Monday, 6 July 2020

Realme X3 SuperZoom: Initial Thoughts

Realme is a sub-brand of Oppo in the way that Redmi is for Xiaomi and Honor is for Huawei and so on. The Realme devices seem to want to take on the high-end of the mid-range or the low-end of flagships and appeal to a younger crowd. Very often this represents good value for money and a growing feature-list to keep up with other manufacturers doing similar things in this tight marketplace. Let's see how they did with the X3 SuperZoom.

I offer my thoughts here in support of Steve Litchfield's video review over on his YouTube Channel as, to be honest, I'm finding much the same in terms of pros and cons. In the hand, it feels very nice indeed, reflective of that upper-mid-tier bracket and doesn't disappoint. I approve of the design language which places the elements on the back in landscape orientation, encouraging users to think of it as a camera first - and indeed shoot video the right way round!

In the shiny yellow box we have a 'smoked' TPU (well done Realme) which is actually a good, sturdy one, a pokey-hole SIM Card Tray ejector tool, USB-A to USB-C cable, 3-pin UK Fast-charging 30W power unit and a few papers. All simple and clean, though no earphones.

It's a shame that the frame is plastic, particularly at this price-point, but I guess that they will argue that it makes an already-heavy (202g) device a bit lighter - though aluminium wouldn't add much really. The unrated back glass has the usual now 'shimmering' look, in this case Glacier Blue (but there's also an Arctic White version available), quad-camera island top-right as you look in landscape and a Realme branding top-left. The camera island sticks out about a millimetre but when the TPU is in place, becomes flush. There's no IP-Rating on offer here either, so presumably not even splash-proof. User beware.

On the right side, slightly higher than middle, is a 'long-pill' capacitive fingerprint scanner/power button in the same style as Sony have been doing lately. It works really well, first time, every time. Registration is quick and easy and it can easily be touched for opening the phone up without the firm push needed to execute the power button itself. Nice job. On the other side, pretty much opposite, are two volume control buttons, firm and clicky, separate so not a rocker. On the top, there's nothing but a microphone hole and down the bottom, SIM Card Tray for, in this case, a single NanoSIM, USB-C charging/data port centre, another microphone and a single mono speaker.

The front houses the big Gorilla Glass 5 toughened screen, a 6.6" 1080p IPS LCD panel which is 20:9 in ratio, so the usual 'tall' these days. It's reasonably bright-enough in most situations but as usual with all but the best LCDs, take it outside in bright sunshine, which I just did, tested on automatic brightness and manual, and it's close to unusable. It seems that for those kinds of extremes there's nothing like an OLED - or at least a very good high quality LCD. The screen returns 399ppi but to its credit, does offer a 120Hz refresh-rate like a good gaming phone. You can switch back to 60Hz manually (though there's no 90) or allow the phone to decide in Auto. Presumably it knows when you're gaming. Anyway, as usual, I can't tell the difference!

There are some controls for the way the screen looks including a slider for temperature from cool to warm and screen colour mode for switching between Gentle and Vivid. That does make a bit of difference, mainly saturating deep colours. Then there's OSIE Vision Effect. "Object and Semantic Images and Eye-tracking! An Artificial Intelligence that will track eye movement with precision. This will make you have a great experience when using apps. Not all apps are supported by OSIE and this may affect the consumption of power." Right. This is off by default and I don't really know how to test it, with what apps. I turned it on and nothing seemed different really. More investigation needed. But, again, this is no OLED, so the colours are not so rich and vibrant and blacks not the deep blacks which we know can be achieved.

The bezels around the screen are very small except for the bottom, which is a bit bigger. I support this as there's somewhere to swipe from. In the top-left there's another long-pill cutout for two, yes, two Selfie Cams which I'll come to later. Usual thing applies - it feels in the way for a while but the brain gets used to it and in the end, watching media, pales into insignificance. You can, on an app-by-app basis choose whether or not to 'hide' the cameras by finishing the screen content below the line of the Notification Bar. Talking of which, the icons in the Notification Bar are ludicrously tiny and in order to increase the size of them (the only way I found) was to make the Display Size Large (rather than Small or Default, but that still is nowhere near large enough. The percentage remaining readout in the battery is near unreadable to me. Maybe younger eyes won't care.

The device arrives with Android 10 on-board (with now June 2020 Google Security) so instant access to dark everything including Settings, GMail and the Google Apps. On top of that, they have their own Dark mode in Settings so that tries hard to ensure everything that might not be dark, becomes so. There's a Vanilla Android feel to some of the UI, a little spoilt (but not too much) by the infiltration of Realme UI. This goes its own way, trying to emulate iOS in many ways when Stock doesn't. The Settings are so incredibly confusing coming from a Stock experience and for those not prepared to use the Search feature, they're really in for a long learning curve to get up to speed - and then once learned, hopefully stay with Realme so they don't have to use any other system and have to unlearn it all! But Realme are not alone here. Exceptions which come to mind are Motorola, Nokia, OnePlus who do a much cleaner job and keep things much more 'standard'.

Having said all the above, Realme have at least included the Google Assistant Cards off to the left of Home, which many others don't (looking at you Samsung)! There's an archaic method of Widget selection from a horizontally-scrolling picker across the bottom of the screen and again, iOS-style mutli-pickers of apps on the home screens after a long-press for group actions, like folder selections and so forth. Thankfully there's an App drawer available which makes the 'feel' much more like Stock and I was able to lay out my home screens how I liked, with widgets and sizing perfectly acceptable. Some others miss on this and (for me) enforce a Nova Prime installation but here, I didn't feel the need. So yes, more Vanilla than ever before with Oppo/Realme, but could do better!

There's no Always on Display whatsoever, only an option to briefly wake the screen when notifications come in. There's not even a double-tap-to-wake, only sleep! Bizarre. There is lift-to-wake and the face recognition is excellent. Quick to register and 100% reliable - much like the fingerprint scanner. For those who are not bothered about an AoD, they won't care and maybe most will conclude that they tend to take their phone out of their pocket mostly to use anyway. (I get the feeling that as soon as Apple do AoD, it will be everywhere!)

What can be said for the system is that when the Settings are delved into, there's an awful lot of options to tweak, well thought out in many cases. Small touches which others miss out on, they've included. Swipe down from anywhere on the Home Screen for the Notification Bar, Up from anywhere for App Drawer, display data usage in the Bar, Search Bar at the bottom, by choice (looking at you Pixel), choice of Icon styles, long-press the Power button for Google Assistant, choice of Gestures of buttons for Navigation, App cloner, split-screen control for multiple apps - it's all there and oodles more, for those who get stuck in and hang around long enough to learn it all going forward for, say, a two year operator contract.

The unit we have here is powered by a SnapDragon 855+ chipset, has 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage and 12GB RAM. As you can imagine, it flies. This seems to be where they have spent the money and justified the high price, along with the periscope camera, which I'll come to. There is a variation on this for a bit less money, namely 128GB and 8GB RAM. I would have traded in the 256GB for a microSD Card slot, sadly missing, like it seems with most Oppo/Realme phones. The USB OTG works fine, tested here with my usual plug-in 2TB SSD and various microSD Cards/adapter, but sadly there's no HDMI-Out working.

There's only a single mono speaker, as I said earlier, bottom-firing. The speaker is pretty loud and quality is good enough, there's even Dolby, system-wide, though when in speaker mode, this can't be turned off - only switched between the four available profiles: Music, Gaming, Movie or Smart Auto. I can't really tell much difference between them to be honest, but yes, small shifts in sound. The average user won't complain about the output from this speaker, only when they realise that it's covered up by their fingers!

The output via headphones improves the listening experience even more (as it usually does) by the inclusion of 24-bit/192kHz audio and having the Dolby Stereo open up properly for better adjustments. What's not good is that there's no 3.5mm audio-out socket nor a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter in the box. However, laying that aside, let's dwell on the sound now that I've armed myself with a dumb-adapter and pair of reference headphones. The sound is really quite excellent as you might expect with that hardware, rich, loud and full. The Dolby options include a manual graphic equaliser and intelligent equaliser settings for each of the previously-mentioned pre-sets. No complaints here. Fabulous sound. Actually, I do have one complaint! It's great that they supply a Music and Video App but although the music continues to play whilst you tweak the Dolby, the Video doesn't - so you can only hear the adjustments by going and changing it in silence. So yes, not on-the-fly makes it harder to hear the changes. Tested here also with Huawei FreeBuds 3 for Bluetooth 5 and the pairing process is quick and easy with resulting sound also excellent. Loud and rich with the same open access to the Dolby settings to adjust.

Talking of additional software and apps, again the experience is better than it has been and also some others. I consider the Music and Video apps to be a bonus, not bloat, and other than that - yes, we have the usual doubling-up of Google apps like Calculator, Clock, File Manager and Photos, in addition to a few of their own, being Clone Phone, Compass, One Tap Lock Screen, Phone Manager, Recorder, Weather along with the Music and Video. Not too bad, but could be better. Some of these can be uninstalled, some not, some force-closed and disabled. When the count is this low, I don't even think the Vanilla Mad Geek would be bothered.

The phone is powered by a decent-sized 4200mAh battery which, if charged with the 30W cord supplied can be charged from flat to full in about an hour. There's no wireless charging here, which is a big miss at this price, I think. Tested here with phone calls, WiFi, Cellular Data and GPS, the aerials seem to good all round and strong enough. Not as good as some on the WiFi, but very well good enough. NFC is also present, which is not always a given with these phones from the far-east (even Motorola these days), so kudos for that, enabling Google Pay of course.

As usual, I'm going to point to Steve's much more informed appraisal of the phone's camera capabilities - see link, above, but on the way, I do have some thoughts of my own. The main USP here, as the name suggests, is the SuperZoom. 5x Optical, offering a reasonable 10x hybrid and up to 60x when pushed. I have tested that here and it's really not very impressive against proper cameras with zoom lenses, as you might expect from a periscope lens arrangement, but working in the 5x to 10x range, it's really very acceptable and for my uses (and many more I suspect), very good. When you get to 60x zoom, you really need a tripod to make anything like a usable photo and if you're carrying a tripod, you might as well just carry a cheap zoom compact!

I love the Ultra Macro mode which allows focusing very, very closely indeed. It is tied to a 2MP f2.4 camera on the back, but even so, great fun for a close-up view on life! There's a 64MP f1.8 normal lens which cuts down the 64MP to 16MP by default, but there is a setting to make full use of the 64MP producing big photos. The 8MP f3.4 camera is used for the 5x optical imaging and this also has OIS. As I say, stick to 5x and excellent results are possible. There's also an 8MP f2.3 wide-angle camera to make up the foursome. Round the front, there's two Selfie cameras. One 8MP f2.2 wide-angle and one 32MP f2.5 normal. Steve got some very useful background blur by using these appropriately - again, see his video review.

It's a great fun camera setup with lots of bells, whistles and toys to play around with in the Camera App as supplied. Many people will enjoy using these very much - and I wouldn't knock it. Yes, if we pixel-peep we're going to find that the photos don't match a dSLR with expensive optics, but that's going to be true of any phone ever made. You can't defy physics! So what's left, for me, is making it fun. Fun for those sharing photos and video around with their friends, on social media and looking at them on screens. Let's face it, the vast majority these days! I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you want more than that, get a camera.

So those are my initial thoughts. The phone is too expensive in relation to the features which are missing. If this phone were £300 instead of £500, I would be enthusiastic. But like Steve, for this money I would expect a whole list of stuff more. Always on Display, aluminium build, IP-rating, OLED screen (or at least a better LCD), Stereo Speakers, wireless charging, a 3.5mm audio-out socket and with no microSD, at least HDMI-Out. Perhaps not so much cash spent on the SuperZoom which, actually, beyond 5x is really not that special anyway.

However, if this were £300, it would be a much easier sell. The audio-out through the speaker is very good and even better when headphones are hooked up, the design is pleasing and closeness to Vanilla Android much more impressive than before. The software is up to date, the Android 10 experience is pleasing, absence of bloat impressive, blazingly fast SnapDragon performance, oodles of RAM and even a screen refreshing at 120Hz. The battery is good and strong with fast charging available. Oh dear. I want to like this phone very much, but there's just too much missing for the price. Sorry Realme, a miss - try again.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

The PodHubUK Podcasts for June 2020

...a roundup of our month of podcasting. Links to the team, communities and podcast homes on the net at the foot, so scroll down!


Phones Show Chat
Episode 563 - Strapping on the Fan
Tuesday 2nd June 2020
Steve and I are back with a short'n'sweet mid-week'r as we natter about further discovery regarding the ROG Phone II, iPhone Reframing and another Pixel Feature-Drop.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 564 - Massively Multiple Mobile Man
Saturday 6th June 2020
Steve and I welcome Dan Carter back after a long absence from PSC and he runs through his current review devices. Plus all the usual stuff of the show.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 565 - Xiaomi Impresses, Moto Confuses
Tuesday 9th June 2020
Steve and I are back with another Midweek Special with loads of stuff to chew over in the wonderful world of mobile! I roundup my Asus ROGII review (for now) and Steve considers the X-Factor!

Projector Room
Episode 64 - The Elephant and the Pigeon
Wednesday 10th June 2020
More film, TV and cinema natter from the gang for an hour or so in our fortnightly roundup. I'm joined as always by the Dynamic Duo Gareth and Allan as we field your comments and chat about what we've been watching. From Dubious Dolls to Dali's Dreams. Dude!

Whatever Works
Episode 113 - Take Two Twerps
Friday 12th June 2020
Yes, that's Aidan Bell and I 🙃 Regardless, we're back with another thrilling episode this week in which we consider Whatever Works for us and you! Join us as we get all humid and frothy!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 566 - Just Some Gadget Guy
Saturday 13th June 2020
Steve and I are back again with more mobile phone natter and this time we're joined by Juan Carlos Bagnell of somegadgetguy fame! We talk a lot about imaging and particularly interestingly, in relation to Sony.

The Phones Show
Episode 397 - Xiaomi POCO F2 Pro
Monday 15th June 2020
Join Steve over in his YouTube Channel as he takes a close look at this Xiaomi 'flagship at a bargain price' to see how it stacks up.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 567 - Downsizing. Or Maybe Not
Tuesday 16th June 2020
Steve and I are back with another midweek catch-up. In an X-Rated world we consider more Xiaomi, a tincture of Xperia, but draw the line at Xylophone!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 568 - Mobile Tech from 1990 Onwards
Saturday 20th June 2020
Steve and I are back again with another delve into all things mobile phone. Axon, Armor and Asus steel us for the tuff stuff! Steve also chats with Dave Shevett about his path through mobile tech.

The Phones Show
Episode 398 - Realme X3 SuperZoom Review
Wednesday 24th June 2020
It's got 5x periscope optics and 120Hz screen, all for less than £500. In this review @Steve Litchfield talks about some of the caveats and compromises.

Projector Room
Episode 65 - Primal Peninsula
Wednesday 24th June 2020
The full gang are back this time so why not join Gareth, Allan, Steve and I as we natter for an hour about what we've been watching lately and take some comments from you good folk, too.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 569 - SuperZoom
Tuesday 23rd June 2020
Steve and I are back with another PSC catchup show as I consider a phone-supporting monitor and Steve, the latest from Realme and Apple. Plus a bunch of other stuff as usual.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 570 - Advanced Audio, Good Vibrations
Saturday 27th June 2020
Steve and I are back again with another show packed with mobile phone chatter including the PSC Photo of the Month. This time we welcome back Steve Nutt to get his take on audio goodness.

Whatever Works
Episode 114 - Trucker Tuck
Saturday 27th June 2020
Why not join Aidan and I for an hour as we consider Whatever Works in our lives and take your items too. From cool Ice and Fans to hot Tea and Coffee, something for everyone, so bring your own Custard Creams!

The Phones Show
Episode 399 - Sony Xperia 1 mk II Review
Monday 29th June 2020
Join Steve over on his YouTube channel as he considers the latest and greatest phone from Sony. An ambitious all-singing, all-dancing smartphone that falls flat in just a couple of areas.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 571 - £200 vs £1000
Tuesday 30th June 2020
Steve and I are back with another mid-week'er to chat about all things mobile phone for a while. Interest in gaming drops as does Realme's SuperZoom!



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The Podcasts
PodHubUK - Phones Show Chat - The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room

The MeWe Community Groups (follow the links to join up)
Phones Show Chat & The Phones Show - Whatever Works - Chewing Gum for the Ears - Projector Room - PSC Photos - PSC Classifieds

The Team
Ted Salmon - Steve Litchfield - Aidan Bell - Dave Rich - Gareth Myles - Allan Gildea

Thursday, 25 June 2020

UCMDA 15.6 Inch Portable Monitor

Who ever heard of UCMDA, I asked myself as I eyed up Asus ZenScreen portable monitors. Turns out that it's a Chinese company who sell a lot of stuff on AmazonUK and that actually, a lot of what they churn out reviews very well. I'm sure there are exceptions, but given the opinions on this device (and that someone else was buying it) I decided to give it a go.

I had a look at reviews on YouTube of course and the front-runners were the aforementioned ZenScreens and a Lenovo ThinkVision M14 alongside this unit. But firstly, why do I need/want one. I recently bought an all-singing-all-dancing desktop Windows PC which now sits up at basecamp and is obviously not portable. Part of that process included losing my Acer 14" laptop, so was I left with the Surface Go. Now, when I work from my Static 'Van, the screen on that is going to just be too small for anything more than casual tablet-orientated use.

Electric!
I could have bought another desktop monitor to put down there as there is electricity - and indeed that would have been the cheaper option - but when I started researching these units, I started to realise that with these portable monitors, even though I didn't need mine to be portable, they can do so much more with much less fiddle and are geared up for use on-the-road - so hooking up easily to tablets, small computers and phones. I looked further.

So Many Options!
There are all sorts of differences between them of course. Some of the ZenScreens have a battery, the Lenovo has pass-through charging, some have HDMI ports, some USB-A, some USB-C - and some even two! Some have cases, some have stands, the Asus even comes with a pen which sticks through a hole as a make-shift stand! Some are mains-powered, some can be powered by the device plugged in, others you can plug in a powerbank to a USB port. Some have their own speakers whilst others rely on the source to provide that. So many options.

Flexible
I decided on this one partly because I don't need to take it anywhere, but also because it seems to be the one which is most flexible with connections and options in use. It is true that going with a lower-powered unit results in a less bright screen than a 'traditionally' mains-powered monitor, but I didn't think that this was going to be a big problem in the location it would mostly be used.

Fabricated
The screen comes with a fabric-style cover which is attached with two easy-undo screws, but left in place, it enables the screen to be propped up at one of three angles, much like a flip-case for a phone. Fold it back on itself and the base covers the screen for transportation with protection all round. They've also nicked Asus' idea by putting a hole on the device, bottom-right, so if you don't have the case on it, you can prop it up at one angle at least by putting a pen through the hole. A simple idea which enables the pen to be the stand. Unlike Asus, however, they don't supply one in the box!

Thin, but Sturdy
It's made of plastic all around, though hard and sturdy-feeling plastic, supporting the 15.6" IPS LCD 1080p 16:9 screen with an adequate 60Hz refresh rate. The bezels around the screen are uniform and just a few millimetres - with a fatter bit at the bottom to house the aforementioned stand-pen-hole and three buttons to control the screen. It's very thin, about 10mm, so again, easy to carry around for those who need to - though by no means the average ruck-sack size. It weighs about 650g so the weight of three big mobile phones. This is not a touch-screen unit - for that it appears that a serious price-hike is required at time of writing, the ZenScreen Touch being well over £300.

Power and Ports
On the left edge, we have two USB-C ports, one for power-in (from whatever source you want) and the other, data-in/power pass-through. There's also a microUSB port which they say is so that a user can plug in a mouse or keyboard. I don't remember ever seeing/using a mouse or keyboard with a microUSB cord, but perhaps I remember badly. It doesn't power the screen, but apparently you can plug in a 'U Disk' (which seems to pre-date USB-Pen Drives) but I'm still not sure how any of that works. I don't really get the microUSB port at all, to be honest - perhaps it's a far-east thing! Even if I had an antiquated microUSB mouse, keyboard or U-Disk, I don't see how they could be used to control separately-connected equipment via the other ports. I can't seem to find out anything about this, nor do I have the gear to test it - but they seem to be suggesting that a microUSB peripheral plugged in there would enable pass-through control to a connected device for executable command. Find that hard to believe!

Go Charge
I have been testing this with a Microsoft Surface Go. Without the screen being powered by its own source, but the Go being powered by its own source, it tries really hard to pass the power through from the Go to the screen, but keeps failing after a few seconds. Plug in the screen's own power and all works fine - so I conclude that there's not enough power passing through the Go to power the screen as well. Similarly, plugging in a mobile phone (with HDMI-Out capability of course) is not going to work without powering the screen with its own cord, but once you do, the power is passed back down through to the phone and charges the phone's battery. This seems to work efficiently via the screen's own power so that watching a film on the screen, for example, held on the phone, increases the charge in the phone even during playback.

PowerBanks
Away from mains power, a PowerBank can be plugged into the 'powering' USB-C port with mixed results. I read that this should work and people report having done this, but here, it's hit and miss. The screen tries to turn on, flickers on for a few seconds, then off again. Tried with three different PowerBanks, but none of them are more than 12,000mAh, though all fully charged. So again, your mileage may vary if out on the road. It might be that newer PowerBank units push out power more reliably, as the three here are some years old. During this process, the screen was also trying (in the same way) to draw power from the phone, but again, fell over after some flickering on and off.

DeX
I have a Samsung Galaxy Tab4 here and DeX Support, as I'd expect, is working perfectly. Throw the content to the monitor via a cable, use the tablet's screen as a mousepad (if you want to) or bluetooth a mouse and keyboard with the Samsung, and it all works beautifully. No wonder Samsung phones sell so well! Sadly, even with the Tablet's even bigger battery, it's still no-go on power pass-through from device to monitor. Though, as for the phones, with the monitor plugged in, the power passes through to keep the tablet charged up.

Menu Mayhem!
The three button controls are Menu, Up and Down. Very simple and chaotic to learn how to use and navigate with! Apart from anything else, to control the volume increase, down is pressed and to increase, up! But the menu system is woeful - like it belongs to a cheap Portable no-name Chinese DVD Player from 2005. I'm sure you've seen them! To make things worse, the brightness setting is not remembered (as the unit has no battery) as soon as you cut the power. Fortunately, the default setting is not bad for general use in most lighting conditions - though if bright sun is flooding into the room, you'll need to delve in and chance your arm!

Brightness
The brightness of the screen can be yanked up, but the brighter it gets, the less defined the image seems to be. Having said that, it really is not bad - in fact, for most of us with middle-aged eyes, perfectly good. The viewing angles are not great - as you walk around it dulls and blacks out - this is really a monitor for sitting in front of, or maybe two of you at most - and for that it's perfectly viewable.

More Menu Chaos
I really can't understand how to use this menu system, so much so that I can't work out how to switch off the monitor's speakers and instead use the phone/tablet/computer's! Again, apparently that is supposed to work, so I'll keep trying, but for now, yes - it has it's own speakers. And actually, they're not bad. Certainly very loud. Fortunately, in order to adjust the volume you don't need to negotiate the menu system but just use the +/- buttons (even if they are the wrong way round)! The quality is not great, so forget bass, but for most stuff I want to do, it works just fine and I haven't considered the inability to switch sound to the device's speakers a big problem. There are two speakers but they don't appear to be stereo. Still, many of these devices don't have speakers at all, so this is a bonus! If you plug in headphones to your source device (or an external speaker) or bluetooth-out the sound to either, it works just fine - mutes the monitor and routes the sound out. I shall keep trying to work out this menu system!

Plug'n'Play
The unit seems to be completely plug'n'play. There was no mention of any drivers needed or updates or software. The screen is 16:9 so in using my Surface Go I had to change the native orientation to suit, but that was straight forward in Windows - and as soon as I unplugged, the Go went back to normal. The screen also comes with plenty of cables (AC 3-Pin UK, MiniHDMI to HDMI, USB C to USB-C, USB-A to USB C). The remaining port I didn't mention was the MiniHDMI, which means that with a computer or any other device with HDMI full-sized slots (like my DVD Player or TV Set-top Box), the cable can adapt you down to the Mini size and away you go!

Impressed
All in all, I'm pleased with this monitor. It is cheaper, function-for-function, than most around it, has some features that others don't, it's a good size and makes a big difference to me having to squint at a 10" tablet-sized Windows environment for work-based applications. It's great for watching films on, which can be routed from pretty much any source I fancy using, and even plays nicely with power pass-through and phones. It does have limitations, of course - and some of the other devices around it do some things it doesn't, but for the money, I reckon it's a good compromise. Last thing to note really is that it certainly seems much happier to play with a proper power supply. Other than that, cracking! Shop around for prices as I've seen this leap from £200 to £150 and back (and most places between) in a few days!

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

The Innocents

Actress, writer, director Anne Fontaine has created and been instrumental in some cracking projects during her career, including directing the excellent Coco Before Chanel in 2009, White as Snow in 2019 and writing/directing the much admired Adore from 2013. The Innocents which she directed in 2016 deals with a difficult story based on true events from Poland in 1945.

As Russian soldiers run riot in Europe at the end of WWII the focus of this story is a convent in Poland where the soldiers had been bursting in and raping the nuns. The film does not cover the period of time when this rampage was happening but starts off some months later as a number of the nuns are about to give birth. In desperation, one of their number seeks the help of Mathilde who happens to be working for the French Red Cross nearby helping the French soldiers recover from their ordeals as a result of being held in German POW camps.

Mathilde responds to the call and starts to help the nuns in any way she can. She's up against it, however, from several different directions as the Mother Superior doesn't want the news of what's happened to get out for fear of shame and rejection falling on her group. As the babies are born, she takes them away, telling the mother-nuns that the babies are being homed with good families. Furthermore, she's been sworn to secrecy by the same woman and has to find excuses to get away from her Red Cross duties without raising suspicion, especially from a doctor there who she's having a bit of a fling with.

Mathilde is played by the beautiful French actress Lou de Lâage (White as Snow, Breathe) who does an admirable job in depicting the controlled, passionate and driven medic. She plays the part in a passive way, reflective of her hands being tied behind her back for the aforementioned reasons with scarce resources at her disposal. The viewer is involved every step of the way as the story unfolds and events take place, dealing with the chaos of a convent full of pregnant nuns whilst protecting their position and dignity. The nuns are reluctant to be looked at initially, let alone touched, but Mathilde doing her best for them wins most of them round in the end as a relationship builds on mutual trust.

There are underlying themes playing throughout about life, the universe, (especially) religion (and the impact of the misguided actions of Mother Superior), belief and politics which reflect the diversity of characters, backgrounds and roles of those involved. There is much for them to struggle with too, as the values are clearly different for many, some religious who are re-thinking their blind obedience, some not, and those who are contemplating life and the meaning of existence especially at this time with all this going on around them.

The scenery, as it was in Pawlikowski's excellent Ida and Cold War, depicting a bleak, cold and inhospitable Polish winter is captured beautifully throughout and Fontaine has pulled the strings together very well to make this presentation a reflective one, rather than over-emotional tear-jerker. Agata Kulesza (IdaCold War), Joanna Kulig (Cold War), Vincent Macaigne and Anna Próchniak (Warsaw 44) all support admirably, demonstrating the fact that there's an awful lot to enjoy in Polish cinema, along with French, the best of both worlds shining through here. Highly recommended.

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Railway Man

Films depicting events in World War II are very often all-adventure boy's comic-book yarns about the stiff-upper-lipped Brits giving The Hun a damned good thrashing. Then there are thoughtful, reflective stories which tell the gritty real-life side of real people's dreadful struggle amidst, often, the enemy breaking the 'rules' of warfare of the day and impact that had on people's lives. The Railway Man is the latter.

We jump into this 2013 fact-based film in the 1980's when Eric meets Patti on a train journey one day, they fall for each other and very quickly marry. Eric is a railway enthusiast. What he doesn't know about trains and railways isn't worth knowing. He starts to show signs of anxiety after the honeymoon period but won't open up to his wife and share what is in his head. She tries to find out what the problem is by turning up at a Royal Legion Club where Eric and his surviving WWII buddies hang out and mutually support.

Finlay is the person she pesters until he starts to tell her about what happened to Eric and the rest of them when they were subjected to abuse in capture by the Japanese forces in Singapore, 1942. We then enter flashback mode and leap between the two eras. We see a young group of educated engineers captured and put to work helping the Japanese lay a railway, much as the story goes in Bridge on the River Kwai.

As we flash back and forward it becomes apparent that one Japanese soldier, supposedly a translator, is instrumental in facilitating the poor treatment handed out by his army to Eric and his friends. They rig up a radio in order to listen to what is going on in the war, which the Japanese interpret as a transmitter and dole out punishment accordingly. The scenes which follow are often harrowing and difficult to watch. As we switch back to the present, Eric finds out that the soldier in question is still alive and he considers travelling out there again to confront him.

Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) plays younger Eric and Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight, The King's Speech), the older. Stellan Skarsgård (Chernobyl, Angels and Demons) plays Finlay and Nicole Kidman (The Hours, Cold Mountain), Patti. The four main leads carry it off excellently well, particularly Irvine who depicts the horror of his situation convincingly and Firth, who reflects similarly with the emotions beyond what any of us could imagine.

Jonathan Teplitzky who also directed Churchill does a good job pulling the ideas together and drawing out solid performances whilst ensuring that the visuals reflect the mood and seriousness of the subject. It's a story of horror, sadness, reflection, forgiveness, compassion, understanding which also highlights, as did Kwai, the differences between the cultures of the far-east and western nations. The differences in approach to life, values and what's important. It's also something of a portrait of a man trying hard to fit into society and finding it difficult to share his inner thoughts and past experience with a patient and understanding wife. It's a very well made film, doing the rounds on terrestrial TV in the UK just now and absolutely should be on your watchlist.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

The Public

This is an interesting little film which I think slipped under the radar in 2018. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez (The Breakfast Club) who also plays the lead, it's a moral tale and reflection of society's attitudes towards people who don't have homes and may have mental health issues and/or addictions - with a poke at fake news and badly-behaved media reporting thrown in for good measure!

Wiki [edit]: After learning that shelters are full when a brutal Midwestern cold front makes its way to Cincinnati, a large group of homeless library patrons refuse to leave the downtown public library at closing time. What begins as a nonviolent occupation escalates into a standoff with local police, led by a no-nonsense crisis negotiator and a savvy district attorney with lofty political ambitions, as two librarians are caught in the middle.

Christian Slater plays Mr Nasty in contrast to Mr Nice Estevez with Alec Baldwin somewhere in the middle, seeing both sides because he has a missing son who has an addiction problem. The large cast of character actors do a splendid job and keep it interesting.

It may well have turned into a sloppy tear-jerking mess, but doesn't thankfully. It is however moving in parts, funny in parts and dramatic in others. It is kind-of 'feel good' but there are messages that come with the fictional drama. I enjoyed it and would recommend.

White As Snow/Blanche comme Neige

This very funny, sexy and dark French comedy/drama is now available on Netflix and I gave it a go tonight. Directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Channel, The Innocents) and starring Lou de Laâge (The Innocents, Breathe), Isabelle Huppert (Elle, Amour) and Charles Berling (Elle, Ridicule) it's a tale of jealousy, liberation and revenge!

Lou de Laâge is Claire the sexy (of whom we see plenty) and Isabelle Huppert, Maud the dark (who shows that she can do sinister) whilst Charles Berling leads the pack of half a dozen men seeking the intimate favours of Claire. Which most of them get!

Claire is Maud's daughter-in-law and through comic circumstances ends up in a village in the middle of the countryside surrounded by the drooling men. One by one they make fools of themselves until Maud turns up to exact revenge on Claire by trying time and again, almost slapstick style, to bump her off for swiping her man away from her back in the city!

What plays out is pure dark comic genius as we tip-toe through the shenanigans being played out in what could easily have been a Woody Allen plot and film. Delightful to watch, really good stuff, subtitles to contend with but don't let that put you off - it's a feast!

The Jesus Rolls

This is an absolute scream - and nothing to do with religion! In fact, quite the opposite! The film is a spin-off of The Big Lebowski in which the Coen Brothers' purple-clad bowler, Jesus Quintana, delivered such a laugh - they thought there was mileage for a diversion. Or at least the actor/director John Turturro did! It's a real mish-mash of genres - part road-movie, part drama, part thriller, part Bonnie and Clyde and almost-all comedy.

John Turturro is really funny in the lead and Bobby Cannavale supporting - but the show is stolen by the hilarious Audrey Tautou as the dappy hairdresser-cum-free-spirit along for the ride. There are cameos from a bunch of people including Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken, as our hero is released from jail and immediately goes on the rampage! It's a lampoon from start to finish and well worth seeking out, even if you have to rent it from Amazon.

The Assistant

Kitty Green's 'a day in the life' of an assistant to a powerful film producer in America is the basis for this film which I would no doubt have glossed over if it were not for Julia Garner being in the lead, on the back of an superb performance in The Ozark.

There are obvious themes here having a poke at the Weinstein situation as the depiction of young people with great ambition being abused in the Movie Industry coming through up front and centre. No names - in fact we never even see her boss, I don't think - but suggestion, phone calls and layers of staff snubbing out any attempts at challenges to 'the way things are'. Not just sexual abuse and liberties taken, but also working long hours for small pay and being expected to go the extra mile.

Garner plays the central role perfectly, though the film is a real slow-burner. Almost nothing happens most of the way through, but this is a reflection of how it is for these people who have been trapped into the system, it seems. Mundane, unless they can break into favour by favours. The one time she questions something in the process, she's well and truly told to knuckle-under. The film starts with her getting up at the crack of dawn in the dark and going to work before anyone else - and ends with her getting home after dark, last to leave.

It's an excellent and sad depiction of the way things allegedly are and well worth a watch for those who have the patience and can focus on Garner's performance.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

What a bizarre little piece of art this is from Sweden! At the centre of the story (if there is one) is a pair of salesmen trying to sell joke-shop type party novelties (to some unlikely buyers). But actually, although that is the most commonly revisited theme, the film meanders off into the absurd and surreal aplenty - like Terry Gilliam and Salvador Dali got together one day over dinner and threw it all together!

It's funny in places, silly in places, sad in others and shocking too! It's supposed to be a reflection on human existence played out to reflect probably how existence is absurd and off-the-wall - and that most of us are off-our-trolleys, hoping to find meaning or purpose!

There are recurring themes and characters, plots following people which overlap and cross-fertilise, always with artistic leanings.
They seem to have made an art out of playing out scenes with a fixed camera position, some drawn out, like it was the view from a voyeuristic video.

According to IMDb the title was inspired by the painting The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and "contains 39 vignettes that examines the absurdity of ordinary life". According to Roy Andersson (Director) the film had been inspired by Ladri di biciclette (1948). I'm going to be checking out more of his work if I can find it.

This film came around on Film4 this week, so no doubt it'll be back, so if you get the chance do take a look. I'd be fascinated to hear what others think of this captivating and engaging artwork.

(En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (original title))

The Farewell

Lulu Wang (Posthumous) writes and directs this touching drama from 2019 which stars Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) as an independent twenty-something Chinese-American living in New York who responds to the family's need and returns to China when her grandmother is diagnosed with cancer.

Westernised as she is, she struggles with the family's eastern principle of not telling the old lady that she is going to die, as in their culture they feel it would serve no purpose - just increase worry and tension. Thereon in, much of the film is about just that - the differences between the east and west in terms of family values, played out in amongst the family gathering at a 'staged' wedding in order to get as many of them together as possible without letting the cat out of the bag. It is largely dialogue-driven and the script holds up well, full of interesting side-roads and cultural learning for most, as we become a part of this extended family for an hour and half.

There are comic turns in amongst the drama - one scene when they visit the grave of the grandma's husband is very funny as they all bow on demand, the director making the most of smart long-shots and shallow depth of field in the process. Likewise, planting the Japanese bride-to-be in the mix who can't speak a word of Chinese and the rent-a mourner scene with professional criers!

The whole film is beautifully shot. The reality of the city-life in China and New York, highlighting the differences between the two, artistic shots of the urban landscape and thoughtful interiors with attention to lighting. There are mealtimes aplenty, where the conversation is the real star, as we tag along as guests soaking up the atmosphere and appreciating our growing understanding of the inter-relationships.

The focus of the film is Awkwafina's character Billi as we find out more about how she happens to be in New York, the pragmatic emotionless attitude of her parents who took her there as a child and we watch as her eyes are opened to what's going on around her as she tries to make sense of the conflicting value-bases of different cultures. It's an interesting study which she grasps beautifully leading us along with her as we all consider what it is to say goodbye and how best it might be done. At this point, it could easily sink into tear-jerk territory, but it doesn't thankfully - rather remaining smart. Poignant and moving, yes, but intelligent.

I have a personal interest in this difference in cultures, having lived part of my life with one foot in each of them, and I can confirm that much of what is on display here is spot-on. At first, we hardened westerners, often devoid of emotion, can start to see the benefits of how others approach conflict, life and difficulties - and empathise with both. We see just that in Billi. It's an excellent portrait and a beautiful film which is currently available as part of Amazon Prime Video - so grab it while you can.

Air Doll

So taken was I with Shoplifters last year, I decided to try another of director Hirokazu Koreeda's earlier films. I tracked down this 2009 Japanese arthouse outing which is a sort of erotic, fantasy-drama having a stab at making meaningful observations about the human experience, tragic pointlessness, loneliness, isolation and how we're all hollow, shallow and empty. Like a blow-up doll. An Air Doll.

The beautiful Doona Bae (Cloud Atlas, The Host) plays Nozomi. At the start, a lifeless companion/sex doll owned by an incompetent waiter in a local cafe in Osaka. One day when he goes off to work she comes to life. Not only that, her body becomes 'real' instead of plastic. She looks outside, gets dressed and decides to found out what's out there. She stumbles around and eventually enters a DVD Rental Shop, where they seem to give her a job! Useless though as she is, she is pretty so they keep her on.

She learns about her surroundings and life in general from several people she bumps into during her days out and about whilst her owner is at work. Before he gets home, she returns to the position she was in when he went off in the morning and strangely, he doesn't seem to realise that she isn't plastic any more! Oh well, it is a fantasy!

She soon starts to learn that the 'real' people around her are as hollow and empty her. The sadness of having 'found a heart' drags her down and in her state of unhappiness she looks for the person who originally made her in order to make her 'real' as well. Yes, of course - it's Pinocchio! Unlike the Disney character however, things turn dark and sinister, the reflections of another world and not a twee Hollywood one.

There's plenty of nudity and emotionless sex but when she finds the guy she wants to be with, some odd experimental stuff relating to purposeful deflation, and the climax of re-inflation! Use your imagination there!

References to equally hollow objects aplenty, from a child's doll and shop mannequin to a street statue and bottles with balls trapped inside. With a depressed and pessimistic old man in tow, she learns about the futility of existence once more, as he quotes the hollow two-day life-expectancy of a Mayfly, for example. It is at times poetic and reflective, sometimes funny and sad as it heads towards the finale with some interesting outcomes.

The visuals are excellent, camerawork super throughout and the music puts the viewer straight back into Pinocchio Land with circus-style pipe-organs, fairground squeeze-boxes, delightful orchestral support and simple solo piano. It's a gorgeous film and even though a bit erotic, is far from porn. It's charming, inoffensive and interesting. Try and find it! I had to buy the DVD!

Friday, 5 June 2020

Nokia 7.2 (Android 10)

The Nokia 7.2 is the big brother of the 6.2 with a couple of core difference which may, or may not, be of any importance to the buyer. It's a cheap'n'cheerful budget phone with aspirations of being more, as is the trend these days, often led by Motorola. Thankfully, Nokia keep their lines more simple than Moto, so we have some chance of knowing which model is which!

We'll get the differences between the two out of the way first, then press on to consider the 7.2 more fully. The 6.2 has a SnapDragon 636, the 7.2, 660. The 64GB models available in the UK mainstream offer 4GB RAM on the 6.2 and 6GB on the 7.2. The main camera on the 6.2 is a simpler 16MP unit whilst the 7.2 hosts the widely-adopted now 48MP Quad-Bayer unit from Sony and Zeiss-branded optics. The Selfie on the 6.2 is a lesser 8MP against the 20MP of the 7.2. So, if none of that matters to you, save yourself £20-30 and get the 6.2. Real world prices at time of writing are around £200 for the 7.2 and £170 for the 6.2. As always, shop around though.

So, on with the 7.2 and the model was released in Autumn 2019 initially for £249. I bought it in the spring of 2020 when it was already down to £229, but was awaiting Android 10 to drop before reviewing, which has now come around. The first impression is how premium it feels in the hand. The unit I have here is Cyan Green and with the glass back which shimmers in the light, it looks like a Mediterranean blue/green sea. There is plastic and not metal holding the two glass surfaces together, but again, it really doesn't look anything less than first-rate aluminium.

Sticking with the back, there's an AndroidOne logo, a Nokia logo right in the middle, sideways, a round capacitive fingerprint scanner and just above it, a camera-island which looks very much like Motorola designed it. On the circular island there are four elements, which we'll come to, and a Zeiss name in the middle. The island stands proud of the back by a millimetre or two but because it's central, it doesn't rock when placed on a desk, for those who can't afford to buy a cheap TPU to keep it flush and prevent any chance of damage. There's no case included, at least in the UK. The phone is not the lightest at 180g, neither the smallest, being actually slightly taller than the Nokia 9 PureView (which I consider to be quite big). It seems that this is the trend, bigger is better. Maybe.

On the left side there's a Dual SIM Card Tray with another slot for a microSD Card, pokey-tool provided to whip it out. Underneath that is one of the two main feature buttons on the phone - this one being a dedicated Google Assistant button. Nonassignable for anything else, but it can be turned off. On the other side is a volume rocker and underneath that, a power button with another neat trick - there's a white light inside it which acts as a Notification Light. This can be turned off and on in Apps and Notifications in Settings. It's a global setting and pulses when Notifications arrive and until they're dealt with. I like it! Down the bottom there's a USB-C port, speaker grille and microphone and up-top another microphone and 3.5mm audio-out socket.

Gorilla Glass is used for both back and front flat surfaces and the latter has a teardrop notch making way for the Selfie camera, up front and central. The lens intrudes by about half, the rest of it resident inside the forehead bezel. The bezel is only a couple of millimetres or so and down the sides, about the same. The chin is a bit bigger with the NOKIA identifier sitting in the middle. I seem to be alone these days in preferring to have some bezels around the screen whilst it is so popular to have none at all. I remain of the opinion that it gives the user somewhere for fingertips and swipes, particularly with full-screen Gestures under Android 10.

The 6.3" front panel is a 1080p IPS LCD with a 19:9 ratio. This returns 400ppi and is perfectly sharp enough, I contend, for all but the youngest hawk-eyed users! It's super bright for my eyes. Colours are rich and saturated without being over-the-top, but for those who want to fiddle there's a Setting for PureDisplay which allows tweaking of how the display looks on a per-app basis, no less - or for the rest of us there's Dynamic Mode! As usual with these tools, I don't really see huge difference - especially in isolation. Put two alongside each other then, yes, maybe. Out in the bright sunshine, it's not the best, but remains usable.

There are apparently various hardware options available in different regions but in the UK we seem stuck with the 64GB storage version - annoying when we know there's a 128GB version out there somewhere! At least there's a microSD Card, which is working well with my 512GB card and the unit passes the 2TB SSD test as well. No need to mention I guess that HDMI-Out doesn't work! The SnapDragon 660 performs acceptably for most people in the demographic likely to use this phone. It's not the fastest when pushed. Gaming and intensive downloading tasks are often causing the UI to slow down, but once settled down it feels alright again, assisted here by the 6GB RAM which ensures that only the least-recently used apps are no longer available without restart.

The capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back is quick to register and works near-perfectly every time, much like the Face Unlock. Working together they ensure fast and (presumably) secure access to the phone. The Google Assistant button on the left works in exactly the same way as long-pressing the Home button of Android 9, or under Android 10, sweeping up from either of the two bottom corners. So just press and the Assistant comes up on the screen ready for interrogation on general information but not secure information behind the lock. If the phone is open and in use, a double-press invokes the 'listening' screen so you can just ask or command away. If there's no security engaged on the phone of course, this can also work from screen-off. I'm much more likely to use the Assistant with this button present.

The Nokia 7.2 is part of the AndroidOne scheme which, as we know, means a guaranteed upgrade to two OS versions (so 10 and 11) and three years of Google Security Updates, offering owners safety until at least Autumn 2022. It also means a very clean UI, no bloat beyond a couple of useful Nokia additions - a near Vanilla software experience. In this case, the Camera app, FM Radio and Nokia's My Phone (support app). Even cleaner than the Motorola models. Nokia do have a good track record for pushing out Security Updates. Most people don't chase those each month, but even for those who do, it's not long to wait usually. As I type the unit has Android 10 and May 2020 Google Security and it's only just June 2020. The main benefits for me of Android 10 were the Back Gestures from either side and the global Dark Theme. There are loads of other benefits under the hood and beyond, but those two made it feel like yes, we're up to date!

The Always on Display Nokia claim is included really isn't! It can be set to briefly come on when Notifications come in, along with the Notification Light in the power button, but otherwise it's off. Double-tap to get a few seconds to look at what's waiting, clock, date etc. but this really is not anything like Always On. A nudge or lift-to-wake doesn't even work, unlike like some. Shame on them for this outrageous claim!

The mono loudspeaker at the bottom is perfectly functional. It's surprisingly loud but really not very good in terms of quality. There's no system-wide audio controls, no sniff of Dolby or the like, so what you get is what's here. It's really not bad for casual listening, even of YouTube videos and music, depending on the files involved of course. If you want to enjoy music, it's really time to break out a third-party Music Player with Equalisation. This enables the bass to be upped of course, the treble reduced, for an improved sound. At the expense of volume, as always. It's a reasonable payoff and the target audience will be fine with the speaker output, is my guess.

There is always the option of headphones via the 3.5mm audio-out socket. Tested here with my neutral reference headphones and the sound really is very good to my ears. It's too loud for me, bass'y, clear and well defined. I plugged in a £2.49 pair of market-stall earphones and we're back to good-enough for casual listening. So I guess most earphones people will use with the unit will be somewhere between my two extremes, so quality variable. But generally speaking it feels as though it punches above its weight. Turning to Bluetooth and testing with AirPods and Freebuds 3 here. Bluetooth 5 is on offer supporting LE and aptX. Pairing was quick, connection solid and reliable with both. The sound is excellent for quality and volume, even when tested flat, with these reasonably good quality buds so again, most people using this phone for private listening won't have much to complain about. The FM Radio is functional at best, there's no recording capability, only auto-scan and Favourite marking. Once the 3.5mm audio-out socket has something plugged into it the sound can be switched to the speaker but in my tests here, against how other phones perform under the same local circumstances, the connectivity is not very good and easily broken up. I'm testing here under the same conditions as others, but given a good signal I'm sure it would at least perform better. To be honest the whole app feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Connectivity seems good in other respects. WiFi pickup and hold seems strong, cellular connection likewise and phone calls seem good enough with earpiece working well and GPS finds position quickly. I was not able to test the NFC with Google Pay but I am informed by other reviewers that it works as expected. The Nokia 7.2 comes with a 3,500mAh Battery built-in. There's no fancy Fast Charging here and the supplied wall-plug is a 10W slow one, 2A. Of course, there's no Qi Charging here at this point in the market, though these firms might have to start considering that as even the $339 Unihertz Titan which I reviewed this week included that functionality. In my usual round of testing I found that charging it from flat takes a couple of hours or so and a quick boost if needed does about 40% in half an hour. The next test is my 10% Reading Test which returns about 1 hour and 30 minutes, which is in keeping with other tests executed here on mid-range devices with similar battery sizes. The average use between charges, again, for my usage - against other devices I have treated just the same - is pretty good at 26-30hrs with Adaptive brightness/battery and 5-7hrs SoT. The battery performance is decent enough to get most people through a busy day, as long as they are not caning the phone with extended video shooting or film watching. As always, it's a subjective call and depends on usage - which is why I offer my figures based on consistent yardsticks for me.

There are three cameras on the back of the phone. That fourth place was taken by an LED Flash. One of the lenses is in fact a Depth Sensor, 5MP f2.4, which supports a very similar Depth Map option which can be turned on in Settings, for Photo shots only with the main camera, present in the Nokia 9 PureView. I loved playing with that in the latter and I was really surprised to find it here. I wonder if it was added in software update since release. Anyway, yes, it's great fun. It means that when engaged the main camera sensor works with the depth sensor and allows the user to tweak the point of focus after the event via a slider embedded into Google Photos Editor. Now, with the Nokia 9, this was always a painfully slow process but here, it seems quicker for the camera app to process the shot. Still as long in Google Photos to apply a re-focus and save, but at least the shooter is not held up for so long before s/he can take the next shot. The first time I tried it however, it crashed the phone during processing the depth map! Hasn't done that again, but I'm watching!

The main camera is, as I said earlier, another of these 48-into-12MP Quad-bayer units, here f1.8, there's an 8MP f2.2 wide-angle lens and then that Depth one. So no telephoto in terms of an Optical Zoom, but of course dreadful digital is available up to 10x for emergencies! At least some of the optics carry the Zeiss branding and actually, the results seem to be fine to me, for casual users, posting to social media etc. The camera app has a Portrait Mode, though I'm not quite sure why when the Depth Map function available, a Pro Mode to tweak things manually, Night Mode which offer the usual payoff in terms of gathering light and so on. You know the drill. The camera and video functionality on the phone are just fine for the 95% of us doing the 95% of things with our photos and videos, but for those who are expecting cameras in phones to perform anything like proper cameras they will be disappointed. Pixel peep away and leave us to enjoy the fun! The star of the show for me though is the Depth Mode, which is quite addictive! Again, the 20MP f2 Selfie camera on the front seems perfectly good enough to me. The 20MP is also quad'd down to 5MP unless you specifically set the camera to shoot at 20MP and then only use the main camera and not wide-angle.

In summary, the Nokia 7.2 is a cracking phone with lots of positive attributes. It's a bit of a hard sell when pitched against similarly priced Motorola handsets, particularly the Moto G8 Plus. It does however have a cleaner UI and AndroidOne with the benefits described above. It's a nicely designed phone which feels premium for the user and holds that unique combination of LED Light in the power button and Google Assistant button the other side, always ready. The camera could be better, but battery life is good enough and it's (now) well priced. The LCD panel is bright and speaker does a good enough job for most. The Depth Mode in the camera is a peach to play with, don't forget. It's a great phone for the price and deserves to be up there contending with the others in that bracket - above budget, with good features approaching mid-range. Recommended on that basis.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Unihertz Titan

I have spent time in recent months with various QWERTY devices including the Planet Computers' Gemini, BlackBerry Passport, F(x)tec Pro1 and others. I have pretty much concluded that the form-factor and/or facility of a full typing keyboard on a phone was, at best, for someone else and at most, something I didn't need or want any longer. Then along came this Beast from the East!

It's great to see phone manufacturers breaking away from traditional boring monoblock slabs and introducing something different and interesting, in the above-noted ways. Folding phones, flip-phones, QWERTY phones, rugged phones, phones with USPs unlike others - from sound to cameras and much between. Sadly, they don't seem to last long. Those of us who invest in them are usually disappointed that support dries up quickly and very few even receive security updates for long, let alone OS updates. Maybe this time things will be different! Many thanks go to Chris Lam for loaning his Titan to Phones Show Chat for review.

Unihertz are based in China and have rolled out a few phones in recent times, most notably the Jelly and Atom which I've not had hands on with, partly because of the difficulty in getting hold of them, importing, or at best, getting a UK-based distributor to import and sell them to us here in Blighty. The Titan is available for order from their website and is very keenly priced at $339. They claim to ship it here in 5 days, but at the time of writing, amidst C-19 chaos, I'm guessing longer.

Anyway, the unit arrives in what looks like a very eco-friendly cardboard box with a basic User Guide, screen protector for the owner to fit, a pokey-hole SIM Card Tray tool, USB-A to USB-C cable, 18W power charger and for once, a nice-looking pair of wired outer-ear earphones with in-line control. So far, so good!

The phone itself is an absolute beast! It's ruggedised industrial-looking design matches its heft and weight. It's 303g and feels like it! I was expecting it to be rubberised and grippy, but no - the plastic exterior is quite smooth. No fear about dropping it though as whatever it hits would come off worse! It's not really any taller than my Pixel 3 here but it's wider and fatter than any phone I've handled for years, laying aside fold-out devices. The 16.65mm thickness is more even than my Moto Z3 Play with the TurboBoost Mod attached! On the left side there are three screws, adding to the industrial feel and in between them, the SIM/microSD Card tray. The tray is metal and beefy with slots for 2xSIM or 1xSIM and microSD. Alongside this is a red 'programmable key' which I'll come to. The bottom is sloped, convex, with a central USB-C port for charging and data. On the other side there's more screws, a volume rocker and power button, all metal and solid in use. The top matches the bottom's convex arc hosting a slightly off-centre 3.5mm audio-out socket.

On the back, there are more screw-holes, metal plates for company name-tag and the housing of the camera lenses up-top with what looks like two grille-holes for sound at the foot (only one of them is). Lastly, on the front is a square screen, more industrial-style metal plating, a thick plastic forehead housing an ear-speaker and far-indented selfie camera - and of course the full QWERTY keyboard, BlackBerry style. The whole unit is black and chrome where plating exists, thick materials adding confidence that you really could hammer in nails with this unit! In addition to that it's IP6/7-rated waterproof, dustproof and shockproof. Wow!

One of the big draws of the phone, apart from the above, is the 6000mAh battery. Yes, that's right - it's a whopper! My usual 10% reading test returned good results, but not as good as I was expecting for the 6000mAh battery. My test just makes it to 2 hours of reading for the 10% which, although sounds strong, up against for example the smaller 5000mAh battery in the Moto G Power's 3 hours 10 minutes it falls behind the latter by over an hour. Away from the 10% Test and in normal use, not driving the screen all the time, general and average for me, it's doing 3 or 4 days with ease, 5-6 days with light use. As always, it depends what you're doing with the phone as to battery drain, but this is clearly a good performer in most respects. Qi charging works well tested here on various chargers, however, because of the convex shape of the bottom, it doesn't do too well on a bedside stand! Time to charge is pretty quick taking into account the size of the battery, if you use the supplied charger, but not on the scale of the current fast-charge leaders.

One aspect of the specifications on show will raise an eyebrow or two. I know it did mine. That's the chipset. It's not a SnapDragon but a MediaTek, in this case Helio P60. I have been experiencing some problems with some apps which I'm possibly putting down to that, but I'm no software engineer and maybe that's unfair. I'll come to those later, but yes, a Helio P60. According to online resources and commentary it's likened to the kind of performance expected from a SnapDragon 660. The same which drove the Nokia 7 Plus very nicely, a whole bunch of phones from the far-east and notably, the BlackBerry Key2, with such similar pretensions. The reality is that it feels fast enough and powerful enough to me. I've indulged in some gaming on the phone to test this and it holds up really well. No ROG Phone II of course, but the battery efficiencies of this mid-level chipset area boost this giant even more.

In terms of working memory there's 6GB RAM which, again, when the phone is behaving as it should, manages very nicely and close-downs in the background seem few, and far between in my tests. Storage hasn't been forgotten here either with an excellent 128GB built-in and space for a microSD Card. Testing here with my 512GB card it works, sweet as a nut. Furthermore, my usual pushing-the-boundaries test of a 2TB SSD Extreme plugged into the USB-C socket - and it plays very nicely. The next test I perform at this point is HDMI-Out and sadly, it fails this one. Which is a shame because with that square screen being not-so-good for consuming landscape visual media it would have been a large plus point.

The UI on offer is close to Vanilla Android in so many ways, but the party is spoilt for me as there's no App Drawer. Unless the user installs a third party launcher, they're having to face all their Apps on Home Screens sweeping right and dealing with folder-creation to hide and organise stuff. This ended up being the only reason I even considered installing Nova Prime (which of course fixes it). Furthermore, I find some bugs in the folder-creation which really need ironing out, for example, if you have keyboard shortcuts set up, then try to create a folder name on the Home Screen, the letters on the keyboard assigned to shortcuts, just don't work! So, for example, I have GMail assigned to long-press G, then go back and try to name a folder Games - and I have to call it Ames! I'm sure they'll fix it. What we do have is Google Assistant Cards to the left and all the usual widgets and Home Screen controls available, a very stock-looking Notification tray, for Android 9. So not far from a Pixel or AndroidOne device.

Android 9 is what we have here, yes, with October 2019 Google Security. I was about to complain about that when the April 2020 Update arrived OTA which bring a couple of improvements besides the Security. I'm not filled with hope if there are only likely to be 2 security updates per year, but we'll see. This is the kind of support we ended up seeing with Razer on their phones, before they pretty much abandoned the project.

Initially I had some problems with widgets not working. None of them populated with the information which they should have done and were just constantly hunting. Thanks to Tim Evans in the Phones Show Chat MeWe Group however, I was able to switch off App Blocker in Intelligent Assistant which seemed to sort it out. Clearly another bug.

Let's mop up the pre-installed App issues, look at what's bloat and what are useful additions. Doubled up Vanilla Apps which clearly don't need to be there are Clock, Contacts, Music, Messages and Browser. Better than many, not as good as some! Some can be disabled, some uninstalled. FM Radio seems to work as it should, except for one quirk - when you record something and want to play it back, you have to head off to the phone's file system and track the recording down in the folder it saved to, then play it back in whatever Audio Player you have available. If you tap Saved Recordings, it just fires you off into Google Play Music Playlists! Another odd bug, presumably! The radio works fine though, and can be routed to the speakers once headphones are plugged in and utilised for signal.

Sound Recorder uses the built-in microphone to record sounds in .amr format which you can then playback from a saved list in the app. Seems to work, but recordings are pretty hissy. Maybe with an external microphone this would improve, but I don't have a 3.5mm unit to try. SOS allows the user to assign contacts for First Aid and Emergency Quick-Dial/Quick-Message (as long as you use the supplied Messages App) with location tracking available for broadcast.

Browser is clunky and feels old, though at least it appears to be dark-themed from the start. TrackBack records the routes you take via GPS, Game Mode does the usual blocking of incoming distractions while you game in peace, Notebook is a simple note-taking app, not hooked up with anything online, locally stored only, Student Mode is the usual parental control thing to control kids' access online and to certain apps etc. and then there's a collection of 'tools' under the umbrella of Toolbox.

Inside Toolbox, we have Noise Test (a dB meter), Compass (which seems to be accurate), Flashlight (which you can get to from the Notification Shade anyway), Bubble Level (so a spirit level working in two dimensions at the same time), Pic Hanging (uses the camera for the user to point at a wall and confirm with two cross-hairs when something in the viewfinder is straight, if you follow), Heart Rate (you place your finger on the camera and flash on the back, press Start and it measures your pulse), Measure Height (point it at an object, tell it how tall you are, then it works out how high the object is), Magnifier (probably the most useful one as it uses the camera with a slide-zoom control to focus really very closely to read stuff for old eyes), Alarm (flash the torch, make a siren-noise or set the screen to flash - not quite sure how much use this would be, but maybe in a dark wood at night), Pedometer (to count steps), Plumb Bob (which we call a Plumb-line and a variation on the Pic Hanging), Protractor (again, using the camera to work out angles in view with a virtual protractor), Speedometer (hooks into GPS to estimate how fast you're travelling), Night Camera (which needs to hook up with a connected USB Camera - not really sure how that works) and lastly (well done for staying with it!), Underwater Camera (where the camera controls are used via the hardware buttons rather than screen: are they really suggesting that people take this phone diving?!). So make your mind up - useful additions, or just bloat.

Let's talk about the screen. It's a 4.6" (virtually) square 1440p IPS LCD panel returning 441ppi. It's bright enough and renders colours acceptably. Saturation is good enough by default and the adjustments available via MiraVision in Display Settings really do very little to change it much anyway. However, plenty of tweaking tools for those who want to play and appreciate shifts and adjustments. The main problem with the screen is that it's square. Android and many, many of its apps aren't really designed for square screens, which brings problems here and there - and makes the whole UI and interface feel cramped, when coming from what most of us have got used to these days - an oblong screen. However, as square screens go, it is a big one, as wider, so all is not lost. There's also a trick which can be turned on in Settings to assign a three-finger down-swipe to change the screen to a portrait orientation with big black bars right and left. It obviously makes the whole experience smaller, but can help when really stuck in some apps. Consuming media is also a bit of a dead loss as typically 16:9 content sits in the middle of the screen with, again, big black bars - this time top and bottom. When there's a virtual keyboard on the screen, supporting the physical one, there's even less room to move.

Which brings us to the main event, that keyboard. It's a broad 3-row keyboard much like the BlackBerry Passport's with a 4th row of control-keys above. The keys are 'edged' so that they appear to be facing towards the left/right side of the device (depending which side they are nearest to), which gives each one a landing-pad for fingers and thumbs. They're pretty small for my big hands and fingers, but usable - and certainly to me, feel better than the Passport's. The keys are backlit with a white light which can helpfully be set to always-on when the screen is on instead of timing-out. The backlight dims slightly towards to edges left/right, but it's still acceptable and a useful feature. The 4th row is made up with (left to right) a physical Shift key on the left (which is often fiddly in use for those of us with big fingers, but fortunately long-press will produce a Capital), physical Recents key (which shrinks the current screen to a card and is joined by the usual carousel of scrollable recently used apps to tap and dive back to), a capacitive 'Home' button in the middle (which is also a fingerprint scanner for entry), a physical Back key (so to the right of middle, which is again, odd and not in keeping with Android core design) and lastly, a physical Alt button to press to get the secondary functions printed on each key.

Each of these keys works well in isolation - very well - the 'click' is firm and clean on the four physical keys and they feel solid and well made, like they're going to last. The capacitive Home key is also very good in use. Touch it to execute Home and it works perfectly every time. As a fingerprint scanner it also works well, quick to execute and the user can be in, quickly. The whole of the keyboard is also a capacitive 'trackpad' which can be used, much like BlackBerry units before it, to scroll screens and navigate around in dialogues. With the April Security update, kinetic scrolling was also added, making the experience much better than before when 'flick' scrolling was only possible via screen-touches. Worth noting that if the user opts for a third party launcher, the capacitive keyboard functionality becomes a bit hit and miss.

Starting to type from the Homescreen instantly pops up a Google Search page. A Virtual extra two-rows of keys can be set to pop-up as needed at the foot of the screen, but as I say, it leaves less room on the screen to use. There's a row of mainly punctuation to save having to fiddle about with Shift/Alt keys for quick entry. The second row is a suggestion row - like with GBoard, where as you type suggestions are offered, but again, this only pops up when it's likely needed. So not in a Google Search but yes, when composing an email, for example. Keyboard shortcuts are available in Settings which means that long-press, short-press of any of the QWERTY keys can be assigned to pretty much any app you fancy (launch), phone quick-dial, contacts, messaging - the world is your oyster! However, you only get to use these when you have the launcher screens in front of you - not when inside apps, Settings or anywhere else.

There's loads more to explore with the keyboard - I could write a book! The overarching feeling I have for this though is that if a person was coming from a BlackBerry background they would be right at home instantly - for the rest of us, there's a huge learning curve and muscle-memory problem to negotiate. I've been using this phone for about a month now and I don't feel anywhere near having my brain sort out the constant switch between fingers on-screen, light-touch, capacitive and then switching to press-down, hardware clicky buttons. Now, I do accept that I'm no spring chicken, so perhaps if I were 20 years old I'd adapt more readily, but for me, we've just got used to capacitive screens and virtual keyboards.

There's also use-case and since I'm no road-warrior leaping between hotel rooms and pushing out emails on the fly from trains, planes and backs of cabs, I wonder if I personally would ever need such functionality again. I completely understand that there are those out there who would make great use of this, but I also think there's a large portion of people who would much rather have a fold-out phone like we're seeing from Samsung in the shape of the Fold - or even f(x)tec Pro 1 or what LG are doing with secondary screens, where the phone can still be used, when keyboard is not needed, as a properly-shaped and orientated Android device - where content fits as its designed to fit.

Intelligent Assistance is a bunch of options in a section of Settings which enable somewhat unique controls for the device, away from the mainstream. There's a toggle to swap the Alt and Shift keys around on the keyboard, which might help some, an App blocker which gets very Nerdy! A list of your apps installed, each one has a load of options available to the user - Boot blocker stops the app from starting up after the phone starts up, Start blocker - which stops the app being launched by other applications, Background blocker - which renders the app's background activity limited when not in use and Background cleanup - which shuts down the app when the screen is locked or when removed from Recents!

There's LED control for assigning one of four colours to the light depending on event/notification type, then there's the Programmable Key on the left - that red one - which can be assigned to be the Ctrl key, Symbol key or Magic key by long-press, short-press and double-press, Spacebar assignation to answer incoming calls, hangup calls or take photos as a shutter button - and tons of other stuff. You could spend weeks on-end fishing around in the options here!

Face Unlock as a way to get in past the lockscreen seems to work well enough for me here. Others have been complaining, but I found that it registered quickly and works in tandem with the fingerprint scanner well. Often by the time I get my finger to the scanner, the face-unlock has done the job.

There's a single mono speaker on the back as I mentioned earlier and it's time to test that out. First thing to note is that the Music app supplied in the ROM is functional, but there's not much control over the quality of the sound available via that route (only the stock Android equaliser), so best go to another app. There's no system-wide sound adjustment support and the emphasis of the phone seems to be to make it LOUD! For a building sites or other noisy environments. And in this respect it does do very well. Leave any adjustments alone and use the speaker on base-settings and it is indeed, very loud. Not enough for me though, I want to play! So I fired up my favourite Equalizer+ Pro and started to tweak. As is often the case with phone speakers, slip the volume back down to 80% and adjust equaliser settings, and you make the phone's volume too low to then enjoy properly. Not here, because it's so loud to begin with, when you've done all the above you still have a decent volume and adjusted quality. It's a good arrangement which works well. The speaker is on the back, halfway across a design wedge-shape. When you place the phone back-down on a desk, there's enough of the aperture not flat on the desk to still route the sound out acceptably. Put it on a sofa, not so much.

I plugged in my reference headphones to the 3.5mm audio-out socket and was surprised at how loud the reproduction was and how good it sounded. It was bass'y enough certainly for me, loud enough and for the kind of music I listen to, piano, orchestral and jazz mainly with some nostalgia rock thrown in! It is much better than I need and a good sound. Bluetooth was another matter. The unit has BT4.1 and I found regular breakup of the connection with two units I tried here - AirPods and FreeBuds 3 - with different applications, very close to the phone - so no excuse really. It would play, then every 1/2/3 minutes there would be, in the middle of songs, a split-second silence, then back again. Not sure if this is a known issue, but certainly present here. Laying that problem aside, when the sound was present it was excellent, so again, output very good from this unit.

The camera setup is pretty basic and nasty! This is phone designed for photographing blueprints, documents on office desks and building sites in good light! Seriously, I'm usually the last one to pay any attention to the usual rubbish cameras on phones, but even for me this seems to be the lowest of the low! Very basic controls in the camera's UI, lags between shots, poor colours - but for the target user, as described above, it's no worse than a budget phone out there - from 3 years ago! And because there's no SnapDragon chipset, you can't even go off and hunt-the-Google-Cam-APK! So yes, if it matters, there's a 16MP camera on the back and 8MP one on the front. Functional. Some of the time. Just don't expect any more! No wonder Steve Litchfield glossed over it on his video review of the Titan in Phones Show 395.

To wrap up, I have not been able to test NFC but am assured that it works just fine with Google Pay et al. The phone is amazing value-for-money at $339. It really is. With that massive battery, loud speaker, industrial design and very capable keyboard. It's going to appeal to a niche market of course, but I hope it does well there. I can't see myself adopting it anytime soon - I think my brain is too old to adapt! For those who want a perfectly good phone but need it ruggedised, very capable, good storage options and plenty of RAM and a very well fast enough chipset driving the action, it would be ideal. Throw into that mix a person who has come from a BlackBerry background and they'll instantly be taking to it like a fish to water. Highly recommended for the right person.

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