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mobile review

Freebuds 3: Huawei pays homage to AirPods

Huawei’s Freebuds 3 look distinct from Apple’s Airpods. Presumably they are different enough to avoid knock-off litigation.

Yet there’s little question the Bluetooth wireless earphones with a charge box idea is cribbed from Apple.

Let’s be polite and say they pay homage to the original.

You can buy a pair in local stores for around NZ$260. This compares with the NZ$450 price of Apple’s Airpods Pro.

Freebuds 3 versus Airpods

It’s impossible to write about Freebuds without mentioning Airpods. So let’s stick with comparisons here, that’s the real story.

Both products are wireless earbuds that use Bluetooth to connect to devices. Both come with snappy little charging cases. More important, both have active noise cancellation.

If you own an iPhone or iPad, it’s likely Airpods will be your first choice. And why not? They are excellent. I wouldn’t be without mine.

Likewise, if you own an Android phone or you are allergic to buying Apple kit, there’s a good Freebuds are on your wish list.

The main exception to these cases is cash-strapped Apple owners might be drawn to the less expensive Huawei option.

Differences

Looking beyond price, there are a few significant differences between the products. The Freebuds 3 earpieces are more like those of the original Apple Airpods. That is, they sit in the outer ear.

The Airpods Pro have a snugger fit. This means the physical hardware does some of the work when it comes to cutting out external noise.

Huawei Freebuds 3
Huawei Freebuds 3 – Black is the new black

Physically the Airpods have a better look. For the New Zealand market the Freebuds come in a Darth Vader black version, although there is a Imperial Stormtrooper white option overseas. Apple’s wireless earbuds only come in white.

Latency advantage not obvious

Both products use their companies’ chip designs. Huawei claims lower latency, but in practice this, if it is true, is not noticeable. Both can automatically connect without the need to stuff around with Bluetooth settings.

Apple’s active noise cancellation is one-size-fits-all. You can tinker with the Huawei settings. I wouldn’t say one approach is better than the other, they are different.

Likewise, I struggle to say one sounds better than the other. The Freebuds seem to do a better job with electronic music, while I find the standard non-Pro Airpods handle classic and acoustic material better, but this is largely a matter of taste.

Apple’s wireless earbuds have better battery life, but not by much. One thing I like about Airpods is their wireless charging, but again this is not a deal breaker.

Taking everything in account, there’s not much in it. If you have an Apple phone and the budget choose Airpods. Huawei phone owners should go with Freebuds 3. Everyone else might as well toss a coin.

Categories
mobile review

Nokia 7.2 – a good business phone

At $549, the Nokia 7.2 is a decent quality mid-priced Android phone. It hits all the right notes for business buyers. For everyone else, the Nokia 7.2 is a sensible choice rather than a pocket full of digital excitement. Choose it if you view phones as tools, not toys, if you prize value over pizzaz.

Nokia 7.2 at a glance

For:– Android One is the best Android experience
– Uncluttered user interface
– Well made
– Videos look great
Against:– Battery could be better
– Camera decent enough, but pictures a touch ordinary
Maybe:– Sober, business-like looks
Verdict:Sensible choice but doesn’t stand out from mid-range pack.
Six months ago the same specification would have been sensational at the price, today it’s ordinary.
Price:$549
Web:Nokia
Reviewed by:Bill Bennett
Review date:November 14, 2019

HMD Global has revived the Nokia brand with a solid range of mid and low priced Android phones. In doing so, the company has breathed fresh life into that market.

The hardware is well made and reliable, we’ll get to how that works for the Nokia 7.2 in a moment.

Build quality is important, yet the company’s main strength lies in its partnership with Google. It is part of Google’s Android One programme.

Best Android around

In effect, Android One means Nokia phone owners get the best experience Google’s operating system has to offer.

You won’t see bloatware or other annoyances. You won’t face inconsistencies.

And you don’t run the gauntlet of risky pre-installed software. Best of all, it means the user interface is refreshingly uncluttered.

Android One is possibly the purest form of Android. Companies like HMD Global who are part of the programme agree not to change the software.

In return, Google commits to refreshing the Android operating system for two years and providing monthly security updates for three years.

In other words, you know where you are with a Nokia phone and you know where you are going. Buy almost any other Android model and operating system updates are something of a lottery. In most cases, your security is, at best, an afterthought.

If I were to buy an Android phone, I’d choose the Nokia-Android One approach.

Nokia 7.2 – good business choice

Android One is particularly good for business phone buyers who worry about security and keeping software current. Like I said at the top of this story, it’s a sensible choice but it’s not a thrill-packed ride into the outer limits of geek wizardry.

The Nokia 7.2’s hardware is more or less what you’d get elsewhere for $550. There’s a 6.3-inch screen with what Nokia calls a teardrop notch. Some Nokia phones allow you to black the top lines of the screen out giving you a square display. For some reason this is not an option with the 7.2 does.

Nokia’s PureDisplay technology means standard definition video plays beautifully. Software, I presume it is software, tweaks the video picture to make it look more like high definition video.

In practice, this is better than it sound. It is also better than you’ll find in other similarly priced midrange phones, or at least the ones I’ve seen here in New Zealand.

The display doesn’t compare with the much brighter OLED technology found on more expensive phones, but that would double the price tag.

There’s a rear fingerprint sensor. People can get agitated about the position of a fingerprint sensor. Putting it on the back makes for more screen on the front. It almost covers the entire front of the phone. Nokia also includes a Google Assistant button, if that’s your thing.

Back in black

The review phone is what HMD calls ‘charcoal’. This is marketing speak for black. The case sits somewhere on the spectrum between matt black and glossy black.

Black means the Nokia 7.2 looks more like a business phone than some of the flashy colours you can find on Chinese made phones.

The phone’s back has a pronounced camera bump. There is what Nokia calls a ‘triple lens’ camera. While that’s true in a strict sense, it isn’t the whole story. You get a 48 megapixel lens and a secondary eight megapixel wide lens camera. The third lens is a five megapixel depth sensor. It doesn’t take pictures. So, in this case ‘triple lens’ means two usable lenses.

The set up takes decent pictures, but then show me a 2019 phone that doesn’t. They aren’t outstanding, but they can be good. You’ll struggle to find a better phone camera on sale in New Zealand at this price unless you go to a parallel importer. On the other hand, you may find a set of camera features that better suits your needs.

What else?

Some observations:

  • Despite the generous (at this price) 3500mAh battery, the Nokia 7.2 runs down a little faster than I like. I haven’t pushed it to the limit yet, but suspect it might not get me from 7:00 to 23:00 on a busy running around work day.
  • 128GB of storage and 4GB of Ram seems good for a $550 phone.
  • The Snapdragon 660 processor offers the kind of performance you’d expect in this price range. If you’re coming from a premium phone you might find it a little sluggish, but that’s more because you’ve been spoiled.
  • This would be a great phone to buy for employees or younger family members who don’t feel the need for a day-glo finish.
Categories
mobile telecommunications

Huawei blacklist – A guide for everyday users

The US government has blacklisted Huawei. As a result Google has stopped providing and supporting the Android software used on Huawei phones. American chip makers can no long supply technology to Huawei. The Huawei blacklist is part of a wider trade dispute between the US and China. 

Does the Huawei blacklist mean I have to stop using my phone?

No. If you already have a Huawei it will carry on working as normal for now.

Could China be spying on me through my Huawei phone?

Don’t be silly. If you’re like the average Android phone user you already let Facebook, Google and others spy on you. They make money that way.

If China wanted to casually spy on you it could buy data from one of those companies. If you’re a serious intelligence target for Chinese agents they’re probably able to spy on you regardless of your phone’s brand.

Is my Huawei phone a security risk?

No more than any other Android phone. Android is more prone to malware and nasty stuff than other phones, but this changes nothing in that department.

Huawei has not always been the best at providing necessary software updates and security patches in the past. The company says it will go on supporting existing customers.

I was thinking of buying a Huawei phone…

That’s probably not a great idea although if sales slump you may be able to pick up a bargain.

If you buy a Huawei phone today you’ll get updates for the current version of Android. It’s most likely you’ll get upgrades for the next version. After that things start to get tricky.

At the moment we’re on Android Pie. The next version, Android Q is due in a few months. Huawei has had all the code for both of these.

The next version, R, should turn up in about 14 months. The way things stand today Huawei won’t get that code.

Without official support, you could be cut adrift from the Android mothership in as little as 14 months. Huawei says it will continue with security upgrades, but you may struggle to run some apps once R is mainstream.

What about other Chinese Android phone brands?

How much of a gambler are you? The recent Huawei blacklist is specific to one company, but it’s part of an escalating trade war between the US and China. If you count yourself as cautious, then wait to see how the dust settles before buying an alternative Chinese brand.

Isn’t Android supposed to be open source?

Only up to a point.

Android has a number of layers. At the top there’s Huawei’s own software overlay, that’s EMUI on the premium phones. There’s a service layer which connects to things like the Google Play store, Maps and Gmail.

There’s a low level layer that connects the operating system to the hardware. The underlying Android operating system, AOSP is open source. Huawei will still be able to use that. It will be updated as normal.

However, Google usually shares this code with favoured phone makers months before the code is made public. Phone makers pay vast sums for this.

The blockade means Huawei will now get the code on release day, so users may wait months for upgrades.

This is how AOSP works for many smaller Chinese phone makers. If you’ve tried one of those phones you’ll know the customer experience often leaves much to be desired.

Yet it’s also how Huawei’s Chinese phone business works, so the company already knows how to deal with the restrictions.

The real problem is with those services or those of us living in western countries. If Google makes changes there could be problems for existing phone users.

Will I be cut off from Google services?

No. At least not for the foreseeable future. You might not get any new services introduced from next year on.

Is any of this covered by the Commerce Act?

That’s a good question. The simple answer is you probably won’t be able to use the Commerce Act as a way of getting your money back if the phone goes on working as normal. Although there’s an interesting precedent that suggests otherwise.

In the longer term you may have a case if a lack of software updates means the phone is, in effect, rendered useless before a reasonable period of time. 

If this happens, it won’t matter if Huawei is no longer active in New Zealand (see below). The phone retailer is liable, not the manufacturer.

What does this mean for Huawei’s phone business in New Zealand?

It’s possible the spat between the US and China blows over in a few weeks and things will return to normal. If not, it will soon be hard for Huawei to sell phones here. Anecdotal evidence says customers are already avoiding the brand.

That’s a shame because Huawei makes some of the best Android phones. It is the number three phone brand here. While it may not always look like it, Huawei acts to keep Samsung and Apple competitive.

Phones account for about half of Huawei’s revenue worldwide. Half of its sales are in China where losing Google isn’t a problem. So a quarter of the company’s revenue is at risk.

On the other hand, no-one knows if Huawei make much, if any, profit from phone sales. The Huawei blacklist could lead to the company exiting the phone market outside of China. If that’s the case, it could be doing Huawei a favour.

Categories
mobile

Apple phone price hike bears bitter fruit

Judging by the latest IDC phone sales report, Apple has now found the point where iPhone prices rises meet customer resistance.

The last two product cycles have seen Apple raise iPhone prices faster than the rate of inflation.

A few anomalies like the troublesome Samsung Galaxy Fold aside, Apple prices have also gone up faster than phones from rival manufacturers. The gap between Apple’s most expensive iPhone and the most expensive mainstream options from the likes of Samsung and Huawei is higher than ever before.

In New Zealand the Apple iPhone XS Max with 512Gb of storage costs NZ$2800. Huawei’s P30 Pro, with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1500. That’s a fraction over half the price of the top iPhone.

Samsung’s Galaxy S10 with 512Gb of storage is $2100. Three-quarters the price of the iPhone XS Max.

Quality?

You can argue Apple’s phones are better than Huawei’s or Samsung’s. Although many readers would dispute that. You can also argue that an iPhone has greater value than an Android for people who have invested in iOS.

Even so, it can’t be an accident that Apple’s sales have dropped both in absolute terms and relative to the market since those price rises.

That fall is not trivial. IDC’s latest phone sales report shows iPhone unit numbers dropped 30 percent in a year. The report says: “The iPhone struggled to win over consumers in most major markets as competitors continue to eat away at Apple’s market share.”

Apple’s iPhone revenues dropped 17 percent.

Third place

IDC says Apple is now firmly in third place behind Samsung and Huawei. The report says the total phone market dropped 6.6 percent year on year. Apple accounted for two-thirds of that drop.

There is evidence much of this drop was in China.

We can’t know for sure there is a direct link between Apple’s recent rounds of faster than inflation price rises and the drop in sales. But it is a plausible working thesis.

Buoyant

For a while Apple’s faster than inflation price rises meant that the company’s phone revenue remained buoyant as unit numbers fell. In effect Apple users were trading up to more ritzy phones. If that was a strategy, it only worked in the short-term.

One aspect of this is that although Apple’s iPhones are more expensive, they contain more technology and more functionality. This might justify the higher price in some cases.

In recent years Apple’s gross margin has been around the 38 percent mark. That sounds huge, but it’s not unusual in the technology sector. Software companies tend to do better.

The most recent result shows the gross margin has fallen from 38.3 percent a year ago to 37.6b percent. In other words, those higher phone prices are not a simple case of Apple cashing in.

Problems everywhere

Samsung and Huawei both face enormous problems. The Galaxy Fold is a potential disaster for Samsung. Meanwhile Huawei is at the centre of a nasty political row. At some point that could affect the company’s handset sales, at least outside of China.

Apple faces a difficult year. If the folding phones from Samsung and Huawei turn out hits, Apple will be on the back foot in technology terms. There’s also the 5G problem. Apple committed to buying Intel 5G chips. It turns out these don’t work, so Apple has turned back to Qualcomm.

For all these reasons, observers are going to judge the 2019 iPhone launch more carefully than any Apple launch over the past three to five years. It might also pay to take a close look at what Apple does with prices later this year. Another big rise would ring alarm bells.

Categories
mobile

Apple hit hardest as phone sales fall

Research company IDC reports that year-on-year phone sales dropped 6.6 percent in the first quarter of 2019. It’s the sixth quarter in a row to see a drop and the rate of fall is picking up. This time last year sales were down 4.1 percent over the same time in 2017.

Samsung remains the leading phone brand albeit with a falling market share. It has been the top-selling brand for each of the last four quarters. During that period Apple jockeyed for second place with Huawei. The Chinese phone maker is now back in second place.

It’s been tough for everyone. Only two of the top five brands sold more phones in the last 12 months than in the earlier twelve months. Huawei and Vivo, which is not visible in New Zealand, both saw sales increase.

Samsung in the driving seat

Samsung accounts for about one phone in five sold. It’s share nudged down a tick as it sold 6.3 million fewer phones than in the previous year. While the company’s premium phone models, notably the Galaxy S10 and S10+, remain popular, Samsung is losing ground lower down the market.

Huawei is the big winner. The company continued its surge that has propelled it past Apple in terms of unit sales. Year on year sales are up 50 percent. In the twelve months to March 2019 Huawei moved to 19 percent market share. That is closing on Samsung’s 23 percent and comfortably in front of Apple’s 12 percent.

This strong growth took place before sales of the recently announced P30 and P30 Pro models could influence numbers. Based on a comparison of the P30 Pro and the Samsung S10 , Huawei may get nearer to Samsung’s share in the coming months.

Worldwide phone shipments

Company1Q19 vol1Q19 share1Q18 vol1Q18 sharechange
1. Samsung71.923.1%78.223.5%-8.1%
2. Huawei59.119.0%39.311.8%50.3%
3. Apple36.411.7%52.215.7%-30.2%
4. Xiaomi25.08.0%27.88.4%-10.2%
5. Oppo23.17.4%24.67.4%-6.0%
5. Vivo23.27.5%18.75.6%24.0%
Others72.123.2%91.927.6%-21.5%
Total310.8100.0%332.7100.0%-6.6%
Figures from IDC, numbers in millions

Apple phone sales fall

Apple’s four percent fall in market share represents something of a sea-change, but is not as dramatic as it is viewed in some quarters. The company’s share price actually rose after it announced its annual results overnight. Apparently iPhone sales were not as dire as expected. The company aims to make up some of the lost revenue from selling services.

We don’t see much of the fourth and fifth brands in New Zealand. Samsung and Apple dominate the New Zealand market with Huawei challenging for a place at the top table. After that, it’s all rats and mice.

For the record Xiaomi’s market share dropped almost half a percent to eight percent. Vivo added two percent of market share taking it to 7.5 percent. Oppo, which is active in New Zealand, was flat and is now in sixth place with a 7.4 percent market share.

Most of the analysts commenting on the results focused on the way consumers are no longer as quick to upgrade phones to the latest models. This makes a lot of sense. A phone should last from three to four years and, advances in photography aside, today’s phones are often not much better than three-year old models.

When new people enter the phone market, they are no longer coming in at the top, but are buying lower priced models from Chinese brands.