Sunday, 14 April 2019

Samsung Galaxy A50

The Samsung Galaxy A50 is a class act, there's no getting away from it, at the price-point it's a mid-ranger pretending so very hard to be a flagship. Last month I was reviewing the Moto G7 Plus which is, give or take, around the same price as this and I thought it would be a fair starting point to put them up against each other here.

Before we even start to consider the UX, we can see from the specs that the Moto leads in some areas but the A50 outguns it in many others. My review of the Moto G7 Plus can be read in conjunction, where I drilled down a little further. You can also see Steve Litchfield's video review of that unit in The Phones Show 362.

Ups and Downs
Comparing the two demonstrates that Samsung have come down from their flagships in some respects, whereas Moto, if you consider the Z-series to be their flagships, have merely chipped away at the edges, adding some features, taking some away, but more likely evolving the G-series range. So it feels like Moto are stepping up and Samsung down, meeting somewhere in the middle. There's no particular reason, incidentally, why I am putting these two up against each other apart from mid-range price-point and the convenience of having them to hand recently. It could easily have been many others.

Glasstic Fantastic!
Plastic is where build compromise has been made in some respects for both and whilst for the Moto that only means around the rim, retaining glass on front and back, for Samsung the only glass left is on the front. The back, they're calling Glasstic(!) as they think that it looks much like glass but has the benefits of plastic. It's slippery, but nothing like glass would be. It's light-catching shimmery-shiney, as is the trend. The plastic of course makes for lighter phones and this is the case for both. Maybe that makes it easier for environment-proofing. The A50 feels light in the hand - no reassuring weight here. Though the Moto in reality is only 10g heavier, it feels more. The Moto has its own internal arrangements making it 'splashproof' whereas the A50 is officially rated IP6/8 for water/dust.

Super Bright
Looking at the front, the two devices are near identical in size, Gorilla Glass 3 (a much better compromise of scratch resistance over shatter than 5) protected screens go right out to left/right and both have a small chin. The Moto is a bit fatter, but backs curve round to edges - and sides are thinner on both - phones are getting boringly the same these days. Paths divide here with screens as Samsung put their own Super AMOLED (tall) screen in place whilst Moto opt for LCD. We all know the pros and cons of the two by now, so can only look, see and compare with our eyes. The 1080p 6.4" 401ppi screen of the A50 is, as you'd expect, super-bright with gorgeous colours, user-adjustable. The LCD of the Moto, perfectly good enough for most uses apart from direct sun - but really not in the same league. The place I noticed this most was the Always on Display and brightness thereof. There's a teardrop notch around the camera, same as the Moto, but in this case you can 'hide front camera' thereby shifting the content down a line and losing the ears, unlike the Moto. To be honest, these teardrops are so small, I don't feel the need to get shot of 'em now anyway.

Shoddy!
Very annoyingly there's no TPU in the A50 box, but a box inside which clearly should have one in - and reports from other users that there was one included. Shoddy. I know that I always get a better one anyway, but on this occasion I couldn't quickly enough, so the phone is slipping around. Having said that, the plastic back of the A50 makes it nowhere near as slippery as the Moto's glass, so it could be used without a case. I'd not recommend it still. Apart from anything else, the plastic back is smothered in fingerprints in seconds!

Store and Expand
The buttons on the side of the A50 are decent enough, plastic, thin - not a patch on the more expensive Samsungs' but they're perfectly functional and seem firm enough to the touch. On the left is a microSD Card/Dual-SIM slot giving the user the choice to use all three and assign data to which SIM Card they fancy, but not both. The microSD Card slot read my 512GB card no bother and appears to read/write to it with ease. This is of course a 128GB model, significantly better - well twice as good actually(!) - as the 64GB of the Moto. I know there's a card slot on both, but being able to hold that much more internally makes digital management much easier - for me at least. Wifi and cellular aerials seem to do a good job and NFC is present in this UK model with options to use the phone for payments and other supported connectivity tasks.

No Wireless
The bottom of the phone houses a single speaker and 3.5mm audio-out socket flanking a USB-C port for charging and data. Unlike the big brothers, there doesn't appear to be any USB-HDMI-Out functionality, nor DeX of course, which is a shame for those of us who want to output to a TV, but there is USB-OTG. There's no Qi charging here but the unit is supplied with a big battery which I'll come back to soon. On the back there's three camera lenses in a very slightly protruding island, sitting above an LED flash. That's it really for the physical tour!

Speaker!
Let's start again with my favourite topic - speakers! Or in this case, speaker. Singular. It's a mono bottom-firing speaker, compared to the faux stereo setup of the Moto. It's a loud enough speaker for most purposes and has a basic equaliser system-wide. There's a tease of Dolby Atmos via settings, but actually it only works with stuff plugged into the audio-out socket, not built-in speaker, which is a shame. Plug in a pair of headphones and the Dolby Atmos becomes available, but it's only the dumbed-down version present on the Note9 and S9, not the full tweakable one supplied with the Razer Phone. So you get Auto, Movie, Music or Voice. There are some differences between them but, as always, how that all sounds depends very much on what you're listening to, how it's encoded and so on. Some find it best when it's off. Nothing's simple! There is a set of very basic equalisation options for the speaker output, but it's not Dolby. Just the usual Pop, Rock, Classic, Jazz and Custom thing, which really doesn't do much. Any 'improvements' are clearly at the expense of volume. The winner here is the Moto, for sure - check my review, linked to above. The sound coming from the flagship Samsung phones has certainly not been emulated here on the A50. It's perfectly good for listening to voice and music for most people, just nothing special or better than many phones out there. The emphasis is focused on the higher frequencies which, at full volume tend towards tinny. Drop the volume down to 75% and some of the depth drops in and a much more preferable sound is created. Interesting how Moto have obviously prioritised sound whereas Samsung have considered other attributes more important.

Testing Sound
Testing the speaker against other available phones here, I discovered that the Nokia 8 and 8 Sirocco have a better quality and richness at full volume than the A50 but the A50 is just about louder - not by much. The A50 somehow feels 'hollow' as a sound though. I'm not sure if you'll understand what I mean, but however I tried to play with settings, against the Nokia's, I can't think of a better word. Hollow. The Nokia sound is much nicer to listen to. Against the Razer it didn't stand a chance of course, as I said above, it's significantly behind the Moto G7 Plus so what I have left in a similar league is the Moto Z3 Play. Testing with just the phones' speaker of course, not with JBL SoundBoost Mod attached! The result is that I think Moto have better components than Samsung have afforded the A50. The volume output is similar but the Z3 Play is oodles nicer to listen to. Whilst the A50 focuses on the high-end frequencies, the Moto goes for mid/lower, producing a much nicer, balanced and rich sound. I was wincing when the A50 hit some high notes, especially when loud. But let's be clear - I'm giving the A50 a poor score here against what else I have, but for Joe Public it will be absolutely fine - certainly loud - particularly if he listens to sounds for which higher frequencies are considered advantageous.

3.5mm and Bluetooth
Using my test headphones the sound is super. Joe, again, couldn't complain about the output for private listening - unlike the bundled horrible-looking in-ear plugs, which he might - and I'll leave unopened for the next owner of this phone to suffer! Good volume, rich bass and excellent stereo separation, as you might expect - as it was with the Moto. I do find it quite hard to fault the average phone's audio-output with good headphones, but then I'm no audiophile. Your mileage may vary if you are! Bluetooth is present though sans aptX. It hooked up perfectly well for me with headphones and hifi equipment and did what it was told without incident.

Powerful
The battery is a 4000mAh unit so significantly better than the Moto's and how they have fitted that into a body as thin as this, I don't know. Kudos to Samsung for achieving this, though for me personally, I'd be happier for more thickness and even more, like with their own 5000mAh from the A9/Pro models previously. There's 15W fast-charging with a plug in the box, but nothing like the supplied 27W version supplied for Moto users. The battery with more capacity claws back that Moto advantage though of course, as you'll need to do it less often! On testing over 4 days, I can report that the battery life is as excellent as the other phones I have with similar sizes - the Razer Phone/Razer Phone 2, Nokia 7 Plus et al - we're looking at 30hrs off charge using adaptive battery/brightness and c.8hrs SoT. This is how all phone batteries should behave!

Biometrics
There's a range of biometrics available for the A50 user - in fact most of what's available in the Note9 with an addition - the under-glass fingerprint scanner - but less the Iris Detection. The fingerprint scanner is an optical one, so not ultrasonic, which is still questionable and in early stages. It's like the one which the OnePlus 6T has - and it's slow. Slow to register, only seems to allow 3 fingers to be registered (why?) and slow to use as a way-in. However, it does work - and works very reliably. It's not fussy about angles and directions, which we're hearing about elsewhere. This, matched up with the face recognition, lift-to-wake, double-tap-to-wake, keep-screen-on-when-looking and all the other fancy stuff does seem to take things up a notch from the Moto's simple, but fast and clean rear-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner. Hot topic, I know, but I think it depends on how you're using your device mostly. If your phone lives in your pocket a lot, then there's nothing wrong with the Moto method as you pull it out and fire it up. I tend to want access on a desk more, which is why some sort of front-activation suits me better - or the Motorola AoD interactivity. But each to their own. On initial testing, the face recognition is not as good and reliable as the Note9's version. Maybe that's to do with quality of components including the selfie camera.

The Engine
Under the hood, we have 4GB RAM (on this 128GB UK model) and an Exynos 9610 steering the ship which, say those who seem to know, equates with a Snapdragon 660 - so think Nokia 7 Plus. The latter didn't really slow down for me in the time I had it. It wasn't the fastest out of the block starting up nor was it completely free of the odd nano-second wait here and there. This A50 is running an awful lot more Samsung software and (they hope) services in the background over a pure AndroidOne Nokia, and I think it shows. I'm not usually one to nit-pick with processes and speed around the UI, as I'm not a gamer and my demands are usually pretty average, but there is certainly a bit of lag, just here and there, screen-taps needing doing a second time sometimes, often when I tap Settings, I get a Settings Icon in the middle of the screen then the Settings UI maybe half a second later. Next time in though, it's instant. This makes me think that it probably is the software mixed with this chipset - and users could really do with that 6GB RAM version that's out there somewhere. Don't get me wrong - it's not a deal breaker or the end of the world. It's just now and then - and most of the time when up and running it's not noticeable. I guess coming from the flying Note9 using the same One UI (which I'll come to) gave me an example of how Samsung can make a demanding bunch of software run silkily with higher-end hardware. Comparing this with the Moto G7 Plus, which is pretty near to pure Android, just a few Moto bolt-ons to power and run, it's a smoother experience in Motoland and I saw none of that lag anywhere.

Software
Yes, to the software. Well, they've skimped here and there compared to the Note9, which I guess is inevitable to try and cut the cost even more - or even to just ensure that flagships remain flagships and they can charge loads more! Little things like the aforementioned Dolby Atmos which is hard to imagine would really cost much more to make the same as the Note9's implementation (maybe that's to do with there being no stereo). Iris scanner missing, as I said. No way to control the Always On Display's brightness as there is on the Note9. A few things along the way. But again, let's not get picky. The very same Android 9 is present with March 2019 Google Security and Samsung's One UI. Most of the goodness is scattered across that, along with all the Pie enhancements, enabling the user to not only enjoy a dark-themed UI but also enjoy all sorts of control, bells and whistles. Since my Note9 Review, we've covered much about One UI in PSC - much of it is very similar, if not identical. It's a much improved interface and has been met with near-universal applause and appreciation. I won't plough through it all again here, but just mention one aspect that I didn't before - fonts. Being able to change fonts in settings for system-wide execution is great. There's a font called SamsungOne which is just lovely - and an option to Bold it too. Nice touches left, right and centre for the selective Samsung user.

Less Aggressive
There's no Bixby button and the software can, in a way that was more difficult on the Note9, be ignored - almost completely if you ignore the top-left in-camera! There doesn't seem to be the same level of nagging going on to use Samsung services across the board. With the Note9, I never really got away from that - even when I said NO to all Samsung stuff at every opportunity - it still popped up suggestions and reminders. It doesn't seem to do that here, so I'm really not sure why. I said NO to everything from the outset and it's leaving me in peace! It's a much cleaner experience in that respect and loaded up with Nova Prime, you can almost forget that it's a Samsung - except where you want to make the most of any features you fancy using (or you catch sight of the pre-installed Facebook and LinkedIn. Grrrr.) Perhaps they genuinely feel that flagship owners will actually want to live in SamsungLand and not Google's. Odd. But I'm not complaining - that makes it, for me, a much, much better software experience than that on the expensive Samsung models.

Snap Happy
I was delighted to know that the camera cluster included a 123-degree (proper) wide-angle lens. A wonderful feature that makes me want to take photos so much more. The LG paved the way in this respect for me as I remember being pretty wow'd by the G6 and couldn't stop snapping! It produces excellent interior shots of course and fabulous landscapes without a Panorama mode. It's one of three cameras on the back and this is where the purist camera-in-phone convergence crowd will get off the bus! The photographs taken with this phone are perfectly good enough for almost all of the people who are likely to buy/use this phone. It's really only pixel-peepers who will declare that this phone is useless for them because it's not as perfect as some Nokia from 5/10 years ago which, in turn was nowhere near as good as proper cameras with proper glass. These cameras are just fine for the rest of us. Really.

No OIS
The main camera is a 25MP f1.7 AF unit, assisted by the 8MP (non AF) f2.2 wide-angle I mentioned and a 5MP f2.2 depth-sensor. There's no OIS present, which is where, should you not be wow'd by the wide-angle facility, the Moto G7 Plus is ahead. There's no night-mode or assistance in any way for shots people want to take in dark situations, unlike the Moto which does very well in the darkness and of course, the all-singing Note9 et al. Cut down for the price-point. There's a 25MP f2 Selfie camera around the other side which, along with the whole camera software interface, provides for Samsung's Ai - particularly for selfies, helping with shallow DoF shots. And for this, it seems to do well. The camera software is very similar to the Samsung flagships' versions with some bits and pieces missing for some bizarre reason - like no manual focus control in the Pro Mode. Did they need to remove that? Maybe it's about target audience rather than price-point. Not confusing those who won't want to see or use those kind of options. But there's loads to play with in there - including this Ai stuff, which really does do very well for most people, most of the time. The wide-angle makes this a winner for me over the OIS of the Moto G7 Play!

Perfectly Good Enough
My verdict is that this is a very, very impressive phone for the money. Anybody wanting a top-notch Android experience should certainly have this on their shortlist. It has many of the features of the stable's flagships, outshines the competition in many areas, is cleaner and closer to Vanilla in many ways than many other Samsung models and is not plagued by Bixby or other Samsung software and services too aggressively. There's 128GB of storage here and microSD expansion, there's a perfectly good camera setup with a wide-angle killer-feature, speakers which are perfectly good again for most people, a stonking battery performance, a gorgeous screen - what's not to like, you have to ask. I'm very impressed - more impressed, somehow, than I was with the Note9. Now there's a conundrum!

My Choice
If I had to choose between the Moto G7 Plus and this, I'd have to go with the Moto - but then I have a disproportionate weighting on speakers, purer software and AoD arrangements. If you were similarly biased with cameras (and not bothered about the wide-angle), you might do likewise because of the OIS. But there's a huge amount of benefit to be had by laying those factors aside and soaking up the terrific capability of this Samsung Galaxy A50. If buying, I might be tempted to seek out the 6GB RAM version to just pep it up a little but even this one, at around £300 new in the UK in April 2019 is highly recommended.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

I really enjoyed the first Sicario film, largely for the super-cool Benicio del Toro who really doesn't have to do much acting to make me smile! In actual fact, here, like in the original, he does - and does so very convincingly.

We're back in South America and the American agencies are engaging those who 'do the dirty work' with no traces, no comebacks, in order to keep the American public safer from terrorism from the other side of the world - in this case, routing those who are willing via the African coast on boats, into Mexico and up. Our hero is given pretty much a James Bond style free ticket to do what he needs to do in order to achieve the goals. A complex plan is put into action, teaming up Alejandro with Matt, played by Josh Brolin again, though taking less of a lead than he did in the last outing. He did get involved in some of the action, but he played more of a 'manager' role than Del Toro, our all-action hero!

The complex plan included trying to create a war between rival Cartels in Mexico in order to put a spoke in the human trafficking chain and stop people from Africa being swept across the Mexico/American border and thus terrorise Americans. This plan involved the kidnapping of one of the top criminals' daughters, Isabel, played very well indeed by the young Isabela Moner. She didn't have a huge amount of lines to learn but coming from the cocky schoolgirl who knew nobody could touch her because of her dad, to expressing new anxiety, fear and disbelief at the situation in which she found herself, was a different challenge. I think she did very well and will look forward to seeing her career develop.

Back to the plot and of course, it all goes wrong, Alejandro and Isabel get separated from the task force and have to make it across hostile territory and back to base, posing as not quite who they are, to get across the border like the other migrants. Throw into the mix a young American lad who desperately wants to join his cousin across the border and make a fortune as a part of the Cartel action and we have another angle - and sub-plot about recruitment, ambition and the Mexico/US border. There's some violence and blood as you'd expect, but nothing really gory reflecting maybe what we read about how people in power can treat other humans in situations like this. There's greater impact - and sympathy from the viewer - about the sad trafficking trade and how that dehumanises people.

It's a nicely paced and constructed story, again from the pen of actor/writer/director/producer Taylor Sheridan, keeping the action and adventure flowing whilst not alienating the audience with the twists, turns, politics and complex plot-line - though you need to be on your toes! The (different from the first film) director Stefano Sollima keeps things tight, the Mexican landscape often makes interesting visuals a given, but more work has gone into some of the action sequences - like the dramatic shots of helicopters in action. There's plenty of dark interior scenes, which are handled well and all elements come together to keep tension high and the audience on the edge of their seats when they should be.

A most enjoyable film which I highly recommend. The hooks to the first film are few, so you don't really need to have seen it. The ones present are mostly about Alejandro's background, family and previous revenge - but it's not critical to the plot of this film. The missing Emily Blunt from the first film is in-part offset by the new teenager girl incoming, giving proceedings a leading female, though with an obviously different emphasis. How much of it is realistic, how things actually happen or bent truth, to some degree, for most people watching, won't really matter. Enjoy the romp!

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Cronos

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro grew a reputation in the 1990's for making interesting, dark, sometimes gruesome but always creative and imaginative fantasy horror/thrillers. This 1993 film opened the door for him to a broader worldwide audience as he moved on to other opportunities like Mimic, The Devil's Backbone, Blade II, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, recently The Shape of Water and to come, the real-life Pinocchio!

He's been a busy chap! But it started here and I watched this back in the day but haven't seen it since. I decided to give it another go - with a view to working my way through some of the above-listed films, which I've missed along the way. I'm sure that I have missed a lot of deep symbolism here, but the story is an old one about the human lust for eternal life, an opportunity that arises to attain that for one, the chaos that invokes and price paid for getting involved.

It's a stylish take on the tale of the vampire and I'm really not one who would usually go for that. Quite the opposite, but the horror here is not cheaply or shockingly executed - rather weaved into a story which engages the audience from the outset and is intriguing enough to ensure that nobody leaves their seat until the finale.

We're initially in Mexico, four hundred years ago, and an alchemist makes a device which, when used properly, gives the user eternal life. Our central character is an antiques dealer and stumbles on the device 400 years later (so pretty much now current), then accidentally invokes it into action. When mechanically wound up it unleashes sharp feet which dig into the user and injects them with some sort of stuff! There's a rich and sick man, elsewhere but nearby, who 40 years previously stumbled on the handbook of instructions, penned in code and Latin by the alchemist, but couldn't find Cronos. And so a battle commences. The rich and sick man wants the device to make sure he doesn't die but our hero, who's now in the grip of the Cronos and becoming attracted to the acquisition of human blood, won't give it up. The rich man's nephew, played by Ron 'Hellboy' Perlman stands to gain the rich man's empire, which adds another twist as he is charged with doing his uncle's deeds - getting the Cronos at any cost, keeping the tension and drama high.

The team of actors are the director's favourites and pop up in his films later on. Frederico Luppi plays our main character and Claudio Brook the challenger. Ron Perlman is the only one I knew, to be honest, and he's certainly one of those actors and faces that you will absolutely have seen somewhere along the way. They all perform their tasks convincingly enough and the leap between spoken English and subtitled Spanish is wild! In the same scene often, one person speaking in English, the other replying in Spanish. I'm sure I'm missing the point of that!

The sets are dark always, and full of atmosphere. The horror is far from jump-out-your-skin stuff, rather intelligent and well paced. It's violent and bloody in parts, but that was to be expected, I think! There's some excellent, thoughtful photography and I particularly liked the inside of shiny Cronos in close-up with gears and cogs, clearly showing that there was indeed a living creature of some sort inside (set up by a previous discussion about insects being able to live hundreds of years, left undisturbed). The music, at times, feels very dated (a bit like you'd expect in a 1980's episode of Colombo) but at other times lifts the tempo and adds to the style and atmosphere.

It's an excellent film which I really enjoyed first time out at the cinema and again now. I had forgotten a lot about it and was able to enjoy some of the twists and turns again. As I say, this really isn't my kind of genre, but I'm glad I re-visited this and will try again now with Pan's Labyrinth which I previously gave up on as daft. Maybe I'll see it with del Toro eyes this time! Recommended.

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...