Review: Lenovo Phab 2 Pro Tango Phone

January 19, 2017 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Highlight – Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro is more than just a phone; it’s a gateway to new worlds.

When Google first debuted its Project Tango idea a few years ago, many in the tech industry were blown away. Sporting accurate modeling of the real world, including accurately measuring distances and volume of objects, Tango was looking to be one of the more interesting ideas that Google had cooked up in its X Labs division. Now that Project Tango has graduated to full-scale product and been re-branded to just Tango, Lenovo is the first hardware partner to bring a supported device to market with the Phab 2 Pro. Is this a great phone that just so happens to have Tango capabilities, or will you be primarily looking to this as a Tango device that just so happens to be a phone? Let’s take a closer look.

Specs

Given that the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is the first Tango phone to market, you might expect top of the line specs for such a powerhouse project. What you’ll find might be a little disappointing if you’re just looking for raw specs on paper, but the Phab 2 Pro still offers plenty to be excited over. Sporting a massive 6.4-inch Quad-HD (2560 x 1440 pixels) resolution, the IPS Assertive display on the front also has 2.5D glass with smudge and scratch resistance. Under the hood sits a 4,050mAh battery, 64GB internal storage and 4GB RAM. MicroSD cards are supported for expandable storage up to 128GB, and fit in the dual nano-SIM slot. A custom Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor is inside, which has been specifically built for Tango devices. Dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds are supported, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.

On the front sits an 8-megapixel camera with f/2.2 lens and 1.4-micron pixel size. The cameras on the back are where the real meat is, and you’ll find not just a 16-megapixel camera with PDAF focusing, but also a depth sensor, as well as a motion sensor with fish-eye lens. Back here also sits a fingerprint scanner. The device is rather large, measuring in at 179.8mm high, 88.5mm wide and 10.7mm thick, although the curved back means the smaller sections are only 6.9mm thin. The all-aluminum frame also weighs a hefty 259 grams, or nearly double the average smartphone. Lenovo is selling the Phab 2 Pro in Champagne Gold and Gunmetal Gray colors, of which our review unit is the latter.

In The Box

It’s difficult to not immediately notice just how tall this box is. The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro comes in an absolutely gargantuan box, and gives you a good idea of just how big the phone is without opening that box first. Inside is the equally large phone, as well as a few goodies. The usual suite of manuals and warranty guides sit above the wall charger, USB cable and SIM eject tool. Lenovo also throws in a pair of earbud headphones for your listening pleasure, which are great for an extra pair or in case you don’t yet have some.

Display


At 6.4-inches there’s no mistaking the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro for a regular sized phone. In fact the Phab 2 Pro absolutely dwarfs what most would call big phones (Galaxy S7 Edge, Google Pixel XL, etc.). Not having the nearly non-existent bezels of the Xiaomi Mi MIX means this one might sport the same size screen, but overall the device is significantly larger. The size of the screen is obviously intended to provide greater viewing into the world of augmented reality, something we’ll cover a bit later. Quality of the screen overall is sub-standard for a Quad-HD IPS LCD display, and even though the pixel density is nice and high, there are a few factors that end up making this one come up short of the mark. First off the refresh rate and persistence rate of the pixels is higher than many displays, often times leaving trails behind objects as they move on screen. This is more apparent when scrolling through icons or walls of text, as things will blur while moving, making the display feel old.

As usual with IPS displays, the black levels are always going to be more of a dark gray than an actual black. The brighter the backlight, the more pronounced this issue becomes, but it’s most noticeable when watching movies and other content where darker scenes might play a more prominent role on screen. Surprisingly the panel itself is quite dim, a case that becomes very apparent when auto brightness is enabled. It almost feels like auto brightness is calibrated to a completely different panel, simply because the level of light being put out by the display is almost always too dark for any situation you’re in. This means the display is very easy on the eyes in a dark environment, but you’ll likely struggle when viewing things outdoors. Color temperature and white balance are quite good, if not just a tad on the warm side, but usually edging towards warm is more comfortable on human eyes anyway.

Hardware and Build

To call something a tank is superfluous in most cases, but in the Phab 2 Pro’s case it’s definitely an accurate description. This phone isn’t just big, and easily encroaches on the size of small 7-inch tablets, but it’s also heavy and built completely of a solid piece of metal. The all-aluminum chassis curves on the back, resembling a trend that Android phones used to mostly adhere to, but one that has subsided in 2016 as a whole. At this size, however, the curve is something wholly essential to even making it relatively reasonable to hold with a single hand, but at this size you’re not likely to be interacting with it too much via a single hand. At a weight of 259 grams, it’s about 100 grams heavier than the average phone out there, and as such it’s going to feel quite heavy no matter what you do.  It’s also just slightly heavier on the bottom of the phone than the top, something that might throw some people off if they’re used to a more evenly balanced phone.

On the bottom sits a single speaker to the right of the centered microUSB port, while a microphone array hides inside the left “speaker” grille. It seems odd for Lenovo to include a microUSB port on a $500 phone in 2016, but at least it supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 technology. The left side holds the SIM tray, while the right side holds a textured metal power button, with a smooth metal volume rocker placed just above it. Given the size of the phone I found the position of these buttons to be uncomfortable, especially while trying to adjust volume during a phone call. Up top is a 3.5mm audio jack placed nearly to the left corner of the phone. Underneath the screen sits a trio of capacitive touch buttons, designed to visually look like Google’s triangle, square and circle back, overview and home buttons. The back of the phone holds all the Tango-related hardware, and it’s this array of perfectly centered lenses and sensors that make the back of the Phab 2 Pro look almost foreboding.

The giant fish-eye lens that sits just above the fingerprint scanner is not actually the 16-megapixel camera, rather it’s the motion sensing camera. Above it is one of the triple-array microphones found on the phone, followed by a dual-LED flash. Yet still above that is a pair of sensors including an IR depth sensor that can be seen blinking while using Tango apps, and at the top sits the 16-megapixel main camera. The only issue I had with this design is that I constantly found myself touching the fish-eye lens on the back rather than the fingerprint scanner to unlock the phone. While the fingerprint scanner sits recessed inside the body just slightly, the fish-eye lens is completely flat, as the fish-eye components are actually underneath a second layer of protective glass, meaning there’s little tactile difference to your finger when feeling blindly.

Performance and Memory

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 652 is a mid-range SoC in every regard, but that doesn’t mean every day performance is going to feel slow or clunky in most cases. Apps generally launch quickly, and responsiveness of touch and other performance related parts of the phone feel fast enough to fit a 2016 phone. It’s not as fast as any of the 2016 flagship phones out there, and that’s something that’s a bit disappointing at the end of the day given the price of the phone. What’s really disappointing is that considerably more budget-minded phones that launched this year, like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 outperform it, but on the bright side it outperforms 2015 flagships without much of a fuss.

Multi-tasking performance is pretty good, but again 4GB of RAM might make you think performance should be better than it actually is. In general you’ll be able to scroll back a handful of apps before you find any reloading, but more memory intensive apps tend to reload rather quickly when switching. Gaming performance is surprisingly good given that this is a mid-range chipset with an ultra high resolution screen. The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro had no issues running the latest in Mobile gaming experiences like Deus Ex GO and Assassin’s Creed: Identity. Tango games are far more process intensive though, and this is unfortunately where you’re going to notice the specific lack of oomph in the hardware. Tango games often times will run at quite a bit lower than 30FPS, and while they are still very much playable, it’s obvious this phone doesn’t feature the top of the line mobile chipsets.

Benchmarks

As expected from the Snapdragon 652, it benchmarks at or above last year’s flagship devices. That means chipsets like the Snapdragon 810, and especially the Snapdragon 808, get left in the dust by this phone’s 2016 mid-range parts. Check the benchmark scores below for all the numbers.

Wireless Connectivity

Being a fully certified phone for the US market, the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro works perfectly on GSM-based US networks, including full 4G LTE coverage. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is supported here too, so you’ll be hearing crystal clear HD Voice when the person on the other end uses a supported phone as well. As stated in the specs section, Bluetooth 4.0 and dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds are supported, but there is oddly no support for NFC. This is definitely a missed opportunity as it means no support for Android Pay or other NFC features. There’s also no WiFi Calling support either, but dual nano-SIM slots mean you can take this phone roaming and not having to worry about coverage in other countries. There are some advanced calling features and gesture though, like a smart ringer volume feature that lowers the ringer volume when the phone is picked up, answering the phone call when placing the phone on your face, and even advanced in-call noise cancellation.

Battery Life

Sporting a massive battery that’s 30% larger than the average phablet’s battery, as well as a mid-range chipset means you should expect some killer battery life. In general Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro delivers in this area, providing great overall battery life, as well as some very good heavy usage battery life too. Oddly enough in the Futuremark battery test we run on every phone, the Phab 2 Pro scored quite a bit lower than expected given the battery size, coming in at around 6.5 hours of heavy usage time before needing a top-up. This isn’t screen on time, rather a calculated amount of time the phone can continue running heavy tasks before needing to be charged.

Screen on time was definitely good in regular use though, with heavy days normally resulting in well over 5 hours of screen on time by the end of the day. Tango applications will drain the battery significantly faster than other applications simply because of the number of cameras and sensors they use to function, so it’s entirely possible this is a specific design to help cut down on battery drainage, however unlikely that may be. Folks that regularly use Tango apps will find battery life to be around the average smartphone’s battery life, while little Tango app usage will put the phone squarely above average.

Sound

Just as Lenovo features Dolby Atmos premium virtual surround capabilities on its tablets, Lenovo is also packing the same fantastic support on the Phab 2 Pro. For those not aware of the phenomenal virtual surround sound that Dolby Atmos can provide, you may want to do a little further research into its capabilities before truly understanding what this means for experiences. What’s more is that the Phab 2 Pro actually records in Dolby Atmos 5.1 quality as well, utilizing a triple-array of microphones to accurately capture positional audio throughout situations. This is of course best enjoyed when watching videos that were recorded by the Phab 2 Pro, but such capabilities are of course also utilized in any video or game that supports the Atmos codec. To get the full effect you’ll either need headphones that support the playback, or a stereo system that does.

We had some issues with the headphone jack on the top of the unit which resulted in extra noise and static being discharged on the speakers of the audio systems the phone was plugged into, but this is a hardware issue that would be covered under warranty rather than a design flaw. Sound coming from the speaker at the bottom of the unit was incredibly impressive, and delivered far more full and clear sound than most single bottom-firing speakers on the market do. It’s incredible to think that there’s only one speaker when listening to audio coming from the Phab 2 Pro’s speaker, as the volume and clarity, paired with what sounds like a far more spatial representation of the sound is fantastic. It’s clear there are some Dolby Atmos enhancements even with this single speaker, and it really helps bring audio to life.

Software

Lenovo is a tad bit behind in software updates on the Phab 2 Pro, running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with the December 2016 security patch as of this writing. That’s certainly disappointing, and something you wouldn’t necessarily expect given the fact that Lenovo’s skin is now very stock looking and feeling, but also because this is the first Tango phone to market. There are a few additions to the settings portion of the phone over stock Android Marshmallow, including a double-tap-to-wake feature, and some features that help make the large size of the phone a bit more palatable. A floating shortcut tray can be enabled, which pops up a small, transparent button that can be moved around the screen. This button gives quick access to commonly used features and apps like calculator, flashlight, recorder, etc. You can also select up to 7 apps to place on a second quick access row within this hovering button, allowing you to launch your most frequently used apps from anywhere.

What’s really special here of course is the Tango implementation on the phone, which opens up a whole new set of apps and options to play with that no other phone on the market currently can. Tango is an augmented reality system that enables the phone to spatially recognize the world around it, and gives the device the ability to build virtual worlds that are 100% scale accurate to the real world. This is done via the array of sensors on the back of the phone, and a brand new set of permissions to access all these sensors and new abilities. So far developers have released games and apps that go along with this new ecosystem, and while some of these developers are new brands and individuals, some are very established, big players. Google has a dedicated Tango app that allows users to find new and existing Tango apps and games all from a single user interface, all with descriptions and links to the Play Store listings.

Tango Apps

Let’s start by covering productivity apps, which so far seem to fit into a few new categories we’ve never seen before. The first up is product preview apps, which allow you to preview how a product will look in your real-world space via Tango’s rich location mapping technology. So far a handful of big companies have jumped on board this bandwagon, including Lowes, Amazon and Wayfair. Lowes was the first to announce a Tango partnership of this size, and we actually saw this one running on the Tango dev tablet at CES 2016, however the one released now is of course the consumer version. The Lowes Vision app allows users to select practically anything from Lowes product catalog, from appliances to flooring and even home decor items. This allows you to view an actual product in your home or other personal space without having to buy the thing or rely on stock pictures to match.

Lots of app choices already

Wayfair offers the same opportunity, with a slightly different product catalog in some cases, but plenty of options for flooring and other decor objects. Amazon’s product offering is a little more limited right now, as it is only designed to show TVs the largest online retailer in the world currently stocks. This of course is invaluable if you’re looking for a new TV and aren’t sure how big of a TV you can realistically get, or how the design of the TV would go with the furniture in a certain room. Supported products will no doubt be expanded in the future, especially as more Tango-enabled phones make their way to market, but these all offer incredible ways of previewing products in your own home before having to buy them, and possibly return them because they don’t fit.

There are also some interesting spatial measurement tools that can either come in handy, or at the very least are quite fun to play around with. Google packs its own Measure tool in, which allows users to measure actual space down to the centimeter, giving you a way to arbitrarily measure objects that might otherwise be difficult to pinpoint. Google has taken steps to make measuring in 3D Space quite a bit easier thanks to identifying the edges of objects and highlighting them in green, giving you snap points and ways to connect measured shapes and lines. This could be used to measure the space for putting a new rug or appliance in, or for measuring existing objects for any reason imaginable.

Another example of an innovative app utilizing Tango’s many sensors is Acoustitools, which allows users to mark the location of speakers throughout a room in order to calculate sound levels. This doesn’t just help determine the decibel level that humans would hear at a specific point in the room, but also allows for easy calculation of the delay between speakers. This is integral in getting the sound right in a room, particularly a large room like a concert hall, where there would be several milliseconds of delay without tuning, resulting in a nasty echo that’s never a pleasant experience. The spatial orientation and area learning abilities of Tango are simply unmatched by any other tool on the market. It doesn’t matter how much you walk around, whether or not you’re pointing the phone at the floor, ceiling or other objects in the room; Tango knows exactly where you’re at in the room and doesn’t miss a beat.

It’s simply mind blowing to use these features, and there’s tons of different experiences in the Play Store to have too.  Google has even begun partnering with other resources in the world, like museums, and providing Tango users with ways to interact with museum exhibits like never before. It’s this outreach for Tango apps and programs that is quickly making owning a Tango-enabled device, like the Phab 2 Pro, something of a necessity simply to try these new experiences. Check out our video above for a highlight on some of the amazing Tango apps out there, running on the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro.

Tango Games

Like the Tango apps out there on the Play Store right now, games built specifically for Tango seem to follow a handful of different templates. The most familiar augmented reality experience folks will recognize are the ones that attempt to overlay virtual objects over real world ones. Many people’s only first hand experience with these types of games are probably with Pokemon GO, where the game essentially appears to place a Pokemon a few feet in front of where the player is standing, however this illusion is quickly broken the moment the player moves. It’s obvious the game is just placing a virtual object over the video from the phone’s camera, and the Pokemon appears in the same “physical” location away from the camera no matter what moves or what gets in the way. Tango games work completely differently, and you’ll find games actually take a moment upon launch to scan the world around them.

Of course there are virtual pets

Take Towers for Tango, for instance, a game we covered in our Tango gaming spotlight video a few weeks ago. This game places a virtual tower in real world space, allowing you to take control of the building process, day-to-day management and even get up and personal with virtual people in the game. The tower isn’t just allowed to be put any old place though, the game will actually let you know if there’s something physical in the way, like a wall or piece of furniture, that would hinder your movement around the tower. Looking at the tower through the phones makes it actually appear like it’s there; when you move around the tower it’s as if the phone’s screen acts as a portal to another world, giving you a piece of glass to look through to see every single nook and cranny of your tower and its surrounding city block.

Another type of game features similar physical movement around a space, however instead of showing any of the real world, it shows only the virtual world mapped to real physical space. Hot Wheels Track Builder features a fully sized virtual room in which to build the Hot Wheels track of you’ve always dreamt about, but maybe didn’t want to spend the money to get such an elaborate structure. This virtual world contains life-sized tables, shelves on the wall and other places to bring tracks, including plenty of challenge courses and points to earn. Players literally walk around in physical space, pointing at the place they want to drop the next track piece, and can then follow the miniature Hot Wheels cars around their track. Combine this with the ability to place dominoes and trains and you’ve got something every little boy will immediately love.

It’s this interaction with the virtual space via real-world movements that makes Tango games more immersive than any other mobile game out there. Traditionally mobile games have been significantly held back because the only guaranteed way to interface with them is via a touch screen. While touch screens are nice for providing an unlimited number of virtual inputs, the way human fingers interact with such inputs is limited simply because of the lack of tactile feedback. Tango games get around some of these limitations by offering players the ability to naturally walk around the room, zoom in and out of objects by simply moving the phone forward or backward, and other types of natural movement. This isn’t swipe or gesture-based movement though, it’s perfect 1:1 scale movement with your body, making you truly feel like your phone is a window to another dimension that exists side-by-side with this one. Check out our AR Gaming video above to get an idea of how this works.

Camera Software

The default camera app included on the Phab 2 Pro is about as basic as a camera app can be nowadays. Essential functions like a dedicated camera shutter button and dedicated video record button are here, and are incredibly useful when compared to phones that require you to first switch between modes in order to use these crucial functions. Aside from this you’ll find a button to open the gallery of pictures taken, along with a row of icons on top that toggle between front and rear cameras, toggle HDR, toggle flash and a settings button. Inside of settings you’ll find options for where to save the picture, adjusting the scene and exposure levels, toggling countdown and shutter sound, as well as white balance and photo/video resolution. There are no special modes in this particular camera, just the basics of what needs to be there in order to snap a quick photo of what’s happening.

In addition to the standard camera app, Lenovo includes a few different types of specialized camera apps on the Phab 2 Pro. AR camera is one of these apps and is similar to Sony’s AR camera app, allowing you to place virtual objects in real-world situations so that you can take pictures and interact with the virtual characters. The difference here of course is that fact that the virtual objects are actually “there,” allowing you to fully walk around them to get shots of the environment in which they reside, as well as fully interact with these virtual pets of sorts. Another camera app from Lenovo is the Cinematic app, which gives 3 different cinematically diverse apps to create videos with. These apps utilize Tango’s additional cameras and sensors to create interesting visual effects in videos, however their use is a bit limited due to some performance issues. There is a noticeable delay when moving at all, where the viewfinder in the app is about a second behind actual movement in the real world. This is distracting and makes things difficult to shoot, although some people may find that they are able to get used to it after a while.

Camera Performance and Results

As far as cameras go at the end of 2016 and early into 2017, The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro’s camera is a pretty decent shooter. Sporting 16-megapixel resolution, you’ll find that good shots from the Phab 2 Pro certainly look great, but it’s a little more difficult to nail a good shot with this phone than with other flagships 2016 delivered. One of the biggest issues with this is the framerate of the viewfinder, which is typically quite low and often becomes distracting when taking a picture. This means the experience feels laggy at best, and at worst feels like the phone is slightly behind in any action you are trying to capture.

Launch speed is pretty good, and in general the camera can launch from screen off to shutter-ready in about 3 seconds. Double tapping the power button launches the camera no matter what you’re doing, screen off or on, and gives users a quick and reliable way to access this integral feature to modern life. Focus speed is quite quick, with focus times in well under half a second and auto-focusing happening almost as soon as you move the camera, whereas some phones will wait a few seconds before trying to re-focus the scene.

Image quality in general is pretty good, but is a bit disappointing for a $500 phone this day in age. 16-megapixels means that the resolution of the camera is almost never a problem, and in great lighting you’ll find the photos often rival that of the best smartphones on the market, but the scenarios you need to be in to fall in this category are few and far between. Photos taken with the Phab 2 Pro aren’t bad by any means, but they are much more in line with what we expect from a phone half its price, including the performance from the viewfinder as mentioned previously. Photos in lower light suffer from slow shutter speed, which is a shame because overall processing is pretty good in general and exhibits good zoom detail even when venturing in poorly lit areas.

The pixels on this sensor are quite small due to needing to fit 16-megapixels’ worth on a smartphone-sized sensor, and as such struggle to grab light in very low light situations when compared to some other flagships on the market. Video is decent, however the chipset used in the Phab 2 Pro means that it’s only able to take up to 1080p 30FPS video, nothing higher regardless of what the $500 price tag might lead one to believe. Non-4K recording from a $500 phone in late 2016/early 2017 is more than disappointing, and ensures that videos taken from the Phab 2 Pro will look dated much faster than if it supported the higher resolution the sensor is able to. Dynamic range, color reproduction and detail are all pretty average, and while there aren’t any real complaints, there aren’t any high points to video recording on this phone. Check out the gallery below for all the shots taken during the review period.

The Good

Metal build as solid as they come

Giant screen (for some)

3.5mm audio jack

Dolby Atmos 5.1 playback and recording

Tango capabilities are mind-blowing

Tango ecosystem has a great start

VoLTE support

The Bad

Giant screen (for others)

Very heavy

Not the fastest SoC for the price

Poor performance in some apps, especially heavy Tango apps (ironically)

Average camera at best

No 4K recording

Average battery life

Below average screen quality

No NFC

Conclusion

Lenovo’s Phab 2 Pro is really one incredible phone, but it doesn’t achieve this landmark by way of the average smartphone. This gargantuan, heavy beast eclipses practically all other phones on the market in sheer size and weight, something that’s become a bit of a pariah in modern smartphone design outside of a few niche products. The Phab 2 Pro isn’t the fastest phone you’ll buy, it isn’t the cheapest, and it doesn’t have the best screen or camera around, especially for this price range. What it does offer are unique opportunities that you simply cannot experience anywhere else, and it’s those experiences, powered by Google’s Tango ecosystem, that make this phone a must look for those tired of the same old smartphone machinations. Lenovo has crafted a unique experience here that defies what we’ve come to expect from a $500 phone near the end of 2016, and departed into a completely new category of devices that deserve their own pricing structure and perception. Give this one a serious thought, because flaws aside, it truly is an amazing device.

Buy The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro