Reviews

Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: Almost too much

Filled to the brim

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When I first got my hands on the Mate 20 Pro, I wondered to myself: Where do I even start?

Even after spending over a month with the phone and checking out its less feature-packed sibling, I still can’t help but be amazed by how much tech Huawei jammed into this thing.

It’s not even debatable; comparing the Mate 20 Pro to any other phone released this year would make the opposite side look stale. Inside and out, this is the most complete smartphone ever assembled.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. While Huawei focused so hard on one-upping its fiercest rivals, some old weaknesses showed up and new issues arose in the process.

Going through every single feature would be too much for a single article, however. I could easily surpass the monstrous word count of our iPhone XS review if I were to get overly thorough and technical.

Instead, it’s best to evaluate the Mate 20 Pro by its most impressive, as well as its most jarring, traits. Let’s begin with the usual: design.

I honestly wasn’t a fan of the stove-top arrangement of the rear cameras and excessively thick notch in front, but they eventually settled into my taste and I realized the purposes they served.

In short, I don’t have to deal with an awkward camera bulge on the rear, and the faster, more secure face login became a great alternative to the intuitive yet comparatively slow under-display fingerprint reader.

I also wasn’t interested in the curved edges at first, but I eventually missed them when switching to flatter phones. The way the curves mold into my hand and give that overflowing feel are actually more comfy than what I experienced on the Galaxy Note 9, which has a thicker and more unwieldy feel to it.

And despite the larger size, the proportions feel more ergonomic than the P20 Pro’s. In addition, the Mate 20 Pro’s Twilight gradient is a lot more appealing to me. It may be personal taste, but I’ve had a handful of people express the same opinion.

On the downside, the audio port is missing — something the regular Mate 20 has — and I find it strange that one of the stereo speakers has to come out of the USB-C port. This easily gets blocked when using the phone horizontally, especially when I forget that Huawei decided to place it there of all spots. It’s a sore point coming from the front-facing implementations of the Razer Phone 2 and Pixel 3.

Oh, and there’s an IR blaster in case you want to control your TV. Strange to see it on such a premium device, but I guess there’s a market for this, and maybe for those who like messing with televisions on display at the mall.

The 6.39-inch AMOLED screen itself is gorgeous. Colors pop and I love the super-dense 1440p resolution. Combined with the loud speakers and fast processing of the Kirin 980 chip, both video watching and gaming are a pleasure on this phone.

On that note, Huawei’s latest chipset is a marvel on its own. The 7nm architecture is no joke; it’s speedy AF and doesn’t overheat under pressure. Seriously, I threw the most demanding games at it and multitasked in between — nothing fazes it. It helps that I got 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage to play with. On the downside, the latter can only be expanded by Huawei’s (for now) proprietary NM Card slot. More on that here.

It’s a shame then that the EMUI skin is so behind compared to other interfaces. The Mate 20 Pro is one of the first phones to come with Android 9 Pie out of the box, but aside from a few additions like Digital Balance (the equivalent of Google’s Digital Wellbeing) and better volume controls, it’s a lot like Huawei’s clunky older software.

For one, you still need to tap an icon from the home screen to open the app drawer. This is one of the few skins that still makes you do that; others have a more intuitive swipe-up gesture to free up space on the app dock.

Want to activate your camera by double-pressing the volume down button while listening to music? Good luck with that, because doing so will simply lower the volume of your tunes. Again, other phones require a smarter double-press on the power button.

Another thing: I don’t adore the Mate 20 Pro’s always-on display. It’s nowhere near as informative as the ones found on the Galaxy or Pixel series. Sure, you’re provided with the date, time, and battery percentage, but getting a glimpse of notifications is frustrating at times, making me just go to the lockscreen to see what I’m receiving.

In addition, this has to be one of the weakest implementations of gesture navigation. Apple pioneered this style with the iPhone X, wherein you could swipe from the bottom to go to the home screen and hold it to enter multitasking; several Android manufacturers have copied this well, but Huawei didn’t get this right. Choosing the traditional back-home-app navigation bar alleviates this issue, but then you lose some of that precious real estate at the bottom.

Finally, there are certain apps — Google Photos and Maps, in particular — which have this awkward lag on EMUI. I’ve experienced this with the P20 Pro, and the problem still hasn’t gone away. I looked it up and it’s not an isolated issue.

The disconnect between the quality of hardware and software should’ve been resolved long ago. It’s reasons like this why people flock to iPhones and Pixels so easily, because they know that everything melds together so well, despite the lack of certain features. Huawei still has time to fix most if not all of these issues, but having seen no improvement on the P20 Pro after all this time, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Cons aside, the added features are excellent, albeit excessive at times. One is the wireless reverse charging, which allows you to charge other Qi-enabled devices on the Mate 20 Pro’s back. It’s slow and part of a rare usage case, but it’s so cool to have when absolutely needed. Since the phone’s generous 4200mAh battery lasts two days anyway, it’s perfectly fine to share some juice with accessories like a smartwatch.

And because the capacity is so hefty, it’s only right for Huawei to enable 40W charging on this beast. This is by far the most convenient way to fill up a battery on any Huawei phone. It’s no exaggeration that it takes only half an hour to hit 70 percent from zero. Give it another 40 minutes, and you have a full charge. Going back to anything slower has been a pain for me.

Reaching this point without talking about camera quality is a clear sign that the Mate 20 Pro is more than the sum of its pixels. At the same time, they’re a highlight of the phone and must be reviewed extensively.

You can learn more about the complex camera setup in our earlier hands-on, but in essence, the trio found on the back are what you should care most about. These are the 40-megapixel f/1.8 main shooter, 20-megapixel f/2.2 extra-wide camera, and 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto unit capable of optical zoom.

This translates into the most versatile cameras ever equipped on a smartphone. LG and ASUS popularized ultra-wide lenses while Apple and Samsung made telephoto shooters a thing, but it’s Huawei spearheading the complete package.

The monochrome sensor will be missed; it was Huawei’s signature feature up until the P20 Pro, but one can argue that it’s no longer necessary in this age of IG filters and colored sensors becoming advanced enough to create their own high dynamic range.

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Traveling with this phone as my all-in-one camera is such a joy. When out in an open space, the ultra-wide-angle camera flourishes; while at an event in need of close-ups, the telephoto looks great up to 3x zoom — even 5x if lighting is enough.

Like the overall interface, the camera software is hit or miss. Although I appreciate the ease of switching between the primary modes, the dump of less-important ones under “More” bothers my organized self. You could leave Master AI on to let it choose the right mode for each situation, but it’s not that accurate, like any AI-powered camera you find these days.

For example, as I’m about to take a portrait in Auto mode, the app would switch to — you guessed it — Portrait mode and saturate the hell out of my subject after a short amount of lag. More often than not, the AI wouldn’t correctly identify the subject, sometimes even saying that black-and-white graffiti on a wall is a panda. Go figure.

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The worst part is you can’t make adjustments after the AI-altered shot is made, which is something even lower-end Honor phones can do. Again, it’s hit or miss, and I bet a lot of users would rather keep Master AI off. Using it, however, is the fastest way to access special features like Super Macro, which emulates a macro lens’ extreme close-up of an item.

Huawei’s awesome Night mode is also back, and it’s as good as it ever was. Every time I’m out in the evening, I make sure to take a few shots with it on. Like before, it gives me a four-second or so exposure while handheld; advanced processing then creates a work of art nine out of ten times.

I had a chance to compare it with the Pixel 3’s Night Sight, and I must say that the results are mixed. While the Huawei side is better at making nighttime illumination look pretty, the Pixel 3 can see better in total darkness. Both are great, and I take low-light photos with both phones whenever I can. Don’t worry, a separate article for this comparison is in the works.

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The front has the same, unimpressive 24-megapixel f/2 camera found on the P20 Pro. Why Huawei chose not to improve on this weak point is beyond me. With most Chinese rivals taking selfies seriously, it’s a surprise why the Mate 20 Pro feels so far behind.

Like the P20 Pro, selfies with this setup are less than stellar. Without proper autofocus or accurate blurring around the subject’s head, your face can turn into a mushy mess under poor lighting conditions and there isn’t even a way to turn off the integrated beauty mode — something which has bothered several reviewers including myself.

Still, I found the Mate 20 Pro’s selfies better than what the iPhone XR and Galaxy Note 9 produce, but not on the level of the Pixel 3 and its dual-cam design. I can only wish that the next Huawei flagship will up its self-portrait game in the same way the rear cameras have.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

In spite of all my complaints, nothing’s a real deal-breaker. The absolute completeness of the Mate 20 Pro automatically places it at the very top of the heap, awarding it our GadgetMatch Seal of Approval.

If you can ignore the lack of software optimization and polarizing design choices, you’re guaranteed to experience the best there is — this side of the Android space at least.

For those choosing between this and the regular Mate 20 or P20 Pro — which retail for the same amount in most regions now — I’d say go for the Mate 20 Pro if you value the front camera features and in-display fingerprint sensor. Its screen is also more impressive than the Mate 20’s, and the Kirin 980 chip blows away the P20 Pro’s older Kirin 970.

At the same time, the US$ 1,000 or so price point pits it against the likes of the Galaxy Note 9 and iPhone XS. To Huawei’s credit, the Mate 20 Pro is no incremental upgrade compared to the two aforementioned flagships. You’re getting a true successor with all the bells and whistles — practically no compromises this time.

If you’re willing to wait, the follow-up to the super-popular P20 Pro will reveal itself in a few months. It’ll likely have the same Kirin 980 processor, but the camera updates may be more significant and the overall software more optimized.

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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