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iPhone 6 first impressions

09 Sep 2014

Unveiled at Apple's exclusive launch event alongside the iPhone 6 Plus, the iPhone 6 is on paper one of the most advanced smartphones ever made. However, with leaked details still fresh in many buyers' minds, some have justifiably been confused about what's actually new in the iPhone 6. Here to help we've separated fact from fiction to offer our opening impressions of the iPhone 6.

Design and build
The iPhone 6 has a redesign, and now features a rounded glass front that runs round the curved aluminium sides of its chassis. As well as looking slightly more ergonomic than the hard-edged iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6 is also noticeably thinner, measuring in at just 6.9mm thick.

This means the iPhone 6 should be fairly comfortable to hold and be fairly travel and small-hand friendly.

The iPhone 6 features a 4.7in, 1334x750 HD Retina display Apple claims can display 38 percent more pixels than the iPhone 5S's 4in 1136x640 326ppi Retina display. This means the iPhone 6 display is still slightly behind many of its Android competitors when it comes to screen resolution, with the likes of the LG G3 with its 5.5in, 1440x2560, 534ppi True HD-IPS+ (in-plane switching) LCD capacitive and Samsung Galaxy S5's 5.1in, 1920x1080, 432ppi, Super Amoled touchscreens easily beating it.iPhone 6 4.7in model with iOS 8

But considering past Retina displays' solid colour balance and vibrancy levels, we're hoping the iPhone 6 will still compete when it comes to display quality and we are going to reserve judgement until we come to review the device.

Operating system
As expected the iPhone 6 runs using Apple's iOS 8 operating system. This is no bad thing as iOS 8 comes loaded with a number of useful features, many of which are aimed at the enterprise. Key additions on this front include improved password security, S/MIME features and VIP threads, and support for Microsoft Exchange out of office replies.

OS X Continuity is another useful feature debuted on iOS 8. Continuity is the latest stage in Apple's ongoing work to converge its iOS and Mac OS X operating systems and offers users a variety of synchronisation features. One of the most useful of these is the ability to AirDrop files between the iOS and Mac OS devices.

iOS 8 also adds support for third-party keyboards such as Swype, the ability to add widgets to the OS Notification Center and a QuickType word-prediction feature.

As a final bonus iOS also has HealthKit and HomeKit services. HealthKit is a health-focused service designed to help users track their calorie intake and exercise routines. HomeKit is an Internet of Things-focused service designed to let users control appliances using their iPhone 6.

Processor and performance
Performance has always been a key selling point for Apple iPhones and Apple has worked hard to continue this legacy with the iPhone 6, loading it with a new 64-bit A8 chip and reworked next-generation M8 co-processor.

Apple claims the A8 is its most advanced processor to date and offers 25 percent faster CPU performance and 50 percent faster graphics performance than the A7. If true this makes it 50 times more powerful than the first iPhone.

The firm also says the new-generation M8 co-processor can measure elevation and can tell when you're cycling, walking or running, which means fitness apps should perform better on it than on competing Android handsets or past iPhones.

Add to this the Apple iPhone 6's cutting-edge wireless 150Mbps LTE and the handset should be one of the fastest on the market.

NFC and Apple Pay
Near-field communication (NFC) has been a key technology missing on past iPhones. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus fix this issue and come loaded with an NFC antenna. However, rather than just meaning users can get access to existing NFC services, such as Visa's V.me payment service, or PayPal, Apple has created its own Apple Pay NFC wallet platform.iPhone 6 is available in silver gold and space grey

Apple Pay is interesting as it has an API that developers can use to directly integrate the Apple payment option into their into websites and apps. Having already scored key partnerships with Visa, Amex and Mastercard, Apple Pay allows users to make and take payments.

As an added assurance to security-conscious iPhone users, Apple has also loaded the iPhone 6 Plus with a Secure Element chip that stores all the user's payment details locally. This means prying intelligence agencies and hackers should have a harder time getting it.

While the iPhone 6's rear camera has the same 8MP specification as the 5S, its new sensor with True Tone flash, 1.5 micron pixels and f/2.2 aperture make it a massive step up.

The sensor adds a number of improvements to the iPhone 6's camera compared with previous iOS handsets. Key additions include phase-detection auto-focus, which allows it to focus twice as fast, plus new tone-mapping, noise reduction and a new slow-motion mode that can capture video at 240fps.

The iPhone 6 runs using an undisclosed battery that Apple claims will give users 11 hours of video playback and WiFi browsing, or 10 hours of LTE browsing and 3G browsing. If accurate the iPhone 6's battery life will be well above average, with most handsets still struggling to make it past the seven to eight-hour multimedia use mark.

Storage and price
Apple will start taking pre-orders for the iPhone 6 on 12 September ahead of its 19 September shipping date.

The company will be offering the iPhone 6 in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB versions, which will cost £539, £619 and £699 respectively. No 32GB version was listed.

While the iPhone 6 isn't as interesting as its larger sibling, the iPhone 6 Plus, there is still plenty to like about it. Featuring Apple's enterprise-friendly iOS 8 operating system, a sleek-looking new design and being powered by a new A8 super-chip, the iPhone 6 on paper is a fantastic handset and we can't wait to put it through its paces come our full review later this year.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Asus Zenwatch hands on review

05 Sep 2014

Ever since the launch of the Android Wear OS, hardware manufacturers have been rushing to create smartwatches based on it. However, most of the devices so far have been pretty uninspiring, it has to be said.

Aware of this, Asus has seen an opportunity to fill the gap with its newly unveiled Zenwatch smartwatch.

Design and build
Visually the Zenwatch is fairly distinctive, and features a pebble-shaped metal chassis and leather wrist strap.Asus Zenwatch OS

Like most smartwatches we ahve seen, the Zenwatch is fairly well built and has been designed to meet IP55 certifications standards. The certification means the Zenwatch is water resistant. Testing the Zenwatch we were impressed how well made it felt and found its metal chassis was fairly scratch proof and resilient, as well as looking nice.

However, despite being larger than a regular watch, the Zenwatch is fairly comfortable to wear and didn't feel unwieldy.

By smartwatch standards the Zenwatch's display is fairly small and comprises a 1.6in 320x320 Amoled touchscreen with 2.5D curved Gorilla Glass 3 - basically glass that makes its front face curve slightly.

While small, we didn't notice any serious performance issues with the Zenwatch screen during our brief hands-on. We found that text was legible and icons were suitably crisp. On top of that, thanks to the use of Amoled tech, colours on the display were wonderfully vibrant.Asus Zenwatch home

The one potential issue we noticed is that, like most smartwatches we've used, the Zenwatch's display can be hard to read in direct sunlight.

Operating system
As we noted in our LG G Watch review, while full of useful push update services for features such as email, Android Wear is short of business-friendly features. Perhaps with this in mind, Asus has tweaked Android Wear, adding several productivity-focused features. The best of these are its presentation manager, cover to mute and Find My Phone services.

Presentation Control is a useful feature that lets people use the Zenwatch as a remote control and time manager when giving a presentation. The cover alert feature makes it easy to screen incoming calls or alerts and lets you silence the smartwatch, and attached smartphone, simply by placing your hand over the Zenwatch's screen.

Find My Phone is a custom feature that lets you make the phone attached to the Zenwatch ring, making it easier to locate if you've misplaced it.Asus Zenwatch back

Sadly, the demo unit we tested wasn't set up to run these services, though on paper they make the Zenwatch one of the better smartwatches on the market if you are a business professional.

The Zenwatch is powered by a 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor and features 512MB of RAM. The specifications are fairly standard and during our hands-on we found the Zenwatch matched the smooth performance of past Android Wear smartwatches.

Battery life has been a constant issues on all smartwatches, with most at best lasting one to two days before needing a top-up charge. This appears to be the case with the Zenwatch, with an Asus spokesman telling us the smartwatch's 1.4Wh battery "currently gets a day", before adding: "we're still developing it and hope to increase this by the time of release."

Hopefully the work will pay off and the Zenwatch battery will offer at least two days come its release later this year.

Featuring a decent display, innovative design and wealth of productivity features, the Zenwatch has the potential to be a great business companion.

Check back with V3 later for a full review of Asus Zenwatch.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Acer Iconia Tab 8W hands-on review

05 Sep 2014

Windows 8.1 hasn't really taken off in the PC market, let alone the tablet one. Despite its lack of widespread adoption manufacturers around the globe have been experimenting with new sizes, hoping to better show off the touch-focused operating system's finer points.

The Acer Iconia Tab 8W is the latest step in the Windows 8.1 experiment and is designed to entice users to the OS by offering them an affordable, travel-friendly alternative to the sea of more popular 8in Android and iOS tablets.

Design and build
The Iconia Tab 8W has a slightly different design to past Android-powered Iconia tablets. The most noticeable difference is that the Iconia Tab 8W features a grooved, as opposed to smooth, textured polycarbonate backplate and metallic sides. It also features a reasonable selection of ports, including MicroSD, MicroHDMI and MicroUSB inputs.Acer Iconia Tab W8 home

While some may argue the white demo unit we tested looks cheap, we were fairly impressed with the design. As well as looking different to most tablets, thanks to its 9.8mm thickness and light 370g weight, the Iconia Tab 8W felt comfortable to hold and is suitably bag friendly.

We were also reasonably impressed with the tablet's build quality. It felt reasonably scratch and dirt resistant and left us reasonably assured it could survive regular wear and tear.

Acer has loaded the Iconia Tab 8W with an 8in 1280x800 HD in-plane switching (IPS) display. While the display's resolution isn't anything to write home about when compared with competing 8in Android or iOS tablets, we were reasonably impressed.

Thanks to the IPS tech – which works to improve the display's colours and whites by organising the liquid crystals used to create them on a fixed plate that's charged at a consistent rate – the Iconia Tab 8W's screen was pleasant to use. Colours were suitably vibrant and the display was fairly bright.Acer Iconia Tab W8 ports

Text and icons were also crisp and generally readable. The only issue we noticed was that in certain situations text displayed on the Iconia Tab 8's screen could look slightly squashed. This was particularly true when viewing webpages in Windows 8.1's desktop mode, though being fair to Acer this is an issue for all 8in Windows 8.1 devices.

Operating system
Acer Iconia Tab W8 OSFor businesses and people with productivity in mind, the inclusion of Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system will be a bonus. As well as having the ability to run legacy Windows applications, the OS also comes preloaded with a one-year complimentary subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal, granting users access to key productivity services such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook.

The Iconia Tab 8W isn't a powerhouse on paper and comes loaded with a quad-core, BayTrail-based 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735G processor and 1GB of RAM.

This means those looking to carry out demanding tasks on the Iconia Tab 8W, such as 3D gaming, will be disappointed, though considering its low price of £125 this isn't all that surprising.

That said, when faced with basic text-editing and web-browsing tasks, we didn't notice any performance issues, meaning it could still be a good choice for buyers who want a basic productivity aid or internet access point for when they are on the move.

Storage and battery
The Acer Iconia comes loaded with 32GB of internal storage, which can thankfully be upgraded using its MicroSD card slot and is powered by an unspecified battery Acer claims will offer users eight hours of multimedia use off one charge. We didn't get a chance to test the tablet's battery life during our hands on, but if Acer's projection is correct it'll be fairly standard.

While we're still not convinced Windows 8.1 works on small form-factor tablets, considering the Acer Iconia Tab 8W's low cost, it does definitely have potential and could hold some allure to buyers on a budget when it is released later this year.Acer Iconia Tab W8 back

Featuring a good display for its price, and what appears to be reasonable performance, coupled with one year's free access to Office 365, we can see the Iconia Tab 8W being a great choice for business buyers looking for an affordable travel companion for web access and document editing on the move. However, a big factor determining if the Iconia Tab 8W will make good on this promise is its battery life, one key thing we didn't get a chance to test during our hands on.

Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Acer Iconia Tab 8W.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

IFA: Lenovo Tab S8 hands-on review

05 Sep 2014

BERLIN: Since Apple released its original iPad Mini, 8in tablets have become increasingly popular and manufacturers around the world have been releasing a steady stream of the mid-sized devices.

Key players were Samsung's Galaxy Tab S and Note ranges and Acer's latest 8in Iconia tablet, for example. Unperturbed by the strong competition, this IFA Lenovo chose to join the 8in tablet race, unveiling its first ever mid-sized Android tablet, the Tab S8.

Design and build
Unless you pick the yellow colour option, the Tab S8 is fairly unassuming, featuring a round back and sides, and barebones front that's free of noticeable design features. In fact, were it not for the Lenovo stamp emblazoned on the Tab S8, you could easily mistake this for one of Asus' or Acer's existing devices.Lenovo Tab S8 lock-screen

While some may complain about the Tab S8's unassuming design, we didn't really have too much of an issue with it. This is largely because, while not terribly ostentatious the Tab S8 ticks all the necessary design boxes. For starters, measuring in at 210x124x7.9mm and weighing 299g, the Tab S8 is suitably travel friendly and feels comfortable to use, or hold one handed.

Additionally, despite being made of plastic, the Tab S8 doesn't feel too cheap and, from what we've seen, it's reasonably well built. While we didn't get to drop test the Tab S8, its chassis did feel scratch and drop proof.

In a world where tablets regularly break the 300ppi milestone, we were a little disappointed when Lenovo announced the Tab S8 will feature an 8in 1920x1200, 283ppi in-plane switching (IPS) LCD.

However, during our hands on we found the Tab S8's display is pretty impressive, especially when you consider its $200 price tag. Using the Tab S8 on the showroom floor at IFA, while it was occasionally prone to picking up stray light, the display did perform fairly well. Colours, while not on a par with those seen on Samsung Super Amoled tablets' displays, were rich and the Tab S8 featured impressive brightness levels. Text and icons were suitably crisp and we never experienced any serious issues with the display during our hands on.

Operating system
The Tab S8 runs using a customised version of Android 4.4 KitKat. We're not massive fans of Android skins as generally they don't add to the user experience, either making superfluous, or detrimental changes that make Android less user friendly and slow down future updates.

Lenovo Tab S8 app tray

Some of these issues remain true with the Tab S8, which features a number of needless applications and user interface changes that don't really add anything.

For example, in the app menu Lenovo has added a random shortcut icon. This brings up a tab on the bottom of screen with links to the tablet's main settings and theme options, all of which can also be accessed directly from the app menu.

That said, the skin is still significantly lighter than those made by some of Lenovo's competitors, such as Huawei Emotion or Samsung Touchwiz, and most Android users won't take too long to get used to it.

Unlike the majority of manufacturers, Lenovo has chosen not to use a Qualcomm snapdragon chip and has instead loaded the Tab S8 with a quad-core, 1.3GHz Intel Atom processor and 2GB of RAM.

We didn't get a chance to benchmark the Tab S8 during our hands on, but found the tablet was very fast for basic tasks. Webpages opened in seconds, even on the showroom's over-stacked WiFi the Tab S8 ran smoothly.

While we didn't get a chance to see how the Tab S8 ran when faced with more demanding tasks, such as 3D gaming, considering its use of Nvidia GeForce GTX graphics we have high hopes and are keen to see how it performs in our full review.

Tablets of all sizes are yet to really offer anything above average imaging performance when compared with their smartphone siblings and, from what we've seen, this will remain true with the Tab S8.Lenovo Tab S8 back

Testing the Tab S8's 8MP rear camera we found the device is fairly average and images, while more than good enough for sharing on social media, rapidly lost their clarity when zoomed in on. The same remained true when we took a few snaps on the Tab S8's 1.6MP front camera.

Battery and storage
We didn't get a chance to test the Tab S8's 4290mAh battery life, but even if Lenovo's projected seven-hours is true it will still be below average, with most similarly sized tablets lasting at least eight to nine hours before dying. In terms of storage the Tab S8 comes with 16GB of internal space that can fortunately be upgraded using the tablet's Micro SD slot.

The Lenovo Tab S8 will be available from the beginning of September, with prices starting at $199. While we did notice some issues during our hands on, considering its low cost and the inclusion of a powerful Intel processor, there is still plenty to like about the Tab S8 and we can see it being a popular choice for buyers on a budget.

Hopefully our positive opening impressions will ring true when we put the Lenovo Tab S8 more thoroughly through its paces in our full review later this year.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Lenovo Vibe X2 hands-on review

04 Sep 2014

When Lenovo announced its desire to purchase Motorola from Google, it made it clear the move was designed to increase its global smartphone presence and let it break into the Western European market.

The Vibe X2 is the latest step in Lenovo's expansion plans and debuts a number of cutting-edge technologies designed to showcase what the Chinese firm has to offer.

Design and build
Lenovo prides itself on the Vibe X2's design, claiming it is the first "layered smartphone" in the world, and we can see why the firm is so keen to boast about it. The Vibe X2 is built from three distinct sections, each of which has a different colour and texture. These range from basic polycarbonate backplate to a more esoteric "wood" finish.

Another interesting design twist, which we sadly didn't get to test during our hands on, is the addition of "Xtensions". These are extra custom covers that add add new functions to the Vibe X2, such as improved sound quality.Lenovo Vibe X2 home screen

Despite being composed of three layers, the Vibe X2 is reasonably thin, measuring in at 7.3mm. The 5in device is also comfortable to hold and feels fairly similar to Sony's range of straight-edged Xperia devices.

We were also reasonably impressed with the Vibe X2's build quality. It felt solid and left us fairly sure that it would survive the odd accidental bump and scrape. The rear backplate's slightly matt finish also felt suitably scratch and blemish resistant.

Display technology is an increasingly important factor for many potential buyers, so Lenovo has configured the Vibe X2 with a 5in, 1080x1920, 441ppi, in-plane switching (IPS) LCD touchscreen. Using the screen on the brightly lit showroom floor we were impressed by how well it performed. Colours on the display were rich and vibrant and the screen showed surprisingly wide viewing angles.

Operating systemLenovo Vibe X2 operating system
Unlike Motorola, Lenovo chose to tweak the Vibe X2's Android 4.4 KitKat operating system with its custom Vibe UI 2.0 skin.

The changes we noticed during our hands on were fairly unobtrusive and amounted to little more than tweaked application icons and menu layouts, but under the hood the Vibe X2 does have a few notable features, one of the most useful of which is its quick-access lock screen.

The feature is designed to let you more quickly access regularly accessed applications from the lock screen using screen taps. It lets you can activate the lock screen from sleep with one tap and access a quick menu with shortcuts to recently opened apps with a second tap. While small, we can see the feature being a selling point for business buyers who regularly have to access emails or check incoming messages on the move.

One of the Vibe X2's most interesting features is its MediaTek eight-core processor, using a mix of ARM Cortex-A17 and low-power Cortex-A7 cores. In a clear shot at Samsung, which has recently launched smartphones and tablets running on its own Exynos "octa-core" chips, Lenovo claims the MediaTek processor is the first "true" processor of this kind and, paired with 2GB of RAM, will allow the Vibe X2 to easily outperform competing handsets.

We found there could be some truth to this claim. During our hands-on, the Vibe X2 moved between windows and open applications smoothly and stutter free, and proved capable of opening multiple content-rich websites in the native browser app hassle free.Lenovo Vibe X2 side

We're keento see how the Vibe X2 performs when faced with more demanding tasks, such as 3D gaming, upon its release later this year.

The Vibe X2 comes with a 13MP rear camera with a back-illuminated sensor and 5MP front camera, which we were also impressed with.

Shots taken on the Vibe X2 looked reasonably vibrant, crisp and had decent colour balance. The only possible issue we noticed was that, on a few occasions, the shutter speed was slightly slower than we'd have liked, which is odd as Lenovo claims the handset has advanced "instant-capture" capabilities.

In terms of shot modes, the unit we had featured all the staple options you'd expect, such as burst, panorama and HDR, plus a more esoteric "beauty mode". The beauty mode works the same way as the equivalent feature seen on Huawei's Ascend P7 and is meant to let users quickly remove blemishes from "selfies". But we really can't see this taking off with business users.

Battery and storage
The Lenovo Vibe X2 comes loaded with 32GB of internal space, which sadly can't be upgraded due to the device's lack of a Micro SD card slot. However, considering the number of cloud-storage services available, we can't see this being too much of an issue for many buyers.Lenovo Vibe X2 back

Past this, the Vibe X2 is powered by a 2,300mAh non-removable battery, which Lenovo claims will easily last a full day's use off one charge. But we didn't get a chance to check this claim during our hands on.

Price and release date
The Vibe X2 will launch in China in September, costing $399 SIM-free. It is currently unclear if the Vibe Z2 or X2 will be released in the UK, though Lenovo has promised to make the phones "available in select regions starting in October".

While it's still unclear if the Vibe X2 will launch in the UK the device is still interesting. Featuring a unique and original design and "true" eight-core mobile processor the Vibe X2 is clear proof that Lenovo wants to establish itself as an innovator in the smartphone industry, and we'd be pleased to find out if it delivers on its promise, if and when it arrives in Europe.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

IFA: Sony Xperia Z3 hands-on review

04 Sep 2014

BERLIN: Sony lifted the lid on its Xperia Z3 smartphone, at IFA on Wednesday, with its updated slimmer design, solid aluminium frame and rounder edges than its predecessor the Xperia Z2. We were lucky enough to have some hands-on time with the device before its launch.

Sony Xperia Z3  smartphone hands-on at IFA - side view

The first noticeable thing about the Xperia Z3 is that it is thinner and lighter than the Xperia Z2. It was clear that Sony has managed to squeeze in a number of updates, such as a slimmer chassis that feels more comfortable to hold.

IFA - Sony unveils Xperia Z3 smartphone

The Xperia Z3 is very similar to the Xperia Z2, which in terms of design is no bad thing as we're fans of the boxy look. Even better, with this release Sony has rounded the edges even further, making the Z3 easier to hold, while still managing to pack the same sized 5.2in screen into the bezel.

The firm has made it slimmer by 0.9mm, so it now measures just 7.3mm, compared with the Xperia Z2's 8.2mm. Picking up the phone for the first time, we were surprised at how comfortable it felt, even with such a large display.

Sony Xperia Z3  smartphone hands-on at IFA - side

Another great feature of the Xperia Z3's design is that – like the Xperia Z2, Xperia Z1 and Xperia Z before that – the Xperia Z3 can be dunked in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1.5m, Sony claims. This is thanks to its dust-resistant and waterproof IP65 and IP68 certification, the highest possible waterproof rating. However, we didn't have a chance to test that in our brief time with the device.

The display on the Sony Xperia Z3 is its most impressive feature. With the same pixel count as its 1080x1920 resolution predecessor, the Xperia Z3's 5.2in display blew us away. Images are crystal clear and it is truly stunning to use: both text and images look sharp and touch operations are smooth between pages and apps.

Sony Xperia Z3  smartphone hands-on at IFA - apps

Performance and software
The Sony Xperia Z3 is powered by a quad-core 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with 3GB of RAM, making it quite a powerhouse. The chip is just as impressive in the real world as it is on paper, and we found the device very nippy, with no lag whatsoever, even when playing and recording 4K video, though during the latter it does still get a little hot.

As for software, the Xperia Z3 runs Google's Android 4.4 Kitkat mobile operating system right out of the box. However, Sony has skinned Android with its own custom user interface (UI). While we've never been huge fans of Sony's custom UI, finding it overbearing compared with a vanilla Android user interface, some of the firm's apps are a bonus.

The Xperia Z3 also arrives loaded with Sony's Walkman and PlayStation companion apps as seen on the Xperia Z2, as well as many new augmented-reality camera features and built-in noise cancellation technology to help block out background sounds while listening to music.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Xperia Z3 is its rear-facing camera, which not only features the same 20.7MP sensor as seen in its predecessor and the same 4K video recording, but it also boasts an 'Exmor RS for mobile' image sensor, with a new 25mm G Lens, making it what Sony claims "the world's first smartphone with ISO 12800 sensitivity for superior photos, even in low light."

Sony Xperia Z3  smartphone hands-on at IFA - back cam

Still images taken with the 20.7MP camera were just as impressive as on the Xperia Z2, appearing crisp, clear and full of natural colour.

The Sony Xperia Z3 also features a 2.2MP camera on its front that's capable of shooting HD 1080p video for all your video-calling needs.

Our first impressions of the Sony Xperia Z3 were good, but the handset's success will likely depend in part on its cost, which has not yet been announced.

Sony will release the Xperia Z3 around the world this autumn. Check back with V3 then for our full review.

Samsung Gear S hands-on review

04 Sep 2014

Technology firms have been trying to persuade us we need smartwatches for quite some time. However, a number of niggling flaws in past smartwatches – including their need to be tethered to a smartphone to work and woefully small displays – have stopped many people, including us here at V3, from getting excited about them.

Samsung claims to have gone back to the drawing board to design its Gear S smartwatch, and has worked to fix all our past qualms and finally offer users the wearable wrist companion they've been waiting for.

Design and build
The Gear S's curved screen and metallic design features make it look about as slick as a smartwatch can be.

As well as making the wearable look slick, the curved chassis also makes the device feel significantly more comfortable to wear than many of the other smartwatches we've experienced, for example the LG G Watch, which has a flat back.Samsung Gear S IFA

The one potential design flaw we noticed is that, like most smartwatches, the Gear S is noticeably larger than most regular watches. We're used to wearing big watches, so we found the 40x58x12.5mm Gear S' dimensions weren't too much of an issue, but people used to regularly sized watches may find it slightly cumbersome.

Despite being large the Gear S is fairly well built regarding its specs, and it meets IP67 certification standards. This means the Gear S should be dust and water resistant and should be able to survive submersions in up to one metre of water for 30 minutes.

Sadly the Samsung spokesperson on hand at the event declined our request to test the Gear S's water resiliency and all but tore it off our wrist when asked we if we could pour our bottle of water over it.

During our hands on we found the Gear S's 2in, 360x480 pixels, 300ppi Super Amoled capacitive touchscreen was one of the best we'd ever seen on a smartwatch. Using Samsung's Super Amoled screen tech, colours on the Gear S display were wonderfully vibrant and it was brilliantly bright. We'll be interested to see if our positive impressions remain when we test the Gear S in more adverse lighting conditions, such as direct sunlight, which has rendered all past smartwatches close to unusable.

Unlike most 2014 smartwatches the Gear S runs using Samsung's own Tizen operating system, not Google's newly launched Android Wear. Scrolling through various menus we found Tizen offers a significantly different user experience to Android Wear and has a completely different menu and application system.

Unlike Android Wear, Tizen's user interface (UI) requires you to swipe left or right to switch between applications and services. Google's OS by comparison requires you to scoll up and down. Tizen applications' individual interfaces are also far more varied than those seen on Android Wear, which have a uniform card-like design similar to that seen on Google Now.Samsung Gear S calendar app

For example, moving from a weather app, which featured a familiar UI to Android's to a Tizen news aggregator we were met with a completely different tiled design reminiscent of HTC's BlinkFeed that had its own set of shortcuts and colour palette.

While we initially found the experience a little jarring and disjointed, we soon became accustomed and began to notice a number of positive points about Tizen.

For one, many of the apps we used had noticeably more advanced functionality than their Android Wear equivalents. For example, entering the calendar app, we could not only see incoming notifications, but we could also tweak or create new ones directly from the Gear S, which we couldn't do on Android Wear smartwatches.

Productivity perks are aided by the fact it has standalone 3G and WiFi connectivity. This means, after requiring you to pair the smartwatch with a smartphone on setup, the Gear S can function independently and doesn't require a constant Bluetooth connection to an Android handset.

The Gear S is powered by an unspecified dual-core 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM. While we found these features were more than good enough in past smartwatches, during our hands on we noticed the Gear S did occasionally chug and stutter.Samsung Gear S news app

For example, going through the news feed on an aggregator app, the Gear S occasionally stalled for a fraction of a second when we tried to scroll up or down. Though being fair to Samsung, the Gear S we tried was a pre-production model and this issue could equally be due to poor coding on the app itself and in general the Gear S performed very well during our hands on.

Battery power is a constant issue on all the smartwatches we've encountered, with most barely lasting a full day's use before needing a top-up charge. Sadly we didn't get a chance to test the Gear S battery life. However, if Samsung's claim the Gear S 300mAh battery will offer users "two full days of typical usage", it will be above average for a smartwatch.

While the Gear S doesn't follow the common path of most manufacturers and uses Samsung's Tizen OS, as opposed to the increasingly common Android Wear, it did impress us.

Featuring a curved design that makes the Gear S look nice and feel comfortable on your wrist, a sizable 2in display and standalone 3G connectivity, there is plenty to like about Samsung's latest smartwatch.

Hopefully the minor performance issues we noticed during our hands on will have disappeared by the time the Gear S arrives in the UK later this year, and tech aficionados across the globe will finally have the smart smartwatch they've been waiting for.

Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Samsung Gear S.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Galaxy Note 4 hands-on review

03 Sep 2014

BERLIN: Samsung claims it created the plus-sized "phablet" market in 2011 when it unveiled its first Galaxy Note. While technically this was actually Dell with its Streak 5 in 2010, Samsung is without a doubt the first smartphone manufacturer to successfully push big handsets to the masses and, in many buyers' minds, the Galaxy Note range is still the first anyone thinks of when shopping for a big-screen device.

As a result, at the Galaxy Note 4's unveiling at Samsung's IFA Unpacked 2014 keynote in Berlin, we couldn't resist the chance to get some hands on time with the gargantuan handset.

Design and build
Visually the Galaxy Note 4 doesn't stray too far from its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 3 and has the same fake leather backplate and metallic sides. The Galaxy Note 4's button placement is also the same and the Galaxy Note 4 has a physical front-facing home button and volume and power controls on its right side. Under the hood, though, Samsung has made a few changes, one of the biggest of which is the inclusion of the custom fingerprint scanner debuted on Samsung's regular-sized Galaxy S5 handset.Samsung Galaxy Note 4 home screen

The scanner is a bonus for enterprise customers as it lets them lock the Galaxy Note 4 to only unlock once they have proven their identity, making it much harder for criminals to access corporate data stored on the phone should it be lost or stolen.

While the Galaxy Note 4 is fairly thin by phablet standards, despite years of wielding the plus-sized handsets, we still found the phone's 154x79x8.5mm dimensions and 176g weight slightly cumbersome when trying to use the device one handed.

Luckily these issues are heavily countermanded by the inclusion of the Galaxy Note 4's reworded S Pen. The S Pen digital stylus docks into the bottom edge of the Galaxy Note's rear, and helps make the Galaxy Note 4 more comfortable to use, despite it's advanced size, for a variety of reasons. More on this later.

While we didn't get to drop test the Galaxy Note 4 during our hands on we were reasonably impressed with its build quality. The handset felt solidly built and left us feeling suitably assured it could survive the odd accidental drop chip and scratch free.

As we've seen in past Samsung handsets, the Galaxy Note 4's 5.7in QHD 2560x1440 Super Amoled display is one of its best features. While we only got to test the display in the controlled showroom floor lighting conditions we found the Galaxy Note 4's display is not only crisp, but also features great colour balance and brightness levels – so much so that we had to turn the demo unit's brightness setting down.

This is likely a consequence of Samsung's custom Super Amoled technology. Super Amoled is good as not only does it offer all the benefits of normal Amoled screens, which are designed to display deeper and richer blacks by electrically charging each individual pixel to generate colours, it also reduces the screen's power consumption.

The technology reduces power consumption by integrating the capacitive touchscreen layer directly into the display instead of overlaying it on top, as with regular Amoled screens. The practice removes the need to charge two components at once, thus reducing the display's power consumption.

Operating system and software
The Galaxy Note 4 runs using a heavily customised version of Android 4.4.4 KitKat. In the past we've not been massive fans of Samsung's software additions as they, generally, add a wealth of needless services and make handsets' user interfaces (UIs) feel busy and slightly unpleasant to use.

But we were fairly impressed by how much work Samsung has put in to fix these issues. As well as featuring significantly fewer bloatware applications than the Galaxy Note 3, the Galaxy Note 4's main UI also looks noticeably cleaner.

We were also happy to see Samsung has developed some of the more pleasant and useful software additions it has made over the years, loading the Galaxy Note 4 with a wealth of applications designed to help users take advantage of its S Pen Stylus, for example.

Key positive additions we noticed are the Galaxy Note 4's enhanced multi-window support and new Smart Select and S Pen Mouse features.Samsung Galaxy Note 4 S Pen

The reworked multi-window feature lets users swipe using the S Pen to minimise open windows and pull up new apps, while Smart Select is an innovative feature that lets users select several pieces of content in a row and simultaneously share them as attachments in messages. S Pen Mouse is designed to make it easier to select and edit text using the S Pen and lets users instruct the stylus to highlight text simply by holding down the pen's side button.

During our time with the Galaxy Note 4 we were very impressed by how well the features worked and found they made key productivity tasks, such as document-editing, note-taking and altering images, significantly easier to do than they are on most competing handsets.

There is some truth to Samsung's claims that the Galaxy Note 4's S Pen stylus is twice as pressure sensitive as the Note 3's and felt it was significantly more accurate and reactive than its predecessor.

On paper the Galaxy Note 4 is one of the most powerful handsets out there and runs using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processor and 3GB of RAM. We didn't get a chance to properly benchmark the Galaxy Note 4, or see how it coped with demanding tasks such as 3D gaming during our hands on, but found for general purposes it is very quick.

The Galaxy Note 4 opened applications and webpages in milliseconds and ran chug and stutter free, even when we had multiple apps running using the handset's multi-window support.

Samsung made a big deal about the Galaxy Note 4's 16MP, 3456x4608 rear camera with optical image stabilisation, and 3.7MP front camera, claiming they will offer users "industry-leading" imaging quality.

Testing them on the show floor, while still not of the same quality as images taken on the Nokia Lumia 1020, images taken on the Galaxy Note 4 were very crisp and featured great contrast and brightness levels.Samsung Galaxy Note 4 back

Running through the camera app's options, it is reasonably well stocked and supports all the modes you'd expect, including Dual Shot, panorama and HDR (high dynamic range).

While we're still not convinced many executives would use the Galaxy Note 4's 3.7MP front camera for anything but video calling, we were also reasonably impressed with its imaging quality and found it is reasonably good at taking photos.

The Galaxy Note 4 we tested came with 32GB of internal storage. Luckily for those looking for more space, a further 64GB can be added using the Galaxy Note 4's micro SD card slot.

Featuring a large, but crisp display and offering what appears to be top-end performance and a reworked more sensitive S Pen stylus, our opening impressions of the Galaxy Note 4 are very positive and the device certainly has the potential to be one of 2014's best handsets.

However, with Samsung yet to reveal the Galaxy Note 4's UK release date and price, it's currently difficult to gauge whether it will make good on this promise.

Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

By V3's Alastair Stevneson

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