Reviews

Samsung Galaxy A8 and A8+ (2018) Review: Premium midrange features come at a price

How much are you willing to pay for an Infinity Display?

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The newest upper midrange phones from Samsung are finally out. I’m excited about the Galaxy A series since they’re the first to sport premium craftsmanship among Samsung phones. They also normally inherit last year’s flagship features.

I’ve been playing around with both the regular Galaxy A8 (2018) and the bigger Galaxy A8+ (2018) for over a week now and here’s my review of the two.

Let’s first run through the body of the phones:

Choose between a 5.6-inch or a 6-inch Infinity Display

Both are sharp and vibrant Super AMOLED panels

They’re not edge-to-edge but still near-borderless

Sorry, folks!

The volume rocker is positioned on the left…

It’s somehow a little too high

While the power is on the right along with the loudspeaker

I find the position of the loudspeaker to be convenient

The 3.5mm port is present, as well as USB-C

Nice to know that Samsung is not yet ditching the audio port

SIM 1 is on the left…

It only accepts nano-SIM cards

… and SIM 2 is on top together with the microSD card

Hooray for triple-card slots!

The fingerprint reader is below the rear camera

Smooth and shiny glass slabs with rounded corners

Infinity Display bridges the gap between the midrange lineup

The design of the two is completely identical. The button placements, the ports, and the holes are just the same on both. The only difference externally is the size and the weight. Speaking of, both of them are surprisingly hefty. The Galaxy S8+ is lighter than either of them, and the Galaxy Note 8 weighs about the same as the Galaxy A8+. I’m not exactly sure why because all of them sport the same sandwiched glass design and their battery capacities are not much greater than the other. It’s not a bad thing per se, but it’s something to keep in mind.

The Infinity Display comes to Samsung’s midrange line (or should I say premium midrange?) but without the curved edges of its flagship cousins. The resolution is also lowered to 1080 x 2220 pixels and it has a slightly taller than usual 18.5:9 ratio. It’s still a Super AMOLED display with punchy color reproduction. Adaptive Mode, which is set by default, works fine for everything but you can also choose between three different color profiles for better accuracy depending on the content you’re viewing and preference.

Slightly better performance isn’t enough

Ticking inside the phones is an octa-core processor which Samsung doesn’t specifically disclose, but benchmark apps identify it as the Exynos 7885 Octa. It’s a slightly better chipset compared to the ones inside the Galaxy A (2017) series. Both the Galaxy A8 and Galaxy A8+ have the same processor, but they have different memory and storage configuration at 4GB/32GB and 6GB/64GB, respectively.

During the course of the review, I mainly used the regular Galaxy A8, but side-to-side comparisons with the Galaxy A8+ don’t show any significant difference in performance. With the additional memory though, you can open more apps simultaneously and let them run in the background longer. As for the bigger storage, obviously, you can store more apps and files on the phone. If you do need more space, both phones have dedicated microSD card slots for your convenience.

Gaming is good on the phone, but it’s not the most powerful out there. The Mali-G71MP2 graphics can handle high settings of Asphalt Extreme very well. Casual games will pose no threat to the phone, but graphics-intensive titles like NBA 2K18 will do.

Android 7.1.1 Nougat comes out of the box with Samsung Experience version 8.5 on top. If you still belittle Samsung’s customization because of the clunky TouchWiz UI from yesteryears, you have to move on because the latest version is miles better. It’s clean and greatly improves the overall Android experience without any signs of hiccups. The consequence would be the long wait for the next Android version to arrive on your phone, but new features (aside from under the hood improvements) are mostly already available courtesy of Samsung Experience. Bixby is on board, but Google Assistant is also available.

Aside from fingerprints, you can also use your face to unlock your phone. The feature is not exactly as secure and accurate as Apple’s Face ID but it gets the job done. It works fine in well-lit places but not as fast as I’d like it to be. The fingerprint reader on the back, which is easily reachable by the index fingers, is faster and more convenient to use.

Live Focus is now on the front camera

Samsung is not exactly on board the selfie wagon, but the Galaxy A series is actually selfie-centric. The new Galaxy A8 (2018) phones don’t just have high-resolution front cameras, each device has two selfie shooters now which enable the Live Focus feature we first saw in the Galaxy Note 8. The dual front cameras are composed of a 16- and 8-megapixel sensors with the latter having a wide-angle lens ideal for taking group selfies.

Selfies came out great, especially with the Live Focus feature on. You can adjust the background blur or bokeh effect during and after taking the shot. There are also some cute built-in stickers available from the camera launcher if you feel playful. Switching to the secondary wide-angle selfie camera broadens the field of view, but it’s not as wide as I’ve seen with the OPPO F3 and F3 Plus.

The rear gets a single 16-megapixel f/1.7 camera which takes great low-light photos. Optical image stabilization could have made the phone an even better point-and-shoot camera, but it seems like Samsung is reserving such features for their flagships. Anyhow, either of the Galaxy A8 (2018) phones take good photos in daylight or at night. Low-light photography requires a bit of work with steady hands to get the best output.

They can last the whole day and then some

Any phone that doesn’t last for a whole day is a no-no. Every phone I’ve used last year was able to get me through a full workday before asking for a fill-up. As for the Galaxy A8 (2018), it can even last longer, especially the Galaxy A8+ (2018).

The Galaxy A8 (2018) has a sizeable 3000mAh battery which lasted for a full 14 hours straight on average. That’s with around four and a half hours of screen time and Always On Display active so I don’t miss any notifications. The Galaxy A8+ (2018) with its bigger 3500mAh battery was able to last for 24 hours with four hours of screen time and still with Always On Display.

My real-world usage of the phones includes a few voice calls and SMS, constant internet connection either through Wi-Fi or mobile data, and hours of listening on Spotify during my commute.

Which is your GadgetMatch?

The choice between the two will be a matter of preference. The “regular” variant of the Galaxy A8 (2018) is a good option for those who prefer phones that can be used with one hand. It’s not exactly a mini or compact version but its pretty pocketable by today’s standards. The plus variant is more suited for people who like big phones and need more battery juice. The additional memory and storage are merely cherries on top.

Smartphones are indeed getting more expensive, and the new Galaxy A8 (2018) phones are not spared from this drift. The Galaxy A8 will have a retail price of PhP 26,990 (US$ 540) in the Philippines while the Galaxy A8+ will go for PhP 32,990 (US$ 660). Compared to the launch prices of their predecessors, this is way too much. The asking price doesn’t appeal to us, especially when 18:9 displays and some of its new features are not exactly distinctive anymore.

If you want the premium offerings of Samsung and the price is not an issue, the Galaxy A8 (2018) phones will not disappoint. But if you want to get more value out of your money and still want to stick to the Samsung experience, you can look into the Galaxy Note FE (the improved and safer Galaxy Note 7) which has an official price of PhP 27,990 (US$ 560) in the Philippines as of writing.

Gaming

Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! review: Catching ’em all once again

Isn’t Eevee absolutely adorable?

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Countless times, my friends have jokingly asked, “Where’s Mario?” My name — Luigi — has unwittingly cursed me into a lifetime of jokes associated with Mario’s green-suited brother. Ironically, my favorite Nintendo franchise isn’t even remotely related to the Super Mario Brothers series. Since childhood, the prestige has always gone to the Pokémon franchise.

During my Game Boy days, I played through the classics of the Pokémon franchise. Sadly, that streak ended with Pokémon Emerald, immediately before the arrival of the first Nintendo DS. Since then, the franchise’s Generation 4 ushered in a period of silence.

Thankfully, Pokémon’s decline was halted by the arrival of the mobile game, Pokémon GO. The pioneering AR game brought back a wave of nostalgia. Despite the initial popularity, the game’s novelty was short-lived, failing to measure up with the classic games. Of course, the game wasn’t from Nintendo.

Now, Nintendo has finally taken over the franchise’s modern renaissance. Weeks ago, Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee! launched for the Nintendo Switch, promising a new world for the new generation. Besides ushering a generation, the nostalgic series revitalizes the old and creates a new ecosystem.

Generation 1.2 

Right on the tin, both games advertise a return to Kanto, home of the first Pokémon. Pikachu and Eevee are remasters of the original Pokémon Yellow. In the original, Pikachu replaced the traditional trio of Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. Likewise, Pikachu and Eevee replaces the starter Pokémon based on the version you purchase.

Likewise, both games share the same story elements with Pokémon Yellow: Team Rocket’s antics, Lavender Town’s eerie story, Mewtwo’s appearance. Of course, because of the times, Nintendo updated some minor elements for a modern audience. For example, in-game television sets come with Nintendo Switch units. Characters talk about Alolan Pokémon, smartphone technology, and most importantly, Pokémon GO.

Cuter, cuddlier, livelier

After Pokémon GO’s initial wave of novelty, the franchise’s fans chided the game for depersonalizing their favorite creatures. In GO, Pokémon became collectibles, valuing quantity over quality. Completely contrasted to this, Pikachu and Eevee added a thick layer of personality to all 151 original Pokémon.

Mostly, this dynamic personality applies to your chosen partner, Pikachu or Eevee. Like Yellow, your partner Pokémon follows you around. However, instead of just a few pixelated frames, both have their own new sets of animations and moves. For example, Pikachu hangs out on your shoulder as you walk. Eevee perches atop your head. In combat, both have exclusive move sets. Eevee, for example, uses Veevee Volley, an extremely strong Normal move that activates only occasionally. Cutely, you can interact with both partners outside of combat, petting them or playing patty-cake using the Switch’s touchscreen.

Additionally, you can take a Pokémon out of its Poké Ball, acting as a secondary companion. Also, their animation depends on their build. Mew floats ahead of you. Kangaskhan carries you in its pouch. Charizard flies and carries you on its back. It creates a much more dynamic world compared to the original games.

Speaking of, wild Pokémon encounters are no longer completely random. Instead, you can see the wild Pokémon wandering around, letting you choose which to catch. Catching them is also different. Instead of going into combat, the games adapt the same system as Pokémon GO, using catch rings and berries.

Creating a Pokémon ecosystem

Along with the games, Nintendo also launched a new controller, the Poké Ball Plus, specifically made for the new Pokémon games. Unfortunately, the optional controller, shaped like a Poké Ball, is pricey, costing US$ 49.99 on its own. The bundle — the game plus the ball — costs US$ 99.99, reducing the price by 10 bucks. That said, why should you buy a Poké Ball Plus?

Firstly, the ball comes with a free Mew. Traditionally, this mythical Pokémon was obtainable only through Nintendo-exclusive events or hacks. The Ball finally provides an easily accessible way to obtain one of the franchise’s most elusive Pokémon.

Secondly, it creates a new experience for the franchise. While it has only two buttons, you can use the ball in a throwing motion to catch Pokémon. Instead of just pressing A, the new mechanic simulates the feeling of actually throwing a Poké Ball. It’s unique and strangely gratifying. Additionally, you can take a Pokémon (housed inside the Poké Ball) with you on your daily commute. As you walk, it gets experience, similar to GO’s buddy system.

Thirdly, the ball acts as a Pokémon GO Plus, connecting the Switch games with GO’s world. To those who still play GO, the Poké Ball is a welcome arsenal, especially in crowded cityscapes. Similarly, you can transfer Pokémon from GO to Switch, making it easier to fill a Pokédex.

Finally, the Poké Ball Plus is a clear indication of the Pokémon franchise’s future. Next year, Nintendo will launch a fresher addition to the franchise, marking the console’s first full-fledged Pokémon game. By then, the future game will fully integrate the Ball into its mechanics, making the controller a worthy investment.

With Pikachu and Eevee, the Pokémon franchise heralds a new generation for both old and beginning players. For old players, they create a refreshed wave of nostalgia. For beginning players, both games are a good start to the new generation.

SEE ALSO: Pokémon: Let’s Go gets its own Nintendo Switch bundles

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Reviews

ASUS ZenFone Max Pro M2 review

Part two of the Max experiment

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The ZenFone Max Pro M1 was one of those unicorns in the smartphone realm. Not only did it have dual cameras and a massive battery, it also came with stock Android — a rarity in ASUS’ lineup.

It was priced just right, hovering around the US$ 200 sweet spot in most regions. That being said, a successor was definitely in order, and the M2 I have here might bring that magic back.

The ZenFone Max Pro M2 is certainly bigger, badder, and more of a gaming phone than the M1 was. But with a higher price tag, is it still an easy-to-recommend product, especially with all the great options in the market?

On the outside, it’s a typical ZenFone, from the solid build to the super-bright 6.3-inch 1080p LCD. New this time around is the notch that houses the front-facing camera. It’s a sore spot in an otherwise clean design, but at this point, I can no longer argue against the established trend.

Next is the move from a metal coating to a shinier material for the rear. I can’t confirm yet if it’s mostly glass or plastic, but it’s more of a fingerprint magnet than what the previous ZenFone Max models had. ASUS does include a clear case to prevent unsightly fingerprints.

On the back you’ll find the fingerprint scanner, which isn’t that fast for logging in but more reliable than its face scanning. After alternating between the two, I ended up using the fingerprint sensor more, though that’s not to say it has a major advantage.

However, what matters more is the processor this smartphone comes with. It’s a Snapdragon 660, a chipset you’d normally find on more expensive handsets. Coupled with up to 6GB of memory and 64GB of storage, its performance certainly fits the bill.

If the storage isn’t enough, you’ll be glad to know that there’s a triple-card slot inside to house two nano-SIM cards and a microSD at the same time. If you’re planning to use this as a pure gaming device, that extra space holds a lot of weight.

During day-to-day activities like taking photos, multitasking around productivity apps, and binging on Netflix, I had no qualms whatsoever. It’s comparable to what the Nokia 7 Plus and Vivo V11 can do with the same chipset, and it helps that pure Android is on board to prevent bloatware from getting in the way.

But what we really want to test is mobile games, since ASUS is promoting the ZenFone Max Pro M2 as a budget-friendly gaming device. Early impression: Performance depends on which games you play.

I tried Ragnarok M and although the phone kept cool no matter how long I played, it would throttle at certain times, leading to choppy frame rates when there was too much action happening at once. I didn’t experience this with similarly priced phones like the Pocophone F1 and Honor Play.

Things are a little different with Asphalt 9, which relies more on bursts of intense processing with short breaks in between. This allowed the ZenFone Max Pro M2 to shine more, providing really smooth gameplay without heating up.

But what’s truly impressive is the battery life. I could play either of those games for five hours straight and they would reduce the percentage to only half. That’s amazing, and at the same time expected out of a 5000mAh capacity.

Unfortunately, topping up this battery to full using the bundled charger is a royal pain. With an average of 15 percent gains every 30 minutes, it would take around 3.5 hours to reach a hundred. I tried using faster chargers but the results were practically the same.

I’m not sure if this was a cost-cutting move or an oversight; either way, it sucks to wait for the phone to charge so long between gaming sessions. It doesn’t help that I’m forced to plug in through its micro-USB port. Every other device I own made the switch to the superior USB-C.

My bigger concern is ASUS’ update plans for this phone’s aging Android 8.1 Oreo, which came out in 2017. Despite being stock in nature, it isn’t part of the Android One program, so Google won’t be able aid in pushing new software.

For reference, the ZenFone Max Pro M1 is still on Oreo, with no sign of Pie this year. While having a pure Android experience is great, not having timely updates defeats some of the purpose. In some cases, I actually miss ZenUI and the attention ASUS gives to it.

On that note, my review unit had some issues with the camera app at first, but ASUS has since fixed all the bugs. The app originally called Camera App Lite would often hang or not allow me to capture a shot even when all conditions were met. It’s simply called Camera now and works quite well with its clean interface.

During my short time with the cameras, I was impressed by the dynamic range and ability to maintain sharpness under poor lighting conditions. Both the rear 12-megapixel sensor and 13-megapixel selfie shooter performed as expected out of a midrange handset — meaning they were satisfying to use — though I question the usability of the 5-megapixel depth sensor on the back.

Blurring the background and cutting out the edges of a subject weren’t strong points for the rear shooters. What I did like was the saturation and strong colors they produced. Here are some samples:

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Editor’s note: This section initially stated that the camera app was buggy and felt like beta software. ASUS has since reached out and updated our unit. The camera performance is much improved now and doesn’t exhibit any of the aforementioned faults.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

With a price increase of about US$ 100, the ZenFone Max Pro M2 isn’t as affordable as it once was, although I do appreciate the improvements in multiple aspects.

The new chipset is a definite winner, and the sleeker design makes it easier to show off in public. In addition, everything that made the M1 so special is still there, from the massive battery to the bright screen.

I recommend this particular ZenFone to those who value performance and want something more out of a gaming smartphone. It may not be as fast as the Honor Play or Pocophone F1, but it’s the most well-rounded device in the entire ZenFone lineup.

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Laptops

Lenovo Yoga C930 Review: It could have been the best

It’s just missing one thing…

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It was during IFA 2018 when Lenovo introduced their latest premium convertible for consumers — the Yoga C930. It doesn’t have a good name, but it does offer everything a Yoga should, especially in media consumption.

Notebooks with flipping displays, like the Yoga lineup, are not just designed for typing. Most manufacturers market their convertibles to be perfect for entertainment, yet they largely fail in one aspect where they should shine — audio.

When Lenovo introduced the Yoga C930 with the rotating soundbar and Dolby Atmos, I hoped that it was not just a marketing ploy. But, is it? Let me share my thoughts about Lenovo’s newest convertible.

No fuss design

The Yoga C930 has a metal shell with a familiar aesthetic from Lenovo. My unit has a dark finish that’s aptly named Iron Gray. If you want a lighter shade, Lenovo is also offering the notebook in Mica, which is close to white. Everything about the body of the Yoga C930 screams premium; nothing here looks cheap or ugly.

To make it more special, the sides and the hinge of the Yoga C930 have a brushed finish. It’s a minor touch, but it’s highly noticeable whenever you’re checking where you should plug your peripherals. I also think that it helps hide unsightly scratches and gives the notebook a bit of shine.

While we’re at it, the available ports on the Yoga C930 are generally okay. It’s got two Thunderbolt 3 ports that fully support PowerDelivery, DisplayPort, and USB 3.1 functions. Both Thunderbolt 3 ports employ 4x lanes for PCIe, so you can connect the Yoga C930 to an external GPU, which is good because this laptop doesn’t have a dedicated graphics unit.

Apart from a couple of versatile USB-C interfaces, there’s also a classic full-size USB that we all know and love. Thankfully, Lenovo knows that this is still a widely used port and bringing a dongle just to read a thumb drive is a hassle. The 3.5mm audio port is also available when you need to plug in a pair of wired headphones.

All of the ports on the Yoga C930 are on its left side, leaving the right with just the power button. There are no volume buttons, either.

While I appreciate that Lenovo provided both USB-A and USB-C ports, I was still hoping for more; another USB-C with PowerDelivery on the right and a full-size SD card reader would do. The Yoga C930 is slim, but it’s not ultra-slim like the fan-less MacBook which got away with having one port (or maybe two if you count the headphone jack).

The Yoga C930 has a fairly large 14-inch display (13.9 inches according to Lenovo), but with minimum side bezels. Since this is made for watching videos, the aspect ratio is still stuck at 16:9.

There are two resolutions available for the Lenovo C930: Full HD or Ultra HD. The one I have here is just the Full HD variant, but it still has the key feature: Dolby Vision. The best way to fully appreciate the display is to play an HDR or Dolby Vision-enabled title. You can find some on Netflix if you’re using the highest-tier plan.

The display gets bright enough to be used outdoors and really dim when you need it to. It’s vibrant and has deep blacks even if it’s only an LCD panel.

When watching a video, I prefer to use the Yoga C930 in Tent mode. It can also be used in Stand mode with the keyboard facing down, but for some reason, Lenovo didn’t put little rubber feet to protect the keyboard when placed on a surface. You have to be cautious where you place the notebook or you risk scratching it.

The integrated soundbar of the Yoga C930 is designed to always face the user. That’s another advantage of watching videos in Tent mode; the speaker is facing upwards. I get to hear the sound directly without any muffle. I must say, the Yoga C930 has one of the clearest speakers I’ve tried on a notebook. It gets really loud, too.

It even has Dolby Atmos to enhance it further, but it’s not as immersive as advertised. To be fair though, I get to hear the stereo effect better than on other notebooks.

The device is least useful (for me) when it’s in Tablet mode. The Yoga C930 is too heavy to be a tablet, plus the 16:9 aspect ratio makes it feel like I’m reading from a really tall magazine. But, this is where the built-in pen comes in handy. The integrated stylus makes it easy for doodlers to annotate on screen.

Fast but not incredible

Let’s talk about power. The Yoga C930 I have is powered by the latest 8th-gen Intel Core i7 processor paired with 12GB DDR4 memory and a 256GB M.2 PCIe SSD. Configurations may vary in some regions, so the Yoga C930 in your stores might be more powerful or inferior.

There’s one thing that’s missing though, and it’s not an option anyone can get either: discrete graphics.

As mentioned, the Yoga C930 is not an ultraportable. It has nowhere near the portability of Dell’s XPS 13 or even Lenovo’s own Yoga Book. It’s big enough to house at least a modest NVIDIA GeForce MX150 — just like the latest ZenBook from ASUS.

My usage includes multiple tabs on Chrome, some slight editing on Photoshop, and hours of binge-watching on Netflix. I primarily used the notebook for typing and browsing, which are not heavy tasks.

So far, I had no major performance issues during my time with the Yoga C930. I didn’t bother to install games because it lacks discrete graphics.

Of course, the notebook runs Windows 10. I got the October 2018 update just last week, and it made the dark mode better. It matches the gray motif of the device.

It’s ideal for my own use

Putting all the technical specifications aside, the Yoga C930 has been a great companion.

Aside from the soundbar, I also fully appreciate the notebook’s keyboard. It’s not as great as the one on ThinkPads, but it’s good enough for me. It’s well-spaced and has a good amount of key travel.

The touchpad uses Microsoft Precision drivers and it fully supports all the gestures of Windows 10. It has a glass surface and picks up all the inputs. A responsive touchpad and a good keyboard is the combo I need for work.

There’s also something about the craftsmanship of the Yoga C930 that gives assurance that it’s a well-built device. Perhaps it’s the balance between weight and dimensions.

Lastly, the webcam has a physically cover — just like a ThinkPad’s. It’s nice to see nifty features of Lenovo’s business laptops on a consumer device. I don’t have to cover the webcam anymore with a piece of tape.

Great battery life

I am generally impressed with the longevity of the Yoga C930. Lenovo promises all-day battery life, but we all know that is somehow a stretch. Based on my usage, I get around eight to nine hours. I also experience about the same when watching Netflix non-stop.

It’ll not beat records, but I am always assured that even if I leave my charger at home, I know I can rely on the Yoga C930 to get me through a full day.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

You probably already think that this is my GadgetMatch, which I’ll not deny. I had a good time with the Yoga C930, despite its shortcomings. It’s a premium convertible that managed to meet my expectations. I’m hoping Lenovo will soon have an option with discrete graphics. For now, you can maximize the device by plugging in an external GPU.

The Yoga C930 has a starting price of US$ 1,399. It’s a bit pricier than I expected from its specs, but it’s a premium convertible that offers more versatility than regular laptops.

SEE ALSO: Lenovo IdeaPad 530S, 330S, 330: Which is right for you?

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