Monday, 31 August 2020

PodHub UK Podcasts for August 2020

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

Phones Show Chat
Episode 580 - More Than an Ecosystem
Saturday 1st August 2020
Special guest Ben Smith joins Steve and I as we get his current thoughts on iOS, Android, 361 Podcast and loads of other stuff mobile - and beyond!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 581 - New Pixel, New Topic
Tuesday 4th August 2020
Steve and I are back with another interim catchup between weekend shows in which we natter about the newly announced Pixel 4a, Nokia 8.3, CAT S62, Redmi, Realme and even ski off-piste with a PC or two!

Projector Room
Episode 68 - Save Ferris!
Wednesday 5th August 2020
Gareth, Allan and I are back again bringing you the best of Film, Cinema and TV catching our eyes lately. Take a Trip with us, Silencing the Resistance!

Whatever Works
Episode 117 - Rusty Gold Star
Friday 7th August 2020
Aidan and I are back with another scorcher of a show - in Blazing Blighty! A veritable cocktail of interesting snippets and tips as usual, from Avocado to Vinyl - and much between!

Phones Show Chat
Saturday 8th August 2020
Steve and I welcome back TechAltar's Marton Barcza to chat about the stories behind the headlines plus the usual catch-up on what we're up to in the world of mobile phones.

Phones Show Chat
Tuesday 11th August 2020
Steve and I are here again with another midweek dip into the world of mobile phones - and in this case, wandering a little from the path! Loads of the usual news, views and reviews.

The Phones Show
Episode 402 - Surface Duo Thoughts
Thursday 13th August 2020
Steve is here again with another excellent video over on his YouTube Channel, this time with thoughts on what could have been The Big One from Microsoft. So, is it? Or could it have been in another place and time?!

Better Before
Episode 2 - Car Design Scrap!
Friday 14th August 2020
Aidan and I are here with our second full outing and Show 2! This time we welcome Steve as our special guest as we natter for an hour about what is better now and what was Better Before. This time, it's scrap yards, car design, cinemas and even breakfast cereals!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 584 - Duo Ultra
Saturday 15th August 2020
Steve and I are joined by Zachary Kew-Denniss for a natter about all things mobile phone this weekend. Plenty of Samsung Speak and Duo Dialogue in amongst the usual chat.

Projector Room
Episode 69 - The Prestigious Host
Wednesday 19th August 2020
Gareth, Allan and I are back again bringing you the best of Film, Cinema and TV. Join us as we ride Sputnik into the Abyss and track a Villainess who is out on The Town!

Whatever Works
Episode 118 - Afters Before
Friday 21st August 2020
Join Aidan and I as we time-travel our way to you bringing you all sorts of goodies - Whatever Works for us and the Group members here. Hedgehogs, Flies and Bees - we tackle 'em all!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 585 - Nubia and Nord
Saturday 22nd August 2020
Join Steve and I once again as we conjure up some Red Magic for an hour or so with Adrian Brain and chat about all things mobile phone.

Phones Show Chat
Tuesday 26th August 2020
Peep-ho! Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, we're back midweek with a bite! Do join Steve and I again as we respond to demand for more shows! This time I squelch on my Moto promise to myself, Steve sees clearly through TPU cases and we chat about our perfect phone. Again!

Phones Show Chat
Saturday 29th August 2020
Steve and I welcome back Matt Miller this week as we get his take on the Microsoft Surface Duo - along with all the other usual stuff and Photo of the Month.

The Phones Show
Episode 403 - OnePlus Nord Review
Monday 31st August 2020
Join Steve over on his YouTube Channel as he takes a look at the OnePlus Nord and puts it up against an older, but feature-rich Samsung!


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

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

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

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Melancholia

I didn't realise that I knew about Lars Von Trier until I watched this deeply moving and artistic kind-of Sci-Fi film, when I realised that he had penned the amazing 'Breaking the Waves' and 'Dancer in the Dark' as well as this one. This film is a study of two sisters, two stories entwined into one as a huge blue planet is on a collision course for earth.

The film is split into two, each named after one of the sisters, the viewer only getting told about the planets collision potential into the second. The first is about Justine and we find ourselves at her wedding. A lavish wedding which has cost a fortune to stage, for which her sister Claire's family have paid. Justine is played by Kirsten Dunst and is suffering with some sort of mental health problem on her wedding day.

She is melancholy, down, depressed and acts irrationally throughout the day as things go from bad to worse for her and for most people attending. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Claire and the two female leads do so convincingly and with much intensity.

Claire is hopeful in the second part of the film that her long-suffering husband, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is right in what he is telling her that in fact the smart scientists are predicting that the blue planet will miss earth, but she is frantic when she looks on the internet and the popular opinion is that the collision is on, for sure. Claire looks out for her sister constantly and makes allowances for her, much to the annoyance of her husband who, it is clear, has, by now, learnt to play ball and not argue with actions of the bond. One by one, all but the two sisters and Claire's son are left in and around the huge family home as they watch blue planet drawing closer and closer, preparing themselves for the collision, if it happens, or to start the party if it doesn't.

The film is beautifully shot in terms of scenery and sets, artistic views of the sky and blue planet - only spoilt for me anyway by the consistent use of handheld camera in the first half of the field as it ducks and dives around the guests at the wedding. Thankfully, in the second part of the film there is much less. As usual, I get the point of why it is done (apart from budget) but I'd still really rather it wasn't! Apart from this, there are some very artistic sequences on offer here throughout the film, but particularly towards the beginning.

There are famous names popping up all over the place at the wedding, all having a bit of fun with their roles in various measures. Alexander Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt and Stellan Skarsgård to name but a few! It's an interesting and thought-provoking work of which is delivered in a beautifully artistic framework and worth a look when you get the chance. It pops up now and again on Film4 in the UK.

Friday, 28 August 2020

Sony Xperia 1 II

Guest reviewer Sethu Pillai is here to share his thoughts about the latest Sony Xperia on the block, an upgrade to the Xperia 1, imaginatively called the Mk.II by Sony. He tackles the less than trivial task of describing who might actually want to consider buying and using the phone.

Sony’s latest flagship is a stunningly well-crafted piece of technology, promising many unique selling points and ticking many, or maybe even all, boxes on the spec sheet. On the official Sony product page, there are some clear attributes the phone is being sold on...
  • Built for speed
  • Burst mode with 20 frames per second, including AF and AE between the shots (!)
  • Eye Auto focus
  • Colour management pre-sets for videos from their CineAlta cameras
  • 21:9 (Cinema aspect ratio) 6.5" 4K HDR OLED display with a calibrated mode
  • 360 Reality Audio support with hardware decoding
  • Some gaming and other features that get progressively gets less interesting for me
...but digging into the mainstream reviews, this quickly falls apart.

Built for speed
This is just marketing fluff. Various devices can claim to be performing faster overall, especially with updated chipsets now in the wild. No doubt Sony would say that their camera is still the fastest on any phone, and they would be correct, but most reviewers focus on image quality and the camera output to most eyes falls short of the computational magic conjured up by the likes of Pixels and iPhones. The CinemaPro app does offer some interesting profiles, but overall it remains a clunky and difficult experience. The convenience offered by more mainstream apps trumps any quality improvements for video - or maybe it's because I have never used a CineAlta camera before.

4K Screen
A feature likely to remain unique to Sony’s flagship is the 4K screen. But here again, they’ve sacrificed higher refresh rates because the chipset simply cannot handle anything over 60Hz at 4K resolution. It also isn’t the brightest OLED screen you can get. Additionally, it appears Netflix don’t yet provide a 4K stream to mobile phones. Interestingly, even if you play a wide format movie on Netflix, the content by default sits in a rectangle window that does not extend to all corners of the actual screen. You will need to zoom in to go corner to corner.
In fact, I was also not getting a 4K stream from Disney+ or Amazon Prime, although I could not find any official confirmation for this. YouTube provides the option to choose 2160p but the 'stats for nerds' still reveals the viewport only goes up to 2560 instead of the 3840 you expect on this screen. I wonder whether the fact that the height of the screen (in landscape) being only 1644 pixels, instead of 2160 for standard 4K, is creating some unintended scaling from these apps. If so, Sony needs to either sort this with the major content providers or stop trying to sell the benefits of 4K. 
Coming out of the nerdy stats, I sought an unbiased second opinion on the quality of the display. While comparing the same HDR video on YouTube at the highest resolution supported, my wife clearly and consistently preferred the display on her Samsung Galaxy S10, even if the Sony was sharper.

So who would appreciate this phone?

In a sea of flagships with lower or similar price tags (I don’t know many slabs that are more expensive), the Sony Xperia 1 II does not seem to hit the usual 'high notes' that the others are designed to hit. The competition has been very well tuned over many years to appeal to what most flagship buyers are looking for. And for this reason, these devices are compromised.
Now, I'm not saying there are devices without compromises. Every consumer product represents a set of compromises to ensure the product fits a budget, size, design and functionality expected of it. In today’s world, the product management decisions around these compromises are made using data collected from various sources and customer interviews. It is no longer made by an eccentric genius founder with a brilliant idea - or a set of creative individuals trying to serve a niche and getting the backing they need to create their vision. And because the data is telling similar things to all the manufacturers, the choices they make are also similar. Unfortunately, this means that if you fall into a 'wrong niche', some of these compromises will work against you.

Those Compromises
In the smartphone world, this means if you want the latest and greatest chipsets or cameras, you are forced to accept devices which cannot be used with one hand. You have a big, bright and beautiful screen but part of it will be cut out for a camera, regardless of whether you want it or not. You will need an adapter to use your favourite pair of headphones. You will need to handle the device with kid-gloves as there is extraordinarily little bezel to give you a good grip. Depending on the manufacturer, you may also need to live with a curved screen, inconvenient biometrics and other aspects you may have appreciated in a phone from a few years ago, now implemented differently. Surely I cannot be the only one who much prefers the 'unprocessed' look in images (grain, warts and all) that we used to get (and could improve ourselves later) in the 'good old days' before all pictures were touched up and brightened by algorithms. How much these compromises bother you is purely personal and subjective of course, but if you have ever felt disappointed by these trends, there's more...

The Sony Xperia 1 II is a concept phone

For me, buying this device, is buying into an idea. It's a result of loving the idea of a different set of compromises; ones that don’t take away a headphone jack, storage expansion, stereo front facing speakers, a comfortable grip or the LED notification light. To retain these features, you don’t have to compromise on flagship level performance, build quality, Qi charging, Always On Display or waterproofing. But as I said, you are buying into the idea of having all this in one device. You are not buying a device that performs the best in any of these features. In addition to the shortcomings already discussed, the headphone jack output is better than Bluetooth on my Sony XM3 headphones, though to be fair, but not by much. The speakers provide good spatial effects but are not the greatest in loudness or bass. While the 24mm camera is decent, the 16mm and 70mm options are sub-par. The Always On Display is a battery drain. The capacitive fingerprint scanner is not as fast or reliable as the one on my old Nokia 8 Sirocco. I think Sony also missed a trick in not allowing the user to pull down the notification shade with a swipe-down on the fingerprint scanner.

I really like this phone!
I place a lot of value on not having a cut-out or 'notch' in my screen. It is something that I could not get used to, even after using devices that had them for over two years. To me, it represents too much compromise for features that have zero-value to me. I would love to buy a Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra or Samsung Galaxy Fold if this Sony did not exist, but because it does, I could not turn my back on it. And now I have grown to appreciate a different set of virtues than I first expected.

The Good Stuff
I have always preferred to have a device I can use comfortably with one hand. This previously limited me to smaller devices. Because of the unique aspect ratio, I now have a screen almost as tall as the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (watching a movie would be roughly the same size) but still handle the device with confidence in my hand. Sony’s 'side sense' shortcuts have proved very useful once I got used to how to use them reliably. It is not as powerful as what can be achieved with Samsung’s 'Edge' shortcuts and One Hand Operation+ tool, but I still use it daily to pull down the notification shade with a swipe down gesture, go to one hand mode with a swipe up gesture and quickly jump to another app from the menu launched using double tap.

Hard to Describe
Despite not being very bright, there is a certain 'quality' to the screen that is hard to describe. It is a similar feeling I get when looking at a properly calibrated monitor against a typical bright and saturated display. I was able to adjust the white balance such that prints I made on my printer closely matched how the photo would appear on the phone's display. Images appear natural and more detailed compared to the Samsung Galaxy S10. I love watching wide-screen content on the phone. The tall display also means you have a decent view of your documents/emails while typing. It was a similar feel to using the BlackBerry KeyOne. There is also an advantage, with this screen ratio, splitting it and running two apps, top and bottom windows resized to the desired split.

Intuitive and Natural
Finally, the camera. I use a couple of Sony cameras with a similar interfaces to what's on offer here and for me, the way you shoot pictures with the CameraPro app is an intuitive and natural experience - if I want to tweak settings myself. Yes, you can do the same thing with many other phones, including the use of RAW options, but this is the first time I have enjoyed staying in a 'Pro' mode all the time. I wish there was more to play around with, though. Aperture is fixed so users should try to keep ISO as low as possible for best results. Thankfully, the OIS seems to do a good job and I have got decently stable pictures up to 1/10 second, handheld. The shutter button feels very nice and I also love being able to capture my kids at 20fps as they run and jump around. Some really good potential with this.

Who can I recommend this to?

No one I know! How much money are you willing to spend on a product that is such a tease, luring you in with so many promises but ultimately ending up being a 'jack of all trades, master of none'? This is a purely personal choice, not too dissimilar to buying a BlackBerry or Huawei device today. To be honest, most people are probably better served elsewhere. I will likely jump to another device with more interesting aspects in the hardware department when it comes along. It could be a folding device that has an under-screen camera or even the promised new BlackBerry if it happens, but until then, I will enjoy driving this 'classic car' with a modern engine. I may not be zipping down the road but everything is laid out the way I like it.

If you'd like to buy one of these phones, please use this link Sony Xperia 1 II for AmazonUK as it will cost you no more and they bung me a few quid. Thanks. Ted.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Moto G Pro (Moto G Stylus)

I have been trying to work out why I am drawn to this device as I really don't have much use for the Stylus beyond a play-thing and am continually frustrated by Motorola squelching on promises to keep their existing devices up to date with major OS and Google Security releases. But then I remembered my humble 'Motorola One' sitting here, bang up to date, well over a year after launch - and the reason? The AndroidOne Programme. Just like this Moto G Pro.

I can decide how to justify this to myself, as we always do, but that one factor, to me, is a big one! I do have confidence going forward that this mid-range sub-£300 phone from Moto will be supported properly with two OS updates (up to Android 12) and three years of Google Security (to summer 2023). Released in summer 2020, this model is known as the Moto G Stylus in the USA, but over the pond does not come as an AndroidOne device. All very odd and much, much less attractive as a result.

The phone is pretty much the same size as the Motorola One Zoom (wallowing on Pie) and Moto G8 Plus here in almost all dimensions. Spookily similar, but a tad fatter (presumably for the stylus) at 9.2mm. It's a chunky phone and weighty too in the hand or pocket at 192g, but then the other two are no lightweights. The difference between the three, in terms of RRP, is about £70 for the One Zoom and in some respects this is reflected, for example with the One Zoom sporting a glass back over the G Pro's plastic and an AMOLED screen over LCD. TPU (in the box, for all) and you'd never know about a plastic back anyway! There's a "TurboPower" 15W charger in the box (not in the USA) with a pokey-tool for the Dual SIM/microSD Card Tray and a USB-C to USB-A cable. Moto offer the same 'water-repellent coating' but no formal IP-rating.

The biggest difference for me is that the One Zoom has that AMOLED screen and the G Pro and G8 Plus, LCD. They are all 1080p but I have often argued that there's nothing quite like OLED and it stands true here too with those deep blacks and punchy colours. How much of a deal-breaker that is for me depends on how the Peek/Approach has been implemented, which I'll come to, least well on the Motorola One, great on the One Zoom and good enough on the Moto G8 Plus.

This phone is the (only available) Mystic Indigo colour and the plastic back is made to look very much like glass, if you do take off the TPU, as is the trend these days with shimmering finish as it catches the light. It's nice enough and the sides slide round in broad curves to meet the same aluminium frame that the One Zoom has, but not the G8 Plus (plastic). In the middle of the back, quite high up, there's a capacitive fingerprint scanner with Moto 'M' inside and to the left-top (portrait) the camera cluster and LED flash.

The knurled power button and volume rocker on the right appear to be plastic but in use seem solid and sturdy enough. On the left is that SIM/microSD Card Tray and down the bottom, 3.5mm audio-out, USB-C port and one of the pair of stereo speakers. Tucked away in the bottom right corner is the Stylus which pulls out with a fingernail, no fancy spring-loaded mechanisms here, but it feels firm enough when held in place and pulls out easily enough. Stop biting your fingernails, boy!

AndroidOne
certainly is a deal-clincher here for me. As soon as I turned on the phone it updated right up to the current month with Google Security and it arrived of course with Android 10 installed, so all that Gesture navigation support and dark theme stuff everywhere including inside all the Google Services. A warm, fuzzy feeling! This, along with Nokia, is the closest we get really to Pixel. The AndroidOne programme has been a star and it seems that Google have forced OEMs to comply with the ideals developed and presented by the scheme at the outset. Great stuff. Al
most makes me want to forgive Motorola for all the other phones languishing outdated. The Motorola One had Android 10 pushed to it about 3 months or so after Google released it, so I'd trust that this G Pro will get Android 11 in 2021Q1.

Supplied here is a 6.4" IPS LCD flat 1080p panel which returns 399ppi. I say again, it's no OLED, but the LCD screens are raising the game and are indeed getting better all the time, like with the G8 Plus. Changing the Colour in Settings to Boosted makes a difference, for a change, and brings things out a little more making colours a bit more saturated. The brightness is absolutely fine indoors and going outside today in the overcast north of Wales using the camera, there was no problem seeing the screen clearly. How that would manage in bright Johannesburg sunshine, I can't tell you!

The screen being flat works excellently well (no pesky waterfalls here) and the supplied TPU is so well-fitting that Android 10 Gesture navigation swipes never miss. Watching video content on the screen is a delight, indoors or out and the small punch-hole Selfie, top-left, disappears from consciousness quickly. With the brightness wound up high (the display peaks at 421 nits and in auto 642 nits according to GSMArena) and stereo sound blasting from the speakers (which I'll come to later) it's a real immersive experience. Being picky, it's not quite OLED with the colour saturation and deep blacks, but unless the average consumer puts it next to a screen of that ilk, they're going to be completely satisfied with what's on offer here.

While we're here talking about the screen, let's cover that do-or-die on the Approach/Peek AoD issue. As with the Motorola One, running AndroidOne flavour, the Approach is not present. So you can't wave your hand over the screen and make it show you clock, date and notifications like you can with Moto's AMOLED screened devices (and LCD's with no AndroidOne). I think that's the logic and formula, but am happy to be proved wrong. The One Zoom (AMOLED, no AndroidOne) works perfectly in this respect, like the Z3 Play (AMOLED, no AndroidOne) and also the G8 Plus (LCD, no AndroidOne) but not Motorola One (LCD, AndroidOne). Certainly seems to be the case here with a number of test Moto devices and those which I have reviewed in the past. But all is not lost as the user can double-tap the screen for the same result. I guess you could argue that if you're waving, you might as well tap!

When you double-tap, the screen shows the information for a few seconds and if, during those seconds, you press and hold a notification it behaves in the same way as the other more alert Moto devices. While you're holding, you get a summary at the top at which to Peek. If you no longer need it, drag it down to the bottom and let go over the word Dismiss and it considers it dealt with. Want to read it, you can drag the icon up to the summary and depending on your screen security measures, open up the app and launch into it to read.

Most of us have some sort of screen-lock of course, so you then need to unlock. However, again, all is not lost as if you set up Face Unlock and you have the phone 'up and looking at you', the Face Unlock will bypass the security. Lift to wake is also possible and notifications actually coming in briefly light up the screen too. Nudge to wake also works. Lots of options but yes, stops short of the full-blown Approach. After all of that, if you have the phone in your hand anyway, the capacitive fingerprint scanner on the back falls right under your finger to get you in. It's super-fast to set up and works 100% of the time, just like on the G8 Plus but not like the (slightly) slower under-glass on the One Zoom. Needless to say, you get all the other Moto Actions add-ons like chop-chop for torch, three-finger screen-shot, twist-twist for camera, swipe to shrink, flip for DND, pick up to silence, attentive display - the usual array present and correct.

As good as the mono speaker in the One Zoom is, it feels at this point that I should really be comparing the G Pro with the G8 Plus, with similar stereo speaker output. The bottom line surprised me. I thought that they would be very close in terms of volume and quality but the G Pro is capable of louder output and certainly better quality, even before any tinkering is done with the Dolby settings on either. The G Pro is a little bit fatter which I guess might give the sound more space to move around - or perhaps in the eight months of time passing between their releases Motorola have been working on a better sound with Dolby or indeed using new components. Don't get me wrong, neither are at (or anywhere near) Razer, Marshall or ROG Phone levels, but there is certainly a difference for the better. I can't imagine any user will be thinking that they need more, even for listening to music out and about.

Like the G8 Plus, there are controls in the equaliser/Dolby system-wide to adjust the sound, though the G Pro's options have been expanded slightly with a Game and Custom setting available (for speaker use as well as headphone) over the G8 Plus' and the common-to-both Smart (Auto), Music and Film. There is a difference with the title of the Dolby implementation being "Dolby Audio" on the G8 Plus and "Moto Audio tuned by Dolby" in the G Pro, whatever that means! Net result though is that the latter is better. The stereo output is 'proper' stereo like the G8 Plus and not faux, which is very popular these days, though rotating the phone does not auto-detect and swap the left and right channels. The G8 Plus gets the top mark here for making that switch automatically. The One Zoom is left way behind the others here with no system-wide controls, Dolby or stereo, though it does have a strong mono speaker, noted above.

Headphones output via the 3.5mm audio-out socket is not the high quality you would expect from another higher-priced audio-centric phone but for most people it is well loud enough and of good enough quality. Again, the system-wide equalisation can make meaningful changes. Plug in a high-powered DAC adapter and of course this can be transformed and moved to another league. Bluetooth 5 is of course available (across all these devices) and in my tests here it hooks up quickly and easily (they all seem to these days) and the sound output is much, much better than wired (without a fancy DAC adapter), depending on the quality of the connected gear of course.

The G Pro and G8 Plus share the same SnapDragon 665 chipset and execute tasks as well as each other. There's very little slowdown anywhere moving between tasks, pages of text and pictures and rolling videos in the likes of Twitter and YouTube, which scroll beautifully smoothly and the same 4GB RAM doesn't seem to have a problem jumping between running tasks any more problematically than the One Zoom with the 6GB.

I guess gamers might pick fault with the fluidity of the experience with the mid-range chipset, though I have tried a car-racing game here and I really couldn't see anything wrong with the experience. Maybe PUBG or the like would be more of a challenge, but for casual gaming, there really isn't any problem. The Gaming sound profile is available for selection in the Dolby settings, but I don't really hear much difference. Missing from the G8 Plus but present here is a Moto Gametime section of the Moto App which enables the user to block interruptions, disable adaptive brightness and switch to that Dolby profile automatically. Finally, there's also a Game Management dialogue which detects any games you have installed and lets you launch them from there.

All of these phones have a microSD Card slot which I have tested with my 512GB Samsung Card fully-loaded and they cope admirably with fast enough read-writes. The G8 Plus is left behind here by the other two as it has only 64GB whilst the others have 128GB Storage. The One Zoom steps ahead of the other two though with the full implementation of HDMI-Out, meaning you can cable-up to a monitor or TV and quickly and easily watch or play any content held on the phone or card without having to rely on any network, wifi, casting or anything else. That's a big plus in my book still and a shame that it has not been included. USB OTG seems to work with pretty much anything I plug into it including my 2TB Extreme SSD, but that's also true of all the devices here. In fact, that's getting to be so standard maybe I'll stop reporting it in reviews (until devices start coming with no ports at all, when it will once again become a selling point, like 3.5mm Audio-Out sockets are now)!

We come to the USP of this device, the Stylus. It's about 3" long with a plastic top 25% and what appears to be metal 75% to the end where there is some sort of nib for writing. As I said earlier, it pushes into its home which is a hole, bottom right next to the bottom-firing speaker, and needs to be pulled out with a fingernail. There is a Stylus item in Settings to define behaviour but by default when you pull it out, it launches Moto Note (even when the phone is locked), lets you make a note and then it auto-saves to Moto Note. There is also a Share icon, top-right which enables saving to whatever apps you have installed. I tried with Google Keep and it works a treat.

The stylus is 'dumb' so there are no fancy buttons and deep-integrated actions and/or bluetooth stuff going on like you would get with a Samsung Note device. It's just a scribbling tool which interacts with the phone based on how you set it up. If the screen is already on and you remove the pen, you get a little floating icon pop up which can be moved around. Tap it and there are four slots to assign in Settings the functions and/or apps you want to use them for - the dialogue will search the device and you can select pretty much anything. By default there's a screenshot/edit button, shortcut to Moto Notes and one to Google Keep.

Put the stylus back in the hole and the floating icon disappears. The included tools let you change colours of your scribbles, thickness, style of pen and background of page. You can scroll-downwards to make your Note 'longer', undo changes and use the erase tool. And that's about it really. It's clearly designed not to be a work-based productivity tool but a quick-note/scribble tool for lists, or notes-to-self for later, or shopping lists. There's no image embedding, snipping stuff (apart from screenshots), magnifying or zooming that you'd expect from the posh Samsung one but you can use it in any other app you fancy (which accepts drawing) as a dumb-pen, like Google Keep for example. It's fun and useful to have, yes, of limited use, but certainly handy for the odd jotting down of something to remember when you're out and about. I like it!

All of these Moto devices have got a Sony Quad-Bayer camera setup in some shape or form. Each of them have features the others don't so if photography with a phone is important to you, these differences might have an impact. (Here's the best I can do with a photo today in the rain!) First off, the One Zoom is the only one here with an optical zoom, being 3x - and again the only one with OIS is the main two cameras. Apart from that, they all have a 48MP f1.7 main shooter and G Pro/G8 Plus have Laser AF. The G8 Plus lacks a wide-angle camera for photos whereas the G Pro gets that in video-shooting but the One Zoom does get proper wide-angle photos. The G Pro follows a couple of other Moto models recently in placing that big wide-angle video-only lens at the top, not available for photos, and when the user fires the video camera up it forces the user to hold the phone in portrait whilst it produces landscape footage. I still find this arrangement an odd one, presumably as an attempt to stop people shooting portrait-video. The only one with a Macro lens is the G Pro - though it is a lowly 2MP f2.2 unit. The video camera capability looks to be pretty much universal and the G Pro's Selfie drops to 16MP compared to the other two's 25MP.

Enough of the tech-twaddle though and to me with real-world use and the G Pro. I guess you know what I'm going to say - yes, perfectly good enough for most people for most uses - if you want more, get a camera! Right, that's got that out of the way! Seriously though, that 3x optical zoom has been genuinely useful on the One Zoom and OIS assisting in low light makes a difference to results. Digital zooming is a bit hit and miss at the best of times and a steady hand is needed for those wanting to use their phone's camera for anything other than social media and fun down the pub!

Here's a shot taken with the 2MP Macro lens. Not great for anything artistic much, but nice and close - useful for reading instructions on minuscule leaflets! The colours seems to have been replicated true to life as they have been with the main lens and wide-angle to my eyes. There's the usual array of Moto additions in the camera, most of which we've seen before, including a full Manual mode for tweaking most settings, Google Lens built-in for smart stuff, Spot Colour and Cutout, Cinemagraph to make fun GIF or MP4 files and Night Vision which is quite smart as you watch it take lots of shots as you hold still, think it's a noisy pixelated mess then magically it is made into a usable image, Google Camera AI style!

Portrait mode on the rear camera will only play-ball if it detects a face, which is a bit rubbish but the natural 'bokeh' using the main camera isn't bad anyway for portrait-style shots. When it does detect a face you can use the 'slider' to adjust the DoF, including inside the Selfie dialogue - which all works very well. The usual HDR and Active Photos options are all present. I'm really not a pixel-peeper but the test photos I have taken with the G Pro on a very rainy North Wales day look perfectly good enough to me for most uses but won't push any boundaries. I would have loved the 3x zoom and wide-angle (in photos) of the One Zoom, but it's not really that important to me. Maybe it is for you.

These three Moto phones all have the same 4,000mAh battery inside so we'd expect similar results from the tests which I employ. Maybe not! First up is my 10% Reading Test. My previous reviews and testing resulted in Moto G8 Plus returning 2 hours 2o minutes, the Motorola One Zoom 1 hour 40 minutes and this G Pro, now tested three times, 2 hours 30 minutes. The G phones are in a similar ball-park and the reason I can only assume that the One Zoom is behind is because of the AMOLED screen on this particular test which requires it to be on throughout. There is also a slightly more powerful chipset involved, which may not be so efficient, but my inkling is that it is that screen. One of the G devices is an AndroidOne device, the other not, so it would seem that this can be ruled out. The Zoom has more RAM. Could that be relevant, I wonder.

Anyway, the G Pro is only really beaten by the G8 Power with the 5,000mAh battery which is my current leader at 3 hours 10 minutes. Still, two and a half hours is pretty good - and puts the 50 minutes of my Pixel 3 to shame! The other test being the average-use-for-me test - in other words, how often do I have to charge it. Much of the time of course, the screen being off, the results are closer - presumably because the One Zoom is not driving that AMOLED screen. We're looking at not having to worry about charging every night and I might just get to the end of Day 2 with average (for me) use. For the G8 Power, you can add another day! But two full days is pretty good, especially when there's no Qi Wireless Charging on any of these phones so placing them on a pad through the day is not an option without a Qi Receiver plugged into the USB-C port. The 15W power-brick supplied in the box seems to get 50% from dead in about an hour and 100% in two.

Connectivity by GPS is quick to lock and track me on Google Maps and various weather apps tested here, WiFi locks on well and holds a good strong signal where some others fail in my test locations and cellular, similarly is perfectly good having fielded a few calls and monitored location, signal and voice quality/lock both ends. Data via cellular is also looking fine and strong on VodafoneUK. NFC is working but again, apologies, that I can't test that with Google Pay without my bank getting sniffy with every phone I have in for review. I'm assured that it works by other reviewers here in the UK.

As usual these days, lots of options for buyers. A heavily populated £200-300 price-range within which phone manufacturers are competing for your hard-earned aggressively. I maintain that for me a clean version of Android, as close to the Vanilla/Pixel experience as possible gets more Brownie Points than other fancy features that some phone-makers might include. Even more so if timely updates are all-but guaranteed under the AndroidOne Programme. If for no other reason, this can be enough to consider those which comply - a few Moto devices, including this one, and many Nokia handsets, leading the way in numbers.

I like Motorola devices and always have. It feels like they are solid, well made with good components mostly. It's true that I have been frustrated by their lack of updates during this difficult 2020 year, but not for AndroidOne devices. The stereo speakers here are excellent, loud and good quality. The battery is great and camera more than good enough for me. The AoD is also good enough and chipset fast enough around the UI for ordinary users not expecting to keep up with huge games.

The stylus is great fun and a useful addition to the tools for quick note-taking as longs as users don't expect a Samsung experience. Good storage and expandable for more, a nice flat screen which, for an LCD is bright and colourful with the power payoff of not being an OLED being useful too. It's a great all-round package which I like very much. There are corners cut of course to hit this price-point (which will, no doubt, come down in time) so we can quibble about Qi Charging and HDMI-Out and IP-rating, but these are just the kind of additions which push the price up. Highly recommended, the Moto G Pro.

The current prices of these phones at AmazonUK are as follows. If you're thinking of buying one, please click on these links as AmazonUK bung me a few quid for the referral and it costs you no more. Thanks in advance.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Pinocchio (2019)

One of the great childhood delights I revisit when I can is the lovely Disney production of Pinocchio. I remember being taken to the cinema long before DVDs, VHS or even colour TV and being thoroughly entertained by the cartoon. I had no idea about the proper fairy tale and roots of the Italian story, until now. What a treat awaited me.

This is the 2019 live action (kind of) Italian film version which I saw with subtitles, which didn't detract from the enjoyment one bit - in fact, it added to the depth and roots of the story from rural Italy. I shall need to read it now to be sure, but it has become clear to me that Disney certainly meandered from the tale to some degree whist keeping the bones together.

I shall also need to watch the 2002 version of this film which starred and was directed by Roberto Benigni. He played Pinocchio in that older version and Geppetto in this one, so I have added the other to my watchlist. This is Roberto Benigni, the man at the heart of the fabulously funny and moving Life is Beautiful. If you haven't seen that, then do! He's a super talent who chooses film projects carefully (to ensure he has enough time for treading the boards in his one-man show) and who's last outing was in To Rome with Love, the fabulously funny Woody Allen film in 2012.

He doesn't have a huge role in this 2019 film but big enough to add his magic to the proceedings brought together by director Matteo Garrone, the man who fiendishly served us up another masterful dark fairy tale Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti) in 2015. Again, if you haven't, do!

Pinocchio is a wooden boy, created by poverty-stricken carpenter Geppetto, who magically comes to life when he's been carved. What follows is a little wooden boy who most people around him try to encourage onto a worthy path, but some not. Pinocchio is happier to follow the path of fun, naughtiness and enjoyment over the boring knuckle-down-and-work one. This gets him into all sorts of trouble, he disappears off with some loathsome characters, Geppetto heads off to find him, Pinocchio ends up involved with a circus and fairground and generally loses his way until he comes to his senses, aided by a friendly fairy, and eventually finds Geppetto for a fairy tale ending. I'm sure you know the adventure.

One of the ways in which this is different to the Disney cartoon is that more of the characters around Pinocchio are half-human, half-animal. I shall have to read the book to get more about that. The make-up and costumes are gorgeous, as are the sets, and where animation is needed (like with the whale and tuna), it's a no-compromise low-budget-but-with-style version rather than any polished Disney affair, making it feel very much like a fairy tale book, whilst saving them money!

The exception to the above was Pinocchio himself and the make-up and animation relating to him was top-notch and smartly executed. He looked like wood convincingly but when he spoke and moved it didn't look difficult. Good sound effects support the cause whenever he was clogging around. He was played by Federico Ielapi, but I'm not sure how much of it was him and how much animation to be honest!

In some ways, this telling is a dark one with one scene frankly quite shocking (I won't spoil it for you) which made me wonder if this was really suitable for children. There are the messages which come through still though, you know - do what adults tell you to do because they know best and if you don't then you won't only hurt yourself but also those around you - don't tell lies or you'll get into bigger trouble - you know the stuff.

It's a beautiful film and the ending heart-warming of course. The beautiful imagery crafted for the end-credits and music adopted round things off in just the tone of the rest of this art-house take on the tale. A very different adaptation to the Disney one but a much deeper and satisfying one, beautifully constructed and produced. Don't let the fact that this is an Italian picture put you off. Consider that a bonus. Go see it.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Knight Rider for Eight Cellos

People are so inventive these days!

Really? Was I Worth Spamming?

Some idiot has bombarded my little Blog with spam in Comments so I've had to throw the switch to hold any Comments for Review.

Not that I have many comments - and I can't imagine why anyone would think that I was worth attacking with the traffic I get? Maybe it was to do with having recently set up my Blog as an Affiliate feeder at Amazon UK.

Anyway, just in case anyone wonders why their Comment doesn't appear instantly like it has up to now, that's what happened.

Bleedin' idiots!

Friday, 21 August 2020

Summerland

Written and directed by playwright Jessica Swale this warm and moving story is based around the life of a woman during WWII who lives a reclusive life in a close-knit community in rural Kent who is required to take in an evacuee from London. Sounds a bit dull, but hold on as there's plenty to admire.

The film is staged in three eras. The first, between the wars when Alice and her best friend Vera are learning to be authors, the second during WWII when Alice is living alone writing books and the third 30 years later as we see Alice still in that cottage typing away.

Gemma Arterton (The Girl with All the Gifts, Quantum of Solace) plays Alice, who has a local reputation for being a grumpy and miserable witch during WWII and reluctantly takes in the small boy who's mother is working in London and father is serving in the armed forces. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Motherless Brooklyn, The Morning Show) plays her best friend from the past who Alice has lost touch with by then.

Alice comes across as a bitter young woman with no time for anyone but herself. She is rude to everyone that she has to come into contact with, but as the relationship develops with the evacuee Frank, played by virtual newcomer Lucas Bond, we see a warmer side to Alice and start to learn the truth about why she is so glum. As we flash forward to the present in 1975, Penelope Wilton (Ever Decreasing Circles, After Life) plays Alice who is by then getting older and reflecting on her life as the story is rounded up.

All the players perform their parts excellently, but in particular the two leads, Arterton and Bond. The small boy demonstrates some real talent when called on to show a range of emotions and reactions to the events. Arterton is hugely unlikable to begin with but the audience is swung around as she appears to warm. Tom Courtenay (Quartet, Billy Liar, Dad's Army) pops up as the school's headmaster bringing some depth and experience.

I won't give anything more away of the story-line so as to save any spoilers for those who wish to see it, but it's a beautifully delivered tale of love, regret, hope and reflection with some distinct demonstrations regarding the social attitudes of the era towards what was considered right and decent. We've seen many films like this before of course. The BBC were champions at turning them out, but this, even though slow and thoughtful, does have a good story to follow with some unexpected meanderings.

The sets are mostly 1940's England and the costumes reflect that nicely, as do the sets. The scenery is at times lovely and shot well as the cast spends some of the time on the coast alongside the white cliffs of the south of England. It's a lovely rainy Saturday afternoon film to watch, so grab a cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy!

Monday, 17 August 2020

Sailfish OS Today

Guest contributor Tim Evans posted some very useful thoughts on the current state of play with Jolla's Sailfish OS and I thought I would replicate them here, with his permission of course, for broader consumption.

I currently run Sailfish OS on my Sony Xperia XA2 with Sailfish Rokua along with  the actual Jolla Phone and a Sony X running the older Sailfish version. If you are new to Sailfish, then the simple idea is a completely different OS to Android and iOS, with the capability to run Android Apps when you want to - although Sailfish Apps are available - but more on that in a minute.

Jolla (who make Sailfish) used to have their own hardware which was expensive and underpowered, so a few years ago they started putting out Sailfish OS to other hardware. Planet Computers' Gemini and (soon) Cosmo are supported (and some other smaller OEMs) but the biggest OEM by far is Sony and the Xperia X models. Why? Mainly because Sony are one of the few big OEMs that still allow easy 'boot unlocks' (and if you don't know what that is, run for the hills)!

The first Xperia model (the X) got the fist large Beta for Sailfish (which costs 50 Euros for users wanting to use it, to buy a licence from Jolla). I have used that for a while in the past, and it was fine, but it took time for NFC and Fingerprint Scanners to work (if at all, in some cases) and Android API was capped at 4.4 (which essentially means all Android apps top out at KitKat capability).

Then the Sony Xperia XA2 Beta came along with API 8 which is Oreo level - and that is much more powerful. Nearly all Android apps work. Sailfish does not support Google services natively but you can install 'handlers' that will take care of that, making all basic Google functions native in Sailfish.

The big win is Aurora (which you can bring in from F-Droid app store), which is a fully functional Android App store where I can get all the apps Sailfish doesn't support from its own app store (like Facebook, Discord and MeWe, for example).

The Sony Xperia 10 is the latest device to get full Sailfish support. If your interested in Sailfish, you should try it with a Sony Xperia XA2 in my opinion and the Beta (2nd hand XA2 units go for £100 or less and the Beta is around £50. That gets you into a Linux - Mobile OS world that is very different from the 'big two' and since Microsoft packed it's Windows Mobile Bags and jumped on the Android train, it's great to see someone still trying to offer alternatives.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro vs Realme X3 SuperZoom

These two devices released mid-2020 are different in many ways but in others, feel like they should be in the same ball-park. I happen to have both here so thought I'd do a comparison of features, pros and cons, and declare which is more likely to host my SIM Card and be used as a main phone.

Reviews and Links

Before we go any further, some links of note. My Redmi Note 9 Pro review, RealmeX3 SuperZoom review and if you're going to buy one of these, please use my AmazonUK links so that I get a few quid to help content coming. Realme X3 SuperZoom and Redmi Note 9 Pro. Thanks for your help.

Physical

There's really not much to choose between these as they're both on the big side housing screens over six and a half inches. They are both around six and a half inches tall and three inches wide. They are even pretty much as fat/thin as each other and weigh almost the same, just over 200g. The similarities continue with the use of glass back and front with a plastic frame.

Around and About

The capacitive fingerprint scanner/power button on the right side is again, near identical though the Realme does shift the volume-rocker across to the left side, unlike the Redmi where it sits above the scanner on the right. Similarly equipped Dual SIM Card trays are in different places, left on the Redmi and bottom on the Realme, the Redmi leaving that space on the bottom for a 3.5mm audio-out socket, which the Realme leaves out. Single speaker and USB-C ports are the same at the bottom but whilst Realme place the elongated camera cluster top-right encouraging landscape use (even including logos and text), the Redmi has a central island with square arrangement, iPhone/Pixel style, sticking with everything portrait.

Screens

The phones both have flat 1080p LCD 20:9 screens with almost exactly the same c.400ppi. Both screens go out to the edges top, right and left, with a swipe-helpful small 'chin' at the foot. Screens that go out to the edges are fine with me if they're not waterfall/curved edges, which is where problems start. So much simpler to keep screens flat. I feel that we're moving back towards that generally now, not only because it keeps costs down but also because of that impracticality issue. Curves may look gorgeous, but I'm hoping it was just a phase which we can now move past. One difference with the Realme is that the screen has a 120Hz refresh-rate for the benefit of gamers and those with good eyes! The screens are both pretty bright but the Realme just wins here, if we're being picky, especially as before tweaking in settings, the Redmi has a very slight blue hue.

Selfie

Hiding or showing the Selfie camera, which makes the Notification Bar black, is handled differently with each. The Redmi offers a system-wide switch, hide or show, whereas the Realme offers this on an app-by-app basis with no system-wide switch. For me, that feels like a fiddle, but others will appreciate the fine control over the Redmi. The Realme has dual Selfie cameras, top-left, whilst the Redmi, a single central punch-hole. So choice there depends on how likely the user is to use the flexibility of a choice of selfie viewpoints against taking up more of the screen - or being prepared to black it all out anyway.

Notifications

The Redmi can be double-tapped to wake the screen at any time to see Notifications, clock, date and so on whereas the Realme does not support this feature. It lights up when Notifications come in for a few seconds, but in order to emulate the behaviour of the Redmi, the power button must be quickly pressed. There is a raise-to-wake option on both with face-unlock getting in on the act for entry, should you wish to set it up taking into account reduced security etc.

Driving Gear

This is where the Realme, at least on paper, pushes ahead with a more powerful SnapDragon 855+ chipset over the Redmi's 720G and will reflect some of the difference in prices here. There's also 12GB RAM on this 256GB version of the Realme (though there is also a cheaper 128GB/8GB version available in some markets) over the 128GB/6GB or 64GB/6GB versions of the Redmi. So you'd expect the Realme to fly and multi-task in greater abundance than the Redmi. Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I can't really tell much difference! I'm sure that a heavy gamer running a really processor-demanding game might disagree, but if this extreme is needed to demonstrate any difference, then surely the ordinary person wanting a generic Android phone won't notice - and will enjoy the benefit of potentially more battery life from the more economic chipset.

What's in Store

The Realme which I have here, as I mentioned above, has 256GB of UFS 3.0 storage supplied whereas the Redmi only has a maximum of 128GB UFS 2.1. UFS 3.0 potentially enables read/write speeds double that of 2.1 but maybe more importantly for ordinary folk, it executes that speed whilst using less battery power. So maybe worth a tick in the box, though in reality I wonder how often this will be utilised and appreciated by most folk. Bigger for me is that the Redmi has a microSD Card slot! So yes, it may not have as much storage as the Realme, but it can be expanded. Neither of these phones support HDMI-Out functionality, but both, USB OTG.

Snapping

The other area potentially justifying the Realme's increased cost is the, as you may have guessed, SuperZoom camera capability! As I said in my fuller thoughts linked to above, it's great to have the option of the SuperZoom, but it also has limitations. Both phones offer a Quad Camera setup (for 'tis the trend) with a similar main 64MP main shooter and 8MP wide-angle. They both have a Macro lens though the Redmi wins out here slightly with a 5MP count over the 2MP of the Realme. While the Redmi makes do with a 2MP depth sensor for it's 4th, the Realme steps out with this Periscope Telephoto offering 5x Optical Zoom with OIS (which is nowhere in sight with the Redmi). Furthermore, the SuperZoom claims 'hybrid' zooming (optical and digital) up to 60x! In reality, nothing after about 10x zoom is much use for any quality, though useful to get a shot at least. The question of whether or not it's any better than taking a photo and zooming in on the image later, remains! It's good fun though and most people will find 10x zoom more than usable - and certainly the 5x Optical. Great feature. Nice results. As I mentioned earlier, the Realme offers an extra wide-angle Selfie camera which can get more in of course for mates down the pub!

Platform

The platform for both is, of course, Android - and both are bang up-to-date with v.10 and, as I write in August 2020, July 2020 Google Security Patches. Where they differ is their own skins and to some degree and in different ways, each apply a layer over Vanilla Android which changes significantly the personality of the device. Realme's UI is actually less thick than Redmi's MiUI11 which was a surprise to me as I had feared that it might reflect my previous experience with stable-mate Oppo's near-iOS plastering. Both systems offer the basics of Android 10 with Gesture Navigation and Google Now Cards to the left of the Home Screen, not previously a given, but where they differ more is in their implementation of Settings.
There are all sorts of options, bells and whistles added to these phones over Vanilla and the Settings have been completely re-written and designed in their own way. The Realme is actually closer to Stock Android, but they both go their own way and completely confuse anyone coming into their systems anew. Stick around for a couple of years and of course, you'll learn how they do things. Searching Settings is often hit-and-miss as you have to learn first what they both call things as they meander away from labelling applied by Google for Android. So, not much to choose really but if I had to, I'd go Realme!
Worth noting that the Redmi is expecting MiUI12 any minute and this of course may make a difference to this section. Early adopters are saying that there are big improvements, so I shall be keen to see what they are and what impact on my decision in this portion of my thoughts. Some thoughts on this are available over at XDA. A lot of them look very much like iOS cloning to me!

Power

Not only does the Redmi have a more efficient chipset in terms of power but it is also supported by a bigger battery. 5,020mAh as opposed to the Realme's 4,200mAh. As you can see, this is the best part of 25% more and the package makes for longer and stronger use out on the road, especially when users are playing all day shooting 60x images because they can! I'm always one for more power being better. There's no Qi Wireless Charging on either of these phones, so it's plugging in or using a Qi Receiver, which means more reliance on and importance of a bigger battery. Having said that, anything over 4,000mAh really should be considered very good.

Sound

Sound output is an interesting one as although both are equipped with a downwards-firing mono speaker, they both actually sound pretty well balanced and are good enough for most uses for most people. The Realme has system-wide Dolby settings to play with whereas the Redmi does not, so when using the speaker users need to rely for adjustments on a Music App. There's a 3.5mm Audio-Out socket on the Redmi but the sound coming from it is nowhere near as good as the Realme's 24-bit audio available via USB-C 'phones or via an adapter. Bluetooth 5.0 is the same in both and output is excellent. Lastly, the Redmi has a recording FM Radio but the Realme doesn't. A small point, maybe, for many - but for some this is important in order to keep sounds coming when perhaps connectivity is poor for streaming.

Connectivity

Cellular connectivity appears to good on both phones and there's similarly nothing to choose between them for WiFi and GPS. Good strong locks in testing and NFC, incidentally working with both too.

An Odd Comparison

Yes, maybe it was, based on selling prices - but as I had both these phones in-hand I thought I'd like to explore the differences anyway! The Xiaomi is the budget offering at £240 at time of writing and the Realme, £470. Please note that the Realme price quoted is for the 256GB version and the Redmi, 128GB in the UK.
So the question is, whether or not that Periscope Zoom, more powerful chipset and more RAM of the Realme is enough of a draw, over the much more budget-friendly Redmi. Pros and cons all-round. Or perhaps you'd rather stay mainstream with a cleaner version of Android and stick to a more conservative 2x or 3x optical zoom. If so, there's plenty of choice between these price-points including loads from Motorola, Nokia, various AndroidOne Programme phones, the OnePlus' mid-ranger the Nord and if you fancy meandering off towards Apple, the excellent iPhone SE (2020).
Size is also an issue - these pair of phones are pretty big, whilst others more pocket-friendly. So many choices. Which way will you jump? For me, if I had to choose one of these two, I think it would be the Realme for the better audio experience, slightly cleaner UI and fun (at least) camera.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Beelink U57 Mini PC

I've been looking at these Mini PC units for some months or even years now and never quite got to the point where I felt that they were flexible or powerful enough, against price, compared to a laptop or 'proper size' desktop. Until now!

My need is a straight-forward one. Physical security! I move regularly between two locations and one of them can't be secured against break-ins and is (apparently) uninsurable. So, what I needed was a small (relatively) powerful PC which could also be thrown into a bag and carried. Not to be used at the other location, as there is a big and powerful PC there, but just taken with me.

I had been using a Microsoft Surface Go, which was fine, but a bit difficult to carry and protect and sometimes when under heavy-load with podcasting and using multiple DTP software and so on, it did feel a little under-powered. It's absolutely fine for most stuff that people do, but just now and again it felt a little like it needed a bit more oomph!

So, as I say, I had been monitoring these little boxes and felt as though some of them now had developed in lots of ways, enough for me to jump. Enter the Beelink U57 - around £340 on AmazonUK at time of writing.

So, it's a little black box weighing 277g and is about 4" x 4" x 2", littered with ports and buttons and slots! First things first though and it's running Windows 10 Pro powered by the Intel Broadwell Core i5 5257U 3.1Ghz chipset and supplied with Intel HD Graphics 6100M (whatever that means in old money)! There's 8GB DDR3L RAM which can be upgraded to 16GB M.2, a 256GB SSD flash drive which can be upgraded to 1TB and there's even a cleverly-mounted (inside the lid) slot to clip in a spinning 2.5" HDD of up to 2TB in size.

On the front there's a power on/off button, a 3.5mm audio/mic socket, a USB-C socket and two USB-A 3.0 ports. On the left and right sides there are grilles for ventilation and on the left is a microSD Card slot, which is good for 128GB - and sure enough, my 512GB card is not recognised. Round the back, there's an Ethernet port, two USB-A 2.0 ports, two HDMI ports supporting 4K monitors and a proprietary power-in port. Shame it doesn't have some universal powering arrangements. Built-in is WLAN (2.4/5Hz) and Bluetooth 4. There's a mounting bracket included so it can be attached to whatever you like with screws and even two HDMI cables, one short, one long!

I've had this hooked up for about a week now and I have no complaints. Primary purpose achieved as it is very portable. Put it in my bag and I don't know it is there. The unit is hooked up to my 15.6" UCMDA monitor, Logitech K780 Keyboard and Amazon Basics Mouse and I'm away! I have the monitor plugged into one of the HDMI ports and the Keyboard and Mouse into the two USB-A 2.0 ports on the back, leaving the 2 USB-A 3.0 ports on the front, free to use for other stuff.

I have my SoundCore Motion+ Bluetooth Speaker plugged into the 3.5mm socket and that, in turn, powered by a USB-A to USB-C cable so whenever the PC is on, I get instant super quality sound. I have also tested the 3.5mm socket with input as a microphone and that works well.

The box opens up with four screws for very easy-access to replace/upgrade any of the parts by simply slotting stuff in and out. My only complaint really is that there's a fan which cuts in and out depending on what you're doing. I hear that sitting in a quiet room, but with the radio on, I don't. I have tested this with third parties during Skype calls and podcasting activities with USB microphones plugged in and the recordings don't seem to pick up the noise, by your mileage may vary on that depending on the quality of the microphone and ambient noise etc.

The performance is, when under load and pushing the limits, remarkably stable. I have not had any of the slowdown which I experienced now and again under these conditions, as mentioned above, with the Surface Go. It seems to do everything I need it to do and when it doesn't, I'm confident about the upgrade path on a DIY basis. You could argue that you could get a half-decent laptop for £340 but that was not what I was looking for. Windows 10 Pro being bundled was a bonus as I was only really expecting Home in a unit like this.

Beelink appears to be a Chinese firm who seem to specialise in tech-gear, like many others I guess, and from what I can see from online reviews and user-experience, the gear is reliable. As always, I'd personally recommend buying from Amazon to make the most of their after-sales service and avoid the prospect, if you do run into any problems, having to ship back and forth from China. But laying that aside, I'd highly recommend this little box of tricks. So far, so good.

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