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Google Pixel 2 Review: 3 months later

Did Google do enough?

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The Pixel 2 is all about refinement, refinement, refinement.

Having used the original Pixel on and off for a year, transitioning to the Pixel 2 felt seamless. It’s practically the same phone with — you know it — much-needed improvements.

You could read my review of the first Pixel, see what my complaints were, and realize that the successor nearly remedied them all: The bezels are put to better use with front-facing stereo speakers, waterproofing is rightfully in place, and the price isn’t as tough to swallow this time (despite being exactly the same as last year’s — blame the competition).

In addition, the already-fantastic camera was made even better without the need for an additional lens, and Google Assistant integration has been made more accessible thanks to Active Edge, which is the same squeezing gesture found on the HTC U11.

That pretty much summarizes the essence of the Pixel 2. It still embodies Google’s software-over-hardware mantra, which explains why the audio port was excluded in favor of internal optimization and greater AI integration.

But is the Pixel 2 simply version 1.5, or does it deserve to be a successor to the original? There are multiple ways to answer that.

Disclaimer: I won’t be touching the Pixel 2 XL and its myriad of issues. All focus will be on my pure experience with the bezel-loving (and much tinier) Pixel 2.

Let’s talk about that… design

I made the original Pixel my daily driver before beginning this review, just to remind myself how plain it is compared to recently released premium handsets. I must say, migrating to the Pixel 2 didn’t feel like much of an upgrade.

In fact, the edgier design isn’t nearly as easy to hold as the Pixel’s. Google made the correct decision this time to roughen up the metal back and surround the fingerprint with this material. The reduced glass area is still a smudge magnet, but it’s now part of a signature look, and signal strength does seem stronger on this handset than on other phones.

Our initial hands-on video covered the basics, from the 5-inch 1080p display to the three color options: Just Black, Clearly White, and Kinda Blue.

Even with the inclusion of front-firing dual speakers, it’s easy to fault the Pixel 2 for having such thick bezels. But after using some of the most border-free devices in the market, going back to this old-school design feels refreshing; no longer do I have to stretch to reach the top or bottom of the display, and the stereo speakers are the loudest I’ve ever experienced on a phone in recent memory.

Being an AMOLED panel, the screen’s colors are rich and nicely saturated, but not as overbearing as those found on Samsung’s phones. If you’re underwhelmed by the overall tone, you may choose between “boosted” and “saturated” for stronger colors, although I personally left it on normal to get a better feel for my photos.

As long as you don’t mind an aesthetic from yesteryear, there’s nothing wrong with the basic design of the Pixel 2 — except for the loss of the audio port, of course. Google bundles a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box, but this is something you’d have to take with you wherever you go for wired connections. I can’t count how many times I’ve accidentally left this at home and ended up using the loudspeakers instead.

Performance as pure as the interface

This being a Google phone from start to finish, it has the purest and latest version of Android, which is currently 8.1 Oreo. That’s great for several reasons: There’s no absurd interface or features to get in the way of your usage, software updates come quicker than on other phones, and the latest security patches ensure you won’t be as easily affected by newly discovered vulnerabilities and hacks.

On top of that, we have the typical hardware you’d find on a flagship smartphone launched in 2017: a high-end Snapdragon 835 processor, 4GB of memory, at least 64GB of storage, and IP67-rated water and dust resistance. The only weak spot is the rather small 2700mAh battery, but that’s something Google managed to work around.

To my surprise, the battery life has been quite excellent in the weeks I’ve been using this handset. Even with the ambient display feature turned on — which lights up only the needed pixels when a notification comes in — I could easily get over five hours of screen-on time over the course of a day. Phones with larger batteries (albeit with larger screens, as well) perform just as well, if not slightly worse. We can credit this to Google optimizing the software for the given chipset.

As for day-to-day performance, it has been a mixed bag. When my Pixel 2 is feeling good, I can only think of a few Android phones that can keep up — the world-beating OnePlus 5T and Xiaomi Mi Mix 2, off the top of my head. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced numerous app crashes, hang-ups, and unresponsiveness after updating to Android 8.1 Oreo. It’s natural to have incompatibilities and bugs on new software, but it’s more difficult to accept when the operating system’s owner and phone’s designer are one and the same.

It’s all about the cameras

Let’s be real: You buy a Pixel for its cameras. The Pixel 2 continues the series’ tradition of offering the highest-rated shooters of its generation. Again, there’s no need for an additional lens or special setup; single image sensors on both sides are more than enough to produce some of the best pictures we’ve ever seen out of a smartphone.

We already took the Pixel 2 around the world and pit it against three other flagship handsets, and there’s no doubt it excels in nearly every aspect, including portraits, selfies, low-light, and even videos. I personally can’t get enough of the overall image quality, and have made it my primary camera for travel and events.

The portraits below are all with Google’s Portrait mode turned on. This creates an artificial background to provide extra depth behind the subject, making the person stand out more. While I normally stay away from such modes, preferring my photos to look as natural as possible, I appreciated the feature through time and turned it on for every portrait.

As you can probably tell, the Pixel 2’s artificial intelligence has a difficult time figuring out where hair strands end. That doesn’t matter much for people with short hair, but anyone with longer, messy hair won’t get a clean cut from the background. Google claims that the AI gets smarter the more you use it, although I haven’t seen any difference since I began using the phone.

There’s also no way of adjusting the level of background blur, but the camera app saves two photos by default — one with Portrait mode on and the other without. While this consumes more space on your phone’s non-expandable storage, the unlimited cloud storage on Google Photos is never going to let you down and desert you.

Another Pixel specialty is low-light performance, no matter how tricky the lighting gets. This is something the original Pixel excelled at, too, with its use of HDR (high dynamic range) settings to improve contrast and bring out the best colors of any scene.

If you really must, you can double tap for a quick software-based zoon. Even though it isn’t lossless in quality like optical zoom, it’s quick and the photos are usable in case you really can’t move any closer to your subject, especially while shooting videos. Since everything happens within the app, the zooming transition is smooth and natural during recordings.

Finally, we have the front-facing camera. Google doesn’t promote their selfie shooters as much as OPPO or Vivo, but when you activate both Portrait mode and the face retouch feature, the Pixel 2 is surprisingly competitive. Again, the background blurring is hit or miss, so do some pixel peeping around the edges of your face and hair before choosing which shot to upload.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

For whatever new feature you get from the Pixel 2, you have to give up something in exchange. Want the stereo speakers and waterproofing? Lose the audio port and the idea of a borderless design. Want the best camera on any smartphone today? Expect some bugs and glitches along the way.

Our unit wasn’t spared of defects. While nowhere near as deal-breaking as the Pixel 2 XL’s issues, the unresponsive edges of the Pixel 2’s screen and beta-like inconsistencies of the interface left me wondering if I’m getting my money’s worth.

On the other hand, the Pixel 2 doesn’t cost that much for a flagship of today. At US$ 650, it’s at least US$ 200 cheaper than the majority of high-end handsets currently available; only the OnePlus 5T and Xiaomi Mi Mix 2 can be considered better deals for the feature set.

It’s funny how we thought US$ 650 was way too much for the Pixel of 2016. Back then, anything above US$ 600 felt like too much. Now, US$ 900 seems normal for a premium device, and the Pixel 2 is suddenly fairly priced.

Then again, this Pixel is in a peculiar position. The OnePlus 5T and Mi Mix 2 look a lot better without a doubt and cost less; the Mate 10 Pro, Galaxy Note 8, and iPhone X actually behave like top-shelf phones you’d show off to friends, if you can afford them.

Like its predecessor, the Pixel 2 is for Android purists who value camera quality and not much else. Call me old school, but I appreciate its simplicity after dealing with the hard-to-grip infinity displays and overly convoluted camera setups of every other 2017 flagship.

This is a throwback of a throwback, but don’t expect any nostalgia. The Pixel 2 is as basic as it gets at this level.

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Huawei P20 Lite Review

A shy midrange phone worth paying attention to

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Amid the praises Huawei is getting for the P20 and P20 Pro, it seems like people are forgetting that there’s a shy midrange variant in the series — a variant that doesn’t have any camera branding or high price tag. This is our Huawei P20 Lite review.

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ASUS ZenFone 5Z Review: More powerful but not exactly better

Better processor and more memory than the ZenFone 5, but not much else

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After a less-than-stellar attempt at shooting for the stars in the premium smartphone segment, ASUS took a step back and came out with perhaps one of the best midrange smartphones of 2018 — the ZenFone 5. However, that doesn’t mean their done competing in the upper echelon. Enter the ASUS ZenFone 5Z.

At first glance, the ZenFone 5Z doesn’t seem all that much better than the ZenFone 5. They’re identical after all. So if you’re curious about the look and button placements, go ahead and open this link in another tab then come right back here when you’re done.

Here are a few photos of the 5Z if you’re too lazy.

All the ports are at the bottom, the buttons are on the right, and it’s a hybrid dual-SIM, which means the second SIM slot can accept a microSD card to expand the storage up to 512GB.

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See what we mean?

AI cameras need time to get better

The similarities don’t end there. Both phones have AI-powered cameras which means they analyze your scene and/or subject and apply edits to make it look better. Most of the time, it means tweaking the saturation.

The ZenFone 5 and 5Z also share the same primary camera configuration — one is a 12-megapixel sensor with a bright f/1.8 lens and the other a wide-angle which has an 8-megapixel sensor — so naturally, they take comparable photos. While that’s not entirely a bad thing, it also means they’re a tier under the likes of the P20 Pro and Galaxy S9+.

Take a look at these samples:

It was a cloudy morning in Baler, Aurora and the ZenFone 5Z did a nice job of capturing the part of the sky not covered by clouds

Here’s a closer shot of the shore showing the reflection of the couple passing by

It also captures a fair amount of detail even at night

Zooming in for closer shots, and you’ll see the ZenFone 5Z’s color reproduction is pretty accurate.

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The portrait mode on the 8MP front-facing cam does a surprisingly good job on the cutouts and blurring effect. It’s also wide enough to capture a group selfie with you and your friends as seen on the third photo.

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What I enjoy the most is taking portraits of people. The depth effect works well with a single subject, but struggles a little when there’s more than one person in the shot.

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It’s worth noting that the camera crashed quite a few times while we tried to use it in pro mode and also when the depth effect was turned on. This was fixed in a recent software update.

Faster, smoother, lasts longer

The Snapdragon 845 processor together with 6GB of RAM on our particular review unit is the only real difference from the ZenFone 5. This phone runs Android 8.0 Oreo with ZenUI 5.0 which takes away most of the bloatware that used to come with previous iterations of the ZenFone. The result is a fast and smooth browsing experience whether you’re flipping through your home screen, browsing social media, or cycling through apps. This phone performs with the best of them.

Where the ZenUI 5.0 can improve on is perhaps adding gestures instead of the on-screen navigation bar. There’s an option to keep the navigation bar visible but it defeats the purpose of having more screen.

Instead, there’s an option to hide it but then you have to swipe up on the bottom area first to make it visible. Having to do so can cause you to do things on the app you’re on like accidentally liking the 12-week old photo of your crush on Instagram. That’s embarrassing and could have been avoided! It’s an extra step that affects the whole experience and could easily be improved.

The ZenFone 5Z may not be a gaming-focused handset like the ROG Phone, but it can more than hold its own. Personally, I don’t really play on mobile a lot but the few times that I did on the ZenFone 5Z was a pleasurable experience. It handled titles like Tales of the Rays and Eternium with ease. It also had no problems running Dragon Ball Legends with maxed-out graphics.

The 3300mAh battery is no slouch, either. On average I can start a day at 100 percent and end with around 25 to 38 percent left depending on my usage. Filling it up again is also quick thanks to AI charging. From 30 percent, it can go straight up to 100 percent again in less than an hour.

Uniquely ASUS with other neat features

There are a few things on here that’s uniquely ASUS and you may or may not find them useful depending on your preferences. One of which is the Smart Group feature in the app drawer. ZenUI has had this for a while and it’s actually gotten smarter. It puts related apps in a single folder and labels them for you. It’s super convenient if you’re the type who likes things organized.

There’s also the Selfie Master app which is home to a host of beautification features which I personally don’t really use. What you’ll also find there is ZeniMoji — clearly an attempt to replicate the iPhone’s Animoji. It still needs plenty of work but if you’re curious to see what it looks like, I used it for the intro on this IGTV video.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The ZenFone 5Z is everything the ZenFone 5 is but faster and quite possibly smoother. In a vacuum, it seems like a pretty solid flagship. Unfortunately, it does not exist in a vacuum. If you consider that the 5Z is trying to compete with the likes of the OnePlus 6, Galaxy S9, and other flagships of those caliber, I find that it falls short in terms of design and camera output.

At PhP 29,995 or roughly around US$ 562, it costs nearly US$ 200 more than the ZenFone 5 which sits at PhP 19,995 (US$ 374). While there are slight bumps in processing and speed, it’s hard to justify the price gap costing that much if the device looks exactly like a midranger.

If you’re a ZenFone fan and can fork out the extra 200 bucks, then by all means take the 5Z. Otherwise, you can just opt for the Zenfone 5 which is one of the best smartphones at its price point.

SEE MORE: ASUS ZenFone 5 Video Review

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ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1) review: The perfect budget-midrange phone?

Featuring a very surprising price tag

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Despite selling more than other segment, the budget phone industry doesn’t offer the most exciting offerings available in the market. Positioned more for affordability, these phones often cram in lackluster specs to reduce costs.

Luckily, with improving technologies, it has become possible to finally pack in midrange (and even flagship) features into an affordable package.

Following this trend, ASUS has launched their own take on high-spec’d budget phones. And it’s quite the mouthful to say — the ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1).

On paper, the Max Pro offers an impressive spec sheet that will leave both you and your wallet happy. However, paper doesn’t speak for actual performance. Let’s see how ASUS’ budget phone performs in the real world.

Modern but uninspired design

Despite swimming in deep budget phone territory, the Max Pro looks and feels remarkably well. Thankfully, the phone doesn’t share in the tacky plastic tradition that its market is known for. It fits in an all-glass front, metal rear panel, and polycarbonate framing.

Much like the phones of today, the Max Pro minimizes its upper and lower bezel. Likewise, it almost completely eradicates its side bezels. Fortunately (and unfortunately, for some), the phone does not have the controversial camera notch.

On the rear, the phone squeezes its dual cameras into the top-left corner, much like the iPhone X and the Huawei P20 series. Also, the rear carries a fingerprint reader.

Overall, the Max Pro offers a refreshing upgrade from the usual fare of the budget phone market. It handles very well and weighs considerably less, despite packing in quite the punch under the hood.

Sadly, the design is still nothing to write home about. Even if it refreshes the genre, the phone offers an uninspired design that just follows the same beats of its contemporaries. It feels just adequately premium.

Vanilla, too vanilla

After testing several ASUS phones in the past, the brand’s usual fault lies in how bloated its software is. Often, ASUS packs obnoxious bloatware into all their phones. Thankfully, the Max Pro breaks the trend.

Out of the box, the phone comes installed with the latest Android 8.1 Oreo. It doesn’t cram in custom ROMs or unnecessary apps. It’s as vanilla as vanilla gets.

Unfortunately, being vanilla also creates its downfall. Even today, most smartphone makers still add their own custom flavor to Android. On the other hand, ASUS hasn’t added anything to the vanilla Android experience.

As a result, the Max Pro outs an Android experience that pales in comparison to even the Google Pixel’s version of vanilla Android.

Packing in the power

For its price, the Max Pro sports a Snapdragon 636 chipset, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage. With that, the phone positions itself as one of the few budget phones to offer midrange performance.

From an actual performance standpoint, the Max Pro can handle most of the games I threw at it. Confidently, it can play less graphically intensive games like Clash Royale and Pokémon Go. Similarly, it can play more intensive titles like PUBG Mobile and Sniper 3D.

Sadly, with the latter set of games, the Max Pro does slightly hiccup its framerates. For intense gamers, this presents a nagging obstacle especially for multiplayer games like PUBG Mobile. Even with 50 ping, the game lags every once in a while.

For the most part, however, the phone plays adequately well. It was a joy to play for hours.

Additionally, it keeps comfortably cool throughout hours of just playing games. At most, the phone’s rear central panel slightly heats up to lukewarm levels. Regardless, it never reaches a point wherein it’s too hot to touch. As far as positioning goes, my hands only barely touch any of the hot spots while playing.

For benchmarking fans, the Max Pro clocks in a score of 114,117 on AnTuTu. The phone is a confident performer both on paper and in real life. However, if you’re going for the heavy gamer route, I suggest a hardy memory card to supplement the paltry 32GB.

Loves the day, hates the night

Despite carrying a dual rear camera setup, the Max Pro doesn’t perform well when it comes to taking photos. While it can take photos well during the day, the loss of light drastically reduces the quality of photos that it can take.

On the rear, the phone sports a 13-megapixel plus 5-megapixel shooting combo. It can shoot adequate photos; however, the camera distinctly amps up contrast to an abnormal point. Vibrant photos display well, but high-key photos are starker, lacking the visual unity of better cameras.

On the flipside, the 8-megapixel front camera can take brilliant selfies in daylight. Likewise, photo quality absolutely crumbles once you take light away. In twilight to nighttime settings, selfies are blurry and grainy messes.

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Rock and roll all night

Even with a midrange chipset, the Max Pro’s most surprising feature lies in the battery that powers it. The phone packs in a 5000mAh battery within its light frame.

As you might expect, the phone is incredibly robust, withstanding a lot of abuse before the battery drains to dangerous levels.

To test this, I continuously played PUBG Mobile and Sniper 3D to drain the battery on a 100 percent charge. Happily, it took the entire afternoon to even make a huge dent on its charge. By the end, the phone still had enough to function well at night, hovering around a 30 percent charge.

More quantitatively, one solo match on PUBG Mobile (from lobby to chicken dinner) costs around eight to nine percent of battery. On a fully charged battery, you can play around 10 to 11 matches before the phone finally gives out. That’s a lot of chicken dinners!

Without heavy gaming, the phone can last around two days on just one charge. Once it reaches zero, it takes around two hours to fully charge it again. It’s quite a while by today’s standards, but enough for the phone’s whopping battery.

For its PhP 9,995 price tag (around US$ 200), the ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1) is worth every penny. Is this your GadgetMatch? It’s not the best budget to midrange phone out there. But, at that price, who’s complaining?

SEE ALSO: ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1): Price and availability in the Philippines

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