Introduction, price, release date and design
Update: We’ve spent even more time with the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro. Check out our updated impressions below!
The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is a phone of firsts, starting with the fact that it’s the first consumer Tango phone.
It’s capable of rendering augmented reality (AR) in real time thanks to a tag team of rear cameras and a host of specialized tech on the inside.
It’s also the first Lenovo-branded phone to come to the US. And it’s the first handset that’s ever tempted me to consider owning a phone that’s more comfortable to hold with two hands than one.
The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro reveal is a long-time coming. The company announced it was the first partner for Google’s consumer Tango phone at CES 2016 in January. Our Senior Mobile Editor Matt Swider was on hand to scoop up key details about the device, but Lenovo wasn’t ready to unveil what it was working on just yet.
At the time, Google said the Tango prototype tablet, coming in at 7 inches, was too big, so the consumer phone would be “under 6.5 inches.” They weren’t exaggerating. The Phab 2 Pro is just that by a hair: it comes in at 6.4 inches.
If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around that measurement, let me put it like this: the Phab 2 Pro is big. It’s bigger than the 5.5-inch iPhone 6S Plus, 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and 5.96-inch Nexus 6. It’s not quite as outrageous as the 6.8-inch Huawei P8 Max, but it pushes the limits of comfort when you’re holding it with one hand.
The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro isn’t big just because it wants to be, however. All the Tango tech has to live somewhere, and it’s actually impressive Lenovo managed to shrink the same sensors found in the powerful Tango tablet into something that passes for a viable handset.
Like all phablets, the Phab 2 Pro straddles the line between phone and tablet, though it’s just on this side on the handset spectrum.
The Phab 2 Pro relies on three things to create an AR experience: motion tracking, depth perception and area learning. It’s imperative that the phone knows where it is in relation to physical objects to accurately integrate your surroundings into whatever Tango application you’re using.
This makes sense when you’re, say, using the Phab 2 Pro to measure a cabinet in a home improvement store to see whether it will fit in your kitchen, but it’s also evident when you’re playing an AR game that has you walking around a room. You feel more in the game thanks to the Phab 2 Pro’s positional awareness. The effect may be subtle in some cases, but it makes a noticeable difference.
The 16MP camera isn’t alone on the rear. There’s also depth and motion sensor cameras, creating a trio of lenses that are integral to the whole Tango system.
That system relies on something Lenovo representatives referred to as the “Tango core.” This is the software that stitches everything together, laying the AR experience on top of the information the phone is gathering from the real world. A Snapdragon 652 processor made for Tango helps everything dance together smoothly.
The result of this mingling of the virtual and real comes to life on the Phab 2 Pro’s display. It’s gorgeous. Curved around the edges to give it a bezel-less look, the Quad-HD (2560 x 1440) 2K IPS screen sparkles whether you’re looking at the home screen, applications, games, or photos. It’s so silky – playing a game or watching a movie on the Phab 2 Pro for hours promises to be a visual treat.
When you strip away the Phab 2 Pro’s Tango flare and display, you’re still left with a good device that rivals some of the industry’s top dogs. You can’t scoff at these credentials: 4GB RAM, 64GB of onboard storage that can be boosted up to 128GB with the microSD slot, Dolby Atmos speakers, Dolby 5.1 audio capture, and a hulking 4,050mAh battery.
Yet, despite being a first-of-its-kind phone with commendable specs to boot, the Phab 2 Pro isn’t a runaway smash. A lot of questions remain, largely because the phone – and all Tango devices – will rely heavily on apps to make them worthwhile.
Price and release date
At $499 (no UK or AU pricing yet), the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is reasonably priced, though you won’t find it as most US retail stores at launch. Instead, it’s heading online, to Best Buy stores and Lowe’s hardware stores, of all places.
This gives you a sense of what Lenovo told me: the Phab 2 Pro is likely going to be an early adopter device or used for specific applications, such as construction, and not a phone for average consumers.
Lenovo isn’t in denial about this, especially considering the Phab 2 Pro’s size, though the representatives told me subsequent Tango devices will be smaller. It’s smart to own up to the Phab 2 Pro’s likeliest user base, because at least then Lenovo isn’t setting itself up for crushing disappointment.
What’s more, it allows breathing room for the Tango ecosystem to grow. The tech is there: now what Google, Lenovo and other OEMs working on consumer Tango devices need are applications.
At launch, the Phab 2 Pro will have 30 Tango-supported applications, reaching 100 by the end of the year. That’s not bad, though, of course, that means a lot will ride on how good and useful those applications are. They may be delightful, or they may be DOA.
If you’re intrigued by the Phab 2 Pro, you’ll unfortunately have to wait until September before you can buy the first Tango phone. It will launch globally, so at least Lenovo and Google are casting a wide net to find potential Phab 2 Pro fans.
The star feature of the Phab 2 Pro is its display. It dazzles with vibrant colors and crisp graphics. Game images are sharp, but there’s also a depth and textual richness to them that makes you feel like you can reach in and touch whatever you’re looking at.
It’s also excellent when you’re using it to view the real world, such as with the MeasureIT application to take measurements of a room around you. It felt like I was getting a true, accurate reading of the wall I was marking up with virtual lines, and it was easy to see the whole wall thanks to the large screen.
One thing I haven’t mentioned about the Phab 2 Pro is that it feels solid in the hand. The Champagne Gold version I tried (there’s a Gunmetal Grey edition coming, too) had a divine brushed metal quality to its chassis. Every time I set the phone down, I found myself almost immediately picking it back up. When I mentioned that I couldn’t stop touching it, the Lenovo representatives smiled knowingly.
The buttons and slots are all delicate and meticulously integrated into the body, so while you feel slight bumps where they are, they hardly protrude. Everything is smooth and flush, and with no physical buttons on the front, embedded camera gear on the back and a curved display, the Phab 2 Pro has a unified feel that’s great in the hand.
Or hands, I should say, because I was most comfortable holding the Phab 2 Pro with two mitts instead of one. You can hold it in one hand, but good luck reaching your thumb around to swipe through applications. You’ll definitely be poking and swiping with your non-phone holding hand with this device.
Holding it sideways with one hand on each end was the most natural position, and I didn’t mind it for the time I used the phone. That may have been because I was primarily playing a game called Blaster on the handset, and it made the most sense to hold it like that while I shot at killer robots and paced around the room.
This is a fine position for playing games, watching TV shows and movies or even reading, but when it comes to other applications, like texting, emailing or using social media, it’s not ideal. You’ll naturally switch to the upright position, which again will require you to utilize one hand to hold and one hand to poke, swipe and click.
Some people might not mind this, but the sheer size of the device is going to limit its appeal, despite the neat stuff you can do with Tango.
Size isn’t everything, of course. There is some serious potential in the Phab 2 Pro and Tango that for some may justify its considerable girth.
Performance and early verdict
There were only two Tango applications on the phone when I first checked it out – the MeasureIT app and Blaster. Blaster was far more graphically complex, though the complexity of what MeasureIT was doing shouldn’t be underestimated. It was stitching together lines between on a wall in front of me, taking readings as I sat in a chair at least 7 feet away.
Applications such as measuring a wall for a paintings or fixtures and placing virtual furniture in a room so you can see what it looks like before you buy are some of the go-to use cases of Tango tech in general, and it was repeated by Lenovo reps when I saw the Phab 2 Pro.
Yes, it’s cool that you can put a virtual couch on the floor in front of you using the tech, but how often are you looking at new furniture? You’re not going to buy a $500 phone so you can have it handy for just such an occasion.
Another area of focus for Tango is indoor navigation, and I do see potential in this. Much relies on Google mapping indoor spaces, such as subway stations and museums, so apps can be built for Tango, but if it’s successful in doing so, it could be a legitimate use for the tech.
One Lenovo representative mentioned using the Phab 2 Pro to take users to the correct subway platform in an unfamiliar city, which anyone who’s scrambled inside a foreign terminal seconds before their train is supposed to arrive can admit would be helpful.
He also pointed out that the large screen gives you better context of your surroundings than a small screen because it shows a wider area. I related to that as I use an iPhone 5 as my primary phone, and often find its 4-inch screen and limited viewing angle restrictive when using Apple Maps. It’d be great to see what’s around me for several blocks and where my destination is in relation to my current location, and the Phab 2 Pro sounds like it can deliver just that.
Yet another time when you’d, I’m told, would want to whip out your Phab 2 Pro is at a museum. You could take a guided AR tour with the GuidiGO, Lenovo says, following a charted course through the exhibits and watching virtual Neanderthals or Leonardo da Vinci come to life on your screen. We actually got to see some of this in action a while ago.
Finally, another case of using the Phab 2 Pro/Tango is to navigate to a certain item in a store. Want to find your favorite cereal without scanning all the aisles? The Phab 2 Pro will take you straight to it. There’s serious retail partner potential here as companies could make Tango apps to guide shoppers straight to their products, or pop up advertisements when the phone senses they are near a particular brand. This is no doubt part of the Tango plan.
Unfortunately, the Phab 2 Pro I tried had none of these applications, so I was told about them… again. The tech is definitely there to make them work, and they’ll rendered sharply on the Phab 2 Pro’s screen when they’re ready.
But besides navigation and gaming/entertainment, I can’t see myself using these oft-touted apps all that often. I shop at the same stores, so I know where to find most items. I travel but don’t mind being a little lost – it’s part of the adventure – though there are times when I can’t read the subway sign (or there are none) and I’ve missed my train. In those moments, maybe owning a Phab 2 Pro would be worth the space it takes up in my pocket.
When it comes to using the Phab 2 Pro for its Tango powers, the tech will be there to support any applications that come its way. The unknowns are, will developers make enough AR applications to make all it and other Tango devices worthwhile, and how good will they be?
The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro has a ton going for it, and it offers enough in addition to Tango that maybe, just maybe, it will find a mainstream following. It’s highly doubtful, especially considering its size, but there’s no denying the Phab 2 Pro is a well-constructed device that pays close attention to detail. This is no developer unit that will put off consumers who are used to finished products.
As lovely as they were to look at during my demo, the Phab 2 Pro’s AR capabilities feel like they’re itching to show off what they can really do. Graphics are precisely rendered – I’d put them above what I’ve seen in the Microsoft HoloLens in terms of sharpness and color saturation and on par when it comes to real-time rendering capability. These aren’t true-to-life representations, but are as graphically sound as anything you’d find on a high-end phone – and it’s all happening right before your eyes.
Despite its powers, Tango still feels like a caged tiger. It’s starting to break out with the Phab 2 Pro, but Tango needs more complex apps to escape its furniture-arranging mold and truly take our breaths away.
While the Phab 2 Pro is a very nice phone, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not going to catch on in the way Lenovo and Google hope. It will rely heavily on apps for success, and while its reasonable price only helps, I worry this is another novelty device that won’t entice consumers away from the iPhones and Androids they’re used to. It may be another Google Glass, though at least it’s in a familiar form factor that’s easier to swallow.
Yes, the Phab 2 Pro offers something unique from every other handset on the market, and maybe I’ll end up wrong. Maybe in time, the Tango phone wave will catch on, the apps will be fun, helpful and downright necessary for many folks, and we’ll all be playing games walking around our living rooms and following imaginary lines in the subway station and placing furniture all over our house without lifting a finger.
But that’s a lot of maybes.
The Phab 2 Pro is a first-of-its-kind phone, and it’s the first in what will be a line of Tango consumer devices. It’s an excellent effort, and were I larger of hand and wallet, I might buy one for the heck of it.
Thankfully, Lenovo is keeping expectations low. It’s not over-promising, and it’s not looking for a runaway best seller. Google and Lenovo are aiming for a slow burn, which is wise when introducing a new technology.
The problem though is that if no one buys the Phab 2 Pro, then it’s not going to get the apps it needs to be a success. And it’s not just the Phab 2 Pro’s success we’re talking about, but Tango as a whole.
The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro makes a lot of right moves, but it’s best dance partner – apps – are still missing. They’ll show up in time, but by then, Tango may have fallen out of step.