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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SCUBAPRO Aladin Sport Matrix review: Your first dive computer

Is it time to invest in diving gear?

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When you hang out with a group of hardcore technical divers, you can’t help but feel the need to own every single high-tech dive equipment they use. Everything just seems like a necessity.

So, when it came down to actually diving into gear investment (pun intended) for my upcoming trip to the deep south of Maldives, I had to hold off the urge of blindly purchasing whatever I thought was cool. For a fairly new advanced diver such as myself, I needed something that’s practical and affordable that suited my skills and circumstances. And so, the hunt for the perfect dive computer began. After some research and consultation, I found myself the owner of a new SCUBAPRO Aladin Sport Matrix.

Upfront: Bulky, but adaptable and functional

The Aladin Sport is pretty straight to the point. It’s a puck-style dive computer with a metallic silver faceplate. It has an easy-to-read display and a two-button menu system to navigate and select through its various functions.

The unit comes with an elastomer strap fitting for any type of suit you dive with. But, I’ve personally opted to forgo the strap and replaced this with a bungee strap so it’s easier to put on and take off. Thankfully, the Aladin allows for that as the strap pins are easily removed which means you can have your bungee looped into the four holes without buying any special adaptors.

When it comes down to functionality, research had to be done. All dive computers factor in depth, bottom time, and gas mix to calculate decompression time so it’s important to consider your dive habits and the usual situation you’ll be operating in.

For context, a quick background of my diving habits: I usually yo-yo with an underwater camera on hand but despite this, I’m very frugal in air consumption versus my colleagues. As for the circumstances: I was preparing for dives in the deep south of the Indian Ocean, home to some of the most beautiful marine life visible 30 meters deep — why it was important to have a computer that allowed me a generous amount of time to enjoy.

As I readied for my first dive, the local dive master/instructor, taking note of the watch, approached me and said, “That’s the best one.” And true enough, the Aladin Sport Matrix was very generous at extreme (but allowable) depths. It didn’t require me to have to do a ridiculous amount of safety stops to decompress.

The Aladin Sport is a single gas dive computer that leverages on SCUBAPRO’s adaptive ZHL-8 ADT MB algorithm. This predictive multi-gas algorithm adapts to each diver’s varied conditions, tried-and-tested based on millions of dive hours by divers everywhere. This means you can customize the algorithm based on your age, experience, and physical condition.

With a maximum operating depth of 120 meters (394 feet) and supporting up to three gas mixes, the Aladin Matrix is perfect for when your skills progress to more advanced diving.

Bluetooth Connectivity

My favorite has to be the Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity function. This enables you to log your dive profile data straight to your computer, phone, or tablet. Simply download LogTRAK on Android, iOS, MacOS, or Windows, connect to your watch via Bluetooth, and you’ll get access to a slew of dive information, including total dive time, average depth, temperature, and even calories!

Affordable + Practical

Priced at around PhP 25,000, the Aladin Sport packs a punch in features. It has replaceable batteries, lasts about 300 dives, and is equipped with a backlight. It’s water-activated so it starts calculating as soon as it hits the water.

To be honest, going puck-style wasn’t really the first choice. I hung out with divers equipped with high-end consoles like the Shearwater Perdix and had been wired to think that despite my newness, I’d eventually get to that level anyway. As a recreational diver, though, it wasn’t really advisable to spend more than PhP 30,000 for a reliable computer.

Is the ScubaPro Aladin Sport Matrix your perfect dive buddy?

It’s truly exciting to finally get started with your gear haul as you progress as a diver, but it can get overwhelming. For those looking for a great starter and eyeing further advance in their diving in the near future, this unit may be a great GadgetMatch.

By this point, you should’ve already figured that all divers are different. Some consume gas quicker than others, some are more susceptible to decompression sickness, and as such may need to stick to more conservative dive computers (regardless of experience) for safety. The SCUBAPRO Aladin Sport Matrix covers more than the basics for the best possible price-point and is highly recommended for your first foray to dive tech.

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Fitbit Versa Review: Real arm candy

Is this smartwatch any good?

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Before I get on with this review, let me paint you a more accurate picture of how I use smartwatches plus my short history with Fitbit.

I’m moderately active and I do try to be more fit by gyming and doing high-intensity interval training, but I’m not the most consistent person. On days that things get busy, or when I travel, I mostly forget about my health goals only to remember later on when I start feeling like a sack of potatoes because of all the inactivity.

I usually have a wearable as I’ve found that guilting myself to exercise can be an effective way to get my lazy butt to the gym; I loved my time with the Fitbit Alta HR which was the first fitness tracker I actually stuck with (at least by my standards). For a health tracking beginner (which I was at that point, and probably still am considering I haven’t really been true to my fitness goals), the Fitbit app was a great and easy way to check out my stats.

Now, when the Ionic was unveiled, I was quite excited about the idea of a Fitbit smartwatch, but it just wasn’t quite for me.

This newest release, the Versa, is small, sleek, and cute with its rose gold face. This is the Fitbit wearable I was waiting for.

Here are my thoughts on this device.

Look and feel

In the looks department, this wearable is a definite departure from the previously released Ionic. I can tell you now that the one deal-breaker I had with that watch is how it looks. Surely, I couldn’t be expected to wear that clunky thing 24/7?

The Versa is looking good

The Fitbit Versa, on the other hand, is something I could get on board with, in fact, it hasn’t left my wrist in the last weeks I’ve had it. It’s light, sleek, and it comes in rose gold! It matches everything I own, which is a definite plus for me.

I own a lot of stuff in pink and purple 😅

My unit is the special edition Versa that came with a cute purple woven straps and basic black silicone straps, both of which I’ve loved so far. I do get a little jealous of the pink silicone strap that the standard edition Versa came with, though replacement straps are also available in a number of styles and colors.

Matches most of my #OOTDs

There are three different face options: Rose gold if you’re a fan of color, like me, and black or gray, if you’re looking for a more neutral look.

Special edition Versas pictured above are equipped with Fitbit Pay

I’m honestly feeling pretty confident with this Fitbit look. Most outfits can and will match the Versa aesthetic.

Navigation and OS

There are three buttons for navigation and you can also navigate via gestures or tapping around on the touchscreen. Swipe down for phone notifications, up for the day’s fitness statistics, and left to get to the menu. Both buttons on the right act as customizable shortcut buttons and the left button acts as a home or back button.

Although the screen is bright and colors are punchy, there’s still a tiny lag when you wake the screen and its raise to wake function isn’t as sensitive as I’d like. When you get past this, however, navigating through menus is a breeze. 

It still works the same way: The watch connects to the Fitbit app on your phone and the app allows you to better customize settings on your device. It also gives you a better and more detailed breakdown of the info you have.

Like I mentioned earlier, the Fitbit app is my first ever fitness tracking app. I personally love it for its ease and simplicity. On this app, all health info gathered is presented in a way that’s understandable, even for a beginner. It runs on both Android and iOS so there are definitely #noexcuses for slacking off.

What can it do?

Like other Fitbit wearables, the Versa will track everything you do — from number of steps, to active minutes or exercise, calories burned, sleep, and even your continuous heartbeat. You can input your food, water, and caffeine intake on the app so you can keep tabs on that, too. You can also set and customize daily goals in the app to make sure you’re reminded of your fitness aspirations and get moving.

My usual workout view

For those who aren’t so versed in what workouts and exercises, the Versa has a built-in coach that gives you quick, timed exercises you can start with. Yes, the watch will literally show you what to do and time you as you go through the workout.

Waiting for the Versa to vibrate!

You can also set up exercise shortcuts for 7 activities you’d want to track. I love that interval training is one of them. I used to need my phone and a separate app that timed my home HIIT exercise, but now, I only need the Versa. It guides me through my workout with mild vibrations everytime a set is done and automatically records everything when I’m done.

Now, on good days, I get my butt up and work on my serotonin levels. But, let’s be real: I’m not made to be pumped up about working out on all days. Some days (note: most of them), I still have to force myself. This is where Fitbit Labs comes in. The “Fitbit Research initiative” creates fun apps and watch faces that will help you get moving. A favorite of mine are these pet faces — yes, these virtual pets get sad and hungry when you don’t feed it food that you earn from steps or moving.

It’s like a Tamagotchi you feed with steps

Amazingly, the promise of 4-day battery life holds true. Despite all these functions, my watch has consistently lasted me 4 days, or even more when notification alerts are turned off. 

Fitbit OS 2.0: What’s new?

This month, Fitbit 2.0 rolled out. A quick update will give you the new Fitbit OS but be warned: The process takes time and it can get glitchy. It took me a few tries and the realization that connecting my Versa directly to the WiFi is the best way to go about updating.

Two most notable new features are quick replies and female health tracking. I’ve been particularly excited about the latter as I’ve long wanted an all-around health app that integrates my menstrual cycle. Unfortunately, this feature is only available on iPhones as of now. Fitbit says Android support is coming soon, hopefully.

Quick replies, on the other hand, allow you to reply to messages straight from your Versa. These replies, however, are limited to pre-set messages that you can customize per app. This feature is only available on Android devices as Apple doesn’t allow that level of customization (boo). Cool as this feature may be, it still has to be pointed out that other smartwatches have allowed for custom replies for a while now. Thing is, I never really ever reply using my smartwatch — because why would I even bother struggling with that tiny screen, I just get on my phone — so this didn’t really bother me.

Is the Fitbit Versa for you?

I’ve always said that wearables, especially ones you use for fitness tracking, need to be on you at all times to be able to do its job well. This has always proved to be a struggle for me as I’ve only seen a handful that look nice enough to wear every day with my different outfit moods. The Versa seems designed to overcome this personal daily wear struggle: It’s cute enough, it’s light, and it packs enough battery power. These are the same reasons why this thing is on my wrist, still.

Worth it to note though, that there are still a number of things that can be improved on this device: A higher level of customization, more compatible apps, fewer screen lags, and an easier update process.

The thing is, despite all these flaws, the Fitbit Versa ticks most of my tiny boxes. I’m not the most exacting when it comes to smartwatch functions and I just need my basics covered when it comes to fitness tracking. All things considered, I enjoy wearing this thing a lot. If your priorities are the same as mine, the Versa is worth checking out.

SEE ALSO: Fitbit Versa hands-on: A better smartwatch attempt?

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Nokia 7 Plus Review: The Android One midranger

Pure Android software paired with midrange power

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After making it my daily driver for a week, I can now finally share my review of the Nokia 7 Plus — HMD Global’s latest bet in the upper-midrange segment. If you think Android One is just a label to make budget phones appealing to the software update-conscious consumers, think again. Times have changed; the Nokia 7 Plus is an Android One phone with more than enough power to compete with flagship devices.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the Nokia 7 Plus starting with the physical aspect of the phone.

Up front is the beautiful 6-inch Full HD+ display

It’s surrounded by minimal bezels but it’s definitely not borderless

The top portion has the earpiece, sensors, front camera, and Nokia logo

There’s no LED notification light, but it has an ambient display

The sides are made of copper including the volume and power buttons

The sides are pretty sharp while in hand

The hybrid card tray is on the left

No triple card slot here

On top is the 3.5mm headphone port

The legacy port is present!

At the bottom are the microphone, USB-C port, and loudspeaker

The loudspeaker is just mono. ☹

There are two cameras and a rounded fingerprint reader on the back

Zero antenna lines

The back is sleek with copper accents for the cameras and scanner

The accent makes the phone look sophisticated

Utilitarian but has a nice touch

When Nokia came back to life under the helm of HMD Global, the phones they have been releasing so far are utilitarian in design except for the Nokia 8 Sirocco. There’s nothing wrong with that since the build quality of new Nokia phones is top-notch. The Nokia 7 Plus is not that different with the use of 6000-series aluminum, but they did try to make the phone stand out by lining the sides with copper. Both the black and white models have a similar finish with a ceramic-like coating which is a nice touch and certainly makes the handset feel grippy in hand. Also, there are no unsightly antenna lines on the back.

The device sports a 6-inch IPS LCD with an 18:9 aspect ratio. It has a Full HD+ resolution, so it’s sharp but not the sharpest around especially at this size. As an added bonus, it’s protected by Gorilla Glass 3 against minor scratches. The display is vibrant and can get pretty bright, making it usable even when under bright sunlight. Gaming and video streaming are also immersive thanks to the tall aspect ratio. It’s not exactly as bezel-less as other phones, but at least it doesn’t have a notch.

Android One with even more speed

When Android One was introduced four years ago, it was designed to give a Nexus-like (or Pixel-like) Android experience. True to Google’s promise, they were able to deliver smooth Android performance even for phones under US$ 150 like the Cherry Mobile One G1. Fast forward to 2018, the entry-level segment is now covered by Android Go and Android One is now also available for midrange and premium handsets just like the Nokia 7 Plus. If you’re confused about the difference between the two, we have an explainer which you can read here.

The Nokia 7 Plus is powered by a Snapdragon 660 processor, making it an upper-midrange phone in terms of processing power. It’s more powerful than most midrange handsets and currently has the same chipset architecture as flagship devices. Paired with 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage, it’s a truly capable phone that can take a beating. Did I mention it’s powered by pure Android software?

Gaming performance is handled by the Adreno 512, a flagship-grade graphics unit for Snapdragon processors. As expected, the Nokia 7 Plus can render high frame rates even with graphics-intensive titles. My staple benchmark game — Asphalt Xtreme — easily ran on the highest settings. I also tested Modern Combat 5 and Riptide GP: Renegade which both ran smoothly even with graphics settings cranked up.

Zeiss optics on both sides

While Huawei has a partnership with Leica, Nokia has Zeiss — at least to create their lenses. The popular duo from the good old days of the N Series is back and the Nokia 7 Plus has Zeiss optics on both its front and back cameras. The dual camera setup on the phone’s back is a 12- and 13-megapixel combo with the former having a bright f/1.8 lens and the latter owning 2x optical zoom.

We have high expectations from the Nokia 7 Plus’ shooters due to the Zeiss label and thankfully, they don’t disappoint — most of the time. Shooting photos with the main camera is a no-brainer and every photo I take comes out nice, may it be under the bright sun or in the dark. Unfortunately, the Live Bokeh feature uses the secondary sensor which has a smaller aperture thus darker images, especially in low-light.

Even though it’s not branded as a selfie-centric phone, the Nokia 7 Plus should be part of the growing list. The 16-megapixel front camera is an amazing selfie shooter sans the beauty mode. I prefer taking selfies without the beauty filter and bokeh on. Simply check out the samples above.

One for the road

Another fantastic trait of the Nokia 7 Plus is its battery life. New phones with taller aspect ratios get bigger displays but their battery capacities usually remain the same — not the Nokia 7 Plus. Inside the phone is a 3800mAh cell which is impressively big considering the phone’s slim profile.

As a daily driver, the Nokia 7 Plus is reliable especially if you need to be constantly connected online. I have my Wi-Fi and mobile data always on, as always, and still, the phone was able to get me through my whole day. A full charge was able to last for almost 16 straight hours. My usage includes hours of gaming, social media, and web browsing with messaging apps that keep buzzing on the side. I’d say my time with the Nokia 7 Plus has been busier than the usual and good thing it can keep up.

The phone drains slowly, but it charges pretty fast! Using the bundled fast charger, I was able to top up 20 percent in just 15 minutes and about 45 percent in half an hour. A full charge takes two hours because the charging rate slows down to avoid overheating.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

I can’t think of any direct competitor to the Nokia 7 Plus, making it an easy choice when looking for a great midrange Android phone that has nearly everything. It’s truly a practical phone for just PhP 21,990 in the Philippines or INR 25,999 in India. It’s a bit more expensive in other regions like in the UK (GBP 350), but it can still be considered affordable compared to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy A8+ (2018).

The position of the Nokia 7 Plus is a bit tricky since it’s more expensive than the usual midrange Android category which is currently dominated by the Vivo V9, OPPO F7, ASUS ZenFone 5, and Huawei P20 Lite. If you can spend a bit more cash, you should definitely check out the Nokia 7 Plus. It’s got a more powerful processor, capable cameras, long battery life, and most importantly, Android One software. If there’s anything that other phones can’t offer, it’s the sustained software updates. Actually, I just got my monthly security patch while writing this review.

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