Reviews

Honor View 20 review: No notch, no problem

Alternative to the Huawei Mate 20

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If 2018 was all about smartphones adopting the notch, 2019 will be focused on eliminating the black cutout entirely. Brands like OPPO, Vivo, and Xiaomi jump-started the anti-trend by hiding the front camera behind sliders or pop-ups, but Honor has something more straightforward, and it’s on the flagship View 20.

There’s no standardized name for it yet — some call it a punch-hole camera and others named it hole-punch — but all you need to know is that the implementation is more visually pleasing than any form of notch.

For one, it’s much smaller than any other cutout and it’s placed in a more ideal spot — to the far left and not in between top-bar icons. In addition, the space around it is still LCD, eliminating any black space normally left behind by a notch.

Huawei and Samsung raced to get this type of phone out first, but even though Sammy launched ahead of the Nova 4 with the Galaxy A8s, it’s the Huawei sub-brand that brought it to international markets first. In addition, the View 20 is by far the most powerful of the three and arguably the most attractive.

While the Huawei Nova 4 looks a lot like the P20 Pro, the Honor View 20 goes for a more unique V-shaped pattern on the rear that shifts as you angle it differently towards a light source. Although it doesn’t help the ergonomics in any way, I can say that the phone is a pleasure to hold thanks to its curved glass rear.

The 6.4-inch 1080p LCD may seem overwhelming in size at first, but the tall aspect ratio helps provide a more manageable grip even for small hands. The fingerprint scanner’s rear placement is well-positioned, too. Combined with the fast face scanning, not once did I experience failed unlocking on the first attempt.

The View 20 is simply so enjoyable to play content on, whether it’s a movie from Netflix or game you’re addicted to. You’ll just have to deal with the different ways apps cover up the 4.5mm camera hole.

In some cases, the entire screen is filled up and you only have the black dot to ignore; other times, a big black bar can take up the entire edge, making the sides asymmetrical while viewing in landscape orientation. It’s not pretty, but you can get used to it.

Entire screen is utilized

Here are the asymmetrical black bars

You could argue that the placement isn’t ideal because it pushes the signal bar and notifications to the right, but Honor claims that this position is optimal. The basis is the Gutenberg Diagram, which says that eyes naturally fall to the top-left corner of an area called the primary optical area (POA). Eye motion then goes across and down to other sections. I’ll save my judgement for when I try Samsung’s upper-right positioning.

Design-wise, the only thing that really disappointed me was the lone speaker. Having gotten used to loud stereo speakers from recent smartphone reviews, going back to a cheap-sounding output to the right of the USB-C port feels like such a downgrade.

Fortunately, there’s a 3.5mm audio port for wired headphones; and if you already jumped on the wireless bandwagon, Bluetooth 5.0 is available for hassle-free audio. Both were vital to me in replacing the disappointing loudspeaker.

USB-C and the only loudspeaker

A rare 3.5mm port beside a set of sensors

The model I have is blessed with some of the best specs I could ask for in any smartphone to date: the same Kirin 980 chip found inside the Huawei Mate 20 series, a whopping 8GB of memory, and a total of 256GB of storage. Once you know how much this thing costs, you’ll be even more impressed.

Combined with Honor’s Magic 2.0.1 UI based on Android 9 Pie, this has to be one of the most fluid Android experiences for me. Of course, the software’s quirks are still present — such as the awkward double-press of the volume-down button to turn on the camera app and the lack of a swipe-up gesture to open the app drawer — but everything else from the updated volume adjustment to Digital Balance from Pie are available.

It goes without saying that the View 20 can tackle any app you throw at it, and thanks to the abundant memory and storage, you rarely have to worry about running out of space or having too many apps operating at once. It’s stable too, with no crashes for me so far. The navigation keys might randomly shift their location, but a restart always fixes that.

Yeah, they move to the left sometimes

As for gaming, GPU Turbo 2.0 is in place, applying itself to the following games: PUBG, Arena of Valor, Rules of Survival, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, Vainglory, and Asphalt 9: Legend. I was only able to test and compare with Asphalt 9; the gameplay was certainly buttery smooth, but I can’t say if it’s due to the latest version of GPU Turbo or because the Kirin 980 chip is simply that fast.

It helps that liquid cooling is built in so the View 20 doesn’t throttle and slow down under heavy load. In fact, I noticed how cool the phone was while gaming. There’s only one spot near the rear camera that gets noticeably warm during gameplay, though not enough to stop me from playing.

The only other time the handset heats up is while charging; however, that’s only because it charges so fast. It comes with a 22.5W SuperCharge adapter that brings the unit from zero to 55 percent in 30 minutes, 94 percent in an hour, and a full charge with an additional 15 minutes. These are fantastic numbers, especially since the View 20 can easily last over a day of usage with six hours of screen-on time on a single charge.

What I would say is missing, however, is wireless charging. It may be Honor’s way of cutting down on costs, but it’s something I miss nonetheless after having it on the Mate 20 series.

Finally, I have to talk about the cameras. While you could easily mistake the front shooter as the highlight — it’s inside a screen hole with 25 megapixels to its credit — it’s the 48-megapixel rear camera and its partnered 3D ToF (Time of Flight) sensor that do most of the magic.

By default, the built-in camera app outputs at 12 megapixels using data from the 48-megapixel sensor. While this may seem like a downgrade at first, the pixel cramming actually improves the detail and sharpness you get out of each photo. This also keeps the file size down to a much friendlier number.

However, if you want to maximize the potential of the image sensor, there’s a 48MP AI Ultra Clarity option which combines multiple shots into a more detailed picture. It’s a lot like the night mode Huawei pioneered, except it’s for daytime scenarios.

I tried it a few times, and to be honest, it’s not that useful. It takes longer to complete an exposure and moving objects become blurry during the process. On a smartphone screen, you can’t even appreciate the 8000 x 6000-pixel photos. It doesn’t help that the camera app goes back to the default 12MP setting each time you restart.

There are other features that take advantage of the 3D ToF sensor, but they either aren’t available yet or are exclusive to the Chinese market. You aren’t missing out though if you’re simply after good-looking photos.

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As usual, there’s an option to activate AI for smarter scene detection. This is something I normally turned off on other Honor/Huawei phones because of how often the artificial intelligence would wrongly recognize an object or slow down the processing, but the View 20’s application is surprisingly good at this.

Not only can it detect more than one scene at a time — simultaneously optimizing for outdoor, beach, and sunset, for example — there’s no delay before or after taking the shot. Of course, you may still adjust settings even while AI is on. There were times when I would rather turn portrait mode off so I could keep the background blur-free around my subject.

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Is this your GadgetMatch?

With the Huawei P30 coming soon and new flagships arriving during Mobile World Congress next month, now’s not a good time to invest in a premium smartphone.

However, the Honor View 20 is jam-packed with so many high-end specs and features that it’s difficult to resist. With a starting price of EUR 569 for the 6GB+128GB variant, it’s a steal compared to the Mate 20 series’ asking price.

It lacks a few things, specifically dual speakers, wireless charging, and proper water resistance, but those are negligible shortcomings if you apply the workarounds: use headphones or a speaker, take advantage of the incredible wired charging instead, and simply don’t use your phone near a pool or toilet.

If this is the standard Honor is setting in terms of design, performance, and price at the start of 2019, rival brands have to stay on their toes. Honor isn’t messing around.

Gaming

Kingdom Hearts III review: More for long-time fans

It didn’t spark joy

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I played the first Kingdom Hearts game for a grand total of around 40 minutes, so I don’t think I can qualify that as actually playing. I didn’t have my own PlayStation 2 at the time so I was mostly watching my friend play, waiting for him to wrap up so I could beat him on NBA Live.

However, it’s such a popular game that it was impossible for me to not at least be familiar with the premise. I did play my fair share of Final Fantasy games and like most people, Disney titles and characters aren’t complete strangers to me.

Ready to take on some Heartless!

I didn’t have any major expectations jumping into Kingdom Hearts III, but I thought the way the Disney levels are woven in would at least be clever. It was not.

The backstory is massive

The first thing you need to consider when coming into this game is that you’re stepping into a massive pile of backstory. It can be hard to catch up to. If, like me, this is your first game in the franchise, it will be like watching Avengers: Infinity War without seeing even at least a quarter of the movies that led to it.

That said, the game is aware that it has tons of lore to get into. Right in the title screen you’ll see a Memory Archive which is a chapter by chapter summary of the Kingdom Hearts story. It’s best watched in its entirety which means sitting through over 20 minutes of backstory. For the most part, it does its job of catching you up. If that’s not enough, there are several story-so-far videos on YouTube. This one I liked in particular.

Despite all of these recaps available, no amount of summarizing can truly prepare you for the tangled mess that is the Kingdom Hearts lore. During certain parts, it even feels like the game is self-aware of how much of a mess it is and pokes fun at itself. That’s one of the more entertaining aspects of the game, intentional or not.

The story just isn’t gripping enough

This is my main gripe with the game. After playing titles like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man — all of which had stories and characters that you will inevitably invest in as you play — Kingdom Hearts III’s story pales in comparison.

I understand the comparison may not be fair. The games I mentioned are either standalone stories (Detroit and Spider-Man) or a fresh start to a long-running franchise (God of War). Given all of that, I can’t help but feel the storytelling could have been so much better.

The way I feel about Kingdom Hearts III is similar to how I felt about Final Fantasy XV which, coincidentally, was initially helmed by the same guy behind Kingdom Hearts — Tetsuya Nomura. The story’s pacing felt off and it went into places that maybe it shouldn’t have.

There’s also something off about the dialogue during cutscenes. I felt the characters were talking so much slower than usual and it invites zoning out if you’re not that into the story.

That’s a thing? Okay.

If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise and have played most, if not all, of the games and feel differently than I do, then that’s all good. In fact, I’m really interested to hear what the likes of you thought about the game.

The Disney stuff can be fun

It’s not all bad. After I realized the story isn’t gonna spark joy in me whatsoever, I started treating each Disney level as a non-canon mini-game. That made me enjoy it for what it had to offer.

Some levels felt like rushed versions of the original films with Kingdom Hearts lore thrown into the mix. Others offered some value-add to the stories we already know and love, and that truly made it more fun to play.

There’s also enough variation in each level that can make you forget you can get through most of the game by just smashing X and pressing △. The animations during battle look super flashy and the combat has a few other options you can tinker with if you get tired of smashing X.

Might be made more for long-time fans

I suspect this game was really made as more of a pay-off for long-time fans than an opportunity to acquire new ones. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, playing Kingdom Hearts III made me crave another good Final Fantasy game, but perhaps one that features tight turn-based combat versus an action RPG (role playing game) type.

Is there a game where Kairi actually does something?

There are plenty of ways to have fun with Kingdom Hearts III, but the story — which I believe should be paramount in RPGs — just isn’t one of the them. If you’re just coming into the franchise through this game, I suggest you play it for the fun Disney levels and just push the overarching story to the side.  The visual spectacle in this game is off the charts, so go ahead and enjoy that too.

By now, long-time fans would have already bought the game. If you’re one of those who are still deciding whether to get it or not, I suggest waiting a little longer for the price to drop. If you simply can’t wait, I recommend getting a second-hand copy which would also be cheaper. But whatever you decide to do, may your heart be your guiding key.

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Laptops

ASUS ZenBook 15 review: Everything you need in a laptop?

With great power, comes all the caveats in between

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Very few laptops have everything a person would ever need out of it. Whether it’s just for typing Word documents or playing all the latest games, only a handful of laptops fit the bill. ASUS has one laptop to offer, which was announced back in IFA 2018.

The ASUS ZenBook 15 has almost every piece of hardware for everyone. But is a device powered by a powerful Intel processor and a gaming-ready graphics card really worth it? Let’s find out.

Same premium design through the years

ASUS dubs their ZenBook lineup as its top-of-the-line Ultrabook. Through the years, ZenBooks have retained their premium design and feel. So when I got the chance to try the new ZenBook 15 (UX533) out, I expected nothing less — and I was impressed. The build quality of the device is great, with a sturdy metal-plastic chassis that shows little to no flex. It even feels light to bring around, at only 1.59kg.

My unit has the Icicle Silver finish that shows off the elegance of the laptop. There is an option to get it in the bolder Royal Blue color, but it will definitely feel like you own a premium device the moment you set your eyes on it.

The only real change the company implemented was the addition of the ErgoLift. Essentially, it frees up space for the laptop to release hot air instead of blasting them on the table or your lap. It’s also supposed to make the bottom-facing speakers sound better, although this really wasn’t the case when I used it.

It almost has everything for everyone

The ZenBook 15 is one powerful machine, from the inside out. My unit comes with an eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8565U processor and 16GB of RAM. This configuration alone guarantees superb performance, and the ZenBook 15 did not disappoint. Typing Word documents, surfing the web, even photo and video editing felt like a breeze with this machine. You can play games here too, but let’s save that discussion for later.

On the outside, you have a 15-inch Full HD anti-glare NanoEdge display — perfect for outdoor use at full brightness. It comes in a resolution of 1920 by 1080, a full 16:9 display with tiny bezels on the side.

It’s also equipped with a full-size backlit keyboard, with the number pad separated from the trackpad — unlike its 13-inch and 14-inch variants.

The ZenBook 15 does come with three USB Type-A ports and one USB Type-C port that supports external displays; however, it would have been better to make it as Thunderbolt port to fully maximize the potential. The laptop also comes with a dual-band Wi-Fi card, although an additional Ethernet port would have been nice, as well.

It’s got game, but it really destroys your battery life

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ZenBook 15 is the fact that it comes with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Max-Q. With this graphics chip, gaming on this laptop actually feels pretty damn good. It managed to get competitive frame rates for fast-paced games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Rocket League, all with high settings. But, don’t expect the same from AAA titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

Also, there is a significant increase in the laptop’s overall temperature with longer than 30 minutes of play time. The left side of the laptop felt so hot, it’s almost like you could fry an egg on it. Of course, playing for long hours on this device drains the 73Wh battery significantly faster. I got about nine to ten hours on regular use, and only two to three hours on full game mode.

The camera is honestly only good for Windows Hello

The ZenBook 15 comes with an 3D infrared HD camera that supports Windows Hello. The infrared sensors were great at facial recognition, and Windows Hello felt really easy to set up and use. But, the camera was lackluster when taking photos and videos. It only seems passable to use for video calls, but the overall image quality just doesn’t equate to HD.

The bottom-facing speakers could be better

The two Harman/Kardon speakers on the ZenBook 15 are placed on the bottom side, facing the table or your lap. Sound quality is impressive until you turn it to maximum. Apart from that, I was expecting that they would sound better because of what ErgoLift supposedly does for them.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

For PhP 89,995 (US$ 1,720), the ASUS ZenBook 15 jams almost everything you need in a premium device. And for that price you get the highest, most powerful configuration possible. Anyone can do pretty much anything with the hardware that comes with it. Apart from that, its elegant design and lightweight body make it a perfect on-the-go device. 

If you’re low on cash, you can also get the 14-inch ZenBook 14 for PhP 77,995. It only has 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce MX150 graphics card that offers similar, but less powerful overall performance. But, you do get the illuminated number pad on the touchpad.

Of course, that is if you don’t mind the otherwise average camera and fryer-like temperatures with heavy gaming. However, if you’re looking for a laptop that can handle anything, the ZenBook 15 is for you!

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Apps

Trying out the Gixo Fitness App: A personal fitness trainer on your smartphone

Get fit on your phone!

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I know how demanding working out can be. Especially for those who are just about to start their fitness journey, it can get pretty hard learning even just the basics. And then, there’s also getting yourself to the gym — believe me, I know how it feels to drag my feet out the door on the way to an exercise class.

What if you could make it all easier for you? Saddle up, ladies. This is an app that will allow you to get exercising all through your smartphone.

Introducing: The Gixo Fitness App

Like most exercise apps, Gixo will allow you to pick out different workouts depending on your exercise preference.

Because I was in the middle of a crazy work week when I tried out the app, I figured yoga would be a great way to clear my mind and get my body relaxed.

I picked out a class I liked and it was as simple as that. Of course, there were different classes available ranging from kickboxing to strength training, to HIIT, and even weight training — perfect if you’re not into only one activity.

Since I was working out to an app, this meant I got to exercise anywhere! I set up a yoga mat in a corner of that week’s office space-slash-studio (like I said, busy work week!) and started the class.

It was a very relaxing 15-minute class, just what I needed to refresh my mind and get the blood flowing.

For a mid-week work breather, these short classes are perfect. But, if you want a more intense workout, Gixo still delivers. There are different fitness levels and class length also vary with some classes running up till 60 minutes.

As good as this all sounds, however, it’s not even Gixo’s best workout feature.

Trying out a live class

Gixo’s strength lies in the fact that you can sign on for live classes. You heard that right: You can look through a number of different scheduled classes and join whatever tickles your fancy.

These live classes are headed by actual coaches that will instruct you as you go. For this beginner class, Coach Aaron was facilitating.

The beauty of it all is that this isn’t just a person who will talk you through the exercise — watching a YouTube video can do that! The app actually allows you to communicate with the coaches during class via chatting. Communication is two-way which allows for more interactive classes.

So how it works is you have a live coach facilitating a class and based on what you signed up for, you can follow along and ask questions. On the screen, you’ll have your coach and exercise visuals to help you along.

You can also turn on your phone camera so your coach can check in on you and give you comments about your form and the actual workouts you’re on.

And because it’s highly involved, you also get to input the number of reps or even change workout locations — perfect for coached running classes!

Changing to an outdoor location switches up the workout screen

Though I’ve used fitness apps (and a lot of them) before, I’ve never really had a live coach walk me through things via an app. In fact, I don’t think any other exercise app offers the same thing. It’s a pretty cool fitness innovation, really, and I’m still geeking over how no one has thought about this setup before.

For those who want even more fitness motivation, there are also exercise challenges that span weeks that you can sign up for. Gixo allows you to pick out a set time for weekdays and weekends and you simply follow along

Final verdict

So will the Gixo app actually get you those rock hard abs you’ve always dreamed about? Well, yes and no.

The whole experience can seem pretty weird at first but it doesn’t take long for you to get used to the setup. Think of it as video calling your fitness coach; you basically get the same interaction without having to leave the comfort of wherever you are. Gixo basically takes away one big step from the working out equation and, as we all know, any help in the exercise department is a big help.

Some would contend that having and being on your phone during workouts is counterproductive. But, think about it: You’re still working out and it’s an app that will allow you these workouts anywhere at your own convenience. There’s literally no excuse now because you only need to fire up Gixo on your phone and you get live, personal fitness exercise training right then and there. Talk about not having excuses! In addition, Gixo will send you workout summaries so you’re always reminded of just how much exercising you’re actually doing.

Of course, the bottom line is that Gixo can only do so much. It’s up to you to do those exercises and get your body in tip-top shape with the inclusion of those abs you dream about so much. To be perfectly honest, though, Gixo already does a lot: It’s an app that has someone literally watching you (in a non-freaky, coaching way) while you do your exercises. If that’s not making it easy for you to meet your fitness goals, I’m not entirely sure what will.

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