Features

Of disruptors, flagships, and price points

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What makes a smartphone a flagship phone?

Just the other day, during a weekly chat over drinks, the GadgetMatch team found ourselves in a conundrum.

While a few years back the answer was simple, these days, the imaginary lines that separate phone classes are getting murkier. That’s especially true in 2016, a year where up-and-coming brands are disrupting price points by introducing the same kinds of phones for less.

Companies like ASUS and OnePlus both offer smartphones that can compete with the best of 2016 at almost half the price. No buts, no ifs, no compromises.

The only thing separating the cream of the crop are features that are great to have but otherwise completely unnecessary: a 4K display, like most high-end televisions; water resistance; and modularity. But when it comes to high-end essentials, the disruptors have it all.

Next week, I’ll be off to New York to cover the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the latest in a trio of high-end phones by the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer. If its little brother, the Galaxy S7, is any indicator, expect the Galaxy Note 7 to be one of the best smartphones 2016 will see.

The Note 7 has everything that makes the S7 great: a gorgeous design, weatherproofing, expandable storage, a top notch camera, a built-in stylus, and, possibly, an iris scanner for security.

I haven’t settled on my favorite phone this year yet, one that’ll I’ll keep and use everyday for a year. But in my quest for the best smartphone technology has to offer, the Galaxy Note 7 is sounding like the perfect candidate.

My current daily driver, for all of two weeks, is the OnePlus 3. One of those disruptors I’ve been talking about. The OnePlus 3 is a gorgeous $400 smartphone: all metal, with rounded edges and an ultra-slim frame.

It’s just the right size; runs one of the best Android skins I’ve used; and comes with almost all the bells and whistles I look for in a phone: fast charging; fast fingerprint scanning; and a great camera. The only high-end features this phone doesn’t have are water resistance, a 2K display, and a rich ecosystem of compatible apps, accessories, and companion devices.

But I’m okay with that. In fact, the more time I spend with the OnePlus 3, the more I tell myself, this is actually a phone I don’t mind using daily. Scratch that—this is a phone I actually enjoy using. All of a sudden, my world is turned upside down. Maybe I don’t need a $700 phone? My current $400 phone costs significantly less, but it makes me happy.

Late last week, in Vietnam, another disruptor, Taiwanese tech brand ASUS announced two new smartphones, the ZenFone 3 Laser and ZenFone 3 Max. While ASUS has a phone that competes directly with the OnePlus 3, the equally impressive ZenFone 3 Deluxe, the two just-announced phones compete at another, much lower price point. But they too are disruptive.

Also last week, we were given an opportunity to take these yet-to-be released devices for a dry run. Our verdict? Both of them are significantly better than their predecessors. Our only dilemma, how to classify them. Are they midrange phones or budget phones? Between their specs and price tags, it’s hard to tell.

Which brings us back to the question, what makes a smartphone a flagship phone? Or, for that matter, what makes a budget phone? A midrange phone?

When everything was much simpler, the answer had to do with design, choice of materials, and specs. But now, even those at lower price points, some smartphones are designed well, made from premium materials, and come with impressive specs and features. Now that the playing field is somewhat equal, it all boils down to price.

For disruptors OnePlus and ASUS, it’s a question they both currently face, weeks before for their upcoming launches in the Philippines. I expect both their flagship offerings to come in at around P20,000 ($420). With both phones equally matched in terms of specs, whichever is more affordable is likely to win.

But it’s not just about these two phones. What about the flagships whose popularity they intend on disrupting?

At around the same time both the OnePlus 3 and ASUS ZenFone 3 Deluxe are supposed to go on sale, so should the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 for about P40,000 ($850). The Galaxy S7 is slightly cheaper, about P35,000 ($740).

Bleeding-edge tech comes at a premium, but I wonder, if for the casual consumer, it is worth it. Will there come a time where users, spoiled by the promise of a premium smartphone experience for less, reject the idea of any expensive phone?

Maybe we’ve hit the nail on the head. Maybe a flagship phone is about a premium experience.

I own another phone, a second daily driver, the iPhone 6S—a smartphone so great, that on paper has never competed head-to-head with all the other greats in terms of specs, but nevertheless continues to impress.

Case in point: the budget ASUS ZenFone 3 Laser has 4GB of RAM, twice that of the premium iPhone 6S. What Apple does, however, to justify its higher price points, is that it controls all the moving parts so that the internals can take a step back and users can focus on the usage experience instead.

The challengers to Apple and Samsung seem to have caught on that principle. When you unbox the OnePlus 3, enclosed is a letter from OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei. His message is simple: “Never settle.”

The thinking at ASUS isn’t very different. ASUS CEO Jerry Shen tells me the ZenFone is about “empowering luxury.” It’s about perfecting the smartphone experience and making it possible for everyone to afford this experience.

In a world where the common belief is you get what you pay for, it is intriguing to find that premium doesn’t have to cost so much. And while I appreciate how tech companies innovate with curved displays, super-fast charging, and the like, perhaps the biggest smartphone innovation of 2016 is something less tangible.

Perhaps it’s about premium experiences we can all afford.

Hands-On

Huawei Nova 3i is a beautiful phone with quad-camera goodness

The newest midrange contender

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Huawei just unveiled the Nova 3i and it looks good. Allow me a minute to gush about its looks.

This new midrange smartphone sports a glass back with a premium feel and a beautiful gradient back reminiscent of the Twilight P20. Let’s look at that closely.

As if this phone couldn’t get more extra looks-wise, there’s also a what Huawei reps call the “shining curve effect” which gives it that oomph when light hits the handset.

Now, on to what it can do.

This thing has a quad-camera setup: A 24- and 2-megapixel combo in front and a 16- and 2-megapixel setup on its back.

This phone makes you look good not just in selfies, but also while doing selfies. Take it from Chay.

Different scenes mean different adjustments to get the perfect shot. The cameras are equipped with AI, meaning they can intelligently detect scenes and automatically improve your photos. And, it’s not only the rear cameras with this technology; the selfie cams also have AI capabilities and an improved AI beauty mode.

The fingerprint scanner is found on the phone’s back, which usually means a more bezel-less screen. The 6.3-inch display features tiny bezels and a smaller chin plus, surprise, a notch!

There’s also a facial unlock feature and AI 3D Qmoji, which is basically Huawei’s version of Apple’s Animoji. 

The Nova 3i runs on Huawei’s brand-new Kirin 710 with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It has 3340mAh battery capacity and runs Android Oreo out of the box. 

Aside from this pretty gradient, the Nova 3i is also available in white or black.

Will this smartphone be as good as it looks? You’ll have to wait for the full review. Meanwhile, you can check price and availability here.

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Hands-On

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Hands-on: Feels cheaper now

It’s missing the premium build

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Currently, Xiaomi is leading in the budget smartphone segment. The uber-cheap Redmi 5A is still selling like hotcakes, making it the number one budget phone in the world. Just last month, the Chinese company announced the next in the Redmi series and what we have here is the base model: the Redmi 6.

Will the Redmi 6 be able to do better than its predecessors? Future sales numbers will be able to tell us that, but for now, let’s have a quick look at what the phone has to offer.

Following the footsteps of the Redmi 5, which is the Redmi 6’s direct predecessor, the IPS display of the phone has an 18:9 aspect ratio and HD+ resolution, although the Redmi 6 has a slightly smaller display at 5.45 inches versus the 5.7 inches of the older model. Despite having a taller aspect ratio, the bezels don’t qualify as near-borderless, but it’s still better than having a traditional 16:9 ratio.

On top of the display is the 5-megapixel front-facing camera along with the earpiece and sensors. As you can see below, the Redmi 6 has two card trays: one for the main nano-SIM card and another for the second one and a microSD card. The phone is a great budget option for those who have two SIM cards and a microSD card lying around.

We usually get a long triple-card tray, but this option is more ideal for users who keep on switching microSD cards. It keeps your main SIM card working while you swap your external storage. It’s similar to how Samsung designs their budget-midrange phones like the Galaxy J6 and Galaxy J8.

Moving to the right side, we have a couple of physical buttons for volume (the long one) and power/lock (the short one). Both are tactile and responsive, but they’re made of plastic just like the rest of the body of the phone.

If you’re coming from the previous Redmi series, you might be disappointed about that fact, but we’ll get to that later.

The bottom side houses the micro-USB port for charging and wired data transfer. Beside it is the main microphone that works alongside the secondary mic found on top of the phone. The 3.5mm audio port is also positioned on the top side.

I’m already accustomed to having the loudspeaker at the bottom, but Xiaomi decided to place the Redmi 6’s on the back. Sadly, the rear-firing loudspeaker gets muffled when placed flat on a table. There’s usually a raised dot beside the speaker grilles to lift the phone a bit, but Xiaomi missed out on that.

Now that’s we’re already checking out the rear of the Redmi 6, I’ll talk about the material choice for the phone’s body. Both the Redmi 4 and the Redmi 5 have aluminum back panels which add premium touches. The top and bottom portions are plastic, but that’s understandable to let in radio signals.

With the Redmi 6 though, we now have a full-plastic phone instead of maintaining a metal body (just like my favorite, the Redmi 4 Prime). The material downgrade makes the phone feel cheaper on hand and levels it with the more affordable Redmi models.

At least the camera department of the Redmi 6 gets an upgrade: From one, it now has two rear shooters. The main 12-megapixel sensor, which is the same as the Redmi 5’s, is now accompanied by a secondary 5-megapixel sensor for measuring depth. The phone can shoot portrait photos with bokeh effects.

The rounded fingerprint reader is still where most Xiaomi phones have it. It’s easily reachable by the index finger and can unlock your phone quickly.

As for the specs of the phone, it’s powered by a MediaTek Helio P22 processor with up to 3GB of memory and up to 64GB of storage. The graphics unit of the chipset is the PowerVR GE8320. It’s quite surprising that Xiaomi went back to MediaTek, but the Helio P22 is a good-performing midrange-class processor.

I wasn’t able to spend much time with the phone, but my initial gaming tests with Asphalt Xtreme and PUBG Mobile were pretty okay. The phone is not able to run the games smoothly on the highest-possible settings, but if I take it down a notch, I get better frame rates.

The phone runs MIUI 9.6 out of the box which is already based on Android 8.1 Oreo. The official stable update to MIUI 10 should come in the coming months. A 3000mAh battery keeps the lights on, but there’s no support for quick charging.

The Redmi 6 is already available in China starting at CNY 799 (US$ 120) for the 3GB/32GB variant while the beefed-up 4GB/64GB model is priced at CNY 999 (US$ 150). The phone is also making its way outside the Chinese market as part of its global rollout. In the Philippines, it’s priced at PhP 7,490 for the 3GB/32GB variant and PhP 8,990 for the 4GB/64GB.

SEE ALSO: Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro makes its debut with notch and affordable price

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Features

What is PLDT doing about its recent internet service issues?

Internal struggles lead to disgruntled customers

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It’s needless to say, but the internet service in the Philippines leaves a lot to be desired. Not only have hard numbers shown poor internet performance in the archipelago, social media has been seeing a never-ending eruption of complaints about every provider, as well.

While steps have been taken to bring the Philippines up to speed with other countries through the use of next-generation 5G mobile networks by next year, citizens aren’t convinced, and internet in the country is still facing a slippery slope.

One incident that has been affecting local provider PLDT (Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company), in particular, is causing a lot of turbulence to both its workers and customers.

Reports have circulated that PLDT had recently terminated over 7,000 contracts from its workforce, causing many homes and offices with internet problems to be put on an indefinite hold. PLDT denied the allegations, citing that the DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) was the one that ordered these contractual workers to halt their service to the company.

DOLE fired back by stating that PLDT’s workers are “employed by unqualified service providers” and PLDT has been warned months in advance. At the same time, disgruntled PLDT employees took to the streets in a recent protest.

Whatever the case, these employees aren’t the only victims here, as customers are experiencing the harsh aftereffects, too.

My own team has been a victim of this ongoing debacle. After having absolutely no Fiber connection for nearly two months, it was only yesterday when our situation was dealt with and a service crew paid a visit to our home office to bring our internet back.

This came after we had to sit through hours and hours of being put on hold by PLDT’s customer service. We simply wanted to know what was wrong and when we’d get our connection back; all we were told was that they’ll look into it, but nothing came of it until someone finally arrived yesterday. They have yet to offer any rebate for the weeks of service loss.

A friend of mine has been on PLDT’s hotline for over a month now, trying to figure out why his DSL speeds are way, way below the advertised 5Mbps. “When I’m lucky, it becomes as fast as 1Mbps, but I usually deal with speeds of around 0.1Mbps,” Mr. Iglesias told me in a chat. “Whenever I’d call the hotline to complain, I’m either put on hold for an hour or get no response at all.”

A PLDT customer who requested to be kept anonymous mentioned that his service “truly sucks” after the first 12 months of his 24-month contract were completed. “With regards to our internet, there are times we have no connection even though the LEDs of our modem are lit up,” he said. “We were requested to wait for seven to 30 minutes maximum just so we can speak to a ‘live’ agent and not an answering machine. Worse, from last night until now, our landline has no dial tone so we cannot call their hotline to report.”

Another source who works for PLDT (and also wishes to remain anonymous) was given an instant promotion to manager when most of her team was laid off at the end of June. “I had no choice. Now I’m handling all the customer complaints on my own,” she said.

And these are just a handful of cases. Social media is littered with angry posts about PLDT’s unsatisfactory — and sometimes non-existent — service.

Wanting to dig deeper, I reached out to Ramon Isberto, Head of Public Affairs at PLDT, for answers.

Isberto explains that the DOLE’s order to regularize these 7,300 workers is “inconsistent with applicable law, jurisprudence, and the documentary and testimonial evidence.” And even though PLDT was issued a cease and desist order, call center and BPO companies have been exempted from similar regulations related to the coverage of labor contracting restrictions.

Referencing to allegations that PLDT terminated thousands of contracts, Isberto reassures that “it simply does not make any sense for PLDT to terminate these contracts in this way.”

Finally, he says that they’re taking care of everyone’s welfare and the “duty to deliver quality services to customers.” That last bit is what I’m least confident about.

PLDT’s Twitter handle is “PLDT_Cares” and while they do care a whole lot about becoming the country’s go-to source for everything internet, I wonder what’s being done to take care of the ever-increasing number of complaints being filed each day.

We currently have this to hold on to.

Not much, but it’s all we have.

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