Reviews

Sony Xperia XZ2 Review: Flexing more camera muscles

Offering features never seen on a smartphone before

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Sony once again updates its flagship smartphone and this year, it seems like the Japanese handset maker wants to shake things up a bit.

We first saw the Xperia XZ2 at Mobile World Congress earlier this year and with its launch is the introduction of new and improved features. You’ve seen its curvy design, heard of its Snapdragon 845 processor, and witnessed its capability to shoot 4K HDR video.

So for this review, we tell you how these features helped us and how they worked together to provide the demands of everyday tasks.

Let’s start with the design…

Boxy no more

As you can probably already tell, the XZ2 breaks from the uniformity of Xperia handsets that has been going on for years now. Many have actually grown tired of its old OmniBalance form factor with sharp corners and large top and bottom bezels.

And in this time of bezel-less phones and curved designs, we really couldn’t blame them.

There’s still a bit of chin and forehead going on for the XZ2 but compared to its previous design, we’re not complaining. It’s significantly heavier, though, compared to its predecessor and you can really feel its heft when you hold the handset with one hand.

The new form factor is a welcome change. We now see a curved back made of glass which adds a premium feel when slapped on a phone. There’s a trade-off, however, by going for an all-glass design. The phone provides no grip and easily slides out of a loose pocket.

Its finish is so slippery that it sometimes struggles to lay still on a flat surface. The curved back also doesn’t help when you operate it while on a table. Although I personally am not a fan of phone cases, I think most users would rather have the XZ2 in one to add grip and protect its glossy surface as well.

All the buttons are tucked at the right side including the camera shutter, power/lock, and volume rocker. We have the hybrid dual-SIM tray up top and the USB-C port below. Nope, no 3.5mm audio jack here.

The Xperia XZ2 boasts dual front-firing speakers but they’re not easily seen. And while the earpiece acts as a loudspeaker, the second speaker is squeezed between the display and chassis at the bottom. Sneaky — and we like it.

Turn it around and you’ll see nothing but circles. From the sensors and LED flash, down to the single camera and finally the fingerprint scanner.

We’re just not big fans of the new placement of its fingerprint scanner. It feels too low and takes quite a bit of awareness to reach or you’ll end up smudging your rear camera.

Multimedia made more immersive

Not coming as a surprise, Sony has packed lots of multimedia goodness into the XZ2. It’s equipped with a 5.7-inch Full HD+ HDR display and enjoys features like X-Reality and HDR up-conversion found in the company’s latest televisions.

Audio has also been given attention to — because this is Sony we’re talking about. The aforementioned dual front speakers provide above-average volume and have more oomph for a phone speaker. The handset also supports hi-res audio so listening to your favorite artists in high quality is possible even through wireless headphones.

As an attempt to further enhance the experience while consuming content, Sony is introducing the Dynamic Vibration System to the XZ2. Similar to the haptic engine on a PlayStation’s DualShock controller, the feature can be turned on to feel synced vibrations while watching a video or listening to music.

Pressing the volume button will reveal the slider with four levels of intensity. Although a pretty cool feature to show off to friends, I could go on throughout the day without using it, so I consider it more of a gimmick and not as effective as the DualShock controller. Plus, it consumes more battery with all the vibration while you watch or play music.

Camera on steroids

If there’s one thing I was super excited about during the XZ2’s announcement, it was the camera. The new Sony flagship is the world’s first smartphone that can shoot 4K HDR video and capture super slow-mo Full HD videos at 960fps.

These were achieved through the phone’s new 19-megapixel Motion Eye camera that the company claims produces lifelike images. And with those in mind, we eagerly put the device to the test.

4K HDR video recording has good color and tonality. I found it easy to color correct during post-production thanks to its manageable dynamic range. Sony’s SteadyShot also works well for stabilizing video.

To capture things in super slow-motion, the handset shoots 960 frames per second just like on the XZ Premium (and later on the Galaxy S9+ and P20 Pro). Thing is, those phones all max out at 720p or HD, and it’s only the XZ2 that shoots the same frame rate at 1080p Full HD.

Again, there’s a trade-off for this. The length of the slow-mo video in Full HD is cut in half compared to when shot in HD. It’s a bit of a downer and it makes timing the action a bit of a challenge. Although with patience and a few practice shots, it could still achieve impressive shots.

Low-light shots for the rear camera are impressive, which wasn’t the case for its predecessor and even the XZ Premium. Its maximum ISO of 12800 is behind this feat. Meanwhile, its 5-megapixel front camera takes decent selfies. It comes with a 23mm wide-angle lens to accommodate more people in a selfie.

Beefy under the hood, too

Inside, the Xperia XZ2 carries a top-shelf Snapdragon 845 and is partnered with 4GB of RAM. This means it can handle heavy processing and even multitasking like any other premium flagship smartphone.

Indeed, while playing graphics-intensive games like Asphalt Xtreme and Tekken, it was able to render graphics effortlessly and multiplayer titles like PUBG Mobile ran smoothly. It does get warm after a few minutes of playing but nothing too alarming.

The XZ2 runs on Android 8.0 Oreo out of the box and has 64GB worth of internal storage. If you run out, there’s still an option to expand the capacity through an additional microSD. You’ll just have to sacrifice the second SIM slot.

Other notable features

Apart from all that, Sony has given the XZ2 the usual bells and whistles we’ve seen on their previous phones. It still has a water and dust resistance rating of IP68, which means you don’t have to worry about getting it drenched in rain.

The handset also features NFC for wireless pairing and 3D Creator that lets you scan objects, heads, and faces, and turn them into AR models or 3D print them.

It’s interesting to note that you can finally do a 3D scan using the selfie camera — a feature which wasn’t available previously. It wasn’t easy to perform though and needs some practice to perfect before you can produce a pleasing render of yourself.

Wired or wireless

With a 3180mAh battery, the Xperia XZ2 could easily last me a day on a single charge with casual usage. Although, shooting super slow-mo and 4K video will exhaust the battery a lot sooner which is totally understandable.

Though not as fast as when it’s plugged in, the handset already supports Qi wireless charging which is always nice to have when you’re at home most of the time. Through wired charging, it takes exactly one hour from four percent to reach 71 percent.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

This is not your usual selfie phone with basic features. Sony has made a serious contender with the Xperia XZ2 by giving it pioneering features, a redesigned appearance, and an engine that can take on the demands of everyday users.

With its camera and multimedia capabilities, we see its appeal toward those who are into creating and consuming content on the go.

Not everything is a hit. We find its new design super slippery and a bit on the heavy side. There’s no audio jack, the position of fingerprint scanner takes a while to get used to, and its Dynamic Vibration System could be done without.

It’s what it does best that makes me stick up for it as a video guy. 4K HDR recording is something I always want to have access to and slowing random things down is always pure joy.

Pricing was initially revealed in Singapore at SG$ 998 (US$ 760) followed by the United States at US$ 799. It was also launched yesterday in the Philippines for PhP 43,990 which converts to about US$ 840 and the most expensive so far.

Sony has made the XZ2 a pioneer in aspects of mobile videography and of course, it comes at a price. So if you want to be one of the firsts to experience these new capabilities, then this is your GadgetMatch of 2018.

Accessories

Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro Review: Better than AirPods Pro?

Finally, real Active Noise Cancellation out of the box

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Samsung has unveiled the newest Galaxy Buds Pro alongside the announcement of the latest Galaxy S21 series.

Other than the new design, better sound quality, and surround sound setup, there’s now a real and intelligent Active Noise Cancellation.

But do these earbuds live up to its ‘Pro’ branding? Watch our Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro review by clicking the video link right here.

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Huawei Mate 40 Pro review: Hardware excellence

Held back only by political challenges

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If there’s one smartphone that Huawei’s best known for, it’s the photography-centric P Series line. It’s the phone that ushered in Huawei’s popularity and its one-time dominance of the smartphone space. But every second half of the year, the company is known to release a second smartphone — The Mate Series. In this instance, the Mate 40 series with the Mate 40, Mate 40 Pro, and Mate 40 Pro+.

The Mate 40 series is an update that brings along with it the industry’s leading features. Like in 2016 — when super-fast charging started to become a trend; or in 2017 — when we first heard about AI on mobile; and 2018 — the first time reverse wireless charging was seen on a phone.

Today we’re looking at the Huawei Mate 40 Pro. What new features does it bring?  Is it still the Android phone to beat?

Space Ring Design

The Mate 40 Pro’s design is pretty, attention-grabbing mainly because of this large circular camera bump. It’s reminiscent of a click-wheel iPod.

Huawei says it’s an evolution of the Halo Ring found on last year’s Mate 30. Called the Space Ring — it’s supposedly inspired by this first-ever photo of a black hole, reflecting Huawei’s spirit of exploration.

We prefer last year’s design. This one is a bit in your face. Although that’s probably because of the stark contrast with our Mystic Silver model.

The ceramic all-black model looks better in my opinion. Depending on your region there will also be Vegan Leather options available in Yellow and Green. And ceramic white.

Huawei is proud of this colorway though. It’s very similar to the Breathing Crystal P30 Pro — so much so that it changes color depending on where the light hits. Sometimes pink and yellow. Sometimes blue and purple. The finish though is matte instead of glossy.

It’s 6.76-inch OLED display is bigger than the Mate 30 Pro.  And as a result, the phone is too. It’s a much bigger phone than we expected. Not quite as big as the Note 20 Ultra but with a bit more heft to it.

Unique to this phone is a display that curves outward more than most phones, making it look like it has no borders on either side.

Instead of notch it’s got a punch hole for a selfie camera and a 3D sensor used for more secure Face Unlock. There’s also an under-display fingerprint scanner. Giving you two options to unlock your device. But do note that 3D Face Unlock is not as safe. For example it will work with a mask on.

It’s got the same red power button on its right hand side. And this year, Huawei brought back the volume rocker which it took away last year in favor of touch based virtual keys that let you tap on either side of the phone to bring up the volume slider. And swipe up and down on the frame to set control. This feature is still present on the Mate 40 Pro.

Stereo Speakers

We’ve seen it occasionally on other phones before, like the Mi 10 Pro from earlier this year. It’s really nice to see Huawei add stereo speakers on both sides to the Mate 40 Pro. Literally, there are speaker grilles on both its top and bottom.

Having audio come from both sides while watching a movie or playing a game makes the audio feel more immersive than just a bottom firing one. I can confirm that these are some of the loudest phone speakers I’ve tested recently. Not quite as loud as the LG V60. Huawei claims these speakers have stronger bass. But we didn’t notice it that much.

A leap in performance

The Mate 40 Pro is  the first Huawei smartphone — and possibly one of the last — to be powered by their new Kirin 9000 processor.  It’s a 5nm chip with an integrated 5G modem. Huawei says it has 15.3B transistors on it. 30% than the other 5nm chip Apple’s A14 Bionic.

Performance + Power Efficiency + Connectivity Vs  Snapdragon 865+ is as follows:  CPU 10% / 52% Faster  / NPU 2.4x Faster

Of course with any new chip there are bold statements about how much more powerful its CPU, GPU, NPU, and ISP are. And how much more battery efficient too. So no surprise that games run smoothly.

The phone’s got a 90Hz Display with a close to 4K panel. Huawei says this was intentional to deliver the best balance between battery life and performance. You can choose to have it dynamically switch between the two; or Ultra — having it on all the time.

Cinecamera

The Mate 40 Pro has a triple camera setup:

  • 50 MP, f/1.9, 23mm (wide), 1/1.28
  • 12 MP, f/3.4, 125mm (periscope telephoto), PDAF, OIS, 5x optical zoom
  • 20 MP, f/1.8, 18mm (ultrawide), PDAF
  • TOF 3D, (depth)

Let’s take a look at some samples. First its Main Wide Angle Camera.

No surprises here. Sunny day shots look great. No overblown highlights. Lots of details. Even the clouds are not mushy.

Of course, I love some creamy bokeh. And between its large sensor and fast f/1.9 lens you don’t need portrait mode for shots like this.

Speaking of portrait mode here’s one shot during the day and one at night. Both look great!

To gauge low light performance take a look at this colorful wall in between two buildings. The shot on the left was taken during the day. The shot on the right was taken at night without night mode.

Night Mode works with the Ultra Wide Angle lens ≠ I used it in this shot of the Brooklyn Academy of Music building.

But TBH it didn’t really need Night Mode. Here’s the same photo with night mode turned off.

Finally let’s take a look at the telephoto camera. I’m glad Huawei has scaled back on its efforts to zoom closer to 100X.

It’s 5X optical telephoto lens is sufficient.

As you can see in these 1x, 10x and 50x photos of the One Hanson Building in Downtown Brooklyn, you’ll find the 10X is still very good. While 50X is passable, but not something you’d post unless the subject was rare.

Two years ago the Mate blew its competitors out of the water with its ability to basically see in the dark. It’s interesting how competition has since caught up. The last few days here in New York have been rainy and gloomy so I have not been able to go out and test shoot some video.

Huawei says its Ultra Wide Cine Camera with its 3:2 ratio and XD Fusion HDR technology that lets you capture backlit video is a big improvement.

Finally the Mate 40 Pro has a 13MP ultra wide-angle selfie camera. With anti-distortion technology and Intelligent FOV finder which will detect if multiple people are in the shot and will adjust framing accordingly.

Whether they’re true to life or not, we love selfies taken on Huawei Phones.

When you first use portrait mode, you’ll be given the option to turn beauty mode on or off by default.  Here are some sample shots.

Battery & Charging

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro packs a 4400 mAh battery. In my few days reviewing the phone, it lasted me about a day and a half with average use. It also ships with a 66W charger out of the box. A very generous inclusion and possibly the fastest that comes bundled with a smartphone.

In my tests, I got to 33% in 10 minutes. 81% in 30.  A full charge from 0 took 55 minutes. The phone also supports Huawei’s optional 50W Wireless Charger.

Using this accessory. I got close to similar results: 26% in 10 minutes. 72% in 30. And a full charge in just a minute shy of an hour. (59 minutes)

As a point of comparison, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra comes with a 4500 mAh battery. And ships with a 25W Charger.

Got to 58% in 30 minutes. And 100% in 70.

The Note 20 Ultra only charges up to 15W wirelessly. With Samsung’s Wireless Charger. You can get to 22% in 30 minutes. And 100% in the double-time it takes to wireless charge the Mate 40 Pro. (120 minutes / 2 hours)

Emui 11 on a Mate

The Mate 40 Pro runs EMUI 11 based on Android 10. As EMUI 11 just rolled out, and given Huawei’s current relationship with Google this comes as no surprise.

One of my favorite software features the Mate 40 Pro is called Eyes on Display an improvement to the Always On Display feature on its phones. You know, when phone displays don’t dim all the way but show you the time, or date or a cool graphic.

To save on battery life Eyes on Display will dim the screen all the way. But will know when you’re looking at the phone. You don’t even need to move your head. Just move your eyes and look at the phone. And the Always On Display will turn on. It’s pretty cool I’ve gotta admit. Supposedly, this saves battery life as well.

Other cool features include smart gestures. New to the Mate 40 Series is being able to wave left and right to turn pages on an e-book or flip through photos in your gallery. Hands-free. But my favorite is the grab gesture to take a screenshot.

Is the Mate 40 Pro your GadgetMatch?

We hate that we’re in a situation where one of the world’s best smartphone manufacturers cannot compete on equal footing with the world’s best.

Huawei is doing its best to survive this political crisis, investing millions of dollars into its own App Ecosystem, it’s own operating System, and it’s own services like Petal Search and the upcoming Petal Maps.

But as it stands — one can’t overlook the lack of Google Play Services and how that affects the experience for everyday Android users.

And then there’s the fact that because of US restrictions — Huawei’s Chip Making Arm — responsible for the Kirin Processor might no longer be able to source the components it needs. Some fear Kirin 9000 might be its last hurrah.

There’s an uphill climb ahead. And hopefully there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

All these challenges aside, in a world where the lack of GMS wasn’t an issue. This is what we would have said about the Mate 40 Pro:

  • It’s a solidly-built, well designed smartphone.
  • We’re fans of the vegan leather options.
  • It’s an excellent flagship that balances performance, features and battery efficiency.
  • Its cameras are still excellent, but competition has finally caught up.
  • We think it’s fast wired and wireless charging features are game changing. And that in a world where more and more accessories are being left out of the box, it’s refreshing to get a 66W charger bundled.
  • And we think that its current price tiers starting at EUR 899/ PhP 55,999 is competitive vs the likes of Samsung and Apple.

In a perfect world, this phone would definitely be up there among the phones that we could wholeheartedly recommend. Here’s to hoping political challenges resolve themselves soon.

We are fans of Huawei phones no more than we are fans of Samsung Galaxies and Apple iPhones. But our stake in all of this is competition. Because that means more choice and better technology for us all.

The Huawei Mate 40 Pro retails for EUR 1199/PhP 55,999.

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Cyberpunk 2077 PC review: Looks can be deceiving

It lived up to the hype, then undid some of it

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Cyberpunk 2077

Last December 10, 2020, CD Projekt Red (CDPR) finally dropped its much awaited video game title for the past seven years. Set in the year 2077, this new open-world experience explores the possibilities of human existence with science at its core. Beneath all the scientific breakthroughs, an everlasting human conflict resides.

In my opinion, this is how the world of Cyberpunk 2077 seemingly positions itself as a video game. It prides itself as a sprawling open world, with a character-driven story of your own choosing. With a great deal of combat opportunities and side missions inherent to open world games, it shaped up according to the hype.

And then, I felt it’s hype go through a cycle of life and death as a game that’s just, well, good.

A promising start with every single new game

At the onset of starting a new save file, you’re given three life paths to choose from. For the majority of my playthrough, I simply went with the Street Kid since I felt it had the most to mess around with. If you’re up to it, you can also choose between the Nomad or Corpo life path, each with their own sets of storylines to unfold.

After you configure every physical aspect — yes, including the private parts — of your character named “V”, the game throws you into the action outright. It’s the usual get-a-feel-for-the-controls type of thing, which is par for the course if you ask me. From movement to combat styles, the game does its best at orienting you with how it works.

The game then proceeds to give you a rough six-hour prelude detailing events of V’s first mission with Jackie Welles. I say a rough six hours because the game already gives you a glimpse of just how open the world is to explore. You’re also introduced to a few side missions that ultimately influence the rest of your playthrough. Honestly, it’s a great start leading up to Act 1.

You shape the story, but you also don’t feel it?

After the prelude, you basically proceed however you like, which I felt wasn’t necessarily a bold thing that CDPR implemented. However, it complements the grander scheme of the open-world adventure through Night City. At this point, I thought that this would allow me to pour myself out into the lore.

But after nearly 45+ hours of gameplay, I just didn’t feel the story bringing me into its world. See, regardless of the life path you took, V goes on a quest to free himself of the engram of one Johnny Silverhand. After stealing Arasaka’s prized relic and injecting it into his brain, the character voiced by Keanu Reeves is basically seizing control of V.

For the most part, you are given choices in both dialogue and actions to help you steer the story. Much like other choice-driven storylines like in Until Dawn, there are so many ways the main story could end. Personally, I felt that the main culprit for this is the fact that side missions are integrated well into the main story at some points.

In essence, there’s no one clear way to end Cyberpunk 2077, and I just can’t seem to find myself drawn into that.

Combat and movement mechanics I can get behind

Now, I can wholeheartedly say that this game truly shines mostly due to how the gameplay mechanics worked out. This game took a whole page out of Grand Theft Auto, but added much greater incentives to keep you exploring all sorts of gameplay styles. I truly felt that the gameplay feels intricate, yet unique towards several situations.

Combat and stealth are the main attractions when you go around all of Night City. For the most part, this game gives you a ton of ways to practice combat and stealth through the side missions, which is pretty good.

Gunplay relies a little bit on crosshair placement, which you mostly see on competitive shooters. So, just be aware of where you’re aiming your gun.

Cyberpunk 2077

Moving around the overworld feels natural, along with driving around in the vehicle of your choice. Although, if I had one gripe with this game, it’s the physics for some of your actions and vehicles. For instance, how come you’re still standing when you jump out of a moving car? Or, how come some motorcycles are a literal chore to turn while driving? Sometimes, I like some realism in my open-world, futuristic games.

Incredible amounts of bodyhacking

Other key features in this game are a much more intricate skill tree and Cyberware enhancements. As a half-human, half-cyborg, you have access to a series of skills depending on which aspect of your character you want to focus on. Most skills you earn are combat and stealth based, and how often you use them increases its efficacy.

Personally, I admire this level of intricacy with CDPR’s approach to a character skill tree. Depending on how you want to progress through the story, there are a ton of ways you can go about upgrading certain skills. Also, this game offers unique dialogue options depending on how high your skill level is.

Cyberpunk 2077

When it comes to what I call the “bodyhacking” section, it’s also extensive. Basically, you can attach a bunch of cyberware mods to certain parts of your body to increase certain attributes. You can even apply it to your weapons and clothes, and it greatly complements the combat in certain situations. It’s honestly a lot to take in, but it doesn’t overwhelm you.

Visual spectacle? Not entirely, I suppose

As of the time I’m writing this, the game had six rounds of patches to address a ton of issues. In such a short amount of time, CDPR managed to make the PC version look a little better than how it was on launch day. However, it still doesn’t excuse the developers from those issues because, well, this game was well-hyped.

Now, I’ll admit that the visuals of this game are pretty impressive. Even when I turned a ton of graphical settings down because of my hardware, it still looks aesthetically pleasing. Honestly, I appreciate the colors and the textures a bit more during the night time segments of the game. Is that why they called the main location Night City?

But, it isn’t consistently great the longer, and the farther you get into the story. I had some gameplay plagued by textures loading later than usual, and items that just don’t show up. For instance, during combat, my weapons don’t show up when I try to draw them out — which somehow does not allow me to use them. Last-gen console players had it way worse, but at least for the PC, the visuals were great at times.

Was this really all worth seven years of waiting?

Cyberpunk 2077 had a promising start after seven years of being in total limbo. It presents itself as an open-world experience, centered around a technologically-advanced universe still plagued by human existence. With manageable combat and stealth mechanics, different life paths to explore, and an abundance of customization options, it sets you up quite nicely.

Cyberpunk 2077

But when you play this game long enough, and through six rounds of patches to fix several bugs and visual errors, it makes you think if it was truly worth the wait. Honestly, the story doesn’t draw you in, I felt I couldn’t fully resonate with any of the characters, and the aforementioned bugs slightly ruined the experience.

This isn’t the near-perfect game everyone was hyping it up to be, especially given the seven year wait. However, it’s still great for what it offers if you had planned to get this for the PC anyway.

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