And you're in luck if you've been looking for a smarter alternative to the traditional home button. There's an option for a floating on-screen button that provides quick access to all three traditional Android navigation keys, plus the screen lock, calculator, audio recorder and flashlight. I don't know about you, but I don't need to whip out a calculator all that often, so the inability to change any of those shortcuts is a little frustrating. You can add a second page of app shortcuts too, though the resulting grid of icons looks pretty ugly.
Lenovo's light touch with software is appreciated, but it's far from perfect. Certain apps (here's looking at you, Gmail) offer notifications that are hard to read because some of the text is too dark against the translucent-gray notification shade. The problem is even worse when you're using a dark wallpaper, and surprise: A good chunk of the included wallpapers, including the one that's on by default, do indeed fall into that category.
Life with Tango
As I write this, there are 35 Tango apps available in the Google Play Store, and broadly speaking, they fall into one of two categories: tools and games. I'm not going to dissect all of them -- not unless you all really, really want me to -- but there are recurring themes across these apps that speak to the larger experience of living with Tango.
Despite all the whimsical, weird stuff we've seen Tango do in the past, Google is making it clear the tech can help you get stuff done, too. The Phab 2 Pro ships with Google's Measure app, for one, which does exactly what its name suggests. Fire up the app, point at something, tap to drop an anchor, then tap to drop an anchor at that something's endpoint. Congratulations, you just measured something without having to grab a tape measure. The Lowe's Vision app has a similar trick, and when Tango's sensors cooperate, the results can be very accurate indeed.
That's definitely not a given, though. Let's say you're measuring the edge of a box or a desk. The depth sensor sometimes has trouble figuring out where the edge begins, and you have to maneuver just right to tap on the correct spot. (To Google's credit, Measure says it offers estimates instead of hard numbers.)
Tango recurring theme No. 1: The Phab 2 Pro occasionally fails at figuring out what it's pointed at, even in bright conditions.
Speaking of, we've seen Lowe's app used in Tango demos for ages now. In fact, the Phab 2 Pro will even be sold in select Lowe's stores. Even so, it's still fun filling an empty room with virtual ovens, sofas and end tables. Online retailer Wayfair has a similar app, which generally seems to work much better; the dressers and couches and cabinets I've dropped into the world around me were faster to load and didn't randomly appear right on top of me as in the Lowe's app. In fact, the Wayfair app is a joy to use at least partially because it doesn't try to do too much -- just plop furniture down, and that's it. Same goes for Amazon's Product Preview app, which lets you see how different TVs would look on your wall. It does one thing, and does it well.
Tango recurring theme No. 2: When it comes to augmented reality apps, the simpler the better.
Tango's tools aren't just about seeing how junk fits in your home, by the way. One of my early favorites is Signal Mapper, which prompts you to wander around and visualize how strong your WiFi signal is (future versions will support cellular networks, too). Keep at it long enough, and you're left with a signal-strength heat map that doubles as a rough blueprint of... wherever you happen to be. Then there are apps like Cydalion, meant to help visually impaired persons get around more easily. In brief, these apps provide audio and touch feedback when someone gets too close to a nearby object.
Tango recurring theme No. 3: The technology might not be perfect yet, but the potential here is just astounding.
So, yes, there are plenty of Tango utilities for you to play with. But let's be real: The first thing I did after receiving the Phab 2 Pro was load up a handful of games. As it turns out, though, games are where Tango's shortcomings become most apparent. We've seen some of these augmented-reality games before, like Domino World, which scans your surroundings and lets you build convoluted structures out of those tiny tiles. But there's a tendency for the app to think a flat surface like a tabletop goes is longer than it really is, so you'll often build a long string of dominos that jut out into the air, just waiting to be knocked over.
Other games, like Woorld, are heavier on the whimsy. Designed in part by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, Woorld turns the space around you into a playground where the only real goal is figuring out how to find new pieces -- like a sun, clouds, sprouts and picnic tables -- to add your tiny domain. It's cute, it's fun and I blew the better part of an afternoon on it. Woorld is, by the way, the one game I played that really threw the Phab 2 Pro for a loop. It was the second time I had fired up the game, and less than 10 minutes after I started plopping cottages and clouds and sprouts on a conference room desk, the real-world view provided by the RGB camera nearly ground to a halt.
I'm not exactly sure what caused the issue -- maybe a memory leak somewhere -- but it hasn't happened again. Suffice to say, this sort of laggy behavior was an exception, not the rule. I'm actually still surprised that the Phab 2 Pro performed these AR tasks as well as it did, but I probably shouldn't have been: This phone was supposed to launch at the end of the summer, and it's clear Google and Lenovo used the extra time to do some tightening up.
Even so, the software is buggy. Playing Phantogeist, the ghost-blasting game I mentioned in the beginning of this review, was great until said ghost spookily hunkered down inside a wall, rendering my lightning-gun-thing useless. When it wandered back into the field, I nuked it from a distance and continued doing that to all its nasty, noncorporeal friends.
Tango recurring theme No. 4: When everything works the way it's supposed to, Tango can feel like magic.
These past two years have turned Tango into a functional product, but it's a long way from seamlessly good. There were, however, plenty of those moments where everything came together just so and I felt I like I was playing with a tricorder pulled out of storage on the USS Enterprise. Some of these issues will be addressed in future Tango hardware -- Google's Tango program lead Johnny Lee has said more is coming -- but here's hoping software fixes patch up some of these early troubles. The potential benefits are just too great to give up on.
Since the Phab 2 Pro's 16-megapixel camera plays such an important role in making Tango's augmented reality work, you'd think Lenovo would've chosen a top-flight sensor. Not quite, but it has its moments. When the conditions are right -- by which I mean there's plenty of light -- the camera yields detailed shots with colors that are mostly true to life. Pro tip: You'll probably want HDR mode on all the time to give your photos a dose of verve that would otherwise be missing.
My biggest gripe so far has been the finicky autofocus, an issue that only gets more bothersome in low light. Our office already has a Christmas tree in the lobby, and it posed no problem for the iPhone 7 Plus or the Galaxy S7. The Phab 2 Pro, on the other hand, refused to lock onto the tree no matter how many times I tapped to focus on the screen. This doesn't happen all the time, but it's a pervasive enough issue that Lenovo should really issue a software update to address it.
I wish I could say the 8-megapixel front camera was better, but it has a lot of trouble accurately rendering colors in selfies. Take me, for example: Around this time of year I'm sort of a pale, milky coffee color, an observation backed up by selfies taken with the iPhone 7 Plus and the Galaxy S7. For reasons beyond comprehension, though, the Phab 2 Pro's front camera made me a deep orange-brown. That's with the face-smoothing mode off and everything else set to auto, too. Seriously disappointing, Lenovo.