Lenovo Phab 2 Pro review: Stumbling out of the gate

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

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

Hardware

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

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

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

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

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

Display and sound

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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

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

Life with Tango

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camera

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

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

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

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

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

Performance and battery life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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

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

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

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

Hardware

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

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

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

Software

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

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

Cameras

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

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

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

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

Performance and battery life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The competition

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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

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

Hardware

LG V20 Review

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

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

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

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

Displays and sound

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

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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

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

The cameras

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

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

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

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

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

Performance and battery life

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

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

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

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

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

The competition

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

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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Moto Z Play review: Buy it for the battery life

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

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

Hardware

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Display and sound

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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

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

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

Camera

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

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

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

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

Performance and battery life

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

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

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

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

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

The competition

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

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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

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

Getting started

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

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

Features that are finally ready to use

Auto Unlock

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

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

Apple Pay on the web

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

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

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

All the stuff we covered earlier

Siri

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

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

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

Universal Clipboard

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

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

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

Picture in Picture

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

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

Apple Music makeover

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

iCloud Desktop and Documents

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

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

Optimized Storage

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

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

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

Photos

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

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

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

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

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

Messages

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

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

Tabs

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

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

Odds and ends

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

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

Wrap-up

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

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

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iOS 10 review: Apple evolves

With iOS 10, Apple is basically polishing a pearl. iOS 8 introduced a vibrant and “flat” new aesthetic. iOS 9 was focused on refinement. So by this point, we should get something completely fresh and new, right? Well, not quite. Just like the iPhone 7, Apple’s latest mobile OS doesn’t look that much different on the surface. Instead, the company once again chose to focus on improving the overall experience. In particular, this year’s refinements collectively make the OS a lot more convenient (and help Apple play a little catch-up). If you’ve longed for some of the features you’ve seen on your friends’ Android phones, iOS 10 is more than enough to keep you under Apple’s spell for another year.

Getting started

iOS 10: review

At this point, moving to a new version of iOS probably feels routine. While there were widespread reports of the update “bricking” devices during its launch day, it looks like most of those issues have been ironed out. As always, though, be sure to back up your device before doing any sort of major upgrade. Even if you have your current iOS device set to automatically back up on iCloud, it’s still worth making a local copy through iTunes in case all hell breaks loose. (Also, restoring your phone from the cloud is much slower than with a local copy.)

There’s a good chance you’ve already been prompted to upgrade, but if you’ve procrastinated, head to the “General” section in the Settings app to manually initiate the update. Then just wait for the installation file to download (it’s over 1GB, so it takes a few minutes), and proceed with the installation. You’ll want to have your phone connected to a charger while you’re going through this process, unless your battery is almost full.

A revamped lock screen

Assuming all goes well, you’ll be presented with the all-too-familiar lock screen. This time around, though, it brings some new tricks. Swiping left bring you to the Today screen, which is now far more customizable than before. It’s basically a quick way to access widgets, which can do things like show you the weather, the latest news and your upcoming appointments. Naturally, there’s a bunch of built-in Apple widgets, but plenty of third-party developers are building them as well, including The New York Times, The Weather Channel and yes, even Google.

Swiping right from the lock screen brings up the camera, something that happens almost instantly on my iPhone 6S. Previously, you had to drag up from the bottom right of the screen to open the camera, which was a bit more difficult. I often missed the touch target completely, which left me swiping up a few times in futility. And, come to think of it, I’ve missed out on a few great photo opportunities because of that. Swiping right (get your jokes in now) has turned out to be a much more accurate gesture.

You can also do a lot more with the notifications that appear on the lock screen. If you have a 3D Touch-capable phone like the iPhone 6S or 7, you can interact with things like text messages without even leaving the lock screen. Some notifications will require you to unlock the phone to use 3D Touch features, but that’s just good security. Swipe down from the top of the lock screen to get your full list of notifications, all of which are also interactive using 3D Touch.

A more useful Control Center

If you swipe up from the lock screen, and indeed anywhere else in iOS 10, you’ll bring up the ever-useful Control Center. Instead of cramming all of its functionality in a single screen, it now spans two separate pages. The first houses all of the quick settings you’re familiar with — toggling on and off Airplane mode, WiFi, Bluetooth, Do Not Disturb and screen rotation lock — along with buttons for managing AirPlay Mirroring, AirDrop and Night Shift. And of course, those handy quick tools like the flashlight and timer are still at the bottom.

But, you might be wondering, what happened to the media controls? All of that is handled in the second page of the Control Center, which has room for more options. In addition to merely playing and pausing songs and skipping tracks, you can jog through your location in a track without leaving the Control Center. That’s particularly useful for longer files like podcasts and audiobooks. The bottom of the screen lets you easily switch between all available AirPlay devices on your current WiFi network.

The redesigned Control Center has ended up being one of the highlights of iOS 10 over my past few months of testing. I don’t have to jump into my iPhone’s settings or music/podcast apps nearly as much anymore. What’s the word for that? Oh right: convenience.

3D Touch (and Taptic Engine) finally feels useful

Apple introduced 3D Touch in last year’s iPhone 6S as a new method of smartphone interaction. Sure, it basically just replicated the “right-click” from PCs, but there was a lot to like in theory: What if you could just quickly access the most popular features of your favorite apps? Who wouldn’t want that? Even I was sold on Apple’s pitch back at the time, and over the past year I’ve grown to rely on it for apps like Swarm and Evernote.

The problem, though, is that Apple didn’t pay nearly enough attention to 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine in the 6S. While a handful of built-in apps and some third-parties adopted it, Apple almost seemed to distance itself from the feature after the 6S launch. Perhaps it was focusing its energy on the more powerful Taptic Engine that would be coming in the iPhone 7, but whatever the reason, many iPhone 6S owners felt like there was a lost opportunity to tap into 3D Touch (heh).

That’s less the case in iOS 7, where 3D Touch works in almost every part of the OS. There’s the notification integration I mentioned earlier, but I also learned to love the smaller additions, like using 3D Touch to change the brightness of my iPhone’s flashlight. Thanks to its more powerful Taptic Engine, the iPhone 7 also brings haptic feedback to simple things, like scrolling through the time in the Clock app, or scrolling through your library in the Music app. It gets to a point where you almost feel like you’re scrolling through a physical book, or a pile of CDs.

The Messages app takes on Snapchat

Apple really focused on improving its core apps in iOS 10, and the Messages app got the bulk of the upgrades. You can now change the intensity of iMessages (the chats labeled in blue that you’re having with other iMessage users), from a huge “Slam” effect that almost takes up the whole screen, to an obscured “Invisible Ink” message that has to be swiped to be read. The latter is particularly useful if you’re in a public place with lots of prying eyes. There are also screen effects that can accompany your notes, including a bunch of balloons, falling confetti, laser lights, fireworks and a shooting star. They’re fun at first, but they’ll be particularly useful for annoying your friends endlessly.

Just like the Apple Watch, you can send hearts (but of course, not your actual heart rate) and other symbols from within Messages using Digital Touch. You can also react to things people send you with “tapback” responses by double-tapping on them. You can also send a handwritten message by turning your iPhone into landscape mode (of course, you can also bring up the keyboard if you prefer typing this way). In the iOS 10 beta, you had to manually enable the handwriting mode, but it was also a bit hard to find.

The biggest change in Messages is that it now has an ecosystem of its own apps and sticker packs. By default, it includes apps for image and video searching (hooray easy-to-find animated GIFs!), as well as for sharing your most recently played Apple Music tracks. But you can easily add even more apps by hitting the icon of four dots at the lower left of the screen. (If that sounds confusing, you’re not alone. Apple’s interface around the entire Messages App experience needs some work, especially once you start piling in more software. It’s one area where I seriously began to feel the limits of the iPhone’s 4.7-inch screen, though it doesn’t seem much better on the 7 Plus either.)

Once you’ve made your way to the Messages App store, you’ll see a plethora of stickers, games and software that will appear right within your chats. It works just like the normal app store, except this time whatever you download shows up in the Messages app section. There’s also a good chance you’ve already installed apps that have brought along their own Messages apps, like Yelp, Evernote and Venmo.

Messages apps are similar to Apple Watch apps: They’re typically focused on a few functions that will work well within a chat. Yelp, for example, lets you share restaurants that you’ve recently viewed. Similarly, you can share specific movie times and locations with Fandango. One of the more interesting app implementations comes from OpenTable, which allows you to pick five restaurants and vote on them with your friends. Once you decide on a restaurant, you can complete the reservation process right from within Messages. (Eater has a good overview of how the whole process works.)

The games selection in the Messages app store isn’t huge, mostly consisting of simplistic board games at the moment. But it’s still cool to be able to play a quick game of chess with friends right from a text conversation. I suspect we’ll see plenty of multi-game entries like GamePigeon, which currently packs in pool, poker, sea battle, Go and a Scrabble-esque anagram title.

The Message app’s Stickers are merely that: Images that get sent to anyone, even friends on other platforms. Much like ringtones, they’ll likely end up being an easy way for Apple to get a few bucks from its users more often. But I’ll admit, the stickers are a lot of fun to use. I dropped $ 2 on the first collection of Pokémon pixel art. No regrets.

Apple’s intent with all of Message’s upgrades is pretty clear: It wants you to leave the app as seldom as possible, even if that means working even closer with third-party companies. Given the fast rise of Snapchat and Facebook Messenger, it’s not surprising that Apple is actually trying to cultivate its one successful “social network.”

Smarter Photos

So, about those other core iOS app upgrades: The Photos app now uses computer vision technology to make some sense of your piles of pics. For example, searching for “cats” brings up a healthy dose of my obsessive feline photography. It’ll also automatically detect the most common faces in your photos. While it’s up to you to actually name those faces, it’s still a big help if you hate organizing photos as much as I do.

Photos also creates “Memories,” or auto-generated slideshows of pictures from your library. It’s similar to the way Google Photos slideshows work in that they’ll typically focus on a single person or photos taken around a specific event. The Memories themselves are a combination of stills, Live Photos and video in your library. You can also set the music mood and length of each Memory, which will likely be useful if you’re throwing them over to an Apple TV to watch with a group.

Memories usually turned out well, though they’re still clearly a work in progress. Sometimes the software would choose photos with fingers blocking them, or pictures that I know for a fact have a better duplicate in my library. Still, it’s useful if you don’t want to build a slideshow on your own.

Refined Music

The new Music app actually looks very different from what came before, which isn’t the case for the rest of iOS 10’s updates. The new interface is all about large fonts, bold colors and disc art wherever possible. Those of you who were annoyed by Apple focusing more on its streaming music service than your own collection of tunes will likely be pleased, as your local library is the first thing to pop up. The “For You” section also does a better job of recommending tunes (as well as explaining why you might want to listen to them).

I’ve seen both praise and criticism of the Music app’s redesign, but personally I dig the clean aesthetic. But really, anything is better than the last iteration. One nifty addition: You can quickly access lyrics of songs on Apple Music from within the Now Playing screen. It’s not there for every song, but it’s an easy way to get prepped for karaoke.

Siri gets smarter, again

After launching to much fanfare, it’s almost as if iOS users have grown to hate Siri. She had a penchant for not hearing you properly, and her actual capabilities were fairly limited. That’s changing with iOS 10, as Apple has — you guessed it — opened up Siri to other developers. I was able to book Uber and Lyft cars, as well as send cash to a friend using Venmo, with only voice commands. You’ll still have to deal with some accuracy issues, but at least now Siri is actually starting to get useful.

Siri also powers contextual awareness in iOS 10’s predictive keyboard. So, on top of just trying to guess what word you’re typing next, it can do things like fill out contact information if you start chatting about someone’s phone number. And if you’re trying to schedule something, it can also tell you when you’re available by looking at your calendar. This feature still seems to be in its early stages, but it’s a fascinating way of implementing predictive intelligence.

Odds and ends

  • I didn’t talk much about iOS 10’s design because, honestly, nothing really changed. The home screen still looks like the same old wall of icons you’ve seen before.
  • Yes, I know we’ve seen plenty of these features in Android already. But at this point, everyone in the mobile industry is shamelessly getting “inspired” by the competition.
  • While iOS 9 offered up some big changes for iPad multitasking, iOS 10 doesn’t add much. The Control Center has a bit more room to breathe, but that’s about it.
  • You can finally remove built-in Apple software, like the much-maligned Stock app. But, to be clear, the app basically just disappears, it doesn’t actually get uninstalled.
  • It really feels like iOS 10 breathed new life into my iPhone 6S, and I’m hearing similarly good stories from people installing it on the iPhone 5. It also runs well on my first-gen iPad Air.
  • I didn’t have any HomeKit-equipped hardware to test out the Home app, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Apple tries to unify the messy IoT space.

Ultimately, iOS 10 is a collection of small, but important, changes to an already solid mobile OS. I would have liked to see a whole new design too, but what matters more is that actually using the OS is a significantly better experience. The combination of the new Today screen and Control Center has already saved me plenty of time.

We’ll probably end up seeing a major facelift next year, but for now, iOS 10 is an upgrade that Apple users should look forward to.

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Moto G4 and G4 Plus review: Bigger and (mostly) better

When it comes to getting the most smartphone for your dollar, the Moto G line has been your best choice for the past few years. We adored the previous model, which came in at a mere $ 180. Now with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus, Motorola is literally aiming to make its budget lineup bigger and better. They’ve got larger and sharper screens, improved cameras and, of course, speedier processors. With those upgrades come compromises, though. For one, they’re more expensive: The G4 starts at $ 200 and the G4 Plus at $ 250. Motorola also made some curious design decisions, which in many ways feel like a step back. Still, they both manage to carry the mantle of Smartphone Value King.

Hardware

You won’t find any premium aluminum or chamfered edges on the G4 and G4 Plus. They’ve got practical and simple plastic cases. Still, they don’t feel like budget phones. Their curved edges make them easy to hold, and the slightly textured rear cover feels a bit luxurious against your palm. Both phones are also noticeably larger than any previous Moto G, thanks to their 5.5-inch 1080p screens. At least they’re thinner than their 11.6mm thick predecessor, clocking in at just 7.9 millimeters to 8.9 millimeters. Strangely enough, they weigh the same 155 grams (0.34 pounds) as before.

The G4 and G4 Plus feel pretty solid for plastic encased phones. There’s little flex or creaking when gripped tightly. Long-term durability might be a concern though — somewhere during my week of testing I nicked the top of the G4 Plus’s plastic edge. I never dropped it, so your guess is as good as mine as to how it got damaged. It does make me worried about how well they’d stand up to months of everyday use.

Both phones sport removable back covers, just like all the previous Moto G models. In addition to the nano-SIM slot, there’s a microSD slot for up to 128GB of additional storage. They pack in 3,000mAh non-removable batteries, a nice bump from the last Moto G’s 2,470 mAh offering. It’s a shame that the battery can’t be swapped out, but it’s also large enough that that shouldn’t be a huge issue. (We didn’t have a problem with it last year, either.)

Powering all of this budget goodness are 1.5GHz Snapdragon 617 octa-core processors. Both phones offer 16GB of storage by default, but you can bump up to 32GB with the G4 (a no-brainer $ 30 premium) or 64GB with the G4 Plus (for another $ 100). They come with 2GB of RAM, though the 64GB G4 Plus gives you a luxurious 4GB of RAM.

Given that they both share so much hardware, you’re probably wondering what makes the G4 Plus, well… Plus? The most obvious difference is the fingerprint sensor on its front, which sits right below the software home button. The G4 Plus also packs in a 16 megapixel rear camera with phase detection and laser autofocus. The G4, on the other hand, has a 13 megapixel shooter without the added niceties.

One unfortunate downgrade from last year: Neither phone is waterproof. Instead, Motorola is calling them “water repellant,” thanks to a “nano-coating” technology that protects them from spills. That means they should be fine during light rain, or if you spill coffee on them. Just don’t go fully submerging them in anything.

Display and sound

There’s nothing budget about the 5.5-inch 1080p displays on the G4 and G4 Plus. They’re not quite as fancy as the quad HD displays we’re seeing in some flagships, but they still pack in 401 pixels per inch, which is plenty sharp for typical usage. Colors were bright and bold, even in direct sunlight, and viewing angles were surprisingly great. I didn’t notice much of a difference between my iPhone 6S while reading long articles from Pocket and the New York Times app. Videos also looked uniformly great. The big downside is that they’re less capable when it comes to mobile VR. It’s no wonder they’re not Google Daydream ready (though nothing is stopping you from plugging them into a Google Cardboard headset).

On the sound front, Motorola made the curious decision of replacing the last Moto G’s solid stereo speakers with a single one. It’s plenty loud, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as before. Now that Bluetooth speakers are cheap and small, I’d recommend just snagging one as an accessory.

One nice feature that I never thought I’d have to call out in 2016: both phones have headphone jacks! For the uninformed, you use them to connect a wide variety of audio devices, including headphones. Someone should tell Motorola that these audio ports, which have been universally supported for decades, would be a nice addition to their flagship Moto Z lineup. That’s especially true for the Z Force, which is thick enough to fit a headphone jack. (Yes, the Moto Z comes with a dongle, but that comes with plenty of compromises. You won’t be able to charge the phone when the dongle is plugged in, for example.)

Software

Motorola delivered a nearly stock OS on the G4 and G4 Plus, specifically Android 6.0.1. Marshmallow. The phones are devoid of the junkware and sponsored apps you often find on budget devices. None of this is new for Motorola, it’s been trying to deliver vanilla versions of Android since it was under Google. But it’s nice to see the company stick with that philosophy under Lenovo.

Motorola’s unique gestures, which made their debut on the original Moto X, once again make an appearance. Twisting either phone twice, similar to turning a door handle, quickly loads up the camera from anywhere in the OS. Making a double-chopping motion turns their flashlights on and off. What’s particularly nice is that both features work consistently even when the phones are in standby mode.

Camera

This is where the Moto G4 and G4 Plus truly diverge. Should you settle with a 13 megapixel camera, or spend the extra cash for the G4 Plus’s 16 megapixel one loaded with autofocusing upgrades? Based on my testing, the G4’s camera is a bit hit or miss. Sometimes it delivered sharp and vibrant photos, but sometimes its color rendering was all off. It was also a constant disappointment in low light. The G4 Plus was a lot more consistent — it was able to lock onto subjects much more quickly, and it was actually useful in low light. Looking at both phones shows how far we’ve come in the world of mobile cameras. But, if I had to choose, I’d opt for the G4 Plus’s shooter without any hesitation.

While Motorola used a light touch with most of the software, its camera app is a very different experience from Google’s stock entry. There’s a radial exposure meter right next to the focusing ring, which lets you lighten or darken the image by dragging it up or down. Flash, HDR and timer settings are also on the left side of the screen, instead of the top. If you want to take panoramic photos, or simply want manual controls, you’ll have to use a separate app, like ProShot or Open Camera.

Performance

While I was bracing for a slow experience with the Moto G4 and G4 Plus (due to increased rendering demands for 1080p screens, last year’s display was only 720p), both phones surprised me with their relatively smooth performance. Sure, they’re not as instantaneously zippy as expensive flagships, but they also don’t feel like “budget” devices. Browsing around Android Marshmallow, launching multiple hefty apps like Pokemon Go, and juggling through them was relatively painless. There was the occasional slowdown on the G4, but nothing show-stopping. If anything, their performance feels more in line affordable mid-range phones like the Nexus 5X.

And when it came to demanding usage, I was surprised by how well both phones held up. I was able to capture 1080p videos of both phones’ displays using the AZ Screen Recorder app while running Pokemon Go and jumping through several apps. The Moto G4 showed a bit of slowdown, but Pokemon Go was still totally playable. And the resulting video didn’t have any major hiccups or dropped frames. The Moto G4 Plus with 4GB of RAM fared even better, with no slowdown during screen recording.


Moto G4 Moto G4 Plus Moto G (2015) Moto G (2014)
AndEBench 16,159 16,371 4,259 3,929
Vellamo 3.0 2,762 2,819 1,992 1,669
3DMark IS Unlimited 9,841 9,851 4,518 4,679
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 6.6 6.6 1.7 N/A
CF-Bench 61,030 60,998 20,999 14,470

The benchmarks for both phones reflect the strong performance I saw. Compared to last year’s Moto G, they scored four times higher in AndEBench, three times faster in CF-Bench and they were more than twice as fast when it came to the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited. Of course, benchmarks aren’t everything, but huge performance bumps like these are noteworthy. I wouldn’t have dared play a complex 3D game on the last Moto G, but the G4 and G4 Plus ran games like Racing Rivals without any issue.

The fingerprint sensor on the G4 Plus was easy to set up, and it had no trouble accurately recognizing my fingers. Its placement on the face of the phone is confounding, though. Motorola would have been better off placing it on the rear of the phone like LG, or making it an actual home button like Samsung and HTC.

As for battery life, neither phone disappointed. Their 3,000mAh offerings had no trouble lasting me throughout a full day, even when I decided to go on some impromptu Pokemon hunts. In our test, which involves looping an HD video at 50 percent brightness, they both lasted around 12 hours and 30 minutes. The previous Moto G, lasted 10 hours and 40 minutes.

The competition

At $ 200 for the Moto G4 and $ 250 for the G4 Plus, both phones are practically in a class of their own. There are cheaper phones out there, including Motorola’s own Moto E and HTC’s $ 179 Desire 530, but they all have significantly worse performance in every respect. If you wanted a big upgrade, you could step up to the Nexus 5X, which currently sells for between $ 280 and $ 350, and remains one of the best Android phones on the market. Beyond that, there are the affordable high-end options like the $ 399 OnePlus 3.

If you’ve only got $ 200 to spend, there’s no better option than the Moto G4 right now. Stepping up to the G4 Plus gets a bit more confusing. If you want the 64GB version with 4GB of RAM, you’d have to shell out $ 300. At that point, the Nexus 5X is more tempting thanks to its faster hardware, though you’d have to live with its smaller 5.2-inch screen.

Wrap-up

Motorola’s big problem with these new phones is that the last Moto G was simply too good. In pushing for larger screens and other upgrades, it also introduced some compromises. Ultimately though, the good outweighs the bad. The Moto G4 and G4 Plus offer plenty of power and versatility without breaking the bank. And they show that, once again, nobody does budget phones better than Motorola.

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