Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Redmi 6A Review: screen, performance, & camera evaluated

Specs: 5.45" LCD, 2 Ghz CPU, 2GB RAM, 8GB free storage, unlocked GSM, Android 8.l

This phone looks relatively premium but only cost $100 direct from China (but I did have to wait a full month for delivery). It features the tall + narrow form factor (18:9) first popularized by the Samsung S8, but without the curved LCD edges. At 147.5 x 71.5 x 8.3mm, it is only 3mm wider than the S8, and otherwise identical in size, but because the LCD doesn't curve around the edge of the phone the display is a full 0.3" smaller, at only 5.45". The phone body/back is made of plastic and is perhaps slightly slippery, but no more so than your typical phone.  For the price it's an impressively large LCD in an impressively small and easy to hold phone.

The LCD looks great, with great viewing angles as is the norm for IPS. It's plenty bright for indoor use, but perhaps a bit dark in full sunlight outside. The resolution is only 720 x 1440, half of the S8, but frankly that's plenty sharp. I think higher resolution screens are mostly specsmanship, and I'm glad Xiaomi "cut" that corner in the name of price. Even the tiniest of fonts are completely readable and appear sharp. What more do you want?

On the flip side, the tall+narrow form factor allows a published screen size of 5.45" which sounds quite large, but doesn't deliver as much screen area per inch compared to the 16:9 form factor older phones. In this photo I'm comparing the 6A (left, 5.45") to the Samsung S7 (right, 5.1"). The red lines connect the respective corners of the two screens, showing just how much taller the 6A LCD is. Yet the S7 shows about 3 more lines of the webpage (green line). To be fair, it looks like the Chrome defaults result in a slightly larger font on the 6A, so with font tweaking the 6A might at least match the S7. To be even more fair, however, the 6A isn't showing the android navigation buttons, which I turned off for fun. Put those back on and the S7 wins hands-down due to it's hardware buttons that never occupy LCD space. While the 6A has a fairly narrow bottom bezzle there's clearly space for hardware home/back buttons down there. So while the the 6A has a very nice form factor that fits in my hand perfectly, it's no better than the older-style S7, which is 1mm narrower, less tall, AND has larger top/bottom bezzles, but still manages more usable screen space. All hail hardware buttons?? Ok, maybe it's just me that feels that way.

To conclude on the screen + overall form factor: it's very nice, a solid "A". In this price range it's very hard to beat. The differences between this and the "dated" S7 design clearly come down to taste. Xiaomi did a great job here, though if I were in charge of design I would have made different tradeoffs.

The Xiaomi android skin is called "MUI9" and I had heard many not-so-nice things about it. But in fact it's perfectly fine. Perhaps its been toned down, but it's really not so different from stock android and only in neutral or positive ways so far as I can see. One nifty feature is gesture navigation, which turns off the screen-wasting ever-present back/home buttons. Swipe up from the bottom to go home, or swipe up and hold to get to recently used apps. Swipe from the screen edges inwards (either side) to go back. It mostly works, though "go back" is not always recognized and can instead cause apps like maps to scroll around and lose your place. I'm giving it a solid try but I'll probably go back to on-screen buttons.

Another nice feature is that you can have the phone display the current bandwidth consumed in the taskbar. It's interesting to see how much data is being pulled down all the time even when I'm looking at a "static" webpage. In general it seems like MUI9 mostly just adds tweaks that you can choose to enable or not. So I'm going to rate it "A", too.

Ironically for a "phone" review I almost forgot to discuss call quality. Well it's fine. Just as good as any other phone I have used with T-mobile.  Clear and plenty loud. I didn't want to burn thru all my data for the month but it did seem like the data speeds were slower than my S7, which makes sense: the 6A does not support as many GSM bands. On the other hand I don't have great T-mobile support at my house, despite living in a city. In general this is a weakness of the 6A: even though it's a GSM phone it doesn't support every band that a domestic phone would. And no Sprint/Verizon support at all.  I'm giving the phone a tentative "B" here - more testing would have been nice, but since my main carrier is Sprint I don't have the option.

From here on out things get less positive. What about performance? The MediaTek A22 (mt6762) quadcore runs at 2ghz, but those of you that recall the Pentium 4 know clock speeds are not all. The geekbench score is 816 single core, 2382 multicore. Interestingly, that's about the same as the snapdragon 800, also a quad core. For a more modern comparison, the snapdragon 430, a 8-core cpu, gets about the same mulicore performance from just 1.4ghz. Actually, I'm impressed that it benchmarks so well, because I find the webpage scrolling a bit jerky. Not slow exactly, but it stutters and the term "butter" doesn't come to mind. But hey, I'm comparing to a Samsung S7 here. Not fair! But I also have a LG Stylo 3 with a Snapdragon 425, and that's smoother too. That's a pretty fair comparison, and one that on Ghz alone you would expect the 6A to win. To be clear, this is a webpage issue only: scrolling in apps or the home-screen is indeed "buttery". And furthermore, the loading of webpages is perfectly snappy. The geekbench renderscript result, 1686, which measures GPU performance, was halfway between a snapdragon 425 and 430, which doesn't explain the jerky scrolling one bit. Conclusion:  For the price it's quite good. But certainly not premium. "B".

How about multimedia? Youtube works smoothly and glitch free. Full-screen playback doesn't actually fill the screen, however, leaving black bars on the sides, because of the 18:9 aspect ratio. Yet another way in which 5.45" isn't really, but closer to a 5.0" display. Not to say the actual full-screen experience is too small, nor is this any different than for any 18:9 phone. Volume is satisfying - at max maybe too loud. But it's a bit tinny, my s7 has somewhat better bass, not that any phone does very good at that. Without going back and forth between them you'd never know. Unlike many "flagship" phones there's a real 3.5mm headphone jack, thank goodness. Overall, "A-".

What about the camera? Here I'll compare to the S7, which had best in class performance back in 2016 when it was released, and the LG Stylo 3, an mid-line/budget phone with a camera to match. These are cropped ~3x zooms, meaning you are seeing the full resolution each camera, at least when viewed at 1920x1080.

In full daylight the 6A does OK, but decidedly softer than the other two. Daylight is easy, though.

In moderate indoor light, the S7 creams the 6A, but the 6A is still usable.

In near dark, the 6A does horrible, the Stylo slightly better, and the S7 "shines", at least for a cell camera.

Recall that these are zoomed in photos, so the poor resolution and high blur is highlighted in these comparisons. Just looking at the photos on your phone without zooming and you'll see it too for lower light photos but not as much, and for full daylight photos everything looks fine.  Consider these two unzoomed, uncropped photos.

 These are all the front facing camera. The back facing camera is actually a bit of a pleasant surprise. Depending on how much you like seeing your wrinkles, the 6A might be superior here.

To conclude: in daylight the 6A camera is certainly good enough for social media pics. Indoor  lighting, less so. Be prepared to take multiple photos and save the least blurry ones. And in low light, forget about it! Side note: the Stylo 3 performs a lot better than I expected though nothing like a S7. Oddly enough, it seems today that the biggest difference between flagship and cheapo is the camera.

There's an MicroSD card slot, a 3.5mm headphone port, and it uses the older microUSB connector. Like many Chinese phones it supports two nano sim cards, and refreshingly, there's still space for the MicroSD card slot when both sim cards are installed!

To conclude: for $100 it's very nice. Walking into a best buy or Walmart you won't find anything nearly this nice for $100 and what you do find will be a  pre-paid phone locked to some MNVO or another, whereas this phone is unlocked The biggest downside to the price is you have to wait a month to get it from china.

If you'd like to see some video of the Redmi 6A check out this video on youtube.

Monday, October 1, 2018

World of goo: tapioca bridges make a great physics puzzle game

Price: $5 regularly, $1 sale (fairly often).

This very old game dates back to the Wii but is the perfect fit for a larger screen Android (do they make any other type these days?). A bridge building puzzler set in a nicely rendered fantasy world, this game mostly tests your wits as a structural engineer and general problem solver using the most unlikely building blocks: Cute good blobs joined by semi-rigid protoplasmic girders. The levels are often variations on how high a tower or how long a bridge you can build, factoring in many constraints from the environment of the level. The game keeps it fresh by throwing in some clever puzzles where the solution is far from obvious, but completely logical. There's also a decent story line and varied level graphics and designs. In the end it feels over too soon, after maybe 4 hours.

Friday, September 28, 2018

ZTE Majesty ProPlus: a budget phone to avoid

Pro Plus specs: 4.5" TN display with hardware buttons, 2GB RAM, 10GB free storage, snapdragon 210, android 7.1. Pro (not plus): 1GB Ram and only 2GB of free storage.

This phone is super budget and they cut the one corner I cannot accept: it uses a TN display instead of IPS. That means the viewing angles are crap, and just the slightest wiggle of your hand results in significant color shifts and contrast reduction. Yuk. The resolution is actually high enough given the size, but with such ugly colors you won't care. And since it uses hardware navigation buttons you get to use the whole 4.5" for content. So that's something.

If not for the LCD it would be a decent ultra budget phone for $30. Although it only has a quad core 1.1ghz cpu (snapdragon 210), it does have 2GB of RAM. Thus it's certainly slow, but it is usable. The geekbench score is 403 single, 1058 multi. That's almost a perfect match for the much older Snapdragon 400, a 1.4ghz 4-core chip. So at least it's more efficient at being slow!

Youtube performance was fine if you can get beyond the crappy screen. The loudspeaker was loud (almost painful), and perhaps a hint of base at max volume, but also noticeably harsh. There was no problem with dropped frames.

Website performance was fine - slashdot took forever to load but once loaded was actually reasonably smooth and loading a single smaller article view was in comparison snappy. In comparison to itself, that is. Any mid-level phone would do better and don't even think about comparing it to a flagship.

The camera is crap, as you would expect. Even in good lighting it's dark. I'm not going to bother with an example photo. 

The phone has a removable plastic back made of a pleasantly textured and grippy rubber. In this one way it's actually far superior to ALL flagship phones. It's a bit reminiscent of the Motorola G3 back cover. Under the cover you can access the sim card and the MicroSD card. The battery is not removable which is disappointing in theory but in practice you'll not want to keep this long enough that it will ever mater.

Model number ZTE Z899VL

Monday, July 30, 2018

Keep track of exercise while entertaining yourself

I hate to exercise. It's tolerable if I have some entertainment, but then I have a hard time keeping track of my reps. I could use a mechanical  tally keeper, but I prefer this app, which can keep track of reps while playing games or watching youtube. It floats on top in a little bubble off to the side and I can move it if it somehow gets in the way. 

Its the little orange thing in the upper corner of the screen shot. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Make your screen super dark for bedtime use

Evidence suggests that too much light before bed disrupts your circadian rythrms. Some people believe that blue light in particular is the cause but I think the case for that is shaky, and that it makes more sense by far to cut down on all wavelengths. 

Now hold on, you say, my phone comes with a brightness slider already. 

True. But I've found that in absolute darkness I can't get my phones dark enough with built in controls. 

Enter Screen Filter, a free app that can make your screen dark. I mean really, really dark. You'll very quickly realize why your built-in brightness slider isn't doing enough: they are protecting you from yourself. In a bright room you can easily set the screen so dark you can't see anything. Including how to make it brighter again. Luckily they take a page from a bygon era of PCs, and automatically restore the screen to normal unless you confirm your setting within 10 seconds. 

This app is free, has no ads, and works really well. I strongly recommend it for night time use. You might also be tempted to hope you could save battery life by turning down the brightness this way, but that's going to be hit or miss. If you have an OLED display that will probably work. If your display has a backlight, however, your battery probably won't benefit. This program works by inserting itself into the display pipeline, decreasing the pixel values just before rendering them to the LCD. Power consumption depends on the backlight, not pixel values.  A side effect is that extreme levels of light reduction reduces the dynamic range of your display. In practice I haven't noticed this much, and even if it were  worse it's a small price to pay for better sleep.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Multi Timer StopWatch: as many as you need at once

Most phones have a countdown timer and stopwatch app built into the clock app, but this one is really an improvement if you need to keep track of multiple things. In my case I used it when I broke my leg to keep track of how long it had been since I took "as needed' pills and also to remind me of those that had to be taken on a fixed schedule.

Here it shows just 4 stopwatches, but it supports an unlimited number (as well as countdown timers), and you can give each a descriptive name. It does have ads, but almost all of the time it's just a small banner across the top. There is an add-free version, but the dev wants $4 which seems a bit much.

Download on google play

Antiyoy: turn based strategy game free/no ads

This strategy game is very simple and easy to learn, but satisfyingly challenging. It's a bit like chess in that there is no randomness. Stronger units always defeat weaker ones, but cost more to build and maintain. It's elegant in its simplicity: combining economy, fighting units, and defensive buildings, all distilled to their most simple form.  The AI is decent but not great. The challenge comes from each new map increasing the odds against you.

My criticism is that the challenge doesn't really increase very regularly - once every 10 maps or so it's really, really hard, followed almost immediately by a map so easy it's boring. The other problem is that after a while it all gets a bit repetitive, since it's always the same rules and units, just different maps. That said I've played over half of the 100 maps and it still draws me back in. Did I mention it's free and has zero ads?

I was a huge fan of advance wars on the gba. There aren't many games like that on Android, but this one scratches the same itch despite being almost entirely different.