Reviews

HTC U11 Review: Better than the Pixel

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To beat the best, you have to know their product, learn from it, and make something even grander.

That’s the formula HTC followed: Manufacturer the Pixel under Google’s guidance, study Android’s blueprints, and create a smartphone with all that in mind.

The process took a while to complete — over half a year after the Pixel launched — but the U11 with its shimmering back speaks for itself. I can tell you as early as now that it beats Google’s flagship at its own game.

Except, the wasn’t very clear at first. HTC’s marketing push for the U11 highlights the gimmicky Edge Sense feature, which allows you to squeeze the handset for a function of your choice. Heck, the primary slogan is “Squeeze for the Brilliant U.” It’s a shame, since this smartphone isn’t some one-trick pony.

I admit to constantly using Edge Sense for activating the LED flashlight; being able to grip the phone a little harder in total darkness is a lot more useful than you’d expect. But for me, that’s as far as its usefulness goes.

I’d rather say “Okay, Google” to activate Google Assistant from standby, double-press the power button to turn on the camera app at anytime, or simply swipe through my app drawer and settings to access everything else.

There were times when Edge Sense would simply get in the way. An accidental squeeze meant shining a bright flash on my light-sensitive eyes — or worse, at an unsuspecting friend or stranger in the elevator (the latter actually happened).

Sure, you could adjust the pressure sensitivity of the feature, but delving any further into the gimmick meant missing out on the U11’s true strengths, namely the camera, silky smooth performance, and surprisingly, the incredible battery life.

Let’s start with the camera. As mentioned in our launch article, the U11 currently has the highest-rated smartphone shooter in the world based on DxOMark’s well-respected test. A score of 90 puts it above the 89 points of the former champ, the — you guessed it — Google Pixel.

As a preacher of real-world experience over fancy digits on data sheets, I have to agree with the numbers for once and say that HTC’s pride and joy does indeed edge out the Google phone by a… pixel. That says a lot, because the Pixel handily won our smartphone camera comparison earlier this year, and competed quite well against the more advanced Samsung Galaxy S8.

On top of that, the U11 comes with this thing called 3D audio recording, which maximizes the four microphones installed on the phone to record sound from all directions during video shooting. It also amplifies audio from where you zoom in, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference, even with the pleasantly loud stereo speakers (one on the bottom for bass and another in the earpiece for highs and mids).

While we’re on the topic of sounds, let’s get this out of the way: This phone does not have a 3.5mm audio port. It sucks, and is something I have to deal with whenever I want to hook it up to my car’s speakers or any of my old non-wireless headphones. Sure, there’s a USB-C to audio jack adapter in the box, but that doesn’t solve the issue of charging while being plugged in.

HTC feels like it did enough though for audiophiles. Another bundled accessory is a pair of USonic adaptive earphones that plug directly into the phone’s lonely USB-C port. The “adaptive” part means the earphones adjust their output to the shape of your ears for a more optimized listening experience. If that doesn’t sound (pun intended?) high-tech enough, know that they come with active noise cancellation, as well — perfect for shutting out noisy officemates or that loud, never-ending construction outside your window.

Talking about how great the audio-visual splendor of the U11 is, you almost forget that this phone is, again, marketed as that handset you squeeze. That’s the point I’m trying to drive at: You have to look beyond what the brochures say to see how great this phone truly is. And I haven’t even begun focusing on performance or battery life yet.

The U11 is one of the few smartphones blessed with Qualcomm’s super-fast, incredibly efficient Snapdragon 835 chipset. Although not the first to make use of it — hot picks like the Galaxy S8, OnePlus 5, and Sony Xperia XZ Premium were ahead of the curve — HTC somehow managed to, ehem, squeeze out more of the processor’s potential.

Having reviewed all the aforementioned phones, I can claim with certainty that the U11 is just as fast as any of them, despite HTC applying the heaviest Android skin of the bunch. Its Sense UI feels — how do I put this — outdated. Having a separate button for the app drawer, no continuous scrolling for the app library, and unintuitive main settings and quick settings layout feels like I’m back in 2016.

I’ve given so much praise to the OnePlus 5 (and Pixel last year) for its steroid-fueled fluidity, but this phone can definitely compete. Extra credit goes to the variant I was privileged enough to review; it has 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage, both of which are still generous by today’s standards.

So, wait. Wouldn’t all that power translate to terrible battery life? On the contrary, the U11 has beastly endurance considering how smallish the capacity is (only 3000mAh) and how densely packed the pixels on the display are (a resolution of 2560 x 1440 within a 5.5-inch LCD).

I seriously wasn’t expecting a single charge to last this long. With moderate usage, which entails holding back on checking Instagram and Facebook every hour, I can get through Saturday morning to Sunday night without turning to the charger.

On weekdays, when I must be on my phone every waking minute, I can still manage over five hours of screen-on time before the battery cries for juice at the end of the day. That’s mighty impressive! Other smartphones with the same internals average around four hours of screen-on time during the same span; in comparison, the battery life kings of Xiaomi, specifically the Mi Mix and Redmi Note 4X, get up to six hours.

It’s possible to extend its life even further by turning off constantly active features like Sense Edge and Google Assistant’s voice detection. As you’d expect, I wouldn’t mind deactivating the former for greater longevity, but the latter is another reminder why the U11 trumps the Pixel.

You see, the Pixel was such a hit last year for offering two things: the best-performing camera in the market and exclusive access to Google Assistant at the time. As you can already tell, the U11 has both and more. In addition, HTC solved another one of the Google phone’s problems: waterproofing.

Yes, the U11 isn’t just a pretty sight; it has IP67-rated water and dust resistance, which is a technical way of saying it can withstand accidental splashes and dunks in a toilet. However, this doesn’t mean you can get reckless with it — I haven’t done any drops tests, but one solid drop could spell doom for its glossy glass back.

It’s such a beauty… until you get scuffs and ugly smudges on the rear. Even though HTC offers a plastic case in the package, I just can’t bring myself to putting one on and ruining the aesthetics. Funnily enough, there’s also an included cleaning cloth if you’re willing to wipe it down before every meeting or date.

I just wish I had a chance to review the solar red variant. Having seen it up close during the Philippine launch, I’ve been wanting one, badly. Not that the “amazing silver” I have with me isn’t any good; I simply can’t accept it being color silver. It’s very much light blue at any angle. HTC argues that their sapphire blue model is the true blue, so we have that.

If I were to nitpick, the thin antenna lines around the frame ruin an otherwise seamless design. It’s necessary though for getting a strong cellular signal (because, boy, does the U11 pick up 4G+ wherever I go), and it’s less jarring than Google’s half-glass, half-weird implementation on the Pixel.

Now, this brings us to the question: Is HTC’s best-ever smartphone your GadgetMatch?

I’m inclined to say yes for a variety of reasons and consumer types. And yet, the U11 is ultimately sandwiched between other Snapdragon 835-powered devices.

With a starting price of US$ 649 (PhP 36,990 for my review unit in the Philippines), it’s significantly more expensive than the similarly equipped OnePlus 5 and Xiaomi Mi 6; and despite being cheaper than the Galaxy S8 and Xperia XZ Premium, the U11 doesn’t have the former’s gorgeous Infinity Display or the latter’s 4K screen resolution, as well as either’s audio port.

In that case, what does the U11 offer that the others don’t? A marginally better camera, greater attention to audio output and recording, noticeably longer battery life, and… wait for it… a squeezable body.

It’s only fitting we conclude this review with yet another mention of Sense Edge. In the end, it somehow makes sense to highlight this edge.

SEE ALSO: HTC U Play Review: Just about design?

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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