Features

Phablet Wars Episode 1: Galaxy Note 5

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There’s a certain cadence to tech reporting, a routine if you will, milestones and destinations that are plotted on a calendar like red letter days. Like holidays more than special events, affairs that you know will take place, come hell or high water.

And sure enough, as it has come to pass every year since the original large screen smartphone was invented back 2011, a new Samsung Galaxy Note is unveiled.

I’m here on my third year running, and there’s a comforting familiarity about things, but something is not quite right, something is messing up the expected sense of déjà vu.

The date and place are different.

Normally this event takes places in September, in Berlin, right before the start of a technology trade show called IFA. Instead we’re at the Lincoln Center in the Big Apple, in the middle of August.

Almost ironically, you have Apple to blame for messing up this rhythm.

JK Shin Unpacked 2015

Back in 2011, Steve Jobs mocked the original Note predicting that no one would want to buy a phone with a large screen. But Samsung was laughing all the way to the bank, and so last year, behest their departed founder’s wishes, Apple released the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus.

That super sized iPhone goes head-to-head with the Note, and Apple being Apple, can afford to be 3 years late, and still make a competitive dent in this growing space of smartphones that are larger than your usual phone and smaller than your usual tablets.

Each move now, is a play in these “phablet” wars. And that’s why we are here early.

Samsung wants a head start, away from any noise that Apple can generate. The Korean tech giant needs to wow the world like its never done before, and it needs to get the Note 5 to stores before Apple can say iPhone 6S Plus.

GLORIOUS

Note 5 in NYC

Behold the Note 5 in all its glory. The demo phone I’m given to take around town is gold, and it glistens under the New York sun, more prestigious than any Note I’ve previously had the privilege of using.

Its front panel is unmistakably Samsung with rounded corners and a glass face, as always a large Samsung logo is plastered just below the ear piece, and on the bottom center of the device, the capsule shaped home button.

The screen on this phone is as glorious as ever, similar to last year’s model, the resolution is twice that of a high-def display, with more pixels than the eye can see. Colors have the usual saturation and vibrance Samsung Super AMOLED displays are known for, and so far, its been holding its own against North America’s over zealous sun.

The only thing noticeably different about this screen is its bezel. One this phone, that border in between the display and the phone’s aluminum trim is reduced slightly, so the phone is not just thinner, but also a tiny bit shorter and slimmer.

But it is the phone’s back side that’s left me infatuated. 

Earlier this year, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S6 Edge – one of the most, I wanna say, fashion forward phones of the year, but in technological terms. Its edge display is curved on both sides, tapering down to fractions of a millimeter on both sides. This stunning specimen of a smartphone feels like the future.

In New York, Samsung unveiled a phablet version of the S6 Edge calling it the S6 Edge+ and I know it sounds like i’ve digressed, but if you can imagine what the screen of the S6 Edge+ looks like (I’ll make it easy for you, I’ve got a photo) that’s exactly how the back of the Note 5 is.

Curves on Note 5 & S6 Edge+

Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but this curvature adds to the phones “grippability,” matching the normal arc of one’s palms. After two years of experimenting with materials, I’m happy to see things come to this.

There’s a level of coldness associated with glass construction, it doesn’t embrace you, feeling more like a Porsche than a high-end mini van, but the Note 5 is the Porsche of smartphones, and in this case it hits the mark.   

EVERYONE HAPPY

It’s about time. I’ve complained about Samsung’s plasticky build for many years now, they’ve finally delivered on premium looking phones this year. Of course premium construction has come at the cost of waterproof features, expandable storage and replaceable batteries.

The first two, Sony with its Xperia line, has managed to accomplish so I see no reason why this can’t be done.

But I expect the latter to piss off some loyalists. I know of many Note users who carry around a spare battery, and even with fast charging as an option, swapping a fresh battery for a depleted one sure beats having to use a power bank.

And while I don’t feel the urge to complain about this as much, it’s one area of innovation I wish Samsung would look into. How to maintain premium construction, while providing this flexibility some users demand. Maybe something to look into next year.

Apple doesn’t get the same amount of flack, even when iPhones have never been water proof, have never offered expandable storage options, and have never let users replace batteries. Perhaps it comes with the territory, Android users demand more options, even though we don’t always end up using them

I for one have used a Note for many years, and don’t remember if I really needed more storage. I sure didn’t ever have an extra battery, even if that would have been a great idea.

NOTE TAKING

samsung-galaxy-note-5-stylus

I also din’t use my S-Pen much. Which is an aweful admission, considering this bundled stylus is how the Note gets its name.

This year, many will speak about how the S-Pen got a face lift, and how its new spring loading mechanism ensures that the pen stays inside the phone when not in use. But it’s really the innovations built around S-Pen software that are huge for the Note.

Being able to scribble and draw on your phone is the value proposition of the Note. And in a sea of smartphones above 5.5 inches, it’s the first, and one of a handful, that actually bundle a digital pen — getting this right is justifying the phone’s existence.

Let me give you some concrete examples. Since the last two iterations, when you pull out the S-Pen it brings up a menu called Air Command. Do you want to scribble down a note, make a clipping from the current screen? All these options are a tap away from this pop-up menu.

But say you’ve moved on to other things, pen still in hand, summoning Air Command for another task isn’t as easy. It’s a meticulous process that entails pointing at the screen, close enough but without touching, and then a press of a button on the S-Pen.

Samsung’s fixed that on the Note 5. Air Command is now a small bubble that floats on your screen,  you can position it anywhere you want, so it won’t get in the way of business. Retracting the pen still enables it, but it stays there, awaiting your next command. It took just a few minutes with the device, before I got that aha moment, it makes perfect sense. Just with that small adjustment, I have a feeling I’ll be using my S-Pen more now.

Samsung has also made the note taking experience more seamless. Even if the phone is off, you can pull out the pen, scribble a note and save it for later. The whole time the screen remains dark,  giving you the impression that its still off. You can also save notes as minimized stickies that resemble app icons on your home screen.

I also think I’ll be using a feature called Scroll Capture. It saves you from having to take multiple screen shots of a webpage, or a lengthy chat conversation. When enabled, all you have to do is tap and it will scroll up one page. You can tap and scroll up to 22 times, on any app, and when you’re done it will save the screen grabs as one long image.

PHOTOGRAPHER’S BEST FRIEND

With all that the Note 5 has going for it, the camera feels like an aside, but traditionally all Notes have had some of the best smartphone cameras each year, and this one is no different. Although unlike previous years, this one doesn’t get an upgrade from last February’s Galaxy S6. It’s the exact same camera, and that really isn’t a bad thing – 8 months into the year, its still one of the best cameras we’ve seen on a smartphone this 2015.

Like the S6 you can double press on the home button to launch the camera, from any window, even with the display turned off. If you don’t have an S6, I promise you this will change your life, or at least give you the ability to capture even the most fleeting of moments.

So that the camera feels fresh, the Note 5 gets some nice-to-have features, but nothing really ground breaking. There’s an expanded “Beauty Face” mode for selfie-holics, a video collage mode that’ll elevate your Instagram or Vine posts, and for content creators the ability to livestream on YouTube from within the camera app.   

Here are a few sample photos taken with the Note 5.

Time Square by Note 5

New York Streets by Note 5

20150111_111044

PHABLET WARS

In a few hours I’ve got a plane to catch back to Manila, for the first time since I started covering these events I have a phone to take back with me and use for a couple of weeks, which should be enough time to let the hype die down, and see how the phone performs in the real world. My feelings may or may not change then. By that time also, Apple will be ready with its own iPhone announcements, at which point we shall continue this Phablet War, and maybe even, declare a winner.

Hands-On

Huawei Nova 3i is a beautiful phone with quad-camera goodness

The newest midrange contender

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Huawei just unveiled the Nova 3i and it looks good. Allow me a minute to gush about its looks.

This new midrange smartphone sports a glass back with a premium feel and a beautiful gradient back reminiscent of the Twilight P20. Let’s look at that closely.

As if this phone couldn’t get more extra looks-wise, there’s also a what Huawei reps call the “shining curve effect” which gives it that oomph when light hits the handset.

Now, on to what it can do.

This thing has a quad-camera setup: A 24- and 2-megapixel combo in front and a 16- and 2-megapixel setup on its back.

This phone makes you look good not just in selfies, but also while doing selfies. Take it from Chay.

Different scenes mean different adjustments to get the perfect shot. The cameras are equipped with AI, meaning they can intelligently detect scenes and automatically improve your photos. And, it’s not only the rear cameras with this technology; the selfie cams also have AI capabilities and an improved AI beauty mode.

The fingerprint scanner is found on the phone’s back, which usually means a more bezel-less screen. The 6.3-inch display features tiny bezels and a smaller chin plus, surprise, a notch!

There’s also a facial unlock feature and AI 3D Qmoji, which is basically Huawei’s version of Apple’s Animoji. 

The Nova 3i runs on Huawei’s brand-new Kirin 710 with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. It has 3340mAh battery capacity and runs Android Oreo out of the box. 

Aside from this pretty gradient, the Nova 3i is also available in white or black.

Will this smartphone be as good as it looks? You’ll have to wait for the full review. Meanwhile, you can check price and availability here.

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Hands-On

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Hands-on: Feels cheaper now

It’s missing the premium build

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Currently, Xiaomi is leading in the budget smartphone segment. The uber-cheap Redmi 5A is still selling like hotcakes, making it the number one budget phone in the world. Just last month, the Chinese company announced the next in the Redmi series and what we have here is the base model: the Redmi 6.

Will the Redmi 6 be able to do better than its predecessors? Future sales numbers will be able to tell us that, but for now, let’s have a quick look at what the phone has to offer.

Following the footsteps of the Redmi 5, which is the Redmi 6’s direct predecessor, the IPS display of the phone has an 18:9 aspect ratio and HD+ resolution, although the Redmi 6 has a slightly smaller display at 5.45 inches versus the 5.7 inches of the older model. Despite having a taller aspect ratio, the bezels don’t qualify as near-borderless, but it’s still better than having a traditional 16:9 ratio.

On top of the display is the 5-megapixel front-facing camera along with the earpiece and sensors. As you can see below, the Redmi 6 has two card trays: one for the main nano-SIM card and another for the second one and a microSD card. The phone is a great budget option for those who have two SIM cards and a microSD card lying around.

We usually get a long triple-card tray, but this option is more ideal for users who keep on switching microSD cards. It keeps your main SIM card working while you swap your external storage. It’s similar to how Samsung designs their budget-midrange phones like the Galaxy J6 and Galaxy J8.

Moving to the right side, we have a couple of physical buttons for volume (the long one) and power/lock (the short one). Both are tactile and responsive, but they’re made of plastic just like the rest of the body of the phone.

If you’re coming from the previous Redmi series, you might be disappointed about that fact, but we’ll get to that later.

The bottom side houses the micro-USB port for charging and wired data transfer. Beside it is the main microphone that works alongside the secondary mic found on top of the phone. The 3.5mm audio port is also positioned on the top side.

I’m already accustomed to having the loudspeaker at the bottom, but Xiaomi decided to place the Redmi 6’s on the back. Sadly, the rear-firing loudspeaker gets muffled when placed flat on a table. There’s usually a raised dot beside the speaker grilles to lift the phone a bit, but Xiaomi missed out on that.

Now that’s we’re already checking out the rear of the Redmi 6, I’ll talk about the material choice for the phone’s body. Both the Redmi 4 and the Redmi 5 have aluminum back panels which add premium touches. The top and bottom portions are plastic, but that’s understandable to let in radio signals.

With the Redmi 6 though, we now have a full-plastic phone instead of maintaining a metal body (just like my favorite, the Redmi 4 Prime). The material downgrade makes the phone feel cheaper on hand and levels it with the more affordable Redmi models.

At least the camera department of the Redmi 6 gets an upgrade: From one, it now has two rear shooters. The main 12-megapixel sensor, which is the same as the Redmi 5’s, is now accompanied by a secondary 5-megapixel sensor for measuring depth. The phone can shoot portrait photos with bokeh effects.

The rounded fingerprint reader is still where most Xiaomi phones have it. It’s easily reachable by the index finger and can unlock your phone quickly.

As for the specs of the phone, it’s powered by a MediaTek Helio P22 processor with up to 3GB of memory and up to 64GB of storage. The graphics unit of the chipset is the PowerVR GE8320. It’s quite surprising that Xiaomi went back to MediaTek, but the Helio P22 is a good-performing midrange-class processor.

I wasn’t able to spend much time with the phone, but my initial gaming tests with Asphalt Xtreme and PUBG Mobile were pretty okay. The phone is not able to run the games smoothly on the highest-possible settings, but if I take it down a notch, I get better frame rates.

The phone runs MIUI 9.6 out of the box which is already based on Android 8.1 Oreo. The official stable update to MIUI 10 should come in the coming months. A 3000mAh battery keeps the lights on, but there’s no support for quick charging.

The Redmi 6 is already available in China starting at CNY 799 (US$ 120) for the 3GB/32GB variant while the beefed-up 4GB/64GB model is priced at CNY 999 (US$ 150). The phone is also making its way outside the Chinese market as part of its global rollout. In the Philippines, it’s priced at PhP 7,490 for the 3GB/32GB variant and PhP 8,990 for the 4GB/64GB.

SEE ALSO: Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro makes its debut with notch and affordable price

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Features

What is PLDT doing about its recent internet service issues?

Internal struggles lead to disgruntled customers

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It’s needless to say, but the internet service in the Philippines leaves a lot to be desired. Not only have hard numbers shown poor internet performance in the archipelago, social media has been seeing a never-ending eruption of complaints about every provider, as well.

While steps have been taken to bring the Philippines up to speed with other countries through the use of next-generation 5G mobile networks by next year, citizens aren’t convinced, and internet in the country is still facing a slippery slope.

One incident that has been affecting local provider PLDT (Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company), in particular, is causing a lot of turbulence to both its workers and customers.

Reports have circulated that PLDT had recently terminated over 7,000 contracts from its workforce, causing many homes and offices with internet problems to be put on an indefinite hold. PLDT denied the allegations, citing that the DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) was the one that ordered these contractual workers to halt their service to the company.

DOLE fired back by stating that PLDT’s workers are “employed by unqualified service providers” and PLDT has been warned months in advance. At the same time, disgruntled PLDT employees took to the streets in a recent protest.

Whatever the case, these employees aren’t the only victims here, as customers are experiencing the harsh aftereffects, too.

My own team has been a victim of this ongoing debacle. After having absolutely no Fiber connection for nearly two months, it was only yesterday when our situation was dealt with and a service crew paid a visit to our home office to bring our internet back.

This came after we had to sit through hours and hours of being put on hold by PLDT’s customer service. We simply wanted to know what was wrong and when we’d get our connection back; all we were told was that they’ll look into it, but nothing came of it until someone finally arrived yesterday. They have yet to offer any rebate for the weeks of service loss.

A friend of mine has been on PLDT’s hotline for over a month now, trying to figure out why his DSL speeds are way, way below the advertised 5Mbps. “When I’m lucky, it becomes as fast as 1Mbps, but I usually deal with speeds of around 0.1Mbps,” Mr. Iglesias told me in a chat. “Whenever I’d call the hotline to complain, I’m either put on hold for an hour or get no response at all.”

A PLDT customer who requested to be kept anonymous mentioned that his service “truly sucks” after the first 12 months of his 24-month contract were completed. “With regards to our internet, there are times we have no connection even though the LEDs of our modem are lit up,” he said. “We were requested to wait for seven to 30 minutes maximum just so we can speak to a ‘live’ agent and not an answering machine. Worse, from last night until now, our landline has no dial tone so we cannot call their hotline to report.”

Another source who works for PLDT (and also wishes to remain anonymous) was given an instant promotion to manager when most of her team was laid off at the end of June. “I had no choice. Now I’m handling all the customer complaints on my own,” she said.

And these are just a handful of cases. Social media is littered with angry posts about PLDT’s unsatisfactory — and sometimes non-existent — service.

Wanting to dig deeper, I reached out to Ramon Isberto, Head of Public Affairs at PLDT, for answers.

Isberto explains that the DOLE’s order to regularize these 7,300 workers is “inconsistent with applicable law, jurisprudence, and the documentary and testimonial evidence.” And even though PLDT was issued a cease and desist order, call center and BPO companies have been exempted from similar regulations related to the coverage of labor contracting restrictions.

Referencing to allegations that PLDT terminated thousands of contracts, Isberto reassures that “it simply does not make any sense for PLDT to terminate these contracts in this way.”

Finally, he says that they’re taking care of everyone’s welfare and the “duty to deliver quality services to customers.” That last bit is what I’m least confident about.

PLDT’s Twitter handle is “PLDT_Cares” and while they do care a whole lot about becoming the country’s go-to source for everything internet, I wonder what’s being done to take care of the ever-increasing number of complaints being filed each day.

We currently have this to hold on to.

Not much, but it’s all we have.

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