Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Sony Xperia 10 Mk.III

Eyeballs have mostly been fixed on the Xperia 1 and 5 models over the last couple of years, leaving the little brother of the Xperia range without much attention. The first and second generation of the 10 could easily be glossed over as they are so different from the big brothers, but with the third incarnation I think the 10 should gain some attention. Sony have upped the game to some degree and kept the price down. Kind of!

The question will be about how I compare this model, with what - and from which generation! So here's what I'll do. It sits under the 5iii and is an upgrade to the 10ii - not that I've had either of them in my hands. As we're finding from Steve Litchfield in his review of the 5iii in The Phones Show 430, the 5iii's not hugely different from the 5ii, which I have had in-hand. The further question will be about what has been missed out, thus teasing potential buyers to the next model up. So let's see where we go!

As usual with Sony, the box is a modest affair, white, with no TPU case, a USB-A to USB-C cable and power-brick inside. First impressions of the phone are very favourable. It's slightly less tall than the 5 and slightly less wide. It's chunky in the hand and has those plastic 'rounded' design features all around the edges, rather than the 'boxy' square lines of the 5 and 1. I like this 'rounded' thing. It feels a bit 'retro' in a sense, nice in the hand - a bit like a pebble.

There's
Gorilla Glass 6 on front and back, which matches the premium look and feel of the 5 and 1 ranges and remains pretty light and dinky at only 168g. There's no need for a SIM Card Tray pokey-hole tool as usual with Sony - and thankfully they've stopped the reboot when the tray is pulled out by the use of a fingernail. The plastic tray, which holds either 2 SIM Cards or one and a microSD, is not the best quality compared to many others, much like the ones found on the 5 and 1, but I guess that most people won't be taking it out and in very often.

The phone does boast IP65/68 like the more expensive models, so is dust and water resistant up to 1.5m for half an hour. This, along with the glass back and front are little things which tally up when we look at price, which good features have been added and what's been taken away (or not included). The first of these is the physical shutter button. And that's a shame as it works so very well with the 5 and 1 in the range. Something which differentiates these from other phones and brings across a 'proper camera' feature. However, as we'll find out later, this really isn't much of a camera-centric phone, so maybe it was a fair decision.

The rest of the right side houses a
sturdy-feeling volume rocker above a slightly recessed power button/capacitive fingerprint scanner, above an even more recessed Google Assistant button. You've got to mean to hit that, which is good as you don't want to keep invoking it annoyingly by mistake. There doesn't seem to be any way to reassign this button or turn it off in software, which is also true of the 1 and 5 I seem to recall. But it's OK. It's fairly buried, as I say, and works well for those who want to use it and disable the annoying 'corners' to invoke the Assistant.

There's a microphone and 3.5mm audio-out socket at the top (hurrah!) and just a USB-C port and microphone at the bottom with the card tray high up on the left. There's an earpiece speaker slit at the top of the screen between the glass and the plastic edge and at the bottom, a wide/long single mono speaker for audio. It too is front-facing, similarly between glass and plastic, so forward-firing. On the back there's a pill-shaped camera island top-left in portrait (with LED flash above it) which appears to house three cameras. More on that later.

That's about it really for the
first look - it's small and dinky in the hand - small enough for me to reach even the furthest corners of the screen one-handed, which was a bit of a stretch on the 5 (and not possible on the 1). Perfect in the pocket and hand. You'd hardly know that you have it with you. Lovely little size, in a world gone mad with massive screens and huge units.

The screen has quite thick bezels top and bottom, less so on the edges, but I'm OK with this as there's no question of any ugly 'notch' or in-screen Selfie camera - and there's somewhere to execute Navigation Gestures from efficiently. It's a 6" Sony Triluminos OLED panel, same style as the 1 and 5, 1080p, 21:9 ratio returning 457ppi. You get the same rich, vibrant colours, deep blacks and excellent brightness. There's also the same colour gamut adjustments in settings with completely manual RGB along with some pre-sets.

What you don't get is enhanced screen refresh-rates. Here on the basic 60Hz. As I have said many times, my older eyes can't tell the difference so I'll leave that to younger ones to complain about! The screen is delightful in day-to-day use, great outdoors with the auto-brightness working as it should. No complaints. You also get a good old-fashioned Notification LED top-right which flashes on incoming and indicates charging state etc. When a device gets this small, the 21:9 also works for me personally, as I can enjoy consuming media as well as retaining one-handed use when needed. Incidentally, there's also a one-handed mode for those with tiny hands!

The 10iii comes with a
4,500mAh battery which is great, up from the 3,600mAh in the 10ii and matching the 5iii and 1iii with much less demand on it because of the 60Hz display and lower chipset, which I'll come to. The phone is supplied with a 7.5W charger which will charge it in something over 2 hours but it's capable of being charged at 30W which, given a more powerful charger, will significantly lop a load of time off that. Slow charging is good for batteries as we know, but sometimes you just need to get going. Maybe at this price-point Sony should've included a 30W charger.

The battery performs really well getting me two days of use between charges (if I don't cane it with bluetooth and headphones)! There are various battery-saving modes on offer to elongate this more, but I do find that turning on Battery Care (an AI-based system which learns your behaviour and tries to charge the phone when it thinks that you might not need it fully charged and so forth) rather relies on someone behaving the same way every day - or at best, a very long 'learning period'. My experience is that it interferes with notifications, is never at 100% when I want it to be and in any case, I look after my batteries by slow-charging anyway. Still - some may do better with it than I have. The 10% Reading test that I conduct with all phones I review returned a total of around 2 hours on a few tests over the couple of weeks that I've been reviewing. That's pretty good and up there with many phones with around this size of battery - the Motorola Edge+ scored pretty much the same with the 5,000mAh battery, though that is driving flagship components.

The only current Xperia which has
Qi wireless Charging is the 1iii and it's a real shame that this feature is not even trickled down to the 5iii, let alone the 10iii. It has a glass back. Why would they leave it out, I wonder, except to differentiate it from the models up the range. We can of course add a bodge-solution by means of a Qi Receiver for a fiver from Amazon, but it ain't pretty - and if they're really that cheap, why not just add it in the first place Sony!

As I write in September 2021, I am discovering that some devices are rolling out with the Google Assistant Ambient Mode which provides an Always on Display when the phone is charging. Guess what? Sony didn't include the AoD present in the 5 and 1 devices - presumably for the same reason as above, to differentiate. I'm trying to work out which devices have this Google Ambient Mode and which don't. Some overlay it on top of whatever solution the OEM provides in terms of AoD (like the Nokia XR20), for some the 'Pixel Ambient Services' app to make it work is just not available (like the Motorola Edge+ here) and others can install it but it doesn't work. It doesn't seem to be related to AndroidOne devices, so I'm a bit foxed really and am trying to find out more. In the meantime, it does work on this 10iii so when the phone is charging, you can at least get a Google Assistant based AoD giving clock, Notification shortcuts and other stuff. Check it out for your phone. In the meantime, there's the excellent Always on AMOLED (AoA) app to fall back on which works really well and has more options than anyone could hope to use!

The side-mounted capacitive fingerprint scanner works flawlessly, first time, every time, is quick and easy to register and a much better option than various under-glass offerings from elsewhere. What's missing from the line-up in terms of accessing the phone however is the Lift-to-Wake, Double-Tap-to-Wake (DTTW) and Face Unlock. To be fair, some of this is also missing from the 1 and 5, but I don't see why they can't include all this. After discussion with Freepoc's Malcolm Bryant it seems that Google removed access for third-party developers to add DTTW when Oreo arrived and it's something that only OEMs can do - to include or not include at point of manufacture. So there's no way round that one, we think.
 I have found a workaround for Lift-to-Wake in the 'guise of (the ironically-named) Double Tap (presumably it used to do that too!) which works well (for those not wishing to install AoA). Net result is that regardless of the power and flexibility of Android, Sony could have saved a lot of flying about if they just flipped the switch on these features. Maybe they can for some of them in a software update. I won't hold my breath!

The Sony Xperia 10iii arrived with Android 11 onboard and August 2021 Google Security with a promise to give it two more OS updates and three years of monthly security ones. Which is great, as more and more OEMs get onboard with the programme being driven by Apple and Samsung.

What we like about Sony's software layer over Android is that it's pretty clean and doesn't add too much. Unlike the 1 and 5 it doesn't come bundled with two huge games with 5-6GB of downloads lurking to catch out the unprepared or ill-advised! All you get here is pre-installed (and uninstallable) FaceBook and LinkedIn apart from the always-useful Sony Music app, which is half-decent still and affords the user access to the built-in equaliser. More on that later.

The chipset in the phone is a
SnapDragon 690 5G (8nm) which is not blazingly fast like I found with the higher-end 1 and 5 Xperias, but it's fast enough for the target market. I've done some car-racing gaming on the phone and don't see any slowdown anywhere or judders and so forth. In terms of day-to-day use, it performs perfectly well. In Geekbench 5 testing, it seems to perform in around the same place as the SnapDragon 765G equipped Pixel 5, so not a bad performance at all.

The RAM has been increased to 6GB from 4GB since the last generation and that flows nicely with task-switching. Again, I notice no holdups waiting for apps to switch/open and there is plenty of scope keeping apps rolling. 4GB or 6, I think it all works fine for the undemanding user. Even when driving media to a TV or monitor via HDMI, which is where I shall land next.

Kudos to Sony for keeping this alive when many are ditching the capability. HDMI-Out is a great feature, when fiddling about with OTA stuff is just a pain. Plug in a cable and watch. End of! I did think that this might be one of the features of the 1 and 5 that Sony may have shaved off for the lower-end model, but no. Great!

This is supported by the
128GB of storage for all that lovely media (which is not streaming) though you can in some markets grab a 256GB version. This in turn is supported by the microSD Card capability which, via my tests here with a 512GB Card, work well with read/writes speeds. Maybe not as fast as with the 1 and 5, but it's really not far behind. Also tested my Extreme 2TB SSD in the USB-C slot and again, works like a charm. This is the stuff that Sony doesn't seem to have removed and consequently ended up with a more rounded product line.

I mentioned earlier that the phone also has a 3.5mm Audio-Out socket. This is capable of 24-bit audio in the same way as the others in the range. Armed with my reference AKG K702  headphones the default sound is very good quality, though volume not ear-blowing. I was happily sitting listening on 100% volume. Some may want more. Inside the Sony Music app you can get to an Equaliser which enables adjustment between a bunch of pre-sets or five customised 'sliders' for frequency adjustments and an overriding Bass and Surround slider. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be available anywhere on the phone except for via the Sony Music app. There is a DSEE Ultimate switch if you'd rather not equalise which will "upscale your compressed music accurately using AI technology". I didn't notice it doing anything whatever differently-encoded tracks I threw at it.

Turning to Bluetooth I fired up my Sony WH-1000XM4 pair which, as you might expect, work perfectly with another Sony product and blew my ears away! I gave up and settled on about 60% volume. The default quality of sound is stunningly good. Play with the equaliser if you like but really, there's no need. No complaints with bluetooth these days, as usual. An added bonus of using Sony headphones is the dedicated 'side sense' control panel giving direct access to Sony's Headphones App with on-the-fly equaliser controls (other ones, inside the app) amongst other stuff. A really good use of the side-sense function, which I'll come to.

Sadly, we now come to the not-so-good news about the audio and clearly an area where Sony have whittled away at their parts bill. They supply the 10iii with a
single mono speaker, so not even the stereo of the 1 and 5, but it's also pretty underwhelming. Placed in front of me on a desk, it's perfectly good for system sounds and spoken word, but for music it's really not anywhere near the quality of the 1 or 5 - even taking into account the lack of stereo. It favours the high frequencies making it quite 'tinny' when the volume is wound up and there's little or no bass response.

Try to engage the equaliser (again, remember, only inside the Sony Music app) and you get the usual volume payoff. Yes, you can improve the 'tone' but the more pleasant you get it sounding, the significantly less volume can be enjoyed. I would suggest turning off the equalisation and dropping the volume to about 70% for best use for music. So for sure, this is a phone with which you want to engage headphones or earphones to enjoy - and preferably with bluetooth engaged. Having said all this, the target market is not going to be audiophiles! As we will discover shortly, nor will they be photographers. This is shaping up to be jack of all-trades, master of none.

Speaking of which, the three cameras on the back which I referred to earlier are pretty basic. There's a 12MP f1.8 main shooter supported by an 8MP f2.4 2x telephoto and another 8MP wide-angle unit. There's an 8MP f2 Selfie round the front, too. There's nothing like the depth of photography pedigree here that is present in the 1iii and 5iii - or even the 5ii. That whole Photographer Pro & Cinema Pro is not present so you get a pretty basic camera app and cameras, the most useful of which is the 2x optical zoom. The Selfie has a couple of tricks like Hand Shutter to fire it and portrait snaps look very clear with nice enough colours.

The
layout of the app is simple with a big shutter button, photo/video selector and 1x/2x button. There's a bunch of Sony AI-based Modes to choose from or you can let the camera work out what you're doing for itself. There is a night mode with the usual payoff of digital noise for squeezing what light it can from darkness, Google Lens is built-in, there is a Manual option where you can play around with various settings, but it doesn't take itself very seriously coming from the much better tools of the 1 and 5.

I did find that allowing the camera to do what it wants got the best results overall and it is quite smart, knowing when to, for example, engage Macro Mode with resulting close-focus not being too bad. Using the 2x optical works well too as it's always nice to have a clean optical result rather than zoomed digital. Similarly the wide-angle capability is just fine. With all these cameras, the colours look bright and fine enough to me for social media purposes and the occasional family snap to share on screens. Start pixel-peeping and you'll find that there are better options out there. As always, and as for the speaker principle, above, it depends very much on what people are expecting and how far they want to push their converged pocket-computer - or whether they're after a capable all-round phone for half the price of a better-equipped flagship.

Drilling down into the
settings to see what's there and what may also be missing from the 1 and 5 of the range, firstly the homepages. The Google Feed page is off to the left by default though can be turned off if desired. I must admit that I don't use it much these days, but it just feels 'wrong' if it ain't there! Notification dots are available and the Google Search box ever-present in Pixel is removable here - so more choice about if and where to have it - along with At a Glance (Live Space) by adding Widgets. One over on Pixels!

The drop-down Notification and shortcut shade (which can be pulled down from anywhere) is pretty standard for Android 11 with the usual bunch of buttons, editable, shortcut to main settings and brightness slider. The App Drawer (which can likewise be pulled up from anywhere) is pretty much standard, vertically scrolling, except that Sony have added a 'sort' function which the user can change between A-Z and any order they like by dragging and dropping. Nice addition.

The Recents area is pretty much standard too with long-presses on the header getting the user to split-screen or pop-up window. Pop it up and it overlays the app you chose onto the main screen, maximise, drag to resize, minimise or close. Then there's the aforementioned 'side sense' which is pretty much like Samsung's Edge Panel - they're all doing it now! In this case, double-tap on the bar on the edge of the screen (which you can long-press and drag to wherever you like on either edge) and you can assign shortcuts to apps, editing to place what you like there. You can adjust the height, transparency, sensitivity and position of the bar as well as what gesture you use to open it up. It's a nice addition which I have not used but with the inclusion of the headphones control panel and armed with a Sony pair, I certainly would.

The rest of the
UI is really very clean, not confusing even for people coming here from simple systems - nothing like the huge learning curve required for many phones these days. I like this. It's simple and much like Moto and Nokia do, only add a few bits to Android as Google intended. The benefit to the user is clear. Straight-forward and easy to get to know quickly, no manual or three-week course to attend!

I can't seem to fault connectivity with good strong signals as tested, all round here. GPS locking quickly and moving around as expected, Bluetooth range decent enough before dropouts, NFC working well with connection to other devices, WiFi connecting quickly and maintaining a strong hold, as is cellular (tested here with 4G Vodafone) for voice and data. All good, clearly Sony were not skimping on components for their mid-range.

This certainly is the best Xperia 10 in the series so far with specs brought up further than previous generations. To be fair, Sony have also increased the price somewhat to reflect this (in the UK, RRP is £399) so more than the 10ii was on release. It gets some great features too, like HDMI-Out, retains useful stuff like the capacitive FPS, LED Notification Light, microSD Card and 3.5mm audio-out socket with very good enhanced output. It increases the battery to present a very strong performance, retains a lovely OLED screen, nice build with a formal IP-rating and applies an incremental update to the chipset and RAM keeping things very smooth in use. It's a lovely size in the hand and so very pocket-friendly. Long may Sony continue to make smaller devices when few others seem to want to play ball.

Yes, there's always a
nit-pick list and how lovely it would be to see Qi Charging, Always on Display, DTTW, Lift to Wake and Face Unlock (without having to negotiate workarounds). How great to have the stereo speaker setup and quality of the 5 and 1. Some would like to see a better camera with the physical shutter button of the rest of the range, but actually the camera on offer here is half-decent, again for target price and market. Yes, we could all come up with a list of things which would make it better but certainly some of them would, if applied, no doubt inch the price closer to the Xperia 5iii and we'd all be complaining about that.

I'd like to have seen this at £349. I think that for fifty quid less it would feel like the right price and appeal to many more in a sea of cheaper devices flooding in from China. Sony does have a track record of allowing prices to edge down, though not as fast as many. It's a tough sell pitched where it is. Having said that, it has an interesting array of features which many will find to be the right balance and will be happy. Nice phone. Recommended.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Shadowtown (2020)

This is a short thriller based in Iceland, created by (unknown to me) Jon Einarsson Gustafsson and Karolina Lewicka. I have mixed feelings after watching it, which leap between admiration for an excellent artistic work and a broad shrug for a lethargic low-budget film with an underused cast and lazy plot.

Maya inherits her grandmother's house. Grandmother has died recently and as soon as Maya arrives it becomes clear that it may not have been by the accident which had been recorded officially. As Maya digs around in the house, various shady characters show up around the premises with apparent evil in their eyes!

Turns out that some decades earlier, there had been a boating accident in which many of the townsfolk had been killed and this may, or may not, have had an impact on the life of the grandmother and those around her. Elements of the story unfold as we go along and Maya teams up with some local people in search of the truth - the local policewoman, a solicitor she bumps into and a girl who works in the local coffee shop.

The very pretty Brittany Bristow is in the lead and does a grand job, with the rest of the cast supporting ably (though I don't know any of them I'm afraid). The film is shot in very muted colours and light levels, reflecting a winter in a snow-covered land, faraway north. It also reflects the darkness and mood of the plot. Sadly the plot is at best confusing and at worst, leaving the viewer with unanswered questions with suggestions towards the supernatural.

It's an attempt at an arthouse film in many ways with nods to Kieslowski's Three Colours Trilogy, reserved and underplayed suspense here and there but with no real shocks. A couple of twists in the storyline but nothing anywhere near a jaw-drop! You have to work to fill in the gaps for yourself a bit, but that doesn't take anything away from the attempt here to create something interesting and a bit different. There are some outcomes and logic to the story, which kind of hang together reasonably at the end, but don't expect a bow around it!

It's a short film, not even 90 minutes, but if you focus in on the art, the pretty good acting and the interesting cinematography, the time will fly. If you focus on the plot holes and underdeveloped elements, expecting a neat Hollywood movie, you'll get bored and turn it off. I'm very pleased that I saw it.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

ZTE Axon 30 Ultra

Here's something a little off the beaten track for the UK. A ZTE device. In this case, the Axon 30 Ultra, which is pretty well priced based on specs and may even be pretending to be a £1,000+ flagship. We played with other Axon devices previously and I remember them having excellent stereo speakers, so I approach my time with this one full of hope!

Firstly, a nod to our PSC MeWe Group member Andy Moon for loaning us this unit for review. Do come and join us at MeWe if you're reading this and haven't. We have a cracking little community and you'd be welcome to try us out. Anyway, back to the phone..!

The ZTE Axon 30 Ultra arrived just as I was completing my Sony Xperia 1iii vs Motorola Edge+ comparison review in which I was saying how much those two devices looked like each other (in a global sense). Well, blow me down if this couldn't have met the very same criteria! A little wider but otherwise, in many ways similar. Anyway, that boat has sailed so we'll press on here with a straight bunch of thoughts.

I can just about get my finger and thumb to join around the waist of the device, with TPU in place or not. The
supplied in-the-box TPU is clear, fits perfectly and only leaves the front edges exposed. The edges are slightly curved from front and back meeting the aluminium surround with quite a sharp edge, like the Nokia 8 Sirocco. Along the right side there's a power button and volume rocker, both of which feel sturdy and very well made. On the left, there's nothing, the top is all-but clean and the bottom houses the central USB-C port, SIM Card Tray and speaker. There's no IP-rating with this phone and maybe we're heading towards the territory where that might be expected and included.

On the Gorilla Glass 5 back there's a huge camera island! It's top-left (in portrait) and looks/feels very Samsung. There's a cluster of 3 lenses, a fourth periscope 'square', flashes and sensors and labels! There's also a 'tab' label coming from the side which only appears to be that - a label with NEOVISION PHOTOGRAPHY marked on it. The other label boasts the presence of 3x64MP shooters with their apertures. The ZTE/5G logo is in 'landscape' which gives the impression that the phone should be held in landscape orientation when using the camera.

The camera island sits proud of the back by about 2mm, but this doesn't seem to detract from the phone's balance in the hand. It's actually a surprisingly light phone at 188g and very pleasurable to hold for those who are OK with (yet another) 6.67" screened device! The front is Gorilla Glass 5 again and has virtually no bezels left and right as the screen starts to slide around the curve - with just a small amount top and bottom to aid with Gestures. There's a tiny-weeny Selfie camera hole top/centre which sits below the second speaker (creating stereo) for calls.

The phone has a really nice design, though it could be argued that it's pretty much like any other phone out there these days with little to differentiate it from many, many others. Except for perhaps that camera island on the back. It sits nicely in the hand, feels well made, classy and premium. I guess that without a TPU on it does feel different from some others which make use of plastics - and miss out on that final aspect of quality. But then the TPU goes on! I'm not sure if other variants differ, but this one has Dual SIM (back to back), both for 5G data.

The front panel is an AMOLED one, 1080p and a 20:9 ratio returning 395ppi. It looks perfectly good to me and I love OLED - there's something special about it which I personally have never seen from an LCD. The refresh rate of the screen can be wound up to 144Hz in settings - or anything you like along the way to preserve battery - 120, 90, 60 or Auto - where it decides for you, based on what you're doing. Regular readers here will probably know what I'm going to say here with my near-60 year-old eyes - that I really need to look closely to see any difference. I'm sure younger people into gaming will disagree, but I'll plump for the battery savings!

The screen gets very bright when increased manually or on adaptive and out in bright ambient light. The colours are rich and saturated, but for those not happy, there are plenty of settings to tweak with the way it looks. It must be a Samsung panel, I'm guessing. One of the clear advantages of OLED screens is of course Always on Displays and ZTE don't miss the flight here!

There are a good number of options to choose from with the Always on Display along with settings to have always on, briefly after touching the screen or scheduled. My Nokia XR20 could really do with that feature! There are a nice bunch of options from analogue to digital, pretty graphics or text. The AoD shows whatever you choose including time, day, date, battery state and icons for notifications. If you double-tap (anywhere) you then get the 'lock screen' with cards showing a bit more detail about the notifications (like Pixel) or you can press the in-screen fingerprint scanner to open up fully.

The in-screen optical fingerprint scanner is supported by Face Unlock. They are both quick and easy to set up and work flawlessly in my tests here. There is a very, very small delay when you place your finger on the target (which is placed about 25% of the way up the screen) but only the picky (and capacitive die-hards) would complain!

This review unit has 128GB storage and 8GB RAM but you can buy one up to 1TB and 16GB RAM if you can find one! There's also a middle-ground option of 256GB of storage. You should be careful when choosing storage however, as there's no microSD Card expansion here so what you buy is what you get. You can, of course, use streaming and cloud-based data these days - as long as you're connected and/or plug in adapters and storage to the USB-C port (with a charging split if needed). I have tested this on-the-go with my usual 512GB microSD with adapter and my 2TB Extreme SSD and all is well with both. Watching a film on this glorious screen is a treat, especially with the stereo sound.

I was surprised to discover that HDMI-Out (by cable) is working perfectly too, which means that all that lovely content can easily and readily (armed with a cable and adapter) be sent to whatever big TV/monitor you fancy! This feature is slipping away with many, so I was pleased to see ZTE including it still.

The data I spoke of above is exchanged quickly when plugged in, assisted by the all-but bang-up-to-date SnapDragon 888 chipset. It really is fast. Just now and again that can be useful and helpful to get things done in a hurry. Speed around the UI is blazingly fast with this 5nm SoC and I saw no slowdown anywhere during my test period. Didn't have to wait for anything to open/re-open with the 8GB RAM, which is clearly more than adequate for the latest version of Android to run sweetly. I did run Geekbench 5 and found the results to reflect a very high rating, only trailing the Sony Xperia 1iii and Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max of the current sample phones kicking around PSC Towers recently.

Android 11 is present here of course, as we're not into 12 territory yet, but I was a tad concerned that the Google Security patches wouldn't update past May 2021, when we're now in September. Maybe ZTE don't prioritise these monthly updates like others now seem to, but it was certainly a mark down in my eyes. I remain hopeful that going forward they will keep it up to date more and that (at least) Android 12 will come along, if not 13.

I'm delighted that the Axon 30 Ultra has stereo speakers of course and further, that they appear to be 'real' stereo and not a hybrid software-driven mix which actually end up more like just dual speakers. What is done in software is very clever of course, but there's nothing like the real thing! The output really is very good with DTS:X Ultra engaged, up there with the Motorola Edge+ for volume and not far off for bass. It's more harsh and top-heavy without it engaged but the hit on volume when turned on is minimal. Once you're inside the 'personal audio preferences' you can get to a bunch of pre-sets and graphic equaliser via a custom setting. You can also switch the stereo effect from Traditional or Wide to 'In-front'. YMMV but I found the Wide setting useful when watching a film, to throw the stage wider and make separation more pronounced. The speakers don't 'turn round' so the left stereo channel always comes out of the earpiece and right, bottom. Net result is that the sound ain't half bad. Certainly good and loud, good stereo and adjustable to make quality better.

There's no 3.5mm audio-out socket here, so we're relying on either a USB-C ear/headphone set or Bluetooth. There is 24-bit audio enhancement for output and you can tell the difference between this and some more ordinary. It's certainly louder than non-enhanced units with good strong bass and a good balance, tested here with my reference headphones. It wasn't quite too loud for me at top volume, but it wasn't far off. Turning to Bluetooth, as we have come to expect, tested here with various headphones and earphones, it's boomingly bassy and ludicrously loud for my ears, depending on the attached gear, of course! I settled on 50% volume.

The ZTE headline here for this phone is that it has 200 MILLION PIXELS! That's what the camera units add up to if you exclude the Selfie, so 64MP+64MP+64MP+8MP. Nothing is quite as it seems however, in intent. It's all well and good to shout about your hardware, but the question is whether or not the software supporting it renders usable (or dare we hope) excellent pictures. To run through the shooters, there's a 64MP f1.6 main camera with OIS, a 64MP f1.9 (35mm equivalent) secondary, a 64MP f2.2 wide-angle third and an 8MP f3.4 5x Optical Zoom unit with OIS. There's a 16MP f2.5 Selfie up-front in that very tiny hole (compared to many others' manufacturer's resting point).

I was most interested in the 5x optical zoom, like most people probably, and went on out for the shoot full of enthusiasm. Mixed feelings really on return. It's great that the facility is available of course - and if you don't want to crop or enlarge, the photos are absolutely fine. Social media will be a great platter to show off some great zoom shots. But I didn't have to zoom in very far to find fuzzy edges, artefacts and noise. I've seen much better - and maybe 5x is still just a bit too far yet. The results from the 3x on my Edge+ hold up to much closer pixel-level scrutiny. But, as we often say, who wants to pixel-peep with photos from phones? That's not what they're for - except for those watching closely for improvements as we move forward on a technical basis.

Much more useful is, in fact, the 35mm secondary shooter, the preferred focal length for me back in the day for all sorts of street photography and some level of interior work without going to 28mm. The shots from this lens, unlike the periscope, on closer inspection are much better, surviving much more pixel-peeping, are colourful and very nice. I think that ZTE have majored on this lens as the best of the bunch as it also seems to be even better than the main shooter. The close-focus is nothing to write home about and won't challenge Xiaomi in that respect.

The camera interface is clean enough with Google Lens built-in from the Home screen position. There's the usual line of options to slide/select from, with a Zoom Slider on-screen to the right. This defaults to 1x of course but can easily be tapped for 0.5x wide-angle, 2x Zoom (which upscales the 35mm lens), 5x (for the periscope) and to ludicrous 60x lengths at the top for all-but unusable photos - even on social media to be viewed on a small screen!

The bokeh in the portrait lens (35mm) is very well implemented with a virtual aperture slider across the bottom of the screen so you can adjust the level - and in my tests here, when across to the "F1.0" side, the artificial/hybrid blurring is well done, impactful and doesn't look horribly induced. There's a Multi-Camera option so that you can use toggles on the screen to quickly switch between the lenses and their focal length options and a Night Mode which actually seems to do a very good job pulling light from nowhere! There's always the payoff of course with noise and wrecked pixel-level detail, but you can't defeat physics! For the average user shooting night-time shots, I think that it does incredibly well and makes what should be unusable, usable!

Then there's all sorts of other stuff going on in the More tab, like a fully manual mode which lets the user play with settings of ISO, EV, WB, SS and focusing (doesn't help close-focus though), Panorama, Mono, 64MP to force the full-res rather than Quad Bayer down to 16MP in most cameras, Long Exposure and so on. There's a bunch of Quick Settings available from the hamburger menu en route to the main settings where you can drill down to even more, less often used ones. There's a spirit-level horizon aid if you want it and loads of other stuff. It's a nice enough camera app which stops short of becoming confusing and unclean. As Steve Litchfield will not be getting hands-on with this unit (he's busy reviewing the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra) I'll link you here to GSMArena's appraisal of the camera capabilities over two pages on their website starting here as they get down to the nitty-gritty and do some serious testing.

ZTE's MyOS 11
sits on top of Android 11 here and it's surprisingly clean and logical compared to many phones coming out from the far-east which seem to do everything in their power to confuse, lock people in and keep well away from Vanilla flavouring! There were a couple of pre-installed apps to deal with, but really not very many. The usual FaceBook, browser et al. They uninstall nicely so we can move on. Google apps are employed and nothing doubled-up, so no ZTE email, contacts or calendar for example. There is a useful File Manager (which often work better than Google's Files, I find).

There is an additional item which is becoming more common these days, making a shortcut cluster from a floating button/slider on the screen. Like Sony's Side Sense or Samsung's Edge Panel. ZTE call theirs Z-Pop but it works in much the same way. When you turn it on, you can assign a bunch of system functions to five buttons (though unlike the others, not apps). The 'main' button sits on the screen, dragged to where you want it, then if you tap-hold, drag away from the edge and then let go, you get the other 4 of the 5 buttons in a semi-circle to execute. Works well and is simple. Not sure I'd bother with it, but it's clean enough.

There's a Google Feed option for the left of home for those who want it, a home screen Google Search widget which is removable, a bunch of wallpaper via the long-press home and even Effect - which allows for a choice of animation when switching screens or returning to base. The Widget-picker is far from standard, being a carousel across the bottom of the screen rather than full-page vertical list, but it works well enough. You can change the grid-layout for rows/columns and even opt for all-apps on home screens rather than App Drawer if you like. The app drawer is vertically-scrolling with an A-Z index down the right for quick-picks with, thankfully no Recent Apps list at the top taking up space!

Pull down from anywhere gets you the Status/notification area which is very Android 12/iOS in terms of having big buttons and blue colours when engaged. A secondary swipe gets down to the other buttons which are editable and sideways-scroll if you have too many for one page. There's a ton of stuff in there to choose from, so customise away!

The Settings screen is also pleasantly uncluttered and rearranged too much from Vanilla with no nags to open a ZTE account, for example, often blighting other manufacturers' offerings. Having said that, when you drill down into various settings, it becomes obvious that ZTE have put the MyOS touch on some stuff. But I'm not complaining. It's close enough! There's useful stuff additionally too in there - and some things changed and missing. For example, Display time-out max is 10 minutes instead of the standard 30 minutes.

There's a ZTE Locker which appears to offer a daily change of wallpapers fed by HQ and a very basic set of three Themes, a few tweaks to the Status Bar like not/showing/locating battery % and connection network speed, Dark Mode, Reading Mode and Night Light - we know the drill by now and these kind of additions are all-but standard for Android, certainly v12. Settings are all very pretty with colourful graphics and icons - and nice graphs and charts here and there depicting battery and storage - very Samsung again in many places.

I actually like MyOS 11 very much indeed. A bit like what Motorola/Sony/Nokia do, keeping it pretty much as Vanilla as possible - but add some really useful (and often pretty) enhancements. Yes, there are a few changes and omissions, but I really could live with that. Give me a choice of this and what Oppo, Xiaomi, Realme, Redmi, Samsung (and more) offer, and I'll be all over this, every time.

Connectivity is good with all the usual suspects performing very well indeed. Cellular connectivity appears to be strong, tested here with voice calls where all parties report good and strong reproduction even in a known weak-spot for Vodafone. Data via cellular is very good and strong. Wifi 6e is supported but I have no way yet of testing that advancement - with an ordinary WiFi on a domestic router the signal is strong with a long-reach connection. NFC seems to be present and working fine connecting to other gear, though I couldn't test Google Pay. Similarly, GPS locked on quickly in supporting apps and services and tracked me well, whilst moving. Bluetooth 5.2 seems to offer a decent enough range via the phone's aerial and held onto the signal pretty well with break-up only present when pushed to longer distances or through very thick walls.

The supplied battery is a 4,600mAh unit. Not the biggest out there, but still decidedly decent. In my test period of my average usage I found that I could quite happily get to the end of the day with 30-40% remaining, so if pushed maybe lunchtime on Day 2. My 10% Reading SoT Test returned me 1 hour and 45 minutes, which again, is not the best but certainly far from worst. As always, battery longevity depends very much on what you're using the phone for and how you're pushing it or not, so YMMV for sure. On balance though, there's no reason to fear a poor performance. In the box you get a 65W charger which zips through charging, offering a full charge from flat in under an hour and two-thirds in half-hour. Wow! Having said that, i
t's a shame that there's no Qi Charging - something I might have expected at this price-point - but something that many seem to be dropping and supplying super-fast-chargers instead.

At time of writing the phone can be bought direct from ZTE in this 128GB/8GB version for £649. There's a lot of phone here for that price. But there are also a couple of items that you might expect, like Qi Charging and an IP-rating (and being fussy, microSD and 3.5mm)! Having said that, this feels very much like a flagship at half the price of many others, it has a super bright and colourful screen with a very fast refresh-rate, it's much cleaner than many in terms of Android, it has a bunch of interesting and fun cameras (highlighted for me by that 35mm shooter), a super-fast processor, great sounding speakers and booming 24-bit audio for headphones. I would be very happy to use this phone as my main unit with my only concern being the commitment by ZTE to monthly security updates. Laying that aside, very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

PodHubUK Podcasts for the Month of August 2021

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


Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 1st August
Gareth and I are here again for our Sunday roundup of all things tech as we natter over M&Ms and other addictive confectionary! In between all that we wonder if Nokia's new tablet will be any good, Samsung's watch will be a Classic, whether we should shudder at the word Pegasus or just shove it up our BitLocker! ("Go on - shove it!")

The Phones Show
Thursday 5th August
Join Steve for an interim show over on his YouTube Channel as he plays hunt the hiss while shooting video with various smartphones over the last decade or so..!

Whatever Works
Episode 143 - Anti-Dirty Bottom!
Friday 6th August
Aidan and I are back again with another hour of chaos and chips (cheap ones)! Loads of stuff as usual to uncover - Whatever Works for us and you - including a fair amount of Sucking and Blowing in unexpected orifices, Fidgeting with Igloos, getting our Power from Towers and even having a poke at The Limp Pics!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 651 - Pixel Precious
Saturday 7th August
Steve and I are joined this week by Mark Hilton who we catch up with on all things mobile phone. New Nokia, Sad Sony and Perfect Pixel? Do join us to find out.

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 8th August
It's that time of the week again as Gareth and I pick apart the world of tech in between naughty words! Grab your Play Pass for Retro Toys as you Simple Dimple in Shorts - while we look at the latest from JBL, Lonovorola, HTC and even chat to our Chromebooks!

Projector Room
Episode 93 - The Cat Contract
Wednesday 11th August
Gareth, Allan and I are back again with our fortnightly roundup of what we've been watching in film, cinema and TV. We also scoop up the best of the submissions in our MeWe Group of course and tackle our new Theme: Cats! We discover The Boy Behind the Door, tackle Kindred topics and kick The Mule back into life!

The Phones Show
Thursday 16th August
Join Steve over on his YouTube Channel as he holds the 1iii up against the 5ii with an eye on the coming 5iii - if you follow! Plenty to chew over, lots to love, some not so good. Yet!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 652 - Gun Proof
Tuesday 10th August
Steve and I sneak in a mid-week show in as we get up to speed on a couple of devices in-hand turning out to be a bit more time-consuming to review! The Gun Proof Nokia XR20 and all powerful Sony Xperia 1 III take centre-stage.

Phones Show Chat
Saturday 14th August
Steve and I are back in our regular weekend slot and welcome Ian Furlong once again and catch up with where he's at in mobile. Loads of other stuff too as I mop up the Nokia XR20 stuff and Steve further teases his Sony Xperia 1iii review.

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 15th August
Gareth and I are here again with our weekend catchup of tech that has caught our eye in the last 7 days. Luggage style Speakers, add-on Touchscreens, Realme go their Ownway, bark from Xiaomi and gaming galore!

Phones Show Chat
Saturday 21st August
Steve and I are back with a two-header this weekend as we swap over the latest Nokia and Sony phones and tell you what we think! We'll be back mid-week again this week, as there's so much to cover and we just didn't have time here.

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 22nd August
Gareth and I are back - it must be Sunday again! We plough into tons of tech again this week. Robot lawyers, Tablet clones, Patreon Porn, Magnet Cams, Amusement Arcades and African cables get the treatment this week!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 655 - Xperia Three
Tuesday 24th August
Steve and I are back with another mid-week catch-up episode which is all about that - catching up on the stuff we had no time for at the weekend: a Sony Xperia 1iii and Nokia XR20 mop-up. Some other bits too, so why not tune in!

Projector Room
Episode 94 - Cujo Clerk
Tuesday 24th August
Gareth, Allan and I are back once again for our fortnightly roundup of what we, and you, have been watching in film, cinema and TV. Plenty of goodies as usual - with a Dog theme in the middle and much drooling over a certain Ana, but mainly a deceitful jungle cruise at some kind of boss level!

Phones Show Chat
Episode 656 - Dual Decisions
Saturday 28th August
Steve and I welcome back Juan Carlos Bagnell this weekend as we find out what gear he's been using, testing and favouring recently. Loads of top-notch natter to get stuck into.

Tech Addicts Podcast
Sunday 29th August
Gareth and I are back for another wild ride on the UK’s favourite Tech Podcast hosted a bloke from Northern Ireland and a bloke living in Wales! This time we blabber on about Surface Duo 2, contactless payments, an electric cargo ship, Fitbit Charge 5 and much, much, much more. Seriously, loads!


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

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 - Tech Addicts

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

Little Fish (2020)

I'm not sure if we needed another pandemic/virus film, but we got one here with the thought-provoking Little Fish which takes a slightly...