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.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro

Having reviewed a Realme phone recently, I was keen to see what Xiaomi were doing in this space with this Redmi Note 9 Pro. It's pitched around the same price as some of the Motorola models and in some ways, specs seem to reflect that. One of the differences between them for me, however, is the software experience as Redmi layer over MiUI 11 against Moto's pretty clean Vanilla approach.

The first thing to strike me was how big and heavy the phone is, in the hand. It's a weighty 209g and bigger than my Motorola One Zoom, which is a beast. The second thing to strike me was that the front panel is flat! I'm sure that as far as Xiaomi are concerned that's a cost-saving measure, but for me, it's a clear bonus! I am getting a bit fed up with curved glass - lovely as it looks, it's just impractical. Not only because of content 'falling over the edge' but also handling characteristics. It's just difficult to hold, secure and case because consideration has to be given to keeping the edges accessible both for vision and touch. I have been guilty of having loved this on the Nokia 8 Sirocco, but those days are gone. Give me a flat screen!

The back of the phone is certainly not flat, the edges curving away towards the plastic frame and a square camera-island sticking out very proud. The Gorilla Glass 5 back however, is very nice to look at, shiny and reflective, as is the trend. There's a smoked TPU in the box to protect it, so as usual, nobody'll see the back anyway! The TPU has got a flappy-cover for the USB-C port, which I'm not in love with. I get the dust-protection thing (particularly as there is no IP-rating here), but it's just an annoyance every time the phone needs charging. Sony used to do this back in the day. I'm so tempted to cut it off!

Returning to the front, the 6.67" 1080p LCD panel is again Gorilla Glass 5 with an aspect ratio of 20:9 returning 395ppi. There's a big selfie circular hole, up top and centre. It looks disproportionately big, but we'll see what's under there later. There's also a factory-fitted screen protector on the front. Once removed, it's so much nicer to the touch and, I accept that it might be psychology, but it looks brighter and colours pop a bit more! The panel is bright enough for me - I wound it up to 100% and took it outside in bright daylight and could still see it to use, but certainly not a market-leader in this respect - and certainly not a good OLED challenger. The auto-brightness doesn't seem to get it right either, but presumably with training by the user it will fix over time.

There's no Always On Display but by strategic use of settings you can enable double-tap-to-wake (which enables access to the Lock Screen) with clock/date and Notifications and Face Unlock which means that you only have to lift it and look at it and you're in. The other option is the side-mounted capacitive pill-shaped fingerprint scanner/Power Button just below the volume-rocker. Funny how this has come back into vogue these days, having been considered the poor-cousin when Sony started doing this widely (and others have realised that under-glass scanners are really not fit for purpose often yet). The scanner is quick to set up and 100% reliable every time. Again, in collusion with the other entry-options above, they all work together well to minimise frustration.

While we're looking at the front, the battery icon in the Status Bar is very much like the Realme one I recently complained about, but at least here it is a bit bigger and you can get the actual figure outside of the icon. Shame that the icon can't simply be removed leaving the figure. Clock, top-left and the usual array of Notification Icons and Status stuff. Swipe-down for a fairly standard Shortcuts Tray, editable with left/right swiping panels for overspill - with a splattering of available shortcuts, many of which are Mi services. It's a good enough look though and Dark Mode throughout in settings enables standard colours.

Long-press the Home Screen for access to Wallpaper, Widgets and Home Screen Settings which include Transition effects, choosing default, 4x6 or 5x6 layout, default launcher, App Drawer or all Apps on Home Screens, Google Cards to the left of Home on or off (well done), Icon sizing options and so on. Widgets selection is vertically scrolling, unlike Realme and Wallpapers with more options, including a link through to Xiaomi's online content. Google Cards off to the left is completely bog-standard Pixel-style with quick access to Discover and so on. Well done again!

Android 10 is driving all this, out of the box, and the overlay is MiUI 11 with 12 due to drop any minute. Apparently 12 brings some significant changes, so hopefully they don't undo the elements already described which brings a certain level of closeness to Vanilla Android. Google Security is on May 2020 here, so as usual, we'll see how up-to-date the firm keeps that, now already 2/3 months behind.

I now sadly have to turn to the added software, the inclusion of which laying somewhere between for little and no reason. There's a lot of it, bloat, presumably keeping the cost of the device down by deals done with 3rd parties - and pushes left, right and centre, for users to use Mi services and Apps. The pre-installed Apps which can be uninstalled are FaceBook, Netflix, AliExpress, eBay, LinkedIn and Mi Remote. Then we have the Apps doubling up what Google offers anyway - Mi Browser, Gallery, File Manager, App Security Checker and Cleaner, ShareMe (locked-in) file-sharer, Music, Mi Video, Weather, Notes, Mi Mover, Calculator and Clock. Then the list of (arguably) useful additions FM Radio (which you can record and switch to speaker though actually reception is not great), Voice Recorder, Screen Recorder, Barcode Scanner and Compass. Lastly the locked-in stuff that the user is encouraged to sign into and up-for like Themes and worst of all a Download App encouraging users to install apps relating to the likes of Russian brides, Crypto, Betting, AliBaba and Tiktok at time of checking. And adverts throughout. One of the Members of our MeWe Group told me that "there are no adverts or bloat on Xiaomi's Mi phones. It's like the difference between Asda and Waitrose!" So this would seem to be a Redmi thing (at least for now).

Much like Realme, I'm afraid that the Settings dialogues are just a mess (in relation to Vanilla Android) with Settings buried inside buried settings, with no logic to layout - and users will need the 2 years of a cellular contract to find their way around! They are not alone. Samsung have done this as well, re-writing the whole of the Settings area to unpick the simple, place their Settings where they fancy and to make things worse, provide a poor Search facility.

Example is trying to find the setting to change the Navigation buttons, which are by default the non-Google way round and Android 10 default Navigation nowhere is sight. I searched on Navigation. Nothing there. After 10 minutes digging around I found it in Settings>Additional Settings>Full Screen Display>Full Screen Gestures (so users have to abandon the word Navigation and know that use Gestures instead). But - on the Full Screen Display page, the heading is System Navigation - so why didn’t this come up in a Settings search of the word “Navigation”?! Seriously, there is stuff littered around everywhere with little logic often. And a evergreen Mi Account nag in Settings hooking the user into their own Cloud services and other stuff. Why do these firms think that by rearranging the standard Settings as defined by Google, they are helping people rather than confusing, I wonder. Still, as I say, someone baked-in for a contract would no doubt get used to it in time.

Anyway, enough of the complaints about the UX, let's move on to some good stuff! The first one, unlike Realme, is the presence of a microSD Card. Excellent. So 128GB UFS 2.1 on-board Storage as well makes this a peach for data. There is a 64GB version available but this is the one with the bigger capacity and both have 6GB RAM. The phone passes the 512GB microSD Card test and also the 2TB Extreme as well, only falling down when it comes down to HDMI-Out making users rely on Cast arrangements to get content to their TV, for example. There's a SnapDragon 720G powering the phone and this is perfectly adequate for the target user. I've tested it with car-racing games and it deals perfectly well with that. Switching between Apps is fast and the RAM seems to keep things open for reasonable lengths of time in Recents.

There's a single Mono Loudspeaker on offer here which, actually, is pretty good. The quality in terms of tone is pretty decent and volume loud enough for the target user. I find it better balanced than the Realme’s and also the Motorola One Zoom's, which I rate highly. This speaker will not disappoint. I only wish the phone had some equalisation available across the system rather than having to rely on a third-party Music App supplying that. The supplied Music App is half-decent but again, no controls over the speaker, so it's a good job that the default sound is not too bad.

The equalisation options appear when plugging in a pair of headphones into the 3.5mm Audio-Out socket, though the pre-sets are mostly loaded with Mi brand earphones and headphones. No matter though, as there is a generic option and access to equaliser pre-sets and a custom slide-set, so the sound can be adjusted. It's not great though. Unlike the Realme which has 24bit Audio, this is pretty basic and top volume not great, so time to buy a fancy DAC Dongle for those who wish to make use of good output. For the rest of us, it's just fine for casual listening. And then there's Bluetooth 5 which hooks up quickly and easily to various devices tested here and as you would expect, transforms the performance and sound as it relies on the receiving equipment's hardware.

Talking of Connectivity, yes, the Bluetooth is great, FM Radio as I said earlier is not great, GPS seems solid locking onto Google Maps and tracking my movements, phone calls seem good with the person the other end reporting good reception and this end, too, the WiFi attains and maintains a solid signal tested here with a Home Router and MiFi and NFC is present, seems to work fine talking to other devices, but I'm afraid that I can't test Google Pay. I'm assured by other reviewers that this is working with no issue, which is not always a given for phones from the far-east and this price-point. Note that this unit supports Dual SIM and microSD Card, but check before buying as your region may vary.

As usual, I'm going to shuffle you off towards my PSC colleague Steve Litchfield to grab a view on the cameras and camera performance in his review in The Phones Show 401. The cameras on offer are a main 64MP f/1.9 (normal angle), 8MP f/2.2 (wide-angle), 5MP f/2.4 (macro), 2MP f/2.4 (depth) and 16MP f/2.5 Selfie. No OIS anywhere, nor optical Zoom. As usual, I've focused in on the Macro - and the mode works pretty well for close-ups. The Portrait Mode produces some nice blurred backgrounds and low-light shots seem reasonable. Anyway, head over for Steve's take.

The phone has a stonkingly great 5020mAh battery! Excellent! On my 10% reading test I get to about 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is pretty good, but not Moto G8 Power good! The latter still holds the record on that, being over 3 hours. Neither does it match up on the average use for me test, but it ain't half bad! Well into Day 2 and to the end of it with medium/light use. It is a very good battery which is near impossible to kill in one day! There's a 30W charger in the box for pretty fast charging but of course, there's no Qi Wireless charging at this price-point.

Available in Tropical Green, Glacier White or Interstellar Gray, this phone is a real contender in the space in which it's being pitched - and at the price-point. Currently about £250 (64GB) or £270 (128GB) in the UK, there's loads to love. Comparing with this month's reviewers' fave, the OnePlus Nord, yes, it doesn't measure up in some key areas, does better in others, but then the Nord is also over £100 more - so probably not a fair challenge. Up against various Motorola models would be a better pitch, particularly the G8 Plus, which has different pros and cons. Check the specs!

The Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro offers a lot, but also has gaps. It's an attractive device, though big, with a bright-enough screen. A well-good-enough chipset and quantity of RAM, 128GB storage and microSD, a capacitive fingerprint scanner that works really well, a good-enough-for-most speaker and sound output - and a 3.5mm audio-out facility, a very big battery and Android 10. It could be better - with MiUI 12 changes coming, a distinct reduction in bloat and streamlining of the Settings but I'm sure that Xiaomi and their die-hard fans would argue with that! What nobody can argue with is the value-for-money on show here. It's an excellent device for the price - yes, you could feature-swap with similarly-priced competitors, but the whole package is an attractive one.

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

The Survivalist

The Survivalist is a Stephen Fingleton creation starring Martin McCann, Mia Goth and Olwen Fouéré which appears to be set in Ireland (certainly filmed there, apparently) and is set in some future time where humans have to live off the land and keep away from trouble to stay alive.

McCann plays a young man who does just this, off-grid (if there is one) in a wood/forest in a wooden cabin, minding his own business, growing enough in the soil to feed himself with various traps set up around his territory to deter interference from outsiders or even to do away with them if need be. Starvation seems to be the real killer as we discover when a teenage girl and her mother turn up on the scrounge. They don't have anything attractive enough to trade except for the bedroom favours of the daughter. And so the contract is done.

It's a lonely existence in which nobody trusts anyone and the interesting suspense which this film brings out is within that very issue. As the three of them watch their backs, look for opportunities to get the upper hand, or at least not be disadvantaged by the others and stress runs high. We think that trust between the mother and daughter is a given, but as the story develops, maybe this is not so - especially as it turns out that she is not well.

Then there are gangs of 'baddies' who appear to be roving the countryside looking for opportunities to steal and kill anything or anyone who gets in their way, again presumably to fend off their own starvation. There are tense scenes around that as our three main characters try to keep out of their way and survive themselves.

You can't help thinking that a bond develops between our main characters, but just when we think it's all getting nice and cosy events unfurl which shake things back towards the direction of mistrust and isolation. Everyone for themselves.

The film is an earthy low-budget affair with pockets of violence, nudity and strange eroticism. It's very slow in places but never anything less than thrilling and suspenseful. The whole concept of what's going on is a strange mix between the 1970's TV show Survivors, Mad Max, Waterworld or even Jane Campion's 1993 telling of The Piano, in terms of claustrophobia and setting. There's often minutes-on-end of no speaking as the audience consumes the anxiety through the silence, listening for danger - from within or out.

Nothing is ever said about how they got there, what went on in the world to dictate this social situation except for a strange graphic during the opening titles about demise of population and the rise of oil production - so make your own mind up! It's a gripping watch and recommended here. The photography is taut and the three main leads perform their parts very well, often having to deal with some of the surviving life-problems which whatever this world is, have not gone away. Doing the rounds on Film4 in the UK just now.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The PodHubUK Podcasts for July 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 572 - SE, Betas and The Fold
Saturday 4th July 2020
Steve and I welcome back Tim Evans to chat for an hour about all things mobile phone including his considered take on the iOS 14 changes.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 573 - Where is Ted and What Have You Done with Him?
Tuesday 7th July 2020
In this week's mid-week natter Steve and I talk more closely about the iPhone SE (2020), iOS14 and how a two-year-old flagship is as good as anything new and expensive!

Projector Room
Episode 66 - Black Water Beneath
Wednesday 8th July 2020
The Gentlemen are back again for a fortnightly delve into all things film, cinema and TV. Why not join Gareth, Allan Gildea and I as we take comments from the group here and add our own thoughts. A RocknRolla of a show with no fallout from impossible missions!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 574 - Desperately Seeking QWERTY
Friday 9th July 2020
Steve and I are back again with more mobile phone fun, this time with Mike Robins who's been testing out keyboards on phones. I'm all tied up with iOS14 still and Steve, back on Pixel!

Whatever Works
Episode 115 - The Tea Party
Friday 10th July 2020
Aidan and I have a virtual Tea Party across two countries(!) to test a very special blend of tea with some very special guests! Loads of other stuff as usual of course as we discover Whatever Works for us and in the lives of the members here.

The Phones Show
Episode 400 - Retrospective and Well Wishers
Monday 13th July 2020
Join Steve over on his YouTube Channel as he is joined by a small band of supporters and looks back at 14 years of The Phones Show. Do you remember how the first one looked? He demonstrates! Here's to the next milestone!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 575 - Single Take iPhone
Tuesday 14th July 2020
Steve and I are back with another midweek filler and catchup. We chat lots about iOS and iPhones, with a promise to do much more Android again on this weekend's show!

Better Before
Episode 1 - Watches and Comics!
We're here! Aidan and I bring you the first podcast-proper as we natter about all sorts of stuff from Watches to Children's TV trying to decide if it was better before.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 576 - Zooming with Your Feet
Saturday 18th July 2020
Steve and I welcome back Chris Kelly to natter lots about photos from phones, bolt-on gear and loads of other stuff.

Phones Show Chat
Episode 577 - Roving the Smartphone Landscape
Tuesday 21st July 2020
Steve and I are back again and this time we apply an X-Ray to Xiaomi to understand their product line, appreciate the Nokia 9 PureView again and consider the 2020 Smartphone options (for some)!

Projector Room
Episode 67 - Ebbing Springs
Wednesday 22nd July 2020
Gareth, Allan and I are back again with another slice of what we've all been watching in the last fortnight in film, cinema and TV. This time with our new section to look out for Private Screening!

Whatever Works
Episode 116 - Orange Triangles
Friday 24th June 2020
Aidan and I are back with another riot of a show to share with you! This time we're playing with aircraft of various kinds, squeezing fruit and showing dust who's the master!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 578 - Beyond Huawei and Honor
Saturday 25th July 2020
Steve and I welcome James Pearce back this weekend as we get his thoughts on what it was like to work for the tech giant for the last few years. Plus all the usual features of course.

Chewing Gum for the Ears
Episode 21 - The Naughty Nineties!
Monday 27th July 2020
This time Steve and I catch up with what were listening to back in the 1990's, when Earthquakes, Moons and Rays of Light made us sit up and listen.

Phones Show Chat
Tuesday 28th July 2020
Steve and I are back again with another mid-week outing as we catch up on our latest musings on all things mobile phone. We Float the Note for those Bored with the Nord!

The Phones Show
Episode 401 - Xiaomi Redmi Note 9 Pro Review
Friday 30th July 2020
Join Steve over at his YouTube Channel as he brings us his thoughts on a cracker from Xiaomi for £249.


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

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 ...