Thursday, 4 June 2020

Unihertz Titan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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