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3 weeks ago

ZTE Axon 7 review: Incredible hardware, dicey software

142

ZTE's second designed-in-America flagship hits all the right notes.

Android Central Choice Award

ZTE impressed a lot of people, including me, with its Axon and Axon Pro flagships in 2015. Accessible, stand-out designs met high quality build materials, great performance, a focus on audio quality, and impressive cameras. They even ran what amounted to an approximation of stock Android.

The Chinese company's follow-up takes a number of cues from its predecessors, while improving several aspects of the hardware to better compete with 2016 rivals like the OnePlus 3.

The bottom line

The ZTE Axon 7 is an impressive blend of high-end hardware and mostly unblemished Android 6.0.1-based software that skimps on little to get to its $399 price point.

The Good

  • Excellent build quality and unique design
  • Competitive price
  • Extremely compact for a 5.5-inch phone
  • Fantastic daylight camera

The Bad

  • Software gimmicks distract from the experience
  • Camera struggles in poor light
  • Some translation issues
  • 6GB version limited to Chinese market
Width Height Thickness 5.97 in
151.7mm
2.9 in
75mm
0.31 in
7.9mm
  • Display:
    • 5.5-inch Quad HD
    • AMOLED Display
    • 2560x1440 resolution (538ppi)
  • Camera:
    • 20MP, ƒ/1.8 lens, OIS,
    • 8MP front camera, ƒ/2.2 lens, OIS
  • Battery:
    • 3250 mAh capacity
    • Quick Charge 3.0
  • Chips:
    • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor
    • Quad-core 2.2GHz
    • 4GB RAM
    • 64GB internal storage
    • microSD slot with adoptable storage

About this review

I (Daniel Bader) am reviewing the Axon 7 after spending a week with it in Toronto, on the Bell network, and in New York, on T-Mobile. During that time, the phone ran Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with build A2017UV1.0.0B18, security patch May 1, 2016. No updates were issued during my testing period.

ZTE Axon 7 back

ZTE Axon 7 Hardware

I am truly impressed by the Axon 7. As someone who prefers smaller phones, its compact body, which happens to accommodate an excellent 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, is one of its signature features.

How ZTE managed that is by reducing the size of the bezels above and below the display, and by minimizing the area filled by the capacitive buttons. Like many recent Android phones, the navigation buttons are capacitive, but these touch targets are very, very small. And while their functions can be reversed in software — either dot can be assigned either "back" or "recents" — they are not backlit, which can make it very difficult to locate the right area in a darkened room. Come on, ZTE, you're better than this.

More: ZTE Axon 7 specs

Using the phone reminded me how accustomed I have become to using, say, the Galaxy S7's physical home button to orient my thumb, and how that isn't possible on something like the Axon 7. Unlike the OnePlus 3, there is no option to enable on-screen buttons, and the Axon 7 saves vital front-of-phone real estate by placing the fingerprint sensor on the phone's back, under the 20 megapixel rear camera sensor.

While I received the gold version of the phone, both colors — Ion Gold and Quartz Gray — are made from unibody aluminum that curves around the shallow sides. Though it impresses no more than the OnePlus 3 did for its price, it's clear that the investment ZTE has made in its manufacturing, and the collaboration with BMW's Designworks team, has paid off.

Around back, the 20MP rear camera sits at the top of a symmetrical strip of hardware, flanked by a fingerprint sensor below and a flash in the middle. That fingerprint sensor is no better than many of its competitors, but having transitioned from a number of devices with front-facing varieties, I still find myself preferring it on the back while the phone is in a pocket, but getting frustrated when it is sitting on a desk.

It's clear that the investment ZTE has made in its manufacturing, and the collaboration with BMW's Designworks team, has paid off.

Thankfully, the Axon 7's 3250 mAh battery is good enough to hold up for a decent day's usage. While the phone doesn't support wireless charging due to its metal back, it supports Quick Charge 3.0, and gains about 50% in 30 minutes — a number that we already take for granted, but is still astonishing. Moreover, the Axon 7, at 7.9mm thin, has larger battery than most phones in its class, and certainly better uptime than many devices we've recently reviewed.

While we typically shy away from performing synthetic battery benchmarks, I'll say this: after using the Axon 7 for two weeks as my primary device, I only once had to charge it for a few minutes midday, largely from an abundance of caution. Every other day it just lasted from the time I woke up until I went to bed. And I get up early and go to bed late.

Finally, there's the audio side of things. Few phones have great speakers, and even less have ample hardware to push high-resistance headphones. The Axon 7 has both. The legacy of what the company calls Hi-Fi audio began with the original Axon, which saw, in addition to a dedicated Digital-to-Analog converter (DAC) a secondary audio codec used to enhance audio recording, particularly with video. While the average person isn't going to notice a big difference in headphone output quality between the Axon 7 and, say, a Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6s, ZTE has included some very high-quality components from AKM, a company that sells its audio conversion equipment primarily to very manufacturers of very expensive audiophile equipment.

Few phones have great speakers, and even less have ample hardware to push high-resistance headphones. The Axon 7 has both.

Aspects of the phone's sound, from a very low signal-to-noise ratio to extremely accurate (for a phone) audio input when recording video, will likely go unappreciated by the vast majority of users — but to those who care, this phone is a dream.

What will be noticed immediately is the robust sound from the dual front-facing speakers, which are powered by a comparatively massive amplifier. Remember HTC BoomSound? Think of this as ZTE BoomierSound.

ZTE Axon 7 Software

ZTE's software, while still mired by translation issues that will hopefully be cleaned up in a future build, is impressively restrained for a Chinese manufacturer. Even the stock launcher — humorously called Stock Android — is free of that type of affect that Americans have widely rejected from companies like Xiaomi and Huawei.

But there are remnants of a more playful and experimental side within the settings, such as the ability to unlock the phone with your voice. That's right, ZTE is all-in on voice actions, allowing you to launch apps and even unlock the phone with a voice command. The problem isn't the ideas, though, but the implementation: like so many proprietary voice-based services, the feature rarely works, and when it does you have to enunciate the words with the precision of a radio announcer. After several attempts at getting the feature to work, I turned it off and promptly forgot about it.

Then there's a feature called Mi-Pop, which surfaces a set of virtual navigation keys in the vein of a chat head — by default, it's a back button, but holding down on it reveals a full set of back, home, and multitasking options that attempt to ameliorate the fact that the physical home buttons are static. I'm sure over the years you've seen iPhone users resorting to the on-screen home button accessed through the iOS accessibility menu, and this is similar, though slightly more full-featured. After a few moments of opaqueness, the Mi-Pop overlay turns translucent, waiting for yet another input.

The fact that Mi-Pop replaces the basic option of adding on-screen navigation buttons irks me to no end.

Here's the thing: I understand that ZTE is trying something new (well, a new take on something old), but the fact that Mi-Pop replaces the basic option of adding on-screen navigation buttons irks me to no end. Especially since, strangely, the model we handled in our preview did have on-screen buttons. I'm not asking ZTE to confirm to the industry, but if you're going to throw the kitchen sink at a problem, at least make sure the plumbing is installed correctly. As a feature, Mi-Pop is buggy and poorly animated, and requires a secondary swipe to open the menu that reveals the remaining Home and Recents menu buttons. Like so many of the Axon 7's "value-added" features, Mi-Pop is a good idea implemented poorly.

The good news is that neither voice unlock nor Mi-Pop nor Dolby Atmos — a nicely branded but terrible equalizer app that comes bundled with the phone — are necessary to enjoy the close-to-stock software experience. ZTE didn't mess with the Settings nor the notification shade, and aside from a few quirks with the lock screen, there is little to complain about. The phone runs like a dream — with a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM one would hope so — and because it is so compact I found myself using it with one hand with no major problems. That is, only after I inserted the ultra-slippery metal body into the clear TPU case that comes in the box.

ZTE did see fit to include some useful gestures with the Axon 7. A three-finger pinch quickly takes a screenshot, while a strong shake of the phone while idling on the lock screen activates the flashlight.

DeviantArt junkies (or fans of moody wallpapers in general) will also appreciate the on-by-default cycling of lock screen backgrounds whenever the phone is turned on. Most of the photos are over-the-top HDR depictions of popular tourist locations such as the Eiffel Tower or Arizona's Coyote Buttes rock formation, but I began to look forward to seeing what was going to appear next on the occasional time I didn't use the fingerprint sensor to skip the lock screen altogether.

The phone runs like a dream and because it is so compact I found myself using it with one hand with no major problems.

The Axon 7, despite having no carrier bloatware to speak of, does come with a couple of non-essential apps that purport to offer value, but really don't. The most egregious is ZTE Rewards, which asks you to download a number of apps from Perk, a loyalty company that offers free stuff in exchange for a bunch of personal information. More useful is WeShare, an app that allows you to transfer contacts, texts, photos and other phone-specific content from one phone to another.

ZTE Axon Cameras

Eschewing its predecessor's second sensor used for depth augmentation, the Axon 7 comes with a bevy of camera features all its own. The 20MP Samsung ISOCELL sensor is comparable in quality to what you'd find on any mainstream flagship device today. The sensor measures 1/2.6-inch and sports pixels of 1.12-microns in diameter, similar to that of the LG G5. The f/1.8 lens appears to be sharp in the middle with a hint of distortion at the corners while allowing for impressive and true depth of field.

In practice, the Axon 7 is capable of some magnificent photos. The daylight photos appear color-true and free of significant noise, through chromatic aberrations are common in scenes with high-contrast subjects transposed on a bright sky. The lens is able to focus nearly as close to a subject as the Galaxy S7, our macro leader, and one of the best-performing phone cameras on the market.

As with all phones, the less light available to the sensor, the more grainy and less impressive the photo. That is especially true here, even with optical image stabilization playing an important role in keeping the shutter open as long as possible without introducing motion blur. The problem is the size of the pixels; most phones are moving towards sensors with fewer but larger pixels. The Axon 7 bucks that trend by focusing on resolution and detail. As a result, low-light photos — even those taken with ample indoor light — emerge yellow and splotchy, with a lack of fine detail. It's also worth noting that the sensor is actually 16:9 by default, a blunder Samsung corrected this year with the Galaxy S7.

The 8MP front-facing camera is good, and features plenty of ways to turn one's skin "beautiful," which by phone maker standards means soft and artificial. Still, despite a few-second delay in opening the app the camera app itself is nicely designed, with an auto mode that is easy to use and a manual mode that features all the granular settings a photographer like me would care about. And because the Snapdragon 820 is so much faster than the Axon's Snapdragon 801, 4K video capture is smooth at 30 fps and lacks the judder we've come to expect from unsteady hand movement. It's no Galaxy S7, but it's close.

Unfortunately, ZTE decided to crib from the wrong company inside its camera app; not only did it blatantly steal the iPhone's live filters, but it also coopted Apple's Live Photos feature down to the name. Activating LIVE Photo (sic) captures a short 1080p video clip stored in .mp4 format that can be played alongside the static photo, but, like Apple's own faltering format it (though fun) answers a question that nobody asked.

Odds and ends

This phone is interesting for a number of reasons, least of which is the fact that it supports a combination of two SIM cards, or a single SIM and a microSD card. I used the phone on a recent trip to New York and back home to Toronto, placing a T-Mobile SIM card in the secondary slot. While the phone is able to field incoming calls and texts from either number, a single data connection must be specified (for obvious reasons), and the handoff is seamless between the two. Having no use for a dual-SIM phone in Canada, my first experience taking advantage of one was largely positive. Some of the user experience (UX) around setting up the individual SIM cards could be improved, but those are minor criticisms.

The Axon 7 is one of the best phone surprises I've had so far in 2016.

The Axon 7 also sports a USB Type-C port, which is becoming increasingly common among Android phones in 2016. And while the company ships a Quick Charge 3.0 charger and Type-C cable in the box, it generously provides a micro-USB adapter for those who want to keep using those older, far more ubiquitous cables. It's one of many nice touches in a box that includes a very decent pair of headphones and the aforementioned clear TPU case.

Another nice addition is the Passport 2.0 protection plan, which is included alongside every Axon 7 purchased directly from the company in the U.S.. Because the phone is unlocked and carrier-free, it does not include any bloatware — a bonus on top of a two-year warranty, easy warranty exchanges, low-cost repairs and more. It's great that ZTE is maintaining this program, but it's only available to buyers in the U.S., and it only honors hardware; there is no equivalent promise on the software side. And that is something to be concerned about.

ZTE has an awful reputation for keeping its phones updated. Indeed, the Axon and Axon Pro, while eventually receiving an update to Android 6.0 earlier this year, have each received only one update, and are still on the May 1, 2016 security patch (which, ironically, is the same as the Axon 7).

Should you buy it? Yes

The Axon 7 is one of the best phone surprises I've had so far in 2016. Like the OnePlus 3, it provides tremendous value for its $400 asking price, and despite a few software quirks is without major compromise.

Not only is it wonderfully compact for a 5.5-inch phone, but it is well-made and nicely designed, replete with an excellent camera setup and superlative sound. If you can overcome the need to have the latest software (or expeditious software updates, for that matter), the ZTE Axon 7 is one of the best unlocked smartphones you can buy today.

See at Amazon

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3 weeks ago

You can get a free Moto 360 Sport with purchase of Moto X Pure Edition

16

Right now B&H Photo is offering a free Moto 360 Sport smartwatch with the purchase of a 64GB Moto X Pure Edition, which is a savings of around $200. You'll have your choice of a white or flame watch, and you can decide between black, white and bamboo for the phone itself. Touting a 5.7-inch display that is powered by a Snapdragon 808 and 3GB of RAM, the Moto X Pure Edition is an unlocked phone that works on both GSM and CDMA networks.

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3 weeks ago

Will EU roaming become more expensive after Brexit?

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EU flag

Are we in for a roaming price hike when the UK leaves the European Union?

With British voters having chosen to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum, one of the many areas affected by "Brexit" is the cost of Brits using their phones on the continent. As it stands, EU law restricts how much operators based in one member state can charge for calls, texts and data in another. And in the next year roaming fees between EU countries will be abolished altogether.

So following the referendum result, what does the future hold for European roaming?

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3 weeks ago

Should you buy an 'Amazon' version of the Moto G4 or the BLU R1 HD?

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You can save $50 on a budget-priced Android phone if you're willing to put up with ads on the lock screen and a bit of app drawer clutter. But is it worth it?

Amazon is no stranger to Android. With a fairly popular line of tablets in the Kindle Fire series, a pretty nice set-top box and their own Fire Phone that wasn't very well received, they know more than a little bit about getting a product running our favorite operating system out the door. And they are pretty MLGPro when it comes to writing software — they even have their own Android app store.

Amazon also knows how to grab the attention of millions of people and get them to buy stuff. Whether it's the stuff we were looking for or impulse purchases we'll never use, Amazon is pretty good at making us want it.

Enter the Amazon Prime version of the Moto G4 and the BLU R1 HD. Both phones started as budget models, and Amazon has made them ever more "budgety" by shaving $50 off the price of each in return for your eyes seeing their apps and ads on your lock screen. Is the $50 worth it, or should you buy the regular version if you're interested in either of these phones?

I've been fiddling with them both and am about to tell you what I think.

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3 weeks ago

Latest Huawei P9 update finally stops messing with your app icons

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New Huawei P9 icons

No more terrible rounded rectangles and outdated Google app logos.

After years of being broken, ugly or both, Huawei's EMUI software is finally starting to get better. We saw some big improvements in EMUI 4.1 on the Huawei P9 this year, with major UI bugbears and longstanding glitches finally addressed. And now a fresh P9 update eliminates one huge pet hate of ours: Huawei's meddling in your app icons.

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3 weeks ago

Moto G4 versus Moto G4 Plus: The features that make a phone

35

Being on a budget doesn't mean a lack of options.

Picking up a decent phone on a budget isn't the trial that it was even a few short years ago. What do you do when two nearly identical phones come out at the same time though? That's the question when it comes to the Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus. Both are largely identical, with just a few additions to the Moto G4 Plus that its little brother lacks.

So we're going to take a look at them side by side and see if the additions to the Moto G4 Plus make it worth the increased price tag, or whether you want to stick with the Moto G4.

Design

When it comes to the design of these two phones, they are nearly identical. They have the same screen, size, and even branding. The one big difference, and the one that matters, is the addition of a fingerprint sensor on the bottom of the Moto G4 Plus. This is actually the big draw about grabbing the Moto G4 Plus over the base Moto G4.

There are a few big differences between these two Lenovo phones on the inside, like the options for memory, the rear camera, and of course that sweet fingerprint sensor. But in looking at them, the only way to tell them apart is by the presence of the fingerprint sensor on the bottom of the Moto G4 Plus.

Hardware

Now for the most part, the hardware on the Moto G4 and Moto G4 plus is identical. Much like the design, there are a few areas where they diverge. The differences that do exist however, are fairly major ones when it comes to changing how they work every day.

Now, while you can get either of these phones with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of on-board storage, the Moto G4 Plus also has an option for more storage. You can choose to snag the 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage model if you wish. For some people, this difference isn't enough to sway them from the Moto G4, but the option is nice to have.

It's also worth noting that while there is only 16GB of on-board storage initially, both phones have access to the Adoptable Storage feature in Marshmallow. This means that with the addition of a solid SD card you can properly extend your internal storage to the external card as one big piece of accessible storage.

Category Moto G4 Moto G4 Plus Display 5.5-inch Full HD display, 401PPI
Gorilla Glass 3 5.5-inch Full HD display, 401PPI
Gorilla Glass 3 SoC 1.5GHz Snapdragon 617 SoC (eight Cortex A53 cores)
Adreno 405 GPU 1.5GHz Snapdragon 617 SoC (eight Cortex A53 cores)
Adreno 405 GPU Memory 2GB RAM/16GB storage
microSD slot up to 128GB 2GB RAM/16GB storage
3GB RAM/32GB storage
microSD slot Operating System Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow Camera 13MP camera
5MP front shooter 16MP camera
PDAF and laser autofocus
5MP front camera Connectivity LTE with VoLTE, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 Fingerprint sensor
LTE with VoLTE, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 Battery 3000mAh with Turbo Charging 3000mAh with Turbo Charging Dimensions 153 x 76.6 x 7.9 mm 153 x 76.6 x 7.9 mm Weight 155 g 155 g Colors White/Black White/Black

Cameras

For plenty of people, the camera on their phone can seriously influence a decision. You use your camera to capture moments with friends and family alike, and having a phone with a great camera is necessary for that. You want a camera that can grab shots indoors, and outdoors without any issues. Having one with a fast focus that won't leave you with tons of blurry shots is also integral.

We're happy to say that both the Moto G4 and the Moto G4 Plus have great cameras on them. They don't have the same camera though. Instead the Moto G4 Plus has a 16MP to the Moto G4's 13MP. A great addition that they've both gotten is having access to manual controls on both. That means that whether you go for the pricier phone or not, you can still snag fantastic photos.

Moto G4 (left) / Moto G4 Plus (right); click images to view larger

It's worth being said that overall, the Moto G4 Plus delivered fantastic results with less reshooting than the Moto G4 did. Both delivered great results, but the Moto G4 Plus had a faster focus, and less issues with photos turning out blurry because of movement. It also had the added benefit of showing off better colors than the regular Moto G4 was able to.

Which phone should I buy?

So when it comes down to it, which phone is the right phone for you? The Moto G4 is available for just $199.99 and for that price it's a fairly solid device. However, when you consider that the Moto G4 Plus has access to more RAM, a better camera, and that fingerprint sensor, the $249.99 price tag makes sense.

Of the two phones, the Moto G4 Plus is the better bang for your buck. If you don't really care about an extra 3MP on your camera, or the fingerprint sensor, then it makes sense to maybe save $50 with the Moto G4. The big thing to remember, is that aside from a few differences, the phones are identical. The only real reason to grab the Moto G4 Plus over the Moto G4 is if you're taking plenty of photos, or if you want the superior camera.

See the Moto G4 at Amazon See the Moto G4 Plus at Amazon

Moto G4 and G4 Plus

Moto G4:

Amazon Motorola

Moto G4 Plus:

Amazon Motorola

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3 weeks ago

Android 7.0 Nougat tipped for August release as internal testing build leaks

92
Nougat

And no update for 2013's Nexus 5, according to reliable leaker.

It's looking more and more likely that Android 7.0 will hit stable release status in the coming month, with the usually reliable Evan Blass (a.k.a. @evleaks) claiming that Nougat will land "next month" along with the Aug. 5 Android security patch.

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3 weeks ago

How can I check and see if my phone is rooted?

28

Did all this stuff work? Am I rooted? Here's how to tell.

So you just went through a bunch of instructions you didn't fully understand, or downloaded some program to your computer and let it run, and your phone is supposed to be rooted. (And yes, naysayers, this is more common than you think — not everyone lives and breathes this stuff.) How can you be sure it worked?

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3 weeks ago

How to fix Galaxy S7 battery life problems

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The Galaxy S7's battery is bigger than before, but you still don't want to waste what you have.

The eternal quest for longer battery life in smartphones continues on, as evermore efficient chips and bigger batteries are in a battle with new software, apps, features and big screens. You want your phone to do everything, but also do it for a very long time — and those things are at odds, especially if you don't want to be chasing around a wall outlet everywhere you go.

The Galaxy S7's 3000 mAh battery is bigger than last year's Galaxy S6 and offers really solid battery life, actually, but if you consistently find your GS7 coming up short at the end of the day we have a handful of tips for you to get the most out of what battery you have.

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3 weeks ago

Galaxy Note 7 tipped for Euro release in September, new colors and updated Gear VR pictured

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And there's a rose gold/blue version too!

We're just days away from the official unveiling of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, and the pace of leaks is starting to build. The latest sortie of information and images comes from French outlet NoWhereElse and Steve Hemmerstoffer, also known as @onleaks on Twitter.

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4 weeks ago

Galaxy Note 7 teased again in crazy new Korean ad

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Teasers of Samsung's upcoming Galaxy Note 7 have been flying around, and as we get closer to the August 2 event in NYC, they continue to pop up. The latest is a rather interesting and slightly crazy ad from Korea. It starts off with some teaser shots of a close up phone screen, and ends with a numbered sequence of 1 through 5 and then a question mark.

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4 weeks ago

Video: 11 minutes of the flat Galaxy Note 7 we may never know

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Prototype Korean Note 7 shown in Chinese video — but don't expect this model to ever go on sale.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is almost upon us, with launch events scheduled for Aug. 2 in London and New York. And if all the rumors are to be believed, it'll sport an S7 edge-like curved screen — the first Note to do so in two years.

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4 weeks ago

Moto G4 review: Balanced on a budget

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How does the Moto G4 stack up to other budget phones?

The Quick Take

The Moto G4 is a 5.5-inch Android phone that lacks any kind of definition to help it stand out. With a single top speaker grill, and its rounded corners, it blends in. It delivers a great display that is easy to see both inside and outdoors, along with a battery that will keep you going all day — and then some. It's got a decently-performing camera, and new access to manual features for photos.

The Good

  • Solid feel in your hand
  • Good camera with manual features
  • Great battery life

The Bad

  • Processor gets overworked from extensive use
  • Camera lags when opening
  • Only 16GB of onboard storage

About this Review

I (Jen Karner) after a week of using a Moto G4 for about ten days, running Android 6.0.1 with the May 1, 2016 security patch. The build number is MPJ24.139-48. It was connected to the AT&T network in Halethorpe, Maryland.

The best of plastic

Hardware

Category Features Display 5.5-inch Full HD display, 401 PPI, Gorilla glass 3 Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 SoC (Octa-core Cortex-A53) Storage 16GB, expandable by 128GB Adoptable storage RAM 2GB Rear Camera 13MP f/2.0 Front Camera 5MP Battery 3000 mAh Size 153 x 76.6 x 7.9 mm
154 g

In your hand, the Moto G4 feels sturdy, but definitely made of plastic. The back plate is smooth, with a textured cross hatch that can feel a bit strange at first, especially if you're moving to the G4 from a metal framed phone. Despite its large screen, the phone fits and can be used with a single hand.

When you're looking at it, the phone could pass for any other rectangular, round-cornered phone. There's only one piece of branding at all, on the backplate: the Moto logo just underneath the camera. This is a phone that is striving for simplicity, something you can tell by glancing at it. There are only two buttons, both located to the right of the screen. The power button is seated on top, with a textured pattern to help tell it apart from the volume rocker. The rocker, is seated just under the power button and is smooth. Both of the buttons are metal, and are easy to tell apart from the phone's plastic body.

The screen does its job well, delivering a great experience even in direct sunlight.

There are only two ports on the phone, the micro-USB charger at the bottom, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There is a single speaker located above the screen, and while not amazing, it gets the job done. To the right of the speaker grill is the lens for the front facing camera. On the back of the phone you'll find your rear facing camera. The back plate of the phone also pops up revealing your SIM card slot, an microSD card slot, and the unremovable battery.

The screen on the Moto G4 is a 5.5-inch Full HD display with a Gorilla Glass 3 overlay that reaches nearly across the entire phone, with space above and below it. The screen does it's job and well, delivering a great experience even in direct sunlight. You'll get vibrant and poppy colors that aren't washed out, or oversaturated. Even when you dim your screen, it's never so dark that it's unusable so long as you are indoors.

The Snapdragon 617 processor is adequate to let you get everything done, but doesn't go above and beyond. Likewise, the phone occasionally heats up when playing a battery-intensive game like Pokemon Go or Avengers Academy for a prolonged period of time. For the most part, though, the phone is capable of handling anything from social media and the web to playing Match-3 games for an hour and a half.

Android all the way

Software

Happily, the Moto G4 is running Android 6.0.1 out of the box. Having the most up to date software possible is a must for many people, and seeing a budget level phone up to date is always a good thing to see (though it won't be up-to-date for long). Instead of seeing overbearing Moto software, there is an emphasis on Google and stock Android, with a few Moto flourishes thrown in.

Those flourishes include gestures, but sadly lacks the Moto Voice feature that allows you to quickly access specific notifications usually found on more expensive Motorola devices. You will be using those Moto gestures as you become more acquainted with the phone. You can launch your camera by quickly double twisting the phone, or flipping it to lay face down to silence an incoming phone calls.

When the phone did start to heat up was when there were some issues with the performance of the phone.

There were some issues when the phone was used for an extended amount of time, though. The entire thing would heat up, and while never becoming too hot or issuing a warning, it did become uncomfortable in my pocket or hand. When the phone did start to heat up was when there were some issues with the performance; apps would stutter, and it was easier to just put the phone down and let it cool back down before trying to do much of anything.

To storage, if only 16GB of space seems like too little, you're still in luck. The Moto G4 takes advantage of Google's Adoptable Storage feature, letting you mount up to 128GB microSD card to augment the storage you have access to.

An expected flaw

Performance

The Moto G4 is running on a Snapdragon 617, with 2GB of RAM which, while technically an upgrade from its predecessor, is aging quickly and as you're running around doesn't always stand up to the abuse. That's not exactly rare with a lower-end phone, but it is still just a bit disheartening.

For most people, the processor will be exactly what you need out of the phone. However when used heavily, the phone does occasionally try to rebel. On several occasions during my time with the Moto G4, it got hot and jittery enough that I had to clear all of the open tasks, or even restart the phone. This was generally after heavy extended use that most people wouldn't get to.

Fine tuned controls

Camera

For plenty of people, the camera on their phone is a pretty big deal. You want something that can capture the moments in your life that matter. For the most part, the Moto G4 has delivered a great camera. With a 13MP sensor on the back and a 5MP front facing shooter you'll be covered. The one big flaw, though: no matter how you open the camera it takes several seconds to load. It's not a deal breaker, but it can be frustrating when you're trying to grab a shot in the spur of the moment.

Once it opens up, you're good to go. The camera allows you to adjust between regular shooting, and with the G4 they've added manual controls. While many people don't want to fuss with these, there are others who like being able to fine tune the photos they snap and now they can. LG is already known for their manual settings, but it's nice to see Moto joining in as well.

Switching between photo and video capture is simple, and just involves a few taps. If you want to adjust your default settings for photo and video, the settings are available by swiping to the side. If you decide to dive into the professional mode, you'll have access to all of the manual settings. These settings pop up on a sliding scale for adjustment after you tap on the appropriate settings on the right side of the screen.

Another small downside to the camera: how long the HDR takes to process. Occasionally you'll get a message asking you to hold your phone steady while taking a photo. For most people holding still for an extra second or two isn't a big deal, but it can produce problematic blurry photographs if your hand is shaking. This didn't happen often, but it's worth noting.

Overall the camera performs really well, especially for a phone under $300. The fast autofocus also means that you can easily grab great candid shots. You'll just need to make sure the camera is open in advance. It would have been nice to see some optical stabilization, but given the small size of the phone it's usually pretty easy to hold steady.

It just keeps going

Battery

There's something to be said for a phone that has a battery capable of getting you through the day without needing a charge. The Moto G4 is packed with a 3000mAh battery that will get you through your commute, and work day, along with getting you home. A single full charge got me through nearly a full day when I needed to charge it.

The adapter included with it is equipped with TurboPower charger, Moto's take on Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0 standard. It's easy enough to just plug in for 10 or 15 minutes and see a 20% improvement in the battery. If the Moto G4 dies on you, which only happened to me once, it'll only take about an hour and a half to get you back up to a full charge again.

For everyday users this battery will get you through at least a full day. For heavier use, it's good for about 16 hours.

It's worth it

Bottom Line

So is the Moto G4 worth the $199.99 price tag? In a word, yes. This phone packs a serious punch for its asking cost. You get fantastic battery life, a decent display, and a camera that delivers great results. While there are some small issues it doesn't take away from the whole package, and the Moto G4 is a contender in the budget range of phones.

While Motorola used to dominate the budget range, those days might be running out. There are progressively more budget phones, and each one has it's own particular perks. While the G4 may not be the best overall phone, you can deny the appeal of a battery that can take whatever you feel like throwing at it.

See at Amazon

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4 weeks ago

LG V20: Imagining a next-gen, 'phablet-class' LG phone

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LG

After the flop of the G5, LG could do just about anything with the anticipated follow-up to the V10. Let's look into our crystal ball and imagine how a larger, beefier LG smartphone might materialize.

The LG V10 was one of the more underrated phones of 2015 — in many ways, the logical conclusion of the plastic Android smartphone. The hardware was a weird mishmash of metal and plastic. Performance was fast. The screen was pretty good. The camera impressed. The software was kind of a mess. There was a removable battery!

LG augmented all this with some standout camera software features, a pair of front-facing cameras (one regular, one wide-angle) and a quirky second screen up top, which could show notifications in tickertape form, or let you quickly hop between apps.

The V10 was targeted at content creators and power users — a good chunk of the audience Samsung attracts with its Galaxy Note series. So a year on, and with Samsung in an even more dominant position, how might LG react? Let's take a look at a few possibilities for the V10's successor, reportedly coming to market as the LG V20 this September.

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1 month ago

BlackBerry DTEK50 hands-on: Stuck in neutral

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BlackBerry's second Android phone, the DTEK50, has a vexing name and a lack of star appeal. But it's also cheap.

I have been fielding radio interviews since mid-2013 about the inevitable demise of BlackBerry's smartphone business, and each time since then I say, "Sure, this may be it," and each time I am left wondering whether the company's stubborn tenacity is its blessing or its curse.

In the DTEK50, BlackBerry may have finally solved the solution to its hardware profitability problem: a low-stakes handset based on the reference design of an existing product, the Alcatel Idol 4, with a software experience that brings the Priv's impressive amalgam of near-stock Android and a homegrown app suite to a price more palatable to the average IT manager.

Hardware impressions

At first glance, this is an Alcatel Idol 4 — yes, the still-unreleased cheaper version of the Idol 4S — with slight changes, particularly to the phone's back. A 5.2-inch 1080p LCD display covers the phone's otherwise-uninteresting front, and it is, like the rest of the hardware, adequate but largely unimpressive. Colors are vibrant, and white balance, which can be adjusted through the settings, is slightly too warm out of the box. Thankfully, BlackBerry decided to set the phone's DPI — the amount of content shown on the screen — fairly high, which is a nice change fro the average device in this price range.

More: BlackBerry DTEK50 specs

The phone costs $299, and it feels like it: Aluminum chamfers and a rubberized textured back are highlights, but its near-weightlessness is not an asset. Still, the back does not creak like its Priv predecessor (which cost nearly three times as much), and despite the gimmicky nature of the front and back being offset from the bezels to mimic layers, there is a solidity to the chassis that I appreciate.

Unfortunately, the DTEK50 inherited a now-standard negative trait of Alcatel's recent product lineup: a power button located on the top left, which is sure to vex the vast majority of the right-handed user base.

Even worse, where the power button exists on most phones — right side middle — is a convenience key that, after unboxing the phone, I depressed like an idiot for 10 seconds before realizing it didn't power on the phone. This isn't the first time we've seen such a button on an Android phone — Samsung's Galaxy S Active line famously added one a few years ago — but BlackBerry hopes that you'll use this one to quickly open its Hub, or its Calendar, or — mercifully — BBM.

Around back, you're looking at a 13MP rear camera, which doesn't have the same pedigree as the Priv's 18MP shooter, but upon first impression the DTEK50 exhibits a fair approximation of what a $300 phone in 2016 offers. A full review will reveal specifics, but at least BlackBerry's camera app has received considerable performance improvements since the Priv's debut last year.

The phone costs $299, and it feels like it.

The DTEK50's spec sheet is largely identical to that of the Alcatel Idol 4, which means its middle-of-the-road inclusions are somewhat mired by a quickly-aging Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor and 16GB of internal storage (which is, thankfully, expandable via microSD). In its announcement, BlackBerry hedged against the naysayers by claiming that the phone's 3GB of RAM will keep things running smoothly over the long haul, but after a few minutes tapping away on the company's first-party keyboard, it's clear the phone is severely underpowered.

Finally, the DTEK50 lacks a fingerprint sensor, which was, according to BlackBerry's head of design, Scott Wenger, was more a price consideration than a security one. Surely, a fingerprint sensor cannot replace the need for a strong password (and two-factor authentication), but Android today is a far better experience with biometrics than without. But having to enter a password or pin when opening 1Password feels like a regression, and one that we've seen avoided on other devices in this price range.

Software impressions

First, the good news: the DTEK50 runs Android 6.0.1 with the very latest security patch from Google (July 5th, as of writing), which is considerably more encouraging than some upcoming phones asking twice as much.

I have gone on the record as being a fan of BlackBerry's Android apps.

If you've used the Priv, the software experience is the same: a powerful home screen that in many ways resembles a hybrid of Google Now and Action Launcher (in a good way), and a bevy of first-party apps that I can only describe as excellent. I have gone on the record as being a fan of BlackBerry's Android apps, from the Hub, which has improved considerably since last year, to its minimalist calendar and notes apps. And all of these apps are updated directly from Google Play, a means of distribution that BlackBerry has utilized often.

Then there's DTEK, the phone's branding namesake, the foundation for BlackBerry's claim of "the world's most secure Android smartphone." While the average consumer may balk at BlackBerry's intention to sell this directly through distribution channels like Amazon, the real sales volume is going to come by bundling the phone alongside BlackBerry's suite of enterprise management tools like BES 12. DTEK (the app) puts a friendly face on a narrative that BlackBerry is desperate to convey to potential customers: Android may be secure, but with this phone you'll never have to worry about being compromised again.

The Accessories

Of course, with every BlackBerry phone, there are the accessories. I got to try three cases that will be available alongside the phone when it launches on August 8: the Smart Pocket; the Smart Flip Case; and the Hard Shell. There will also be a Swivel Holster, because of course there will be.

All three cases are well-made and, between $24.99 and $34.99, in line with what you'd pay from Otterbox or Incipio.

The Bottom Line

At this point, I'm cautiously optimistic about the state of BlackBerry's device business. John Chen has said again and again that he has no qualms shutting down the whole project if it fails to turn a profit, though he stubbornly keeps pushing back that due date. And while this is certainly a BlackBerry phone in name, we're expecting a more traditional keyboard-sporting Android device by the end of the company's fiscal year, which could take us into early 2017.

As for the DTEK50 itself, it appears to be a decent phone that will likely be severely hampered by an underpowered processor. I hope to be proven wrong by the time I write the review, but I doubt it.

More: BlackBerry DTEK50 pre-orders have begun, ships August 8 for $299

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