Reviews

Sony Xperia XZ review

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At Berlin’s IFA 2016 trade show in Germany, Sony announced the Xperia XZ, its latest signature phone that, according to the company, offers the very best technologies it has to offer. 

At $699 unlocked, the XZ isn’t cheap — it’s right up there with the biggest names in the industry. That said, one has to wonder whether it’s actually worth the premium, or if there are other choices on the market that could be an even better fit.

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The Xperia XZ supports dual SIMs and up to 64GB of expandable storage depending on the market.

Did Sony do better than Samsung this year, better than Apple? In a word, no. The Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 remain our top choices for smartphone of the year. (Maybe Google’s Pixel will have something to say about that?)

Which is important to note because Sony badly needs a superphone to turn around its slumping mobile business. Sales are down 40 percent year-on-year for the second quarter of 2016, and Sony has reduced forecasts for the midrange segment and downsized operations in “unprofitable regions.”

Unfortunately for the Japanese electronics giant, the XZ isn’t the savior it had hoped for. But it is a solid effort.

Familiar, but improved in the right ways

Sony hasn’t always been a fan of drastic cosmetic changes, and it shows on the Xperia XZ. If you’ve seen the Xperia Z5 or Z5 Premium from the previous year, you’ve essentially seen the XZ.

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Water-resistant, not waterproof.

A thick plastic frame bonds two blocky, rectangular panels; all the physical buttons are on the right edge, exactly where you expect them to be; the SIM and microSD cards go into the left side of the phone; the top and bottom edges remain flat; there are two stereo speakers on the front — smaller, this time around, but just as nice-sounding. The XZ, like Sony’s recent smartphone efforts, likewise isn’t afraid of water. Just don’t dunk it in the pool or in a glass of water because it isn’t waterproof.

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The slippery glass back of the Z5, however, was jettisoned for the latest installment. The rear now consists of two metal parts, with the lower section painted in a darker finish. It is made of what Sony calls “alkaleido metal,” which makes it more lustrous and, in Sony’s mind at least, more visually appealing than plain Jane metal. The material also, however, makes fingerprints and smudges easier to see under the right light and angles.

This is Sony at its finest when it adopts a minimalist and unbending approach to designing the next smartphone superstar.

Subtle but welcome refinements are what separates the current Sony flagship from its predecessors. With the exception of the awkwardly positioned volume rocker, every tweak to the formula enhances the phone’s beauty, its handling, or both. The glass on the front gently spills toward the sides, and so does the metal back cover, creating a symmetrical look that compliments the overall aesthetic perfectly. The sides are contoured to make things look neater and one-handed operation, less troublesome.

This is Sony at its finest when it adopts a minimalist and unbending approach to designing the next smartphone superstar. And although some people may not like what they see, particularly the big chin below the screen that serves no purpose other than to make the front look symmetrical, we happen to like the look and feel of the Xperia XZ. A lot, to be honest. It’s a breath of fresh air in an industry full of Apple and Samsung copycats, and it’s plenty comfortable to use for anyone with smallish hands.

Loaded optics

The XZ sports a rear-facing camera with more bells and whistles than any Sony smartphone camera that preceded it. We’re talking a 23-megapixel sensor; a wide-angle lens with f/2.0 aperture; an RGB sensor for better color fidelity; advanced optical image stabilization to steady shots and footage; and laser autofocus to improve focus accuracy and speed. Throw in 4K video recording, augmented-reality effects, plus several other software tricks, and you’ve got a solid camera package, right?

Well, yes and no. On one hand, it’s fun to play around with some of the phone’s shooting modes; on the other hand, we’re not convinced its 23-megapixel camera is the best on the market. It’s not even the second-best, or even the third-best. Nor is it the fastest, which, for all its purported dazzle, is rather disappointing. Focusing, as we found out, is slow, even unreliable at times, and many of our night shots showed a purple haze, something we weren’t able to replicate with the Galaxy S7 and the iPhone 7.

The XZ is one of those phones that seems like it was specifically designed to render an HD video or a high-quality mobile game.

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The XZ has a loaded 23-megapixel rear camera.

Good, not exceptional

An unassuming home button along the right-hand side does double duty as a fingerprint reader (in non-U.S. markets, unfortunately), which we found to be surprisingly quick and accurate, despite what its size and shape may indicate. Being located on the side of the XZ rather than on the front or on the back means users can easily unlock the device no matter which way it faces. By design or accident, its location favors righties, as their thumb naturally lands on the sensor when they pick up the handset or take it out of their pocket.

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Its screen is as good as it gets for an LCD panel.

The 5.2-inch LCD display is 1080p, the bare minimum for a flagship device. But don’t let that mislead you. In typical Sony fashion, the screen is top-notch and is easily one of the best out there. Color accuracy and contrast levels are excellent; black are inky, allowing for plenty of depth to an image or video; viewing angles are absolutely super, with zero color shift even at extreme angles.

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So, what does all this translate to in terms of daily use? Viewing pleasure, that’s what this is all about. The XZ is one of those phones that seems like it was specifically designed to render an HD video or a high-quality mobile game. Had it been a tad bigger, its screen, a lot sharper (at Quad HD), it would’ve served as a compelling counter to Samsung’s “AMOLED is better than LCD” movement.

Specs-wise, the XZ sees a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 under the exterior, coupled with 3GB of memory and up to 64GB of onboard storage. For its asking price, one might expect more RAM or more storage, of which none are present here. That shouldn’t bother anyone too much, because this phone will run everything you throw at it smoothly. In the few weeks we’ve used it, our test unit never ran out of RAM, nor had issues with keeping multiple apps alive in the background.

There’s better value to be found in the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the Apple iPhone 7.

Battery life can be summed up in one word: average. It doesn’t have the same longevity as older Sony models and devices in the Xperia Compact range, but the XZ can cover a a full day of active use. A more judicial usage involving less time connected to an LTE network and more time on Sony’s Stamina (read: battery-saving) mode should push 2,900mAh battery to a day and a half, albeit obviously at the expense of a few functions.

Fast charging is supported, but you’ll need to purchase a compatible Type-C charger to utilize the feature. Sony will happily sell you one if you’re unsure of which charger to buy.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you don’t mind paying iPhone money for a premium phone that can get wet, Sony’s Xperia XZ is a decent pick. But there’s better value to be found in the Samsung Galaxy S7, which has a sharper and more vibrant display and a camera that doesn’t back down from difficult situations. If you’re a fan of iOS, or if you already own an Apple device or two, though, you’ll be better off with the iPhone 7. Either phone can withstand water splashes and spills, too.

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A closer look at the hardware.

 

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The back is made of lustrous metal.

 

[irp posts=”4954″ name=”Apple iPhone 7 loses to Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge in DxOMark camera test”]

Reviews

realme X3 SuperZoom review: An absolute steal

Flagship. Killer.

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realme did it again. They managed to offer flagship level performance for a phone that’s half the price of most flagships today with the realme X3 SuperZoom.

Just take a quick look at this chart to see what we’re working with.

Price Range (PhP) Snapdragon 855+ 120Hz Screen Refresh Rate Snapdragon 855+ (or higher) and 120Hz Screen Refresh Rate
20K-30K realme X3 SuperZoom
30K-40K OnePlus 7T Pro OnePlus 8
40K-50K Vivo NEX 3, OPPO Reno 10X Zoom One Plus 8 Pro
50K+ Galaxy Note 10 Series Galaxy Note 20 Series (Exynos processors in PH) ROG Phone 2, OPPO Find X2 Pro

The realme X3 SuperZoom is in flagship company specs-wise, but at PhP 24,990 (US$ 505), it sits right in the middle of the upper midrange segment. I didn’t even include the configuration which is 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. This smartphone is, without a doubt, a steal.

As good as advertised 

But those are just the specs, right? How does it actually perform? In a word — admirably.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been merrily juggling the iPhone 11 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, and the realme X3 SuperZoom as my primary devices. Being used alongside two performance heavyweights, the realme X3 SuperZoom doesn’t miss a beat.

One of the desktop tools we use to schedule posts on Facebook has been extremely erratic of late. As a stopgap measure, we found a mobile alternative.

Scheduling several posts on your phone isn’t ideal. It involves a lot of switching from app-to-app and can get very frustrating if the phone you’re using isn’t equipped to handle that load.

Thankfully, that’s not the case with the X3 SuperZoom. I could be holding any of the three phones at any given time and if I needed to do work, there were no hiccups whatsoever.

Naturally, I also did a little bit of everything that you would do on your phone. There’s the inevitable blackhole of scrolling through social media, playing a match or two of Call of Duty Mobile, watching K-Pop music videos and fancams, and everything else in between.

Problems encountered on the X3 SuperZoom while doing these? Zero. None. Zilch.

The cameras are fantastic

Going anywhere from wide to up to 10X Zoom should give you a photo worthy of your Facebook timeline or Twitter feed.

Let me share again this post just to illustrate what I mean.

Color reproduction is mostly accurate but tends to pop more if you turn on AI-assist.

I’m also a fan of how it handles night mode. In the past, some night modes tended to just overlight a shot. This isn’t the case with realme. From my experience, it truly analyzes the scene and applies an appropriate level of post-processing.

The SuperZoom is okay. My feelings over highlighting zoom capabilities remain the same — which is mostly this.

One Punch Man GIF by memecandy - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

The engineering to achieve the feat is truly remarkable, but the use-case for most people is just non-existent.

There’s another phone I’m waiting for that sits right around the same price range. Will do a more comprehensive photo comparison when that comes around.

A capable video camera

One camera feature we rarely get to test is the videos. Thankfully, this phone launched alongside the realme Watch, so I tried my hand at making a video shot mostly with the X3 SuperZoom.

All the spiels were shot using the 32MP front-facing camera with bokeh effect on. These are 720P at 30FPS clips, in case you’re wondering.

The rest of BRoll was shot using the rear-camera, with the exception of some clips showing the phone itself.

Naturally, I post-processed the videos using a desktop software (Final Cut Pro). However, if you’re only working with your phone, you can try apps like InShot, Filmora, or CapCut for video editing.

I shot the spiels and the rest of the clips during one hot afternoon. The spiels were especially challenging for the phone since it was exposed to direct sunlight during about an hour and a half of shooting.

That said, I still wrapped the shooting with about 15-19 percent of battery left. And the phone wasn’t even fully charged. It did get pretty hot, but it surprisingly never conked out whereas other phones would have already done so.

Not exactly a premium build 

If there’s anything to nitpick about the phone, it’s probably its build and button placements. These aren’t at all dealbreakers, but I feel they’re worth mentioning.

When it comes to build and feel on hand, the phone isn’t fragile at all. But, for me at least, it doesn’t have that extra oomph you feel when you’re holding flagships that cost north of PhP 45,000 (US$ 910).

The front and back are certainly glass, but the sides are plastic. That contributes to a lesser heft which is partially responsible for that premier feeling.

Still on the sides, instead of being flushed together on the right hand side, the volume buttons sit on the left-hand side.

Meanwhile, the power button/side-mounted fingerprint sensor (fantastic sensor placement and choice!) is on the right-hand side.

For a smartphone with a 6.6-inch display with a considerable overall footprint, it’s quite a challenge operating it on one hand, especially when you want to adjust the volume.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra, for instance, is a much larger phone, but I never had this volume adjustment inconvenience since all the buttons are flushed on the right side. That said, this is a nitpick and one I can most certainly live with.

But kudos to realme on the matte back finish. It’s not a fingerprint magnet and that’s a quality every phone should strive for.

Is this your GadgetMatch? 

The realme X3 SuperZoom has a lot going for it. You have a flagship-level processor, a display feature that’s mostly reserved for only the most expensive flagships, and cameras that can more than hold their own.

In fact, the SuperZoom on its name might even be underselling the product. Because it’s certainly more than its Zoom capabilities which, I feel, isn’t even the best part of this phone.

However, the real kicker here is the price. Retailing for only PhP 24,990 (US$ 505), this smartphone is an absolute steal. And it’s right in line with what realme has been doing all this time — offering fantastic value for less.

If you’re looking for flagship-level performance but do not have the resources to grab the premium ones, then the realme X3 SuperZoom should be one of your top choices.

SEE ALSO: realme has been a true disruptor

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Reviews

Redmi Note 9S review: The healthy, underappreciated middle ground

The right mix of everything in one device that won’t break your wallet

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The Redmi Note 9S, in my opinion, finds itself in a bit of a “struggle.” It follows the seemingly perfect older sibling in the Redmi Note 9 Pro Max, although shares most of the same hardware. There’s even its younger sibling, the Redmi Note 9 with the major difference being in the storage options and price point.

You will breeze past this smartphone if you’re an extremist with your decision-making. You’ll either go for the phone that’s the priciest but most powerful, or the budget-friendly one. The Redmi Note 9S will find itself lodged in that gray area.

But, maybe it’s an area worth looking at — for once. Here’s what the Redmi Note 9S is offering:

It has a 6.67” FHD+ DotDisplay with Corning Gorilla Glass 5

It comes with a 48MP AI-powered quad camera

The fingerprint sensor is found on the right side, integrated with the power button

And at the bottom are the speaker grilles, USB-C port, and 3.5mm headphone jack

Overall performance that just hits right

The Redmi Note 9S comes with a Snapdragon 720G processor inside, with the model I tested having 6GB of RAM. Upon initial use, I found the phone to be quite fast and responsive. It was a breeze navigating through MIUI, and how quick apps opened up. Multitasking using different apps went just as expected with the hardware.

Even gaming full time on this device feels just right. MIUI 11 comes with Game Turbo for this device, and I honestly found this very useful for shooter games. Call of Duty Mobile plays seamlessly while hitting around 60 FPS, while Fortnite is fairly decent — mostly because of the 30 FPS cap. The device doesn’t throttle to boost performance, and it even maximizes battery usage.

Plus, the 6.67-inch DotDisplay is pretty bright even under direct sunlight. I even tried playing some games and watch Netflix out under the sun, and I could see the details. Honestly, I felt like I was getting exactly what I needed out of the hardware the phone came with. I just wish that the notch was placed somewhere else since it obstructs your view while watching.

A surprisingly great quad camera

I say “surprisingly” because of how I’m used to smartphones under Php 15,000 having relatively okay cameras. The 48MP AI-powered quad camera setup produced great images with clear cut details in them. Colors don’t seem to be sacrificed with each shot, although I can’t say the same when in the dark.

In my experience, I still spotted a bit of grain but that was mostly when I zoomed in on the images. Plus, you can record 4K videos with the camera, albeit only at 30 FPS.

The selfie camera wasn’t too shabby, either — especially during Portrait Mode. I even felt like my face was glowing with every selfie I took. What did it for me was the way the AI blurred everything else in the background when using this mode. Even when you’re not using Portrait Mode, it’s still a great front camera to put in.

These aren’t Leica-levels of great, nor do they compare to most iPhones out there in terms of cameras. But if you needed an alternative, the cameras on this device come close by a little bit.

The battery just keeps you going for more than a day

The Mi website notes that the Redmi Note 9S can last up to 33 hours on calls, 16 hours watching videos, and 13 hours gaming full time. This mostly all comes from the 5,250 mAh battery inside, which you can also find in the Note 9 and Note 9 Pro. Upon my own usage of it, I got about 30 hours doing pretty much all of that.

At one point, I even did all of these things, went to sleep, and woke up to around 20 percent battery life. I even put up the brightness to 90% while doing all those things, and it’s clear: the phone lasts real long on a single charge.

Charging the device had me a little confused, mostly because of the fast charging capabilities. The device comes with a 18W fast-charging adapter that ran a full charge for about two hours. However, I only felt the fast charging kick in after it reached 60 percent as it took about an hour from 0-60. I mean, at least you still get to use your phone right away when you drain the battery.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

Starting at PhP 10,490 (US$212), the Redmi Note 9S finds itself as the great balance of power and affordability. It serves as a middle ground between the budget Note 9, and the premium and powerful Note 9 Pro. It has everything you need in a modern smartphone, in a price range that’s reachable too.

It’s an easy recommendation for anyone looking to buy a great smartphone for any use case. It lasts long enough that you won’t need to charge it overnight, and puts you right back in once it fully charges. I honestly believe you can live with the little grain in the camera and the obstructive notch placement.

All in all, the Redmi Note 9S does not compromise much in terms of performance. Every nifty feature you need in a modern smartphone, it gives you that. It’s the middle child that deserves some loving, too.

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Accessories

Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 review: Affordable, but far from perfect

Xiaomi’s premium TWS offering

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The truly wireless earphones market is filled with a plethora of options today, ranging from entry-level offerings like the Redmi Earbuds S to the premium Sony WF-1000XM3. However, the most popular TWS earphones are from Apple — the AirPods.

AirPods kickstarted the TWS trend, and since then, pretty much every brand has jumped onboard. Xiaomi is known for its reliable yet affordable products, and it has launched a few options previously, but it was limited to its home market of China.

Now, the brand has finally launched the Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 in India, and it’s pretty much half the price of Apple’s AirPods.

The Redmi Earbuds S is an entry-level offering while Mi branding is now used for the company’s premium offerings. TWS earphones are incredibly convenient to use, and their demand is consistently rising. Can the Mi TWS 2 offer maximum features for the price and go against the competition?

Do they look like the AirPods?

 

At first sight, you’d think they are the AirPods for a quick second. But it’s soon clear that they aren’t. This is something I appreciate about the Mi TWS 2. In a market filled with AirPods knockoffs, it’s nice to see a different design. However, don’t set your expectations too high.

The earbud’s stem is exceptionally thick, and this is easily noticeable from the side. Thankfully, it doesn’t look that thick from the front view and is oval. The stem is also considerably long, giving the earbud a very bulky look.

The polycarbonate build has a matte finish on the stem while the driver is smooth and shiny. I feel the earphones were designed with utility and features in mind, and aesthetics took a back seat.

If the bulkier design can add more battery life and better drivers, I’m okay with it. This may not be the case with many since they tend to look like cheap AirPods knockoffs.

Each earbud weighs just 4 grams, and they slide in your ears very smoothly. Putting them on is a quick task, and for calls, while driving, these are exceedingly convenient to wear single-handedly. The semi-open design is supposed to be fit-for-all. But, this is where my primary concern lies.

How’s the overall user experience?

The earbuds fit perfectly and are rather stable. But the satisfaction of wearing an earbud is utterly absent because of reduced noise isolation. Even though they’ve never automatically snuggled out, I’m always afraid of losing them while walking. The confidence to wear them outdoors is low.

These too sport gesture-based controls, and the result is below satisfaction. I’d have to try a few times before they actively receive the command. Even play/pause function is rather cumbersome and paired with the loose fit; I’m afraid they don’t fall off.

Thankfully, they have an optical sensor that automatically plays/pauses a song when the earbud is worn or removed. Most times, I’d simply remove them from my ear instead of relying on the gesture buttons.

Lastly, the case is quite basic from a design point of view but gets the job done properly. The plastic build is solid, the lid has magnetic detection, and the earbuds aren’t finicky when plugged for charging. A small LED light on the front will show you the case’s battery status. A USB-C port is located on the bottom.

Pairing them is a straightforward task, and Xiaomi phones will automatically pop-up the status menu just like it’s on iOS. It’ll show you each earbud’s battery percentage along with the case.

But do they sound good?

The brand has added a lot of features on the audio side to make the product look premium. It has support for multiple codecs like SBC, AAC, and LHDC. The last one allows high-resolution audio streaming via Bluetooth. I used the Redmi Note 9 Pro Max to test the Mi TWS 2 and it automatically leveraged the AAC band.

Each earbud houses a 14.2mm audio driver, which isn’t the biggest. But, much of the audio output relies on tuning. Sound testing is also very subjective, so I’ll try to address everyone’s choice.

To start with, the output is very crisp and clear, and the vocals are perfectly heard. If you’re into Bollywood songs or even pop, these should be ideal for you.

Unlike the usual tuning, we see in Indian products; the bass here is well managed. It isn’t too much and ultimately does justice for every user. I’d say these are your GadgetMatch if you listen to podcasts and audiobooks.

The drivers are massively let down by non-existent noise isolation. The design of the earbuds inherently means you can hear pretty much everything happening around you. Even at maximum volume, it just didn’t feel enough.

Lastly, they have “Environment Noise Cancellation” that automatically kicks in when you’re on a call. Background noise is reduced drastically, and everyone I called could feel the change. The overall voice clarity is immensely improved, and high-winds too couldn’t deter them.

How long can they last?

Xiaomi claimed the earbuds can last up to four hours on a single charge and it’s on-point. I was able to get almost four hours with volume at 80 percent.

The case is capable of providing 10 hours of backup, taking the total to fourteen. Thankfully, the case takes just an hour to charge.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re an audiophile, the simple answer is no. The Mi TWS 2 will disappoint you in many ways. However, if you’re looking for work-related earphones, these are perfect.

Calls are ultra-clear, and the overall experience is better thanks to a loose fit. Keep them on, and get through a full day’s work. On the audio side, hip-hop or bass-intensive genre may not suit well here. However, all other vocal-centric songs shall swing by without a hitch.

With a price of INR 4,499, the Mi True Wireless Earphones 2 is a solid competitor. When compared to the realme Buds Air, these lose out on aesthetics. But, the minor additions from a function point of view are worth the slight bump in price.

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