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.

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.

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.

 

Reviews

Vivo V11 (V11 Pro) review: Innovation continues to reign

A step up from its competitors

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Vivo has a new midrange phone in town. After giving in-display fingerprint technology a try on flagship devices, it’s now available on midrange phones. This is the Vivo V11, a new midranger with all the usual features plus a unique one for its range.

Can the V11’s distinctive in-display fingerprint reader keep it ahead of the competition? Let’s find out in this review.

The phone sports a 6.41-inch Super AMOLED display

With a Full HD+ resolution and 19.5:9 aspect ratio

The notch has been drastically reduced

But it still has all the essentials like a selfie camera and front sensors

It’s not 100% bezel-less but the chin is minimal

Vivo claims a 91.27 percent screen-to-body ratio

Thankfully, it’s got a triple-card slot

This is how it should be

The buttons on its right are pretty confusing at first

I find them to be positioned a bit lower than usual

It’s 2018 yet Vivo still hasn’t embraced USB-C

At least it has quick charge technology

The back is a borrowed design from the V9 and X21

With added flair, of course

It still has dual rear cameras for shooting quality portraits

Equipped with AI and f/1.8 aperture

Slightly improved design over predecessor

As mentioned earlier, the V11 sports a familiar design. One might suspect it to be just the V9 at first glance, but it’s more of a repackaged X21. It’s got rounded corners with a rounded back that gives it a slimmer profile.

But of course, Vivo made improvements to the V11 and that’ll be the new so-called Halo FullView Display. With a tinier notch that’s even smaller (but not as aesthetically pleasing) than the OPPO F9’s, the V11 managed to have a more immersive display. Vivo claims a colossal 91.27 percent screen-to-body ratio with a 3.8mm chin.

Using a Super AMOLED panel, which is a first for the V series, Vivo is able to bring the in-display fingerprint technology to this segment. There’s an optical sensor hidden beneath the display of the V11. If you’ve seen the X21 or the NEX, you’ll get the same level of exclusivity for half the price.

And since there’s no need for a fingerprint reader at the back of the phone, Vivo is now more free to play with the rear panel. The growing trend of flashy gradients and patterns crawls to the V11, but in a more subtle way. The Starry Night variant blends black and blue with specks of dust creating a nice-looking fusion of sophistication and style.

Although, it’s pretty disappointing that Vivo opted to use polycarbonate (plastic) rather than glass for the V11’s back.

Powered by a better midrange processor

When it comes to power, Vivo finally decided to give what its midrange phones deserve — a higher-end Snapdragon 600 series processor. The V11 is powered by a Snapdragon 660 processor to be specific, which is usually found in phones priced at US$ 500 and above. To make the V11 even better, it comes with 6GB of memory as a standard. Storage options vary depending on the region, though, from 64 to 128GB.

The phone boots Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box but with extensive customization courtesy of Vivo’s very own Funtouch OS 4.5. As always, it’s very iOS-like which may or may not appeal to users. But, whatever your preference is, it’s disappointing that Funtouch OS omitted simple Android features like the search function in the settings.

The end result of the V11’s configuration is a smooth-performing phone with virtually zero lag. I encountered a few slow loading times with certain apps like Instagram, but it’s nothing that a future update can’t fix.

As for gaming, the Adreno 512 GPU that’s paired with the Snapdragon 660 processor is more than capable of running the latest games from the Google Play Store. I switched playing Asphalt 9: Legends from the Mi Mix 2S to the V11, and I didn’t notice any difference in visual quality. I also threw in a couple of graphics-intensive games like PUBG: Mobile and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang; both ran smoothly on medium to maximum settings.

Shoots impressive photos

Like with the V9, the V11 still has two rear cameras: one for capturing detailed images and another for assessing depth information. The main shooter is a new 12-megapixel sensor with a bright f/1.8 aperture while the second one is a 5-megapixel sensor.

Here are some samples taken with the rear camera in auto mode:

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The output of the V11’s rear shooters are more pleasing than what we’ve seen with previous midrange phones from Vivo. They are detailed, color-accurate, and sharp. AI is working in the background when taking a shot, so the result gets better over time.

Of course, selfies are also great on the V11. With a 25-megapixel sensor at the helm, you can expect high-quality selfies every time.

Here are Josh, Chay, and myself showing how the V11 takes selfies in different scenarios:

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Vivo also has a new AI Face Shaping technology which enhances facial features when beauty mode is turned on. The end results sometimes look too artificial, so it’s a matter of personal preference.

Charge fast, drain slow

All the new features of the V11 is nothing if you won’t be able to use the phone for long. Inside the V11’s body is a respectable 3400mAh battery. With my own usage, I was able to get more than 24 hours during a busy day. That’s with Wi-Fi and mobile data connection automatically switching from morning until bed time. I always have around 15 percent left before I go to sleep.

When it’s time to charge, I do it in the morning. Why? Because as I get ready, so does the V11. I only need an hour and 30 minutes to fully charge the phone thanks to the what Vivo calls Dual-Engine Fast Charging. The name can be a mouthful, but it’s basically Quick Charge 3.0. This means you can quickly fill up V11’s battery using any QC 3.0 charger.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

I’ve had the V11 for a week, so there’s more to know about the phone. But based on the time I spent on it, I know it’ll be a great device in the long run. It’s practically future-proofed aside from the micro-USB port. Why is Vivo, along with OPPO and Huawei, still stuck in the past when it comes to the choice of USB port? With the three of them leading the midrange market, they could have done well in introducing USB-C to the masses.

Like other phones that launch only six months after their predecessor, it would be lavish to suggest to get this one right away. But, should you buy one, I can say you will feel the upgrade.

The Vivo V11 is priced around US$ 400 for the variant with 64GB storage. In the Philippines, it goes for PhP 19,999 while in India, where it’s called the V11 Pro, it’s priced at INR 25,990.

SEE ALSO: Vivo V11 Unboxing and Review

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Gaming

NBA 2K19: A complacent champion

Needs a legit challenger

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NBA 2K has absolutely dominated the NBA simulation video game space for the better part of the decade. It’s been the undisputed champion year after year and the same is true with its latest version — NBA 2K19. As is the case with any multi-year champ, it’s hard to keep the pedal to the metal when you know you’ve basically left your competitors biting your dust.

This is where the NBA 2K franchise is at. If it were an NBA team, it has been a champion for years. Let’s keep things a little interesting by breaking down different sections of the game as if they were players of a champion team.

Face Scan: Last year’s sixth man but fell out of the rotation

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, somewhere between 2K18 and 2K19, the face scan stopped working like it’s supposed to.

This was the result of my face scan back in 2K18, after just a few attempts.

This is my face scan in 2K19 after many, many attempts. And this was the best one.

Here’s me side-by-side with the face scan along with a player I created from scratch.

I think the images speak for themselves, but I’m just going to come out say I don’t know what on earth happened and face scan needs to go back to how it was in 2K18. I ultimately decided to forego face scan altogether and just create a character that looks like he’d fit the story in MyCareer.

MyCareer: X-Factor starter

NBA 2K invests heavily on this mode. It’s understandable because it’s safe to say that anyone who enjoys this game and the game of basketball in general has dreamed of being a star, carrying a team to the promised land, and hitting that game-winning shot.

MyCareer lets players experience all of this. It takes the player into some sort of hero’s journey as a young baller looking to prove that he belongs in the big league. It can get boring, so what 2K has done is to incorporate some kind of story. In 2K19, it looks like they went all out.

In a lot of ways, MyCareer in 2K19 is going back to its roots. In the previous two or three iterations of this game mode, the player was positioned as a star prospect. A good number of my friends who played the game weren’t too happy about it. They loved the idea of being someone unknown taking the league by storm.

This underdog story is flanked by a star-studded cast led by Anthony Mackie (recently appeared on film as Falcon in Avengers: Infinity War). This goes to show that 2K is going all in on the cinematic RPG route in this year’s version of MyCareer. The cutscenes can get pretty long, though. Adding a few more quick time events would have helped with the pacing.

So that’s essentially what MyCareer is to NBA 2K. You never really know what you’re gonna get. However, when it’s on point, it takes the game over the top and makes something good even better.

MyGM: Solid rotation guy

MyGM in 2K19 has also gone the storytelling route. It picks up where 2K18 left off. You’re a player who suffered a career-ending injury and now you’ve built your reputation as a headstrong general manager.

There are a fair number of people who would like to try their hand at running an NBA team’s front office. NBA Twitter talks about trade scenarios all the time and that’s a huge part of what makes this game mode appealing. Being able to build a roster according to your liking and taking it all the way to the championship; that’s a challenge people like taking on.

There aren’t a lot of new things on MyGM. The story has you working with a new team owner while also managing your relationship with the previous one you worked with.

The new story makes it mildly more interesting, but at its core, MyGM is what it has always been: a solid feature on a game that delivers the kind of experience players hope to get.

Gameplay: Star Player

This is what it all comes down to. This is the reason why NBA 2K has been the champ that it is. The gameplay is the undisputed star player of the game. It’s the reason why people continue to play it. It’s the reason why time and time again, people line up for the game.

In 2K19, the gameplay doesn’t feel that much different from 2K18. There’s a huge difference between how both games felt at launch. When 2K18 first came out, the gameplay still seemed a little weird, with players looking like they’re floating on the court as opposed to running on it. There’s none of that in 2K19.

What you’ll experience is a refinement of what was already a good product. Some animations and shots make more sense this time around. The way players transition from dribbling to a shot feel more real, and there are a few subtle improvements here and there that when combined, sum up to a basketball simulation experience that appears to still be ahead of its competition.

As long as NBA 2K keeps this type of gameplay on their side, they will continue to hold the number one spot. However, they can’t rest on their laurels. EA Sports’ NBA Live is creeping on their turf and appear to be a few adjustments away from legitimately contending for the top spot once more.

Some notes from the assistant coach

We still don’t have notable players like Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Rasheed Wallace, and Gilbert Arenas in this game. The 2K community has clamored for their inclusion but this is really more the mentioned players’ willingness to be included in the game more than anything. Here’s to hoping they change their minds soon.

There are a few classic teams I personally want to see. On top of that list is the ‘09-’10 Lakers that beat the Big Three Celtics. While a version of Kobe is already in the game, I badly want to play with Black Mamba #24 when he played with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum as he hunted down his fifth NBA title.

If this is the game that finally makes you want to buy a PlayStation 4, consider getting the NBA 2K19 PS4 bundle. In the Philippines, it retails for PhP 20,490 which will net you the following: One jet black 500GB PS4, one DualShock 4 controller, the NBA 2K19 Blu-ray disc, one premium decal sticker, a badass poster featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, and a PS4 one-year extended warranty. Not a bad deal!

Final evaluation

As a team with a solid lineup that’s been winning for years, it feels as though NBA 2K still hasn’t reached its peak. While it has been amazing, there’s another level that it can go to. As it is now, NBA 2K19 is still the basketball video game to beat. I have mixed feelings about both the MyCareer and the MyGM modes, but as long as the gameplay takes over when it needs to and until the competition puts up an actual fight, this game will continue to get an overall grade of A.

SEE ALSO: Marvel’s Spider-Man Review: Spidey in all his glory

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Nokia 3.1 review: Back to Android One’s beginnings

Bringing an updated build to the entry-level

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The Android One program has had a rocky life, from being the go-to platform for pure, affordable Android devices, to going on an awkward hiatus, to turning into an operating system for all market segments.

Things got even more confusing when Android Go was introduced, essentially taking up Android’s lowest tier and leaving Android One with everything else. We went as far as dissecting the two platforms and explaining their purpose in a lengthy feature.

Funny enough, Nokia is the primary reason why this happened. The revitalized brand brought Android One to the high-end spectrum for the very first time with the Nokia 8 Sirocco, and introduced both Android Go and One to its cheapest phones.

While the Nokia 1 and Nokia 2.1 handle Go duties, the Nokia 3.1 is the most affordable Android One phone the brand currently has. It retails for EUR 139 in Europe, SG$ 249 in Singapore, and PhP 9,990 in the Philippines — all below the tricky US$ 200 mark.

The Nokia experience

Like every other Nokia device, you instantly know what you’re buying into with the Nokia 3.1: solid build quality. Although this phone uses a smooth plastic back to lower costs, a metal frame is in place, and the glass in front seems sturdy with Gorilla Glass, as well.

The LCD panel itself is 5.2 inches in size and has a tall 18:9 aspect ratio. Because of the slimmer size (compared to the traditional 16:9 ratio) and curved edges on both sides, the Nokia 3.1 is a joy to hold. It’s especially comfy for people with smaller hands, though my large fingers appreciated the subtle curves, too.

It takes a while for the back to get this smudgy

My only gripe is the unusually large bottom bezel, which doesn’t even house navigation buttons or a fingerprint scanner; it feels like a waste of precious space on this newer 18:9 form that normally avoids thick borders. Its plastic rear is also resistant to smudges — or at least they aren’t that visible on the black variant.

A compact multimedia device

The Nokia 3.1’s updated design and smooth handling make it an ideal multimedia machine at this price point. Its screen resolution may be only 720p and the single down-firing loudspeaker doesn’t produce much bass, but the overall quality is good enough for watching YouTube and Netflix on the go.

It helps that there’s a 3.5mm audio port to plug in your favorite earphones or speaker. And because it has two SIM card slots with microSD storage expansion, it’s easy to switch to a faster mobile network or add to your offline media library when needed.

Normally, a 2990mAh battery capacity wouldn’t suffice for all this, but the combination of the smallish screen and efficient hardware of the Nokia 3.1 offer sufficient endurance. In fact, the standby time is quite good, and I get over seven hours of screen-on time when continuously watching online videos.

Truly entry-level performance

In spite of all the decent entertainment I got out of this phone, the raw performance is lacking. Its MediaTek MT6750 processor coupled with 3GB of memory and 32GB of storage make it entry-level in performance.

All the games I played on it — from PUBG Mobile to Dragon Ball Legends — ran on the lowest graphics settings with lag along the way. You could play lighter games like Alto’s Odyssey without much fuss, but don’t buy this phone for serious gaming no matter what.

Otherwise, the Nokia 3.1 can easily handle day-to-day tasks well enough thanks to the clean version of Android One. There’s no bloatware to take up memory or storage, leaving you with all the space you need to install your own apps and enjoy them hiccup-free.

Camera quality you’d expect

Since we’re dealing with an lower-tier smartphone, you know what kind of cameras you’re getting. They do well enough when there’s sufficient light, but anything less and you’ll see lots of noise and blurry subjects.

The rear has a single 13-megapixel camera while the front owns an 8-megapixel sensor. Because neither have a secondary shooter, don’t expect any blurry background tricks or sharp zooming; you only have a panorama mode and beauty filter to play with.

The interface is as stock as can be, as well. I wish the focusing were a little faster, but I appreciate the quick startup and clean interface. Here are some samples:

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Is this your GadgetMatch?

There isn’t anything spectacular about the Nokia 3.1, but that’s the expectation you need to set when going below US$ 200. At the same time, Nokia has a tough budget realm to compete against.

Our very own Best Smartphones list has a strong list of affordable phones. There are entries with bigger batteries, faster processors, and more cameras. The Nokia 3.1 sits somewhere in between those.

Its advantages lie in the sturdier metal frame and pure take on Android. Unfortunately, my retail unit has yet to receive Android 9 Pie, which has been out for a month already. Timely updates are part of Android One’s promise, so it’s strange for it to take so long.

Once it does have access to Pie, it’ll raise the phone’s stock up a notch. And every notch counts in this cut-throat segment.

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