Category Archives: tablet

Xiaomi October Global Launch – Smartphones, Vacuums, Tablets and Earbuds



Xiaomi Logo - an orange squircle with stylised white MI lettersReturning to an in-person event, Xiaomi‘s global launch took place in Munich, Germany with Abi Go, Head of Product Marketing, kicking off the event. Looking at the company, Xiaomi are now #266 in the Fortune Global 500, primarily through 160% growth in the premium smartphone category. The phones are no longer cheap and cheerful, and the Xiaomi 12 received some good reviews, including from myself. Xiaomi isn’t only about phones too – they’re rapidly growing in autonomous driving and robotics as well – but as you’ll see from the launches, Xiaomi is getting well established in consumer electronics.

First up was the Xiaomi 12T series, with the 12T and the 12T Pro smartphones. Both very similar in design, with a large main lens dominating the camera array on the rear. To reinforce this, the Pro comes with a whopping 200 MP main sensor and the standard 12T is fitted out with a still-fairly-big 108 MP sensor. Every part of the imaging system has been optimised, from the lens (8P) to the sensor (1/1.22″) and the software (advanced imaging processing). The new ProCut software uses AI to crop and frame images to make any scene look its very best, and the In-sensor zoom allows 2x zoom at the sensor level for clear portraiture. Both phones have an 8MP ultrawide, a 2MP macro and 20MP selfie camera on the front.

Inside the 12T Pro is a Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 with a MediaTek Dimensity 8100-Ultra featuring in the 12T itself. Each chipset offers significant improvements in performance and power consumption over the previous generation. Both phones sport a 6.67″ 1220p resolution and 120 Hz CrystalRes AMOLED display covered by Gorilla Glass 5. The AdaptiveSync display will adjust the screen frequency for a fast and smooth refresh when needed and then revert to a lower power saving rate when not. Sound is by Harmon/Kardon and supports Dolby Atmos for a detailed and rich soundscape.

Keeping the power on is a 5,000 mAh battery with 120 W charging which will charge the battery from 0% to 100% in 19 minutes. With all the improvements to the CPU, the display and the battery, users can expect 13.5 hours of normal screen-on time and nearly 8 hours of gaming. That’s impressive.

Coming in three colours: blue, black and silver, the phones look, and I imagine, feel the part. The Xiaomi 12T Series will be available for sale starting on 20th October via Xiaomi official channels. The Xiaomi 12T Pro (8GB+128GB) will have an RRP of GB£699, and the Xiaomi 12T comes in two storage variants, 8GB+128GB and 8GB+256GB, with an RRP of £499 and £549 respectively.

Next up were vacuum cleaners, starting with the Xiaomi Robot Vacuum X10+ which offers great cleaning for carpets with mop pads that lift up out of the way when the robot encounters carpet. S-Cross AI uses a pile of extra sensors to navigate the home and avoid hazards. X10+ comes with an all-in-one docking station that charges the robot, empties the dirt bag, cleans the mop pads and adds water to the X10+’s reservoir. Of course, the X10+ can be controlled by an app too. The vacuum robot is priced at 899€.

The W10 Wet Dry vacuum series are a series of wet and dry battery powered vacuum cleaners with a variety of features from assisted power, heated water rollers and base stations. Prices start from 599€.

The third set was for TVs and Xiaomi’s second generation TV Q2 series with QLED screens will come in 50″, 55″ and 65″ sizes. All the TVs support Dolby Vision IQ and Google TV is built-in. Prices start from 599€

Xiaomi’s been producing smart bands for several years and this time it’s the Xiaomi Smart Band 7 Pro. It’s a bit bigger than the previous bands but it’s much more stylish in a rectangular design that’s in keeping with current trends, i.e. it looks a fair bit like one of the market leading smart watches. The 1.64″ AMOLED screen is 84% bigger than the previous generation and the 7 Pro now has GNSS (GPS) built-in for route tracking so your smartphone doesn’t have to come along for the tracking. As before, the Band 7 Pro comes in a range of colours with two new vegan bands, pine green and moon grey, added to the selection. Battery life is around 12 days. All this doubles the cost and the Band 7 Pro will be priced at GB£84.99 / 99€.

Finally, Xiaomi announced the Redmi Pad, an all-in-one pad for fun. The Redmi Pad comes as a slim and durable medal unibody and is available in mint green, graphite grey and moonlight silver. At 445g it’s roughly twice to three times the weight of a phone but it’s easily portable. The screen is 10.6″ with 2K resolution at 90 Hz and the viewing experience is enhanced by quad speakers supporting Dolby Atmos. Inside is the MediaTek Helio G99 CPU along with an 8000 mAh battery. The camera is sensitively placed along the long edge to make video calls a little bit more natural (cf Samsung Galaxy Tab series) and FocusFrame tracks the users faces to ensure they’re in the picture. MIUI has been enhanced for the Pad and prices start at GB£269 / 279€ for the 3GB+64MB variant. I like this…

Although not covered in the presentation, Xiaomi also announced the Redmi Buds 4 Pro and Redmi Buds 4. Both offer noise cancellation and charging cases. The Redmi Buds 4 Pro offer 9 hours of listening on a single charge with a total of 30 hours when the charging case is used. The Buds 4 will go 6 hours on a single charge but offer 36 hours total when recharged from the case. Redmi Buds 4 and Redmi Buds 4 Pro available from £49.99 and £84.99 respectively via Xiaomi’s official channels. Available in the UK from 4th October.

The livestream is available here.


Google Really Doesn’t Care About Android Tablets



Android Green Robot LogoI’ve used Android tablets for nearly ten years, starting with the Motorola Xoom way back in 2011. I then adopted the Google Nexus series with the Nexus 10, 7 and 9 tablets over a couple of years. After those, I jumped ship to a Huawei M5 10″ before getting a previously-enjoyed Samsung Tab S6, which is a very capable piece of kit.

At times, I feel like I’m the last Android tablet user left. I do like Apple hardware, but I don’t like Apple’s walled garden, the holier-than-thou attitude and I find iOS / iPadOS is too rigid and inflexible for my liking. All too often I try to do something on my daughter’s iPad that would straightforward on my Tab S6 but turns out to be impossible. Go on, change the default app for opening a jpg.

I know that Google’s not been giving tablets much love since ChromeOS became the new poster child and ChromeOS-based tablets started to appear. Of course, ChromeOS runs Android apps but the problem with Chrome devices is the spec. ChromeOS doesn’t need much CPU and RAM to run fast, but that doesn’t mean the screen has to be cheap too. Almost without fail, Chromebooks come with screen resolutions more suited to a 6″ smartphone than a 12″ laptop.

For example, the Chrome device-of-the-year Lenovo Duet has a 10″ 1920 x 1200 display. Or take the Acer Spin with a 13″ 2256 x 1504 screen. Even the HP Elite X2 only has 1920 x 1280 on a 13″ display. And that’s a convertible that costs GB£1700. Are they crazy?

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 is 2560 x 1600 in a 10.5″ screen. I love reading on mine and magazines presented in Zinio look great.

Google’s abandonment of Android tablets came home to me today when I tried to use the YouTube, sorry, the YT Studio app in landscape mode on the S6….and you simply can’t. YT Studio stubbornly refuses to even rotate away from portrait orientation, never mind present a more suitable landscape layout.

Frankly it’s embarrassing that Google can’t even be bothered to make its own apps tablet friendly and it’s no wonder that the best tablet apps are on iPads. Apple didn’t so much win the battle of the tablets as Google failed to turn up.


Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2020



At today’s Galaxy Unpacked 2020 online event, the South Korean firm unveiled updates to Samsung Mobile’s tech product line. Broadcasting live from Korea, the event showcased new Samsung smartphones, tablets, earbuds and smartwatch devices.

The Galaxy Note devices have always been big and the new phones don’t disappoint. With 4G and 5G variants, the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 has a 6.7″ screen and the Note 20 Ultra has a whopping 6.9″ screen. Both have 120 Hz refresh screen and use the fastest processors in the Galaxy line-up. The S-Pen defines the Notes and the handwriting experience has been improved by reducing the latency between the pen moving and the line appearing on the screen to just 9 ms. The phones meet the usual expectations for high end devices in terms of cameras (12 MP ultrawide, 108 MP standard, 12 MP telephoto, 10 MP selfie) and charging – 50% in 30 mins. Pre-orders are open and prices begin at £849 for 4G and £949 for 5G.

Everything now matches in the Galaxy world and there’s three standard colours. Mystic Black, Mystic White and Mystic Bronze, which Samsung is clearly trying grab as “their” colour. The Note phones come in some extra colours too, Mystic Green and Mystic Grey.

Samsung’s tablets are some of the best Android tablets and the range has been updated with the new Galaxy Tab S7 and S7+ tablets. The S7 has an 11″ LCD screen and the S7+ is a 12.4″ AMOLED screen with the same 120 Hz refresh rate of the Note 20. The S-Pen works on the tablets with similar low latency and the Tab S7s come with three apps that are designed to maximise use of the S Pen. The note taking app looks impressive and has some great features. It works with the Note smartphone too. Prices begin at GB£799 for the S7+ and GB£619 for the S7. That’s the same price as the current S6. I’m currently in the market for a new tablet….hmm.

Working with Microsoft, Samsung now synchronises with Office tools like OneNote, To Do and Teams. There’s integration between Windows 10 and the Galaxy devices so that you can use the Android apps on the PC. Samsung DeX now works wirelessly, so there’s not need for a dock, and the smartphone can still do phone things when in DeX mode. It all looks pretty slick. It’s not all about the office though as XBox Game Pass is coming to the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 from 21st August. This brings cloud gaming to the phones for gaming on the go.

The new Galaxy Buds Live are bean-shaped wireless earbuds intended for all day use. Resting lightly in the ear and come in the new standard colours of Mystic Bronze, White and Black to  match the phones and tablets. The Buds come with active noise cancellation. Battery life is 6 hours and the case can recharge the earbuds for a total of 21 hours listening time. GB£179.

The new Galaxy Watch 3 comes in two sizes (45 mm and 41 mm), and you guessed it, three colours. There’s a high-end titanium version too. The watch comes with health monitoring blood pressure, ECG and blood oxygen level once regulatory approvals have been gained in each country. As you’d expect, the Watch 3 provides activity tracking for walking, running and other sports. There are over 120 fitness programmes that work with the Watch 3 and Samsung smart TVs. Watch 3 prices begin at GB£399.

And finally….The Galaxy Z Fold2 opens up from clamshell to a tablet. Thinner that the Fold, it has a 6.2″ exterior screen but once opened up it’s 7.6″ inside. The hinge has been analysed and improved. Regrettably, it’s only available in Mystic Black and Mystic Bronze. What no Mystic White…? Pre-orders begin on 1st September but price wasn’t announced.


Video Chat Creates Background Bonanza



With everyone staying at home to avoid Covid-19, video conferencing and chat has exploded over the past two weeks as families and friends look for new ways to stay in touch. Not everyone lives in a house out of Homes and Gardens or Wallpaper, so many of the chat apps have the ability to put a virtual background in the picture to disguise the clutter and detritus of daily life.

To further alleviate the boredom, this has led to an explosion of fun backgrounds from big name companies. Pixar has released a bunch of them on Twitter, including scenes from ToyStory, Up, Finding Nemo and one of my personal favourites, Cars. Here’s a selection – head on over to Pixar’s Twitter feed for more and to download the fullsize images.

The backgrounds tend to work best with a green screen, which I admit, defeats the purpose of simply being able to cover up a messy view, but Zoom on the iPad does a surprisingly good job on the iPad without any kind of special setup.

It doesn’t take much detective work to find plenty of others, from the bridge of the Enterprise to the Simpson’s sofa, there’s something for everyone.

The virtual background feature is enabled via Zoom’s web portal, though the image is actually set from within the Zoom app itself. and there are full instructions here.

The feature is currently on available on PCs, Mac, Linux and iOS. Sorry Android folks.

 


LineageOS Breathes Life Into Old Phones



Android smartphone and tablet manufacturers are notoriously bad at providing OS updates to their hardware, leaving owners without new features and vulnerable to security flaws. While several OEMs now guarantee updates for two years, most devices are still very capable well beyond this artificial obsolesence.  LineageOS, a flavour of Android built from Google’s AOSP,  continues to support devices that have been disowned by their makers.

When it comes to keeping older devices up-to-date with the latest versions of Android, some OEMs are better than others at pushing out updates. Samsung‘s well known for a lack of updates but even Google only commits to two years of updates for new features and three years for security updates. OnePlus has recently committed to a similar support schedule. Overall, that’s pretty bad when iOS 11 still supports the iPhone 5S from 2013.

My particular gripe is with the Nexus 9 from late 2014. Launched with Lollipop (5.0.1), the Nexus 9’s last update was to 7.1.1 back in 2016 and while it was never a great tablet, it has a very capable CPU in the form of the nVidia Tegra K1 which continues to cope well with today’s apps. The particular problem with the Nexus 9 is that the 7.1.1 release really wasn’t very good and the device became prone to freezing and random rebooting. I’ve previously written about my problems with the Nexus 9 on GNC and while my previous efforts did help in the short-term, the tablet was back to its old ways in a few months.

If the name LineageOS is unfamiliar, CyanogenMod might ring some bells. After Cyanogen Inc decided to closedown the CM distro, it was forked, rebranded and taken over by the community as LineageOS. It now supports nearly two hundred smartphones and tablets, with the vast majority on 7.1.2 but an increasing number on Android 8.

Converting a smartphone or tablet to LineageOS can be a little daunting and there’s always that niggling fear of bricking the device. However, there’s generally good instructions for each model and there’s an active online community. All the tools are available online for download – Android Studio or ADB Tools, LineageOS, TWRP, GApps…

After a particularly annoying day when I wanted to throw my Nexus 9 out of the window, I decided to convert the tablet from Google’s 7.1.1 to LineageOS’s take on 7.1.2. It was either that or buy a new tablet so I took the plunge….The key to a successful transition is preparation: read the instructions, download all the software and get it installed before doing anything at the command line. The Android device is going to be completely wiped so make sure everything important has been copied off.

It doesn’t take long to do the work but can be a bit nerve-wracking if you’ve never unlocked a bootloader. The worst bit is when you’ve done all the work and have rebooted the device for the last time. It can take several minutes to finalise the install and present the “Getting Started” screen.  Tense moments watching the boot animations.

The good news is that I’ve been using LineageOS for at least three months now and I’m very pleased with the change. The Nexus 9 is much more reliable than it was with stock Android. Yes, I still get the occasional random reboot but reliability is way better than the original. Weekly OTA updates keeps the 9 up-to-date with the latest patches.

And LineageOS isn’t only a port of 7.1.2: the distro has additional features not found in standard Android, including system profiles, app locking, PIN scrambling and custom button placement. Nothing strays too far from stock but there are additional benefits.

If you’ve got an older device that’s been left for dead by its manufacturer but you want to keep it alive for longer, I’d recommend you take a look at LineageOS.


Adonit Pro 3 Precision Stylus Review



Geeks over a certain age will recall that smartphones and PDAs didn’t originally have finger touch interfaces and instead of using a digit to control the device, a stylus was used to tap and poke the buttons on the screen. Partly this was a limitation of the screen size – the original Palm Pilot 1000 only had 160 x 160 pixels – and the touchscreen technology, which was resistive and needed pressure to register a touch. The stylus was perfect for this kind of interface as the narrow point could accurately and forcefully tap an individual pixel. Today’s smartphones use a capacitive technology which senses electrostatic fields and the need for a pointy objected has faded in favour of fat fingers.

This doesn’t mean that the stylus has gone away but they certainly are a rarer. On my desk today is the Adonit Pro 3 precision stylus, which is the first quality capacitive stylus I’ve ever used. Yes, I’ve had a couple of those ones with the squidgy rubber tops, typically given away as freebies, but that’s like comparing a ballpoint with a fountain pen. The Pro 3 is a quality instrument. Let’s take a closer look.

The Adonit Pro 3 comes in a simple card box and the stylus itself is a dark grey cylinder with a chunky cut-out for the pocket clip. Adonit call it black, but it’s definitely dark grey, but for something brighter, the stylus is available in silver, dark blue and rose gold. The body is all metal (aluminium) and weighs in at 18g. It’s pen size at 126 mm long and 8 mm diameter. There’s a little light texturing on the barrel where fingers rest. It’s stylish in an industrial kind of way. I like it.

To protect the tip, there’s a stylus cap which is kept in place with magnets and when removed can be stored on the bottom of the pen. The cap can be a little wobbly but it never came off accidentally. Returning to the stylus, it’s a little different from styluses of the noughties. Instead of a point, there’s a pivoting small circular disk which flattens onto the surface of the tablet and smoothly glides over the glass.

The Adonit web site and apps are very Apple-centric and I’m going to guess that you’ll probably need an iPad to get the most out of the Pro 3. I used the Pro 3 on a selection of Android and Windows touchscreen devices with a spectrum of success which varied from device to device. For me, the Pro 3 was most successful on a Pixel C, with the tablet responding positively to the vast majority of taps and draws. On a Nexus 9, it wasn’t quite as responsive, with the tablet sometimes failing to pick up the first touch in drawing apps. It worked surprisingly well with a Windows 8.1 laptop.

What lets the Pro 3 down is nothing to do with the Pro 3, but rather the lack of palm rejection on most Android and Windows apps. Simply, you can’t rest your hand on the tablet without disrupting the pen’s touch. As a result you have to hold your hand clear of the tablet screen. Apps on the iPad seem to have got this (more) sussed out.

Regardless, a clear benefit of the Pro 3 is the precision provided by the tip and the clear disk. It becomes possible to draw two lines with a millimetre between them. That’s simply impossible with a finger no matter how dainty your digits. A soft-tip stylus would be no better. I’m no artist but here’s a little doodle to show what’s possible.

If this looks like a nice stocking filler, the Adonit Pro 3 is currently GB£25.99 from Amazon.co.uk. US price is $29.99.

Thanks to Adonit for providing the Pro 3 for review.


Small Size, Small Price – RCA Mercury 7L Tablet



The RCA Mercury 7L Pro tablet is a 7″ Android tablet with budget specs and a price to match, at just GB£49. That’s about US$65 and it’s right in there as an impulse purchase. But is it a case of buying in haste, repent at leisure? Let’s take a look.

Sold by Asda in the UK, the Mercury 7L is the little sister to the Saturn 10 Pro and both carry the RCA branding: I reviewed the 10 Pro a couple of weeks ago here on GNC and I’ll confess upfront to lifting parts of the Saturn’s review: unsurprisingly, the 7L shares many of the 10 Pro’s traits. There are two other models in the line up; a 7R which has double the internal storage at 16GB and 7 Pro with a folio Bluetooth keyboard.

Taking a quick look over the tablet, the first impressions is how small it is. It’s a 7″ 1024 x 600 screen and the device is 8.25″ across the whole diagonal. For metric people, the Mercury 7 is 185 x 113.8 mm and is 12.5 mm deep and as expected, it’s all pastic. In places, it actually feels that someone thought about how it might be used but in other areas, gets it totally wrong. For example, the bezel on one side is slightly thicker and if you hold it in your right hand in landscape mode, the front-facing camera is neatly positioned to the top right, away from your thumb. Briliant….except that the same hand covers up the microphone. So close….

Quickly reviewing features, there’s a microphone, reset button (that I never had to use), microSD slot, 5V DC jack (never used), microUSB (used for charging), 3.5 mm headphone jack, power button and volume rocker. The single speaker round the back is loud. It’s not terribly clear from the website but I think microSD cards up to 128GB can be used. It’s light at 280g.

Despite the name, speed is not one of Mercury 7L’s strengths. Although equipped with a 1.3 GHz quad core processor it’s held back by the paltry 1 GB of RAM. Once apps get going, they’re fine, but starting a new app or switching between apps can be a little slow. For whatever reason, Geek Bench 4 refused to run so I can’t give a definitive comparison. Having said that Alto’s Adventure play surprisingly well (once it started).

The display could be better too but at this price, it’s in-line with expectations. 1024 x 600 on a 7″ screen is acceptable, the colours are strong and it’s reasonably bright. My only real criticism is that the viewing angle is a little narrow – it’s most noticeable when holding the tablet in portrait mode.

And as for the camera, lots of light is needed to get anything worthwhile from the one megapixel but for a bit of Skype, it’s ok.

As on the Saturn 10,  the user interface for the Mercury 7L would appear to be mainly stock Android 6.0 (June 2016 security patch) with a couple of customisations. The most obvious is the that status bar has few additional icons. Pressing the camera on the left takes a screenshot and the speaker icons control the tablet volume. It’s a smart idea to have onscreen volume controls though I would have preferred keeping the Home button centred as my muscle memory expects it in the middle.

The other change is more of a disappointment – the “Firmware update” screen is black screen with a grey “CHECK NOW”. How hard would it have been to code a screen in keeping with the rest of the OS? It’s somewhat concerning too that the most recent security update is from June 2016.

Everything else is as expected for an Android tablet with full access to Google products; Play Store, Music, Movies, Games, Maps and so on. It’s all there – the Mercury 7L is fully functional Android tablet (specs). Battery life is quoted at six hours and that’s not far from the truth.

After owning the Mercury for a couple of weeks, I think the niche for this tablet is in the portable media space. It’s fine for listening to Spotify, watching Netflix and reading ebooks on OverDrive, plus the microSD card slot gives plenty of room for media. Switching apps can be slow, so if you’re a social butterfly mixing Facebook with Twitter and Instagram, you might need some patience. Overall, it’s a budget tablet for a budget price. Understand this and you won’t be disappointed.

If the Mercury 7L is of interest, it’s available from Asda for GB£49 at time of writing. Thanks to Venturer for supplying the tablet for review.