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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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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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Huawei Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro Review

Which of these two is your GadgetMatch?

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It took us a while to complete this review, but that’s how a Huawei smartphone review should be treated. After a couple of months testing both flagship handsets, we were able to truly see how different they are from each other and how good their artificial intelligence becomes through time.

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