Samsung Galaxy Book review: You’re better off with a Surface Pro

It took a few years, but Microsoft’s Surface Pro line is an undeniable hit. It also popularized the convertible tablet category: touchscreen-driven devices you can hold in your hands that also have power and attachable keyboards for getting “real work” done. The Surface Pro’s success means it has its fair share of imitators, from Apple, Google and the swath of Windows PC makers out there.

Naturally, Samsung produced its own, last year’s Galaxy TabPro S. That device features a great screen and solid battery life but was hurt by a terrible keyboard and slow performance. With the new Galaxy Book, Samsung appears to have fixed those issues — this convertible has a more spacious keyboard and Intel’s seventh-generation Core i5 processor on board. But all that power introduces some unfortunate trade-offs.

Hardware

Probably the most important part of a tablet is its screen, and the Galaxy Book is no letdown here. The 12-inch display is of the Super AMOLED+ variety, with rich colors and inky dark blacks. The screen is running at a 2,160 x 1,440 resolution though it’s also set to scale text and UI elements up to 150 percent so everything isn’t completely illegible. Regardless, the workspace feels sufficiently spacious for a 12-inch screen and text is razor-sharp.

I can only think of one problem with the display: Its wide 16:10.7 aspect ratio makes holding the Galaxy Book in portrait an awkward experience. Since this tablet was designed to be docked into a keyboard, it’s not surprising that its size was optimized for landscape use, but I generally prefer the proportions of Apple’s iPad Pro (4:3) and Microsoft’s Surface Pro (3:2); those devices feel equally suited to portrait and landscape usage.

Even if it did have different proportions, the Galaxy Book isn’t really made to be held for long periods of time. It weighs in 1.66 pounds — light for a computer with a Core i5 processor but quite heavy for a tablet. That’s the problem with most larger convertibles in general. Sure, you can use them as standalone tablets, but you probably won’t want to.

Overall, the Galaxy Book is a relatively plain, spartan device. Two speaker grilles can be found on the left and right edges; they produce surprisingly decent audio. There’s a fan vent up top, along with a power switch and volume rocker. The right side also houses two USB-C connections and a headphone jack, the only ports to be found here. The back of the Galaxy Tab is pretty plain, with a Samsung logo, small camera bump and a few ridiculous Intel stickers. If you opt for the model featuring built-in Verizon LTE, your device will also be graced with a giant Verizon logo on the back. Oh goody.

The back camera comes in at 13-megapixels and is paired with a 5-megapixel front-facing shooter. They’re both… fine. The front-facing camera is arguably much more important on a device like this, and it worked well in video chat, which is all most will rely on it for.

The Galaxy Book hardware gets the job done, but lacks the refinement and class of the iPad Pro or the Surface Pro’s unique design and adjustable hinge. It doesn’t do anything wrong, but it also doesn’t push the tablet form factor forward in any notable way.

Typing experience

Samsung makes it clear that the Galaxy Book is meant for getting things done by including a keyboard cover, just as it did last year with the TabPro S. It’s a smart move — looking at the marketing for the Surface Pro, you’d be forgiven for assuming the keyboard comes with it — it doesn’t. The other bit of good news is that the Galaxy Book’s keyboard is a big improvement over the one that came with the TabPro S.

It’s basically a full-size keyboard with the same layout found on most Windows 10 laptops. The keys in the function row are small, but the others are full size. So, there’s basically no adjustment period or learning curve, which can’t be said for the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard. Still, it’s not an especially good keyboard. The key travel is naturally shallow to make it work in such a thin device. That said, it’s comfortable enough that I generally didn’t think about it. Samsung even made it backlit — something I did not expect.

Unfortunately, the experience falls apart when you’re not typing on a desk, table or some other flat surface. Most convertibles still have compromised experiences when you use them in your lap, and the Galaxy Book is no exception. The keyboard cover is thin and light, which is good for not adding a lot of bulk — but it’s also extremely bendy and flimsy feeling. When resting my palms on either side of the trackpad and typing away, I could bend the keyboard so much that I’d accidentally “click” the trackpad, which is very distracting. It’s even easier to do this if you rest a single hand on a palm rest; the unbalanced weight clicks the trackpad immediately. Once I figured out what was happening, I could go out of my way to avoid it, but this just goes to show how tough it is to get the typing experience right on a device with this form factor.

The Galaxy Book’s keyboard cover also functions as a stand. It can be propped up at three different angles and also can be laid down at a slight angle with the keyboard hidden (for drawing with the S Pen). These angles work pretty well, but the flexibility of the Surface Pro’s hinge is hard to ignore. Microsoft’s convertible hasn’t always worked great in the lap, but the company has made big improvements over the years. Samsung still has a lot of work to do here. That’s primarily because the combination of the full-size keyboard plus the “wedge” holding the screen up makes the Galaxy Book pretty big in the lap. Fortunately, the magnetic connection between the stand and the tablet itself is pretty strong.

Samsung’s software

While the Galaxy Book runs a mostly unmodified version of Windows 10, Samsung did include a few extra apps here to help users take advantage of its S Pen, which comes in the box alongside the keyboard. Again, I have to give Samsung props for including this accessory for free, something neither Microsoft nor Apple are doing.

One of the extra apps is Samsung Notes, which functions as a digital canvas that can sync between your Galaxy Book and a Samsung smartphone. Oddly, Samsung notes isn’t a complete note-taking solution. Although you can jot down text, draw images and attach photos to your notes, the only place you can do keyboard text entry is the “title” field. That means if you also want to take text notes (as most of us do), you’ll need to use another app. That’s enough to make Samsung Notes useless for me.

Another app, Samsung Flow, could be a big deal if you own a Samsung smartphone. Once set up, the app uses your smartphone as an authenticator to unlock your Galaxy Book. More importantly, it pushes notifications from your phone and lets you respond to incoming messages. I didn’t get a chance to test this out, as I didn’t have a compatible phone handy — but if it works as promised, it could be a useful addition for those invested in the Samsung ecosystem. (Are there really people invested in the Samsung ecosystem?)

Otherwise, there’s not a lot to differentiate the Galaxy Book from other Windows 10 devices. The S Pen works just fine with Windows Ink apps like Sticky Notes and Sketchpad, and the lack of latency is truly impressive — it’s one of the more responsive stylus experiences I’ve had. But it’s not so much better than the Surface Pro that it should be a major consideration if you’re deciding between the two devices.

Performance and battery life

The Galaxy Book I’ve been testing includes a dual-core, seventh-generation Core i5 processor running at 3.1 GHz; it’s paired with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB hard drive for a whopping $ 1,330. I thought that was expensive for a tablet, but it’s in the same realm of pricing as a similarly configured Surface Pro, once you include a stylus and keyboard.

This was more than enough power to meet my needs. My usual workflow includes several Chrome windows loaded up with around a dozen tabs as well as Slack, Todoist, Twitter, Microsoft’s Groove Music (I figured I’d try the first-party option this time out) and Word. That all ran with nary a hiccup. I had also tried out a configuration of the Galaxy Book with only 4GB of RAM; unsurprisingly, that version didn’t run nearly as well. I ran into pretty frequent Chrome tab refreshes, and music skipped from time to time. It still feels a bit cheap to offer only 4GB of RAM on a computer priced over $ 1,000 — but Microsoft also only includes 4GB in the lower-end Surface Pro configurations, so at least Samsung isn’t a total outlier here.

Benchmarks confirmed the unsurprising but welcome news that the Galaxy Book far outperforms last year’s TabPro S. That should be obvious given the major chip upgrade here, but it’s welcome news for people who may have enjoyed Samsung’s form factor but not the somewhat sluggish performance.


PCMark 7 PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated) 3DMark 11 3DMark (Sky Diver) ATTO (top reads/writes)
Galaxy Book (3.1GHz Core i5-7200U, Intel HD620) 5,548 4,249 E2,563 / P1,527 / X420 3,612 554 MB/s / 531 MB/s
Galaxy TabPro S (1.51GHz Core M3-6Y30, Intel HD 515) 4,309 2,986 E1,609 / P944 / X291 2,119 550 MB/s / 184 MB/s
Surface Book (2016, 2.6GHz Core i7-6600U, 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M) 5,452 4,041 E8,083 / P5,980 / X2,228 11,362 1.71 GB/s / 1.26 GB/s
HP Spectre x360 (2016, 2.7GHz Core i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,515 4,354 E2,656 / P1,720 / X444 3,743 1.76 GB/s / 579 MB/s
Surface Book (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520) 5,412 3,610

E2,758 / P1,578 / X429

3,623 1.6 GB/s / 571 MB/s
Surface Book (2.6GHz Core i7-6600U, 1GB NVIDIA GeForce graphics) 5,740 3,850

E4,122 / P2,696

6,191 1.55 GB/s / 608 MB/s
ASUS ZenBook 3 (2.7GHz Intel Core-i7-7500U, Intel HD 620) 5,448 3,911 E2,791 / P1,560 3,013 1.67 GB/s / 1.44 GB/s
HP Spectre 13 (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520) 5,046 3,747 E2,790 / P1,630 / X375 3,810 1.61 GB/s / 307 MB/s
Dell XPS 13 (2.3GHz Core i5-6200U, Intel Graphics 520) 4,954 3,499 E2,610 / P1,531 3,335 1.6GB/s / 307 MB/s
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520) 5,403 3,602

E2,697/ P1,556/ X422

3,614 1.6 GB/s / 529 MB/s

Overall, throwing more horsepower into the Galaxy Book definitely fixed the performance issues we saw with last year’s TabPro S. Unfortunately, this also introduced a new problem of its own: battery life. The amount of useable time I got from the Galaxy Book was simply all over the place. The first model I tested was simply pathetic, with the computer regularly dying after less than three hours. It also took more than four hours to charge while in use. Both of these numbers seemed so bad that Samsung thought there was something wrong and sent me a replacement device.

Initially, I had the same poor battery life with my replacement. But, after a few days, things seemed to normalize, and now I can get between five and six hours of work out of this computer. I don’t know what changed, but things definitely improved after I ran our battery test. That test loops an HD video with the screen set to 66 percent brightness, and the Galaxy Book managed just over eight hours before it shut down. That’s not terribly inspiring (Samsung promises 11 hours of video playback, a number I couldn’t come close to), but it’s not the total disaster I experienced the first few times I used the Galaxy Book.


Battery life

Samsung Galaxy Book 8:08
Surface Book with Performance Base (2016) 16:15
Surface Book (Core i5, integrated graphics) 13:54 / 3:20 (tablet only)
Surface Book (Core i7, discrete graphics) 11:31 / 3:02 (tablet only)
iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2015) 10:47
Galaxy TabPro S 10:43
HP Spectre x360 15t 10:17
HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2016) 10:03
ASUS ZenBook 3 9:45
Apple MacBook (2016) 8:45
Samsung Notebook 9 8:16
Dell XPS 13 (2015) 7:36
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 7:15
HP Spectre 13 7:07
Huawei MateBook 6:35

This is partially a matter of physics: A very thin body combined with a powerful processor like the Core i5 is going to be problematic. But devices like this are meant to be portable first and foremost, and I never felt all that comfortable leaving a charger behind. That’s a big knock against what Samsung’s trying to do here.

Samsung describes the Galaxy Book as a “fast-charging” device, but that’s only true if you’re not using it. If the Surface Book is powered off, it does charge relatively fast, but if you’re trying to do work and charge it, expect to wait three to four hours for a full battery. If you’re out and about and want to just top the machine off, you had better be prepared to take a full break from your work.

Configurations and the competition

There are a host of different Galaxy Book configurations. As tested, the 12-inch model I used includes a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, and that costs a whopping $ 1,330, with keyboard and S Pen included. Samsung also sells a model with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for $ 1,130; you can add Verizon LTE to that model for an additional $ 170.

If you’ve been paying attention, it should be clear that the Surface Pro is the most direct competitor to the Galaxy Book. That device was just refreshed with seventh-generation Core m3, i5 and i7 processors. While the Surface Pro is cheaper off the bat, Microsoft doesn’t include a pen or keyboard — once you add in those accessories, a comparable Surface Pro will cost

But the Surface Pro features a few advantages. Its screen is slightly bigger and runs at a higher resolution (2,736 x 1,824), and its built-in hinge is more flexible than Samsung’s keyboard cover. Speaking of the keyboard, Microsoft’s keyboard cover is far superior to Samsung’s, as well. Naturally, the Surface Pro doesn’t work with Samsung’s Flow software that links the Galaxy Book to a Samsung smartphone, but that won’t be a dealbreaker for many potential buyers. If you’re deep in Samsung’s ecosystem, you could make an argument for the Galaxy Book — but most people will probably be happier with Microsoft’s convertible. We’ll need to fully review the new Surface Pro before we can say for sure, but Microsoft’s track record here means it’ll likely deliver.

If you’re not interested in buying from Microsoft, Lenovo’s Thinkpad X1 tablet is another option — but much like the Galaxy Book, there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons for recommending it over a Surface Pro. Huawei’s Matebook is another convertible with a similar design, but it has a terrible keyboard cover that makes it a complete non-starter.

And while most people looking at the Galaxy Book probably need Windows 10 over iOS, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It’s not cheap, but its screen is top rate, there are tons of apps that take great advantage of Apple’s Pencil stylus and its battery life is superb. If you’re an iPhone user, you’ll appreciate the tight integration between your phone and tablet, as well. Just know that multitasking on iOS falls far short of Windows.

Wrap-up

Samsung’s Galaxy Book doesn’t get anything totally wrong. And if it were a few hundred dollars cheaper than the Surface Pro, it could find an audience. But as it is, the good things about the Galaxy Book (its display and overall performance) are come with some big tradeoffs. Battery life in particular has been a big letdown, and though the keyboard cover is better than it was last year, it’s still not as good as what Microsoft offers.

Battery life and a good typing experience are essentials, particularly on a mobile device like the Galaxy Book. Given the compromises, it’s hard to recommend Samsung’s latest over the Surface Pro. For its price, the Galaxy Book needs to be near-flawless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reach that lofty goal.

Photographs by Evan Rodgers and Nathan Ingraham

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Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus review: Redemption is here

Last year’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge were excellent phones, and so was the Galaxy Note 7… until it started bursting into flames. While some within Samsung were tasked with figuring out what happened and how to prevent it from happening again, others were trying to build a phone that would make people move on. Meet the new Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus.

The Note 7 won’t disappear so easily from our collective memory, but I have to hand it to Samsung: The S8 siblings are impeccably built, thoughtfully designed devices. It’s not hard to look at these smartphones as the first steps on a road to redemption, and after a week of testing, I can confidently say these are two of the best smartphones money can buy. I just wish its virtual assistant wasn’t so half-baked.

Hardware and design

Text and photos don’t do the S8 ($ 750) and S8 Plus ($ 850) justice. They’re beautiful, if not exactly surprising. From their rounded edges to their precisely formed metal-and-glass bodies, they feel like smaller, sleeker versions of the Galaxy Note 7. That’s a hell of a compliment, battery insanity notwithstanding — the Note 7 was a beautiful device and I’m glad that DNA lives on. The S8 and S8 Plus’s rounded Infinity displays — which are 5.8 and 6.2 inches big, respectively — only add to the phones’ appeal. We’ll dig into these curved screens more later, but people seemed to like them enough that it didn’t make sense to have non-curved flagships anymore.

The screens don’t extend any farther down the phones’ sides than the S7 Edge’s display did, but the bezel surrounding them has almost completely disappeared. LG’s G6 packs a similarly long 18:9 screen, but the S8 line’s eye-catching curves and impressive precision give Samsung a distinct advantage. Like the G6, the screens on the S8 and S8 Plus are longer and narrower than usual, helping them fit more snugly in your hand.

This is especially true of the S8. I thought I’d prefer the Plus’s large display, but there’s something reassuring and alluring about this smaller body. For one, my hands never strained while reaching for the screen’s far corners, and I never felt like I’d drop the S8 because my hand wrapped around it so well. (The phones’ backs are made of glass, though, so they still slide around on tabletops.) That’s not to say the S8 Plus feels too big. It’s plenty comfortable to hold, although your thumbs will still get a workout reaching around the display.

Above the screens are improved, 8-megapixel cameras, and a Note 7-style iris scanner for hands-free unlocking. Most of the time the scanner is fast and frictionless. Often it didn’t even show the guide to align your eyes with. Other times I had to open my eyes really wide and move the phone around until I either nailed the alignment or got frustrated and just punched in my PIN.

If PIN codes aren’t your thing, there’s also the fingerprint sensor on S8 line’s back, next to the camera. In prior models, it lived below the screen. I didn’t mind the change conceptually, but the placement needs work. The sensor is off center, and a little too easy to miss — I usually smeared fingerprints all over the camera before finding it. And what of that classic home button? It’s gone — your new home button is a pressure-sensitive spot on the screen that vibrates when you push it.

If you’re not paying attention, you’d easily miss one of the S8 line’s biggest additions: a small button below the volume keys on the phones’ left sides. This is what you’ll use to invoke Bixby, Samsung’s homebrew virtual assistant. The button doesn’t do much yet — you’ll eventually be able to long-press it to speak directly to Bixby, but for now, it just brings up a screen with upcoming appointments, news and such. Even worse, Samsung has blocked attempts to remap the Bixby key for other functions, which has only pissed off potential power users.

There’s a USB-C port on the phones’ bottoms, and next to that? The headphone jack. We’ve seen companies ditching this classic port, claiming that it took up too much space. The S8 and S8 Plus are perfect repudiations of that line of thinking. Oh, and they don’t get in the way of waterproofing, either. Both devices are IP68 dust and water-resistant, which meant they could lounge for up to 30 minutes in the ridiculous wine bath we poured.

The stuff inside the S8 and S8 Plus isn’t exactly a surprise. Both US models pack Qualcomm’s new octa-core Snapdragon 835 chipsets, along with 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM and Adreno 540 GPUs. That horsepower is paired with 64GB of internal storage, and you can add up to 256GB of additional space with a microSD card. In addition to the usual array of LTE and Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac radios, the S8 and S8 Plus also pack support for Bluetooth 5.0, an updated version of the standard that promises faster data speeds and longer range.

As always, the S8 and S8 Plus are more alike than they are different. The biggest difference aside from the screens are the devices’ batteries — the S8 packs a 3,000mAh cell while the Plus contains a 3,500mAh battery. Those of you with keen memories will remember last year’s smaller Galaxy S7 also packed a 3,000mAh battery, and the S7 Edge actually had a slightly larger 3,600mAh — the biggest Samsung had used to date. Given the Note 7’s nightmarish battery failures, it’s no surprise the company didn’t push the envelope on this front.

Samsung did an impeccable job designing and assembling these phones. You’ll find a few touches that don’t feel quite right, like the off-center USB-C ports, but it’s clear countless hours went into making the S8 and S8 Plus feel seamlessly elegant. Sorry Apple, HTC, and the rest: For now, Samsung is the reigning king of smartphone design.

Display and sound

Chris Velazco/Engadget

For the people in search of buying advice, here’s all you need to know about the S8 and S8 Plus’s screens: They’re awesome. Thanks for reading.

But seriously, the Super AMOLED panels here are indeed awesome. Color reproduction on both is excellent and, as always, there are different screen modes in case your tastes are more specific. The screens get bright enough to combat the warm spring sun and viewing angles are excellent, too.

Before anything else though, you’ll notice that the S8 and S8 Plus screens are longer than most. While many other smartphone screens stick to the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, Samsung built the S8 screens with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. Why? To squeeze more screen into your hand, for one. Beyond that, the length of the screen makes multi-window multitasking — like the kind Nougat natively supports — a breeze. Don’t worry, though: Your apps will automatically scale to fit the entire screen, and they’ll look damned good in the process. Some videos, meanwhile, will be flanked by black bars since they can’t fill the screen. Samsung isn’t the first to go this route, though. Rival LG had the same thought when building its G6, which uses an ever-so-slightly shorter 18:9 aspect ratio.

Samsung calls these screens “Infinity Displays,” and they run at resolutions as high as 2960×1440 — a little longer than the usual Quad HD. Note that I said, “as high as.” The phones are set to run at “Full HD+” — meaning 2220×1080 — by default. You’ll need to jump into the devices’ settings to coax them into running at full resolution, which is a must when you fire up some Gear VR games. There’s also an option to dial down the screen’s resolution to “HD+,” or 1480×720, in case you need to squeeze as much life out of the battery as possible. The display will set itself to this resolution when you turn on the most aggressive power saving mode, and it’s not too bad, either. Icon edges and text look slightly fuzzier, but it’s not ugly.

The always-on display is back too, but with a twist. You can customize it further with images in addition to the usual clocks and calendars. Always-on widgets are available now too, if you want to see your calendar appointments or media controls without unlocking the S8. The impact on battery life is negligible, and the sheer amount of customization options can help make your device feel, well, like yours.

Meanwhile, each device has one speaker wedged into its bottom edge, and they pump out loud — if thin — audio. They’re good enough for podcasts and YouTube videos, but getting the most out of your tunes requires headphones. Good thing, then, that Samsung included a set of AKG earbuds with each S8, and they’re leagues ahead of most chintzy pack-ins.

Software

The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus both ship with Android 7.0 Nougat, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell at a glance. Samsung has once again painted over Google’s work. Though, TouchWiz has finally grown up. A lot. Look at the S7’s interface: It’s full of garish icons and brightly colored circles. The S8’s, in contrast, is subtle and thoughtful in its design choices.

For one, the app launcher button is gone — now you just swipe up or down on a homescreen to see everything you’ve installed. Even better, there’s a search bar at the top of the launcher. Managing apps is also easier. Long-pressing an app icon launches a pop-up window with options to add a shortcut to the homescreen, select multiple apps and uninstall or disable the ones you’ve selected. That last bit is crucial when you’re dealing with carrier-mandated bloatware, like the multiple T-Mobile apps on our review unit. In days past, you had to disable uninstallable apps from the device’s settings; now you can do it wherever your app icons live.

The virtual navigation keys also allow me to fix one of my biggest pet peeves. Samsung devices typically have their recent apps key on the left side and the back key on the right — basically every other Android phone has it the other way around. Fortunately, you can swap the order they appear. You can also now swipe down on the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor to open the notifications shade, a neat trick we first saw on Google’s Pixels.

Other flourishes make the S8 line feel like “greatest hits” devices. Since both phones have curved displays, they inherited the Edge line’s special shortcut panels. Tapping the little tab on the right side of the screen reveals panels you can load up with favorite apps and contacts and more. I use these as often as I did on the S7 Edge — which is to say rarely.. One panel, called Smart Select, is an awfully neat Note 7 throwback. Long story short, you can select and record parts of the screen and doodle all over them to create GIFs on the fly. For better or worse, /I can’t stop doing this./

Also returning from the Note 7 is a Game Launcher app and the device optimizer in settings, which lets you quickly close down background apps and delete unneeded files. My personal favorite feature is the Secure Folder, which allows you to hide files and install separate instances of apps away from the rest of your stuff. For example: Photos taken from the camera app within the Secure Folder can only be viewed when you’ve successfully unlocked the folder.

Just remember that not all security features are created equal. Take Samsung’s facial recognition — it’s fast, but it often couldn’t identify me in poorly lit situations. It’s also technically possible to fool this facial lock with a convincing photo, so exercise caution. Samsung concedes that this is one of the less secure ways to lock down your phone, but some people definitely dig convenience over security.

Meet Bixby

Chris Velazco/Engadget

After countless leaks and rumors, Samsung’s virtual assistant is finally here. Say hello to Bixby. Oh, wait, sorry, you can’t. Bixby’s voice interface — the thing people associate most with virtual assistants — doesn’t work yet. Want to know how many ounces in a gallon or to see if there are any decent ramen joints nearby? You’ll have to chat up Google’s preloaded Assistant instead.

Samsung promises you’ll be able to control your S8 with your voice as well as you can by tapping on its screen. That would be huge — neither Siri nor Google Assistant offer that kind of granular control. Sure, you can tell Google’s Assistant to set your screen brightness to 50 percent, but Samsung promises even more. With that kind of complexity involved, maybe it’s no surprise this stuff isn’t done yet.

So, if Voice doesn’t work, what did we get? Well, a homescreen, for one. Once Bixby is enabled, swiping right on the homescreen or mashing the dedicated button brings up the Bixby Home panel. There, you’ll find your calendar appointments, the local weather, your daily activity, reminders and lots of news from Flipboard. Right now there are only a handful of third-party apps that connect to Bixby Home, including CNN, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Spotify and Giphy. It’s a perfectly serviceable alternative to Google Now. My only real gripe is that it sometimes takes longer than expected to launch Bixby Home by tapping the Bixby button — I often had to hit it multiple times (on both devices, even).

Bixby’s other, more interesting half is called Bixby Vision. It’s basically an augmented reality camera that tries to identify what’s in front of you. I’ll admit, my expectations might have been out of whack here. I wanted to use Bixby as the ultimate shopping tool, snapping photos of things I wanted around New York City and buying them from the handy Amazon links served up by Bixby. Alas, it just isn’t smart enough to identify specific brands or makes. At best, Bixby sees “black shoes” or “red backpack,” and the resulting Amazon links aren’t particularly helpful. Still, it’s pretty good at identifying clearly labeled items. I pointed Bixby at a bunch of things in a grocery store. and it properly identified the juices and cheese snacks I bought.

Bixby Vision is for more than just shopping, though. Thanks to a partnership with Vivino, Bixby can identify bottles of wine then display ratings and reviews for what you’re about to crack open. That’s the part of Bixby Vision that worked the most consistently. Although it does seem to think most bottle-shaped things are bottles of wine, so you’ll probably see the Wine option appear at inappropriate times. You can also use Bixby to search for images on Pinterest similar to ones you’ve already taken. It’s a neat touch and good for finding art you might like, but it’s not the most useful feature.

It’s too bad the really useful stuff — visual text extraction and translation — is hit or miss. The problem with both is that Bixby is really bad at understanding what text should be selectable in an image. Let’s say you’re trying to translate a book cover.

In an ideal world, you point Bixby at the book, hit the “Text” button, your phone figures what is actually text, you select it, and out comes a translation. Sometimes, though, Bixby doesn’t know when there’s text you want to translate or extract, so the “Text” button doesn’t appear. And other times, when the button does appear, it doesn’t parse all of the text properly so you can’t translate it. When it works, it works surprisingly well — I translated a handful of Japanese signs just fine when Bixby could tell I was looking at words. Ultimately, Bixby just lacks the sort of speed and consistency that could make this feature a real must-have.

I have high hopes for Bixby. After all, it took years for Siri to become really useful. So expecting Samsung’s assistant to be equally functional in less time isn’t really fair. Still, there’s no question that Bixby is the most half-baked thing you’ll find in these two otherwise excellent smartphones.

Camera

The 12-megapixel sensors on the back haven’t changed much since last year. That’s not a bad thing since they were great cameras to start with; just don’t expect any huge jumps in quality. Photos were uniformly well-exposed with excellent color reproduction. And as always, these dual-pixel cameras focus incredibly fast, and the optical image stabilization does an excellent job keeping subjects crisp and clear. Low-light performance was in line with the S7 cameras, which is no surprise since they both have 1.4µm sensor pixels and f/1.7 apertures. Still, expect to see the occasional fuzzy edge and less-accurate focusing when it gets a little too dark. Samsung says it improved the processing pipeline so there’s no lag between capturing a shot and being ready to snap the next.

The S8 and S8 Plus also double as solid video cameras. They capture quality footage at up to 4K with great colors and minimal jittering. I just wish Samsung offered more flexibility — there’s a record button, and that’s about it.

There is an improved 8-megapixel front camera with a wider field of view for group selfies. It has a f/1.7 aperture too, so it’s decent enough in low light and in general it’s a great performer. Selfies were clean, detailed and nicely colored, especially when viewed on the punchy AMOLED screen. Even better, you can hold up a palm to snap a selfie, no fumbling with buttons required.

Samsung also spent time cleaning up the camera interface, which was already pretty elegant. You switch between the front and rear cameras with a swipe up or down, and the list of usual photo modes — food, selective focus, slow motion and “pro” — is smaller and more streamlined. This time, though, swiping right opens up a list of Instagram-friendly color options to give your photos a little more character. And speaking of character, Samsung took a page from Snapchat’s playbook and added face-tracking filters that are bizarre and fascinating. They range from the cutesy (kawaii cats and rabbits eating carrots) to stranger fare, like a cowboy filter that fires a pistol when you blink. The S8 and S8 Plus come with 31 of these filters, and if nothing else, they’re perfect for amusing toddlers who are otherwise busy getting loaded on Easter candy.

Performance and battery life

I’ll be brief: The S8 and S8 Plus are effortlessly fast machines, and hardly anything I threw at them over a week of testing got them to stutter. This is mostly due to the shiny new Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM onboard. Bixby is often a little slow to launch, but swiping through Samsung’s improved interface and jumping between running apps was painless. If this is what the 835 is capable of, I can’t wait until these things are everywhere. Workday multitasking, games like Hearthstone and Dead Trigger 2, even playing emulated GameCube games — it all ran fabulously. I unconsciously stopped thinking about performance altogether. As you’d expect, the S8s killed it in our usual suite of benchmarks, too — hardly anything came close.

Galaxy S8 Galaxy S8 Plus LG G6 Google Pixel XL Galaxy S7 Edge
AndEBench Pro 15,888 16,064 10,322 16,164 13,030
Vellamo 3.0 5,519 6,930 5,046 5,800 4,152
3DMark IS Unlimited 36,806 35,626 30,346 29,360 26,666
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 54 55 42 48 47
CF-Bench 67,307 64,441 29,748 39,918 46,290

Anyway, none of this would matter if the phones had lousy batteries. News flash: They don’t. The smaller S8 routinely lasts between a day and a half and two days of consistent use. The S8 Plus’s bigger battery gets me closer to two full days of use on a single charge. That’s with the screen set to its maximum resolution, too — expect even better battery life if you dial the displays down to Full HD+ or lower.

They also fare well in our standard video rundown test, where we loop an HD video at 50 percent screen brightness while the phones are connected to Wi-Fi. The S8 and its 3,000mAh battery stuck around for 13 hours and 27 minutes — just a hair better than the S7 and the Google Pixel and well ahead of the bigger 3,300mAh battery in the G6. The clear winner, though, is the S8 Plus and its 3,500mAh battery. It clocked in at 15 hours and 8 minutes, longer than the Pixel XL, Note 7 and Moto Z Force.

The competition

We’re not even halfway through 2017, so some of the best smartphones of the year may still be waiting in the wings. For now, though, there aren’t many devices with the chops to stand up to the S8 and S8 Plus. The biggest competitor is probably LG’s G6, a device with a long screen of its own. It’s far more sensible than last year’s G5 and, while it can’t win when it comes to pure power, it’s surprisingly flexible dual camera and great screen make it a solid alternative.

If we’re considering the G6, we might as well throw in the Google Pixel and Pixel XL since they pack the same chipset. Beyond having a choice of device sizes, the Pixels also double as incredible cameras (I think they’re still a little better than the S8’s), and the phones are guaranteed to get updates from Google as quickly as possible. Sure, the S8’s interface has improved dramatically, but some people will always prefer the cleanliness of stock Android.

And in case you haven’t pledged allegiance to a mobile platform yet, there’s also Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. I still personally prefer the breadth and quality of Apple’s app ecosystem… though the S8’s impeccable design might get me to switch teams soon.

Wrap-up

The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus aren’t perfect, but they’re as close as Samsung has ever gotten. That’s a hell of a rebound for a company whose phablets… well, you know. Beyond the gorgeous design and the boost in horsepower, they feel like devices built in response to our preferences and nitpicks. That’s not something you see everyday. Bixby’s limited functionality and lack of consistency is a real bummer, but it’s not a deal-breaker. (We’ll return to this review when Bixby Voice is finally up and running.) In most other areas, Samsung has outdone itself. The year is still young and we’ll certainly see strong responses from Google and Apple. But for now, if you’re looking for a new smartphone, the S8s should be at — or very close to — the top of your list.

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LG G6 review: Finally back in the race

Let’s be real: Last year’s G5 was ambitious, but it never lived up to its potential. Even now, I have to give props to LG: It took guts to make that phone, and it took guts to admit at a Mobile World Congress press conference that it was a step in the wrong direction. “We get it,” the company seemed to say. “We were wrong, but we listened and did better.”

And you know what? It did. The props I offer to LG now are not only for moxie but also for surprisingly good execution. Apart from adding a surprisingly long screen, the company gave up on trying to redefine how smartphones work and built a more conservative machine that played to people’s desires instead. It’s a more sensible kind of flagship for LG. Too bad the competition this year is fiercer than ever.

Hardware and design

I wouldn’t be surprised if LG took almost everything it learned about industrial design with the G5 and set it on fire. That’s the sort of seismic shift we’re working with here. And honestly, it’s for the best. The G5’s modularity required sacrifices, and with that constraint gone the company’s engineers were able to design a sleek, sturdy frame that feels worthy of a flagship. You can tell just looking at the materials used. The G5’s light, plasticky metal is gone, replaced by Gorilla Glass 5 on the G6’s back (a pane of Gorilla Glass 3 covers the screen). Those glass panels eventually meet at a band of aluminum that encircles the phone. Even better, the G6 is IP68 dust- and water-resistant, a feat that was straight-up impossible last year because of the G5’s slide-out battery mechanism.

One of the few design decisions that remained was the dual camera on the back, only this time it sits flush with the phone’s body. Below that is the signature sleep/wake button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor. It’s been years since LG made this a mainstay of its high-end phones, and I appreciate the placement. The sensor was always within reach of my index fingers, but it occasionally needed a few clicks to unlock.

Meanwhile, you’ll find the volume keys on the left side, directly opposite the microSIM and microSD card slot (which takes up to 2TB of additional storage). You’ll probably need the latter too. In the US, the G6 comes with 32GB of storage, only 19GB of which are available once you crack open the box. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom, a headphone jack up top and that’s really it. Well, except for the G6’s claim to fame: the display.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

I challenge you to tear your eyes away from the G6’s screen, its rounded corners or the mere sliver of bezel running around it all. The phone is basically all screen, and it feels like a revelation. In fact, with a screen this prominent, the rest of the G6’s frame fades into the background (especially on our low-key black review unit). That’s fine by me; the G6 is a well-built machine, but it’s pretty plain-looking.

LG’s minimal design aside, the company squeezed a whole lot of screen into a modestly sized body. It’s remarkably comfortable to hold and use for long periods of time. Between the not-quite-finished model I received at Mobile World Congress and the consumer-ready, AT&T version LG later provided, I’ve been using this all-screen design for over a month. In a nutshell: I’m never going back. You’ll still shimmy your hand up the phone’s body to reach the top corners with your thumbs, but the G6 is surprisingly comfortable for one-handed use.

To top it all off, it’s surprisingly durable. One night, while perhaps a little tipsy at dinner, the G6 slipped from my grasp and fell about 15 feet from the restaurant’s upstairs table to the hard tile of the ground floor. I felt like a tremendous idiot, but the phone suffered only a few nicks around the edges. Seriously, LG: well done.

Display and sound

Since the screen is the single biggest change to LG’s G Series formula, let’s dig a little deeper. It’s a 5.7-inch IPS LCD running at 2,880 x 1,440 (that’s an 18:9 aspect ratio, for those keeping track). As far as LG is concerned, this super long FullVision display is the way of the future. After all, it seems well suited to multitasking, and filmmakers (like La La Land’s Damien Chazelle) have already embraced wider-than-widescreen formats. Even better, the G6 and its screen support standards like Dolby Vision and HDR10 for more vivid video. It’s just too bad that finding content that takes full advantage of this screen is still pretty difficult.

And don’t forget about those curves. The corners of the panel are actually round, which supposedly helps disperse the blunt force that comes with a careless drop. It’s equal parts clever and cool-looking, which I love. None of this would matter if the screen itself was lousy, but that’s thankfully not the case: Text and images are crisp and precise, colors are lively without veering into over-saturation. Viewing angles are excellent too, which is crucial: What good is a long screen if it’s hard to glance at?

So yeah, LG clearly paid a lot of attention to the G6’s display — too bad it didn’t spend as much time on the phone’s audio. There’s a single speaker wedged into the phone’s bottom, and its output is anemic at best. It’s a good thing LG kept the classic headphone jack around, but even that isn’t as good as it could be. See, despite the company’s commitment to high-quality audio with its V Series phones, the G6 lacks the Quad DAC that made devices like the V20 such great media players. I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised: You had to buy a separate “Friend” to squeeze high-fidelity audio out of the G5, and it was never available in North America anyway. There’s still hope for you audiophiles: The Asian version of the phone has that DAC built-in if you don’t mind scouting for foreign devices online.

Software

Remember the days when LG’s custom interface was terrible? Yeah, so do I. These days LG is into restraint, and while it’s still a long way from stock Android 7.0, the company’s skin and apps add more value than headaches. Does that mean it’s for everyone? Hell no, but it’s progress.

That progress can be tougher to spot if you’ve used the G5 or the V20, since almost all the usual tricks are back. You can still turn on the screen with a double-tap, rearrange your navigation keys or ditch the traditional Android app launcher in favor of an iOS-style app free-for-all. The most noticeable changes are cosmetic — here’s looking at you, wallpapers and “squircle” icons — but the biggest ones are meant to take advantage of that super long screen.

Consider the calendar and the contact list: They look normal enough when launched, but rotating the phone reveals another view that displays extra information in two side-by-side square panels. Handy. Still another included app lets you change how other apps are scaled to fit on-screen. Fiddling around with it can get certain apps looking more natural on the G6’s 18:9 display, but in my experience, you could ignore this feature completely and not miss out on anything. Google’s also got your back: It’s been encouraging developers to build native support for 18:9 screens into its apps.

Speaking of Google, the G6 was — briefly — the only non-Pixel smartphone to come with Google’s virtual Assistant. Google kind of spoiled LG’s fun by rolling Assistant out to compatible devices shortly after the G6’s announcement, but hey, a good voice interface is a good voice interface. If you were expecting differences in performance between the Assistant here and the one running on Google’s first-party hardware, don’t worry. After a few initial moments of sluggishness, talking to the G6 was as pleasant as talking to the Pixels. That’s good news for those of you with burning curiosities and a fondness for chatting with inanimate objects.

The AT&T model we tested is loaded with bloatware. Maybe the strangest change is AT&T’s use of Firefox — not Chrome — as the default web browser. Some of you won’t mind, as Firefox is a perfectly good alternative. Beyond that, we’re left with 13 preloaded apps no one ever actually asked for and a persistent notification that keeps insisting I set up the DirecTV remote app. News flash, AT&T: I don’t use the service and wouldn’t use this app even if I did, so for the love of God, stop shoving this notification in my face.

Camera

Dual cameras have gone from gimmick to flagship feature, and LG was one of the first companies to make them feel valuable. The work began with last year’s G5, which combined an 8-megapixel wide-angle camera with a 16-megapixel main camera for more-flexible shooting. It was a solid first attempt, but this year’s approach feels much more elegant.

For one, this time the normal and wide-angle cameras shoot at the same 13-megapixel resolution. Now we have resolution parity, and they both turn out crisp, detailed images without much fiddling. There are still differences between the two though. The main camera has a f/1.8 aperture, optical image stabilization and phase-detection autofocus, all of which the wide-angle camera lacks. In other words, you should probably steer clear of those wide-angle shots at night: They too often come out fuzzy and improperly exposed.

In normal daylight conditions though, both cameras capture crisp images with lots of detail and bright colors. In fact, thanks to some aggressive image processing, colors can sometimes border on garish. For more-nuanced control over your photos, you can switch into a Pro mode with manual settings. It’s overkill for most, but in the right hands it leads to some killer shots. And fortunately, switching between the two cameras is mostly free of lag, a feat the company pulled off with some help from Qualcomm.

LG also threw in some square shooting modes that make use of the long screen. You can, for instance, instantly preview photos you took on one side of the screen while retaining a live view on the other or quickly build an animated, 4×4 grid of shots for Instagram or whatever. Exactly how valuable some of these modes are is debatable, but I’m willing to admit I might be short on imagination.

The G6 also doubles as a respectable videographer’s tool. It packs full manual control, a first for LG, which also helps keep low-light videos looking good. What’s more, handy additional features like focus peaking and hi-res audio recording are must-haves for people who take their on-the-go shooting seriously. I still think Google’s Pixels are the best all-around smartphone cameras out there, but consider me impressed by the sheer flexibility on offer here.

Performance and battery life

The G6 felt plenty fast in day-to-day use, thanks to the Snapdragon 821 chipset, 4GB of RAM and the Adreno 530 GPU ticking away inside. I know what you’re thinking: This is a very familiar configuration that we’ve already seen in a handful of flagship phones. The Galaxy S8 and Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium might churn out more power thanks to their shiny new Snapdragon 835s, but performance rarely felt lacking.

My usual workday consists of a lot of Slack, Outlook and Spotify, with pretty frequent sessions of Hearthstone and Dirt Extreme. Multitasking — even in split-screen mode — yielded relatively few hiccups. And graphically intense gaming proved to be no problem either. Swiping around the interface and launching apps was snappy too, though spurts of slowness popped up from time to time. I’d put my money on LG’s interface dragging the system down, but it was never enough to cause more than momentary frustration.

LG G6 Google Pixel XL Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge LG G5
AndEBench Pro 10,322 16,164 13,030 14,152
Vellamo 3.0 5,046 5,800 4,152 4,104
3DMark IS Unlimited 30,346 29,360 26,666 26,981
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 42 48 47 47
CF-Bench 29,748 39,918 46,290 36,488

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the greatest luck with the G6’s battery. It’s a 3,300mAh cell, which is larger than what you’ll find in some competitors — the HTC U Ultra and the regular Galaxy S8 spring to mind. Even so, I could only count on the G6 to last for one day. If I was lucky and didn’t use the phone too much, I might wake up the next morning to find it still clinging to life. The G6 didn’t fare much better in our video rundown test, where we loop HD videos with WiFi connected until it dies. It lasted just under 11 hours, which puts it a bit behind last year’s V20.

To put that in perspective, the G6 did worse than HTC’s U Ultra and the smaller Google Pixel, despite both of them having smaller batteries. At least the G6 is convenient and quick to charge: It supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 tech, and the US model comes with built-in wireless charging support. (In case you’ve been keeping track, that’s /another/ thing the G5 couldn’t do.)

The competition

I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but this is the best phone LG has built in years. The problem is, its biggest rivals haven’t exactly been sitting still. After a wave of strong first impressions, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is clearly the smartphone to beat: It too has a long, bezel-less display, and it’s clearly more of a looker. Beyond that, I’m cautiously optimistic about what the S8’s Bixby virtual assistant will develop into over time. The G6 could have the edge in photography though. I’m told the S8’s camera aren’t hugely improved over last year’s S7s, and that’s a hell of a niche to leave open for LG.

If you’re looking for a better music experience, you might want to check out the LG V20 ($ 599) as well. It packs the Quad DAC that our version of the G6 doesn’t have, and it packs a small, sometimes useful second screen above the big one. And for those of you looking for the peak of what the Snapdragon 821 can offer, I’d suggest Google’s Pixel XL ($ 769+). I already mentioned it had the best all-around smartphone camera out there; it also packs a completely clean version of Android. Sure, it might not be as attractive as the G6, but its sturdy build quality means it feels every bit as premium and it’ll get software updates from Google as soon as they’re available.

It’s also worth pointing out that buying a G6 can be lucrative in other ways. If you were fast enough on the draw, you could’ve nabbed a free TV and/or Google Home to go with that G6. That’s an uncannily good deal, though it feels a little desperate.

Wrap-up

There’s no doubt about it: The G6 represents some of LG’s best smartphone work ever. Sure, it’s not perfect: Audio is pretty weak, and so is the battery. None of that takes away from the fact that LG has built a phone that feels ready to compete with the best of the best for the first time in ages. Whether it has what it takes to beat those rivals, though, is a matter of opinion.

I’ve enjoyed my time with the G6 but you can’t underestimate the power of a visceral thrill, and that’s one thing the G6 never managed to deliver. Deep down, I can’t help but wonder if this year will go LG’s way. The Galaxy S8 and Apple’s 10th anniversary iPhone are poised to suck the air out of the room, and it’d be a shame to see LG’s effort overshadowed simply because other companies are better at generating hype. If you’re looking for a shiny new smartphone, the G6 definitely deserves a close look … but you might want to wait until we see what the full field of competitors looks like.

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Apple iPad review (2017): No alarms and no surprises

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the iPad go from curious experiment to Apple’s vision for the future of computing. But we’ve also seen the tablet market dry up — not even the iPad has been immune to those changes. Still, it’s hard not to look at the new, 2017 iPad as a market mover, a $ 329 machine meant to appeal to newcomers and old-school iPad owners in need of an upgrade. While this iPad is priced for everyone, it’s not meant for everyone. It’s not as slim as older models, and it lacks some of the really neat features that appear in Apple’s Pro line. In other words, the 2017 iPad is a no-nonsense machine. But, it’s a damned good one.

Hardware

No, it’s not just in your head — this iPad feels very, very familiar. It’s as if a designer tore a hole in time itself, reached into the past to grab an original iPad Air and stuck some more up-to-date parts inside. That said, Apple wanted to keep these basic models distinct from more premium iPads, so you won’t find any Smart Connector pins on the iPad’s left side or a laminated display (more on that later).

This presents a fascinating problem for Apple and its loyalists: This iPad effectively replaced 2014’s premium iPad Air 2 as the best full-size, non-Pro tablet in the company’s lineup. That wouldn’t be a problem for some people if the 2017 iPad was as slim and sleek as the Air 2 was, but it’s not. Both pack a 9.7-inch screen running at 2,048×1,536, but the 2017 iPad’s 7.5m waistline is slightly thicker than the Air 2’s, and it’s a little heavier, to boot.

These extra millimeters and grams may be a point of contention for some in the Apple community, and to them I say, “Whatever.” Those minor changes barely registered after the first moments. (And this is coming from a guy who toted around an Air 2 until it died.) This thicker design was palatable once before, and while it’s not as technically impressive as Apple’s more recent iPads, I didn’t notice my hands, arms or wrists getting more fatigued than usual while reading Kindle books for a few hours. And there’s a plus side hidden inside this aluminum frame: Apple went with a 32.9Whr battery, which is much bigger than the Air 2’s and even a little more capacious than the original Air’s. Now, I miss the Air 2’s design as much as anyone else, but it’s nice to see a company — especially Apple — offer up better battery life, even if it comes at the expense of sleekness.

Also inside the new iPad is one of Apple’s A9 chipsets, which we first met in the iPhone 6s. It’s paired with 2GB of RAM and either 32 or 128GB of storage. And no, that’s not a typo: There’s no 64GB option available. As always, you’ll be able to shell out extra ($ 130, in this case) for an LTE-enabled model, which adds a few grams to the iPad’s weight. The new iPad is also home to an 8-megapixel rear camera that takes surprisingly good photos, and there’s something to using such a big screen as a viewfinder. But you’ll still look a little silly doing it, and your phone is probably the better camera anyway.

And then there are the little things. The Touch ID sensor embedded in the home button works as fast as the iPhone 6s’ — which is to say you’ll probably never have trouble with it. Oh, and Apple moved some magnets around, so most original iPad Air cases won’t work correctly with the 2017 model.

Display and sound

The 2017 iPad’s screen runs at the same resolution as the Air 2 and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, but there are a few key differences. See, all of the new iPads Apple released in the past three years had optically-laminated displays; that is, the screen was physically bonded to the glass, leaving no gap between them. Not so with this iPad. This saves Apple some money in the manufacturing process but it keeps the iPad from feeling like a seamless window onto the digital world. That said, if you hate the hollow thunking sound that comes with tapping a nonbonded screen, maybe just stay away from this one.

You also won’t find an anti-glare coating on this iPad’s screen, either, likely another cost-saving measure that I wish Apple had reconsidered. The display itself is actually slightly brighter than the Air 2’s (500 nits, compared to the earlier models’ 400), which keep visuals nice and legible in most situations. Things get a little hairier when you take the iPad outside or into a bright room; reflections that seem dull on the iPad Pros are more distracting on this model. For an iPad that’s mostly great, this stands out as one of its most pronounced bummers.

Those compromises, while not ideal, aren’t deal-breakers considering the price. That gap doesn’t matter much when you’re looking at the iPad dead-on, where colors are bright and vivid. Viewing angles are still quite good, so (assuming you dodge those reflections) you won’t have trouble sharing videos with the people sitting next to you.

The sound, meanwhile, hasn’t changed much since the days of the Air 2. There’s a single row of speaker holes drilled into the iPad’s bottom, and the output gets plenty loud without distortion. You’ll miss out on some bass relying on these built-in speakers, obviously. But, thankfully, Apple isn’t taking a stand here — there’s still a headphone jack, so you can plug in your go-to cans.

Performance and software

While we’ve tested some faster iPads, make no mistake: Cheap or not, the 2017 model is a big step up from most earlier models. That’s all thanks to the included dual-core A9 chipset (clocked at 1.85GHz, or so Geekbench says) and 2GB of RAM, which allows for comfortable web browsing, app use and multitasking. Over my week of testing, I mostly used the iPad as a productivity and gaming machine, so I’d punctuate long stretches of email triaging and Slack messaging with a few rounds of that Elder Scrolls card game or cruising around in Galaxy on Fire 3. The iPad handled all of these tasks with only the occasional hiccup when I was trying to flummox it by rapidly jumping in and out of apps.

Engadget

It just works well, and that’s a pretty big compliment. I never found myself wondering why something was taking so long to load. Our usual slew of benchmarks bear out my experience: While less powerful than either of the two iPad Pro models, the 2017 iPad showed healthy gains compared with the iPad Air 2.


iPad (2017) iPad Pro 9.7 iPad Air 2
Geekbench 3.0 Multi-core 5,235 5,235 4,510
3DMark IS Unlimited 29,247 33,403 21,659
Google Octane 2.0 17,993 19,946 10,659

There’s really not much to say on the software front — the iPad comes loaded with iOS 10.3, which should be plenty familiar by now. You can check out the broad strokes in our iOS 10 review, but you’ll now benefit from Apple’s new, more-stable file system and the ability to locate errant AirPods. If nothing else, the iPad is a capable foundation for features like split-screen multitasking.

Running two apps in side-by-side windows worked well enough on my old Air 2, but the extra power produced by the new iPad’s A9 kept everything running more smoothly. It’s clear why Apple wanted this iPad to exist. It isn’t just because the company needed a low-cost tablet to boost its bottom line; it also wanted to provide a stronger base level of performance to help iOS really shine.

More important than the software that comes on the iPad are the updates it will eventually get. With the introduction of the 2017 model, people can go out and buy a relatively cheap iPad that’ll continue to be supported for years. That’s a pretty big deal when you consider the Air 2 — the previous budget-friendly 9.7-inch iPad — is more than 2 years old. Future versions of iOS and the apps they enable will continue to tax our hardware, and a longer support window is reason enough to buy this model over an aging Air.

Battery life


Battery life

iPad (2017) 12:41
iPad Pro 12.9 10:47
iPad mini 4 13:04
iPad Air 2 11:15
iPad Pro 9.7 9:21
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro 7:36
Surface Pro 4 7:15

I was concerned that Apple’s choice of chipset might have had some effect on battery life, but I shouldn’t have been. In terms of pure longevity, this is one of the best iPads we’ve tested. Consider the standard Engadget video rundown test, where we loop an HD video with the screen set at 50 percent brightness: The 2017 iPad lasted for 12 hours and 41 minutes. That’s well ahead of either the iPad Pro and the Air 2. (The only model that came out ahead was the iPad mini 4, which obviously had to drive a much smaller screen.) That’s also well past the 10-hour figure Apple trotted out once again, which isn’t exactly a surprise. Apple, after all, is notorious for low-balling its battery estimates. It holds up well when you’re doing more than bingeing on The Night Manager, too. When it came to my usual working-and-gaming cycle, the iPad stuck around for five or six days of consistent use before needing a recharge.

The competition

With a price starting at $ 329, there aren’t many good, direct competitors to the 2017 iPad. Devices like the new Galaxy Tab S3 are more expensive and are meant to stack up against the iPad Pro. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S2 could be a worthy alternative if you haven’t pledged allegiance to an operating system. It packs an incredible Super AMOLED display and a surprisingly clean, if not quite up-to-date, build of TouchWiz’d Android 6.0.

If you plan to pick up a low-cost tablet for gaming, you might also want to check out NVIDIA’s Shield K1, which starts at $ 199. It packs a smaller 8-inch screen, but the included Tegra chipset and mostly clean build of Android 7.0 Nougat make it one of the better inexpensive tablet picks. That said, the 2017 iPad would still be our pick — it’s the most tantalizing choice for the money.

Wrap-up

This iPad, perhaps more than any in recent memory, is an exercise in compromise. Yes, Apple has said that the iPad most clearly represents its vision of “people should get things done,” and the development of products like the iPad Pro speak to that belief. There is a time for innovation, and this wasn’t it. This time, Apple was just trying to build the best iPad it could for the masses. In that respect, it did a great job, even if the result isn’t as exciting as everyone hoped.

I feel for people who wanted something a little sleeker or more powerful: They have no other choice than to pay up for the Pro line. For everyone else, though — people who have never had iPads or people stuck with really old ones — this thing is a tempting buy that won’t let you down.

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HTC U Ultra review: Bad decisions in a beautiful body

I was almost giddy when I reviewed the HTC 10 last year. After years of casting about for the right approach, the company built a phone that seemed like a clear step in the right direction. Fast forward to January 2017: HTC revealed the $ 750 U Ultra, a glossy flagship that represented a totally new direction for the company. The phone packs a huge screen, a second display for quick controls and an AI-powered virtual assistant that promises to subtly help you out during the day. It’s an ambitious device, certainly, but what’s life without a few risks? Unfortunately, looks aside, HTC’s newest phone feels poorly thought-out. At the risk of sounding too grim too early, the HTC U Ultra is beautiful, expensive and misguided.

Hardware

Normally, I loathe putting phones in cases – engineers and designers didn’t slave away on these things just so you could hide them behind cheap plastic. But with the U Ultra, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. After years of crafting metal-bodied smartphones, HTC wrapped the Ultra in glass, including Gorilla Glass 5 on the 5.7-inch screen and a curved pane of colorful “liquid surface” on the back. (There’s another version of the U Ultra with sapphire crystal coating the screen, but it’ll set you back close to $ 1,000 — no thanks.)

I don’t have enough adjectives for how nice our blue review unit’s finish looks. Stunning? Striking? Rapturous? (That last one was a little much, but you get the idea.) Just as impressive is how those two glass sides gently curve toward each other, eventually meeting the thin metal rim that runs around the phone without any harsh or protruding seams. The only thing that breaks up the U Ultra’s sleek lines is a square hump where the 12-megapixel rear camera lives. For all of the financial trouble HTC has had lately, it still knows how to build an impeccably pretty machine. It’s too bad that the U Ultra isn’t water or dust resistant — a phone this pricey should be a little more durable.

The downside, of course, is that glass breaks. It’s a good thing, then, that a thin, clear plastic case is included in the box. HTC says the phone can handle drops from as high as a meter (3.2 feet) without a problem, but anything more than could wreck that beautiful build.

The other downside becomes apparent when you spin the phone around. Let’s see, there’s a volume rocker on the right side with the power button below that, the SIM tray up top, the USB Type-C port on the bottom and… damn: no headphone jack. HTC’s repudiation of that classic port actually started with last year’s Bolt/10 Evo, but the loss doesn’t sting any less now that we’re looking at a 2017 flagship. Since HTC already threw in a case, you’d think a freebie 3.5mm-to-Type-C adapter would be in order, but no — you’ll have to use the included USonic earbuds or find another pair of Type-C cans.

The annoyances don’t end there. I wish the fingerprint sensor and the capacitive Back and Recent Apps keys were centered in the expanse of black under the phone’s screen. That might sound like I’m nitpicking, but, as you’ll see later, HTC’s attention to detail wavers pretty frequently in this phone.

While this design is new for HTC, the stuff inside should be very familiar. We’re working with a quad-core Snapdragon 821 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM, an Adreno 530 GPU, 64GB of internal storage and a microSD slot that takes cards as large as 256GB. While your hopes for an insanely fast Snapdragon 835 chip might be dashed, this well-worn spec combo is still plenty powerful. More concerning is the 3,000mAh battery tucked away inside. That’s much, much smaller than I expected for a phone this big. Even the new LG G6, which looks downright tiny next to the U Ultra, packs a more capacious cell.

Displays and sound

The U Ultra’s face is dominated by that 5.7-inch, Super LCD5 panel, and it’s easily one of the phone’s strongest assets. Sure, there are brighter screens out there — LG’s G6 and last year’s Galaxy S7s come to mind — but the U Ultra’s panel nonetheless offers excellent viewing angles and decent colors. Thankfully, you can address that latter bit with a quick trip into the device’s settings, where you’ll find an option to tweak the screen’s color temperature as needed. Most people won’t ever bother doing this, but I found it crucial since the U Ultra’s screen is a few degrees too cool for my liking.

And of course, there’s that second screen sitting atop the main one. It’s easy enough to read at a glance and, on paper, it packs many of the same tricks I enjoyed on the LG V20. The way those tricks have been implemented, however, feels kludgy at best and completely dumb at worst.

For starters, that secondary screen can display the next event in your calendar, but there’s no way to specify which calendar you want it to use. That’s bad news if you rely on separate calendars for personal and work events, as I do. The screen displays a weather forecast for the rest of the day, but despite being a US-spec device, it insists on showing 24-hour time instead of AMs and PMs. You can control music playback in Spotify or Google Play Music, but that’s it; if, for example, you’re listening to Pandora station or a podcast in Pocket Casts, you’re stuck using the in-app controls. And for some reason, you can only access a tray of settings controls (think: WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) when the screen is off. I get that HTC thought it was easier to swipe down into the quick settings panel, but why not make persistent controls an option? It’s sad to see that HTC’s attention to detail seemed to end with the U Ultra’s hardware.

Then again, HTC always had other plans for this additional space. It’s the little corner where HTC’s AI-powered Assistant, Sense Companion, lives, offering suggestions based on what it knows about you and your behavior.

At least the U Ultra does better at cranking out the tunes. The days of two front-mounted speakers on an HTC flagship are long behind us, but the compromise on display here works well anyway. There’s one front speaker that doubles as the earpiece and another speaker mounted on the phone’s bottom edge. Together, they’re capable of pumping out loud audio, and with decent channel separation, to boot. There’s a little software trickery at play here, too: When playing audio through the speakers, you can switch between “music” and “theatre” modes. I suppose the latter is supposed to sound more spacious, and it works to some extent, but the music mode tends to flatten out whatever you’re listening to so that it feels more present.

Similar software makes the included USonic earbuds more than just a cheapie pack-in. When you pop the buds into your ears for the first time, you’re ushered through a quick customization process that automatically tunes audio specifically for your head. I’m no acoustician, but to my ears, the difference was immediate. The earbuds are also meant to change the way that same audio sounds based on your environment, so you’ll continue to get great sound while you’re, say, waiting for the train to show up. The thing is, it’s a manual process that requires you to tap a notification every time you want to re-tune based on ambient sound. HTC fanboys might pine for the company’s audio halcyon days, but the U Ultra definitely still has some game.

Software

When HTC released the 10, it also updated its approach to the Sense interface. Long story short, the company streamlined the Sense interface, discontinued some apps where Google was clearly doing better work and added theming options so your phone doesn’t have to look like mine. The U Ultra ships with Android 7.0 Nougat onboard, but HTC’s approach to augmenting it hasn’t changed much since last year. In general, that’s fine by me: I’m a Sense fan (though it certainly isn’t for everyone) and Nougat brings enough notable changes in its own right. The less HTC messes with it, the better.

That — along with a lack of carrier pressure — explains why there are so few extraneous apps on the U Ultra. HTC’s Boost+ is a resource management app that made it very easy to free up storage space. My inner paranoiac had me frequently thumbing the controls to squeeze every last ounce of performance out of the phone, but I never actually noticed any speed gains. The app gets bonus points for letting me lock certain apps with a PIN or pattern to keep prying eyes out of my business. BlinkFeed is back too, for better or worse; a quick left-to-right swipe on the homescreen reveals a grid of content to digest.

BlinkFeed pulls content from social networks like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and LinkedIn, among others, along with articles from NewsRepublic if you’re so inclined. I didn’t have many issues with the sorts of stories the app automatically provided. Be warned, though: BlinkFeed likes to put sponsored posts right in your eye-line when you open it. Really? If you’re going to have me look at ads by default, give me a discount on the phone or something. While the ads are easy to disable, making them opt-out rather than opt-in does nothing for the overall experience.

The stuff I’ve mentioned so far is classic HTC. Sense Companion is not. There’s a team somewhere within HTC that has spent months building an AI-powered virtual assistant that means to offer suggestions (like a reminder to bring a power bank on a day your calendar says is busy) on that underutilized second screen. As it turns out, “means to” are the operative words in that sentence; I’ve been testing the phone for nearly two weeks and Sense Companion hasn’t done much of anything. I’m opted-in; I’ve allowed all permissions, and still nothing. Every once in awhile I’ll get what looks like a Companion notification, but it’s a false alarm; the phone is asking me to opt-in to suggestions that never come.

Annoying as it is for review purposes, HTC made this choice deliberately. The idea isn’t to overload users with AI-fueled notifications; subtlety is key here, with prompts to bring an umbrella timed for blustery days you’ll be out in the thick of it. Anything more pervasive than that might make you turn Sense Companion off altogether and, well, HTC can’t have that. Even now, it’s unclear whether what I’m experiencing is wrong or not, and that doesn’t bode terribly well for the feature’s short-term prospects. Sense Companion’s true value will only be made apparent in time, and it will almost certainly get better eventually. Still, if this is what everyone who buys the phone will have to deal with, I can’t imagine people would bother with Sense Companion for very long.

Camera

It’s impossible to miss the U Ultra’s main, 12-megapixel camera — it’s tucked away in that big, squarish lump around back. On paper, the camera seems promising enough: It has a f/1.8 aperture, large, 1.55-micron sensor pixels, optical image stabilization and hybrid phase-detection-and-laser autofocus, just like many other recent flagship smartphones. What the U Ultra lacks is consistency. In good lighting conditions, I found that this 12-megapixel sensor typically captures ample detail and accurate colors, but it occasionally struggles to accurately expose photos. Even then, they’re never bad, per se — just less impactful than what you’d get out of rivals like the Google Pixels. (Yes, I get that’s not a completely fair comparison since the Pixels rely on more algorithms to make photos look good, but the difference is clear nevertheless.)

Given its track record, HTC knows just how hard it is to nail a smartphone camera. The HTC 10 seemed like a great step forward last year, earning the company a surprisingly high spot on DxOMark’s mobile scale. At its best, the U Ultra produces clearer, more brightly rendered photos than the 10. Every other time, the U Ultra walks down the middle of the road. Put another way, this camera would’ve been a remarkably solid contender last year, but last year’s performance doesn’t do HTC much good now.

That’s not to say that HTC doesn’t understand anything about cameras. I often go back and forth, but HTC’s camera interface is my current favorite: It lends itself well to instantaneous shooting and the Pro mode (which lets you capture RAW images) allows for fast, meticulous fiddling. The included Zoe mode — yes, it’s still kicking around — shoots brief snippets of video along with a photo, just because. (For you iPhone people, think of it as a Live Photo broken down into its constituent parts.) And, vain as I am sometimes, I have frequently used and mostly enjoyed the U Ultra’s 16-megapixel front-facing camera.

Performance and battery life

Rather than wait for Qualcomm’s new top-tier Snapdragon 835 chipset to become widely available, HTC went with last year’s 821. It’s the classic choice between new and tried-and-true, and it’s worth noting that other manufacturers made the same decision this year. Fortunately, the 821 is still an excellent platform and I never felt as though I was missing out. The combination of these four processor cores with an Adreno 530 GPU and 4GB of RAM should sound familiar, but more often than not, they made for fluid app use, gameplay and general navigation.

Ah, but there are those pesky words: “more often than not.” For some reason, while the U Ultra didn’t so much as hiccup while playing intense games, my week of testing has seen more random bouts of lag than I would’ve expected. They happened most frequently as I was jumping in and out of open apps or even just unlocking the phone. These slow spells occurred perhaps once or twice a day and passed quickly, but they were more frequent than I cared for considering devices like the Google Pixels use the same components and were almost perfectly speedy. Your mileage may vary, though, and it’s worth reiterating that most of the time the U Ultra was snappy.

HTC U Ultra Google Pixel XL Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge HTC 10
AndEBench Pro 18,789 16,164 13,030 16,673
Vellamo 3.0 5,398 5,800 4,152 4,876
3DMark IS Unlimited 30,320 29,360 26,666 26,747
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 44 48 47 48
CF-Bench 38,065 39,918 46,290 49,891

The U Ultra’s high-end components can be taxing on a battery, especially when we’re working with a modest 3,000mAh cell. I typically got between a day and a day and a half of moderate use on a single charge — and by “moderate” I mean I pick up the phone and fiddle with it a few times an hour, rather than sitting around glued to it.

Since I’m the kind who charges his devices every night, that kind of battery life is more or less adequate for me. With that said, there’s no denying that some of its fiercest competitors do a better job. With a Google Pixel XL, a physically smaller device with a bigger battery, I could get about two full days of use without having to overthink it. The Moto Z Force, another smaller device, could last for about three days if I played my cards right. (LG’s V20 had a bigger battery, and it was removable, but it actually fared a little worse than the U Ultra in daily use.)

The point is, I’m struggling to understand why HTC couldn’t give us something better. There’s also no denying that the U Ultra didn’t fare well in the standard Engadget rundown test, where we loop an HD video at fixed brightness with WiFi turned on. On average, the U Ultra lasted for about 11 hours and 40 minutes before dying. That’s far short of the Pixel XL’s 14 hours, but still a half-hour better than the V20.

The competition

If you’re in the market for a fancy new smartphone and you need it now, stop and look at a Pixel XL first. It has a bigger battery. It has the same Snapdragon chipset but feels faster in use. It packs a superior camera. And don’t forget: HTC also built the thing for Google. Sure, it lacks the U Ultra’s sheer style, but the promise of fast and frequent software updates should help ease the blow. Some people really like the idea of a second screen, and those folks need to see the LG V20. It has more pronounced audiophile tendencies and the controls on the auxiliary display just work better

And then, of course, there’s the current crop of 2017 flagship phones. Despite its odd aspect ratio, LG’s G6 is a return to slightly more conventional hardware, and so far I’ve been impressed with the not-quite-final version I’ve been playing with these last few weeks. (Our full review will come when after we’ve tested a finished model.) It uses the exact same Qualcomm chip as the U Ultra, but squeezes those components into a tiny, sturdy metal body that also houses a great 13-megapixel dual camera setup. The G6 also packs Google’s Assistant, rather than something like Sense Companion, which has so far been a notable positive.

Meanwhile, the U Ultra’s biggest competitor — Samsung’s heavily leaked Galaxy S8 — is almost here. We know it will have a Snapdragon 831 chip, we know it has an AI assistant that could find a life beyond just phones, and we know it’s pretty damn good-looking. We’ll have to wait to confirm the rest of the juicy details at the launch event on March 29th, but based on what we know so far, I’d be a little worried if I were HTC.

Wrap-up

I can’t stress this enough: the HTC U Ultra is not a bad device. It’s beautiful, well built and plays home to a lot of good ideas. I think HTC was right to build a big phone, and the way it wants to subtly integrate an AI assistant into that second screen is genuinely smart. It’s just unfortunate that the good ideas here have been obscured by bad design decisions and what seems to be a terminal a lack of focus. Now, it’s very, very possible we’ll see another flagship phone from HTC before the year is over. For the company’s sake, I hope it takes a hard look at what the U Ultra does and doesn’t get right before it bothers to release its next big thing.

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Lenovo Phab 2 Pro review: Stumbling out of the gate

I just spent 15 minutes wandering around the office, trying to shoot ghouls in the face with lightning. Before that, I dropped a virtual rococo sofa into the empty space next to my desk, just to see if it would fit. And before that, I measured … well, everything. Welcome to the augmented life, courtesy of Google and Lenovo. Google has spent more than two years taking its “Tango” technology from project to full-blown product. The goal: to help our gadgets examine the world around them and overlay information — or even whole new worlds — on top of the reality we already know. Along the way, Google tapped Lenovo to help craft the first consumer-ready Tango device: an enormous slab of a phone called the Phab 2 Pro. And now it’s here.

If the Tango stuff alone didn’t make the Phab 2 Pro a groundbreaking device, this is also the first Lenovo-branded smartphone to land in the United States. Too bad it’s not quite ready for prime time.

Hardware

I can’t emphasize this enough: The Phab 2 Pro ($ 500) is enormous. Then again, how could it be anything but? We have plenty of things to thank for that, from the phone’s 6.4-inch IPS LCD screen to the bank of capacitive buttons below it, to the massive 4,050mAh battery under the hood. Of course, the real reason the Phab 2 Pro is so big is because of all the Tango tech Google helped squeeze inside. It’s worth remembering that Google’s Tango reference device for developers was a tablet with a 7-inch screen, one of NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 chipsets and two — two! — batteries.

That Google and Lenovo managed to squeeze all the requisite bits into a mostly pocketable smartphone is a feat in itself. There are, after all, plenty of nonstandard parts here. Just look at the Phab 2’s back if you don’t believe me. Nestled between the 16-megapixel camera and the fingerprint sensor are two more cameras — one has an infrared emitter to determine how far things are from the phone, and the other is a wide-angle camera with a fisheye lens that works as part of Tango’s motion-tracking system. Turns out, Lenovo had to punch a hole in the phone’s main circuit board to make room for all those sensors.

Those cameras and sensors work in tandem with a customized version of Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 652 processor. We’ve seen more conventional versions of this midrange chip pop up in devices like ASUS’s new ZenFone, but the version we have here has been tuned to more accurately timestamp the data captured by all of the phone’s sensors. Why? To keep the phone’s location in lockstep with all the crazy AR stuff you’ll see on screen. Also onboard are 4GB of RAM, an Adreno 510 GPU, 64GB of storage, a micro-USB port and a tray that takes either two SIM cards or a SIM card and a microSD card as big as 128GB.

So, long story short, the Phab 2 Pro is massive, and for good reason. The last time I played with a non-Phab phone this big was three years ago, when Sony launched a version of its Xperia Z Ultra running a clean version of Android in the Google Play Store. Since then, the market has coalesced around big smartphones with screens of about 5.5 inches. Years of similar-size devices, then, means the Phab 2 Pro feels extra unwieldy.

It would’ve been more of a problem if Lenovo hadn’t done such a good job putting the Phab 2 Pro together; the body is carved out of a single block of aluminum, and the screen is covered by a sheet of Gorilla Glass that’s ever-so-slightly curved around the edges for that subtle “2.5D” effect everyone seems to love. The aesthetic is pleasant enough if you’re into minimalist design, and big-phone fans are probably going to drool, too. If you’re thinking of getting one, though, best if you can get some hands-on time before taking the plunge.

Display and sound

The 6.4-inch screen on the Phab 2 Pro is indeed massive, but mostly unremarkable. Lenovo went with an “assertive” IPS LCD screen, which basically means the panel can optimize colors and contrast on the pixel level. It’s a handy trick for when you’re traipsing around outdoors — it’s excellent under direct sunlight — but the screen is otherwise forgettable.

Don’t get me wrong: Its 2,560 x 1,440 resolution means it’s still plenty crisp, even if it isn’t as pixel-dense as other devices because of how big the panel is. Color reproduction is accurate too, though it’ll definitely feel a little flat if you’re coming from a device with an AMOLED screen like the Galaxy S7. What’s more, brightness is respectable — this screen is just a touch dimmer than the iPhone 7 Plus’ — and viewing angles are also pretty great. I half-expected the screen to be worse, because it would have been a likely place for Lenovo to cut corners on a $ 500 phone.

The sound quality lags behind screen quality, but that’s no surprise. The Phab 2 Pro has a single speaker carved into its bottom edge, which makes for anemic, muddy-sounding music, with bass notes utterly lacking in oomph. It’s fine for sound effects in Tango-enabled games, but headphones are otherwise a must. It helps that the Phab 2 Pro ships with a Dolby Atmos app that launches automatically when headphones are plugged in. Included are presets for music, movies, games and voices (say, for podcasts), and, in general, they added a decent amount of oomph to my audio. Music, in particular, felt a little punchier and more expansive, though the results seemed to vary from song to song.

Software

Motorola has long been a fan of near-stock Android, and I’m glad its parent company, Lenovo, seems just as fond of it. The Phab 2 Pro ships with a build of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow that has been left almost completely untouched. Seriously, there are no extra widgets, no visual junk, no bloatware. If you put the Tango-specific stuff aside, there are but a few add-ons: an app for simple file sharing, another for cloud backups, a sound recorder, a Dolby Atmos app for audio tuning and Accuweather. The rest of Lenovo’s work on the software front is much subtler, and largely meant to make using such a big phone easier.

Rather than picking up the phone to see what time it is, for instance, you can toggle an option to wake the device by double-tapping the screen. Still another option causes the lock screen’s PIN-input pad and the phone’s dialer pad to slide to the left or right depending on how the Phab 2 is tilted so you don’t have to stretch your thumbs across the screen.

And you’re in luck if you’ve been looking for a smarter alternative to the traditional home button. There’s an option for a floating on-screen button that provides quick access to all three traditional Android navigation keys, plus the screen lock, calculator, audio recorder and flashlight. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to whip out a calculator all that often, so the inability to change any of those shortcuts is a little frustrating. You can add a second page of app shortcuts too, though the resulting grid of icons looks pretty ugly.

Lenovo’s light touch with software is appreciated, but it’s far from perfect. Certain apps (here’s looking at you, Gmail) offer notifications that are hard to read because some of the text is too dark against the translucent-gray notification shade. The problem is even worse when you’re using a dark wallpaper, and surprise: A good chunk of the included wallpapers, including the one that’s on by default, do indeed fall into that category.

Life with Tango

As I write this, there are 35 Tango apps available in the Google Play Store, and broadly speaking, they fall into one of two categories: tools and games. I’m not going to dissect all of them — not unless you all really, really want me to — but there are recurring themes across these apps that speak to the larger experience of living with Tango.

Despite all the whimsical, weird stuff we’ve seen Tango do in the past, Google is making it clear the tech can help you get stuff done, too. The Phab 2 Pro ships with Google’s Measure app, for one, which does exactly what its name suggests. Fire up the app, point at something, tap to drop an anchor, then tap to drop an anchor at that something’s endpoint. Congratulations, you just measured something without having to grab a tape measure. The Lowe’s Vision app has a similar trick, and when Tango’s sensors cooperate, the results can be very accurate indeed.

That’s definitely not a given, though. Let’s say you’re measuring the edge of a box or a desk. The depth sensor sometimes has trouble figuring out where the edge begins, and you have to maneuver just right to tap on the correct spot. (To Google’s credit, Measure says it offers estimates instead of hard numbers.)

Tango recurring theme No. 1: The Phab 2 Pro occasionally fails at figuring out what it’s pointed at, even in bright conditions.

Speaking of, we’ve seen Lowe’s app used in Tango demos for ages now. In fact, the Phab 2 Pro will even be sold in select Lowe’s stores. Even so, it’s still fun filling an empty room with virtual ovens, sofas and end tables. Online retailer Wayfair has a similar app, which generally seems to work much better; the dressers and couches and cabinets I’ve dropped into the world around me were faster to load and didn’t randomly appear right on top of me as in the Lowe’s app. In fact, the Wayfair app is a joy to use at least partially because it doesn’t try to do too much — just plop furniture down, and that’s it. Same goes for Amazon’s Product Preview app, which lets you see how different TVs would look on your wall. It does one thing, and does it well.

Tango recurring theme No. 2: When it comes to augmented reality apps, the simpler the better.

Tango’s tools aren’t just about seeing how junk fits in your home, by the way. One of my early favorites is Signal Mapper, which prompts you to wander around and visualize how strong your WiFi signal is (future versions will support cellular networks, too). Keep at it long enough, and you’re left with a signal-strength heat map that doubles as a rough blueprint of… wherever you happen to be. Then there are apps like Cydalion, meant to help visually impaired persons get around more easily. In brief, these apps provide audio and touch feedback when someone gets too close to a nearby object.

Tango recurring theme No. 3: The technology might not be perfect yet, but the potential here is just astounding.

So, yes, there are plenty of Tango utilities for you to play with. But let’s be real: The first thing I did after receiving the Phab 2 Pro was load up a handful of games. As it turns out, though, games are where Tango’s shortcomings become most apparent. We’ve seen some of these augmented-reality games before, like Domino World, which scans your surroundings and lets you build convoluted structures out of those tiny tiles. But there’s a tendency for the app to think a flat surface like a tabletop goes is longer than it really is, so you’ll often build a long string of dominos that jut out into the air, just waiting to be knocked over.

Other games, like Woorld, are heavier on the whimsy. Designed in part by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, Woorld turns the space around you into a playground where the only real goal is figuring out how to find new pieces — like a sun, clouds, sprouts and picnic tables — to add your tiny domain. It’s cute, it’s fun and I blew the better part of an afternoon on it. Woorld is, by the way, the one game I played that really threw the Phab 2 Pro for a loop. It was the second time I had fired up the game, and less than 10 minutes after I started plopping cottages and clouds and sprouts on a conference room desk, the real-world view provided by the RGB camera nearly ground to a halt.

I’m not exactly sure what caused the issue — maybe a memory leak somewhere — but it hasn’t happened again. Suffice to say, this sort of laggy behavior was an exception, not the rule. I’m actually still surprised that the Phab 2 Pro performed these AR tasks as well as it did, but I probably shouldn’t have been: This phone was supposed to launch at the end of the summer, and it’s clear Google and Lenovo used the extra time to do some tightening up.

Even so, the software is buggy. Playing Phantogeist, the ghost-blasting game I mentioned in the beginning of this review, was great until said ghost spookily hunkered down inside a wall, rendering my lightning-gun-thing useless. When it wandered back into the field, I nuked it from a distance and continued doing that to all its nasty, noncorporeal friends.

Tango recurring theme No. 4: When everything works the way it’s supposed to, Tango can feel like magic.

These past two years have turned Tango into a functional product, but it’s a long way from seamlessly good. There were, however, plenty of those moments where everything came together just so and I felt I like I was playing with a tricorder pulled out of storage on the USS Enterprise. Some of these issues will be addressed in future Tango hardware — Google’s Tango program lead Johnny Lee has said more is coming — but here’s hoping software fixes patch up some of these early troubles. The potential benefits are just too great to give up on.

Camera

Since the Phab 2 Pro’s 16-megapixel camera plays such an important role in making Tango’s augmented reality work, you’d think Lenovo would’ve chosen a top-flight sensor. Not quite, but it has its moments. When the conditions are right — by which I mean there’s plenty of light — the camera yields detailed shots with colors that are mostly true to life. Pro tip: You’ll probably want HDR mode on all the time to give your photos a dose of verve that would otherwise be missing.

My biggest gripe so far has been the finicky autofocus, an issue that only gets more bothersome in low light. Our office already has a Christmas tree in the lobby, and it posed no problem for the iPhone 7 Plus or the Galaxy S7. The Phab 2 Pro, on the other hand, refused to lock onto the tree no matter how many times I tapped to focus on the screen. This doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s a pervasive enough issue that Lenovo should really issue a software update to address it.

I wish I could say the 8-megapixel front camera was better, but it has a lot of trouble accurately rendering colors in selfies. Take me, for example: Around this time of year I’m sort of a pale, milky coffee color, an observation backed up by selfies taken with the iPhone 7 Plus and the Galaxy S7. For reasons beyond comprehension, though, the Phab 2 Pro’s front camera made me a deep orange-brown. That’s with the face-smoothing mode off and everything else set to auto, too. Seriously disappointing, Lenovo.

The camera app itself isn’t much to write home about, either. Sure, there might not be much in the way of manual controls, but there are eight scene modes, a “touchup” mode for cleaning up your face in selfies and some basic white balance and exposure controls. The thing is, they’re tucked away inside a settings menu, making them easy to miss. It’s just bad design. (Then again, looking at the interface Lenovo slapped together, is another bit of bad design really a surprise?)

Because the Phab 2 Pro is all about augmenting reality, it’s no shock that there’s an AR mode within the camera app too. Tapping the AR button brings up a live view of what’s in front of you (duh) along with options to turn that space into some sort of bizarre fairy garden (complete with freaky child-fairy) or a playground for a kitty, a puppy or a chubby, oddly designed dragon. Sound familiar? These sorts of AR tricks figured prominently in Sony smartphones like the Xperia X line, where they were just as hokey. They’re good for a chuckle or two, but the novelty doesn’t last long (unless you have kids). At least the Phab 2 Pro does a better job dispelling the heat that tends to build up during intense AR kitty play sessions.

Performance and battery life

We’ve already established that, beyond the occasional hiccup, the Phab 2 Pro can keep Tango apps running at a decent clip. But what about everything else? Even though the Snapdragon 625 is specifically tuned for Tango, the Phab 2 Pro should be able to handle most people’s daily routines without issue. My days, for instance, are filled with lots of frantic app launching and multitasking; I’m constantly bouncing between Slack, Outlook, Spotify, Trello, Twitter, Instagram, Soundcloud and more for hours on end.

The Phab 2 Pro took that mild insanity like a champ, with occasional stutters punctuating long stretches of smoothness. Not bad. If your day features a lot of hardcore gaming, however, you might want to look elsewhere. Graphically intense games like Asphalt 8 (with the visual settings cranked to the max) sometimes proved to be a little much for the Phab 2 Pro. In other words, don’t freak out if you see the occasional jerkiness or dropped frame. Though this is an important device, you’re not exactly getting flagship-level power.

Google Pixel Google Pixel XL Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge Lenovo Phab 2 Pro
AndEBench Pro 14,941 16,164 13,030 8,930
Vellamo 3.0 5,343 5,800 4,152 4,922
3DMark IS Unlimited 28,645 29,360 26,666 17,711
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 46 48 47 14

I was also expecting more from the Phab 2 Pro’s 4,050mAh battery — it’s the biggest I’ve seen in a recent smartphone, after all. The usage time skewed more middle-of-the-road than I expected, but that’s still sort of a win after all the time I’ve spent playing with Tango apps. Since seeing the sun for any appreciable period of time now requires me to be up early, I usually pulled the Phab 2 Pro off its charger at around 6:45AM, then put it through the daily wringer, with lots of time to get acquainted with Tango. I mean, who could resist?

Over the course of a few days like that, the phone settled into a predictable pattern: It’d power through 12-hour workdays just fine with about 10 percent to 15 percent left in the tank. On weekends, when I spent much less time glued to the phone, it generally stuck around for closer to two days on a charge.

Things were a little less promising in Engadget’s standard rundown test, wherein we loop a high-definition video with the phone connected to WiFi and the screen’s brightness fixed at 50 percent. The Phab 2 Pro lasted for 12 hours and 8 minutes — 20 minutes less than the Google Pixel, and a full two hours less than the larger Google Pixel XL. Such is the downside of having to power such a big display.

Wrap-up

The Lenovo Phab 2 Pro is an incredible thing, and it’s just brimming with potential. It’s also unpolished and frustrating to use a lot of the time. When the hardware and software don’t come together as they should, it makes me wish Google and Lenovo had spent a little more time ironing out the bugs. But when everything does come together — which happens frequently — I feel like I’m playing with something from the future.

Even so, there’s work to be done. Hardly any of the Tango apps available for the Phab 2 Pro feel like killer apps. As developers continue to get a feel for what Tango is capable of, we’ll see the platform become more useful — at least, I hope so. Part of that growth hinges on people starting to adopt Tango devices like the Phab 2 Pro, but it’s pretty clear that in its current form, no one needs this phone. For all Lenovo’s work cramming Tango into a well-built body, the Phab 2 Pro still feels like a proof of concept. If you’re a developer or an early adopter, then by all means, go get one.

Everyone else should remember that Tango doesn’t end with this phone. It’s special, it’s immersive and I think it could be huge for the future of mobile computing. It just needs time. I’m glad the Phab 2 Pro exists, but if there were ever a phone that wasn’t meant for everyone, this is it. The race is on now, though, and who knows? Maybe the next device with this tech is the one that truly delivers on Tango’s promise.

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OnePlus 3T review: A satisfying update to a fairly new phone

Remember the OnePlus 3? It came out barely six months ago and was the best phone you could get for $ 400. Well, it’s about to be replaced by a faster, slightly more expensive version of itself that the company is calling the OnePlus 3T. (The T doesn’t stand for anything; it’s a cheeky take on the typical “S” suffix denoting many flagship sequels.) The new $ 439 device uses the latest Snapdragon 821 processor to achieve even faster speeds, and packs a beefier battery and sharper front camera — improvements in areas where the original sort of fell short. I say “sort of” because other than battery life, the OnePlus 3 didn’t need much improving. But OnePlus made it better anyway, and now it’s one of the best phones on the market, especially at this price.

Hardware

There isn’t much of a difference, at least externally, between the OnePlus 3T and its predecessor. Indeed, a lot of what I’m going to describe here was covered in greater detail in our review of the original. The most obvious physical change is the new “gunmetal” color, which is a slightly darker shade of gray-silver than the OnePlus 3. A “soft gold” option is also available, just like with the original.

Color aside, the 3T looks exactly the same as its predecessor, which itself is impressive, given that it has a larger battery. It sports the same 5.5-inch full HD Optic AMOLED display, which was sharp and bright enough to watch videos on indoors and outdoors. It also has the same single speaker at the bottom that was loud enough to fill my living room with sound, although it got tinny at top volume.

You’ll find the same fingerprint sensor, USB-C charging port and physical mute switch here as on the OnePlus 3. Just like the previous version, the OnePlus 3T has a dual nano SIM card slot, but no room for a microSD reader. Those who want more storage will have to opt for a new 128GB option, which costs $ 479. Neither phone meets widely accepted water-resistance standards, though the company says the handsets will survive wet weather. It didn’t rain during my review period, so I unfortunately wasn’t able to test that claim.

Software

You probably won’t notice many differences between the OnePlus 3’s version of OxygenOS and its successor’s; the changes here are very subtle. The company resized its app icons so they’re consistent across the home, all apps and Shelf pages, and added some new gestures, such as three-finger screenshots and flip-to-mute, to make the phone more convenient to use.

The OnePlus 3T also gets new apps for weather and voice recording, and allows you to lock specific apps with your fingerprint. It also features a quick-settings panel that’s more similar to what you’ll find on Android Nougat. The changes here aren’t major, but they do make getting around the system slightly easier.

Cameras

I don’t generally need an excuse to go on a selfie-taking binge, but I did appreciate having “testing the OnePlus 3T’s 16-megapixel front camera” as a reason to do so. The new setup is much sharper than the one on the OnePlus 3, which the company says makes for better low-light performance.

This was indeed true when I casually snapped dozens of portraits while traipsing around Manhattan one night, and the camera delivered several crisp images, despite all the motion. Not only were they sharp, but the pictures were also bright and relatively noise-free. I had to take a picture in a dark, poorly lit warehouse before I started to see any graininess. The one thing I wish the OnePlus 3T’s front camera had was some form of flash, for taking clear shots in near-darkness.

Just because they have the same megapixel count, though, doesn’t mean that the front and rear cameras are the same. They differ quite vastly on color quality, thanks to their different sensors and pixel size. The same scenes shot with the front camera looked washed-out and pale compared with those taken with the rear camera, which generally captured vibrant, richly colored images. OnePlus 3T also added a layer of sapphire glass to the back camera to protect it from scratches that could forever mar your shots.

As we mentioned in our review of the OnePlus 3, the rear camera is capable in most lighting conditions, but won’t impress the way the iPhone 7 Plus or many other smartphone cameras would. It delivered sharp, accurately colored exterior shots on sunny days, and rendered a respectable amount of detail in low light, but images looked flat indoors. Still, it’s perfectly adequate, and that front camera will please selfie fans like myself.

Performance and battery life

Most flagship phones released this year use the Snapdragon 820 processor, rather than the newer 821 chip that Qualcomm started offering later in the year. So, only the Google Pixel and LeEco Le Pro3 have it, which makes the OnePlus 3 slightly less competitive on specs (the LePro 3 costs the same as the OnePlus 3). I imagine this is one of the biggest reasons OnePlus decided to drop a new flagship so soon after unveiling its previous one, but still, it’s a smart move.

OnePlus 3T OnePlus 3 LeEco Le Pro3 Google Pixel
AndEBench Pro 14,399 13,841 13,354 14,941
Vellamo 3.0 6,144 5,202 6,559 5,343
3DMark IS Unlimited 31,691 30,058 31,753 28,645
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 50 48 30 46
CF-Bench 51,262 41,653 42,572 30,997

The Snapdragon 821 processor makes the OnePlus 3T faster than the original, which was already pretty speedy. It’s hard to tell the difference in day-to-day performance, because I’m not a robot and can’t detect minute differences in app-launch times, but overall the 3T was very responsive. Its Vellamo score of 6,144 beat the OnePlus 3, the Samsung Galaxy S7, the HTC 10 and the Google Pixel and Pixel XL, while its AndEBench result trumped the OnePlus 3 and the Galaxy S7 but fell short of the Pixel phones and HTC 10. The OnePlus 3T also bested the field in graphics-performance tests.

This means you’re mostly going to see similar speeds across these phones. Considering the Pixels use the same chip (albeit with less RAM) but cost hundreds of dollars more, the OnePlus 3T really delivers on value here.

The OnePlus 3T has the same 6GB of RAM as the original, which makes for swift multitasking. OnePlus says it also improved the launch speed for large apps and games, so you won’t have to wait quite as long to open these programs. I also found call quality to be perfectly adequate. I called a friend who was in Queens (on T-Mobile’s network), and he was able to accurately repeat a string of numbers that I recited, despite his dog barking in the background, which I heard as well. Unfortunately, as with previous OnePlus handsets, the 3T works only on GSM carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile.

One area where the company says it received the most negative feedback about the OnePlus 3 was battery life. In addition to simply bumping up the battery capacity to 3,400mAh from 3,000mAh, OnePlus tuned the power efficiency of the CPU so that despite its faster speed, it sips power at the same rate as the previous handset.

I was expecting a slight increment on endurance and wasn’t quite prepared for the 3T’s epic stamina. It lasted 16 hours and seven minutes on Engadget’s battery test, which involves looping an HD video with the screen set to 50 percent brightness until the device conks out. That’s almost six hours more than the OnePlus 3’s runtime, and two hours longer than the Google Pixel XL, which has a 3,450mAh bank.

When the phone does eventually run out of juice, it charges back up to offer what the company says is a day’s worth of power in 30 minutes. After the OnePlus 3T finally died on Engadget’s battery test, I plugged it in and was able to take it on a quick video shoot just 15 minutes after, because it already got back up to 20 percent in that time. Not only is this fast, but that’s enough juice to last at least two hours.

The competition

The OnePlus 3T faces direct competition from the LeEco Le Pro3, which uses the same processor with less RAM for $ 400. But the Le Pro3 suffers from unintuitive software, has a less vibrant display and doesn’t last as long as the 3T.

Google’s Pixel phones also use the same processors, offering similar (if not better) performance in a premium frame. These handsets have better cameras and run the latest version of Android (7.0 Nougat), offering a cleaner interface and helpful new features like Google Assistant. But the Pixel lineup starts at $ 800, which is nearly twice the OnePlus 3T’s asking price. Indeed, the latest OnePlus handset is probably the best handset you’re going to find for around $ 440.

Wrap-up

The OnePlus 3T improves things about the original that were slightly lacking, such as battery life, and amps up on performance and software, making it a strong option for power users. I particularly love the sharper front camera for its solid performance in low light. I’d also argue that the boost in endurance alone is worth the $ 39 price hike, but the previous iteration offered enough stamina for the average user who may not want to shell out for a few extra hours of juice. As a replacement for an existing flagship, the OnePlus 3T is a refinement that not only feels timely, but also well-planned and executed. You’d have a hard time finding a better phone for the price.

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LG V20 review: Great for audiophiles, but who else?

After the unabashed wackiness of its G5, LG had a real conundrum on its hands: Does it keep up the modular streak for its 2016 V-series flagship phone and risk lousy sales, or try something a little more traditional? As it turns out, LG chose the latter and built a more conventional kind of powerhouse: the V20. None of that means the phone is boring, though. Between its stellar audio, a neat dual-camera setup and a second screen, there’s theoretically enough charming weirdness here to help the V20 stick out from the competition. The bigger question is whether all those disparate bits come together to form a compelling whole. As is often the case, the answer depends where your priorities lie.

Hardware

LG V20 Review

It’s funny how little the V20 ($ 672+) looks like its predecessor. Last year’s V10 all but shoved its rugged design in your face, with its rubbery DuraSkin rear and a pair of stainless steel bars flanking its display. The design looked better in person than I thought it would, but it definitely wasn’t for everyone. The V20, meanwhile, is more subdued in its style, even though it’s rated to handle 4-foot drops, just like the V10.

Now, don’t go confusing “subdued” with “attractive” — the V20’s aesthetic is best described as utilitarian, and I’d be surprised if anyone felt the blow-to-the-gut pang of attraction that sometimes comes with seeing finely crafted gear. In fact, when I first laid eyes on the V20, I couldn’t help but point out visual similarities between it and the BlackBerry Z10 — not exactly a comparison LG should be proud of. Regardless, the V20 is plenty sturdy: It’s made of 6013-series aluminum capped on the top and bottom with a tough polycarbonate to help it deal with drops.

It’s also huge. The 5.7-inch Quantum LCD display is a handful as it is, but the V20 also has a tiny secondary display above the main screen. For the sake of comparison, the V20 is just a hair longer and thicker than the iPhone 7 Plus, which is itself a whopper of a smartphone. Both of these phones also coincidentally share a dual-camera setup (which I’ll dive into later), but the V20 is noticeably lighter. It’s too bad that the V20 isn’t water-resistant like some of its rivals, but the trade-off might be worth it to some people. You see, LG is one of the few flagship smartphone makers who still let users remove their batteries. To that end, there’s a button low on the phone’s left side that pops off the V20’s metal battery cover, revealing a 3,200mAh battery and a combination SIM/microSD slot. The phone takes memory cards as large as 2TB, by the way, though the 64GB of included storage will probably be enough for most.

Sitting directly above is the standard rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, which is among the fastest I’ve used on a smartphone. Many people seem to appreciate its placement on the back of the phone, and I’m slowly becoming one of them. Sure, it would be nice to be able to unlock the V20 with a touch while it’s sitting face-up on a table, but I like that the sensor is in the perfect spot for my finger to rest on it when I pull the V20 out of my pocket.

Displays and sound

As mentioned earlier, the main screen is a big ol’ 5.7-inch IPS LCD running at Quad HD, and it’s noticeably brighter than the panel on the G5. As a result, legibility and color reproduction are also better under direct sunlight than on the G5 or the V10, though I’d be shocked if they weren’t. Speaking of colors, they’re rendered well across the board and look surprisingly natural, thanks to LG’s Quantum display tech. When LG first embraced quantum displays in the G4, it claimed it offered a more accurate take on colors. That may be true, but the V20’s screen might not be for everyone right out of the box; it’s quite cool, so there’s a tendency for whites to look a little blue. You don’t get the visceral vividness and deep darks that come with AMOLED screens, but hey — it’s ultimately a matter of personal preference.

More important, the secondary display is back. To be clear: It’s not actually a separate screen — just an extra bit that juts out from the top of the main panel. In theory, the 1040×160 overflow area is a neat idea: It acts as a dedicated zone for the time and notifications when the main display is off, and offers shortcuts to apps and actions when the main display is on. I have a few issues with LG’s multiscreen implementation, but let’s just get the big one out of the way first: As with the V10 and even Samsung’s Edge line, very little about this second display is essential.

Most of the shortcuts — like toggling WiFi and Bluetooth and grabbing a screenshot to mark up — exist in the Quick Settings tray above the notifications shade anyway, so you’re rarely saving time. Ditto for app shortcuts: I’ve found it much easier to leave my most used apps on the bottom row of a home screen rather than scoot up my hand (or use my other one) to tap on an app icon in the overflow area. Still, it’s not like the second display is without merit entirely. The best part is having a set of music controls available while the phone is locked. Your mileage may vary, but I’d have given up on the second screen completely were it not for that.

So yeah, the second screen is of dubious value. The V20’s audio performance more than makes up for it, though: The phone is kitted out with a Quad DAC and support for 24-bit high-resolution audio. I’ve been a little dismissive of this stuff in the past, but the V20 has helped me turn a corner. With the DAC enabled and headphones plugged in, your audio will automatically sound at least a little richer and fuller. The differences can be harder to suss out with certain songs — particularly ones you stream — but the changes stemming from the DAC are almost universally welcome. LG’s choice of DAC also means the V20 supports 32-bit audio and lossless formats like FLAC, if that’s something you’re down with, though it goes without saying that the V20’s single speaker won’t come close to doing them justice.

Chances are you won’t see them, but the V20 also plays host to a trio of microphones for high-quality audio recording. They’re technically what are called acoustic overload point microphones, and I’ll spare you the drawn-out explanation — just know they’re designed to keep distortion to a minimum in very loud situations. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how crisp and clean the resulting records have been, and while these microphones would really shine at concerts and right next to musicians, they’ve also been great for recording interviews and conversations for work.

Software

LG pulled off a neat coup with the V20: It’s the first smartphone that shipped with Android 7.0 Nougat preloaded. Google made that victory a hollow one when it launched the Pixel and Pixel XL with Android 7.1, but whatever: Nougat is still surprisingly hard to come by, and I’ll take it where I can get it. (You can check out our full Android 7.0 review here, by the way.) All of the new little — and not so little — Nougat tricks are here and ready to play with. Even LG left some facets of Nougat almost completely untouched, like the notifications shade and the quick-settings panel above it. Nicely done.

That said, not every Nougat feature works as Google intended. Android 7.0 lets you play with the display size, for instance, allowing you to adjust the size of text and app icons. When left untouched, Nougat gives you five display options to help you find the perfect size, but LG’s implementation gives you only three. Fine, that’s probably not the biggest deal, but it’s a sign that Google’s word still isn’t gospel for OEMs. At least the horsepower on display here makes the V20 an efficient multitasker; not every app works with Google’s new multiwindow mode, but the ones that do run smoothly.

Of course, Nougat is only part of the equation — LG painted over it with an updated version of its custom interface, called LG UX 5.0+. For the most part, it’s a rehash of the interface on the G5, but there’s at least one big change to keep your eyes peeled for. By default, the V20 doesn’t have a traditional app drawer; all of your stuff gets splashed across your home screens by default. Seeing a flagship Android smartphone ship in the US without an app drawer is a little unusual because these setups are more popular in Asia, but it’s easy enough to revive the launcher if you miss it.

The rest of LG’s custom skin is as bright and inoffensive as always. I do wish LG would pare back its paint job to let stock Android shine through, especially since there’s a tendency for some of the company’s first-party apps to feel clunky. It doesn’t help that my review unit is a Verizon model, which means it’s loaded with bloatware I couldn’t wait to uninstall or disable. At least Verizon was kind enough to shove most of its apps in a folder for easy decimation.

The cameras

Remember the G5’s fascinating dual-camera setup? The one that was eventually overshadowed by the iPhone 7 Plus even though they aspired to the exact same thing? Well, LG tweaked the formula for the V20, swapping in different sensors. All told, the 16-megapixel main sensor and 8-megapixel wide-angle camera next to it are fun to use in tandem, even if the resulting photos aren’t as good as what competing devices are capable of.

Most of the time, you’ll be using that 16-megapixel camera with its f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization and more often than not you’ll get photos that look pretty good. Other phones do better with color representation and detail — here’s looking at you, Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel — but the V20 puts up a decent fight. The larger problem here is one of consistency. When shooting in Auto mode — which many people will be doing — the V20 often gets the exposure a little wrong or gets a little too ambitious when it tries to automatically reduce noise. Low-light performance is decent too, but not even a wide aperture, image-stabilization and multiple autofocus methods can prevent grain and ghosting.

The smaller, 8-megapixel sensor has to grapple with these issues too, plus the barrel distortion that becomes prominent when you’re shooting from a distance. It also would’ve been nice if LG tightened up the transition between the cameras when you’re zooming in and out on a subject. There’s still about a one-second pause while the phone makes the switch, which could make the difference between nabbing the shot you wanted and missing it completely.

As far as off-the-cuff shooting goes, the V20 could be much, much better. Ironically, the manual-shooting mode LG included might be my favorite on any smartphone. Familiar settings like ISO, shutter speed, white balance and more can be found at the bottom of the screen, but they’re joined by a tremendously helpful manual focus mode that highlights parts of the image when they’re nice and crisp.

The tragically vain will be glad to know that the 5-megapixel front-facing camera is perfectly adequate, and offers a wide enough field of view that squeezing a few friends into the shot should be no trouble. While we’re talking about the perfectly adequate, shooting video with the V20, even in 4K, yielded footage that was pleasant enough. If only LG were better at playing the expectations game. The company spent a decent chunk of its V20 launch event talking about how awesome Qualcomm’s built-in video-image stabilization is. And while it’s certainly helpful, it’s hardly the miracle-worker I was hoping for.

Performance and battery life

For all the V20’s quirks, the stuff under the hood is very familiar. Like the G5 before it, the V20 packs a quad-core Snapdragon 820 chipset paired with 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU. It would’ve been nice to see LG give the V20 another edge in the form of the newer Snapdragon 821 chip, but alas, we probably got a little screwed by the intricacies of supply-chain management. Either way, we’re still working with a phone that keeps pace with the best of ’em; the slowdowns I experienced were thankfully rare, even when running graphically intense games.

Google Pixel Google Pixel XL Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge LG V20
AndEBench Pro 14,941 16,164 13,030 13,172
Vellamo 3.0 5,343 5,800 4,152 5,266
3DMark IS Unlimited 28,645 29,360 26,666 27,968
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 46 48 47 39
CF-Bench 30,997 39,918 46,290 32719

That’s great, but horsepower doesn’t count for much without a good battery to back it up. Alas, the 3,200mAh cell here fails to impress. Sure, it’s more capacious than the one that shipped with the G5 earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean the V20 lasts any longer on a charge. In my nearly two weeks of testing, the V20 typically powered through 12-hour workdays full of Slack messages, emails, podcasts and the occasional Hearthstone match, and came out on the other side with about 10 percent charge remaining. For those keeping count, that’s almost exactly the same usage I squeezed out of the G5 and its smaller battery.

Now, 12 hours of continued, mixed usage on a single charge isn’t bad, and Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 tech means topping up the V20’s battery takes very little time. And if that’s not fast enough, you could always carry around a spare battery and just swap it in as needed. Even so, there’s no denying that devices like the Pixel siblings and Samsung’s Galaxy series tend to last longer with their sealed batteries.

That was also true in our video rundown test, where we loop an HD video with screen brightness set to 50 percent while connected to WiFi. The V20 stuck around for 11 hours and 10 minutes — that’s a bit better than the 10.5 hours I got on the G5, but hours behind devices like the Galaxy S7 and Google’s Pixel phones.

The competition

I’ve been making not-so-veiled references to Samsung’s current line of Galaxy phones and Google’s Pixel family, and for good reason. If you’re looking for a new flagship and the V20 is on your shortlist, these devices need to be too — after all, they offer similar horsepower for around the same price. For those who like the idea of the V20’s second screen, there’s always the Galaxy S7 Edge. It packs just as much horsepower as the V20 and an always-on display you can rub to peek at your notifications and the news without having to unlock the phone. In general, its battery life is much better too, though you’ll have to deal with a custom interface and a lack of Android Nougat.

Then again, if it’s great photos you’re after, you won’t do much better than the Pixel or Pixel XL. Both pair impressive 12-megapixel cameras with really impressive (not to mention instantaneous) HDR image processing, which add up to the best point-and-shoot camera experience on an Android device. It doesn’t hurt that the Pixel phones run a clean version of Android 7.1 Nougat, offer access to Google’s clever new assistant, and offer speedy performance.

By now, though, it’s clear the V20 isn’t your average Android flagship. There’s an underlying emphasis on creativity here that extends way beyond what other device makers have attempted. In that regard, no clear competitors come to mind.

Wrap-up

LG has done a fine job choosing top-tier components and focusing on things like audio quality and manual photography. On paper, that sounds great! In practice, there’s an underlying lack of cohesiveness between these parts. Audio nerds will find a lot to like here, the swappable battery is nice, and there are some great shots to be captured if you’re comfortable tinkering with the shooting settings. If what you need out of smartphone matches LG’s vision, the V20 is a great choice. But for people who value power and polish over a highly specific set of tools, there are more well-rounded options out there.

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Moto Z Play review: Buy it for the battery life

You should’ve seen this one coming. Of course Motorola wasn’t going to just release two versions of the Moto Z and call it a year. While the first two — the Moto Z and Moto Z Force — had to bear the weight of flagship expectations and justify the lack of a headphone jack, the Moto Z Play merely had to be inexpensive and not terrible. Well, mission accomplished … mostly. At $ 449, the Z Play isn’t the cheapest mid-range phone out there, but it clears the “not terrible” bar with more room than I imagined.

All right, all right, there’s no point in being coy. The Moto Z Play is actually pretty great.

Hardware

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: The Moto Z Play looks almost identical to the Moto Z Force, the hardy modular flagship I tested earlier this year. That’s a good thing. From its dimensions to its fingerprint sensor to the signature camera hump around the back, the Moto Z Play looks and feels like a phone that costs almost $ 300 more.

The phone’s familiar design also means the return of certain annoying design quirks, like the fingerprint sensor that looks, but doesn’t act, like a home button. (I can’t complain about that too much, though, since the sensor actually works very well.) Even stranger, the so-called Moto Mods that magnetically connect to the Z Play’s back don’t feel quite as seamless as when they’re connected to other Moto Z’s. That said, most people probably won’t know the difference.

These kinds of missteps are offset by a general feeling of sturdiness, thanks in large part to the phone’s solid metal rim. My colleague Aaron rightfully gave last year’s Moto X Play some grief because Motorola didn’t pay close attention to the fine details. That’s true here too, but the caliber of construction here still elevates this mid-range phone into more premium territory. While devices like the Moto G series always felt a little chintzy compared with the more premium Moto X line, that sort of quality gap doesn’t really exist here. That doesn’t mean you can treat the Z Play as harshly as you could a Z Force, though — there’s no ShatterShield display, and the Play’s back is made not of metal, but of easily scratched glass.

The differences don’t end there. The Z Play packs a 16-megapixel camera and a 5.5-inch Super AMOLED screen running at 1080p; the regular Z and Z Force both feature Quad HD displays. That dip in screen resolution was inevitable given the Z Play’s price, but who cares — this thing has a headphone jack sitting next to its USB Type-C port. Motorola is still convinced that a single socket for power, audio and everything else is the way of the future, and its bet was vindicated when Apple did the same with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. So what gives? Motorola’s rationale is simple: The design of the Z Play’s logic board had room for the port. The mixed message is a little confusing, but hey: No dongles necessary this time.

You wouldn’t know just by looking at it, but the Moto Z Play sits lower on the performance totem pole than either of the Moto Z’s that came before it. There’s an octacore Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset inside, an Adreno 506 GPU and 3GB of RAM, all of which last for a very long time when paired with the Z Play’s 3,510mAh battery.

Remember: The Moto Z Play is modular (as evidenced by the multi-pin connector on its back), so you could strap on a magnetic battery mod for even more battery life. If only Motorola were as generous with the storage options: There’s 32GB of room on board, and only 24GB is available to you from the get-go. At least the micro-SIM tray has a spot for a microSD card with support for up to 2TB of additional space.

This isn’t my first time taking the Moto Z Play for a spin, but this version is different. It’s a fully unlocked GSM model, ready for action on AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States. If you’re a Verizon customer and don’t see yourself switching anytime soon, there’s also a version of the phone just for you — it’s physically identical but packs all of Big Red’s usual bloatware. (More on that later.)

Display and sound

It used to be that buying anything less than a flagship phone meant you got stuck with a lousy screen. Oh, how times have changed. Case in point: The Moto Z Play packs a 5.5-inch AMOLED panel offering respectable viewing angles and great clarity; I never missed the extra resolution on the Moto Z and Z Force. This screen does seem a little dim compared with the Z and Z Force displays, but you’d be hard-pressed to spot the difference when you’re just sitting around inside. Taking the phones outside is a different story, though: The Z Play’s screen is merely passable under bright sunlight, while the Z and Z Force can dial up the brightness quite a bit further. Guess Motorola had to cut corners somewhere.

I’m also fond of how the Z Play renders colors right out of the box: Sunsets and close-ups of wood seem suitably deep, as do the blues and greens that always pop up in landscape photos. If slightly oversaturated colors aren’t your thing, though, you can change things with a trip to the settings (the phone’s display mode is set to “vivid” by default). Toggling the feature to standard mode results in visuals that, while probably a little more accurate, are a lot less fun.

Speaking of things that aren’t much fun, the sound setup here leaves a lot to be desired. Then again, who didn’t see this coming? Motorola used the same lackluster system in the more premium Moto Z and Z Force, with an earpiece that doubles as the main speaker driver when you crank up the volume. Listening to music on a vanilla Z Play is passable at best -– vocals and mids can sound crisp -– and muddled at worst. I wish the Z Play’s speaker was a little louder too, but considering the sort of quality we’re working with, Motorola might have been doing us a kindness by capping the volume.

Thankfully, we have options. First, you can plug in a pair of headphones –- once more, without a dongle! -– and bypass that speaker entirely. Motorola, meanwhile, would much prefer you use that sweet, sweet Moto Mod connector around the back to magnetically lash a completely new set of speakers onto the phone. JBL’s $ 79 external speaker is the most useful of the multimedia mods available, and while it still focuses on mids and highs, there’s enough heaviness and clarity to its sound that most people I’ve shown it to have enjoyed the experience. You certainly don’t need Moto Mods to use the Z Play, but they are handy.

Software

I’m pleased to report that there isn’t a whole lot to say about the Moto Z Play’s software. Yes, that’s a good thing: It’s fast, familiar and free of the bloatware that comes loaded on the Verizon-branded Z Play. If you’ve used a modern Motorola device, you could probably just leave it at that and move on. If not, well, here’s a little more.

The Motorola that’s endured so much change these past few years still prefers stock Android (in this case, 6.0.1 Marshmallow), leaving us with a software stack that’s largely untouched. That shouldn’t really surprise anyone: Motorola wasn’t going to blaze new software trails on a mid-range version of its flagship device. The look, the app launcher, the underlying functionality — it’s all just Marshmallow.

Motorola’s additions are as subtle as ever, and exist mostly in the form of smart gestures. Waving your hands over the Z Play’s face like a Jedi makes the screen light up, proffering the time and your notifications. Double-twisting your wrist launches the camera, and a relatively new double karate chop fires up the flashlight. (Pro tip: Don’t use your whole arm.)

Relatively new to the mix is a one-handed mode that’s invoked by swiping up from the bottom of the display. Motorola’s implementation isn’t perfect — you can’t resize or move the shrunken window — but it’s really useful if the 5.5-inch screen is a little too big to use with one hand. Perhaps the biggest issue with the feature is that it can be too easy to activate accidentally, which probably explains why it’s not on by default: You’ll have to dive into the included Moto app to enable it. Then there are Motorola’s voice commands, which have steadily gotten more precise since they debuted on the original Moto X three years ago. They’re nice enough to have and work as well as they always did — just don’t expect the same sort of conversational fluidity you’d get from something like the new Google Assistant.

And that’s really it. As a brief aside, this is the first time I’ve used an unlocked version of the Moto Z, and I can’t stress how much nicer it feels to use without all that carrier-mandated bloatware. Android device manufacturers now realize that cleanliness, while not that close to godliness, is a virtue worth exploring when it comes to interfaces. To date, few phone makers match Motorola in its devotion to pure Android, and I’ll keep doling out the kudos as long as the company keeps at it.

Camera

The Moto Z Play’s main camera is a mixed bag, but not for the reasons you’d expect. In terms of pure resolution, the 16-megapixel sensor here sits somewhere between the Moto Z’s 13-megapixel camera and the Z Force’s much better 21-megapixel shooter. Not bad, right? Well, hold on: The Z Play camera works with an f/2.0 aperture, as compared with the f/1.8 apertures used by both of its predecessors. In other words, the Z Play is technically capable of capturing a little more photographic nuance than the bog-standard Moto Z, but lags behind it when it comes to low-light performance. The Z Play’s camera also lacks optical image stabilization, making it slightly more susceptible to blurry edges and obscured faces, especially when it’s dark.

So yes, your poorly lit bar photos won’t turn out great. Even so, the Z Play doesn’t completely drop the ball, and — perhaps more important — it’s capable of producing some really attractive shots when the lights come back up. Colors seem accurately represented (though you might sometimes see whites turn a little blue), and there was often plenty of detail to gawk at. The very act of snapping photos is quick too, with basically zero lag before taking a new shot.

I’ve tested plenty of faster, all-around better smartphone cameras this year, but the Moto Z Play’s is nonetheless remarkable in two ways. First, it’s a little more than half the price of those photographically superior phones. More important, the gap between the camera in this mid-range phone and the cameras in the flagship Moto Z’s can be surprisingly small. The Moto Z Force’s more advanced setup has the clear edge, but under the right conditions it’s easy to get similar results out of all three Z phones.

Meanwhile, the 5-megapixel front-facing camera is perfectly adequate, packing a wide-angle lens for squeezing more friends into selfies, and video footage came out clean, if a little unremarkable. All told, Motorola has a potent little photographic package here, though sticklers for premium quality will want to look elsewhere. And hey, if the camera really doesn’t do it for you, Motorola sure would love if you went out and bought one of those $ 250 Hasselblad camera mods — it’ll replace that default shooter with a 12-megapixel sensor developed in part by people known for their crazy-expensive cameras.

Performance and battery life

All right, quick recap: The Moto Z Play has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset, 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 506 GPU ticking away inside it. I can already tell some people’s eyes are glazing over because that chipset’s model number doesn’t start with an “8,” but I’m here to tell you the 625 is a capable little slab of silicon. When it comes to thumbing through open apps, swiping through menus and the rest of the day-to-day actions one doesn’t pay that much attention to, the Z Play moves like a flagship phone: quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

For people who ultimately don’t ask much of their smartphones, the Moto Z Play has more than enough power to keep everything moving at a more than reasonable pace. Things can change pretty quickly when you fire up some graphically intensive games, though. That’s when the occasional sluggishness can set in. Again, that’s not a shocker or anything: Mid-range phones are getting better all the time, but most of the not-quite-high-end phones we’ve played with this year act the same way.

Moto Z Play Moto Z (Droid Edition) OnePlus 3 Moto G4 Plus
AndEBench Pro 8,347 16,678 13,841 16,159
Vellamo 3.0 3,314 5,613 5,202 2,819
3DMark IS Unlimited 13,514 29,117 30,058 9,851
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 9.8 49 48 6.6
CF-Bench 94,061 45,803 41,653 60,998
SunSpider 1.0.2: Android devices tested in Chrome; lower scores are better.

There is, however, one big upside to this merely average performance: The Moto Z Play’s battery life is absolutely killer. Motorola claims that the phone can run for up to 50 hours on a single charge, and I’ll be damned if that wasn’t my experience over two weeks of testing. Consider my usual workflow: There’s a lot of Slack messages and emails flying around, not to mention a spot of gaming and some podcasts here and there. On typical days the Moto Z Play would stick around for about 45 full hours before needing a recharge.

That’s not two workdays, but nearly two full rotations of the earth. Hell, with Wi-Fi on and connected, I saw the Z Play creep just a little past the advertised 50 hours over a quiet weekend. Obviously, those figures would tank if I spent more than a little time playing Hearthstone or bingeing on YouTube videos, but there’s a certain sort of liberation to be found when you don’t have to constantly fret about your phone living or dying.

The competition

You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but you can get a lot of phone for not much money. The Moto Z Play is a remarkably polished package for $ 449, but don’t forget to check out these other options too.

The upstarts behind the OnePlus 3 should be proud: They’ve built a flagship-level device that costs only $ 399. As such, it’s perhaps the best alternate for a device like the Moto Z Play — it packs an incredibly fast Snapdragon 820 chipset, a superior camera and a barely modified version of Android into a sleek metal body. And if you’re on the hunt for even better value, you might want to consider Motorola’s Moto G4 Plus. It’s not as handsome or as long-lasting as the Z Play, but it costs a full $ 200 less and provides ample power for people who don’t need a full-on flagship.

Ah, but the Z Play has an edge … or least, it’ll appear that way to some people. The Moto Z Play works (and works well) with the full range of Motorola’s Moto Mods, so the functionality you get out of the box is far from the functionality you’ll have in six months, or a year. If this appeals to you, know that there’s very little else out there that can satisfy this modular itch. LG’s G5 was the first major flagship phone that leaned into the idea of a modular body, and it certainly deserves props for its chutzpah. While its ecosystem of “Friendly” accessories is broader than what the Moto Z’s have access to, these add-ons are undeniably less elegant. The extra horsepower afforded by the Snapdragon 820 chipset is nice, but Motorola’s approach to modular design is by far the best.

Wrap-up

It can be hard to get worked up about devices that don’t aspire to be the greatest thing you’ll ever slide into a pocket, but even so: The Moto Z Play won me over. Its occasional lack of horsepower can be frustrating (especially if you’re into gaming), but Motorola deserves credit for building a phone that feels like so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s not perfect, it’s not waterproof and it’s not flashy. What it is, however, is “there for you” because of its tremendous battery life. Between that and the flexibility afforded by a slew of Moto Mods, we have a smartphone that almost redefines what it means to be mid-range.

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macOS Sierra review: Mac users get a modest update this year

This is almost like part two of my macOS Sierra review. I had a chance to test Apple’s newest desktop operating system at the beginning of the summer, just before it was released in a public beta. The software hasn’t changed much since, but a few of the headline features were missing from that earlier build; Apple said they wouldn’t be available until the final version shipped in the fall. As it happens, Sierra arrives today as a free upgrade, so I’m picking up right where I left off. What follows is my full review of Sierra, though if you read my earlier preview, or have been using the software yourself, you won’t find many big surprises here.

Getting started

Sierra will work on Macs up to seven years old. (If your computer is older than that, it’s probably time to replace it anyway.) To be precise, it’ll run on MacBooks and iMacs from as far back as late 2009. If it’s any other kind of Mac — an Air, Pro, Mini or Pro desktop — your machine needs to be from 2010 or later. As you’ll see too, there are some features that simply won’t work without an iOS device. Think: an Apple Pay device for Apple Pay, a Touch ID–enabled device for Auto Unlock, and an iOS 10 device to use Universal Clipboard, Memories or the new Messages on the go.

As for setup times, downloading Sierra onto a recent iMac over my office’s usually fast WiFi network took about 20 minutes, while installing it took a little more than half an hour. As always, your mileage may vary. Suffice to say, though, if this is the only computer available to you, I suggest not upgrading in the middle of a workday — you’re going to be without a desktop for a while.

Features that are finally ready to use

Auto Unlock

Until now, iPhones and iPads have had Touch ID; Macs have had passwords. Which is fine, but certainly not as convenient. There’s still no fingerprint sensor on the MacBook or Magic Trackpad, but a new feature promises to be similarly convenient: using your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac when you’re in close proximity. To turn on Auto Unlock, as the feature is called, go into your Mac’s Security & Privacy settings and check off the box that says “Allow your Apple Watch to unlock your Mac.” It’d be pretty troubling if this feature were enabled by default.

So it’s easy to set up — or so you’d think. When I first tried to use this feature, I would wake my sleeping Mac and see the message “Unlocking with Apple Watch,” only to be forced to enter my password anyway. Apple says you need two-factor authorization enabled on your iCloud account in order for Auto Unlock to work. But I already had that in place. What could be the problem, then? I still am not sure. What I do know is that after I signed into appleid.apple.com and reset my iCloud password, I was able to log into my machine using Auto Unlock.

Apple Pay on the web

If you already use Apple Pay on your iPhone or Apple Watch, now you can do it from your Mac too. Starting today, some 300,000 websites are expected to add an Apple Pay button, according to a company spokesperson. To actually use it, you’ll need to have the site open in Safari specifically (because of course), and you’ll also need a mobile device that supports Apple Pay — either an Apple Watch or a recent iPhone. The reason for this is that although you’ll hit “pay” from the Safari page, you’ll need to either use Touch ID or a passcode on your iPhone or double-click your (authenticated) Apple Watch to complete the transaction.

Aside from being convenient, this has security benefits, according to Apple. For starters, not having to type in your address or credit card number could feel like a blessing should the retailer ever suffer a data breach. Additionally, all transactions are encrypted, and your credit or debit card number won’t be stored on your device or Apple’s servers, or be shared with retailers. Instead, you’re assigned a unique Device Account Number that’s stored on the so-called Secure Element of your device. Lastly, Apple Pay doesn’t keep a history of your transactions, though you can choose to keep your most recent purchase details in Wallet if you prefer.

During my pre-launch testing, five sites had already added the Apple Pay button: Indiegogo, Lululemon, Spring, Warby Parker and Instacart. To test it out, I found the least expensive thing in Lululemon’s (very expensive) lineup, added it to my cart, and then had my choice of two buttons: “Add to Bag” or “Apple Pay.” Because Apple Pay already had my credit card and address stored, clicking that button meant I jumped straight to a summary box, where all I would have had to do was click another button to confirm the purchase on my watch. It was super-easy, but it also scares me how quickly I could have purchased a $ 12 headband I didn’t need. In real life, you’d have but one chance to reconsider that impulse purchase before pulling the trigger.

All the stuff we covered earlier

Siri

Among all the new features in Sierra, this ranks as one of the most notable: Siri finally has a home on the desktop. And it’s hard to miss: There’s a Siri button both in the system tray in the upper-right corner and in the app dock at the bottom of the screen. Additionally, there’s a keyboard shortcut you can use: command-space-hold. As it happens, this is actually one of the few things that’s changed since I tested that pre-beta build. The command used to be Fn-spacebar. Now it’s command-spacebar and hold, which is similar to the existing Spotlight search shortcut (command-spacebar). That’s good, I think; may as well tap into Mac users’ muscle memory.

Just like on iOS, you can use Apple’s virtual assistant to search the web, draft emails and texts, create calendar events, set reminders, search the web and check things like the weather, stocks and sports scores. Siri has some Mac-specific tricks too, including searching your files, adjusting your system settings and giving you information about your computer, like how much local storage you have available. Throughout, you can pin Siri’s search results, as well as copy or drag and drop them into other parts of the OS.

Ultimately, Siri on the Mac is no smarter than it is on mobile. Which is to say, Siri can handle a diverse range of requests, and understands natural language, to a point (e.g., “Show me Snowden movie times”). Over time, though, Siri’s limitations become more obvious, and you learn not to bother asking it certain things. Siri might be able to show me local Snowden showtimes, for instance, but forget about narrowing the results to evening shows, or locations in a particular neighborhood.

Universal Clipboard

Apple already has a lot of so-called Continuity features that allow you to jump between apps on iOS and macOS, picking up on one platform where you left off on the other. Now, in addition to, say, having your notes and web history synced across devices, you can copy and paste between them too. So if you spot something on your Sierra Mac, you can copy and paste into iOS 10, and vice versa. (This also works from Mac to Mac, and from one iOS device to another.)

It’s really, really easy to use too. You just have to be signed into the same iCloud account on both devices, which need to be running Sierra and/or iOS 10 specifically. Then, just copy something and it’ll appear on the clipboard across all your connected devices. To use an oft-repeated Appleism: It just works.

So far I haven’t needed this feature often, but when I do, it’s handy. In one case, for instance, I had a lengthy App Store download code waiting for me in my email, which I had access to on my iPhone but not on my test machine. (I was logged out at the time.) Obviously, without Universal Clipboard I would have had other options, including logging into my email on the laptop or dropping the code into the Notes app, which I use on both platforms. But being able to copy and paste directly is far more efficient.

Picture in Picture

New to both iTunes and Safari is a Picture in Picture view that lets you pop out video into a floating stay-on-top window, which you can then resize and drag around the screen. Apple has a developer API for this, so over time you should see the little pop-out icon appear on more websites. For now, it works on iTunes and a select few sites, including Vimeo. (I successfully tried Picture in Picture on ESPN during my earlier round of testing, but didn’t see the pop-out button there while testing the final build.)

When the pop-out button is available, the feature works well, and I particularly like that the floating window closes automatically once the video is finished. Still, it’s a shame that when viewing in Picture in Picture mode, you can’t jump forward or a back to a different point in the video.

Apple Music makeover

Speaking of iTunes, Apple Music has received a major redesign on both mobile and desktop. In the case of desktop (that would be the iTunes app), you’ll see three major sections: “For You,” “Browse” and “Radio.” Those last two need no explanation, but in the case of “For You,” it includes a mix of personalized recommendations and playlists, as well as updates from whatever artists you might be following. Throughout, the look is much cleaner, with large headers and oversize album art. Make no mistake: iTunes itself still feels like a bloated mess, but at least Apple Music now feels streamlined.

iCloud Desktop and Documents

If you like, you can now have your entire Desktop and your Documents folder sync directly to iCloud so that you don’t have to cherry-pick specific files for upload. Basically, then, Sierra works a lot more like Dropbox (or OneDrive, Google Drive or any other cloud storage service that allows you to automatically back up folders wholesale). As ever, you’ll find Desktop and Documents in Finder’s left-hand pane; now, though, they’re listed under “iCloud.”

Obviously, it’s up to you whether you want to take advantage of this feature (it’s not turned on by default), but personally I’ve found it very useful. Because I have an iMac on my office desk and a MacBook that I take home and into conference rooms, it’s nice to be able to quickly retrieve things like TextEdit files and know my progress was saved across devices.

Optimized Storage

While we’re on the subject of iCloud, Sierra does a bunch of things to help you better manage your large iCloud library. If you head into iCloud settings, you’ll see an option for “Optimize Mac Storage” that enables not just one feature, but a whole series of background processes that help free up space on your local drive.

By default, your whole iCloud library will be available on your machine if you have the space, but if you don’t, older files will automatically be uploaded to the cloud. Optimized Storage also moves seldom-used files and already watched iTunes videos off your local disk. You can also store Mail attachments on the server until you choose to download them. Ditto for things like dictionaries, instructional videos and special fonts, which are now available on demand instead of on the system itself.

Other low-hanging fruit include items that have been in the trash 30 days — Sierra can automatically erase that, as well as clear your cache and logs. Additionally, it flags duplicate downloads in Safari and reminds you of used application installers. Lastly, the macOS installer itself is smaller than in years past, meaning you have slightly more free space after upgrading than you might have had otherwise.

Photos

If you’re an iPhone or iPad owner, you’ve presumably updated to iOS 10, which, among other things, brings a redesigned Photos app. The new Photos makes an appearance here on Sierra too, albeit with a more sprawling, desktop-friendly design. As on iOS, Photos now uses artificial intelligence to analyze your pictures, identifying places, faces and various objects, like dogs and beaches. The app then takes all that information and puts together so-called Memories — automatically generated albums showcasing what Apple’s AI thinks are the highlights.

Though you might not always agree with the particulars (surely there was a better version of a shot Apple could have chosen?), this is a convenient way to look back on good times without having to go take on the chore of sorting and curating your photos. Scroll down and you’ll see that Apple includes “Related Memories” below the Memory you’re looking at. Be warned: This can be addictive.

Aside from Memories, you’ll also find dedicated People and Places albums. When it comes to people, Apple’s AI gets smarter over time as you tag more and more faces. To make this easier, Photos surfaces faces with a prompt to fill in that person’s name. Once you get a good backlog, you’ll notice that the People album sorts faces in descending order according to how frequently they appear in photos. That said, if you add someone as a favorite, they’ll always float to the top regardless of their ranking.

There are some UI changes here as well. There’s a search bar that can bring up pictures based on keywords — say, “cats,” “snow” or whatever else might be in the shot. As mentioned, Siri can find your photos too (try asking for photos from a certain year, or with a certain person taken at a certain place). The Albums view looks a little different as well, with rounded tiles and a view counter on videos. Also, if you’re viewing one big photo on the screen, you’ll notice that the scrubber on the bottom looks a lot like the one on iOS. (Pick “Show Thumbnails” from the View menu to make the scrubber appear in the 1-up layout.)

Lastly, Photos on Sierra ushers in some new editing tools. Among them: “Brilliance,” which applies region-specific adjustments to brighten dark areas, and “Markup” for adding text, shapes and signatures to images. You can also edit Live Photos (both stills and video), and Apple has released an API allowing third-party developers to incorporate this feature into their own image-editing apps.

Messages

Messages is yet another app that received updates on both Sierra and iOS 10. New features include larger emoji (three times bigger than before), inline previews of videos and websites, and so-called Tapbacks, which let you respond to a message by adding a thumbs-up, heart or other pictorial reaction by tapping rather than hit ‘reply.’ The fact that your reaction appears on top of the message bubble means less clutter as you scroll through a message thread.

Unfortunately, some of the most addictive new features in Messages for iOS didn’t make it into the desktop version. On mobile, for instance, you can send messages with stickers, handwriting, flashy screen backgrounds and animated text effects (think: “slam” for emphasis). Not on Sierra, though. If it’s any comfort, you can at least view these effects on the desktop when your friends send wacky messages from their iOS 10 devices. You just won’t be able to respond in kind.

Tabs

It’s not just Safari anymore — many Mac apps, including Mail, TextEdit, Maps and the iWork suite also now support tabs. So if you open a new window in Maps, you’ll see not a new window, exactly, but a neat little tab. This will automatically work across many third-party document-based apps too, without any tweaks required on the part of developers. The only apps where this won’t work are ones that didn’t already have a multi-window option. That’s why you’ll see tabs in Maps, for instance, but not FaceTime.

If you really love this feature, you can choose to always turn new windows in these apps into tabs. (That’s what I opted to do.) There are other options, though. You can elect instead to have this happen in full-screen mode only.

Odds and ends

And finally, some other miscellaneous changes that might (or might not) be of interest:

  • The ability to share notes from the Notes app.
  • You can now find Safari browser extensions in the Mac App Store.
  • Safari automatically plays HTML5 video if the website you’re looking at supports it. If a plug-in is required to view video, you can opt to enable it just once or on an ongoing basis.
  • A filter button in Mail allows you to see just unread or flagged emails, messages that are addressed to you or ones you’re copied on, or messages sent with attachments. It’s also possible to apply more than one of these criteria at a time.
  • Push email support and calendar updates for Exchange accounts.
  • Send read receipts for individual conversations in Messages.
  • “Coordinated alerts” mean that notifications make a sound only on the device you happen to be using.
  • Spotlight Search now finds files you’ve created, printed, shared, emailed, messaged and sent via AirDrop, or posted to Twitter or Facebook.
  • The keyboard settings menu now has an “auto-capitalization” option.
  • A new keyboard shortcut (not enabled by default) allows you to add a period by hitting the spacebar twice.
  • Apple says Sierra’s autocorrect algorithm is generally smarter than it was in last year’s OS.
  • Sierra adds a few new dictionaries, including Traditional Chinese and Danish. There are also two new bilingual dictionaries: Italian-English and Dutch-English.
  • Japanese users are getting transit directions in Apple Maps. This includes major train, subway, ferry and national and local bus lines in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
  • Right-to-left support for Arabic and Hebrew.
  • Time Machine now supports the SMB protocol, making it compatible with third-party network-attached storage devices.

Wrap-up

There’s little reason to ever skip a macOS update (in fact, there are lots of reasons that’s a bad idea). But as far as annual releases go, Sierra is a fairly minor one. You probably won’t appreciate Siri on the desktop unless you already use it on mobile, and even then, Apple’s virtual assistant isn’t always as smart as we’d like. Auto Unlock is useful, but difficult to set up, and you need an Apple Watch, which many folks don’t have. Apple Pay is convenient but also conducive to impulse purchases, which is probably better news for retailers than shoppers.

Take all that away and some of the most useful features are actually the least showy. Think: Optimized Storage and the ability to automatically back up your Desktop and Documents folder to iCloud. Many people will use these features, myself included. Are these updates exciting, though? I think even the most loyal of Mac users would have to say no.

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