Phone maker Oppo has struck an exclusive deal with 2degrees for a NZ$2400 Lamborghini-branded Android phone. It is this seasons’ most expensive Android phone; at least in New Zealand.

The Find X Automobili Lamborghini Edition is a version of the company’s already-expensive-by-Android-standards NZ$1500 Oppo Find X. The extra $900 buys you a fancy Lamborghini case and bumps the phone’s storage from 256 GB to 512 GB.

A similar storage upgrade with other phone brands costs around $300 to $400. This means, in effect, Oppo and 2degrees want $500 for a luxury case and a little brand cache.

While it may not be official, you can buy external phone case covers with prestige brands printed on them for as little as $5 at places like Glenfield Night Market.

Sure, they’re not made of carbon fibre like the Find X Automobili Lamborghini Edition but come on, $500.

lamborghini-oppo-find-x
That’ll be an extra $900 thank you

Lamborghini exclusive

It is an exclusive deal. Only 2degrees get this model. It will only be on sale for a limited time. I suspect that the other carriers didn’t get into a bidding war for the rights to the Lamborghini Edition.

Oppo isn’t the first phone brand to try attaching its products to a flash car brand. Huawei did something like this with a Porsche branded model. It sank without a trace.

Going by that experience 2degrees and Oppo might struggle to get sales into double figures.

What makes this extra curious is that until now Oppo’s entire sales pitch has been about offering value for money. The company manages to pack about 90 percent of the functionality and features of, say, a top-of-the-line Samsung model into a phone that sells for roughly half the price.

You could say that Oppo is the phone brand for phone owners who aren’t too fussy about brand. That statement may be hard, but it’s fair.

Pricey Oppo

While we’re on this point, Oppo is pushing it asking $1500 for the Find X. Look for a review of that phone on this site in the next few days.

The Find X may have a unique pop-up camera to avoid notches or a large bezel, but that price is on a par with the best phones from better known brands like Huawei and Samsung.

Phone makers have worked to increase prices, in part because profit margins are slender. It’s one thing for an established name to bump prices by $100 or so, but this is getting on for double the price of earlier Oppo models.

After all, this is a brand who’s New Zealand phone sales are measured in hundreds, not tens of thousands.

Which brings us to the point of the wacky Find X Automobili Lamborghini Edition. It isn’t about selling a $2400 phone. Its main aim is to get attention for the Oppo brand. I guess this post proved that strategy worked.

Galaxy Note 9 is now Samsung’s most important phone. It matters because lacklustre Galaxy S9 sales mean falling revenues. A successful Note launch could help reverse that.Two days before the launch I wrote that the Galaxy Note 9 had better be good.How did Samsung do?The Galaxy Note 9 is impressive by any standard. It is, for now, the best Android phone money can buy.That’s the first problem: You need a lot of money to buy it.

Samsung faces intense competition

Rival Android phone makers challenge Samsung. The best deliver almost all the functionality of a Samsung phone for a fraction of the price.Sure the Note 9 takes buyers to places less expensive Androids won’t. Its stylus puts it into a different class to other phones. There is no direct equivalent at any price.That difference means the Note has notorious loyal fans. Many potential Note 9 buyers will be existing owners looking to upgrade.You only have to look at the Galaxy Note 9 to understand why that might be a hard sell.The new phone looks like last year’s Galaxy Note 8. Never mind its new innards. Over the years phone makers have trained buyers to be wowed by showy, cosmetic changes more than a new processor.

Is the Galaxy Note 9 good enough?

On Friday’s showing, the Note 9 may be good enough for Samsung to keep the phone market pole position until tenth-anniversary models arrive next year.If the S10 and Note 10 ranges can deliver signature phones in the same way Apple managed with the iPhone X, then all will be well.From what was on show in Auckland it still looks like a great phone. If the two models were a few hundred dollars cheaper they would be world beaters. If Samsung decides to sharpen its pencil and drop prices later, it could have a winner this Christmas.On the other hand, phone innovation has slowed to the point where customers are holding on to old models for longer. So all bets are off.It’s not clear to me what those notoriously loyal Note users will do. They may upgrade or they may sit this one out and wait for the 10.There’s little to tempt a Note 8 owner to upgrade. The Note 7 was the disastrous exploding phone so there will be few upgrades from that model. If there’s a large backlog of Note 6 owners waiting to move then Samsung could strike gold.

About the phone

Samsung uses glass for the front and back. There are smooth, comfortable feeling curved edges and pressing the bottom right of the phone still ejects the slide-out S Pen. This is all just like the Note 8.It’s fractionally bigger and a tad heavier than the Note 8. That’s to accommodate a slightly larger than last year’s 6.4-inch Amoled screen and a hefty 4,000 mAh battery. Samsung says that’s enough to keep even heavy phone users going all day.Galaxy Note 9 sets new bar for Android phone priceBigger seems to be a theme throughout. There are two versions of the phone: a NZ$1700 model with 128 GB of built-in storage and a NZ$2000 version with 512 GB.

Octo-Core

Samsung uses different processors to power the Galaxy Note 9 in different markets. It didn’t say which chip New Zealanders get but it will be an eight core processor.Phones with 512 GB of storage get 8 GB of Ram, the other phones get 6 GB. To my knowledge the Note 9 is the first phone to get water cooling to stop the processor from over heating.It will also be the first phone to get the Fortnite game. I suspect the target market for Fortnite is not going to drop a couple of grand on a handset.At the launch Samsung made a big deal of the improved S Pen stylus. After all it is what sets the Note aside from every other phone.The stylus now connects via Bluetooth and can be used as a remote to click the camera shutter or do one or two other remote tasks. The model I saw was a bright yellow that contrasted with the navy blue phone. This looks much better than it sounds.Samsung has gone for much the same camera arrangement as the Galaxy S9.  That’s two 12-megapixel cameras with a variable aperture lens and a 2x optical zoom camera on the back.Like everyone else’s camera, the Note 9’s is sprinkled with AI fairy dust so the camera automatically detects what’s being shot and adjusts to compensate.One nice touch is that the Note 9 can work as a desktop computer in much the same way as an S8 and Dex Pad. The difference is that the Note 9 can plug directly into a monitor without the docking station.

Verdict

Samsung says the phone will come with Android 8.1, not the more recent Android 9. It is due to go on sale later this month. In normal times this would give Samsung up to six weeks of sales before the next Apple iPhone appears.The slightly bigger screen is a plus. For me, squeezing 4,000 mAh of battery capacity into a hand-sized device is more of an achievement. The update S-pen will entrance Galaxy Note fans.More storage seems like a good thing. You can bump it up to a Terabyte if you use the microSD slot. Though why you would want to pay extra to do that in an era of low-cost cloud storage is beyond me unless you want to travel with a movie library.While it doesn’t look like a sure-fire hit, it is possible the Galaxy Note 9 will strike a chord with Note loyalists and give Samsung a much-needed 2018 winner. It could just as easily have S9-like disappointing sales. Your guess is as good as mine. But, so long as no rival makes a breakthrough, it is good enough to keep Samsung out in front until next year’s releases.

On Friday Samsung New Zealand will take the wraps off its new Galaxy Note 9 phone. The main event is on Thursday in the US.

By comparison the Auckland affair will be low key.

Almost every time Samsung or Apple holds a major phone launch people say ominous words to the effect that: “there’s a lot riding on this”.

That’s because there often is.

Galaxy S9 disappointment

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 phone, which launched earlier in the year, was beautiful. But it failed to sell in anticipated numbers. So far it has sold 20 percent less than the S8 managed a year earlier.

This means the company needs the Galaxy Note 9 to succeed. In this case success means it has to sell in numbers close to last year’s Galaxy Note 8.

Two flops in a row would be a disaster.

We’ve been here before.

Last year there was a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. That’s because one year earlier the Galaxy Note 7 flopped because of its unfortunate habit of exploding. You couldn’t get an aeroplane without someone reminding you of the danger.

Recovery

Coming back from a public relations nightmare of that magnitude was a feat. Phone buyers were forgiving. At the time it was clear that Samsung had used up a lot of good will.

Another exploding phone would destroy the company’s hope of being a high-end player.

Which brings us to the Galaxy Note 9. To sell it has to offer a more compelling value proposition than phone’s from Samsung’s rivals.

This means two things. It needs to offer buyers considerably more phone than the Galaxy Note 8. A better camera isn’t going to cut it.

Storage

The market rumour is that Samsung will offer more storage than in any other phone. It’s not clear that this will be enough to get people to upgrade.

Maybe that’s what the market wants. More likely, it will be what a market segment wants.

Samsung’s threat is not Apple. There’s little traffic between Android and iOS phone users.

The real problem is rival Android phone makers. In New Zealand this means Huawei, Oppo and Nokia. There are other rival brands overseas

Rivals ready to pounce

Each of the companies mentioned has phones that are arguably either the equal of Samsung’s models or close enough that it makes little difference. But their models sell for hundreds of dollars less than Samsung’s.

Which tells us exactly what could give Samsung the 2018 hit phone it so badly needs: drop prices.

The Samsung brand carries enough weight to justify $100 or more than a Huawei. It’s hard to justify spending hundreds just to get a me-too phone with a posher brand name.

Oppo phones are almost as good and half the price. Nokia has better software.

Galaxy Note 9 has to be more than great

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has to be great. More important, it has to have a tempting price tag.

There are reports of revolutionary Samsung phones in the pipeline.

One model is foldable. Next year’s tenth anniversary Galaxy S10 is rumoured to have a fingerprint reader built into the display. Apparently some people are excited about that.

The Galaxy Note 9 has to be more than a place holder en route to those models. If it is another flop, the brand will lose its lustre and Huawei’s foldable phone and innovative finger reader will relieve well-heeled Android phones of their savings.

This year’s phones are better than last year’s. They alway are. The best phones are great, yet 2018 has not been a vintage year for mobile innovation.

The phone business is in near-stasis. Three years ago phone makers fixed the basic external design of an upmarket modern mobile phone as a near featureless slab of metal and glass.

Things have changed little since. There’s more glass, less metal and a few minor tweaks. Bezels, that’s the bit around the glass, are on the way out.

If phone insides have changed much, it isn’t always clear to everyday users. While today’s processors are more powerful, they didn’t lack power three years ago. It’s been a long time since a premium phone felt slow.

Some phones have better battery life. Yet most still only last for a day before needing a recharge. Some 2018 phones will recharge faster or charge without a cable. Despite the marketing, it’s not that big a deal.

A camera with a phone attached

Cameras are the most significant change in the last three years. And the only one most phone makers talk about.

Today’s best phones sport cameras with more lenses. They have more megapixels and come loaded with more software. You might get three cameras on the back of a phone. In theory you can take better pictures, some of the time. In practice people still use cameras for the same old same old. We could be more creative.

Phone prices crept up in recent years. This is most noticeable at the top end of the range. In general the phone market is more profitable than it was. Consumers don’t care, but they should. Profits pay for research to make better phones.

A few new or revived brand names made a splash. Other phone brands have dropped out of sight. These days you’d be hard pressed to find an LG, HTC or Sony phone in a New Zealand high street store.

Stasis quo

The clearest indicator the phone market is in near-stasis is that there are no compelling reasons to upgrade a 2017 phone for its 2018 version.

You’d get value upgrading a three-year old model. The advances are noticeable, especially with cameras, but also in responsiveness.

It’s hard to justify spending the thick end of two grand to get slow-motion video. Chances are you’ll never use it again after a first test play.

Looking back

This is a good time for a phone retrospective.

The annual phone season runs from mid-year to mid-year. Phone makers launch their most important new flagships in the run up to Christmas. Fourth quarter sales are always highest. That’s when competition is most intense.

New models from Samsung, Apple and Huawei are already in the pipeline. Oppo has at least one more big launch this year. Nokia also has models coming before the end of 2017. These are not the only phones on sale in New Zealand, but the brands account for almost all sales. I’ve only listed phones here that I’ve tested.

Apple, Android

Android and Apple’s iOS are the only two operating systems of note. The two make up more than 99 percent of phones sold in New Zealand.

They exist in two distinct silos. There’s not a lot of traffic from iOS to Android or the other way around. A most a trickle of users switch each year.

For most people reading this, the best phones of the year are either the Samsung Galaxy S9 models or the Apple iPhone X. The first runs Android, the second iOS. They are two of the most expensive models and are the most feature packed.

Samsung Galaxy S9, S9

Samsung almost hit the perfect formula a year earlier with the Galaxy S8 and S8 . The Galaxy NZ$1400 S9 and NZ$1600 S9 are incremental upgrades to the S8 and S8 . The pair fix the minor shortcomings such as weird fingerprint sensor placement.

You get the best screen and most polished finish of any Android phone with the S9 Galaxy models. Battery life could be better, but there’s nothing to complain about here.

The two Samsung Galaxy phones look almost identical to their older counterparts. There are cosmetic changes and improved cameras, otherwise offer nothing fresh or remarkable.

You could say the same of Apple’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus compared with the 7 and 7 Plus models. Yet Apple decided to do something more ambitious with the iPhone X.

iPhone X

The iPhone X the most expensive everyday phone on sale in New Zealand. The design takes the featureless slab further than anyone else. It has a beautiful screen, but then so does every other flagship phone. It has an augmented reality camera, but almost no-one buying the phone will use this to its capability.

Apple’s first iPhone was ten years ago. The iPhone X is Apple’s statement of direction for the next ten years with an emphasis on augmented reality.

Nokia

Nokia 8My favourite Android phone of the last twelve months is the Nokia 8. There may still be a few on sale in New Zealand, but although it was only introduced in October 2017. Nokia replaced it with the newer NZ$500 Nokia 6.1 and NZ$700 7 Plus models.

The Nokia 8 won me over because it addresses the two most annoying things about Android. First, Nokia has a plain vanilla Android with no software overlay. Some people like these, but they get in the way and slow phones down. They also make for a fragmented market, although that’s less of a problem today than it was in the past.

Nokia’s other plus point is a promise to deliver the software updates and patches to keep malware at bay.

The NZ$100 Nokia 3310 3G is also worth a mention if you need a cheap way of making voice calls.

Huawei P20 Pro

By hitting the market towards the end of the annual cycle Huawei beat Samsung’s flagship models on both price and feature. The NZ$1300 Huawei P20 Pro is $300 less than the Galaxy S9 and more powerful.

You can’t fault Huawei’s engineering. It feels nicer than the S9 , has better battery life and, depending on your taste, a better camera. Having said that, Huawei’s EMUI software overlay is annoying in places. The main count against Huawei is the company’s poor record on updating its software. That’s a security problem.

Oppo R15 Pro

Oppo R15 ProOppo arrived in New Zealand about 18 months ago and says it is now the number four brand here. The company’s phones have mid-range prices, but premium phone features. Earlier models were rough around the edges. That’s not the case with the Oppo R15 Pro reviewed a couple of days ago.

If Huawei offers an experience that compares with Samsung’s at a NZ$300 discount, Oppo gets almost as close at a 50 percent discount.

Best phones: what to buy

There isn’t a direct correlation between price and phone experience. A phone that costs half the price of a Samsung Galaxy S9 doesn’t have half the features or half the functionality.

As a rule of thumb, paying more does give you more phone, a better screen, smarter camera and so on. Which is great if you want or need those things, if you don’t then keep your money.

All the phones listed here are excellent in their own way. So long as you know the limitations of each, you’re not going to be disappointed with any of them.

Unless you are unhappy with your older phone, and all other things being equal, a good strategy is to upgrade within the same product family. That way you’ll be productive from the moment you turn the phone on. You’ll also know all your existing software is going to work. Or should work. You can never be certain.

Android phone makers often borrow ideas from Apple. The Oppo R15 Pro takes this further than its rivals. Oppo’s need to emulate Apple runs through Its phones like Blackpool through a stick of English seaside rock.

Oppo’s newest iPhone lookalike is the $800 R15 Pro. It doesn’t look much like an Apple on the outside, but fire it up and the resemblance is uncanny. Oppo even copies the notch that features at the top of the iPhone X screen.

The Oppo R15 Pro is not the first Android phone to do this. See my Huawei P20 Pro review. Yet the R15 Pro pays a more comprehensive homage to Apple than any other Android.

Oppo R15 Pro

Oppo‘s Apple-following strategy seems to work. In the first quarter of 2018 Oppo sold more phones in China than anyone else. At the NZ launch Oppo said it is now the number four phone brand here behind Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Being number four in New Zealand is not a big deal. Oppo says its market share is around two or three percent. While the R15 Pro is solid enough, it doesn’t look like the breakthrough phone Oppo needs. The company releases a new model roughly every six months, so it could soon have a hit on its hands.

Oppo R15 Pro

At NZ$800, the Oppo R15 Pro is less than half the price of an iPhone X. Despite similar software, that’s not the best phone to compare it with. The R15 Pro is around half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S9 which is a closer match. For 50 percent of the cost you get 95 percent of the functionality.

The R15 Pro has more rough edges that the Galaxy S9. That’s metaphorical. With earlier Oppo phones it was literal too. Older Oppo phones were quite rough in the hands. The R15 Pro is less so.

I tested a model with a polished dark purple aluminium case. There’s a bright red version as well. It’s attractive looking, but there are few 2018 handsets at this price or higher that don’t look good.

Although it doesn’t look much like an iPhone on the outside, it does when you switch the screen on. You’ll see rows of iOS style app icons.

The effect doesn’t last long because Oppo’s ColorOS operating system doesn’t always act like iOS. It has some Apple-like characteristics, but sooner or later you are back to Android.

In use the R15 Pro doesn’t work any better than any other phone running Google’s Android 8.1 Oreo software. In places it is worse.

All Android software overlays are disappointing, Oppo’s is more disappointing than most. In part that’s because there are places where it attempts to force Apple-like behaviour. In part that’s because the software is buggy compared to Samsung or Huawei Android phones.

Most of the top 2018 phones have a longer, thinner body with a 19:9 screen ratio. They also have tiny bezels, which mean the screen covers almost the entire front of the phone. The Oppo R15 Pro is no different.

It also has a Amoled screen, which is popular with 2018 phones. The display is big at 6.3 inches. It doesn’t quite hit 1080p resolution. In practice it can be a good phone for viewing videos, the speakers are louder and clearer than you might expect.

Not so powerful

The processor and graphics chip are not as powerful as those you find on more expensive phones. This is, for me, the main price compromise. If you want to play the latest games or get high video performance, go and spend more on a Huawei or Samsung. Almost every iPhone from the last three years would be more powerful.

Every phone maker emphasises camera features. At the New Zealand launch, the presenter made more of the phone’s beauty mode than the sensors and lenses. They’re not bad, but again, being half the price of a premium phone means compromise.

You get 16 and 20 megapixel lenses on the back. Oppo talks about a Sony sensor which uses a larger pixel size to do a better job in low light conditions.

There is a 20 megapixel front camera for selfies. Oppo’s beauty mode software tidies up skin blemishes. It then adds a little colour to make you look prettier. It also, this is a worry, makes people look whiter. Presumably the politics of this are different in China.

Like every other modern phone, the Oppo R15 Pro comes with software to automate picture-taking. The company says it uses AI. I doubt anything here uses machine learning or other AI techniques.

According to Oppo, the software identifies different scenes. It can detect a shot of the outdoors, a plate of food or a family pet. It only works up to a point. When it does, the camera automates settings. If it gets things wrong, the settings can be way out of whack.

Easy to use

The good news is all this makes the phone and its camera easy to use. Oppo’s photo app interface is a near carbon copy of the iOS app. The bad news is the photo filtering goes too far at times.

For some unexplained reason Oppo uses a microUSB 2.0 connector for its power supply. It’s old-school. Almost every other Android phone has moved on to the USB Type-C connector. The great thing about that now being standard is you can use someone else’s charger if you don’t have your own.

Also old-school, not in a bad way, is the 3.5mm earphone jack. Some people regard it as a must have even if many earphones now use Bluetooth. Moving to Bluetooth is something Oppo has not copied from Apple.

Not tested for this review is the NFC feature for making contactless payments. Earlier Oppo phones did not include NFC. There is a fingerprint reader on the back and the phone uses facial recognition.

Verdict, comparison

At NZ$800 the Oppo R15 Pro is at the top end of the middle price band for 2018 phones. It is the same price as the Oppo R11s which appeared at the start of this year. For $100 less you can buy the Nokia 7 Plus. It has a better operating system and longer battery life.

There’s little remarkable. Nothing stands out here, but then nothing stood out with the last, more expensive, flagship Android phones from Samsung and Huawei. Nokia’s 7 Plus has the advantage of a better Android and holds the promise of better software support.

The R15 Pro gets the job done without breaking the bank. If you want more phone and a fancier camera expect to pay more. If NZ$800 is your budget limit, this is a good choice, but take a closer look at the NZ$700 Nokia 7 Plus first. That would be my choice.