For starters, that charging case is huge. There’s no way around it. It’s something that’s become more and more apparent as the weather is warmer and I no longer have jacket pockets to carry it around in. If you shell out the money for these, you’ll be thinking about this a lot, too. How long you plan to be out versus the added pocket bulk.
There’s also the issue of cost. A few years ago, $250 might not have seemed crazy for a pair of wireless earbuds. When you’re out-pricing Apple’s primary earbuds, however, it might be time to reconsider.
Those are really the big strikes in what’s been an otherwise wholly enjoyable review process. I’ve been eager to put these through their paces since the day they were announced, and haven’t been disappointed. Given the choice between the AirPods and Powerbeats Pro, I’m leaning toward the latter at the moment.
The Powerbeats Pro are a wholly different take on the category, and that’s precisely where they succeed. Sure, Beats has been operating under the Apple banner for more than a third of its existence, but the company’s fully wireless headphones are probably the best example to date of how to run a sub-brand with minimal interference.
That’s not to say that Apple wasn’t involved. The company’s fingerprints are here, but that’s largely a good thing, honestly. The inclusion of the H1 chip is the clearest example. Using the same silicon found in the latest AirPods, the initial pairing process is as simple as opening up the case. From there, a large window will show the case and two headphones, along with corresponding battery levels.
Assuming, of course, you have an iPhone. You can pair them up to an Android handset and just about anything else with Bluetooth, but you’ve got to go through the more traditional rigmarole. The flip side of all of this is that the Pros only ship with a Lightning port. I’ve expressed my frustration with Apple’s proprietary connector in the past, but honestly, it mostly comes down to the fact that Apple seems to have finally started following the rest of the industry down the USB-C rabbit hole. At this point it feels inevitable.
And, of course, the Pro case isn’t wireless yet. Gotta save something for the second gen, I guess.
As for the clear advantages Beats has over the AirPods, that’s three-fold. First is battery life. The upshot to the massive case is a ton of time on a charge. Beats puts them at nine hours on the earbuds, with a full 24 hours all told, when the case is factored in. I never found myself short on juice, and I’m pretty psyched to take them on the next cross-country plane ride.
That means, in most instances, you’re totally fine to leave home without the case. Though beware that both the case and the buds tend to scuff easily, so I’d use it when possible. The buds’ placement inside the case is also a little tricky. Unlike the AirPods, I found myself repositioning them the first few times.
While the case itself sports a small light that goes either red or white, depending on whether they’re charging, there’s no light on the buds themselves, meaning you’re primarily dependent on iOS to let you know where things stand.
The design of the buds themselves isn’t for everyone — but the same can certainly be said for AirPods. It’s true that the over the ear hooks are probably ideally suited for the gym, but in black these are subtle enough for most people to wear out undetected. More importantly, there are quite comfortable. Apple is still kicking and screaming against silicone tips, and that’s made AirPods particularly divisive. Like many of the company’s headphones before, they simply don’t fit in a lot of ears.
Removable silicone tips offer a more adaptable fit, coupled with a better seal. That, in turn, means less sound leak. The headphones might be tuned a little high for some tastes, but it honestly beats the old days when the company leaned entirely too heavily on bass to make up for other shortcomings. As is, the sound is quite good, so far as fully wireless Bluetooth earbuds go.
I will say that the design wore on one of my ears a bit after a marathon listen while working at my desk, but I was able to wear them for a lot longer than most of the earbuds I’ve tested, with minimal annoyance.
Also impressive is the distance they’ll work. I routinely walked into the other room while leaving my phone charging on the desk with no problem. I did run into the occasional connection problems here and there, where one headphone conked out, but again, that unfortunately is pretty in-line with the current limitations of Bluetooth technology. Putting the earbuds in the case and pulling them back out seemed to address the problem just fine.
The Pros are generally less concerned with appearance than their Apple brethren. A bit ironic, perhaps, for a brand that was seemingly built around image. They’re a pretty good indicator of how far Beats has come as a brand, making for a much more utilitarian product than AirPods — and for a constant companion, that’s a good thing.
Assuming you can stomach the high price and massive case, for a majority of users, the Powerbeats Pro are probably the way to go.
OnePlus has never been particularly beholden to industry trends. Nowhere is that better demonstrated than with the 7 Pro. In the face of a stagnated smartphone market, Apple, Samsung and Google all went budget, releasing lower-tier takes on their pricey flagships to appeal to consumers looking for something akin to a premium experience without having to shell out four figures.
The 7 Pro, on the other hand, is OnePlus’ most premium device to date. But while the shift marks a break from much of the industry, it’s a very logical step for the company’s current trajectory. OnePlus made a name for itself creating low-cost flagship devices with features that were just slightly behind the bleeding edge.
In recent years, however, the company has looked to change that perception, becoming one of the first Android phones with an in-display fingerprint sensor and promising to be among the first to deliver 5G. The 7 Pro, however, marks a new era for the company. The existing six-month release strategy is still in place here (fittingly, given that Google has recently adopted something similar with its Pixel line), but the language OnePlus is using has shifted.
In a meeting ahead of launch, a rep for the company told TechCrunch OnePlus considers its twice-yearly phones to all be “flagships,” but the new model introduces the paradigm of “premium flagship” and “ultra-premium flagship.”
That’s a markety speak way of saying the company doesn’t compromise — which I think is a fair point. Oftentimes the concept of a “budget flagship” is heavily weighted toward the budget side of things. But OnePlus long ago established its knack for providing well-rounded, high-end smartphone experiences at well below the price of premium handsets.
The 7 Pro’s $669 starting price hedges much closer to the iPhone XR and Samsung Galaxy S10e’s $749 than the Pixel 3a’s $399. It’s also a pretty significant bump over the OnePlus 6T’s $549 starting point. It’s likely enough to make longtime fans of the service do a double take, but the sizable increase does come with a truly premium handset.
That starts with the design (though it’s certainly more than skin deep). This is immediately apparent with the 6.67-inch display. If curved sides of the edge to edge design are familiar, it’s because it was built custom for OnePlus by Samsung. And while it’s similar, it is, in fact, a custom design for the line, meaning that it’s still distinguished from the Galaxy line — namely the 516ppi density and a 90Hz refresh rate.
What’s really notable, however, is the complete absence of a notch or a pinhole. The 7 Pro takes another key step toward a world of uninterrupted screen time. Open the camera app, flip to front-facing and wait just under a second, as it mechanically extends on top of the device.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen the technology — fellow Chinese manufacturers Oppo and Vivo have already introduced us to pop-up cameras. But given OnePlus’ ongoing T-Mobile partnership, this is arguably the first time this technology has really been available to mainstream U.S. consumers.
The execution is quite good. As someone who almost never takes selfies, I’ve come to appreciate the semblance of privacy of a hidden front-facing camera. If I need it, it’s just a tap of the screen away. There are some safety features built in, as well. Should it slip from your grip while the camera is out, the phone uses the accelerometer to automatically retract it. It will also automatically return home if the phone goes to sleep with it out.
OnePlus won’t say what this specifically means for things like water resistance. In fact, the company’s a little cagey on the subject — even recently taking to Twitter to brag that it didn’t submit for an IP rating, in order to lower the cost of the devices for the end user. Here’s a video of it dropping the new phone in a bucket:
Do with that what you will. It’s certainly clear why OnePlus would decide to skip elements it deemed unnecessary, but there is a certain peace of mind in knowing that a product has been submitted to rigorous testing by outside parties. The closest we got to a definitive answer was a recommendation against attempting to take an underwater selfie with the phone. So take that as you will.
On the rear of the device is a three-camera system that pairs a beefy 48-megapixel lens with a 78mm telephoto and 117-degree ultra-wide angle. I’ve had some opportunity to play with the phone, and this really does seem to be the most utilitarian set up for a three-camera system, and the camera software does a nice job transitioning between lenses as you zoom in.
This is a premium device inside, as well. The Snapdragon 855 is coupled with 6-12GB of RAM and either 128 or 256GB of storage. The battery is a beefy 4,000 mAh, which will get you through more than a day on a single charge, no problem. The “Warp Charge” maintains the company’s fast-charging tradition, letting you fill up around half the battery in 20 minutes using the included adapter.
OnePlus has really outdone itself here, once again proving that a truly premium device doesn’t require a four-digit investment. Other companies have explored a similar price point with varying degrees of success. For OnePlus fans not ready to take the step up, the company will continue to provide a more more affordable line going forward. For now, however, the 7 Pro is easily one of the best ways to get a truly premium smartphone experience without paying an arm and leg.
The 7 Pro will be available online May 17 through OnePlus’ site and T-Mobile.
The Galaxy Fold has been the most polarizing product I can recall having reviewed. Everyone who saw it wanted to play with the long-promised smartphone paradigm shift. The results, on the other hand, were far more mixed.
If nothing else, the Fold has a remarkably high Q-Rating. Each person who saw me using the product had at least a vague idea of what it was all about. I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve had that reaction with a non-iPhone device. That’s great from brand perspective. It means a lot of people are curious and potentially open to the notion that the Samsung Galaxy Fold is the future.
Of course, it also means there are a lot of people looking on if you fail.
In some ways, this past week with the Samsung Galaxy Fold has been an extremely public beta. A handful of samples were given out to reviewers. Most worked fine (mine included), but at least three failed. It’s what we in the industry call a “PR nightmare.” Or at least it would be for most companies.
Samsung’s weathered larger storms — most notably with the Galaxy Note 7 a few years back. Of course, that device made it much further along, ultimately resulting in two large-scale recalls. The nature of the two issues was also vastly different. A malfunctioning screen doesn’t put the user at bodily risk like an exploding battery. The optics on these things don’t get much worse than having your smartphone banned from planes.
As of this writing, the Fold is still set to go on sale, most likely this year. To be perfectly frank, the April 26 release date seemed overly optimistic well before the first reports of malfunctioning units. It’s never a great sign when a device is announced in February and is only made available for review a few weeks ahead of launch. It’s kind of like when a studio doesn’t let reviewers watch a film before release. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
That’s the thing. The Galaxy Fold is the kind of device you want badly to succeed. You want it to be great and you want Samsung to sell a billion because it’s a genuinely exciting product after a decade of phones that look mostly the same. There’s also the fact that Samsung has essentially been hyping this thing for eight years, since it debuted a flexible display at CES 2011.
In spite of that, however, the home stretch feels rushed. Samsung no doubt saw the writing on the wall, as companies like Huawei readied their own foldable. And while Royole beat the fold to market, Samsung still had a very good shot at the claim of first commercially viable foldable on the market, with a decade of Galaxy devices under its belt and hand-in-hand work with the Google team to create an Android UX that makes sense on a pair of very different screens.
But this iFixit teardown speaks volumes. “Alarmingly” isn’t the kind of word you want/expect to hear about a company like Samsung, but there it is, followed directly by “fragile” — itself repeated five times over the course of the write-up. iFixit’s findings match up pretty closely with Samsung’s own reports:
A fragile display means knocking it the wrong way can result in disaster.
A gap in the hinges allows dirt and other particles to wedge themselves between the folding mechanism and screen.
Don’t peel off the protective layer. I know it looks like you should, but this is probably the easiest way to wreck your $2,000 phone that doesn’t involve a firearm or blender.
What makes all of this doubly unfortunate is that Samsung has about as much experience as anyone making a rugged phone that works. I feel confident that the company will do just that in future generations, but unless the company can come back with definitive evidence that it’s overhauled the product ahead of launch, this is a difficult product to recommend.
Samsung knew the first-gen Galaxy Fold would be a hard sell, of course. The company was pretty transparent about the fact that the experimental form factor, coupled with the $1,980 price tag, meant the device will only appeal to a small segment of early adopters.
Even so, the company managed to sell out of preorders — though it didn’t say how large that initial run was. Nor are we sure how many users have canceled in the wake of this past week’s events. Certainly no one would blame them for doing so at this point.
But while the apocalyptic shit-posters among us will declare the death of the foldable before it was ever truly born, whatever doesn’t kill Samsung has only made it stronger. And this misfire could ultimately do that for both the company and the category, courtesy of its informal beta testing.
Rewind a mere week or so ago (seriously, it’s only been that long), when we finally got our hands on the Galaxy Fold. I was impressed. And I certainly wasn’t alone. Admittedly, there’s a bit of a glow that first time you see a device that’s seemingly been teased forever. The fact that it exists feels like a kind of victory in and of itself. But the Fold does an admirable job marrying Samsung’s hardware expertise with a new form factor. And more importantly, it’s real and works as advertised — well, mostly, at least.
The truth is, I’ve mostly enjoyed my time with the Galaxy Fold. And indeed, it’s been fun chronicling it on a (nearly) daily basis. There are some things the form factor is great for — like looking at Google Maps or propping it up to watch YouTube videos on the elliptical machine at the gym. There are others when the bulky form factor left me wanting to go back to my regular old smartphone — but those trade-offs are to be expected.
I both like the Fold’s design and understand the criticism. Samsung’s done a good job maintaining the Galaxy line’s iconic design language. The foldable looks right at home alongside the S and Note. That said, the rounded backing adds some bulk to the product. And while open, the device is thinner than an iPhone, when folded, it’s more than double the thickness, owing to a gap between the displays. It’s quite skinny in this mode, however, so it should slip nicely into all but the tightest pants pockets.
In practice, the folding mechanism might be the most impressive part of the product. The inside features several interlocking gears that allow the product to open and shut with ease and let users interact with the device at various states of unfold. I found myself using the device with it open at a 90-degree angle quite a bit, resting in my hand like an open book. The Fold features a pair of magnets on its edges, which let you close it with a satisfying snap. It’s weirdly therapeutic.
Really, the biggest strike against the device from a purely aesthetic standpoint is that it’s not the Mate X. Announced by Huawei a few days after the Fold’s big unveil, the device takes a decidedly more minimalist approach to the category. It’s an elegant design that features less device and more screen, and, honestly, the kind of thing I don’t think most of us expected until at least the second-generation product.
The gulf between the two devices is especially apparent when it comes to the front screen. The front of the screen is around two-fifths bezel, leaving room for a 4.6-inch display with an awkward aspect ratio. The Mate X, meanwhile, features a 6.6-inch front-facing AND 6.4-inch rear-facing display (not to mention the larger eight-inch internal display to the Fold’s 7.3).
There’s reason to recommend the Fold over the Mate X, as well. I can’t speak to the difference in user experience, having only briefly interacted with the Huawei, but the price point is a biggie. The Mate X starts at an even more absurd $2,600, thanks in part to the fact that it will only be available in a 5G version, adding another layer of niche.
That price, mind you, is converted from euros, because 1) The product was announced at MWC in Barcelona and 2) U.S. availability is likely to be a nonstarter again, as the company continues to struggle with U.S. regulators.
Of course, the Fold’s U.S. availability is also in limbo at the moment, albeit for very different reasons.
I ultimately spent little time interacting with the front screen. It’s good for checking notifications and the like, but attempting to type on that skinny screen is close to impossible, with shades of the new Palm device, which implements its own shortcuts to get around those shortcomings. The inside, meanwhile, takes a butterfly keyboard approach, so you can type with both thumbs while holding it open like a book.
There’s also the issue of app optimization. A lot of this can be chalked up to an early version of a first-gen device. But as with every new device, the equation of how much developer time to invest is largely dependent on product adoption. If the Fold and future Fold’s aren’t a success, developers are going to be far less inclined to invest the hours.
This is most painfully obvious when it comes to App Continuity, one of the device’s primary selling points from a software perspective. When working as advertised, it makes a compelling case for the dual screens. Open something on the front and expand your canvas by unfolding the device. Google is among the companies that worked directly with Samsung to optimize apps this way, and it’s particularly handy with Maps. I used it a fair amount on my trip last week to Berkeley (shout out to the fine people at Pegasus Books on Shattuck).
When an app isn’t optimized, Samsung compels you to restart it, or else you get a nasty case of letterbox bars that retain the aspect ratio of the front screen. Continuity isn’t designed to work the other way, either — opening something on the large screen and then transferring to the front. That’s a bit trickier, as shutting the phone is designed to offer a kind of finality to that session, like hitting the power button to put the device to sleep.
I get that, and like many other pieces here, it will be interesting to see how people utilize it. Aside from the obvious hardware concerns, much of the work on the second-generation device will center around learnings from how users interact with this model. I know I surprised myself when I ended up using the 7.3-inch screen to snap photos. It felt silly — like those people who bring iPads to photograph events. But it’s ultimately a much better viewfinder than that measly 4.6-incher.
That’s really just the tip of the iceberg for the inside screen, of course. The size, which is somewhere between phablet and mini tablet, provides ample real estate that can still be held in one hand. It’s a great size for short videos. I’ve watched a lot of YouTube on this thing, though the speakers (a small series of holes on the upper and lower edges) leave a lot to be desired.
And the seam. I found myself uttering the phrase “it could be worse” a lot. Like so much of the general aesthetic (including the odd green-gold color of my Fold’s casing), it’s lighting-dependent. There are plenty of times when you don’t see it all, and other when the glare hits it and makes it look like a line right down the center.
I realized after snapping a couple of photos that it’s particularly apparent in many shots. That probably gives a false impression of its prominence. It sucks that there’s one at all, but it’s not a surprise, given the nature of the design. You mostly don’t notice it, until your finger swipes across it. And even then it’s subtle and totally not a dealbreaker, unlike, say, the massive gap that made the ZTE Axon M look like two phones pasted together.
I love the ability to stand the device up by having it open at a 90-degree angle, so I can watch videos while brushing my teeth. But this orientation blocks the bottom speakers, hampering the already iffy sound. Thankfully, your $1,980 will get you a pair of the excellent Galaxy Buds in box. It’s hard to imagine Apple bundling AirPods with the next iPhone, but I guess stranger things have happened, right?
Multi-Active Window is the other key software piece. It’s something that has been available on other Samsung devices and certainly makes sense here. Open an app, swipe left from the right side of the screen and a tray will open. From there, you can open up to three apps on the display. Once open, the windows feature a small tab at the top that lets you rearrange them.
It’s handy. I used it the most during those times I had a video playing on an exercise machine, so I didn’t have to close out of everything to check emails and Twitter. I’m a gym multi-tasker. I’m sorry, it’s just who I am now.
It worked quite well on the whole, courtesy of robust internals, including 12GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 855. The primary issue I ran into was how some of the apps maintained that half-screen format after I closed out and reopened. I’m sure some people will prefer that, and I’m honestly not sure what the ideal solution is there.
The Fold’s also got a beefy battery on board. Like Huawei’s, it’s split in two — one on either side of the fold. They work out to a beefy 4,380 mAh. That’s just slightly less than Huawei’s 4,500, but again, the Mate X is 5G by default — which means it’s going to burn through mAhs at a faster rate.
Ultimately, the Fold’s greatest strength is Samsung itself. I understand why you probably just did a double take there in the wake of the company’s latest hardware scandal, but the fact is that the company knows how to build phones. The Fold was very much built atop the foundation of the successful Galaxy line, even while it presents a curious little fork in the family tree.
That means a solid and well-thought-out user experience outside of the whole fold thing.
That list includes great cameras with excellent software features and clever tricks like the new Wireless PowerShare, which lets you fold up the phone and charge up those Galaxy Buds or another phone while it’s plugged in. For better or worse, it also includes Bixby. Our model was a European version that didn’t have the full version, but I think I’ve made my thoughts on the smart assistant pretty well known over the last couple of years.
The devoted Bixby button is very much here. And yes, I very much accidentally pressed it a whole bunch. The headphone jack, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent, which is no doubt a big driver behind the decision to include Galaxy Buds. The Fold is an anomaly in a number of ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this might finally represent the beginning of the end for the port on Samsung’s premium devices.
Also absent is the S Pen. The stylus began life on the Note line and has since branched out to other Samsung devices. I suspect the company would have had a tough time squeezing in space for it alongside the dual batteries, and maybe it’s saving something for future generations, but this does feel like the ideal screen size for that accessory.
I’m parting ways with the Fold this week, per Samsung’s instructions. Unlike other products, giving it up won’t feel that tough. There wasn’t a point in the past week when the Fold didn’t feel like overkill. There were, however, times when my iPhone XS screen felt downright tiny after switching back.
In many ways, the foldable phone still feels like the future, and the Fold feels like a stop along the way. There are a lot of first-gen issues that should be/should have been hammered out before mass producing this device. That said, there are certain aspects that can only really be figured out in real-world testing. Take the fact that Samsung subjected the device to 200,000 mechanical open and closes. That’s a lot, and probably more than the life of just about any of these devices, but people don’t open and close like machines. And when it comes to the screen, well, a little dirt is bound to get between the gears, both metaphorically and literally.
As I close this Galaxy Fold a final time, it seems safe to say that the device represents a potentially exciting future for a stagnant smartphone space. But that’s the thing about the future — it’s just not here yet.
Amazon’s Kindle is of course the brand most think of when they consider buying an e-reader, but competition does exist and the truth is it makes the company’s newest entry-level device look like a poor bargain. The price may be low, but this budget reader just doesn’t meet the bar.
The most basic current device in the e-paper Kindle lineup, the plain old “Kindle” (as opposed to Kindle Voyage, Kindle Paperwhite, etc) has in this 2019 iteration gained a couple features. An adjustable frontlight illuminates the E-Ink screen, there’s an improved touchscreen and a refreshed hardware design, though you’re forgiven if you don’t notice.
At $110, or $90 if you allow ads on your device, it’s among the cheaper devices out there, falling well below the $150 Paperwhite and $270 Oasis (again, subtract $20 if you don’t opt out of “special offers,” which I always make sure to mention).
It runs the familiar Kindle OS and of course seamlessly connects to your Amazon account, just like the others in the lineup. In general it’s more or less the same as the others in terms of formats, store and access features, and so on. So you’re not sacrificing anything on that front.
Unfortunately, what you do sacrifice is something much more important: a decent screen.
We’ve been privileged in the last couple years to see the quality of e-reader displays improve considerably, both in terms of resolution and lighting. A couple months ago I reviewed the $130 Kobo Clara HD, which offers few frills and, frankly, inferior build quality, but a beautiful screen and color temperature-adjustable frontlight, which is really worth paying for.
The specs speak for themselves: the “all-new” Kindle has a 6-inch with a pixel density of 167 PPI. The Clara HD has nearly twice that: 300 PPI, like the nicer Kindles, and believe me, you notice. It makes a huge difference to how text looks — there are diminishing returns past that point, but the change from 167 to 300 is a big one. Letters look much crisper and more regular, and fonts look much more different from each other, allowing you to customize your reading experience a more. (I recently found out I can easily add fonts to the Kobo and it’s great.)
It’s hard to capture the difference between the two except in macro shots, but in person it’s a serious one. There’s a reason phones, tablets, and e-readers (including Amazon’s own) all went to high pixel density and never looked back.
The Clara also has a frontlight that lets you adjust the color cast from cool to warm, which you can see above (I realize the temperatures of the images themselves are different as well but you get the idea). I didn’t think I’d find this useful, but as with resolution, it’s one of those things where once you have it, it’s difficult to go back. The cold, pixelated screen of the basic Kindle was unbearable after the warm, smooth look of the Kobo.
If you must have a Kindle reader and can’t spend more than $100, I’d seriously advise you to try to find an old generation of Paperwhite or the like with the higher resolution screen and frontlight. It makes a huge difference to readability and that’s really the most important part of a reader.
I would however advise you to spend a little more now to avoid buyer’s remorse. The Paperwhite is a great device and not too much more if you’re willing to accept Amazon’s “special offers.” Kindles in general have great build quality as well. If you aren’t attached to the Kindle brand, however, the Kobo Clara HD is only a bit more money and offers a better reading experience than either, in my opinion, as well as the flexibility that comes with the company’s devices.
When the entry-level Kindle gets a screen that matches the entry-level competition, I’ll happily endorse it, but for now I have to recommend its slightly more expensive peers for a major bump in quality.