web analytics

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is the best foldable phone so far. It flips and folds like phones did 20 years ago. The difference between then and now is that today both halves are part of a full colour touch screen.

My hands-on session with the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip was positive, but I ended by mentioning a potential problem with the phone.

Overseas reports say Samsung put advertising on the phone. That’s on the nose when you pay NZ$2400 for the hardware.

According to Android Police the ads are intrusive and annoying. I decided to check this out.

Ads embedded into key apps

Vodafone ad on browser home page

We’re not talking about the kind of ads you see if you head to a web page on the phone, we are talking about ads in basic phone apps, like the one used to dial calls or get a weather report.

Take the Samsung phone call app. When it loads, a bunch of Yelp ads for cafes and restaurants show up. The choice is weird, many are a long way across town from where I live. The nearest is 19.5km. At a guess, these are the companies who paid someone, possibly Yelp, for the placement.

More worrying in some ways is that the Samsung Galaxy Store shows a gambling advertisement for a Poker app that offers 100,000 chips and 300 coins to get you started. That’s going to be a problem for some people.

The stock web browser opens on a page showing an ad for Vodafone broadband. On the notification page there are advertisements for Spotify.

Advertising everywhere

There are ads everywhere. It’s a reminder of when grasping PC makers loaded up Windows computer with unavoidable crapware that you need to remove before you can work.

Spotify ad on Galaxy Z Flip phone

Except that it doesn’t seem possible to remove, mute or otherwise bypass the ads on the Galaxy Z Flip.

You might expect to see advertising if you use free software like Gmail or the Chrome browser. That’s part of the deal. But this is one of most expensive phones on the market.

It’s another to make me rethink the last thought on my hands-on look at the phone where I said I’d like one of these. Make that, I’d like one if I could get rid of the ads.

Afterthought: Assuming Samsung makes a decent margin selling phones at NZ$2400, it is probably doing its overall business more harm than good when it sells ads. If normal prices apply, the Samsung phone ads can only be worth a few dozen dollars per phone per year, but once word gets out Samsung will lose hardware sales worth hundreds of dollars.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

In February I posted a short note about the then forthcoming Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. This week I got my hands on one.

It is by far the best foldable phone I’ve seen to date. There’s a satisfying feel to the way it folds.

The way the screen copes with being folded again and again is also satisfying. When you hold and fold the Galaxy Z Flip you are not left wondering if you are dealing with classy engineering.

Impressive

The Flip is technically impressive, cool looking and fun to use. Sadly these three qualities do not necessarily make a great phone.

Mind you, no-one can accuse the Galaxy Z Flip of being boring.

Nor can you accuse it of being cheap.

You could spend the NZ$2400 Samsung asks for the Flip elsewhere, even with Samsung1, and get better value for your money.

The cost of folding

Samsung’s much vaunted foldability adds about NZ$1200 to the device price. Which would be fine. Yet it turns out being able to fold the Flip is not always a huge benefit.

Yes, the neatly folded square is about half the length of and the same width as other premium phones. It also happens to be twice the depth.

In other words, the Flip occupies the same volume of pocket space as any other phone. The difference is that Flip redistributes the volume.

It’s fine in the jacket pockets and loose trouser pockets that might otherwise contain a normal size phone. It’s a problem in the tighter pockets that would struggle with bigger phones.

So while folding could be helpful, it might not always be NZ$1200 worth of helpful.

Samsung Galaxy Flip shown with Apple IPhone 7 for size comparison

Flipping futuristic

Despite all of this, I find myself liking the Flip more and more. It feels right. It also feels futuristic.

Let’s not discount that emotive and subjective response. When you buy a phone you commit to spending a lot of time with the device, you don’t want it to not feel right.

One aspect of being able to open and shut a phone is the distance this activity puts between you and the device. This can be positive or negative.

Most of the time I like the fact that it requires more effect to respond to every incoming stimulus. On the other hand, you can’t surreptitiously glance at the screen without others noticing.

The Galaxy Z Flip has been around for months. You can find plenty of in depth reviews elsewhere. Look harder and you’ll find some long term test drives. For what it’s worth here are my observations:

Screen:

The display is tall and narrow. When you turn it sideways to watch a movie you get black bars unless you watch a widescreen version.

In everyday use the crease stays out of the way although I wouldn’t go as far as to say you don’t notice it. You will, but your eyes and brain adjust so it is less of an issue.

Yet, you constantly feel it with your fingers. There’s also a shallow dip at the top above the selfie camera.

External display:

When the phone is folded there is a tiny display on the outside. You can see the time and date without opening the phone. That turns out to be more useful than you might imagine if you don’t wear a watch.

The small screen will show remaining battery life. I’m not convinced that’s much help.

There are notifications on the small screen. They wizz past fast. Often before you can read them.

By double tapping the power button, you can take pictures with the camera without opening the phone. When you do this, the tiny external display works as a selfie viewfinder.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip closed showing small screen

Durability:

Open or shut, there’s a solid feel to the Galaxy Z Flip. It seems robust enough to take the kind of treatment we usually mete out to phones.

Unlike almost every other modern phone you can buy in 2020 there is no water or dust resistance. This could be a problem for many potential buyers.

I also found dirt, pocket fluff and even hair could get trapped in the fold. It’s not clear what that might mean over the long haul. In the short term it isn’t a problem.

Camera:

Phone makers usually make a great song and dance about the cameras on their phones. There’s a feeling in the industry that people choose cameras rather than phones. I’m not convinced of that. Some will. Others won’t.

Samsung has used the same camera technology as the Galaxy S10. It’s good, but not up there with, say, the iPhone 11. Few people will buy the Samsung Galaxy Flip for the camera.

Verdict

Samsung has got screen folding technology right with the Galaxy Z Flip. You get a phone that looks and feels a little ahead of its time. On paper you might not get a huge amount of phone for the price, in practice this matters less than you might expect.

After a few days with the Flip I found myself coming back to it again and again. Yep, I’d like one of these. But there is one problem that I’m saving for another post.


  1. The Galaxy S20 Ultra is $200 cheaper but does more. ↩︎

Vissles wireless charger

One of the earliest memories I have of school is our headmaster coming into our class on occasion and reading stories from his Rudyard Kipling book that must have been as old as he was.

My favourite to this day was “The Elephants Child” and I can still hear the headmaster’s perfect diction when saying words like Limpopo like it was the last thing he’d ever say.

What has that got to do with reviewing an accessory you might say? Well, other than adding a bit of colour to a pretty vanilla product, this review also has a pretty major elephant. We will get to that later.

The product in question is the Vissles Wireless Charger, which is unsurprisingly, a wireless charger.

One charger to power them all

Its main point of difference is that it does something that Apple can’t; it allows you to charge your AirPods, Apple Watch and iPhone with the one accessory. The party piece for this charger is that it only requires one external power connection to charge all three devices.

The actual device is about the size and shape of an iPhone 11 Max if the designer had recently discovered rounded corners and decided to go all in. It’s finished with a futurist white plastic gloss, which should fit in with most decors, if that is your thing.

There is no actual charger supplied, so I’m assuming Vissles decided you’d use your existing Apple Watch charger, which is fair.

The Vissles charger also requires you to insert your Apple Watch cable into its housing. This is also fine, but in my case my Apple Watch cable was about 1 meter too long, so I couldn’t use it. Just be aware of this if you have a long Apple Watch charging cable.

As far as using the charger goes, it does what it says on the box. Charging three devices on something that looks like a surfboard from Star Wars is genuinely gratifying and potentially space saving as well.

Fumble-free

I particularly enjoyed not having to fumble around looking for a charge cable to poke into the bottom on my phone, and being able to have somewhere for my AirPods to “dock” permanently while charging. I can’t fault the Vissles Wireless Charger at all from a form and function point of view.

However, I promised an elephant and here it is: I just can’t workout who this accessory is for?

Sure it’s slightly annoying fumbling around for the free charge cable that came with my phone or headphones. It’s great having a central charging station, but is it something you really need? I guess that’s not for me to decide. If you think you do, then this accessory will fulfil your brief very well.

This review was written by Timaru-based James Sugrue. Who describes himself as coder, author, hardware tinkerer, father, husband and geek. James does a bit of motorsport too.

Apple iPhone SE 2020

Looking for mid-range phone? You’d need to be deep into Android or have an irrational Apple aversion to walk past the 2020 iPhone SE.

For a start it is a bargain at NZ$800. In effect, you get the brain of a 2020 iPhone 11 in the body of a 2017 iPhone 8.

That makes it competitive with a slew of mid-priced Android phones.

Android competitors

The same money would buy the somewhat ordinary Oppo Reno2. Spend another $50 and you could get a Samsung Galaxy S10e. Pay $100 less and you could have a Huawei Nova 5T.

That $800 buys all the power of a top level iPhone costing three times as much.

If you’ve put up with Android because the iPhone was out of your price range, the SE is a get out of gaol card.

It will also appeal to iPhone upgraders who have squeezed years out of earlier models.

High performance

Inside the case you get the same Apple A13 Bionic processor that is used in the iPhone 11. It’s not crippled in any way. You get all that power. It means apps perform much faster than on any other phone in this price range.

There is a small downside. The A13 Bionic processor chews through battery life. You’ll still get 24 hours between charges. The phone comfortably makes it through a working day with plenty left over for leisure. But it doesn’t have the iPhone 11’s ability to go two days without a charge.

Apple only includes a 5W charger in the box with the iPhone SE. That means it takes longer to charge than you might expect. If you have a compatible USB-C charger with a higher rating, it will charge the phone faster.

The iPhone SE does have Qi wireless charging. It’s a little slower than the 5W charger, but not noticeably so.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 colours

iPhone 8 body

Compared with the iPhone 11, the iPhone SE feels small and light. It weighs 148g compared with 194g for the iPhone 11. In practice that’s a bigger difference than you might imagine.

Physically it is much smaller than the iPhone 11. It fits comfortably in my hand and it is just about possible to operate one-handed. That probably means women and people with small hands will struggle.

The iPhone 8 body means you get the familiar home button. And there is Touch ID. It feels solid enough. That light weight, thinness and small size does not mean flimsiness.

Like the iPhone 8, the SE screen doesn’t extend to the top and bottom of the phone front. So there is no need for a notch.

Screen small by 2020 standards

By 2020 standards the amount of screen real estate left over is small. Most modern phones have a screen that extends across the entire front face.

The iPhone SE has a 4.7 inch display which is fine for everyday use. You could watch movies or streaming video, but this is not the best phone and certainly not the best iPhone for that application. Yet it is more than enough for FaceTime or other video calls.

If it’s more than three years since you upgraded you’ll find the design comforting, even familiar.

Usually reviews of mid-range phones talk in terms of compromise. The focus is on what you don’t get when you spend less. It might help to flip this logic on its head and think instead in terms of the extras, say, iPhone 11 buyers get that SE buyers down.

iPhone 8 camera

Apple has used what amounts to the same camera system found in the iPhone 8 in the SE. It is a single lens with a 12-megapixel sensor.

While the camera hardware hasn’t changed from the iPhone 8, the processor and software driving it has. You get all the processing power and intelligence of the iPhone 11.

There are times when it is hard to tell the difference between ordinary day time shots made on the two phones. The detail is good, colours are nicely reproduced.

Things start to diverge in low light conditions. Yet there is clearly more noise than you would find taking the same shot on an iPhone 11. The contrast is less striking and you may need to tinker a little to brighten up images.

The SE does well. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better phone camera at this price. It does especially well with video. You’ll notice the quality difference between this and an iPhone 11, but if you’re coming from any phone that is more than two years old you’ll take much better pictures.

All 2020 iPhones come with the same version of iOS. In this case iOS 13.4 was installed but upgraded to 13.4.1 during setup.

The main difference between using iOS 13.4 on the 11 and the iPhone SE boils down to using the home button instead of the flip up from the bottom gesture on iPhones without a home button. I found this hard going as I had become so used to the new user interface.

A couple of points not covered above. Like all modern iPhones, there is no headphone jack. Apple includes a pair of earbuds with a lightening connector in the box. You can, of course, use Bluetooth headphones with the SE.

iPhone SE 2020 verdict

Apple says the iPhone SE is winning customers from Android. I’ve also seen a lot of talk among New Zealanders who own older iPhone models but don’t want to spend $3000 on a flagship phone, upgrading to the SE.

Both stories make sense. This may not be the most exciting iPhone from a technology point of view, but it is the iPhone a lot of people have been waiting for. Not everyone wants a fancy top-of-the-line engineering marvel. Some people just want a good phone.

For now, it is the best mid-price phone deal on the market. You can’t buy more phone at this price. As it says at the top of this post, if you have $800 to spend on a phone, you’d need to have a good reason to dismiss the iPhone SE.

For the last four or five years camera upgrades have dominated new phone launches. Now Apple is doing the same with the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro which comes with added lidar.

The processor upgrade in the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro is incremental. Apple has done much more with the rear camera. Or, to be more accurate, cameras. The cluster includes two cameras and a lidar sensor.

For the last five years, phone upgrades have centred on beefed up cameras. This follows that path.

The iPad’s main wide angle camera is like the 28mm equivalent camera on the earlier 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It has 12 megapixels. If there’s a performance difference, I can’t see it.

By tablet standards it’s still a great camera although it’s not as good as the camera on the iPhone 11. You wouldn’t expect that.

Apple 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro ultra wide camera

 

 

Second rear camera

There’s also a 10 megapixel ultra-wide angle camera. It’s the first time the iPad has had a second camera. For the most part it helps the iPad Pro take better pictures in poor light conditions.

In practice the two cameras work together much of the time.

Taking pictures with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro is unwieldy compared with the iPhone. Using on screen controls also gets in the way. And it feels a bit odd standing there with a magazine-size device shooting images.

Wide-angle lens

The wide angle lens makes this even harder when focusing on near objects. That’s because a lever effect comes into play, so a small movement moves the camera target a fair distance.

No doubt there are enthusiasts who swear by the iPad Pro camera and do amazing things with it. For me, it is for opportunistic snapshots. I also use the iPad camera as a replacement for a scanner. It does a great job of capturing images sitting on my desk.

On the front of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a seven megapixel camera for selfies and video conferencing. It’s limited when compared to the rear cameras, but is great for FaceTime or Skype calls.

Video conference camera better than laptops

I’ve been using it while working from home. The picture quality is way better than you get on a MacBook or, for that matter, most Windows laptops.1

The only issue with the front camera is that sits at the top of the display when you hold the iPad in portrait mode. This is the same as the camera on an iPhone.

It makes sense when you are using the tablet as a tablet. Yet when it is sitting on your desk, perhaps with an attached keyboard, the camera is off the left hand side.

The software is clever enough to adjust the image so that when you look face on at the iPad in landscape mode, it centres your image. If you want to look people in the eye, you need to remember to stare at the lefthand edge of the display.

Measuring with lidar on a 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro

Lidar

When Apple told me there was a lidar sensor, my first thought that it would gauge depth. This would help with photography. Although that’s possible and, in theory, could be a future software update, it’s not why Apple included the sensor.

For Apple, lidar is all about improving the augmented reality experience. You can use it to accurately measure the space around you.

The iPad has a new iPadOS measuring app that uses this. More often lidar is used in conjunction with augmented realty apps and games. You might, for example, have AR games characters running around your living room.

Lidar technology is used by autonomous and semi-autonomous cars to map the immediate world around them. The iPad version works up to 5 metres which is more than enough inside most homes, but is less useful out of doors.

There’s no question this technology is clever, but I consider it a nice-to-have feature. It is far from essential as things stand right now. That could all change with the arrival of new applications that make use of it. Nothing springs to mind, but if it did I’d be a wealthy software entrepreneur not a journalist.


  1. The iPad Pro video calling experience is vastly better than calling on any laptop. This alone could justify the expense of buying a 2020 iPad Pro. ↩︎