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Hands-on with Lenovo's Phab 2 Pro: The world's first Tango phone is big, bulky, and super neat

There are numerous technologies that you always hear about, but don’t have access to. For me, Google's Project Tango and its augmented reality tricks have always been those elusive technology teases. I’ve seen how Project Tango is used on the International Space Station, and I've watched from the wings while others have used a development kit. But I never really processed that Project Tango would become legitimate, shipping consumer technology. Until now.

Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro, the first consumer-ready Project Tango smartphone, is coming this September for $499. It’s a ginormous, 6.4-inch device that’s too big to fit into your pocket, but that may not matter, because what it’s capable of doing may make some forgive all its challenges.

The augmented-reality MeaureIt app gives you detailed data on the dimensions of objects in your environment.

The Phab 2 Pro can run many of the same apps that were demoed at Google I/O last month. This includes MeasureIt, which lets you put augmented-reality measuring sticks on top of anything you can point the phone at, and the Lowes app, which helps you visualize how an appliance or light fixture might look in your home.

At Lenovo's Tech World event, I used the Phab 2 Pro to play with an app that plopped augmented-reality dinosaurs onto the demo room floor—at scale! It was pretty remarkable. At one point I had an Archaeopteryx hanging from the ceiling, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex taking up half the room. Each virtual creature acted as its own entity, and I could tap on them individually for more information. That's what a Tango phone like the Phab 2 Pro can do, and it makes up for some of the phone's awkwardness.

The Phab 2 Pro has four cameras: a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera, an infrared depth sensor, and a fish-eye motion sensor. There's also an 8-megapixel front-facing camera for selfie shots.

In terms of raw components, the Phab 2 Pro packs a lot more than your average phablet. For starters, a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera is coupled with an infrared depth-sensor as well as a motion-tracking sensor to aid with augmented reality. The phone also has 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a 4050 mAh battery, and a Snapdragon 652 processor. The processor is supposedly the energy-efficient equivalent of last year’s Snapdragon 810, but it left me feeling a bit pessimistic about the device’s performance.

The Phab 2 Pro suffered from a few slow downs, and I had to force-close and relaunch one AR-enabled app to get it to run smoothly. I later learned that the software featured on the demo devices was not yet final, which would also explain why I had such a hard time taking a decent picture with the Phab 2 Pro’s rear-facing camera.

But at least there’s no bloatware on the Phab 2 Pro, and the interface is as clean as stock Android on a Nexus device.

This isn't Lenovo's next flagship, but it is one of the most impressive phones I've held in a while. 

The Phab 2 Pro isn’t a flagship for Lenovo. It’s a niche phone—a proof-of-concept that's sneaking into retail, and will probably only appeal to hardcore enthusiasts. That said, I have to give it kudos for being more interactive than virtual reality alternatives. A virtual reality headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive might be nice if you want to escape from your everyday doldrums, but what if you could simply make those doldrums better with either helpful or fantastical overlays? Tango does just that, and because the Phab 2 Pro remains a portable smartphone, you can share your experiences with someone else.

IDG Insider

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