Monday, 11 November 2019

Xiaomi Mi A3

One of the big Chinese firms currently swooping into and scooping up the mobile phone world is Xiaomi, as most folk reading this will know. They present a compelling argument on many levels with their well-pitched and well-priced phones and here's another of them. The Mi A3, following and improving on the line of A1 and A2 encapsulates the AndroidOne programme with resulting purity and hopefully, less iOS copycat style and features.

The first clear advantage of the latest model is the Samsung AMOLED screen over the previous models, which housed LCD panels. This makes a huge difference in many ways, as we know. They went back and forward with microSD Card support, now putting it back and the SD600-series chipset has improved by steps, now settling on 665 from 625 and 660. RAM has stayed at 4GB on this unit but there is a 6GB and 128GB storage model out there for the A3, but this one is 64GB. The (becoming standard) 48MP-to-12MP camera setup is added over previous units with simple 12MP - and the 2x optical zoom of the A1 has been replaced with a wide-angle in the A3, both skipping the A2! Again, they've fiddled about with 3.5mm audio-out sockets, first yes, then no, now yes again - all these changes seem to have been a reaction to current trends with the A2 really missing out on most. Anyway, here we are with the latest, so let's see what it's about.

Attractive Design
It's a very attractive phone firstly, though in the mould of a thousand-and-one others, being a GG5 sandwich with plastic frame. The More Than White version I have here is glossy and looking like Pearl White with a hint of shimmering rainbow colours as its moved, reflecting various light sources. The back curves round the edges to meet the frame, unlike the front panel, which is flat. Feels great in the hand, just the right size (for me) in hand and pocket, whilst giving a big enough screen to be useful for ageing eyes! Feels solid and well made.

The Box and Tour
In the box there's a clear TPU case which, bizarrely, when in place does not protect the camera island on the back. When placed directly onto a surface it touches, asking for dents and scratches. I got a cheap one from Amazon for a fiver and it's much better. Good for them to include one, bad for them not making it properly! The back is set up 'camera' style with an emphasis on landscape with logo and writing that way, alongside the three-lens camera lump and LED flash. It looks classy and reflects a quality way above the price-point. There's a SIM Card Tray on the left side, which is very stiff in use, good and bad, and when opened reveals cavities for either 2 NanoSIM Cards or one and a microSD Card. Strangely, used in the latter formation, the phone considers the primary SIM to be No.2 slot! On the other side, there's a power button and volume rocker which are very clicky, but the plastic doesn't feel particularly premium, unlike the rest of the phone. Up the top we have a 3.5mm audio-out socket and the bottom, a USB-C port and single mono speaker. The bottom is arranged iPhone style from a couple of years ago - and now many others - with a fake grille the other side of the USB-C. On the front, there's a teardrop notch for the Selfie Cam and speaker for calls in a sliver at the top. There's a little bit of chin at the bottom, but really not much.

Amazing Value
Many thanks go to Mike Warner for sending this unit over for review, he having imported it from Europe, though it is the Global version. The only evidence of being non-UK is a euro-plug and UK adapter supplied in the outer box. He was able to source this for an amazing £115 from Europe, though for those who want a formal UK route, AmazonUK are selling at £185 as I write. There's nothing much else in the box - a pokey-hole tool and a USB-A to USB-C cable, 10W charging plug and that TPU. The phone supports 18W QC3, but for that you'll need your own plug.

AndroidOne, No Bloat
The Mi A-series are part of the AndroidOne programme and having played with some Xiaomi phones recently which are not, this really makes a huge difference. In many ways it's like any other AndroidOne phone - that's a good thing! Clean and neat version of Android which ensures that the owner knows exactly where they are, guaranteed two versions of Android going forward, so this, being supplied on Pie will be expecting Android 10 and 11 - and three years of Security Updates from Google, ensuring life expectancy to at least summer 2022. As I switched on, in the first week of November, October 2019 Security was offered and so downloaded and installed. It also ensures a pretty much bloat-free experience, unlike non-AndroidOne. As for Motorola models under the same banner, there are some manufacturer's so-called useful additions. Here, we have preinstalled Mi Community and Mi Store apps (which can both be fully uninstalled) and in Settings there's a menu item called Mi Services, within which there are toggles to be a part of the User Experience Programme and to send Xiaomi Diagnostics. These can both be switched off, but the menu item can't be removed. This phone had been bought via AliExpress and there was also an app of theirs installed, but can easily be uninstalled, leaving no apparent trace.

Performance, Storage, Connectivity
The clean vanilla feel of Android continues as we observe the bog-standard Pie Navigation two-button approach with nothing in Settings to change that to anything else. Google Feed cards are available to the left of the Homescreen, though can be turned off. The Notification area is pure vanilla Android and Dark Mode is rolling out to various Google Apps in the same way as it is over the current weeks for other AndroidOne devices. Under the bonnet there's a Snapdragon 665 chipset with 4GB RAM. There is a 6GB RAM version out there somewhere but in terms of task-switching this feels perfectly good with a clean version of AndoidOne. To be honest, this is not the fastest chipset out there and now and then I notice a task taking a little longer than I'm used to on flagships, but this is getting picky. It's perfectly good and the vast majority of people wouldn't notice. I won't bang on again about 128GB minimum but instead, firstly remind myself of the price of this phone - and second that there's a microSD Card slot. I've tested that with my 512GB microSD Card and it plays perfectly well. I've also tested my 2TB Extreme SSD (FAT32) in the USB-C port and again, that works perfectly well, reading and writing quickly enough to use for data. I tested it for HDMI-Out, but sadly, no go. The aerials are all very good, WiFi, GPS, BT and Cellular. On test calls in various locations which have challenged in the past, it does well, holds a call, sounds good and loud, no breakup or drops.

Super AMOLED
The screen is indeed Super AMOLED and 6.1" with a ratio of 19.5:9 but is 'only' 720p. This produces 286ppi which for those ticking boxes will stick in the throat. For me, given that it's AMOLED particularly, I think it doesn't matter. It's amazing enough to even get an AMOLED panel at this price, we shouldn't be quibbling about the resolution when with my 50+ year-old eyes, it looks just fine. I have looked at photos, closed in on text on the screen and it looks perfectly sharp and clean to me. As usual, younger eyes may think differently - so that will save us old fogies cash! As I said, there is a teardrop notch for the camera but it doesn't intrude far, remaining very subtle. The screen goes right up the top apart from that and there's a small chin. I think that aids use of navigation controls with thumb-space. The screen is not particularly bright at 363nits and auto-brightness does tend to end up at 80%+ when checked to see what it's up to, even indoors. The biggest hit is when you manually drop it to, say 50%, which I've done here against my Nokia 8 Sirocco and at 50% the Xiaomi is much more dull than the Nokia. The colours are bright enough though, which is a good thing as there is no way in Settings to control how they look. The default values have clearly been worked out for generic use and they're fine. Heading outside into bright sunshine, which we happen to have here today, it remains usable at 100% but you wouldn't want it any less than that to continue using the phone.

Always On Display
What we don't get here is an Always on Display. It just isn't part of the AndroidOne setup and those which have it (various Nokia phones, for example) have been added by the manufacturer. Xiaomi has not done this - and like Motorola, rely on the phone being woken up to see anything. However! This is an AMOLED, so enter the Always On AMOLED app! This works perfectly and is very highly recommended. There's all sorts of toggles, options and switches inside it to personalise and make it work just how wanted - it even emulates Samsung's Edge Lighting superbly. This completely plugs the gap and transforms the phone in this useful respect. If you choose not to do that, then you're routinely looking at a black screen. If you nudge it or lift it, the under-glass optical fingerprint scanner target pops up but double-tapping the screen doesn't get you further. Press the power button at that stage and you get the (sleeping) AndroidOne lock-screen with a quick flash of Notifications across the screen in cards, which can be viewed in-situ but some sort of unlocking is needed to drill down further to the content.

Security
This brings us to that Fingerprint Scanner and Face Unlock. If you lift the phone with just the fingerprint scanner target on the screen (as described above) the Face Unlock doesn't work. In order to execute the Face Unlock you have to press the power button. However, there are settings inside Always On AMOLED to bypass this and enable Face Unlock as soon as you lift the phone and face it. Why wouldn't you install this app?! The Face Unlock registration is frighteningly fast, even for me with full beard - bit of a worry about security there, some might say. In use, it works as quickly as Moto's, so no complaints. The Fingerprint Scanner registration is simple, quick and straightforward. Once in use, it's amazingly fast and accurate. I might even say that this is the best implementation of an under-glass optical scanner that I have used as yet. Very encouraging and reassuring.

Sound
The bottom-firing mono speaker is clear and loud. Far from the best in terms lows or highs but very happy in the middle. It is better than many out there but doesn't challenge the Big Boys in this respect for quality. Certainly bedroom/kitchen-filling volume, if not quite lounge. Most users will be perfectly happy for basic use for music, video and spoken word. There's no system-wide sound equaliser function, so users will have to rely on their apps for that. I have been able to do so and adjust up for some more bass without hitting the volume too badly. There's no stereo of course so best use headphones for watching visual media.
Talking of which, there's none in the box, but there is a 3.5mm audio-out socket. Plugging in my usual reference headphones I can report that the basic output is actually not bad. Much louder than many I have tried and a more active bass response. I was surprised. No sound is possible out of the USB-C port so any enhanced dongles need to be 3.5mm. Most users will be more than happy with the headphone output as-is though.
Bluetooth 5 is here supporting aptX HD, pairing is very quick, easy and reliable and the output sound is quite stunning, depending on receiving equipment of course. Again, very impressive at this price-point. There's even a basic FM Radio app bundled which works very well indeed, either with headphones or plugging something into the 3.5mm audio-out as aerial, then speakers. Seems to lock onto stations well in my neck of the woods and produces an excellent sound. There's no recording function in the app, which I know some folk need. Whether or not the FM Radio is bundled in the UK version of this phone, I don't know. I'm also not quite sure why there's a headphones icon in the Notification area until a reboot even after I've shut off all media apps and disconnected headphones! Probably a bug.

Battery
The battery installed is a tad over 4000mAh, which is great for the size of the phone. That's the same as the whacking great big Razer Phone! Using the supplied slow charger it takes well over 2 hours to fill but with a QC3-compatible, more like an hour and a half. There's no wireless charging here on offer but I can confirm that my Qi Receiver works perfectly well overnight (as long as the user doesn't want to spoil the look of the attractive phone's back)! As for performance, I usually do two tests, my 10% reading/general use test and my average-day-for-me test. Not clinical or technical, but I can at least apply a level playing field for all devices I test.
The 10% reading/general use test is up against the currently leading 1hr 46min of the Google Pixel 2XL and... we have a new champion with 2hrs 6mins! Amazing! Driving the lower resolution screen, AndroidOne and economic chipset I guess has enormous benefits in terms of SoT and general usage in the hand. Next up, the average-day-for-me test and it passes with flying colours on my short 2/3 days in use. We're looking at sneaking through to two full days for those who don't push boundaries, so if you're careful, a charge every second night. Otherwise, the exceptional performance is returning me 40+ hours with 7-9hrs SoT in my usual test. Maybe even more if one doesn't have Always On AMOLED running, though again, in my tests here, that doesn't seem to have much impact. It's another box ticked here with excellent returns.

Cameras
There are three cameras on offer here, although one of them is really just a 2MP f2.4 depth-sensor supporting for Portrait DoF and there's no sign of OIS anywhere. The main normal-angle camera is what is almost becoming the standard 48MP f1.8 Quad Bayer shooter producing 12MP shots and the second, an 8MP f2.2 wide-angle. There's a 32MP f2 Selfie camera round the front which does indeed shoot (what I consider to be) nice sharp photos of one's mug using the full 32MP on the sensor!
The camera app is clearly Xiaomi's own and it has that feel and design language about it. In some ways it's pretty basic (with more emphasis on AI, letting the camera's software decide for the user) for example the 'Picture quality' settings are either High, Standard or Low, not quoting MP or choice of ratio (though this can be done elsewhere). You can assign the Volume buttons as a Shutter release and even change metering mode between average, centre-weighted and spot and force a 48MP full use of the sensor! So mixed messages there I think between appealing to the novice and expert! There's a Straighten function ensuring shots of buildings and the like are taken 'upright'. The Night Mode seems to work really well in testing here for when there's no alternative, the camera forcing the user to stay still while it does its thing. Yes, of course it's not a perfect picture with no noise, but what do you expect in darkness! It's physics!
Portrait Mode has a manual live-slider, making use of that third lens and even reads out the degree as an aperture value. There's filters on-the-fly to apply and even a Pro Mode in which the two main cameras can be adjusted for various shooting parameters. Close focus in Pro gets pretty close but not as close as using the Zoom Slider on 2x magnification. This is digital, but for (approaching) Macro shots it works really well and will focus at about 5" filling about a quarter of the frame with a microSD Card, for example.
Most people will be encouraged to just turn on AI and be done with it. This performs well and makes intelligent decisions about what a person is shooting. As I always say, the camera in most phones will meet the needs of 98% of people not worried about peeping at pixels for purity.

Roundup
I have resisted saying "for the price" too often here, but I wanted to more! This phone with AndroidOne onboard is absolutely fine for such a huge percentage of people. You have to look and ask yourself why on earth anyone would pay £1000+ for a flagship phone when one of these can be bought for one-tenth of that price. And ask yourself what's missing. You could argue about IP ratings and Qi Charging and S-Pens and optical zoom and a few other bits - but you can get TEN of these for one Note 10+ and Co. There's nothing wrong with this Xiaomi phone and it performs more like a upper mid-range phone than a £115 budget one. Even if you take the mainstream UK price of £185, you can still buy five of them for the price of a Note 10+ et al with enough left over to buy a slap-up meal for four at Mrs Miggins Pie Shop! Armed with this beauty, you'll want for very little more and save a shed-load of cash! Xiaomi are getting aggressive and taking over The West! Available now in Kind of Gray, Not Just Blue and this, More than White. Do yourself a favour.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Phones Show Chat 524

Phones Show Chat
Episode 524 - Google-ifying the iPhone
Steve Litchfield and I are back this week with another show available via https://stevelitchfield.com/sshow/chat.html or your podcatcher of choice.
We chat about lots of mobile phones stuff, Android, iOS, even Windows 10 (kind of), take your feedback and have an audio drop-in from Mark Hilton.
Enjoy!

Friday, 8 November 2019

Projector Room 49

Projector Room
Episode 49 - Parasite Mindhunter
The latest show is now available via https://stevelitchfield.com/projector/index.html or your podcatcher of choice.
Gareth Myles and Allan Gildea join me as we natter for an hour or so about what we've been watching on the TV, in film and at the cinema.
From Sweet Beans to Dark Shadows and much between.
Enjoy!

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Google Pixel 4 - Initial Thoughts

Here's the brand new Pixel 4 (the little one) and I shall start my initial thoughts from where I did last year with the Pixel 3 and 3a, on pricing. Looks like it got better with the 64GB version of the 4 being £669 and 128GB, £769, £70 less all-round. This makes the pricing certainly more attractive than the 3, but maybe not in the context of the 3a. I hope to discover here whether or not the additional features are worth the hike.

The natural thing here is to compare the new 4 with the 4XL, but that's a little pointless as apart from the physical size, screen resolution and battery, there's no difference. This brings the choice largely down to physical size in the hand and age of eyes! I'll come back to battery as it seems this is the fly in the ointment for many out there during these first weeks of release. There's also the issue of this Google PR unit, grateful as I am for the opportunity, only having 64GB of storage, which I've constantly kicked against in lieu of at least 128GB. I did, however, go through a convincing myself stage, so I shall re-adopt my principles!

Pixel Comparison
I'm more keen to compare these differences with the Pixel 3, 3a, maybe even the 2 - and what the 4 brings to the table which is better or worse. (My thoughts on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a from last year.) On sizing, I have been using my Pixel 2XL now as my main phone for a couple of months, since the Android 10 Beta came along, and although loving the clean experience I still find the device just a tad too big for me - but sadly, finding the 2's screen just too small. In terms of Google's handsets, the Nexus 5X was just the perfect size for me but since then they've gone too far one way, and the other. Still, at least it's not as tiny as the Samsung Galaxy S10e which I recently reviewed, or the likes of the iPhone SE. I've now compared the Pixel 4 with Pixel 3 in-hand and can confirm that the 4 is the tiniest tad bigger in each dimension, but is certainly fatter and 10% heavier. The Pixel 3a stands out here as taller, but with less visible screen than the 4 - and the 3 has the smallest screen-space of the three. So, if you want more to grab onto then the 3a is the one, more screen, the 4 and more dinky and less fat, the 3. The point is that these 'little' Pixel phones are truly pocketable and easily facilitate one-handed use, unlike their bigger brothers.

Construction
The Pixel 4 is beautifully constructed, like the 3 and 2 before it, and feels very much like an Apple phone in many ways. The version supplied by Google PR here is the Oh So Orange one, which means that the back is a pastel shade of orange with a power button to match. There are Clearly White and Just Black for those who prefer 128GB, as the orange is only being made (much like the 3a series) in 64GB. Both sides are Gorilla Glass 5, though the back looks like it's matt plastic. It's got a beautiful finish in this orange with only a 'G' down below and the Huawei-style camera square-island top-left. The island sticks out but usually with a good quality case, it becomes protected. PSC has been supplied with an Olixar Sentinel case by MobileFun, who have a good range of options available on their website for all sorts of phones including the Pixel 4. This one also comes with a glass screen protector, so protection all-round for those inevitable drops! The phone is the same IP68 dust/water resistant as the Pixel 3, so up to 1.5m for 30 mins in clean water.

Around the Phone
Around the rim, we have the aluminium band, making the phone pebble-like in the hand and the glass front and back just slightly 'dip' at the edges to meet it and retain continuity. On the right, we have the aforementioned power button and underneath, volume rocker. I think they're metal, but even if they're not, they're firm to the touch, solid and not in any way floppy like some. On the left, we have the SIM Card Tray which takes a Nano SIM of course, with support in the phone for eSIM as well. On the bottom there's the USB-C port flanked by two symmetrical holes, one a speaker and the other a microphone inlet. Styled for symmetry and design, not practicality. Active Edge remains a feature, where a squeeze gets you the Google Assistant, even if the screen is off (optionally) and also to silence alarms, timers and calls. I've covered all this before. I very rarely use Google Assistant at all and to be honest, forget about this feature mostly - which is odd as during my recent review of the LG V50, which has a dedicated side-button for the same, I was using it a lot.

Soli Radar and Friends
On the front, we have the new array of sensors up-top, which it's almost impossible to make out through the black glass, beyond a camera lens and speaker. We know from the diagram which has been doing the rounds that there's a Soli Radar Chip in there though, Face Unlock IR camera x 2, Ambient Light and Proximity Sensor, Face Unlock Dot Projector and a Face Unlock Flood Illuminator! No wonder there was no room for a notch! Most of this works together to ensure that Google's Motion Sense works as it should and that users can interact with their phone in many ways without touching it. First voice and now gestures. Brain-power-control is next! In Google's own words, "small motions around the phone, combine unique software algorithms with the advanced hardware sensor to recognise gestures and detect when you’re nearby. As you reach for Pixel 4, Soli proactively turns on the face unlock sensors, recognising that you may want to unlock your phone. If the face unlock sensors and algorithms recognise you, the phone will open as you pick it up, all in one motion. Better yet, face unlock works in almost any orientation - even if you’re holding it upside down.”

Motion Sense
I suppose Motion Sense then is one of the headline features here, making use of the Radar. It's clear that if this is to be pursued, development is needed beyond the very few functions it has right now. To be fair, it seems to do what it's supposed to and I have not have any problems skipping tracks in Google Play Music and YouTube Music, but not in any of my favourite 3rd party Music apps. Apparently Amazon Music, Deezer and Spotify amongst some others do work. In the settings you're able to switch the direction of the swipe - seems strange to me that the default position is right-for-back, the far-east way, which Google always held out against with navigation! Where this is live and available you get a subtly blue-wavy line at the top of the screen. A teething problem for Google seems to be that it's too sensitive, so if, for example, you reach out the the phone to swipe down the notification pane to look at what's coming in whilst listening to music, it often picks up that hand motion reaching in and interprets it as a swipe, so changes the music track forward/back. Work to do and it's very tempting to turn Motion Sense off for now! As long as you use the Google-supplied Calendar and Clock apps, you can snooze alarms and silence incoming calls with the same gesture and it'll detect your presence as you approach the phone and fire up the lock-screen (though that's a bit pointless if the AoD is engaged). It certainly doesn't work anything like Moto Approach. Then there's all the current hoo-har about Face Unlock working with eyes closed, which they're going to fix soon, and the fact that there's no support for banking transactions and Google Pay without unlocking the phone in some other way. With no fingerprint scanner, you're down to code, PIN or pattern! My 2015 Marshall London can do that! Much development needed and future support in the months ahead.

Face Unlock
Yes, Face Unlock has replaced the capacitive fingerprint scanner and is the only means of biometric authentication. It's a copycat move following Apple of course, but unlike the latter who have done it right, here it feels like there are gaping holes, with no interim solution on offer (see above, regarding banking). To be fair, the basis of Face Unlock and Approach seem to work most of the time. However, it doesn't seem smart enough to open up the home screen when it 'sees me' from flat on a desk, rather the pesky lock screen looking for confirmation. If the phone is in-hand it does much better, in fact near-100% of the time, bypassing the lock screen and getting down to business. I thought that the radar would ensure that the phone didn't need to be moved or tapped to open things up, but clearly I'm wrong and 'flat on a desk' doesn't work. Motorola still have that sewn up! I've now perched it in a stand, looking at me and it still doesn't wake up. It seems to me that you have to, in some way, physically move the phone to wake it up before all this fancy radar stuff kicks in - which is not supposed to be the idea. Tapping the screen does it, but still not from my desk, only cradle. I'll keep testing, but at the moment it seems to be that smart is almost dumb!

Smooth Display
The screen is the same P-OLED panel as before, 1080p, very slightly bigger and longer, filling more of the front and is 19:9 instead of the 3's 18:9 because of that. It returns pretty much the same ppi at 444. I'm finding the screen just as bright on manual 100% as the 2XL, though it is 'warmer' and not so 'blue' as the latter. I've checked it outside in bright daylight and I have no problem using the phone. Maybe in blazing African sun this would be different, but I can't emulate that in November in the UK! Natural or Boosted colours can be set in Display Settings, or if you are happy with Google automating it, use Adaptive and throw the switch for Ambient EQ ("a new visual experience that dynamically adjusts the colour temperature and brightness of your display to create a non-intrusive smart display experience"). I've allowed all that and Auto-Brightness and am happy with the system learning from my usage and manual adjustments.
I've been using Razer Phones for the last two years now and for my eyes, I can't tell when 120Hz is on or off, so I have no chance with the Pixel 4's 60/90Hz Smooth Display over the 3's 60Hz. This is pretty much automatically controlled by the system by default - kicking in the higher screen refresh-rate when needed and when the screen is bright enough for appreciation or needed for use, like, presumably in gaming, for example. You can switch it in Developer Settings to always be on 90Hz but it seems a bit pointless to risk more battery use if, at least for my eyes, I can't tell the difference! Still - maybe younger eyes will devour and delight.

Always on Display
The Always on Display is pretty much just like it was before. The clock numbers are bigger and brighter than they are on the 2XL, but not by much. I can't seem to control the brightness of this (Samsung-style) in any way on any Pixel - it's supposedly tied to the screen brightness and ambient conditions - but as I say, it's better now than it was and nothing new to report in terms of content. Now Playing is such a great feature to have and it's almost worth switching to Pixel just for that! Love it!

In The Box
Accessories in the box include a USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, no 3.5mm to USB-C dongle, 18W 2A power brick for fast charging, pokey-tool for SIM Tray and no earphones! The usual boring Google white box with no frills, though it is reported that some are being delivered in a fun cereal box!

Under the Bonnet
Android 10 is onboard out of the box of course - and the peachy thing about Pixel, as we know, is that we'll be first with everything that Google are up to! Those of us who've been playing with the Beta releases don't really get any surprises - it's all been evolved along the path and the most interesting aspect for me is the gesture control with full-side swipes from either side for Back. Particularly on a one-handed dinky device like this, holding the phone in either hand and using the thumb anywhere down the side is a fabulous feature. There's loads more for those coming to 10 cold, but we've reported on that on Phones Show Chat as we've gone along over the months so I won't go over it all again here.
The SnapDragon chipset has been raised from 845 to 855, but comparing that with the Pixel 3, I don't see much difference in real world use. Everything is blazingly fast across the UI and the increase of RAM from 4 to 6GB likewise, I don't see any difference. Test-bench pushing will no doubt highlight the technical differences but I see nothing I'm using being shut down - or it inconveniencing me in any way on the 3 or 4, with 4GB or 6! I sometimes think that hardware is updated for marketing purposes, not real world benefit.
A quick word on software, Live Captions and Recorder functionality is present, utilising Google's new Pixel Neural Core which helps AI to perform real-time stuff like transcription in these apps, all executed on-device and not in the cloud. It's great fun to watch in action of course and although it's currently leaning accuracy towards American-English, it'll roll out as time passes in other flavours. It provides live captions for viewers watching videos, for example and the Recorder's transcription is great for anyone needing to turn spoken word into text. I have tested this a fair bit and, although not perfect, it's by far good enough to be useful for cut/paste into where the text is needed. Students in lectures comes to mind or nearer to home, podcast scripts! As always, Google tinkering with ideas and letting us in on them as they evolve. This makes some feel like they're guinea pigs, whilst the rest of us just enjoy the thrill and ride!

Storage
Storage options are poor. They remain at 64GB or 128GB and no microSD expansion. I was really hoping for a big-capacity unit but clearly Google are continuing to drive the 'cloud' agenda and convincing everyone that it's really OK to be near-completely dependent on having a connection of some kind to access one's data and media wherever they are - and swallowing the subsequent cost. I disagree! However, I'm happy that the next best thing works in the shape of USB OTG and my tests with FAT32-formatted microSD Cards and even my 2TB Extreme SSD. I can easily plug in for accessing stored media and data.
There seems to be a story developing around HDMI-Out in that the hardware can support this feature and although it doesn't work now - I've tested - it will, if Google throw a switch server-side for software. Why they're not doing it is not clear, except that they're working on a DeX-style desktop experience and maybe will only switch it on when that's ready - denying for now people like me wanting to plug my phone into the TV or monitor for a bigger picture. Watch that space!
I'm getting used to living with 64GB here, as supplied for the review unit. It just requires a shift in mentality and, for me, carrying data on cards/drives. Many people of course will have data plans and 'inclusive' wifi at home and work and most places they go, so will just jump on the cloud an not think about it. I guess I'm just old fashioned wanting a pocket-computer with my stuff on it and not depend on another company's service to get to it!

Stereo Speakers and Sound
Stereo speakers are retained, but they (apparently) remain 'faux' stereo with split frequencies and directions. The 'right' speaker is bottom-facing and I'd expect, as I did with the Samsung Galaxy S10e, that this would disfigure and disrupt the sound. I'd be wrong! The sound is very well balanced from the two speakers and unusually, it also feels like the lower frequencies are actually being favoured by the top speaker/call speaker. This is usually arranged the other way, as we know, firing bass from the bottom, bigger aperture. I'd almost be convinced that this is not 'faux' stereo at all as it's so very close to proper stereo - and if the listener is that unsure if it is or is not, then Google have done a great job building this unit. The stereo separation is marked, as long as the phone is held about 12" in front of the head - well, this is a small phone - what did you expect?! It doesn't feel like the bottom speaker is downward-facing, so again, they've done a good job balancing the sound for general usage. The speakers don't switch round the stereo channels like some, so 'bottom' is always right and 'top', left. More importantly though is that the sound is fabulous. I really thought that my 2XL would blow it away, based on previous little Pixels, but no - this is better, louder, richer, more defined and when placed on a table resonates the sound quite superbly for medium-sized room coverage. I'm impressed! My Razer Phone 2 is off having a new screen fitted just now so I can't compare directly, but my gut feeling is that it's not far away and certainly challenges the latest from Samsung, even without any Dolby shenanigans.
There's no return of the 3.5mm audio-out socket yet, after the inclusion with the Pixel 3a's, so I've tested my reference 'phones with a simple dongle and the output is pretty ordinary. A very flat sound with no personality and decidedly low volume. An enhanced-DAC dongle is highly recommended for those wanting to wire-in headphones. The sound pushed out via Bluetooth 5 however, supporting aptX HD, is excellent, high quality, loud and rich. Maybe they were right, after all, pushing consumers that way!

Cameras
As usual, I'm going to point you at Steve Litchfield's developing coverage of the cameras at The Phones Show 379 and for some zoom comparisons, his AAWP Imaging Showdown (these for 4XL, but 4 is equipped with the same). Unlike much of the current competition, Google have not provided a wide-angle option but have added a 2x optical zoom which, as you can see from Steve's tests, works excellently well beyond 2x, producing hybrid optical/digital results up to 5x (and in my tests, beyond - to 8x). It's all getting very clever, as for speakers, and results year-by-year continue to challenge stand-alone cameras even taking into account their much smaller size. Computational software coupled with what can be physically fitted into small phones in terms of optics get better and better. We're not far away from crossover as phones challenge even mid-range compact cameras.
We have a 12.2MP f/1.7 main camera with dual pixel PDAF and OIS, supported by the 16MP f/2.4 2x optical zoom, again with OIS with Super-Res Zoom. Many have complained about the lack of a wide-screen option when others are adding it now - and I have to agree that it's a great addition to the kit-bag. Maybe that'll come with Pixel 5 - I can see it now, the all-new Pixel 5G with 5 cameras and 5G (you saw it here first)! There's lots of automation going on with the Pixel - whereas the LG V50 boasted geek-dream manual knobs and dials for every eventuality - Google want the photographer to place their photo-taking experience in their hands. And generally get excellent results. People have been playing with astrophotography, for example and auto-detecting night modes and so forth. It's clear that Google are having fun pushing the AI boundaries, though be sure to invest in a tripod if you want to join them!
Automation in Portrait mode works well and night mode pulls out details previously that could only be hoped for, by use of multi-shots and computation - leaving the software to work out what you're up to, what your subject is - and giving you the best result. There is now a quick-share swipe-up from the last-taken-shot icon and up to 3 venues can be assigned to that. Tapping the screen in shooting mode gets you a highlights/shadow control (sliders) so you can indeed apply some manual adjustment. Double-tapping the screen gets you the zoom slider and depending on what you set on that will depend on which of the cameras the system uses and how much optical/digital is applied. As I say, I've tried 8x zoom using this hybrid system and am getting better results than the 2XL with the supplied 10x.
Lastly, on the front there's an 8MP f/2 Selfie but with TOF 3D but no AF. On the Pixel 3 however, there were two 8MP Selfie cameras, an f/1.8 'normal' view twinned with an f/2.2 'wide-angle', again with no AF. There was no optical zoom on the rear camera, the only camera on the back being the much-praised 12.2MP f/1.8 with OIS. To be fair, I never had any complaints about the shots produced by the 3 or 2XL but (in some ways) the 4 pushes things forward for zooming.
There's loads more to say about the camera setup, but I'll leave it to Steve as he uncovers the potential and capacity of Google's system. Stay tuned to The Phones Show and Phones Show Chat in the coming weeks and months.

Battery
This is the big one which everyone is moaning about out there, so I'm here to contentiously report that the 2,800mAh battery on this unit is surprisingly good! I've been doing my usual testing scheme but this time I've tested it both with Motion Sense on and off. Some have been believing that the fancy sensor array at the front driving all the clever stuff, including the Soli Radar have been hitting the battery needlessly (for the benefit gained in functionality). My tests show that firstly, Motion Sense being on or off makes little, if any difference. Bear in mind that I'm not on a test-bench here, just my real-world testing which is applied across all devices at which I look.
The 10% Reading Test returns me 1 hour and 20 minutes. This sits right in the middle of the poorest results from smaller units and big leaders, including the Pixel 2XL which scored 1 hour 46 minutes. So, far from the worst but far from the best - however, not the dreadful that some are recording. Real World use for my usual pattern across an average day, again, gets me somewhere in the middle, regardless of Motion Sense on or off. A full charge is giving me about 20-24hrs and 5-7hrs SoT. Usual conditions apply, adaptive brightness and battery engaged.
For the small size of the device and the AI stuff going on in the background, I really don't think that's anything to complain about. Yes, of course, you can do better from a bigger device (look at the Pixel 2XL, above) but for a dinky pocket-phone with technically a very small powered battery, it's performing well. Don't forget that there's also Qi Charging here, so with chargers dotted around the place (which I have not been used during testing, obviously) it's going to get topped up through the day anyway - so it's almost always fully charged when heading out and about. Needless to say, if you cane it in any way with shooting video or streaming Netflix you're going to kill it, but that's true of pretty much every device out there. Carry a PowerBank! Or the Fast Charging plug/cable. I often wonder if reviewers are very unfair reporting battery performance and not reflecting real-world, but constant relentless use during testing.

Interim Verdict
These have been initial thoughts as it really feels like I still need my SIM Card in another device to use as my daily main phone - particularly for payments, which seems like we've gone back five years! There are always missing and evolving features that we'll complain about of course. Tech develops, new angles are tried out, decisions made, sometimes reversed! It's all good fun, but the best thing about a Pixel is being close to the beating heart of Google, for me. The fastest updates and new features. Can't beat it!
It's a terrific little bundle of tech with much work for Google to do in the coming months. We know that they are likely to do so and bring new features and tweak the ability of those present. It's just about big enough for me with the increased screen-space over previous little Pixels, but I'd still maybe just like a tad more! The camera tech is, by any standards in mobile phones, excellent and the vast majority of users won't be able to complain about their results. The speakers are amazingly good for the size, and so on. Evolution of components giving us better and better performance.
As for price, well yes, it's not cheap. It is cheaper than last year's offering but still a sizeable chunk of cash for those not getting a contract upgrade. The good news there is that the Pixel 3 will soon be available cheaper and, you could argue, is perfectly good enough for a couple more years. I can't recommend this phone for anyone to use as their only and main phone just now, but I will soon! We'll keep updating our views as we go through the months ahead so it really is a case of watch this space.

Monday, 28 October 2019

LG V50 ThinQ 5G

The LG V50 ThinQ 5G is a gorgeous slice of technology which is beautifully made and feels more than premium in the hand. Forget about the Dual Screen (DS) and near-pointless 5G for now and just enjoy the handset! This unit was supplied by LG but locked to EE, and that's the only official way you can get hold of one in the UK just now, on contract.

It's another glass/aluminium sandwich but it's a real beauty. The glass very subtly curves around the edges, front and back in symmetry, to meet the metal band. On the right is the power button alongside the very broad SIM Card/microSD Card pokey-hole Tray, nothing much up top and volume buttons on the left beside the dedicated Google Assistant button. On the bottom is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, USB-C port and one of the two 'faux' stereo speakers. On the front we have two selfie cameras and the other speaker. On the back, three cameras and an LED flash buried under the Gorilla Glass and just below them, a capacitive fingerprint scanner. Down towards the bottom are the three metal connectors which enable communication with the DS.

Footprint
The phone is IP68 rated (and MIL-STD-810G compliant) which gives protection against dust and 1.5m of water for half an hour. The overall footprint is about the same as my Pixel 2XL in all aspects. The glass is super-smooth and slippery, which means it'll certainly need a TPU at least, not supplied in the box. I wonder if they really think that users will have the DS in place all the time! It's not the lightest of phones at 183g and with that DS in position, it really comes up quite heavy.

Screen
The screen is a gorgeous P-OLED panel which can be cranked up very brightly indeed, ensuring no problems outdoors in sun. The default resolution out of the box is 1080p so users have to know to switch manually if they want the full 1440 or power-saving 720 and this, incidentally, can't be independently controlled for the main screen and DS. Furthermore, the main screen is auto-switched back to 1080p even if you change it, once a session with the DS has been completed. The screen is 6.4" with a ratio of 19.5:9 - all of this producing 538ppi. It really is a lovely bright screen with oodles of options to change the colours via RGB and temperature controls and even 6 user template options and an 'expert' set of tools. You really can have this screen set however you want it to look. There's a substantial notch around the cameras and speaker but this can be hidden in Settings.

AoD
There's also an Always On Display, much like the Samsung version with options to change how it looks, pictures, signature, clocks, notifications, colours - and when it pops up on the screen, a scrolling bunch of controls when swiped left and right. Music controls, power percentage, torch, bluetooth, DND, WiFi, camera and even a shortcut to QuickMemo+ almost emulating the S-Pen Samsung Note functionality. The camera will fire up from here and let you shoot and save, but want to get any further, you need to get past lockscreen security if set. Every phone should have a good quality AoD like LG and Samsung provide - for some of us, it's a big purchase-influencing feature.

Security
The lockscreen security includes all the usual options including LG's Knock-Screen (a variation on pattern) and face unlock, which works very, very well indeed. Very little lag, which I experience with some others, and straight in. Registration is simple and quick (even with my full face beard) with an option to add additional data to heighten that security. By switching this on, you're warned that it might take longer to unlock with a face, but I have found it to be pretty much the same time. The old-fashioned capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back works even more quickly and is a solid option if the phone is in-hand. So much better than under-screen in terms of performance.

Engine Room
The phone comes as standard with 128GB storage, 6GB RAM and a SnapDragon 855 chipset. I have not been able to slow things down, even when using the second screen and flying about the interface. I have found that plenty of apps can be held in RAM without shutting down - much more than the average user would demand. I have tested the storage options in my usual ways and can report that the 128GB is fast enough for read/write, the phone supports USB OTG and read/writes very quickly to my 2TB External SSD. HDMI-Out is working perfectly well hooked up to a TV or monitor. One caveat is that unlike some others, the Qi charging can't be used when HDMI-Out is being employed. Tested here with a pass-through dongle instead, with a power-input and it works perfectly well. The microSD Card slot performs just as well and is a very welcome feature, as always.

Connectivity
I've not been able to test the cellular connectivity speed and reliability here as, badly equipped reviewer as I am, I don't have a paid-up EE SIM Card. Sorry! I can report that connectivity apart from that is excellent, however, by WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth. Very solid and good quality. The earpiece speaker I have tested with VoIP calls and it sounds like it is very good quality, strong and loud. I'll try and do better next time with a SIM Card and contract/PAYG for every UK network! There is Dual SIM here for those who need it - at the expense of the microSD expansion.

Software
Android 9 is present with September 2019 Google Security. It seems that LG, like others armed with the benefits of Project Treble, are getting better with updates, though I do wonder how long they'll take to get Android 10 in place. LG UX 8.0 is the launcher/homescreen/front-end present and actually, it's much more Vanilla-feeling than some and certainly more so than their previous versions. Wallpapers and Themes are app-add-ons from LG mainly, Widgets pretty standard, Homescreen options include app-drawer or no-app-drawer, iOS-style, adjustable grid layout, icon shape and Google Feed to the left on/off. There's even a swipe-down on homescreen, again iOS-style, for a search engine. There's a generous seven spaces on the Dock for apps, which is most unusual outside of Nova et al. There's an option of Navigation controls between the three standard ones or Google's (last year) gestures with the two. Colours of buttons can be changed and there's also a setting to auto-hide the controls when not in use if System isn't smart enough to beat LG to it! The launcher and front-end, I think I could live with now, without installing Nova - the point I got to with Samsung's OneUI recently.

Google Assistant
The Google Assistant hardware button on the left gets you with a single-press to the Assistant, awaiting your command or a double-press for your Google App Cards (if phone is unlocked). Generic searches work with the phone locked but personal data is not revealed until unlocking is done. I can't seem to find any way to reassign that button (which suits me fine) but maybe with a SIM Free version of this phone, it's possible. This button is a fabulous addition for me - and it makes me much, much more likely to use the Google Assistant and talk to my phone than other methods used elsewhere to invoke the function.

Bloat
However, all is not quite so peachy when you start to look at the other bloat that LG has doubled-up with Google on (which is strange, given that it's even got a Google Assistant hardware button). Gallery, Contacts, Clock, Calendar, Tasks, Music, Health, Email, Update Centre and File Manager alongside their own acceptable Game Launcher, QuickMemo+, HD Audio Recorder and SmartWorld. What is less forgivable is Facebook and Instagram (which can, thankfully, be fully deleted) and Amazon Assistant (which can only be disabled). At £800+ do they need to further grab at cash from other firms and bug (many) users, I wonder. To be fair, I don't know how much of this is EE and how much is LG, but I do know that this has been typical previously of the latter. More worrying is that apps baked into the ROM have already been assigned open access permissions to suit them, not the user. Settings, by default, are arranged in four tabs, which unless you're going to use the search function - or stick with LG longer-term - is just confusing. Thankfully, they've provided a switch to make it one list. Phew! Inside Settings, there's loads of bells and whistles to play with, OnePlus style, and like the latter, the options mostly feel like useful additions rather than fluff and bloat.

Speakers
The 'faux' stereo speakers which, outside of a very few phones these days, don't offer true stereo, but rather a mix of sounds and frequencies coming from two speakers, are present here. Much like the LG G7 BoomBox experience, the sound does to some degree rely on being placed on a surface to resonate. In my review of the G7 I was very impressed with this and the same thing seems to be present here - with BoomBox mentioned in the Settings too. The phone, when held in the hand, produces a good sound with excellent stereo separation and surround features, even when some way from the head. LG quote DTS:X 3D Sound and this can be toggled in Settings. The difference is marked and can be switched between Wide, Front and Side-to-Side. By doing so, the sound is thrown out in different ways but greater changes can be achieved by using the Equaliser, available for speakers as well as earphones. Default sound at maximum volume is a little tinny, but very loud. Fortunately, customising the output with all these tools can achieve significant improvements and enhancements. Then put the phone on a surface and hear it spring to life. I do find it impressive and would be very happy using this phone for my music and video. There's even some far-east style visualisations for some reason, not only on the screen but also optionally flashing the camera's LED on the back of the phone in sync with the music's peaks! Good grief!

Audio
The 3.5mm audio-out socket allows us all to plug in whatever sound peripherals we fancy and here I'm testing the 32-bit built-in DAC with my AKG K701 reference headphones. Immediately I can hear the amazingly loud and qualitative output. Furthermore, if you then turn off the DTS:X 3D you get access to the Quad DAC extra settings which change the sound and enhance different frequencies markedly more. There's even a balance control for each earpiece, which is great for my wonky ears! Switch back to DTS:X 3D's side-to-side setting for a real treat in soundstage listening to media which exploits stereo. Bluetooth 5 is present, supporting aptX HD and again, sounds staggeringly good. Not only that, but the pairing process for new BT devices is the simplest, quickest and most straightforward I've ever used. As soon as you hit the BT icon in the system tray it pops up a dialogue inviting you to select or pair - and pairing is then a snap of the fingers away. Done! As with previous LG phones, this is another in the V-series which is an audiophile's delight. I fail to see why I don't have one as my main phone!

Cameras
The camera options on LG phones have always been fun to play with for me, even if results may not be in any way market-leading. You'll need to check The Phones Show 378 for a more in-depth feel about that with Steve Litchfield, while I just play! Firstly, there's 3 cameras on the back - a 12MP f1.5 standard lens with OIS, a secondary 12MP f2.4 2x telephoto, again with OIS and a 16MP f1.9 wide-angle shooter but with no autofocus at all. I guess they reckon most wide-angle shots will have huge depth of field anyway. There's an LED flash on the back for anyone who wants to use it outside of the DISCO(!) and round the front, two Selfie cameras - an 8MP f1.9 standard lens and 5MP f2.2 wide-angle, to get all your snowboarding mates in! When shooting video with the main camera on the back there's 24-bit audio recording available and HDR10 compliancy.

Camera Software
The manual controls are available to use with the main and wide-angle cameras and have the usual plethora of options to tweak and adjust, much like a stand-alone compact camera. There's Triple Shot and Penta Shot which will automatically take a photo with each camera on the back or further to include the two on the front. Not sure what use this is, but seems like fun! There's a range of other stuff which people will muck about with like Story Shot - placing a portrait in front of a separately taken background - just in case you need to fool your boss that you're in the office and not at the beach, no doubt! We've seen Cine Video before which, using all the HDR10 and smart audio, does produce 'surround' sound video akin to Nokia's OZO - and is equally as impressive. There's loads more, as you'd expect, particularly with AI, Night Sky, Night View, Food, Stickers, Slow Motion and so on. Fun, as I say - but many that won't be used beyond testing. Bottom line is that the results I have got from the camera are excellent and as I always say, will more than please 95% of users looking to post to social media. Just to note that the camera lenses on the back are all situated under the back Gorilla Glass. People not trusting that to not get scratched will need to be very careful about casing options.

Power
Another box to tick here is the 4000mAh battery (used away from DS), supported by 10W Qi charging and 18W QC3, providing a 50% charge in just over half an hour. Using the phone away from the DS, the battery is very good indeed - my 10% test returned about 1hr 40mins, which is up amongst the leaders for me, though the playing field was not quite level there - there's no SIM Card in the phone looking for even 4G, let alone 5G. On a daily test, again with no SIM Card, I'm very comfortably getting through a day and a half or more (with my average - as it can be - use). Add the DS, however, and the story is a very different one.

Dual Screen
I now come to the bolt-on Dual Screen and have to admit that I'm struggling to see past the novelty/gimmick factor here. It's true that content can be displayed on the 'other' screen and I guess that's all well and good, apart from the limitations, which I'll come to. If you're watching a film in one window you can have IMDb open in the other for quick reference. Or research something with two instances of Chrome open. Or Chrome in one and some sort of note-taker on the other. But then you'd really need a stylus because actually, the way that the second screen folds and is made, you just can't hold it comfortably in order to execute those actions. Hold it folded out like a book and your thumb is in danger of touching both screens the whole time. The screen will only fold'n'hold at certain angles where it 'locks' (and not very securely). It's either closed, sticking up (laptop-style) at just over 90 degrees, wrapped round the back (in which case it's off) or 'flat'. And flat is not really flat, so that it's actually flat on a desk - the second screen sits 'up and away' so the whole rig 'rocks' left to right on a table. Handling is a bit of a mystery really. Incidentally, Chrome is one of not-that-many apps which allow two instances open at the same time. Mostly I found that on attempting a second opening, the other screen dumps the app in favour of the new command.

Settings
You have access to various settings for the second screen - including a switch to allocate any app or service you like to launch when it's fired up, independent (or auto/matching) brightness, different wallpaper and homescreen options. The auto-start-app option would be great for a student, set to QuickMemo+ or OneNote - if there was a pen! Of course you can use your finger or a capacitive stylus, but this whole experience would be so better with a Samsung-style S-Pen. Notes taken can be saved in the usual way to various places of course, but it's just fiddly to use - and actually holding the device, as I say, is horribly awkward while you're doing it.

Laptop
OK then, how about using it in laptop mode? Well, yes, that works in some ways. You can get the 'main' screen to display the on-screen keyboard, emulating the form of a Nokia E90, Gemini/Cosmo or a small YogaBook, but you'd have to take a great deal of time getting used to typing on that relatively small QWERTY on a smooth glass surface. I guess over time you would - as long as the payoff (of being able to use the screen for other things) is worth the cost. You can certainly get note-taking apps onto the second screen to enable this functionality.

Landscape
The other thing to note is that many apps are not designed to run under Android in landscape, so often present a kludge - if they work at all and switch from portrait. To be fair, most of the Google apps switch around once signed in - but many often present content down the middle of the screen in a central column, not making use of the width. Some, like Google Drive intelligently switch the main screen into the keyboard when needed with content on the other. Others won't let you get past the 'setup' screen and dialogues in portrait but switch when up and running.

Spread Out
It's a shame in a sense that the two screens don't work together more so that content can move between them efficiently even though there would be a big gap in the middle. Apps can be 'thrown' from one to the other by a three-finger slide across the screen but it's a bit clunky in practice. Maps comes to mind as an app which would benefit from sharing its 'total view' across both screens or perhaps a large spreadsheet, giving the user more data and information via a more productive overview.

Gaming
Now, I'm not much of a gamer - in fact, I'm nothing of a gamer! I tried to install a few games and run them but couldn't find any that run with the LG Game Pad on the main screen in action. The pad comes up and it looks lovely, but you'll have to look elsewhere in gamingland out there to watch proper gamers using this. Apparently the number of games that work with it are limited and who knows whether more developers will buy into this and code their games to work. There's also a recurring issue here that some of the games I installed and got running on the second screen in landscape actually presented themselves upside-down and I couldn't see a way to even get them up the right way! But to be fair, for those with more patience and an understanding of gaming, I'm sure they'll do better. I have certainly seen videos of enthusiasts making it work with their big-loading and online games. As for the QWERTY above, I'm not sure if game controls on a flat-glass screen is going to be anything like the experience and physical presence of a proper hand-held PlayStation-like controller.

Second Viewfinder
In camera mode, when the 'zoom' buttons are long-pressed, this gives a preview of the image of the three lenses on the second screen and you can tap each to switch the camera's settings to use any of them. This works in landscape and portrait but for me, it just looks a bit odd to be holding the whole device up as a camera, big and wide, almost like taking a photo with a tablet - and we know what most people think about folk doing that!

Creative
I suppose you could argue that with the ability to display one app on one screen and one on the other, the world is your oyster in terms of creative use and different users will find thousands of combinations which might suit their way of working or playing. It's great to see a phone manufacturer doing something different, so don't get me wrong and think that I'm overly negative about the device. It's just that for me, it's heavy, clunky and without a dedicated stylus and supporting software to make that smart, it all feels like a bit of a gimmick. Going back to the battery, which, at 4000mAh sounds like it should be more than adequate - as soon as you put that second screen in place it drinks large gulps of that juice and it's not long before you're looking for power. This can be plugged in of course whilst you're using the device.

Physical
The case itself is made of plastic and glass, the screen, which is slightly smaller in height than the main screen, providing no symmetry, is also a P-OLED one and there's a cutout at the top so that the top speaker's sound can escape and the telephone can be used with the case closed. However, it would also appear to be the case that when a phone call is incoming the user has no option but to open the case up to answer, before closing again to speak. The buttons on the left of the phone (for volume) become all-but inaccessible when the DS case is fully open, rendering you forced to use on-screen controls. There's a giant hole on the back which allows the cameras to see out, the flash to fire, access to the fingerprint scanner and the LED Notification light (in the shape of "5G")!

Summary
Forget about the Dual Screen, is what I say - or at least, only attach it when needed. Forget about the 5G which nobody needs (anytime soon) and let's have a V50 stand-alone for £549 instead of the £800+ which this whole outfit is going to cost apparently when available SIM Free. The phone is more than capable, up to date, the closest to Vanilla Android that it's ever been from LG and with amazing sound options. I would certainly buy one of these at that price, but you can keep your DS/5G! It does however, enthuse me about the Microsoft Surface Duo next year - for me, so far, the most attractive dual/fold/wrap-screened option currently on any radar. This LG V50 though, highly recommended - with reservations.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Sweet Bean

This is a Japanese film, beautifully and artistically presented, telling, in many ways, a simple story about three people and a pancake shop! There is some focus on the food involved, but this is far from a 'foodie' film and spends much more time on peripheral events and interesting characters' interactions.

The more I see of films from the far-east, the more I like them. They often reflect an artistic quality akin to european cinema, with a focus on cinematography, lighting, atmosphere and simple framing. This film is no exception and for those who'd rather consume it for the art, the outing would be not far from complete. Director Naomi Kawase (Still the Water) does a splendid job of bringing us multiple viewing indulgences.

However, the storyline is also important and reflects three generations of people centred around a dorayaki (sweet bean pancake) shop. The young girl Wakana, played by Kyara Uchida is trying to work out what she wants from life - to continue with school or take the more pragmatic route and seek a job. We see her angst as she struggles with her options. Masatoshi Nagase plays Sentarô, the chef at the food outlet who is more middle-aged and as the story unfolds, we find out, has a murky past - for which he has to work hard in order to repay the owner of the shop. He too is trying to make sense of life. Tokue is the woman in her 70's played by Kirin Kiki (Shoplifters) who also has a big secret up her sleeve, cutting through the sweet-old-lady mask to some degree. Initially though, she seeks a job making her special recipe bean sauce to give her something to feel worthy about - but also as a gift, to turn around the flailing fortunes of Sentarô who has had to buy-in commercial sauce, which is not favoured by many of his customers.

Have said all the above, there are no surprises here really. It's all very sedate and in many ways emotional, as the three of them become intertwined with each other in a short space of time. They start helping each other to empathise with each others' life-view and situations with the backdrop of the pancake house. Simple lives reflected in simple things with ordinary folk, but beautifully presented. There's Japanese culture to be lapped up for the audience, who can learn heaps about the far-east, standards and values alien to our own. Respect for elders, manners, politeness - to mention three.

The lovely photography is often silently observed but now and then there's some original music, which is a mix of haunting solo piano then orchestral support. The performances of the three leads are outstanding and the whole film fuses those together with the artistic mastery noted above. There's many different takeaways for viewers here. As I said above, there's all the artwork to enjoy, the emotion of the characters as things develop for some or maybe just a compact, accessible and sweet story for others. It's a simple but excellent film and highly recommended as a follow-up (for me) to the superb Shoplifters.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Canvas Travel Bag

I have been looking for a holdall or some sort of stuff-carrying solution for a while. I even considered a shopping trolly at one stage! These type of holdalls are wildly varied in priced at Amazon UK but there's a good pick.

I decided to try this one as it was on a near-half-price sale, though actually I think it's probably worth the normal £20 price after using it. It's a big holdall/bag which you typically see on the likes of Breaking Bad or Fargo being stuffed full of cash! It's about 2ft wide, 18" high and about a foot fat. Perfect size for me on a daily basis lugging stuff around with me, but also I could see, a weekend-away bag and good for flights.

It's made of thick canvas of some sort, is fairly light, though there's no mention of any sort of waterproofing. I guess it could be sprayed with a guard or wax-treated if that's important. It has studs on the bottom and sturdy-looking rivets holding the canvas to the faux leather straps and big handles. It has a solid-looking zip across the main compartment and D-Rings at each end to hold the (very long) shoulder strap, for those who need it. It can be removed. The base section is also made of that same faux leather and looks like it's well stitched - as is all the stitching around the bag.

The bag has one main section but on the inner sides there's all sorts of pouches and zipped pockets for organising stuff as you like within the cotton-looking soft lining. There's even external zipped pockets for more stuff. The accommodation has been well thought out to make the most use of the size of the bag and panels but retaining potential use as one-big-space.

Available from Amazon UK in Grey, Coffee or Black. I've only just got this, so will report back if it doesn't last - but it really looks as though it will take some abuse over time. The only complaint I have is that the sides are in no way 'solid' - so you put the bag on the floor the sides just flop downwards taking up any empty space in the bag. Of course if the bag is full, it stays in shape (as they clearly have done for the modeling photo here) - but I guess you can't have everything. It's light and flexible instead of a rigid suitcase! Looking very nice and so far, recommended.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Carol

The relatively inexperienced director Todd Haynes takes the helm and draws this 2015 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, together very ably. Intelligent use of the camerawork and sumptuous 1950's New York sets and costumes are a delight to consume.

I have spoken before of the adapted novels of Highsmith with my thoughts on Strangers on a Train and The Two Faces of January. There's more to come, but the theme of the repression of homosexuality through the middle decades of the twentieth century are again at the forefront through her writing here.

Carol is a woman in her 40's who is married to a very traditional kind of man who values family and an obedient wife first and foremost. He had previously worked through and affair with her that she had with her childhood female friend and thought that it was over - and that she'd come away from it a wiser and better person. Not the case, as the story here starts with them heading very rapidly towards a divorce and the messy issue of custody of their small girl.

This is the point at which Carol, by chance, bumps into much younger Therese who is working as a sales assistant in a department store. Carol is clearly a wealthy woman and Therese a very ordinary, though well educated working girl. They fall for each other over the course of time, a series of meetings and trips, and although Carol understands what's going on, it's all new to the confused Therese who has various menfolk suitors chasing her to make her their wife. The liaison between them, as it builds, is created with much subtlety and passive warmth rather than with lewd bedroom scenes. The emphasis of the filmmakers is about the blossoming feelings and love between them. Society is not designed to manage such behaviour of course, for the time, and further constructed to actively quash any so-called immorality. What follows is a depiction of how the trappings of society use everything at its disposal to ensure that whatever is going on here is stamped out, by fair means or foul.

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine, Notes on a Scandal) of course is quite excellent as Carol but better still is Rooney Mara (Side Effects, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) playing Therese. There's a real chemistry between the pair of them which, if not captured and directed well, could so easily have been missing. The locked-engaged looks into each others eyes across a room, noted before by me as equally commanding in Damage, create a deep atmosphere of their own and drills into the imagination of the audience. Beautifully shot. Kyle Chandler (Manchester by the Sea, Zero Dark Thirty) supports very convincingly as the tempestuous husband Harge, Sarah Paulson (Ratched, Bird Box) as Abby and Jake Lacy, the long-suffering Richard.

It's another great film from the works of Patricia Highsmith. It's a slow-burner in some ways, but is never dull, always engaging and a visual delight. It's a sad love story at times, but more a statement about an era reflecting hope for the decades to come where prejudices are stamped out. It's a study of two people swept up in emotions trying to make sense of their feelings - and that has been portrayed excellently well. Recommended indeed.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Julieta

Here's another Spanish drama/mystery from writer/director Pedro Almodóvar in 2016, produced ten years after his excellent Volver starring Penelope Cruz. This one is about a woman reflecting on her life, her daughter, and what she might have done differently to avoid the pain of losing those around her who made her life complete.

Sounds a bit dull, doesn't it! Actually, it's not. It's a slow-burner about Julieta played by Emma Suárez as the narrative begins with her in middle-age beginning to write her reflective memoir. Life has been hard on her and at the point of giving up on being able to fix it, she's depressed and wants to record her thoughts with an unspoken suggestion of ending it all. Most of the film then jumps back following her earlier life and depicts the events upon which she reflects.

The young Julieta is played by Adriana Ugarte who meets a fisherman by chance on a train but on that same train fails to respond to an older man reaching out for comfort, unknown to her, who was about to take his life. She thinks he's just an odd old man and leaves him, ensuring guilt that she will carry with her. She and the fisherman forge a life together and have a daughter, Antia. Tragedy follows with the death of the father and Antia disappears from Julieta's life, casting blame on her mother for the event. Julieta spends 12 years trying to find her.

Julieta has a boyfriend, of sorts, by this time - but it's clear that she has no deep feeling for him and sure enough, casts him aside to concentrate on her quest to find Antia. She moves back to the family home in hope that Antia might eventually contact her there. She bumps into Antia's childhood friend who tells her that she had met Antia by chance and that she was together with a man and living with their three children. The hunt is on again with this new information, but still cul-de-sacs at every turn.

We jump back and forward a little, but that's never done confusingly. The two actresses playing the older and younger Julieta makes sure that everyone knows where they are and the number playing Antia as she grows up, keeps the timeline clear. Apart from Darío Grandinetti as the boyfriend who played a leading role in the excellent Wild Tales, I have to admit to not knowing any of the cast but many of them clearly have extensive experience in Spanish cinema and TV. Adriana Ugarte is particularly captivating as the young Julieta, Emma Suárez clearly capable as the older - and the rest of the supporting cast don't seem to put a foot wrong.

The story is based around three books by Alice Munro (Destino, Pronto and Silencio) which I have not read, but those who have done seem to say that Almodóvar has made a fine job of weaving them together and creating this film. He certainly directs capably here with engaging photography, typically Spanish sets, lighting and interiors.

It's an excellent film, not too long at 90 minutes but engaging and well constructed. It's a film about loss, reflection, tragedy, guilt and hope, like many european cinema outings, but this one I think certainly stands out from the crowd having been excellently produced and executed. Recommended.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

A Humongous Huawei Mate 20 X Review

Is that a Phone in your Pocket?
Guest Reviewer Ivor Biggun, otherwise known as Adrian Brain!

THINK DIFFERENTLY they told me! So I did. Rather than automatically ordering the new iPhone, I thought "Which are my favourite phones of all time?".
A few outstanding phones sprang to mind, but one was my Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 (because of its 6.3" display, obvs). Back in 2013 when the average screen size was about 4" this was called ludicrous, outlandish and down-right ridiculous, dwarfing the gargantuan 5.7" screen of the contemporaneous Note 3. Sadly, the Mega was underpowered in the RAM & storage department (app2SD was a daily feature of life with it), but it was always a joy and I used it for several years (without a SIM) as a mini-tablet. I eventually replaced it with the Sony Z3 Compact Tablet (basically the Sony Z3 Compact phone, another of my favourites, but pneumatically expanded).

Recalling the Mega experience, I had a scout around for the biggest, current phone I could find. The best of the bunch seemed to be the Huawei Mate 20 X, from early this year. John Lewis are selling them in a bundle with a smart case and S-Pen (sorry, M-Pen) for under a monkey, meaning the dent in the iPhone 11 Pro budget still leaves room for an iPhone 11. Or maybe the ROG 2 phone if it ever hits these shores.

Oh My Word
The scale of this thing is immense. For reference, the iPhone SE screen is smaller than the screen shown through cut out "smart case"! Huawei haven't hampered the phone with under-par specs; a Kirin 980 (same as this year’s P30 Pro flagship), 6Gb RAM chipset, 128Gb storage, triple-camera system phone. With dual SIM (or SIM plus NM card), IR blaster, correctly located rear FP scanner that is virtually instant to unlock, 3.5mm jack and a 5000mAh battery that lasts 2 days with ease this phone will eat whatever you throw at it. HDMI out, Desktop (Dex-like) mode etc. are all present and correct, & you even get a serviceable gel case in the box. The only features missing are Qi charging & an FM Radio, and it's only IP53 resistant, so avoid the temptation to use it as a surf board.

The screen is a lovely 7.2" AMOLED panel, and with no "waterfall" edges you get to see it all without hesitation, deviation or repetition. The teardrop notch is relatively tiny on this massive display & can be forgiven.

The back of the phone has an unusual ridged glass surface. I'm not sure how one YouTube reviewer managed to hold the phone almost vertically without it sliding off his palm, but it's certainly not the usual "bar of soap dunked in melted butter" slipperiness of many modern glass-backed phones. The finish isn't as flashy as some recent Huawei devices, but it's certainly handsome for such a big phone. The on/off button is also attractively ribbed, so you can distinguish it from the volume controls very easily.

But can you carry this behemoth in your pocket?
In average trousers or jeans, the phone is surprisingly pocketable. The hot weather this weekend gave me opportunity for the shorts test too, and it turns out it is possible to carry it around in shorts, though going up some stairs I found my hand going to the phone pocket, just in case it were to pop out.

At under 240g, it’s not heavy for the size (about 10g heavier than an iPhone 11 Pro Max), though you’ll probably want to stick with slim cases. As we approach the autumn and jackets, the size is actually a benefit – less fishing around in inside jacket pockets to pull it out.

Cinemascope
With that 7.2" display video is an absolute joy, web browsing so much nicer and it’s even quite viable to spend a lot of time reading Kindle books (if you tweak the settings to avoid the inevitable eye-strain). The screen still too small for comfortable magazine viewing, at least without a lot of pinch & zooming, so Readly fans will still need a larger device.

Lenses. Lots of them.
The triple camera setup is apparently identical to that on the much-praised Mate 20 Pro. I've not had much time using this, but it seems as exceptionally good as my P30 at the usual snaps. I've yet to investigate video, selfies, portraits and night mode, but I'm not expecting any surprises or sub-par performance. Some sample shots below showing wide, normal and 3x zoom lenses, and a panorama for when wide isn’t wide enough. Note that the Mate 20 X is large, but it’s not as large as the Walkie Talkie building.

Big Music
Audio is great - the speaker setup gets annoyingly loud and is reasonable quality - it's not a ROG or Razer but is still good. Things take a step up with the 3.5mm audio output - extremely good, which is unusual for a Huawei. Apparently, it's a 32bit, 384KHz sample rate DAC. To my ears it's almost as good as my quad-DAC LG V20 on wired cans, and I suspect it will have no problem driving high impedance headphones. Dolby Atmos is present, though curiously cannot be turned off for the speakers (only with headphones).

OS UX
Yes, it's a Huawei, but I've grown to quite like EMUI. It's nowhere as hideous as it used to be, and you can re-theme it with a few taps. Dark mode is present & fairly pervasive. There were loads of sequential updates to apply after booting up, & Huawei have promised Q to arrive for the Mate 20 X as a beta in December, with a full release sometime after that. Currently it's on P, 1st August 2019 security update.

Out of the box the UI deos feel inelegant, but a few tweaks in Settings to reduce font and tile size and it feels like you’ve got acres of useable space to work on.

There’s bloatware of course, but the most offensive stuff like FB can be uninstalled. The Huawei calendar, browser, music & photos duplicate of Google apps continue to irritate, but if you start the Huawei browser in the vicinity of a Huawei laptop it enables handoff & AirDrop like capabilities between the phone and a Huawei laptop which is handy.

Another thing worth a shout is Huawei's phone clone transfer software - it replicated my P30 onto the Mate 20 X sublimely well & also very quickly via an ad hoc WiFi network; scan the displayed bar code on the source phone, choose what you want to transfer and 20 minutes later 50Gb of data, settings and apps has been transferred, even sideloaded apps. The only thing that went AWOL was the BBC Sport app. SMS, screen settings, call logs & even notification icons layout went across without a glitch. Impressive stuff.

The Bad
There are some downsides, but these relate to the bundled accessories rather than the phone itself. The M-Pen seems restricted to unlocking directly into the Notes app, which is serviceable, & for making cut-out screenshots and swiping to hop into dual screen mode quickly (rather good). It also doesn't attach into or onto the device itself, and neither the smart case, so it's an item that will certainly get lost.

The Smart Case, also part of the bundle, isn't too smart either - you must close the cover twice to get the AOD to adapt to the hole in the case, and then it turns off after a minute, making it seem a bit pointless. Without the Smart Case, you get the usual Huawei AOD display. It’s not bad as it is, but the next version looks more feature complete.

Conclusion
I have to say, so far, I’m completely smitten with this unusual device. You may need big pockets for the Mate 20 X, but you don’t need deep ones.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

How to Write a Film Review

Recent (constructive) criticism about how I write film reviews encouraged me to do a bit of research online to see if there are 'rules' and how others approach the task, perhaps more methodically. Here's what I found out, though I'm sure there are thousands of other ideas out there.

By the way, my self-appraisal is that actually I do quite a lot of this usually anyway, but could improve. (I do wonder if it's worth all the hassle, however, when few people read it anyway - and others around me just submit a paragraph at most!) Anyway, I post here in case anyone else is interested - and perhaps to encourage discussion and other people's ideas.

Ten Thoughts
1. Is this film part of a franchise? How does it suit the series?
2. Is the plot based on a novel, fantasy, or real-life events?
3. Did the writer manage to create a clear and captivating plot?
4. Is the rhythm of the movie dynamic or smooth? Are there too many needless details?
5. What is the target audience of the film? Is it G-rated, R-rated, or unrated?
6. Do movies on the same theme/topic that are worth mentioning in your review exist?
7. What sorts of shots does the cameraman use in the film? How do these techniques affect the overall impression?
8. Does the movie have an exclusively entertaining character or touch on serious issues?
9. Was the casting successful? Did all actors manage to portray their characters?
10. What is the general atmosphere of the movie? Is it tense/joyful/obscure?

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1. Begin with a catchy introduction.
Your introductory paragraph should include essential information about the movie: title, genre, director’s name, and release date. You can also mention, if appropriate, the awards (the most prestigious ones), the budget and the box office (if they are impressive), and the cast members. In addition to the general information, it is necessary to include your overview into the introduction. A compelling overview is a starting point for the critical part of your review that goes beyond the elementary plot summary and description of the technical elements. The overview may display different aspects such as:

- the connection between the film’s central idea and the current issues or events;
- the similarity between the plot and your personal experience;
- the interrelation between the thematic content of the film and its formal elements.

2. Don’t put your evaluation into cold storage.
If your readers don’t have much time to read the entire review, you can, at least, provide them with your evaluation at the beginning of the text. Don’t reserve your personal opinion for the concluding paragraph. You are not a crime writer: lay your cards on the table in the first or the second paragraph.

3. Compose a brief plot summary.
Describe four or five major events but don’t reveal the ending. Besides, avoid the “spoilers” by all means because your readers will hate you for destroying the suspense. If you still want to mention a significant turn, please, warn the readers about it.

4. Describe an overall impression.
The main purpose of the plot summary is to tell what the film is about. The description should inform the readers not about what you’ve seen but what you’ve felt. Mention the emotions and thoughts awakened by the concrete scenes, the most touching score, and the moments that pulled your heartstrings. Share your cinematic experience in order to make your review less formal and more personal.

5. Determine the purpose of the movie.
Answer the question, “Why was this film created?” Sometimes, you may find the response in the interviews with the members of the shooting team. In other cases, the purpose can be obvious thanks to the plot. If the movie has an entertaining characteristic, don’t try to dig deeper to find some implied sense. Certain films are good because of their simplicity.

6. Add some details about filmmaking.
The analysis of the formal techniques is an indispensable part of any exhaustive film review. Concentrate your attention on one or two elements that you consider to be the most significant for this particular film. Be careful with the specific terminology because your movie review shouldn’t look like a crossword. Here are some aspects that you can describe:
a) Cinematography
This term includes everything that happens with cameras during the shooting. You can describe three main aspects of cinematography if you see them as important for comprehension of the film: camera movement, camera angles, and camera distances.
b) Sound
Although the sound affects the atmosphere of the movie as well as the visual elements, it is often underestimated. However, talented film score composers are highly praised in the filmmaking world. Every sound in the film can be classified as diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is like thunder, birdsong, barking, or conversations in the restaurant are the part of the narration. Non-diegetic sound is like off-screen commentaries or film scores that come from outside the universe of the film.
c) Editing
In a nutshell, the goal of editing is to create a smooth connection between all pieces of the film. The editor creates the “world of the story” in order to give the viewer a sense of space. The filmmakers use various methods to compose the integral reality of the film: graphic similarities, eyeline match, establishing shots, etc.
d) Mise-en-scène
This aspect is the most global because it includes literally everything that you see on the screen. Every landscape, actor’s smile, and visual effect is a part of the mise-en-scène.

7. Look for the deep meaning.
A good film is never superficial. There are always key phrases, symbolic things, and repeating elements that are significant for the deeper understanding of the film and, consequently, for your overarching review. Be attentive in order to unlock all secrets of filmmaking!

8. Provide the examples.
No review can sound trustworthy without examples. Phrases like “the acting is great” or “the sound is bad” don’t inspire trust. Be more specific! For example, when you talk about the portrayal of a particular character, mention what exactly makes the actor relevant for this role: appearance, manner of speaking, facial expressions, etc.

9. Write a strong conclusion.
Remind your readers about the film elements that impressed you the most. Add some personal recommendations and specify for whom this film will be more interesting and why. Remember that your conclusion is the last chance to convince your readers, so do your best!

10. Edit and proofread your film review.
Read your work two or three times. Correct all the mistakes: word choice, grammar, style, spelling, typos, etc. Errors can spoil even the most professional review!

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1. Watch the film.
Once is necessary twice is preferable. Taking notes is also a good idea and will help the writing process by making it easy to refer to your in-the-moment thoughts and reactions.

2. Express your opinions and support your criticism.
Professional reviewers do not shy away from telling their readers whether they thought the movie was good bad or indifferent, and in fact readers come to rely on those reviewers whose tastes reflect their own when deciding whether or not to spend their time and money. Professional reviewers also have watched a lot of films and can express why and how they came to their criticism. Be sure to back up your thoughts with specifics–a disappointing performance, a ridiculous plot, beautiful cinematography, difficult material that leaves you thinking, and so on.

3. Consider your audience.
Are you writing for a fan site, a national news outlet, or a Teen Magazine? Knowing who your readers are can help you decide what elements of the film to highlight. You should also adjust your writing style to fit the publication.

4. The actors.
Many casual filmgoers will be inspired to see a film if a favorite actor is in it, so you should probably spend a little space talking about the performances: seasoned actor in a new kind of role, brilliant performance from a rising star, excellence despite a lackluster script, dynamics in an ensemble, and so much more can be said about the actors in any given film.

5. Directors, cinematographers, special effects.
This is where your film geek can really shine. Tell your readers about the highlights or missteps of directors, cinematographers, costume designers and CGI magicians. What worked, what surprised, what fell short of expectations, are all great questions to address in the body of your review.

6. No spoilers!
Give your readers some idea of the plot, but be careful not to include any spoilers. Remember the point of a good review is to get people interested in going to the movie. Don’t get over excited and ruin it for them!

7. Study the professionals.
As with all writing endeavors, the more you read the better you will be. And when you read film reviews that you like (or don’t like), think about why. Use your critical eye to think about why one reviewer has a hundred thousand followers and another two. Be sure also to read the publications where you’d like your writing to appear as a template for your own reviews, and don’t forget to read the submission guidelines!

8. Reread, rewrite and edit.
Edit your work; your opinions will not be taken seriously if you misspell the director’s name or can’t put together a grammatically correct sentence. Take the time to check your spelling and edit your piece for organizational flow.

9. Find your voice.
The best reviewers have a distinct personality that comes across in their writing. This does not happen overnight, so take every opportunity to write as an opportunity to develop your own style and voice that will grab reader’s attention and keep them coming back for more.

Adapted from articles at answershark.com, nyfa.edu and others.

Xiaomi Mi A3

One of the big Chinese firms currently swooping into and scooping up the mobile phone world is Xiaomi, as most folk reading this will know...