Oppo R15 Pro comes in bright red or a dark purple colour

Android phone makers often borrow ideas from Apple. Oppo takes this further than its rivals. Oppo’s need to emulate Apple runs through Its phones like Blackpool through a stick of English seaside rock.

Oppo’s newest iPhone lookalike is the $800 R15 Pro. It doesn’t look much like an Apple on the outside, but fire it up and the resemblance is uncanny. Oppo even copies the notch that features at the top of the iPhone X screen.

The Oppo R15 Pro is not the first Android phone to do this. See my Huawei P20 Pro review. Yet the R15 Pro pays a more comprehensive homage to Apple than any other Android.

Oppo‘s Apple-following strategy seems to work. In the first quarter of 2018 Oppo sold more phones in China than anyone else. At the NZ launch Oppo said it is now the number four phone brand here behind Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Being number four in New Zealand is not a big deal. Oppo says its market share is around two or three percent. While the R15 Pro is solid enough, it doesn’t look like the breakthrough phone Oppo needs. The company releases a new model roughly every six months, so it could soon have a hit on its hands.

Oppo R15 Pro

At NZ$800, the Oppo R15 Pro is less than half the price of an iPhone X. Despite similar software, that’s not the best phone to compare it with. The R15 Pro is around half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S9 which is a closer match. For 50 percent of the cost you get 95 percent of the functionality.

The R15 Pro has more rough edges that the Galaxy S9. That’s metaphorical. With earlier Oppo phones it was literal too. Older Oppo phones were quite rough in the hands. The R15 Pro is less so.

I tested a model with a polished dark purple aluminium case. There’s a bright red version as well. It’s attractive looking, but there are few 2018 handsets at this price or higher that don’t look good.

Although it doesn’t look much like an iPhone on the outside, it does when you switch the screen on. You’ll see rows of iOS style app icons.

The effect doesn’t last long because Oppo’s ColorOS operating system doesn’t always act like iOS. It has some Apple-like characteristics, but sooner or later you are back to Android.

In use the R15 Pro doesn’t work any better than any other phone running Google’s Android 8.1 Oreo software. In places it is worse.

All Android software overlays are disappointing, Oppo’s is more disappointing than most. In part that’s because there are places where it attempts to force Apple-like behaviour. In part that’s because the software is buggy compared to Samsung or Huawei Android phones.

Most of the top 2018 phones have a longer, thinner body with a 19:9 screen ratio. They also have tiny bezels, which mean the screen covers almost the entire front of the phone. The Oppo R15 Pro is no different.

It also has a Amoled screen, which is popular with 2018 phones. The display is big at 6.3 inches. It doesn’t quite hit 1080p resolution. In practice it can be a good phone for viewing videos, the speakers are louder and clearer than you might expect.

Not so powerful

The processor and graphics chip are not as powerful as those you find on more expensive phones. This is, for me, the main price compromise. If you want to play the latest games or get high video performance, go and spend more on a Huawei or Samsung. Almost every iPhone from the last three years would be more powerful.

Every phone maker emphasises camera features. At the New Zealand launch, the presenter made more of the phone’s beauty mode than the sensors and lenses. They’re not bad, but again, being half the price of a premium phone means compromise.

You get 16 and 20 megapixel lenses on the back. Oppo talks about a Sony sensor which uses a larger pixel size to do a better job in low light conditions.

There is a 20 megapixel front camera for selfies. Oppo’s beauty mode software tidies up skin blemishes. It then adds a little colour to make you look prettier. It also, this is a worry, makes people look whiter. Presumably the politics of this are different in China.

Like every other modern phone, the Oppo R15 Pro comes with software to automate picture-taking. The company says it uses AI. I doubt anything here uses machine learning or other AI techniques.

According to Oppo, the software identifies different scenes. It can detect a shot of the outdoors, a plate of food or a family pet. It only works up to a point. When it does, the camera automates settings. If it gets things wrong, the settings can be way out of whack.

Easy to use

The good news is all this makes the phone and its camera easy to use. Oppo’s photo app interface is a near carbon copy of the iOS app. The bad news is the photo filtering goes too far at times.

For some unexplained reason Oppo uses a microUSB 2.0 connector for its power supply. It’s old-school. Almost every other Android phone has moved on to the USB Type-C connector. The great thing about that now being standard is you can use someone else’s charger if you don’t have your own.

Also old-school, not in a bad way, is the 3.5mm earphone jack. Some people regard it as a must have even if many earphones now use Bluetooth. Moving to Bluetooth is something Oppo has not copied from Apple.

Not tested for this review is the NFC feature for making contactless payments. Earlier Oppo phones did not include NFC. There is a fingerprint reader on the back and the phone uses facial recognition.

Verdict, comparison

At NZ$800 the Oppo R15 Pro is at the top end of the middle price band for 2018 phones. It is the same price as the Oppo R11s which appeared at the start of this year. For $100 less you can buy the Nokia 7 Plus. It has a better operating system and longer battery life.

There’s little remarkable. Nothing stands out here, but then nothing stood out with the last, more expensive, flagship Android phones from Samsung and Huawei. Nokia’s 7 Plus has the advantage of a better Android and holds the promise of better software support.

The R15 Pro gets the job done without breaking the bank. If you want more phone and a fancier camera expect to pay more. If NZ$800 is your budget limit, this is a good choice, but take a closer look at the NZ$700 Nokia 7 Plus first. That would be my choice.

Oppo R15 Pro review: An Android chasing the iPhone was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Samsung’s $180 DeX Pad is a docking station that turns a Galaxy S9 or S9 phone into a desktop computer. On paper it looks like a good idea. In practice it’s not as useful as you might expect. At least not for most people.

The main part of DeX Pad is a lightweight black plastic box that lies flat on a desk or table top. It has a cheap, flimsy feel. This is in stark contrast to premium finish of the Galaxy 9 phone. You plug a Samsung Galaxy 9 or 9 phone into it using the USB-C port. This also lies flat, which is a potential minor problem as we will see.

Samsung Dex Pad - flat

There are two USB 2 ports. You can use these to connect a keyboard and a mouse. A HDMI port connects the DeX Pad to a screen. There’s another USB-C port for the DeX Pad’s power supply. It comes with a New Zealand-style wall plug, but the cable is on 1 metre long, which may not be enough for many people.

The box is a little bigger than the Galaxy S9 phone. It measures 84 by 158 mm. When it sits on its little rubber footpads, the height is around 15 mm plus a small lump with the USB-C phone connector. That adds another 15 mm to the height.

Lightweight hardware

On its own, the DeX Pad weighs 135 g. Together a Dex Pad and a Galaxy S9 phone weigh around 300 g. The two weigh less than, say, an iPad or a small, light laptop.

Samsung DeX Pad

So all good to go? Well no. The DeX Pad is meaningless without a screen and you really need a keyboard to get much value. Carrying both along with the various cables and power supplies is far harder than taking a tablet or a laptop. Even if you know you can expect to find a suitable screen at your destination, you still have to carry a satchel full of kit.

When you get to your destination it takes time to hook everything up. The inventory of parts you need to carry includes phone, DeX Pad, keyboard, two cables and, perhaps, a mouse. Which mean there’s risk of leaving something behind. Taking a laptop or tablet would be far less trouble.

If you’re OK with all that, DeX Pad has another drawback: Android.

Lightweight OS

Whatever your opinion of Android as a phone operating system, it is not the best desktop OS. Windows, MacOs or Linux are better in almost every conceivable circumstance. The DeX Pad Android desktop OS feels a little like ChromeOS, but Google’s browser-based operating system would have been a better choice. Indeed, any of the OSs mentioned earlier would give you a better and more productive experience.

That’s not to say Android needs to be awful on the desktop, but Samsung has not done enough work on the software user experience. For example, some apps appear in portrait mode windows that mimic how they would look on a phone. Others have lots of white space. Almost nothing makes the best use of the screen real estate.

The good news is that most apps popular with IT departments and the enterprise users likely to choose  Dex Pad now have decent Android versions. You could run, say, Microsoft Office or G-Suite this way.

Jerky

Microsoft Word functions as expected. But performance is poor. Even the cheapest Windows 10 PC has less lag than a Galaxy and Dex Pad. At times the cursor jerks slowly almost painfully across the screen.

You can choose to use the phone screen as a touch pad instead of a mouse. It’s just as jerky and at times unpredictable. Likewise the double-tapping to click can be tricky when the touch pad function decides to be unresponsive.

Dex Pad Screen

Because the phone lies flat on the desk, you can’t use the fingerprint reader. So if you leave the Dex Pad long enough for it to go to sleep, you have to lift the phone in its cradle and turn it through 180 degrees to use the face recognition. There’s little that is downright bad, but lots of small niggles add up to a less than stellar user experience.

Don’t even think of running a fast moving game on this combination. Of course that’s not what Samsung designed the device for. The target is enterprise users.

Samsung DeX Pad verdict

Samsung’s marketing suggests a Galaxy S-series phone owning consumer might choose Dex Pad instead of buying a desktop or laptop computer. They would be disappointed.

Dex Pad would be handy if you’re in sales and turn up at a customer’s office to present with, say, PowerPoint.  It might be useful if you stop overnight in hotels where you can plug the Dex Pad into the TV set. Beyond that there is not an obvious market for the product.

Say you shuttle between, say, a home office and a company office. You would need screens and keyboards sitting waiting at both locations. You’d be better off buying two computers.

And that’s the problem. The idea is not silly. After all, phones are powerful and dominant. And the phone business is short of fresh thinking. One day a Dex Pad-like product might arrive and change the face of personal computing. We’re not at that day yet. The execution lacks too much for Dex Pad to be a serious PC alternative. For now it is likely to appeal to a tiny niche.

Also on:

At NZ$700, Surface Go rounds out the bottom end of Microsoft’s tablet-to-laptop range. It’s a small, thin tablet with a 10-inch screen. No doubt people will compare it with another small, thin 10-inch tablet: Apple’s NZ$540 iPad.

Before going further, we should be clear, the tablets come from different ranges. They have different design perspectives. Despite the obvious similarities, few people will choose between the Surface Go and an iPad. For the most part, they aim at distinct markets. You also need to remember these are the cheapest models in each range.

That said, they are low-cost tablets from the two biggest names in personal computing. Both are versatile mobile devices. They both have large touch screens by mobile device standards. Each offers a huge catalogue of software covering almost every possible application.

Microsoft Surface Go

Size, weight

Apple’s iPad is smaller and lighter than the Surface Go. It measures 240 by 170 by 7.5 mm and weighs 470 g. Surface Go is about 10 percent heavier at 520 g. It’s thicker at 8.3 mm.

Although the frame is fraction larger at 244 by 178 mm, that’s used for a bigger screen. The Surface Go display is 10.6 inches, while the iPad is 9.7 inches. The Apple display has more pixels: you get 2,048 by 1,536. The Go is has 1,800 by 1,200 pixels. I’ll save you the maths of working out that means the iPad has 264 pixels per inch compared to Go’s 217.

Both support an optional pen for writing on-screen. Apple’s drawing tool is the Apple Pencil.

Processors

Microsoft uses a two-core Intel processor; the Pentium Gold 4415Y. Apple’s is the A10 Fusion chip. Without benchmarking, it’s hard to know which has the more powerful processor.

On paper Apple’s hardware choices give you a little more battery time than the Surface Go. How that works in practice is more a matter of how you use your tablet.

Apple appears to have an edge here, but we’d need to wait for formal tests to know. Both processors are a generation behind the top models in their respective ranges. As it says at the start of this post, people will use the devices in different ways. So their relative power is less important than the suitability for applications.

The Surface Go has a clear edge when it comes to storage. The extra NZ$140 buy double the Ram and double the built-in flash storage. The Go has 4GB and 64GB. Again it’s hard to know what these numbers mean in practice without testing, but as a rule more is better.

Surface Go expandable memory

You can expand the storage on a Surface Go. There is a MicroSD card slot. There is nothing like this on the iPad. This will matter a lot to some people. It would interesting to know how many people use a memory slot in a device like this.

Apple’s iPad runs iOS. It’s the same operating system as on the iPhone. In recent iterations Apple updated iOS to make better use of the iPad’s size and capabilities. As you’d expect it integrates well with an iPhone and the MacOS.

The Surface Go comes with Microsoft’s Windows 10 running in the S Mode. This limits your software choices, but it’s a piece of cake to upgrade this to Windows 10 Home.

At the risk of triggering angry comments, I find iOS has a better touch screen interface. Although Windows 10 handles touch, at times the old user interface peeks through. It can cause problems. Your experience may differ.

On the other hand, I find Windows 10 makes more sense on a tablet than a desktop. Again, you might have a different view.

Microsoft’s marketing makes a lot of fuss about the kickstand. This allows you to prop the Surface Go up in the landscape orientation on a flat surface. Some Surface Pro users love this feature, it’s popularity bewilders many iPad fans.

Microsoft’s Surface Go Signature Type Cover adds NZ$220 to the price. The Surface Pen is NZ$160. Apple’s Pencil is the same price. Apple has its own keyboard covers for iPad Pro models. For the plain iPad, Apple’s online store offers a NZ$150 Logitech Slim Folio Case with integrated bluetooth keyboard.

Storage options

Both ranges offer models with more storage. A 128 GB iPad is NZ$700, the same price as the basic Surface Go. For the well-heeled Microsoft has a 128 GB model with 8 GB of Ram at NZ$950.

Let’s put the Surface Go price into context. The same money will buy a Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook or one of a range of low-price Windows laptops.

By the time you add the official keyboard you could buy a ThinkPad with an Intel Core i3 processor. Of course these would not be as portable. Yet you will find a better processor, better keyboard and better screen.

If you’re already happy with Apple or Microsoft’s comforting embrace, then you’d do well to stay put. That way you can be productive from the moment you open the box. Most of the time, you will get more from your existing investments in software and services.

At first sight the iPad and Microsoft app store look to be roughly equal, after all, this is Windows we are talking about. Yet in practice many popular Windows apps are either not optimised for touch or have occasional touchability lapses. You may also find some popular, well-known apps are not there.

It’s odd, but on a personal note I find Microsoft Office works better on an iPad than on a touch screen Windows tablet. Although this could be a matter of familiarity and taste, you couldn’t say the same for MacOS where Office is noticeably inferior.

Microsoft Surface sales yet to take off

Microsoft-branded hardware has yet to strike a chord with buyers. The brand doesn’t register in the global PC sales statistics collected by IDC and Gartner. There have been reliability problems with Surface hardware.

Over the last three months of 2017 Microsoft’s Surface line made $1.3 billion in revenue. That’s impressive, but the dial hasn’t shifted from two years earlier. Sales are flat. That is despite a slew of new Surface products in 2017.

In round numbers Apple makes more than six dollars from its iPad models for every dollar Microsoft earns from all its hardware products excluding the Xbox.

There’s nothing to suggest Surface Go will change the market dynamic. The device looks neat and will meet an unmet need, but it doesn’t look like a surefire winner.

The Commerce Commission wants to continue regulating mobile roaming. At present it can make Spark, Vodafone or 2degrees give a new network owner wholesale access. This is part of the Telecommunications Act.

The Act also says the Commission faces a review of its responsibilities every five years.

Wholesale access to existing networks helps a new network get a foothold in the market. Something similar happened when 2degrees started and customers could roam on Vodafone’s network. At the time 2degrees only had coverage in four centres.

Roaming matters

Telecommunications Commissioner Stephen Gale said in a press release:

National mobile roaming helped 2degrees deliver a nationwide service for its customers from day one, in advance of rolling out its own national network infrastructure. We believe the power to regulate remains an important competition safeguard, especially with 5G networks and potential new entrants on the horizon.

The key phrase in that quote is “potential new entrants“.

After all there is little prospect of a new mobile carrier entering a saturated market. Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential new entrant looking to enter the cellular market.

That would be Malcolm Dick’s Blue Reach. The Commerce Commission mentions this company in its review of the market.

The allocation of 5G spectrum may influence mobile competition:
The allocation provides a potential opportunity for a new entrant to purchase spectrum. A new mobile provider will almost certainly require a NR arrangement while it rolls out. We note that Blue Reach Services has entered as a fourth provider and has publically stated intentions to roll-out 5G.

Dick is a wealthy man who has succeeded in telecommunications before. He is a co-founder of CallPlus and an investor in the Hawaiki Cable network. The latter is set to start operating next month.

Blue Reach

His Blue Reach project has been public for a couple of years. Early on Dick described Blue Reach as a 5G wholesaler. The idea is that it will offer fixed wireless broadband to retail service providers. In some ways it is like the failed Woosh Wireless operation. That company was ahead of its time.

At the time of writing carriers around the world are building the first 5G networks. Both Spark and Vodafone have trials here in New Zealand. The technology still hasn’t settled. More to the point, the extra spectrum needed to make it work is not ready in New Zealand. We can expect that to happen over the next 12 months.

Blue Reach plans a service resembling Spark’s fixed wireless broadband. Both Spark and Vodafone sell a similar RBI wireless product to rural customers. So do wisps (wireless service providers). Presumably the wisps are among the retailer Dick hopes will buy his services.

The Commerce Commission’s review hints that we are about to see more competition. Bring it on.

The Commerce Commission has called for submissions on the issue to before July 30. It expects to release a final decision on September 4.

Galaxy S7There are signs the lack of innovation in recent times is hurting phone makers.

Reuters reports from Seoul:

Samsung is expected to post its smallest profit growth in more than a year in the second quarter, as lackluster sales of its premium Galaxy smartphones overshadow its highly profitable chip business.

Analysts expect Samsung’s smartphone sales to drop in the April-June quarter, following a more than 2 percent drop in the previous quarter as consumers flock to cheaper models from Chinese rivals such as Xiaomi Corp.

Samsung’s lead over Apple in the global smartphone market is under pressure after the U.S. firm’s iPhone X exceeded market expectations while a lack of technological innovation dogs Samsung offerings.

“Functions (that) Samsung’s mobile phones have are not attractive enough for customers to spend more money on,” said Song Myung-sup, analyst at HI Investment & Securities.

It’s not just Samsung, other phone makers are rubbing up against the same issue. We’re on the top, flat part of the innovation S curve as far as the current generation of phones are concerned.

Phone makers go on improving cameras and bumping speeds. Yet there hasn’t been an improvement that makes a significant difference for at least three years. A better camera, smaller bezel or a library of childish emoji is not innovation, it’s window dressing.

Why upgrade?

For most people that means no pressing reason to upgrade.

At the same time, cheaper phone brands have caught up to the point where they now offer all the essential features at a lower price. In some cases that’s a much lower price. If you own a three year old Android phone from a top brand like Samsung you can swap it for better technology and pay half what you paid for your existing model.

We’ve been here before with the PC and no doubt we’ll be here again. Stable designs are not necessarily a bad thing for consumers, but they kill hardware company profits.