Mid-October is as late as a phone launch can be for the new model to feature in the all important Christmas sales quarter. Today Huawei showed New Zealanders the Mate 20 Pro. It clearly aims to challenge Samsung for space under the Christmas tree. Huawei needs to get a move on. While customers can order the phone from Friday, it doesn’t official go on sale until the first week in November.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the first mainstream phone to sport a fingerprint reader embedded in its display.

Like most other premium phones this season, the Mate 20 Pro has a huge screen. Unlike most rival models, it has three cameras on the back.

Huawei has gone for a 6.4 inch QHD Oled display on the Mate 20 Pro. It’s big, so is the battery Huawei rates it it at 4,200 mAh. The non-Pro Huawei Mate 20 is a fraction larger again.

The battery charges fast, to 70 percent in 30 minutes. There’s also a slower wireless charging option. One nice twist is that you can wireless charge suitably equipped accessories such as ear buds from the phone.

 

7 nanometre processor

In contrast the technology in the Kirin 980 processor that powers both phones is tiny. It’s Huawei’s first 7 nanometre phone processor.

This puts Huawei in line with Apple which also uses 7 nm technology in the A12 chips found in the company’s 2018 iPhones.

That’s not the only on-paper similarity to the iPhone XS. The Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition software.

While you may not need both face recognition and a fingerprint scanner in the same device, having the two is an impressive show of techno prowess.

Glass slab

Doing away with a separate fingerprint reader makes the phone an even more featureless slab of glass.

There are obvious physical comparisons with the Apple iphone XS series, yet in the hand the Mate 20 Pro looks and feels more like a Samsung Galaxy S model than an iPhone. Indeed, from the front it’s hard to tell the Mate 20 Pro from the Galaxy S or the iPhone XS Max. Either phone designers all think alike, or they’re playing follow-the-leaders. 

As always with modern premium phones, marketing emphasises the camera or in this case cameras. There are three on the back include a 40 megapixel camera, a second 8 megapixel camera with a telephoto lens and 20 megapixel wide-angle camera.

This last camera replaces the monochrome camera that is in Huawei’s P20 Pro. I’ll let you know how this works in practice when I get some hands-on time with the phone.

Android 9

Huawei has upgraded EMUI, its Android overlay software. For me this has always been one of the weakest links in Huawei phones. It still looks a lot like iOS to the casual observer. I swear some of the app icons are direct copies of Apple’s icons. Huawei’s other weak link has been tardiness when it comes to upgrading phone software. There’s a promise this will improve. At the launch Huawei told journalists there is already an upgrade for the software in the review phones.

As the name suggests, EMUI 9 is a variation on Android 9. Huawei says it optimised the software to speed up regular tasks.

Given the processor has also had a speed bump, the phone should be a lot faster and smoother than earlier models. Having said that, speed and smoothness never felt like problems with recent Huawei phones.

First thoughts

Like Apple Huawei has ditched the headphone jack in favour of wireless connections. This is something that upsets some people. It’s time to accept that a physical jack is now an anachronism.

The Mate 20 Pro goes on sale at NZ$1599. That puts the Mate 20 Pro on a par with the Oppo Find X and makes it $200 cheaper than the $1700 Samsung Galaxy Note 9. My impression is that Huawei wants to stay competitive on price in New Zealand. On paper Huawei has the price edge,

It needs too. Samsung dominates the Android phone market. For many users it is a tried and tested brand with, one exploding model aside, a clear track record. Huawei is not well established yet. It sales are tiny compared Samsung’s phone numbers in New Zealand hence the aggressive price. I’ll write about whether it is worth the money when I give it a proper test.

Huawei Mate 20 Pro classy Android with in-screen fingerprint reader was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

HP has a new twist on the desktop docking station. The HP Thunderbolt Dock is modular. You can extend it with an optional Bang and Olufsen speaker. This is ideal for handling conference calls.

I tested the HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with Audio model. It has an optional speaker attached. You can buy a Dock without the speaker for NZ$400.

At the time of writing there wasn’t a local price for the Audio version. In the US HP adds US$50 to the non-Audio Dock price. So it’s likely the New Zealand version will sell for around NZ$500.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors and keyboard

Old school

Docks, often called docking stations, seem old school in 2018. They are enjoying a revival at the moment. In part this is because computer makers like HP now standardise on USB-C connectors. They also put fewer ports on modern laptops.

Today’s laptops are often ultra-thin. This leaves less room for ports. Some ports are deeper than the edge of many modern laptops. Think of an Ethernet port to get the picture.

This means offloading the connectivity options to a separate device makes sense.

Most people who work from home or in a small business will use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connections.

Big company IT departments sometimes prefer Ethernet. It means better connection speeds in busy workplaces. It also can be mean trouble for tech support.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 rear view

Connectivity

Docks are often the best way to connect a USB-C laptop to Ethernet. Although you could choose a dongle instead. Docks also allow users to add large screen displays, keyboards and mice. Most docks also act as rechargers.

HP’s Thunderbolt Dock comes with a hard-wired USB-C cable that connects to a laptop. The cable is about 700 mm long, which is enough if you keep the Dock on your desktop. On the right-hand side is a USB 3.0 port, a headphone jack and a Kensington lock connector.

There are a total of eight more sockets on the rear. One connects the Dock to a power brick. Another is an Ethernet port. There are two more USB-C ports, a Thunderbolt port, a power out port, there are also two Display Ports and a VGA port.

HP has chosen a big, heavy power brick. That’s necessary to supply enough power, but it adds a lot of heft to the Dock set-up. If you need to, with say two large screens, it can draw down 100W of power.

I thought I’d prefer to have the power unit built into the Dock. That would add weight and bulk. Another advantage of separate units is the desktop Dock doesn’t get hot.

You wouldn’t want to lug this from place to place, but then you don’t have to. That’s the point of a Dock.

In practice

The HP Notebook recognised the Dock immediately. When connected, it installed the right drivers and rebooted.

When you connect the HP Thunderbolt Dock to a laptop, I used the HP Elitebook x360, the top lights up to show a row of buttons.

These let you use the speaker for conference calls. It would work fine if you had one of these in a meeting room for a group of people to share.

There’s haptic feedback to let your fingers know when you use the buttons.

I managed to test the speaker with a Skype call. When it connected I had to crank the volume down, it was too loud for my quiet, small home office.

You will need the extra volume in a busy open plan office. The people at the other end could tell I was on a speakerphone. From my point of view, the call sounded clearer than usual and much better than listening on a handset.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 verdict

HP’s marketing material implies the company optimised the Thunderbolt Dock’s Bang and Olufsen speakers for phone calls. Despite this they do a fine job playing music and handling other audio. There’s plenty of top and bottom to the sound. It helps that the Dock is solid, so no vibrations.

It’s been a while since I last used a docking station. The fact that it was for my IBM ThinkPad and connected it to a CRT screen tells you how long ago. The newer HP design is far easier to use. It is more versatile and offers a lot more functionality for half the price of my earlier dock.

If you make a lot of conference calls and work hands free, it’s a must have. If you want to use a big screen, Ethernet or a full size keyboard it is well worth considering.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 review – Sound and vision was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Apple’s iPhone XS Max represents the state of the phone-maker’s art. It is big, beautiful and screams luxury from the moment you open the box.

The screen is large by phone standards. Any larger and you’d be looking at a small tablet. It is stunning. You get vibrant colours, dark blacks and strong contrast. I’ve never known any phone to be as readable outdoors on a sunny day.

If you want to watch movies, look at photos or read documents this is the best phone for the job. Nothing else comes close.

Mind you, nothing else comes close on price either, except the loopy NZ$2400 Oppo Lamborghini-branded Android.

Apple iPhone XS Max

Expensive

There is a review model iPhone XS Max in my pocket with 512 GB of storage. It costs the thick end of three grand: NZ$2800.

That’s more storage than most people need. My current phone has 256 GB. In two years I’ve never come close to filling it and see no prospect of doing so.

You can save money by buying less storage.

Apple has a 256 GB version for NZ$2400 and a 64 GB version for NZ$2100. The last of these could be less storage then you’ll need. Although that depends on how you use a phone and how much you send off to the cloud.

Can you justify spending that much money on a phone? That’s something only you can answer. I’ll save my thoughts on this for another post.

If, and it’s a huge if, Oppo’s Lamborghini phone is worth $2400, then the 256 GB Apple iPhone XS Max at the same price is a snip.

iPhone XS Max is all about the big screen

Apple wants to let you know all about the camera in the phone. It’s good and we’ll get to that in a moment. But before we move on, let’s make one thing clear: the iPhone XS Max is all about that big screen.

The iPhone XS Max screen covers the same area as the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, another leviathan phone. The difference is in the height-to-width ratio.

Both phones have the same screen-to-body ratio at around 85 percent. You can’t sensibly do less than this without resorting to a gimmick like a pop-up camera. The Apple phone is smaller than the Note 9. It’s a millimetre thinner and 4.5 mm shorter.

I no longer have a Note 9 for direct comparison. Yet I’d say that would be the only other phone screen that comes close to the XS Max in terms of overall display quality.

Apple iPhone XS Screen

Too big?

Reviewers and users elsewhere have criticised the iPhone XS Max for being too big to handle. Of course this depends on the size of your hands. It’s a perfect fit for me. I’d recommend getting your own mitts on one before buying.

In fact I’d go further. Don’t choose an 2018 iPhone model on the basis of reviews like this or advertising. Go into a shop and put one in your hands. If the XS Max is too big, there’s always the smaller size iPhone XS. And while you’re at it, check out the less expensive XR. That could be the best model for you but you won’t know which fits until you handle all three.

Bionic

Apple’s latest processor, the six-core A12 Bionic powers the iPhone XS Max. According to the company it is 15 percent faster than last years A11 Bionic chip and 50 more efficient. There’s also an AI chip that is nine times faster than the one in the iPhone X.

Most of the time you don’t notice this power. The phone doesn’t seem faster than the last two or three iPhones in day-to-day use. Everything already happened in an instant. I don’t recall that waiting around from processing has been an iPhone drawback in recent years.

To complicate matters, Apple’s newest phone operating system, iOS 12, is also snappier and more responsive than iOS 11. Either way, this is one fast phone.

For the most part the applications that use this extra grunt are yet to appear. I’ve seen augmented reality apps that may need all the processing power you can throw at them. There is, however, one area where the processing capability is already put to good use: photography.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Camera

Every phone maker will tell you their cameras are the best in the business. Apple is the same, but in this case it is more than mere marketing bravado.

Apple upgraded the rear dual camera on the iPhone XS Max. It, or they, have the same basic specification as on last year’s iPhone X. That is: two 12-megapixel cameras. One has a wide-angle lens, the other had what amounts to 2x optical zoom. In both cases Apple upgraded the the image sensors and the hard-wired algorithms.

The effect is that you now get better low light pictures. Samsung and Huawei both have a slight edge in this department. But Apple seems to now do a better job of handling detail.

HDR mode is now the default. It has also been improved to the point where high contrast images look far better. In my experience iPhone XS Max pictures taken in bright outdoors beat those on rival phones.

If you like the bokeh effect, you can now add it after taking the shot. It’s a nice option.

Stablisation

Just as important, the image stabilisation works better than before. You can take hand-held video tracking shots which look like they are made with a dolly.

Portraits are now noticeably better too, particularly the shallow depth of field effect around hair and other extremities. The bokeh is also now adjustable after the fact, which is fun.

Much of the improvement in photographs is down to the extra processing power. In effect a supercomputer starts tweaking images the moment you press to click.

Phone photography is partly a matter of taste. There may be equals, but nothing offers a better camera experience than the iPhone XS Max.

That processing power gets a workout elsewhere. Apple uses Face ID as its security system. It works well and it works fast. Since setting it up, Face ID hasn’t failed to recognise me even when wearing glasses or sunglasses.

Battery life is good, but not outstanding. There’s more than enough juice for me to leave home at 5 AM, fly out-of-town, work all day and get the last flight home. I don’t feel the need to curtail my use, but then nor do I spend all day watching or making videos.

In normal life I can almost, but not quite, two days from a single charge. The red warning icon kicks in after around 36 hours. That’s eight hours more than I get from the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 .

iPhone XS Max: Verdict

Few people buy a new phone every year. Even fewer are going to do that when the asking price is in the two to three grand range. It’s questionable whether those moving from an iPhone X to the XS Max would get much from an upgrade other than the bigger screen.

It makes more sense to compare the XS Max with the iPhone 7 Plus, which has been my main phone for the last two years. While I don’t feel a pressing need for an upgrade, there’s a lot more phone in the XS Max.

The extra screen size, nicer screen and Face ID are all noticeable. On paper the better camera doesn’t sound much, in practice it is a huge leap. Faster processing doesn’t make much day-to-day difference. The extra battery life does. But then much of the difference between the two phones’ performance here could down to two years of wear.

If you get value from iOS then the iPhone XS Max could well be the way to go. You’d get the most advanced phone on the market and an object of beauty. You might get more value from buying the straight XS model or an XS Max with less storage. With prices starting at NZ$1400, half the price of the fully packed XS Max, the iPhone XR seems like a bargain.

iPhone XS Max review: Big is beautiful was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

A mechanical pop-up camera means the front of the Oppo Find X is almost entirely given over to the display. It has the thinnest bezels of any phone on the market today.

According to Oppo, the Android phone has a screen to body ratio of ‘93.8 percent’.

That number is way more precise than we needs. It says a lot about how Oppo can have interesting ideas, such as a pop-up camera, yet still miss the point about what makes a phone great.

If anyone cares about the screen to body ratio to the nearest 0.1 percent, no amount of technology is going to fix their problems.

While the notchless all-screen front is an achievement, Oppo should would do better to focus more on the user experience, less on meaningless mathematical precision.

There’s something else about that number. The 93.8 percent only applies when the camera is retracted. When it’s in the shooting position there’s a huge bezel across the top of the phone. Because the camera pops up when you use the phone, it’s there a lot of the time. In other words, you only get that small-bezel effect some of the time.

 

Value proposition?

Another thing Oppo needs to think more about is a product’s perceived value. The Find X sells in New Zealand for $1500. That’s a lot of money by any standard. It puts the phone is the ultra-premium category.

Aiming for this space is fair enough, after all, that’s where phone makers make profits. Yet for the last 18 months Oppo has pitched itself to New Zealand buyers as a low-cost alternative to Samsung or Apple. This scraps that strategy.

Find X’s price matches best-selling phones from the market leaders. That’s a brave move by Oppo.

Let’s put this price in context. The Oppo Find X costs NZ$100 more than the Apple iPhone XR or Samsung Galaxy S9. If you spend NZ$300 more than Oppo wants for the Find X and you can have an iPhone XS. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 costs NZ$200 more than the Find X.

Top tier?

So is the Find X in the same ultra-premium class as this year’s iPhone and Galaxy models?

The simple answer is no. While it is close, it doesn’t match the world’s best.

This is clear the moment you pick the phone up. The review model is in a purple-red colour Oppo calls Bordeaux Red. It looks good, but so does every other phone costing more than around $700. Oppo has achieved the minimalist goal of a smooth case fronted by a sheet of glass and with three discreet buttons on the side.

The phone does not feel as well-engineered as the latest Apple or Samsung models. There’s a distinct ridge where the screen meets the case and another between the back of the phone and the case. OK, that’s not a huge deal, but Oppo’s rivals are better machined.

Likewise the phone doesn’t feel as good in the hand. Admittedly not everyone will agree.

What else is different?

Away from the pop-up camera, there are two other important features: fast charging and three-dimensional face scanning.

The face scanning is similar to the technology used on Apple’s iPhone X. Although it doesn’t work as seamlessly as Apple’s face scanning, the difference in performance is minimal. Let’s not quibble about this. Chalk one up for Oppo. When you unlock the phone the camera pops-up.

Oppo uses something called VOOC charging. It is fast, but not linear. VOOC gets you to about 75 percent of a full charge in 40 minutes, then takes another 40 minutes to get all the way to 100 percent. This is good if you need to give a phone a quick bump, say, before you leave the house.

You will want to get it all the way to 100 percent. This gives about 18 hours use. More if you don’t spend all your time on the phone, less if you’re an intensive user.

Pop-up camera

The pop-up camera is clever. It’s not clear if it will capture people’s imaginations or if most consumer will be happy living with screen notches.

Anything mechanical that can wear and tear is less reliable and more trouble than solid state electronics. That’s not an opinion, it’s an immutable law of the universe.

Oppo says the camera can handle 300,000 pop-ups. If you look at your phone 40 times a day it should last 20 years. We’ll see.

Away from the pop-up camera and fast charging the Oppo Find X is good, but not outstanding compared with rival NZ$1500 phones.

It is fast. So is every other expensive phone. The screen is nice. That’s also standard fare. While Oppo’s cameras and photography software belongs in a lower division than Apple, Samsung or Huawei, it is still outstanding.

Earlier Oppo phones featured the company’s ColorOS, a software overlay that makes Android look and feel a lot more like Apple’s iOS. That’s not the case here.

Oppo Find X verdict

Android fans may feel otherwise, but the Find X has nothing like Apple’s ease of use. If I’m going to use Android I prefer the purer version you find in Android One phones like the Nokia range. These are less than half the price of the Find X.

Should you choose the Oppo Find X? It’s not a bad choice. You won’t be disappointed. None of the expensive phones on the market are sub-par.

I can’t help think that the pop-up camera is a novelty more than a helpful feature. It’s fun the first few times, but that wears off fast. Of course it might strike a chord with buyers, but I have doubts about that.

A fast processor, nice screen and outstanding photography are table stakes in ultra-premium phones. If the pop-up camera appeals and you like a notch-less all-screen phone front, then this is for you. Otherwise you’d do better looking elsewhere. That doesn’t have to mean another brand: Oppo’s NZ$800 R15 Pro offers far better value for money.

Phone maker Oppo has struck an exclusive deal with 2degrees for a NZ$2400 Lamborghini-branded Android phone. It is this seasons’ most expensive Android phone; at least in New Zealand.

The Find X Automobili Lamborghini Edition is a version of the company’s already-expensive-by-Android-standards NZ$1500 Oppo Find X. The extra $900 buys you a fancy Lamborghini case and bumps the phone’s storage from 256 GB to 512 GB.

A similar storage upgrade with other phone brands costs around $300 to $400. This means, in effect, Oppo and 2degrees want $500 for a luxury case and a little brand cache.

While it may not be official, you can buy external phone case covers with prestige brands printed on them for as little as $5 at places like Glenfield Night Market.

Sure, they’re not made of carbon fibre like the Find X Automobili Lamborghini Edition but come on, $500.

lamborghini-oppo-find-x
That’ll be an extra $900 thank you

Lamborghini exclusive

It is an exclusive deal. Only 2degrees get this model. It will only be on sale for a limited time. I suspect that the other carriers didn’t get into a bidding war for the rights to the Lamborghini Edition.

Oppo isn’t the first phone brand to try attaching its products to a flash car brand. Huawei did something like this with a Porsche branded model. It sank without a trace.

Going by that experience 2degrees and Oppo might struggle to get sales into double figures.

What makes this extra curious is that until now Oppo’s entire sales pitch has been about offering value for money. The company manages to pack about 90 percent of the functionality and features of, say, a top-of-the-line Samsung model into a phone that sells for roughly half the price.

You could say that Oppo is the phone brand for phone owners who aren’t too fussy about brand. That statement may be hard, but it’s fair.

Pricey Oppo

While we’re on this point, Oppo is pushing it asking $1500 for the Find X. Look for a review of that phone on this site in the next few days.

The Find X may have a unique pop-up camera to avoid notches or a large bezel, but that price is on a par with the best phones from better known brands like Huawei and Samsung.

Phone makers have worked to increase prices, in part because profit margins are slender. It’s one thing for an established name to bump prices by $100 or so, but this is getting on for double the price of earlier Oppo models.

After all, this is a brand who’s New Zealand phone sales are measured in hundreds, not tens of thousands.

Which brings us to the point of the wacky Find X Automobili Lamborghini Edition. It isn’t about selling a $2400 phone. Its main aim is to get attention for the Oppo brand. I guess this post proved that strategy worked.