Reviews

ASUS ZenFone Max (M1) Review

The budget battery king

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These days, you’d be pressed to find a smartphone with poor battery life. We’ve come to a point wherein every new handset can last a full day’s worth of usage without the assistance of a power bank.

But every now and then, we have these big-battery devices that come along and make our super-slim phones feel inadequate. The latest smartphone to do so is the ASUS ZenFone Max (M1), and it’s pleasantly affordable.

Not to be confused with the ZenFone Max Plus (M1) we reviewed earlier this year or the even newer ZenFone Max Pro (M1) launched in India last month, this plain ZenFone Max (model code ZB555KL to add more to the confusion) was unveiled during Mobile World Congress 2018 as the most affordable of the bunch.

Yet despite also being the smallest with a 5.5-inch 720p 18:9 screen and weight of only 150 grams, the ZenFone Max still has a large 4000mAh battery, which is more than what you’d get from bigger, more premium phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S.

And unlike the ZenFone Max Plus which employs a run-of-the-mill MediaTek processor, the new ZenFone Max is equipped with a Snapdragon 430 chipset that’s both fast enough for everyday tasks and highly efficient at squeezing out every ounce of energy from the battery.

When put together, the ZenFone Max has some of the best battery endurance I’ve gotten out of a smartphone this year. Getting five hours of screen-on time till the next morning is the absolute minimum out of a single charge, and that’s when the phone is beaten to the ground with gaming and constant camera usage while mobile data is active.

Reducing the abuse can give you get you up to six hours of screen time. I tried going for six and a half the other day, but it required me going offline half the time and leaving the camera alone — two things I can’t avoid in my day-to-day routine. Still, you can’t go wrong with an average of six hours across two days; that’s way above the standard four to 4.5 hours of much more expensive devices.

All this for a phone that’s only PhP 8,995 in the Philippines or approximately US$ 175 when converted. This places the ZenFone Max snugly in the budget-friendly category while maintaining its world-beating battery efficiency. The previous Max series phone in this price range was the ZenFone 4 Max, which has had a long stay in our Best Smartphones list.

And it’s not like the ZenFone Max skimps on basic features like a fingerprint sensor (there’s one at the back) and triple-card tray for two SIM cards and one microSD at the same time. There’s even facial recognition using the front camera to unlock the phone, and it’s way faster than what we experienced on the ZenFone Max Plus.

So… large battery, efficient processor, low price, all the features you need — are we missing anything?

It’s difficult to complain about anything at this price point, but if I were to nitpick, there are a few things that could be done better.

For one, the highest configuration you can get has 3GB of memory and 32GB of storage. While the latter can easily be expanded through a microSD card, the limited memory can potentially slow down the experience, especially since its processor isn’t that fast.

Even though the ZenFone Max comes with Android 8.0 Oreo with the latest version of ASUS’ ZenUI skin, the interface can get laggy and slow when you need it most. I noticed stuttering when going from heavy app to heavy app like Facebook to YouTube, and games like Asphalt Xtreme and Final Fantasy: Pocket Edition needed their graphics settings put on low to play smoothly.

Once you do drain the battery completely, charging it to full takes a long time — over three hours to be exact. The package comes with a fast charger that can only output at 10 watts; I tried a faster charger that goes up to 18 watts, but I still had to wait for more than three hours from zero to a hundred percent. In addition, the ZenFone Max relies on an outdated micro-USB port instead of the newer USB-C.

Lastly, and I’m sure you expected this, the cameras aren’t that good. There’s a useful dual-camera setup on the back with one regular 13-megapixel sensor and another 8-megapixel shooter with a much wider lens to fit more inside a frame. Unfortunately, they can’t create great images without enough daylight.

Here are some samples:

As soon as light becomes scarce, the image quality quickly goes down. You lose details in the darker regions of a photo and blurriness overcomes sharpness. It’s also important to note that the extra-wide rear camera takes lower-quality shots compared to the main shooter. The same can be said for the selfies of its 13-megapixel front camera; take them with sufficient light or not at all. 

Is this your GadgetMatch?

From the get-go, having a big-battery smartphone priced below US$ 200 is an instant winner. Everything else the ZenFone Max (M1) adds — such as the efficient chipset and dual rear cameras — simply improve on the already-complete package.

I can highly recommend the ZenFone Max to those who need a handset that can last for two days with juice left to spare. As long as you don’t need a dedicated camera replacement or high-end mobile gaming device, you’d have a tough time finding a better deal.

Alternatively, the ZenFone Max Pro (M1) is a more lucrative deal if it’s available in your country. It comes with a pure version of Android, a much faster chipset, and both a bigger screen and battery capacity. However, if you can’t wait and would rather spend less, the regular Max should be just as good as any other bet.

Accessories

Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 review: Affordable, but far from perfect

Xiaomi’s premium TWS offering

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The truly wireless earphones market is filled with a plethora of options today, ranging from entry-level offerings like the Redmi Earbuds S to the premium Sony WF-1000XM3. However, the most popular TWS earphones are from Apple — the AirPods.

AirPods kickstarted the TWS trend, and since then, pretty much every brand has jumped onboard. Xiaomi is known for its reliable yet affordable products, and it has launched a few options previously, but it was limited to its home market of China.

Now, the brand has finally launched the Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 in India, and it’s pretty much half the price of Apple’s AirPods.

The Redmi Earbuds S is an entry-level offering while Mi branding is now used for the company’s premium offerings. TWS earphones are incredibly convenient to use, and their demand is consistently rising. Can the Mi TWS 2 offer maximum features for the price and go against the competition?

Do they look like the AirPods?

 

At first sight, you’d think they are the AirPods for a quick second. But it’s soon clear that they aren’t. This is something I appreciate about the Mi TWS 2. In a market filled with AirPods knockoffs, it’s nice to see a different design. However, don’t set your expectations too high.

The earbud’s stem is exceptionally thick, and this is easily noticeable from the side. Thankfully, it doesn’t look that thick from the front view and is oval. The stem is also considerably long, giving the earbud a very bulky look.

The polycarbonate build has a matte finish on the stem while the driver is smooth and shiny. I feel the earphones were designed with utility and features in mind, and aesthetics took a back seat.

If the bulkier design can add more battery life and better drivers, I’m okay with it. This may not be the case with many since they tend to look like cheap AirPods knockoffs.

Each earbud weighs just 4 grams, and they slide in your ears very smoothly. Putting them on is a quick task, and for calls, while driving, these are exceedingly convenient to wear single-handedly. The semi-open design is supposed to be fit-for-all. But, this is where my primary concern lies.

How’s the overall user experience?

The earbuds fit perfectly and are rather stable. But the satisfaction of wearing an earbud is utterly absent because of reduced noise isolation. Even though they’ve never automatically snuggled out, I’m always afraid of losing them while walking. The confidence to wear them outdoors is low.

These too sport gesture-based controls, and the result is below satisfaction. I’d have to try a few times before they actively receive the command. Even play/pause function is rather cumbersome and paired with the loose fit; I’m afraid they don’t fall off.

Thankfully, they have an optical sensor that automatically plays/pauses a song when the earbud is worn or removed. Most times, I’d simply remove them from my ear instead of relying on the gesture buttons.

Lastly, the case is quite basic from a design point of view but gets the job done properly. The plastic build is solid, the lid has magnetic detection, and the earbuds aren’t finicky when plugged for charging. A small LED light on the front will show you the case’s battery status. A USB-C port is located on the bottom.

Pairing them is a straightforward task, and Xiaomi phones will automatically pop-up the status menu just like it’s on iOS. It’ll show you each earbud’s battery percentage along with the case.

But do they sound good?

The brand has added a lot of features on the audio side to make the product look premium. It has support for multiple codecs like SBC, AAC, and LHDC. The last one allows high-resolution audio streaming via Bluetooth. I used the Redmi Note 9 Pro Max to test the Mi TWS 2 and it automatically leveraged the AAC band.

Each earbud houses a 14.2mm audio driver, which isn’t the biggest. But, much of the audio output relies on tuning. Sound testing is also very subjective, so I’ll try to address everyone’s choice.

To start with, the output is very crisp and clear, and the vocals are perfectly heard. If you’re into Bollywood songs or even pop, these should be ideal for you.

Unlike the usual tuning, we see in Indian products; the bass here is well managed. It isn’t too much and ultimately does justice for every user. I’d say these are your GadgetMatch if you listen to podcasts and audiobooks.

The drivers are massively let down by non-existent noise isolation. The design of the earbuds inherently means you can hear pretty much everything happening around you. Even at maximum volume, it just didn’t feel enough.

Lastly, they have “Environment Noise Cancellation” that automatically kicks in when you’re on a call. Background noise is reduced drastically, and everyone I called could feel the change. The overall voice clarity is immensely improved, and high-winds too couldn’t deter them.

How long can they last?

Xiaomi claimed the earbuds can last up to four hours on a single charge and it’s on-point. I was able to get almost four hours with volume at 80 percent.

The case is capable of providing 10 hours of backup, taking the total to fourteen. Thankfully, the case takes just an hour to charge.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re an audiophile, the simple answer is no. The Mi TWS 2 will disappoint you in many ways. However, if you’re looking for work-related earphones, these are perfect.

Calls are ultra-clear, and the overall experience is better thanks to a loose fit. Keep them on, and get through a full day’s work. On the audio side, hip-hop or bass-intensive genre may not suit well here. However, all other vocal-centric songs shall swing by without a hitch.

With a price of INR 4,499, the Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 is a solid competitor. When compared to the realme Buds Air, these lose out on aesthetics. But, the minor additions from a function point of view are worth the slight bump in price.

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Reviews

LG Velvet Review: New breed of flagship killer?

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Over the years, LG was once a pioneer in the smartphone industry with their G and V smartphone series. These phones are packed with a lot of punch and boast new and exciting features.

But LG has forgotten one thing, and that is how to fix their unexciting phone designs. From the G7 ThinQ all the way to V50 ThinQ 5G, those phones almost look unchanged. They might have been minor changes with the newer V60 ThinQ 5G, but it’s still not as eye-catching as other contenders.

The LG Velvet isn’t a replacement to their ever-existing flagship series. Instead, LG tries to reimagine things by making sure they produce products that cater the needs of not just tech nerds, but other types of consumers as well.

Here’s our in-depth review of the LG Velvet.

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Accessories

Redmi Earbuds S review: Affordable TWS without compromises

Making TWS earphones more accessible

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Truly wireless (TWS) earphones have been around for a while. Apple kick-started the hype with the launch of the AirPods and numerous brands have released alternatives since. However, they’ve always been very expensive.

With brands keen on ditching the headphone jack, users are often left with no option but to find wireless options. Redmi phones continue to have a headphone jack, but the brand also wants to remain focused on its target — deliver quality products at an affordable price.

The Redmi Earbuds S is the first TWS offering in India under the Redmi brand. While the brand stands strong in the smartphone segment, it has some cut-throat competition from realme. With a price tag of INR 1,799 (US$ 24), does it have enough firepower to take on the competition? If you’re looking for an entry-level TWS solution, can you trust the Earbuds S? Let’s find out!

Not AirPods knock-offs

If you’ve been following the TWS market, the Earbuds S will look familiar. These are sold as the AirDots S in China and many have ordered them previously via international marketplaces. In India, Redmi is calling them the Earbuds S and these could land in more south-east Asian markets soon.

While the trend is to follow Apple’s design language, the Earbuds S is going against the flow. It has its own distinctive design that looks nothing like a cheap knock-off.

The pill-shaped case is compact, feels solid in hand, and has a subtle curve on the bottom. The case size is perfect and it’ll always slide into your pocket smoothly.

Each earbud weighs just 4g and the in-ear design is immensely comfortable. I’ve worn them pretty much all day long and never felt any irritation, pain, or slightest of inconvenience. The snug fit also ensures adequate noise isolation and wearing them while driving for calls is seamless.

There’s not much to talk about with the design since it’s basic and gets the job done. They’re built out of plastic and its clearly evident at first sight.

I won’t count this as a drawback since it helps reduce overall weight and I wouldn’t expect metal or premium construction at this price.

Easy to use, fairly straightforward

The lid is very basic but has a satisfying feel to it when closing. Unlike the popular AirPods, these sit in your ears at a 45-degree angle. Paired along are two earbud tips to suit your ear canal. I didn’t have to use them and the standard size that comes along worked fine.

Using them is a very straightforward process. Open the lid, remove the earbuds, and wear them.

They’ll connect to your phone as soon as they’re disconnected from the case. I’ve never faced any connection issues so far. Each earbud has a button for quick controls such as music playback options and calling up Google Assistant.

On the flip side, you can’t rely on the earbuds to change the volume level or play a previous song. That can only be managed via your phone.

Pressing the button thrice will trigger the low-latency gaming mode. A feature that’ll be very handy while playing online multiplayer games like PUBG Mobile or Mobile Legends.

Each earbud has an indicator light that shows the status. Red means they’re charging while white means successful connection establishment. Lastly, they’re IPX4 certified, meaning sweat resistance. This obviously translates to a perfect workout session.

Punchy bass, relatively good audio

This is where I was surprised the most. Considering the nifty features it already has, I expected some kind of compromise in this department. And, I was wrong.

It has 7.2mm drivers and delivers punchy bass — a must-have for Bollywood music. Mainstream genres like pop sound amazing and if you’re not an audiophile, you won’t have any complaints.

The maximum volume is sufficiently loud and coupled with good isolation, even a busy market street is easily navigable.

However, if you’re looking for top-notch audio, these aren’t meant for you. The low frequency takes over while the mids are flat. You can use an equalizer to change the settings but the inherent tuning is in favor of bass-heavy music.

Furthermore, these connect via the SBC codec and there’s no support for aptX. I wouldn’t call this a drawback because the brand has to cut corners to make them accessible to a wider audience.

Adequate playback duration

Xiaomi claims the earbuds can deliver up to four hours of playback on a single charge and I’ve reached 3 hours 45 minutes in one go. So, their claims aren’t farfetched.

The case can charge the earbuds fully twice, delivering a total of 12 hours of playback in one go. If you’re going to use them for conference calls, music, and other work-related activities, they’ll easily get you through a working day.

The case takes almost two hours to charge fully. For frequent travelers, this can be a major drawback. Furthermore, the case charges via a microUSB port instead of the now-standard USB-C. Don’t forget to carry that extra charging cord along!

Can this be your GadgetMatch?

Yes. It definitely can. While there are a lot of minor additions I’d want to see, the price brings me back to reality.

In a nutshell, they’re designed aptly, deliver ordinarily better audio, and have 12 hours of playback. For US$ 25, there’s no better deal available. Keep in mind, the Redmi Earbuds S are making TWS earphones more accessible to everyone.

If you’re looking for top-notch audio quality, there are premium offerings like the OPPO Enco Free, Galaxy Buds, and 1More Truly Stylish. On the affordable side, realme Buds Air Neo and OPPO Enco W31 can be alternatives but are still priced considerably high.

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