Saturday 31 October 2020

Samsung Galaxy M51

I wonder how many people out there value good battery performance as highly as me when looking at their next phone. How high up the tick-box list is it for others, I wonder. It's very nearly top for me! When I heard about the Samsung Galaxy M51 coming along, reasonably priced, with a 7,000mAh battery, my eyes lit up!

The main reason that I was so bowled over by the Moto Z3 Play for so long was because of the TurboCharge Battery Mod, adding 3,490mAh to the phone's 3,000, giving me a whopping 6,490mAh. I have been drooling over the Moto G8 Power's performance with 5,000mAh giving 3 real-world days between charges. Then there was the 6,000mAh Unihertz Titan. And now, I've swooned at the performance of the 3,885mAh battery in the Pixel 4a 5G - doesn't sound like it's in the same ballpark, but the longevity is staggering.

Samsung have dabbled with 6,000mAh batteries in the M31 range but, like the M51 here, it always felt like they were struggling to get these devices out of the east and into western markets - so I never saw one. This M51 is now being sold by Samsung themselves at least in the UK direct, even if nobody else is doing so outside of India. The other issue for me here is that when testing Samsung devices in the past, I have often felt that for whatever reason (I suspect all the background processes going on) batteries have not performed as well as others do, given the same capacity. So, gauntlet thrown down!

First though, to the usual furniture of my review process - and not forgetting that on the face of it, this is a cracking phone - regardless of battery. The box, then! What's in it? A TPU-shaped box with no TPU in it, just some papers and a pokey-hole tool! Mean! A USB-C to USB-C cable, a "Super Fast Charging" (it says it, on it) 25W power brick, a pair of nasty-looking in-ear-canal wired earphones (I'd rather have had a TPU) and that's it. Smaller box that you'd expect for this size of phone, no doubt they will claim eco-friendly.

As you might expect with not only this giant battery but also the general trend for phones to get bigger (particularly when designed for eastern markets), this phone is large! Though actually to be fair, it's not as big as I had feared it might be. It's not that much bigger than my Nokia 9 PureView - about the same width, a centimetre taller, but certainly significantly fatter. It's 163.9 x 76.3 x 9.5mm and 213g in weight. It's even closer to the size of the Motorola One Zoom, similarly slightly bigger in all directions. But there's something about it in the hand which doesn't make it feel that giant. I can get my finger and thumb around it and some tasks I can actually execute one-handed (before any software tricks). It's very slippery, so a TPU is advised which, sadly, makes it feel significantly bigger.

The back panel is made of plastic and this one here is a shiny shimmering black, dominated by a large oblong camera island top-left which all the trend now. On the right side of the plastic frame is the (very slim but solid-feeling) volume-rocker and beneath that, the capacitive fingerprint scanner with power-button (press-in for click) incorporated. Up-top is just a microphone and on the right, Dual nanoSIM Card Tray with a third slot for microSD. On the bottom there's the USB-C port, central, single mono speaker to the right and 3.5mm audio-out socket to the left. The plastics used feel pretty solid and good enough, for those brave enough to use the phone naked - though be careful as there's also no IP-rating!

The power is the natural starting point then and yes, that 7,000mAh battery inside. I've done my usual tests and the screen-on-reading test was a little disappointing compared to other devices - it returns just over two hours and I was expecting more, given that the 5,000mAh battery of the Moto G8 Power returns 3 hours 10 minutes and the recent new champion, Google Pixel 5 with just over 4,000mAh, 3 hours 20 minutes! So there's something about the screen-drain or background processes I'm guessing here (which I'll come to) as the average daily use test is quite staggering. In my tests, I go through the day, using the phone medium-to-heavy, and get to the end of it with 75% left or more! This makes this a 4 day phone for battery, or at very least 3 even hammering it! As always, your mileage will vary - if you run films and loud music all day then of course, it'll be different. The battery can be charged with the supplied plug from flat to full in under two hours.

Samsung claim up to 34 hours watching video and 182 hours of audio playback time (screen off) which is just over a week! I haven't done any of these extreme tests but I don't doubt them. In my usage over the last weeks, it has been the best performing battery I've ever used on a phone (apart from that 10% test) so going away for a weekend camping without a powerbank is a reality! And there's more - there's no Qi Wireless charging, but there is Reverse Charging by cable, which means that you can pass-through power to another phone or device for when your friends' phones give up! So even if you don't want to use this as your main phone, it's a great backup and powerbank! Wow.

Samsung's Super AMOLED Plus 6.7" 1080p front panel is flat. That's great. We've all had enough of curved screens now. Time to look back and admire the jewellery, but move on. The Gorilla Glass 3 protected screen looks super-bright to me (even before winding it up to 100% manually) and colours, the usual Samsung Saturated but as you'd expect, this can be toned down in settings, warm, cool, vivid, natural and full white-balance controls. Make the screen look how you like. It's great outdoors even in sunshine - no visibility issues here - even before employing the 'high brightness mode' turning it up to 11 on the slider! It's a 20:9 ratio panel which returns 393ppi. It doesn't feel too tall in the hand with the subtle difference from, for example, Sony's 21:9. There's a punch-hole selfie cam at the top of the screen, centralised. Bezels are minimal making this giant 6.7" screen feel like it shouldn't really fit into the chassis. The punch-hole is smartly 'hidden' most of the time, only rearing its head really when viewing media splayed out to fill the whole panel. It's fine. Really. Trust your brain to hide it for you! Viewing angles are also excellent as you turn the phone around.

Driving the phone is a SnapDragon 730G chipset, so no Exynos here. It's a mid-range economic solution which seems to get good press. A good number of recent phones from Realme, Oppo and Xiaomi have been equipped with this and I've not had any complaints on testing. Apparently it has an additional 15% graphics boost over Snapdragon 730 and impressive battery improvements when employed - like it needed that here! Like most smartphones in the mid-range these days, it appears to fly through whatever tasks are presented and even though from previous testing (for my use) I can't see any difference much between SnapDragon and Exynos, it feels somehow more satisfactory to have the former! Supporting the multi-tasking, keeping apps open and running in the background is 6GB RAM. I realise that there's mad hikes in RAM these days, doubling that in some devices (some not even flagships) but as we know, 4GB is really enough for Android - so 6GB comfy! I see no apps closing down without reason as long as you don't let Samsung software do its thing optimising stuff. Again, those kind of battery saving measures are just not needed here.

It's great to see 128GB Storage included here at this price-point and not 64GB which is often (still in 2020) pushed out as a cost-saving measure. This allows enough space for plenty of media to be included if the user wants to use it that way, or space to shoot loads of video and so on. On top of that, Samsung stick with microSD support, which is great. Well done indeed as I can pack my 512GB microSD full of films and TV shows with a screen big enough to watch them comfortably and a battery to support a series binge-watch! My usual test for USB OTG demonstrates fast and effective read/writes to/from my 2TB Extreme SSD and the only thing missing in this department is HDMI-Out, so no DeX or cabling up to TV or monitors. Something had to give for the price, though it's notable that the similarly-priced Motorola One Zoom offers this functionality.

Talking of the One Zoom, I'm going to compare the audio output of this Samsung with the Motorola as from previous experience I think it might be a close match. They both have a single mono speaker, Samsung firing out the bottom, Moto top. They both have a 3.5mm audio-out socket. Starting with the speaker then, there's not a huge difference in the pair but the Moto edges it on volume and certainly, out of the box, quality. There are some basic controls for each phone (Dolby & Moto Audio Tuned by Dolby) in terms of system-wide adjustment for speaker output but the breadth of these is similar for both. Not a great deal. But the Samsung edges out the Moto as it has a custom manual set of sliders where the Moto is all pre-sets. Both phones' speakers are good room-filling sounds and punch well above their weight for what you'd expect from a single mono speaker. If I had to choose at this point, it would be the Moto. Just.

Plug in a set of headphones and again, there's the ultimate system-wide lack of a true manual custom control for the sound with the Moto as the Samsung moves ahead with fancy equalisation options in excess of the Moto, making the sound output more flexible for the listener. Similarly, whilst the Moto wins the basic speaker test the Samsung clearly wins the headphone test with louder and better quality output. It sounds as though it has a fancy enhanced DAC onboard to me but I can't believe it has or Samsung would be listing the spec and other listings would reference it. It somehow sounds great though, very loud and excellent quality - more so than the Moto. The Moto grabs some points back with the excellent spatial 3D Stereo with headphones but it doesn't quite reach the height of the Samsung. But it's quite close in reality - to all but the audiophile.

We have come to expect bluetooth these days to be staggeringly good and sure enough, tested here with my Huawei FreeBuds 3 both phones sound stunning. No wonder everyone's going bluetooth instead of 3.5mm! In addition to all this, the Samsung has a hearing test with beeps to test the user's hearing and adjusts the output afterwards to suit the particular hearing profile of the user. All clever stuff. Lastly on audio, there's a recording FM Radio (in this UK version) which looks fabulous, locks onto stations well and can be switched to play through the speaker once signal secured via something plugged into the 3.5mm socket.

Speaking of clever software, the M51 comes armed with Android 10 and Samsung's One UI 2.1 overlay. Whether the user likes or dislikes this overlay, nobody can deny that it is exhaustive, smart and some distance from Vanilla Android! As much as I love Android as Google designed it via the use of Pixels, you can't help but be impressed with the depth of features and software supplied here, ensuring that the Samsung user in time won't want to leave the walled-garden! I'm not going to trail through all the One UI and Samsung enhancements here again. To read up on the evolution of changes have a read of this at Wikipedia. A special mention for Always on Display however, as it's so good and exhaustive in terms of choices and layout. Yes, there's loads of them and more from themes and developers out there. Many free, many paid. It's a shame that Edge Lighting isn't a part of this setup which I'm guessing they removed as the panel is flat, not curved. But then that's also true of the Galaxy S10e. Odd. It can't be money - it's their own software and would, presumably have cost nothing to add. Maybe it'll come in an update. In the meantime there's loads of 3rd Party solutions including the recommended NiceLock which adds that and oodles more!

As I write, we slip into November 2020 and the Google Security patches on the phone are present up to August 2020 - so not bang up-to-date certainly but Samsung do have a growing reputation (and claim) that they will keep their newer devices up to date with security and OS. Security to prevent others getting into your phone include the aforementioned side-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner. This is great working as the main power button when clicked in and FPS when touched and not clicked. Registration is simple and fast and it works first time, every time. So much better than under-screen efforts and into the bargain, can be accessed when the phone is flat on the table/desk. There's also face-unlock which, again, works excellently well when you look at the phone (though you do still have to slide-up to get past the splash-screen).

The array of cameras on that island on the back include the following (deep breath) a 64MP f1.8 main Sony Quad Bayer shooter, 12MP f2.2 wide-angle, 5MP f2.4 macro, 5MP f2.4 depth lens (and a 32MP f2 selfie round the front). There's no optical zoom, nor OIS anywhere in all this lot. The user can manually pinch-to-zoom for digital up to 10x but results are a bit ropey as you'd imagine. Shots are more than usable for most people at 2x zoom or even 3 but it's just a bit of a shame that they didn't include this optically and maybe even drop one of the others. Having said that, the 5MP Macro lens gets the shooter in pretty close and to some degree that might be more useful for some, though not the masses. The Night Mode is pretty dreadful in my tests here - appears to behave in the same way as the Pixel, but the resulting image is terrible. With the Pixel we get a really quite usable shot, with this, nothing. Black cat in a coal cellar at night. The reality is that for most people using this phone for most social media uses and video of their mates for YouTube, it's absolutely fine. It's just the pixel-peepers who won't be interested as there is so much better out there, even for very similar money.

As we dance around all these other specs, it's only one which matters here over any other phone in a similar price or spec band - yes, that battery. It's quite simply the strongest battery in a phone that I've had in my hand and used (from a mainstream manufacturer) which has a trick up the sleeve of reverse-cable charging. It's almost worth having in the glove-box as a back-up phone in case it is also needed to top up your regular phone (or any other device, come to that). But that sells it a bit short, too. For the £329 it costs in the UK, it's also very capable in many other ways.

This is no flagship, with key elements missing from that experience, so no IP-rating, no Qi Charging, no DeX support, no stereo speakers to mention a few, but what it has, it exploits well (and supports with that battery) and many, many people will be very pleased to use this as their primary phone. With Samsung's ongoing commitment to support and updates, it's a compelling option - especially for those who are not going to be too annoyed having to move away from Vanilla Android and into the waiting arms of Samsung. They won't regret this.

Thursday 29 October 2020

Fairphone 3(+) 2020 Revisit

Fairphone offer a unique take on the smartphone in terms of it being the only example which is truly modular, the only smartphone that I can think of with a replaceable battery in 2020 and certainly the only one which seems to genuinely care about the planet and doing their bit for people and an eco-friendly approach to the earth.

I reviewed the Fairphone 3 back in February and now the company have released an updated Fairphone 3, dubbed 3+. It's essentially the same phone but with, out of the box, some updated modules. Some may argue that this has gone against the ethos of upgrading the phone you have for five years, to release a new one, but the changes are few to be fair - and not unfair!

So why the upgrade? What's new? What's different? Just to be clear, the phone we have here is the 3 and not the 3+ so the very same one I reviewed, but we do have extra modules. You can see Steve Litchfield's original review in Phones Show 386 and his recent update in Phones Show 408.  According to Fairphone "it comes with two new camera modules and audio improvements to boost technical performance, enhance the user experience, and improve sustainability. The new camera modules are also sold separately. This way, you can upgrade your Fairphone 3 by replacing the modules." It would appear that only thing which can't be upped for users of the 3 is the audio improvement - but perhaps that will come.

The camera module is a 48MP Sony Quad Bayer unit that we've seen so much of from other manufacturers of smartphones in the last couple of years over the old 12MP unit. As they say, this module can be bought for the 3 and slotted in. Fairphone sent us this module so we can see the differences and users can buy this for £55. The Selfie camera has also been upped from the 8MP to 16MP and again, this is modular and users can buy one for £33. The loudness of the new speaker on the + version has increased in dB from 94 to 96, so I wonder how significant an improvement that is anyway.

While we're pricing stuff up, let's run through a summary of spare parts and what they'll cost the user in autumn 2020. A Back Cover is £21.95, Display £81.95, Battery £27, 48MP Camera £54.95, 16MP Selfie £32.95 and Speaker £17.95. So the Fairphone 3 user can replace broken bits or upgrade the units where improved ones are available armed with the supplied screwdriver/lever and a modicum of common sense. This is not rocket science - more like Meccano!

To summarise the specs, the phone is powered by a 3,000mAh (replaceable of course) battery, SnapDragon 632 chipset and 4GB RAM. It arrived with Android 9 but this has been updated to Android 10 and as I report in October 2020, it even has October 2020 Google Security Patches. Remember that Fairphone guarantee FIVE years of updates here, keeping their phone bang up to date close to a Pixel. There's the mono speaker and 3.5mm audio-out socket with USB-C port for charging and data. There's 64GB of internal storage with microSD Card support and support for two nanoSIM Cards. The Gorilla Glass 5 protected front panel is an LCD, 5.65", 1080p with a ratio of 18:9 returning 427ppi. Round the back is a capacitive fingerprint scanner which works really well. Do check my previous review linked to above for a further breakdown of the hardware and my thoughts specifically on each aspect.

As a short follow-up review I'll just punch a few headliners out here in that my screen-on 10% test returned me exactly 2 hours, so pretty good for a 3,000mAh battery, the speaker has very reasonable output - I was surprised to recall how good it was even though the modular design of the phone seems to have forced it into the bottom left-hand corner on the side, which, for the right-hander places it always in the palm of the left hand. Still, when it's on a desk it's fine and resonates well. It’s good’n’loud and quality (even before equalisation via a music/video app) is actually pretty good. There’s a bit of bass and nice tone. There is a good earpiece speaker though and as Steve mentioned in his video, it's fingers crossed that that might be utilised in software to create stereo!

The Fairphone 3 is bigger than I remember from first time round - probably spent too long with small Pixels now! It’s very slippery, too. There is a case they sell for it for £35 but it looks just as slippery, not a TPU. I’d forgotten how wild the vibration motor was! It really is powerful and loud, so much so that I doubt anyone has it on! I’d forgotten how high-up the fingerprint scanner is (to get out of the way of the battery). 

There seems to be a problem just now with the early Android 10 adoption which we really hope they will fix in next month's update along with November 2020 Google Security patches. When Gesture Navigation in selected (over three-buttons) the home-screen elements are screwed by the overlaying of the Google Search Widget on top of (slightly) the Dock app shortcuts. The App Drawer Search Field at the top underlays the Notification tray at the top (which is in relief). Look on a Pixel and that sits lower, under any content. Play Store downloads were taking forever to complete, reboots didn't fix for me, though Steve didn't find this happening. Work needs doing, anyway. I have also had a couple of completely random reboots when I've not even been touching the phone! But kudos for getting the update out anyway so that users can enjoy Dark settings and GMail, for example.

It’s a kind of simplified version of Vanilla in some ways - for example, there’s no way to change the shape of home-screen icons (that whole ‘style’ Pixel thing is missing and they don’t have their own like, for example, Moto do). There's absolutely no Always on Display or even double-tap-to-wake so users need to resort to Always on AMOLED (or similar) though there is Notification LED up-top. Great. Not many left now doing that.

As for modularity - I absolutely love it! I might well be tempted to buy one of these with a couple of spare batteries so that I could see what happens in the long-term with the promises of updates etc. It's currently up for £425 with 2-4 weeks delivery. Anyway, these are my updated thoughts and it's been a pleasure to revisit this all-but unique offering in the phone world.

Google Pixel 5 vs Google Pixel 3

Some might say that the specs of the Pixel 5 actually represent a downgrade from the two-year old Pixel 3. With the 5, Google have presented users with a more affordable option, but not by a wide margin. The Pixel 3 (128GB) on release was £769 and this Pixel 5, £599. I was keen to see how it compared both physically and in terms of performance.

I've been using the 3 for quite some time as my main phone now and have compared it recently with the Pixel 4a and then the 4a 5G. This time its a straight shoot-out between two phones with similar places in the range separated by time - and an economic shift in emphasis. The question is, would I now fork out six hundred quid of my own cash when I have a Pixel 3 anyway.

A similar theme may emerge here as I, once again, raise the question of battery and how poor it is on the 3. The 4a did significantly better. The 4a 5G did amazingly better. How's the 5 going to shape up? The speakers are always my second port of call and I was a tad underwhelmed by the sound of the 4a and 4a 5G compared to the Pixel 3. So again, exploring to do.

The Pixel 4 was last year's model and had a different emphasis again. It was certainly a flagship, in the way it could be argued that the 5 is not. Google were testing out FaceID options, Soli sensors and trying to keep up with Apple, in a sense, whilst pushing boundaries into new tech (on a phone) themselves. This year, they've dropped a lot of that apparently in response to the economic Covid-19 climate and responding to what people are looking to buy.

Enter the Pixel 5. A less-than flagship chipset. Back to a capacitive fingerprint scanner. No fancy radar stuff and FaceID shenanigans. And a strange (so-called) stereo speaker arrangement. It almost feels like a step backwards but to be fair they have retained the premium design and feel of the Pixel 4 (and 3), IP-rating, pushed the OLED panel to a 90Hz refresh-rate, thrown in 2 more GB RAM, whacked the battery capacity up, added reverse Qi charging, made 128GB storage standard and dropped the price from £769 to £599 here in the UK. So it's an odd year with pros and cons, which makes me wonder what on earth the direction might be in 2021!

The phone has premium-feel aluminium and is slightly grippy (still needs a TPU for me though) with lovely curves in the metal round to the screen. It's slightly less tall than Pixel 3, fatter, but pretty much the same width. The Pixel 3 had a glass back of course where here we're back to metal. I found the buttons on the 4a 5G had a little 'play' but here, they are as solid and firm as the Pixel 3's and 'clicky' like the 4a's. I really don’t like the shiny-chrome power button and much prefer the colour-coordinated Pixel 3’s design, but that's a personal taste thing - and I have a TPU anyway! Regular readers will know that I thought I had found my mythical 'Pixel L' in the 4a 5G but actually, on reflection, I think I'm more comfortable here with this size. Being that tad wider than the Pixel 3 gives a little more space to breathe and the screen goes right out to the edges (pretty much) making it 'feel' bigger and (dare I say again) just right! The IP6/8 environmental protection is common to both devices, incidentally.

I'm not a fan of the huge square camera island on the back, preferring the slimline arrangement of lenses others employ encouraging the use of the device in landscape. This design feels just like a shameless iPhone copy. The fingerprint scanner sits to the right and below it and is in just the right place for the index finger. Capacitive fingerprint scanners seem to be coming back a bit these days and I approve. With smart Always on Displays and double-tap to look at notification content, the need to pick the phone up from the desk/table is reduced anyway. It's lightning fast to register and also in use - another advantage over some other terrible systems.

The Pixel 3 to Pixel 5 copy took 16 minutes with a USB-C to USB-C cable and each time I do this, more and more is in place, Smart Lock does a lot of the work alongside Auto-Fill. The Restore process is getting really very smart, even down to home-screen layout and within 30-60 minutes, left to it's own devices, it's not far away from the 'put one down, pick the other up' dream! Still not quite Apple standard but not far off. It will really arrive when it, for example, downloads my Audible books and Kindle reads.

The 5’s screen, protected by GG6 (over GG5 of the Pixel 3) is a 6" 1080p OLED panel over the 3's 5.5" returning a very similar 432ppi. Not only is it bigger but it goes out to the edges and is a slightly different ratio of 19.5:9 from the 3's 18:9. This ends up making the chassis wider, as I said above, but not so tall. The 5's panel is slightly brighter than the 3's (manual 100%) and the 3 has a slight warm cast alongside the 5, but there's really not much in it. Again, colours are very slightly richer on the 5. All this can, of course, be tweaked in settings anyway to please the viewer.

What is different is the 5's new 90Hz refresh rate. The 5 automatically controls this when it detects content that will make the most of it. I can't tell the difference anyway, so it's all lost on me! For the purist, there is a toggle in Developer Options to force the 90Hz on the whole time. All very silly in my book, but fair enough for those who can tell! There's the very same Always on Display on both phones which ticks pretty much all the boxes for me - and I'll trade in Motorola's Peek for Now Playing any day!

Let's get straight to sound! The speakers' output is a key feature for me. Many criticise my insistence of this and tell me to get a Bluetooth speaker which is much better than any phone - or use headphones - but this is me, and I choose to want a decent sound coming from my phone! Which is why I reeled in shock when I first heard them! My first impression was that this is a disaster! It didn't sound anything like as good as the Pixel 3, nor even 4a/4a 5G. Oh dear. The tone/quality wasn't as good, though to be fair, the volume wasn't far off.

One of the issues here is that the Pixel 3 has front-firing (true) stereo speakers. When you're in front of the phone, the sound fires into your face and stereo can be enjoyed when watching a film, for example. I have watched films on a small phone screen, though I know others will laugh! The right speaker of the Pixel 5 fires out of the bottom of the phone, carries all the lower-tones, and the left appears to be somewhere under the glass between the middle of the phone and the top-edge pushing out the top-end tones. If you put your ear on the phone to try and locate it, it's difficult to pin-down. The resulting mashup is not as pleasing as the Pixel 3 output, there's no two ways around it (pun intended).

As a result, if you place the 5 in front of you, the stereo effect/soundstage is all-but non-existent. I have used media which exploits stereo sound. With the Pixel 3, it dances around in front of me as it should - but the 5 pretty much pushes it out in the middle somewhere and all stereo effect is lost. And I have tried right in front of my face - same result. So, the question is really about how important that stereo separation is for the user and how much they might forgive that if the overall sound output is acceptable still.

To be fair, the overall sound is going to be perfectly good for 98% of people, but not for nit-pickers! The sound is still very good compared to many other phones - I tested it here today with another phone I was reviewing (which I thought had very good output) and was then shocked to listen to the Pixel 5 afterwards and realised that actually it was oodles better still! So yes, test-bench stuff is always going to be very subjective as most people don't do this kind of testing in the real world - and most people will no doubt think it sounds great.

There's no 3.5mm audio-out socket on either phone so it's down to USB-C headphones/earphones, an adapter for your existing - or bluetooth for both phones. Using a simple USB-C to 3.5mm dongle here the sound is reproduced excellently with as much volume as I'd want and very good quality. As you'd expect, using an enhanced adapter (I have the Razer Phone 2's here) it ramps everything up to 11 with a wonderful sound. Bluetooth pairing is simple and quick with a reliable connection and the sound is comparable with the Razer dongle combination above, though not quite - and also it depends very much on the supporting listening equipment of course and here I'm using Huawei FreeBuds 3. Not much to choose between the two phones on any of this - all works excellently well.

I chose the Pixel 3 with 128GB over the 64GB version but now the latest crop of Pixels are fitted with 128GB as standard, which is great! If they had a microSD card slot too, I'd be even happier but Google want to keep things controlled and simple with storage going forward. Both phones support UFS2.1 and the read/write times are the same for each. Plug in any microSD Card into a USB-C adapter and similar results are to be had - speedy read/writes - and both pass my 2TB Extreme SSD test in the same fashion. No HDMI-Out on either which is a shame, though with only 128GB storage, carrying large amounts of media for sending to TVs and monitors is limited anyway.

There is a difference in chipsets in use between the two phones. The older 'flagship' level Pixel 3 had (pretty much) the best of the day on release, being a SnapDragon 845, but now Google's choice is the 765G. I really wanted to see some difference between the two phones to prove the point that it had been skimped on to get the cost down, but I really can't. There's no noticeable difference in operational speed that I can see. If you read what test-bench geeks have said about it they report (up to) a 20% operational advantage of the 845 (in certain tasks) but I can't see it! I've put the two through their paces next to each other and in some cases the Pixel 5 is faster! Same is true the other way round for RAM. The Pixel 5 has been upped from 4GB to 8GB over the older phone but I see no noticeable difference in task-switching or number of apps open, in terms of everyday use. I do sometimes wonder about test-benching and the usefulness of the data over real-world use and experience.

Both phones have the same single nanoSIM Card slot and facility for an e-SIM for those who want it. Connectivity is good on both phones except for one difference, that being voice calls which I did have some problems with using the Pixel 3 in fringe areas. No such evidence with the Pixel 5 which holds a signal excellently well with no complaints either end, given the same zone. This was an isolated complaint, however, as all other connectivity with the 3 was fine - NFC, GPS, Cellular data and WiFi via broadband and the Pixel 5 appears to do just as well. There's 5G on the Pixel 5 but not on the 3 which I am unable to test as I have no coverage in my area! Speeds can certainly be impressive but as discussed on the PSC podcast recently, it seems that the real practical advantage over 4G is when there's loads of people gathered in the same location using all the bandwidth.

Both phones have Wireless Qi Charging and that's great. Working reliably, not with location fuss, straight on and done. The difference however is in the battery capacity and Google have, at last in 2020 woken up! The Pixel 3 has a diabolical battery which is drained ludicrously fast when the screen is on. I have written about this so much that I won't bore you again but the 2,915mAh unit in the older is now replaced by the 4,080mAh in the newer. With the efficiencies of the mid-range chipset I was hoping for a huge turnaround in UX. Sure enough, I'm delighted! The Pixel 5 screen-on test returns 2 hours 20 minutes for 10% of the battery use over 45 minutes (yes, really) of the Pixel 3.

Strangely, the all-day test on the Pixel 3 was never too bad - it was always about that screen-on. However, the Pixel 5 is much better in that respect too. A genuine two days between charges is possible with middling to heavy use, more for light. I don't find that the Always on Display on either model has any impact whatsoever in my tests - well, maybe a few percent. (I'm continuing to test this though as, as an aside, the battery in the 4a 5G which is slightly smaller gets a better performance and the only reason we can come up with is that the 4a 5G has less RAM to drive - or maybe the OLED panel is a different one grabbing more power on the 5.)

There's an 18W charging brick with both phones which does a decent enough job without knackering the battery with high-power charging speeds getting popular these days. You can roughly speaking half charge the phone in about half an hour or so and fully charge it in about an hour and half. Lastly, the Pixel 5 does have reverse wireless charging (Battery Share) which seems to work perfectly and charges other devices from it's own battery, though at a slow 5W rate by putting the phone back-to-back with the other device.

As you would expect, the software experience is pretty much exactly the same on both phones as Google lives up to the promise of keeping the Pixel line up to date for 3 years. The Pixel 3 feels just as 'new' as the 5 in that respect. Both on Android 11 and both with monthly Google Security Updates first out of the gate. I've commented on the Android system often enough not to repeat it again here, just to reiterate that this is the pure Android experience, just as Google wanted and designed it to be used. Others meander away with bells and whistles on top, bloating and floating with so-called enhancements and extra features, but for those who want in on the ground floor, and close to the beating heart of Google, this is the only option. Google have various unique features of their own as a part of the experience, such as Now Playing and Recorder, but the purist will see this as a part of the package, not add-ons. Some will say it's boring and lifeless, others like me just love it!

There's a couple of differences in the camera department besides the simple software-driven excellent results available on both of these phones. The 12.2MP main shooter is present in both but the Pixel 5 adds a 16MP wide-angle over the 3's offering. Last year (with the 4) they dabbled with 2x optical zoom, this year, it's wider. Which you prefer is a matter of taste and can be argued either way. It would be nice to have both, but not this time. Wide-angle cameras are great of course for landscapes and interior shots where you are backed into a corner to try and get as much into the shot as possible, but 2x optical also gives a different advantage and saves zooming-with-your-feet! In actual fact, the software is so clever now that digital zooming by pinching the screen still returns excellent shots for all but the picky nit-picker, certainly up to 2 or 3x zoom. The Night Sight/Astrophotography mode is also simple, clever and cool - but hold still! The Selfie camera in the corner of the screen really doesn’t matter on a phone this size. If it were a 6.9” media-centric 21:9 cinema-phone then yes, maybe, like the Xperia 1ii with a forehead still, but I’m happy with the more-screen payoff. As always, check out Steve Litchfield's coverage of all things Pixel 5 against the other 2020 Pixels including more in-depth on the camera in The Phones Show 406 and The Phones Show 407.

The big question for me is, for a third time in this round of 2020 Pixels, would I pay up my own hard-earned on one of them. I change my tune after each one that comes through my hands! I was convinced that the 4a was too small, then that the 4a 5G was 'just the right size' and now, after going back to the Pixel 3 between-times, I'm convinced that the Pixel 5 is the one for me! The Qi Charging and much, much better battery performance has me sold but the speaker performance clearly isn't as good as the front-firing 'proper' stereo of the Pixel 3 - and in that respect, the 4a 5G would serve me better. There's the 3.5mm audio-out issue, missing from the 5 which could be gained with the 4a and 4a 5G. Too many choices!

To answer my original question, if I was going to spend somewhere between £350 and £600 on a new Pixel, my brain tells me that it just has to be the 4a - but my heart goes with the 5. I'm currently ruling out the 4a 5G on the basis of size, but the 5 feels just perfect in my hand, slightly wider than the 3 and Goldilocks comes to mind. It's also made from aluminium which, however much we want to argue it, is so much more 'premium' than even the best plastic! I have been fortunate to have been able to sample all three this year and hopefully at least some of my observations might help somebody out there decide which they think might suit them.

Saturday 17 October 2020

Google Pixel 4a 5G

Everyone out there in tech-reviewland is understandably comparing the three new Pixel devices with each other. The 2020 Trio of Pixels 4a, 4a 5G and 5. They all have their pros and cons, price-points and user-emphasis. But you've probably heard enough of that by now, so I'm going to do my Pixel 4a 5G review as a comparison with my daily in-use phone, a Pixel flagship of yesteryear, the Pixel 3 (128GB) and see how it stacks up.

The Pixel 3 was released in autumn 2018 at a cost of £769 (for the 128GB version). The Pixel 4a 5G here is pitched at £499 and has the same 128GB or storage. Two years is a long time in tech, as we know, and the 3 can now be picked up new or used at much less than the release-price. In fact, significantly less than the 4a 5G price now. So for me personally, it's a decision based on usability - and the question I pose myself is, is it worth another £499. A good starting point here before reading on might be to watch Steve Litchfield's video review in The Phones Show 407 in which he pitches the Pixel 4a 5G more specifically up against the Pixel 5.

One of the very poor aspects of the Pixel 3, as I reported time and again, is the battery performance - so I'll be looking at that with hawk-eyes - and the other issue for me is the size. I have found that Pixel 3 is just a tad too small for me these days and wonder if the slightly bigger size of the newcomer will suit better. The XL Pixels are usually too big for me and I've been crying out for a 'Pixel L' in the middle for some time now! This could be it. Lastly, the output from the speakers. If it's as good or better than the Pixel 4a which I recently reviewed, it'll get a pass, depending on the other two elements here. Three aspects then, amongst many, to drill down into here.

Android 11
 does bring some changes over previous versions, which I'll address in another feature sometime soon. For now, I'll paraphrase what I said in my Pixel 4a review about the software experience's the pure Android experience. Vanilla flavour as Google intended. This is reassuring, especially with the promise of two OS updates and three years of Security ones. You know what to expect and it delivers. No bloat, no apps to uninstall (for those who are happy with the Google ones) and everything working as it should between them all and with Google services. Android is Android and you can add pretty much whatever apps you want to on top. The strength of Android, choice. Don't like GMail, don't use it. Install another email client. Homescreen elements are stuck. At A Glance is up the top there and Google Search at the foot. Don't like it? Install Nova Launcher - or any one of another hundred launchers.

Firstly then, to the box and what's in it. As usual with Pixels, you get the standard set of stuff! A power charger, USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, pokey-hole tool, a few papers and the phone. The days of earphones are gone and (with Google) cases - a simple TPU in the five hundred quid would have been nice. Mean.

The design is very much the same as the 4a. Plastic ‘moulded’ around the edges to the front, buttons, ports and camera island in the same place as is the rear capacitive fingerprint scanner (same as the Pixel 3). The volume rocker and power button are not as ‘solid’ as the 4a. There seems to be a little 'play' back/forward, but they are certainly similarly ‘clicky’ in use. It's a pleasing design, the plastic will make sure it takes a lot more abuse before it breaks, like the Pixel 3's glass could well do if dropped. Some will think that at this price-point it should have been 'more premium' glass. What you don't get here that the Pixel 3 has, is any official IP-rating for environmental protection. Take your own risks with that, then, but I think it should survive a rain shower or quick dunk into clean water - just don't try orange juice for a half-hour!

The OLED screen is not as bright as the Pixel 3's. It just 'feels' a little 'duller' and less colourful. I'm sure that the screen must have been made by someone else. For the same point on the brightness slider, it's just not as bright. Wind the brightness up manually to 100%, and there the difference can be seen. It's a warmer white and not so cleanly bright as the 3. The difference is worst at angles and closest to each other when viewed face-on. The viewing angle is not as good either (by a very small margin to be fair) and as you turn the phone round the 4a 5G casts blue eventually at a very tight angle and the 3's screen never does. But then who's going to look at their screen like that! I'd much rather have battery improvements than test-bench slight deficiency, if that's what's at stake! (Image credit

The screen is a 6.2" 1080p OLED with a ratio of 19.5:9 returning 413ppi covered with Gorilla Glass 3. It looks perfectly sharp enough for me and I agree with Steve about the refresh-rate being 60Hz - I really can't tell the difference with 90/120Hz - and the Pixel 3 is 60 as well anyway, long before all this became trendy! The difference is that the screen goes out to the edges, pretty much. The 3 has a large chin and forehead, so not only do you get more screen because it is bigger, but also because it exploits the whole frontage. The benefits of this are obvious. As for Gorilla Glass 3 instead of 5/6, well, I've personally had more reliable results with v3 in terms of scratch-resistance so am happy with that. I'll come to the overall size a bit further down.

A word on 5G cellular connectivity. The most interesting thing about 5G is the fact that I can't get it and don't think I need it! I'm hoping that with it turned off, I will enjoy battery benefits making the most of the significantly bigger cell than was placed into the Pixel 4a (with no 5G). I shall test that now with 5G on and then off. The battery is 3,885mAh, so much more capacity than the Pixel 3 here as well. It is, of course, driving a bigger OLED panel but also should benefit from the closer-to-mid-range chipset, the SnapDragon 765G over the Pixel 3's more flagship-level of the day SD845. The SIM Card tray is the same simple one, incidentally, which can take a nanoSIM only and the phone is eSIM-ready too.

Let's consider the size first, then. The 4a 5G is taller, wider and fatter than the 3. It's also about 20g heavier. Hunting round to find a phone to compare it with, the closest I have here are the Moto G8 Plus and Motorola One - remember that super little AndroidOne smartphone I was recently raving about? When I started setting up the 4a 5G my first reaction was that this is too big for me. However, I think that part of that was because I had immediately come from my Pixel 3 and it was a bit of a shock. After 24 hours, my brain settled down and my hands were finding ways to wrap around it which acknowledged the bigger size, but somehow made it manageable - even just about for one-handed use. There's a small balancing act there, but I do have big hands. So in Day 2, I've convinced myself that I can do this! It's clearly not as dinky in the pocket, but the screen-size benefits offset that. The Pixel L? Maybe. So far, so good.

Speakers are next. Steve was right about the speakers. They’re about the same as the little 4a and neither of them have quite the quality or volume output of the Pixel 3. It’s not hugely far off, but it’s there. An equaliser is needed on both 4a models (reducing volume in the process) but not on the 3. Spoken word is very clear when moving from music/video/film to podcasts. When watching music videos with the screen about 2ft in front of me on the desk, the stereo separation and left/right is just fine. If you block the speakers in turn you can indeed hear that most of the ‘body’ comes from the bottom one - but 2ft in front of me, it mixes it well enough. The more I use it, the more I think the speakers are good enough for me, even though not quite 3 level. Note that the speakers don’t switch stereo around when phone is spun round, but then neither do they on the 3. So far, so good still!

3.5mm Audio-Out I think that with my AKG K701 Reference headphones here, the 4a 5G has better output than the 4a. Different components for the greater cost maybe? It’s louder and has more body than the 4a. On this one, I went from ‘nobody will complain’ to ‘this is actually very good’. Steve points out that the DAC is different, since it’s part of a different chipset, so maybe different - and for some of us at least, better, but not up the wired leaders. Switch to Bluetooth and as we so often say now, the sound output really is quite stunning - but then it often is on a phone costing half the price of this one too.

How about battery, then? Initial response is that the battery is excellent. I have done my usual 10% Screen-on reading test and was staggered by the result, being 3 hours and 20 minutes! This overtakes my current leader, Motorola G8 Power with its 5,000mAh cell by 10 minutes! As I said, it's a 3,885mAh unit and during these initial tests, I do have 5G turned off, but when I run the same tests with 5G on, it really doesn't seem to make much difference. I wonder if that's because I am not in a 5G zone, or that I don't have a 5G Tariff. Maybe it would be different if I was and did. I can't test that.

The average day (for me) results are also very, very good. Not quite up to the days-on-end of the Samsung Galaxy M51 with its 7,000mAh battery, but no problem at all getting to the end of a day, even with heavy use - and with light/medium use, through the second day too. As always with battery tests, your mileage will vary. I test with Adaptive battery and brightness on the whole time, but of course there will be different results as users vary the settings. So, back to the Pixel 3 and of course, the newer phone is embarrassingly better on the SoT test! That 3hrs 20 minutes for the 4a 5G turns into 45 minutes maximum on the Pixel 3. More powerful chipset, smaller battery - OK, but I still maintain that there's something bizarre about the 3's screen-on drain. And I have two here, both the same. So, no contest! There's a 'Fast charging' 18W charger in the box which charges from flat to 50% in about 45 minutes and to full in about 90.

What is missing, however, is the Wireless Qi Charging. This is an annoyance and certainly a tick-in-the-box for the Pixel 3. Set up with Qi chargers all over the place at home and suddenly having to rearrange things. A Qi Receiver can be used and I have a couple here which I have tried, but they also annoy as, however thin they are, they still seem to make the phone 'rock' on a flat surface. Still, the way things are going with power, as described above, I think I can live with this irritation!

A quick word on the Google Assistant before I go on. The 4a 5G does not have the squeeze-to-activate the Google Assistant. Gone. Will it be a miss? Well, for me, I forget it's there on the Pixel 3, never use it - and am more likely to say "OK Google" for the required action if I were to talk to a machine! The rest of the time I can type, thank you! The usual swipe-up from the bottom corners invokes immediate attention ready for the user's command or request. But yes, for those who liked and used that feature, this year it's a miss. There is, of course, the same excellent Always on Display with options to be on/off or sensor-controlled. There's the (virtually) unique Now Playing, which is used here much of the day - and all the other Assistant stuff we've come to expect with Pixel models.

The SnapDragon 765G is powering the 4a 5G as I said earlier, is a step-down from the Pixel 3's 845, but you really wouldn't know it. The newer phone flies around any tasks thrown its way with gusto. I guess hard-core gamers might complain, but even many of them have been impressed with the 'G' of the 765. There's 6GB RAM which is two more than the Pixel 3 but, again, I have noticed no slow-down switching between running apps nor stuff being shut down that I was hoping would still be open. The 4GB of the 3 was good enough, so I guess these 6GB are better!

Storage is, at last, becoming 128GB as a base-line and that's great. I've been bangin' on about demolishing 64GB for years now, especially as with Pixels, there's no microSD Card slot for extra data. This was also true of the Pixel 3, however, though a 64GB version was available at release for £100 less for those who (thought) they didn't need more! As usual with Pixels, there's no HDMI-Out so cabling up to a TV is out, but that's no surprise. Would have been a nice bonus! Tests with the storage are positive. Reads/writes from my various test SSD/adapters via the USB-C port are very quick as it copies data both ways or processes it on the fly.

Connectivity is really strong in my tests here. Using Vodafone in the UK I am able to make and receive cellular calls with no breakup even in a known cold-spot of poor reception and the same is true for WiFi tested here with two different broadband routers. GPS locks on fast and changes reflected instantly in various mapping and weather apps, for example. NFC is present and although in the current world-climate I can't test Google Pay, others are reporting that it's working well and certainly the NFC works fine for data communication.

I'm going to do my usual wriggle here on cameras, report the basics and point you again to Steve's review in which he explains things better than I can. We have a very familiar Pixel setup here with a bonus over the Pixel 3 of an extra wide-angle shooter. So the main one is pretty much the same 12.2MP f/1.7 with OIS, similarly 8MP f/2 Selfie and with the added 16MP f/2.2 wide-angle lens. The interface of the camera is again very familiar, everything simple, logically laid-out with nothing to confuse and an emphasis on letting Google work stuff out for you! This is no Sony Xperia 1 for sure. As we know, most of the clever stuff is computational and the results, consistently excellent. Anyway, yes, do watch Steve's take.

The questions for me have been answered here during my time with the Pixel 4a 5G. I have concluded that the phone is just about acceptable for me in terms of size. Not too big, not too small. The speakers, though not quite as good as the Pixel 3's, are good enough for my purposes. The missing Qi Charging probably remains the biggest annoyance in actual fact. I'm not really concerned about lack of (official) IP-rating and the build and construction of the phone is perfectly fine for everyday use as a workhorse, if not terribly pretty with glass. The bigger screen, though not as bright, is again good enough for me with lots more space for content and the engine-room arrangements make it a perfectly good win. The camera is, well, a Google Pixel camera, so no complaints, the battery knocks spots off the Pixel 3 in every way and the pure, clean, non-bloated and Vanilla software experience can't be found on any other device than a Pixel.

So, as the current owner and user of a Pixel 3 (128GB), would I cough up £499 of my own money for this newer device. That's the question. It's a tough one, which I'm trying to answer with honest to myself - and I think the answer is probably yes. I could see this as my go-to phone for the coming months and maybe years, taking over from the 3. I'm an absolute sucker for the pure experience on a phone - and only a Pixel really delivers that in the Android world - and enjoy updates and new features first. So I can look at whatever else anyone else is doing, enjoy the more feature-rich hardware coming along, play around with it, safe in the knowledge that my SIM Card is nicely snug and tucked away in the phone that I actually want in my pocket. As for the pick of the current crop of 2020 options from Google, and bearing in mind that I haven't seen the Pixel 5 yet, this is the one for me. For the similarly-minded Google nut, this is the life!

If you're going to buy a Pixel 4a 5G from AmazonUK when released in November, please use this link - it costs you no more and they move a few quid my way for the referral. Many thanks.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Planet Computers' Cosmo Communicator

The Cosmo Communicator from Planet Computers is a very interesting device. A step back in time maybe. A niche product for a very specific user maybe. A productivity tool extraordinaire maybe. An alternative approach to communication - and what we have long accepted now as the mobile phone form factor maybe. One thing's for sure - it's a step up from their first attempt with the Gemini.

Sadly, it's taken us all this time to get hold of a review unit here at Phones Show Chat, so late in coming is it that the next generation is in the works with the promise of the next step, in the shape of the Astro Slide. You can watch Steve Litchfield's brief introduction to the Cosmo and basic comparison with the Gemini in The Phones Show Episode 380 from about a year ago now.

The box is as interesting a creation as the phone itself - in the same style as the Gemini, I seem to recall. It's very nicely presented with a magnetic lid reflecting the action of the Cosmo itself. Flip it open and you're presented with the top opening flap housing a picture of the device open and the bottom flap, the keyboard. Just like you've opened the device! Inside, there's the Cosmo and the usual array of leaflets, start-guide, pokey-hole tool, stickers, cleaning-cloth, a 'fast charging' plug and USB-C to USB-A cable. No case or earphones. Apparently there's a slip-on cover in the retail box and maybe even an HDMI adapter (more on that later) too in some regions. There was also (not here) a screen-protector, factory-fitted which many users didn't realise was there, but once removed improves the screen brightness, colour and reliability of touch, although does make it even more of a fingerprint magnet.

The first impression when the Cosmo is retrieved from the box is that it's a huge, heavy lump of a device! Probably the biggest phone I've ever had in for review and the reason clearly is, that it's no ordinary phone. It's much more a pocket-computer than a phone, with the phone functionality very much secondary. However, responding to complaints from Gemini users, the functionality on the outside of the device (when closed) has been significantly enhanced which means that it can indeed be used much more easily as a phone without having to open it up to do pretty much anything, like with the Gemini.

The Cosmo is really well made. It feels like a brick or something with which nails could be hammered! The hinge mechanism is solid-feeling and when the clamshell is opened up it takes some effort to start the movement - when closing, if left with no human intervention, clamps shut with the speed of a Venus Fly Trap - but with a loud clunk! Watch out for your fingers around the hinge though as it's very sharp and has drawn blood on many occasions. On the bottom there's nothing much, on the left end is a 3.5mm audio-out socket, USB-C port, SIM-Card Tray, microphone and the left stereo speaker. On the right is the other one, another USB-C port, more microphones and a power button. The back is taken up completely by the sturdy hinge mechanism and on the front there's nothing to get in the way of your fingers pulling the shell apart!

The top is where the new fun starts and a 1.91" AMOLED display. Flanking this in symmetry are two islands, one the camera/flash unit and the other a multi-function button, LED display and fingerprint scanner. There's a 'smart speaker' at each end so that the user can take phone calls with the unit either way up, top being then the active one. The design is pleasing to the eye overall but could be classified as 'industrial' in the same way that Motorola used to produce early Android devices. Oh, and it's grey/black. No green/red options for business-users allowed!

The rest of the fun starts when you open up the device and are presented with the 'Psion 5' keyboard. It's so very reminiscent of that device except that the keyboard doesn't slide forward - they're moving further that way with the Astro. The keyboard is oodles better than the Gemini keyboard, though to be fair, the Gemini I had in-hand was a very first generation one with noted keyboard problems - and the unit eventually did have a new one placed onto it. The keys 'float' around a central pivot and 'click' reassuringly when pressed. This is no 'chicklet' style keyboard like the Nokia Communicator line or recently, the F(x)tec Pro1.

The 5-row keyboard is nicely designed with an offset array rather than 'square' blocks of keys, just like a 'proper' keyboard. There are big, dedicated cursor-control keys, a decent-enough size return key and full-sized back-space and Escape. The Tab key could be bigger, but not without something giving elsewhere. There's a numeric row up-top, same full-size as the others and a decently sized space-bar which appears to execute the command wherever it is struck, an improvement over the Gemini again.

Then there's 101 Fn actions with a secondary function assigned to pretty-much every key! All sorts of controls, well assigned, arranged and thought out. Example being Fn/Alt which opens the phone. The user will get used to the location of these, even if they have not come from a Gemini upgrading, or even a Psion 5. Take into account all the functions splayed out from the Alt key, Sym and Emoji, the world really is your oyster! Special mention for the secondary function for the Alt/Menu key and Enter, being phone call/hang-ups and also the space-bar as a quick route to the Assistant in use.

An even more special mention for the fact that the keyboard can be backlit on a sliding scale in Settings with the light glowing around each key and through the white letter/number/icon on each screen. It stays on even when the screen times out, which seems a bit odd - only shutting off when the lid is closed. Maybe that's so that the user can still see to change audio-settings, volume etc. It's a nice improvement over the Gemini but we've yet to see what it might do to the battery!

The screen facing the user is clearly designed for landscape use and it might be pretty difficult to use in any other way, for most things, which makes it this unique take on Android with difficulties of design along the way, rather depending on App developers to make sure their offerings work in landscape too. Which, as we know from Android Tablet use, they often don't. But the screen is very nice indeed. A bright and colourful 5.99" 1080p AMOLED with an 18:9 ratio and return of 403ppi. There's 'scratch resistant glass' on offer but I guess it's highly unlikely to get scratched inside there anyway.

The Cosmo is powered by a MediaTek Helio P70, which seems to compare by those who know about these things to a SnapDragon 660. I have had various phones over the last couple of years running that chipset and have seen no problems. Speed around the UI here seems fast enough, opening/switching between apps good, the 6GB RAM plenty. Don't let others tell you it is not!

A disappointment to find that Android 9 is still running things, particularly now that Android 11 is out there, making this two generations of the Android OS behind. In practice, the main missing elements for me are the Dark Mode stuff to be honest. But then when you are using a device that feels so far removed from 'ordinary' phones anyway, it detracts much less than it would for a mainstream offering. Looking at you, Motorola!

More of a concern for some users might be that the Google Security patches are only available here to April 2020. The device can also dual boot with Linux (and even Sailfish, I think) but this really is beyond me and best left to the serious geeky nerds out there! I really can't review that or comment.

Communication options are great with 4G excellent for calls and data. Not a glitch - clearly good components. Same is true of the GPS with Maps and Weather apps and so forth locking on quickly and hanging on well, reflecting movements and so on. NFC is present so Google Pay should work, though I also can't test that just now I'm afraid. Other reviewers report it working well though and certainly other NFC communication duties work as they should. The sensor for this is around the camera island so well placed. Wifi hooks up strongly and maintains a hold very well with 2.4 or 5GHz available. Incidentally, there's space for 2 SIM Cards (and an e-SIM if you like) but if you want to use a microSD Card, this takes one of the physical slots.

Talking of microSD, there's a slot and it's playing nicely with my 512GB card reading and writing fast enough by far, so no speed issues here often noticed with some phones I have tested with specs less than flagship level. There's 128GB storage on the phone as well, which is just great - 64GB away with you! Plugging in my 2TB Extreme SSD for USB OTG was not a success. It crashed the phone, twice, when plugged into the USB-C port on both sides. I was disappointed with this as almost all modern phones can handle this these days. More surprising was that HDMI-Out is not working. I was convinced that this was a selling-feature for businesspeople on the move and yet, it doesn't seem to work at all. On further investigation it seems that it will work, but only if you use the specially designed adapter sold by Planet Computers. The MediaTek chipset apparently prevents the use of any other so-called universal adapter and solution. I wasn't supplied with one, so can't test it. Planet want another £40 for that!

The two USB-C ports can be used for other peripherals, however, for those not using Bluetooth, including a mouse, bigger keyboard, cable to a computer for data exchange or whatever really. They can also be used to charge the unit, which I seem to remember is a change from the Gemini where one of them was for data only. Apparently, the right-hand USB-C port only trickle-charges the battery - and then only if the screen is on. Odd.

The replaceable battery in the Cosmo is a 4,220mAh unit and seems to be a regular complaint generator from Cosmo users. As always, battery life is going to depend on usage and options including the backlit keyboard and AoD on the outside screen. I have everything turned on full here and have found that the battery life is not as good as a businessperson might hope using it as a mini-laptop out and about, doing presentations and relying on the unit as their workhorse. I have tested this over an average day here and found that over a 12 hour day with 5 hours screen-on-time I'm down to about 30%. Another test I performed was to fully charge it, leave it switched on but closed for 24hrs, no SIM Card in but connected to WiFi - and when the 24hrs were up the battery was all-but dead. So, in use with care, maybe it'll just about get to the end of a busy day but I would suggest that people carry a powerbank or spare battery - at least you can!

The stereo speakers are really nasty. Tinny but reasonably loud. They are alright for casual listening and phone calls, voice stuff I guess, but it's a grimace-inducing exercise to play music or watch film/video. I managed to tweak the output to some degree for music by using a player app with its own equaliser, as usual, at the expense of volume - but there's no system-wide controls for sound output so I suggest you use apps which have those controls. Furthermore, my Whatever Works and Better Before co-host Aidan Bell has discovered that the speakers output content out of phase. This reduces volume and quality significantly and may or may not be a problem, depending on how much of an audiophile the user is - and if the user is, I guess this probably isn't the device for them anyway!

Sound from the 3.5mm audio-out socket is tested here with a pair of AKG K701 reference headphones and I can report that the output is again perfectly good enough for most people, loud and with some bass and good tone. Bluetooth 4.2 is present and when hooked up via that method the experience, as usual with bluetooth, is transformed into the excellent category - however, this does always of course depend on the quality of the attached equipment. Pairing is fast and connection reliable.

There's a recording FM Radio app bundled which uses something plugged into the 3.5mm audio-out socket as an antenna in the usual way. Once rolling it can be switched to speakers and actually, sounds very reasonable in my tests. The connectivity is not as strong as some other devices, but as always this will depend very much on where you live and what signal you get with other devices. All I would say is that I have other devices in the same location which do better.

The outside screen is the big change over the Gemini, it could be argued and this small OLED panel which dynamically switches between landscape and portrait, shows time, date and day with various status icons for the likes of cellular strength, wifi, battery and below the clock, incoming notification icons. Tap on one of these and you get a sub-screen of information with a bit more about what it is and some tap-able options, usually leading the user to open up to see anything of any real use. Very handy for incoming SMS and seeing the first part at least of emails however. It's an improvement over a bunch of flashing LEDs which the Gemini user had to learn!

The user can also access a bunch of other control options with a press of the button including some limited Settings, Music Playing, Camera shooting, Video recording (both with the front-camera, which means that if you keep the Cosmo closed and the camera pointing away from you, you can't see what you're shooting), Torch control (LED flash) with timer, Phone function with dialpad, list of Contacts and recent calls and a Voice Memo function. It feels like a half-baked solution to be honest, with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 leading the way with a fully-functioning Android screen on the outside or Motorola's Fold. But then the focus and emphasis of this device is different. Very different. It's all about that keyboard.

The button on the front also acts as a fingerprint scanner but with the device closed, there doesn't seem much point. It unlocks the device, but with no benefit on the outer screen much at all, mainly the inner one - and when you then open it up, it wants the fingerprint scanner to be used again! So then you have to execute hand-gymnastics to fumble around to find the scanner round the back! I guess the user would get used to locating it 'blind' quickly enough, but yes, of limited use it seems beyond extra security.

The camera on the outside of the device is a 24MP f2.8 (read: very small aperture, only really suitable in good light) shooter alongside the aforementioned LED flash. When using it with the device closed the view is echoed on the tiny screen and refresh-rate is appallingly slow and clunky. Move the device and the image catches up with the move after a horribly long delay of about half a second. Doesn't sound much but really, it's not usable! Open up the phone and use the main screen inside to monitor and it's oodles better, just like any half-decent phone. The supplied camera app is very basic with Photo or Video as options, flash on/off, HDR control and a switch to the 5MP camera inside the unit for what really will be, for the target audience, the main use of the camera. Conferencing calls, Skype, Hangouts et al. There's face tracking going on too, so as you move around others will see you in focus. You can pinch-to-zoom up to 4x but of course that's all digital, noisy and nasty. Again, this business tool is not for taking pretty pictures with.

There's none of the usual Android Setup procedure expected with pretty much every Android phone these days. Just turn it on and there's the desktop. Accounts need to be signed into, including the near-obligatory Google one on most other devices. No invitation to sign into anything, Google nor Wifi. Very much like a Psion in fact - the user can, if they want to, use this device completely stand-alone with the Planet supplied software and tools and never go online!

The Planet Computers interface for Android is what's in use here and it is, in many ways, close to 'stock' Android. It's obviously in landscape orientation and the standard Back, Home and Recents control buttons are on the right (though can be switched to left or turned off). The software experience is very similar to the Gemini, though to be fair, I did have limited use of that. There's a pop-up menu with access to a bunch of Planet tools and apps - Airmail (email), Agenda (calendar), Notes, Ledison (controls for the outside LEDs flanking the fingerprint scanner), Data (Db) and Keyboard control. It is nice to have a very quick route back to the home screen with a dedicated keyboard key, to the left of the space-bar. The other Android controls are pretty much standard including the Notifications Shade and information across the top at rest. Because the screen is so wide in landscape, this can make the most of the notifications as they line up potentially in abundance!


This is a beautifully made device which, for the right person will be a perfect solution. I see a businessperson on the road, or on a train. Papers spread in front of them as they draft a report. They really don't want to lug a laptop with them and they're OK with the smaller Psion 5 style keyboard to knock out their thoughts. When they're done, the very same device can be clacked closed and put into an inside jacket pocket and even whipped out to answer calls, locate their next meeting in mapping, fully connected in the same way as they would any phone in 2020.

The point and difference here is obviously the keyboard. It's what this is all about. The question is, would the user be prepared to live with the other compromises involved in order to only carry one device. One device that might just do all they need, even if not so well once the keyboard is finished with. Or is there another, better solution I wonder.

There's also a nostalgia angle for those of who adored our Psion devices - this is a fabulous step back in time, to a large degree, brought up to date. In other ways, feeling like it's still the 1990's. And then there's the other elephant in the room, the £799 it costs, even now, a year on with the Astro Slide successor en route.

The other issue is about this being one of very few options for people who want a truly pocketable device with a truly usable keyboard for productivity, even if it's a secondary unit for those on the move. Keyboarded devices tend to be niche, very niche. And so expensive on short runs and creative funding routes.

Personally, there's not enough here for me at this kind of cost. If it were half that price, I think it might well have. For others, sat on that train, making a living and still being as productive as they can be, this could well be the perfect connected solution. But let's not call it a phone - it's a pocket computer with phone functionality built-in.

Abigail (2024)

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