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Flash Plus 2 review

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On the sidelines of the Flash Plus 2 launch event in the Philippines, Lei Zhang, the company’s top executive in the country, talked about his brand being a new venture under China’s TCL and life after breaking off from Alcatel, the maker of the original Flash smartphone.

Stiffer challenges, of course, lie ahead for him and the Chinese startup — competing in the same space as Alcatel is admittedly among them — but he’s confident the 5.5-inch Plus 2 is just the start of something bigger. And he probably has every right to be, especially if his company’s first effort proves to be a hit with the younger and more tech-savvy audience it is meant for.

The Plus 2 is, first and foremost, a sub-$200 handset that unlike many other products on the bargain table gets plenty of things right. And in markets where price is king, more often than not, that’s a winning formula. Looking at the specs sheet, it’s pretty obvious this phone wants to make a solid impression. Where it falters, however, is in the choices Flash made with regard to designing the product and building it. Still, for P6,990 in the Philippines, or $160 in other countries where it has been made available, the value for money it represents is hard to ignore.

LIGHT ON PRICE, HEAVY ON FEATURES

It starts with the front, where the fingerprint scanner, which doubles as a home button, is located. It’s fast and surprisingly reliable, and what’s more, you can assign up to five fingerprints to specific apps, allowing you to launch, say, Facebook using your forefinger, or Twitter using your pinky. Not many phones on a budget have fingerprint hardware built into their bodies, and fewer make clever use of it. Not even my mighty iPhone can summon Facebook from the lockscreen.

flash-plus-2-fingerprint

There’s also the 5.5-inch display, which offers generous viewing angles and decent brightness. Text and images appear clean and sharp, thanks to its resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. However, colors tend to look a bit washed out, even with good lighting. Just below the screen, there are two backlit capacitive buttons for fiddling with the interface. I appreciate that Flash went with a multitask button on the right edge of the navigation bar, rather than making use of a menu button, which is redundant in this age of Android apps with menu shortcuts.

The rear camera takes up to 13-megapixel photos, while the front-facer tops out at 5 megapixels. Neither are particularly impressive, but they get the job done if all you’re after are average shots with decent color reproduction and detail in good light. Here are a few photos taken with the Plus 2’s main and secondary cameras.

But perhaps the most impactful feature of all has less to do with how you use the phone in your hand and more to do during those downtimes when it is tethered to a socket. Because like many higher-tier smartphones these days, the Plus 2 supports fast charging with the supplied wall charger. In our anecdotal experience, a 60-minute charge powers the 3,000mAh battery to 90-percent capacity. It takes another 20 minutes or so to fully replenish the battery. And while that doesn’t sound so great in the larger scheme of things, it goes a long way in making the phone a joy to own.

LACKING GAMING CRED

On paper, the Flash Plus 2 offers a not-too-shabby assortment of specs for the money, running Android 6.0 Marshmallow on an LTE-ready MediaTek Helio P10 system-on-a-chip paired with eight CPU cores and at least 2GB of RAM and 16GB of expandable storage. A flashier variant with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage has been earmarked for release this month.

flash-plus-2-01

Day-to-day operation is fine; the near-stock Android interface feels responsive and isn’t overly encumbered by bloatware and visual fluff; and apps run as smoothly as expected given what’s under the hood. Our only issue with regard to performance so far is that the Plus 2 doesn’t work well with games like NBA 2K16 for Android that are more demanding on the graphics processor. Sure, you can say the same about so many other devices, but this is the latest midrange MediaTek processor we’re talking about here, and from a gaming standpoint, it just isn’t up to scratch compared to what’s on offer today.

“SOFT” METAL

The Flash Plus 2 has been described as a “more than metal” smartphone on several occasions. But as premium as the brand wants the phone to appear, that’s sadly not the case here. The backplate, which tapers down along the sides, is mostly (but not entirely) made of rigid metal, and that’s about it; every other exposed component is made of plastic, or plastic made to look like metal. The back is removable, too, though swapping out the battery for a spare is out of the question.

flash-plus-2-removable-back

To be clear, our point here is not to nitpick design and build choices — because then we would be talking about the chunky bezels framing the display and the dim backlight under the capacitive keys — but when a company goes to great lengths to describe its product as something that goes above and beyond the norm, it better live up to expectations.

We’ve seen a good number of metal phones that retail for under $200, and some of them look and feel comparatively more premium than the Plus 2. Granted, it’s better-designed than a lot of budget handsets out there, so there’s that to consider as well.

IS THE FLASH PLUS 2 YOUR GADGETMATCH?

All things considered, the Plus 2 is a worthy pick for anyone looking for a reasonably priced smartphone with a lot of technology behind it. The only thing keeping us from giving it a glowing recommendation is not what we know about it, but what we don’t know about other devices launching later this year. The all-new, all-different ASUS ZenFone 3, for example, has recently been announced in Taiwan, and is tipped for release in the Philippines and other priority markets in August.

Gaming

Razer Phone Review: Best smartphone for gaming?

First and only phone with 120Hz display!

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Razer is stepping up to the plate of mobile phones. Was I surprised? Not quite as much as everyone else. With mobile gaming going up a notch despite a critical crowd internally rubbing elbows as to what makes someone a “gamer,” I was partly expecting brands to take on the challenge of catering to their audience.

With Razer appropriately initiating marketing to gamers, is the phone a step forward to a no-compromises mobile experience, or is it just a flashy-looking phone?

A mobile handheld?

At first glance the Razer Phone is undeniably reminiscent of holding any handheld console. It’s a strange association, I know, but stay with me. As much as the bezels and speakers shrink the eye-catching 5.7-inch 1440p IGZO LCD 120Hz UltraMotion display, it leaves your touchplay mobile gaming undisturbed.

With an awesomely smooth matte and slick all black anodized aluminum casing, the phone’s grip is comfortable and perfect while you’re playing games. I usually have trouble holding my phone while playing Arena of Valor because the touchplay mechanics are so close to the edges of the phone. On the Razer Phone, the speakers and square edges give ample space for you to hold it up comfortably.

Mobile gamer’s pipe dream

The hardware of the phone joins the top-notch phones with a Snapdragon 835 processor with 8GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. If you’re worried about the phone lasting a day out, the 4000mAh battery can take more than just a beating.

When Razer bragged about providing absolute freedom to watch, listen, and play as much as you want without ever being caught with a red battery bar, they meant it. The Razer Phone breezed through more than 24 hours of on-and-off intensive gameplay on a single charge.

Cue in “but wait, there’s more” infomercial

The phone lets you modify and customize frame rate, resolution, CPU clock frequencies, and anti-aliasing with its built-in Razer Game Booster. Each game can be optimized individually under this system. The 120Hz UltraMotion screen is so smooth, it deserves more than just a sentence in this subsection.

The phone features Dolby Atmos- and THX-certified audio that’ll blow your socks off. While shooting, I had them on full blast while logging into Vainglory. Needless to say, I thought someone pulled a prank through the speakers, and I was impressed to find it was the Razer Phone.

Display as smooth as butter is almost an understatement

Although the display’s brightness is relatively dimmer than what I’m used to, the 120Hz refresh rate is just amazing. Dropping the refresh rate from 120Hz to 90Hz does make a difference in-game and out. It may not make a huge difference to the untrained eye, but it’s a noticeable one to PC gamers.

The phone makes Android look so buttery smooth that I can never look at other phones the same way again. Regular phones settle for a 60Hz panel meaning they’re only half as smooth as the Razer Phone’s display. If that doesn’t put it up to scale for you, 120Hz is about as high as a refresh rate from most high-end laptops and PC monitors.

Bundled with pre-installed games

It comes as no surprise: A gaming phone is no gaming phone without games. Razer brought out their guns, already setting the phone up with four titles perfect on 120Hz. They have Titanfall: Assault, Gear.Club, World of Tanks: Blitz, and Arena of Valor pre-installed on the phone so you won’t need to look far to test out the display right off the bat.

If you want to immerse in a sharp and bold display while you play, this is the way to go. Other games that support this frame rate are:

  • Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition
  • Real Racing 3
  • The Simpsons: Tapped Out
  • Vainglory
  • Vendetta Online
  • Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade

Netflix and play

The Razer Phone boasts perfect features for gamers, but it delivers on more than just that. The phone’s HDR-ready screen is perfect for watching movies, shorts, and TV shows. With the phone’s extensive battery life, it had no problem tearing through hours of binge watching on Netflix.

A catch that may not matter to you

The 12-megapixel dual cameras are decent but feel like an afterthought, which ultimately makes a lot of sense. With the target use to be mainly for playing games and lodging around without being tied to an outlet or power bank, it’s clear that Razer took this more as an accessory than a main feature. Which isn’t to say it’s completely horrifying; you can check the test shots for yourself below:

Its highs and lows

The Razer Phone doesn’t have a headphone jack. A bummer? A little, but the phone comes with a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle. Luckily, Razer sent us Razer Hammerhead USB-C earphones with the phone so I had a chance to try them out and they delivered on quality.

Connecting a variety of headphones and earphones both over- and in-ear through the dongle thankfully didn’t degrade the experience that much. Although you’re better off with the direct USB-C earphones, the dongle is not so bad an alternative when you don’t have US$ 80 more to cash out for the Hammerhead or similarly expensive headphones.  

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re looking for the perfect phone to play and watch with while still being able to go about your day, this is the phone for you. The Razer Phone’s 120Hz refresh rate can change a life. It’s eye-gasmic and the phone doesn’t make me feel any remorse for saying it.

If a great camera is one of the striking features you value in a phone, this isn’t the phone for you. The device can manage with ample lighting, but there’s no denying that the camera is this handset’s pitfall. Considering that this is a gaming phone though, it does deliver. Whether a gaming phone is worth cashing out US$ 699 for, is up to you.

What lies ahead?

I touched on this subject in the introduction, but it’s safe to say brands are listening to their audience more and more. Gaming on your mobile has been looked down upon by many and it has struggled to gain equal respect from other hardware. Although it continues to be belittled, it grows. Mobile games are not just convenient, portable, and efficient, it’s also mostly for free — and that’s why despite harsh shade, it’s popularity has grown incrementally. Games are no longer a sensible debate between hardware, and it shouldn’t have been to begin with.

Judging software through hardware isn’t a valid way of going about the subject. Games like Mobile Legends, Arena of Valor, Army Attack, and Battlefield has proven that games that go multi-platform and dive into iOS and Android grow a huge number of players. So, next time you feel like judging a game by what people play it on, consider the context of usage, availability, and accessibility of the game for people.

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ASUS ZenFone Max Plus (M1) Review

It’s all about the taller display

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With the claim as the “Battery King” of ASUS, can the new ZenFone Max Plus topple its non-Plus sibling?

If you haven’t read my initial hands-on of the ZenFone Max Plus, I suggest you read it first to know more about the physical aspects of the phone.

SEE ALSO: ASUS ZenFone Max Plus Hands-on

This review is more about how the phone fared as my daily driver, how 18:9 displays matter in everyday usage, and of course, battery life.

18:9 displays are the future

The ZenFone Max Plus is ASUS’ first handset with an 18:9 near-borderless display. It was first launched as the Pegasus 4S in China, then arrived in other markets including Russia, Malaysia, and the Philippines specifically as the ZenFone Max Plus (M1). While names may differ per region, the phone sports the same design and specifications.

With a big 5.7-inch 18:9 display, the phone has a sharp Full HD+ (2160 x 1080) resolution. And since the handset is marketed for the budget-conscious, it’s a good selling point because most handsets in this range only have an HD resolution.

If you’re a first-time buyer of a phone with an 18:9 display, you could be asking what the benefits are to having a taller phone? Let me help you with that.

With all the 18:9 phones I’ve used, none of them are as difficult to handle as your typical phablets like the older Samsung Galaxy Note phones or the new Huawei Mate 10. It may feel a bit different at first, but you’ll get used to it. A taller display also means you get to see more of your messaging threads, emails, and web pages. Games that support the new aspect ratio feel more immersive, too.

What is sacrificed though is video consumption, especially if you watch a lot on YouTube and Netflix. Most videos on YouTube and Netflix are in a 16:9 ratio, so if you play them on an 18:9 display, you get black space on the sides. You can pinch out to fill in the whole display, but the video gets cut. However, content like Hollywood blockbusters are in a wider format which take most of the display.

There’s no performance upgrade

One of the things I like about the ZenFone 4 Max is the use of a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Sadly, with the new ZenFone Max Plus, ASUS opted to give it a MediaTek MT6750T processor instead. There’s nothing bad about using chipsets from MediaTek, but since they are cheaper than Qualcomm’s, ASUS should have put a more powerful and newer MediaTek processor like the one found in the OPPO F5 Youth.

This means to say that the ZenFone Max Plus doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of performance. General performance is okay, but the phone starts to stutter after a few days of use. It’s hard to feel the 4GB memory when the phone is not optimized to take advantage of it.

SEE ALSO: ASUS ZenFone 4 Max Review

A software update for battery optimization was seeded prior to writing this review, but it made the phone’s UI slower. Hopefully, ASUS will issue a patch as soon as possible. There’s also no mention if the phone will get Android 8.0 Oreo anytime soon.

Gaming is alright on the phone. The Mali-T860MP2 graphics can run casual games with ease, but graphics-intensive titles like our favorites — Asphalt: Extreme and NBA 2K17 — need some tweaking in the settings.

Camera is so-so but fun to use

Another feature of the ZenFone Max Plus that’s also on the ZenFone 4 Max is the dual rear cameras. For the Max Plus, it’s got a main 16-megapixel camera for regular shots and an 8-megapixel camera for wide-angle stills. I’m talking about ultra wide-angle like on the LG V30, which gives creative freedom for unique shots similar to those taken by action cameras.

Let’s check out the regular stills first:

Nothing stands out with the main camera, but they’re not bad either. It’ll do for everyday shots, although the shutter is a bit slow at times. Low-light photography is not for the ZenFone Max Plus, but if you want to play around more, it has a “Pro” mode for manual photography settings. It also has a portrait mode which adds bokeh to a shot and, sadly, it’s not that good.

Here are the ultra wide-angle shots from the secondary rear camera:

The wide-angle camera doesn’t have autofocus, so it’s better for landscape shots rather than for portrait photography. As with any other wide-angle shooter, there’s noticeable distortion of subjects but they’re not as strong as fish-eye lenses. The image quality is not the same as the main shooter with soft details and weaker low-light performance.

Before we forget, the handset also has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera for selfies complete with ASUS’ own Selfie Master app for beautification. Here a few samples from the GadgetMatch team:

The front sensor can take decent selfies given that there’s a lot of available light. Taking selfies when the sun sets is a different story. Beauty mode is not up to par with OPPO or Vivo’s, but it has a lot of options to let you achieve your desired look.

Not exactly the “Battery King” we expected

When ASUS first told the media that a “Battery King” is coming our way, we expected an improved version of the ZenFone 4 Max. With a smaller battery capacity, the ZenFone Max Plus isn’t exactly an upgrade or a king within its own series. From 5000mAh, the ZenFone Max Plus has only 4130mAh. The MediaTek processor isn’t among the most efficient, either.

With that said, the ZenFone Max Plus didn’t perform better than the ZenFone 4 Max, but it’s still a long-lasting device compared to others in its range. With my own usage, the phone was able to last a day and a half of moderate use. That’s with the usual calls and texts, constant Wi-Fi and mobile data connection, and hours of listening to my Spotify playlist. Just to be clear: I’m connected to Wi-Fi rather than cellular data most of the time, so that helped the phone last longer.

Using the bundled charger, charging time is average. It gets from zero to 20 percent within 30 minutes, while an hour of charging will get you 47 percent. A full charge takes more than two hours.

Included in the retail box is a USB on-the-go adapter which not only lets you read thumb drives, but also charge other devices that need juice. This is called reverse charging wherein your phone shares its power to other devices. The charging rate is slower than using a wall charger, but ain’t it cool to let your phone act like a power bank?

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re looking for a budget phone that can do all the basic tasks and impress you with a tall and sharp display, the ZenFone Max Plus is a decent choice.

With all of the 18:9 budget phones we’ve reviewed on GadgetMatch, the ZenFone Max Plus doesn’t offer much aside from dual rear cameras. Sure, it has a big 4130mAh battery but the size doesn’t equate to the longest battery life.

I welcome the ZenFone Max Plus as a contender from ASUS to battle the likes of the Vivo V7 and OPPO F5 Youth. Both phones are just a few bucks more expensive, so you’ll have to make the choice depending on your budget.

The ZenFone Max Plus retails for PhP 11,995 in the Philippines and MYR 899 in Malaysia. North America will also get a hold of the handset but with lower specs (3GB/32GB) for US$ 229 sometime in February 2018.

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Samsung Galaxy A8 and A8+ (2018) Review: Premium midrange features come at a price

How much are you willing to pay for an Infinity Display?

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The newest upper midrange phones from Samsung are finally out. I’m excited about the Galaxy A series since they’re the first to sport premium craftsmanship among Samsung phones. They also normally inherit last year’s flagship features.

I’ve been playing around with both the regular Galaxy A8 (2018) and the bigger Galaxy A8+ (2018) for over a week now and here’s my review of the two.

Let’s first run through the body of the phones:

Choose between a 5.6-inch or a 6-inch Infinity Display

Both are sharp and vibrant Super AMOLED panels

They’re not edge-to-edge but still near-borderless

Sorry, folks!

The volume rocker is positioned on the left…

It’s somehow a little too high

While the power is on the right along with the loudspeaker

I find the position of the loudspeaker to be convenient

The 3.5mm port is present, as well as USB-C

Nice to know that Samsung is not yet ditching the audio port

SIM 1 is on the left…

It only accepts nano-SIM cards

… and SIM 2 is on top together with the microSD card

Hooray for triple-card slots!

The fingerprint reader is below the rear camera

Smooth and shiny glass slabs with rounded corners

Infinity Display bridges the gap between the midrange lineup

The design of the two is completely identical. The button placements, the ports, and the holes are just the same on both. The only difference externally is the size and the weight. Speaking of, both of them are surprisingly hefty. The Galaxy S8+ is lighter than either of them, and the Galaxy Note 8 weighs about the same as the Galaxy A8+. I’m not exactly sure why because all of them sport the same sandwiched glass design and their battery capacities are not much greater than the other. It’s not a bad thing per se, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The Infinity Display comes to Samsung’s midrange line (or should I say premium midrange?) but without the curved edges of its flagship cousins. The resolution is also lowered to 1080 x 2220 pixels and it has a slightly taller than usual 18.5:9 ratio. It’s still a Super AMOLED display with punchy color reproduction. Adaptive Mode, which is set by default, works fine for everything but you can also choose between three different color profiles for better accuracy depending on the content you’re viewing and preference.

Slightly better performance isn’t enough

Ticking inside the phones is an octa-core processor which Samsung doesn’t specifically disclose, but benchmark apps identify it as the Exynos 7885 Octa. It’s a slightly better chipset compared to the ones inside the Galaxy A (2017) series. Both the Galaxy A8 and Galaxy A8+ have the same processor, but they have different memory and storage configuration at 4GB/32GB and 6GB/64GB, respectively.

During the course of the review, I mainly used the regular Galaxy A8, but side-to-side comparisons with the Galaxy A8+ don’t show any significant difference in performance. With the additional memory though, you can open more apps simultaneously and let them run in the background longer. As for the bigger storage, obviously, you can store more apps and files on the phone. If you do need more space, both phones have dedicated microSD card slots for your convenience.

Gaming is good on the phone, but it’s not the most powerful out there. The Mali-G71MP2 graphics can handle high settings of Asphalt Extreme very well. Casual games will pose no threat to the phone, but graphics-intensive titles like NBA 2K18 will do.

Android 7.1.1 Nougat comes out of the box with Samsung Experience version 8.5 on top. If you still belittle Samsung’s customization because of the clunky TouchWiz UI from yesteryears, you have to move on because the latest version is miles better. It’s clean and greatly improves the overall Android experience without any signs of hiccups. The consequence would be the long wait for the next Android version to arrive on your phone, but new features (aside from under the hood improvements) are mostly already available courtesy of Samsung Experience. Bixby is on board, but Google Assistant is also available.

Aside from fingerprints, you can also use your face to unlock your phone. The feature is not exactly as secure and accurate as Apple’s Face ID but it gets the job done. It works fine in well-lit places but not as fast as I’d like it to be. The fingerprint reader on the back, which is easily reachable by the index fingers, is faster and more convenient to use.

Live Focus is now on the front camera

Samsung is not exactly on board the selfie wagon, but the Galaxy A series is actually selfie-centric. The new Galaxy A8 (2018) phones don’t just have high-resolution front cameras, each device has two selfie shooters now which enable the Live Focus feature we first saw in the Galaxy Note 8. The dual front cameras are composed of a 16- and 8-megapixel sensors with the latter having a wide-angle lens ideal for taking group selfies.

Selfies came out great, especially with the Live Focus feature on. You can adjust the background blur or bokeh effect during and after taking the shot. There are also some cute built-in stickers available from the camera launcher if you feel playful. Switching to the secondary wide-angle selfie camera broadens the field of view, but it’s not as wide as I’ve seen with the OPPO F3 and F3 Plus.

The rear gets a single 16-megapixel f/1.7 camera which takes great low-light photos. Optical image stabilization could have made the phone an even better point-and-shoot camera, but it seems like Samsung is reserving such features for their flagships. Anyhow, either of the Galaxy A8 (2018) phones take good photos in daylight or at night. Low-light photography requires a bit of work with steady hands to get the best output.

They can last the whole day and then some

Any phone that doesn’t last for a whole day is a no-no. Every phone I’ve used last year was able to get me through a full workday before asking for a fill-up. As for the Galaxy A8 (2018), it can even last longer, especially the Galaxy A8+ (2018).

The Galaxy A8 (2018) has a sizeable 3000mAh battery which lasted for a full 14 hours straight on average. That’s with around four and a half hours of screen time and Always On Display active so I don’t miss any notifications. The Galaxy A8+ (2018) with its bigger 3500mAh battery was able to last for 24 hours with four hours of screen time and still with Always On Display.

My real-world usage of the phones includes a few voice calls and SMS, constant internet connection either through Wi-Fi or mobile data, and hours of listening on Spotify during my commute.

Which is your GadgetMatch?

The choice between the two will be a matter of preference. The “regular” variant of the Galaxy A8 (2018) is a good option for those who prefer phones that can be used with one hand. It’s not exactly a mini or compact version but its pretty pocketable by today’s standards. The plus variant is more suited for people who like big phones and need more battery juice. The additional memory and storage are merely cherries on top.

Smartphones are indeed getting more expensive, and the new Galaxy A8 (2018) phones are not spared from this drift. The Galaxy A8 will have a retail price of PhP 26,990 (US$ 540) in the Philippines while the Galaxy A8+ will go for PhP 32,990 (US$ 660). Compared to the launch prices of their predecessors, this is way too much. The asking price doesn’t appeal to us, especially when 18:9 displays and some of its new features are not exactly distinctive anymore.

If you want the premium offerings of Samsung and the price is not an issue, the Galaxy A8 (2018) phones will not disappoint. But if you want to get more value out of your money and still want to stick to the Samsung experience, you can look into the Galaxy Note FE (the improved and safer Galaxy Note 7) which has an official price of PhP 27,990 (US$ 560) in the Philippines as of writing.

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