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Samsung Galaxy S9 Review: Brilliant but underwhelming

Brilliant but underwhelming

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For any creator serious about his craft, the end goal is the same — to create the best version of a product possible. You achieve this through innovation and experimentation, in rinse and repeat cycles until something great is created.

But then what happens next?

It’s a predicament shared by many of the best technology brands in the biz, and one that Samsung finds itself in this year. Its new Galaxy S9 smartphone, while better on the inside, is the same on the outside. And while that is only part of the story told, it is the narrative by which many a reviewer will tell the story of Samsung’s new flagship.    

Depending on who’s looking, the Galaxy S9’s recycled design can be seen any of two ways: either that it lacks the freshness that phones are so often measured by each year, or that Samsung has achieved the pinnacle of smartphone design and that the best way forward is to keep things as is.

The Galaxy S9 shimmers in Lilac Purple / Photo by Michael Josh

I agree more with the latter, at least when it comes to looks. Two years in and the S9 is still the most beautiful smartphone on the planet. Its curved Infinity Display and all-glass build are hard to match. And now with colors ranging from coral blue to lilac purple, it’s hard not to fall in love with one at first sight.      

But are looks enough? Does the Samsung Galaxy S9 have enough new features to back up its good looks? Is it the best Android smartphone ever made? And should you go out and buy it?  

But first, more answers to your most important S9-related questions.

Is dual aperture a gimmick?

Samsung claims it’s reimagined the smartphone camera on the S9. While that might be more marketing than fact, it’s dual aperture camera is an unprecedented engineering feat.

No Android smartphone thus far has had the ability to change the aperture on a single lens. On the S9, you can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4. But why would you want that?

The Galaxy S9 has a unique variable aperture camera

A large aperture gives your photos that creamy background blur when shooting up close, but more importantly helps you take brighter, better photos in low light.

The S9’s f/1.5 is the highest aperture we’ve seen on a smartphone and significantly improves night shots. In fact photos we took at night using the S9 looked brighter than what the scene actually looked like in real life.

Why then would you need to switch to f/2.4?

The higher aperture, the bigger the depth of field. Sometimes details get too soft especially around subjects and sometimes you just want more details in focus; that’s where the smaller f/2.4 comes in.

The Galaxy S9 picks the best aperture depending on how much available light / Photo by Michael Josh

To be honest, the average user should not have to worry about any of this, and Samsung doesn’t think so either, so it’s making these adjustments in the background. With the goal being, you getting better photos regardless of the shooting situation.

For more advanced users wanting more control, there is Pro Mode that lets you manually switch between the two among a host of other camera settings.

Does the Galaxy S9 take better photos versus X?

DxOMark, an independent body that rates cameras, recently gave the S9+ its highest overall score and highest photo score. While the results of its test are debatable, it’s oftentimes a good benchmark to see how a smartphone fares in the camera space.

We will need more time to conduct an in-depth head-to-head test of our own, but based on some preliminary comparison photos versus the Pixel 2 and against the iPhone X shot during the day, deciding on which smartphone takes the best photos will boil down to a matter of taste or how technically meticulous you are.      

It’s in low light, however, that the Galaxy S9 shines, it is hands down the best low-light camera smartphone you can buy today.

Should I get the S9+ for the second camera?

The S9 comes in two sizes: 5.8 and 6.2 inches — the S9 and S9+ respectively.

If you get the bigger S9+, you not only get more memory (6GB vs 4GB), a bigger battery (3500mAh vs 3000mAh), and a larger screen. You also get two rear cameras.

The Galaxy S9+ has two rear cameras / Photo by Chay Lazaro

This second camera is a 2x zoom lens, a great thing to have if you like getting in closer on subjects without sacrificing the quality of your photos.

The second camera also enables a feature called Live Focus which we’ve also seen on the Note 8 and the A8 (2018) series. It’s a must-have feature on any top-of-the-line smartphone, giving your portraits a nice blurred background. Unique to Samsung’s implementation is the ability to adjust the amount of blur while taking the photo and after, and if you decide you like the non-portrait, wide-angle version better, the S9 also keeps a copy for you.   

These two features justify the US$ 120 premium of the S9+. If you’re torn between the two, it is the model I recommend.

Selective Focus on the S9 isn’t very reliable

It’s worth pointing out that on the S9, you can still blur out backgrounds using a software feature called Selective Focus, but it’s just not as good at cutting out subjects from their background.

Art Bokeh on the Galaxy S9+ / Photo by Joshua Vergara

Speaking of, if you’re really serious about background blur, Samsung added a new feature on the S9+ called Art Bokeh. If the conditions are right, when you go in and adjust Background Blur on a Live Focus image, you’ll get a bunch of shape options to choose from. You can get bokeh in the shape of stars or hearts as shown in the image above.

Super slow-mo 960fps, so what?

To better appreciate the next two features, you have to understand Samsung’s target demographic, a generation of creators who have an affinity for sharing and expression.   

If you like creating shareable videos, GIFs, and Boomerangs, you might like Samsung new super slow-mo feature. On the S9, you are able to slow down time more than ever before on a Galaxy smartphone.

To capture the best super slow-mos, you need plenty of light. The sample below was shot inside a controlled environment with plenty of available light.


The Sony Xperia XZ Premium was the first to get this feature, one whole year ago. Slow-mos shot on both phones are rather similar in terms of quality, with the S9’s slow-mos a tad bit warmer.  

On the S9 though, it’s easier to operate. Auto Mode detects motion and starts capturing once it senses movement. This way you get the shot each time.

But Auto Mode works best when you can control what you’re shooting. Out in the real world, you’re best using manual capture; you’ll need plenty of practice to get your timing right.

Finally, when you shoot super slow-mo video, the S9 adds background music automatically so you can instantly share your creations to Facebook or Instagram. You can go in and edit the track or just remove it entirely.

Not Animojis

When the iPhone X launched last year, one of its more quirky features was Animojis, basically the ability to animate nine popular emoji using the phone’s face tracking features.

The iPhone X has True Depth sensors that can match muscle movements on your face so your Animoji basically does as you do. Samsung hoped to do one better on the S9 with a similar feature called AR Emoji. Unfortunately, we didn’t enjoy it as much.

While we like the ability to personalize and create characters after our own likeness, we feel more often than not, AR Emoji characters don’t look like the selfies they are based on.

But more bothersome is the fact that AR Emoji don’t track as well. They especially struggle when trying to match speech. So nope, AR Emoji Karaoke is out of the question.  

Send animated stickers featuring your own emoji

We do like the personalized animated stickers, though. They are cool, and we like how you can use them across any or all of your favorite chat apps. They are accessible by pressing the sticker icon on your default Samsung keyboard, and are also saved as GIFs in your Gallery app.

Stereo speakers

Audio has just gotten better on the S9.

If you’re like me and watch a lot of videos or play games without headphones, you’ll like the new stereo speaker setup on the S9. Sound comes out of the earpiece up front, and the speaker grilles on the phone’s bottom. The sound is louder and more pronounced.  

The S9 also now supports Dolby Atmos, so you get surround sound-like audio when listening to content that supports it. Last year, Netflix announced support for Atmos with titles like Okja and Snowpiercer, but it doesn’t quite seem to work on the S9 yet.

Hello Bixby

Like Apple and Google, Samsung has its own personal assistant, Bixby.

And to show you its committed to Bixby, the S9 retains the S8’s dedicated Bixby button. If it’s not your cup of tea, you can deactivate the button completely, but you cannot remap it as a shortcut to other apps or commands. That would have been a killer feature.

Samsung promises Bixby 2.0 will come next August or September when it unveils the Note 9. For now, it remains underdeveloped.

Bixby Vision can estimate how many calories are in the meal you’re about to have

Sure, Bixby can do new things, like live translation when ordering food overseas. And when your meal arrives, you can also have Bixby give you an estimate of how many calories you’re about to consume. Cool tricks, but they do not replace a good old personal assistant.

In the interim, I suggest you use Google Assistant; it’s accessible via the usual voice command, “Okay Google.”

Improved biometrics

One way to recognize the S9 from an S8 is to turn the phone around and look at the position of its fingerprint sensor. Proving that it listens to user feedback, Samsung has graciously located it to underneath the camera instead of beside it.

It’s in a much better place, but unfortunately it’s still too close to the camera, and part of one single unit, instead of being separate. In my week or so of use, I’ve often brushed my S9 camera’s lens while trying to unlock my phone.  

Intelligent Scan on the Galaxy S9 combines facial recognition and iris scanning / Photo by Michael Josh

It’s kinda a big deal for me as the fingerprint sensor is still my default way of unlocking the phone. It’s just quicker, snappier, and more reliable even if Samsung has beefed up its “Intelligent Scan” by integrating its facial recognition and iris scanner.

Price jump

A smartphone’s price tag is as important as any new feature. And when it comes to determining the S9’s value, it’s important to take a look at how much the S9 costs around the globe.

Prices of the S9 went up everywhere except the US / Photo by Michael Josh

Here’s the thing: In the US, the S9 and S9+ cost as much as the S8 and the S8+ when they launched. But across the globe, prices increased by 5 to 15 percent.

Do all these features justify the price increase? No.

But having said that, when compared to the iPhone X, the S9+ is still more affordable, so there’s that. Depending on where you are in the world, the S9 and S9+ might not be the best value for money phone. But they are at least pretty competitive in the upper end of the price spectrum.

Is the Galaxy S9 your GadgetMatch?

If you’re looking for the best Android smartphones available today, the S9 and S9+ are a match. The S9+ especially is one the best Android phones in the market today.

Both models are deserving of the GadgetMatch Seal of Approval.

The Galaxy S9 is a pleasure to use / Photo by Michael Josh

Apart from an excellent camera and great looks, you’ll like the S9’s creator-focused features, loud stereo speakers, water resistance, and headphone jack. On the flip side, Bixby is still not ready, AR Emoji is unpolished, and battery life could be better.

The S9 and S9+ are not intended for S8 and S8+ users. If you own an S8, skip this upgrade and wait for next year.

Although, S7 and S7 Edge users might want to strongly consider this upgrade, especially if their contract is up for renewal. US carriers in particular are offering plenty of perks for those pre-ordering the phone.

For the more price conscious though, also consider not-so-premium phones from brands that may not sound as sexy as Samsung or Apple but offer all of these high-end specs at a lower, more reachable price point.

Following years of iteration, Samsung finally nailed it / Photo by Michael Josh

Following many years of iterating, Samsung seems to have nailed it. While in some ways the S9 is almost predictable, its purely iterative step-up also speaks to Samsung’s ability to make great phones. As a fan of innovation though, I want to see more, an under display fingerprint sensor maybe, better battery tech, and ways to leverage artificial intelligence to make their phones better. AI is the future, and it would be interesting to see glimpses of how Samsung plans to ensure their smartphone remains at the center of this computing revolution.

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Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time review: Worth the 22-year wait

This should have been the proper sequel to the trilogy

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When Crash Bandicoot resurfaced in 2017, I felt utter joy and nostalgia at the same time. Even though Crash Bandicoot: Warped was the first Crash game I ever played, the franchise became a great part of my childhood. With the release of the N. Sane Trilogy, it now gave new players an opportunity to experience some hardcore platforming that most late 90s kids remember.

Earlier this year, they announced the arrival of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. Activision, Vicarious Visions, Toys For Bob, and Beenox all came together to work on the trilogy’s “proper” platforming sequel. When I heard about this, I dropped everything and waited for as long as possible to get my hands on the game.

After finally playing, it’s honestly the Crash platforming sequel I had always wanted. There’s a big reason for that.

The original “Crash Bandicoot 4” just didn’t hold up well

See, before It’s About Time, there was actually another Crash Bandicoot dubbed as the fourth title: The Wrath of Cortex. It was released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube back in 2001-2002, almost 3-4 years after the original trilogy. For this game, the story centered around the presence of Crunch Bandicoot, another bandicoot creation of the game’s main antagonist, Dr. Neo Cortex.

Crash in The Wrath of Cortex for the PlayStation 2

The game itself received relatively average reviews, with most people simply feeling like it was a downgrade from the original. I tried playing the game again recently, and by 2020 standards, it feels unpolished. Gameplay as a whole was fairly janky, the story just doesn’t seem to add up, and it’s just a carbon copy of Warped but more slippery.

Level design for Tornado Alley in The Wrath of Cortex

So when Activision and Vicarious Visions announced that another Crash Bandicoot 4 was coming out, I had hoped that it wouldn’t end up like Wrath of Cortex. And boy, was I ever relieved that it didn’t.

Taking the premise of Wrath of Cortex, but making it better

It’s About Time takes place directly after the events of Warped — specifically the secret ending of the game after getting all the collectibles. Essentially, Cortex and his crime partner, Dr. Nefarious Tropy decide to simply open time rifts across the continuum. Aku Aku, the all-powerful mask that protects Crash, senses the impending danger and alerts Crash about it.

The whole game takes you through different time periods, even going as far as more recent events in the Crash universe. You are tasked to awaken different Quantum Masks that will help you in your quest to stop Cortex and N. Tropy. I honestly thought that they did the masks thing better than Wrath of Cortex in this regard.

As you progress through each level, you face a ton of challenging platform segments and waves of enemies and death-inducing obstacles. Within every other time period, you have boss levels with major recurring characters from all other past Crash games. In essence, it tries to incorporate the classic Crash formula, but enhances the experience. 

Plus, you get to go on adventures as either Crash or Coco. In some cases, you even get to play as Tawna Bandicoot, Dingodile, and Cortex himself! 

Gameplay that’s as smooth and difficult as the N. Sane Trilogy

One of the main things I was looking for in It’s About Time was consistency. I wanted this new Crash game to remain consistent with the remastered trilogy in terms of gameplay, character movement, and relative learning curve. See, the original trilogy was not an easy set of games to get around, especially if it’s your first time playing.

For long time Crash fans like myself, I felt that this game was more pain-staking yet just as smooth to control as the trilogy. Crash keeps some of his skills that he earns from Warped like the Super Body Slam and Double Jump, which I thought were the two logical ones to keep. However, you’re going to need more than just those abilities since the game throws so many obstacles later on.

It’s a painful grind to finishing the game at 100% completion this time around. Instead of collection crystals, you collect gems from accomplishing certain tasks within each level. From breaking every box to not having more than three deaths, these would require several perfect playthroughs. Honestly, that’s just insanely difficult to accomplish, and I’m all for it!

The most vibrant and creative game design in any Crash game

The moment you start your adventure to N. Sanity Peak, you’re already greeted to the gorgeous and colorful level design. I felt that Toys For Bob took a page out of their work on the Spyro: Reignited Trilogy with all the colors for each level. As you progress through the game, you’ll have brief moments to just take all of that in.

In terms of overall level design, it is a big step up from the N. Sane Trilogy in my opinion. For the most part, it gives you a different variety of level styles you haven’t seen in the original trilogy. From vine-swinging to rail-riding, the developers went all out to give you a different Crash game all together.

Furthermore, they even managed to sneak in similar obstacle patterns from the previous games. Something silly like timing challenges or platforming segments are just a few examples of these. I felt that these were put in here to cater to the long-time or hardcore Crash platformer fans.

Great deal of fan service and easter eggs

Apart from the sneaky insertion of familiar segments from older games, they also added a ton of small details referencing other games, as well. I mean, I wouldn’t call the giant Spyro float or the Spyro inflatable by the beach small details. However, the developers really threw in a ton of easter eggs.

Because I took my sweet time trying to get through every level, I noticed most of these the moment they came up. Most levels are sprawling with references to the purple dragon, or characters from older Crash games like Crash Bandicoot: The Huge Adventure. They even went all out to promote Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled in one time area.

Even if you’ve never played any Crash game before, you’d dart your eyes at them. I think Toys For Bob and Beenox made it a point to spoil you with all of these references. 

How things should have been

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time served its true purpose as the official fourth chapter of the Crash universe. It takes the core Crash formula and throws it into a brand new world, with a plot that makes sense in the grand scheme of things. I’d like to think that this whole game is just much more enhanced than the original trilogy all in all.

From the fantastic visuals to the difficult gameplay style, It’s About Time goes for an authentic yet novel approach. It will make you feel a great deal of awe while you constantly try to die less than 20 times every stage. It sticks to the brutal platforming mechanic it’s known for, while improving the experience.

I can honestly say that the absurdly long 22-year wait for a sequel to the trilogy was worth it. If you want to experience rage and fulfillment all in one game,  I highly suggest you pick this up.

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Lenovo Legion Phone Duel review: Raw gaming power

Everything you expect from a gaming smartphone

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Legion Phone Duel

One look at the Lenovo Legion Phone Duel and you know right away that it’s made for people who hardcore want to play. But smartphones are for more than just gaming and that balancing act is what Lenovo tried to achieve.

The company has an interesting messaging on why it’s named “Duel”. It’s mostly on how it was built, but it’s also about striking a balance between work and play. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s first unbox the phone.

The box looks fantastic and is easier to figure out than its primary competition.

Legion Phone Duel

Opening it up reveals the Legion Phone Duel. A mechanical door opening sound effect plays every time you open the box. 

Cheated a little bit here. The phone will be wrapped with the usual plastic protection when you first open it up.

Digging deeper into the box you’ll find the massive power brick with two USB-C ports for dual charging. More on that later.

Elsewhere inside the box is USB-C to 3.5mm audio jack, a sim tray ejector tool, and the user guide.

It also comes with a plastic case for “some” protection. It snaps on the phone any which way as part of the dual, symmetrical design.

Taking a closer look at the phone, at the back you’ll find Legion’s slogan: Stylish outside. Savage inside.

How well does it play? 

Let’s jump right into the gameplay. To launch games you have installed, the phone has the Legion Realm. It’s the gaming hub where you can customize how much of its combination of specs — Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 Plus and up to 16GB RAM — will be used for your gameplay session.

Funny thing is, it doesn’t seem to know exactly which apps are games or not. Upon firing it up the first time, it incorrectly identified Skype, Guitar Tuna and VSCO as gaming apps. You can, of course, manually take out and add apps, but this is a software kink that has to be fixed in an update.

Speaking of software kink, the Legion Phone Duel is built to go on landscape mode even on the home screen. But every time I try to enable auto-rotate, the screen kind of glitches for a second. It’s not that big of a deal but is worth mentioning.

Alright. Let’s jump in for real.

Call of Duty: Mobile

Legion Phone Duel

This is the game that I spend the most time with. On any given day, I would fire up a quick match when I need to step away from work for a while. I got pretty much the exact same sensations when I first played Call of Duty: Mobile on the ROG Phone 2.

The 144Hz screen refresh rate is smooth AF. It almost feels like you have an edge over the other players. Moving around and aiming the crosshair at my targets was easier.

This being a first-person shooter also really takes advantage of everything the phone has to offer. The shoulder buttons feel amazing and responsive. With this, you’ll be racking up kills in no time.

Genshin Impact

This is the game that I wish I could spend more time on. I typically don’t enjoy playing Action-RPG types on smartphones, but the combination of the phone’s raw power and stunning display along with the game’s design and gorgeous visuals made this such a fantastical experience.

Would like to note, though, that this is also the title where I experienced the most level of heating. It was nothing alarming, though and it mostly happened during days when it was also unbearably humid.

League of Legends: Wild Rift

Honesty hour again. For this game, I only really played the tutorial part — which I thought it handles better than Mobile Legends: Bang Bang. I personally get no kick playing these types of games, but if this is your jam, know that it looks great and plays really well on the Legion Phone Duel.

Asphalt 9 

This is the standard game for testing/playing racing games. The last time I played this though was on a budget tablet and I was pleasantly surprised at how good the game looks and plays on a high-end device.  Again, same satisfying experience all throughout.

Injustice 2

This is my go-to for trying fighting games, but like Action-RPG titles, I prefer to play fighting games on devices where I can button mash. That said, this game had the most noticeable graphical jump for me. I just don’t remember it looking this good on the other devices where I played it.

Delivers on gaming

As a gaming smartphone, the Legion Phone Duel impresses. All the design decisions that went into making this a truly satisfying gaming experience hits all the right spots.

The Dual Shoulder Controls with Dual Haptics feel great. The Legion assistant app is easy to access in-game and doesn’t feel intrusive. And it has just the right width and heft that won’t wear you out during extended gaming sessions.

The Dual front-firing speakers are okay. They’re great on a phone but since I regularly use HiFi audio accessories, it was easy to detect that it’s not able to register certain higher frequencies.

Fret not though, the Legion Phone Duel supports all kinds of HiFi audio format. If you have the gear for it, you’ll enjoy this even more.

Accessories? 

Lenovo says the Legion Phone Duel was built only as a phone in mind. With that, it doesn’t come with any special Legion-branded accessories at launch,

However, it is compatible with other more universal accessories. And if you have a keyboard and more, or another controller lying around, you should be able to connect the phone with the right kind of dock.

Weak point: Cameras 

The hardware is present: 64MP main camera and 16MP wide angle.

Even the design and camera position is thoughtful for what it’s trying to be. But the results are… well, they need improvement.

Some photos look like they have some sort of filter.

But every so often you will get a few good shots.

Be careful about shooting vertically, though as you might end up with something like this.

It’s decent indoors with a fair amount of lighting. 

But it really struggles at night. 

Occasionally, you’ll get something decent.

Up front is a 20MP Pop-up camera. 

Legion Phone Duel

It’s steady. Selfies are about as hit and miss as the rear cameras. You also get this nifty dual shot feature. 

But I used it more on a few video calls. It’s wide angle and captures a lot. Quality-wise, it’s decent. Better than any webcam on a laptop. 

Dual Charging 

Another dual aspect is charging. Instead of a single power cell, the Legion Phone Duel has two 2,500mAh situated on the sides of the phone as you hold it horizontally.

It also has two USB-C ports that you can use at the same time when juicing the phone up.

The results I got are as follows: 

  • Started “dual” charging at 10%
  • Got to 100% in 1:12:25
  • Started single charting at 43%
  • Got to 100% in 49:34

Battery life is around what you expect. On a regular day where you’re doing work and are just browsing and playing during breaks, you won’t need to top-up overnight.

But on days where you do nothing but play, expect to run it dry twice as fast than on a regular day.

Dual looks, other things of note

Like any other Android phone, you can customize the Lenovo Phone Duel depending on your preferences. For its part, Lenovo has a selection of default wallpapers that look hardcore gamer and casual user.

Legion Phone Duel

As a media device, this phone is also fantastic. The 6.65” FHD+ AMOLED Display is such a treat to the eyes. That’s true whether you’re watching K-Pop videos on Youtube.

Or perhaps catching up on your favorite Netflix series.

The display is also great even when you’re just casually browsing on social media.

Doubling down on its “dual” approach, the phone (In the Philippines at least), is available in only two variants.

  • Blazing Blue — 16GB+512GB
  • Vengeance Red — 12GB+256GB

Asked why this was the case, Lenovo channeled their inner Yes or Yes Mina saying it’s to make the choice more simple for the buyers. It will be available in all authorized resellers by November 1, 2020.

Is Legion Phone Duel your GadgetMatch?

Lenovo has a few things to fix on the software end. The hardware, though, is fantastic. As a gaming smartphone, the Legion Phone Duel won’t leave you wanting.

It has the raw power to play just about any mobile game. The display is gorgeous with a speedy response time. The front-firing speakers are good on their own but paired with HiFi audio accessories, and you’re in for quite an immersive treat.

Legion Phone Duel

It has the natural shortcomings of a first generation gaming phone — the photos just aren’t there yet. However, it has more to do with Lenovo’s software processing more than anything. With a few software updates, I don’t see how this can’t improve.

But to give a truly final verdict, we’re still missing one key component. Pricing. Price and bundles (if any) will be revealed on October 24, 2020 at the Legion launch in this year’s Electronic Sports and Gaming Summit (ESGS).

We’ll hold off a final verdict until then and will update this space once the pricing is final.

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OnePlus 8T Unboxing and Review

It’s more than just a design change

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A six-month lineup refresh isn’t nearly ideal to most Android brands but OnePlus is back at it again with a new smartphone!

The new OnePlus 8T offers more than just a design change. Performance will still be fast and snappy thanks to maxed-out internals, but the newer camera system is something most loyalists might like — or hate.

With the recent releases of the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE, Google Pixel 5, and even the newest Apple iPhone 12 mini, will OnePlus be able to justify its stand of offering the 8T at $50 more over the cheaper US$ 699 contenders?

Watch our OnePlus 8T unboxing and review by clicking this link.

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