spark-vodafone-boost-mobile-data-in-tandemPeople get exciting about phone features. Productivity is more important yet often overlooked.

My work involves looking at a lot of new phones. Most are premium Android phones. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one that I couldn’t recommend. Within limits they are all good.

The last was the Huawei P20 Pro. It could be the best Android phone on sale at the moment. I haven’t seen anything better in 2018.

When I spend my money on phones — I don’t have to because there are lots of loan models for specialist journalists — I buy iPhones. 1

For me, productivity is everything

There are two reasons for this. First, I use iPads and Macs.

Apple devices play well together. There’s something almost magic about cutting text on the phone and pasting it into a desktop Mac document. Likewise, everything syncs between devices. I started writing this post on an iPhone and finished it on a Mac.

I have spent a lot of money on iOS and MacOS software and services. Some of those tools are not available on Android. When they are, they can be as good. But more often, there is either no equivalent. Or the equivalent is second-rate or involves compromise 2.

My productivity plummets when I switch to an Android phone during a review. Apple won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.

Walled garden

Some people reading this will question my choice on the grounds that Apple is a walled garden. By that standard so is Android and so is Windows. Apple may be a walled garden, but it is a productive one for me.

Linux may be the pure ideological choice, but so is North Korea — and that’s how it feels sometimes.

Second, with Apple there’s never any question about security updates.

Apple is quick to patch and repair iOS, updating is often immediate. I can wake up and be ready to go from the day after a security issue appears. Some Android phones never get updates. Many get them, but slow. Even the better known brands can be slack.

Again, that won’t bother everyone, but it bothers me.

Apple isn’t perfect

This doesn’t mean I’m biased in favour of Apple3

Apple is not perfect. There are flaws. Most of the tech media is happy to pounce when one appears. This, by the way, is a good thing in general although it can get silly.

Either way, Apple’s flaws are generally things I can live with. The productivity gain is too precious to trade away.

One notable exception at the moment is the controversial new keyboard on MacBook and MacBook Pro models. I see it as a backward step.4

No doubt you can be just as productive with Android if you have the right mindset. It takes a different form of mental discipline. Whatever that is, it isn’t me.


  1. If I was going to buy an Android phone I’d pick one without a software overlay. Google Pixel and Nokia phones are good candidates. That’s because I have yet to find an Android overlay that isn’t frustrating. ↩︎
  2. Like handing over private data ↩︎
  3. Until Windows 8 I was happy with Microsoft’s walled garden. Switching back to Apple was an eye opener. My productivity soared. I accept this wouldn’t be the case for everyone and, yes, Apple kit can be more expensive. ↩︎
  4. I’m working on a personal answer to this. It may not suit you, but stay tuned anyway. ↩︎
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Huawei P20 ProThe Huawei P20 Pro is 2018’s top Android phone by a healthy margin. You won’t find a better combination of camera, hardware, performance and value for money.

Anyone who has watched the razor market will recognise what’s going on with phones. First phone makers added a single camera to handsets. Then it was two; one front and rear. In recent years premium phones had two rear cameras making three cameras in total. With the P20 Pro, Huawei has upped the ante. It has three rear cameras for a total of four.

Adding extra cameras has a remarkable effect on the way the phone shoots images. Phones are too small and too thin to have big lenses and image sensors. So instead of going that route, phone makers use software to combine camera output.

Huawei stretched that idea from two to three rear Leica cameras plus one on the front.

Multilayered cameras

The three work together in a multilayered way. It could go wrong, but doesn’t. That it doesn’t fail seems more like alchemy than science. The P20 Pro hardware and software keeps everything together.

Camera number one is a large, 40-megapixel colour camera with an f1.8 lens. A 20-megapixel monochrome camera with a f1.6 lens and a f2.4 telephoto lens acts as support.

Huawei has used a secondary monochrome camera in earlier phones. It adds extra light to the image, which means more detail and depth information. You can take crisp pictures with the two lenses. The telephone lens is there to handle zooming.

Photos that don’t look like they came from a phone

In practice you get shots that don’t look like they came from a phone. When conditions are right, which is not all the time, the results are amazing. The combination works well in low light conditions too thanks to image stabilisation.

Like most other premium phones, the P20 also has image stabilisation. Huawei seems to have this working well with the three camera arrangement.

What will surprise anyone who has bumped up against the limits of camera phones in the past is the way the P20 Pro handles zooming. It’s a hybrid zoom, which combines optical and digital zooming. You’ll find the optical 2x and 3x zoom pictures are excellent. Even the hybrid 5x zoom pics are, on a good day, impressive.

Artificial intelligence

All phone makers like to tell us their premium models include artificial intelligence. What they use often isn’t AI in the sense that systems learn how to do their tasks better over time. But it sounds good in marketing.

Huawei’s Master AI technology attempts to identify what you are shooting in a picture. It then adjust the various parameters to suit the subject and the conditions. There are 19 options.

This works well up to a point. On the whole the AI does a good job with colour balance. That’s something phones often struggle with.

Sometimes Master AI makes a poor guess at the subject or maybe it makes the right guess but odd choices of setting. At times images look tinted or otherwise filtered with Photoshop or similar software.

In practice, you usually get good results if you let the camera make all the decisions. When that doesn’t work, turning all the settings off and clicking often fixes things.

Less work

Moving away from these options and using manual adjustments is possible. But it means work. By the time you’ve got on top of the camera software it will be time to upgrade your phone. It’s easier to take lots of shots and sort through them afterwards.

Something similar applies to the AI system that helps you frame shots. It takes time to get use to it in the first place and it takes time to use when you take a picture. If you’re unhurried, say taking a landscape picture, this can be OK. If you need to move fast and capture something that won’t last, spending time tinkering could lose the shot.

And anyway, you can frame things afterwards with decent photo software.

There are many options and settings available. Anyone interested in photography will have a ball. Prepare to lose an afternoon or a few days if you want to try everything.

My favourite is the monochrome mode, this feels more like real photography.

Long exposure at night

A standout is the camera’s ability to take long exposure night pictures. It works best if you can use a stand to keep the phone still. Yet, thanks to the image stabilisation even handheld shots are impressive.

In normal use the P20 Pro takes 10-megapixel images. You can, if you wish, crank this all the way up to 40-megapixels.

It says a lot about the Huawei P20 Pro that at 700 words into this review, I have only written about the camera. That’s because, in a sense, the P20 Pro is more camera than phone.

Phone makers use cameras as ways of differentiating their premium models from rivals. At the Auckland event to launch the phone Huawei almost didn’t mention anything other than its camera.

P20 Pro feel

Away from the camera, the P20 Pro feels like a premium phone. It is better finished than, say, the Galaxy S9. It feels more on a par with the iPhone X.

The smoothness that feels so good in your hands can be troublesome if you park the phone on a soft surface, say a sofa, where it will slide away.

At the launch the face recognition software impressed the journalists. It’s fast and can recognise the same face even when the person wears glasses. While it works for me, I’m uneasy about this being the phone’s main security feature.

Also impressive is the battery life. I manage to get two days between charges, although these are not two heavy use days. If I push hard all day I find there is still enough there to get me home late at night.

One quirk is the Apple iPhone X-like notch. Huawei was quick to point out its notch is smaller than Apple’s. It seems to have made the choice to have a notch as a nod toward’s being more like an Apple phone than, say, a Samsung Galaxy.

Software

Android phone software is often disappointing. It’s rare for anything added by the phone maker to improve on raw Android. That’s still true with the P20 Pro, but less so than in the past.

The EMUI 8.1 software runs on Android Oreo 8.1. That’s up-to-date now. Yet Huawei has a poor history upgrading its software, so don’t expect much change. EMUI attempts to make Android more like Apple’s iOS. This says something about Huawei’s intent. You can choose to make it act less iOS-like.

Verdict: Huawei P20 Pro

It may not be as pretty as the Samsung Galaxy S9 , but the Huawei P20 Pro is at least its match. I found I liked it more. That’s for two reasons, first it feels better in my hand. This is a subjective measure. Less subject is the camera. Not only does it outperform the Galaxy S9 camera, but it is easier to get good results. Battery life is good too.

For these reasons, the P20 Pro is the best premium Android phone on sale at the moment. The fact that, at $1300 it costs $300 less gives it a bigger lead over its rival. You’d have to be a Samsung fan to think otherwise.

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Apple 2018 iPadApple’s sixth generation 2018 iPad is a bargain. In New Zealand it costs NZ$540. For many people it is all the computer they will ever need.

Sure, there will be people who consider it dull next to the swept-up iPad Pro. It doesn’t have as many features. Yet it does one important thing that, until now, only the Pro model iPad could handle. The 2018 iPad works with Apple Pencil.

That’s great if you want to use an iPad to create art or jot quick notes without adding a keyboard or dealing with the device’s glass keyboard. This, coupled with the price should open up the iPad to new audience.

It’s a solid, reliable alternative to buying a low-cost computer. Some geeks will hate me writing that.

Half the price of an iPad Pro

While the 2018 iPad doesn’t have all the features you’d find in an iPad Pro, it’s close to half the price of the cheapest Pro. The basic model $540 2018 iPad Pro comes with 32GB of storage. In contrast, the cheapest iPad Pro model costs NZ$1100 and has 64GB of storage.

There’s a NZ$700 version of the 2018 iPad with 128GB. If you can find the extra $160 it’s worth it. If you have a large library of music, videos or photographs you’ll soon bump up against the limits of 32GB. With a 128GB you won’t need to continually swap out files to a back-up device or the cloud.

What you get with both models is the classic 9.7-inch iPad Retina display. There are not as many pixels as you’ll find on the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but the resolution is much the same. It has 2048 by 1536 pixels compared with the Pro’s 2224 by 1668. The 2018 iPad weighs exactly the same amount as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro; around 480 grams.

At 7.5mm, the 2018 iPad is a sliver thicker than the Pro which is just 6.1mm. That’s enough to notice, but not much of a compromise. It’s about 10mm shorter and 5mm less wide. This means you can’t swap covers or keyboards between the two devices. Not that many people will be doing that.

Adding a keyboard

And anyway, the 2018 iPad doesn’t have the Smart Connectors found on iPad Pro models. These make it easier to use a keyboard without resorting to Bluetooth. If you want to run a keyboard with the 2018 iPad there are dozens of options, many are excellent.

The speakers are not as loud or as clear as you’ll find on an iPad Pro.

Another difference between the Pro and the 2018 iPad is that you only get a first generation Touch ID button. It’s a little slower than the newer version and more prone to stumble when you use a fingerprint to sign-in. This is noticeable in practice if you’re stepping down from a newer iPad Pro or have an iPhone 7 or 8.

There’s a software difference too. The 2018 iPad only allows two apps to appear on screen at any time. While the Pro models allow three, this is something I never use on my tablet. I doubt many others will miss it.

The 2018 iPad uses Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, it’s similar, but not as powerful as the A10x Fusion chip in the Pro model. In theory it doesn’t run as fast, you could probably prove this by running benchmarks. In practice, you won’t notice. I didn’t find any lag on the 2018 model, it doesn’t feel slower. In fact, when it comes to speed, it feels almost exactly the same as my first generation 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Where the 2018 iPad fits

Apple launched the 2018 iPad with an emphasis on education. It’s a great choice for students. Apple critics will tell you the iOS operating system is a walled garden and restrictive. Although there is some truth in this, in practice iOS is as open to the rest of the computing world as all the alternatives. Chromebook, Android and Windows are all as flawed in their own ways – possibly more flawed given their business models.

I’ve spent much of the last year using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main mobile computer. It doesn’t do everything I need, but for most purposes it is more than enough computer. It has travelled overseas and out-of-town with me several times. For the most part the limitations of the 2018 iPad would be the same. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t need a lot of fancy features it could be all the computer you need. It’s a great device for creativity, just don’t expect to edit movies on it’s 9.7-inch screen.

The key to the 2018 iPad is that you get a lot of computer for not much money. You can buy cheaper Chromebooks, Android tablets and, at a pinch, Windows PCs. Unless you’re looking for an app that doesn’t appear in Apple’s store, this beats all those devices for most people who have light computing needs.

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NZ phone shipments forecast 2018

IDC says New Zealand phone shipments dropped 14.5 percent in unit terms during 2017. This is the first year-on-year decline reported in this country. A total of 1.60 million phones shipped in 2017 compared with 1.87 million in 2016.

A phone shipment is not the same as a sale. Shipments count the number of phones sent from manufacturers’ warehouses to retail warehouse. Not all shipped phones are sold. To a degree shipments is a measure of the demand anticipated by phone makers and sellers.

Nevertheless, the fall in anticipated demand is substantial.

Chayse Gorton, IDC NZ market analyst says there are three reasons for the fall: market saturation, changing sales strategies and new features not persuading people to upgrade old phones.

All three are valid, but they are not equal.

Shipments down on saturation

On saturation, IDC says 79 percent of consumers owned a smartphone in 2017. This leaves only a few users hanging on to dumb phones – or feature phones in the industry’s jargon.

Even that number seems too high, you rarely see anything other than smart phones in the wild. I suspect there’s a counting problem with older phones being recycled through families and friends that doesn’t capture everything. It’s possible the carriers would know the approximate number of older, dumb phones on their networks because some are not able to connect to 4G.

Meanwhile phone companies spent 2017 focusing on profitability. In earlier years they were happy to shoot for high volumes and hope everything would be all right later. This change mean the average price of phones from the market leaders: Samsung and Apple, increased 14 percent in the year.

This is reflected in IDC’s graph which shows the value of the market flat or even climbing while numbers fall. Rising phone prices isn’t necessarily a form of inflation as more expensive phones offer more capability.

Little reason to upgrade

IDC doesn’t emphasis the point, but it seems the biggest reason for the drop in shipments is that users have little incentive to upgrade. If you look after a phone, it should work fine for three or four years.

There were no compelling new phone features in 2017. IDC says people only upgrade when they see a significant benefit from doing so. This point was underlined at Samsung’s Galaxy S9 launch earlier this week. The new phone resembles the S8, it has upgraded features including a slow-motion video mode, but that’s not enough to tempt the average user to bin or hand down, say, their S8 and spend $1400 plus.

Meanwhile rival research company Gartner reports international smartphone sales recorded their first ever decline in 2017.

Shipments tumble as NZ phone upgrades slow was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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Oppo R11sOppo released the R11s, a low-cost Android phone about three months after Apple’s iPhone X emerged. On the surface, the R11s resembles the iPhone X., so that’s quite an achievement.

There’s no question what inspired Oppo’s engineers. The R11s has a similar physical design and a software overlay that makes Android look like Apple’s iOS. It’s not a knock-off, it’s more a homage to Apple.

There are many differences between the R11s and the iPhone X, but the one that matters most is the price. The R11s sells in New Zealand for NZ$800. That’s less than half the $1800 starting price for Apple’s phone. It also half the price of Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ which, once you get past the surface, is more like Oppo’s phone.

While the R11s is great value, its performance and user experience do not match what you’ll find on the more expensive phones from Apple, Samsung or Huawei. Oppo made a number of compromises to keep costs down.

What you make of the price-performance trade-offs are a matter of personal taste and needs. If brand matters to you, don’t buy an Oppo. If you’ve invested in Apple products and services, don’t buy it. If you think Samsung’s Bixby button is cool, don’t buy an Oppo.

Everyone else should at least consider the R11s.

R11s hardware

The R11s looks good, but so does almost every other modern handset. In fact, it looks a lot like almost every other modern handset. At more than a metre or two’s distance, an untrained eye would struggle to tell them apart.

Oppo opted for a wafer-thin design. Like today’s top phones the front is almost all-screen. There are no buttons on the front. Although the back is metal, the phone feels lighter than rival high-end models. It feels cheaper when you first hold it in the hand.

This impression is strengthened when you feel the point where the screen meets the case. On the best high-end phones the two surfaces merge smoothly into each other. On the R11s there’s a noticeable, distracting and slightly unnerving ridge. This is important if you spend a lot of time with your phone in one hand.

The Samsung Galaxy S9 has a similar ridge, but it’s not as pronounced. You wouldn’t cut yourself on either, but there more sharpness about the Oppo R11s.

Display

Oppo uses a 6-inch ultra-wide 18:9 OLED display. The ratio means the screen is longer and thinner than we are generally used to. It’s not to my taste, but this isn’t about me.

The 18:9 screen ratio means the phone can show higher resolution video. This works remarkably well.

Although the display is remarkable for an $800 phone, it doesn’t look as good as the display on the Samsung S9 or iPhone X. It manages to deliver on brightness, but colours are not as vibrant.

In practice this is only really clear when you compare two phones. You’d probably notice the difference if you moved from one of these phones to the Oppo, but that not going to happen often. For most people moving from an older Android handset, the Oppo will be a step up.

There’s a micro-USB port. That was the standard, but other phone makers are now moving towards using the Type-C port. This might bother some people, but again it’s only likely to grate if you come to the R11s from a more expensive modern phone. For just about everyone upgrading from an older handset, this would be business as usual and unremarkable.

Inside

We could talk about the phone’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB of Ram. But in the real world these specifications border on meaningless. What you need to know is the R11s has enough power to do most things normal people ask of phones. The R11s boots fast and is snappy most of the time. Standard apps don’t slow it down.

It also has enough working memory. If you’re the kind of person who pushes phones harder, then it may not be enough, but, them, you probably won’t be considering the R11s anyway. The phone comes with 64Gb of storage. If that’s not enough you can more with a MicroSD card.

Oppo includes a 3200mAh battery. In practice you should get a couple of days light use from the phone between recharges. Even if you hammer it, there is enough to get you from an early morning start until mid-evening.

There is no NFC. While this could be a deal breaker for some people, in reality it is rarely used even when it is built-in. You’ll have to make your own decision about the importance of this.

Camera

Like every other phone maker, much of Oppo’s marketing effort has gone into telling potential buyers about the camera. It’s a solid camera,better than you’d expect in an NZ$800 phone. In technical terms there are cameras. One is 20MP, the other is 16MP.

There’s also a large dual f/1.7 aperture to let more light hit the sensors. You get crisp images and bright colours. Of course you do. It’s hard to find a high-profile phone that doesn’t manage that. That said, the camera is a long way behind what you’ll find in a Samsung Galaxy S9 or an iPhone 9 or X.

Oppo has included photo software that helps users get better quality shots. There’s also a ‘beauty’ mode, which looks weird to some western eyes but may go down well in Asian markets.

Niggles and verdict

As with any non-Google Android phone, the Oppo R11s is let down by the included software. For the most part, ColorOS skin does not add value. Although, to be fair, nor does it detract much. It’s no worse than other Android skins. ColorOS has a superficial resemblance to iOS, but anyone coming from Apple will be mystified by the way it works at times.

If the comments above read like less than fulsome praise, that’s because here we have compared the Oppo R11s with phones that cost twice as much. Take price into account and the story is quite different.

The R11s beats any rival at the same price by a country mile. It gives you most of what you’d get from an expensive phone. Nothing important is missing. Yet it leaves you with a sizeable amount of money in your pocket. Oppo has been here before. Most non-iphone people reading this should put it on their shortlist.

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