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.

 

Accessories

LG Watch Sport Review

Fitness buddy on your wrist

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With the influx of smartwatches available today, it sometimes gets confusing to choose which specific device suits your needs. Although they all have a common purpose, some of these wearables cater to specific audiences. There are the straightforward variants that simply track your activities, or smartwatches with unique designs that will cost you. There are also those that boast built-in features.

This is where the LG Watch Sport comes in as it runs on the latest Android Wear 2.0 OS and comes with goodies not usually seen on normal smartwatches.

Minimalist design

The LG Watch Sport doesn’t have the rotating bezel of the Samsung Gear S3 or the textured strap of the Fitbit Ionic. No, it flaunts a plain design for the bezel with a simple strap devoid of anything eye-catching.

Still, I personally like how it’s made. The watch itself is a bit thick, but nothing out of the ordinary when you compare it against other smartwatches.

The 1.38-inch circular P-OLED display has pleasing colors even under sunlight and viewing angles are decent.

On its right side, there are three buttons with the main crown having the ability to rotate. The top button launches Google Fit in an instant while the bottom is for Android Pay.

When you turn it over on its belly, you’ll be introduced to its heart rate sensor. It’s also worth noting that since this is activewear, the body is sealed to have an IP68 certification. This means it can withstand sweat, a shower, and even being submerged in up to 1.5m of water for 30 minutes.

The Watch Sport charges wirelessly through its included cradle. Just plug the USB-C cable and dock the watch to charge. This has always been my preferred charging setup — better than fumbling while trying to connect the cable to the device.

A smooth experience

As mentioned earlier, the Watch Sport already runs on Android Wear 2.0. It now comes with design updates and needed features that make the experience more enjoyable as a whole.

A selection of watch faces are fun to switch around from time to time, and standalone apps make the watch easily accessible in just a few taps.

One press of the middle button and the available apps come as a scrolling list. Apart from swiping the display to browse through them, rotating the crown scrolls through the selection which gives the experience a more tactile feel.

The LG Watch proves to be responsive when you’re swiping across the display, but tapping on selections sometimes need be done knowingly — precise and with a bit of effort.

Overall, it’s been pretty easy to navigate through its menu and submenu, even if the user isn’t familiar with the Android ecosystem.

Google Fit is your friend

Onto fitness tracking. The Sport in its name should be a dead giveaway that it focuses on your activities. Google Fit is a capable assistant during training or workout sessions as it works in tandem with the heart rate sensor to give users real-time info like BPM and calories burned.

The standalone app is accompanied by vast selections of exercise trackers ranging from backcountry skiing to kickboxing. If you’re just in the gym lifting weights, Strength Training mode is the way to go; it will give you a summary of how your workout went.

I’d say that a big chunk of why I appreciate this smartwatch is the fact that it’s somehow centered around Google Fit. The one-press button to launch and scrolling to browse through its activity features make it easy to just have it on your wrist when you hit the gym.

Extra features to enjoy (depending on where you are)

The Watch Sport isn’t just useful when you’re sweating it out. LG also made it capable to be used for everyday payments through Android Pay. Although there’s already a fair number of countries that support this system, it’s still not available widely so that’s one thing to consider.

Another thing is that the watch accepts a nano-SIM card which allows users to still be connected without using a phone. The problem is, it works only in the US, as other countries don’t currently support full features (like NumberSync).

Battery life could be better

But then again, most smartwatches don’t excel in this department. This is because it’s always been a challenge to equip watches with a large capacity pack while at the same time making the shell as thin as possible.

In real-life use, taking it off its charging cradle in the morning will last you for about 10 hours, so you’ll barely make it in time back to your place to charge. Activate its always-on display and expect battery life to drain almost twice as fast.

Verdict

The LG Watch Sport is easily a friend to gym buffs and fitness freaks, if you have the US$ 300 budget. It might not help list down your caloric or water intake, but it will be with you every step of your training.

It does all the things that a usual smartwatch does, but it’s just a bit of a downer that you have to be in select places to fully take advantage of its features (although I still enjoy mine with no Android Pay and SIM connectivity).

At the end of the day, it’s your routine and what you do that dictates your need for devices like this.

Is the LG Watch Sport your GadgetMatch?

SEE ALSO: Fitbit Ionic review: What forced me to get fit

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Reviews

Xiaomi Redmi 5 Plus (Redmi Note 5) Review

New face, familiar performance

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Xiaomi’s latest budget offering finally arrived in our office and I used it as my daily driver to see if it lives up to its hype. We all know Xiaomi offers the best specs to price ratio, but is the Redmi 5 Plus (known as the Redmi Note 5 in India) the new budget phone king?

The Redmi 5 Plus is all about its new 5.99-inch 18:9 display

Embracing the latest tall display trend

It’s supposed to be a “near-borderless” phone but the bezels are still quite thick

The chin is thicker than the forehead

On top of the phone are the audio port, secondary microphone, and IR blaster

Xiaomi sticks with infrared for controlling appliances

At the bottom are the aging micro-USB port and loudspeakers

When will Xiaomi shift to USB-C for their budget phones?

The power button and volume rocker are on the right side

Both have the same texture, so you’ll have to get familiar with them

The card tray on the left is a hybrid slot for nano-SIM and microSD cards

You can’t have the best of both worlds

The back houses the fingerprint sensor and primary camera along with the LED flash

The back is reminiscent of the predecessors

MIUI 9 is at the helm but still based on Nougat

The UI looks great on the longer display

Redmi embraces the new display ratio

Last year, we saw the trend of tall displays. The new 18:9 standard was not exclusive to the bezel-less flagships, as we have seen them even with midrange phones — then to budget devices. It’s expected that other budget-centric brands like Xiaomi will release their own for the masses, and that gave birth to the Redmi 5. The one we have here is the Plus variant which has a bigger IPS LCD with wide-viewing angles and good color reproduction.

I see Xiaomi as the pioneer of bezel-less phones with the Mi Mix, but they had to make some cuts to keep it within the range of Redmi phones. So, the Redmi 5 Plus still has some bezels all around the display. It’s noticeable that the bottom bezel or the chin is slightly thicker than the top.

As mentioned earlier, the back of the phone looks and feels like its predecessor. The front might look different thanks to the 18:9 display ratio and reduced bezels, but the back is oddly similar. If we are to compare the Redmi 5 Plus to the Redmi Note 4, the latter will just look stouter. The rear camera placement is the same, as well as the LED flash and fingerprint reader. Even the mixed aluminum and plastic build sports the same trick for seamless mixing.

The upgrade is mostly external

The real specs upgrade for the Redmi 5 series is found on the Redmi 5 Note Pro — not on this one. The Redmi 5 Plus (or Redmi 5 Note) is virtually identical to its predecessor with the same Snapdragon 625 processor, up to 4GB of memory, and up to 64GB of storage. Our review unit has the highest-end configuration with 4GB and 64GB of memory and storage, respectively. While the Snapdragon 625 is an efficient chipset, it’s already showing signs of aging.

The processor powering the phone was released back in 2016, and it’s been well-received especially on budget devices from Xiaomi. But with all the extra features that apps are getting, the phone might not be able to keep up for long. For instance, it’s a bit laggy when posting videos or Boomerang clips on Instagram Stories, and I’m getting longer waiting times when opening certain games. Software optimization could address these issues, though.

When it comes to gaming, you shouldn’t worry. The usual mobile games I play like Asphalt Extreme and NBA 2K18 ran fine even on high settings, but you’ll have to turn off some extra effects to get better frame rates. General phone use was also good with little to no hiccups.

The phone runs MIUI 9 out of the box but still based on Android 7.1 Nougat. While I can’t hate MIUI because of its speed and additional features on top of stock Android, it can get quite cumbersome at times with settings and permissions. MIUI 9 is a refinement of everything the MIUI team learned from previous versions and it’s still as colorful as before. There’s no news if it’ll get an update to Android 8.0 Oreo, but with MIUI 9 at the helm, it doesn’t really matter since you already have most of the new Android features and important security patches.

Typical Xiaomi-grade camera

Even with their flagship devices, Xiaomi can’t pull off superb quality shooters. So, what should we expect from their budget phones like the Redmi 5 Plus? The phone is equipped with a 12-megapixel primary shooter accompanied by a dual-tone LED flash. According to spec sheets, the aperture of the lens is just f/2.2 which is disappointing and it shows when shooting in dim environments. Night shots are also just so-so, so don’t expect the phone to capture plenty of details.

As for selfies, there’s a 5-megapixel front shooter that has the usual Xiaomi beauty effect that somehow doesn’t work well with my face, so I turned it off most of the time. It’s also not as wide as other selfie phones.

One thing I like about Xiaomi’s camera is its launcher. It’s pretty straightforward and simple. There are also a few modes you can jump into if you want to get the best possible shot depending on the subject.

Longevity is where the phone triumphs

Battery life is perhaps the most important aspect of an entry-level phone. If you’re sticking to a budget, you might not get the best camera but it should at least last the whole day on a single charge. With a 4000mAh battery, the Redmi 5 Plus can.

After using the phone as my daily driver for more than a week, I rarely looked for the charger. I don’t even worry about running out of juice while on the road. Based on actual usage, the phone can last for more than 24 hours with about eight hours of screen-on time. On a really busy day, the phone can do around 20 hours. If you’re wondering, my usage is all about mobile data. I connect to Wi-Fi from time to time when in the office and at home, but LTE is my savior when in public places.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

If you’re a Redmi fan looking for an upgrade, you might want to skip this one. The true upgrade is found on the Redmi Note 5 Pro with its latest processor and familiar-looking rear cameras. If still available, you can opt for the good old Redmi Note 4 which is supposedly cheaper now with the new releases in the market.

Honestly, it’s disappointing to see Xiaomi recycling their design for the budget series. The Redmi 5 Plus doesn’t bring anything new to the table even with its 18:9 display. But, that could have been the point of the phone all along since they released the Redmi Note 5 Pro shortly after.

The Redmi 5 Plus starts at CNY 999 or around US$ 150 for the base 3GB/32GB model, while the top-of-the-line 4GB/64GB variant sells for CNY 1,299 or about US$ 180. You can purchase the Redmi 5 Plus just like the one we have from GearBest.

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Camera Shootouts

GoPro HERO 6 Black vs HERO 5 Black Comparison

Which is the action camera for you?

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GoPro is one of the biggest names in sports videography and is a name that first comes to mind when the need for a portable, easy-to-set-up camera arises. Although, the past couple of years were a bit hard for the company as sales plummeted, and after introducing their first-ever drone, some literally fell from the sky.

Still working hard on making another hit, GoPro has returned with their latest action camera, the HERO 6 Black, and it boasts some pretty impressive features. Will it be the saving grace the company needs right now? How does it fare compared to its predecessor, the HERO 5? We answer those questions plus more in this comparison.

Design

On the outside, nothing has changed with the new action camera at all. It’s made of the same robust, rubbery material that’s designed to go underwater for as deep as 10 meters without needing an extra waterproof case. Button placements are carried over — one up top to start recording and another one on its side to switch between shooting modes.

Underneath, the same 1220mAh battery is stored while connectivity ports are on the other side. Even the protective lens is still removable and replaceable. There’s virtually no way of telling the two apart except for the small print on the side of the camera.

Features

The biggest upgrade of the HERO 6 has more to do with output. It can now shoot up to 4K resolution at 60fps, whereas the previous HERO 5 topped out at 4K 30fps. It might seem like a small detail but having the option to shoot smoother video is always a good thing.

Another difference is frame rate. The HERO 5 Black can capture videos at a speedy 240fps but resolution is limited to 720p. The newer HERO 6 Black, on the other hand, can shoot the same 240fps rate at a clearer 1080p resolution.

For more flexibility, the HERO 6 can also shoot at 2.7K at 120fps so you get nice slow-mo video with the ability to resize or re-scale your footage if the need arises. Other features that differentiate the new action camera from its predecessor include better low-light performance and dynamic range.

Video Sample

Of course, all this means nothing if we can’t see for ourselves. I brought both cameras during my travels and you may refer to the embedded video below (starting at 2:46) for some sample video comparisons.

You can easily see that the sky from the HERO 6’s shots is more vibrant than the pale blue color from the HERO 5. There’s also a noticeable difference in exposure. The HERO 5 has darker blacks which, in this case, worked well since it was able to bring out more details on the snowy mountain.

Although both are set to auto white balance, footage from the HERO 5 still turns out to be warmer as seen in the indoor shoot.

In terms of stabilization, the new HERO 6 really stepped up its game to remove unwanted jerks and jitters. The difference is day and night, and it’s impressive how the HERO 6 almost looks like it was mounted on a gimbal thanks to its electronic image stabilization.

Don’t get us wrong, the HERO 5 also has its own EIS, but just not as good as the new flagship’s.

One more thing to notice when the camera’s EIS is turned on is that the HERO 5 needs to crop the image by 10 percent to achieve a smoother shot, while the HERO 6 has improved this and only crops about 5 percent of the original image.

Additionally, stabilization on the HERO 5 can only be used until 2.7K resolution at 60fps, while the HERO 6 supports stabilization until 4K. The only limitation here is that EIS maxes out at 30fps with no support for the higher 60fps.

Onto low-light shooting: Footage taken with the older HERO 5 couldn’t achieve the same level of clarity shot on the HERO 6. Colors are also livelier and digital noise has been reduced significantly on the latter.

Although there were instances, like when we went ice skating, that we preferred the color and details shot by the HERO 5. It looked more natural and the ice on the floor is still visible, unlike the one shot by the HERO 6.

Photo Samples

We now look at some photo samples from both action cameras.

This photo was taken at Italy’s oldest shopping mall and shows a good balance between light and dark areas. We like how the HERO 5 has a higher contrast which added detail to the metal structure of the mall. 

While waiting for a train, we see the sun lighting the Swiss Alps from behind with a dark and shaded station in the foreground. Again, we see a more vibrant blue sky from the HERO 6 with good details.

But look closer on the warning sign in front of you and the HERO 5 was actually able to deliver a better, more legible image. Even when you crop them to 100 percent, the smallest details seem to appear better on the HERO 5.

At night, both proved to be capable shooters, but the HERO 6 showed more details by effectively capturing the cracks on the floor. One thing that I had been complaining about with my HERO 5 is that it easily overshoots light flares, creating an unwanted glow and losing details.

It’s very much distracting here since it washed out the person’s face. Meanwhile, we’re happy that it was addressed on the HERO 6 as it’s clearly the better photo.

Zooming in to 100 percent shows that the green motorcycle has a livelier color and less noise on the HERO 6 compared to its predecessor. Here are more sample photos:

Battery Life

As mentioned earlier in this video, the HERO 6 Black carries the same 1220mAh battery capacity as the HERO 5 Black. So it should technically last for the same amount of time right? Well, no.

We conducted a battery test on the two at full capacities, same video settings, and started recording until they both drained their batteries. After more than an hour and a half, the HERO 6 actually gave up first at 1 hour and 42 minutes while the HERO 5 continued on and reached 2 hours and 5 minutes. That’s 23 minutes of difference and could go a long way in real-world shooting.

Responsible for this result might be the HERO 6’s newer custom processor. Yes, it could produce better dynamic range, low light shots, and stabilize the camera really well — but at the cost of a more power-hungry chip. That’s definitely a trade-off to consider.

Conclusion

So the question here is this: Should you upgrade to a HERO 6 Black from a HERO 5 Black?

Well, you first have to ask yourself the question: Will you be using it to shoot serious action scenes with really fast movement? Are you after the best quality there is? Or are you more of a casual user who just uses a sports camera to document your out-of-town trips?  

 

Because if it’s not for professional work, the HERO 5 Black is more than capable to document all your trips. It’s also worth every penny since it just dropped its price to US$ 299, making it a really attractive offering — not to mention longer battery life.

Although if you plan to use your action videos for broadcast and want to have a lot of flexibility in shooting and editing, then you can’t go wrong with the HERO 6 Black at US$ 399.

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