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.

Reviews

Vivo V11 (V11 Pro) review: Innovation continues to reign

A step up from its competitors

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Vivo has a new midrange phone in town. After giving in-display fingerprint technology a try on flagship devices, it’s now available on midrange phones. This is the Vivo V11, a new midranger with all the usual features plus a unique one for its range.

Can the V11’s distinctive in-display fingerprint reader keep it ahead of the competition? Let’s find out in this review.

The phone sports a 6.41-inch Super AMOLED display

With a Full HD+ resolution and 19.5:9 aspect ratio

The notch has been drastically reduced

But it still has all the essentials like a selfie camera and front sensors

It’s not 100% bezel-less but the chin is minimal

Vivo claims a 91.27 percent screen-to-body ratio

Thankfully, it’s got a triple-card slot

This is how it should be

The buttons on its right are pretty confusing at first

I find them to be positioned a bit lower than usual

It’s 2018 yet Vivo still hasn’t embraced USB-C

At least it has quick charge technology

The back is a borrowed design from the V9 and X21

With added flair, of course

It still has dual rear cameras for shooting quality portraits

Equipped with AI and f/1.8 aperture

Slightly improved design over predecessor

As mentioned earlier, the V11 sports a familiar design. One might suspect it to be just the V9 at first glance, but it’s more of a repackaged X21. It’s got rounded corners with a rounded back that gives it a slimmer profile.

But of course, Vivo made improvements to the V11 and that’ll be the new so-called Halo FullView Display. With a tinier notch that’s even smaller (but not as aesthetically pleasing) than the OPPO F9’s, the V11 managed to have a more immersive display. Vivo claims a colossal 91.27 percent screen-to-body ratio with a 3.8mm chin.

Using a Super AMOLED panel, which is a first for the V series, Vivo is able to bring the in-display fingerprint technology to this segment. There’s an optical sensor hidden beneath the display of the V11. If you’ve seen the X21 or the NEX, you’ll get the same level of exclusivity for half the price.

And since there’s no need for a fingerprint reader at the back of the phone, Vivo is now more free to play with the rear panel. The growing trend of flashy gradients and patterns crawls to the V11, but in a more subtle way. The Starry Night variant blends black and blue with specks of dust creating a nice-looking fusion of sophistication and style.

Although, it’s pretty disappointing that Vivo opted to use polycarbonate (plastic) rather than glass for the V11’s back.

Powered by a better midrange processor

When it comes to power, Vivo finally decided to give what its midrange phones deserve — a higher-end Snapdragon 600 series processor. The V11 is powered by a Snapdragon 660 processor to be specific, which is usually found in phones priced at US$ 500 and above. To make the V11 even better, it comes with 6GB of memory as a standard. Storage options vary depending on the region, though, from 64 to 128GB.

The phone boots Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box but with extensive customization courtesy of Vivo’s very own Funtouch OS 4.5. As always, it’s very iOS-like which may or may not appeal to users. But, whatever your preference is, it’s disappointing that Funtouch OS omitted simple Android features like the search function in the settings.

The end result of the V11’s configuration is a smooth-performing phone with virtually zero lag. I encountered a few slow loading times with certain apps like Instagram, but it’s nothing that a future update can’t fix.

As for gaming, the Adreno 512 GPU that’s paired with the Snapdragon 660 processor is more than capable of running the latest games from the Google Play Store. I switched playing Asphalt 9: Legends from the Mi Mix 2S to the V11, and I didn’t notice any difference in visual quality. I also threw in a couple of graphics-intensive games like PUBG: Mobile and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang; both ran smoothly on medium to maximum settings.

Shoots impressive photos

Like with the V9, the V11 still has two rear cameras: one for capturing detailed images and another for assessing depth information. The main shooter is a new 12-megapixel sensor with a bright f/1.8 aperture while the second one is a 5-megapixel sensor.

Here are some samples taken with the rear camera in auto mode:

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The output of the V11’s rear shooters are more pleasing than what we’ve seen with previous midrange phones from Vivo. They are detailed, color-accurate, and sharp. AI is working in the background when taking a shot, so the result gets better over time.

Of course, selfies are also great on the V11. With a 25-megapixel sensor at the helm, you can expect high-quality selfies every time.

Here are Josh, Chay, and myself showing how the V11 takes selfies in different scenarios:

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Vivo also has a new AI Face Shaping technology which enhances facial features when beauty mode is turned on. The end results sometimes look too artificial, so it’s a matter of personal preference.

Charge fast, drain slow

All the new features of the V11 is nothing if you won’t be able to use the phone for long. Inside the V11’s body is a respectable 3400mAh battery. With my own usage, I was able to get more than 24 hours during a busy day. That’s with Wi-Fi and mobile data connection automatically switching from morning until bed time. I always have around 15 percent left before I go to sleep.

When it’s time to charge, I do it in the morning. Why? Because as I get ready, so does the V11. I only need an hour and 30 minutes to fully charge the phone thanks to the what Vivo calls Dual-Engine Fast Charging. The name can be a mouthful, but it’s basically Quick Charge 3.0. This means you can quickly fill up V11’s battery using any QC 3.0 charger.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

I’ve had the V11 for a week, so there’s more to know about the phone. But based on the time I spent on it, I know it’ll be a great device in the long run. It’s practically future-proofed aside from the micro-USB port. Why is Vivo, along with OPPO and Huawei, still stuck in the past when it comes to the choice of USB port? With the three of them leading the midrange market, they could have done well in introducing USB-C to the masses.

Like other phones that launch only six months after their predecessor, it would be lavish to suggest to get this one right away. But, should you buy one, I can say you will feel the upgrade.

The Vivo V11 is priced around US$ 400 for the variant with 64GB storage. In the Philippines, it goes for PhP 19,999 while in India, where it’s called the V11 Pro, it’s priced at INR 25,990.

SEE ALSO: Vivo V11 Unboxing and Review

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Gaming

NBA 2K19: A complacent champion

Needs a legit challenger

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NBA 2K has absolutely dominated the NBA simulation video game space for the better part of the decade. It’s been the undisputed champion year after year and the same is true with its latest version — NBA 2K19. As is the case with any multi-year champ, it’s hard to keep the pedal to the metal when you know you’ve basically left your competitors biting your dust.

This is where the NBA 2K franchise is at. If it were an NBA team, it has been a champion for years. Let’s keep things a little interesting by breaking down different sections of the game as if they were players of a champion team.

Face Scan: Last year’s sixth man but fell out of the rotation

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, somewhere between 2K18 and 2K19, the face scan stopped working like it’s supposed to.

This was the result of my face scan back in 2K18, after just a few attempts.

This is my face scan in 2K19 after many, many attempts. And this was the best one.

Here’s me side-by-side with the face scan along with a player I created from scratch.

I think the images speak for themselves, but I’m just going to come out say I don’t know what on earth happened and face scan needs to go back to how it was in 2K18. I ultimately decided to forego face scan altogether and just create a character that looks like he’d fit the story in MyCareer.

MyCareer: X-Factor starter

NBA 2K invests heavily on this mode. It’s understandable because it’s safe to say that anyone who enjoys this game and the game of basketball in general has dreamed of being a star, carrying a team to the promised land, and hitting that game-winning shot.

MyCareer lets players experience all of this. It takes the player into some sort of hero’s journey as a young baller looking to prove that he belongs in the big league. It can get boring, so what 2K has done is to incorporate some kind of story. In 2K19, it looks like they went all out.

In a lot of ways, MyCareer in 2K19 is going back to its roots. In the previous two or three iterations of this game mode, the player was positioned as a star prospect. A good number of my friends who played the game weren’t too happy about it. They loved the idea of being someone unknown taking the league by storm.

This underdog story is flanked by a star-studded cast led by Anthony Mackie (recently appeared on film as Falcon in Avengers: Infinity War). This goes to show that 2K is going all in on the cinematic RPG route in this year’s version of MyCareer. The cutscenes can get pretty long, though. Adding a few more quick time events would have helped with the pacing.

So that’s essentially what MyCareer is to NBA 2K. You never really know what you’re gonna get. However, when it’s on point, it takes the game over the top and makes something good even better.

MyGM: Solid rotation guy

MyGM in 2K19 has also gone the storytelling route. It picks up where 2K18 left off. You’re a player who suffered a career-ending injury and now you’ve built your reputation as a headstrong general manager.

There are a fair number of people who would like to try their hand at running an NBA team’s front office. NBA Twitter talks about trade scenarios all the time and that’s a huge part of what makes this game mode appealing. Being able to build a roster according to your liking and taking it all the way to the championship; that’s a challenge people like taking on.

There aren’t a lot of new things on MyGM. The story has you working with a new team owner while also managing your relationship with the previous one you worked with.

The new story makes it mildly more interesting, but at its core, MyGM is what it has always been: a solid feature on a game that delivers the kind of experience players hope to get.

Gameplay: Star Player

This is what it all comes down to. This is the reason why NBA 2K has been the champ that it is. The gameplay is the undisputed star player of the game. It’s the reason why people continue to play it. It’s the reason why time and time again, people line up for the game.

In 2K19, the gameplay doesn’t feel that much different from 2K18. There’s a huge difference between how both games felt at launch. When 2K18 first came out, the gameplay still seemed a little weird, with players looking like they’re floating on the court as opposed to running on it. There’s none of that in 2K19.

What you’ll experience is a refinement of what was already a good product. Some animations and shots make more sense this time around. The way players transition from dribbling to a shot feel more real, and there are a few subtle improvements here and there that when combined, sum up to a basketball simulation experience that appears to still be ahead of its competition.

As long as NBA 2K keeps this type of gameplay on their side, they will continue to hold the number one spot. However, they can’t rest on their laurels. EA Sports’ NBA Live is creeping on their turf and appear to be a few adjustments away from legitimately contending for the top spot once more.

Some notes from the assistant coach

We still don’t have notable players like Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Rasheed Wallace, and Gilbert Arenas in this game. The 2K community has clamored for their inclusion but this is really more the mentioned players’ willingness to be included in the game more than anything. Here’s to hoping they change their minds soon.

There are a few classic teams I personally want to see. On top of that list is the ‘09-’10 Lakers that beat the Big Three Celtics. While a version of Kobe is already in the game, I badly want to play with Black Mamba #24 when he played with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum as he hunted down his fifth NBA title.

If this is the game that finally makes you want to buy a PlayStation 4, consider getting the NBA 2K19 PS4 bundle. In the Philippines, it retails for PhP 20,490 which will net you the following: One jet black 500GB PS4, one DualShock 4 controller, the NBA 2K19 Blu-ray disc, one premium decal sticker, a badass poster featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a PS4 one-year extended warranty. Not a bad deal!

Final evaluation

As a team with a solid lineup that’s been winning for years, it feels as though NBA 2K still hasn’t reached its peak. While it has been amazing, there’s another level that it can go to. As it is now, NBA 2K19 is still the basketball video game to beat. I have mixed feelings about both the MyCareer and the MyGM modes, but as long as the gameplay takes over when it needs to and until the competition puts up an actual fight, this game will continue to get an overall grade of A.

SEE ALSO: Marvel’s Spider-Man Review: Spidey in all his glory

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Nokia 3.1 review: Back to Android One’s beginnings

Bringing an updated build to the entry-level

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The Android One program has had a rocky life, from being the go-to platform for pure, affordable Android devices, to going on an awkward hiatus, to turning into an operating system for all market segments.

Things got even more confusing when Android Go was introduced, essentially taking up Android’s lowest tier and leaving Android One with everything else. We went as far as dissecting the two platforms and explaining their purpose in a lengthy feature.

Funny enough, Nokia is the primary reason why this happened. The revitalized brand brought Android One to the high-end spectrum for the very first time with the Nokia 8 Sirocco, and introduced both Android Go and One to its cheapest phones.

While the Nokia 1 and Nokia 2.1 handle Go duties, the Nokia 3.1 is the most affordable Android One phone the brand currently has. It retails for EUR 139 in Europe, SG$ 249 in Singapore, and PhP 9,990 in the Philippines — all below the tricky US$ 200 mark.

The Nokia experience

Like every other Nokia device, you instantly know what you’re buying into with the Nokia 3.1: solid build quality. Although this phone uses a smooth plastic back to lower costs, a metal frame is in place, and the glass in front seems sturdy with Gorilla Glass, as well.

The LCD panel itself is 5.2 inches in size and has a tall 18:9 aspect ratio. Because of the slimmer size (compared to the traditional 16:9 ratio) and curved edges on both sides, the Nokia 3.1 is a joy to hold. It’s especially comfy for people with smaller hands, though my large fingers appreciated the subtle curves, too.

It takes a while for the back to get this smudgy

My only gripe is the unusually large bottom bezel, which doesn’t even house navigation buttons or a fingerprint scanner; it feels like a waste of precious space on this newer 18:9 form that normally avoids thick borders. Its plastic rear is also resistant to smudges — or at least they aren’t that visible on the black variant.

A compact multimedia device

The Nokia 3.1’s updated design and smooth handling make it an ideal multimedia machine at this price point. Its screen resolution may be only 720p and the single down-firing loudspeaker doesn’t produce much bass, but the overall quality is good enough for watching YouTube and Netflix on the go.

It helps that there’s a 3.5mm audio port to plug in your favorite earphones or speaker. And because it has two SIM card slots with microSD storage expansion, it’s easy to switch to a faster mobile network or add to your offline media library when needed.

Normally, a 2990mAh battery capacity wouldn’t suffice for all this, but the combination of the smallish screen and efficient hardware of the Nokia 3.1 offer sufficient endurance. In fact, the standby time is quite good, and I get over seven hours of screen-on time when continuously watching online videos.

Truly entry-level performance

In spite of all the decent entertainment I got out of this phone, the raw performance is lacking. Its MediaTek MT6750 processor coupled with 3GB of memory and 32GB of storage make it entry-level in performance.

All the games I played on it — from PUBG Mobile to Dragon Ball Legends — ran on the lowest graphics settings with lag along the way. You could play lighter games like Alto’s Odyssey without much fuss, but don’t buy this phone for serious gaming no matter what.

Otherwise, the Nokia 3.1 can easily handle day-to-day tasks well enough thanks to the clean version of Android One. There’s no bloatware to take up memory or storage, leaving you with all the space you need to install your own apps and enjoy them hiccup-free.

Camera quality you’d expect

Since we’re dealing with an lower-tier smartphone, you know what kind of cameras you’re getting. They do well enough when there’s sufficient light, but anything less and you’ll see lots of noise and blurry subjects.

The rear has a single 13-megapixel camera while the front owns an 8-megapixel sensor. Because neither have a secondary shooter, don’t expect any blurry background tricks or sharp zooming; you only have a panorama mode and beauty filter to play with.

The interface is as stock as can be, as well. I wish the focusing were a little faster, but I appreciate the quick startup and clean interface. Here are some samples:

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Is this your GadgetMatch?

There isn’t anything spectacular about the Nokia 3.1, but that’s the expectation you need to set when going below US$ 200. At the same time, Nokia has a tough budget realm to compete against.

Our very own Best Smartphones list has a strong list of affordable phones. There are entries with bigger batteries, faster processors, and more cameras. The Nokia 3.1 sits somewhere in between those.

Its advantages lie in the sturdier metal frame and pure take on Android. Unfortunately, my retail unit has yet to receive Android 9 Pie, which has been out for a month already. Timely updates are part of Android One’s promise, so it’s strange for it to take so long.

Once it does have access to Pie, it’ll raise the phone’s stock up a notch. And every notch counts in this cut-throat segment.

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