Creative Super X-Fi review: A ‘holographic audio’ eargasm

sfi 4

Few things in technology are guaranteed to bring you actual joy, but Creative’s Super X-Fi just might qualify for that list.

In short, the Super X-Fi distills decades of audio work into a tiny, portable dongle no bigger than a USB thumb drive that transforms smartphone, laptop, or PC audio with “holographic audio,” according the company.

While that sounds like a lot of superfluous ad copy, we have to admit that after weeks of using the Super X-Fi, the company is on to something. We’d almost believe Creative’s claim that it has found the “holy grail” of audio, but we’re disinclined to recall the Quest Knights just yet.

sfi pixel2dongle 1

Gordon Mah Ung

The Super X-Fi (right) is the size of a finger but offers far more advanced audio than the Google Pixel 2XL audio dongle (v1) on the left.

Getting started with the Super X-Fi

The Super X-Fi features a USB-C port on one end, a standard 3.5mm analog jack on the other, and features volume, shuffle, and a single control button on its surface. A tiny LED changes state from green to orange to let you know if it’s at work or not.

To get started with the Super X-Fi, you first download an Android app though the GooglePlay store. You then take pictures of your head which is analyzed by Creative to pick the perfect audio profile for your particular head shape.

This is necessary because so much of how we hear sound is determined by the timing differences of audio arriving in our ears, and the shape of our head and earlobes plays a large part of it.

sfi ear

IDG

The Super X-Fi app scans your head to determine what is optimimal for you.

Besides profiling for your head, you also pick from a set of listed approved headphones in the app, or set it to “generic” for either headphone or in-ear. The headphone profiles are fine tuned by Creative to make the most of each pair’s sonic characteristics and fit style.

Creative actually has an even more optimized approach for mapping that uses in-ear microphones to precisely model audio for your head while frequency sweeps are run on a surround system. Obviously, this isn’t something that’s currently feasible for your average consumer. But we can say that in demonstrations of the Super X-Fi mapped using the in-ear microphones, we had a tough time distinguishing the Super X-Fi from a decently high-end Dolby Atmos system.

For now, the head scans using a phone camera are the next best thing.

Having that extra information is how Creative distinguishes the Super X-Fi from all other spatialized audio solutions. Creative expects its algorithms to get even better still as it adds more scans to its growing database.

sfi couragejack

Gordon Mah Ung

On one end is a USB-C port, and on the other is a 3.5mm jack, which many companies have banned from phones.

Inside the Super X-Fi

Crack open the Super X-Fi and you’ll find an AK4377. That’s a 32-bit, 768KHz digital analog converter from acclaimed audio company Asahi Kasei Microdevices. The other chip is Creative’s Super X-Fi chip. The company is pretty secretive about what the Super X-Fi does exactly but we’d guess it relies on such technologies as Creative’s Crystalizer, CMSS, and dozens of other audio patents the company has in its war chest.

Yes, true audiophiles who pursue the highest-resolution FLAC or DSD files will scoff at Creative’s bag of audio techniques as gimmicks or magic tricks, but in our listening experience, the Super X-Fi was nothing short of phenomenal.

Super X-Fi and music

With stereo content over a good set of headphones or in-ear earphones, most music is rendered as if a singer or band is inside your skull. In fact, we’re so accustomed to this John Malkovich feeling that switching on the Super X-Fi may throw you off for a second or three.

If you keep listening though, you’ll eventually realize you’re just not used to the sound of a band in front of your head, where they would be if they were performing for you.

If we were writing Creative marketing lines, it would be easy to say that the Super X-Fi is like having a personal audition by musicians.

Using whatever wizardry Creative has summoned from its library, there were times when the difference was stunning. It had us combing through our collection for more music to re-experience.

superxfi 2

IDG

With the Super X-Fi in Windows, you set the OS to output as discrete 7.1 audio, which the dongle then reassembles positional audio from.

Super X-Fi and games

Want to feel like you have an advantage in a multiplayer shooter? Want to be further immersed further in an open world? Plug that Super X-Fi into your PC and enjoy a 5.1 setup at the comfort of your desk with no pesky speakers or wires to worry about.

Online games like Destiny 2Battlefield V, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 worked like a dream and provided a level of feedback that made us feel as if we were cheating. When you can accurately place a sound without any visual feedback and respond to it, it becomes a game changer. Did it make us a better player? No, it’s not magic. But it did give us a deeper sense of our surroundings than we’d experienced before. The Super X-Fi will also pass microphone data as well, for when you are teaming up with your buddies.

The spatialized sound even increased the immersiveness of single-player games like The Evil Within 2DOOM, and Red Dead Redemption 2 (gasp—a console game). Yes, the Super X-Fi also works with the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, but not on the Xbox One due to current restrictions from Microsoft.

We’ve been using the Super X-Fi primarily to play games for two months and it’s become a must-have. In situations where a dedicated 5.1 sound system isn’t an option, the Super X-Fi is the next-best thing whether you’re playing on a TV or PC.

And for those who are worried about Creative drivers, have no fear, this is plug-and-play—meaning you can’t blame the company anymore if your build locks up mid-match!

Super X-Fi isn’t perfect

Be forewarned, the Super X-Fi is not perfect by any stretch. As we said, there will be times when you’ll be floored by just how good the Super X-Fi sounds. But there will also be times when it’s just meh, or even just wrong. Maybe a pinch too much reverb, maybe the vocals are processed out as a little too thin. Android users will also be annoyed by the device asking for permission to access the Super X-Fi (Creative says it’s a security limitation imposed by the OS).

There also isn’t much customization in how much depth you can add to the spatialization. In future iterations we’d love to see the ability to push the “speakers” out further, or adjust how much reverb is in the space with you. Fine-tuning like this can further trick the brain to accept you are indeed listening to speakers in the space with you.

Fortunately, in situations where the Super X-Fi’s processing isn’t working for you, you can click a button on the device to switch it off. You’ll still get the benefits of a 120dB SNR, 32-bit AKM DAC, which is likely a big improvement over anything built into your phone or laptop, or the generic dongle that came with your phone.

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Amazfit Stratos Review

Amazfit Stratos Review

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The Amazfit Stratos is a swim-proof fitness watch
  • You can track runs, cycle rides, and swims with it
  • It also shows full notifications and works with both Android and iOS

Xiaomi-backed wearables brand Huami’sAmazfit Stratos is a multi-sport GPS watch with some features of smartwatches. It’s swim-proof, can track outdoor runs, shows you notifications from your smartphone, lets you store music, and promises up to five days of battery life. All this comes at a price tag of Rs. 15,999, which is a pretty good price if it all works well. We used the Amazfit Stratosfor a week to find out whether it’s worth considering as a “smart” watch for fitness enthusiasts.

Amazfit Stratos design and comfort

The Amazfit Stratos looks stunning in photos but the actual product isn’t as good-looking. It’s really bulky, with a thick circular dial and large buttons. While we appreciate the large display, it looks a bit like a flat tyre and isn’t a full circle. The Amazfit Stratos is a bit too bulky to be comfortable for everyday use. It uses a silicone strap and we found that it fit securely and didn’t cause any additional discomfort.

The display is perhaps the biggest weakness of the Amazfit Stratos. It’s an always-on display, which is great, but the positives end there. The glass on top is very reflective, and under bright light, it is hard to read what’s on screen. The backlight tended to hurt our eyes in dim rooms because it lights up the entire screen. With the Amazfit Stratos, waking up in the middle of the night to check the time on our wrist was a painful experience every single time. Even though it has some cool watch faces, the display isn’t good enough to show them off.

One big design flaw with the Amazfit Stratos is its charger. The charging cradle snaps on to the bottom of the watch, but it can fit upside down just as easily. If you accidentally get it wrong, you won’t be able to charge the watch because the pins won’t make contact. While the mechanism works just fine, this oversight could be rather annoying in the long run.

amazfit stratos reflective screen hand gadgets 360 Amazfit Stratos

Amazfit Stratos software and ecosystem

The Amazfit Stratos is compatible with iOS and Android, and you’ll need to download the Amazfit Watch app on your smartphone. The app allowed us to choose to sign in with an existing Xiaomi account, and we tried this first because we had created one when reviewing the Xiaomi Mi Band 2. However, it just did not work, so we had to create a new account. The pairing process was smooth and we found the app to be well-designed. It shows data in neat graphs and you can see historical data quite easily too.

Our issue with the app is that it doesn’t do much. It has a setting to change units from Imperial to Metric, but that change didn’t reflect on the watch. We had to do this from the watch’s settings. Similarly, options such as auto-upload data, 12- or 24-hour clocks, do not disturb mode, etc. can only be changed on the watch.

The Amazfit Stratos uses a proprietary operating system, which is quite common in the fitness segment. Companies such as Garmin and TomTom do the same thing. It takes some time to get used to the interface of the Amazfit Stratos, though. It has a touchscreen, and three buttons for you to navigate through the UI. Press the top one to scroll up, and the bottom button to scroll down, and if you want to select an option, you can use the middle button. The app shows a tutorial to take you through other actions, such as long-pressing the top button to go back, etc. but this is not intuitive at all.

We also noticed that the touchscreen only works if you “wake” the watch by pressing one of the buttons. If you try to use the touchscreen after it’s been idle for some time, it remains unresponsive. These are minor annoyances that add up to make the overall experience feel clunky.

amazfit stratos apple watch gadgets 360 Amazfit StratosApple Watch (left) and Amazfit Stratos

 

However, the watch does show notifications and lets you read full messages even from third-party apps. You can’t reply to any notifications as this watch is meant to be a fitness wearable with notifications, and not a proper smartwatch. While we found the notifications useful, people who need more control might not.

Amazfit Stratos performance and battery life

We can live with an average UI if the Amazfit Stratos does its job from a fitness standpoint. To test this, we ran it through some standard tests. The first is to test the step counter by walking 1,000 steps and counting them manually. Then we checked if the Amazfit Stratos recorded them accurately. The results were surprisingly good — the Stratos recorded 1,002 steps when we counted 1,000.

Our second test was to check if the GPS of the watch was accurate. We first drove a car through a route near our office in Mumbai to establish a 1-km distance as our test track. This route took us under a flyover as we wanted to see if the watch can trace the route accurately. We ran the test with the Apple Watch Series 2 on our left hand and the Amazfit Stratos on our right. The Stratos took three minutes to lock on to a signal in an open space on the main road, which was frustrating. Our Apple Watch found a GPS signal instantly (as it uses a paired iPhone’s GPS when). Most running watches take around two minutes to find a GPS signal, and three minutes is a bit too long.

Then, the Stratos recorded the 1km distance as 1.64km. The Apple Watch had no such issues and it showed the route to be exactly 1km long. When we looked at the route recorded by the Amazfit Stratos, it had marked a start point far from where we had actually begun recording the walk, but once we took a U-turn under the flyover, the Stratos corrected itself.

We tried this test a second time, just to check whether the same error was repeated. On this attempt, it took one minute to lock on to a GPS signal at the same spot, which was good to note. The Amazfit Stratos had a much better showing, but it still wasn’t entirely accurate. On the second try it recorded 1.11km on the 1km route, and its starting point was slightly off.

Overall, this kind of inconsistency is worrying, because we’d always be second-guessing whether the Stratos’ tracking is accurate.

amazfit stratos buttons gadgets 360 Amazfit Stratos

 

We also noticed that the Amazfit Stratos doesn’t have a dedicated tracking mode for strength training or gym sessions, or for other activities such as Pilates and yoga, which are found on several other fitness-oriented wearables. Given that, we used the elliptical training mode to track a 90-minute gym session, and found that the heart rate sensor on the Stratos didn’t do a great job. When we looked at our heart rate during the session, the Stratos always showed a value that was either too low or too high based on how we were feeling at that point. A look at the data later confirmed this.

The Apple Watch showed our maximum heart rate during the session as 191 beats per minute, while the Stratos’ data said this was 175bpm. It was a strenous session during which we felt like we’d fully exerted ourself, and our maximum heart rate definitely should’ve been higher. We could also see the heart rate data peaking at different times on the two watches, and felt that the Apple Watch’s data was more accurate.

Sleep tracking with the Amazfit Stratos was a bit of a mixed bag. We compared its data against what was recorded on the Apple Watch by the excellent Sleep++ app, and found that it was accurate sometimes but not at other times. One day we’d set an alarm for 5.30am and we woke up but went back to sleep. On that day, the Stratos claims that we woke up around 5.30am, whereas the Apple Watch data suggested that we woke up at 7.40am. The latter is closer to reality. When we managed to sleep uninterrupted at night, the data was fairly accurate.

We like the fact that the battery life of the Amazfit Stratos is around five days. Without using GPS, it lasted almost seven days on a single charge. The moment you start tracking workouts using GPS, the battery starts to drain more quickly. It’s worth mentioning that by default, features that could drain power – such as automatically uploading workout data – are disabled.

Finally, we really missed automatic workout tracking feature on the Amazfit Stratos. We did forgot to manually begin a workout on one occasion, and the Stratos didn’t log it for us. With companies such as Fitbit adding this feature to their products, and Apple announcing it with watchOS 5, it would be nice to see this feature come to the Amazfit Stratos as well. We were unable to go for a swim during the testing period, but we did subject it to a shower multiple times and it continued to work just fine.

amazfit stratos apple watch reflective screen hand gadgets 360 Amazfit Stratos

 

Verdict
The Amazfit Stratos looks great on paper but fails to live up to its promise in many ways. We really like the idea of a fitness-focused wearable that shows notifications and looks like a cool everyday watch, but the Stratos’ implementation of many features leaves a lot to be desired. Its bulk makes it uncomfortable to wear every day, and its decidedly masculine styling means that women aren’t likely to find it appealing.

While we think that it could work as a multi-sport watch under ideal conditions, the Amazfit Stratos’ inconsistent performance means that we hesitate to recommend it over products from established brands such as Garmin, TomTom, and even the Apple Watch, which isn’t strictly direct competition for the product. The pricing — Rs. 15,999 — is great for the features offered, but we still think the TomTom Spark would be a better choice for fitness enthusiasts on a budget. Those who can afford an Apple Watch Series 3 would be better served by it.

Update, 31 August 2018: Following the publication of our review, Amazfit sent us a second unit so we could check whether the first one was buggy. This unit was much better at locking on to GPS signals in multiple areas, but it still struggled at the spot we used for our GPS test. This unit recorded a 1km distance as 1.2km, which isn’t good at all. To be completely certain, we used the replacement unit on a 10km run at the Airtel Hyderabad Marathon 2018. This time, it recorded the distance as 10.2km. A deviation of 200m over 10km is acceptable (the best running watches out there can be up to 100m off over the same distance), but we should note that the course was almost entirely in open areas with only one 100m section where we were under a bridge.

Overall, this kind of inconsistency is worrying. Serious athletes would always be second-guessing whether the Stratos’s reports are accurate. Our repeated tests lead us to the conclusion that the Stratos’s GPS tracking might work well in ideal conditions, but it struggles in crowded localities in big cities.

Based on our new findings, we have changed one of the ‘Cons’ from ‘Inaccurate GPS tracking’ to ‘Inconsistent GPS tracking’ and updated the ‘Tracking accuracy’ score from 2.5 to 3.

Pros

  • Battery life
  • Always on display
  • Notifications
  • Accurate step tracking

Cons

  • Poor display quality
  • Inconsistent GPS tracking
  • Inaccurate sleep tracking
  • Awkward touchscreen UI
  • App doesn’t do much

Ratings (out of 5)

  • Design and comfort: 2.5
  • Tracking accuracy: 3
  • Software and ecosystem: 3
  • Battery life: 4
  • Overall: 2.5

[“Source-gadgets.ndtv”]

Nokia 6.1 Plus Review

Nokia 6.1 Plus Review

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The Nokia 6.1 Plus is priced in India at Rs. 15,999
  • It is a part of Google’s Android One programme
  • Battery life is solid but the cameras are a bit of a mixed bag

2018 will be remembered as the year when screen notches became ubiquitous. The notch is undoubtedly a contentious issue in smartphone design, but it is a necessary evil in order to make today’s narrow-bordered smartphones a reality. HMD Global, the company that brought Nokia back into the smartphone game last year, has now embraced this design trend with the Nokia 6.1 Plus and Nokia 5.1 Plus.

The Nokia 6.1 Plus, which was launched in China back in May as the Nokia X6, is a part of the Android One initiative and runs a stock build of Android 8.1 Oreo. It features a 19:9 display, a dual camera setup at the rear, and a glass and metal design. Priced at Rs. 15,999, it competes head-on with the likes of the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro (Review), Xiaomi Mi A2 (Review), and Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 (Review). Is Nokia’s latest budget smartphone worth a buy? Let’s find out.

 

Nokia 6.1 Plus design

The Nokia 6.1 Plus features glass on the front and back, with an aluminium frame for rigidity. There is a notched display up front with sizeable borders, and the Nokia logo on the chin. Thanks to the tall aspect ratio and curved edges, the smartphone is compact and pocketable. However, one-handed use is quite difficult.

When it goes on sale on August 30, the Nokia 6.1 Plus will be available in three colour options – Gloss White, Gloss Midnight Blue, and the one our review unit came in, Gloss Black. The smooth glass back looks attractive and classy but picks up a lot of smudges and fingerprints. It is also incredibly slippery – a case is recommended to give you a decent grip.

Nokia6Plus Inline1 Nokia 6.1 Plus review

 

The accents around the rear camera module, fingerprint sensor, power button, and volume buttons add some much-needed flair to what is otherwise an understated design. We had some reservations about the build quality of this phone in our first impressions, on account of its low weight. However, the Nokia 6.1 Plus has stood up to ordinary daily usage quite well over the course of our review period.

The left of the Nokia 6.1 Plus is blank save for the SIM tray, which makes you choose between a second Nano-SIM and a microSD card. The right side has the volume rocker and power button which are chunky, tactile, and well within reach.

The dual-camera setup is placed in a pill-shaped housing, underneath which is a circular fingerprint sensor and a vertically oriented Nokia logo. There’s a single loudspeaker next to the USB Type-C port at the bottom, which delivers loud and clear audio, but is a step down from the stereo speakers of the original Nokia 6 (Review).

Nokia 6.1 Plus specifications and display

HMD Global has equipped the Nokia 6.1 Plus with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor, which is also found in the similarly priced Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro, as well as the Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1, which is priced starting at Rs. 10,999. Additional specifications include a 3,060mAh battery, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage that can be expanded using a microSD card (up to 400 GB).

Nokia6Plus Inline2 Nokia 6.1 Plus review

 

The Nokia 6.1 Plus is a part of the Android One initiative and runs a stock build of Android 8.1 Oreo with a guarantee of regular updates. Connectivity options include dual 4G VoLTE, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5, FM radio, GPS/ A-GPS, GLONASS, USB Type-C (USB 2.0), and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This phone supports dual SIMs (Nano) and both can simultaneously latch onto 4G networks.

The Nokia 6.1 Plus has a 5.8-inch full-HD+ display with an aspect ratio of 19:9 and Corning Gorilla Glass 3 for protection against scratches. There is a notch up front which is thankfully quite small and does not get in the way of games and videos. Despite the notch, the screen is not borderless, and the chin in particular is pretty thick. The display is bright and punchy, and has good viewing angles. Colours are vivid and outdoor legibility is decent.

Nokia 6.1 Plus performance, software, and battery life

The Nokia 6.1 Plus delivered a smooth and consistent user experience, tackling everything we threw at it — from basic day-to-day tasks such as browsing the Web and using social media applications, to intensive workloads — without any issues. App load times were quick and UI animations were butter smooth. Games like Asphalt 9 also ran quite smoothly, with no stutters or dropped frames.

Benchmark scores were in line with those of other Snapdragon 636-powered smartphones. The Nokia 6.1 Plus managed scores of 116,134 in AnTuTu, 34fps in GFXBench T-Rex, 10fps in GFXBench Manhattan 3.1, and 1328 and 4,936 respectively in Geekbench’s single- and multi-core tests. In our experience, calls were clear and 4G connectivity was consistently solid.

HMD Global has so far focused on clean, fluid software, and timely updates. The Finnish company embraced Android One at the beginning of this year, which means an optimised software experience with stock Android 8.1, two years of Android version updates, and three years of monthly security updates, all guaranteed. HMD Global has promised updates to Android Pie as well as Android Q, as and when they are released.

Nokia6Plus Inline3 Nokia 6.1 Plus review

System update screen, app drawer, and gestures

 

The software is fluid and very responsive. While there is no third-party bloat, there are a few nifty value additions such as the ‘Ambient Display’ feature that shows notifications for missed calls, alarms, and notifications without waking the phone from sleep. You can also perform a few gestures such as turning the phone over to reject a call, or picking it up to mute the ringtone.

The Nokia 6.1 Plus supports face recognition, using its 16-megapixel front camera. The process is quite slow, even when lighting is favourable. Recognition is quite erratic in low light and also under very bright sunlight. Thankfully, the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor is snappy. It can also be used to show the notification shade with a downward swipe.

In our HD video loop battery test, the Nokia 6.1 Plus lasted 12 hours and 10 minutes. Real-world performance was quite solid, but not spectacular. The smartphone easily got through a 12-hour day with medium to heavy use, with around 20 percent left in the tank. Our usage involved around an hour or two of navigation using Google Maps, frequent use of social media applications, games such as the recently launched Asphalt 9, and taking a couple of photos and selfies.

The phone supports Quick Charge 4.0, but only a standard 10W charger is included in the box, which means that you’ll need more than two and a half hours for a full recharge.

Nokia 6.1 Plus cameras

On the imaging front, the Nokia 6.1 Plus has a 16-megapixel primary camera with an aperture of f/2.0, alongside a 5-megapixel monochrome secondary camera with an aperture of f/2.4. On the front, the Nokia 6.1 Plus has a 16-megapixel fixed-focus camera with an aperture of f/2.0. There is a dual-LED flash at the back.

There are a number of features in the camera app, such as as a live bokeh mode, AR stickers, dual-sight mode to superimpose shots taken with the front and rear cameras simultaneously, and AI-assisted portrait lighting. Portrait shots were quite impressive with good edge detection and smooth gradients between the subject and the background.

AR stickers are implemented well and can be used with both the front and the rear camera. The AI-assisted portrait lighting feature needs a lot of work at the moment. Edge detection was poor, and most of the options just overexposed the background.

Tap to see full-sized Nokia 6.1 Plus camera samples

 

During the day, the rear camera performed quite well. Images had a good amount of detail and the the sensor’s dynamic range was above average. Even shots taken in favourable lighting indoors were crisp and detailed. Colours however appeared slightly washed out regardless of lighting conditions.

Low-light performance was a bit of a mixed bag. The level of detail was adequate and is a step up from the Nokia 6.1, but the camera struggled with autofocus at times.

The front camera produces decent shots in favourable lighting but has trouble with exposure metering. In low light, it struggles to pull in enough light. The front camera can also shoot bokeh shots via software algorithms, which came out looking decent. There’s no proper front LED flash, but just a screen flash that lights up the entire display.

Dual-sight, a feature first seen in the Nokia 8 (Review), is present in the Nokia 6.1 Plus as well. You can take photos/ videos with the front and rear cameras at the same time. While this feature is pretty nifty, the quality of both the front and rear cameras takes a dive in this mode.

Video recording maxes out at 1080p for the front camera, while the rear module is capable of 4K video recording. You can livestream video to YouTube and Facebook directly from the camera app, and this feature also works in dual-sight mode. The quality of videos is decent at best.


Nokia 6.1 Plus in pictures

 

Verdict
The Nokia 6.1 Plus offers great performance, clean and fluid software, a punchy and vibrant display, and the promise of timely updates. With a sleek glass-backed design, compact dimensions, and a 19:9 display, the Nokia 6.1 Plus addresses most of the shortcomings of the Nokia 6.1, which was launched earlier on in the year. It is also priced much more aggressively.

All is not smooth sailing though. The rear camera setup, while much improved from the Nokia 6.1, still cannot match up to the competition. It performs admirably in favourable light but struggles in low light. The front camera is also underwhelming. That said, the Nokia 6.1 Plus is a capable, well-rounded smartphone that will appeal to fans of stock Android.

Potential buyers should also take a look at the Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 Pro (Review) and Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 (Review), which cost less and offer better cameras, but miss out on the benefits offered by Android One. The Xiaomi Mi A2 (Review) does have a better rear camera as compared to the Nokia 6.1 Plus but has average battery life and lacks a headphone jack and a microSD card slot.


Are Nokia 6.1 Plus and Nokia 5.1 Plus the best Android phones from HMD Global? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.

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Nokia 6.1 Plus

Nokia 6.1 Plus

  • REVIEW
  • KEY SPECS
  • NEWS
  • Design
  • Display
  • Software
  • Performance
  • Battery Life
  • Camera
  • Value for Money
  • Good
  • Android One and no software bloat
  • Sleek and compact
  • Vibrant display
  • Great performance
  • Bad
  • Low-light camera performance could be better
  • Fast charger not bundled
Also See
  • Nokia 6 (2018) (Blue Gold, 64GB, 4GB RAM) –
    Rs.16,030
  • Nokia 6 (2018) (Black, 32GB, 3GB RAM)
    *Includes Rs. 750 cashback
    Rs.14,243*

[“Source-gadgets.ndtv”]

Asus ZenBook UX580GE Review

Asus ZenBook UX580GE Review\

HIGHLIGHTS

  • The ZenBook Pro UX580GE’s multi-function ScreenPad replaces a trackpad
  • It also has a professionally calibrated 4K touchscreen
  • There are lots of ports for flexible and convenient connectivity

When Asus first showed off its 2018 ZenBook Pro flagships at Computex earlier this year, it saved the grand reveal of the new ScreenPad feature right for the end. Until you see it light up, it looks exactly like a standard laptop trackpad. The idea of turning a surface that we touch all the time anyway into a multi-function smartphone-like controller seemed to make perfect sense – and it was presented as much more versatile than the Touch Bar on current-gen MacBook Pros.

But then we spent an hour or so with the ZenBook UX580GE and its smaller cousin, the UX480FD, and came away feeling very confused. We couldn’t see how the ScreenPad’s capabilities really fit with the way people use laptops. Now that we’ve had a chance to spend more time with the laptop, do we feel any different? Can Asus convince buyers to spend over Rs. 2,00,000 a laptop? We have all the answers.

Asus ZenBook UX580GE ScreenPad

Before we get to anything else, we’re sure people will want to know all about the ScreenPad, and there’s a lot to say. It seems fairly obvious that Asus wants to compete with the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, which is essentially a secondary screen that displays contextually useful controls. While Apple displaced the Fn row, Asus decided that this laptop’s trackpad should pull double duty. It feels logical because of how we’re all used to smartphones and tablets.

There are four modes, which you cycle between using the F6 key’s secondary shortcut. First of all, this should have been more obvious. The trackpad icon is fairly indistinct, and for such a headlining feature, it’s completely lost amongst the usual screen brightness and volume controls. Starting with the most basic, you can choose to disable the ScreenPad entirely, just like many laptops let you turn the whole thing off if you prefer.

Traditional Trackpad mode, as its name suggests, makes the touchscreen behave just like a standard laptop trackpad. In this mode, it’s actually pretty impossible to tell that there’s anything unusual about it. That’s probably why Asus decided to place a gigantic sticker right next to it with an arrow telling you that there are features to discover (though not how to do so).

The next is ScreenPad mode, which is really where the most innovation comes into play. First of all, you can choose any background image, just like your phone’s wallpaper. All you have to do is right-click an image file in Windows Explorer and select Set as ScreenPad backgroud. The position, scale, and size cannot be set, so you’ll end up with awkward cropping unless you use a 16:9 file.

A lot of people might find this cool enough on its own. Look closely though, and you’ll see a small white bar at the top. Swiping downwards pulls up the ScreenPad’s main toolbar, from where you can launch little widget-like apps. This is where the confusion begins.

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These apps include a numeric keypad, a calculator a music player, a calendar, a Windows app launcher, and a Spotify controller. Some of them are poorly conceived, for example the keypad is completely disabled until you hit a Num Lock button, which is totally pointless because there are no secondary functions and no chance of launching the widget accidentally.

The music player can only handle files in your Windows user profile’s Music folder, and has its own volume control rather than being able to adjust the Windows system volume. If you multitask away from this widget with music playing, there is no way to pause it or skip tracks. A simple set of Windows media playback controls – which are strangely missing from the keyboard – would have been infinitely better.

Spotify is not available in India yet, so that app is pointless. The calculator is simple and straightforward. Calendar requires you to use a Microsoft account and you can only see appointments, not create them. Finally, the app launcher makes no sense to us because there’s absolutely no way that swiping to reveal the ScreenPad toolbar, then choosing the launcher, and then tapping the icon you want is quicker than simply tapping the Windows taskbar or a desktop icon.

Whenever you use a ScreenPad app, you lose all trackpad functionality. That means that the numpad is useless if you want to enter data and make selections or change formatting in a document or spreadsheet. Unless you use the touchscreen or an external mouse all the time, ScreenPad apps by nature have to be things that you can use independently, not while interacting with software running on the laptop itself. Most people could do more with their smartphones, and have an easier time. It’s really hard to imagine use cases, which is probably why the selection is so bare.

Asus says that a developer kit is coming soon and that it will work with software makers to support ScreenPad, but there’s a conceptual disconnect that makes these apps awkward. On one occasion during our review, the ScreenPad appeared to hang, and we could neither use it as a trackpad nor switch to any other mode.

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Of course, Asus has stuffed yet another idea into its ScreenPad, and that is the ability to use it as a secondary monitor. It is after all a 1920×1080-pixel touchscreen, and in Extension Display mode, Windows automatically recognises it an attached display.

On our review unit, the ZenBook UX580GE didn’t always recognise the position of the secondary monitor relative to the first, and due to the size difference, Windows UI scaling was way off. We could scale up to 175 percent but text was still tiny and unreadable. Software will have to specifically be aware of the ScreenPad in order to make it work for things like toolbars. Once again, we were left struggling to find a purpose for the ScreenPad. Oh, and if you need to pop back into ScreenPad mode in order to use an app, it’s like disconnecting a second monitor – all your apps jump back to the primary display and you lose your window positions and sizes.

But there’s a much, much bigger problem here. The ScreenPad as an extended display continues to be a trackpad for both displays, but it isn’t conceptually a touchscreen anymore. You cannot touch and interact with buttons or windows in the way that you would on a smartphone or tablet – or for that matter, on the ZenBook UX580GE’s own screen! It completely breaks the UI conventions that are now so deeply ingrained in all of us.

Instead, you drag your finger around to control a cursor across both screens, and then position that cursor over elements, and then tap anywhere. You have to separate the trackpad from the display in your mind. It’s absolutely ridiculous and maddening, and even as highly experienced power users, we found ourselves tapping in vain and getting frustrated. We cannot understand how anything so completely unintuitive could ever have been released as a consumer product.

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It sounds like we’re being extremely negative about the ScreenPad, and the fact is that it really seems as though Asus didn’t think this idea through. To be fair, there is one very interesting and well-designed aspect to it, and that’s the integration with Microsoft Office. If you’re in ScreenPad mode, it will automatically change to show a toolbar with relevant shortcuts in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. You can customise these to some extent, and some of the buttons expand to show even more controls. The idea is sound, and the execution is pretty seamless. The only unfortunate part was that we had to supply our own Microsoft Office license.

There’s another Adobe Reader app that claims to let you sign digital documents with the ScreenPad, but it just never worked for us. Similarly, Asus offers a browser extension that shows YouTube playback controls, but it didn’t work in Edge and only kicked in after we downloaded Chrome.

Asus will offer more apps over time through its (rather spammy) Giftbox app store, and says that developers will soon be able to begin creating their own. We can’t yet say whether this will turn into an ecosystem worth supporting, especially since the ScreenPad is limited to Asus’ current flagship models right now. We’ll be keeping an eye on the situation – but for now, there’s the rest of the ZenBook UX580GE to talk about.

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Asus ZenBook UX580GE design

There aren’t any choices when it comes to the ZenBook UX580GE’s finish, which is a pity. The ‘Deep Dive Blue’ colour isn’t a bad thing, and has become a bit of a trademark for Asus. However, we did not care for the rose gold accents at all. The Asus logos on the lid and below the screen, the printing on the keyboard keycaps, and the shiny chamfered rim of the body are far from subtle or refined. We’re sure that a lot of people will find this too garish for professional environments – and we felt the same way when we reviewed the ZenBook 3 UX390UA last year.

The lid has the same Zen-inspired pattern of concentric circles that we’ve seen many times before, but the keyboard deck has a diagonal brushed finish, which seems incongruous. Smudges and fingerprints can be seen very clearly on both surfaces. We also think that six stickers advertising various features and specifications is a bit excessive.

While still fairly portable, this laptop definitely isn’t too concerned with being thin and light. It’s a bit larger in all dimensions than the current-gen 15-inch MacBook Pro, and very slightly heavier as well. However, the 1.89kg weight is still manageable for those who need to carry this laptop around every day.

One of the tradeoffs for this bulk is the fact that you get a whole lot of useful ports. On the left, there’s a power inlet, HDMI port, and two USB Type-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3. On the right, there are two Type-A USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) ports which a lot of users will appreciate, plus a microSD card slot, and a 3.5mm combo audio socket. Of course a full-sized SD card slot would have been much more useful for photo and video professionals who work with cameras a lot.

There isn’t enough space for an Ethernet port, but Asus includes a USB Ethernet adapter in the box. We had a little trouble with this, and the laptop often failed to detect it or decided that it had malfunctioned after a few minutes of use. You don’t get any other accessories – we would have liked a sleeve or at least a microfibre cloth.

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Asus ZenBook UX580GE specifications and software

Asus has chosen specs befitting of a top-end professional laptop. You have a choice of Intel Core i7-8750H and Core i9-8950HK CPUs, and our review unit was the more premium version with the Core i9. This is a six-core CPU with a 2.9GHz base speed and 4.8GHz maximum turbo speed. It’s important to note that Intel’s sole mobile Core i9 CPU is based on the same mainstream Coffee Lake architecture as other mobile parts, not the high-end Skylake-X architecture that all desktop variants use – in essence you do get higher performance but the Core i9 brand here is really more about marketing.

Both versions of the ZenBook UX580GE have 16GB of RAM, a 1TB PCIe SSD, a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti GPU, and a 71WHr battery. You also get dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5, a fingerprint reader for Windows Hello authentication, and a standard 720p webcam. The HDMI 1.4 and Thunderbolt 3 ports let you drive up to two external 4K displays – or three at lower resolutions – so including the ScreenPad, that’s five in all.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the ZenBook UX580GE’s own 4K screen, which claims to deliver a professional level of colour accuracy with a gamut that covers 100 percent of the Adobe RGB spectrum. This is the first time we’ve come across a Pantone Validated screen, and if that wasn’t enough, Asus also tells us that it has been calibrated to Delta-E<2, where E=1 is considered indistinguishable to human eyes, and E<4 is considered the minimum for professional work – though a lot depends on the specific version of the standard used and illumination conditions at the time of testing, which Asus hasn’t gone into detail about.

On the software front you get Windows 10 Pro, McAfee LiveSave (which throws up loads of annoying subscription reminders), and WPS Office. There’s a large number of Asus apps included Splendid for choosing screen colour profiles, Battery Health for charging options, a registration app, e-manual, and the aforementioned Giftbox app store.

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Asus ZenBook UX580GE performance

With all the attention focused on the ScreenPad, it might be easy to forget that the ZenBook UX580GE is a flagship laptop with top-end specs, and it performs just as well as expected. The screen is brilliant, bright and crisp, and is a pleasure to work with – except that it is highly reflective. There are bottom-firing stereo speakers which produce very loud, rich and deep sound in all kinds of music and videos.

The keyboard is well designed and is satisfying to type on. It’s not too loud and the keys travel well, but it does sag slightly in the centre. Typing comfort is slightly affected by the oversized ScreenPad. It’s great at palm rejection but by nature, the screen gets warmer than the surrounding metal, and this can get distracting when typing long documents.

We flew through our usual benchmarks. The ZenBook UX580GE achieved 190 and 1,165 points in CineBench R15’s single- and multi-threaded tests. It also gave us 5,052 points in PCMark 10 Extended. SSD performance is particularly good – CrystalDiskMark reported sequential read and write speeds of 1.4GBps and 2.36GBps, and random speeds of 1.37GBps and 1.66GBps respectively.

We managed to render Blender’s BMW test file in 7 minutes, 36 seconds. POVRay ran its built-in benchmark in 1 minute, 46 seconds. Handbrake transcoded a 1.36GB AVI video file to H.265 in just 59 seconds, and 7zip managed to compress a 3.24GB folder of assorted files in 2 minutes, 42 seconds.

Gaming definitely isn’t the primary purpose of the ZenBook UX580GE, and if that’s what you want, you can save a lot of money by looking elsewhere. Still, it does have a powerful enough CPU and GPU to handle recent games using reasonable settings, whenever you have some spare time.

The synthetic 3DMark Time Spy and Fire Strike Ultra tests gave us 2,420 and 1,754 points respectively. Rise of the Tomb Raider’s built-in benchmark managed a respectable 49.25fps at 1920×1080 using the High preset and FXAA. Far Cry 5 gave us an unplayable average of 14fps at 4K, but a reasonable 46fps average at 1920×1080 using the Normal preset. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is pretty demanding, but we managed a smooth average of 51fps at 1920×1080 using the Medium presets for graphics and post-processing in a manual run-through.

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Battery life isn’t one of the biggest strengths of the ZenBook UX580GE. With a 4K screen and relatively slim body, we weren’t expecting miracles. We got about seven hours of continuous usage, which involved basic productivity, Web surfing, and some video streaming with the screen set to 50 percent brightness. The intensive Battery Eater Pro test lasted for a decent 1 hour, 19 minutes.

There are two cooling fans inside the chassis, and most of the time, we were able to hear a very light buzz. Thankfully, the noise didn’t become disturbingly loud at any point, even when running very stressful tests. The keyboard stayed cool, but the ScreenPad and area around it did get fairly warm at times.

Verdict
We applaud Asus for trying something new and different with the ScreenPad feature. However, the company seems to have let its clever ideas run wild, and too many features and modes have been combined into one device. ScreenPad mode needs a lot of work, and all apps need to work like the Office toolbars and YouTube extension. Extension Display mode has very limited usefulness and the implementation is a total trainwreck, breaking the most basic habits that people have when using touchscreens.

Apart from that though, the ZenBook UX580GE is a brilliant high-end laptop. You might come for the ScreenPad, but if you look beyond it, you’ll stay for everything else. It’s powerful but still not too bulky or heavy, and it feels great to use. People who work with photos and videos will love the screen, and there’s enough power and storage on tap for heavy content production work. There are barely any compromises when it comes to specifications, connectivity, or portability. We just wish that there had been a choice of body colours.

Speaking of the price, it’s Rs. 2,09,990 for the Core i9 variant and Rs. 1,79,990 if you step down to the Core i7. This makes both options very competitive with Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro, which has weaker specifications. Even so, we’d love to see lower-priced variants without the ScreenPad – Asus could reach a much wider audience without the gimmick.

Asus ZenBook Pro UX580GE
Price: 
Rs. 2,09,999 (as reviewed)

Pros

  • Excellent 4K screen
  • Relatively compact and portable
  • Great performance
  • Lots of storage and connectivity

Cons

  • ScreenPad is gimmicky
  • Garish body colour
  • Too much preloaded bloatware

Ratings (Out of 5)

  • Design: 4.5
  • Display: 5
  • Performance: 4.5
  • Software: 4
  • Battery life: 3.5
  • Value for Money: 4
  • Overall: 4.5

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