Moto X4 hands-on: Premium looks and features on a budget

The world may be distracted by the advanced, high-end technology of the Galaxy Note 8 and the highly anticipated iPhone 8, but those devices also tend to come with appropriately hefty prices. For people looking for budget-friendlier options that look just as premium and perform respectably will soon have a new candidate to consider. Here at IFA in Berlin, Moto unveiled the X4 — its latest midrange handset which will retail in Europe for €399 in September. It offers dual cameras and an elegant design for the price, and after a brief hands-on with the new handset, I’m pretty taken by how it looks.

Seriously. The first thing I noticed about the X4 is its beautiful, shiny body. This highly-reflective aesthetic seems to be the flavor of the year for smartphones (think: Sony’x XZ Premium and the LG V30), and so far I’m into it. The eye-catching sheen attracts fingerprints, though, and I frequently had to wipe down the handset during my preview. I also liked the X4’s gentle curves, which made it easy to maneuver.

That’s not to say the device is an unwieldy size. With a 5.2-inch full HD display, the X4 is manageable. The screen’s 424 ppi pixel density also helped make graphics on the phone’s Android 7.1 Nougat interface look rich and crisp.

A nice display is an important basic to nail, but the X4 also has plenty of bonus features even at this price. The most interesting of these is the new dual cameras setup on the rear. Like most other phones with a pair of lenses, the X4 can create an artificial depth-of-field effect that blurs out the background to highlight your subject. Moto uses a 12-megapixel f/2.0 sensor in tandem with an 8-megapixel wide-angle version in the X4. However, in my short time testing the new phone, I found this software, which Moto calls “Depth Mode,” somewhat odd.

Like the Galaxy Note 8, the X4 allows you to see the blurred effect as you frame your shot in the viewfinder and adjust the intensity before you snap. But while Samsung lets you tweak the amount of blur after shooting, Moto doesn’t.

That would be a small issue if not for the fact that the depth-of-field effect doesn’t appear to be very accurate in the viewfinder — the blur seems to be a little haphazard. But when I looked at the image afterwards, the coffee cup that I focused on was crisp, while all the background around it was hazy. The X4 was great at identifying object outlines, but the contrast between the sharp and blurred out areas of the photo was so stark that the overall effect was disorienting.

Moto told us that the software we were testing is still an early version, and that it will likely be updated before the phone ships to consumers.

A couple of other new camera features for the X4 include a Panoramic Selfie for the 16-megapixel front camera, which lets you tilt your phone around to take a wider portrait, as well as a “Landmark Detection” tool that helps you identify places of interest around you. I didn’t get to try out the latter, but the wide selfies I shot were surprisingly clear. I couldn’t tell where they were stitched together even upon zooming in to the photo. Neither of these two are particularly novel updates for smartphones, though. Selfie panoramas have appeared on a few other phones, while many third-party AR apps can already recognize landmarks and give you more information about them.

One more distinguishing feature for the X4 is its integration of Amazon Alexa. Like the HTC U11, the Moto X4 lets you talk to Alexa without having to first launch an app or press a button. You can also talk to Amazon’s assistant even when the X4 is locked, and the system will recognize your voice before responding. A Moto rep asked Alexa for the weather on her X4 without waking it from sleep, and it responded quickly. You can’t use Alexa to change things on the handset like display brightness or audio volume, though, since Google Assistant will still be the main controller of those settings. It’s mostly nifty to have Alexa on the X4 to read audiobooks to you or to control smart home devices that still don’t work with Assistant.

The rest of the phone’s specs are reasonable for the price. The X4 runs on a Snapdragon 630 processor with 3GB or 4GB of RAM (depending on the region), and packs a 3,000mAh battery in its IP68 water-resistant body. It also supports Bluetooth 5.0, and uses technology that Moto says allows the X4 to connect to up to four Bluetooth devices at once. Fans of Moto’s Maker customization service will probably be disappointed though — the X4 won’t have personalization options.

Although we don’t yet know how much the phone will cost when it arrives in the US (and it’s coming), it is likely to be in the same range as its European counterpart. If that’s true, the combination of a rich display, elegant body and capable cameras (albeit with some finicky software) for the sub-$ 400 price makes this a compelling proposition.

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The iPhone 8 reportedly swaps the home button for gesture controls

The folks over at Bloomberg got their hands on some images of the next iPhone as well as some information from people familiar with the new model. Some of the features confirmed in their report were already known or at least heavily suspected, but there are also some new details about how the phone will function without the home button.

As has been reported before, the images viewed by Bloomberg show that the iPhone 8 will have thin bezels and a larger screen than the iPhone 7. It’s also going to have a facial recognition sensor that, along with the earpiece and front-facing camera, will be contained in a cutout at the top of the screen. Some other physical details include rounded edges for the screen, a longer power button, a glass front and back and stainless steel edges with antenna cuts on the corners. The app dock is also getting a redesign and looks a lot like the iPad iOS 11 dock, according to Bloomberg.

But one of the bigger changes — the removal of the home button that’s been a part of the phone for a decade — comes with some tweaks to how users will access the features that the home button has brought them to in the past. Now, what was once the home button’s function is going the way of the iPad and Apple’s laptop trackpads. Gesture controls will now bring you to the main app grid and show you which apps are open. The bottom of the screen will host a software bar that can be dragged upwards to open the phone and also to get to the multitasking interface once the phone is unlocked.

The new iPhone is expected to launch on September 12th alongside the 7s and 7s Plus models.

Source: Bloomberg

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The first water-resistant BlackBerry will ditch the keyboard

TCL, the Chinese conglomerate that produces phones under the BlackBerry name, is going to broaden its appeal to more than just keyboard devotees. The company has revealed to Engadget that it will launch a full touchscreen device under the BlackBerry name at some point in October. It may not be a Z10, or even a Storm (or Thunder), but if you were looking to get your mitts on a keyboard-free BlackBerry, it’s coming.

Granted, TCL’s DTEK 50 and 60 phones were also all-screen, but this is different. Details are, perhaps obviously, fairly scarce about the as-yet unannounced device, but we managed to glean tidbits from TCL’s François Mahieu. Mahieu explains that TCL will respect BlackBerry’s reputation for building hard-wearing devices for clumsy international travelers who will be working in all weathers. The main feature, beyond the full-touchscreen, is the (planned) IP67 water and dust-proofing, as well as a battery rated to last for more than 26 hours of mixed use. Mahieu believes that durability and longevity will be two of the biggest selling points, a long-lasting phone that’ll keep going long after your iPhone has conked out.

Mahieu feels bold enough to claim that he expects a number of iPhone and Galaxy users to “make the switch” to BlackBerry come October. Of course, these handsets now run Android, which means that it’s far harder to make it stand out from the crowd. Mahieu continues to believe that BlackBerry’s security know-how will enable TCL to deliver the “most secure Android phone in the world.” Although given the failure of so many ultra-secure Android devices to sell, his confidence seems — at least right now — misplaced.

But TCL is used to combating cynicism with people looking down their nose at BlackBerry in its new after-life as a white label brand. Mahieu said that users shouldn’t write off BlackBerry just because it doesn’t stand toe-to-toe against Apple and Samsung. “We are there to play,” he explained, “we’re just playing with different cards,” mostly by pushing its strengths of battery life, security and durability. As for pricing, it’s likely that the device will cost less than other flagships.

Of course, we’ve already seen a BlackBerry device with a large display unencumbered by a physical keyboard. The Priv hid its physical input device in its slider, and so could actually work as a phone for touchscreen devotees. And given how well that device sold — prompting BlackBerry to abandon producing hardware altogether — it’s going to be interesting to see how TCL can avoid history repeating.

TCL is banking on certified water and dust-resistance as a draw, and it’s not clear how many people were waiting for that as a reason to make the switch. But Mahieu is hinting that the company is “marching towards millions” of device sales, although it’s not clear how many models it needs to shift before it can be considered a success.

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What we’re using: Qapital, Mighty and the Switch Pro controller

This month’s In Real Life focuses on self-improvement: taking your Spotify playlists to the gym minus your phone, getting some app-powered help on your savings and, er, being a better gamer on the Nintendo Switch.


Nicole Lee

Nicole Lee
Senior Editor

I like spending money, but I’m not so great at saving it. I’ve used Mint and other budgeting software before, but they still require me to do the heavy-lifting of actually watching what I spend. So after doing a bit of research, I decided to try out Qapital, an app that promises to do the saving for me. I’ve been using it for about a month now, and I’ve already saved up around $ 500 — without really trying.

The trick with Qapital is that it lets you set up a series of rules that’ll automatically transfer money out of your bank account and into your Qapital account. And the great thing is, you can create whatever rule you want. So for example, you can have a “Round-Up” rule that’ll automatically round up each expense to the nearest dollar and transfer the difference. Or you can create a rule that’ll chip in $ 10 every time you spend something on Amazon (which Qapital calls the “Guilty Pleasure” rule).

For the extra nerdy, you can even hook Qapital up with If This Then That (IFTTT), a service that connects different internet accounts together. This way, you can save a buck every time you post a photo on Instagram, or save $ 5 every time you tweet. You can also set it so that it saves money every time you reach your 10,000-step goal if you’re so inclined.

When the money arrives in your Qapital account, it gets siloed into one or more of different goals that you’ve set up for yourself. This can be something like a “Rainy Day” fund with a goal of $ 10,000 or a “Vacation” fund with a goal of $ 2,000. Qapital encourages you to have smaller, multiple goals to work toward (so you can get the satisfaction of achieving something), but it works just as well with the one big goal.

I opted to choose rules that saved money every time I spent — the Round-Up rule as well as the Guilty Pleasure rule. I also had three separate goals set up, with the same rules applied to each one. Before I knew it, I was putting away almost a hundred dollars a week — every time I went to the grocery store, or bought a gadget on Amazon, extra money was shuffled from my bank account to Qapital. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much money I could save and still be able to live my life the way I always have.

I’ll warn here that you do need to give Qapital your bank login credentials for the whole thing to work. If you use credit cards for your spending, you’ll want to add those account logins to the Qapital app too, so that your spending can trigger the rules. That might scare off some of you, but this is how Mint and most other budgeting apps work. Besides, the Qapital account is FDIC-insured, so you won’t have to worry about your money disappearing in the middle of the night. Also, you can transfer the money out of Qapital any time you want. You can even use Qapital to pay your bills directly.

There’s one caveat though, and it’s an important one: You don’t earn any interest from the money you put away in your Qapital account. After all, the service is free — the interest from your savings goes directly to Qapital instead of you. It would be far more prudent and money-wise for you to simply transfer all that money into your very own interest-earning account yourself.

But if you need help saving and you want it to be done automatically, then Qapital does provide a simple and elegant solution. An interest-earning savings account will get you more money over time, sure, but this is better than not saving anything at all.


Mat Smith

Mat Smith
Bureau Chief, UK

Billy has already given the Mighty a thorough testing here, but for the uninitiated, it’s an iPod Shuffle-esque Spotify player with both a headphone socket and the ability to play music wirelessly. As I’m a foolish iPhone 7 owner, my headphone choices have gravitated towards wireless options. But I still own some wired sets, which generally offer better sound quality. (Oh yeah, and Apple stopped selling the iPod Shuffle.) Finally, I could listen again to my Spotify tracks with higher-quality ‘phones on my commute, at the gym and the rest. I was an early backer on Kickstarter — yeah, I can’t believe it happened either, and my device even landed ahead of review samples. I’ve had it for a few months now.

I made the wrong choice on color, however. Unlike our review sample in moody black, mine was a slightly dull white, if you remember desktop PCs from the mid-90s, you’ve got the right shade. It gave the feeling that this was some sub-$ 20 MP3 player, not something closer to 90 bucks. The clip was reassuringly sturdy, with a rubber edge to keep it all snugly attached to wherever I put it. (Like you can see in the image in this article, I did wear it on my shirt collar, because I could.) One personal caveat is that I’ve realized that I’m pretty much tethered to my phone when I go the gym: I log my exercises, timings and the rest. I might even Google stretches and rehab movements because my body doesn’t like it when I make it move. This means that Mighty doesn’t liberate me as much as say, someone that goes running, or follows along a class. But, hey, that’s me.

Unlike my colleague, I had a few early troubles getting my music tracks to sync, but once you’ve got your best playlists synced, you rarely have to meddle with the app and sync from your phone again. This is great. Less great is the choice of charging port: The headphone socket. Yes, I understand that this helps simplify design, and there’s likely technical design reasons for it, but it also means another obscure cable I need to keep around. Just add a micro-USB port — those cables are cheap and plentiful. The Mighty might not be essential for me, but it is smart way to take your Spotify collection away from your phone and PC and there aren’t many options for that.


Timothy J. Seppala

Timothy J. Seppala
Associate Editor

Nintendo is forcing my hand to buy a Pro Controller for my Switch. After sending my left Joy-con in for service (yup, mine loses sync too), my buddy Victor offered to lend me his Pro so I could keep chipping away at the legendary beasts in Zelda. Until then, I’d sworn the gamepad off because the Wii U’s version never felt quite right to me. That and the updated model is $ 70. C’mon, Nintendo.

Engadget

Getting it to sync to my console was a bit of an ordeal, but a few minutes later I was up and running. I haven’t owned a non-default controller for a Nintendo system since the GameCube, and once I fired up Breath of the Wild, I realized how much of a mistake that’s been.

Scrolling through my arrow and weapon inventory with a real D-pad and having normal-sized face buttons was a revelation. The Joy-cons and adapter are serviceable stand-ins for a controller, but now that I’ve used the real deal, I don’t think I’ll be able to go back. The ergonomics are better, as is the fit and finish. Best of all? When I’m staring at my TV screen, I don’t have a nagging feeling that I’m using an input device designed around compromises.


“IRL” is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they’re buying, using, playing and streaming.

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Insta360 One is a 4K 360 camera with smart tricks

For those who haven’t been following, earlier Insta360 released a montage of cool sample clips to tease its upcoming camera’s bullet-time video capability. What baffled me at the time was how those slow-motion shots orbited around a person with his upright arm seemingly holding onto something, except there was no visible string nor selfie stick to suggest that the camera was being swung around. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong, but there’s no need to be disappointed — it actually takes a lot more than just a piece of string to achieve this bullet-time effect.

The camera, which has just been unveiled as the Insta360 One, is the latest 360 camera designed to deceive naive folks like myself. This is the company’s second 4K-capable compact device following the aptly-named Insta360 4K but at about half the price — just $ 299.90. The One shoots video at either 3,840 x 1,920 at 30 fps or 2,560 x 1,280 at 60 fps, both with LOG format option which is a first for a consumer 360 camera; and it can take 24-megapixel stills (6,912 x 3,456) with RAW format option — another first for a consumer 360 camera — followed by HDR capture at a later date.

Unlike the older model, the One lacks WiFi connectivity for remote view, but it does come with an 8GB microSD card to get you started. Sports fans will also be delighted to know that the One has an optional IP68 waterproof housing that’s good for depths of up to 30-meter or about 98.4 feet.

Much like the 3K-only Nano, the One can be used as a standalone 360 camera (using the power button or via Bluetooth) or as an iPhone dongle using its retractable Lightning plug (an Android version is due to arrive by the end of the year). It’s also gained a couple of new use methods. For one, the kit comes with a short plastic tube that houses the device on the deeper end to protect its two lenses, while the shallower end lets you mount the device so that the tube can be used as a stand. Alternatively, you can also mount the camera on any standard tripod, monopod, selfie stick or even the bundled string attachment using its 1/4″-20 screw thread.

Needless to say, one of the main selling points of the One is the aforementioned bullet time mode. This trick is a combination of the device’s six-axis image stabilization, powerful 120 fps capture at 2,048 x 512 (which can be boosted to 240 fps via interpolation using the companion app), some video magic to erase evidence of tethering plus a little bit of manual work using one arm. Once the power button’s triple-tap toggle has been mapped to bullet time capture (via settings in the app), simply mount the One on the bundled string attachment or an optional selfie stick, turn it on, tap its power button three times and then start swinging it above your head at a modest pace (with the risk of getting funny looks from folks nearby). When done, simply hit the power button once to stop recording, and then you can plug the camera into your iPhone for playback, editing and exporting to 720p clips.

Perhaps an even more useful feature coming from the One is its app’s FreeCapture tool — a “shoot first, point later” concept that’s clearly going after the upcoming GoPro Fusion’s OverCapture feature. This one’s super easy: just load up a 360 clip in FreeCapture mode, treat your phone as if it’s a conventional video camera at the time of capture (this relies on the phone’s gyroscope), then simply pan around and zoom in or out — all the way to the cute “tiny planet” view, if you want — as you desire for your new “director’s cut” in 1080p. Similarly, there’s a SmartTrack editing tool that can automatically output a 1080p clip based on the subject that you want to be tracked in a 360 clip.

For existing Insta360 users who already have a library of fun 360 clips, a company rep pointed out that you can actually side-load any 360 clip from older cameras to the One’s microSD card, in order to tinker with it using FreeCapture. That said, there are currently no plans to update the other cameras’ apps with FreeCapture, which is all the more reason for existing Insta360 users to upgrade to the One.

As cool as the sample clips look, what remains to be seen is how well these features — especially bullet time — actually work when mere mortals like us give them a go. Alas, the pre-production unit we received didn’t get on well with my iPhone 6 due to the app’s beta nature, so I haven’t been able to upload any of my 360 content. More worryingly, the string attachment I got was apparently flawed and thus rendering all of my bullet-time attempts useless, so unless you really want to get one as soon as middle of next month, you may want to wait until our replacement unit arrives and see how it fares.

Source: Insta360

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Apple removes apps from Iran following US sanctions

Apple has been cracking down on Iranian apps over the last few weeks, removing those that offer food delivery, shopping and ride-hailing services, among others from its App Stores. Due to US sanctions on Iran, companies like Apple are limited in the sorts of business they can do in the country, which is why the iPhone isn’t legally sold in Iran and why there’s no Iranian App Store.

Earlier this year, when Apple told Iranian developers to take down payment options in their apps in order to make sure no Iranian money fell into Apple’s hands, most Iranian apps switched over to an Iran-based online payment system. But developers of apps like Iran’s Uber-like Snapp, which was taken down this week, were recently sent a message from Apple saying, “Under the U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries.”

Some developers have taken to Twitter to respond to removals, with one creating the hashtag #StopRemovingIranianApps. Google hasn’t begun to take down Iranian apps from its Play store. In regards to Apple, Iran’s telecommunications minister said on Twitter that the country would “legally pursue the omission of apps.”

Source: New York Times

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iRig Keys I/O packs in a full audio interface for $200

IK Multimedia has years of experience making audio products and software for the mobile musician. From microphone preamps to audio mixers and MIDI interfaces (and more), the company seems dedicated to its niche. The music device manufacturer has just announced a brand new entry, the iRig Keys I/O: a compact, travel-ready MIDI controller with a built-in 24/96KHz audio interface. It comes in two compact models; you can pre-order the 25-key version for $ 200 and the 49-key configuration for $ 300 right now. The final release is set for October of this year.

Having an audio interface in the keyboard itself will save you some space and the cost of a separate unit. You can connect a microphone or guitar directly to the keyboard and send the audio to whatever recording software you’re using it with. Both models have full-sized keys, making it easier to play than the previous iRig mini keyboard, and comes with balanced stereo and headphone outputs and a combination input jack so you can connect your instrument or mic directly to the keyboard.

The iRig Keys I/O has touch-sensitive, programmable sliders, velocity-sensitive pads (for programming beats or triggering sequences) and a host of knobs and buttons to help you dial in just the right sound. Better yet, the iRig Keyboard I/O can be powered via USB, an AC adapter (available separately for $ 40) or AA batteries, making this a great solution for music making on the go. Like many of IK Multimedia’s peripherals, this one works right out of the box with your iPhone and iPad, too.

This keyboard controller also comes with a full slate of PC and Mac software, too, like the full version of SampleTank 3 workstation software, mixing & mastering suite T-Racks 4 Deluxe, and a couple of audio banks for synthesizer and orchestral sounds. It also comes with full versions of Sample Tank 2 and Philharmonik mobile editions for the iOS maestro. The iRig Keys I/O also works with professional digital audio workstation software like Ableton Live, Studio One, GarageBand and Logic, so you’re not limited to the provided software.

Via: FactMag

Source: IK Multimedia

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Apple might announce a 4K TV box at next month’s iPhone event

Apple is unveiling another new product with its latest iPhones and Apple Watches in September, according to Bloomberg. Cupertino is reportedly announcing its 4K- and HDR-capable Apple TV, as well. If you’ll recall, the publication reported earlier this year that the tech titan has updated its TV streaming box with the capability to stream in 4K resolution and to play more color-rich HDR videos. Since the upgraded box is expected to stream bigger files with a higher resolution, it will come with a faster processor. Obviously, you’ll need to pair it with a TV that’s also capable of playing 4K HDR content to bring out its full potential.

Despite the new capabilities and faster processor, Apple’s engineers were apparently unhappy with the incremental upgrade. They originally set out to build a cord-cutting device with the first Apple TV, but the company failed to forge partnerships to make that vision a reality. It’s unclear if the tech giant is still pursuing deals with broadcast networks, but Bloomberg says it’s talking to streaming services like Netflix about providing more 4K videos.

Apple is reportedly talking to film studios about selling 4K movies through iTunes, as well, and an iTunes UK transaction back in July marking a film as “4K, HDR” suggests negotiations are going smoothly. We’ll probably also see some original 4K shows in the future, considering the tech giant has already set aside $ 1 billion for original programming. In addition, both the old and upcoming TV boxes will be able to access Amazon Prime Video later this year.

According to the Bloomberg piece, Apple is seeking to “revive its video ambitions” with the upgraded device, as the original one hasn’t been doing as well as Roku, Chromecast and the Fire TV. It even made a few hires for that particular purpose over the past few months, including Timothy Twerdhal, the former Fire TV chief who’s now in charge of the Apple TV division. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how much the new streaming box will set you back, but it’s almost September anyway — you won’t have to wait too long to find out.

Source: Bloomberg

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Essential PH-1 review: A beautiful blank slate

Andy Rubin was disillusioned. He helped build the Android operating system. He watched as Google acquired the company, and he steered development on the mobile OS for years after that. And somewhere along the way, he grew a little weary of how the smartphone market worked.

To hear him tell it, the mobile industry prioritized iteration over innovation, to the point where it centered itself around only two companies: Apple and Samsung. Convinced that Apple’s premium phone business model would work for a startup, Rubin set about building his own phone, and here we are. That startup, Essential, offers its new PH-1 as a remedy to the industry’s ills. It’s a premium smartphone with an impeccable pedigree that embodies progress and choice and openness. That was the idea, anyway.

Here’s the thing about lofty goals, though: You’re almost never going to achieve them in one shot. And really, that’s the Essential PH-1 in a nutshell. It’s an exceptionally crafted device, and a stunning first effort from a company that didn’t exist 18 months ago. While the PH-1 stands as a testament to Rubin’s vision, a few shortcomings keep it from being as truly great as promised.

Hardware

Chris Velazco/Engadget

I’ve been testing the black PH-1 ($ 699), and it looks more like a blank slate than any phone I’ve tested in a while. There are no logos on the phone, no branding, no FCC labels or capacitive buttons (though the company’s engineers did consider them). Peer closely enough around the front-facing camera and you’ll spot a tiny cutout for the earpiece and an even tinier notification LED. Some will find the aesthetic a little too nondescript, but others (like me) will enjoy the intentional starkness. That minimalism gets disrupted when you turn the phone over. There, you’ll find an LED flash, a 13-megapixel dual camera, a fingerprint sensor and two tiny, metallic spots.

This is Essential’s (much smaller) take on the Motorola’s Mod connector for its modular smartphone add-ons. Accessories, like a 360 camera I haven’t been able to test yet, magnetically attach to that spot and can transfer power and data into and out of the phone. It might seem a little awkward to snap things onto a phone’s corner, but Essential made the choice very deliberately.

By putting the connector on a corner, the company is theoretically able to change the way future devices look without necessarily giving up the option of backward-compatibility. Consider the most recent Moto Z phones — Motorola couldn’t change the design much because their Mods have to sit flush against the phone’s backs. Essential’s decision was a savvy one, but we’ll soon see how many companies are actually willing to invest in a startup’s ecosystem of accessories.

The PH-1 also feels dense, in a reassuring sort of way. Part of that is thanks to what the phone is made of. A polished titanium frame forms the PH-1’s skeleton, and its back is made of a shiny ceramic that has been pretty good at shrugging off scratches and dents. (It’s starting to show nicks now, though.) I was worried that the PH-1 would exhibit Xiaomi Mi Mix levels of fragility, but so far, so good. The phone’s density is also due to how tightly packed all of its components are under that shiny surface. Jason Keats, Essential’s head of product architecture, said in an interview that there’s basically no extra space at all inside the chassis. Pending a glorious iFixit teardown, I’m inclined to believe him.

What’s inside the phone is a little more prosaic. Like just about every other flagship phone this year, the Essential uses one of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipsets, paired with 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 540 GPU. More importantly, every Essential comes with 128GB of internal storage, which is crucial since there’s no microSD slot. That’s not the only notable omission here: there’s no headphone jack, just a USB-C port wedged in between a speaker and the SIM tray. There’s no water resistance here either, for reasons Essential has never entirely explained. These omissions certainly aren’t deal-breakers, but they’re still somewhat disappointing.

Display and sound

Chris Velazco/Engadget

While the phone’s design is intentionally subtle, that 5.7-inch Quad HD screen definitely isn’t. The PH-1’s defining feature is how its LCD display stretches almost completely across the phone’s face, leaving just a few millimeters of black chin beneath the panel. It’s stunning. When the screen is off, we’re left with an obsidian slab; when it’s on, it feels like something out of the future. Well, the near-future, anyway. We’ve seen phones with expansive displays before, but there’s something sumptuous and thrilling about a phone that’s basically all screen. Arguably more impressive is how a divot has been cut out of the screen to accommodate the 8-megapixel front-facing camera. It sounds weird in theory, but since Android’s notification bar fills in from the sides, the camera never actually gets in the way.

So yes, it’s almost impossible at first not to gawk at the PH-1’s screen. The gap between the panel and the glass that covers it may as well not exist, so viewing angles are excellent. Colors are clean and vivid, though they lack the telltale punchiness of AMOLED screens (most likely due to cost). As technically impressive as it is, the screen does fall short in a few ways.

For one, I wish it were just a little brighter — it’s perfectly readable in broad daylight, but phones like the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 are brighter and more clearly legible under the sun. It’s also a bummer to come across apps that don’t take full advantage of that extra screen space. The phone’s dialer, Chrome, Twitter, Spotify and more are all bounded on the top edge by a black bar, robbing you of the visual impact that comes with seeing, say, a Google map that stretches all the way across the phone. Unfortunately, this was the case with most of the apps I’ve tested this past week.

Other apps are prone to different issues. Spotify, for instance, has a lot of extra space below the notification bar, pushing all the actual content everything down just a little more than expected. This issue has been less common, but it’s still mildly annoying whenever I come across it. Considering how niche the Essential phone is right now, it’s unclear when or if developers will update their apps to accommodate this eye-catching screen.

Meanwhile, the Essential’s single speaker mostly just gets the job done. It’s louder than I expected, but audio comes out sounding pretty thin and it’s easy to accidentally cover the grille with your finger when holding the phone sideways. If you spend most of your day listening to audiobooks, podcasts or music that doesn’t feature prominent bass, the speaker shouldn’t bother you much. As always, though, you’re better off using a pair of headphones, which in this case means having to rely on an included USB-C adapter. I had no issues with audio quality through the adapter, and its short braided cable gave me hope that it would survive a long-term stay in the minefield that is my backpack. I was also a little concerned that such a small earpiece wouldn’t sound good, but it made for pleasant for voice calls; no one on the other end had any complaints about the audio quality, either.

Software

And the “blank slate” theme continues. The PH-1 runs a clean, mostly untouched version of Android 7.1.1. I’ve said that about other phones before, most recently the Moto Z2 Force, but Essential takes cleanliness to a different level. I’ve only spotted a handful of changes here. For starters, the typical Android notification bar is thicker than usual because it has to clear the camera sitting right in the middle of it. There’s also an option in the settings to discreetly send usage and diagnostic data back to Essential so the company can smooth out potential performance issues. Really, the biggest change to bare bones Android is the inclusion of a custom camera app, which we’ll get to in a little bit.

The situation is a little different for Sprint customers; upon activation, the My Sprint and Tidal apps are automatically installed. Considering how overzealous some carriers are when it comes to preloading apps to fulfill business agreements, Sprint’s minimal overreach feels downright refreshing. The rest is just Nougat as we all know it, and Essential has pledged to deliver Android updates to PH-1s in the wild for two years and security updates for three years.

Now, as much as I love stock Android, I have to wonder if it’s enough to whet the average consumer’s appetite for functionality. After all, there’s a reason Google offers more than just stock Android on its flagship Pixel phones: It’s all in the name of helping users more easily accomplish the things they want to do. I respect Essential’s devotion to openness and cleanliness, but there’s a way to deliver subtle, powerful changes without completely rewriting the playbook. In any case, I’m sure the decision to deliver one of the purest Android experiences out there won’t hurt the startup’s chances too much. If anything, it offers an extra dose of geek cachet.

Camera

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Like many of other top-tier smartphones, the Essential packs a dual camera setup. Unlike a lot of other top-tier smartphones, however, the Essential blends one 13-megapixel color sensor with one 13-megapixel monochrome sensor, as opposed to, say, a wide-angle and telephoto camera. The idea is simple: When shooting normally, color information from one sensor is combined with the extra detail capture from the black-and-white camera to produce photos that embody the best of both worlds. When there’s good light to work with, the results are decently impressive: colors are a bit more subdued than with rival cameras but still quite nice, and there’s a decent amount of detail to be found. Overall, devices like the Galaxy S8 and last year’s Google Pixels did a better job, but the Essential was never too far behind.

Now, here’s where things get a little tricky. Since I received the phone last week, Essential has pushed out two — two! — updates, both heavily focused on improving the camera. Before any of the updates went live, the PH-1 was frankly awful in low light; you’d find lots of fuzzy edges and an unreasonable amount of grain and discoloration, even when shooting in locales that weren’t that dim. After multiple updates, the performance has leveled off to the point where the Essential is mostly usable in low light (though it helps to keep your expectations low.)

Since there’s no image stabilization here, you should still expect to see lots of indistinct edges in the dark, but better image processing has reduced the grain you’ll see to manageable levels. Compared to before, this is a huge improvement. Compared to the rest of this year’s flagship smartphones, the Essential phone’s camera still disappoints. The 8 megapixel front-facing camera works well — at least, most of my selfies were nicely exposed with accurate colors.

No matter which camera you’re using, shooting with the Essential is dead-simple. You can shoot a normal photo in auto mode. You can shoot a black-and-white photo with Mono mode. You can shoot a (pretty ugly) slow motion video. You can take a selfie, and you can record a video. That’s it. While other smartphone cameras pack loads of features and multiple camera modes, the Essential’s camera experience is among the most barebones I’ve ever seen. For some people, that will be just fine: There’s nothing wrong with just pointing and shooting. Anyone looking for more nuance and control should just look elsewhere. All you can do here is toggle the flash and HDR modes, set a timer and change the quality of the video you want to shoot.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the Essential just took better photos from the get-go, but here we are. I should also point out that, while improved, there’s still some lag when switching between the color and monochrome cameras, and I’ve taken one or two photos over the course of the week that appear to have never been saved to my camera roll. In both cases, I launched the camera by double-tapping the home button, but I still can’t figure out what happened to them.

Performance and battery life

As already mentioned, the Essential PH-1 packs an octa-core Snapdragon 835, 4GB of RAM, and a dearth of obnoxious add-on software. Is it really any surprise that it runs incredibly smoothly? General navigation feels pleasantly fast — as fast as the Pixels and the S8s, anyway — and frenzied multitasking proved to be no problem either. Visually intense games like Afterpulse ran with no problems as well; frame rates were consistently high and lag essentially didn’t exist. Impressive, certainly, but maybe not a surprise: This consistently high level of performance is table stakes for a modern, $ 700 smartphone. Said differently, something would have been very wrong if Essential hadn’t been able to deliver.

If the phone’s performance wasn’t surprising, its battery life certainly was. The phone seemed to struggle getting through our first full work day together, but that was just a peculiar one-off. After that first day, but I’ve been able to use the PH-1 for a full day without the need for a recharge. After nights when I forgot to charge it, I still had between 20 and 25 percent at my disposal — that was more than enough to keep me entertained during my morning commute to the office. You can expect more battery drain in areas where cell coverage isn’t great, a problem I’ve run into with Sprint more than other carriers. In places where the phone had trouble locking on to a signal, the battery barely lasted for a day. Long story short, most people will be pleased with the phone’s power consumption, but folks living out in the country may experience a little more trouble.

The competition

Essential has made more progress than most in eliminating bezels from phone bodies, but it’s definitely not alone. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus remain two of the best smartphones out there, and they pair skimpy bezels with lots of horsepower and some truly excellent displays. Their aesthetics couldn’t be any more different than the Essential’s, but Samsung’s design work has been impeccable: While the PH-1 feels dense and masculine, the S8s feel friendlier and more welcoming. This is obviously a matter of taste, but unless you absolutely insist on pure Android, you can’t go wrong with either of these options.

LG’s G6 is another notable competitor, if only because it takes the exact opposite approach to dual cameras as the Essential. It’s not perfect, but the combination of normal and wide-angle 13-megapixel cameras seems infinitely more useful — not to mention more fun — than Essential’s implementation. Beyond that, the G6 brings slightly more modest levels of performance and battery life, but some will find the trade-off worth it just to have a more flexible camera.

Wrap-up

I had such high hopes for the Essential phone that there’s almost no way the PH-1 could have lived up to them. This isn’t just a reflection of my own unreasonable internal hype, though; as truly impressive as the PH-1 can be, it definitely lags behind the competition in some areas. That’s the difficult part about offering a people a blank slate of a smartphone. Sure, it can assume whatever role the user wants it to. Since it doesn’t offer many flashy features of its own, though, the phone has to get all the basics right. In its current state, the PH-1 doesn’t.

Still, it’s heartening to see Essential build a phone that otherwise gets so much right on its first attempt. Andy Rubin seems to hold the usual conventions of smartphone-making in contempt, so who knows when we’ll see another Essential phone. That’s too bad. After such an impressive first outing, I honestly can’t wait to see his team try again.

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You can use your own iPhone to get Virgin’s $1-a-year plan

Looks like Virgin Mobile is on a mission to sign up as many iPhone users as it can. The carrier has just announced that you can now bring your own iPhone and enjoy its $ 1-a-year subscription offer. When the company began exclusively catering to iPhone users in June, it only offered that deal to a limited number of people buying their devices from the carrier itself. According to Virgin CEO Dow Draper, though, the carrier has expanded the offer’s scope, because it understands that “many love their current phones or don’t want to upgrade yet.”

Virgin’s $ 1 plan comes with unlimited talk, text and data, though your connection may slow down after you’ve used 23GB within a month. What happens to your plan after a year? Well, you’ll have to start paying a more standard amount — $ 50 a month — though you can get six more months of service for a buck if you get a new phone.

If you’re on the fence, don’t wait too long to decide: the sub-Sprint carrier is only offering the deal for “a short period of time.” Take note, however, that Virgin Mobile’s “Inner Circle” SIM for the iPhone only works for the 5s and newer models. You can check your device’s eligibility on Virgin Mobile’s website, though you’ll most likely have to buy a new one if you have an older model. Once you’ve confirmed that your model is compatible with the plan, you can order Virgin’s Inner Circle SIM. As a nice bonus, you can get the SIM for free until September 29th, after which one will cost you $ 25.

Via: CNET

Source: Virgin Mobile

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