04 Sep 2015
When we took a look at the Samsung Gear S2 range's specs we came away fairly concerned that, despite the new circular design, it was unlikely to match up to the dominant Apple Watch.
Having now tried out the standard Gear S2 and the Gear S2 Classic at a Samsung-hosted event at IFA in Berlin, we're somewhat less pessimistic. We couldn't test a few key features, but it was clear that both these smartwatches are better than their underwhelming specs might have initially suggested.
The Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic are not particularly svelte, being taller, wider and thicker than the biggest Apple Watch. Even so, they were quite comfortable on our wrists. We never felt like they were excessively bulky or heavy, and the standard Gear S2 in particular benefits from a light, soft strap. Supposedly, these can be swapped out for Samsung's own designs and with any standard-sized watch strap.
However, the really big feature design-wise is the rotating bezel. Turning with a tactile clickiness, it's the feature we never knew we wanted, a clever and intuitive way to switch between apps, scroll through news articles and search through photo galleries. It's far smoother and easier for these purposes than flicking at the screen with a finger, which blocks out most of the view anyway. The bezel on the Gear S2 Classic seemed to require less force to move, although the standard Gear S2's is easy to twist as well.
Backing up the bezel are Home and Back buttons on the right-hand side of the devices. These aren't quite as revelatory as the spinning ring, but they're just as functional as they need to be, and make the user experience just a bit more like that of a smartphone, which we appreciate.
The Gear S2 range borrows the Super AMOLED tech of Samsung's smartphones, and it shows. Colours pop out with incredible vividness, even on the modest 1.2in screens, and blacks are beautifully deep, which is good considering that the UI makes heavy use of them.
The 360x360 resolution is more than sharp enough to read text at arm's length. The display's only real problem, besides being something of a fingerprint magnet, is reflectivity. It can be hard to make out in direct light, on the Gear S2 and Gear S2 Classic.
Operating system and software
The entire Gear S2 family runs Tizen, a Linux-based OS co-developed by Samsung and Intel. We're still sceptical that Tizen will be able to offer the range of apps that Android Wear or Apple's watchOS can, but there was at least a decent selection on the models we tested, including all the expected messaging, fitness, utility and news apps.
It's worth noting that Tizen makes full use of the circular screen, organising apps in a semi-circle around the topmost curve and shifting on-screen prompts to the left and right, leaving an unobstructed rectangle in the centre.
There's also a handy Android-esque Power Saving mode. This turns the screen greyscale, disables most non-essential apps and adopts a very basic watch interface. This does look amusingly incongruous on the fancy Gear S2 Classic, but will undoubtedly prove useful to anyone who'll need to be away from their wireless charger for longer than a day or so.
We expected the relatively beefy 1GHz dual-core processor within the Gear S2 range to be one of its biggest strengths, and are thus pleased that both models we tried were unfalteringly nippy.
This is especially noticeable when using the bezel to, say, quickly flick between a packed photo album. This is much faster than doing so by touch, but the hardware keeps up easily. Apps open and close without delay, too.
We'd need more time living with a Gear S2 to truly judge its performance; we're curious as to how quickly its Samsung Pay functionality will work, for instance. For now, anyway, the range certainly seems powerful enough to challenge its premium competitors.
Going circular could have easily been a simple stylistic choice, but in the Gear S2 line's case it enables the inclusion of a fantastic control method that, by permeating every app, menu and interface, never feels like a gimmick.
There are other fine aspects to these smartwatches - their deceptively light weight, bold displays, high capacity for user-end customisation - but it's that little spinning bezel that makes them worthy of attention.
03 Sep 2015
Huawei took to the stage at IFA in Berlin this week to announce two new smartphones: the Huawei Mate S and the Huawei G8.
We took the opportunity to go backstage and try out the Mate S for ourselves, and see whether its hardware enhancements justify the €669+ price tag.
The Mate S is encased in a lovely matte metal body, which provides a premium feel as well as a reassuring solidity. It's curved at the back, which feels quite comfy, and the front panel - constructed of 4th-generation Gorilla Glass - is very slightly tapered at the edges. The display doesn't quite reach the tapering, so there's no Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge-style screen curves, but it looks great with the razor-thin bezels.
In fact, the handset is quite compact for something with a 5.5in display, measuring in at considerably smaller dimensions than the iPhone 6 Plus. Despite the metal case, the Mate S is light too.
Having recently reviewed the Honor 7, the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor felt familiarly quick and responsive. We're not sure how many people will prefer to flick through slideshows or open the notifications menu with the sensor's gesture controls, rather than the conventional touchscreen controls, but there's no denying that it works well.
We could easily read the Mate S's big, bright screen even under the harsh lights of the demo area. Small text appears crisp and sharp, and is legible across a wide range of viewing angles.
Colours aren't the boldest we've seen but they're far from washed-out, and blues and purples in particular are just as vibrant as we'd want on a £400+ product. The same goes for the touchscreen's responsiveness, which is nice and slick.
Operating system and software
We were pleased to find that Huawei has loaded the Mate S with Android 5.1 Lollipop, the most up-to-date version possible - until Android 6.0 Marshmallow rolls out, at least. We've always liked 5.1 Lollipop for its performance and security improvements and enterprise-friendly features, such as managed user profiles and split-screen multitasking support.
The bad news is that Huawei's Emotion UI custom skin is here as well. Once again, it makes numerous unnecessary changes to the stock Android interface, such as removing the apps drawer so that all installed apps must be placed on the Home screen. Like all custom skins, Emotion UI will also slow down the arrival of Android updates.
Emotion UI is also stuffed with bloatware, from redundant tools to storage-hogging games. WPS Office is included for viewing documents, but that's about the only pre-installed app we found that might prove much good.
Luckily, Emotion UI doesn't interfere with one of Android's best security features: built-in device encryption which adds an extra layer of protection by requiring a PIN to decrypt the device whenever it's switched on. We found this option present and correct in the Mate S's settings menu.
The integrated fingerprint sensor offers another authentication alternative - and an especially useful one for business-owned smartphones with numerous users, since multiple fingerprints can be registered at once. The Mate S also runs Huawei's Fingerprint Sense 2.0 software, so it should be faster and more responsive than the readers on previous Huawei smartphones. We certainly had no complaints about the sensor's speed when we tried it ourselves.
We couldn't connect the test unit to the internet, so we didn't have a chance to run some proper benchmark tests. Nonetheless, we found that the Mate S performs fairly well in normal use, opening and closing apps instantly and staying chug-free even with a plethora of tasks open at once.
That said, we are a little concerned about the inclusion of a Kirin 935 chipset. This was used in the Honor 7, which also shared the Mate S's 3GB of RAM but managed only middling benchmark scores. Since the Mate S is a premium-priced machine, targeting competitors like the iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, this might well mean it struggles against its better-equipped rivals.
We tested the 128GB edition of the Mate S, which includes the new Force Touch tech that effectively allows the screen to detect force in small increments. Right now, it seems like the main application is simply to zoom in and out of photos by pressing harder or softer. We're satisfied that the tech works as advertised, but it's definitely a feature that will rely on good third-party app support to reach its potential.
The 13MP rear camera and 8MP front camera took some well-detailed shots, although we were able to view them only on the smartphone's screen. The main camera seems particularly adept at dealing with adverse lighting, and its shutter speed is wonderfully quick.
We did spot a bit of visual noise in shots taken on the 8MP front-facing camera, and shooting in low light causes colour quality to drop off sharply, but otherwise it's decent enough.
We were impressed with, rather than amazed by, the Huawei Mate S. It seems to occupy a space in between the middle and high ranges of smartphone quality, which might appeal to those who want a reasonably powerful handset without splashing out for a top-end device.
Even so, it will take some more time with the Mate S to determine whether it can really outperform the Honor 7 - which we remain unsure about. At the very least, Huawei can always fall back on the Mate S's superb design, fine display and quality fingerprint sensor.
03 Sep 2015
Sony showed off its latest Xperia Z5 Premium smartphone at the IFA trade show in Berlin this week, describing it as the "world's first 4K smartphone". V3 got its hands on the phone to put it through its paces and see how it measures up against the competition.
The Xperia Z5 Premium has the same dust-tight, waterproof design and cap-less USB port as it predecessor, the Xperia Z3+ (or Z4 in Japan), but offers a host of improvements and updated features on top of the 4K display, including a better camera sensor and bigger battery.
The first noticeable thing about the Xperia Z5 Premium is that it's thicker and heavier than the Xperia Z3+, measuring 7.8mm and weighing 180g. This is because of its 4K capabilities and larger capacity 3,430mAh battery needed to power it for longer while running the much higher quality graphics.
One of our favourite new features in the Xperia Z5 premium is the addition of a fingerprint sensor on the side. Sony has somehow managed to retain the same small size of the power button but added the fingerprint technology on top of this so you can unlock the device when you pick it up, without having to then move your hand to a separate button to unlock the screen. We can confirm that this works very well.
The Xperia Z5 Premium is otherwise very similar to the Xperia Z3+ and the Xperia Z3 before that, which is no bad thing in terms of design as we're fans of its sleek appearance.
Even better, Sony has made it look sleeker with fewer seams on the frames and a nice shiny chrome finish, which is a little too shiny in our opinion. As you'll see from our hands-on photographs, we got a pleasant surprise when turning it over to look at the back ...
Another great feature of the Xperia Z5 Premium's design is that, like the Xperia Z3, Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z1 before it, the Xperia Z5 Premium can be dunked in water for up to 30 minutes at a depth of 1.5m, Sony claims, owing to its dust-resistant and waterproof IP65 and IP68 certification, the highest possible waterproof rating.
As with the Z3+, the biggest design change from last year's Z3 iteration is that the Xperia Z5 Premium comes with a capless USB port, making it easier and more convenient to charge while remaining waterproof.
The 5.5in 4K UHD IPS display on the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is by far one of its most impressive features. Made with the firm's Triluminos TV screen tech, it boasts a ridiculous 3840x2160 pixel count and 806ppi, the most we've ever seen on a smartphone.
As you'd expect, images appear crystal clear and it is stunning to look at. Text and images look sharp and touch operations are smooth on pages and apps. However, you can't really tell the difference right away between the Z5 Premium's 4K display and the Full HD display of the Z3+.
This is because the pixel density is so high that it is almost wasted on the human eye when looking at such a relatively small display compared with Sony's large TVs.
It is not until you place the screen side by side with a Full HD display that the difference becomes visible. Watching 4K movies on the Xperia Z5 Premium's display is very impressive and it's going to be one of the best you'll get for your money when it hits the market.
Sony said that it is also capable of upscaling any HD content to 4K, but we have yet to test this and will let you know how well it performs in our full review.
Performance and software
The Sony Xperia Z5 Premium comes with Qualcomm's notorious 64-bit octa-core
Snapdragon 810 processor. This is the chip that featured in the Xperia Z3+ and was blamed for its overheating problems, which resulted in an unexpectedly low score in our review. Sony is still denying any problems with the Z3+ but promised that the Xperia Z5 will not suffer any overheating problems and will offer up to two days of battery life.
Nevertheless, this is coupled with the existing two-day battery life that Sony has bragged about since the launch of the Z3.
In our short hands-on, we found that these updated specs translate just as well in the real world as on paper. The device is very nippy, with no lag whatsoever even when playing and recording 4K video. It does still get a little hot during this task, but it is worth keeping in mind that this is the most demanding function you will ever ask of it.
As for software, the Xperia Z5 Premium runs Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop mobile operating system right out of the box. However, Sony has skinned Android with its own custom user interface. We've never been huge fans of Sony's UI, finding it overbearing compared with a vanilla Android user interface, but some of the added apps are a bonus.
The Xperia Z5 Premium arrives with Sony's Walkman and PlayStation companion apps as seen on the Xperia Z3+, as well as many new augmented reality camera features and built-in noise cancellation technologies to help block out background sound while listening to music.
The Xperia Z5 Premium features a larger 32GB internal memory than its predecessor, with the ability to take a 200GB external microSD card, which offers extra room for 4K videos and images.
The Xperia Z5 Premium uses Sony's next-generation camera sensor, the larger 1/2.3 Exmor RSTM for mobile with 23MP sensor and f/2.0 G Lens. This, Sony said, is the first upgraded sensor the series has seen since the Xperia Z1 and will introduce a host of improvements for those snap-happy smartphone users.
The camera improvements aim to relieve three main "pain points" in mobile photo taking. The first is "missed opportunities", which the new camera sensor looks to resolve with a much faster shutter speed than previous versions and the "world's fastest" auto-focusing smartphone camera at 0.3 seconds.
The second is improving "low quality zoom" with Clear Image Zoom, which Sony said allows users to zoom into an image up to 5x without quality loss. The third is better quality photos in low light, meaning users can capture clearer photos in darker surroundings with less noise and blur.
Still images taken with the 23MP camera were far more impressive than on the Xperia Z3+, appearing crisp, clear and full of natural colour, and being taken super-fast. Autofocus is also very swift, and the camera was able to focus on background and foreground aspects of an image instantly in our tests.
We were very impressed overall with our first hands-on with the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium, but the handset's success will depend partly on its price, which Sony has yet to reveal. The Xperia Z5 Premium will arrive in chrome, black or gold sometime in November. Check back with V3 soon for our full Sony Xperia Z5 Premium review.
02 Sep 2015
Samsung's upcoming Gear S2 line comprises the most watch-like smartwatches we've seen yet, with round faces and rotating bezels just like you might find on a traditional timepiece. It's certainly a stylish design, although Samsung will need more than good looks to take on the dominant Apple Watch.
Analysts say that the Apple Watch quickly seized a huge 75 percent market share, shipping 10 times the number of Samsung's smartwatches. The Gear S2 range, then, represents a critical opportunity for Samsung to claw back some customers.
To measure its chances, we've lined up the three Gear S2 variants - the standard model, the less sporty Gear S2 Classic and the e-SIM-equipped Gear S2 3G - against the Apple Watch for a thorough spec-by-spec comparison.
Dimensions and design
Gear S2: 42x50x11.4mm
Gear S2 Classic: 40x44x11.4mm
Gear S2 3G: 44x52x13.4mm
Apple Watch: 39x33x10.5mm or 42x40x10.5mm
The Apple Watch offers clearly more compact designs, and even the largest 42mm edition proves thinner than the smallest Gear S2 Classic. Mobile connectivity also comes at a considerable price for the Gear S2 3G, as it's the thickest and tallest smartwatch here.
To Samsung's credit, the Gear S2, Gear S2 Classic and Gear S2 3G weigh only 47g, 42g and 51g respectively, but these are all still heavier - albeit barely - than the Apple Watch's lightest possible case and strap combination, which weighs 41g.
We like the idea of a round-faced smartwatch but, until we can see how apps might be optimised for it, we have to give this round to Apple. Regardless, an honourable mention goes to the Gear S2 collection's superior customisation potential, thanks to a strap design that can be removed with a single click.
Gear S2: 1.0GHz dual-core with 512MB RAM
Gear S2 Classic: 1.0GHz dual-core with 512MB RAM
Gear S2 3G: 1.0GHz dual-core with 512MB RAM
Apple Watch: 520MHz single-core with 512MB RAM
On paper, Samsung definitely seems to have created the more powerful smartwatches, even if RAM is a dead heat. Not only is the Gear S2 series' core clock speed faster, there's twice as many of them, which should mean much less sluggishness when running intensive apps.
Gear S2: 1.2in Super AMOLED at 360x360
Gear S2 Classic: 1.2in Super AMOLED at 360x360
Gear S2 3G: 1.2in Super AMOLED at 360x360
Apple Watch: 1.4in OLED Retina at 272x340 or 1.7in OLED Retina at 319x390
Despite being less bulky, both Apple Watch variants actually manage to squeeze in larger screens than the Gear S2 range, all of which include the same 1.2in display. The latter tries to make up for this with slightly higher resolutions, but we're not convinced that this will result in noticeably sharper images; the 302ppi is barely higher than the Apple Watch's 290ppi and 296ppi options.
Still, we're withholding full judgement until we see a Gear S2's display in action. The product family uses the same Super AMOLED tech as the original Samsung Gear S, which produced some fantastically bright and vivid colours, so we're eager to see if the new models look just as good.
Gear S2: Tizen OS
Gear S2 Classic: Tizen OS
Gear S2 3G: Tizen OS
Apple Watch: watchOS
As with the Gear S, Samsung has eschewed Android Wear in favour of loading the Gear S2 line with Tizen, the firm's own Linux-based OS.
We appreciated how Tizen allowed app makers to create their own UIs with the Gear S2's predecessor, which often resulted in much deeper, more customisable experiences than the app's Android counterparts. We expect this to be true of the Gear S2 range as well, but the real issue is how many apps will be available.
Considering Tizen's already small app catalogue, plus the Apple Watch's market stranglehold, we're concerned that app makers will focus on watchOS at the expense of others. Tizen is already missing various useful apps that have long been available on watchOS, such as Evernote.
The Apple Watch and Gear S2 series can also be used for contactless payment via Apple Pay and Samsung Pay respectively. However, we don't currently know when Samsung Pay will roll out in the UK.
Gear S2: 250mAh, two to three days of battery life
Gear S2 Classic: 250mAh, two to three days of battery life
Gear S2 3G: 300mAh, two days of battery life
Apple Watch: 205mAh, up to 18 hours of battery life
The Gear S2 line's second big win comes from its relatively hefty batteries which, according to the manufacturer's own estimates, easily outlive the Apple Watch in normal use. Even the Gear S2 3G, which packs an integrated e-SIM for mobile data, lasts more than twice as long, partly thanks to its expanded cell.
Engaging the Apple Watch's Power Reserve option will extend its longevity, so it could last up to three days, but this disables everything except the basic watch interface at which point it becomes just an expensive, heavier wristwatch.
Apple's and Samsung's devices are charged wirelessly using a pad on the underside of the main case.
Gear S2: 4GB
Gear S2 Classic: 4GB
Gear S2 3G: 4GB
Apple Watch: 8GB
The Apple Watch's capacity advantage is marred by the bizarre decision to place caps on how much storage can be allocated to certain files. Only 75MB of photos can be saved, for instance, while music storage is limited to 2GB.
This might make the various Gear S2s more attractive to those who want to keep a lot more photos and songs on their smartwatch, although ultimately the Apple Watch still boasts far more space for apps, settings and data, making it arguably the wiser choice.
This comparison shows that the Apple Watch is the world's most popular smartphone for a reason. It holds its own against a newer, theoretically more powerful model and surpasses the competition in numerous key respects. A short battery life is the only major weakness of what, in all likelihood, will remain the smartwatch to beat.
Don't discount the Samsung Gear S2 range just yet, though. Built-in 3G functionality is a rare and highly desirable feature in a smartwatch, and the circular rotating bezel could make for a very intuitive control method. It won't kill off the Apple Watch, but might at least have the hardware to offer a solid alternative.
26 Aug 2015
Wileyfox, a new UK-based smartphone manufacturer, has revealed its two debut products: the £129 Wileyfox Swift and £199 Wileyfox Storm. Despite the budget prices, these handsets will launch this autumn with some pretty respectable mid-range specs, including Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, 5in-plus displays and dual-SIM support.
Nonetheless, Wileyfox is banking on Cyanogen OS 12.1, an extensively customised skin for the base Android 5.1 Lollipop operating system, to make these smartphones stand out. We got our hands on the Wileyfox Swift to see whether this strategy is likely to pay off.
A curved, matte-effect backplate makes the Swift a pleasure to hold. It's not the thinnest smartphone around, but it's very light and the toughened glass front adds a classy touch to what could easily have been another dull-looking budget handset.
There's a standard microUSB port at the base of the phone, while the microSD slot and two micro SIM slots are hidden underneath the backplate. Making this removable doesn't appear to hurt the Swift's durability too much. The whole thing feels fairly solid, and we could happily drop it to the floor without leaving a mark.
The 5in display boasts some very bold, punchy colours and the kind of wide viewing angles we'd expect from an IPS screen. The 1280x720 resolution is far from market-leading, but it's plenty sharp enough for a display of this size, and there's no faulting the responsiveness of the touchscreen.
The glass is reflective enough that the Swift can be difficult to use in the sun or under bright lights, although to be fair this is a problem with most smartphones, budget and premium alike.
Operating system and software
Excellently, the Swift will come pre-loaded with the latest Android 5.1 Lollipop, with all its performance optimisations, security updates and enterprise-friendly features like managed user profiles and built-in encryption.
However, Wileyfox is keen to push the Swift's Cyanogen OS 12.1 custom skin. We're generally suspicious of Android skins since they tend to delay the arrival of updates, add unwanted bloatware and generally mess around with the UI.
Cyanogen OS 12.1 does seem to be pretty clear of additional pre-installed apps, and the way the app drawer is organised alphabetically (as opposed to the usual grid view) makes a kind of sense. But this is still a fairly comprehensive overhaul of the Android interface, swapping shortcuts around from their default locations and adding a pile of new options to the settings menu.
Not that all these changes are bad. The UI can be customised with various themes which can even be applied only to certain apps. Cyanogen OS 12.1 also includes some potentially useful features for privacy-aware users, such as the ability to hide sensitive apps in a separate password-protected folder and randomly scramble the PIN entry keypad so that codes can't be reliably guessed from thumb movements. We're also quite fond of Privacy Guard, which allowed us to manage permissions access for each app after they'd been installed.
Navigating the Swift is, well, swift, with no sluggishness or lag when switching between menus or opening apps.
As for benchmarks, it scored 1,000.9ms in Sunspider, 13,384.8ms in Kraken and 22,250 in Antutu. These scores put it on a par with the latest Motorola Moto G, which shares the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor with 2GB of RAM. What's particularly impressive is that the 2GB Moto G model starts at £179, considerably more than the Swift, making the latter an even better deal performance-wise.
The 13MP rear-facing camera and 5MP front-facing camera sound impressive on paper by budget standards. In practice they take decent, if unspectacular, photos and videos. The front camera produces sharper, clearer images than most other selfie cameras in the same price range, although the main snapper's autofocus sometimes failed to kick in, resulting in some very blurry stills and videos. At least they were appropriately crisp when it worked properly.
Battery and storage
We haven't done a full series of burn tests, but the Swift's 2,500mAH battery seems to cope well under pressure. After three hours of moderately intensive use, including web browsing, photo-taking and benchmarking, the battery had drained by 10 percent, or 3.3 percent per hour. That means it should last over a full day on a single charge, especially if used sparingly.
We're pleased to see that the battery is removable so that it can be swapped out once depleted, provided spares become available.
Storage isn't the Swift's strong point, as it includes only 16GB of internal space. Still, the microSD card slot means that this can be expanded with up to 32GB of removable storage. That is likely to be enough for all but the heaviest of users, and even they can up the limit with additional, hot-swappable cards.
The headlining Cyanogen OS is a mixed bag, but there's plenty to like about the Wileyfox Swift's hardware, and £129 is fast looking like a bargain for the level of performance, build and display quality on offer here.
Breaking into the smartphone space is a tough task for any company, let alone a new entity like Wileyfox. Nonetheless, there's no better way than to create a genuinely good little handset, and it's already clear that the young firm has done just that.
Microsoft's testing process for Windows 10 Mobile is admirably open. The mobile OS won't launch in a finished state until later this year, but anyone with a compatible handset and a Microsoft account can sign up to the Windows Insider programme and try out pre-release builds right now.
Naturally, there's a catch. Microsoft cheerfully admits on the Windows Insider site that even the most recent Insider Preview builds are "far from being finished", going on to list a variety of missing features and non-functioning functionalities. The firm is, right from the off, very clear that the Windows Insider programme is aimed at savvy users who genuinely want to take part in the system's ongoing development.
Nonetheless, we loaded up a Nokia Lumia 635 with Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview Build 10166, later updating it to Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview Build 10512, to find out how the OS is progressing.
Switching from Windows Phone 8.1 to Windows 10 Mobile is fairly straightforward. After downloading and installing the Windows Insider app, we had the choice of joining the Fast ring or the Slow ring. Fast ring users receive new version updates immediately, while Slow ring users must wait a while, although by the time updates arrive they're generally more stable, having already been tested by Fast ring users.
We opted for the Fast ring, and were instructed to manually check for updates via the Settings menu. After doing so, Windows 10 Mobile immediately started downloading. About an hour later, the download had finished and all that was left was to plug in the phone to the mains and restart. This final installation took an additional 20 minutes. All in all, still a considerably speedier process than upgrading to Windows 10 on a PC.
Speaking of Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile doesn't overhaul the UI to nearly the same extent as the PC and tablet version. Currently, it simply looks like a more modern Windows Phone 8.1; the opacity of Live Tiles can be customised, so they won't entirely obscure the user's background photo. The apps menu, which is still accessible by swiping from the right of the screen, is also partly translucent. Both touches are, cosmetically, a considerable improvement on the boring blacks and solid colours of Windows Phone 8.1.
The apps menu has been updated with a Recently Added section. It's a small addition, but good one; we appreciated that we didn't need to scroll all the way through the main alphabetical list to try out a freshly installed app.
One of the main additions borrowed from Windows 10 is the Action Centre. It's an expandable drop-down menu that incorporates one-tap access to, among other things, the brightness settings, flight mode, camera app, battery saver mode, OneNote, VPN manager, Wi-Fi, rotation lock and the full settings menu. On top of all that, it's also where notifications are stored, making it a robust and convenient tool for tinkering and everyday use.
The Action Centre is one of our favourite features in Windows 10, so it's great that it appears in Windows 10 Mobile with almost all of its capabilities intact. It also seems to be in a pretty complete state; only the Mobile Hotspot icon doesn't work, as a result of the feature being intentionally disabled in the most recent Insider Preview builds.
That said, not everything about the UI is in fully working order. One interesting feature shared by Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile is synchronised notifications. For instance, we set a reminder for ourselves on a Windows 10 tablet, and the resulting alert appeared on the tablet and our smartphone, as they were both logged in on the same Microsoft account.
However, once we cleared the notification on the phone, it continued to show up on the tablet. This wouldn't normally be a big deal, but Microsoft has repeatedly stated that responding to a notification on one device should get rid of it on others. It appears this functionality isn't ready yet.
Software and apps
Microsoft has made a lot of noise about Universal Apps that share feature parity between Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile versions. To demonstrate this, Microsoft has pre-loaded Windows 10 Mobile with News, Maps, Money, Health & Fitness, Weather and other Universal Apps that come as standard on Windows 10.
These do indeed look and operate practically the same on a smartphone as they do on a laptop, which is encouraging. We're hoping to see more complex third-party apps offer this continuity as both versions of Windows 10 mature.
Less encouraging is Microsoft Edge, the replacement browser for Internet Explorer. This is also a Universal App, but the mobile version of Edge is lacking several features that made the desktop/tablet version such a clear upgrade over IE. There's no ability to add or share annotations to web pages, no integration with the Cortana digital assistant, and the UI isn't even particularly different to IE's on Windows Phone 8.1. Whether this is a limitation of the current Insider Preview build or Edge itself remains to be seen, but it seems that Universal Apps aren't quite yet fulfilling their promise of parity.
Edge on mobile does, at the very least, keep the Hub menu of the desktop version. This incorporates the Favourites, Reading List, History and Downloads menus but, while it's still handy to have all these in one place, we're not hugely fond of how it fills up the entire screen - distinctly unlike the desktop version.
What's worse, a lot of apps and features just outright don't work. Excel and the calculator app both refused to open, photos can't be deleted (although they are automatically synced from the camera roll of a Windows 10 machine, which is nice) and it can take dozens of repeated attempts to download a new app from the Windows Store. To give a particularly egregious example, we spent two hours manually restarting the download for Microsoft Word, which would consistently and inexplicably appear to stop halfway through, only to give up, go to the apps menu and find that it had actually finished downloading some time ago without notifying us.
We're giving Cortana its own section not only because it's a key feature in Windows 10 Phone, but because we need a dedicated space to explain how utterly unusable it is in the current build.
In theory, Cortana is a virtual assistant that can set reminders, search the web and make suggestions for restaurants to eat at or music to listen to based on the user's interests. We managed to get one of these - setting reminders - to work as intended, and even that was only an occasional success. Often, we'd instruct Cortana to set an alarm and it would use our command as a search term and bring up a Bing results page.
When we actually did try using Cortana to search, such as for directions, it would complete the search then immediately close itself before we could read the results. It also seems prone to hanging on the 'Thinking' loading screen, with no visible way to cancel or otherwise close the application.
The 10166 and 10512 builds were pretty slow by mobile OS standards. Even opening menus can take a few seconds, which isn't much to begin with, but eventually adds up to a lot of waiting around. The OS got even more sluggish when we ran multiple apps and, with no multitasking view to speak off, finding and closing them individually became a pain.
Admittedly, the Lumia 635 isn't the most powerful handset around, but even Windows Phone 8.1 felt swifter and more responsive before we replaced it with Windows 10 Mobile. Hopefully, Microsoft will find the time to add some performance optimisations in between squashing bugs.
For anyone interested in taking an active testing role, Microsoft's warning that Windows 10 Mobile is unfinished may be ignored at their peril. It's clear that the smartphone OS is still a long way from being a stable and usable product, and progress isn't exactly steaming ahead. The 10512 build added over 2,000 bug fixes to the 10166 build, but we honestly couldn't tell the difference.
iOS 9 and Android 6.0 Marshmallow are fast approaching, and Microsoft will need to split its focus between mending errors and further improving the features that enable Windows 10 Mobile to interlink with Windows 10.
This synergy between mobile and desktop operating systems currently feels like Windows 10 Mobile's biggest strength, the area where it has the most potential and its best chance of offering a compelling alternative to the Apple and Google platforms.
18 Aug 2015
The recent Samsung Unpacked 2015 event in London was primarily focused on showing off the Galaxy S6 Edge+, but we also had the opportunity to try out the Galaxy Tab S2 for the first time since it was announced last month.
Samsung will launch 8in and 9.7in editions and is - yet again - looking to take a chunk out of Apple's market share, this time by going after the identically sized iPad Air 2 series. Even the prices are the same as the iPad Air 2's: the 8in model will start at £319, and the 9.7in model £399. We got our hands on the 9.7in Galaxy Tab S2 version.
Measuring 169x237.3x5.6mm and weighing 389g, the 9.7in Galaxy Tab S2 is seriously thin and light. Thinner and lighter, in fact, than the equivalent iPad Air 2. At first, holding it feels slightly peculiar, as we'd expect a tablet of this width to be a bit weightier. Still, it's easy to appreciate how comfortable and ultra-portable it is, even before that mild initial shock wears off.
The inclusion of a plastic back panel - rather than one made from metal or glass - somewhat dulls the sense that this is a premium device, but the Galaxy Tab S2 is far from tacky. There's a strip of metal around the edges to protect against knocks and, despite the exceptional thinness, we couldn't bend or flex it; the only adverse effects of our attempts were some unimpressed looks from the event staff.
There's no room for a full-size USB port, but there is one microUSB port and a microSD slot for expanding the built-in storage - 32GB or 64GB - with up to an extra 128GB.
At 2048x1536, the Galaxy Tab S2's resolution has actually been downgraded from the original Galaxy Tab S's 2560x1600. In sharpness terms, this is partly offset by the maximum screen size also shrinking from 10.1in to 9.7in.
Frankly, we can't take too much issue with the new model's display, even with the lower resolution. Text, pictures and videos look nice and crisp from almost any angle, and colours appear sumptuously vibrant. The latter point is a common quality of Samsung's Super AMOLED displays, although these are also prone to slipping into oversaturation. Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be a problem with the Galaxy Tab 2.
Operating system and software
The Galaxy Tab S2 will ship with Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. It's a shame that it won't include the more up-to-date 5.1 version, like the upcoming Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Note 5, since 5.1 added a handful of performance optimisations as well as support for the managed user profiles feature that didn't quite make it into 5.0. There's no word as to when the Galaxy Tab S2 will be updated to the latest Android version.
At least Android 5.0 is a solid OS in its own right. Device encryption is enabled as standard, and the UI has been tweaked from previous versions to be more user friendly, such as the ability to respond to notifications from the lock screen. Specific apps can also be ‘pinned' to the screen, which is useful for enforcing the correct use of business-owned devices by staff.
Samsung has, of course, added its TouchWiz custom skin. It doesn't seem to interfere with the Galaxy Tab S2's interface too much, although besides delaying the speed at which Android updates are rolled out to Samsung devices, TouchWiz also brings such unhelpful bloatware as the redundant S Planner and S Voice tools.
A much more welcome addition is the suite of Microsoft Office apps, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The Galaxy Tab S2 includes a one-year subscription to Office 365, which unlocks some useful upgrades to the free versions of these apps, like the ability to track changes in Word documents or save annotations on PowerPoint presentations.
On top of Android's built-in encryption tool, a fingerprint sensor is integrated with the Galaxy Tab S2's Home button, enabling users to unlock the tablet with a single press. We didn't get to try the process of registering prints, but when a Samsung representative demonstrated the feature, it worked instantly on their first attempt. The sensor definitely looks like one of those rare security measures that manages to be reliable, user friendly and time-efficient all at once, so we're pleased to see it working on the Galaxy Tab S2.
Samsung's octa-core Exynos 5433 system-on-a-chip powers the Galaxy Tab S2. It combines four 1.9GHz cores with four 1.3GHz cores and 3GB of RAM, making it a little slower on paper than Samsung's top-end smartphones but still fast enough that we could open and run multiple apps without a hint of slowdown.
We also managed to sneak in a couple of benchmark tests. The Galaxy Tab S2 scored an admirable 406.6ms in Sunspider and 4,122.ms in Kraken, equally respectable by tablet standards. These place the Galaxy Tab S2 close behind the Galaxy S6 Edge in the same tests, and it handily beats the more expensive Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet.
We found that the Galaxy Tab S2's 8MP rear camera took some reasonably sharp snaps, even in low light. Likewise, the 2K video we recorded looked clean and clear, although the real test of this camera will be how stills and videos look on a larger laptop or desktop screen.
We also took a few pictures with the 2.1MP front-facing camera. These were much more colourful than we've come to expect from webcams and selfie cameras, but edges still appeared quite fuzzy and images as a whole lacked detail. Samsung has already begun adding superior 5MP front-facing cameras to its mid-range smartphones, specifically the Galaxy A series, so it's a slight let-down that the higher-end Galaxy Tab S2 must make do with just 2.1MP.
We were tentatively excited about the Galaxy Tab S2 when it was first announced; as an upgraded successor to one of the all-time great tablets, the Galaxy Tab S, what's not to like?
The answer, we've learned, is very little. It's true that the cameras could have been improved further, but that pales into insignificance when considering the speedy performance, attractive display and marvellously slender design. Judging by the time we spent with the Galaxy Tab S2, Samsung seems to have created another great tablet, and a worthy adversary for the iPad Air 2.
16 Aug 2015
Samsung has pulled back the veil on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, a supersized phablet version of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. Taking the original smartphone's unique curved screen design and applying it to a gargantuan 5.7in display, the Galaxy S6 Edge+ is Samsung's sternly-worded response to the iPhone 6 Plus.
We had a chance to go hands-on at the Samsung Unpacked event in London, and found an absolute top-spec device with plenty of features to give Apple cause for concern.
The tapered screen on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, which curves halfway around either side of the handset, is just as distinctive as it is on the Galaxy S6 Edge. This is paired with a thoroughly premium-feeling glass case, with a reinforcing strip of metal running around the edges, ending up with a classy but durable handset.
The whole thing measures 154x76x6.9mm, which is surprisingly modest by phablet standards; in fact, it's a fraction of a millimetre thinner than the smartphone it was based on. At 153g, it's also a lot lighter than we expected, and we had no problem using it one-handed.
As for connectivity, there's a single microUSB port but no microSD slot. The latter is one of our few disappointments with the Galaxy S6 Edge+, as it's a common inclusion even on certain budget smartphones, and internal storage is limited to 32GB or 64GB. There was no microSD support on the original Galaxy S6 Edge either, but this feels like a missed opportunity for an upgrade rather than a logical continuation of features.
Wireless charging wins back some favour. The Galaxy S6 Edge+ can be recharged, supposedly from empty to full in 90 minutes, simply by laying it on a compatible charging pad. We didn't get to test this, and the pads must be purchased separately, but it's a still a convenient cable-cutting feature.
The 5.7in screen is set to a QHD resolution of 2560x1440, resulting in 518ppi. This is actually lower than the Galaxy S6 Edge, which features the same resolution on a smaller screen, but in practice the phablet version still looks razor-sharp. Samsung's Super AMOLED tech also ensures that colours appear beautifully vivid, with some extremely deep blacks.
The Galaxy S6 Edge+ also introduces new uses for the tapered sections, which were somewhat under-used on the original. An expanding menu of contacts and apps is now accessible from one of the edges, allowing users to create shortcuts that can be reached at any time and without taking up space on the main section of the screen. It's a simple addition, but one that goes a long way in making the curved screen seem more like a handy innovation than a cosmetic gimmick.
Operating system and software
Unlike Samsung's smartphones, the Galaxy S6 Edge+ doesn't require an OS upgrade as it comes running Android 5.1 Lollipop, the most up-to-date version available. Samsung has added its TouchWiz custom skin which, despite its clean looks, we're not generally fond of owing to a tendency to delay Android updates as well as its propensity for bloatware.
As might therefore be expected, there was no shortage of pre-installed applications on the model we tested, not much of it interesting. The main exception was a suite of Microsoft Office apps, including the mobile editions of Word and Excel. These can be downloaded for free on most decent Android devices, but we've got to commend Samsung for including this industry-standard productivity software straight out of the box.
Happily, the Galaxy S6 Edge+ is equipped with a few more security features than the average smartphone. The Home button, for instance, doubles as a fingerprint sensor, allowing for authentication via biometrics just like on the original Galaxy S6 Edge. There's no complicated process for setting this up, as new fingerprints are easily registered via the main Settings menu.
In addition to Android 5.1's built-in encryption, the Samsung Knox service has been added for setting up secure work areas. These password-protected areas, besides keeping work and personal data separate, run in their own separate sandbox, so they're protected from infection in the event that the main system suffers a malware attack.
The lack of an internet connection thwarted our attempts to run benchmarks, but we couldn't fault the Galaxy S6 Edge+'s performance otherwise. Apps and menus open instantly, while navigation feels slick and responsive.
This won't come as a shock to anyone who's aware of the phablet's muscular internals: a 64-bit octa-core processor, including four 2.1GHz cores and four 1.5GHz cores, alongside 4GB of RAM. While that's the same amount of processing power as the rest of Samsung's range, the 4GB of RAM is a noted improvement, up from 3GB on the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge.
Once again, hardware from the Galaxy S6 Edge has been copied over into the Galaxy S6 Edge+ and this time it's the 16MP rear camera and 5MP front camera.
However, we can forgive this feature recycling, as the Galaxy S6 Edge+ takes some excellent pictures and video. The shots we took on the main rear-facing camera looked richly detailed - on the device's 5.7in screen, at least - and, while the front camera's snaps weren't as sharp, they captured plenty of colour, which 'selfie' cameras often fail to do. We also noticed that the rear camera in particular benefited from a very rapid shutter speed.
We also captured some video on the rear camera, and it was easily among the best-quality footage we've ever seen on a mobile device. Crisp, bright and smooth, there wasn't a hint of visual noise or screen tearing.
Short of building it from solid gold, there's not much Samsung could have done with the Galaxy S6 Edge+ to make it look like, feel like or perform at the highest of the high-end. The extra RAM gives it a real chance of being the best-performing mobile device on the market and, despite its increased proportions, it's as thin and light as a well-designed smartphone, setting a new standard for phablet portability. On top of that, it comes with the kind of security features and productivity aids that make for a serious contender in the business space, despite early marketing pitching it as a consumer device.
Does this mean that Apple, Sony, LG and the like should pack up and go back to sub-5in phones? As much as we enjoyed our hands-on, not quite. Price details have yet to be announced, but the Galaxy S6 Edge+ has appeared for pre-order on a third-party retail site with an eye-watering £699.99 price tag. That kind of cost will stop many buyers in their tracks, and all but nullifies the device's usefulness as a mass-rollout device for all but the biggest, richest firms.
We think the Galaxy S6 Edge+ is great, but we're undecided as to whether it's £700 worth of great. With any luck, we'll have a better idea closer to the UK launch on 4 September.
Watch our video hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ below.