. It's not a slow phone, but most other $500 devices will be noticeably faster. This is the only phone that can put dinosaurs in your living room, though.
Google has been working on Tango for long enough that someone had to bite the bullet and release a phone. I guess Lenovo was willing to take the risk. Despite all the development time, Tango doesn't feel very compelling. Oh sure, it's fun to play with, but as the main focus of a phone it's unnecessary. The apps are of limited utility and the games are one-trick ponies.
If Tango has a future, it's not as the headlining feature of a giant phone like the Phab2 Pro. You shouldn't have to make sacrifices to get unproven augmented reality. A single Tango device here and there will never attract enough developer attention, especially if they're as mediocre as the Phab2 Pro. Tango needs to be a common feature in phones, but I don't know if the nature of the sensors makes that feasible—they take up a lot of space in the Phab2 Pro.
I can't think of any good reason to recommend the Phab2 Pro unless you're irrationally interested in using or developing augmented reality apps. For everyone else, your $500 is better spent on other devices.