Reviews

ASUS ZenFone AR review

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The ZenFone AR is known for two things: being the first smartphone to have 8GB of memory, and first to come with both of Google’s Tango AR and Daydream VR platforms. That’s a problem.

While the abundant amount of memory makes sense to boast about — we have a full explainer for that — what exactly is so special about having two mixed reality systems on a single phone? I’ll begin the review by explaining each one.

What is Google Daydream?

In a nutshell, it’s the search giant’s virtual reality (VR) program. But Daydream isn’t something any smartphone can just start using; in fact, there are only five handsets with official support, two of which are Google’s very own Pixel and Pixel XL.

So, how did the ZenFone AR get near-exclusive access to the platform? With the combination of a high-resolution Quad HD AMOLED display and powerful (yet slightly outdated) Snapdragon 821 processor. Simply insert the phone into a compatible Daydream headset, pair it with the bundled wand-like controller, and fire up the Daydream app.

We already had some fun with it last January:

Daydream has experienced more development since then, and the platform has a lot more supported apps now. I had fun playing games using the controller, which I found simple to handle thanks to the simple three-button layout and accurate detection. But honestly, I spent more time watching 360-degree videos on YouTube, wherein I could just sit back and enjoy some shows.

As for how the ZenFone AR performed, it never skipped a beat, but the smooth performance came at the expense of overheating. You can’t use Daydream for more than an hour at a time, and you definitely can’t play while charging.

What is Google Tango?

Not to be confused with VR, Tango’s augmented reality (AR) system doesn’t need a headset or controller to work. Instead, you hold the compatible phone — the ZenFone AR in this case — and point the multi-camera setup on the back at your surroundings for graphics to show up.

Again, the ZenFone AR is in special company; it’s just the second commercial device to support Tango. That’s because the requirements are a lot stricter, requiring motion-tracking and depth-sensing camera modules on top of the ZenFone AR’s 23-megapixel main shooter to record surrounding data.

We were fortunate enough to try out The Sims in AR during this year’s Google I/O:

So yes, you can have fun with Tango and the ZenFone AR. Early builds of Google’s platform showed off mostly interior design apps and basic games during demos. While practical in application, it was only when we tried out the latest Tango-compatible games when we were sold on what ASUS and Google were promoting.

But like any developing system, Tango has a long way to go. On top of there being only two available smartphones supporting this, the Tango store is terribly lacking. There were a few fun AR apps to play with, but the novelty quickly wore off and I found myself charging the ZenFone AR more than I normally had to.

What else is there to the ZenFone AR?

Now that we have the two headlining features covered, we can talk more about the phone itself.

From the interface alone, you can tell not much has changed from previous versions of ASUS’ signature ZenUI styling. It’s still bloated with useless apps you’ll want to uninstall the moment you start up the phone, and even though ASUS finally applied Android 7.0 Nougat at its core, the overly large, somewhat cartoonish icons are still there.

On the bright side, the 5.7-inch AMOLED panel makes the interface pop like no other. It’s a little on the large side, and reaching for the fingerprint scanner-embedded home button below it can be a pain, but this is way more pleasant to look at than ZenFones before. Only the ZenFone 3 Zoom can compete.

It’s only when you turn the unit around when you forget for a second that this is a ZenFone. There’s nothing typical of ASUS here, from the rough back to the overbearing multi-camera setup. It’s solid, grippy on both glass surfaces and hands, and has that Tango logo near the bottom — no Daydream branding for some reason.

Can it take great photos?

More cameras mean improved image quality, right? It’s not that simple.

Despite being high in resolution, the single main camera struggles with the same issues that plagued previous ASUS smartphones, namely mushy shots under poor lighting and artificial-looking dynamic range when HDR mode is on.

Check ’em out:

It’s not all bad. I liked how the ZenFone AR didn’t oversharpen photos under noontime daylight, which is something a lot of smartphones are guilty of. The 8-megapixel front-facing shooter was a pleasant surprise. Despite its low pixel count, my selfies exhibited great quality even in the worst indoor environments I could find and it had lots of beautifying features — but I preferred leaving the filters off.

It’s no ZenFone 3 Zoom. But really, did we expect ASUS to top its own camera-centric flagship?

Does it last more than a day?

And here we have the biggest question (well, before the last and most important section): Can it handle a full day’s worth of usage?

Short answer is: it depends. If you buy a ZenFone AR, you’re sure to abuse the heck out of Daydream and Tango, or else you lose out on most of your investment. With those two features constantly on, you’re looking at an afternoon of playtime on a single charge. Without any AR or VR fun, getting over a day of usage with at least five hours of screen-on time is possible.

Since this is a Qualcomm-powered gadget, fast charging is available through Quick Charge 3.0 and it works well enough on the 3300mAh battery. Using the bundled charger, I reached close to a hundred percent in two hours’ time. At that point, the flow of energy slows down and requires an additional 15 minutes to get to full.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

Based on the opening lines of this review, the purpose of the ZenFone AR was already clear: to be the first in multiple aspects and show off what ASUS can do. This is a statement product from the Taiwanese company, and proves that its phones aren’t mere copycats of established brands.

A price of PhP 44,995 in the Philippines (roughly $900) for the variant with 8GB of memory and 128GB of storage only compounds the fact that this is not a mainstream device. It’s in absolute premium territory with a processor from last year and user interface from years ago. Think about that for a moment.

So, whose GadgetMatch is the ZenFone AR? The early adopters, VR and AR enthusiasts, loyal Google followers, and die-hard ASUS users who must have the most ambitious ZenFone to date.

With rumors pointing to a July launch for the next-generation ZenFone series, there isn’t much sense in getting a ZenFone AR right now, unless you must have a one-of-a-kind smartphone with the most advanced mixed reality integration today.

SEE ALSO: ASUS ZenFone AR comes with Tango, Daydream, 8GB RAM

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India

Xiaomi Mi 10i Review: Master of the midrange

A near-perfect phone, designed for everyone

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For years Xiaomi has tried to get a foothold in the premium segment, but it just couldn’t hit the right spot. Despite engineering marvels like the Mi MIX series, it didn’t work. The company has also tried releasing a polished midrange phone under the Redmi branding but couldn’t meet inflated market expectations. Will the Mi 10i solidify its push?

The Chinese smartphone giant got its portfolio sorted at the beginning of 2020 by dividing the three brands — Mi for premium, Redmi for budget, and spun-off POCO into a completely independent brand. Now, Xiaomi has set its priorities straight and aims for the lucrative premium segment, one that’s gobbled by players like Samsung, Apple, Huawei, and to a certain degree, OnePlus, OPPO, and vivo.

The Mi 10i is surely a midrange phone, but it has a lot of expectations to meet. And it’s an important product for Xiaomi since it’s again trying to test the INR 20,000+ range. There’s also tough competition from the OnePlus Nord, Galaxy A51, as well as the realme X3. So, how does Xiaomi’s new offering fare? Let’s see!

How’s the design? Is it comfortable to hold for gaming or streaming?

I’ve got the Pacific Sunrise color option, and it looks phenomenal. The phone has a unique color palette and a premium touch that makes it look much more expensive than it really is. The front and back of the device are protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 5, but it has a very satisfying opaque finish that gives it a very translucent look. It may be glass, but it’ll never attract fingerprints, and that’s one of my favorite things about the phone.

The back has a gradient of cyan or light blue and a mix of orange and pink. While colors or gradients are usually personal preferences and range from person to person, everyone I showed the phone to loved it.

You’ll find the power and volume buttons on the right, the USB-C port at the bottom, and the IR blaster at the top. Like the Mi 10T series, Xiaomi has added a side-mounted fingerprint sensor that’s baked into the power button, and it’s speedy.

The rear has a circular camera module that may remind you of the OnePlus 7T, but the Mi 10i has a slightly different design which actually looks quite good. Due to the bigger 108 megapixel primary sensor, the camera module bulges a lot. But it isn’t annoying because the phone is pretty stable on a flat surface and doesn’t wobble like the Mi 10T series.

Xiaomi has added an IP53 rating for water resistance, so you don’t have to worry about splashes or even light rain. Lastly, the phone retains my beloved 3.5mm headphone jack. I hope Xiaomi continues to add it in future phones.

Lastly, the phone weighs more than 210gms. The weight is easily noticeable, and it does get annoying after extended usage. I prefer a lighter phone because it helps with ergonomics and can withstand falls slightly better.

Is the LCD panel immersive? Does the high refresh rate drain battery?

Looks so good, yeah looks so sweet

The Mi 10i has a 6.7-inch LCD display with a 120Hz refresh rate and Full HD+ resolution. There’s not much to say about the screen because it’s like you’d expect it to be. Xiaomi has a lot of experience with these panels now, and the color reproduction is accurate and vibrant, blacks are deep enough, and the viewing angle is top-notch. However, I feel that it could’ve been brighter. Under direct sunlight, it sometimes becomes difficult to view texts and emails on the go.

Yes, an AMOLED display will have deeper blacks, and that’s where the OnePlus Nord gets a lead. But considering the price difference between the two, Xiaomi smartly opted for an LCD panel and added 120Hz support. Day-to-day tasks are smoothly done, and the overall experience of having a smooth user experience pays off in the longer run. Although, you can adjust the refresh rate according to your preference.

The screen doesn’t suck too much power because it has an automatic variable refresh rate that adjusts according to your usage. So, if you’re watching a YouTube video, don’t worry. The panel knows the playback is at a lower refresh rate and makes the appropriate changes. In the end, you’re with a dynamic display that uses resources only when required. And, if you’re desperate to save power, there’s an option to downgrade to 30Hz as well!

How hard can you game on the Mi 10i? Is MIUI optimized?

The Mi 10i is one of the first phones to be powered by Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 750G chipset. It is an octa-core processor clocked at 2.2GHz and built on an 8nm fabrication while the graphics are taken care of by the Adreno 619 GPU. This is also a 5G enabled chipset which comes with Qualcomm’s X52 5G modem for 5G connectivity. My unit has 8GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage.

As for the real-life usage and performance, as expected, the device shines at everything you throw at it. Be it a light task or a heavy task; the device is capable of handling it all. Xiaomi has mastered MIUI’s integration with a range of hardware, and the results are visible across all its phones. The Xiaomi Mi 10i runs MIUI 12, which is still Android 10-based (we’d expect Android 11 by now). If you’ve used MIUI before, you know what you’re getting into.

And if you haven’t, don’t worry. The skin is heavily customizable and has a lot of nifty features that are very utilitarian. The RAM management and multitasking was also excellent. Apps stayed longer than I’d expected in the background, and switching between apps did not force reload the content.

All modern games run smoothly on the phone, and there’s barely any lag or stuttering. Though, I did notice some frame drops when playing Call of Duty: Mobile for more than an hour. If you’re expecting any considerable raw performance improvement against the Snapdragon 765G, don’t. The difference is negligible, and you won’t realize it in real-life unless you start mining Bitcoins on your phone.

Most importantly, how’s the 108MP camera? Is it as good as the Mi 10T series?

Just like the Mi 10T Pro series, the Mi 10i gets a 108 megapixel sensor, but it isn’t the same one as the Mi 10T Pro. It comes with a 1/1.52-inch sensor, and Xiaomi claims it’s more compact than the HM1 sensor, which reduces the camera bump. Pictures are usually taken in 12-megapixels via binning technology, retaining details, natural color, and accurate contrast.

One of my favorite things about the sensor is its capability to capture excellent pictures with HDR. The algorithm can cleverly process the image to ensure there’s no excessive noise correction. The sensor can detect colors precisely and adjust exposure even under direct sunlight. The 108-megapixel mode can be accessed in the camera app with more options. The amount of detail captured by the camera in 108MP mode is truly incredible.

Low-light pictures are slightly disappointing because they often over-sharpen details, and the result looks quite artificial. The night mode compensates for this, but it mostly makes the image brighter and doesn’t necessarily optimize it.

Accompanying the primary sensor is an 8-megapixel wide-angle lens that isn’t that wide and struggles to capture detail. The quality degradation is easily visible, and this is definitely a cost-cutting measure for the company. There’s also a 2-megapixel macro and portrait sensor, which are now commonly found on almost all Xiaomi phones. It’s worth noting that the phone doesn’t have optical image stabilization, so if you’re into video, this definitely isn’t for you.

Despite the criticism, I’d say the phone has the best cameras you’d find in this price range. The competition is far away, and the 108 megapixel becomes a deal-breaker for many. Most of the issues I’ve encountered are software-based, and Xiaomi can fix them via OTA updates.

How long can it last? Should I invest in a 5G phone right now?

The Mi 10i 5G has a 4800mAh battery with 33W fast charging, and Xiaomi includes a 33W charging brick in the box. It took me an hour to charge it from 0 to 100, and that’s definitely a good deal. Thanks to Adaptive Sync (variable refresh rate of the screen), the phone can deliver a screen-on-time of more than seven hours in one go. Sometimes, it’ll even go up to eight hours under comfortable situations.

India is yet to roll-out 5G on a commercial scale, and the expected launch timeline from telcos currently stands at 2022. The government is yet to hold a spectrum auction, so there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved before we get to experience it. In my opinion, practical coverage of 5G is still two years away. 5G should be no reason for you to buy this phone.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re looking for a phone that excels at everything, then this phone is for you. The design honestly feels flagship grade and reeks premium, the processor is brand new and packs a punch, the cameras are above average and can go the extra mile if you’re a photography enthusiast, and lastly, the battery backup is optimum.

Gamers won’t be disappointed because the chipset is capable enough, and the phone barely heats up. This phone is made for everyone and does not stick to any particular niche. Considering the starting price of INR 21,999 (US$ 303), the Mi 10i is an easy recommendation. And even though we can’t enjoy 5G this year, it’s great to see the market get flooded with options. After all, the trickle-down effect will soon give us affordable 5G phones.

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra Review: For Pro Users!

Is it worth the $400 premium?

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What makes a smartphone ultra? We dissect the extras that make Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra the phone for power users.

Is it worth the $400 premium vs the Galaxy S21? What’s been added, what’s been taken away, and does it make a difference?

WATCH: Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Samsung’s Best for Less!

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Accessories

HiFiMAN Sundara review: A WFH audiophile’s dream

One of the best price-for-value pair of cans

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HiFiMAN Sundara

Because of today’s work-from-home lifestyle, everyone is rushing to grab the best laptops, PCs, webcams, and microphones to support their new home office. However, one overlooked accessory has yet to receive its time under the spotlight: a good pair of headphones. It’s even worse if you have audiophilic tendencies like I do. Today, I found one of the best price-for-value pair of cans well suited for both the home office and the hi-fi home audio setup: the HiFiMAN Sundara.

A pillow for your ears

Compared to anything I’ve tried in the past, the Sundara is extremely comfortable on my ears. When you’re looking at a headphone’s comfort, you’re considering a minmax combination of various factors: weight, cup size, clamp pressure, and flexibility. The Sundara handles all of those quite handily.

For a sizable pair, they are remarkably light; they don’t put too much pressure on your skull. Further, instead of the whole headband pushing down on your crown, the Sundara uses a suspended headband to cushion the weight. The softer secondary headband rests itself comfortably on my head without exerting too much pressure or trapping heat.

The earcups are also of notable size. They can fit my relatively smaller ears well. Though I do feel a bit of scrunching inside the cups, I never felt any pain or discomfort from wearing the pair for hours. I can wear the Sundara for four to six hours at a time without any pressing need to take them off.

HiFiMAN Sundara

In terms of durability, the Sundara is more than capable of withstanding major usage. Except for the two plastic portions at both ends of the headphones, the Sundara is made almost entirely out of metal. I did drop the headphones once while using it, and I couldn’t find a single scratch or dent. On a related note, the cups’ metal grille makes for an interesting but minimalist design — an epitome of its namesake, the Sanskrit word for “beautiful.”

Finally, since the headphones are open-back, leakage will always be a problem. However, compared to other open-back cans, the Sundara don’t leak as loudly. Likewise, even without noise cancellation, outside noise is only mildly annoying. That said, anyone sitting next to me can definitely hear whatever I’m listening to. And I can definitely hear whatever is happening beside me.

Playable in any genre

Armed with a planar magnetic driver, the HiFiMAN Sundara has one of the most impressive soundstages I’ve heard for a pair of cans in its price point. In practically any genre that I put the headphones through, there’s a remarkable level of depth. It’s almost as if I’m there where the music is happening. Christopher Tin’s orchestral To Shiver the Sky sparkled with every instrument, from wind to string to percussion. It’s the closest thing to attending a concert, especially in today’s times.

HiFiMAN Sundara

Though the headphones sport an impressive 6Hz to 75KHz frequency range, the Sundara leans marginally closer to the treble side. Instruments are sharper and tinnier, though still not at an uncomfortable level. However, if you listen close enough, sharp sounds can sound extra sharp on the Sundara, given the right track. Even then, the soundtrack for Cowboy Bebop, especially the iconic “Tank!” shines bright with the headphones.

Leaning over to the bass, the headphones can subsist on its own. They deliver a very mellow boom, as opposed to an offensive bombast well-advertised in today’s slew of headphones. That said, the Sundara is not a bass-heavy pair. If you’re looking for a bass monster, look elsewhere. Personally, I’m not a fan of bass-heavy tracks, so the Sundara is just the perfect fit for me. On lighter tracks, especially those from jazz, the bass caresses my ears just enough to tingle. On heavier metal music, like Nightwish’s Human :||: Nature, the lighter bass prevents overpowering and allows other instruments to come through.

For the mids, I’d say that the Sundara is attuned for it as well. I weaved the pair through more poppy tunes, like The Midnight’s Monsters. The vocals rose above other instruments without drowning them out.

Will you need an amp?

If you’re looking for some flaws in the almost-perfect Sundara, you might find it in the headphones’ amplification. The headphones are definitely a pair that can benefit from an external amp.

Just to be clear, the HiFiMAN Sundara can function well enough on its own. Regardless of whether you plug it into a smartphone, laptop, music player, or turntable, the device, sporting 37 ohms of impedance, can deliver audio at a workable clip.

HiFiMAN Sundara

However, according to my own tests, they benefitted greatly from an external amp. And you don’t even need an expensive amp. Even the portable (and affordable) FiiO A3 boosted the headphones to an extraordinary level. If you’re investing your hard-earned cash on the Sundara, you can’t go wrong with forking over a bit of extra cash on a small amp.

Is this your Gadgetmatch?

If you already have a home office setup, then you might like the Sundara. Keep in mind, though; a single-person home office is best for this pair. Because the headphones don’t have a built-in mic or any external functionalities, the pair exists solely as an audio device, not an office tool. It might just irritate any officemates you might have.

That said, the device’s extreme lightness is perfect for moving around the house. After a grueling day of working from home, you can unplug the Sundara from your PC and plug them into your hi-fi/entertainment setup.

With that in mind, though the headphones are light enough to move around the house, they don’t do well for a commuter, especially because of their leakage and lack of noise cancellation.

If you’re interested in the HiFiMAN Sundara, a pair will set you back by US$ 499. It’s definitely pricey. Compared to other more popular offerings, the Sundara belongs in an upper tier. However, for the quality you’re paying for, it’s a good way to start the next level of an audiophile habit.

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