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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.

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Huawei P20 Lite Review

A shy midrange phone worth paying attention to

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Amid the praises Huawei is getting for the P20 and P20 Pro, it seems like people are forgetting that there’s a shy midrange variant in the series — a variant that doesn’t have any camera branding or high price tag. This is our Huawei P20 Lite review.

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ASUS ZenFone 5Z Review: More powerful but not exactly better

Better processor and more memory than the ZenFone 5, but not much else

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After a less-than-stellar attempt at shooting for the stars in the premium smartphone segment, ASUS took a step back and came out with perhaps one of the best midrange smartphones of 2018 — the ZenFone 5. However, that doesn’t mean their done competing in the upper echelon. Enter the ASUS ZenFone 5Z.

At first glance, the ZenFone 5Z doesn’t seem all that much better than the ZenFone 5. They’re identical after all. So if you’re curious about the look and button placements, go ahead and open this link in another tab then come right back here when you’re done.

Here are a few photos of the 5Z if you’re too lazy.

All the ports are at the bottom, the buttons are on the right, and it’s a hybrid dual-SIM, which means the second SIM slot can accept a microSD card to expand the storage up to 512GB.

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See what we mean?

AI cameras need time to get better

The similarities don’t end there. Both phones have AI-powered cameras which means they analyze your scene and/or subject and apply edits to make it look better. Most of the time, it means tweaking the saturation.

The ZenFone 5 and 5Z also share the same primary camera configuration — one is a 12-megapixel sensor with a bright f/1.8 lens and the other a wide-angle which has an 8-megapixel sensor — so naturally, they take comparable photos. While that’s not entirely a bad thing, it also means they’re a tier under the likes of the P20 Pro and Galaxy S9+.

Take a look at these samples:

It was a cloudy morning in Baler, Aurora and the ZenFone 5Z did a nice job of capturing the part of the sky not covered by clouds

Here’s a closer shot of the shore showing the reflection of the couple passing by

It also captures a fair amount of detail even at night

Zooming in for closer shots, and you’ll see the ZenFone 5Z’s color reproduction is pretty accurate.

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The portrait mode on the 8MP front-facing cam does a surprisingly good job on the cutouts and blurring effect. It’s also wide enough to capture a group selfie with you and your friends as seen on the third photo.

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What I enjoy the most is taking portraits of people. The depth effect works well with a single subject, but struggles a little when there’s more than one person in the shot.

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It’s worth noting that the camera crashed quite a few times while we tried to use it in pro mode and also when the depth effect was turned on. This was fixed in a recent software update.

Faster, smoother, lasts longer

The Snapdragon 845 processor together with 6GB of RAM on our particular review unit is the only real difference from the ZenFone 5. This phone runs Android 8.0 Oreo with ZenUI 5.0 which takes away most of the bloatware that used to come with previous iterations of the ZenFone. The result is a fast and smooth browsing experience whether you’re flipping through your home screen, browsing social media, or cycling through apps. This phone performs with the best of them.

Where the ZenUI 5.0 can improve on is perhaps adding gestures instead of the on-screen navigation bar. There’s an option to keep the navigation bar visible but it defeats the purpose of having more screen.

Instead, there’s an option to hide it but then you have to swipe up on the bottom area first to make it visible. Having to do so can cause you to do things on the app you’re on like accidentally liking the 12-week old photo of your crush on Instagram. That’s embarrassing and could have been avoided! It’s an extra step that affects the whole experience and could easily be improved.

The ZenFone 5Z may not be a gaming-focused handset like the ROG Phone, but it can more than hold its own. Personally, I don’t really play on mobile a lot but the few times that I did on the ZenFone 5Z was a pleasurable experience. It handled titles like Tales of the Rays and Eternium with ease. It also had no problems running Dragon Ball Legends with maxed-out graphics.

The 3300mAh battery is no slouch, either. On average I can start a day at 100 percent and end with around 25 to 38 percent left depending on my usage. Filling it up again is also quick thanks to AI charging. From 30 percent, it can go straight up to 100 percent again in less than an hour.

Uniquely ASUS with other neat features

There are a few things on here that’s uniquely ASUS and you may or may not find them useful depending on your preferences. One of which is the Smart Group feature in the app drawer. ZenUI has had this for a while and it’s actually gotten smarter. It puts related apps in a single folder and labels them for you. It’s super convenient if you’re the type who likes things organized.

There’s also the Selfie Master app which is home to a host of beautification features which I personally don’t really use. What you’ll also find there is ZeniMoji — clearly an attempt to replicate the iPhone’s Animoji. It still needs plenty of work but if you’re curious to see what it looks like, I used it for the intro on this IGTV video.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The ZenFone 5Z is everything the ZenFone 5 is but faster and quite possibly smoother. In a vacuum, it seems like a pretty solid flagship. Unfortunately, it does not exist in a vacuum. If you consider that the 5Z is trying to compete with the likes of the OnePlus 6, Galaxy S9, and other flagships of those caliber, I find that it falls short in terms of design and camera output.

At PhP 29,995 or roughly around US$ 562, it costs nearly US$ 200 more than the ZenFone 5 which sits at PhP 19,995 (US$ 374). While there are slight bumps in processing and speed, it’s hard to justify the price gap costing that much if the device looks exactly like a midranger.

If you’re a ZenFone fan and can fork out the extra 200 bucks, then by all means take the 5Z. Otherwise, you can just opt for the Zenfone 5 which is one of the best smartphones at its price point.

SEE MORE: ASUS ZenFone 5 Video Review

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ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1) review: The perfect budget-midrange phone?

Featuring a very surprising price tag

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Despite selling more than other segment, the budget phone industry doesn’t offer the most exciting offerings available in the market. Positioned more for affordability, these phones often cram in lackluster specs to reduce costs.

Luckily, with improving technologies, it has become possible to finally pack in midrange (and even flagship) features into an affordable package.

Following this trend, ASUS has launched their own take on high-spec’d budget phones. And it’s quite the mouthful to say — the ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1).

On paper, the Max Pro offers an impressive spec sheet that will leave both you and your wallet happy. However, paper doesn’t speak for actual performance. Let’s see how ASUS’ budget phone performs in the real world.

Modern but uninspired design

Despite swimming in deep budget phone territory, the Max Pro looks and feels remarkably well. Thankfully, the phone doesn’t share in the tacky plastic tradition that its market is known for. It fits in an all-glass front, metal rear panel, and polycarbonate framing.

Much like the phones of today, the Max Pro minimizes its upper and lower bezel. Likewise, it almost completely eradicates its side bezels. Fortunately (and unfortunately, for some), the phone does not have the controversial camera notch.

On the rear, the phone squeezes its dual cameras into the top-left corner, much like the iPhone X and the Huawei P20 series. Also, the rear carries a fingerprint reader.

Overall, the Max Pro offers a refreshing upgrade from the usual fare of the budget phone market. It handles very well and weighs considerably less, despite packing in quite the punch under the hood.

Sadly, the design is still nothing to write home about. Even if it refreshes the genre, the phone offers an uninspired design that just follows the same beats of its contemporaries. It feels just adequately premium.

Vanilla, too vanilla

After testing several ASUS phones in the past, the brand’s usual fault lies in how bloated its software is. Often, ASUS packs obnoxious bloatware into all their phones. Thankfully, the Max Pro breaks the trend.

Out of the box, the phone comes installed with the latest Android 8.1 Oreo. It doesn’t cram in custom ROMs or unnecessary apps. It’s as vanilla as vanilla gets.

Unfortunately, being vanilla also creates its downfall. Even today, most smartphone makers still add their own custom flavor to Android. On the other hand, ASUS hasn’t added anything to the vanilla Android experience.

As a result, the Max Pro outs an Android experience that pales in comparison to even the Google Pixel’s version of vanilla Android.

Packing in the power

For its price, the Max Pro sports a Snapdragon 636 chipset, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of internal storage. With that, the phone positions itself as one of the few budget phones to offer midrange performance.

From an actual performance standpoint, the Max Pro can handle most of the games I threw at it. Confidently, it can play less graphically intensive games like Clash Royale and Pokémon Go. Similarly, it can play more intensive titles like PUBG Mobile and Sniper 3D.

Sadly, with the latter set of games, the Max Pro does slightly hiccup its framerates. For intense gamers, this presents a nagging obstacle especially for multiplayer games like PUBG Mobile. Even with 50 ping, the game lags every once in a while.

For the most part, however, the phone plays adequately well. It was a joy to play for hours.

Additionally, it keeps comfortably cool throughout hours of just playing games. At most, the phone’s rear central panel slightly heats up to lukewarm levels. Regardless, it never reaches a point wherein it’s too hot to touch. As far as positioning goes, my hands only barely touch any of the hot spots while playing.

For benchmarking fans, the Max Pro clocks in a score of 114,117 on AnTuTu. The phone is a confident performer both on paper and in real life. However, if you’re going for the heavy gamer route, I suggest a hardy memory card to supplement the paltry 32GB.

Loves the day, hates the night

Despite carrying a dual rear camera setup, the Max Pro doesn’t perform well when it comes to taking photos. While it can take photos well during the day, the loss of light drastically reduces the quality of photos that it can take.

On the rear, the phone sports a 13-megapixel plus 5-megapixel shooting combo. It can shoot adequate photos; however, the camera distinctly amps up contrast to an abnormal point. Vibrant photos display well, but high-key photos are starker, lacking the visual unity of better cameras.

On the flipside, the 8-megapixel front camera can take brilliant selfies in daylight. Likewise, photo quality absolutely crumbles once you take light away. In twilight to nighttime settings, selfies are blurry and grainy messes.

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Rock and roll all night

Even with a midrange chipset, the Max Pro’s most surprising feature lies in the battery that powers it. The phone packs in a 5000mAh battery within its light frame.

As you might expect, the phone is incredibly robust, withstanding a lot of abuse before the battery drains to dangerous levels.

To test this, I continuously played PUBG Mobile and Sniper 3D to drain the battery on a 100 percent charge. Happily, it took the entire afternoon to even make a huge dent on its charge. By the end, the phone still had enough to function well at night, hovering around a 30 percent charge.

More quantitatively, one solo match on PUBG Mobile (from lobby to chicken dinner) costs around eight to nine percent of battery. On a fully charged battery, you can play around 10 to 11 matches before the phone finally gives out. That’s a lot of chicken dinners!

Without heavy gaming, the phone can last around two days on just one charge. Once it reaches zero, it takes around two hours to fully charge it again. It’s quite a while by today’s standards, but enough for the phone’s whopping battery.

For its PhP 9,995 price tag (around US$ 200), the ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1) is worth every penny. Is this your GadgetMatch? It’s not the best budget to midrange phone out there. But, at that price, who’s complaining?

SEE ALSO: ASUS ZenFone Max Pro (M1): Price and availability in the Philippines

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