Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Microsoft Surface Pro

Unlike Apple’s efforts with the iPad Pro, the Microsoft Surface Pro has always done things a bit differently. Instead of asking what a computer is, it asks ‘how can we make the computer better?’ Because it’s a Microsoft product, the Surface Pro obviously does this through Windows 10, arguably the best operating system the company has ever made.

Right out of the box, the intuitive Windows 10 makes the new, 2017 revival of the Surface Pro better than the original trilogy of Microsoft’s professional tablets that shipped with the oft-lamented Windows 8. However, as a successor to the popular and successful Surface Pro 4, is it any good?

That’s been our question ever since it surprised us with a reveal in Shanghai last year, and we’ve answered it with a resounding ‘yes’. The Surface Pro might look like its predecessor, but it’s leagues better in every way. Aside from making a handful of necessary concessions to the formula we’ve grown accustomed to over the years, it’s no wonder we’re enthusiastic about the Surface Pro right now.

With this new model, not only is the battery life better than ever, but we’re now graced with a Surface Pro design that perfectly embodies what a Windows tablet should look like and how it should feel. It’s frame might feel a little too familiar, but this new Surface Pro makes some noticeable improvements with minimal negative side effects.

Starting with where you can buy it and for how much, let’s get up close and personal, analyzing why the Surface Pro has once again been treated to our ‘Recommended’ seal of approval.

Pricing and availability

Consistent with its predecessors, the refreshed Surface Pro costs $799 (£799, AU$1,199) to start, but it’s price escalates from there. For that entry-level price, you’re fetching yourself a Kaby Lake Intel Core m3 CPU paired with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage. 

Those specs aren’t ideal if your workload is anything like ours, so your best bet is to run with a Surface Pro configuration featuring an Intel Core i5 or i7 chips with more memory and storage. Currently, the Surface Pro maxes out at $2,699 (£2,699, AU$3,999) for an Intel Core i7 CPU paired with a 1TB SSD and 16GB of RAM.

Stacked up against, say, the latest 10.5-inch iPad Pro, Apple starts the conversation at $649 (£619, AU$979) for a tablet with Apple’s A10X processor and 64GB of SSD space. Meanwhile, the most heavily-equipped version goes for $949 (£889, AU$1,429) to offer 512GB worth of flash storage space and the very same CPU.

Then the recently-released Samsung Galaxy Book starts at $629 (£649) for the 10.6-inch version with a 64GB SSD and 4GB of RAM powered by an Intel Core m3 processor and caps out at $729 in the US only for twice as much storage. Only the starting version of the 10.6-inch is available in the UK, and the Galaxy Book has yet to launch altogether in Australia.

The 12-inch version has models that call for $1,129 (£1,099) and $1,329 (£1,269), each with an Intel Core i5 chip and housing 4GB RAM/128GB SSD and 8GB RAM/256GB SSD, respectively.

Considering that the new Surface Pro box no longer includes the Surface Pen and still doesn’t include the keyboard, the Samsung solution suddenly looks like a much better value than both the Surface Pro and always-accessory-challenged iPad Pro. It’s too bad, then, that its performance isn’t mind-blowing and neither is its design.

Still, while Microsoft pulling the Surface Pen out of the box appears to indicate that the new version is more expensive to produce, a Surface Pro purchased with both the Pen and Type Cover would surpass the price of a comparable Galaxy Book by just $100. Nevertheless, it remains a shame that the two aren’t bundled.

Design

At first glance, the new Surface Pro looks just like the last, the Surface Pro 4. It even has the same, admittedly gorgeous, 12.3-inch PixelSense touchscreen with a 2,736 x 1,824-pixel resolution.

But, a keen eye will notice key differences. For one, the magnesium-aluminum alloy frame is rounded at the edges more dramatically than before. 

If you’ve been using a Surface Pro 4 frequently before picking this one up, your fingers will tell the difference before your eyes do.

Another key change comes in the hinge, which has been improved through drawing inspiration from the Surface Studio. The hinge now bends back even further than before to a new “Studio mode” that makes for a narrower, 165-degree angle at which to draw than before.

To that end, the hinge looks markedly different, clearly incorporating new parts to make this more dramatic angle possible, but operates in exactly the same way.

All in all, the new Surface Pro comes in at the exact same 0.33 inches (8.4mm) of thickness with its 1.73 pounds (786g) too remaining unchanged. Considering that Microsoft accomplished this while packing inside a 20% larger battery, it’s an impressive feat.

This is even before considering how Microsoft’s improved thermal design allowed it to make the Intel Core i5 version, as well as the expected Core m3 version, fanless devices.

The new Alcantara Type Cover is a marked improvement in comfort over the previous generation, and largely worth the slight uptick in asking price over the microfiber cloth version. The keys feel like they’re deeper set and come back from a press with more force than ever, and the material looks like it will stand the test of time. Now, if only a black (or purple) version would arrive already.

Surface Pen gets a big boost 

Why Microsoft opted not to call this the Surface Pro 5 is beyond us, as you can now see the firm changed practically every facet of the product. The Surface Pen got some of the most meticulous and belabored treatment.

For one, Microsoft upped the pressure sensitivity of its pen to 4,096 levels of detectable pressure, meaning creators have more control over the width and intensity of their lines in illustrations or designs than before. Perhaps more importantly, the Pen now sports a much lower latency, meaning that the tip of your Pen has a far lower chance of “leading” the ink on the PixelSense display.

Finally, the Pen also supports tilt detection now, though only through the new Surface Pro – the other current Surface devices will get the support for this feature through a firmware update.

This feature will, again – short of some nifty navigation controls in some apps – largely matter most to true creators that would be concerned about representing tilt and direction of the strokes in their work.

To top it all off, the Pen also comes in new, slick colors platinum, black, cobalt blue and burgundy, designed naturally to match to the available colors of new Type Covers. 

There’s no debating that both the new Surface Pen and Type Cover have earned their slight price hikes, but we remain disappointed in the lack of any bundling to save committed customers a bit of money for fully buying in on Microsoft’s products on day one.

First reviewed June 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the new Surface Pro performs admirably for every task in this editor’s workload, including web browsing with several tabs at a time while word processing, plus download and uploading lots of media files. Not to mention it works just fine for basic photo editing through Lightroom. 

As for gaming, again, anything beyond Hearthstone is going to result in a poor experience. Luckily, touch-friendly games, like Hearthstone, are just delightful to play on the sharp and colorful, 12.3-inch display.

Of course, with media creation being the primary purpose of this device, the 3:2 screen will make for larger black boxes than either you’re used to or are far too familiar with when viewing 16:9 and 21:9 videos and films.

On the benchmarks, the new Surface Pro contends with the latest iPad Pro on Geekbench 4, one of the few tests that can measure both systems. The Surface Pro’s average multi-core processor score of 9,296 is within a hair of the iPad Pro’s 9,290-point ranking.

Mind, that this is the Surface Pro containing a 2.4GHz Intel Core i7 processor, the strongest version of the chip that it can be configured with, starting the cost at $1,599 (£1,549, AU$2,449). Meanwhile, the iPad Pro remains just as powerful regardless of which configuration or model you choose. (Oh, and we’ll just say the Galaxy Book reviewed doesn’t compare to this configuration.)

That said, the processor inside the Surface Pro powers a more deliberately open PC experience with an operating system that allows users to install apps from multiple sources and dig into system files deeper than even iOS 11 will.

Battery life

One area in which Microsoft has improved year-over-year where the competing MacBook and iPad Pro refreshes have not is longevity. This year, The firm managed to shrink its motherboard design, allowing for a 20% larger battery inside.

Coupled with power consumption optimizations the 7th generation (Kaby Lake) Intel processor design brings, Microsoft promises up to 13 hours and 30 minutes of local video playback from the new Surface Pro. That’s a lofty claim.

Of course, we’re not surprised to see its claim not come anywhere close to being true in our testing, as has been the case with its previous products much less all of its rivals. 

However, based on our tests of the previous model’s battery, we no doubt see a marked improvement.

PCMark 8 Battery Life and TechRadar Movie Test results came in 24% and 32% longer than the previous model at 4 hours and 3 minutes, and 6 hours and 58 minutes, respectively. The iPad Pro was rated for between 6 and 7 hours of use, while the Galaxy Book lasted a longer 7 hours and 32 minutes playing back local video but nearly an hour shorter in the more intense PCMark 8 test.

While the numbers are far below Microsoft’s promise either way, the point is that we’re seeing a sizable improvement based on our own results, and that’s enough for us to commend Microsoft’s designers and engineers for making it happen.

We liked

Microsoft has improved just about every facet of the Surface Pro 4’s design while addressing complaints of battery life and even issues some might not have even noticed – like a hinge that could have titled even further. Frankly, with this much improvement inside and out, we’re surprised that Microsoft has refrained from calling this the Surface Pro 5.

We disliked

Vastly improved or not, taking away the Surface Pen from the package is a tough sell. Not providing any sort of bundling incentive for any of the Surface Pro accessories is now a bigger issue than just refusing to include the Type Cover, and Microsoft is only making it more difficult for newcomers to jump that fence.

Final verdict

While it should come as no surprise, to just the extent of how deeply improved this Surface Pro is over the previous model and how it maintains its lead over competing 2-in-1 laptops or tablets is worth reiterating. From the accessories designed to make Surface Pro feel like an even more worthy laptop-and-tablet replacement to its improved battery life, every one of our concerns have been addressed.

That said, Microsoft has again stumbled on the Surface Pro’s value proposition by pulling out parts of the deal. Microsoft didn’t manage to make its case any stronger with the Surface Pro, but rather weaker by removing the new Surface Pen from every box. Again, it’s not very consumer-friendly and only makes arriving at the decision to buy more difficult for would-be Surface owners.

In short, if you’re willing to pay a bit more for the latest accessories than even before, the new Surface Pro remains the ultimate 2-in-1 laptop and productivity tablet. So much so that, despite Microsoft’s decision to pull the Surface Pen from the box, it remains worthy of our Recommended award.



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H96 Max H2

Android will be celebrating its tenth birthday in September and the operating system has come a long way in terms of features and stability. Its versatility – and the fact that it is free – has made it possible for even the smallest vendors to come up with solid products at rock-bottom prices. And the H96 Max H2 is one of them.

This is an Android box – built by one factory and sporting various names – that can be used by businesses as a thin client to access cloud resources (and occasionally as a TV box thanks to a bundled remote control). Moreover, it manages to hit an incredible level of performance for not a lot of money.

Before we proceed further, it’s worth noting that if you do decide to buy this product, make sure you opt for the right model. Gearbest also stocks a cheaper 32GB variant, but the saving you make isn’t worth it in our opinion. Get the 64GB model.

What makes the H96 Max special is the fact that it is the cheapest Android box sporting 4GB memory and 64GB of storage, offering enough capacity for those looking to install a decent quantity of apps locally.

H96 Max H2

Design

There’s nothing spectacular about the design of the H96 Max. It doesn’t have the cachet of the Voyo V3 Mini PC or the ambitious design of the Sunvell T95P PC-in-a-plug. Instead, it is a bog standard slab of plastic with sides that are 113mm long and 24mm high, sitting on four plastic feet.

There’s an LCD display at the front which doubles as a status screen, and plenty of vents on five sides to allow the device to cool passively.

H96 Max H2

The top is adorned by a funky lid made of plastic, and as for the ports, there are plenty with three USB 2.0 connectors, one USB 3.0, SPDIF and audio out, an RJ45 Ethernet port (100Mbps), HDMI 2.0 and an SD card slot. Another version of the box comes with a Type-C connector and a microSD slot, both of which are preferable in everyday life.

The enclosure feels reasonably solid which means that you can easily carry it around in a bag, and that’s certainly a boon for those inclined to work remotely.

H96 Max H2

The box is powered by a 5V/2A power supply unit that connects via a proprietary DC-in port. This is a missed opportunity as the manufacturer could have implemented a universal microUSB port, which would have made it possible to charge via a portable battery charger.

Specifications

The device uses an ARM Cortex-A53-based quad-core processor, clocked at up to 1.5GHz, with an ARM Mali-450MP2 GPU and support for HDMI 2.0 (delivering proper 4K@60Hz output).

As expected you get 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 but no Gigabit Ethernet, which is a shame. This is doubtless part of the cost-cutting to reach a low price point, and the same could be said for the use of USB 2.0 ports (in the majority).

That said, the 4GB of DDR3 memory and the 64GB eMMC on-board storage more than make up for these cut corners, especially at this price.

Usage and performance

This Android box proved to be fast enough for most of the tasks we threw at it. The fact that it uses a quad-core processor with old GPU technology means that this box isn’t suited for games, as evidenced by the benchmark results.

The H96 Max sports the sort of full-size menu screen expected on similar TV boxes, and it’s one that can be customized. The bundled applications are also heavily focused on entertainment rather than work, but Google Play is only a few clicks away anyway.

The competition

The Scishion V99 is the most potent alternative, swapping storage capacity (halved to 32GB) for a steep 27% price discount, and a doubling in the processor’s core count. The Android version (5.1.1) used is nearly two-years-old, though, and there are no USB 3.0 ports at all, so proceed with caution on the V99.

If connectivity is critical, then the circular-shaped R-TV Box R10 is worth considering. It has half the on-board storage but is cheaper, has a more potent GPU subsystem, a Gigabit Ethernet port and 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The icing on the cake is the great looking design.

Last but certainly not least is the Scishion AI One which is a tad more expensive than the H96, and has half the on-board storage, but shines thanks to its metal enclosure and the incorporation of the latest version of Android (8.1). This is, in fact, the only Android TV box we know that sports this build of Android, and the only non-branded one that supports voice control.

H96 Max H2

Final verdict

The H96 Max H2 is eminently usable as a thin client regardless of whether you plan to deploy it in a business setup, or use the device at home for leisure. Its dimensions and price mean that the H96 will appeal to even the smallest micro-businesses out there. Just don’t expect anything fancy; the unique selling point here is value for money.

4GB of RAM and 64GB of on-board storage should keep you going for a while, but support is likely to be patchy (excuse the pun) and firmware updates non-existent. The fact that we couldn’t track the name of the manufacturer just shows that some Chinese vendors have a long way to go before they achieve the status of, say, Xiaomi (or even Chuwi).

H96 Max H2

Overall, though, if you don’t mind the above caveats, you’ll be purchasing a great little computer that can punch well above its weight. Just don’t expect exceptional aftersales support with this device.

Ideally, we’d like to have seen a microUSB power connector, USB 3.0 rather than USB 2.0 ports, and a Gigabit Ethernet connector, but none of these are deal-breakers for what is otherwise a great product.



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Apple will give $50 credit to customers who paid for full-price iPhone battery replacement last year

iPhone 6s front hands-on

Late last year, Apple began offering $29 battery replacements to customers with an iPhone 6 or later. Now the company has confirmed that it's taking care of customers who got a battery replacement before that offer went into effect.

Apple is giving a $50 credit to customers who paid for an out-of-warranty battery replacement for their iPhone 6 or later. This offer is available to customers who got their battery replaced between January 1, 2017 and December 28, 2017 at an Apple Store, Apple Repair Center, or Apple Authorized Service Provider.

Apple is emailing customers who are eligible for this $50 credit, which will be given as an electronic funds transfer or credit on the credit card used to pay for the battery replacement. Customers will be contacted between May 23, 2018 and July 27, 2018.

It's good to see Apple refunding the difference of its normal battery replacement price and its discounted price for affected customers. Some people decided to get the battery in their iPhone 6 or later replaced right away to try and fix their slowing phones, and those people shouldn't have to pay more to get the same issue fixed that's now being covered by the cheaper battery replacement offer.



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Sprint announces LG G7 ThinQ pricing and Buy One Get One offer

LG G7 ThinQ rear hands-on

After confirming its LG G7 ThinQ launch date earlier this month, Sprint today revealed how much it'll charge for LG's new Android flagship.

The LG G7 ThinQ will cost $33 per month on an 18-month lease from Sprint. As a reminder, Sprint will open pre-orders for the LG G7 ThinQ on May 25th, with a launch happening June 1st.

Sprint is also offering a Buy One, Get One offer for the LG G7 ThinQ. This means that you can lease one G7 ThinQ and get a second G7 ThinQ for $0 per month after a $33 per month credit that'll begin within two bills. This limited time offer is open to both new and existing Sprint customers.

Also announced by Sprint today is its Puppy Post-a-Thon. For every pet photo posted to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #SprintLGG7, Sprint will donate $10 (up to $10,000) to North Shore Animal League America, the largest no-kill animal rescue and adoption group in the world. Eligible posts will be tallied from today through June 1st.



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Sony A8F OLED (KD-55AF8) review

While many home cinema fans embraced the combination of Sony processing and OLED technology delivered by 2017’s A1 TVs, aspects of this range’s design proved divisive. Some people didn’t like the way its screen tilted slightly back, or the way the screen was supported by an angled leg that made the TV too deep to sit easily on a piece of furniture. Some were also frustrated that you couldn’t hang the A1s on a wall.

Cue the new Sony A8F OLED range (or AF8 in the UK). These more straightforwardly-designed OLED TVs - as represented here by the 55-inch KD-55AF8 - are a direct response to the A1’s demanding approach. Just don’t expect them to move Sony’s OLED conversation along in any other way…

Design

The 55AF8 really is much easier to accommodate in a typical living room than the A1 series. The vertical screen will work better for most living room arrangements, and the removal of the leaning leg keeps the screen’s depth to just five centimetres or so. As a result, it’s no problem to wall-hang, and sits easily on any bit of furniture. Especially as the screen rests low on a simple, strikingly-small and centrally-mounted desktop stand. 

The 55AF8 doesn’t deliver a complete aesthetic departure from the A1s, though. For instance, its ultra-narrow frame and neck-free stand again exemplify Sony’s desire to minimise the visual impact of their hardware, so that your attention is focused solely on the pictures you’re watching. 

There’s also a bass port built into the set’s rear, as there was with the A1. Most importantly of all, there are no other visible speakers, because the 55AF8 joins the A1 in using its screen to make its sound. 

In other words, its ‘Acoustic Surface’ technology uses exciters attached to the back of the screen to vibrate it into creating (stereo) sound.

Design TL;DR: An ultra-minimalist front gives way to a much slimmer, more practical rear than you got with the A1 series. The end result is a bit less dramatic, though.

Smart TV Features

So far I haven’t been a fan of the Android TV platform Sony uses on its TVs - and that’s not going to change with the 55AF8. In fact, Android seems to be getting worse rather than better. 

The biggest problem is the impact trying to run Android TV has on the rest of the TV’s operating system. There are crashes and failed commands galore, and the menus sometimes take an insane amount of time to respond to your choices. Especially for the first few moments after you’ve powered the TV up from cold. Even switching the TV on can take as long as booting up a computer. 

The Android user interface has major problems, too. Its full-screen approach looks cluttered and confusing, its recommendation system doesn’t really seem to take into account your viewing preferences and history, and there are nowhere near enough options for customising the layout to suit your needs. 

Sony claims that the AF8s will be upgraded to receive Android 8, which is expected to usher in a very different interface. Let’s hope that this finally solves at least some of Android TV’s long-running issues.

Fortunately the 55AF8’s smart features aren’t a complete bust. Among its frankly overwhelming list of available apps, for instant, are the 4K HDR versions of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. Also, Sony has thankfully managed to sidestep Android TV’s usual shortcomings when it comes to the UK terrestrial broadcaster’s catch-up TV apps by getting YouView onboard. 

YouView brings the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, My 5 and so on ‘under one roof’, and even lets you look for shows you’ve missed via an electronic programme guide that can scroll back as well as forward through time.

Perhaps the best thing to come from the integrated Android TV platform is built-in Chromecast support, for easier sharing of content on your mobile devices. There’s also support for Google Assistant and Alexa voice control.

Smart features TL;DR: As well as being cluttered and obtuse with its own interface, Android TV has a painfully-damaging impact on the usability of the TV’s basic operational menus. 

HD/SDR Performance

The KD-55AF8 may just be the best TV with standard dynamic range, HD-resolution content that there’s ever been.

The key to the 55AF8’s phenomenal prowess with the sort of sub-4K stuff most of us still spend most of our time watching is its X1 Extreme processing engine. For instance, its use of two built-in databases (one focused on removing source noise, the other dedicated to calculating the look of each of the millions of extra pixels required to turn HD into 4K) yields remarkable results. All but the grubbiest HD sources are transformed into something that looks clean, polished and resembles 4K more than it resembles HD. Even messy HD sources look cleaner and more watchable than they tend to even on good native HD TVs. 

The 55AF8 also applies SDR to HDR conversion as standard to the majority of its picture presets. And as with its resolution upscaling, this HDR upconversion is superb, opening up the SDR picture’s color and brightness to at least half-way HDR levels without leaving any aspect of the image looking strained or unnatural. 

Rival sets can deliver more aggressive HDR conversions of SDR content, it should be said. For me, though, the Sony’s more measured approach is more consistently engaging.

If you choose a preset - such as the Cinema one - that lets you watch SDR in its native color and brightness values, the 55AF8 again excels. There’s a gorgeous refinement to the way it handles detail, color, light and shade that makes you realise why standard dynamic range content ruled the home AV roost for so long before HDR finally came along.

HD/SDR TL;DR: Sony’s excellent processing and the OLED technology’s pixel-level light controls help it to deliver truly gorgeous SDR and HD pictures. 

4K/HDR Performance

In most ways, the processing prowess and exquisite light and color management that make Sony’s 55AF8 so good with HD/SDR content also make it a sublime 4K/HDR performer. 

Compared with even LG’s much-improved new 8-series OLEDs, for instance, the 55AF8 does a gorgeous job of suppressing every sort of picture noise. 

There’s hardly any color blocking or fizzing at all, even with aggressively saturated but also subtly toned content such as the heavily-filtered red Mars skies on The Martian 4K Blu-ray.

Dark scenes see practically none of the fizzing and low-level blocking noise that can still slightly infiltrate the very darkest shots on LG’s OLED TVs. This points to outstanding management of near-black light levels - one of the trickiest aspects of OLED picture performance. 

There’s also no trace of striping noise in subtle 4K HDR color blends, and only the absolute tiniest evidence of the vertical brightness banding issue that typically troubles OLED TVs to some extent. 

Successfully dodging these numerous OLED noise problems enables the 55AF8 to produce a wonderfully polished, immaculately immersive picture.

The 55AF8’s black levels are rich and deep beyond the capabilities of any current LCD TV. In fact, given the lack of noise in them, they’re arguably the deepest, purest black levels currently available on any TV. This is a fantastic achievement that home cinema fans will love - and which helps the TV deliver high contrast HDR images (where rich white tones and colors can sit just a pixel away from the deepest blacks) with a level of intensity that never ceases to impress. 

The grey-free blacks provide a fantastic foundation for the 55AF8’s colours, giving them an instant richness and authenticity that’s built on superbly by Sony’s Triluminos colour processing platform. The refinement of the 55AF8’s color performance helps native 4K pictures look richly detailed, as well as giving you a decent sense of the extra color range associated with all of the current HDR sources. 

Sony’s exemplary processing works wonders, too, with the 55AF8’s motion performance. Using the Standard or True Cinema settings of the MotionFlow system sees judder reduced without the picture becoming so fluid that it no longer looks natural. Even better, this impressively natural reduction in judder is achieved without generating shimmering side effects around the edges of moving objects; flickering over really fast movement; or the sudden stutters or ‘billowing’ issues seen with some rival OLED TVs. 

While the 55AF8’s beautifully refined approach to HDR and wide color content is a thing of beauty in most ways, though, Sony’s latest OLED screen does have an Achilles Heel: Brightness. Or rather, its lack of brightness.

It’s immediately obvious that the 55AF8 doesn’t pump out HDR images with the sort of light levels achieved by this year’s new LG OLED TVs. And they’re not even in the same universe as the sort of brightness levels you get with the brightest LCD TVs.

I measured the 55AF8’s brightness when showing a 10% white HDR window to be around 700 nits (though this drops to 640 nits with some presets). This is only 120 nits or so less than the peak brightness of LG’s C8 and E8 OLED TVs, but watching them side by side makes the difference between the two look much greater than that. So long, anyway, as you have the LG’s Dynamic Tone Mapping feature activated.

This means that the LG delivers both a higher ‘average brightness level’ and more intense-looking brightness peaks with HDR sources. 

To be fair to Sony, it may be that it’s holding back the 55AF8’s maximum brightness to retain tonal detail in the brightest parts of the picture, or to help it keep noise out of dark scenes or rich colors. But much as I love most things about the 55AF8’s pictures, their lack of brightness matters. HDR images just don’t look that HDR - especially if you’re watching them in anything but a blacked out room.

One last thing to note here is that since the promised Dolby Vision update for the 55AF8 is not yet ready, I wasn’t able to check if the addition of Dolby Vision’s dynamic metadata had a substantial impact on picture performance. Experience suggests, though, that it certainly won’t do any harm!

4K/HDR Performance TL;DR: The 55AF8’s amazing black level performance and beautifully refined color processing can make HDR 4K content look incredible. It’s a shame, however, that the 55AF8 only finds the same limited amount of brightness for its HDR playback that Sony’s A1 OLED debutantes did.

Sound performance

Sony’s innovative Acoustic Surface technology works almost as well on the 55AF8 as it did on last year’s A1 models. 

I was again very impressed, for instance, with how open, well-rounded and detailed the sound is. 

Also excellent is how accurately sound effects are placed on the screen. Voices seem to come directly from the speaker’s mouth, for instance, while the sound of vehicles crossing the screen tracks their motion with uncanny accuracy.

The sound can go pretty loud before the ‘screen exciter’ system starts to lose resolution and become a bit thin, and the sound is cast directly forward with plenty of impact. 

The woofer speaker on the rear, finally, underpins the open sound of the stereo screen with a passable amount of bass, even if the 55AF8 doesn’t seem quite as assured in this department as the A1 series.

Sound performance TL;DR: The 55AF8’s Acoustic Surface technology delivers clean, room-filling and well-rounded sound.

Other panels to ponder

The 55AF8’s main rival is arguably Sony’s own A1 series, which currently continues to sell alongside its newer siblings. In Europe, the 55-inch A1 costs pretty much the same as the 55AF8 and delivers an essentially identical picture performance. So if you prefer and can accommodate the A1’s more distinctive design, that’s the one for you. Note, though, that the 65-inch A1 is actually around £300 more expensive than the 65AF8.

In the US, the A1s make life more difficult for the AF8s. Both A1 models are, at the time of writing, substantially cheaper than the equivalent AF8s. So given the extreme similarities in their performance, the A1s would seem the better option if you’re not desperate to avoid that model’s lean back design.

Other rivals of note would be LG’s C8 or E8 2018 OLED TVs, which deliver much brighter, punchier HDR pictures, but aren’t as good at suppressing video noise.

Finally, Samsung’s new Q9FN LCD TVs combine huge levels of peak brightness with class-leading black levels to provide a potent rival for OLEDs traditional contrast-rich charms. Especially for people with bright living rooms to contend with. On the other hand, they don’t hold on to shadow detail in dark scenes as well as OLEDs.

Verdict

Sony’s superlative picture processing helps the 55AF8 deliver wonderfully pure, clean images that leave home cinema fans free to bathe in OLED’s sensational black levels and intense contrast and colors.

  • Best TV 2018: please your eyes with the finest screens on sale now


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Samsung C49J89

We love a good ultra-wide monitor here at TechRadar, and the Samsung C49J89, which comes with a ‘super ultra-wide’ aspect ratio, makes most of the monitors we’ve previously tried feel rather cramped and titchy by comparison.

This is thanks to its combination of a large 49-inch screen and an aspect ratio of 32:9. In comparison, standard widescreen monitors usually have an aspect ratio of 16:9, while ultra-wide monitors, like the BenQ EX3501R, have aspect ratios of 21:9.

In fact, the Samsung C49J89 has only one rival when it comes to 32:9 aspect ratio, and that’s another Samsung monitor: the Samsung CHG90, a gaming-focused monitor with the same 49-inch screen size and 32:9 aspect ratio.

The difference between the Samsung C49J89 and the Samsung CHG90 is the latter’s focus on gamers, so the C49J89 on test here has a lower maximum brightness (300cd/m2 compared to the CHG90’s 350cd/m2), and a slower response time (5ms (GT) compared to the CHG90’s 1ms (MPRT)).

There’s also a difference in price, with the Samsung C49J89 costing a fair bit less than the Samsung CHG90.

Price and availability

The Samsung C49J89 is now available to order in the US for $1,099, in the UK for £899, and in Australia for AU$1,899. While this is pretty steep for a monitor, you are getting a lot more screen than you usually would.

It’s not the most expensive monitor we’ve tried either, and is less expensive than the Samsung CHG90, although that monitor is now seeing discounts if you shop around.

So, if the gaming-centric features of the Samsung CHG90 don’t appeal but you still want that huge 32:9 aspect ratio for working on, watching movies or doing the odd bit of gaming (or all three at once – seriously, this monitor is wide), then you could save yourself some money by going for the Samsung C49J89 instead.

Design

At first glance the Samsung C49J89 looks pretty much identical to the Samsung CHG90, with the same screen size and aspect ratio, along with a pretty much identical body and stand. It’s little surprise that the design is so similar, as Samsung would hardly have a wide selection of 32:9 monitor bodies knocking around, so it makes sense to use the same chassis.

Unless you're familiar with its sibling, the Samsung C49J89 looks like no other monitor you’ve seen, with its almost ridiculous width sometimes appearing as if it were an optical illusion – it quite easily fills your horizontal field of vision. However, the wider monitors get, the more the vertical aspect seems diminished, so here you get a very wide, yet narrow, monitor. Combined with the resolution of 3840 x 1080, which gives you the same vertical resolution as a high-definition TV, you may find the aspect ratio a bit constrictive. 

In comparison, the 21:9 BenQ EX3501R has a resolution of 3440 x 1440, and that extra vertical resolution is greatly appreciated. Of course, upping the vertical resolution of the Samsung C49J89 would likely increase the asking price dramatically, and would also make it require more powerful hardware to operate, especially if you wanted to game on it.

If you are eyeing up the Samsung C49J89 you’ll need a pretty wide desk to handle its 47.36-inch span. And, sitting in front of it, you’ll likely find yourself having to turn your head to see open windows positioned at the extremities. 

Like the Samsung CHG90 it's curved, which makes it more comfortable to take in the full screen. It has a curvature of 1800R, which is pretty pronounced – 1800R is quite common in curved monitors, but some (as well as curved TVs) go for a 3000R curvature, which is subtler. But then there’s nothing subtle about this monitor.

The screen is easily attached to the arm and stand, although you will need a screwdriver to properly affix it, and when assembly is complete you can swivel and tilt the screen, as well as adjust the height. Around the back are two 7-watt speakers, and on the bottom are the various ports. Given the vast width of the Samsung C49J89 you can imagine that there’s plenty of space for ports, and Samsung hasn't passed on the opportunity – the monitor comes with two HDMI ports, a DisplayPort, two USB Type-C ports, two USB 2.0 ports, a USB 3.0 port and an audio jack. It also has a USB Type-C upstream port, enabling you to turn the monitor into a hub.

It’s a stylish, slick, but also domineering monitor, thanks to a classy design by Samsung, and of course the sheer size of the screen.

Performance

The Samsung C49J89 has a VA (vertical alignment) panel. On paper VA panels should deliver excellent blacks, but they can suffer from having a rather narrow viewing angle, which means VA screens can sometimes appear washed out if you’re viewing them from an angle, rather than straight-on.

Due to the sheer length and size of the C49J89 there’s a good chance that you’ll be viewing at least some of the screen at an angle, but in our time with it we didn’t notice any deterioration in image quality at the extremities when sitting in front of it at a desk – the curvature of the screen certainly helps here.

The Samsung C49J89 is designed more for productivity use than for gaming, and Windows 10 does a good job of scaling the desktop to the super-ultra-wide aspect ratio. You really do get a lot of screen space to play with, and we were able to work quite comfortably with a large number of programs, apps and websites all open at once. 

However, the 1080-pixel vertical resolution does mean there’s not a lot of vertical screen space, and if you’re coming from a monitor with a WQHD resolution (2560 x 1440) you may actually find the Samsung C49J89 a bit too narrow.

However, being able to have so many windows open while only having one monitor on your desk is a fantastic feature, and image quality out of the box is pretty good. The buttons on the bottom of the bezel are shortcuts for certain features, with the first switching between input sources. The second turns on the monitor's Picture-In-Picture mode – this is an excellent feature that allows you to plug in a second source, such as a laptop, and display that screen within the main screen connected to your PC. Because of the sheer size of this monitor this is a very handy addition, and it works well.

The third button enables you to use the Samsung C49J89 as a KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) switch, so you can have one keyboard and mouse plugged into the monitor, and the button will let you switch the peripherals to other devices you have plugged into the monitor without having to physically unplug and move the mouse and keyboard. It’s another useful feature for business users.

Behind the power button is a joystick-like button that's used to bring up and control the onscreen menu. It’s hidden away a bit, but once located it can be used to go through some of the pre-set display modes, which you can tweak to your liking.

Samsung also has a piece of software, EasySettingBox, that works with the Samsung C49J89. This software lets you quickly split the screen into multiple areas, either using one of the ready-made templates or one that you’ve created yourself. Then, when you drag a window you can place it in an area (they're highlighted in blue) and the window will expand or shrink to fit in that area. The idea with this is to make it quick and easy to arrange multiple windows, and it’s quite a handy tool, and worth having a play around with.

While unlike the Samsung CHG90 the Samsung C49J89 isn't designed primarily as a gaming monitor, there will be people who want to use it as one, with the super ultra-wide aspect ratio and 144Hz refresh rate being two compelling reasons. So we fired up a couple of games to see how it performed.

Most modern games can cope with the unusual resolution and aspect ratio of the C49J89, but you may have to tweak a few settings to get them displaying properly. We did with Wolfenstein II, and when we fired up a level the results were really impressive. The field-of-vision-spanning aspect ratio really is immersive, and if you sit in the right spot it’s almost like wearing a VR headset, as your entire vision is filled with the game. The view is so wide that you can physically move your head to look around you, rather than using the mouse, which takes a bit of getting used to but could end up giving you a real advantage in certain games, as enemies will have a harder time sneaking up on you.

The slower response time of the Samsung C49J89 compared to gaming monitors does make the gameplay feel a little more sluggish. We’ve recently been spoiled by gaming monitors with G-Sync and Free-Sync technology that combines high refresh rates with low response times for incredibly smooth gameplay, although none of them can match the sheer spectacle of the Samsung C49J89’s 32:9 aspect ratio.

If you often work over multiple monitors, and you’d like to do a bit of gaming as well, then you’ll be very happy with the Samsung C49J89’s performance. We’d love to see a version with a higher resolution (and there are now rumors that Samsung is working on one) and if you’re a competitive gamer who's conscious of input lag then a gaming-orientated monitor would be more to your liking.

Verdict

If the gaming-orientated Samsung CHG90 was a bit too expensive for your tastes, the Samsung C49J89 is a very good alternative, offering the same rare 32:9 aspect ratio for a lower price, and without sacrificing too many features.

It’s not quite as good for gaming as the CHG90, but it still puts on a good show – that super ultra-wide aspect ratio really can be breathtaking when you're playing games. It’s also got some great productivity tools that make it a good choice for business use, especially if you often work over numerous monitors, as you can now swap out those for a single Samsung C49J89.

Our only major complaint is the lack of vertical resolution – at 1080 pixels it does make things a little tight, but if you’re used to 1080p monitors you’ll love the extra horizontal space.



from TechRadar: Technology reviews https://ift.tt/2kijhNN

HTC U12+ official with four cameras, improved Edge Sense features

As expected, HTC today took the wraps off of its newest flagship smartphone.

The HTC U12+ is now official with four cameras: two on the front and two on the back. Around back there's a 12MP wide angle UltraPixel 4 camera with f/1.75 aperture, optical image stabilization, HDR Boost 2, and speedy autofocus. Next to that is a 16MP camera with 2x optical zoom and f/2.6 aperture. Around front are dual 8MP wide angle cameras with f/2.0 aperture.

HTC touts that the U12+ earned a score of 103 from camera rating firm DxOMark, making it the second-highest rated smartphone. Special features of HTC's cameras include bokeh, AR stickets, and an auto zoom that'll slowly and smoothly zoom in on your subject when you're recording video.

HTC U12+ Translucent Blue official

Another main feature of the HTC U12+ is Edge Sense 2. This is the new version of HTC's feature that lets you squeeze the sides of the phone to perform actions, and now it's got improvements like being aware which hand you're using to squeeze. In addition to squeezing to launch apps, Edge Sense 2 lets you hold the sides of the screen while rotating the phone to lock the screen orientation and double tap the side of the phone for one-handed use.

HTC is also placing a focus on audio with the U12+, like it has with previous flagships. The company says that the U12+ has its loudest ever BoomSound speakers, and it also comes with HTC USonic earbuds with Active Noise Cancellation. The U12+ is Hi-Res Audio certified and includes Qualcomm aptX support for high-res audio over Bluetooth.

The HTC U12+ features a 6-inch 2880x1440 Super LCD6 screen with slim bezels as well as pressure-sensitive buttons on the sides of the device. Also included is a rear fingerprint reader and face unlock security features.

HTC U12+ Ceramic Black official

Inside the IP68 water and dust resistant shell is an octa-core Snapdragon 845 processor paired with 6GB of RAM, 64GB or 128GB of built-in storage, and a microSD card slot. A 3500mAh battery powers the whole package, and there's a USB-C port for charging. 

HTC will sell the U12+ in Ceramic Black, Flame Red, and a slightly see-through Translucent Blue. It's now available for pre-order direct from HTC, with U.S. pricing set at $799 for the 64GB model and $849 for the 128GB version. Customers in Europe will pay £699/€799 for the 64GB model.

HTC U12+ Flame Red, Ceramic Black, Translucent Blue comparison

The HTC U12+ looks like a solid successor to HTC's U11 and U11+. It's got a big screen with slim bezels, and lots of folks out there will probably be pleased that HTC has skipped the notch trend that other Android device makers have jumped on. The U12+ design is simple and clean, it's got all of the specs that you'd expect from a flagship smartphone in 2018, and if DxOMark's report is to be believed, its camera performance is top-notch. The competition in the smartphone market is fierce, but the U12+ looks like it has a lot to offer.

Now that it's official, what do you think of the HTC U12+?

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