Friday 9 December 2016

Another step forward

Published 17/04/2015 | 02:30

Samsung S6
Samsung S6
Samsung S6
HTC One M9
Toshiba Chromebook
Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera

Mike Ross runs his eye over the latest state-of-the-art releases

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Samsung S6 Edge

The Samsung S6 Edge had a bit of an interesting conception. The first handset to bear the Edge name was the Note 4 Edge, which had one side of the screen wrap around the side of the phone, giving it a bit of a lopsided look but providing a handy ribbon for shortcuts.

Out of that idea came the S6 Edge, which is the stablemate phone to the more regularly designed S6, and is one of the best-looking Android phones I've ever held. The first time you pick it up, you notice the screen, which gently curves at both sides to hug the handset. The back is flat, with a slight bulge where the camera lens sticks out and a heart-rate sensor recessed beside it.

The whole handset oozes build quality, from the pin-sharp, better-than-full-HD 1440p Super OLED display, to the metal and Gorilla glass that the S6 Edge is made from. Dig under the hood a little and you'll find plenty of muscle. An octacore 1.5GHz Exynos 7420 chip is paired with 3GB of RAM and a Mali T670 GPU to keep things humming along, and the Android Lollipop OS runs without a stutter to be seen. Powering the whole thing is a 2600mAh battery, which in a departure from normal Samsung practice, cannot be replaced due to the phone's unibody construction.

In the space of time I had it, the battery seemed more than adequate for a day's regular use. There's no SD card slot either, which is a bit disappointing as expandable storage would come in handy, especially considering the camera's 4K video recording capabilities.

Speaking of the camera, there have been some tweaks here too since its predecessor the S5 came out. It has the same 16 megapixel sensor, but the lens has been boosted from an f/2.2 to an f/1.9 aperture. In practice, this means it leaves in up to a third more light, good news for dark situations. Selfies are looked after too, with a 5MP front camera, and as always Samsung has loaded the camera app with lots of different options, including a Bokeh effect and slow motion.

Overall the S6 Edge looks like it'll be a big hit: it's definitely one of the contenders for prettiest phones of the year, and has the muscle behind it to show it's not just a pretty face.

HTC One M9

The One series of phones have been a great hit for HTC, with the M7 and M8 being consistently ranked top or near the top of the pile when it comes to lists of the top Android phones.

The M9 looks to continue this trend, without sacrificing what made it popular in the first place. At first glance, it doesn't look very much different from the M8, the only major differentiators being a two-tone finish (gold and silver in my case) and a square instead of a round camera lens. This isn't a bad thing, as the solid, sleek aluminium construction of the One series has always been a major selling point.

The power button has been moved too, and is now on the side of the device under the volume toggles. If you're coming from the M8 or M7, this will take a little bit of getting used to, but since you can double-tap the screen to wake it up anyway, it probably won't be used that much.

HTC have resisted the temptation to increase the screen's resolution, and have gone with a five-inch 1080p SuperLCD protected by Gorilla glass. It's still perfectly razor-sharp at 441PPI.

Internally, the M9 is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 CPU, which has eight cores - four of which run at 1.5GHz and four at 2GHz, paired with 3GB of RAM. The two sets of cores never run at the same time, the phone switching between the higher and lower clocked cores as needed to save battery life.

The battery has been upgraded too, and now clocks in at 2840mAh, which is more than sufficient to get you through the day and then some.

The last major change is the departure of the 4MP Ultrapixel camera, which has now moved to the front, being replaced on the rear by a more standard 20.7MP sensor. The camera has an f/2.0 lens, resulting in highly detailed images with great dynamic range.

There have been some software changes too: the M9 runs HTC Sense 7.0 over the stock Android Lollipop software, and I've consistently found it to be one of the better-looking manufacturer's user interfaces. Sense 7.0 has an interesting new feature that allows you to customise the phone with different themes.

The M9 comes with 32GB of storage, but it keeps the expandable memory option open with an SD card slot. The HTC M9 isn't a huge leap forward, but it has kept a winning formula going. The new camera is definitely a step in the right direction, and the two-tone body is a nice addition. It's one of the quickest phones out there, and well worth your consideration if hunting for an upgrade.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 , €289

Chromebooks are a bit of a throwback to the immensely popular netbooks of nearly 10 years ago, but running the Chrome OS (developed by Google) instead of a cut-down version of Windows.

Chrome OS is based on Linux, but is heavily dependent on having a constant connection to the Internet, as it's at its heart an internet browser-based system. All of its apps are from the Chrome store, most of which will be very familiar to you if you own an Android device or have a Google account.

Indeed, to use the Chromebook to its full potential you will need to have a Google account.

It certainly punches above its weight on the hardware stakes. Take it out of the box, and you'll find a very thin and light laptop (about 20mm thick and 1.3kg), with a dimpled silver plastic body. Open it up, and it boots in about eight seconds, thanks to its 16GB SSD. The screen is a 13" IPS LCD, with a full 1080p resolution, which is really good at this price point. The Chromebook is powered by an Intel Celeron N2840 processor clocked at 2.58GHz and has 4GB of RAM, plenty of grunt for most work, and watching HD video.

Gaming is a bit of a stretch, though, and you certainly won't be running the latest titles like Battlefield 4 on it any time soon. There are lots of connectivity options available, it has a HDMI out, a USB 3 and SD card port and headphone socket.

Using the Chrome OS is fairly straightforward: you launch the Chrome browser and install the apps you require. For people used to Windows or MacOS, though, there will be a few familiar programs like Microsoft Excel and Word missing, and you'll have to use Google's office apps instead. It's not such a bad thing, and everything you do will be backed up to Google Drive, so you'll never lose a thing. If you're offline, files can be saved on the hard drive until you're online again. The battery life is very good, lasting on average of nine hours of normal use.

The Toshiba Chromebook 2 is an inexpensive laptop that's best suited to the student or home market. It doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, but it's perfect for your everyday user, and at this price, is hard to beat for value.

Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera, €1,459 (body only) and €2,049 (14-140mm)

The GH4 is Panasonic's follow-up to the GH3, and like its predecessor, sits on top of the Panasonic camera line. It's a Micro Four Thirds camera, which means a smaller sensor than on a bigger DSLR, and the absence of a mirror box. This allows it to have a smaller, more compact body, which is weatherproof and dustproof, and is coupled with a 14-140mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

Picking it up, it's still reassuringly hefty and inside there have been a few updates; it has a new 16MP sensor, and a quad core Venus Engine IX processor. The GH4 sports an articulated three-inch digital touch-sensitive screen, useful for composing those tricky shots, and making adjusting settings deep in the camera easy. It also has the rather useful ability to be controlled from your smartphone via WiFi - you could use it as one of the world's most expensive security cameras if you wished!

Other features include an ISO mode from 200 to 25,600, and a shutter speed that ranges from 60 seconds to 1/8000 of a second - great for night sky shots and sports alike. The pictures the GH4 produced were fantastic, with great contrast, natural colours and high levels of detail. Video was outstanding: the 4K performance that this camera can deliver will make it very attractive to videographers indeed.

The GH4 is a great addition to Panasonic's camera range. It's a solid choice for all your photography needs, and if you're a budding Spielberg, a very good way to get a highly capable 4k video camera.

Irish Independent

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