Jaybird Run review: The perfect truly wireless earbuds for workouts

Completely wireless earbuds are everywhere this year. Call it the Apple AirPods effect, or perhaps it’s just a matter of the right components being available at the right time. But now that completely cordless designs are less novel than they used to be, companies have to work harder to stand out. Jaybird, which has had years of experience in wireless audio, is taking a stab at the increasingly crowded field with its $ 180 Run earbuds. They’re comfortable, sound great for their size, and offer solid reception (for the most part).

Hardware

The Jaybird Run don’t look particularly distinctive, aside from a small logo on the outside. At this point, most companies seem to be settling on a similar style for fully wireless earbuds. They generally try to make them as small as possible — a departure from the clunky Bluetooth headsets you might be used to. One unique element here is the metal ring around the outer edges of the Run serves as the antenna, which should technically give it a leg-up on reception over competitors with internal antennas. They’re about as subtle as the earbuds from Her — noticeable, but they don’t call attention to themselves either.

The differences between wireless buds really come down to the earpiece design. They need to stay in your ears reliably — there’s no cord to save them from falling on the ground, after all — and ideally, they should be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time. This is one area where the Jaybird Run excels: It features the “fin” typically found on the brand’s headphones, which fits into the upper groove of your ear to hold them in place. Once you get them in, it’s hard to notice you’re wearing them.

Jaybird gives you four sets of silicone tips: small and large round options, as well as two different oval-shaped tips. There are also three different types of fin accessories, along with a finless one if you have very small ears. And, as you’d imagine, the Run are both sweatproof and water resistant. Jaybird says they feature a “double hydrophobic nano coating” to deal with sweat, which is much tougher on gadgets than plain water.

The Jaybird Run also comes with a chunky carrying case, which adds another eight hours to their advertised four-hour battery life. The case is too large to fit comfortably in your pocket, but it’s easy to chuck into a messenger bag or backpack. It can also give the Run earbuds one hour of juice with just a five-minute charge. The case could use a more secure latch, though. It popped open in my bag on several occasions, which made my iPhone automatically connect to them. That was particularly annoying when it was causing my phone to de-prioritize my other devices.

In use

Setting up the Run earbuds was a cinch. Within 30 seconds of tearing open the packaging, I had them securely in my ears and paired with my iPhone 6S. I was lucky enough to have a perfect fit with the default buds. It was definitely the fastest setup period I’ve seen with any pair of wireless headphones, even my BeatsX.

The right Run earbud handles all of the connectivity with your phone. You can choose to wear it by itself if you’d rather keep one ear open (which is how I typically walk around New York City). The left earbud automatically connects to the right one over Bluetooth when you turn it on, and the sound carries over without any interruption. Everything sounds a bit compressed when you’re just using the right earbud, but the audio field expands seamlessly once you turn on the left bud.

You don’t have many options for controlling the Run. Each earbud has just one button. Powering them on and off takes one long press, but you can also skip forward to the next track by double-clicking them. The buttons are easy enough to find, but they’re difficult to press. Pushing them simply felt painful, since doing so also jams the Run deeper into your ear. Because of that, I avoided the buttons entirely while wearing the earbuds.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

When it comes to sound quality, the Run delivers far more than you’d expect, given its tiny frame. My usual round of test music tracks, including “Like A Dog Chasing Cars” from the Dark Knight soundtrack, and Little Dragon’s “Klapp Klapp,” all sounded great, with a healthy amount of detail and a surprising bass. The JayBird Run unfortunately had trouble with complex high notes; cymbals sometimes sounded like a distorted mess. They certainly didn’t sound as good as the BeatsX or the Jaybird Freedom, though, both of which deliver quality that’s almost on par with wired headphones.

The Jaybird Run were especially great for podcasts. Dialog sounded rich and natural, with none of the tinniness you get from some wireless headphones. And since podcasts are usually recorded at a much lower fidelity than music, they ended up being ideal for the Run’s more limited audio range. I caught up on a big chunk of my podcast backlog while testing them, simply because they were so convenient to wear.

If you like to customize your audio experience, you can also use Jaybird’s mobile app to tweak the Run’s sound profile. It’s flat by default, but the company provides a variety of options like “Bring the bass,” which boosts the low-end, or “Extended listening,” which cuts down harsh high notes. There are also custom profiles from athletes like Nick Rimando and Kerri Walsh Jennings, and you can find profiles from other Jaybird users as well. If you want, you can also adjust your levels manually. (I opted for the “Signature” settings, which boosts bass and high notes a bit.) The app changes the Run’s sound at the firmware level, so any tweaks will apply no matter what you’re listening to. If you need help finding exercise tunes, there’s also a curated selection of Spotify playlists within the app.

With no wires in the way, the Jaybird Run made listening to just about anything feel completely seamless. It takes just a few seconds to pop it out of the case, and they paired with my phone quickly too. Since they’re so comfortable, I occasionally forgot I was even wearing them. At times, too, it felt like they were simply an extension of my hearing. They didn’t fall out of my ears once after hours of testing, and after a while my low-level anxiety about dropping them on a New York City sidewalk evaporated.

My honeymoon with the Jaybird Run almost ended abruptly during my first jogging session. They simply couldn’t stay synchronized in stereo mode while I was moving, a problem multiple reviewers have brought up over the past few weeks. When I asked Jaybird for comment, a spokesperson said that the unit I was testing were pre-production, and not the final hardware consumers would get. Typically I’d find that answer suspicious, but since the Run aren’t actually shipping to customers until later this month, all I can do for now is take the company at their word.

So that’s the story of how I received a second Jaybird Run pair to review. I immediately took them out for a two-mile run around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park , and thankfully didn’t experience any further synchronization issues. My podcasts and exercise playlist all played without incident. Compared to the Jaybird Freedom, which are wirelessly connected to your phone, but still have a thin cable attaching the earbuds, the Run offered a completely different experience.

It’s one thing not to have to worry about managing a headphone cable, but running through the park unencumbered by any cables felt truly liberating. I still experienced minor synchronization issues when walking around Manhattan, but that’s something I’ve also noticed with other wireless buds. Extreme radio interference is part of the cost of living in a dense urban environment.

Jaybird’s four-hour battery life claim for the Run was close to what I actually saw. The buds would typically last for around three hours and 45 minutes during my testing. As you’d expect, that timing changed a bit if I was listening to quiet podcasts, or loud music most of the time. Together with the battery case, the Run typically lasted around two to three days, depending on if I could fit in a jogging session. As our resident marathoner, Engadget’s executive editor Dana Wollman notes that the Run’s battery life should be fine for most runners. But you’d probably want a wired pair if you’re hitting the pavement beyond four hours.

Pricing and the competition

At $ 180, the Jaybird Run are slightly more expensive than competing wireless earbuds. Apple’s AirPods go for $ 159, while Bragi’s “The Headphone” comes in at $ 149. If you want to cut the cord mainly for exercise, though, the added cost will likely be worth it for the Run’s sweat and water resistance. Jabra’s Elite Sport are another solid workout alternative, but they’re a lot pricier at $ 250.

If you’re considering wireless headphones, it’s worth taking a step back and considering how you plan to use them. If you’re a fitness fanatic, it makes more sense to forgo wires entirely with the Jaybird Run. But if you care more about having higher audio quality, and only need headphones for occasional exercise, you might be better off with something like Jaybird Freedom or BeatsX, which still have short cables.

Wrap-up

Jaybird didn’t disappoint with the Run. They’re everything I’d want in a pair of truly cord-free headphones. While they still require sacrificing a bit of audio quality, that’s true of everything else in this category. Losing a bit of fidelity is worth it, though, if you’ve ever dreamt of going for a run while losing yourself to music and not worrying about any annoying cords.

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Apple Watch Series 3 review: A good watch, a so-so phone replacement

With each generation, the Apple Watch’s purpose has seemed to shift. The first one demonstrated what Apple thought a wearable should be, and the second tried to be the perfect workout companion. When it came time to build the Series 3, though, Apple took everything it got right with the fitness-friendly Series 2, polished it up, and threw an LTE radio inside.

And lo, the $ 399 Apple Watch Series 3 became the first of a new breed of Apple devices — it straddles the line between smartwatch and phone, with a dash of iPod thrown in for good measure. For those who’d rather play it safe, Apple also built a $ 329 Series 3 with just GPS and no cellular connection. In fact, that safe bet will probably pay off for most people — the cellular Series 3 is a little too inconsistent for my taste.

Hardware and design

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Despite what some redesign rumors suggested ahead of the big event, this year’s Apple Watch looks… just like an Apple Watch. Shocking, I know. As ever, the Series 3 comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes, so earlier bands will continue to fit just fine. And, as with the Series 2, all versions feature a built-in GPS radio and 50-meter water resistance. Don’t let that classification fool you, though — you can take the Watch for a swim, but you almost certainly shouldn’t take it 50 meters underwater. (Why the watch industry continues to use such counterintuitive terminology is beyond me.)

Not much has changed with the display either — we’re still working with a tiny OLED screen running at 390 x 312, covered by a plate of Ion-X glass. (The stainless-steel and ceramic models instead use tougher sapphire crystal, but this Watch’s glass face was very good at resisting nicks as I accidentally banged my hands into walls and fixtures.) Max brightness still tops out at 1,000 nits, which is more than enough to keep notifications and apps readable under bright sunlight. More interesting is the way the screen doubles as the Watch’s wireless antenna; it’s a nifty feat of engineering that seems to get the job done well.

In any case, I’ve been wearing a 42mm Apple Watch on and off since the first version launched in 2015, and the fit and finish of my 42mm cellular review unit is first-rate, as always. It’s impossible to tell that the Series 3 is slightly thicker than the models that came before it, and thankfully, it’s just as hard to feel the difference when it’s strapped to your wrist. That’s because the Watch’s aluminum squircle of a body hasn’t changed — the ceramic hump around back housing the heart rate sensor is, according to Apple, two sheets of paper thicker than it was before. The 42mm body’s weight hasn’t changed either, which is pretty impressive considering the extra stuff needed to turn this wearable into a tiny, functional phone. Throw in an improved, dual-core S3 chipset and a slightly bigger battery, and we’ve got a remarkably snappy little package.

Until you start talking into your wrist, there’s only one way to tell if a Watch is LTE-enabled or not: You need to spot the red dot. This red highlight serves no technical purpose; it’s purely for looks, and if you’re the type who likes visual metaphors, you’ll notice a certain symmetry with the Watch’s red notification dot. I get the need for some sort of visual signifier, but fashionistas, beware: That red flourish clashes with a lot of Apple Watch bands out there.

As a traditional smartwatch

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The original Apple Watch gave shape to the company’s vision for wearable computing, but, man, it was frustratingly slow sometimes. Fast-forward two years, and we finally have an Apple Watch that feels as fast as it should. Swiping between watch faces is smoother than before, and launching apps seems to take considerably less time, all thanks to Apple’s updated S3 chipset. Series 1 and 2 owners might not find the difference that pronounced, since both devices have dual-core processors of their own, but the fractions of a second I’m saving every time an action works more smoothly becomes time I get to spend doing something else that matters to me.

One of the best ways to see all this power in action is by talking to Siri — and, for once, the experience won’t make you want to tear your hair out. Siri can finally speak to you on the Series 3, and it uses the same natural-sounding voice you’d hear it use on an iOS device running iOS 11. I never really used Siri on the Series 2, because it required me to glance down at my wrist all the time. This year, Siri’s audible responses and generally spot-on voice transcription meant I could ask it to send a message or email for me and not worry too much about what happened next. Yes, this eventually bit me in the ass, but never too badly. Beyond handling messages and tasks, Siri has also been helpful for navigating to hole-in-the-wall restaurants and answering various random questions.

As useful as Siri is now, it still has its limits. For one, you need to be careful with how you ask for things — “open News” does what you’d expect it to, but “show me the news” kicked me out to external search results. Oh, and don’t forget that the Watch’s screen has to be on to get Siri’s attention with a voice command. A version of Siri that constantly listens for commands would be ideal, but that’d probably wreak as much havoc on battery life as, well, a cellular radio would.

The Series 3’s new watch faces sure are… interesting.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Beyond just Siri, Apple’s new watchOS 4 offers a few other new features as well. There are new customizable kaleidoscope watch faces, along with a handful of faces starring characters from Toy Story. The music app has been updated with a new look and slightly more seamless syncing — some playlists, like “New Music” and “Favorites,” are transferred over by default while the Watch charges for the first time. Individual tracks and playlists can be moved over easily enough too, but literally any support for podcasts would’ve been nice. To make the most of the Watch’s music player, though, you need to be an Apple Music subscriber; the Watch still offers media controls for whatever audio is playing on the iPhone, but you’re out of luck if you’d prefer to interact with Spotify’s superior playlists.

The Series 3 technically works as a standalone device, but let’s be real: We’re so attached to our phones that the Watch will spend most of its time connected to an iPhone anyway. I’m not complaining either, mostly because the Watch has very good battery life as a result. I usually pull my Watch off its charger at around 8AM, and I’ve routinely seen it chug along until midafternoon the next day if I didn’t make many voice calls on it. Over the weekend, when my phone was gloriously quiet, I got nearly two full days of screen-on time before needing to charge the Watch again. Apple bumped up the Series 3’s battery capacity to maximize cellular usage time, so while I’m pleased that tethered battery life has improved, I’m not surprised.

As a standalone device

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The connection between the Apple Watch and an iPhone is the core of Apple’s wearable experience, and for the first time, the company gave the Watch the tools to function independently. Seeing the Watch hop onto an LTE network and use your same phone number is undeniably neat, but honestly, it’s not something I’d want to do very often.

First off, yes, you’re going to have to pay your carrier $ 10 a month for the privilege, not to mention an activation fee once this first wave of promotions dies down. Setting up the Watch with my AT&T phone plan was mostly a breeze, but some reviewers have experienced issues getting everything squared away, especially when older rate plans were involved. Your mileage may vary, but I suspect most of you won’t need to worry much.

Actually using the phone is easier than expected — you can either punch in a number or select one of your contacts — and call quality was generally very good. In a majority of conversations I had, the people on the other end couldn’t even tell I was talking into a watch. That can change suddenly, though. Earlier this week, I parked myself outside the office to take a few phone calls, and the signal indicator bounced between two and four dots of coverage while I was just sitting there.

As a result, call quality got really strange — I could hear the other party just fine, but I sounded like a mess to them. This happened only one other time, in a completely different location, and I’m at a loss as to why. In any case, if you’re interested in taking calls on a Series 3, a Bluetooth headset is a must. It’ll also help in situations where the Watch’s speaker just isn’t loud enough, which is most of the time, frankly.

Messages rolled in quickly too, but here’s the thing: Not all messages are treated equally. As long as you have some kind of wireless signal, iMessages will be delivered just fine. Text messages are usually subject to a delay, since they’re routed through your iPhone, but this also means that SMSes won’t come through at all if your iPhone is dead. Emails running through Apple’s Mail app worked fine but took longer than usual to pop up on my wrist, so I wouldn’t advise going watch-only when urgent business is in the offing. And most of the Watch apps I installed worked normally, though a few — like Slack and Twitter — either did nothing or force-quit when I tried to use them.

Early review models also seemed prone to connectivity issues stemming from a Wi-Fi bug — in a bid to conserve battery life, the Series 3 tries to latch onto wireless networks your other Apple devices have flagged as being suitable for use. The problem was, not every network was flagged correctly, so captive portals (like those used at, say, Starbucks) would get the OK and the Watch would try to connect, with no way of getting past whatever interstitial screen popped up. It’s not that the Watch was going out of its way to jump onto unfamiliar networks — it’s that some of the networks it thinks are kosher actually aren’t.

This is a major goof, but I can see why it might have escaped detection — I have had precisely zero issues with my Series 3 attempting to latch onto bum networks. Then again, I’m one person, and I find it hard to believe that not a single engineer testing the Series 3 prior to launch ran into this. I’m fairly sure you won’t run into this very specific kind of trouble, but it remains a risk; Apple promised a fix after catching some well-deserved flak, but it still hadn’t materialized when we published this review.

Really, my biggest concern is much more mundane: Going completely iPhone-free means the Watch’s battery life will take a huge hit. After an early-morning run while listening to music and using the GPS, followed by a couple of test calls, the Series 3 was on its last legs by early afternoon. Apple has always been clear that the Series 3 is more of a temporary phone substitute than an actual replacement, so this probably won’t seem shocking to you. Still, if this morning routine sounds like your idea of a good time, remember to have a charger handy.

I don’t mean to make the Series 3 sound terrible at this stuff — when everything works properly, it makes for an adequate untethered companion. It’s just too bad that those moments weren’t as common as I expected.

As a fitness tracker

Chris Velazco/Engadget

With the Series 2, Apple decided the Watch should be a serious fitness wearable, and its focus on getting people out of their chairs clearly isn’t going away. Thankfully, the Series 3’s blend of capable hardware and thoughtful software make it a great choice for people who take their workouts seriously, but not that seriously.

The Series 3’s step counts were in line with other wearables I tested it against, though accuracy is a weird thing to look for in cases like these. Every fitness tracker I’ve ever worn seemed to interpret my steps a little differently, but the Series 3 was consistently within +/- 10 steps of my own counts (in my head, up to 250). Strangely, I guess I define “a flight of stairs” differently from how the Watch’s new barometer does, since it consistently underestimated me on days when I decided to avoid the office’s elevators. Meanwhile, the updated Workout app packs support for new workout types (perfect for you crazy high-intensity interval people) and easier controls for setting time or calorie burn goals for your swim, walk or run.

Speaking of running, I’ve had no issue with GPS accuracy either — I run the same route a few times a week, and the distance was basically bang-on every time. Granted, I don’t precisely know how long that makeshift course is, so hardcore runners (like Engadget marathoner-in-residence Dana Wollman) may be better served by more purpose-built wearables that can more accurately measure one’s pace. Now, once I get moving, I don’t have too much trouble powering through to the end; the real trouble comes in getting off my ass to start with. For better or worse, Apple’s three-ringed activity app now offers more proactive notifications, the most effective of which tells me roughly how much longer I’d need to walk to hit my goals at the end of the day. It’s just enough of a push to get me where I want to be, and I’m surprised Apple didn’t implement this sooner.

Your author really needs to chill out.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Even though I’m not the exercise nut I used to be, I appreciated Apple’s enhanced focus on your heart. The Watch tries to get more accurate readings of your resting heart rate by checking it when it knows you haven’t been moving, and it plots your heart rate readings on handy graphs to show you changes over time.

It’s especially helpful for tracking your recovery after intense exercises, but that’s one of the few areas where the Watch offers a little more data than casual users are probably interested in. All told, this a wearable best suited for generalists. Good thing for Apple, then, that there are a lot of them out there. Hardcore athletes may get more mileage out of a wearable that measures even more, like blood oxygenation. (Curiously, the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor works in such a way that it could also function as a pulse oximeter, but the feature has never been activated.) What’s more unfortunate is that two features that should be great for exercise buffs — Apple Music streaming over LTE and integration with gym equipment through GymKit — won’t be ready for a few more weeks.

The competition

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There haven’t been too many Android Wear 2.0 watches released this year, which leaves the LG Watch Sport at the top of the proverbial pack. Chatting with Google Assistant is mostly a pleasure, and it uses a rotating crown button for navigation, just like the Series 3. One of Android Wear’s biggest assets has always been its visual flexibility, and I’ve spent more time than I care to admit sifting through watch faces in the Play Store in hopes of finding the perfect look for my wrist. The Sport can also jump onto cellular networks, but LG’s approach is problematic: There’s an actual SIM card inside, so the watch’s body is huge, and the antennas extend into the watch’s unremovable bands. It’s a solid option if you’re a smartwatch shopper who doesn’t care for Apple, but beware of its compromises.

Samsung’s Gear S3 Frontier comes to mind too, since it also packs an eSIM and an LTE radio for truly phone-free use. It’s a bigger, more masculine-looking watch than the Series 3, and it’s a little less comfortable, but its rotating bezel remains one of the most inspired interaction methods I’ve ever used on a smartwatch. It’s effing excellent, and so is its Spotify streaming support. The Frontier can also tell when you’ve started to work out and will track your movements accordingly, an intelligent touch that (sadly) doesn’t always work as well as it should. The biggest knock against the S3 Frontier, however, is its Tizen OS. Who cares if you can install apps in the woods if they’re mostly apps no one cares about?

Wrap-up

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The Apple Watch Series 3 often feels like two devices in one. When it’s connected to a phone, it’s an improvement over its predecessors in just about every way that matters. More important, the tight integration of improved hardware and more thoughtful software give the Series 3 a very notable edge over its smartwatch competition. It’s that good. As a standalone device, though, the Series 3 can be maddeningly limited. Over time, I’m sure apps will grow to take advantage of persistent data connections, and still other kinks will be worked out entirely. For now, though, the kinks remain and the overall experience suffers as a result. Apple’s vision of a wearable that remains forever connected to the things that matter to you is an enticing one, and the Series 3 is an important first step down that path. Here’s hoping Apple’s next step is as consistently good on its own as it is when connected to a phone.

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Apple TV 4K review: Almost perfect

The Apple TV 4K is the streaming box we’ve been waiting for. It brings together the excellent interface from the 2015 model, along with the long-awaited ability to watch movies and TV shows in 4K and HDR. And perhaps most importantly, it seriously drives down the cost of digital 4K releases. Sure, competitors like Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV have had 4K/HDR capabilities for years, but Apple’s pricing model makes the format more accessible to consumers. While it’s not quite perfect, the Apple TV 4K is a solid step beyond HD video.

Hardware

At first glance, it’s tough to tell the new Apple TV apart from its predecessor. They both have the same boxy plastic design, with glossy sides and a matte top. There are a few small differences, though. The new model is raised up slightly to expose air vents, which helps to keep its faster processor cool. It also doesn’t have a diagnostic USB-C port on the back — instead it features an HDMI port, an upgraded gigabit Ethernet jack, and a power connection. Consumers likely won’t notice the omitted USB-C port, since it’s mainly used for IT administration.

Not much has changed on the remote either. A small ring around the menu button is the only noticeable tweak. That helps you hit the button easily in the dark, and it’s also a tactile way to let you know you’re holding the remote correctly. The buttons for heading back to the home screen, Siri voice control, play/pause and volume controls haven’t changed at all. Its motion control capabilities are still intact, as well, but you’ll mainly be using that for games.

This new model won’t win over haters of the original remote, who criticized its fragile design and touchpad controls. But as someone who actually liked the last model, I found it just as easy to use. It still doesn’t make much sense to throw glass on a slim remote that’ll inevitably get crushed in your couch, though.

Under the hood, the Apple TV 4K is powered by the A10X Fusion processor, the same chip inside of the newest iPad Pro models. That additional power is certainly helpful for dealing with huge video files, but it’s also something that games and apps will be able to take advantage of. The last Apple TV often had trouble running complex apps — like Sling TV and Hulu (with its redesigned interface) — without any slowdowns.

Software and setup

Setting up the Apple TV 4K was pretty simple: Just plug in your WiFi credentials, enter your iCloud account, and you’re good to go. If you have an iOS device nearby, you can also hold it near the Apple TV during setup to transfer all of your settings. The entire process took just a few minutes when I used my iPhone 6S.

Apple’s tvOS platform hasn’t changed much, but the company did add a new feature called “One Home Screen,” which lets you sync up your apps and their layout across multiple Apple TVs. It worked flawlessly as I transitioned away from my previous-gen Apple TV (though I did have to manually enable it before I unplugged that model). You’ll still have to log into all of your streaming services, but One Home Screen at least saves you the trouble of finding all of your apps and organizing them.

For the most part, tvOS still looks like a slightly blown up version of the iOS homescreen. It’s an interface that’s beginning to show its age, but it’s still more attractive than Roku’s and the Fire TV’s. The entire UI is also rendered in 4K/HDR, something that no other set-top box is doing yet.

In use

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

As you can tell by the name, the big difference with this new box is 4K support, which offers four times as many pixels as 1080p HD. That makes it ideal for bringing out very fine detail, like individual strands of hair and blades of grass. Most people won’t be able to see much of a difference with the jump to 4K from their normal viewing distance — you need to be sitting really close to a TV set 55-inches or larger to truly notice it.

Even if you have a massive TV, though, you’ll notice the addition of HDR, or high-dynamic range video, more than 4K on its own. On compatible sets, HDR lets you see more intense whitesbrightness, deeper blacks and a wider range of colors in between. On newer films, the difference can feel like night and day.

Apple wisely chose to support both HDR standards: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. But, in typical Apple fashion, it’s offering these new formats in a slightly different way. Unlike most devices, which enable HDR when you’re watching video that supports it, the Apple TV 4K always has HDR enabled. Apple says this helps to avoid annoying flickering that occurs on some TVs when they switch in and out of HDR modes. It might seem like a strange choice, but as Apple sees it, forcing HDR solves a fairly common usability issue. Some TVs take several seconds to jump into HDR mode — something that feels unconscionable in 2017.

By default, Apple says it forces the best HDR setting for your TV set. The definition of “best,” is up for debate, though. On my LG OLED B6, it automatically enables HDR10 at 60Hz. But I’d prefer to be viewing in Dolby Vision, since it can adjust to changes in lighting dynamically, something HDR10 can’t do. Since I had no trouble watching Dolby Vision titles, it appears as if the Apple TV is doing some sort of automatic translation between HDR modes. You can force the Apple TV to display specific resolutions and refresh rates, but at this point you can’t choose which HDR mode to output. We’ve asked Apple for more details about how it’s handling HDR, and will update if we hear back.

For now, the only 4K/HDR enabled content Apple is offering is in the iTunes Movies app. There’s a section dedicated to the higher resolution films, with a slim offering of more than 120 titles. That’s on-par with Vudu’s 4K library, Apple’s biggest competitor. Surprisingly, There aren’t any 4K/HDR TV shows on iTunes yet.

While adding 4K/HDR support is nice, it’s nothing revolutionary. What is transformative is that Apple isn’t charging a premium for 4K films. You’ll be able to buy them between $ 15 and $ 20, and rent them for $ 6, just like the company’s current HD library. And just as the company promised, your existing iTunes purchases will be upgraded to the new format for free. In my library of 50 films, my copies of Star Trek Beyond, Arrival, The Lego Movie, Kingsman, and La La Land were all instantly bumped up.

We’re already seeing the impact of Apple’s pricing on the rest of the streaming market: Google and Vudu have both started discounting 4K titles. Vudu used to charge $ 30 for 4K purchases and $ 10 for rentals. While the competition isn’t offering free 4K upgrades yet, it seems like it’s only a matter of time until they follow suit since they were so quick to match Apple’s prices. So even if you’re not even interested in the Apple TV 4K, you’ve got Apple to thank for pushing everyone towards sensible pricing. Given that most consumers are used to watching media via subscription services, it seems wiser to lower the cost so they don’t get turned off of digital purchases and rentals completely.

Brian Oh/Engadget

So how do the souped-up movies look on the new Apple TV? In a word, fantastic. Kong: Skull Island ended up being the ideal 4K HDR demo on my LG OLED TV set. It features scenes with plenty of bright elements, as well as detailed dark portions. At times, both extreme brightness and darkness show up at the same time, thanks to the versatility of HDR. I had to shield my eyes a bit when Kong stands in front of the bright tropical sun, but I could still make out details in his dark fur. The film’s many explosions, not to mention other giant monsters, also looked incredible thanks to all of the new video technology.

Quality-wise, Kong looked on-par with what I’ve seen from Vudu’s 4K streaming, but there was still the occasional compression artifact. That’s simply the reality of streaming video, though — if you want to be rid of blocky compression completely, you’d have to upgrade to 4K Blu-ray discs. When comparing the ITunes 4K version of Arrival to my 4K Blu copy, I didn’t notice any significant differences, aside from the occasional artifact on the streaming side.

Baby Driver is a much brighter film than Kong, but its colorful palette almost pops off the screen with 4K/HDR. The formats also help with the film’s many action sequences — there was a bit more oomph as every gun fired, and I could make out even more detail during the long chase sequences. In many ways, the film looked more impressive than it did in an actual theater.

The Apple TV also surprised me by how quickly it loaded up 4K films. Typically they’d launch in less than a second, and most of the time they also loaded up in 4K from the start. With Vudu, it would typically take a second or two before things got started. That’s not a huge difference, but it makes for a practically seamless viewing experience. Apple recommends that you have at least a 25 Mbps internet connection to stream 4K, which should technically be doable for many consumers in the US. I’d also recommend using a modern 802.11ac router to push all of that data — things could easily get stuttery on older gear.

On Netflix, I ran through my usual 4K/HDR demos and came away impressed. Daredevil, a show that tends to be very dark, looked just as good as it did on my TV’s built-in app. The new formats come in especially handy for the show’s night-time fight scenes — on my old 1080p plasma set, it was sometimes difficult to make out the intricacies of its incredible choreography. And I could almost taste the gorgeous meals on Chef’s Table.

Unfortunately, the Apple TV 4K is still way behind when it comes to third-party support. Netflix is the only app with 4K/HDR enabled today. There’s an Amazon Prime Video app coming, which will likely include that service’s UHD titles . There’s no 4K YouTube support either, because Apple hasn’t adopted Google’s open VP9 codec. Given that YouTube is home to plenty of 4K video, it’s something both companies will want to fix soon. Hulu also offers 4K streaming on game consoles, and Apple says it’s in talks with enabling that on the TV. And of course, there’s the recently launched Vudu app, which is also stuck with HD titles.

There weren’t any new games to show off, but Transistor did run a bit more smoothly than on the last model. In the future, you can look forward to Sky, the next game from Journey creator Jenova Chen, as well as an adaptation of the creepy indie game Inside. Apple TV’s gaming ecosystem has floundered the past few years, but the added horsepower here might help it recover. It could give developers just the push they need to port their games over without compromises.

Of course, there’s still plenty of room for Apple to improve. Its 4K library is missing major films from studios like Disney and franchises like The Fast and the Furious, and the company clearly needs to get more 4K-enabled services aboard. I also noticed some weird quirks with the Apple TV’s video processing — for some HD shows on Sling and HBO Now, it tended to over-emphasize sharpened edges and some lighting elements. It’d be nice to be able to turn off that image correction completely.

Perhaps strangest of all, the Apple TV 4K doesn’t support next-generation audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X yet. That’s something plenty of devices, including the Xbox One S and lower-end Roku boxes, have offered for a while now. Netflix is also offering it with some newer releases, like the film Okja. Apple says Atmos is coming eventually, according to The Verge, but it’s unclear when we should expect it. I’m currently running a 5.1.2 (5.1 with two upward firing speakers) Atmos configuration, and it’s simply disappointing that such a high-end device can’t take advantage of it properly.

Pricing and the competition

The Apple TV 4K starts at $ 179 for the 32GB model, up from $ 149 for the last version. There’s also a 64GB model for $ 199, but that’s mainly meant for people who plan to download plenty of games. In comparison, you’d have access to more 4K HDR content with a $ 100 Roku box or Amazon Fire TV.

The very idea of using a set-top box is beginning to seem anachronistic, now that more TVs are including most of the popular streaming apps. But the Apple TV’s ease of use, together with iTunes’ inexpensive 4K offerings and free upgrades, makes the case for investing in a separate device.

Wrap-up

The Apple TV 4K does everything you’d expect it to do — what’s surprising is how Apple is undercutting the competition in 4K pricing. In a world where people are buying fewer films, and the current best physical media format might not be sticking around for long, it serves an important role by making 4K and HDR films more accessible. It’s just a shame that we still have to wait for Apple to score more licensing deals, get more third-party support and fix curious omissions, like its lack of Atmos support.

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Essential PH-1 review: A beautiful blank slate

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

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

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

Hardware

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

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

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

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

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

Display and sound

Chris Velazco/Engadget

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

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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

Camera

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

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

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

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

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

Performance and battery life

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

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

The competition

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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

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HTC U11 review: More than just gimmicks

Even die-hard fans have been ready to write off HTC for years now, and I can’t blame them. The company’s phones have fluctuated between greatness and mediocrity while its competitors have improved by leaps and bounds. So, what’s a company in a kind of existential peril supposed to do? Well, making a phone like the new U11, for starters. It’s shiny, laden with gimmicks, and — spoiler alert — the whole thing falls short of perfect for a few reasons. Even so, HTC has gotten enough right in this ostentatious package that you should definitely start (or re-start) paying attention.

Hardware and design

Chris Velazco/Engadget

With the U Ultra, HTC overhauled the design of its high-end smartphones. Forget those sturdy metal unibodies: from now on, it’s all about lots of sparkly, pretty glass.

The back of the U11, in particular, is sure to grab attention — HTC calls the finish “3D liquid glass” and it was crafted to catch light in unexpected ways. The Solar Red model is only really “red” sometimes. Under the right light, the phone turns bright gold and it’s pretty trippy. Even better, all of the edges just sort of melt into each other — no rough seams in sight. This shock of color is enough to make the phone’s face, with its 5.5-inch Super LCD5 screen and big black bezels a little underwhelming.

Phones swathed in glass can be tricky, though. I couldn’t put the U11 down on the arm of my couch without it skittering to the floor. You can forget about taking calls with your phone wedged between your neck and shoulder, too, unless you’ve got sandpaper shoulder pads. Glass also cracks more easily than metal. While we were shooting our review video, the U11 tipped over from its standing position and smacked into our glass studio table. Countless phones have done this over the years and they were never worse for it — the U11 is the first that cracked.

There’s a fast, accurate fingerprint sensor below the screen, wedged between two capacitive navigation keys. The headphone jack is over, so you’ll use the USB C port on the bottom for charging and audio playback. In the SIM tray, you’ll find a spot for a MicroSD card to supplement the 64GB of onboard storage.

You can’t see them, but the U11 also has multiple pressure sensors baked into its sides. We’ll dig into Edge Sense a little later, but you can squeeze the phone to trigger predefined actions like launching the camera. Plus the whole thing is IP67 water resistant, which means it’ll handle dips in up to 1 meter of water for around 30 minutes.

Display and sound

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The U11’s screen is good, but pretty standard. We’re working with a 5.5-inch Super LCD 5 at Quad HD. That works out to a density of about 534 pixels per inch. Colors aren’t quite as vivid as on an AMOLED display, but solid clarity and color reproduction put it in the same ballpark as its rivals. I only wish the screen was a little brighter. It’s a little dimmer than the Galaxy S8 and iPhone 7 Plus, making it tougher to read under harsh daylight.

The U11’s speakers, on the other hand, are very, very good. It’s been a long time since HTC’s BoomSound heyday, but the U11 is louder and clearer than any other smartphone I’ve tested recently. In fact, while I was testing the speakers at the office, I had to deal with more than the usual amount of stink-eye from non-Engadgeteers because of the volume. (To my knowledge, no HR claims have been filed.) You’ll need more oomph for, a party, but the U11’s built-in sound system is good enough for gathering people around a YouTube video.

Without a headphone jack, you’ll need to use Bluetooth cans or HTC’s pack-in USonic Type-C earbuds. They’re a little too heavy on the bass for me, but they’re comfortable and offer a more welcome surprise: active noise cancellation. Even better, they don’t need batteries since the earbuds draw power from the phone. While handy, these pack-ins are nowhere as good as isolating noise as, say, a pair of Bose QC35s. The U11 can also tailor the way the phone plays audio through those earbuds. Each audio profile is specifically tuned for your ears, and mine made my music sound noticeably crisper and brighter — good stuff.

Software

When the company launched the 10, it also revealed an approach to Android that felt cleaner and fresher than before — Sense UI’s visual noise was dialed down and extraneous apps were killed in favor of Google’s own. These were steps in a positive direction and led to a mostly uncluttered version of Android 7.1 Nougat for the U11. In general, it runs very, very well, but it feels a little stale when compared to updated interfaces from rivals like Samsung.

Rather than revamp the interface, HTC focused its efforts elsewhere. The U11 comes with support for three — three! — virtual assistants right out of the box, which is a little insane. Most of you are probably familiar with Google Assistant, and it works the way it always does: either long-press the Home button or get its attention with “OK, Google,” then fire off a request.

HTC’s Sense Companion is much less vocal, offering up notifications and reminders based on what it knows about you and your environment instead. Is it going to rain? It will suggest you pack an umbrella. Once it gets late in the day, it’ll tell you how many steps you’ve taken and even remind you to charge your phone when it knows you have plans later. Essentially, HTC’s assistant tries to stay subtle while being proactive — it’s meant to slide into your life when you need it and disappear when you don’t. In general Sense Companion plays it safe by only occasionally surfacing notifications. I would’ve preferred it to be a little more in-my-face and but there isn’t a way to make the Companion offer handy tips more regularly.

Then there’s the newcomer, Alexa. Amazon’s voice interface is available on a few smartphones right now, but the U11 is the first to give it a proper home. You just say “Alexa” and she’ll spring to life. The U11 lacks the Echo’s far-field voice recognition, so it occasionally takes a couple tries to rouse it. Other than that, it’s the same solid performer you expect. Alexa has access to all the skills I’ve enabled on my home Echo, and the U11’s great speakers mean audiobooks and music from Amazon come through loud and clear. In fact, Alexa’s only true failing is that when she can’t tell what you’re saying, the app window and screen stay active until you dismiss the app or try again. If you’re not paying close attention, a failed Alexa conversation could leave the U11’s display lit up, burning precious battery.

Edge Sense

Don’t forget that you can squeeze this phone to make it do things. For all the hype, Edge Sense is very simple. The best way to think of it is as an invisible convenience key with two settings: a squeeze performs one action, and a squeeze-and-hold performs another.

Getting Edge Sense up is simple: just clench your way through a demo. You’ll have to enable the advanced mode to get access to the squeeze-and-hold gesture, though, for reasons beyond comprehension. By default, the squeeze action is set to launch the camera, with a second squeeze snapping a photo once everything is in position. Thankfully, none of those actions are set in stone. Rather than launching the camera, you can set a squeeze to launch an app, take a screenshot, toggle the flashlight and even fire up the mobile hotspot.

Frankly, I kind of hated it at first because I couldn’t consistently get my squeeze pressure right. Things changed once I dialed down the amount of pressure needed — lighter grips meant less time wondering why things weren’t working properly. (This also means Edge Sense is easier to trigger by accident, but I don’t mind.) Now I instinctively squeeze the U11 every time I need to grab a quick photo and get a little frustrated when other phones don’t work the same way. Granted, Edge Sense doesn’t do anything that a dedicated button couldn’t, and it’s easily disabled for anyone who doesn’t want it. It’s handy, but it’s no game-changer.

Camera

Chris Velazco/Engadget

When I reviewed the U Ultra earlier this year, I was let down by its camera. Not because it was bad, mind you, but HTC’s cameras still hadn’t caught up to the competition. Well, this year is different: the U11’s 12-megapixel camera is a highly capable all-around shooter, with image quality in the same league as Samsung’s. My test shots consistently came through with lots of detail and accurate colors, save for a few cases where outdoor shots where the green looked a touch bluer than expected.

Other than the occasional color temperature issues, the U11 has been an excellent everyday shooter. It’s fast to focus thanks to an SLR-style dual-pixel system, and the near-instantaneous HDR Auto turned multiple shots into a single vibrant photo with ease. This kind of algorithmic enhancement helped Google’s Pixel capture excellent photos, and it’s doing great work here too. There’s a hint of shutter lag after you snap a photo though, so keep that in mind when you’re trying to capture subjects in motion.

The U11’s camera is also surprisingly good in low light thanks to its wide aperture (f/1.7) and improved 5-axis optical image stabilization. Before taking the camera through its paces, I was a little concerned because the pixels on the 12-megapixel sensor are smaller than in HTC’s other UltraPixel cameras. I shouldn’t have been: dark photos came through crisper than expected, though you’ll still find your share of grain. That said, I still think the S8s have a slight edge over the U11.

Videos shot with the U11’s main camera were similarly impressive, especially at 4K. There’s hardly any distortion and the level of clarity puts the U11 right up there with the best of them. Given the phone’s attention to sound quality, the inclusion of a 3D audio recording mode makes sense. It’s meant to make videos sounds more immersive, and it does to an extent — just make sure you’re wearing headphones or all nuance is lost.

Meanwhile, the front-facing camera actually shoots at a higher 16MP resolution, and with a wide-angle lens, it’s capable of some seriously nice selfies. The relatively wide f/2.0 aperture also means the sensor gets to suck up more light — I only needed the screen flash in near-pitch black situations.

Performance and battery

Chris Velazco/Engadget

The U11 uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipsets paired with 4GB of RAM and the Adreno 540 GPU. You know, just like basically everyone else. Still, there’s no denying that the 835 delivers some serious horsepower The U11 feels fast whether you’re jumping between multiple apps or plowing through beautiful games like Afterpulse and Telltale’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Hardly anything I threw at the U11 over the course of a week gave it pause. There’s a rare stutter, but the U11 is one of the most consistently snappy smartphones I’ve tested this year.

Battery life, however, was just average. Like the U Ultra before it, the U11 packs a 3,000mAh battery. But, this time it’s paired with a more powerful processor and a smaller screen. This balancing act of components worked out better than expected. In our video rundown test, the U11 looped an HD clip for just north of 13 hours before it finally needed a recharge. That’s much better than the U Ultra’s 11-odd hours, and in line with the Galaxy S8. The S8 Plus and the OnePlus 5 are still the phones to beat, though: they both lasted for a little over 15 hours before giving up the ghost.

When it comes actual use, expect to get just over a day on a single charge, and closer to a day and a half if you actually put your phone down once in a while. Again, this is average for this year’s flagships. People’s charging habits seem to be changing though, so the inclusion of Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3 tech is handy (if not quite as fast as the newer QuickCharge 4 stuff). Using the included power adapter and cable, the U11 went from bone-dry to 90 percent full in a little over an hour.

The competition

The U11 is a very strong option for smartphone shoppers, but don’t forget about all the other great devices released this year. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are arguably at the top of the pack — they both have gorgeous “Infinity” displays, not to mention excellent cameras and similarly impressive performance. The S8 Plus is the better choice thanks to its significantly bigger battery, and its larger size is mitigated by Samsung’s brilliant, bezel-less design. That said, you’ll have to deal with a highly customized software experience.

If you’re looking for pure horsepower on a budget, the OnePlus 5 is also worth looking at. It uses the same Snapdragon 835 chipset as other 2017 flagships, but pairs it with 6GB of RAM for truly stunning performance. Despite being slightly smaller and lighter than the U11, the OnePlus also contains a bigger, 3,300mAh battery which lasted noticeably longer in our rundown tests. Then again, the U11 has a much better camera and offers more in terms of software creature comforts than the mostly-stock OnePlus 5.

Wrap-up

HTC didn’t get everything right with the U11, but it nailed a whole lot more than I ever expected it to. That’s a big deal. After the mess that was the U Ultra, I was honestly unsure whether the company would ever drag itself out of its doldrums. The U11 is proof that, yes, there is still hope for this company. While gimmicks like Edge Sense and the stylishly fragile glass back make the U11 seem too eager to be different, underneath all that is a very good, very fast phone that’s worthy of your attention.

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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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