Hardware · Uncategorized

Samsung Galaxy A5 review: Tweaks for a new year

The revamped Samsung Galaxy A5 smartphone.

While it’s probably been lost in the recent announcement of Samsung’s soon-to-be released Galaxy S8, Samsung has quietly launched a revamped Galaxy A series.

Aimed at the mid-priced point is the Galaxy A5 , which has an RRP in New Zealand of $749, and it’s clear it’s taken a lot of design cues from Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S7 smart phone. The two phones look remarkably similar in design, albeit with a few subtle differences.

Sure, the S7 feels a lot more premium and high-end than the A5 but, you know what? Samsung’s new 2017 phone is now slouch in the design department and put them side by side and at a glance, you’d have a hard time working out which was the cheaper model. The A5 actually has a slightly larger display than the S7, too.

Running Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow), the A5 has been tweaked over the old model: It has a 5.2-inch Super AMOLED screen (1280×720 resolution), powered by a 1.9GHz Octa core processor and 3Gb of RAM (up from 2Gb in the previous generation A5). Internal storage is locked at 32Gb but it’s upgradable via microUSB (upto 256Gb). The Galaxy A5 is part of a three-phone line up, sitting between the 5.7-inch Galaxy A7 and the 5.3-inch Galaxy A3.

Samsung has moved the speaker grille to the top right hand side of the chassis (it’s now next to the headphone jack on the S7), just above the power button, and uses a USB-type C connection for charging.

As is common these days, the A5 has a non-removable battery, rated at 3000mAh. The new season A5 now has 16MP cameras, front and rear (an upgrade from the 13MP and 5MP of the previous A5). Like previous late-model Samsung phones, the A5 seems to have less bloatware pre-installed, which is always a good thing in my book.

I have to say that despite being a “budget” handset, the Galaxy A5 felt really solid in my hands. It had a high-end finish, which is nice in a smart phone that sits mid-range in Samsung’s new line-up, and it just felt comfortable holding it, although the back is quite slippery.

The Galaxy A5 handled snapshots with ease.
The Galaxy A5 took good photos thanks to its 16 MP camera. For no reasons, here’s a photo of my dog resting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to the Octa core CPU, the user interface (UI) was snappy enough swiping through screens and the camera produced some pleasing results and I got probably a day out of it before needing a recharge. It’s clear, though, that the screen just isn’t as sharp as the Galaxy S7’s sharper display, which offers higher resolutions.

The question, though, is: At $749 is the 2017 Galaxy A5 worth the budget-friendly moniker?

A quick glance over Pricespy shows that a Galaxy S7 can be had for as little as $693 or as much as $1203 (chain electronic retailers were priced around $999 for the S7 handset) and another online aggregation site had the A5 ranging from $$498 right up to $749 so it can be found cheaper than Samsung’s RRP. If you can find it cheaper, then I’d go for it if you’re keen: Why pay full retain, right?

The bottom line is if you don’t need all the bells and whistles that you’ll find in Samsung’s top  models, such as the Galaxy S7 and upcoming Galaxy S8, then the Samsung A5 will fit the bill nicely(as will the entire A line-up). It’s a great looking phone that’ll do everything you need it to, and that’s sometimes all you need in a smart phone.

Hardware · PC

So … I’m sticking with my GTX660Ti and here’s why

gigabye-3gb-geforce-gtx-660-ti_boxA while back, I wrote about contemplating upgrading my current GTX660Ti graphics card with either the GTX950, which I’d won in a YouTube competition (yeah, I know right?) or something like  GTX1060 or a Radeon RX480. I’m getting back into my PC gaming and, rightly or wrongly, I didn’t think my current GPU was up to the task.

Sounds like a simple thing, right? Well, not really, as things worked out.

I’ve swapped out graphics cards before – it’s one of the easiest things you can upgrade on a PC: You simply remove the old card from the PCI-E slot on your PC’s motherboard, slot in the new one,connect the power then boot up your computer. Easy.

Well, not as far as installing the GTX950 went. Long story short, I didn’t get a signal to my monitor with the new card installed (the fans on the 950 didn’t even power up, either) but put my 660Ti back and things were sweet. It seems that the original GTX950 was faulty so after months of emails with MSi support I eventually got a replacement card and installed it, crossing my fingers in the process.

This new GTX950 didn’t work either. I visited the nVidia ANZ forums with my problem. It’s a great community and I got a lot of good suggestions but none of them worked. Someone suggested looking for a new motherboard, which was an option but I was hoping this was a simple fix. So, I swallowed my pride and did what many PC enthusiasts wouldn’t want to do: Took it to  my local computer repair guy.

Long story short, again, after being with the technician for a couple of days it seems that my Intel DZ77ga 70K motherboard – a four-year-old motherboard that is now no longer supported by Intel: Thanks for that – just won’t accept the newer GTX950.

The GTX 660Ti is based on nVidia’s Kepler Maxwell architecture, as is the GTX950, but it seems that my Intel board can’t be updated to accommodate the newer card. Frankly, that sucks on Intel’s part. How hard would it be for them to issue a BIOS update that accepts the newer card (I’m not a programmer or computer scientist so I’ve no idea how hard it would be or not)?

It’s frustrating but I don’t have the funds to upgrade my motherboard – which would also mean new RAM, a new CPU (because the current CPU won’t work on the new board) – as well as buy a new GPU. So, at this point in time, so I’m sticking with the GTX660Ti. I think I’m happy with that, too.

It’s a great card: It’s got 3Gb of VRAM and is four years old but it’s just not considered cutting edge anymore.

titanfall2-sngplyr-c_pdp_screenhi_3840x2160_en_wwThat said, I picked up Titanfall 2 the other for PC (I took a punt) and, you know what? I can run it on my GTX660Ti on medium to high settings (most on high) and am getting consistently frame rates (I haven’t run FRAPs or anything to determine what FPS I’m getting but it’s running as smooth as butter.

The minimum recommended nVidia GPU is a GTX660 while the recommended nVidia GPU is the 1060, so I’m not far off the minimum but it’s all running mighty smooth to me. Sure, I’ve had a couple of crashes to the desktop but that’s part and parcel with PC gaming, right?

I also completed Gears of War 4 last month with a mixture of mostly high settings and it was sitting around the 45FPS mark (the PC version of GOW4 is amazingly customisable, which helps). It seems my four-year-old card might still have a little bit of life in it yet.

I’m now contemplating whether my PC would actually be up to Dishonored 2 but I’ll think about that one. It might be one for the consoles, perhaps, and one that pushes the GTX660Ti one step too far.

 

 

Hardware · PC

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: the best of both worlds

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My current laptop is a 2011 MacBook Pro.

It used to be my wife’s. It would have been good in its day but now: Not so much. It takes what seems like forever to boot up (I could easily make a cup of coffee and start drinking in the time it takes to finally get itself sorted), I only get about an hour or so on battery before it needs plugging into mains power and it can’t play games very well. It’s past its use by date.

I love to replace it if I could – and I’d replace it with a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. That’s it in the photo at the top of this post.

For the two weeks or so I had the Surface Pro 4, it was my go-to device for my writing work, my web browsing and my digital entertainment consumption – and it ticked all the boxes for me.

20160828_171254Measuring 292.10mm x 201.42mm x 8.45mm, and weighing around 786 grams, the Surface Pro 4 is a laptop/tablet replacement device that I really did love the more I used it, especially with the stunning 12.3-inch PixelSense screen (offering a resolution of 2736 x 1824) that displays colours vibrantly and vividly. The kickstand is a nice change from the usual kickstand that comes with tablets: It’s a solid hinged design not the foldable cover type, so it’s secure and solid, and thanks to the hinges, it means you can adjust it to the perfect position.

Packing an Intel i5 CPU, 8GB of Ram, an Intel HD 520 GPU and a 256Gb Solid State Drive, the Surface Pro 4 will easily do all you need it to and the fact that it doubles as a tablet, when it’s not attached to the Type Cover keyboard, adds to the appeal. The device comes with one USB 3.0 port, a microSD card reader, a mini display port, a headphone jack and is running Windows 10 Pro.

One of the things I loved about the Surface Pro 4 was that I was able to set it up so that I could login using facial recognition software, meaning I didn’t have to type a password to get up and running. All I had to do was look into the front facing camera, the device would recognise my face and I was good to go (a winking face icon showed that all was ready). It was great not to have to enter a password to login into the device.

20160828_171303The Surface Pro 4 comes with a stylus, which attached to the side of the tablet magnetically, but sadly, the Type Cover which is a great keyboard that was easy to touch type on with keys that had a decent amount of travel, is an optional extra, meaning you have to pay for it separately if you want it. C’mon, Microsoft: You’ve got a great tablet/laptop replacement here just include the Type Cover as standard. Everyone wins.

 

FreshPaint-8-2016.08.10-12.41.35I loved that I could use the stylus and the touch screen to sign documents for my accountant and scribble notes for this review.

I also loved that I could use the stylus and tablet format to use sketching software app Fresh Paint to get back into drawing. I did a quick sketch of the view next to my desk at work, which you can see here. I loved that the Surface Pro 4’s stylus could be used like a pencil, paint brush or pastel, meaning it’s ideal for creative thinking and ideas people.

The Surface Pro 4 isn’t designed as a game player but I thought I’d test it out with some of my favourite PC games, anyway (this is a gaming website, sort of) so I installed the Tomb Raider reboot, Portal 2 and Batman Arkham City.

Using bench marking software PC Mark 7, the Surface Book Pro posted a score of 5025, which while not stellar and wouldn’t threaten any dedicated gaming laptop, it’s a respectable score for a device not considered a gaming platform (I understand there is a model of the Pro 4 that has a nVidia graphics option). The Surface Pro 4’s aluminum chassis has grills along its edges that help dissipate heat when it gets too hot and I could definitely feel the heat coming off it while testing the games out.

The device managed an average of 54 frames a second on Tomb Raider (at a resolution of 800×600) and Batman Arkham City. Crank the resolutions higher and frame rates plummeted, which shows the Pro 4 isn’t a out-and-out gaming device, and wouldn’t handle more graphically demanding games such as the recently released Deus Ex Mankind Divided for example, but as far as I was concerned, it didn’t embarrass itself when it came to playing some of my favourite Steam games.

I loved my time with the Surface Pro 4 and if I had any niggles about it, it would be that I would liked to have seen another USB port on it so that I could plug in, say, a USB drive AND a mouse (or wireless controller, perhaps).

When I get around to replacing my ageing MacBook Pro (and the way things are going it won’t be too long), I’m definitely adding the Surface Pro 4 into the mix. At around $2439 for the specification I had, it’s probably not too badly priced for what you get, although you can get comparable laptops for cheaper when they’re on special.

Look, I loved that the Surface Pro 4 was powerful enough to act as a laptop replacement yet offers the portability of a tablet when I need it. The best of both worlds, right?

 

Hardware · VR

Esper making its way to Oculus Rift

Not too long ago I reviewed Coatsink’s Samsung Gear VR game Esper. I liked it. A lot (who wouldn’t like being able to control things with your mind?)

Anyway, Coatsink has announced the game that tasks you, the player, with solving puzzles at a government testing facility just using the power of your mind, is now coming to the Oculus Rift as a bundle called Esper: The Collection, which will included both Esper and its sequel, Esper 2. I believe that Esper 2 is already available on the Oculus.

Here’s the launch a trailer showing you what to expect.

No idea on the price yet in our neck of the woods but it’ll be out on September 1. The Oculus Rift version will offer enhanced visuals and positional tracking over the Gear VR version. Head to Coatsink’s website if you want to find out more.

Hardware · Uncategorized

Samsung Galaxy TabPro S: mid-range tablet

Samsung TabPro S

In the quest for portable computing devices, many people are turning towards hardware that doubles as both a tablet and laptop.

Enter Samsung’s TabPro S, the latest iteration of its Galaxy Tab line-up (I own one of the original Galaxy Tabs. It was good then: Not so great now).

The TabPro S is  a 12-inch tablet, running Windows 10 and aims to take on the iPad Pro and probably Microsoft’s Surface Pro device.

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The TabPro S in its locked, upright position

The TabPro S comes with a keyboard cover (yes, it’s included in the price) that snaps onto the base of the body via a magnetic coupling. At first, I wasn’t sure that the keyboard cover was strong enough to support the tablet in an upright position, but once I’d got the hang of it, I pretty much kept it in that position while I had it, using it to watch movies via streaming services like Netflix and Lightbox, web browsing and general tablet-related activities.

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A close up of the TabPro S’s keyboard that acts as a cover

While the keys don’t have much travel and are quite close together, I was able to touch type accurately most of the time but definitely not to the accuracy that I could on a standard or mechanical keyboard. I also wouldn’t advise using the keyboard on your knees: It’s quite unstable so needs to be used on a sturdy flat surface like table or desk.

The super AMOLED screen is the hero with the TabPro S, offering full HD at a resolution of 2160 x 1440 resolution. The screen does have quite a large bezel, though, but it didn’t detract from my time with the tablet. Strangely, though, it doesn’t come with a stylus: I can see this device as just the ticket for design or art work.

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The Samsung TabPro S in tablet mode

Under the hood you’ll find 4Gb of RAM and an Intel Core M CPU (a dual core CPU clocked at 2.24Mhz), which means that the TabPro S isn’t a powerhouse performer but it means that battery life is fantastic, offering several hours use  before needing a charge.  Apart from a 3.5mm headphone jack and the USB-C charge port, there are also no other connections on Samsung’s device so you can’t connect other devices or a USB flash drive.  The TabPro S has 128Gb of flash storage, which should be enough, given the push these days to save most of your content to the cloud.

A nice touch is that you can pop in a SIM card and access 4G speeds if you’re out of Wi-Fi range.

I definitely see the TabPro S as productivity machine rather than a gaming one, but thanks to its Windows 10 operating system, you can stream content from your Xbox One console to the device. I streamed Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption to the tablet and it worked flawlessly and lag free. It’s a great feature if your Xbox One is connected a TV that is being used by other people but you want to get your game on.

A downside for me, is the lack of a USB port but Samsung are clearly going for portability (it tips the scales at less than 700 grams) and thinness with the TabPro S.

The TabPro S isn’t a laptop killer or replacement thanks to its medium range specs but it would be ideal as a BYOD device for a school student or a lightweight business tablet.  It’s also a great device for consume multimedia content like Netflix or other streaming services.

A good effort from Samsung.

 

Hardware · Hitman series · PlayStation 4 · Xbox One

No Man’s Sky: Survive

PlayStation have released the last trailer in its four-part series: Explore, Fight, Trade, Survive in the lead up to No Man’s Sky coming out on August 10.

The new trailer, Survive, show you’ll face not only deadly creatures and toxins but extremes in temperature. Here it is here:

There’s still a lot of uncertainty about No Man’s Sky, a lot of questions about what do you actually do apart from just flying from planet to planet, scanning the world and discovering stuff. They’re valid questions and the universe is so big the chances of actually running into another player are slim. I’ve said it before: No Man’s Sky is either going to be amazing or people will play it for a few weeks then get bored with it and move on.

What are your thoughts?

I haven’t actually done a lot of gaming lately, apart from completing the Gary Busy elusive target mission in Hitman, which, to be honest, was far too easy and over far too quickly but I have been playing around with Samsung’s Galaxy TabPro S, which is a hybrid tablet/notebook running Windows 10.

While it’s not a gaming device, it does let you stream Xbox One content to its HD screen which is nice if you can’t use the TV your Xbox Once console is connected to because someone is watching TV.  Look out for a review soon.

 

Hardware

Entering the world of VR: Getting lost in another world

“You look weird,” my wife says as I sit at my desktop PC wearing a Samsung GearVR headset.

“I suppose I do,” I replied – and she was probably right: It does look a little strange sitting in a room wearing a VR headset. It doesn’t look natural. It’s unlikely the norm in many households.

I’d always been fascinated by VR. I remember years and years ago when I was a junior reporter for a newspaper trying out some virtual reality thing that was set up in a suburban shopping mall. From what I can remember it had a bulky headset and the graphics were very Lawnmower Man (for younger readers, that was a movie that dealt with VR).

When I heard HTC and PlayStation were making VR headsets, I was interested and intrigued at the prospects of an immersive VR experience – but when I saw the prices my intrigue turned to disappointment. There was no way I was going to be able to justify spending several hundreds of dollars on a VR headset, no matter how much I wanted one. I needed a cheaper option. Samsung GearVR was that option.

I’ve done a review of the GearVR on this site already (and I was impressed with the few days I had it for) but since getting a Galaxy S7 I decided I wanted to experience VR in a cost-effective way but one that offered an experience better than Google Cardboard. I remember getting a Cardboard-like VR headset on the back of a Kellog’s Nutigrain box. It was pretty rubbish, to be honest, and I think I thew it out. As much as I’d like to have pre-ordered a HTC Vive VR headset, my budget didn’t stretch to the several hundreds of dollars that it would cost and besides, my current GPU – an ageing Geforce GTX660Ti isn’t grunty enough to power the Vive’s experience, anyway.

Since I had a Samsung phone I decided what better way to experience VR than with Samsung’s Oculus-powered GearVR headset? So I bought one.

I’m glad I got it, too. Sure it’s not as powerful at HTC’s Vive (which looks to be an amazing experience from people I know that have one) or the upcoming PS VR headset, both requiring external computing power, and it doesn’t have controllers that let you pick up virtual objects, I’m loving that GearVR gives me an awesome virtual reality experience for a decent price.

Let’s take a deeper look, shall we?

The headset

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Samsung’s GearVR headset – powered by Oculus.

20160526_220258The GearVR looks like a VR headset should, which is a good start. It’s made from white plastic with a three-point strap that secures it to your head and nice thick padding around where it rests on your forehead and around your nose (the top edge of the padding that rests on your forehead was a little rough for my liking, though).

The words “Powered by Oculus” are printed on the left hand side of the headset and there’s a D-pad and a back button on the right hand side. The headset has venting on the bottom and there’s a plate that can cover the phone, which offers venting as well. I haven’t experienced any heat warning from my phone while using the GearVR, but then I’m not using it for hours at a time.

When you put the GearVR on for the first time it feels a little weird, almost claustrophic, but after a few minutes I got used to it and my eyes adjusted to things. You slot your compatible Samsung phone into the front of the headset using two spring-loaded clips (make sure you unlock your phone) and unlike the Google Cardboard, there is a focus dial that lets you adjust the focus so you get things just right to suit your eyes. The Oculus software kicks in as soon as you pop the headset onto your face, taking you to a cavernous room that looks like a luxury home where you’ll find the menu system which shows icons to access your game and application library and the Oculus store.

The software

I’ve used the GearVR mainly for gaming but also for watching movies via Netflix and Oculus Video. I’ve recently bought a controller off Amazon which should arrive early June and I plan to buy space sim End Space GearVR, which needs a controller, and Minecraft VR, which also needs a controller. Some games require a controller, other games don’t. Those that don’t need a controller generally use GearVR’s head tracking to move you around the game world on such as in puzzle game Land’s End where you look at markers and the game automatically moves you there.

Eve Gunjack was the first game I bought for my GearVR and it’s one of the two I play the most. It comes from the same developers that are making the PC game Eve Valkyrie, and uses the head tracking to target enemies and the D-pad to fire guns and missiles and reload weapons. Visually, it’s impressive and the sense of scale as you look around is unbelievable.  I can see a controller good for this game as your arm does get a little tired after a while, seeing as it’s pressed up against the headset. It’s a bloody good game. It looks fantastic (it’s powered by the Unreal 4 engine), it’s fast paced and – importantly – you actually feel as if you’re inside a fighter ship taking on enemy fighters. You can look around the cockpit and it feels immersive (don’t look right behind you, though: You’ll see the empty space where your head is supposed to be!).

The only thing that feels off with Eve Gunjack is that it’s weird seeing “your”  arms but you can’t actually do anything with them. That where I see the PlayStation VR and HTC Vive having the big advantage over the GearVR: They’ve got physical controllers that you hold so that you can pick things up and manipulate the game world. You can move your arms to do things. That niggle aside, Eve Gunjack is perhaps one of the must-have games for Samsung’s VR headset.

Another excellent game is Land’s End, a great puzzle game set in a strange island environment where you use the GearVR’s head tracking to solve puzzles by joining broken lines or lifting stones to complete puzzles. It’s got a real serene feel about it and a real sense of loneliness and space about it. It’s on rails, so you don’t move around freely but instead look at markers that float in the air: Look at it and you’ll automatically move to the next spot.  I got so immersed in what was happening that although I knew that I wasn’t going to fall over the edge of a cliff that I moved close to, I felt as if I was going to.  This game is best played sitting in a chair that you can swing around, hence me often sitting at my computer desk in my DX Racer gaming chair. Land’s End is another must-have for the Gear VR.

 

Watching Netflix on the GearVR is a great experience, too. Once you pop on the headset and start the app up, you’ll find yourself on a couch in a mountain cabin, snowy peaks outside a window and a big screen TV in front of you.  Logging into my account was easy the I just used the touch pad to scroll through TV shows and movies and started watching. It’s in 2D but I was comfortable watching a 1/2 hour TV episode. I haven’t tried a full-length movie yet. It might be a little too much, I’m thinking.

Update: Since first posting this, I’ve bought Esper 2, a neat Portal-like game that puts the player in the shoes of a test subject with ESP. You have to move things with the power of your mind – and to get around the movement side, the game has you sitting in a chair the entire time! I’m liking it very much. Here’s 13 minutes of Esper 2 – there’s no audio though: The GearVR’s native capture utility doesn’t capture audio. I’m working on a solution.

 

Sure, the GearVR has its limitations and I hope developers will keep producing great games for it once the likes of the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR really gain traction with mainstream gamers, but I have no hesitation recommending the GearVR headset if you want to get a taste for VR for a reasonable amount and have a compatible Samsung phone. For less than $200NZ it’s a great investment if you’re a gamer that wants to experience VR.

I’m saving up to get a HTC Vive (God knows when that will happen) at some point, but until I have enough for that, I’ll keep using my GearVR. I’m loving it, even if it makes me look a little weird when I’m wearing it. VR is well and truly affordable.

 

Hardware

Sony SRS-XB3 review: It’s all about the bass …

It’s all about the bass with Sony’s SRS-XB3 ($299), a portable speaker that really packs a punch when it comes pushing out the “doof, doof, doofs”.

srsxb3rThe SRS-XB3 – I’m putting two and two together here and assuming the XB stands for Xtra Bass – comes in numerous colours. The one I got was red. It was a little garish for my liking but looked nice enough sitting on the black granite bench top in my kitchen.

It’s a heavy speaker, which is a good thing. The weight comes from the bass speaker in the back of the unit and that weight is important: It helps move air to create that deep, low bass that a good portable speaker needs  The weight also means the unit won’t bounce around if you turn things up too loud.

The XB3 is paired via bluetooth (and can also be used as a speaker phone)  and there’s a button on the top labelled “Extra bass”. Press this and, well, it does what it says on the tin: Provides music with extra bass. It works, too, and sound is noticeably more bassy when the button is turned on. I played music then pressed the button on and then off. On and then off. On and then off. There’s a noticeable difference in bass heavy music when it’s active.

The XB3 is being touted as a speaker for electronic house music, which isn’t really my cup of tea so I had it playing what I like through it: A bit of The Foo Fighters, some Jeff Buckley, a touch of Muse and, just because I wanted to hear it loud, Jump by Van Halen. The XB3 handled them all admirably, providing good bass, although I thought that at high volumes high end notes were a overpowered by the thumping bass. Van Halen sounded better than Jeff Buckley on the XB3, which didn’t come as a surprise.

My usual bluetooth speaker is a Logitech UE Boom and it’s a cracker of a portable speaker, if a little light on the bass. As I said earlier, I don’t like electronic house/dance music so I wouldn’t be playing the sort of music that the SRS-XB3 is aimed at but I’d be more than happy having one sitting in the backyard pumping out the tunes as I did the gardening or providing the background music while I burned the sausages on the BBQ.

 

 

Hardware

Samsung Galaxy S7 review: The smartphone to beat

IMG_20160407_084159 [71761]

“Hello, HTC One M8 my old friend” (Sung to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence)

“I’d found a new phone. For you this is the end.””

OK, so apologies to Simon & Garfunkel but after spending the best part of the last two weeks using the Samsung’s new Galaxy S7 smart phone, my almost-two generations old HTC One M8 looks like it’ll be confined to my bedside cabinet when it’s time to be replaced. The Galaxy S7 has just wiped the floor with it – and the M8 is still a bloody good phone.

When I was offered an S7 for review the PR woman asked a simple question during our email exchange: “What colour would you like? Blue or gold?”

I’d owned a blue S3 in the past and it looked nice but it’s was, you know, blue. Blue’s everywhere, right? There’s nothing special about blue, but gold? Gold’s a great colour. It screams of affluence, status and power [OK, probably not the power one]. So I went for gold – and it looks sick.

It’s a subtle gold colour, too, not loud. Sometimes, depending on the light, it almost looks a coppery gold.  It’s a nice gold.

OK, so that enough paragraphs devoted to the colour of the S7. What’s the phone like? After using it every day for the past two weeks, it’s a fantastic phone. It’s responsive, it looks good and it’s probably the best Samsung phone I’ve ever used. Seriously.

To the naked eye, the S7 doesn’t looked profoundly different from its S6 sibling – and that’s not a bad thing. The S7 seems a tad thinner to me and it feels comfortable in the hand. It’s crystal-clear 5.1-inch Quad HD AMOLED screen displays things vividly but the phone’s metal and glass back means it’s a real fingerprint magnet. The S7 also has a microSD slot, which is a nice addition, and the always-on screen feature means I could see if I had a message or what the time was without having to touch the phone. The phone has a 3000mAh battery.

Talking of the glass and metal back, I was nervous about what would happen if I dropped the phone on the ground. A few days I found out: It dropped out of my bag as I was picking it up and the S7 dropped onto a tiled floor. It wasn’t far but it was enough to make me nervous. It was fine but I’m still extra careful with it.

Transferring contents from my HTC One M8 was painless using Samsung’s Smart Switch application (the S7 also comes with an adapter that will let you use the USB cable to transfer data) and before long I was up and running, and thoroughly impressed with the S7. I set up the fingerprint scanner so I didn’t have to faff about with a PIN number lock code – and it’s snappy from thumb read to unlocking the phone. It might not be as quick as the fingerprint scanner on the Nexus 6P (my son has one and he showed me how quick that one is) but it quick enough for me.

The S7 has a 64-bit Octacore processor, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of memory, a dual pixel camera (12MP back, 5MP back) and the S7 (and its brother/sister the S7 Edge) has an IP68 water rating, which means you can submerge the phone in up to 1.5m of water for 30mins and it’ll still working when you’re done. I just squirted it with a bicycle drink bottle (as Samsung has done in an ad for it): It’s nice that you don’t have to worry about spills on your phone.

One of my gripes with Samsung phones in the past is the amount of bloatware that came pre-installed on its handsets, much of it apps that couldn’t be uninstalled. Well, I’m pleased to say that the S7 handset  came without the bloat that past S model phones came with. I’m happy with that. Clearly Samsung have been listening. Battery life was great, and while I still had to charge it every night, a full charge would get me through a heavy days use.

The S6 had a great camera (I had a review unit when it came out, too) – perhaps one of the best I’d used on a smart phone –  and Samsung has delivered the goods again on the S7, with a camera that produces bright and vivid images and surpasses what the S6 was able to do. The phone has a nice selection of shooting modes (including a food mode. That’s for people who really like taking photos of food, I suppose) and a Pro mode that should keep keen photographers busy. I was impressed with the low light camera, too, and used it to take some photos of my dog in a dark room (which you can see here). There’s also a focus mode which lets you focus on a particular object in a photo. There’s also a variety of options when taking video, too, so it’s got you covered.

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It’s Autumn and we’ve still got roses in our garden!

 

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Using the Galaxy S7’s low light camera to capture this photo of my Samoyed, Drew. Good boy!

 

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Samsung is also targeting gamers with the S7 and it comes with software called Game Tools which lets gamers fire up their favourite mobile game (currently mine is Alto’s Adventure and Lara Croft Go!) and do things like turn off notifications while your playing or record game play footage and take screen shots. The video below shows it in action. You can also add commentary using the phone’s  external microphone if you want. I didn’t.

If you’re the sort of person who likes to post game play walk-throughs or Let’s Plays of your favourite mobile games, Game Tools is a great feature.  Samsung’s Game Launcher app also manages all your mobile games in one spot (I don’t have that many as I don’t tend to do a lot of mobile gaming and I refuse to allow Candy Crush or any of that ilk of mobile game anywhere near me).

Look, you can probably tell by now that I really like the Galaxy S7.  It’s a fantastic looking phone, it has a brilliant screen that is vibrant and sharp, it’s snappy, the fingerprint scanner works well, and it handled everything I threw at it. So far the only fault I have is the phone’s metal and glass body  is a fingerprint magnet!

I guess it’s a ringing endorsement, too,  on how good the S7 is when your teenage son, who worked hard over the summer to get enough money to buy a Nexus 6P, contemplates (briefly) selling that phone and buying an S7. It says a lot about the quality of the Galaxy S7 and tells me that it’s has set the benchmark that other smartphones have to live up to.

 

 

Hardware · smartwatches

TomTom Spark Cardio: The activity tracker/sports watch that has grown on me

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You can’t change the TomTom Spark Cardio’s watch face but the numbers are large and easy to read.

I didn’t intend on buying a TomTom Cardio spark activity/sports tracker when I found I had some credit card reward points to spend. I was planning on buying a different brand.

I spent days looking at devices mainly Garmin’s Vivoactive sportswatch and I was convinced I was going to buy one. I went to a local sports chain store, looked at the Garmin, spoke to the sales person about it but when asked about the heart rate monitor was told he didn’t know much about it so would get another assistant.

It was then that I was told the TomTom Spark Cardio had the better HRM and for some reason I decided on the that rather than the Garmin. I went to the cashier, swiped my bank rewards points cards and walked out with the Spark Cardio.

As I walked out of the store, and bought some sushi for lunch from a mall next door, I was happy enough.

Two days later, though, I was seriously contemplating taking it back to the store I bought it from and replacing it with something else. It just wasn’t doing it for me, for some reason.

I’d known TomTom’s was a powerhouse in the in-car GPS systems but I didn’t know anything about its sports/activity trackers so it’s a surprise to me that I bought it blindly without really knowing anything about it. That was out of character for me, but I decided to stick with it.

I used to have a FitBit Surge activity tracker but somehow my teenage swimmer son had commandeered it and I have an LG G Watch R smartwatch but ever since its battery died – and I couldn’t be arsed getting it replaced – I’ve had nothing that tracks my fitness activity: cycling, walking, the odd jog, apart from my phone – and I hate taking my phone with me all the time. I wanted an activity tracker so now I had a TomTom Spark Cardio.

The company’s Spark range comes in a variety of flavours – one without a HRM, one that can play music – but I picked the Cardio, which has a multisports mode (including indoor workouts), GPS tracking and a built-in heart rate monitor with five training zones.

It wasn’t particularly cheap: I paid $270 (well, I used $280 of reward points) but it was on special at the time so it’ll likely set you back $310 or so if you bought it when it’s not on sale from a bricks-and-mortar retailer.

Build quality.visual appeal

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A close up of the four-way rocker pad.
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The strap on my Spark Cardio has dozens of holes and three pairs of pins, meaning you’ll always get a snug fit.

I’d be lying if the Spark Cardio was a looker. It’s not. It looks like a sports/activity tracker and it looks like a black plastic strap with an LCD monochrome screen. Designwise, it’s uninspiring, but TomTom have thought outside the box a little with it in that the main body can actually be detached from the rubber strap (it doesn’t have standard watch strap fittings like other sports/smart watches) and a new strap “wrapped” around it. Additional straps come in a variety of colours and designs.

TomTom has also “old-schooled” it in the interface, too: The Spark Cardio doesn’t have a touch screen as is the feature du jour at the moment: It has a four-way rocker that you use to scroll through the menus. I actually like the rocker and as those of us who have exercised then tried to swipe on a touch screen using a sweaty finger will know, a touch screen doesn’t always work.

The TomTom’s design is functional without being stunning. It also has a monochrome LCD display, which, again, I don’t have a problem with. It means the Spark Cardio has great battery life. The strap, too, is a little unconventional in that instead of having a buckle like a traditional watch the strap has dozens of holes punched into it and there are three pairs of pins that you push into the strap holes. It actually gives a remarkably good fit and is pretty comfortable.

One thing that I’m not that taken with is the charge cable: It’s a proprietary design and you have to actually pop the watch body out of the strap a little to clip the charge cable in. It’s clunky and I would have preferred a standard mini-USB port on the watch’s back.

The interface and the using watch itself

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The Spark Cardio will count the total number of steps you’ve done in a week.
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The Spark Cardio’s cycling activity screen. The GPS strength is in the top left, the heart rate monitor activity is the heart shape. To activate the activity, you press right on the rocker pad.
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The Spark Cardio’s display for freestyle activity (walking, I’m guessing) show speed, total time and distanced covered.
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The Spark Cardio’s activity selection screen. I’ve used mine mostly for cycling and walking.

The Spark Cardio sports an LCD monochrome screen, which means that you’ll get good battery life out of it. TomTom says you’ll get about five days between charges using the GPS mode & xx days when not. I was getting about a week between charges, which was pretty good.

The Spark Cardio doesn’t have a touch screen so you use the four-way rocker to scroll between the various menus. The main screen shows the time in large numbers, which might be off-putting for some people, but I kind of like it. It also displays the date but it’s squeezed vertically in the right hand corner. It seems strange at first but you get used to it.

When the watch isn’t being used to track an activity (more on that later), pressing the left side of the rocker shows you steps for the day; pressing it again shows you steps for the week. A nice feature is pressing up on the rocker -pad from the weekly step count screen shows you how many hours of sleep you’ve managed this week (at the time of writing this, which was a Wednesday, I’d managed 21 hours of sleep).

Pressing right from the home screen takes you to the activity screen  where you can select the activity you want to track. The TomTom has: Running, cycling, swimming, treadmill running, gym, indoor cycling, freestyle (which I think means walking or anything like that) and a stopwatch.

Once you’ve selected an activity, you press the rocker pad one more time to the right, giving you a screen that shows your heart rate, details about your activity (distance, time, speed) and the GPS lock, which is in the left hand corner.

The TomTom was pretty good at picking up the available GPS satellites, meaning I was generally up and running within a few seconds (the watch will vibrate when it has locked onto a signal). Sometimes, though, it seemed to take ages to find satellites, especially if I was mountain biking where there was a lot of trees. Overall, though, I was pleased with how quickly the Spark Cardio locked on to satellites.

I was interested to see how the Spark Cardio went with cycling, both road and mountain bike. I was pleased to see that I could upload my training data to Strava, a training data site that I use on my smart phone. You can also upload data from the Spark to a few training data portals like Endomondo, Nike+, Jawbone and MapMyFitness.

The Spark Cardio’s Heart Rate Monitor isn’t always on so you won’t be able to get your resting heart rate while you sitting on the couch. It’s only active when you’re doing an activity and it tracks your heart rate over the duration of your training session so you can analyse it later using TomTom’s MySports software (which is functional at best) or Strava’s own web portal. Personally, I checked all my data via Strava: It’s much better than TomTom’s MySports portal.

TomTom's MySports web portal is functional but lets you breakdown your activity.
TomTom’s MySports web portal is functional but lets you breakdown your activity.

The Spark Cardio maps your activity using mapping software, which you can look through later. In the case of cycling, it showed me where my heart rate was its highest and what my speed was at particular points around a course.

The Spark Cardio’s display is bright and clear, with large numbers that are easy to read while on the go and while it didn’t display my heart rate on the screen it was recording it in the background, letting me view the data at the end of the ride. It has an ingenious way to activate the backlight at night: You just have to hold your hand over the screen and the back light comes on.

Things that bug me about the TomTom Spark Cardio

The more I’ve used the Spark Cardio the more I’m liking it. I like the easy to read display (especially as my eyesight seems to be getting worse the older I get), but it has a couple of niggles that annoy me.

For starters, the activity tracker doesn’t have an auto-pause. OK, not having auto-pause isn’t a deal breaker but the function is nice to have, especially if I’m, say, on a road bike ride and get stuck at traffic lights for a while. I’m hoping TomTom’s developers will bring this function at some point but it seems if comments from posters on the company’s support site are anything to go by, users have been waiting for a couple of years for the feature and don’t hold much hope of it becoming available.

It would also be nice if you didn’t have to scroll through so many screen when you’ve finished a workout. To reach the home screen from the activity tracking screen you have to press left on the rocker pad three times. Three times. That is quite a few. Picky? Yeah, maybe but not so many button presses would be nice.

Another gripe is that the watch body itself doesn’t always feel that secure housed in the strap, especially when you press on the rocker pad. Some times when I pressed left or right on the rocker pad I could feel the watch body move slightly. Nothing that was an issue but it was noticeable and annoying at times.

Overall, though, the TomTom Spark Cardio is really finding a place in my fitness schedule. In the space of a month, I’ve gone from not sure whether I wanted to keep it to finding it’s an invaluable part of my training programme.

Here’s hoping that TomTom support it and listen to its users.