Monday, 6 July 2020

Realme X3 SuperZoom: Initial Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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