Saturday 19 October 2019

Tech Review: Best mid-range phones


Google Pixel 3A XL €479
Google Pixel 3A XL €479
Huawei P20 Pro €499, Three
iPhone 7 €539
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Google Pixel 3A XL €479

Google's new mid-range smartphone is the most impressive new phone in this category launched so far this year.

Its camera is superb, its operating system is top-notch and the overall package is something that is on par with some flagship models. Indeed, it's hard to see why someone would buy Google's own high-end Pixel 3XL when this costs half the price.

Other than its price, the Pixel 3a XL's biggest draw is its 12-megapixel camera. Google appears to have put its premium lens system (which is excellent) into this mid-range device. The results are absolutely superb, with one caveat,

Its overall 'computational photography' system is second to none. What this means is that it uses a lot of tech to figure out what you're trying to photograph and deliver the right balance of tones, colour, sharpness and so on.

In the hundreds of test shots I took, there was consistently the right effect applied for natural, vivid, but not oversaturated or processed, photos.

The Pixel range is the only smartphone other than high-end Huawei models that gives you an HDR night photo mode. This produces amazing results in very low-light scenarios. It's especially effective for neon and cityscape photos at night time.

But it's not perfect. It only has a single lens. Even in the mid-range category, many models now have at least a second zoom lens.

However, I'll say this - the Pixel 3a XL does such a superlative job with the single 28mm lens it has, especially for 'normal' shots such as portraits, that it still beats most dual-lens phones at this price range.

As for design, Google has gone a different aesthetic route to 90pc of the smartphones on the market. It doesn't have a full screen front side and it has coloured rear casing. I always like to see a 3.5mm headphone port included on a handset, even if I almost never use a wired set of headphones any more. The Pixel 3a has one. The fingerprint scanner is on the back of the phone.

I found its 3,700mAh battery life to be good. It's not quite at the level of ultra-premium models such as Huawei's P30 Pro or Samsung S10+, but it comfortably matches (or beats) what you'll get on many iPhones.

This is good news: I found battery life on previous Pixel phones to be a little average. I usually got a full day's use out of the Pixel 3a XL.

My usage patterns here incorporated quite fairly regular of social account checking, some video consumption, a few dozen photos taken and some video shot. That said, if I knew I was going to rely on it at a work even for a few hours (to use the hotspot with a tablet or laptop, for example) I'd definitely bring a portable power extension to go with it.

One significant perk of choosing a Pixel phone is the 'pure' Android operations system you get.

True, many people will be used to small user features and pathways on a Samsung or Huawei phone. But for me, there's still an optimum performance level with straight, unlayered Android that's hard to beat on other Android phones.

Google Pixel 3A XL €479

Huawei P20 Pro €499, Three

This is a tentative inclusion on this list. If the US follows through on sanctions against Huawei, it may not be worth buying a Huawei. But if the US-China trade war is patched up, which is likely at some point, this phone looks like a steal at its current price.

The 6.1-inch P20 Pro was one of the best flagship phones of 2018, when it cost close to €1,000. In 2019, it's still an excellent handset. For starters, it has crammed a lot more camera technology under the hood to help produce photos you'd barely believe weren't from a bigger camera.

Huawei has placed a 40-megapixel (f1.6) sensor on there, meaning that the amount of detail you get in each shot is off the scale in relation to what you'd normally expect from a phone in this price bracket.

The two other lenses on the back of the device are an 8-megapixel (f2.4) telephoto camera (3x) and a 20-megapixel monochrome (black and white) lens, for zooming in and adding more detail, respectively.

Huawei is one of two major phone brands on the Irish market that has a 'night' setting.

You point and hold the phone at something for a few seconds in dark conditions. If there's any light source at all - a window, neon sign or street light - the camera builds on that light. It also appears to take several photos, stacking them into one shot that includes way more detail than you'd normally get from even the best phone cameras up to now.

It's worth mentioning again that it's not all software-related advancements driving the phone's camera improvements. As noted before, Huawei has stuck a bigger physical sensor into the device.

Its 40-megapixel 1/1.7-inch sensor is around a third bigger than the 1/2.5-inch sensor you'll get in (the now mid-range priced) Samsung's S9 or Apple's iPhone X from last year. You might argue that it needs it, with all those megapixels. But the upshot is that this is a physically superior camera apparatus than almost any other smartphone out there.

The other physical attribute which is worth noting is its high-end Oled screen, which is gorgeous.

The difference between Oled and LCD screens is subtle but once you're used to an Oled screen, LCDs looks a little harsh. It's generally better at rendering colours and blacks and is easier on the eye.

The 6.1-inch size is a sweet spot, too: big enough to watch videos comfortable but just about compact enough to be relatively ergonomic in your hand.

Otherwise, the battery life is excellent. Huawei has imported the long-lasting 4,000mAh battery from its Mate 10 Pro line and the results are superb. This is genuinely an all-day battery experience. For people like me, who snap a lot on their phone, that's pretty important.

The one partial negative I can find at this point is that it doesn't have a headphone jack, although there's a headphone adapter in the box.

Huawei isn't out of the woods in terms of getting caught in a trade war. But this remains a fantastic bargain.

Huawei P20 Pro €499, Three


iPhone 7 €539

The iPhone 7 is Apple's entry-level handset, priced at around €500 (you'll get it cheaper as a reconditioned, guaranteed unit from vendors such as Mint).

While it doesn't quite match the hardware technical standard of other phones on this list (it has an LCD screen instead of Oled and its storage starts at a lowly 32GB for its quoted price), the 4.7-inch model still has some compelling features that earns it a place on your mid-range shopping list.

For business users in particular, the iPhone has become a solid, dependable default tool with more enterprise apps and customised corporate software for it than rivals. As such, the decision to choose an iPhone can be subject to a different set of criteria than for ordinary consumers, who may be more impressed by features such as the flexibility and megapixel count of a camera.

There are only two arguable disadvantages to the iPhone 7. The first is its battery life, which is toward the weaker end of what rivals now offer.

The second is screen size. While some still like a modestly-sized display, the iPhone 7's 4.7-inch screen could be bigger if the phone didn't have the relatively thick bezels it has. That means that some may have to hold it a bit closer when reading emails or watching a video.

Nevertheless, that screen is bright and vivid, even if the pixel resolution is close to older models at 326ppi.

This means that the iPhone 7's screen is a semi-notch down on what you'll get from one or two other top-end phones that boast PPI figures of 500 and over.

But in reality, the difference is pretty hard to make out on a 4.7-inch screen. Unless you're an absolute pixel nerd, I can't see any reason why 'only' getting a HD screen would put you off getting this handset.

For anyone worrying about power, the iPhone 7's A10 chip is still a decent engine, easily capable of sorting through the kind of tasks you're likely to give it.

While there is only one 12-megapixel camera on the back, it's still very good - it beats some mid-range rivals from the likes of OnePlus while not quite being at the level of Google's Pixel 3a XL or Huawei's P20 Pro.

Of critical importance is the iPhone 7's optical stabilisation.

When used with video, even a zoomed-in, apparently shaky filming process results in a nice, smooth video result.

The home button is a 'button' in name only: it's actually a fixed solid-state panel that gives the impression of being pressed without much actual mechanical movement. (So when the phone is off, nothing happens when you go to press it.) In this 'haptic' environment, you can choose the virtual 'depth' of the home button's pressing technique in settings, although there isn't much of a difference between them.

Technically, the iPhone 7 has an officially-recognised IP67 certification, which means that it can remain operational for up to 30 minutes at a water depth of one metre (covering almost all toilets).

iPhone 7 €539

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