Reviews

HTC U11 Review: Better than the Pixel

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To beat the best, you have to know their product, learn from it, and make something even grander.

That’s the formula HTC followed: Manufacturer the Pixel under Google’s guidance, study Android’s blueprints, and create a smartphone with all that in mind.


The process took a while to complete — over half a year after the Pixel launched — but the U11 with its shimmering back speaks for itself. I can tell you as early as now that it beats Google’s flagship at its own game.

Except, the wasn’t very clear at first. HTC’s marketing push for the U11 highlights the gimmicky Edge Sense feature, which allows you to squeeze the handset for a function of your choice. Heck, the primary slogan is “Squeeze for the Brilliant U.” It’s a shame, since this smartphone isn’t some one-trick pony.

I admit to constantly using Edge Sense for activating the LED flashlight; being able to grip the phone a little harder in total darkness is a lot more useful than you’d expect. But for me, that’s as far as its usefulness goes.

I’d rather say “Okay, Google” to activate Google Assistant from standby, double-press the power button to turn on the camera app at anytime, or simply swipe through my app drawer and settings to access everything else.

There were times when Edge Sense would simply get in the way. An accidental squeeze meant shining a bright flash on my light-sensitive eyes — or worse, at an unsuspecting friend or stranger in the elevator (the latter actually happened).

Sure, you could adjust the pressure sensitivity of the feature, but delving any further into the gimmick meant missing out on the U11’s true strengths, namely the camera, silky smooth performance, and surprisingly, the incredible battery life.

Let’s start with the camera. As mentioned in our launch article, the U11 currently has the highest-rated smartphone shooter in the world based on DxOMark’s well-respected test. A score of 90 puts it above the 89 points of the former champ, the — you guessed it — Google Pixel.

As a preacher of real-world experience over fancy digits on data sheets, I have to agree with the numbers for once and say that HTC’s pride and joy does indeed edge out the Google phone by a… pixel. That says a lot, because the Pixel handily won our smartphone camera comparison earlier this year, and competed quite well against the more advanced Samsung Galaxy S8.

On top of that, the U11 comes with this thing called 3D audio recording, which maximizes the four microphones installed on the phone to record sound from all directions during video shooting. It also amplifies audio from where you zoom in, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference, even with the pleasantly loud stereo speakers (one on the bottom for bass and another in the earpiece for highs and mids).

While we’re on the topic of sounds, let’s get this out of the way: This phone does not have a 3.5mm audio port. It sucks, and is something I have to deal with whenever I want to hook it up to my car’s speakers or any of my old non-wireless headphones. Sure, there’s a USB-C to audio jack adapter in the box, but that doesn’t solve the issue of charging while being plugged in.

HTC feels like it did enough though for audiophiles. Another bundled accessory is a pair of USonic adaptive earphones that plug directly into the phone’s lonely USB-C port. The “adaptive” part means the earphones adjust their output to the shape of your ears for a more optimized listening experience. If that doesn’t sound (pun intended?) high-tech enough, know that they come with active noise cancellation, as well — perfect for shutting out noisy officemates or that loud, never-ending construction outside your window.

Talking about how great the audio-visual splendor of the U11 is, you almost forget that this phone is, again, marketed as that handset you squeeze. That’s the point I’m trying to drive at: You have to look beyond what the brochures say to see how great this phone truly is. And I haven’t even begun focusing on performance or battery life yet.

The U11 is one of the few smartphones blessed with Qualcomm’s super-fast, incredibly efficient Snapdragon 835 chipset. Although not the first to make use of it — hot picks like the Galaxy S8, OnePlus 5, and Sony Xperia XZ Premium were ahead of the curve — HTC somehow managed to, ehem, squeeze out more of the processor’s potential.

Having reviewed all the aforementioned phones, I can claim with certainty that the U11 is just as fast as any of them, despite HTC applying the heaviest Android skin of the bunch. Its Sense UI feels — how do I put this — outdated. Having a separate button for the app drawer, no continuous scrolling for the app library, and unintuitive main settings and quick settings layout feels like I’m back in 2016.

I’ve given so much praise to the OnePlus 5 (and Pixel last year) for its steroid-fueled fluidity, but this phone can definitely compete. Extra credit goes to the variant I was privileged enough to review; it has 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage, both of which are still generous by today’s standards.

So, wait. Wouldn’t all that power translate to terrible battery life? On the contrary, the U11 has beastly endurance considering how smallish the capacity is (only 3000mAh) and how densely packed the pixels on the display are (a resolution of 2560 x 1440 within a 5.5-inch LCD).

I seriously wasn’t expecting a single charge to last this long. With moderate usage, which entails holding back on checking Instagram and Facebook every hour, I can get through Saturday morning to Sunday night without turning to the charger.

On weekdays, when I must be on my phone every waking minute, I can still manage over five hours of screen-on time before the battery cries for juice at the end of the day. That’s mighty impressive! Other smartphones with the same internals average around four hours of screen-on time during the same span; in comparison, the battery life kings of Xiaomi, specifically the Mi Mix and Redmi Note 4X, get up to six hours.

It’s possible to extend its life even further by turning off constantly active features like Sense Edge and Google Assistant’s voice detection. As you’d expect, I wouldn’t mind deactivating the former for greater longevity, but the latter is another reminder why the U11 trumps the Pixel.

You see, the Pixel was such a hit last year for offering two things: the best-performing camera in the market and exclusive access to Google Assistant at the time. As you can already tell, the U11 has both and more. In addition, HTC solved another one of the Google phone’s problems: waterproofing.

Yes, the U11 isn’t just a pretty sight; it has IP67-rated water and dust resistance, which is a technical way of saying it can withstand accidental splashes and dunks in a toilet. However, this doesn’t mean you can get reckless with it — I haven’t done any drops tests, but one solid drop could spell doom for its glossy glass back.

It’s such a beauty… until you get scuffs and ugly smudges on the rear. Even though HTC offers a plastic case in the package, I just can’t bring myself to putting one on and ruining the aesthetics. Funnily enough, there’s also an included cleaning cloth if you’re willing to wipe it down before every meeting or date.

I just wish I had a chance to review the solar red variant. Having seen it up close during the Philippine launch, I’ve been wanting one, badly. Not that the “amazing silver” I have with me isn’t any good; I simply can’t accept it being color silver. It’s very much light blue at any angle. HTC argues that their sapphire blue model is the true blue, so we have that.

If I were to nitpick, the thin antenna lines around the frame ruin an otherwise seamless design. It’s necessary though for getting a strong cellular signal (because, boy, does the U11 pick up 4G+ wherever I go), and it’s less jarring than Google’s half-glass, half-weird implementation on the Pixel.

Now, this brings us to the question: Is HTC’s best-ever smartphone your GadgetMatch?

I’m inclined to say yes for a variety of reasons and consumer types. And yet, the U11 is ultimately sandwiched between other Snapdragon 835-powered devices.

With a starting price of US$ 649 (PhP 36,990 for my review unit in the Philippines), it’s significantly more expensive than the similarly equipped OnePlus 5 and Xiaomi Mi 6; and despite being cheaper than the Galaxy S8 and Xperia XZ Premium, the U11 doesn’t have the former’s gorgeous Infinity Display or the latter’s 4K screen resolution, as well as either’s audio port.

In that case, what does the U11 offer that the others don’t? A marginally better camera, greater attention to audio output and recording, noticeably longer battery life, and… wait for it… a squeezable body.

It’s only fitting we conclude this review with yet another mention of Sense Edge. In the end, it somehow makes sense to highlight this edge.

SEE ALSO: HTC U Play Review: Just about design?

Reviews

Xiaomi Mi 9 SE Review: For those who like it small

A pocketable flagship-like phone

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Xiaomi‘s line of flagship phones for 2019 has been in the market for a few months now. The Mi 9 is indeed a smartphone that offers a great specs-to-price ratio; however, some users find high-end phones nowadays to be larger than usual. That includes the Mi 9 and the newly announced OnePlus 7 Pro.

We certainly miss the Compact models of the Xperia line, but it seems like Sony isn’t announcing anything new soon. Good thing  Xiaomi made its upper-midrange offering pocket-friendly — not just in price, but also in size.


This is the Mi 9 SE and it’s not as expensive as Xiaomi’s flagship models, but it’s also not that cheap. Aside from specs, the phone’s highlighted feature is its pocketable size.

It has a 5.97-inch Full HD+ AMOLED display

The panel is made by Samsung

There’s a tiny notch for the front camera

It’s not different from other notched displays

The dual nano-SIM card tray is on the left

There’s no space for a microSD card

The physical buttons are all on the right

The power and volume rocker blend well in the frame

The top has the IR blaster and secondary mic

The IR is a rare feature among phones

The bottom houses the loudspeaker and USB-C port

The main microphone is also at the bottom

The back is a flat slab of shiny glass

It’s so reflective, it’s like a mirror

The camera layout is similar to the Mi 9’s

Three cameras in one row

A pocketable all-display phone

The Mi 9 SE doesn’t look any different from its more expensive cousin. It also has an edge-to-edge display with a small notch on top to house a front-facing camera. The display measures just below six inches and it’s a Super AMOLED panel from Samsung. The screen’s resolution is at Full HD+ which is pretty sharp.

Since its an AMOLED, the color reproduction is top-notch and the blacks are indeed black. Beneath the display is a fingerprint scanner that lights up when needed. It takes less than a second to read, but it’s not the fastest I’ve tried. Thankfully, a smooth slab of Gorilla Glass 5 protects the display from unwanted scratches.

In the sea of sizable Android phones, the Mi 9 SE’s pocketable dimensions are welcoming. The phone’s display doesn’t look small and limiting because of its thin bezels. Once you get a hold of the phone, you’ll appreciate its size. It’s not as petite as former Xperia Compact models from Sony, although it’s fairly small by today’s standards.

The overall design of the Mi 9 SE isn’t special, but it doesn’t look and feel cheap either. The use of glass in the front and back elevates the phone’s premium touch, but I’m not a fan of its chrome-like side frame. Still, the Mi 9 SE is an attractive piece of hardware that can also act as a mirror with its uber-reflective rear glass.

Flagship-like performance in a smaller package

Powering the Mi 9 SE is the Snapdragon 712, a brand-new flagship-grade processor from Qualcomm. While the Snapdragon 712 is a new chip, it’s not that different from its predecessor which powers last year’s Mi 8 SE. The new processor is just slightly faster on paper, so the real-world difference is hardly noticeable. That means Mi 8 SE users can skip the Mi 9 SE if they are after a performance upgrade.

The phone runs MIUI 10 out of the box and it’s based on the latest Android 9 Pie. Xiaomi is good at keeping their devices updated, which is one of their strengths. With 6GB of memory to work with, the Mi 9 SE can handle multiple apps at the same time. So far, I haven’t encountered any lag during my time with the phone.

Moreover, MIUI 10 is one of the nicest skins for Android. The changes aren’t just cosmetic, they are also functional. The extra features from Xiaomi surely come in handy, especially the built-in system-wide dark mode.

When it comes to gaming, the Mi 9 SE can deliver high-quality graphics anytime. By default, most games are already set to high settings which means this phone is ready for mobile gamers. The screen does feel a bit small when compared to my previous devices, especially to my daily driver –the Huawei P30 Pro. My go-to games like Asphalt 9: Legends and PUBG Mobile run smoothly on the device.

Triple the sensors, triple the fun

The biggest upgrade of the Mi 9 SE is found in the camera department. From two cameras, the new model now has three: a regular, a telephoto, and an ultra wide-angle.

The primary shooter is a 48-megapixel camera with an f/1.8 aperture designed for everyday shooting. Paired with AI scene recognition, the Mi 9 SE’s main camera can take great stills in various lighting conditions.

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The second one is an 8-megapixel telephoto camera with 2x optical zoom. I personally don’t feel the need for a telephoto lens on a mobile phone, but it’s available for situations when you need to get closer to your subject. Take this ground signage as an example:

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What I enjoy using is the ultra wide-angle lens. The phone’s third camera, which has a 13-megapixel sensor, can take a different prospective. When taking a photo of landscape or any open space, the phone’s AI will suggest to also take a photo using the ultra wide-angle camera. The quality doesn’t match the main shooter, but it’s highly usable.

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As for selfies, there’s a 20-megapixel camera inside the display’s notch. Like with most front-facing cameras, it comes with beauty filers and artificial bokeh effects to mimic a high-quality portrait shot. For a front camera, it’s one of the sharpest and most detailed selfie shooters I’ve tried.

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With a total of four cameras, there are a lot of ways you can take photos (and also videos) with the Mi 9 SE. Having both an ultra wide-angle and telephoto lens is the perfect setup for a modern camera phone, especially within the phone’s price point.

Fast charging battery

Despite the relatively pocketable dimensions of the Mi 9 SE, it still has a respectable battery capacity at 3070mAh. The efficiency of the new Snapdragon processor and the battery-saving features of Android Pie-based MIUI 10 help the Mi 9 SE last long on the road.

The phone was able to last a full day with heavy use which includes consistent internet connection over Wi-Fi or LTE, push notifications, and some gaming on the side. On lighter days, I am able to get almost two days of battery life. My average screen-on-time is around three to five per charge.

When it’s time to charge the battery, the bundled fast charger fills up the Mi 9 SE from zero to 47 percent in just 30 minutes. A full charge takes an hour and a half.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The Mi 9 SE unit I have for review retails for PhP 15,990 (6GB+64GB) at Authorized Mi Stores in the Philippines, which is roughly US$ 310 when converted. For that price, the phone already offers a lot. I can’t think of any new phone that matches the Mi 9 SE in terms of price and features, making it an easy recommendation for those looking to buy a new phone.

The phone doesn’t have any flaws (nothing major, at least) that’ll turn off potential buyers, including myself. Is the Mi 9 SE the perfect midrange phone existing today? I can’t say for sure, but it’s clearly the best you can get in its range.

SEE ALSO: Xiaomi unveils the Mi 9 SE Brown Bear Edition with custom case and themes

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Gaming

ASUS ROG Zephyrus S (GX701) review

Refinement of a modern classic

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A lot of credit has to be given to ASUS for pushing gaming laptop designs forward. Back in 2017, the original ROG Zephyrus paved the way for a new category of high-powered laptops that didn’t weigh a ton.

Since then, we’ve seen different variations of the Zephyrus that either upped the power or modified the original look. That evolution eventually led to the Zephyrus S (GX701) I’m currently reviewing.


With the some of the latest components and refinements based on previous generations, this Zephyrus already seems like a winner in my book. The question is: Does it have enough oomph to compete against the laptop brands that have caught up?

It all starts with the design

Once again, it’s the overall makeup that makes the Zephyrus S stand out. Every design cue was placed not just to make the magnesium-alloy body look sleek, but to improve airflow and cut as many grams as possible.

For one, ASUS managed to cram a 17.3-inch screen within a body normally reserved for 15-inch laptops. On top of that, its height tops out at 18.7mm and weighs about 2.7kg. That’s larger than what we’re used to from the Zephyrus line, but this beats every other high-end machine with equal specs.

Back as well is the Active Aerodynamic System (AAS) which lifts the bottom panel for more air intake. It sounds similar to ASUS’ ErgoLift on its ZenBooks, but the implementation here is more performance-centric, and unfortunately, not comfortable on a lap.

However, AAS is still the key to better cooling while staying slim. It’s complemented by two 12V fans and five sets of heatpipes to get as much heat away from the high-powered components. The only tradeoff is the awkwardly placed keyboard and trackpad; the former sits really low with no palm rest while the latter takes getting used to in its rightmost spot.

What I loved was the placement of the volume roller to the upper-left of the keyboard. It makes adjusting the two 2.5W speakers so easy. Pressing the roller mutes them. Less vital, but greatly appreciated, is how far the power button is from everything — safe from accidental touches.

To the side, we’re treated to two USB-C ports (one of which is capable of DisplayPort 1.4 and Power Delivery for charging), three USB-A, one HDMI 2.0, and a 3.5mm audio port. There’s no mention of Thunderbolt 3 which is a bummer at this price range.

The features we actually want

ASUS definitely went for the no-compromise approach when creating the Zephyrus S. On top of all the features mentioned above, the specs are a collection of the must-haves and great-to-haves in both gaming and content creation.

The screen in particular, while only 1080p in resolution, owns a refresh rate of 144Hz with a 3ms response time and NVIDIA’s G-Sync tech for smoother visuals. Even more interesting: the panel has a Pantone color certification for 100 percent sRGB coverage — ideal for creators who value color accuracy.

On the software side, Armoury Crate is a pleasantly comprehensive piece of software that allows you to monitor CPU and GPU frequencies, temperatures and voltages, and how much work the fans are putting in.

In addition, the program lets you change settings such as the RGB lighting of the keyboard and bundled mouse. But what makes the software so intuitive is that it can be accessed anytime by pressing the ROG button above the trackpad and monitored through a smartphone. I’ve always loathed non-stock Windows apps, but Armoury Crate is definitely an exception.

One more cool feature is the ability to charge the Zephyrus S using any PD-certified adapter or powerbank. Chances are you’ll always have its lightweight power supply on you, but for the few instances you don’t, this is a lifesaver considering how below-average the battery life is.

The one feature that’s missing is a built-in webcam. ASUS decided to leave it out in favor of slimmer bezels around the display. This might be a downer to some; at the same time, this opens the opportunity for folks to use an external webcam which would be far superior to the low-end cameras most laptops these days come with.

Performance you’d expect

It goes without saying that raw performance is what the Zephyrus S excels at most. From the Core i7-8750H and GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q to the 24GB of RAM and 1TB M.2 PCIe storage, there’s no shortage of power in this machine.

Since the panel is of the 144Hz kind, you really feel these specs push the laptop to what it’s truly capable of. I’ve used gaming notebooks with a 4K display stuck at 60Hz, and I never felt that their high-end components were maximized to their full potential.

Personally, I find the 1080p resolution with a 144Hz refresh rate and G-Sync support to be the best-possible combination. After all, I honestly can’t tell the difference going any higher in pixel count on a 17.3-inch monitor. This is the sweet spot, and the Zeph nails it.

Here are a few benchmark numbers:

Shadow of the Tomb Raider: 95fps (1080p, Highest preset)

Unigine Superposition: 4858 (1080p Extreme)

Cinebench R15: 112.19fps (OpenGL), 1176cb (CPU)

Truth be told, the results only speak for a small portion of the big picture. Having an 8th-gen Core i7 chip and RTX 2080 (even if it’s a slightly slower Max-Q variant) should instantly signal that AAA game are no problem for this setup.

Even though we’re seeing silicon manufacturers pushing out newer, faster chipsets than ever before, rest assured the configuration we have here will run through games for years to come. We’ve reached a point wherein the next generation of games will stop being so demanding on hardware and instead focus on optimizing for current-gen processors.

On the downside, the battery life is lackluster as usual. When not plugged in to a wall socket, I’m lucky to get 2.5 hours out of this thing with a balanced workload consisting of web browsing and Photoshop usage. It’s expected out of any gaming laptop at this point and should be anticipated by any potential buyer.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

Even though gaming laptops are becoming increasingly common and more affordable in some cases, beasts like the Zephyrus S deserve the distinction of pushing the category to new heights. The model I reviewed here retails for PhP 199,995 or around US$ 3,835. It’s a heavy price to pay, but you’re getting top-notch hardware in return.

While this is certainly too much for mainstream users, creators and hardcore gamers will see the value in its top-notch components and attention to detail. ASUS has taken the Zephyrus line to yet another level, which is a major achievement considering how great the series had been to begin with.


The ASUS ROG Zephyrus S is available in ROG Megamall and ROG Concept Stores in the Philippines.

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Reviews

OPPO A5s Review: Is it really any different?

Bang for the buck, at a cost of key features

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Smartphone companies are trying to bring a premium experience to its consumers at an affordable price. Gone are the days when budget smartphones keep getting the lowest version of everything, all to meet the price point. Now, smartphones get better cameras, near full-screen displays, a faster charging port, and much more.

OPPO’s latest smartphone, the OPPO A5s, mixes the days of old with some new tricks. At its price point, this budget smartphone caters to anyone looking to own a smartphone for the first time. But with better options for the same price, you gotta wonder how different this phone is from the rest, and if it’s worth it.


Here’s a rundown of the phone’s key features:

It has a 6.2-inch display with a waterdrop notch

At the back, there is a dual-camera setup and fingerprint sensor

The bottom contains the micro-USB port and headphone jack

The overall performance gets a pass

The highest possible combination you could get is the 3GB+32GB option, with a 2GB+32GB config, as well. Performance-wise, you can’t really expect any quick response on ColorOS but it is responsive, nonetheless. Apps open quite seamlessly in my experience, but I also noticed the little spikes in load time when multitasking. This mostly happens when I try to switch to another active app.

Still, I don’t recommend opening too many apps. There’s little RAM available, and the phone’s OS takes up almost 40 percent of that. I do recommend getting the Lite versions of apps if you want to maximize the RAM.

One great feature I’m genuinely surprised this phone has is OPPO Game Space, which activates once you start up a game. Not a lot of budget smartphones have this kind of feature integrated into the system.

With the feature on, games such as Mobile Legends and Clash Royale load quickly, with no observable loss in graphic performance. Of course, with it on, battery life depletes relatively faster than just using the phone as is. While we’re on the subject…

The phone almost lasts a day thanks to its battery

The OPPO A5s has a 4230mAh battery, which lasts almost the entire day on a single charge. I mostly used the phone for social media purposes, watching YouTube videos, and a little bit of gaming. Of course, I had to turn Game Space off for the times I played games in between because it automatically turns on. The device tends to feel warm after just an hour and a half of use, even if I was in an air-conditioned room.

One full charge took close to two and a half hours, which is pretty decent considering it still uses a micro-USB port instead of a USB-C. Although, I really wished they switched to USB-C, since other companies are starting to roll that out for their budget lineups. Charging time would be a bit faster, especially for a phone with that big of a battery.

The cameras are confusing to me

OPPO is more commonly known to people as a selfie phone brand. So obviously, even if this was a budget smartphone, I was expecting the cameras on this device to be satisfactory, at best. Until I got to use both cameras, and got a mixed bag of results.

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The dual-rear camera setup was great, but not overwhelmingly fantastic. Don’t let the iPhone-looking interface distract you; the 13-megapixel sensor takes fairly decent photos for a budget smartphone. Shots at night, under ample lighting, are decent in terms of color and detail.

If you really value details on your photos, keep the HDR setting on the whole time and prepare a microSD card. I would have wanted more modes, like Pro Mode since other companies are doing it with the same camera setup.

As for the front camera, I’m a little disappointed. I get it: it’s just an 8-megapixel sensor so I really shouldn’t expect much. But if you’re someone on a budget and likes taking selfies, you would be a little disappointed in the image quality this front camera has.

No amount of AI beautification settings could compensate for how washed the images look at times, especially with group shots. I guess if you had to sacrifice one thing, it was this camera.

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Other design features worth noting

I personally found the touch of golden copper at the back a great addition. It adds a hint of premium to an otherwise very basic phone design. I’m also pleasantly surprised that the headphone jack is still there, and it’s handy too. The single-grille speaker at the bottom just isn’t as loud as I would have wanted it.

Setting up your fingerprint is easy and quick, it’s actually trying to unlock the phone that makes it troublesome. I can’t remember any device I’ve used with a super sensitive fingerprint sensor like this one. You really need to be gentle with it, not hard press your finger on the sensor. But even then, the phone still wouldn’t unlock to the point that I just opted to use a pass code instead.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

At PhP 7,990 for the 3GB+32GB variant and PhP 5,990 for the 2GB+32GB variant, the OPPO A5s can be a good budget option depending on who wants to use it. First-timers in smartphones will enjoy a fast, responsive, and easy-to-navigate OS. If you’re a gamer on a tight budget, this device is very capable of providing enough juice for any game. And if you like taking pictures, its dual-camera rear setup gets the job done.

Despite it being a bang for the buck deal, there were features that this phone missed out on. Selfie lovers honestly should look for another option. In addition, the device doesn’t seem all too different in terms of design, plus there is no available option for higher storage and RAM, so performance will eventually dip.

The OPPO A5s caters to everyone looking for a great deal, but ultimately comes at the cost of key features not living up to expectations.

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