Reviews

Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S Review: Faster, smarter

But is it better?

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Xiaomi is well-known for slaying the entry-level smartphone market with value-packed devices that make other brands shiver. But, every now and then, Xiaomi likes to go all out and treat both itself and fans to something a little more premium.

The Mi Mix 2S is the latest to do so, and it’s certainly a fantastic device inside and out. That extra “S” means this is an update to the Mi Mix 2 we reviewed last year, but there are a couple of features that make Xiaomi’s latest flagship stand out.

Our Creative Director Chay attended the launch in Shanghai last month and provided us with a highly thorough hands-on review of the Mi Mix 2S. It’s a must-read to knowing the background of the Mi Mix series and how this model differs from its predecessor.

The biggest takeaway from our initial impressions is that the Mi Mix 2S is largely the same as last year’s model. Its 5-megapixel selfie camera is still awkwardly placed on the bottom chin; the well-loved ceramic back with metal frame is back; and, of course, there’s no notch on the near-borderless 6-inch Full HD LCD panel.

So, what’s new? Since this is Xiaomi’s best handset to date, it comes with the best specs you can hope for. Our unit, in particular, is an undeniable beast: It owns a high-end Snapdragon 845 processor (same as on the Galaxy S9 and Xperia XZ2), 8GB of memory, 256GB of storage, and a 3400mAh battery with both Quick Charge and wireless charging support (finally). This is the type of configuration that can run a full version of Windows 10 without a hitch!

Lots of numbers, yes, but all you really need to know is that there’s no Android phone more powerful than this at the moment (that can change soon, though). It’s amazing how fast everything transitions in its MIUI 9.5 interface, which is based on Android 8.0 Oreo. You can seamlessly jump from a game as graphics-intensive as Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition to browsing on Chrome and Facebook, and still have enough power and memory left over to quickly snap a shot with the camera.

What helps make the interface so smooth is the new set of navigation gestures integrated into MIUI. You can now swipe from the bottom chin to go to the home screen, hold that gesture to see recent apps, and swipe from the left or right to go back. Not only does this remove the need for the traditional back-home-multitasking setup of Android, it also frees up more space on the Mi Mix 2S’ gorgeous 18:9 screen.

The speed and superb usability of the Mi Mix 2S made moving to other handsets feel like a chore to me. Suddenly, the Galaxy S9’s software felt sluggish in comparison and the Huawei P20’s all-in-one navigation button wasn’t that intuitive anymore. Not that those two flagships are slow by any means; the Mi Mix 2S simply doesn’t falter. Heck, I can open an app I used five days prior and it would be in the exact same state I left it in.

Speaking of days, the Mi Mix 2S can easily last two days of moderate usage without the need for a power bank. While not as outstanding as the original (and much larger) Mi Mix’s endurance, this is still beyond what most smartphones offer today. This is one of those phones I never worry about dying on me at the worst moments. I’d easily pick the Mi Mix 2S for short island getaways with no electric sockets in sight.

Because we’re living in 2018 — and this has been a gripe of Mi Mix users from the very start — there’s a dual-camera setup on the back (both 12 megapixels) that takes much better photos than we’re used to. (Imaging authority DxOMark goes as far as placing the Mi Mix 2S on the same footing as the iPhone X and Mate 10 Pro.)

Each smartphone manufacturer has a different implementation of twin cameras, and this Mi Mix has arguably the most useful one: a standard wide-angle lens with another telephoto shooter for 2X optical zoom. It definitely came in handy when I couldn’t get close enough to my subject. Here are a few cases:

 

 

Photos taken from a phone’s secondary telephoto lens usually come out crappy, but that wasn’t the case with the Mi Mix 2S, even in low-light indoor situations. I was never afraid to use it, and it felt like there was enough image stabilization to keep the shots sharp despite the added zoom.

The other major camera addition is artificial intelligence. Yes, AI terminology has been thrown around way too much during recent product launches, but that’s something we have to accept (at least for 2018). For the Mi Mix 2S, AI detection is an option you can manually turn on inside the camera app. Do so and the software will automatically scan the scene you’re looking at and tune the image to the best of its abilities.

I gave Xiaomi’s AI application a chance. These are samples taken with and without AI:

 

 

Impressive? Not totally. While the AI-enabled photos do look better, it’s nothing more than a slight bump in contrast and saturation — something you can do yourself within the camera app’s manual settings or on Snapseed right after shooting. Chances are you’re going to desaturate the picture and turn up its brightness on Instagram anyway, so I myself found little need to activate AI for any instance.

Unfortunately, the built-in AI can’t do anything to save the inverted selfie camera. Again, it’s the same cumbersome, low-resolution shooter we experienced on the previous Mi Mix. Although the results are acceptable under bright daylight, I couldn’t bring myself to use it at night. See for yourself:

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Another issue with the camera placement is its incompatibility with most apps outside of Xiaomi’s own. The interfaces of Instagram and Skype won’t adjust their orientation when you flip the phone around to bring the front-facing cam up top. This leaves you with no choice but to let the selfie shooter watch you from below and up your nose. This is Chay’s step-by-step struggle:

My recommendation: Skip this phone if you’re crazy about selfies. It simple isn’t worth the effort of flipping the phone every time and risk dropping it on concrete. But if you’re the type who uses the rear cameras 90 percent of the time — like me — there isn’t anything else to complain about. Just look at how well the Mi Mix 2S can shoot when given a chance:

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Is this your GadgetMatch?

The Mi Mix 2S is an incremental update in every sense, and that’s to be expected as the “S” evolution of the lineup. It’s slightly faster, a bit smarter, and has the camera upgrade we’ve been clamoring for since the first Mi Mix came to be two years ago. Yet, there are other features that still haven’t made the cut.

Its audio port continues to be missing in action (and probably won’t come back), waterproofing is still non-existent, and the awkward selfie camera stands as Xiaomi’s sole answer to the near-borderless, anti-notch movement.

Despite all that, this is the phone to beat in terms of pure performance and price. The Mi Mix 2S is one of the most affordable Snapdragon 845-powered phones in the market and its rear cameras have finally caught up with the competition.

At the same time, since this is a minor step in the Mi Mix timeline, the Mi Mix 3 could be only a few months away with an all-new design. If Xiaomi figures out how to bring the front camera to the top without adding a notch in the next generation, they’ll have an absolute winner.

For now, who is the Mi Mix 2S for? Those who want a good-looking Android (in white) with the best hardware, a large battery, and decent set of cameras. The starting price is a reasonable US$ 525 — a rather small price to pay in today’s US$ 1,000 smartphone era.

Gaming

Kingdom Hearts III review: More for long-time fans

It didn’t spark joy

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I played the first Kingdom Hearts game for a grand total of around 40 minutes, so I don’t think I can qualify that as actually playing. I didn’t have my own PlayStation 2 at the time so I was mostly watching my friend play, waiting for him to wrap up so I could beat him on NBA Live.

However, it’s such a popular game that it was impossible for me to not at least be familiar with the premise. I did play my fair share of Final Fantasy games and like most people, Disney titles and characters aren’t complete strangers to me.

Ready to take on some Heartless!

I didn’t have any major expectations jumping into Kingdom Hearts III, but I thought the way the Disney levels are woven in would at least be clever. It was not.

The backstory is massive

The first thing you need to consider when coming into this game is that you’re stepping into a massive pile of backstory. It can be hard to catch up to. If, like me, this is your first game in the franchise, it will be like watching Avengers: Infinity War without seeing even at least a quarter of the movies that led to it.

That said, the game is aware that it has tons of lore to get into. Right in the title screen you’ll see a Memory Archive which is a chapter by chapter summary of the Kingdom Hearts story. It’s best watched in its entirety which means sitting through over 20 minutes of backstory. For the most part, it does its job of catching you up. If that’s not enough, there are several story-so-far videos on YouTube. This one I liked in particular.

Despite all of these recaps available, no amount of summarizing can truly prepare you for the tangled mess that is the Kingdom Hearts lore. During certain parts, it even feels like the game is self-aware of how much of a mess it is and pokes fun at itself. That’s one of the more entertaining aspects of the game, intentional or not.

The story just isn’t gripping enough

This is my main gripe with the game. After playing titles like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man — all of which had stories and characters that you will inevitably invest in as you play — Kingdom Hearts III’s story pales in comparison.

I understand the comparison may not be fair. The games I mentioned are either standalone stories (Detroit and Spider-Man) or a fresh start to a long-running franchise (God of War). Given all of that, I can’t help but feel the storytelling could have been so much better.

The way I feel about Kingdom Hearts III is similar to how I felt about Final Fantasy XV which, coincidentally, was initially helmed by the same guy behind Kingdom Hearts — Tetsuya Nomura. The story’s pacing felt off and it went into places that maybe it shouldn’t have.

There’s also something off about the dialogue during cutscenes. I felt the characters were talking so much slower than usual and it invites zoning out if you’re not that into the story.

That’s a thing? Okay.

If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise and have played most, if not all, of the games and feel differently than I do, then that’s all good. In fact, I’m really interested to hear what the likes of you thought about the game.

The Disney stuff can be fun

It’s not all bad. After I realized the story isn’t gonna spark joy in me whatsoever, I started treating each Disney level as a non-canon mini-game. That made me enjoy it for what it had to offer.

Some levels felt like rushed versions of the original films with Kingdom Hearts lore thrown into the mix. Others offered some value-add to the stories we already know and love, and that truly made it more fun to play.

There’s also enough variation in each level that can make you forget you can get through most of the game by just smashing X and pressing △. The animations during battle look super flashy and the combat has a few other options you can tinker with if you get tired of smashing X.

Might be made more for long-time fans

I suspect this game was really made as more of a pay-off for long-time fans than an opportunity to acquire new ones. That’s perfectly fine. In fact, playing Kingdom Hearts III made me crave another good Final Fantasy game, but perhaps one that features tight turn-based combat versus an action RPG (role playing game) type.

Is there a game where Kairi actually does something?

There are plenty of ways to have fun with Kingdom Hearts III, but the story — which I believe should be paramount in RPGs — just isn’t one of the them. If you’re just coming into the franchise through this game, I suggest you play it for the fun Disney levels and just push the overarching story to the side.  The visual spectacle in this game is off the charts, so go ahead and enjoy that too.

By now, long-time fans would have already bought the game. If you’re one of those who are still deciding whether to get it or not, I suggest waiting a little longer for the price to drop. If you simply can’t wait, I recommend getting a second-hand copy which would also be cheaper. But whatever you decide to do, may your heart be your guiding key.

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Laptops

ASUS ZenBook 15 review: Everything you need in a laptop?

With great power, comes all the caveats in between

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Very few laptops have everything a person would ever need out of it. Whether it’s just for typing Word documents or playing all the latest games, only a handful of laptops fit the bill. ASUS has one laptop to offer, which was announced back in IFA 2018.

The ASUS ZenBook 15 has almost every piece of hardware for everyone. But is a device powered by a powerful Intel processor and a gaming-ready graphics card really worth it? Let’s find out.

Same premium design through the years

ASUS dubs their ZenBook lineup as its top-of-the-line Ultrabook. Through the years, ZenBooks have retained their premium design and feel. So when I got the chance to try the new ZenBook 15 (UX533) out, I expected nothing less — and I was impressed. The build quality of the device is great, with a sturdy metal-plastic chassis that shows little to no flex. It even feels light to bring around, at only 1.59kg.

My unit has the Icicle Silver finish that shows off the elegance of the laptop. There is an option to get it in the bolder Royal Blue color, but it will definitely feel like you own a premium device the moment you set your eyes on it.

The only real change the company implemented was the addition of the ErgoLift. Essentially, it frees up space for the laptop to release hot air instead of blasting them on the table or your lap. It’s also supposed to make the bottom-facing speakers sound better, although this really wasn’t the case when I used it.

It almost has everything for everyone

The ZenBook 15 is one powerful machine, from the inside out. My unit comes with an eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8565U processor and 16GB of RAM. This configuration alone guarantees superb performance, and the ZenBook 15 did not disappoint. Typing Word documents, surfing the web, even photo and video editing felt like a breeze with this machine. You can play games here too, but let’s save that discussion for later.

On the outside, you have a 15-inch Full HD anti-glare NanoEdge display — perfect for outdoor use at full brightness. It comes in a resolution of 1920 by 1080, a full 16:9 display with tiny bezels on the side.

It’s also equipped with a full-size backlit keyboard, with the number pad separated from the trackpad — unlike its 13-inch and 14-inch variants.

The ZenBook 15 does come with three USB Type-A ports and one USB Type-C port that supports external displays; however, it would have been better to make it as Thunderbolt port to fully maximize the potential. The laptop also comes with a dual-band Wi-Fi card, although an additional Ethernet port would have been nice, as well.

It’s got game, but it really destroys your battery life

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ZenBook 15 is the fact that it comes with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Max-Q. With this graphics chip, gaming on this laptop actually feels pretty damn good. It managed to get competitive frame rates for fast-paced games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Rocket League, all with high settings. But, don’t expect the same from AAA titles like Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

Also, there is a significant increase in the laptop’s overall temperature with longer than 30 minutes of play time. The left side of the laptop felt so hot, it’s almost like you could fry an egg on it. Of course, playing for long hours on this device drains the 73Wh battery significantly faster. I got about nine to ten hours on regular use, and only two to three hours on full game mode.

The camera is honestly only good for Windows Hello

The ZenBook 15 comes with an 3D infrared HD camera that supports Windows Hello. The infrared sensors were great at facial recognition, and Windows Hello felt really easy to set up and use. But, the camera was lackluster when taking photos and videos. It only seems passable to use for video calls, but the overall image quality just doesn’t equate to HD.

The bottom-facing speakers could be better

The two Harman/Kardon speakers on the ZenBook 15 are placed on the bottom side, facing the table or your lap. Sound quality is impressive until you turn it to maximum. Apart from that, I was expecting that they would sound better because of what ErgoLift supposedly does for them.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

For PhP 89,995 (US$ 1,720), the ASUS ZenBook 15 jams almost everything you need in a premium device. And for that price you get the highest, most powerful configuration possible. Anyone can do pretty much anything with the hardware that comes with it. Apart from that, its elegant design and lightweight body make it a perfect on-the-go device. 

If you’re low on cash, you can also get the 14-inch ZenBook 14 for PhP 77,995. It only has 8GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce MX150 graphics card that offers similar, but less powerful overall performance. But, you do get the illuminated number pad on the touchpad.

Of course, that is if you don’t mind the otherwise average camera and fryer-like temperatures with heavy gaming. However, if you’re looking for a laptop that can handle anything, the ZenBook 15 is for you!

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Apps

Trying out the Gixo Fitness App: A personal fitness trainer on your smartphone

Get fit on your phone!

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I know how demanding working out can be. Especially for those who are just about to start their fitness journey, it can get pretty hard learning even just the basics. And then, there’s also getting yourself to the gym — believe me, I know how it feels to drag my feet out the door on the way to an exercise class.

What if you could make it all easier for you? Saddle up, ladies. This is an app that will allow you to get exercising all through your smartphone.

Introducing: The Gixo Fitness App

Like most exercise apps, Gixo will allow you to pick out different workouts depending on your exercise preference.

Because I was in the middle of a crazy work week when I tried out the app, I figured yoga would be a great way to clear my mind and get my body relaxed.

I picked out a class I liked and it was as simple as that. Of course, there were different classes available ranging from kickboxing to strength training, to HIIT, and even weight training — perfect if you’re not into only one activity.

Since I was working out to an app, this meant I got to exercise anywhere! I set up a yoga mat in a corner of that week’s office space-slash-studio (like I said, busy work week!) and started the class.

It was a very relaxing 15-minute class, just what I needed to refresh my mind and get the blood flowing.

For a mid-week work breather, these short classes are perfect. But, if you want a more intense workout, Gixo still delivers. There are different fitness levels and class length also vary with some classes running up till 60 minutes.

As good as this all sounds, however, it’s not even Gixo’s best workout feature.

Trying out a live class

Gixo’s strength lies in the fact that you can sign on for live classes. You heard that right: You can look through a number of different scheduled classes and join whatever tickles your fancy.

These live classes are headed by actual coaches that will instruct you as you go. For this beginner class, Coach Aaron was facilitating.

The beauty of it all is that this isn’t just a person who will talk you through the exercise — watching a YouTube video can do that! The app actually allows you to communicate with the coaches during class via chatting. Communication is two-way which allows for more interactive classes.

So how it works is you have a live coach facilitating a class and based on what you signed up for, you can follow along and ask questions. On the screen, you’ll have your coach and exercise visuals to help you along.

You can also turn on your phone camera so your coach can check in on you and give you comments about your form and the actual workouts you’re on.

And because it’s highly involved, you also get to input the number of reps or even change workout locations — perfect for coached running classes!

Changing to an outdoor location switches up the workout screen

Though I’ve used fitness apps (and a lot of them) before, I’ve never really had a live coach walk me through things via an app. In fact, I don’t think any other exercise app offers the same thing. It’s a pretty cool fitness innovation, really, and I’m still geeking over how no one has thought about this setup before.

For those who want even more fitness motivation, there are also exercise challenges that span weeks that you can sign up for. Gixo allows you to pick out a set time for weekdays and weekends and you simply follow along

Final verdict

So will the Gixo app actually get you those rock hard abs you’ve always dreamed about? Well, yes and no.

The whole experience can seem pretty weird at first but it doesn’t take long for you to get used to the setup. Think of it as video calling your fitness coach; you basically get the same interaction without having to leave the comfort of wherever you are. Gixo basically takes away one big step from the working out equation and, as we all know, any help in the exercise department is a big help.

Some would contend that having and being on your phone during workouts is counterproductive. But, think about it: You’re still working out and it’s an app that will allow you these workouts anywhere at your own convenience. There’s literally no excuse now because you only need to fire up Gixo on your phone and you get live, personal fitness exercise training right then and there. Talk about not having excuses! In addition, Gixo will send you workout summaries so you’re always reminded of just how much exercising you’re actually doing.

Of course, the bottom line is that Gixo can only do so much. It’s up to you to do those exercises and get your body in tip-top shape with the inclusion of those abs you dream about so much. To be perfectly honest, though, Gixo already does a lot: It’s an app that has someone literally watching you (in a non-freaky, coaching way) while you do your exercises. If that’s not making it easy for you to meet your fitness goals, I’m not entirely sure what will.

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