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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.

Her GadgetMatch

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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ASUS ZenFone Max (M1) Review

The budget battery king

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These days, you’d be pressed to find a smartphone with poor battery life. We’ve come to a point wherein every new handset can last a full day’s worth of usage without the assistance of a power bank.

But every now and then, we have these big-battery devices that come along and make our super-slim phones feel inadequate. The latest smartphone to do so is the ASUS ZenFone Max (M1), and it’s pleasantly affordable.

Not to be confused with the ZenFone Max Plus (M1) we reviewed earlier this year or the even newer ZenFone Max Pro (M1) launched in India last month, this plain ZenFone Max (model code ZB555KL to add more to the confusion) was unveiled during Mobile World Congress 2018 as the most affordable of the bunch.

Yet despite also being the smallest with a 5.5-inch 720p 18:9 screen and weight of only 150 grams, the ZenFone Max still has a large 4000mAh battery, which is more than what you’d get from bigger, more premium phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S.

And unlike the ZenFone Max Plus which employs a run-of-the-mill MediaTek processor, the new ZenFone Max is equipped with a Snapdragon 430 chipset that’s both fast enough for everyday tasks and highly efficient at squeezing out every ounce of energy from the battery.

When put together, the ZenFone Max has some of the best battery endurance I’ve gotten out of a smartphone this year. Getting five hours of screen-on time till the next morning is the absolute minimum out of a single charge, and that’s when the phone is beaten to the ground with gaming and constant camera usage while mobile data is active.

Reducing the abuse can give you get you up to six hours of screen time. I tried going for six and a half the other day, but it required me going offline half the time and leaving the camera alone — two things I can’t avoid in my day-to-day routine. Still, you can’t go wrong with an average of six hours across two days; that’s way above the standard four to 4.5 hours of much more expensive devices.

All this for a phone that’s only PhP 8,995 in the Philippines or approximately US$ 175 when converted. This places the ZenFone Max snugly in the budget-friendly category while maintaining its world-beating battery efficiency. The previous Max series phone in this price range was the ZenFone 4 Max, which has had a long stay in our Best Smartphones list.

And it’s not like the ZenFone Max skimps on basic features like a fingerprint sensor (there’s one at the back) and triple-card tray for two SIM cards and one microSD at the same time. There’s even facial recognition using the front camera to unlock the phone, and it’s way faster than what we experienced on the ZenFone Max Plus.

So… large battery, efficient processor, low price, all the features you need — are we missing anything?

It’s difficult to complain about anything at this price point, but if I were to nitpick, there are a few things that could be done better.

For one, the highest configuration you can get has 3GB of memory and 32GB of storage. While the latter can easily be expanded through a microSD card, the limited memory can potentially slow down the experience, especially since its processor isn’t that fast.

Even though the ZenFone Max comes with Android 8.0 Oreo with the latest version of ASUS’ ZenUI skin, the interface can get laggy and slow when you need it most. I noticed stuttering when going from heavy app to heavy app like Facebook to YouTube, and games like Asphalt Xtreme and Final Fantasy: Pocket Edition needed their graphics settings put on low to play smoothly.

Once you do drain the battery completely, charging it to full takes a long time — over three hours to be exact. The package comes with a fast charger that can only output at 10 watts; I tried a faster charger that goes up to 18 watts, but I still had to wait for more than three hours from zero to a hundred percent. In addition, the ZenFone Max relies on an outdated micro-USB port instead of the newer USB-C.

Lastly, and I’m sure you expected this, the cameras aren’t that good. There’s a useful dual-camera setup on the back with one regular 13-megapixel sensor and another 8-megapixel shooter with a much wider lens to fit more inside a frame. Unfortunately, they can’t create great images without enough daylight.

Here are some samples:

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As soon as light becomes scarce, the image quality quickly goes down. You lose details in the darker regions of a photo and blurriness overcomes sharpness. It’s also important to note that the extra-wide rear camera takes lower-quality shots compared to the main shooter. The same can be said for the selfies of its 13-megapixel front camera; take them with sufficient light or not at all. 

Is this your GadgetMatch?

From the get-go, having a big-battery smartphone priced below US$ 200 is an instant winner. Everything else the ZenFone Max (M1) adds — such as the efficient chipset and dual rear cameras — simply improve on the already-complete package.

I can highly recommend the ZenFone Max to those who need a handset that can last for two days with juice left to spare. As long as you don’t need a dedicated camera replacement or high-end mobile gaming device, you’d have a tough time finding a better deal.

Alternatively, the ZenFone Max Pro (M1) is a more lucrative deal if it’s available in your country. It comes with a pure version of Android, a much faster chipset, and both a bigger screen and battery capacity. However, if you can’t wait and would rather spend less, the regular Max should be just as good as any other bet.

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