Reviews

Essential Phone PH-1 Review

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In order to sell smartphones every six months or so, our favorite smartphone brands resort to tricks — innovative or sometimes gimmicky features, meant to make phones fresh and exciting.

Over the last two years, these features have ranged from water resistance and near-borderless displays to dual cameras, hot-swappable modules, and perhaps not killing off the headphone jack. Okay, maybe not that last one.


But what if brands adopted a new approach to making phones, one that involves stripping away gimmicks and excess, and focusing instead on features essential to the average user?

That’s what Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, set out to achieve with his new US$ 700 Essential Phone (yep, that’s what it’s called) launching in the US and Canada on September 1.

What’s in a name?

But before we dive in, some definitions are necessary in order to set the pace of the rest of the review: What is essential?

The New Oxford Dictionary defines it as something that’s “absolutely necessary.” Similar to what the folks at Essential Products believe, that phones “should have only what we want and need.”

But aren’t wants and needs relative? Who is to say what I consider absolutely necessary on a smartphone? And are my preferences the same as everyone else’s?

Is its US$ 700 price tag, while fair for a phone of its caliber, not one a vast majority of smartphone users will be able to afford? Shouldn’t a phone built on these principles be more accessible to all?

Lastly, some will argue that Essential’s choice of features are misguided. Dual cameras may be the way forward in smartphone imaging, but are they necessary? And on the flip side, aren’t missing features like water resistance or a headphone jack must-haves on a phone?

I ask these questions because it’s hard not to overlook the promises the Essential Phone makes based on the name it’s chosen. But if you can see past the marketing spin, you’ll find a solid contender in the flagship space, with a top-of-the-line specs sheet, superior build quality, and a promise of being future-proof.

Look and feel

When I first picked up the Essential Phone PH-1 (its full name), I immediately knew it would be one that I would enjoy using, and I did. The phone is gorgeous from every angle and built well.

The phone is made of more premium yet unconventional materials; titanium which is more durable than aluminum, and ceramic which is more scratch-resistant than glass.

It’s also just the right size — not too small, not too big — and while it’s a bit heavy for its size, it’s one that exudes confidence the moment you pick it up.

A 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus for comparison

The Essential design aesthetic is classy and subtle, with no logos on either side.

On its back, the dual cameras do not protrude, and its circular fingerprint sensor is easily reachable by the average index finger. The only seemingly out of place elements are two golden dots that allow for snap-on accessories.

Up front is where the phone is truly a standout. Its 5.7-inch front panel is more display than I’ve ever seen on a smartphone today. Unique to the Essential Phone is a cutout for the selfie camera that makes it seem like the screen wraps around it.

If I were to nitpick, I’d complain that the IPS-LCD screen doesn’t have the deep blacks or rich colors of a phone with an AMOLED panel, but only the most discerning of users will mind.

The software experience is equally good, as close to the original flavor of Android imaginable. Not that you should expect anything less from the creator of Android. All throughout my review process, I silently giggled at the thought that I was finally using Android the way it was intended to be experienced.

Google Maps takes up the entire screen…

… while apps like Twitter leave a black bar on top.

Because its display has a cutout for the selfie camera, you get an unconventional bit of space that won’t reach its full potential until developers quite literally design around it. Google apps know it’s there; apps like Maps, for example, take up the entire space, while others like YouTube fill up the space with color. If an app doesn’t support it, the space where you’d find signal bars and battery stats stays black like you’d find on any other Android device.

Real-world performance

Because the phone is powerful and the user interface is light, navigating through the software feels snappy. Graphics-intensive games also load quickly, and run without stutters or hiccups.

The phone comes with 128GB as the only storage option; that’s double the default amount on most flagship phones in 2017. But it doesn’t have a microSD card slot, not that the average user will ever need more.

Its 3040mAh battery is a bit lower than the industry standard, but in our tests, we still got a good day’s use out of the phone, with about five hours of screen-on time. The phone supports quick charging, as well. I don’t know if it was just the warm New York summer, but we often found our phone getting warm while we were out taking photos.

Overall, camera performance is one area that needs improvement. The Essential phone’s dual-camera setup consists of a pair of color and black-and-white sensors. There’s no zoom or wide-angle lens. Like similar technology on the Huawei P10 and Nokia 8, the idea is to fuse the color and detail information from both cameras into a technically superior image.

Unfortunately, the results aren’t so great especially in low light. Our sample photos lacked the dynamic range you’d get on an iPhone, Galaxy S8, or Pixel, and photos shot in dimly lit places were very grainy and not the kind you’d want to share on social media.     

Its camera app too (one of the few customizations Essential’s made to stock Android) feels like it needs a lot of work. Focusing is slow, and so is switching between color and black-and-white modes.

While there have been at least two software updates since review units were seeded earlier this month, and more expected to come, experience tells us that software updates can’t make a good camera great.

Future-proof

While I have yet to test its only available module, a snap-on 4K 360-degree video camera, I think the Essential Phone’s modular dreams are an important story to tell. The company believes that modules are what keep the phone future-proof.

Two magnetic connectors on the back of the phone will allow users to snap on accessories that expand the phone’s functionality.

While there is only one currently available — and another one, a wireless charging dock, promised — what makes me more confident in Essential’s implementation versus that of Motorola (the only other modular smartphone maker), is the tiny footprint the Essential’s magnetic connectors take up. Just two circular dots spaced about 1cm apart.

Theoretically, the company could completely overhaul the phone’s design and today’s mods would still fit. Here’s to hoping it can get third-party companies to design modules for their platform, something Motorola is still struggling to do.

Is the Essential Phone your GadgetMatch?

If you see the Essential Phone as a top-of-the-line flagship instead of one that delivers just the essentials, it makes sense.

Its pursuit of simplicity, non-compromising performance, and forward thinking, make it a solid step in the direction that manufacturers must take. But as a first-generation product, it’s not one without a few flaws. Had its camera been stellar, the Essential Phone would have made an easy sell, and a particularly strong contender against Google’s upcoming Pixel 2. But unfortunately, it isn’t.

If you’re looking for a phone that’s not going to be used by the average joe walking down the street, you’ll love the exclusivity the Essential brings. If you’re a sucker for simplicity in design, believer in the stock Android experience, and don’t mind a sub-par camera, the Essential is a great choice.

Otherwise, we say wait another year. Perhaps with more experience and more time to develop its product and build its mod ecosystem, Essential can inch closer to its dream of building a phone that all of us will want and need.

SEE ALSO: Essential Phone Hands-On Review

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Gaming

Lenovo IdeaPad L340 Gaming Laptop Review: Flaming hot productivity and gaming

Blue, truly is the warmest color

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Gaming laptops are a joy to have, when you own one. You have a device that basically delivers everything you need: productivity and leisure in one package. The only real drawback to even buying one is the price tag, as crazier specs demand crazy prices.

It’s only fairly recently that manufacturers decided that gaming on the go doesn’t have to be expensive. Lenovo has one device that fits the bill in terms of affordability, and also incorporates top-line specs for heavy duty performance. This is what the Lenovo IdeaPad L340 Gaming Laptop is all about.


But is it truly a worthy investment? Let’s find out.

It has a 15-inch FHD IPS display, with thin bezels at the side

It comes with a backlit keyboard in the shade of blue

It can literally flex all the way, 180 degrees style

It comes with a powerful NVIDIA GTX 1650 graphics card

An excellent laptop for productive workload

I will just put it out there: the Lenovo IdeaPad L340 Gaming laptop is one productive machine. Powered by a 9th generation Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM, I could do anything ever so quickly. Multitasking felt like a breeze when using this device, and not a single drop in overall performance all throughout.

Because of the processor and RAM configuration, you won’t be limited to just the usual tasks. On this device, I did manage to do photo and video editing, and the device did not lag at any point. Mix that with document typing, audio and video streaming, and no signs of lag detected.

What bothered me for just a bit was the fact that the device came with a 1TB HDD. If there was an SSD inside, boot times would have been faster. When I first opened the device, it took about five to seven minutes before the device fully booted up. If you’re in a rush to get that paper or report submitted, this could be a problem for you. 

Game like an absolute beast with the GTX 1650

I was thoroughly impressed with the onboard NVIDIA GTX 1650 for this device. It comes with 4GB of VRAM, which allows greater graphics processing at a high rate. I played most popular PC titles at their maximum settings and observed no loss in performance all throughout.

Popular titles like Fortnite: Battle Royale and Apex Legends all peaked at 60 FPs, with highs of 65 to 70 FPS on their highest setting. Every time I got a chance to play, frames rendered in quite smoothly — which is essential for intense gameplay. 

Other titles like Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Rocket League garnered an average of 113 FPS. Of course, granted that these titles are not the most graphically-demanding compared to the others. Still, I experienced buttery-smooth gameplay, and GeForce Experience did its part with optimizations in between.

A laptop that actually respects your privacy

Every time you get a new laptop, you’re always afraid of the deep web getting to you. So you go on ahead and patch your webcams up with a piece of paper or a bandage. I’m not only to believe that to be honest, but this device does — and has found a solution to it.

The Lenovo IdeaPad L340 Gaming laptop comes with its own physical Privacy Shutter. If you’re too worried about your own privacy, you can just slide that thing to the left. I honestly found this a nifty solution instead of having to waste a good piece of paper or bandage.

Of course, if you don’t like that, you can just simply do it on the keyboard. Nonetheless, this is quite possibly the first device I’ve seen in a while that has that sort of technology. Finally, a laptop that actually cares for your privacy above all else, right?

Long lasting performance, when you’re not gaming full time

On paper, Lenovo promised this device could last up to nine hours with moderate use, at 70 percent brightness. Upon continuous use of the device, I did manage to get only up to seven hours when using it according to the same conditions.

Of course, when you’re gaming full time, the amount of time is cut into half with NVIDIA’s Battery Boost turned on. Still, even on a regular workload, you get the longevity of use you could possibly ask for in this device.

Lenovo also introduced its Rapid Charge technology even with their proprietary charger. I managed to get its charge level to 80 percent in a matter of 20 minutes, which is great for on-the-go users. To me, this is a great feature to have but I was hoping that they took advantage of the Thunderbolt 3 USB Type-C as the main charging port.

The areas that can do better

Despite every feature I could possibly rave about, there were others that I couldn’t give a total pass. First, the trackpad failed at the one thing it should be doing: gesture tracking. All but one Windows Precision gesture actually worked — and of all things, it’s the right click. I don’t have a problem clicking the bottom right side of the trackpad, but the fact that they missed out on that gesture is disappointing.

Second, as much as I raved about the webcam’s physical shutter, the webcam itself leaves much to be desired. I understand that it is just an HD 720p webcam, but there are other devices with the same webcam and are relatively better than this one. Photos have a ton of grain on them even just by loading the camera alone.

Finally, this device’s backlit keyboard was not astounding. I do prefer full-sized keyboards, plus key travel was easy to get used to. It’s the backlighting of the keyboard that was under par, in my opinion. It has three levels of back-lighting, but its brightest level does not properly stick out. And I’ve seen devices with brighter backlit keyboards even in full light.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

At PhP 49,995, the Lenovo IdeaPad L340 Gaming laptop is one powerful machine. You get the latest hardware necessary for productivity and powerful gaming, all in one package. It delivers powerful performance for productivity tasks, photo and video editing — perfect for content creators.

Gamers can easily get a kick out of this device thanks to the NVIDIA GTX 1650 inside. Playing popular titles feel like an absolute breeze, especially in high-octane moments just to score the victory. Although if you do want to play a little longer, you will need to bring the charger everywhere you go.

Overall, you can look for nitty-gritty design flaws all you want. You can admire all the other features the device offers. But, when it comes right down to it, this gaming laptop does exactly what you need it to do — and so much more. 

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Gaming

ASUS ROG Strix Scar III: Falling in love with a gaming laptop

This, coming from a Mac user

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I haven’t used a Windows laptop for an extended period in close to a decade now. And in recent years, I’ve done most of my gaming on a PS4. This is why getting the chance to use the ROG Strix Scar III was a welcome experience.

I’m reluctant to call this an actual review because of my inexperience in using gaming laptops. But I’ll try anyway. Let’s begin by taking a quick look at the design.


Sleeker but still very much ROG

First thing that jumped out at me is how much sleeker the Strix Scar III looked compared to the previous ROG gaming laptops I’ve seen. Instead of screaming GAMING at you, it feels more subdued but definitely still has a lot of that gaming vibe.

Behind it you’ll find these ports: ethernet, HDMI, power adaptor

The rest of the ports are on the right: All USB 2.0

It’s worth noting that this comes with a wired mouse. Very useful 

And it’s hard to see here but the carbon-patterned interior is sexy AF

The trackpad doubles as the numpad but I didn’t really use it much

And there’s this nice subtle branding just right underneath the bottom left of the display

In terms of how it looks, it’s not as loud as previous ROG laptops, but it is still unmistakably ROG. One time, I whipped it out during a meeting and got WOAH reactions.

However, that’s probably because the people I met with were also into gaming. For its size — 36(W) x 27.5(D) x 2.6 (H) cm | 14.19(W) x 10.83(D) x 1.02(H) inch — it’s probably not the laptop you would want to be carrying around for meetings.

I also think the way it’s built lends itself nicely to cooling. It has what ASUS ROG calls an enhanced air intake from a wide, ventilated 3D Flow Zone. All that matters to me, is that works the way it’s supposed to.

Adjusting to a Windows laptop 

I work a lot. On any given weekday, if I’m not sleeping or daydreaming about TWICE’s Momo, I’m usually in front of a laptop writing, copy editing, or video editing.

In terms of writing and copy editing, I didn’t have much of a problem. In fact, I would dare say I enjoyed the Backlit Chiclet keyboard of the ROG Strix Scar III more than I ever did my near five-year old MacBook Pro.

It’s an absolute joy typing on this thing. And those keys that had plenty of travel translated to whatever task I was doing, even on gaming. We’ll get to more of that later on.

Quick note, I also blasted music on this while writing. My holding-on-to-dear-life MacBook Pro has a busted right speaker so it was such a pleasure having a laptop with speakers that actually work.

The bigger adjustments came when dealing with photos, videos, and just Windows overall.

Working with images and videos

I take a lot of screenshots. On Mac, it feels easy and natural. I can’t say the same for Windows. It feels like I have to go through more steps than necessary just to get a screenshot.

Video editing was another thing, too. I’ve been editing on Final Cut Pro ever since I started video editing professionally. I wanted to try Davinci Resolve but some of the work I had to do required the edits to be done quickly — something I could only do on FCP.

But that speaks more to my comfort level on the software more than anything else. I did try editing something and the laptop had no trouble whatsoever with it. Same thing with the light photo editing I usually do. It’s like child’s play for the ROG Strix Scar III.

Other than that, Windows 10 has been a pleasant surprise. I can’t even remember the last iteration of Windows I used, but this was clean and functional. However, 11 out of 10 times I would still choose macOS. 🤷🏻‍♂️

The gaming part blew my mind

One of my biggest regrets is that I worked on the ROG Strix Scar III more than I gamed on it. I only got to play one game — Devil May Cry 5 — and it was more than enough to convince me that this laptop delivers where it should.

It wasn’t something I was totally expecting since I thought, while working, that the display on my MacBook Pro looked… crispier. But when I fired up Devil May Cry 5, boy oh boy it was such a visual spectacle.

The NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 was really doing its job. I was hooked at how good it looked I played well into the wee hours of the morning despite knowing I needed to wake up early the following day.

While I’m used to holding a controller while playing, I did play my fair share of Counter-Strike and NBA Live waaaaay back in the day. So the mouse and keyboard setup wasn’t too much of an adjustment.

The keyboard was just truly a dream. I’ll go as far as saying this is probably the best keyboard I’ve ever used on any laptop.

And then you have that display. With an 81.5 percent screen-to-body ratio, it’s hard not to feel like you’re so much closer to the game than you actually are.

Is the ROG Strix Scar III your GadgetMatch? 

From a Mac user, my gaming and working habits are pretty far off from who this gaming laptop might target. Despite that, I had a grand time with the ROG Strix Scar III. If you asked me to completely switch to this I wouldn’t be totally opposed to the idea.

It has more tricks that I wasn’t able to dig deep into. There’s plenty of customization to make your gaming experience more tailored to your preferences. I’m inclined to say that if you’re out on the market for a gaming laptop that has all the oomph you could possibly want, then this is the one for you.

The variant we reviewed (i9, 240hz screen) retails for PhP 169,995 (US$ 3,252). It’s available at ROG Mall of Asia and other ROG concept stores in the Philippines. For more information on other variants visit the ROG Strix Scar III product page.

If that’s well within your budget, you won’t regret getting the ROG Strix Scar III. It’s a perfect blend of sleek and power without being overbearing. It’s a gaming laptop that’s easy to fall in love with.

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Gaming

NBA 2K20 Review: A Worrisome Upgrade

Welcome to the next… best thing to an update

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I have to be honest: I felt the hype in the few months leading up to NBA 2K20’s release. I felt the changes coming; from the updates to popular game modes to the arrival of the WNBA. I even went on ahead and pre-ordered the Legend Edition — mostly because of the cover.

But I guess even the hype dies little by little. As I loaded the game into my PS4, I was just as excited as I was when I first got my expensive console. Give it an hour or two to download content, and I finally got a chance to see whether that hype was real. But unlike all the previous NBA 2K games, this one literally just takes you to the main menu.


No demo game of the NBA Finals the previous year. No scrimmage between the two finalists — in this case the Golden State Warriors sans Kevin Durant and the Toronto Raptors sans Kawhi Leonard. I can already tell that we’re in for some real big things ahead.

It’s the same modes, the same interface, the SAME gameplay

Every NBA 2K game comes with the same set of game modes to choose from. Nothing much changed through the years, with the exception of the “Play WNBA” mode. I felt that it was only right to separate the NBA from the WNBA teams, unless you’re interested enough to make the Lakers and Sparks face each other. Other than that, no other feature was ground-breaking.

Another staple with the NBA 2K franchise is its gameplay, which I believe to be a great representation of NBA basketball. I will admit that getting used to a slightly improved shot meter takes a little bit of time. If this is the first ever NBA 2K game that you will play, the learning curve is decent. However, throughout the weeks that I’ve been playing the game, I did notice a bit of input lag — especially when jump ball starts.

One change I had mixed reactions for were the changes made to the all-time and historic teams. I do like that the 2K design team stepped up from just the team logos to now the actual players or superstars per team. But do we really need to keep switching historic teams every year?

You get to set your potential as an NBA superstar

One of the game’s biggest upgrades from last year is an improved MyPlayer. The pre-release feature allows you to build your own player from scratch, allowing you to set his stat limits and physical build. Every possible setting available is adjustable to fit your ideal player for the position you want to play in the lineup. And perhaps the most important choice you will make involves your Takeover ability.

Not only that, but you also get to test your build when fully maxed out. You can play for your favorite team and see how your player fits within that lineup. I personally found this a great feature to have, especially if it’s your first time playing. Although I do recommend that you walk through MyPlayer with a friend of yours who plays NBA 2K a lot. Oh, also you can use your phone to scan your face for your MyPlayer. That’s great for people like me who don’t own a PlayStation Camera.

But your career starts out a little too shallow than before

Don’t get me wrong: when it comes to career modes in sports games over the last few years, NBA 2K kills it with their storylines. Apart from having control of your own NBA career, past NBA 2K games touched on the story behind your legend. Basically, you get to follow your path from unheralded prospect to NBA champion.

NBA 2K19 saw you go from an undrafted prospect making waves in China, chasing an NBA dream that seemed miles away. You take a literal full route towards your dream of making it to any NBA team, instead of just being drafted outright. From the streets of Shanghai to the farms in Indianapolis, your story takes every twist and turn. But it all pays off in the end.

Meanwhile, in NBA 2K20 you go the usual route most NBA talents go through. You get through your senior year in college, build on your stock, and take a few invites and an NBA Combine. All of that will happen before you get drafted by an NBA team of your choosing (technically). And the only life obstacle you ever come across with is your former college coach who cut one of your buddies in the team. 

The storyline feels a little shallow compared to the previous iteration of the game. Sure, I still put in the same work I did in terms of upgrading my stats and notching triple-doubles whenever possible. And sure, the end goal is still the same — play for an NBA team. But in NBA 2K20, it doesn’t even feel like the journey was truly worth it when it’s all said and done.

The final verdict

I know I said earlier that we were in for some big things from NBA 2K20, and honestly the upgrades were big. I welcomed the MyPlayer upgrade with open arms and pretty much had fun with it in the process. Adding in the WNBA rosters gave more variety for old and new players alike — and it’s also a sign that maybe we shouldn’t just focus on the NBA too much.

But it is an NBA 2K game after all. It’s still the same game of basketball, the same approach to creating your own career. Even with all the big changes, gameplay remains the same even with minor adjustments. MyCareer still rocks a great storyline, but feels less fulfilling than before.

Overall, NBA 2K20 still peaks as an overall great basketball video game. But honestly, it felt like the game welcomed me to the next big NBA 2K upgrade — and that worries me.

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