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.

nokia 8 showing Zeiss lensA decade ago Nokia accounted for almost half the mobile phones in use. Within a handful of years it was irrelevant.

Today Nokia is back. Sort of. A little-known Finnish company called HMD Global has the name rights. HMD sells four Nokia models; the Nokia 3, 5, 6 and 8. Not much imagination went into those names.

The 3, 5 and 6 models are low-end Android phones. The Nokia 8 is the flagship, although at NZ$1000 it is up against other phone makers’ mid-range handsets.

Cameras, bothies

Nokia’s marketing makes much of the 8’s camera. The phone has one differentiating hardware feature that makes it stand out from the pack.

It can take pictures with the front and rear cameras at the same time. Nokia calls this ability the ‘bothie’. Yuck, more awful try-hard-to-be-cute-but-fail jargon.

No doubt the bothies feature will entrance some users. Others will see it as a gimmick.

Camera’s were always a big deal with the Nokia Lumia phones that used Microsoft Windows. Nokia’s problem is that every other phone maker also thinks flagship handset cameras are a big deal.

Zeiss inside

HMD worked with Carl Zeiss to develop the Nokia 8 cameras. Nokia worked with the same company for the Lumia phones.

There are two 13 megapixel camera sensors on the back of the phone. One shoots colour, the other monochrome. We’ve seen this before on the Huawei P10. There’s a two-colour flash and the aperture is f/2.0.

If you’re feeling arty, you can take monochrome shots. There’s also a bokeh mode, which is run of the mill on today’s phones.

The same 13MP colour sensor is on the front of the phone. Unlike most front facing cameras this one includes auto-focus. If you think this sounds familiar, we’ve seen it before on the Samsung S8. The Nokia 8 version is a little more polished, but we’re talking nuances here, not a great leap forward.

This is what delivers the ‘bothie’. Nokia’s marketing says the both allows you to tell the whole story. That is you can take photos and videos of yourself while also shooting whatever is on front of you.

Side by side

When using bothie mode, the two images appear side-by-side on the phone’s screen. In practice it’s isn’t easy to use. Using bothies is more work than most people like.

That’s not to say you can’t use this feature. Most buyers will try it once or twice then park it for later, which could mean never. The camera software doesn’t help. There are few settings for more advanced users. That’s strange because advanced users are the ones who will want to get to grips with the hardware.

On the plus side, the Nokia 8 has good quality sound recording. The marketing material refers to Nokia Ozo spatial 360 audio. Whatever that is. There are three built-in microphones. In theory you can add external ones, although I never found out how this works.

In practice you can record reasonable video of yourself with the front camera and microphones. I can see how that might work for me as a journalist if I wanted to do an on-the-spot report direct to-camera. It would work for someone making a video journal.

Nokia difference?

If HMD thinks the ‘bothie’ and the camera are different enough from what you find on rival premium smartphones, then good luck with that. In practice you can’t do much that you couldn’t do almost as well, even easier on a Samsung S series phone. Or on an iPhone. No doubt some people will master the Nokia technology and do wondrous things. Nine out of ten buyers won’t get close.

Nokia 8HMD has a much sounder and practical point of difference with the Nokia 8 software. This may sound contradictory when I tell you that HMD has, more or less, left Android alone. Most of the time you get a pure Android experience. There are no annoying overlays.

That in itself is a positive. There is an even more important reason for liking HMD’s hands-off approach to Android. It means you’ll get regular software updates.

This is a nightmare with most Android phones. Usually important software updates are late or never come at all. Apart from anything else, it means phones can become insecure. Not updating bugs and other flaws is dreadful, disrespectful customer service.

For this reason alone, the Nokia 8 is a good idea for anyone who wants a phone that is a serious work tool.

Nokia 8 is pure Android

But, as they say in advertisements, there’s more. The pure Android experience is better than you might think. If you’ve spent the last few years with TouchWiz, Emui or another overlay, it is a treat. There is no bloatware.

I was going to say there’s no rubbish software. But that’s not true. During the review pop-up messages asked me to rate the phone out of so many stars. There’s enough of that passive-aggressive nonsense from second-rate apps.

This undermines, but doesn’t invalidate, the pure Android claims. It is enough to put me off the new Nokia. You may feel otherwise.

Look, feel, hardware

The Nokia 8 looks and feels nice enough. It’s faintly retro, we’re talking two or three years here, not a throwback to Nokia’s glory days. Although if you are nostalgic for that, you can use the famous Nokia ring tone.

HMD hasn’t gone for the curved screen used by Samsung. Nor will you find the near zero bezels popular elsewhere. The camera lens does have a bump, but it’s not asymmetric like on the iPhones.

Ring tone aside, you won’t turn heads with the Nokia 8. It looks like a generic phone. The phone feels fine. It is light and thin in the hand. The review model is in a polished dark blue case. It isn’t water proof. The fingerprint sensor sits below the screen, which suits most people.

Nokia 8 verdict

HMD position the Nokia 8 as a premium Android phone. Yet it is well behind the best from rivals like Samsung, Huawei and Sony. It’s not a patch on this year’s or last year’s iPhones either.

It looks and feels more like a premium phone than most mid-range models. That is until you start using it. It’s a good phone, not a great one.

Which means it is another mid-range phone although prettier than most. Even so, at NZ$1000, it is one of the most expensive mid-range phones around. At NZ$800 it would be a sure-fire winner, without a price cut it is going to stay an also-ran. Nokia’s comeback looks unlikely to set the market on fire.

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Nokia 8There’s a Nokia 8 phone vibrating on the desk in front of me. Soon I’ll write a potted review of my experience with the phone. For now, let’s tease you with this: My first impressions are favourable.

Nokia’s new phones use Android. It makes sense. The phone operating system is popular. Android runs on about four out of five phones.

Android’s popularity brings two things to Nokia. First, it means familiarity, at least for most customers. There’s still a little learning to do, but not much. It’s not like, say, the jarring switch from iOS or Android to the Blackberry 10 operating system.

Or the less jarring but still non-trivial move from Android to iOS or vice versa.

It’s about the apps

More important, Android means Nokia phone buyers get access to a huge phone app library. Almost every important phone app is available on Android.

So from day one you can Facebook, Tweet or Instagram to your heart’s content. You can also do important or useful things.

Nokia last phone series used Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system. The first rebooted Microsoft phone operating system was Windows Phone 7.

As phone operating systems go, Windows Phone 7 was brilliant. We can argue whether it was better or worse than Android and iOS. At the time it was at least on a par with the two more popular OSs for operating a handheld device.

Windows Phone 8 wasn’t quite as good. But then nor was desktop Windows 8 as good as Windows 7. By that time Microsoft lost the plot and added unnecessary complexity and flexibility. This may have appealed to geeks. For the rest of us it made an otherwise simple, elegant user interface harder to understand and use.

Momentum

The fatal flaw with Windows Phone wasn’t technical. It was that it never gathered enough momentum for take off. There were reasons for this. Not least Microsoft charging phone makers for the software. Google’s Android was free.

This lack of market momentum meant fewer app developers got behind Windows Phone. And when they did, they didn’t prioritise updating, refreshing or even fixing apps.

The lack of apps lead to a vicious cycle. It was a reason not to choose a Windows Phone, which made the pool of app customers smaller again. And so on.

Nokia’s parent company sold the phone business to Microsoft. That did little to change things.

Microsoft failed to capitalise on the excellent integration between Windows Phone and desktop Windows. This integration is something that continues to sustain the iPhone even though Macs are far less popular than Windows PCs.

Microsoft failed Windows Phone in many other ways. It failed to invest in development and seed third-party developers — something it did to great effect with desktop Windows.

The rest is history.

At the time Microsoft was still selling phones in reasonable numbers some argued a switch to Android could save the phone business.

That was never going to happen at Microsoft. For a variety of reasons, some good, some bad.

Putting aside politics and pride, there’s one overwhelming reason why Android was a bad idea.

Money

No-one at the time was making money from selling Android phones. Every Android maker other than Samsung was losing vast sums. Samsung was making a tiny margin and didn’t manage that every year.

That’s changed. Samsung now makes better margins on Android phones, although they are still small compared to Apple iPhone margins. Sony trimmed its Android business to the point where it is profitable again. At least two other Android phone makers, Huawei and Oppo appear to be making money selling phone hardware.

How about Nokia’s new owner, can it make a profit selling Android handsets?

It’s too soon to say for certain. As suggested at the top of this post, the phones are more than good enough. They cost somewhere between the middle and premium part of the Android phone market. They should sell.

Nokia passes the product quality test, but that’s not enough. Its Lumia phones were great quality yet didn’t sell in big enough numbers.

Whether they sell in profitable volumes is another question. The Android phone market is beyond saturated. They are still too many brands chasing customers. Samsung, Sony, Huawei, Oppo and a handful of Chinese brands and non-brands fight for every dollar.

Almost every 2017 midrange or premium phone is good. I can’t think of a single bad one. So Nokia’s prospects come down to things like its brand cachet, its distribution channels and its marketing. All these have to hum for the comeback to work.

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