Hands-On

Apple iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus unboxing and hands-on

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Another year, another iPhone release. This year, as has been the case the past two years, we’re getting two models: the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus.

They’re basically two variants of the same phone — one bigger and more unwieldy than the other — except the Plus model is equipped with two rear cameras instead of one, and has upgraded software and hardware to showcase its new capabilities. The size difference and dual-lens system aside, both new iPhones share the same DNA across color and storage options.

The standard box isn’t too different, with the exception of the jet-black iPhone, which comes in a swanky, color-coordinated box. Inside the retail packaging, you’ll find the iPhone itself; Apple’s documentation just beneath the phone; a pair of Lightning earbuds but minus a case; a sync cable; a wall adapter; and a new adapter for connecting third-party earphones and headphones — it’s all pretty much par for the course.

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And, yes, the headphone jack is hitting the road in a bid to move the industry forward to wireless technologies. AirPods be (possibly) damned. According to Apple, the Lightning port was always meant for something more. Maybe now Apple can show us what it can do with the proprietary port. And let’s face it: Headphone wires, however colorful and thin and seemingly unobtrusive, are the devil, and we can live without them.

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Another thing we can all agree on: Those unsightly antenna bands on the iPhone 6/6s needed to go. For the most part, Apple has done a solid enough job of obscuring them this year, particularly on the black iPhones; it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint where they are on the jet-black model without taking a closer look.

And while we’re on the subject of Apple’s decision to go back to black, we don’t recommend you buy into the hype at all. It looks great, sure, but it also picks up fingerprints and scuffs easily. If the temptation is too great, then at least pair it with some decent protection.

What else is new?

The home button is touch-sensitive now, though we really should stop calling it a button. Technically, it’s a glass surface with a sophisticated array of sensors and vibration motors underneath. Apple says the technologies built into the hardware should simulate the experience of pressing a real button. While we agree to a certain extent, we do miss the mechanical click of the old button. Some will appreciate the switch, some won’t, and some will hate it.

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Another thing that’s changed about the iPhone is that its less prone to liquid damage. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are now officially dust- and water-resistant, though we still wouldn’t recommend getting one wet. In other words, don’t take it for a swim on purpose.

The displays, though just as big, have improved as well, now better at rendering colors. The new stereo speakers — one at the bottom of the phone, the other built into the earpiece — are noticeably louder and fuller-sounding in the treble frequencies.

The rear and front cameras of the iPhone 7 have been improved as well, with the latter getting a faster f/1.8 lens and image stabilization for sharper images in low light. The FaceTime camera has been bumped up to 7 megapixels from 5.

The biggest breakthrough, however, is found on the back of the Plus version. It adds another 12-megapixel telephoto camera with a f/2.8 56mm telephoto lens capable of real 2x zoom with just the tap of a button. An upcoming software update promises bokeh effects and shots with incredible depth of field.

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We’ll be posting an in-depth look at the iPhone 7 Plus’ rear cameras shortly, so do check back with us then for our analysis.

First impressions

Speed has never been an issue for new iPhones, and this year, it’s no different; these phones are relentlessly fast, maybe faster than the iPad Pro models. But then again, we’ll probably find ourselves saying the same thing next year when the new ones are out, with better internals than any other phone Apple has ever shipped.

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The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are also said to be more power-efficient, though we haven’t put one through its paces yet. We’ll have more to say about battery life in our review, so do stick around for that.

The pressure is on Apple to deliver this year, and with the iPhone 7, it has; they may not look like it, but the new phones are much improved across the board compared to what came before. They’re still fantastic phones, two of the best we’ve used all year.

But they’re also a bet on a future with few guarantees. Can I keep the jet-black iPhone in pristine condition? (Dollars to donuts, you can’t.) Will wireless headphones be cheaper and sound better two years from now? Is the forthcoming camera update going to be as good as Apple says?

Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus start at $649 and $769, respectively. Both are now available online and in stores.

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Gaming

ZTE Nubia Red Magic hands-on: A stylish gaming phone

One look and you know it’s a gaming phone

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Not all smartphone manufacturers create a gaming phone. Technically, flagship smartphones with top specs are ideal for gaming but they lack the appeal and design. When Razer announced their own phone, it was true to its Razer branding but lacked the RGB lighting we’ve known from PC gaming peripherals.

Good thing there’s the Red Magic from Nubia (a ZTE sub-brand in China) and it’s built for gaming, without the exaggerated looks of the ROG Phone from ASUS.

I spent a few days with the Red Magic and here’s my hands-on.

It looks like a true gaming smartphone

The Red Magic practically screams “extreme gamer” due to its sharp, hexagonal cutouts, red vents and details, and the glowing LED strip on the back.

However, it’s still your usual premium Android device with a 6-inch Full HD+ display. It’s got an 18:9 aspect ratio and, thankfully, there’s no notch that’ll get in the way when playing games.

The top and bottom bezels are not as thin as the Galaxy S9’s, so there’s still some room for your thumb on the side when holding the phone in landscape with two hands.

Overall, the phone feels really solid thanks to its aluminum unibody, but to make things a bit special and more gaming-focused, the back of Red Magic is a bit curved making it comfortable in my hands.

On the side, it has what they call the “Compete Button” which reminds me of the alert slider on OnePlus’ phones. Instead of shushing notification sounds though, Red Magic’s slider puts the phone in tip-top performance. This is useful when you’re about to play a game.

The Compete Button not only improves the phone’s performance, but it also triggers some settings like blocking app notifications to avoid unnecessary pop-ups while playing. You can also set it to block the virtual navigation button from showing up accidentally.

Most importantly, the Compete Button activates the RGB LED strip at the back. It’s a visual cue showing that the Red Magic is ready to take on the challenge. The LED strip has four preset effects: Skyline, Rainbow Ribbon, Laserwave, and Voice Controlled.

It’s fun to play around with the effects, but my personal favorite is the Voice Controlled option. Well, it’s not exactly based on your own voice but rather with the audio of the game you’re playing.

The light strip also acts as notification light if you wish. Just be sure to lay the phone flat on a table so you won’t miss it.

The rear of the phone is quite intriguing but also distinct. There are four red lines on the corners which I first thought are all speakers. But, only one of them is the actual loudspeaker and it’s the one at the lower left. Even though it’s a mono back-firing speaker, it’s loud and has good bass.

When it comes to power, the Red Magic is not lacking but it could have had a better processor. The phone sports last year’s Snapdragon 835 processor which is a step down compared to this year’s flagship phones. At least it’s paired with 8GB of memory and 128GB of internal storage.

The Snapdragon 835 is still a capable processor with the Adreno 540 GPU. I managed to play a number of games on the Red Magic, and the device was able to handle them like magic. PUBG ran smoothly with the highest settings and the new Asphalt 9: Legends was flawless and stunning on the screen.

The Red Magic was even the best-performing Snapdragon 835-powered phone on AnTuTu’s list. It managed to be in the top ten of the most powerful Android phones last June which is dominated by phones with Snapdragon 845 processor.

Does it have good cameras?

A gaming phone still needs cameras. There’s a 24-megapixel f/1.7 rear shooter which takes good-looking photos. Thanks to the large aperture of the camera’s lens, it can take great photos even in low-light.

Here are some samples:

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It might not be the best camera phone around, but that’s not the focus of the Red Magic. It lacks a secondary sensor for bokeh or other effects, but the camera launcher has a couple of modes you can play with including manual shooting. For selfies, there’s an 8-megapixel front-facing camera with an f/2.0 aperture.

Is this you GadgetMatch?

Hard to tell if the phone will impress mobile gaming enthusiasts out there, but the design of Nubia Red Magic is certainly a head-turner. The red accents might be too common in the world of gaming, but the unique RGB LED strip at the back sure gives its own persona.

The Nubia Red Magic is available in China starting at CNY 2,499 for the base variant with 6GB of memory and 64GB of storage. The high-end version I have here with 8GB of memory and 128GB storage is priced at CNY 2,999. In the US, it’s priced at US$ 399 through Indigogo but the funding project is already closed.

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Galaxy Note 9

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 hands-on: All about the S Pen?

The seventh Note on paper

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As someone who prefers writing down notes with a pen, I have a soft spot for devices that come with a stylus. There’s nothing like manually highlighting important text and scribbling nonsensical drawings in between — things you can’t do with a digital keyboard alone.

Year after year, I look forward to one stylus-equipped smartphone in particular, the Galaxy Note. Not only is it a rare breed in this post-stylus age, but it’s Samsung’s best phone for every generation.

Early rumors and teasers revealed something more to the newest Note’s iconic S Pen, and I must admit, I was excited about the possibilities. Adding functionality to an already-useful accessory is simply icing on the cake.

As I got my hands on the Galaxy Note 9 for the first time, my first instinct was to eject the S Pen to see what it can do. After playing around with its newfound wireless features (which I’ll get into later), I began asking myself: Are the improvements only pen deep?

Looks all too familiar

I’ll be honest here. From the front, I can barely tell this apart from its predecessor. Samsung says this has their biggest and best smartphone screen to date, and while I agree that it’s as good if not better than previous models, the size claim isn’t much to brag about.

At 6.4 inches in size, the upgrade is minuscule coming from the Note 8’s 6.3-inch display. The resolution remains at 1440 x 2960 pixels, and it’s still a Super AMOLED display. It’s only when you turn the phone around when you’ll notice a change.

Like on the Galaxy S9, the Note 9’s fingerprint scanner is placed in a much more convenient position — right below the dual-camera setup. And to the joy of many, the cameras are now surrounded by the same color as the phone itself, unlike the mostly black design of last year’s model.

There are currently three colors to choose from: midnight black, ocean blue, and metallic copper. Samsung seems to be promoting ocean blue the most, likely because of its complementary yellow S Pen.

What’s interesting is that the color of your S Pen matters this time. If you use a yellow pen, the color of your writing will be yellow as well when taking down notes on the Always On Display — just like a crayon. The same happens for the copper S Pen, and if you have the plain black stylus, the traditional white marking will appear.

It’s important to note that this Note feels heavier than its predecessor. Far removed from the exploding battery fiasco of the past, Samsung managed to safely install a massive 4000mAh battery into the Note 9. Considering how reliable the Note 8’s endurance was with its 3300mAh capacity, I’d expect wonders from the Note 9 after extended use.

Galaxy Note 9 (left), Galaxy S9+ (right)

To deal with the added heft, Samsung employed a diamond-cut metal frame to make it feel slimmer and easier to grip. It did feel great in my hands, although I’d still use this phone with a case; the super-slippery and smudge-prone glass back badly needs it.

Everything else the Note 9 adds and retains are welcome, including the 3.5mm audio port, stereo speakers that are 1.4x louder, and notch-less bezels of the Infinity Display.

Power to the S Pen

With minimal changes in design and software, it’s really up to the S Pen to make a good impression. This is the first time Samsung added this many features to its signature stylus since the series first started seven years ago.

This S Pen now comes with Bluetooth connectivity, allowing you to enters apps and trigger certain functions with a press of its lone physical button. It’s fully customizable by letting you choose what happens when you press, double-press, or long-press.

By default, and this may be the most useful feature, holding the button for a second activates the camera app. From there, a single press takes a photo, while a quick double-press switches between the front and rear cameras.

Of course, this takes some power to operate. The new S Pen comes with a tiny battery that lasts for up to 200 clicks or about 30 minutes outside of the phone. Charging it takes only 40 seconds inside its cavity (but I was able to charge to full in less than 10 seconds), and pairing a new or temporarily disconnected pen needs only 20 seconds.

While the S Pen is out of its cage, a battery indicator pops up on the notification bar of the Note 9, and if its juice is close to running out, a notification will appear to warn you. Don’t worry, even if the battery is dead, you can still scribble and write with the S Pen; power is only needed for the wireless tricks.

These are certainly handy features to have on hand and I do appreciate Samsung thinking of every step in the process from the battery indicator to the quick charging, but I question how useful this truly is.

During my short usage, I often found myself picking up the phone and doing the rest of the tasks with my fingers on the touchscreen. Beyond using the S Pen as a remote trigger for the camera shutter or a presentation, I can’t see myself using the wireless feature for anything else, especially since it lasts only 30 minutes at most.

Ultimate performance

As usual, this Note is getting the best specs Samsung can deliver. Although it uses the same Exynos 9810 or Snapdragon 845 processor (depending on your region) as the Galaxy S9’s, the added memory and storage — on top of the generous 4000mAh battery — are enough to keep any multitasker happy.

The memory and storage configuration starts at 6GB and 128GB, respectively, which is top-tier as is. But going up to 8GB of memory and 512GB of storage takes you to a whole new level of productivity. Adding a 512GB microSD card to the mix delivers 1TB of available storage!

This setup easily makes the Note 9 one of the most powerful and long-lasting smartphones you can find today. Samsung even placed heatpipes inside to ensure no overheating happens during extended usage. None of its aspects were compromised, well, except maybe one.

Samsung unfortunately couldn’t wait for Android 9.0 Pie to roll out first and let the Note 9 settle for Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box. Not that this is a bad version of the operating system, but it’s already a year old, and based on Samsung’s track record, it may take a while for its slice of Pie to bake.

On the flip side, Samsung took a page from Huawei’s book and made its DeX feature far more convenient. Instead of placing the Note 9 on a proprietary dock to connect it to a television or monitor for desktop mode, you can now connect directly using a USB-C to HDMI cable.

That means you only have to bring a single cable with you to connect to any large display that comes your way. Together with the wireless commands of the S Pen, it’s much easier to present slides and photos away from the phone.

Intelligent yet same cameras

Perhaps my biggest early disappointment with the Note 9 is its recycled cameras. Samsung says the Note 9 has the same lenses and image sensors as those of the Galaxy S9+. Again, not that using old yet proven tech is a bad thing, but you’d expect Samsung to constantly up its camera game.

We’re looking at the same 12-megapixel dual-camera setup on the back with dual apertures — one is f/2.4 for sharper photos under daylight and the other is f/1.5 for brighter pictures in dim lighting. The front has the familiar 8-megapixel selfie cam with a fixed f/1.7 aperture.

You could check out our shootouts involving the Galaxy S9 duo to get a better idea of what to expect. For now, here are a few samples straight from the Note 9:

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On the software side, you’ll find the same signature features, such as Live Focus which allows you to adjust background blur while or after taking a photo, and AR Emoji which now has more customization options for your character but still doesn’t track facial movements accurately.

More precise, however, are the iris and face scanning for unlocking the phone. Intelligent Scanning, which automatically chooses which of the aforementioned methods works faster, makes logging in a breeze if you prefer that over the rear-mounted fingerprint scanner.

Samsung claims that its Scene Optimizer is improved compared to previous iterations, but we’ll need more testing with finalized software to know for sure.

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There are a couple of questions I couldn’t answer after my short time with the Note 9: Is there a significant improvement in battery life compared to the Note 8’s endurance? And how does it fare as a gaming device?

Galaxy Note 8 (left), Galaxy Note 9 (right)

Those, as well as how the pricing will turn out per region, will ultimately decide if this is worth upgrading to or even considering as your next premium expense. As it stands, the Note 9’s main selling points are in the connected S Pen and powerful hardware; everything else from the cameras to the general design remain the same.

While I do believe there’s no better productivity phone than this in 2018, I wish there were more to it than these relatively minor upgrades. My early advice is to wait for the Galaxy S10 launching early next year, or simply hold off for the Note 10, which will likely break away from the tick-tock update cycle of Samsung.

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Galaxy Note 9

Samsung Galaxy Watch hands-on: Still a looker

Great for your health and #OOTDs

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Aside from the Galaxy Note 9, Samsung also announced their newest smartwatch at their Unpacked event in New York.

Of course, I was excited. The Samsung Gear Sport (their previous release) stayed on my wrist for a while because I liked Samsung’s smartwatch aesthetic, despite issues I had with its battery life.

A well-designed watch with smart capabilities is the dream. When I look at wearables, my main consideration is how they look. The newly unveiled Galaxy Watch ticks this box.

It’s something that will look good even if you’re not in athleisurewear; something you can wear straight from the office to the gym, as this quick video demonstrates:

The Galaxy Watch comes in two sizes: 42mm, for those with tinier wrists like yours truly, and 46mm for those who like it bigger. The one I got to play with is the 46mm in silver, which seems a little oversized for my hands, but still looks pretty good considering.

The watch runs on Samsung’s Tizen OS, and if you’re familiar with their past smartwatches, you’d feel right at home with this device. There’s still that rotating bezel for control and two buttons are found on the right side of the watch.

Admittedly, the Galaxy watch still looks and feels a little thick, but this may be because it has improved battery life; seven days on standby as Samsung claims. That should mean more than the one-day battery life like their previous watch releases had.

What blew me away with this wearable is how great the screen looks — it’s bright and crisp. I honestly thought it was just a hybrid smartwatch at first because of the watch face.

For those who want a less traditional look, there are different faces to choose from.

Of course, the Galaxy Watch works best with Samsung devices, but you can still use it with other smartphones.

The best part are all the different watch strap options! For the picky, there are also different watch colors: black and rose gold, which I am freaking out about because it’s so pretty! (I’m just sad I didn’t get a chance to try it.)

This smartwatch pretty much does the same things. It tracks steps, calories burned, floors climbed, and your heart rate.

It also gives you notifications from your smartphone.

But, of course, that’s not all.

There are now more than 39 different exercises and this smartwatch is also supposed to recognize back-to-back exercises, meaning it should know that you did a 15-minute run before you jumped into the pool for those five laps, without you having to tell it.

Additionally, there’s now a stress test on this thing, which tells me that I’m not as stressed as I believe I am.

A built-in breathing guide also allows you to do a mini-meditation routine anytime.

What I’m also excited about are features I didn’t get to try: There will be a Morning Briefing and Evening Briefing function that’s supposed to act like the personal assistant you never had that’ll remind you of daily tasks and wrap up your day.

There’s even a Goodnight Mode which means your watch will be set to let you sleep, and a Theater Mode to ensure full-on movie viewing without alerts.

Right now, the Galaxy Watch is looking good, figuratively and literally. I can’t wait to get my hands on one to see if it really delivers. I’d have to say, though, that this new smartwatch is one of the prettiest out there right now — I assure you, it’ll match most of your outfits. Isn’t that already a battle half won in the smartwatch arena?

READ MORE: Samsung launches Galaxy Watch with circular display and Tizen OS

SEE ALSO: How to be productive with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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