Her GadgetMatch

Samsung Galaxy S9: An honest review of AR Emoji and more

Find a phone that gives you both

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The Galaxy S9 is here and as the excitement over AR Emoji settles, I ask the questions: Is Samsung’s latest flagship worth it? What can AR Emoji do? Does camera performance justify this new release?

If you’re not so techie, like me, and you’re thinking of getting this new phone, read on. I try out all the key features and answer all those questions (and play with more emoji!) in this article.

Look and feel

The Samsung Galaxy S9 looks almost exactly like the S8 — from the curved Infinity Display to the sleek smooth body, this handset is a Samsung déjà vu.

This is, perhaps, the biggest criticism that the S9 has gotten. But I say: It’s what’s on the inside that counts (more on this later) — and if anything, new colors make up for it looking like its predecessor.

Yes, there’s a purple S9 that matches my hair and it’s looking gorgeous. I mean, we hold phones more than we hold hands — these things might as well be your best accessory.

Having the same look as the S8, it follows; I still love the feel of this phone, it fits my teeny hands well, and its curved display is still an enjoyable experience. It’s all glass, though, so it can be a little slippery.

There’s one noticeable change on the S9. Samsung moved the fingerprint reader below the camera. This should mean less accidental smudges on the shooter.

It must also be pointed out: At a time when most brands are shamelessly copying the notch (which isn’t really a look that’s all that, TBH), Samsung stands firmly behind their design. I believe that’s something they should be applauded for.

AR Emoji

Let’s get this out of the way first: My emoji looks nothing like me, even my mother won’t recognize that pink-haired emoji. It’s an absolute shame.

And although there are some emoji that look like the people they’re supposed to be, I’m not lucky enough to be one of them. Again, see:

The idea of having this tiny avatar on my phone excited me so much but trying it out was a different experience. For all its cuteness, tracking wasn’t really very good. A lot of times, the AR Emoji couldn’t even catch up with what I was doing. It doesn’t even track my tongue when I stick it out like this 😛 — the emoji just gives me a weird face.

What I did enjoy playing with were the preset AR Emoji GIFs. Creating your emoji produces a whole line of GIFs from that likeness — ones you can send out via different platforms! To make it easier, Samsung has also integrated the GIF sending on the Samsung keyboard. Oh, what fun! Above photo is an account of an actual conversation between me and Chay soon after we discovered this feature.

Selfie shooter

The S9’s front-facing shooter has a Selfie Focus mode which allows for the bokeh effect. It also has an adjustable beauty mode, which should really be on every phone, if you ask me. Airbrushing doesn’t look too overwhelming but I did wish they didn’t whiten my face as much.

From my tests (that means a lot of selfies), the bokeh cutout is more or less accurate, but it still isn’t perfect. Selfie shots also seem like they’re automatically brightened overall which is good because it makes you fresh; however, this sometimes makes for overexposed backgrounds.

But, what I totally love about the S9’s built-in camera app is a feature you can find on the separate Selfie mode: makeup filters. To test it out, I shot with literally no makeup and this was the effect. I look ready for a night out!

I didn’t even have powder on when I shot this

There are a number of preset looks, plus the option to toggle the intensity of each filter. You can even isolate each part of your face — eyebrows, eyelashes, lips, cheeks, contouring, blush, and more — then adjust accordingly.

This photo below, which showcases a more subtle makeup look, was taken five seconds after the photo above. Listen, boys, this is what #nomakeup is, but not what it looks like. 😂

Those virtual eyelashes, though!

The filters work well even with glasses, on boys, and in groups. Proof:

Joshua would make a cute girl

What’s sorely missing, however, is the bokeh effect on the Selfie mode. If you choose to virtually paint your face, this means no more blurred background as this is only doable through the Selfie Focus mode where makeup isn’t available.

And sure, you can download any beauty app and get similar results with filters or editing, but that’s not the point. Aside from the possibility of great, on fleek looks 24/7 without moving an actual makeup brush, I just honestly love that this feature was built into a flagship phone. Push comes to shove, premium devices will usually have the same level of phone specs. It’s the little features like this that become the tie-breaker for me.

Rear cameras

The Galaxy S9 (and S9+) rear cameras are said to be groundbreaking as they house the world’s first dual aperture smartphone cameras. But, I won’t deal with that because of too many technicalities. What you need to know is that this feature, which allows the tiny camera to adjust to allow more or less light come in, is automatically activated when you shoot on Auto.

That being said; on Auto, the camera performs well.

It was already evening when this photo was taken!

Here are more low-light photo samples taken by Michael Josh (most of my low-light photo samples were taken in Amsterdam; my apologies for not being able to show them as they’re x-rated 😅).

The S9 only has one camera on the back, unlike the S9+. This means there is no Live Focus function on this thing. There is, however, a Selective Focus function which allows you to blur our either the background or the foreground of the photo which results in pictures like this.

Look at that creamy background blur!

There is also a Food Mode built-into the camera app, for all your food flat lay needs.

Chay’s homemade one pot pasta

Samsung shooters are already known to saturate photos. As you can see, this mode does that even more to make yummy food look even more enticing. There’s also a radial blur effect happening, reminiscent of Instagram’s blur option where you pick a certain point to focus on, and the rest of the photo is just blurred out.

As pretty as this mode can make the food look, it still doesn’t change the fact that it will all end up in my tummy.

Word of caution though; the saturation can sometimes be too much and there’s no intensity toggle for this mode. On the off chance that it is too much, I just switch to Auto which brings me back to normal shooting.

Slow-mo

This phone can shoot in slow-mo at 960 frames per second — which is all a bunch of numbers to me until I see what that means:

I have to be honest: Everything looks better in slow-mo. Even crappy birds look pretty cool.

Me making a mess look almost artsy:

And did you notice the background music? These samples were fresh off the S9, no need for editing as the device allows you to cut up video, and even edit music in.

Shooting slow-mo can be tricky, however — I had one too many failed attempts because I kept pressing the slow-mo button too early, or too late. But, once you get used to it and the proper timing, it gets waaaay more fun. Just make sure to do it in a well-lit area, and I mean full on studio lights well-lit or a bright, sunny day well-lit. Otherwise, video comes out grainy.

READ MORE: Samsung Galaxy S9 Review: Brilliant but underwhelming

Verdict

Considering that this is a flagship, I expected top-of-the-line specs on this device and the S9 delivered in that aspect. Just know that the technology on this handset is on par with most flagships out now and this phone will be able to handle your everyday smartphone needs — from social media, to AR Bitmoji Snaps, to everyday work productivity. But, that was to be expected from any Samsung headliner.

As for the camera, it’s definitely capable, with low-light photography as a big strength. If you’re looking for a phone with a great camera, this should be on your list of choices. But that’s the thing: There are still a number of other great camera phones out there and though the S9 performed, I can’t for sure say it’s the absolute best. At the end of the day, it all boils down to aesthetics and preference.

That being said, what I love about this device are the add-on features which gave this handset enough points for me to consider getting it. 

Although I was a little disappointed with AR Emoji, I find that the makeup beauty mode isn’t getting old — in fact, I’ve gone three days without real makeup but my online persona has managed to look on fleek. The slow-mo capabilities are impressive and the fact that it comes in stunning purple just makes me want to rock this phone daily.

With this device, Samsung seems to consider a demographic (*ehem ehem*) that most tech companies ignore when releasing flagships. On top of quality performance, these add-ons are a definite delight for users like me.

Find a phone that gives you both: Fun and functionality are two things that I look for in phones, and more often than not, I’ve had to compromise. If the release of the S9 is any indication, it seems that’s all about to change.

SEE ALSO: Samsung Galaxy S9: Four fun new features

SEE ALSO: Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ vs Google Pixel 2: Camera Shootout

Features

How a smartphone became my travel buddy

To Taipei 101 and beyond!

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I’m the kind of traveler who turns a trip abroad into a process. I plan beforehand, execute every planned move, and adapt to situations along the way.

Normally, this approach requires me to bring a handy notebook, high-quality mirrorless camera, and printed maps in my backpack. For my trip to Taipei, Taiwan, I tried something a little different.

This time, I set out to do everything on my smartphone, going from an analog kid to grownup with an all-in-one gadget. Being the traditional type, it was a bit hard to do, but finding the perfect travel buddy certainly wasn’t.

I’ve been using the Huawei P20 Pro as my daily driver for a while now, and I’ve been having a tough time letting it go for another handset, so it was, without a doubt, the first choice to spring to my mind.

With the phone in hand (and no old-school items packed), I set out to explore Taipei using only my newfound travel buddy.

Or maybe I still need to visual my routes on a bigger layout before heading out. This was me being stubborn and giving conventional maps one last look before going full digital.

A journey through Taipei means lots of eating and drinking. While searching for routes and places to visit on Google Maps, I make it a point to find highly rated restaurants and juice bars along the way.

Doing so in Taiwan is a cinch. Mobile internet here is incredibly fast for any standards, and quick searches on both Maps and Chrome take only a few seconds.

Taipei is the kind of city that requires a lot of walking and commuting to get around. For the longer train rides, I whip out my phone to play a game of Asphalt 9: Legends or Dragon Ball Legends — two games that require a lot of power to run.

Fortunately, the P20 Pro can handle both with ease. Not only is it powerful enough to max out the in-game graphics, its battery is long-lasting enough to get through the day even though I play hours’ worth of games, and that’s with mobile data always on.

Don’t let the low number of steps above fool you; even though it was already close to sunset, my day was just starting. Taipei wakes up at night with its numerous markets filled with fantastic food and affordable clothing.

To get from one point to another, there’s lots of walking involved. It’s great to have a smartphone that can readily show you how many steps you’ve taken at a glance so you know you’re burning all the food you ate.

Just to prove it, here’s me actually walking in the city. Aside from bringing the right travel companion with you, it’s also vital to dress up properly for the weather.

My annual trips to Taipei normally happen around June, which is when Computex goes on. During this season, it can get quite humid when the sun’s out, and a little chilly at night. It’s best to be prepared for both.

I must say, Taipei is a beautiful city — easily one of my favorites in the whole world. There’s no shortage of landmarks to see, but if there’s one you must visit, it’s Taipei 101. Once the tallest building in the world, the skyscraper is still a sight to behold no matter what angle you view it from.

For this shot, I chose to shoot it from below, and the P20 Pro handled the challenging lighting with ease. Every detail was captured, and there’s the option of zooming in for another take on the iconic view.

What’s great about having a phone with artificial intelligence built in is that it can detect scenes and subjects for you. This came in handy when I went around Taipei Zoo.

Although I was obviously going to take photos of animals at every turn, I liked how my phone could adjust settings on the fly and tweak images for me automatically.

At the end of the day, it’s nice to relax and scroll through all the photos I’ve taken while sipping from a cup of Taipei’s signature milk tea — even better when it’s on phone as attractive as the P20 Pro both inside and out.

There’s so much more you can do with the P20 Pro on a trip, but no travel piece can cover every single feature. For more, you can watch our hands-on video below.


This feature was produced in collaboration between GadgetMatch and Huawei.

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Hands-On

Vivo X21 hands-on: All screen, all the time

The screen is the fingerprint scanner!

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Notice anything different with this Vivo release?

Look closely at the notched front. It has a 6.28-inch FHD screen.

That smooth sleek glass back looks good but I know what you’re asking: Where’s the fingerprint scanner?

It’s there, only you don’t see it.

Let’s see that again from another angle:

Yes folks, this is the Vivo X21 and is one of the first phones in the market to have the famed in-display scanner — that means the fingerprint scanner is under the screen itself!

This leaves more space for you to do more, like take photos with the phone’s 12- and 5-megapixel dual shooters on the rear. These cameras also have AI-scene recognition built in, so the camera automatically adjusts to give you the best-possible shots.

Or, take those fun selfies with the X21’s 12-megapixel front-facing camera. There are cute stickers, too! 🐰

Oh, did I mention that it also has facial unlock? Yep.

This device runs on Funtouch OS 4.0 based on Android 8.1 Oreo which more or less still feels like iOS. The phone is powered by a Snapdragon 660 processor with 6GB of memory and 128GB of storage and an option to expand via microSD.

All that means is that this is a premium midrange phone which will have no problem with everyday social media use and normal mobile gaming, and it will have space for all your photos and selfies.

As future-forward as the X21 is, it’s still rocking a micro-USB port. That also means there’s still an audio jack on this thing — and speaking of audio, the phone is also equipped with an audio chipset for better sound quality. It has 3200mAh of battery capacity for all day err-day use.


Of course, we’ll have to give it a good whirl before we can talk about actual performance, but until then, the X21 is proving to be a pretty promising phone.

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Hands-On

Vivo NEX hands-on review: The future looks great

Vivo’s best smartphone to date

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In case you haven’t heard, the future is here. In 2018, smartphone manufacturers are finding themselves in a race to designing a truly bezel-less phone.

Engineers will tell you a compromise has to be made in order to achieve that because of all the tech they have to fit into the front of the phone. Some brands opt for a notch to house all of that; some offer minimal bezels and curved edges; others have awkwardly placed front cameras.

Design: More than meets the eye

Vivo, it seems, is at the forefront of this all-display race. On the NEX, the Chinese company offers an exact 91.24 percent screen-to-body ratio, one of the highest we’ve seen on a smartphone. To do that, Vivo had to move things around and put more features under the display itself.

Sure, there’s a tiny chin at the bottom of the phone, but it’s not really something you’ll notice during everyday use, unless, maybe, you’re obsessive compulsive.

On the midrange NEX A, you’ll find a fingerprint sensor at the back of the phone. On the higher end NEX S, the fingerprint sensor is under the display — a feature Vivo first put on the X20 UD and X21. It’s something that might take a lot of getting used to, and in the past week of using the under-display method, I found myself entering my passcode more than using the scanner because it fails too often.

It would have been nice to have face unlock as a backup, but up top, there are no cameras to do that. It’s hidden inside the phone, and shows up only when activated on the camera app, but I’ll talk about that more later.

The NEX also does away with the traditional earpiece and replaces it with what Vivo calls Screen SoundCasting technology, which transforms the display into a speaker. Like most new tech, it works, but nothing beats the tried and tested front-firing stereo speakers found on other smartphones if you’re looking for great audio.

The display is Super AMOLED, which means more saturated colors and darker blacks. The viewing experience is great, although I can’t say for certain I will miss the bezel-less experience when I switch to a different phone in the future. Also, it’s bright enough for my day-to-day use outdoors, unless I’m wearing sunglasses.

On the back of the phone is a glass panel. The phone doesn’t have wireless charging or any water-resistance rating. Instead, if you look closely, you’ll find thousands of dynamic color diffraction units.

Compared to bright colors and gradients, the black NEX looks rather boring for a phone from the future. The design feature on the back is so subtle, it only shows when it’s hit by harsh lights.

Yes, the phone emits rainbows like a unicorn.

You can also see it indoors.

Apart from that, the phone looks and feels premium overall. The rounded corners offer a comfortable grip, and it feels like one solid piece of glass with no sharp edges.

And in case you’re wondering: There is a headphone jack.

Cameras: Cool and capable

Having a mechanical pop-up camera has its repercussions, but first let’s take a moment to appreciate how awesome this piece of tech really is.

A handful of curious people actually came up to me while shooting this around Moscow and when I showed them how it pops up, their jaws dropped.

If you’re wary about durability, Vivo says the camera has undergone drop- and dust-resistance tests, and can repeatedly elevate and retract up to 50,000 times. I did the math myself, and that’s around 137 years if you only take one selfie per day and 6.8 years if you shoot 20 each day. At this point, I can’t say if that claim is accurate, but the selfie camera feels well built and hasn’t shown any signs of wear and tear yet.

The whole process doesn’t feel as fast as a normal selfie camera would, only because a physical part of the phone moves; it’s honestly not something that would bother anyone over time. If you check the smartphone you’re using now, you’ll notice that switching to the front camera also doesn’t happen as fast as you’d think. After getting over the wow factor, I got so used to how natural the process is — so much so that I eventually forgot that the front camera needs to pop up before I take a selfie.

Inside is an 8-megapixel lens, with Face Beauty options for both photo and video modes. I appreciate that it makes my skin less oily and eyebags smaller, but I don’t really like how it flattens my cheeks, and makes my irises artificially bigger, rounder, and blacker.

One thing that makes the selfie camera stand out for me, aside from the fact that it literally stands out, is how well it handles dynamic range. For scenarios like this, you either get a blown-out window to keep my face well-exposed, or an underexposed subject with a properly lit background.

Here’s another one I took by my hotel window thanks to the palm gesture. The AI HDR feature on the Vivo NEX is able to balance it out, resulting in a photo that looks as if I have another light source (I didn’t).

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The same AI HDR feature also functions on the dual rear cameras. It works really well, although some photos turn out oversharpened.

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Both the front and rear cameras have portrait mode, which separates the foreground from the background and blurs the latter out. Like most phones we’ve reviewed, the bokeh still looks artificial, but the one taken with the rear shooters looks a lot more polished than that of the selfie cam.

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In indoor and low-light scenarios, the phone does a pretty good job at capturing details and minimizing noise. Some photos have mushier details up close, as it tries to compensate for the lack of light sources.

One thing I always ask myself when testing smartphone cameras is this: Can I rely on it to take Instagram-worthy photos when traveling? In this case, the Vivo NEX ticks that box and that’s saying a lot considering it’s my first time in Russia. My only complaint is the lack of a useful secondary camera. A telephoto or wide-angle lens would be great while watching the World Cup or avoiding crowds in framing touristy landmarks.

Check out more photos I took with the Vivo NEX below and on my Instagram.

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Is this your GadgetMatch?

The Vivo NEX is no longer the concept phone we saw at Mobile World Congress in February. Our first glimpse into the future is here; it’s exciting and looks great.

If you want to be one of the first to step into that, then by all means get the phone if you can and if it’s within your budget. For a smartphone from Vivo, the price is a little steep — CNY 3,898 (US$ 608) for the NEX A, and CNY 4,498 (US$ 702) for the NEX S. That’s more than its other value-for-money flagship counterparts like the OnePlus 6 and Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S. It’s also only available in China for now.

But what the NEX offers are features other smartphones don’t have. It’s a phone that you’d want to show off to your friends, and they’ll surely want to see it, too.

Its defining feature is a beautiful, unique design that changes the way we’ve been using the smartphone: under-display fingerprint sensor, the display as a speaker, and a pop-up camera. Even then, the learning curve is not that high if you do decide to switch. Once you get over all the new tech, using the phone will feel as natural and normal as any other phone you’ve gotten used to.

I can’t say for certain that it’s the best in the market today, but this is undoubtedly Vivo’s best smartphone to date. And in so many ways, what Vivo made here is already comparable to a lot of premium smartphones, one that’s more than deserving of your time and consideration.

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