Reviews

iPhone SE review: A huge step forward

2020’s flagship killer?

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What happens when you take an old iPhone and give it new parts? You get the most affordable iPhone ever.

Is Apple going backwards by releasing an “old” phone in 2020? Did Apple make a flagship killer? We have just as many questions about the new iPhone SE, and we’ll answer all of them in this review.

Design

Just like how the original iPhone SE took the tried and tested design of the iPhone 5S, the new iPhone SE reuses the chassis of the iPhone 8 including its frosted aluminum frame and glass back. It comes in 3 colors: black, white and Product (RED).

This same design means the phone is water and dust resistant and support wireless charging. It also features stereo speakers — a combination of bottom firing grills and an earpiece that doubles as a speaker also.

Subtle design changes were made, too. The Apple logo on the back of the phone is now centered and the face on the white iPhone SE is black. The gold and silver iPhone 8’s were white up front.

This familiar face is something we’ve seen since the iPhone 6 from 2015 — thick forehead and chin making enough space for that iconic circular home button.

The phone looks old, but when you buy an iPhone SE you don’t buy it for its revolutionary new design; you buy it for its price. It costs US$ 300 less than the iPhone 11, and at least US$ 400 off any Android flagship for that matter.

Its size is another point of contention. My buddy The Mr. Mobile says he wishes Apple would have kept the original SE’s form factor — that 4-inch display.

It’s probably a cult favorite by now. And from a nostalgic point of view I think that would really have been a hit in 2020.

I wonder though, if its LCD HD display would be too small for the things we do on phones these days. One question I got asked a lot was if Apple was also planning on selling a larger model — the same size as the iPhone 8 Plus.

Since the iPhone 11 Pro Max is my daily driver, the new iPhone SE feels really small. I have to remind myself it’s almost the same size as the iPhone 11 Pro.

Its large forehead and chin notwithstanding, I didn’t feel like I am using any less of an iPhone — just a smaller one.

A13 Bionic

I think an important jump off point following our discussion on design is addressing the perception that this is an old iPhone, which is why I wanna talk about the A13 Bionic Chip next.

This processor that’s on the iPhone SE is the same one that powers the flagship iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. So while it is appropriate to see the iPhone SE as Apple’s budget or midrange offering, unlike any budget or midrange Android phone, the chip that powers the new SE is powerful and top of the line.

So whether you’re playing graphics rich games like Sky: Children of Light, learning about the Corona Virus in AR on JigSpace, making the most out of quarantine by studying a new language using my favorite language app Memrise, or editing that 4K footage you just shot, both the CPU and GPU that’s on the A13 Bionic Chip have enough raw power to handle these tasks.

Cameras

The third component of this system-on-a-chip is the neural engine — 8 cores on the A13 Bionic vs 2 cores on the A11. It’s what the new iPhone SE uses to get a camera performance boost despite having the same hardware as the iPhone 8 and iPhone XR.

All 3 phones have the same single 12MP wide angle camera with an f/1.8 lens on their rear, and a 7MP camera with an f/2.2 lens up front.

On the iPhone 8 – a single camera system meant no portrait mode. On the iPhone XR, Apple used technology called Focus Pixels to create a depth map to enable portrait mode. On the new iPhone SE Apple says it harnesses the neural engine for real time machine learning — a process called monocular depth estimation.

So the new iPhone SE has six portrait lighting features: natural light, studio light, contour light, stage light, stage light mono, and high key mono. Apple has come a long way since it introduced the Beta Version of Portrait Lighting on the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus.

I found that during the day even during sunset through to blue hour, the iPhone SE held its own vs the newer iPhone 11 and 11 Pro Max.

Take this shot for example. All 3 phones have Smart HDR, so they preserved highlights and shadows on the face keeping it natural looking, while also preserving details in the background.

In all of these other examples the results are very similar.

If I were to nitpick, the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro just produce more vibrant colors and in some cases are sharper with more detail.

Other times it was almost impossible to tell the difference.

While the phone did a good job at cutouts, blur on the higher end models looked more like they were taken with a DSLR. Take a look at my arm too; on the iPhone SE’s photo that part is a bit blurry as well.

Some camera features that don’t make their way to the new iPhone SE are deep fusion and night mode. So in low light scenarios where night mode will automatically kick in on iPhone 11 and 11 Pro Max, on the iPhone SE it doesn’t.

I took a photo of these colored pencils in a dimly lit room. The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro engaged a 1 second exposure so the shots came out brighter with less noise and very accurate colors. The iPhone SE produced a decent photo. But the subject was softer and there was definitely more noise.

When the lights go out, that’s where the results are most obvious. While night mode relies on the power of the A13 Bionic Chip, it also relies on the larger image sensor on the iPhone 11. A bigger image sensor lets in more light and night mode uses multiple shots to create better results.

This is just my speculation but without that larger and better image sensor, I don’t think the results would have been the same so Apple probably made the decision to exclude the feature.

It also supports 4k video at 24, 30 and 60 fps.

Selfie camera

Apple uses the same tech to deliver portrait mode using the selfie camera. As this is a slower lens with less megapixels, the results are different but good enough.

Here are some selfie portraits taken across various shooting conditions.

Speaking of that selfie camera, another question I got was with regards to Memoji. The iPhone SE does not have the true depth system used for Face ID, so face tracking isn’t possible, but you still get access to Memoji and Animoji stickers.

SEE ALSO: 9 new Memoji stickers and what they mean in the time of coronavirus

Touch ID

Having used Face ID for around 3 years now, Touch ID took some getting used to, but it’s as fast and accurate as I remember.

At times like these where I often have to wear a mask, it’s good to have an option to easily unlock my phone or pay for things at the store.

Battery

Apple promises about the same amount of battery life as the iPhone 8. In my week with the phone I found that to be true. The iPhone SE’s battery lasted a day on a single charge with average use.

The phone ships with a 5W charge, similar to that on the iPhone 11. A 30-minute charge will get you to 25%, 60 minutes to 47%, and 90 minutes to 69%. A full charge takes over two hours.

Is the iPhone SE your GadgetMatch?

If you’re an iPhone user who have been holding on to your iPhone 6, 7, or even 8, and haven’t upgraded for many different reasons — maybe that’s how long you hold on to a phone, or you just didn’t want to let go of Touch ID, or you’re not willing to spend more than US$ 600 for a new iPhone — the new iPhone SE is your GadgetMatch.

If you’re a parent and already an iPhone user who’s looking to purchase an inexpensive iPhone for your child — so you can FaceTime and iMessage, track them with Find My, and share a Family account for apps and services like Apple Arcade and TV Plus — the iPhone SE is perfect for you, too.

If you already own an iPhone X or 11 Series, you’ll want to wait till the end of the year for Apple’s next flagship.

If you want to buy an iPhone today, but want more than one camera, shoot a lot of night photos, and prefer a more current looking device with an edge-to-edge screen and features like FaceID, my recommendation is the iPhone 11. If you really wanna go all out, get the iPhone 11 Pro or Pro Max.

Should you get the iPhone XR in 2020? Priced at US$ 200 more, I can see why anyone would consider this, especially since the iPhone SE and iPhone XR share the same camera system.

Let me start with pros for the XR. It’s a larger phone with a bigger display. It’s got a larger battery that will last longer. It has FaceID for quick and secure unlocking of your phone.

The iPhone SE has an updated processor which gives its camera an edge — things like next generation smart HDR and better depth sensing. This also gives it software improvements like six portrait lighting effects instead of four, as well as quick take using both the front and rear cameras.

If you ask me, I wouldn’t buy the iPhone XR in 2020. My suggestion is to get either the iPhone SE or spend more for the iPhone 11.

There’s also no point in getting the iPhone 8 over the SE. Apple already stopped selling it. Before the new iPhone SE went on sale, the iPhone 8 retailed for US$ 449. The iPhone SE costs US$ 50 less, but with updated hardware and will get you at least 5 years worth of iOS updates. So even if you could still buy the iPhone 8 from 3rd party resellers, I’d pick the new iPhone SE — no brainer.

I don’t usually compare iPhones and Androids; they’re just two completely different ecosystems with their own pros and cons. But because I get questions about the OnePlus 8 versus the iPhone SE a lot, I’ll answer it. The OnePlus 8 starts at US$ 699 that’s a full $300 difference. If that’s how much you’re willing to spend on the phone — I’d get the iPhone 11 over the non-pro OnePlus 8 any day.

Having said that if you’re an Android user who’s been thinking about switching but didn’t wanna break the bank on an iPhone, now is the time to take the plunge. In the Android world only Google’s Pixel 3a comes close — and while they are a good match when it comes to photos — the iPhone SE is made of premium materials and comes with top of the line specs. The Pixel 3a is made of plastic and comes with a mid-range processor.

At a time where more and more Android phones are hitting that thousand dollar mark, who would have thought that Apple would be the one to create a flagship killer? Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole.

It’s probably not a flagship killer, but it is the best value iPhone Apple has ever sold — an easy recipient of the GadgetMatch seal of approval.

Its sub-400-dollar price tag means Apple is going to sell even more iPhones. Sure, they’ve sold an iPhone for US$ 399 before — the original iPhone SE — but that was in 2016 when phone prices were very different.

If you take into account how much phones cost in 2020, it’s easy to justify calling the new iPhone SE the most affordable iPhone of all time.

And I say this over and over again — there’s more to owning an iPhone than just hardware. It also means you can enjoy the entire Apple ecosystem — a wealth of apps and services, and seamless integration with many other different Apple product.

The cheapest iPhone ever sold means that more people can take part in this experience. And if you ask me, Apple is not going backwards with the iPhone SE, but making a huge step forward.

Reviews

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: The best among the beasts?

Are the extra specs worth the extra price?

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It hasn’t even been a year ever since Samsung launched the Galaxy S20 series but they’ve already unpacked the Galaxy S21 as early as January 2021.

I even remember we did a three-way review of the Galaxy S20 variants when it was launched. That experience serves as an eye-opener for me that I am, by all means, an “Ultra” user for the tasks I do. Multitasking, gaming, watching, shooting with great set of cameras, what more could I ask for now that I have the Galaxy S21 Ultra in my big hands?

While there are currently less newer flagships in the horizon powered by the latest Snapdragon 888 such as the China-exclusive iQOO 7 and the Xiaomi Mi 11 with its pending global release, is it enough to say that this phone is the best among all the beasts released so far? Let’s find out.

Ultra-minimal box content

S21 Ultra

The rumors are true after all. After mocking Apple for removing bundled chargers, Samsung still followed their path and ditched the usual 25W Super Fast Charger. Inside the retail box, I only got the phone itself, the usual SIM tray ejector tool, some paperwork, and a USB-C to USB-C cable.

It appears the removal of the AKG earphones in the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra packaging was already an early hint.

Ultra-sophisticated design

S21 Ultra

Love it or hate it, the Galaxy S21 series has a newer design that I honestly admire. While last year’s S20 Ultra had a glossy finish, the S21 Ultra now has a matte finish like the Note 20 Ultra — which should lessen the amount of fingerprints on the device. I used the Galaxy S20+ in Cosmic Black last year and that was an ultimate fingerprint and scratch magnet.

S21 Ultra

Samsung is proud of this year’s “Phantom Black” colorway by doing several processes to achieve its true and final color. It’s a more mature look that’s bold yet clean.

 

The whole process reminds me of how Apple made the Jet Black iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Regardless of that tedious process, this dark color option closely resembles Apple’s Matte Black variant even more.

But unlike the iPhone’s aluminum unibody chassis, this one is made out of a tougher Gorilla Glass Victus — even tougher than last year’s Gorilla Glass 6. Albeit, there are times when fingerprint smudges still show when hit by light.

SEE ALSO: Which Galaxy S21 color should you get

S21 Ultra

Distinct from the Galaxy S21 and S21+ is this humongous camera bump of the S21 Ultra with six holes in different sizes that house its wide array of camera components.

S21 Ultra

If you have big hands like I do, you’ll enjoy using this phone. Holding the phone feels lighter than last year’s S20 Ultra. But frankly speaking, it’s still on the hefty side — what more if you have petite hands?

The Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, despite its larger display and sharper edges, was still easier and more comfortable for me to hold in one hand. That’s due to the fact that it has symmetrical sides and a slimmer form factor.

S21 Ultra

Turning the phone around reveals the new “Contour Cut Camera Design” where the phone’s metal frame meets the thicc AF camera hump. Unlike most people who despise it, I just love this over last year’s rounded rectangular-cutout.

Ultra-immersive audiovisual experience

S21 Ultra

Applied my shot as the wallpaper and it suddenly felt like I’m in Hong Kong again

I’m always a sucker for great displays — and Samsung always exceeds my expectations. Even though it’s less curved and a tad smaller at 6.8-inches (compared to last year’s 6.9), there isn’t much of a difference. It still feels immersive with its narrow and almost-borderless viewing experience.

S21 Ultra

I’m addicted — both with this gorgeous display and aespa

With its Dynamic AMOLED 2X technology, the colors pop with vibrant hues, deeper blacks and whiter whites. It’s still the ultra-crisp and vibrant display I’ve been loving ever since I had the Samsung Wave in 2010 — Samsung’s first Super AMOLED device in history (announced a month earlier than the Galaxy S).

It also has 1500 nits of max brightness, which helped me use the screen even under harsh sunlight. Paired with crisp and loud stereo speakers, it’s truly a great device for your entertainment needs.

S21 Ultra

While last year’s S20 had a progressive 120Hz refresh rate, the caveat is you only get it under Full HD+ resolution. This time, while it may be adaptive, you get to enjoy 2K+ resolution/120Hz.

It might be an ongoing discussion for most users but I prefer faster refresh rates over larger screen resolution. Enabling both options affect the battery life over time anyway.

S21 Ultra

Had to cherish IZ*ONE’s remaining promotional period through Panorama

To maximize the Samsung ecosystem, I paired the new phone with my good ol’ Galaxy Buds+. I always love how seamless the transition is from connecting all the way to listening without frills and hassle. Don’t fret! As long as your audio accessory has Bluetooth (like my AirPods 2 and Lenovo Yoga ANC headphones), you’re good to go.

Ultra-snappy Unlocking

S21 Ultra

Whether you choose Face Unlock or the embedded fingerprint sensor, unlocking is fast and snappy! Unlike before where I have to press more than twice just to unlock both the S20+ and Note 20 Ultra, the new ultrasonic under-display sensor unlocks even when I lightly tap the screen for around 0.5 seconds.

The Face Unlock feature is also here. While it may not be as secure as iPhone’s FaceID system, it’s still fast. Samsung has maximized the use of AI so it will be fool-proof and won’t unlock when you’re asleep.

MultitasKING

S21 Ultra

This Galaxy S21 Ultra has 12GB of memory. Although it maxes out at 16GB RAM, my unit is enough to make the most out of the tasks I do in a day.

S21 Ultra

Whether I open social media apps such as Twitter and Facebook, it comes to no surprise that they’ll open instantly.

S21 Ultra

In my previous phone reviews, there are times where some of the apps in the background close by themselves — whether that may be Instagram, a photo-editing app, a shopping app, Apple Music, and a game in idle. The RAM capacity isn’t the issue, rather the management and lack of software optimization.

S21 Ultra

In the case of the Galaxy S21 Ultra, switching between apps is a breeze. The navigation gestures on the new One UI 3.1 based on Android 11 is more fluid and responsive. One might say these have been around in most 2020 Android smartphones, but Samsung’s implementation is as close as what I get in iOS.

S21 Ultra

I commit spelling mistakes more often when I use the keyboard, no matter what Android device I use.

Fortunately, typing has been convenient in Samsung’s native keyboard. I was able to type one-handed with little to no typos at all. This means I don’t need a third-party keyboard like Gboard nor had the need to adjust keyboard height. I don’t even need to switch to one-handed mode at this point.

Ultra woes in storage and performance

The Galaxy S21 series marks the first Samsung smartphone to ship with Snapdragon 888 in the US and China. As bad as it sounds, the rest of the world comes with Samsung’s in-house Exynos 2100 processor. These chipsets are both 5nm — which makes it smaller, faster, and more power-efficient.

S21 Ultra

There’s no problem in performance. I played Asphalt 9 as well as Call of Duty: Mobile (CoDM) and both were smooth and responsive. You can even see how I scored almost 5,000 points in a single Ranked Match game.

S21 Ultra

But Samsung’s claim wasn’t really addressed at all. During the first fifteen minutes, the phone quickly sizzled while playing. I can literally feel it especially because I used the phone without a case. To make it worse, I went out to shoot some photos around late in the afternoon, and the phone was still hot to touch.

Another rumor that was later confirmed is the removal of the microSD slot. Previously, Samsung supported up to 2TB of external storage.

This review unit comes with 256GB of internal storage. Based on my experience, I was able to maximize my iPhone’s 256GB storage for almost two years. But considering how this phone shoots 4K-8K UHD footage and high-quality stills? It might take a shorter time to completely fill this up.

Having a microSD card expansion offers the fastest and safest way to backup your files. I feel the sentiment and rage of most Samsung users especially because having no external storage in the Galaxy Note 5 made me lost a lot of unbacked files after a motherboard failure five years ago.

Ultra-heavy battery (and drain)

The equipped 5,000mAh battery might be enough for a flagship smartphone like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but my first day with it wasn’t particularly promising.

Other than those heating issues, it’s also plagued with serious battery drain. Using it continuously from 8AM to 1PM with 5G, WQHD+, and 120Hz enabled resulted to a major decrease in battery life. From 100%, it went down to 34% — that’s just five hours of moderate use of social media apps and the camera.

Disclaimer: I did the extensive gameplay and camera test around 3-4PM, just right after doing an hour of charge using my powerbank. 

S21 Ultra

Third day of use, it notified me of a new software update. I’m unsure if that solved the heating and drain issues as I barely used the phone while I worked on articles and videos but the standby time since has been pretty stable. The screenshots prove that from 3PM (82%), it only had a 11% decrease after 11 hours of standby (2AM) with little to no phone activity.

Battery drain during an 11-hour standby | Image by GadgetMatch

While there’s no official word from Samsung if the S21 models support 45W super fast wired charging, the closest thing you can have is Samsung’s 25W Super Fast Charger.

In my case, I used a third-party 30W USB-C PD (Power Delivery) charger. Even if it only detected “Fast charging”, it was completely juiced up after an hour and a half.

If you have a fast wireless charger that supports speeds of up to 15W, charging the S21 Ultra will also work on that as well.

Ultra-speedy 5G connection

S21 Ultra

Although 5G speeds may not be blazing fast just like in South Korea and the US, the S21 Ultra was able to detect ultra-fast 5G speeds around the Metro.

S21 Ultra

Watching Sejeong in this drama truly felt uncanny as I was used to her cheerful, girl group idol vibe #WeWillMissgugudan

Downloading and uploading shouldn’t be a problem at all. I’ve managed to download the first three episodes of the K-Drama ‘Uncanny Counter’ under a minute. Even uploading a 30-second 8K video took a minute — which isn’t possible in 4G LTE and regular Wi-Fi hotspots.

Ultra-interactive smartphone

While my unit doesn’t come with the new S-Pen, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the first S-series smartphone that’s capable of supporting it.

As a creative who’s been fond of the Note series, the S-Pen is, no doubt, a greater way to interact with your phone — regardless if it’s scribbling, digital painting, or even as simple as decorating your Instagram story.

The longer and thicker S-Pen might just be comfortable enough — which was something I wasn’t used to with the Note 20 Ultra’s shorter and slender S-Pen. To make it better, it also has a 9-millisecond (9ms) latency that will feel like you’re writing on a paper.

SEE ALSO: Galaxy Note 20 Ultra: GadgetMatch for the Multimedia Creative

There’s also the latest Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) support. Lost your Galaxy Buds? It’ll be easier to locate with the SmartThings app. There’s also the Samsung Galaxy SmartTags which you can attach on bags, luggages, and even car keys so you can track them wherever, whenever.

Ultra-Grade Cameras and Features

S21 Ultra

On paper, the S21 Ultra has some beefy camera sensors: a 108-megapixel f/1.8 wide (main) camera with Phase-Detection AF and OIS, as well as a 12-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide sensor with a 120º FoV (Field of View) that’s also found on other S21 smartphones.

What makes it stand out than the rest of the S21 line are the two 10-megapixel telephoto cameras: one that’s capable of 3x optical zoom, and another that reaches up to 10x optical zoom, both with Dual Pixel technology and OIS for clearer zoomed shots.

The problem with last year’s S20 Ultra is how wobbly it is when using the zoom function. But because of better sensors and stabilization, the S21 Ultra now has a zoom lock feature where it focuses on a subject from a distance without the camera preview getting distorted.

Other than the 8K UHD/24fps support, 4K/60fps comes standard regardless of what lens you use for video recording. Even the front camera supports it so vloggers can edit and upload videos in 4K.

S21 Ultra

While the dual shot mode has been around since the Galaxy Note 3 where it simultaneously takes a photo/video both from the front and rear cameras, Director’s View is more of an improvement with better configurations to choose from.

Other than the single view, you also get the classic split mode, and even a PiP (Picture-in-Picture). But the biggest addition is the ability to effortlessly switch between the wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses.

Ultra-mazing 108MP camera

S21 Ultra

The ultimate star of the show is the wide camera that’s capable of shooting 108-megapixel photos. If we’re going a bit technical, the S21 Ultra packs the latest ISOCELL HM3 sensor by Samsung with a larger sensor and improvements in dynamic range, autofocus, and low-light. It’s an update from the HM2 and last year’s HM1 of the S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra.

With the presence of natural light, one would always expect that the latest smartphones will take great photos. It’s always the software processing techniques that differentiate the camera quality of one smartphone to another.

Over the years, Samsung is known for boosting the saturation of the photos it takes — and the S21 Ultra does the same. While it may look good on the eyes of many, it sometimes goes overboard with all the camera processing and algorithm just to make a natural, “bland” scene into something lively and vivid that looks artificial.

For most users, this isn’t a bad thing. If the camera software does all of the job, it means less time for them to process it. But for a serious shooter like me, I’d prefer flatter shots and adjust what’s needed after the shots were taken.

Other than the color test, I also tested how the camera performs when it comes to food. Most Android smartphones I’ve tried tend to over saturate and over sharpen food shots. Fortunately, the images above look more natural.

Even my issue with Note 20 Ultra’s weird radial blur on close-ups are gone. But if you want that extra-dramatic blur effect, Food Mode will help.

Ultra-bokehlicious portraits

I also tried using the main sensor with manual mode. The shots above clearly show that the S21 Ultra is capable of producing top-notch, DSLR-like bokeh.

From the perspective of my friend who uses an iPhone Xs Max, she was astounded with how the S21 Ultra performed using the Portrait Mode.

Other than the wider view, background on both shots look creamy with a clean segmentation between our hair strands — something most Android phones and older iPhones can’t do properly.

Ultra-wide sensor

Just like on the Galaxy S21 and S21+, the S21 Ultra features the similar 12-megapixel Ultra-wide camera. It’s capable of shooting wider shot perspectives just like the building I captured above.

The ultra-wide sensor also helps capture more elements and details in outdoor shots like these.

Ultra-zoomed shots

In tight situations, there’s got to be a use for telephoto zoom lenses. If one isn’t enough, Samsung doubled it for better and clearer shots from afar.

In the first set, the HDR (High Dynamic Range) and AWB (Auto White Balance) were both consistent throughout the lenses — something most Android manufacturers fail to do. I tested the superiority of the S21 Ultra’s cameras up to its maximum focal length.

Since I’m an architecture dilettante, I tried zooming in close to the building. At my surprise, the window looked sharp and clear enough after the preview.

In the second set, I saw these playful Chow Chows roaming around the grasses with their hoomans.

Zooming in as close as 30x digital zoom helped me capture one while his/her tongue is sticking out. But if we’ll look closely, the shot has a weird noise reduction that sits between camera grain and software smoothening.

Let’s move straight ahead to the third set, I tried using both the 3x and 10x telephoto lenses.

The HDR was pretty dull in the wide shot and it’s less green in the first three modes. Meanwhile, zooming in to 10x looked more lively because of the saturation boost.

Finally, this last set was taken in my favorite park. Again, the wide angle lens had an inconsistency, this time in exposure. Unlike the HDR problem from the last photo, that can be corrected through post-process.

Zooming in as close as 10x gives us clear details of the metallic tree. Zooming in further at 30x is acceptable. 100x zoom is barely usable.

As bonuses, these macro shots were taken in a windy environment. While it may not be as clear as what you get from a DSLR, Galaxy S21 Ultra’s long zoom capabilities are clearly commendable for producing the right amount of exposure, contrast, dynamic range, even if it displayed some hints of over-sharpening.

Ultra-clear night shots

It wouldn’t be a camera test without testing how it performs under low-light scenarios.

Regardless of what camera lens you’re using, Night Mode works on both the Ultra-wide, wide, and telephoto lenses.

Of course, without Night Mode, shots look blotchy, smudgy, with a lot of dark shadows and blown-out highlights. But with Samsung’s Night Mode, it fixes not only the Dynamic Range, but also the exposure and contrast of the image — especially in situations where there are less night light available.

With night mode turned off, the convenience store sign was barely recognizable. But with the magic of Samsung’s image processing, it was able to fix all the colors and details in the image.

But unlike the previous Huawei flagships, the S21 Ultra maxes out night zoom at only 10x. The Mate 30 Pro I used in 2019 was capable of zooming in on the moon as close as 30x.

Ultra-detailed selfies

Unlike its younger siblings, the Galaxy S21 Ultra packs a larger 40-megapixel front shooter with a dedicated ultra-wide view. Other than the less-smeared faces with retained face artifacts, the front camera can also shoot in Portrait Mode that works just like how the rear cameras perform.

As another bonus, here’s how the Galaxy S21 Ultra Phantom Black will look like if you’re planning to flex it in your future mirror selfies 😂

Is the Galaxy S21 Ultra your Ultimate GadgetMatch?

S21 Ultra

Priced at PhP 69,990 for the 12GB/256GB model, the Galaxy S21 Ultra simply isn’t for everyone. If you’re the type of user who has the purchasing power and clearly knows that you want the best of everything in a smartphone, the Galaxy S21 Ultra is the ultimate smartphone you can buy right now.

You might be considering to buy the iPhone 12 Pro Max instead. That’s a fine option if you’re the type of user who’s locked in Apple’s ecosystem. But if it doesn’t bother you to try something new in the Android world, the S21 Ultra might just be a better option.

S21 Ultra

I know what you’re thinking. There’s still the existing S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra that both cost a little less. They still have a great set of display, specs, and cameras at a lower price. But if owning what’s new in the market today is an important buying factor for you, look no further and pick the S21 Ultra — unless you want to wait for a quirkier follow-up of the Galaxy Z Fold2 and the Z Flip.

S21 Ultra

Consider the Galaxy S21+ if you wanna keep the same material and specs minus the cameras and curved 2K display. If you want the less fancy stuff, go for the Galaxy S21, Note 20, or even last year’s Galaxy S20 FE (unless you can wait for the S21 FE successor).

For more pre-order options, freebies, and discount information of the Galaxy S21 series in the Philippines, head over to our pricing and availability article.

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Reviews

Samsung Galaxy S21 Review: Samsung’s Best for Less!

Is this the perfect S21 for you?

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It hasn’t been a while ever since we did a Samsung Galaxy S21 series hands-on video.

While most people want the taller and more premium S21+ and S21 Ultra, the Galaxy S21 still looks and feels good despite the less fancy polycarbonate back. Other than the smaller display and battery, you still have the speedy Snapdragon 888 (or Exynos 2100) processors and great set of cameras.

But why should you specifically buy the Galaxy S21? Find out more in our review video here.

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Accessories

Lenovo Yoga ANC Headphones: A worthy AirPods Max substitute?

Trying my first ever over-ear headphones

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Yoga ANC Headphones

It’s been a while since I wrote an article for an audio accessory. My last take on writing an audio review was our special three-way review of the TWS (True Wireless Stereo) earbuds: namely the Apple AirPods 2, Samsung Galaxy Buds+, and Huawei FreeBuds 3. If you read the article, you know by now that I am, by no means, a professional musician nor a hardcore audiophile.

With that said, I still have my clear preference when it comes to sound and audio quality. I want fuller and richer sound with deeper bass and enough treble to enjoy every rhythm and beat of a song. At the same time, I also like having ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) out of the box. I’m the type of person who clearly doesn’t want any noise distractions regardless of what I’m doing.

When I was given the chance to try a new set of headphones, I didn’t hesitate at all. In fact, this is my first time trying an over-ear headphones. I’m sure, there might be buyers like me who are curious to find out.

A design so chic and posh

Upon seeing the Lenovo Yoga ANC headphones for the first time, I already fell in love with its color. The design screams chicness and elegance — very different from most headphones nowadays with bland color options and the obvious hint of plasticky build.

Still, colors depend on each individual’s preferences. The only problem I have in mind with this colorway is that it might get dirty over time.

I’m weirdly attracted to its concentric pattern

The headband feels soft especially with the perforated material

A must for any headphone is the silicone leather and premium plastic material

The included case also looks classy

Of course, the hard-bound case has the same cream color as the headphones for consistency. There’s that minimal “Yoga” branding placed on its lower right (just like on the right side of the headphones). The Lenovo logo is hidden at the bottom side of the case for a cleaner look.

Putting the headphones back in the case took me some time to sort out. Glad I’m a fast learner when it comes to fixing things (unlike fixing my own life LOL).

Unlike other headphones, this only comes in one color

Or two if we consider the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 ANC headphones that comes in a more stealthy, black colorway. It’s basically the same pair of headphones with a different ‘X1’ branding (not to confuse you with the disbanded K-Pop boy group X1).

Also, the concentric design was eliminated in favor of the flat one for a wider diameter of both pairs of circle. Lenovo even blatantly put both headphone models in the included user manual.

As much as I love black, I’d pick the Yoga one any day because of how unique-looking it is.

Comfy enough to wear

The first time I tried hanging the pair on my neck, it already felt comfortable especially with the soft material. Of course, I tried doing it without my turtle neck on so I really felt the touch.

The adjustable band is really helpful for someone like me who has a big head (no pun intended). It helped me wear the headphones with ease. You have to keep in mind that both band mechanisms aren’t fully twistable. Rather, they only rotate at the front around 180-degrees.

Wearing it feels ultra-light — exactly as Lenovo advertised. While the overall diameter of each ear isn’t as big as nor as egg-shaped as other headphones, I still like the symmetry. The concentric finish adds a premium feel, even if it’s clearly made out of plastic.

Controls were a li’l bit fiddly

Controlling the headphones through its built-in physical controls can be a little bit awkward at first and it honestly needs a bit of getting used to.

As someone who has fat AF fingers, there were instances when I pressed the wrong button when trying to control music. I thought I was pressing the volume up button. Instead, I switched on ANC even if I didn’t mean to.

Yoga ANC Headphones

On the left side, there’s the power switch (which the AirPods Max lacks) that also acts as the Bluetooth pairing switch for new devices.

Meanwhile, the button with three dots has several functions: clicking once plays or pauses the track or clip. It also answers or ends a call. Clicking twice skips the song while pressing three times winds back to the previous track.

Yoga ANC Headphones

On the right side, there’s a mute switch as well as volume controls, increase on top and decrease on the bottom.

The middle button serves as the ANC switch with two levels of Noise Cancellation before it’s completely off. Whenever you adjust or turn controls and switches, you will be informed through the built-in female speaker’s voice.

Sound quality is good…

Yoga ANC Headphones

People who know me (including the GadgetMatch team) are aware that I’m into K-Pop, particularly girl group songs — and by that, almost every K-girl group from the popular to the underrated. But the thing is, songs made by these groups don’t focus on bubbly and cutesy concept.

For example, there are girl crush songs from 2NE1, BLACKPINK, and aespa, melo-romantic tracks such as TWICE’s ‘Cry For Me’ and (G)I-DLE’s ‘Hwaa’, while recent 2020 releases lean more into retro-pop like TWICE’s ‘I Can’t Stop Me’, GFRIEND’s ‘Mago’, fromis_9’s ‘Feel Good’, EVERGLOW’s ‘La Di Da’, STAYC’s ‘So Bad’, Brave Girls’ ‘We Ride’, and more.

Yoga ANC Headphones

To make it more “musically diverse”, I also listened to the funky and uptempo ‘Why Not’ by LOONA, as well as Dreamcatcher’s Scream and BOCA as they lean more into rock (quite similar to most anime intros). As bonuses, I also played tracks of my favorite balladists: the singer-songwriter-actress IU, as well as the Korean band, Day6 and their sub-unit Even of Day — all while writing this article.

It’s safe to say that the amount of songs of different sub-genres I played made me understand the overall sound quality of the headphone — whether in bass, treble, highs, lows, or even mids.

Dialogues I hear from a film, series, news, or documentaries while wearing the headphones are as clear as a sunny day. Albeit, there’s still a notable difference when playing music as I was used to my AirPods 2 which has a richer overall sound.

…but with equalizer adjustments, it can get better

As said a while ago, I want my sound to be rich and full, has deeper bass, and of course, an effective ANC feature. Lenovo’s Yoga ANC headphones delivered good results. But to make it better, I had to manually adjust some settings.

Using Boom 3D on my Mac

I have this third-party equalizer called Boom 3D  that’s available on Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. The app enhances the overall sound of the music or audio I play — regardless of what device I use.

In the Lenovo Yoga ANC headphones, it was vastly improved. Paying for the ‘3D Surround’ feature might even be the best way to experience surround sound without spending a lot on higher-end ANC headphones.

Other than equalizer presets, the Dolby Atmos feature in the Galaxy S21 Ultra also helped

On the other hand, the Galaxy S21 Ultra I am using also has a built-in equalizer settings and preset which honestly made better sound quality compared to its default, flat state.

Active Noise Cancellation works well

There are two (2) ANC levels before you can completely  turn off the feature. If it’s off, you’d still hear some muffled noises. For instance, I could still hear my mom talking while I was editing a YouTube video. On another note, I barely hear myself talk while I’m in a call. I don’t even hear myself singing while jamming to the songs I’m playing even if ANC is completely off.

At Level 1 ANC, it’s enough to block off the sound I get from my loud electric fan, barking dogs, and purring cats. Meanwhile, I barely heard the noise inside a noisy coffee shop when ANC was turned on at Level 2.

Yoga ANC Headphones

There’s also an added ENC (Environmental Noise Cancellation) technology which supposedly separates background noise from your environment while you’re having voice and video calls. As a testament, I was able to hear my crush clearly when we were on a call 😅

While I haven’t tried the ANC feature on most headphones, I’m glad that Lenovo was able to pack this feature in a small and affordable pair.

Bluetooth connection is fast and seamless

Having a fast Bluetooth 5.0 connection is a great feature, especially among wireless headphones. There’s even a feature where you can pair two Bluetooth devices at once.

But, it doesn’t mean you can play both songs on different devices at the same time. It just means, you can seamlessly switch between two devices without having to disconnect one in favor of the other.

But the lack of 3.5mm audio jack might be a dealbreaker

Still, there are times where the music being streamed will have a momentarily 0.5 to 1-second hiccup because of latency. This is where the 3.5mm audio jack takes place — which exists in most ANC headphones in the market today.

Other than the avoidance of latency issues, devices who have it will also give better adjustment in sound, like how the LG V60 ThinQ has a built-in HiFi DAC support. Adding more features mean added cost — and that might be a reason why Lenovo didn’t include one.

LG V60 ThinQ with built-in Hi-Fi Quad DAC

For a seamless experience, a 3.5mm audio jack would still have been a great addition for this pair — regardless if one’s an extreme audiophile or a casual listener who prefers great music.

Everlasting battery

I’m that person who loves listening to music for hours, and the Yoga ANC headphones was able to hold up for more than a day of both standby and use. The power and mute switches helped me save the headphones from unnecessary battery drain.

Lenovo even promises around 14 hours of playback with ANC turned off. Of course, the ANC feature was off most of the time since I’m only inside my room. But when it’s turned on, it barely affected the overall battery life.

Yoga ANC Headphones

 

Based on my experience, a call for an hour barely had a battery drain. Upon hearing it from the built-in speaker, I started from 50% and ended at the same level.

When it comes to playing music, there was obviously a decrease. From 50%, it went down to 10% after playing music for around four hours of use with ANC Level 1. To save battery life, I turned off ANC. During that percentage, I was able to squeeze in another hour of listening session.

Yoga ANC Headphones

 

Although this isn’t a surprise for most headphone users, I’m astounded especially because my AirPods only lasts around 3-4-hours from a full charge (lesser if I answer calls). Also, you’ll be notified if the headphones need charging through a phone notification or when the speaker starts to remind you to plug it.

You can charge it from 0% to 100% for around three hours via its USB-C port. The light indicator blinks when charging and stays put when it’s already full. Inside the bundled case, there’s an included USB-C to USB-A braided cable of the same color. You have to use your existing charging brick though as it doesn’t have a bundled one.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The Lenovo Yoga ANC headphones retail at PhP 7,990 in the Philippines that’s available through Lenovo’s official Lazada page as well as other local distributors. In the United States, it’s available at a special discounted price of US$ 119.99 from the SRP US$ 149.99. This pair is simply one of (if not) the cheapest headphones you can purchase that supports ANC out of the box.

Yoga ANC Headphones

If you’re a casual listener (like me) who wants a lasting pair of headphones without sacrificing and spending too much, the Lenovo Yoga ANC headphones is simply a great recommendation — more if you want to step up your audio game.

It looks and feels good with a battery life that lasts more than enough. It’s even ideal for gamers, streamers or budget-conscious musicians/artists alike especially with the inclusion of six boomless microphones.

While Lenovo’s Yoga ANC headphones may not be a direct competitor to most ANC headphones around, it costs less than the PhP 17,790/US$ 359-worth Marshall Monitor II A.N.C, the popular Sony WH-1000XM4 sold at PhP 19,999/US$ 349.99, and even the Bose 700 priced at PhP 26,000/US$ 379.75. The common advantage of these headphones is the inclusion of an audio jack.

While we’re already at the topic of price comparison, it’s a quick realization that you can buy four (4) Lenovo Yoga ANCs in the price of one (1) AirPods Max at PhP 32,990/US$ 549. As obvious as it gets, the differences are the lack of sleek aluminum build, several color options, interchangeable earcups, and the Spatial Audio feature.

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