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PlayBook 2.0: taking on BlackBerry’s real contender

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Gadget wraps up its coverage of BlackBerry DevCon Europe with a hands-on preview of the upcoming PlayBook 2.0. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK had a brief altercation with the beta version.

It is probably the fastest Gadget Ten Question Tablet Test we’ve ever conducted. After a demonstration of a beta version of the PlayBook 2.0 by Vivek Bhardwaj, Research in Motion’s Head of Software Portfolio for Europe, Middle East and Africa (see Playtime at RIM), he allowed Gadget to try it out. In a brief wrestling match with the device, we quickly ran it through as much of the Test as we could.

Bear in mind that this is by its nature not a conclusive review, but rather a foretaste. When the final version is reviewed, it will be given a comprehensive test.

1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)

The PlayBook 2.0 is identical to the first version, which is not in itself a bad thing. The one aspect of the original that received general praise was the build of the device, both in terms of solidity and elegance ‚ a tricky combination. The market was calling for a different software experience: the positive hardware experience remains a differentiator.

Score: 8/10

2. Keep control (How effective are the control buttons ‚ hardware, software, on-off)

As with the original, the round On button is separate from and differentiated from the clustered volume controls and Play/Pause button. However, it is still tiny, and can still be mistaken for a headphone jack in the dark. On the other hand, once you’re used to the idea that it lies alongside the cluster, the fumbling will end. The combination now looks rather elegant.

Score: 6/10

3. The sound of one-hand tapping (Can you comfortably hold it in one hand and operate it in the other? i.e. a weight test)

Again, no change here. A satisfying heft, yet a lightweight device. It’s easy to hold, with enough of a bezel on the edge to accommodate your thumb, and the virtual keyboard remains satisfyingly uncluttered.

Score: 8/10

4. The Angry Birds test (How responsive is the device in interactive tasks?)

The first version failed this test completely. However, 2.0 is fast, responsive and even fun. Angry Birds finally feels as if it is made for the device. The stand-out experience is Need for Speed, ‚Optimised for the PlayBook‚ : it handles twists and turns like a well-oiled machine.

Score: 8/10

5. The tablet gender test (How well does it multi-task?)

The PlayBook allows multiple apps to be opened at the same time, and they can all be displayed ‚ and clicked to open or X’d to close ‚ by a swipe up from the bottom bezel.

However, the device seemed to get confused when too many items were opened simultaneously, switching from landscape to portrait mode, which made it difficult to view open apps. When working properly, the panel displaying apps is still clunky and unappealing.

Score: 6/10

6. One to rule them all (Can it replace a PC or laptop? Does it make your life easier?)

PlayBook 2.0 brings to the BlackBerry user a sense of what the iPad brings to the iPhone user. No, not limitless fitness and food apps, but the ability to match up apps on the phone and tablet. With RIM’s massive push into the developer community, most of the popular apps for other platforms will also be available on the PlayBook.

The device is WiFI-enabled, which raises the question of why 3G is not enabled. Indeed, the 3G chickens came home to roost during the test, when WiFi went down, and it wasn’t possible to access Internet content.

The PlayBook is strongly geared to the enterprise market, and the inclusion of DocumentsToGo, the app that provides Word and Excel functionality on a mobile device, will be a powerful incentive. However, the 2.0 beta was not entirely satisfying on the latter score. For example, in Excel, the virtual keypad that comes up when you are ready to type into a cell defaults to the ABC keys, rather than to 123. It is a timely reminder that the first Windows spreadsheet program was called 1-2-3, and not A-B-C.

However, that is a minor quibble in the context of a device that matches both the consumption needs of the CEO and the productivity needs of middle-management, not to mention the entertainment needs of the kid in all of us.

Score: 7/10

7. Live long and prosper (How’s the battery life?)

It was not possible to test battery life in the time available.

Score: unscored

8. Sound and vision (Video and audio quality?)

Video was one of the strengths of PlayBook 1.0, and 2.0 seems to match up. Audio is also adequate, with dual front speakers still giving a solid stereo experience. It includes a headphone jack and Bluetooth capability for wireless headphones.

Score: 8/10

9. The new new (innovations and unique features)

PlayBook 2.0 offers two powerful differentiators:

Score: 9/10

10. The Price Test (Is it competitively priced?)

Ah, there’s the rub. At $400-$500, they could barely give version 1 away. Now that RIM know they have a contender on their hands, will they succumb to the temptation of premium pricing? In short, will they shoot themselves in the foot just as they catch up in the race? Watch this space.

Score: unscored

In conclusion

Total score: 62/80 – 77%

A brief try-out of the PlayBook 2.0 delivered a score of 77% – substantially higher than that of the first version, close to the high scores achieved by the Apple iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and higher than the best 7‚ device we have tried, the HTC Flyer. That isn’t the last world, however. When the final version of PlayBook 2.0 is released, it will be given a thorough testing to see just how nervous the competition needs to be.

* Arthur Goldstuck’s is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee.

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Amazfit Bip – An unassuming smartwatch competitor

The Amazfit Bip has everything a smartwatch needs: notifications, heart rate monitoring and a month-long battery life, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Amazfit Bip is one of the most appealing devices in the smartwatch lineup from Huami, a low-cost brand backed by Xiaomi.

Coming in at around R1500 depending on where you shop, the price point puts the Bip into the budget smartwatch space. Combined with a large set of offerings, it makes one wonder: “Why aren’t more smartwatches like this?”

Aesthetically, the rectangular face is similar to the Apple Watch but, on closer inspection, is more reminiscent of the Pebble Time smartwatch. Ergonomically, the Bip has a single button which mostly acts as an unlock button and a back button in menus. The watch strap is made of hypoallergenic silicone and is replaceable. 

The Bip has an always-on transflective colour screen with a backlight for darker situations. This kind of display is very similar to a 90’s Gameboy, and happens to be quite the power saver. The display is covered with 2.5D curved Corning Gorilla glass with an anti-fingerprint coating, giving that extra bit of knock resistance.

The unit is 18 grams without the strap and 32 with it on, making for an extremely light smartwatch that’s roughly half the weight of the Apple Watch. While the Bip is rated IP68 in terms of waterproofing and dustproofing (meaning it can withstand 30 minutes of being under 1.5 meters of water), Huami’s website says that it should not be used while swimming, diving or bathing, and should not be taken into a sauna. When the Bip we used got dirty from rock climbing, it was washed with a soap-free cleanser (as Fitbit recommends) and a soft-bristled toothbrush.

GPS tracking with a visual route of a run.

The number of sensors in the Bip is astonishing: heart rate sensor, accelerometer, geomagnetic sensor, barometer, and GPS. This sensor set is usually reserved for the premium smartwatch market but budget Bip packs all of these. Most interestingly, the geomagnetic sensor allows for compass readings (as well as assisting the GPS in locating the watch while it’s moving) and the barometer for measuring elevation by detecting changes in pressure. 

Battery life has been optimised to a month of regular use, with some reports measuring up to 45-days with the heart rate sensor off. Huami claims the smartwatch can last for 4 months with only step and sleep tracking on. The 190mAh battery was run down in 28 hours with the GPS, barometer and heart rate sensor set to permanently on.

The built-in software is basic and lacks app support but redeems itself in other areas. Firstly, the customisation of watch faces is limited but can be easily changed with a third party app. Notifications are handled well, available for viewing only, and require the phone for replying or other interactions. 

A notification from Telegram on the Bip with the backlight on.

The menu options become available with a swipe left, notification settings with a swipe down, past notifications with a swipe up and the weather with a swipe right. The menu has options for checking one’s current status (steps, heart rate, distance, calories), followed by quick activity tracking (running, cycling, walking weather (a five-day forecast with icons), alarms, timers, compass and settings.

The companion app, Mi Fit, is well-designed and syncs quickly with the Bip. Mi Fit is where the watch and sync settings can be fine-tuned. Mi Fit also gives very detailed sleep analytics, including showing how much time one spent sleeping compared to other Mi Fit users. 

Overall, the Bip is an attractive smartwatch for those who are looking to purchase a device that provides value for money while being highly-functional.

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Samsung A51: Saviour of the mid-range

For a few years, Samsung has delivered some less than favourable mid-range devices compared to the competition. The Galaxy A51 is here to change all that, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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It’s not often one can look at a mid-range phone and mistake it for a flagship. That’s what you can expect to experience when taking the Galaxy A51 out into the open.

Samsung went back to the drawing board with its new range of devices, and it shows. The latest Galaxy A range features some of the highest quality, budget-friendly devices we’ve seen so far. The Samsung Galaxy A51 is one of the best phones we’ve seen in a while, not just aesthetically, but in what it packs into a sub-R7000 price tag.

Looking at the device briefly, it’s very easy to mistake it for a flagship. It features a four-camera array on the back, and an Infinity-O punch-hole display – both of which are features of the high-end Samsung devices. In fact, it features a similar camera array as the Galaxy Note10 Lite but features an additional lens in the array. The cameras line up in an L-shape, clearly avoiding looking like a stovetop.

Apart from the camera array, the back of the handset features a striking pattern called Prism Crush, a pattern of pastel shades that come in black, white, blue, and pink. For the review, we used the Prism Crush Blue colour and it looks really great. The feel is clearly plastic, which isn’t too surprising for a mid-range device, but the design is definitely something that will make users opt for a clear case. It’s also great to see a design pattern that deviates from the standard single iridescent colours many manufacturers have copied from Huawei’s design.

Along the sides, it features a metal-like frame, but again, it’s plastic. On the left side, we find a SIM and microSD card tray while the right side houses the power button and volume rocker. The bottom of the phone features a very welcome USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack, which isn’t too uncommon for mid-range phones.

On the front, the device is pretty much all screen, at an 87.4% screen-to-body ratio, thanks to a tiny chin at the bottom and the small punch hole for the camera. The earpiece has also been hidden inside the frame in attempts to maximise this screen-to-body ratio. When powered on, the 6.5-inch display looks vivid and sharp. That’s because Samsung opted to put a Super AMOLED display into this midrange unit, giving it a resolution of 1080 x 2400 (at 405 ppi) in a 20:9 format. This makes the display FullHD+, and perfect for consuming video content like Netflix and YouTube in HD.

Hidden underneath the display is an in-screen fingerprint sensor, which is very surprising to find in a mid-range device. While it is extremely accurate, it takes some getting used to because the sensor is so large that one needs to put one’s entire finger over the right part of the display to unlock it. Most other types of non-in-screen fingerprint sensors don’t mind a partial fingerprint. The display itself feels nothing like the back and that’s because it’s not plastic, but rather Gorilla Glass 3, to prevent the screen from shattering easily.

What’s interesting about this device is finding accessories which aren’t quite available in phone stores yet. When browsing online for screen protectors, one has to be on the lookout for screen protectors that are compatible with the in-screen fingerprint sensor. Make sure to check out the reviews of users before purchasing them.

In terms of software, Samsung has made a great deal of effort to make the experience slick. Gone are the days of TouchWiz (thank goodness) and now we have OneUI in its second version. OneUI makes the phone easier to use by putting most of the interaction on the bottom half of the screen and most of the view on the top part of the screen, where one’s thumbs don’t usually reach.

Out of the box, the device came with Android 10. This is a huge step forward in terms of commitment to running the latest software for major feature updates as well as for Android security patches to keep the device secure.

It also has most of the cool features from the flagship devices, like Samsung Pay, Bixby, and Link to Windows. Samsung Pay is an absolute pleasure to use, even if it still confuses the person taking your payments. From linking my cards, I have stopped taking my wallet out with me because all merchants that accept tap-to-pay will accept Samsung Pay on the A51.

Bixby is useful if you’re in the Samsung app ecosystem, especially for owners of SmartThings devices like Samsung TVs and SmartThings-enabled smart home devices. Otherwise, Google Assistant is still accessible for those who still want to use the standard Google experience.

Link to Windows is an interesting feature that started with the Galaxy Note10 and has since trickled down into the mid-range. It allows users to send SMS messages, view recently taken photos, and receive notifications from the phone, all on a Windows 10 PC. This can be enabled by going to the Your Phone app found in the start menu.

The rear camera is phenomenal for a mid-range device and features a 48MP wide sensor. The photos come out as 12MP images, which is a common trick of many manufacturers to achieve high-quality photography. It does this by combining 4 pixels into a single superpixel to get the best colours out of the picture, while still remaining sharp. It also performs surprisingly well in low light, which is not something we were expecting from a mid-range device.

The 12MP ultra-wide angle lens spans 123-degrees, which is very wide and also useful for getting shots in where one can’t move back further. It’s not as great as the main lens but does the trick for getting everyone in for a group photo in a galley kitchen.

The 5MP depth-sensing lens supplements the portrait mode, which adds a blur effect to the background of the photo – the same lens as its predecessor, the Galaxy A50. It features a 32MP wide-angle selfie camera, which is perfect for fitting everyone into a large group selfie.

The processor is an Exynos 9611, which is an Octa-core processor. It performs well in most situations, and there is software built in to give games a boost, so it performs well with graphically intensive games too. In terms of RAM, there are 4GB, 6GB, and 8GB variants, so keep an eye out for which one you are trying. For the review, we had the 4GB, and it performs well with multitasking and day-to-day tasks.

For storage, it comes in a 128GB model on Samsung’s website, which seems to be the standard size. This is extremely welcome in the mid-range segment and is the largest we’ve seen for internal storage capacity as a starting point.

At a recommended selling price of R6,999, the Samsung Galaxy A51 marks the beginning of a great era for Samsung, because it provides a feature-rich handset at an affordable price.

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