Thursday 8 December 2016

Tech review: Adrian Weckler on the latest gadgets

Published 05/03/2016 | 02:30

Huawei GX8
Huawei GX8
Sony RX10ii.
Acer Chromebook R11 

Our Technology Editor reviews the Huawei GX8, Sony RX10ii  camera and the Acer Chromebook R11.

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Huawei punches well above its mid-range tag

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Huawei GX8

Price: from free on Meteor bill pay; €330 sim-free from store.orange.com

Rating: 4 Stars

Remember when the smartphone market was a two-horse race between Apple and Samsung? Those days are long gone. While the iPhone is still steady, Galaxy phones have largely been caught by the rise of really well-made rival Android handsets. Huawei's latest model, the mid-range GX8 is a case in point. It looks fantastic, performs really well and is around half the price of Samsung's S7. That's a killer combination and a primary reason why, unless your phone budget isn't price sensitive, you should consider this phone over Samsung's.

In design, looks and feel, the GX8 whispers premium. It's mostly metal with rounded, contoured edges that make it easy to handle. It's a little heavier than more expensive Android rivals but around the same weight as the similarly-sized iPhone 6S Plus. But this is 'solid' weight rather than the 'brick' variety: people don't mind weight if it's borne of materials such as metal.

The GX8's 13-megapixel camera generally performs very well. It includes some handy controls, such as the ability to tap on an object in the screen's view which tells the lens to keep focusing on that one object (or person) no matter what else happens in the shot. It also gives you lots of selfie options for its front-facing 5-megapixel camera. It has a high-end flash feature on the back which is rare for a phone at this level.

The phone's HD (2K) screen is bright and sharp with retina-class 401 pixels per inch. It's not quite as high resolution as the absolute top phones (from Sony and Samsung), but I'm not sure that this makes any difference. There's a very marginal benefit to anything over 400 pixels per inch on a screen that's less than seven or eight inches in size, let alone a 5.5-inch smartphone. I was very happy with this screen.

The phone also has a fingerprint sensor located on the back of the device (just underneath the camera lens) as opposed to bottom front. This means that it's aimed mainly at your forefinger rather than your thumb. The only downside to this is that those with smaller hands will have to turn the phone over to get their full finger over the sensor. Otherwise, it works fine.

The GX8's (3,000mAh) battery life is pretty good, though not best in class. You'll reliably get a day of regular use out of it, which is all you can really ask for. But if you want to use this phone as a tablet computer too (a combination activity which is becoming more common than you might imagine), you'll need a battery backup.

But there's no problem with speed and power. The phone's beefy 3GB of Ram, allied to its quad-core Snapdragon chip, sees to that.

The handset has a micro SD card slot for extra storage, above its own 32GB of internal storage. It also uses the existing mini USB power charging as opposed to the newer USB-C standard, which is probably no bad thing as you can get such cables and chargers cheaply anywhere.

Mercedes-class camera that's a split second too slow

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Sony RX10ii  

Price: €1,499 from Conn's Cameras and the Camera Centre                  

Rating: 4 Stars

Sony's latest 20-megapixel RX10ii is a tale of two cameras. On one hand, it's a technological wonder and, arguably, the best all-in-one camera on the market. This is because it does everything, from a 24mm to 200mm zoom at F2.8 (which is amazing) to 4K video and super-slow motion footage at an astonishing 1,000 frames per second. (The iPhone 6S's slow motion level is 240 frames per second.)

The camera's 1-inch sensor means that its photos and video are high quality, too, while its flip-out screen is a very useful addition to its electronic viewfinder. Furthermore, as well as Wi-Fi and all sorts of other tech on board, it's built to take a bit of punishment, with a decent degree of weather-proofing and bump resistance.

And it's a decent size, smaller than full-sized DSLR cameras with similar zooms and reasonably ergonomic.

So what could possibly hold me back from declaring this my new favourite camera? A personal preference: the RX10ii isn't quite as pleasant to use as I'd like.

A lot of it comes down to speed. The RX10ii, like its RX10 predecessor, is a little slow. From switching it on to operating the electronic zoom manually, it lags just a split second behind what I find optimal.

There is also its look and feel. This might sound shallow, but I like cameras that are either beautiful to look at in their own right or are super-comfortable to use. The RX10ii isn't really either of these. It focuses far more on its technical innovations than its tactile or aesthetic sensibilities. (This seems to be a common principle among Sony cameras.)

I also have a slight quibble with the lack of additional photography features compared to its RX10 predecessor, which costs little over half the price. In a nutshell, the original camera has virtually all of the features its successor has for great photos (same sensor, megapixels, zoom and f2.8 aperture). It also looks exactly the same. The only real difference is a lack of 4K, slow motion and a few other video bits and pieces. So the RX10ii's €1,500 price tag versus €850 for the (still available) original RX10 is a big ask if your main interest is photos over videos.

To be clear, the RX10ii is a remarkable camera that continues to break new ground in what is possible in a single machine without loads of additional lenses. The quality of its photos is really good. Moreover, the availability of its zoom range at high quality settings means you will get shots on this that you simply would not get with other camera systems.

It is like a Mercedes Benz S-Class for 'bridge' zoom cameras: much better quality and far more advanced than rivals.

I'm just not yet in love with it.

Cheap, cheerful and very usable

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Acer Chromebook R11  

Price: €330 from PC World                  

Rating: 4 Stars

Given the nature of what they are, it was always a logical move to make a convertible touchscreen Chromebook. Acer's R11 model does the job nicely. It's cheap, cheerful and very usable. The laptop's 11.6-inch screen folds over to turn the device into a large tablet, albeit one running on Google's desktop-like Chrome operating system.

As it's a Chromebook, the vast majority of its functionality is based on 'cloud' apps like Google Docs - you won't be using this as an anchor device for an iPhone or iPod. There's also the bare minimum of onboard storage with just 16GB available. Again, this won't really matter given the laptop's raison d'être. It has an HDMI port, a couple of USB ports and an SD memory card slot. It's fairly nicely styled with a usable keyboard and a reasonably bright touchscreen.

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