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

[irp posts=”18991″ name=”Essential Phone Hands-On Review”]

Laptops

Huawei MateBook D 15 2021 11th Gen review: 4 months after

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Huawei MateBook D 15

The work from home and online class setup had us all adjusting to this new normal. You’ll see a lot of inquiries on Facebook groups about LED ring lights, microphones and midrange laptop recommendations. Huawei’s MateBook D series is among the ones you’ll see that has gotten a lot of popularity for this purpose.

It makes perfect sense, since back when I first reviewed the Huawei MateBook D 15 2021 11th Gen, I had a lot of good things to say about it. After four months under regular use, there are quite a few more that I came to realize about this device that I think you guys might find interesting.

It can get things done

A quick refresher on its specs, the D 15 2021 we have with us has an 11th gen Core i5 with the Intel Iris Xe graphics, 16GB DDR4 RAM and 512GB of SSD storage. 

It’s no question, if you’re just going to use this for online classes or regular zoom meetings, the D 15 probably won’t even break a sweat. However, I consider my power requirements to be somewhat on the heavy side for my photo and video editing needs.

What surprised me was I didn’t find myself having to go back to my main editing workstation and have actually done more work on the D 15 than I expected. It may not be as fast, but it also wasn’t drastically slower.

Plus the fact that this has a more accurate display with its 100 percent sRGB color gamut, the 15.6-inch LED display is perfect for my daily Photoshop use.

Portability also applies at home

Huawei MateBook D 15

Working from home for a long time and looking at the same thing over and over, not having to be able to go to places, had many of us bored and unmotivated. I personally always had that urge to look for another spot just for the change of scenery.

Thankfully, weighing only 1.56kg, it gave me the flexibility for me to place it in different places. I didn’t worry that the surface wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Battery life

The capability to place the D 15 on different places wouldn’t really matter if you’re still stuck near an outlet because you’re constantly required to plug it in. Fortunately, the 42Wh battery of the D 15 keeps us away from the charger for around nine to ten hours before needing to plug it back in.

Huawei addresses issues and gives regular updates

Huawei MateBook D 15

During its time with me, the D 15 had quite a few driver and software updates. Along with one of the updates came a fix for an issue I had with its fingerprint scanner where it frequently had trouble recognizing my fingerprint. While it shouldn’t have had that issue to begin with, the regular updates are an indication that users aren’t abandoned and issues are in fact being addressed on Huawei’s end.

I also learned from Huawei’s website that the MateBook series has a Windows 11 upgrade rollout plan. That’s something nice to look forward to.

Undesirable camera angle

Huawei MateBook D 15

Sadly, not everything is praise worthy on the D 15. The hidden web camera, while innovative, came at the cost of an awful camera angle. Since it is placed on the keyboard, it is also pointed upwards.

Using it, you’ll mostly see an unflattering image of yourself often emphasizing the size of your nostrils.But if you decide that you’d want to use a laptop raiser for a more comfortable viewing angle, the camera won’t be pointed downwards. That’d make it barely usable.

A generous availability of ports

Huawei MateBook D 15

Being the boxing fan that I am, the recent Pacquiao fight had me subscribing for a pay-per-view service. The full sized HDMI port on the D 15 was heaven sent. During the fight as I was able to output the fight on our dated TV set. It let us to enjoy the stream on a bigger screen.

The availability of USB ports on both sides also let us to choose where certain devices can be plugged. We didn’t worry about hitting our external drives with our mouse or fitting multiple USB devices side by side.

Multi-Screen Collaboration

I did not find myself using this feature as much. However, having this capability eliminated the need for me to grab a USB cable to transfer files from my phone. A quick tap of my phone and I was ready to transfer photos I recently. It’s great for some quick editing before posting on Instagram. 

Is this still your GadgetMatch?

Huawei MateBook D 15

When I think of the D 15, freedom is the word that comes to mind. It gives so much freedom to work anywhere with its portability and battery life. You get freedom to do what you wish with it with its capable hardware. There’s also freedom from wires with the Multi-Screen Collaboration. And even freedom to plug various devices with its great selection of ports.

It’s a no fuss kind of laptop that just gets things done. Its sheer simplicity is what makes it a great device.

If you’re interested in getting the Huawei MateBook D 15 2021 11th Gen with 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD, you can now get it for PhP 48,999.00.

 

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Reviews

Samsung Galaxy Watch4 Review: Best Android smartwatch yet?

But is it any better than the Apple Watch?

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Samsung launched the Galaxy Watch4 just recently — which is the successor to 2019’s Galaxy Watch Active2.

Now with the power of a BIA (Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis) via its Bio Active Sensor, the Galaxy Watch4 can simply measure your body composition with just your two fingers and wrist.

But is it any better than the Apple Watch?

Watch our Samsung Galaxy Watch4 review now to know more.

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Accessories

Maonocaster Lite AU-AM200-S1: Intuitive and portable podcasting rig

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AU-AM200-S1

I am a fan of quality and affordable gear. Modern manufacturing techniques and advancements in technology gave us a vast selection of gadgets in all shapes and sizes.

With the gaining popularity of live streaming, the demand for good audio interface and microphones is growing. The brand Maono, relatively speaking, is a newcomer that offers affordable audio products.

What we’ve got here is the Maonocaster Lite AU-AM200-S1, which is a portable podcasting gear. This is the very first product I’ve got the chance to try from this brand and I’m liking it so far. This bundle is ideal for someone who is just getting into podcasting or a musician looking for a cheaper alternative.

What’s in the box?

AM200 Podcast Console

At first glance I actually thought it was a miniatured DJ turntable because of the two mini platters, but those are just volume knobs for the mics and music. It is a 3-channel mixer-type audio interface with five outputs. The two inputs are designated for mics and/or instruments and the other input is for music. Three outputs (3.5mm TRRS) for smartphones are available so you can stream simultaneously on different platforms.

A separate main and monitor output is available so you can listen to what your audience hears. Note that all the inputs and outputs are for 3.5mm jacks so if you are planning to plug in an instrument directly using a PL (1/4 inch) cable, you will need a 3.5mm adapter.

Plug and play

You can connect it to a computer with the USB A to C cable that is included. It doesn’t require any drivers, so, just plug it in and it’s good to go. It should be compatible to most DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) for music recording. There is a 3-band EQ along with a “REC” volume knob which is like a “Send” knob to feed the audio to the devices it’s connected to.

Two crossfaders control the monitor volume and echo level. The “monitor” crossfader controls both the volume level for the (main) output and the monitor (output). I wish they installed separated levers for each one to control them independently.

This is also the case for the mic volume knob, it controls both the levels of mic 1 and mic 2. It would’ve have been handy if there are separate knobs for each but I think they did this design to fit in a compact box.

For outdoor streaming and recording

At the middle portion, you’ll notice along the LED indicator level signal is a battery indicator. Yes, this is also battery powered which makes it suitable for out of home live streaming, if you prefer creating something for your viewers elsewhere. You can easily recharge the batteries with the USB C cable.

There are also audio sample pads, buttons for sound effects and pitch shifters.

AU-PM360TR Microphone

AU-AM200-S1

This condenser microphone does not require phantom power. It runs below 5V, through the XLR to 3.5mm cable, unlike the industry standard condenser microphones. With its cardioid polar pattern, it will be more sensitive to sounds being captured in front of it.

Earphones

It comes with a pair of in-ear earbuds with a very long cable, enough to cover the distance for a typical on-desk live streaming. I think that the sound quality would be more appreciated by most modern pop listeners who like a lot of bass. Because it does deliver that low-mid thump.

Tripod

Out of the box, the microphone comes attached to the mini tabletop tripod. The microphone is detachable to the tripod, but if it is used handheld, it will pick-up a lot of hand noise. So, it is better to leave it on the tripod.

Other accessories included are: XLR to 3.5mm cable, two 3.5mm TRRS cables, USB A to USB C cable, and a windscreen cap.

Performance

For podcasting, it is very easy to use. It’s what the AU-AM200-S1 is made for and they did a good job. The microphone delivers a clearer and louder output compared to built-in mics in smartphones/laptops or headsets. You can control the volume of music accompaniment easily with the wheel knob, whenever you want to highlight the music or the voice.

Plus, the sound samples like the applause, laughter, cheering etc., are nice additions for some impromptu segments in your streams. You can also record your own samples by pressing the “loop back” button and assigning to any of the blank buttons available.

Since the microphone does not require a phantom power, the output is weaker compared to classic condenser microphones. The sound quality is good nevertheless.

AU-AM200-S1

For music recording, you can record your instruments with it on your preferred DAW. I connected my guitar to my digital effects processor with a 3.5mm headphones jack going to the mic input of Maono console. I noticed that the 2 mic inputs have high gain levels because my guitar was already clipping with the volume knob on the AM200 console at around 10 o’clock.

Usually, I set the volume on my guitar effects unit on almost full when I am recording with a different audio interface and mixers. But with the Maono AU-AM200-S1, I only had to set the volume of my guitar effects at 50 percent. This is good because it doesn’t have a designated gain knob. Just watch out for clipping- if it happens, you may want to lower the volume from the source.

I recorded a few short audio samples to demonstrate how the Maonocaster Lite AU-AM200-S1 handles recording. Please excuse my singing voice.

Mic only without echo(onboard) – vocal

Mic only with 50% echo(onboard) – vocal

Mic only with 100% echo(onboard) – vocal

Mic only without echo – vocal and guitar

Mic only with post-editing – vocal and guitar

Guitar through a digital effects processor

In a full band mix – Recorded vocals and guitars (both acoustic and electric)

Fully recorded demo

 

There are two functions that I have a few comments on:

AU-AM200-S1

Denoise — This is their “smart noise cancelling” feature that reduces background noise. It does its job as a noise gate, but unfortunately, you cannot adjust the settings (threshold, attack, range, etc.). Depending on how loud the ambient noise is, the mic sometimes gets a stuttering sound when this feature is engaged. If the room is quiet enough, there shouldn’t be any problem.

Music Only — This feature attempts to minimize the vocals in the music that you are playing, but similarly to the denoise, it sometimes affects the mic audio quality. I suggest looking for backing tracks of the songs you want to sing during your live stream beforehand.

Is the AU-AM200-S1 your GadgetMatch?

AU-AM200-S1

The Maonocaster Lite AU-AM200-S1 bundle is a usable and functional piece of gear. I see it as a bring-it-anywhere, all-in-one podcasting kit. It would have been more convenient (for me) if they included ¼ inch inputs for mics and instruments. Although, I guess it would kind of defeat its portable nature because most PL cables are thicker and heavier compared to the 3.5mm cables included in this bundle.

Pricing and Availability

The Maonocaster Lite AU-AM200-S1 retails for $109.00 and is available for purchase in Amazon, Shopee, and Lazada. You can check out their other products at the official Maono website.

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