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

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

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

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

For me, productivity is everything

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

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

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

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

Walled garden

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

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

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

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

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

Apple isn’t perfect

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Multilayered cameras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artificial intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Less work

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

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

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

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

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

Long exposure at night

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

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

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

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

P20 Pro feel

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

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

Verdict: Huawei P20 Pro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone else should at least consider the R11s.

R11s hardware

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

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

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

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

Display

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

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

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

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

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

Inside

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

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

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

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

Camera

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

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

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

Niggles and verdict

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

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

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

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Huawei nova 2iYou don’t need to spend the thick end of NZ$2000 to get a decent phone. The NZ$500 Huawei Nova 2i gives you three-quarters of a modern high-end phone for a quarter of the price.

Huawei offers powerful high-end phones. Unlike its rivals it also offers credible choices for those of us who don’t want, or can’t afford to pay for an expensive phone.

There are compromises, you always expect that if you pay less. Yet there isn’t much you can do on a high-end Android phone that you can’t do on a Nova 2i.

Most people buying a phone in this class aren’t too interested in the technical specs. They want to know what the phone can do. We’ll get there in a minute. But first, and for the record, here’s what the NZ$500 asking price buys.

Nova 2i specifications:

The Nova 2i comes with Android 7; that’s the Nougat edition. It includes an eight core Huawei Kirin 659 processor, 4GB of ram and 64GB of storage. The screen is 5.9-inches.

There’s fingerprint sensor and a 3,300 mAh battery. The Nova 2i has dual lens cameras on the front and back. The front camera has a 13 megapixel sensor, the back camera is 16 megapixels.

In rough terms the specification list compares loosely with the technology packed in a high-end Android phone eighteen months to two years ago. Something like the Huawei P8.

Good enough

While it doesn’t scream along, in practice the processor and ram are good enough to run almost every mainstream Android app you’ll come across. It will certainly run every worthwhile game.

You may need to choose more conservative display settings to keep demanding apps running smoothly, but they will run. All business tasks should be a breeze.

The modest chip and ram are not quite up to the job of recording 4K video. It works, but the results are sometimes patchy. Maybe with practice you’ll learn to work around the limitations.

If 4K video is important to you, then you may need to buy a more expensive phone. Huawei says the phone can shoot 4K at 30 frames per second. While that may be technically true, it is optimistic.

Nougat

Android 7 (Nougat) is the last but one version of Google’s phone operating system. Which means, like the hardware, the phone’s software is about two years behind the market’s high-end. That’s the second compromise you have to make to save $1000 off the price of a new high-end phone.

Phone makers are not always good at providing Android software upgrades. Huawei is one of the worst offenders in this area. Choose the Nova 2i if you are certain you can live with Android 7 for the foreseeable future. Most people can, but security may get a little hair-raising at times. You’ll need to take care.

Huawei loads its own EMUI software skin. It’s OK as Android skins go, but, let’s put it this way: no-one aspires to own an EMUI phone. It’s something you are stuck with. If you feel confident, you can swap EMUI for third-party software, but Android skins are all equally imperfect.

Looks and feels like a posh phone

While the Huawei Nova 2i isn’t going to turn heads, it is far from ugly. Nor does it look cheap. Anyone looking at the phone might take it for an expensive model.

It feels fine, not perhaps as smooth and comfortable as a phone costing $1000 more, but there’s nothing wrong here. The Nova 2i feels better than the $700 Oppo R9s.

The phone’s screen has the 18:9 aspect ratio. That means it is a little longer or taller than most other phones with the same screen size. There’s next to no bezel, which seems to excite phone makers more than users. It’s curvy, light and comfortable.

Display

Huawei has used a 1080 by 2160 pixel display. That’s a lot more than you’ll find on any other low-to mid-price phone. It doesn’t compare with the high-end, but it’s more than good enough.

While the cameras deliver decent images, they don’t compare with more expensive phones. Unless you have a thing about image quality you may not notice or care. The one dodgy area is taking shots in low light conditions. Performance there is ordinary.

Battery performance is solid. The phone can go two days between charges if you don’t push it too hard. There is no NFC, some people may find that is a deal breaker.

Verdict

If the above comments seem lukewarm at times, that’s because most of the time we’ve compared a NZ$500 phone against models that cost NZ$1500 and up. For the money it is a bargain, it delivers more than rival models in the same price range.

What you get is, in effect, a brand new phone that’s the functional equivalent of a two-year-old flagship phone for about the same price as a second-hand version of the same thing.

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Huawei Mate 10Huawei’s marketing wants to tell you about the artificial intelligence features built into the Mate 10 phone. Its AI technology is impressive, but that’s not the best reason to choose the phone over its closest rivals.

The Huawei Mate 10 is a first-class Android phone that, at NZ$1100, also represents good value for money. There’s also a $1300 Mate 10 Pro model with a larger screen.

When it comes to performance, the Mate 10 is the match of anything from Samsung. On a good day the phone’s technology may even turn heads away from Apple’s iPhone.

The front of the phone has that now familiar all screen look. There are thin bezels at the side and minimal case sections surrounding the screen at the bottom and top of the front. It looks a lot like a Samsung Galaxy S8, but with fewer curves.

Modern look

It looks good and is distinctly modern. Yet it isn’t quite as pretty as the latest Samsung Galaxy S8 or the iPhone X. It feels better in the hand and has a higher quality finish than the cheaper Oppo range of phones.

You could say the same about the screen. It’s a 5.9-inch display with full HD. It looks great, but again, it isn’t quite as outstanding as the best from Samsung or Apple. Even so, the blacks are dark and the colours are vivid. Images are beautiful. You can view the screen from wide angles.

One thing Huawei shares in common with Samsung and Apple is that it makes its own chips. This gives all three an edge over their rivals. For the technically-minded, the Mate 10 has a Kirin 970 processor with eight cores. For the rest of us, that means powerful by phone standards.

It also means built-in artificial intelligence processing. That’s a must-have in a 2017 premium phone.

Fast

In practice the phone is fast. Apple phones always feel silky smooth in everyday performance, but some Androids struggle to keep up when pushed. The Huawei Mate 10 coped with everything a normal user might throw at a processor with aplomb.

Much of the phone’s artificial intelligence takes place in the background. The Mate 10 learns your behaviour, then queues the apps you’re most likely to choose next so they load faster. The AI also helps with photography.

Long, long battery life

The Mate 10’s superpower is battery life. According to the marketing material, there is a 4000 mAh high-density battery. This is more battery than you’ll find on most other phones. Huawei says it is the same amount of power as you’ll find on a tablet.

On top of that, Huawei has software that adapts battery use to the phone owner’s usage patterns to squeeze out even more life. Huawei says that means over a day’s heavy use and two days normal use. In testing it easily achieved those claims.

Typically the Mate 10 can go around 50 hours before needing a top-up. Many other Android phones struggle to get to 30 hours. For some people that is a good enough reason to buy a Mate 10 without looking at anything else.

Software, cameras, intelligence

Like Samsung, Huawei thinks it can improve on the raw Android software experience. It uses something called the Emotion UI. You can tinker with the software to a ridiculous degree and, if you prefer, can wind everything back so it looks like a straight Android phone. Tinker more and it can look like iOS.

Every premium phone maker will tell you they have the best camera. In a sense, they are all right. Each has its own pluses and minuses. If you are fussy about phone photography, you should spend your time researching and, where possible, testing the alternatives before choosing.

The Huawei Mate 10 Pro has the latest Leica dual camera. They’ve all been impressive, but this iteration is by far the best so far. The rear pairs a 12-megapixel colour camera with optical image stabilisation with a 20-megapixel monochrome camera.

Fast lenses

Both have fast f/1.6 lenses. The two work in tandem, the arrangement boosts detail and captures the best colour. It all works well in most lighting conditions.

This is where the artificial intelligence can come into play. The processor can detect the scene being shot and adjust settings accordingly.

It doesn’t always make the choices a skilled human might, but the results can be outstanding. The only negative is that the sheer number of shooting modes and photography features takes a lot of time to master. Far more time than a product review like this.

Huawei Mate 10 verdict

You are unlikely to be disappointed with any late 2017 premium phone. They are all good. The Mate 10 ticks most of the same boxes as its rivals but will leave you with hundreds of dollars in your pocket. On that basis alone it has to be considered.

The Mate 10 doesn’t have wireless charging, which is unlikely to be a deal breaker for most readers. On the plus side the long battery life means less emphasis on charging anyway. It also charges quickly, the battery goes to half a full charge in a little under 30 minutes.