Reviews

Revisiting the Essential Phone at $499

Reviewed as a premium midrange phone

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It’s amazing what a major price cut can do to a smartphone. At US$ 700, the Essential Phone was punching above its weight class; at US$ 499, it’s a surprisingly great deal.

This is the same phone with a titanium frame and ceramic back, the fastest processor found on any Android device at the moment, and a design we consider to be the most attractive of 2017.


And since Essential (the company) had several months to iron out the kinks of its sole flagship, we’re no longer dealing with what once felt like a half-baked product.

We already reviewed the Essential Phone a couple of months after its initial release — then with the original price tag — and we were neither blown away nor totally disappointed by the handset. We’re revisiting the device as a premium midrange, now that it fits comfortably at the US$ 500 mark (although it went for as low as US$ 400 at one point).

Re-evaluating what’s essential

We had a number of complaints during our first review: The built-in camera app was too basic, its image outputs were slow and grainy, and the space around the “notchette” (because it’s notchette as big as the iPhone X’s notch) wasn’t fully utilized. Essential managed to improve two of those three, but not by much.

For one, the camera app has since been updated with a few more features. There’s now a portrait mode similar to what you’d find on the Pixel 2 and Galaxy Note 8. Essential also added support for 360 videos on Facebook Live and YouTube Live using the optional 360 Camera attachment.

While those are welcome additions, they don’t fix the real issues, which are the clunkiness of the interface and lack of any proper optimization since the app’s first version. Switching from one mode to another is as slow as ever; you can’t use monochrome or portrait mode for the front camera; and the most basic of settings, such as toggling the aspect ratio and image resolution, are still missing.

Features you’d normally take for granted on much cheaper phones are what you’ll want most on the Essential Phone’s default app. And it’s not like the image quality got significantly better; the dual cameras on the back continue to lag behind the competition and its selfies are nothing to brag about. Making matters worse is the delay between taking a shot and viewing it — another example of poor utilization of a great processor.

You can see in the sample photos below how inconsistent the camera can be. Going from pure daylight to a tad less light indoors can instantly bring the shooters from hero to zero:

Finally, we have to talk about the notchette. It’s nowhere near as intrusive as the iPhone X’s notch, and it’s better than the Mi Mix 2’s awkward camera placement on the bottom, but apps still haven’t been optimized to work around the gap. Essential promised that popular apps would eventually adapt, yet the only apps in my library to adjust are Google Photos, Maps, and Uber.

Everything else simply changes the color of the top bar or makes it all black, ultimately creating a thick bezel and ruining the borderless experience. It’s a shame that developer support has been negligible from the beginning, although that’s something you’d expect from a first-generation product with a tiny user base.

It’s easy to hit the Essential Phone where it hurts — it’s a problematic product under a troubled company — but you can’t deny how well built it is: no branding whatsoever, the ceramic back is more scratch-resistant than typical smartphone glass, and there’s comfort in knowing that the titanium frame can take a beating.

You can argue that the 19:10 screen ratio is too unconventional, but while there’s no standard in this post-16:9 era, we’ll settle for what feels best. I can wholeheartedly say that the slim 5.7-inch body is a joy to hold in spite of the slippery materials, and this is a phone I’d proudly show off to my friends and peers.

On the inside, we still have 2016’s Android 7.1.1 Nougat operating system. It’s a sore spot for a phone known for its pure, nearly untouched Android interface. Why hasn’t Oreo arrived yet on Essential’s only phone? Stuck in its beta stages, there’s hasn’t been any word when the final build will arrive. We can only hope that the update will remedy more bugs.

None of these take anything away from the steady battery life, however. It isn’t stellar by any means — I’d get around four hours of screen time and normally have to charge at the end of each day — but I never had to keep a charger or power bank beside me at all times. Although rare to find a phone with terrible battery endurance these days, this definitely slots within the above-average mark.

Do take note: It uses a non-proprietary 27W fast charger instead of the usual Quick Charge found on Snapdragon-equipped phones. Why should you care? Using anything other than the bundled charger probably won’t charge the battery rapidly. I’ve had luck with the Pixel 2’s high-powered Quick Charge adapter, but it wasn’t consistent and would take anywhere between less than two hours to more than three hours to fully charge.

Re-evaluating the competition

A lot of top-shelf phones have launched since the Essential Phone was first released — Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8, Google’s Pixel 2 XL, Apple’s iPhone X, Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2, and the OnePlus 5T, to name a few. Those are six of the best phones you could buy today, showing just how stiff the competition has gotten since the Essential Phone set foot in the market.

Up against these giants, it was a smart move on the newcomer’s part to cut down the cost of their lone product, while continuing to be on par with rivals in terms of chipset and build quality, but this really should have been the price from the beginning.

Being bold is good, but fledgling companies (no matter how renowned the founder is) must know their place. Launching before the barrage of flagship phones mentioned above was strategic; not delivering on time and losing momentum aren’t.

With the new price, the Essential Phone is no longer an overpriced phone with an underdeveloped camera and no waterproofing or audio port. It now has great value with a… umm… slightly better camera and still no waterproofing or audio port whatsoever.

And yet, it’s a bargain for the beautiful device that it is, especially with premium pricing going well above the US$ 900 by each passing launch. This just leaves us with the question:

What does the future hold for Essential?

With no rumors or expectations for an Essential Phone 2, we aren’t hopeful for a sequel this year. What we do wish for are more modular attachments; the 360 Camera simply isn’t enough to justify this handset’s modular expandability anymore.

The two metal dots at the back are underutilized to a fault. It’s a shame, because the 360 Camera is an intuitive approach to modular accessories — it’s plug-and-play and there’s no need to detach anything first. The promised wireless charging attachment would be great, and a selection close to what Moto offers for its phones would put it over the top.

At the end of the day, we’re looking at a good first attempt. The original iPhone wasn’t as refined during its time, and Google’s first Pixel didn’t look nearly as sleek compared to its competition.

It’s been more than half a year since the Essential Phone launched, and neither the device nor its features feel essential to this day. A successor could change all that and truly make a dent in the dense smartphone landscape, but until then, let’s appreciate this phone for what it is: the prettiest pure take on Android.

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Xiaomi Mi A3 Review: The no-frills master

An all-rounder powered by stock Android

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It’s no secret, Xiaomi and Realme have been fighting the whole year and it’s impossible to declare a winner just yet. The two are constantly trying to undercut each other and this has been a huge boon for the end-user. We’re seeing a new phone launch every other month. Like they say, the more, the merrier!

Xiaomi and its love for the Snapdragon 625 processor is well documented, and this year the brand has a love affair with the 48-megapixel sensor. But while the Redmi series already has a few options to choose from, Xiaomi hasn’t given up on the A-lineup. With the Mi A3, the brand intends to bring its hardware expertise to a vanilla Android experience.


The Mi A2 received mixed response. Will Xiaomi be able to cover-up lost ground with the Mi A3? The Redmi Note 7 Pro is comparatively old now, can this phone take the weight of fighting-off the Realme 5 series? And most importantly, Is this your GadgetMatch?

A rare to find AMOLED display in this segment

Ultra-premium Gorilla Glass design

The rear sports a triple camera setup

USB-C port and the speaker grill on the bottom

Unmatchable design that screams premium

For the price, we’re used to seeing phones with a polycarbonate body. Brands have managed to incorporate gradient or reflective patterns, but plastic has a hollow feel that’ll always feel clumsy. Xiaomi just hit a home run with the Mi A3’s design and it screams premium. In fact, I’d go on to call this my favorite part about the phone.

The glass sandwich is surrounded by a metal railing and the construction feels sturdy. In fact, the slightly curved glass is very comfortable to hold and the reflective patterns have their own vibe. The phone is available in three colors, each suitable for every taste. We have the Not Grey unit that looks sober and a perfect fit for business meetings. The More Than White option looks very classy while the Not Just Blue is the most eye-catching.

The back consists of a triple camera array and company branding. The power button and volume rockers are located on the right while the SIM tray is on the left. A USB-C port is located on the bottom, along with two speaker grills. But, there’s just a mono speaker situated in the right grill and the left is a dummy, just like on the iPhone.

The headphone jack is making a comeback due to high demand and Xiaomi has also slapped an IR blaster on the top for added convenience. Weight is properly distributed and yes, the back is a fingerprint magnet. Smudges are easily visible and thanks to the glass, the phone is slightly slippery. I’d recommend slapping a case as soon as possible.

The front gets a 6-inch AMOLED display that houses a tiny water-drop notch on top. It’s an HD panel (720p), but before you jump to conclusions, consider the screen quality first. The color reproduction is on point with near-perfect saturation and decent sharpness. The panel sucks less power and also houses an in-display fingerprint scanner.

I won’t consider a 720p screen to be a drawback because the experience remains unhindered. Especially when it delivers top-notch quality by compromising a mere marketing tactic. Though, I wish maximum brightness was a tad bit higher.

The fingerprint scanner is a disappointment. I liked it in the beginning, but with day-to-day usage, it’s annoyingly slow. You need to press your finger onto it for quite some time and please don’t move around because reliability is poor. Phone makers should just stick to a physical sensor in these cases.

Whatever you need, it’ll get it done

The phone is powered by a Snapdragon 665 processor and comes with 4GB RAM in the base variant. Our device has 6GB RAM and 128GB internal storage. Obviously, storage is expandable via a microSD card, but it’s not hybrid.

Thanks to the 720p display, the processor is able to sail through everything. In the period I used the phone, there have been no lags or stutters while moving around multiple apps or sifting through multiple browser tabs. In fact, the RAM was able to accommodate Uber, Google Maps, WhatsApp, Paytm, and Spotify all at once without a glitch.

It also features UFS 2.1 memory storage, translating into a faster user experience. PUBG was ultra-smooth on the maximum selection based on specs. Frame drops are negligible and the overall experience is satisfying. The processor doesn’t heat up considerably and longer periods of gaming saw no change in performance. So, if you’re looking forward to playing a game every now and then, this phone should be your first choice.

Backing these internals is a beefier 4000mAh battery that supports 18W fast charging. The in-box charger is rated for 10W and can charge the phone completely within two hours. With super-heavy usage, the phone lasted me almost 20 hours. I’d have to charge it once in 36 hours otherwise. Improving in this department was a smart move by Xiaomi.

Star of the show: Stock Android

Lastly, the key highlight of the phone is its software — pure Android. In partnership with Google’s Android One project, the phone is promised to receive timely security and feature updates. If you’re someone like me who prefers a clean UI with no fancy shenanigans, the Mi A3 should be your GadgetMatch.

However, the no-shenanigans approach isn’t for everyone. Skins like MIUI and ColorOS offer a host of additional features like gesture support, a higher level of customization, and mini-applications. The software is a very subjective topic and you’ll be the best judge here.

Triple camera setup for the third iteration

The rear gets a 48-megapixel primary camera, an 8-megapixel wide-angle lens, and a 2-megapixel depth sensor. Obviously, a standard picture is shot at 12-megapixel and a dedicated mode will trigger the full capabilities of the primary lens. Addition of a wide-angle lens is extremely important because you’re able to leverage a new perspective, without compromising on primary abilities.

The first thing you’ll notice about the output is, the colors don’t look natural. But, its enjoyable and a few colors are emphasized to look different. I’ve got no qualms against the AI-driven approach because it was able to properly reproduce vivid pictures every single time. The primary lens gets the job done perfectly and in well-lit areas, it often outperforms phones with double the price tag.

Focusing on a nearby object does tend to get a little over-exposed, you’d have to manually tone it down. On the flip side, autofocus is super fast and always gets it right. Switching to Night Mode, the results are a mixed bag. Sometimes, the camera gets a perfect shot. Otherwise, it lacks sharpness. But, considering the price, I’d give some leeway. Same goes for the portrait mode because it often fails to detect object borders.

Videos can be shot at 4K with 30fps and I’ve found the electronic stabilization to be above average. Gentle movement will be easily covered up while running will get a little shaky. Overall, the video sharpness is sufficient and the camera can quickly change exposure when moving from a well-lit area to a low-light zone.

For selfies, the notch houses a 32-megapixel sensor and it’s just how’d you expect it to be. Images are pretty sharp, color production is programmed to match the skin, and additional features like a beauty mode are always handy.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

I call this a no-frills master because Xiaomi focused on improving the end experience and ignored non-essential waggery. The design is premium, the display is vibrant, performance is snappy, cameras are average, and the battery is huge. Quite a lot of high-end features like an IR blaster, wide-angle lens, and in-display fingerprint scanner make it a lucrative deal.

Nokia-branded phones are your only other option and they pale in comparison. With the same software, hardware becomes the only differentiating factor. The Samsung Galaxy M30 can be a worthy competitor, but will you be fine with OneUI?

The phone is just a notch lower than the Redmi Note 7 Pro and with a starting price of INR 12,999 (US$ 180, PhP 11,990), I’d say it’s on par now. For a straightforward hassle-free experience and peace of mind, this should be your GadgetMatch.

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Sony XB900N Review: All about that bass

And then some

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In case you’ve been keeping a watch on the whole Noise Cancelling headphones scene, you’ve probably heard the news — Sony makes some of the best Noise Cancelling headphones in the business.

Nowadays if you ask most tech people — what’s a good pair of noise canceling headphones? The answer will almost always be — The Bose Quiet Comfort series or, more recently, the Sony 1000XM3.


Now, the 1000XM series are Sony’s flagship noise canceling headphones. And flagship headphones tend to cost a premium, which they’re totally worth for sure, but not everyone can afford super premium headphones!

That’s why I was happy to see Sony announce the new XB-900N recently. The Sony XB-900N, or the 900N as we’ll call it for the rest of this review, are a much more approachable pair of noise canceling headphones.

So while they probably won’t have the same level of noise-canceling power as the 1000XM3, there’s still a lot to like here, especially at this price point.

Expensive looking without being THAT expensive

The 900N shares a lot of design similarities as the more premium XM3, which is a good thing because that means these headphones look expensive.

The exterior is mostly hard plastic, and the headband has a nice foam padding on the underside. There’s also a tiny NFC logo on the left side which you can just tap a compatible Android phone against, to pair it with these headphones, which is super convenient.

Apart from that, there’s Sony branding on both earcups as well, and you’ll notice bass vents present which look pretty cool.

On the left earcup, you’ll find two buttons and ports present, along with one of the two microphones. One button is for power and the other button can be set to trigger your phone’s voice assistant but I’ll talk about that a bit later.

On the right earcup you’ll see the second microphone, along with an entire flat surface which is touch-sensitive.

Just like the XM3, the flat outside of the right earcup has touch-enabled pads. It’s one large solid piece though, so there’s no separate sections with different features like on the XM3.

Easy navigation and control

You can swipe up or down vertically to increase or decrease your audio volume. Swipe sideways to skip tracks, and double tap in the center to pause music. You can also tap the center of the earcups to answer or end a phone call.

But my favorite feature has to be the “quick attention mode.” It automatically and instantly lowers the volume of whatever you’re listening to, in case you need to speak to someone in front of you, or listen to something going on around you. All you have to do is cover the right earcup with the palm of your hand.

This feature is really handy, especially if you’re like me and like to wear your headphones in the office, or in a cafe, and some random human comes up to you and says something.

These gestures take a little getting used to, and you’ll either find them super useful or super frustrating. Either way it’s still cool to have.

Support for a virtual assistant

Speaking of frustrating, like I mentioned earlier, Sony allows you to choose between Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa for a dedicated button on the 900N. But if you choose to have a digital assistant then you’ll lose the ability to use that button to cycle between noise canceling modes.

Not that there’s too many Noise cancellation modes on the 900N, there’s two – an ambient mode where the noise cancellation is less aggressive and you can hear what’s happening around you, or the full-on noise cancellation mode.

Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of digital assistants on phones. I use Google Assistant all the time on my Google Home, likewise for Alexa on my Echo, but on my phone I just never find them quick enough. So while I might not find this particular feature very useful, I understand that some of y’all out there might really like it, so here you go.

Just FYI, you can turn off the noise cancelling on these phones as well, but I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to, since it doesn’t really affect the audio quality TOO much. And while these are primarily marketed as wireless headphones, you can use them wired as well. Which will help get even more battery life out of these headphones, if necessary.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that the headphones also fold up for easy storage when not in use. It comes with a nice carrying case too which makes it much easier to carry around when you’re not using it.

Something you can wear for hours 

Sony has done SUCH a great job on nailing comfort on the XB900N. Just like the more premium 1000XM3, there’s a cushy headband (with very prominent Sony branding), and super soft, sturdy earpads that have an around-the-ear fit.

The headband in particular has a good enough tension with the headphones feeling nice and secure around your ears. This helps give a good amount of noise isolation to help with the noise cancellation.

The headphones weigh a very light 254 grams so even after wearing them straight for a few hours, I never felt like it was pinching my brain too much.

That being said, I will mention though, that it’s been a little too humid where I live for the last few weeks and as a result if you’re in a really humid environment, there can be quite a bit of moisture built up between your eyes and the earpads so you’d want to take a break every hour or so.

But essentially the Sony XB900N is meant to be used for travel. Your daily commute to work, or a flight, or long bus or subway ride, and in these scenarios you could comfortably wear these headphones for hours.

More codec options for a better listening experience

The Sony WH-XB900N headphones are powered by 40mm dynamic drivers, with a frequency response range of 20-40,000Hz when used with Sony’s own high-quality LDAC codec at 990kbps.

They connect over Bluetooth 4.2, but there’s also support for a whole bunch of bluetooth codecs, which is something Sony does that most other headphone companies do not. There’s support for AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC codecs.

If you’re only going to use these headphones with an iPhone or an iPad, then it’ll stick to the AAC codec.

BUT if you’re using it with an Android phone, or anything with better source equipment, you’ll get to try out the additional codec support which definitely helps with a better listening experience.

Like for example, if you’re using it with the OnePlus 7 Pro, you’ll be able to use the LDAC or aptX HD codecs.

But let’s talk about how good the noise cancellation is.

No QN1 chip but still gets the job done 

The Sony XB900N does not have their new QN1 noise-cancelling chip that’s used on the flagship XM3. Like most other headphones, the DAC (digital-to-analog converter) has to handle noise cancellation duties as well. It won’t be as impressive as the XM3, which also customizes the ANC for atmospheric pressure when you’re on a plane, but it still does a really good job.

Once you switch on that noise cancellation, all those annoying sounds in the background around you just fade away. Granted it’s not as silencing as the XM3, but it’s definitely one of the best at this price range.

All about that bass

Now I’m not sure if you noticed this, but the “XB” in “XB900N” stands for “Extra Bass.” The very prominent branding on the box mentally prepares you for this. As a result, the XB900N is more suited for bass-heavy music styles that have a lot more thump. If you’re a fan of EDM, Hip-hop, or bass heavy POP tracks then you’ll love the audio quality.

But if you don’t listen to a lot of bass-pounding tracks then you might find the audio quality a little exhausting. Thankfully, in this case, you can use Sony’s “Headphones Connect” app to change the default, bass heavy equalizer to a different soundstage.

The Sony Headphones Connect app also allows you to tweak more settings for the headphones, including the equalizer I mentioned, adaptive sound control, ambient sound control, Sony’s DSEE sound enhancement system, and more. You can also use them to answer phone calls, and the microphone quality is superb.

Overall though, I’m quite a fan of the audio tuning, but then I’m all about that bass. Vocals are crisp, and that thumpy bass is tight, and resonates inside those earcups. There’s clear, clean audio coming through across the frequency range. And for softer, instrumental, or acoustic genres of music, you could just tweak things in Sony’s headphones app.

Superb battery life

The Sony XB900N boasts 30 hours of battery life with Noise Cancellation switched on. Not only is this just like the more expensive 1000XM3, but it’s pretty much very accurate.

I used these during writing and video editing sessions in cafes for about three to four hours each day for about an entire week before I even got a low battery alert. That’s just freakin’ awesome.

When it comes to charging the headphones, the first positive surprise is that it charges over a USB Type-C port!

It’s really great to see Sony adopt this incredibly convenient standard, especially if you only have type-c cables around like I do.

I mean come on, it’s 2019.

Coming to charging specifically, a ten minute charge will give you about an hour worth of battery life, but a full charge can take about three to four hours depending on the charger you’re using. It’s not great but it’s not too bad either considering the kind of battery life you’re getting.

Is the Sony XB900N your GadgetMatch? 

At US$ 250, the Sony XB900N is worth every penny.

It has sound quality that rivals headphones that cost a lot more. That, combined with the solid noise cancellation, make it a really great buy at the price point.

Now, remember, the audio tuning tends to be a little bass-heavy so if you like that you’re set, but if you don’t then you will have to make equalizer tweaks to handle that. But then again if you want THE BEST audio, you’ll have to spend a bit more and get the Sony WH-1000XM3.

But at the price point it sells at, there’s just no beating the Sony XB900N as an all-around package. There’s great battery life, good audio drivers and, support for a whole bunch of bluetooth audio codecs. Sony has another winner on their hands.

Definitely recommended. This is going to be THE pair of headphones I recommend in this price range for a while.

SEE ALSO: Sony WF-1000XM3: Masterclass in noise cancellation

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Elodie unicorn diffuser: Adorable lamp and humidifier for your baby’s nursery

Keep cold and flu viruses at bay with this super cute unicorn humidifier

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Infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to sickness-causing bacteria that thrive in dry air so it is important for parents to be aware of the humidity level of their homes. This is why a diffuser is an essential item in many moms’ checklists, including mine, to add healthy moisture to every home.

A humidifier, night light, and a cute unicorn accessory all-in-one — the Elodie Unicorn LED Diffuser 2.0 by Smoko makes a perfect addition to your baby’s nursery.


“It can continuously change colors on its own if that’s the magical show that you wish to achieve.”

How it works

Using ultrasonic vibration technology, the machine breaks its water particles into cool mist. The amount of mist that comes out of its golden horn depends on the humidity, temperature, and air flow in your room.

Its full tank capacity of 200ml should last for up to 6-8 hours although it only lasted for 4 hours, in my case.

You can choose to set the duration to one hour, two hours, or to stay on until the machine automatically shuts off when it is out of water. The water tank is pretty big which allows for easy refill.

This unicorn can also light up with 8 different colors: red, violet, blue, light blue, green, yellow, white, pink. It can continuously change colors on its own if that’s the magical show that you wish to achieve.

Low maintenance

It’s important to regularly clean any diffuser to prevent the buildup of mold. With Elodie, maintenance is a piece of cake.

Just empty the tank after 5-6 uses and wipe with a clean, soft, and damp cloth. If you choose to use essential oils, you’ll want to clean the tank before using a different one.

When not in use, just keep the tank dry. You wouldn’t want idle water to attract bugs or insects.

Is it any good?

At US$ 65, this isn’t some smart high-tech humidifier, but it does the job of doing exactly what I need it to do: add moisture to the nursery I’m building for my baby, and more.

It also doesn’t make any noise, neither does it leak nor scatter water droplets. It’s simple but with added unicorn cuteness other diffusers don’t have.

 

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