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review

AF56W wireless headphones from Audiofly: Review

Audiofly’s AF56W is another take on the Bluetooth wireless headphone. Here I look at the updated mark II version. 

Now the 3.5 mm jack socket is an endangered species, Bluetooth wireless headphones are the way to go. At NZ$200, the Audiofly AF56W is an expensive option, but not at pricy as Apple’s AirPods 2 which cost another NZ$80.

The money buys a pair of in-ear headphones connected to each other by a Cordura fibre-braided cable. There’s a built-in microphone and a basic controller on the cable.

Elsewhere in the box is a selection of tips so you can get the headphones to better fit your ears. There’s also a magnetic charger on a micro-USB cable and zip case that Audiofly says is waterproof.

Interesting twist

Connecting the two headphones with a cable is an interesting twist. Audiofly says this makes it harder to lose the headphones. Maybe. There have been reports of people losing Apple AirPods, so it could be a useful feature.

However a funny thing happened when I was preparing to write this review. I temporarily lost the AF56W. So, the cord is not that helpful.

The cord is about 400mm. You can adjust the actual length with a clip device at the centre of the cord. At first I wore the headphones with the clip under my chin, which looks dorky. Then I figured it works better when the cord goes around the back of your neck.

Hard to lose the AF56W

While I didn’t have problem with the buds falling out of my ears, more about that in a moment, the cord means they won’t drop to the floor if that happens.

You’d have to be unlucky for both to be dislodged at the same time. This means the AF56W might be a better choice of headphones if you want to listen to music during a vigorous run or workout.

Audiofly’s choice of tips means you get a better fit. That’s important because the headphones don’t have noise cancelling. Instead you have to rely on a tight fit to reduce ambient noise.

The box says the batteries are good for eight hours. That’s pushing it a little. In testing I found seven hours was about all I could get.

Charging takes 90 minutes according to the information on the box. That squares with my experience. It’s nothing like as easy as the Apple AirPod charging arrangement.

Audiofly AF56W headphones magnetic charging

The magnetic charging pad on the cord snaps onto a connector that, in turn links to a 300mm micro-USB cable. The other end of the cable has a standard USB plug, so you might be able to charge the headset from your PC or laptop. I used a phone charger. But the 300mm cable means I had to leave everything on the floor next to a power socket.

That’s far from ideal. Although micro-USB is still fairly common, the move to USB-C means the AF56W could get left behind.

Sound quality

Enough of the details. How do the headphones sound? I found them to be surprisingly good. There’s clear blue water between the sound quality of the AF56W and the cheaper earbuds. That must be down to the 13mm neodymium driver — I read that from the blurb on the box.

Music comes across far better than the spoken word. There’s enough at the top and the bottom to fill out a wide range of music. After hours of listening I can’t tell you if the sound is better or worse than Apple’s AirPods. I can tell you they sound different.

One area where the AF56W lags AirPods is dropouts and glitches. I get almost none on the AirPods, quite a few on the Audiofly headphones even when I’m only a metre or so away from the phone, laptop or tablet.

Another oddity is the spoken voice used to tell you the phones are connected. It’s been recorded at a low bit-rate so it sounds glitchy, which is a bad advertisement for the actual sound quality.

Audiofly AF56W verdict

At NZ$200 the AF56W headphones are expensive. More so considering there is no noise cancellation. Mind you, the sound is noticeably better than you’d find on low cost Bluetooth headphones.

That said, the product and the experience feels cheaper and not as complete as Apple’s AirBuds. In terms of overall quality, ease of use and so on that extra NZ$80 for the Apple alternative starts to feel like a bargain.

In other words high-end audio, mid-range user experience at price somewhere between the mid-range and high-end.

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mobile review

iPad Mini review: Size is its charm

Apple’s fifth generation iPad Mini packs the power of the iPad Air in a smaller case. That compact size is the secret of the Mini’s appeal.

You may wonder if there’s a market for a 7.9-inch iPad when you can buy a 6.5-inch iPhone. After all, the iPhone XS Max is almost a tablet.

Apple say iPad Mini sales have been steady since the format was first introduced. It’s not for everyone, yet some people who like the Mini are fanatic about their favourite tablet.

One reason is the cost. At NZ$680, the base model iPad Mini costs less than one-third the price of the cheapest iPhone XS Max. It’s not the cheapest iPad, but it’s good value.

Sweet spot

Price is not the only explanation for the Mini’s popularity. The size hits an important sweet spot.

At 7.9-inches, Apple’s 2019 iPad Mini comes in about halfway between the iPhone XS Max and the 10.5-inch iPad Air.

While having a bigger screen than a phone is an advantage, the iPad Mini is still small and light. It weighs 300 grams. It’s handy and very portable.

At a pinch you can fit it in a pocket. OK, a big pocket. Cargo pants could come back into fashion to accommodate iPad Minis. It also slips into a handbag or any other bag. You can hide it in a car glove compartment.

Pythagoras understood

We measure screen sizes across the diagonal. Thanks to Pythagoras’ theorem a 7.9-inch display has 50 percent more viewing area than a 6.4-inch screen. In other words, it’s a big leap.

Among other reasons, the iPad Mini is the right size for people who work on the move. Think of police officers or health professionals. It helps that most people can grip it in one hand.

IPad mini fits one hand

I also find typing on the larger iPad Mini glass keyboard is easier than tapping on a phone screen. That’s because I’m a big bloke with big fingers.

Thumb typing

Apple’s bigger 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard works well when laid flat. The Mini keyboard is at its best when vertical. If you hold it up with your hands and hit the keys with your thumbs.

The action is like phone typing, but there’s more room.

This is an effective way of typing when you’re on a crowded bus, train or airplane. I haven’t had the chance to test it on a plane yet. I’m sure if I did I could be productive even in a cramped seat.

The extra screen real estate makes it better than a phone for reading complex information and maps or for inspecting photos. It’s roughly the same size as an e-book reader like the Kindle.

iPad Mini beats phone for web

There’s no question the iPad Mini does a better job of displaying every kind of web or app content better than a phone.

Although you can, at a pinch, run side-by-side apps on the iPad Mini, that’s not its strength. In practice I found I only ever used one app at a time.

In all other respects except the screen, the new iPad Mini uses the same technology as the current iPad Air model. It even has the same A12 chip as the iPhone XR. That means there’s a lot of computing power.

There’s a laminated screen, support for Apple Pencil and True Tone. The last of these means the iPad will adjust screen whites to compensate for lighting conditions. Apple says you get 10 hours battery life. We found that’s about right when we tested the Mini.

Lightning strikes

A couple of quirks: there’s a headphone jack and a lightning port for charging. New Apple devices don’t all have the jack and prefer USB-C over Lightning.

At times the Mini feels more like a big phone than a small iPad1.

The new iPad Mini costs NZ$680 for the basic wi-fi model with 64GB of storage. Boosting the storage to 256GB takes the price to NZ$929. Adding cellular puts another NZ$120 on the price. You might also consider the Apple Pencil at NZ$160.

iPad Mini verdict

My few niggles with the 2019 iPad Mini are minor. The design is the same as seven years ago. There’s less screen and more bezel, the case edges around the screen, than on more modern looking iPads. It also supports the old first generation Apple Pencil, not the new version.

Should you buy the iPad Mini? It’s not the right thing to buy if you’re looking for a laptop replacement. If that’s your goal, get an iPad Air or a iPad Pro model.

If you want a tablet for reading and writing while you’re on the go, it’s ideal. The iPad Mini is a good choice for taking notes and consuming media. It’s also a great upgrade for owners of long-in-the-tooth first generation iPad Minis. I suspect this will follow its ancestor to become another classic.


  1. For perspective, Huawei’s Mate X folding phone has an eight-inch screen. ↩︎
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mobile review

AirPods 2: Apple’s clever wireless headphones get tidy tweak

Longer battery life, new charging case, hands-free Siri. AirPods 2 are a refreshed version of Apple’s popular wireless earphones.

From the outside, you’d be hard pressed to tell Apple’s updated AirPods from the model they replace. The two look identical.

Identical looks mean they also have an identical fit. If AirPods didn’t sit comfortably in your ears last time around, the new model changes nothing. Likewise if you had a problem with them falling out your ears, that’s still going to plague you1.

There’s also no discernible difference between the sound on the new and old models when it comes to playing music. You still get a full, clear sound.

A single AirPod

AirPods 2: Good sounds

The bass is not too heavy and the treble stays under control. You don’t get mentally exhausted by jangling highs. All the music I tried sounded crisp. The AirPods pick up a surprising amount of detail. They cope well with a range of musical genres.

There’s no active or passive noise cancellation and the AirPod design does little to block out excessive background noise. I haven’t had an opportunity to test them on a flight yet, but they work well on public transport.

When AirPods first appeared, I passed because recently purchased fancy noise cancelling over-the-head headphones. While the headphones are still more comfortable for long listening sessions, upwards of, say a couple of hours, the pods are so light and unobtrusive that, at first, it’s almost like you’re not wearing anything at all.

Upgraded chip

Apple says the newer AirPods 2 have an upgraded chip which improves performance in some areas: Longer battery life for voice phone calls, faster switching between devices and lower latency.

Because I’m new to AirPods I can’t tell you if the experience is better. What I can tell you is the experience is easily as good as I’ve had from other bluetooth speakers, earbuds and headphones.

With the earlier AirPods you had to double tap to launch Apple’s Siri voice interface. Now you can start the app by saying “Hey Siri”. This is how it works with the iPhone, iPad and Mac. While I’m too embarrassed to do this in public, it works well. Telling Siri to play your music choices is a useful feature when your hands are busy.

Like the earlier AirPods, your music will automatically pause if you remove one from an ear.

Qi charging

The wireless charging case work with Qi. This is a standard, you’ll find it on some iPhones and Androids. It means you can use the charging pads you already have to give your AirPods more juice. In practice it works well, although it isn’t fast.

It takes between three and four hours to fully charge the AirPod case using wireless and around two hours if you stick with the lightning connector.

AirPods show the best of Apple’s approach to technology. In use they are radically simple, so simple and easy to use they merge almost seamlessly into the background of daily life. After a few days you almost forget what life was life before you had them.

AirPods 2 verdict

There are few reasons to upgrade from first generation AirPods and even fewer if you’re not going to use wireless charging. That said, there are stories that ageing AirPods suffer from worn-out batteries, so there will be upgraders.

If you’re the kind of person who aims to impress by owning the latest fashionable kit you’ll be disappointed. While AirPods are something of a fashion accessory, there’s no extra kudos showing off the latest version.

One weakness; AirPods don’t fit everyone and they can fall out of your ears if you are active.

They’re not cheap at NZ$350 for a pair of AirPods 2 with a wireless charging case or NZ$280 for the non-wireless case. Yet, you’ll struggle to find better wireless earphones. They have plenty of battery life and the sound is as good as you’ll find anywhere else.


  1. If you are new to AirPods and wonder if they will fit, there’s an easy way to find out. The earpieces are more or less than same size and shape and those on the wired earbuds that come with iPhones. So long as they fit your ears, AirPods will be fine. ↩︎
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productivity review

Huawei P30 Pro review: More camera than phone

More a pocket camera with phone features than a mobile with a camera, the Huawei P30 Pro pushes the Android handset envelope further than any rival.

Huawei’s P30 Pro is the first phone with 5x optical zoom. It’s also the first to feature four cameras on the back. That’s five cameras all up when you also count the front facing selfie-camera. You get a lot of camera.

This should not come as a surprise. Cameras have been the key battleground for premium phone makers in recent years.

That’s because it is an area that has, until now, remained ripe for further improvement. Most other aspects of phone design are starting to look like dead-ends. One notable exception to this is Huawei’s Mate X folding phone.

All phone makers emphasise their camera prowess. Huawei pushes its skill a little harder than its rivals. The company has two main premium phone ranges; the business-oriented Mate series phones and the P series which is all about photography.

Huawei P30 Pro – everything up-to-date

When it comes to photography, the P30 Pro is, in effect, a physical compendium of all the latest digital camera trends in a phone-size box.

This year’s standout feature is the 5x optical zoom. It is more than any rival can offer. The most I’ve seen to date on a phone is 2x optical zoom.

Huawei P30 Pro periscope
A periscope makes better use of space inside the phone.

Adding 5x zoom to a phone relies on a complex periscope arrangement. To get that kind of zoom you need some depth, that’s hard to find in a phone that’s only a few millimetres thick, so Huawei used a prism to build a periscope through the inside of the phone.

The optical technology took me unawares. Periscopes are hardly new, but they are often big. Who even knew it was possible to fit a useful one inside a handheld phone and still leave enough room for everything else?

Leica

Less surprising is the Huawei P30 Pro’s array of four Leica cameras. Anyone who saw what happened to the razor blade market will know that was always on the cards from the day phone makers all had three camera models. It’s a more-is-more philosophy.

Lens number four is smaller than the others. It’s a depth-sensing time-of-flight camera. It should give better results with portrait images. The depth maps do a better job of separating the subject of a photo from the background. You get a better, more natural looking bokeh effect.

Huawei says it also plans to use this camera later with augmented reality applications. At this point I should offer a few words of caution. Phone makers are often not good at delivering on “we’re going to add this feature later” promises.

The main camera has 40-megapixel and there’s also a 20-megapixel ultra wide angle camera.

Super spectrum

Huawei adds what it calls a SuperSpectrum sensor. Most sensors divide light into red, green and blue. The SuperSpectrum sensor adds yellow to the mix. This lets in a lot more light, Huawei says up to 40 percent more. More light means better performance in low-light conditions.

The 5x optical zoom does what the name tells you. But it enables more zoom options. You can work the cameras together to get a 10x hybrid zoom mode. Push things further and there’s a an option to go all the way to 50x digital zoom.

Software

What amounts to a considerable amount of advanced camera hardware is neatly topped off with a serving of clever photography software. All phone makers talk about their devices using artificial intelligence. That’s not strictly true, not in the sense that the phones are smart enough to learn how to take better picture.

Huawei P30 Pro screenWhat the clever software can do is determine what the camera is pointing at. This could be a face, or a scenic shot with mountains in the background.

Armed with a rough idea of what is in the frame, the software can then adjust the exposure and other parameters. The whole adds up to a new level of phone camera sophistication.

It means in practice that you can often get stunning photos with the P30 Pro. Of course you can still get some naff ones too. But that’s generally down to the talent pushing the shutter button. Mediocre photographers have fewer excuses.

Screen, notch

Away from the cameras, the P30 Pro is a decent premium phone. There’s a 6.5 inch OLED screen. I can’t think of the last time I saw a premium phone screen that wasn’t ‘beautiful’, but this one also qualifies. Huawei has opted for a much smaller notch to house the front camera.

Huawei P30 Pro face recognition and fingerprint reader
Huawei face recognition and fingerprint reader

Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro has 3D face recognition. It’s fast but not a patch on the version Apple uses with the iPhone XS Max. Instead of going down that path with the P30 Pro, Huawei has opted for an in screen fingerprint reader. Maybe I could warm to this over time, but in testing, I found it hard to use and spoiled the overall user experience.

There’s an interesting approach to sound. Instead of an earpiece the front of the front of the phone turns into a speaker. To me this feels like showing off more that genuine innovation. But there you go.

Battery

At the launch function Huawei talked of getting two days battery life from the phone. Well yes, that’s possible if you don’t actually use it.

Realistically you’ll get a long, long working day from it with enough juice to order a cab home late at night. It may still turn on the next day.

In reality you’ll be charging it every night just like every other phone. The good news is that it charges fast. Half an hour gets you to about 70 percent.

Should you forget to turn the power on overnight, you can give it a solid charge while you eat breakfast. Make an extra pot of coffee and go in late if you need 100 percent power.

Huawei P30 Pro verdict

At NZ$1500, the P30 Pro is a big investment for most people. It could be worth the money if you want to spend time mastering the cameras and plan to take a lot of pictures.

If that’s not you, then you’ll find better value elsewhere, including elsewhere in Huawei’s range. You might consider the cheaper and smaller NZ$1100 non-Pro P30. It has a 6.1 inch screen, the same fingerprint scanner and less storage. There are also fewer cameras, only three on the back. It can only do 3x optical zoom.

Expect talk about devices like the P30 Pro putting the final nail in the coffin for standalone digital cameras. When it comes to consumer cameras, that happened a while ago.

The P30 moves the bar a little higher for other cameras. While I’ve found it’s still easier to get better pictures on my digital SLR, I can’t stick that in my pocket. In practice it means I pack the SLR less and less often. We’re quite not at the point of rarely using it yet.

Postscript

When I reviewed the P30 Pro, I charged the phone with a USB-C cable that I already had set up for other devices. In part that was because the phone was supplied with a Chinese power supply.

While packing the phone up to return to Huawei, I tested the supplied USB-2 to USB-C cable. It doesn’t work. This is an example of sloppiness that you wouldn’t expect to find with rival brands and goes some way to explain why Huawei’s core mobile network business faces problems.

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computing mobile review

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018: A journalist’s first impressions

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with PencilThree days in to using the latest Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main computer I canned plans to buy a 2018 MacBook Air.

The new iPad Pro is all the mobile computer I need for journalism on the move.

It’s light. It’s always on and ready to go. It goes all day and then some on a single charge.

Add a SIM card and it’s always connected.

At a pinch it can take photos and video. There’s something uncool about holding up a magazine-sized glass-metal slate to take shots. Yet it works a treat.

The iPad Pro also does a good job recording audio. You can do that without looking like a dork.

Writing, editing

There are great iOS writing tools that work so much better on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on smaller iPads or iPhones.

While I prefer a Markdown editor for my writing, most of my clients prefer to get Word documents. Converting Markdown to Word is easy enough. But on the iPad Pro it’s easy to work in Word and not stuff around with converting files.

For some reason I’m yet to fathom, Word works far better on iOS than on MacOS anyway. On the iPad Pro it’s a far better experience than on any MacBook. At least for my work.

Worth buying

If you think I’m enthusiastic about the new iPad, you’d be right. It’s rare for any new hardware to capture my imagination as much as the last two 12.9-inch iPad Pro models.

They are amazing. Despite the high cost, we’ll come back to that point, they a good investment. I get a fast productivity pay off. So might you.

For my first two days with the iPad I was out-of-town working from a hotel room and cafès. That gave me an opportunity to road-testing the iPad with the kind real tasks that make up my bread and butter. I had a newsletter and a feature to write.

Before going further, I should point out an older 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been my main mobile computer for a year. There have been times when I needed a Mac, few times, but enough to mention.

I’m familiar with the basics of living an iOS only existence. Much of the rest of this post is about my first impressions moving from one 12.9-inch iPad Pro to another.

iPad Pro 2018 showing orientations

Size matters

Size is the most visible change. As the 12.9-inch name makes clear, the screen is exactly the same size as before.

The edges around the screen; bezels in geek-speak, are smaller. This means the iPad is smaller. When looked at in the portrait orientation, the 2018 model is only about 5mm less across its width. It’s height is around 20mm shorter.

In practice this is a bigger deal than you might expect. At the airport on the way home I had to unpack the iPad to go through security. Taking a dozen or so millimetres off the case means I could slip it in an out of my bag with less fuss than my older iPad.

Space is at such a premium when flying that this helps. The smaller 12.9-inch iPad Pro size works better on Air New Zealand tray tables.

It is a few grams lighter too. If, like me, you watch streaming sports coverage on an iPad, it means you can hold the device for longer in a single hand.

I spent part of Thursday and Friday moving from place to place, often cafès, carrying the iPad. It felt more comfortable.

iPad pro 2018 thin

Powerful

Apple uses a faster A12X processor in the newer iPad Pro. You may see this referred to elsewhere as a system on a chip. It is getting on for twice as fast as the processor in last year’s iPad Pro.

You wouldn’t buy an iPad Pro based on something as esoteric as processor speedtests. I’m not going to waste your time discussing benchmarks, they are meaningless for most of us.

Even so, you might choose the new iPad based on what that faster A12X chip means for your productivity.

Raw speed doesn’t make any difference to my writing. I don’t type a Markdown or Word document any faster with a better chip.

The speed comes into its own if you do photo or video editing. Next year, Adobe plans an iPad version of Photoshop. That will push the A12X harder than anything I’m using at the moment.

For now, one bonus of the faster processor is that it runs the Face ID software at a clip. It works in no time.

This means you don’t need a home button, hence the smaller bezels. It also means security is less of a productivity burden. At times I still instinctively reach for the home button, but I suspect that won’t last.

Smart Folio Keyboard

The Smart Keyboard Folio is better than the Smart Keyboard Cover used with the earlier iPad Pro. It still lacks backlighting, which I find essential on a night-time plane flight even though I’m a touch typist.

Speaking of which, I can touch type all the alphabet characters without a problem. Yet I struggle to find the apostrophe key without peeking. In touch typist circles, that feels like cheating.

Likewise, I need to look at the arrow keys use them. The keyboard is exactly the same width as on my old, 2012 MacBook Pro, but shallower.

Keys have a pleasing amount of travel and a comforting click. The typing experience is good. This is more important when you consider Apple’s new MacBook keyboard comes in for criticism. I prefer using the Folio.

Kickstand tease

I’m not excited that Apple now offers two screen angle positions. Microsoft Surface users will jeer that Apple hasn’t gone down the kick-stand route. Long-term happy iPad users will wonder what the fuss is about.

The back part of the Keyboard Folio covers the entire back of the iPad. It would be a little harder to remove in a hurry than the earlier KeyBoard Cover. That’s not a bad thing, my old Keyboard Cover often detached when I didn’t want it to.

Also I slipped and bashed my older 12.9-inch iPad Pro. If that had happened with the newer Folio, it would have protected my tablet.

New Apple Pencil

Apple’s new Pencil is marvellous. I like the way it looks and feels in my hand more than the earlier one which was too shiny and slippery for my taste.

The new Pencil has a far less awkward charging mechanism. You sit it on the top of the screen when the iPad has its keyboard attached in the landscape orientation. While it is there, the Pencil will also pair with the iPad. It feels almost like magic.

When the Pencil is in this place, a strong magnet holds it to the side of the iPad. I walked about 5km around Wellington in windy, wet conditions. The Pencil stayed stuck in place.

Sounds good

Apple has done something remarkable to the speakers. When I first heard them cranked up during a demonstration the clarity surprised me. It’s amazing given the small amount of space the engineers have to play with.

Later when I listened alone, the wide stereo separation was more obvious. There’s enough sound here for two or three people to watch a movie or sports game on the device in comfort.

12.9-inch iPad Pro Issues

I’ve run up against a couple of frustrations. Using WordPress is hard work on the iPad Pro. The WordPress iOS app is incomplete and inconsistent. I usually prefer to use the web to edit and manage my site, but this is difficult on a touch screen device.

WordPress has a poor designed for touch screen users. There’s a simple fix for this, find an alternative to WordPress.

Not having a Touch ID home button presents a minor, very minor challenge at first. I use a couple of apps which don’t always switch off when they are in the background.

With the old home button, clicking it twice gets a screen showing all the active apps. Swipe the misbehaving ones up and they would stop. If I didn’t they chewed through processor cycles or battery life.

Now there’s no button, the double swipe-up gesture is a little harder to use. It could be a case of getting use to it.

iPad Pro 2018 with smart keyboard folio and pencil

Value for money

Make no mistake, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is not cheap. The basic model is NZ$1750. That version only comes with 64GB of storage, which is less than most people will need.

Few users will need to go all the way to the MZ$3049 model with a terabyte of storage. To me even the 512GB for NZ$2350 seems excessive. The sweetest spot is the NZ$2000 model with 256GB.

Adding cellular capability adds NZ$250 to the price. This seems a hefty premium given that you can tether an iPad to a phone in a jiffy. After all, no-one goes out without their phone these days.

Is this a lot to pay? That depends on what you want it for.

If it makes you more productive and lets you work where you otherwise might not. If it makes better use of your travelling time then its a bargain. You’ll recover the price premium in no time.

When you compare the price and performance of an iPad Pro against any laptop, they don’t look like a bad deal. The same goes for comparisons with the Microsoft Surface. For a while I could have gone Surface or iPad Pro. My recent experience puts me in the iPad Pro camp, but, remember, my needs are not your needs.

If you think you can’t justify the price, there’s always the non-Pro iPad. It does most things its big sister can do at a fraction of the price.

Prices start at NZ$540 for a 32GB model. I recommend you either find a little more and get the NZ$700 version with 128GB or accept you’ll move plenty of data on and off your tablet.