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.

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.

 

VR has me hook, line & sinker

20160526_220240When I bought a Samsung GearVR headset, I didn’t really expect that I’d get sucked into the world of VR so much. How wrong I was.

If I’m being completely honest, I thought I’d play around with the VR for a little bit then get bored and move onto something else. Well, I haven’t. VR has me hook, line & sinker.  I don’t even care how silly I look sitting in my lounge room, on my computer desk chair, wearing the headset. I’m just really digging the VR experience.

I’ve got a handful of games for my GearVR: Minecraft (which makes me a little motion sick, to be honest, if I play it for too long), Eve Gunjack, Land’s End, Darket, Esper 2, and End Space, as well as the Netflix app, Samsung’s Internet app and Oculus Video.

I’ve done videos of Eve Gunjack, Land’s End and Esper 2 on this site already (sadly, without audio as the Galaxy S7’s in-built capture utility doesn’t capture audio: I hope this gets sorted soon. In the meanwhile, I’ll have to come up with a solution) and End Space is quickly becoming my favourite space sim. I’ll get footage of that up when I can. I’ve only had Darknet for a couple of days (it’s a hacking game where you have to infiltrate a computer network by hacking nodes with viruses) so I haven’t made up my mind on it yet but I’m liking what I’ve played so far.

I also bought a Bluetooth controller. A controller isn’t a necessity for a lot of  VR games (Land’s End for example) but for some games, Minecraft and End Space tell you a controller is required. It’s good advice. I wouldn’t even attempt to play either of those without a controller (in fact, I’m not even sure you can?).  You don’t have to spend a fortune on a Bluetooth controller, though: I bought a Nyko Cygnus controller based on a recommendation by an online friend for less than $40 from Amazon. It works like a charm and connects to my Samsung Galaxy S7 every time.

I never thought I’d like the VR experience as much as I do. I don’t think VR is a fad unlike 3D. My smart TV can do 3D and I’ve never used that feature once (the two pairs of 3D glasses that came with the TV are still actually in the box they came with). 3D was a fad whereas VR is actually something that I really think will gain more momentum as it becomes more mainstream. Sure, there’s that slight anti-social aspect to it and the weird aspect with you wearing a screen on your face, but as it becomes more mainstream, it’ll seem less weird and less anti-social.

I’ve found that my eyes don’t always play ball when I put on my VR headset: Sometimes things are blurry so I know it’s not the time to go VR but other nights, I can plonk on the headset, fire up Esper 2 or End Space and complete a mission or puzzle or two then be done for the night. I’m happy.

The thing I like about my GearVR is its portability. I can take it with me anywhere and the VR experience is amazing. It’s really hard to tell people what it’s like without them actually experiencing it. Videos give a far better impression but you really need to experience it for yourself to understand what I’m talking about.

Ultimately, though, I want to get a PlayStation VR but, as much as I’d like one Day One, it’s not imperative that I’m one of first adopters. I’m waiting to see if PlayStation announces any bundles for New Zealand that includes a PS Eye camera and a Move controller or two before I commit. [Oh, who am I kidding? Just myself, probably.  I’ll probably buckle in the next few weeks and pre-order a PS VR. Seriously] Hopefully, with its good showing at E3, PlayStation will announce some competitively priced PSVR bundles.

Look, I don’t know how long VR will remain fashionable or whether VR is going to turn us into the passengers on that cruise spaceship in the movie Wall E. You know, where they’re all fat and sitting in automated chairs and always looking at a screen in front of their face rather than looking at what’s around them. Or whether VR will eventually turn into our reality and we never leave the house to go to work or socialise and just live in VR set-ups (was that in the book Ready, Player One. I can’t remember)

Whatever the answers, and where VR will head in future I have no idea but for now, I’m just having fun with the experiences VR is giving me. Even if I do look slightly stupid wearing a VR headset.

 

 

 

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.

 

Samsung Galaxy S7 review: The smartphone to beat

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“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.

 

 

Samsung Gear S2 review

The smartwatch market is crowded: Just about every phone manufacturer worth a dime has a smartwatch out, so it pays to be a little different to stand out from the crowd.

SamsungGearS2Samsung’s Gear S2 smartwatch has a rotating bezel to make it standout. And standout it does. It could well be the best smartwatch on the market right now.

The Gear S2 is compatible with a number of Android smartphones but the bezel really does stick out as a highlight of using it. It’s intuitive and it just makes sense to twist it left and right to access the watch’s information. Yes, you’re still going to have to tap the touchscreen to access applications and do things like set alarms and dismiss notifications, but the bezel is a nice way of seeing those notifications or how many steps you’ve walked or what the weather’s doing. I actually just found myself twisting the bezel because it was so much fun: It just works.

The Gear S2 seems a more sports-orientated watch, thanks to its construction and rubbery straps, as well as built-in heart rate aGearS2pps and active activity counter (the watch even prompts  to move around when it senses you’ve been inactive for too long) and while you can replace the straps (not with standard watch straps, though) you’re not going to wear the Gear S2 as a dress watch. Talking of straps, I, ahem, ah, managed to somehow snap both off my review unit S2. Maybe the unit had had a hard life thanks to other reviewers or I don’t know my own strength but it’s the first time I’ve ever done that in years of reviewing hardware.

Where the Gear S2 differs from its smartwatch counterparts is that it’s not using Android Wear as most Android-based smart watches do, but Samsung’s own Tizen operating system, and it’s a nice one at that, which a clean look and responsiveness.

Compared with Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, there are nowhere near as many apps for Samsung’s Gear S2 but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: It means the Gear S2 isn’t bogged down by thousands and thousands of pointless apps. For me, there was no Tizen version of cycling/running app Strava for the Gear S2, which was annoying, so if you’re the type of smart watch wearer who needs an almost inexhaustible supply of apps for your watch, you might have to look at another smartwatch.

Look, I really loved the Samsung Gear S2 watch. If I was going to buy a smartwatch to replace my LG G Watch R, it would be would be the Gear S2. I really do think it’s the best smartwatch on the market right now. Plus it’s got that rotating bezel. It’s a winner.