javascript hit counter
Close

This site uses cookies. You can read how we use them in our privacy policy.

REVIEW: AOC G2460PQU 144Hz monitor

1 Comment

aoc-g2460pqu-top.jpgreview-line.JPGName: AOC G2460PQU

Type: 24-inch high-speed refresh rate computer monitor

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £287.99

review-line.JPG
Aimed at gamers after silky-smooth motion, the AOC G2460PQU offers super-fast refresh rates at full HD resolutions. Can its picture quality match its motion prowess? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPG
When it comes to the design of a computer monitor, something that you may well end up staring at and using for thousands of hours, the more simple and functional the design, the better. The 24-inch AOC G2460PQU is very good in this respect; while it may not blow you away with an ultra-thin bezel or a design as striking as some of the fancier Samsung models, its tactile physical control buttons and adjustable stand (which offers roughly 5-inches of height adjustment, can tilt backwards and forwards and spin the screen around between landscape and portrait orientations) is flexible and user-friendly. Though its matte black plastic bezel and circular foot wont turn heads, it manages all the above without being too chunky, being 21mm at its thinnest point.
aoc-g2460pqu-mid.jpg
The onscreen menu display is equally well considered, with options including the ability to tweak the image ratio (offering plenty of simulated sizes between 17-inch at 4:3 and the standard 24-inch at 16:9), a "Bright Frame" tool allowing you to independently control brightness on a specific portion of the screen, as well as the usual gamma, colour and brightness tweaking controls, which will be very handy as the out-of-the-box defaults leave a little to be desired as we'll detail in a moment.

In terms of ports, the AOC G2460PQU is well equipped, with an analogue D-Sub, DVI-D, HDMI and DisplayPort all housed on the underside. You'll also find four USB 2.0 ports on the monitor, two being situated on the right hand side and one of those being a fast-charging port for quickly juicing up your mobile devices. Stereo speakers also feature, but are no match for even a cheap set of dedicated speakers, while a headphone jack also onboard will likely get more use.
aoc-g2460pqu-mid-2.jpg
Fire the screen up though and the key benefit of the AOC G2460PQU becomes immediately apparent. The 1920 x 1080 display supports 144Hz refresh rates, far smoother than the 60Hz standard that most monitors settle for. With a grey-to-grey 1ms response time, there's a fluidity to motion that can't be matched by a 60Hz screen. It's notable even when sliding windows around, but comes into its own when gaming - first person shooters in particular feel silky smooth, reducing blur on tight turns. However, the 144Hz refresh rates require compatible hardware to benefit from, such as a Mac Pro so make sure your gear is ready before handing over your cash. Likewise, despite the fast refresh rate, there's no 3D support here, so Nvidia 3D Vision fans need to look elsewhere.
aoc-g2460pqu-bottom.jpg
If the screen suffers anywhere, it's in image consistency and accuracy. Though its dynamic contrast is rated at 80,000,000:1, static image contrast is just 1000:1. Using a TN Panel rather than the superior IPS technology, darker shades can appear a little washed out and bolder colours muted. Digging around the OSD can yield improved results, though this is obviously a screen aimed at gamers rather than design professionals - attempting to calibrate the display to a standard fit for designers will likely prove fruitless. More concerning on broader user levels is the tight viewing angle - move off-centre just a tad and you'll note immediately variation in the screen's output.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Though TN Panels always struggle to match the quality offered by IPS, the AOC G2460PQU's sensible industrial design and worthy motion chops make it a well priced monitor for gamers looking to get a silky-smooth playing experience.review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

soundship-micro-1.jpgreview-line.JPGName: Otone Audio Soundship Micro

Type: Bluetooth speaker

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £99.99

review-line.JPG
Can a novel design and an affordable price tag elevate Otone Audio's Soundship Micro above the bigger names in the speaker industry? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGJust as the Ultimate Ears Boom was cylindrical, and the Creative Airwaves HD seemingly took its inspiration from a Toblerone, Otone Audio's new Soundship Micro Bluetooth speaker is quite literally "thinking out of the box" when it comes to design. Egg-shaped, it doesn't look unlike a UFO, as well as looking not dissimilar to the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin docks. Made almost entirely of plastics, with a mixture of chrome volume buttons and Otone Audio's signature pea-green details on display, it's a quirky-looking product that may be an acquired taste for some. At 115x 250 x 45 mm and weighing 0.53kg, it's a little on the larger side of "portable", but not so hefty as to make a trip to the park with it a chore.

Central to the Soundship Micro's design is its pop-out stand. A firm push on the green wedge in the centre of the speaker gives the roly-poly unit a base to prop itself up on, as well as revealing a microUSB charging port, aimed at Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 handsets, though suitable for most Android phones with a centrally-located microUSB charging port. With so many smartphones sporting this sort of connection, it's nice to see Otone Audio looking beyond the standard Apple iPhone charging dock here. A 3.5mm jack is also present, should your audio source device require it.
soundship-micro-2.jpg
Pushing out the central area also reveals a standard USB connection on the end of a retractable cord, which (when plugged into the included USB wall charger) powers the Soundship Micro's internal battery and connected smartphone. With so many moving parts, the Soundship Micro doesn't feel quite as robust as some other Bluetooth speakers we've tried recently, leaving us worried about the overall durability of the speaker. Parts creak audibly when pressure is applied, and the overall build lacks the polish that some other speakers, like the UE Boom, present. However, given the speaker is a full £70 cheaper than the Logitech model, it's a reasonable trade off. The old adage of "you get what you pay for" applies here.

Activating the Soundship Micro's Bluetooth connection is elegantly handled though - popping out the central green area immediately puts the speaker into Bluetooth scanning mode, letting your smartphone or audio device connect to it, while popping it back out at a later date sees it remember the last device it was partnered with.
soundship-micro-3.jpg
Sonically, the Soundship Micro punches above its weight. Hitting loud volume levels, there's only a hint of distortion at the upper volume limits. Crisp and balanced, there's just the right amount of bass response from the speaker, giving a little warmth without overpowering the overall sound. There's surprisingly good stereo separation from the two 40mm full-range drivers used here too, giving a nicely detailed output, particularly if you're listening to the speaker while being within fairly close proximity to it.

As for battery life, the Soundship Micro performed well. Though the duration of a charge will differ depending on the volume level you set the speaker at, our tests showed you can expect to squeeze on average eight hours out of a single charge at moderately loud levels. As well as showing Bluetooth connectivity, a front LED will keep you informed of when battery levels are running low too.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

The Soundship Micro makes use of an interesting design, and is able to deliver pleasing sounds from its ovoid shape. While the build quality and materials used leave a little to be desired, at the relatively low price point it is hard to be too picky. If you're looking to beef up your outdoor tunes on the cheap, it's not a bad option. Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 users in particular should give it a look.review-line.JPG

3.5/5

review-line.JPG

review-line.JPGName: Disney Infinity (Starter Pack)

Genre: Adventure

Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, Wii U

Price: £52 from Amazon on Xbox 360
£47 from Amazon on PS3
£47 from Amazon on Wii U

review-line.JPGA DIY digital Disneyland is the order of the day with Disney Infinity, the Mouse House's new Skylanders rival that looks to combine our childhood love of toys, with our obsession with collectibles and video games. A whole new world for gamers? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGHad Mickey Mouse's Sorcerer's Apprentice turn in Disney classic Fantasia seen him magically experimenting on a Skylanders playset and a PlayStation running LittleBigPlanet rather than a couple of old mops, chances are the resulting madness would have spawned something not unlike Disney Infinity.

A massively ambitious title, it aims to marry the addictive collectible nature of Skylanders with the creative, world-building elements of the likes of LBP and Minecraft. It's a goal it pretty much succeeds in pulling off, combining the fun of video games with the tactile joy that only toys can offer.
disney_infinity_360-pack.jpg
Like the toy chests that have inspired it, Disney Infinity is a game that's made of many components, both physical and digital. The Starter Pack reviewed here comes with the video game itself, as well as a trio of toys that, when placed on the included stand, are brought to life in the game. It's a concept proven to be a lucrative one by Activision's Skylanders series: the starter pack includes a figure of Monsters Inc's Sulley, Pirates of the Caribbean's Captain Jack Sparrow, and Mr Incredible from The Incredibles, making those three characters instantly playable in the game. To access other Disney characters and their skills, you'll have to purchase further sold-separately figurines at £12 a pop, as well as cheaper Power Discs that further supplement gameplay with wacky items. Only by eventually grabbing all characters and power discs will gamers have access to all that Disney Infinity has to offer, making for one of the more expensive hobbies this side of a Panini sticker album.

That's not to say there isn't already a host of content available from the Starter Pack alone. Each included character has their own themed "Play Set" to explore, each offering a slightly different sort of gaming challenge. All roughly able to be categorised as third-person adventures, Mr Incredible enters into a kid-friendly GTA-like sandbox city, Jack Sparrow wields a cutlass through an action-orientated platformer, while Sulley explores the Monsters University campus, engaging in some light stealth gameplay. Lighthearted, and lasting roughly 4 or 5 hours each, they're enjoyable enough, though I found them mostly present as a means to an end - finding components for the game's Toy Box mode.
disney_infinity_110.jpg
The Toy Box mode is Infinity's masterstroke, easily the most compelling reason to get involved with the game, and likely what will inspire kids to want to snap up all the associated toys and Power Discs. Populated with items you collect in the Play Sets, the Toy Box mode lets you create your own worlds and games to explore and play in. Whereas the Play Sets are rigid in their goals and only allow for characters associated with each world to be present, the Toy Box is a free for all, allowing you combine settings from one Disney world with characters from another to create all new experiences.

An intuitive building tool lets you easily pull together all these pieces to create a mad variety of game modes. If you want to create a racing track that's being bombarded by pirate ship cannons, or a maze filled with killer robots, all you need to make it a reality is here. Larger pieces like Cinderella's castle can be plonked down with ease, while even more complex switch-and-trap set ups can be set up with just a few button presses. There are moments when things get a little finicky (the lack of an undo button is annoying, while it's a shame that terrain pieces don't always snap into place and align), but it's a toolset that allows you to have created a Disney-themed digital playground in minutes, and that can't be praised highly enough. It's marvellously fun, a great way to inspire kids' creative impulses, and only limited by their imaginations.
disney-infinity-13.jpg
Well, sort of. As mentioned earlier, some components of the Toy Box have to be collected through play in the Play Sets, and others through real-world purchases. Both prove problematic. There are moments when the game meanly hides items behind slot-machine style reward mechanics, keeping some of the more desirable Toy Box items constantly out of reach. Then there are moments when you'll hit a locked off area in a Play Set, only accessible by a sold-separately character, teasing further Toy Box goodies if you would only just buy a few more toys. Though generous in what is initially on offer, you'll constantly be reminded of the fact that you've essentially bought access to only part of what's on offer overall.

Secondly, there's no support for local multiplayer out-of-the-box in the Play Sets with the Starter Pack, as each requires two characters from the same universe to enjoy. While Captain Jack can explore a Toy Box creation with Sulley, he can't explore the Monsters University campus with him - a cynical move to encourage an additional toy purchase for anyone looking to enjoy structured missions with a friend.
disneyinfinity_12.jpg
As for the toys themselves, I was pleasantly surprised with their quality. Though not fully articulated (each being attached to a game-connecting base stand) they're chunky, sturdy figures, on average a bit larger than the Skylanders models. Even without the video game elements we could see collectors being drawn to them, and the unifying, highly-stylised visual design seen in the game itself is mirrored attractively in the physical toys. They'll make a welcome addition to any real-world toy boxes or display shelves alike.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

As a weary uncle of two young nephews, I'm still terrified at what their potential Disney Infinity addiction could mean for my bank account. At heart I'm a completist myself, and I can easily foresee frustrations when not every element of the game is instantly accessible. And yet, after playing with Disney Infinity, and smiling so often at the opportunities it presents, I find the cynic in me melting away. The Starter Pack, though not perfect, is a generous first offering of content. Though it tempts with further purchases, they're not obligatory in order to have a lot of fun. Like a good real-world toy box, they just tease the desire to expand the horizons of your play time, a desire that (with a little invention and imagination) you may be able to sate with what's already tucked away inside.

review-line.JPG

4/5
review-line.JPG

REVIEW: Orbitsound airSOUND Base

No Comments

Orbitsound-sb60-1.JPGreview-line.JPGName: Orbitsound SB60 airSOUND Base

Type: Home cinema speaker system

Specs: Click here for full specs

Price: £299

review-line.JPG
Orbitsound's march into your living room continues with the SB60 airSOUND Base system, a speaker box designed to accompany your flat screen TV. Neither surround sound system nor sound bar, can this intriguing speaker find its niche among home cinema enthusiasts? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGOrbitsound have impressed us over the years with their ever-improving soundbar range, garnering glowing reviews in the Tech Digest test chambers. This latest unit, the Orbitsound SB60 airSOUND Base however is quite a departure for the company. Described as a "one-box TV sound solution", it has an integrated sub and resembles an oversized DVD player in design, intended to be sat beneath a TV screen rather than to the sides as you would have a surround sound system, or in front with a traditional soundbar.
Orbitsound-sb60-4.JPG
Featuring a wooden enclosure finished in gloss black, it's not an unattractive unit, with a detachable front-grille protecting its front-facing speakers that can be swapped out for an included silver front strip, should that suit your tastes better. It is however quite chunky. Measuring 60cm x 30cm x 8cm, the idea is that your flatscreen TV is perched on top of the SB60 airSOUND Base, with the speaker good to hold screens between 32 and 42-inches in size and, dependant on the model and stand design, some as large as 55-inches. Though you could reasonably house the speaker in an AV cabinet, the use of Orbitsound's patented Spatial Stereo directional speaker arrays makes that far from ideal, diminishing the speaker's stereo image if its sides are blocked. As such, those with wall mounted TVs as opposed to those on a stand may find it difficult to satisfyingly place the SB60 airSOUND Base.

The rear of the speaker doesn't have any HDMI In or HDMI Out ports, instead hooking up to your TV over digital optical or phono analogue connections. Alongside a volume dial, the rear also houses a power switch and a 3.5mm input for connecting an MP3 player or smartphone.
Orbitsound-sb60-6.JPG
The SB60 airSOUND Base comes complete with both analogue and optical cables for hooking up your TV and a small, black-gloss remote control. The remote is the same as can be found with recent Orbitsound speaker systems, including the M9, offering standby control, a source swapping button, volume controls and buttons to fine-tune treble and bass levels. It also features an "iMenu" button, a remnant of previous Orbitsound gear's iPhone docking remote controls, and a presentational slip considering it's unsupported with this latest model. Seeing as it's the same remote as last time, it unsurprisingly has the same pros and cons - good weight and size, let down by flimsy-feeling buttons.
Orbitsound-sb60-7.JPG
Fire up the SB60 airSOUND Base, and it quickly becomes clear why it is the size it is - raised slightly on rubber feet, the enclosure houses a sizeable 5-inch down-firing subwoofer that offers bass considerably more booming than what a weedy flatscreen TV is capable of. It's partnered with two 2-inch front speakers and two 2-inch side-firing speakers, independently sealed on the left and right of the box, together offering a room-filling 200W output.

It sounds great. The Spatial Stereo technology still works wonders and delivers stereo sound without a sweetspot to pretty much any space in a room. It comes into its own in fast moving action scenes, where you get a real sense of movement from the speaker, far more so than you'd ever get from a lone TV speaker array (if not quite as enveloping as a true surround system). There's warmth to the sound too, with the bass giving some decent bottom end to proceedings without ever overpowering the detail-delivering higher audio ranges.
Orbitsound-sb60-2.JPG
And yet, the SB60 airSOUND Base's subwoofer didn't quite live up to what we'd hoped for, given the punch of the dedicated sub seen featured with the Orbitsound M9. While it was well suited to music (the Love Forever Changes concert DVD sounded sublime through the SB60), it couldn't deliver the rumble we like to see accompany our blockbusters. The bass-heavy crash sequence of sci-fi flick Prometheus for instance didn't have the intensity we've grown accustomed to, and the same could be said of a run through of some bombastic Call of Duty Black Ops 2 missions. It's by no means bad - in fact, in many scenarios it's rather pleasant and detailed. However, if you're lining up a Michael Bay marathon, your explosive taste may be better served elsewhere, be that with a standard surround sound system, or even some of the beefier soundbars.

review-line.JPGVerdict

An unusual sound system then, the Orbitsound SB60 airSOUND Base is a viable alternative to a standard soundbar unit, offering neither dramatically better nor worse sound than rival accomplished home cinema speaker systems offer. It really then comes down to its size, and whether or not that suits your AV set up comfortably. Given that the size-defining subwoofer isn't the boldest we've heard, it's likely that a soundbar less physically deep than the SB60 airSOUND Base will be a better fit for most.

review-line.JPG

4/5
review-line.JPG


img_zoom_product_4.jpgreview-line.JPGName: Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Type: Android smartphone (Jellybean 4.2.2) with 10 x optical zoom lens

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £399 (without contract)

review-line.JPG
 A jack of all trades smart phone with a built in compact camera complete with optical zoom lens, the Samsung S4 Zoom is unique alright. But can it be possibly be the master of two very different disciplines. Read on to find out...

review-line.JPG
Is it a camera, is it a phone? I still don't know

Having been a loyal iPhone fan for many years, I must admit it has been difficult to consider being unfaithful. After all she was so beautiful when I first met her and all my friends seemed to love her. But just recently she seems to have let herself go a bit and then all these attractive new models keep turning my head. 

And although I haven't been tempted by the big Phablet beasts I must admit having secretly lusted after this design for a few weeks - lured by newspaper ads and the thought of having a decent enough smart phone with a camera that is, on paper at least, better than anything else on the market.

That was until I held the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom in my hand for the first time and began to wonder what the hell I'd done. Don't get me wrong, it's a brave concept and for that it must be applauded. It's just I'm still not sure I made the right choice to leave the iPhone. Here's the deal; on one side the S4 Zoom is really just a Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini, while flip it over and basically it's a compact camera with a decent-ish 10x optical zoom. 

Get it out in a meeting lens side up as I did the other day and people will automatically assume you are taking their picture and start grinning. Put it in your pocket and people really will think you are pleased to see them, especially with the zoom lens out! Even with the zoom lens in it's a pretty bulky beast. Samsung claims it is just 125mm thick, but that doesn't include the metal housing for the lens or the grip handle which adds another 100mm or so. Nor is it light either. Tipping the scales at 208g, it's even heavier than the Nokia Lumia 920. Certainly I found it quite heavy in the hand when out running with it using the Nike Running app.

img_zoom_product_7.jpg

Thanks for the memory - not

Yet despite its bulkiness I am enjoying using the Galaxy S4 Zoom. Screen resolution isn't the highest at 256 pixels per inch (compared to the iPhone's 326ppi and the HTC 1's 469ppi) but I certainly haven't had any issues reading text or even looking at pictures. Perhaps the screen has a little more contrast than I am used to, but this is a problem I find with all Samsung devices which seem a little 'zingy' to me. 

One thing's for sure, Android is very different to the Apple iOS and this has taken a lot of getting used to. Whereas Apple tends to offer limited functionality and keep you locked into their eco-system, with Android (this is running Jellybean 4.2.2) there are options for just about everything which means endlessly sifting through menus to get things how you want. 

One big criticism I would have though is the lack of storage on the device. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom has just 8GB on board which is a bit crazy, given this is a phone aimed at photo and video enthusiasts. By the time I'd added my music, image and small video library I'd filled up the memory entirely. This was before adding any apps from the Google Play store. This meant a trip out to Maplin to invest in a 64Gb Micro SD storage card (an extra £60 on top of what's already a £400 phone). Processing speed isn't the fastest either meaning internet pages don't always load up quickly even on a decent speed wi-fi connection (to be honest that's true of the iPhone too). Rather than a quad core processor favoured by many of the latest smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom comes with a dual core processor running at 1.5GHz. So it does feel a little slower than I was expecting.

img_zoom_product_8.jpg

Say cheese!

Curiously for a device that's supposed to be half phone, half camera, actually switching the camera on is quite difficult. Unlike a compact camera where you just have to press a button to take a picture, with the Galaxy Zoom you either have to boot up the phone or - if it's already on - press the camera icon or hold the shutter button down for several seconds. Whichever way you do it, it takes well over five seconds to even get the lens open and ready to take the picture (not great for photographers taking spontaneous shots). That said, the camera isn't half bad at all once it's ready. Obviously this is the only camera phone on the market with optical zoom lens so it's difficult to make direct comparisons. Perhaps the nearest model on the market is the 41 Megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 and although the Nokia offers much higher resolution on paper, the reality is that it's still better to have a proper zoom lens than having to artificially crop from a larger image. 

In the couple of weeks since getting the phone I've spent a lot of time taking pictures with it and have been happy with the results. One criticism I would have is that it does feel a little slippy in the hands, not helped by the glossy white finish. Taking pictures of The Thames I was terrified that I was going to drop the device in the River - hence I've already ordered a silicone case to give me a bit more grip. 

Various photographic modes are provided including Night mode (good for taking pictures in low light conditions where flash isn't appropriate - ie. gigs), Macro (for close ups, see flowers below) and even a Beauty Mode where you can enlarge people's eyes and make them look a bit thinner - a bit gimmicky that one I thought. 

For budding professionals there are also several manual modes, including aperture control (to control the amount of light coming to the lens) and shutter speed to give more control especially when shooting fast moving objects.

In addition to the 16MP CMOS Sensor there's also a 1.9MP front facing camera. Focal length starts at a very wide angle 24mm and goes up to an impressive 240mm. Either you can zoom using the plus and minus buttons on the touch screen or you can use the sturdy zoom ring on the front to zoom in up to 10x. The Zoom ring can also be used to show detail in images you have taken on the 4.3inch display and is handy for getting close ups when shooting video too. All in all the camera works quite well once you have managed to switch it on!

2013-08-22 15.17.47.jpg

The globe theatre taken from the North bank of The Thames - click on picture for full sized image. 

Thumbnail image for 2013-08-20 15.24.53.jpg

A flower bed outside City of London School for Boys, taken using the camera phone's Macro mode. Click on picture for full sized image.


2013-08-20 15.17.01.jpg

A view of St Paul's taken from close to the Millennium Bridge. Click on picture for full sized image.

2013-08-23 21.46.17.jpg

Suede on stage at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London. This was taken with Night Mode using the zoom lens. Click on picture for full sized image. 

review-line.JPG


Verdict:

You know what they say about Jack of all Trades. Well never has this been more true of a device than than the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom. You have to applaud the manufacturer for continuing to innovate. If nothing else it gives journalists something to get their teeth stuck into. It's just this particular model doesn't quite work. As a camera phone it's not bad, but there are better. As a camera it's much better in terms of quality than any other smart phone I've ever used. But there are limitations - most notably that it adds considerable bulk/weight to the phone and the camera takes much longer to switch on than a standard compact camera

review-line.JPG
3/5

REVIEW: Tales of Xillia (PS3)

review-line.JPGName: Tales of Xillia

Genre: JRPG

Platform: PlayStation 3

Price: £46.92 from Amazon

review-line.JPG
The PlayStation 3 bags another top-notch JRPG in its twilight years with Tales Of Xillia, a deep and rewarding adventure with a keen visual eye and kinetic combat system. But does its story do enough to keep you hooked for the entirety of its lengthy tale? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGThe reported death of the JRPG has been greatly exaggerated, with this year alone seeing the release of the fantastic Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and Fire Emblem Awakening, two games likely to feature heavily in annual "Best of" lists come the end of the year. While Tales of Xillia doesn't quite hit the heights of either of those games, it remains a strong entry in the long-running "Tales of" series, and a worthy play for fans of the genre.

Though typically dense, Tales of Xillia's story is an intriguing one. A potentially devastating weapon called the Lance Kresnik has put the unsteady political factions of the world of Rieze Maxia on the precipice of an apocalyptic conflict. It's against this backdrop that the game's two leads are introduced, a young doctor named Jude Mathis and a mysterious, supernaturally powerful girl named Milla Maxwell. As you'd expect, it'll be up to these two unlikely companions and a gang of their pals to prevent the world's irrevocable demise.
xillia-1.jpg
Things can get a bit heavy, and the political intrigue convoluted, but Tales of Xillia's story plays out at a breakneck speed, twisting and turning regularly, throwing the leads into one desperate situation followed by another. Even when it drops the ball (often a case of this particular reviewer losing track of a shift in allegiance or other such story detail), you're never far away from another jaw dropping location or revelation.

From the outset, you're given the choice of playing through the game from primarily Jude or Milla's perspective, a choice that leads to a subtly different experience dependant on which you opt for, and adding to the game's replay value.

With no traditional world map to explore, the game initially feels a little linear, guiding you from area to area, pushing the story along all the while. However, the game's quick travel system lets you jump from location to location quickly, and actually proves to be a surprisingly enjoyable way to navigate the world. Rather than wondering over a bland overworld, Xillia focusses on its well-populated towns and dungeons, and gives worthy reasons to revisit each by offering fresh rewards and challenges for returned visits.
xillia-2.jpg
That's helped along by the game's dynamic combat system. Eschewing the dated turn-based systems that have dragged the genre down in recent times, Tales of Xillia's battles are fast-paced and frenetic. Though affected by stats and available skills, battles at times feel more like a brawler than an RPG, with players hurtling around the 3D battle fields, delivering fatal melee blows and ranged attacks all the while. Party members are AI controlled (though you can program their tactics to fill a specific role on the battlefield), and teaming up with them at key moments in battles allows you to pull off ridiculous joint combination attacks. Enemies are a well thought out challenge too, preventing players from spamming attack buttons blindly and requiring a proper battle plan to fell each time.

The combat system is well supported by the game's smart character and equipment progression systems. Rather than using a straight levelling upgrade path, Tales of Xillia offers up points to spend on the Lilium Orb system, a giant grid from which to select powers and specialisations for each character. It's similar in practice to Final Fantasy XII's License Board, but far more flexible - you can mould each character more or less to your liking, allowing you to fine tune a fully-magical party if that suits your play style best.

Weapons and gear are handled equally refreshingly. Rather than relying upon merchants and shops to dig out the best stuff, you've got sacrifice some of the loot and gear you've already acquired to unlock the next tier of ace equipment. It takes away some of the need for backtracking that some JRPGs suffer from heavily (though the nifty quick travel system and speedy loading times help in this respect too) while adding an addictive collection system into the mix too.

Visually, Tales of Xillia has fantastic art direction. The anime-stylings of characters and locations chime in well with the plotline, and some fantastical locations bring life to some of the more cumbersome areas of the story. Much of the game's story is told in-engine, and the odd time that it does fall into an animated cutscene sees the art teams transition near-seamlessly.
xillia-3.png
However, it's technically inconsistent. Busier towns suffer from notable pop-in, while character models lack the detail and finesse of recent JRPGs, like the stunning Ni No Kuni. The "Tales of" series has never had groundbreaking visuals, but the two year delay between Xillia's European release and Japanese debut paints the game as unfairly aged in the graphics department.

It's a similar situation with the game's audio. A superb soundtrack complements the action throughout, resonating well with Xillia's emotional highs and lows, and with a number of tunes that will stick in your head long after the final credits roll. For the most part the voice acting is great too, with Jude and the supporting core party cast being charming and believable. Their efforts are let down though by Milla's voice acting, which is all over the place, and often feeling tonally removed from the rest of the cast. Considering she's a major player in the story, and carries a large portion of the plot along, it's frustratingly shoddy.

Pressed for time, I raced through the main campaign in around 40 hours, but you could easily add another 10 or 15 hours on top of that, maybe more, if you were to see every side-quest through to completion and hunt out the greatest loot. Keep in mind that there are two slightly different perspectives from which to experience the story, and you could theoretically double that, and have a superficially fresh adventure. Paced very well, that's an undertaking we'd be more than happy to go for.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Tales of Xillia has moments of brilliance, particularly in its combat system, that make it one of the most enjoyable JRPGs of recent times. It has some presentational flaws, and its protracted release hasn't done it any favours, but they're easy to gloss over once you lose yourself in its systems and sumptuous world.review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

REVIEW: Gigabyte P2742-G gaming laptop

No Comments

Gigabyte-p2742g-review-01.JPGreview-line.JPGName: Gigabyte P2742-G

Type: Gaming laptop

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £945

review-line.JPG
An affordable gaming laptop that promises "unprecedented performance", can Gigabyte's P2742-G punch above its weight when it comes to running the top PC games? Read our full review to find out.

review-line.JPGPerformance and specs

When it comes to gaming laptops, you don't get much for £1,000, but Gigabyte's P2742-G does well to offer a well-rounded spec sheet for just under the £950 mark.

A 17-inch machine, under the hood you'll find an Intel i7-3630QM processor, clocked at 2.4GHz (3.4GHz for Turbo Boost), 8GB Ram and two storage drives - a speedy Liteon 128GB mSATA SSD and standard 5400RPM Toshiba 1TB HDD. It's a solid base upon which to build a gaming laptop, but the budget nature of the machine rears its head with Gigabyte's GPU choice.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-11.JPG
The P2742-G is equipped with a Nvidia GTX660M 2GB dedicated graphics chip, a generation off the pace from the latest GTX700M-series laptop GPUs, and decidedly mid-range even when released last year. While still capable of playing top games at low to medium settings fluidly, it'll struggle with more graphically advanced titles, as our benchmark and frame-rate tests will show in a bit. For the price, it's still a decent set-up, but Gigabyte's insistence on positioning this as a top-tier gaming machine is at best misguided, and at worst misleading.

And while we applaud the use of dual SSD and HDD storage devices, it's poorly implemented here. Waiting around 40-50 seconds for the machine to hit the Windows 8 Start screen, it doesn't take advantage of the instant-booting capabilities that an SSD should deliver.

Benchmarks

Seeing as Gigabyte claim the P2742-G is capable of "unprecedented performance", we ran a series of tests to see just how capable the P2742-G was when under a heavy load, as well as under slightly less stressful conditions that seem better suited to its mid-range discrete GPU. Running Windows 8, we used the built-in benchmarking demos of both Batman: Arkham City and Metro 2033, as well as the 3D Mark 11 benchmarking app.


Batman: Arkham City - 16fps average  - 1080p extreme (DX11), all settings maxed out
Batman: Arkham City - 33fps average - 1600 x 900, FXAA high, DX11 off 

Metro 2033 - 9fps average - 1080p extreme (DX11) , all settings maxed out
Metro 2033 - 20fps average - 1600 x 900, DX 9, AF 4X, very high settings

3D Mark 11 - 2670 3D Marks


As the above results show, the P2742-G struggles when faced with the most advanced DirectX 11 effects at high resolutions that top-tier games offer, barely able to hit double-digit frame rates with Batman: Arkham City and near-crippled by the demanding Metro 2033. Admittedly, few laptops do achieve stellar results when faced with such challenging software, but even dialling back the graphical settings and the resolution here to something more suited to its capabilities sees the machine struggle.

When in practice, playing the above titles at 720p resolutions and tweaking the settings to boost performance did see the machine hit comfortable frame rates, resulting in an enjoyable play session that would have bettered the above games' console counterparts in terms of looks. But overall you're looking at a decidedly mid-range laptop when stood next to the competition.

Design and build quality
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-10.JPG
Gigabyte have kept the design of the P2742-G relatively simple, and it makes for a good looking, if a little chunky, laptop. Available with both a matte black lid and orange lid (we tested, and prefer, the black), for the most part it's a well constructed, well connected machine.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-08.JPG
Measuring roughly 412mm wide x 275mm deep and 45mm thick, and weighing in at 3.2kg, it's a sizeable machine, but nothing extraordinary within the usually-oversized gaming laptop market. Angular and with rear-mounted fans that keep the laptop from getting too hot without churning up too loudly, the black edition we tested would be right at home in Batman's Bat Cave.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-07.JPG
In terms of ports, it's well equipped, with 4 USB ports (1x 2.0, 3x 3.0, with one a combined eSATA port), HDMI out, a mutli-card reader, an Ethernet socket, headphone connections and an S/PDIF out jack. On the rear can be found the power port and a VGA external monitor port. A Blu-ray disc drive is also included.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-02.JPG
Considering it's using a TN panel rather than an IPS one, the non-touch display is also pleasing to view. Large at 17.3 inches, it runs at a full 1920 x 1080 HD resolution, and has accurate colours along with good brightness levels. Employing a semi-matte screen finish, the viewing angle can be a little tight, but that's a fair trade to make for the ability to continue gaming in harsh lighting. A sturdy hinge looks as though it'll support the heavy screen without too much strain for many years to come too.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-04.JPG
Though the keyboard lacks backlighting, the keys themselves too have just the right amount of sponginess to get some real typing done on them too, should the laptop be required for work as well as gaming purposes. Featuring a full numberpad, there's a number of handy shortcut and function keys, including control over VGA output, a sound muting button and Wi-Fi switch.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-05.JPG
However, the less said about the mouse pad and mouse buttons the better. Too small to be useful, the textured pad isn't responsive, and has a tendency to trigger unwanted gesture shortcuts almost at random. The buttons too are equally unresponsive, and feel terrible cheap. They flex and rattle within their housing when touched, and only trigger a press when pushed on their far extremes. Keep a proper mouse plugged in at all times.

The speaker quality is also very underwhelming. Considering the heft of the machine, there's room for a little more audio wizardry to be squeezed in, but gaming sounds were tinny and lacking in warmth or bass. Don't expect to be immersed unless you have a pair of headphones handy.
Gigabyte-p2742g-review-03.JPG
Battery performance

Gaming laptops aren't renowned for their battery performance, and while the Gigabyte P2742-G does little to buck this trend, it at least falls achieves parity with its rivals in this regard. We managed to squeeze 1 hour and 15 minutes from the laptop when playing Batman: Arkham City on a fully charged battery. Considering some gaming laptops struggle to go over 45 minutes, that's not half bad, but you still won't want to leave the house without the charging power pack.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Though billed as a high-performance gaming rig, the Gigabyte P2742-G never really manages to rise above the sort of experience you'd expect from an affordable gaming laptop. While the screen is a high point, middling in-game frame rates and a truly shoddy mousepad let the machine down considerably. Lacking in both portability and performance, you'd do better to save a few extra quid for a premium gaming laptop, or save yourself a bit of cash and enjoy the superior gaming performance that a desktop build would bring. Laying final judgement on the P2742-G is difficult - priced affordably, Gigabyte's marketing of the machine is like seeing a featherweight boxer put into a heavyweight title fight. It's a solid mid-range machine, nothing more and nothing less, and is worth a look if you insist on investing in a cut-price gaming laptop.review-line.JPG

3/5

review-line.JPG

review-line.JPGName: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Genre: Adventure / Puzzle

Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade)

Price: 1200 MS Points

review-line.JPGThis year's Xbox Live Summer of Arcade kicks off in style, with the wonderful Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, warming Tech Digest's cockles. Read our full review to find out just why we think it's so special.

review-line.JPGThe Xbox's Fable and the PS3's indie smash Journey don't seem the most obvious of bedfellows, but they're the two games that jump to the forefront of my mind when trying to draw comparisons to the marvellous Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. An excellent example of the unique strengths of narrative in game design, wrapped up in a sumptuous fantasy world, Brothers is a short but sweet game that I expect will be universally enjoyed.

As the title suggests, the game follows the adventures of a pair of brothers. After watching them lose their mother in an opening scene, we then jump forward to watching the duo care for their sickly father. In true fairytale style, it quickly transpires that his life depends on the pair recovering the only special item that can restore his health, which will require a perilous journey across a magical kingdom to acquire.
Brothers
The pair will have to work together, co-operate. But this is a "co-op" title with a twist. Rather than control one of the two brothers, you control both the younger and older sibling simultaneously. Each is assigned one analogue stick and one trigger with which to interact with the world, and you must learn to make both work in tandem for the pair to be successful on their quest.

It's an ingenious, though initially admittedly frustrating control scheme. It's like trying to play the old playground game of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, an oddly disorientating experience, and one that's exacerbated should either of the brothers cross paths to find themselves moving on the opposite side of their controller designations. However, this gameplay mechanic soon finds itself falling into a simple rhythm as your brain comes to terms with controlling the two, and one that subtly reinforces the bond between the two and you, the player - there are no passengers in this tale, each has a role to play and you are responsible for both.
screenlg16.jpg
Indeed, the tale itself is the most important element here, and "true gaming" moments are really only here to propel the brothers towards further interactions with the world. As such, puzzles (and the game's difficulty overall) are a little on the easy side; most consist of ensuring the pair work in tandem to cross obstacles, with one brother boosting another to a ledge, or holding a lever to allow safe passage through a trap for the other. A few standout moments, such as guiding a hang-glider down a canyon requiring both siblings to shift their weight equally and evenly, show the dual-control scheme working at its best.

With the challenge kept to a minimum then, it's the world on show and the way that the brothers individually interact with it that makes the game really come to life. Overseen by Swedish film director Josef Fares, the game thrusts the siblings from one gorgeous location to another, from a quaint Nordic village to an icy tundra, a cliff-top prison to an ancient battleground strewn with the bodies of giant warriors. Full of life and a sense of history, it's a well-realised world I'd love to see more of.
screenlg6.jpg
These locations are not merely eye-candy, but filled with unique secrets and character interactions to bear witness to. With the game's characters speaking a nonsensical language and no subtitles to guide meaning, all story-telling here is visual, and having the brothers individually interact with objects and NPCs in the game helps tie the edges of the story together. Both brothers have distinct personalities; the younger proves himself to be a musical whizz when prompted to play a harp, while the older is tone deaf. The younger has a more carefree attitude to the world, while the older is serious, preferring to act quickly and work diligently when presented with a problem.

Fairly linear, the game is richly populated with things to do, and those who rush through the main thrust of the quest will miss out on some truly touching moments. An entirely optional side-moment (I use "side-moment" here as opposed to side-quest as it's a short but poignant event, the likes of which are littered liberally throughout the game) that sees the pair prevent a man from committing suicide is one of the most affecting I've taken part in in recent times.
screenlg15.jpg
Like Journey before it, Brothers benefits from being experienced somewhat blindly. There's so much I wish to share with you, but withhold for fear of spoiling your own intimate reactions to the events that transpire in the game. Rest assured, Brothers is a game that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Though the game is short at around three hours long, the brothers' struggle will see you care deeply for the two. And while the game isn't particularly difficult, it's full of some of the most emotionally resonant and memorable scenes I've seen all year. A magical experience as rich as the greatest of Grimm's fairytales, expect this to be a dark horse contender when the best-of lists start popping up towards the end of the year.

review-line.JPG

4.5/5
review-line.JPG

Ultimate-Ears-Boom-1.JPGreview-line.JPGName: Ultimate Ears Boom

Type: Wireless NFC-enabled Bluetooth speaker

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £169.99

review-line.JPG
An attractive and deafeningly loud Bluetooth speaker with waterproof credentials, the Ultimate Ears Boom is a neat speaker. But can it justify its high cost? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGLike the Creative Airwaves HD Bluetooth speaker that we reviewed a little while back, the Ultimate Ears Boom shies away from the standard boxy shape that most Bluetooth speaker manufacturers opt for. It's one of the more adventurous portable speaker designs we've seen in recent times, and is a real looker as a result: available in a range of colours (we tried out a sky blue edition) the Boom is cylindrical in shape, designed to stand upright rather than lay on its side.

A colourful mesh grille wraps around the speaker, met in the middle by a thick white rubberised strip that houses chunky volume buttons. Rubber is also used on the top of the Boom, where you'll find the power button and Bluetooth indicator, and on the bottom, where you'll find the microUSB charging port and a 3.5mm aux input for hooking up a device that isn't Bluetooth compatible. There's also the strange addition of a screw point on the bottom, for hooking the Boom up to a tripod. Who exactly would find this useful we have no idea, and it's the one unnecessary blemish on an otherwise lovely design.
Ultimate-Ears-Boom-2.JPG
Shaped and weighing roughly the same as a bottle of water, the Boom feels sturdy and rugged in the hand - it's rubberised sections suggest it could withstand a drop or two without too much damage being caused. The Boom also features some waterproofing, with the wrap-around speaker grille and rubber casing protecting its innards from the elements. While the charging port and aux input are worryingly exposed on our review model, Ultimate Ears have since stated that the Boom will ship with an additional rubber cover cap to keep those exposed ports protected when out in the rain too.

Connecting the speaker to your Bluetooth device is simple. You can manually connect the speaker to your handset by long-pressing the Bluetooth button on the Boom's top and then selecting it through your handset or, if your handset supports it, enabling NFC connectivity and then swiping the handset across the surface of the Boom to pair the two. Older devices, of course, can hook up with a 3.5mm jack cable into the auxiliary port.

Ultimate Ears claim the Boom's internal rechargeable battery will last as long as 15 hours from a single charge, but that's a best-case scenario when you're using the Boom at lower volume levels. A more realistic expectation is to squeeze between eight or nine hours out of the Boom at higher volume levels, which in itself is perfectly acceptable battery performance, putting it up there with the best in this size bracket.
Ultimate-Ears-Boom-3.JPG
Once you're connected and playing tunes, the Boom goes loud. Really loud. Considering its size, you could get complaints from your neighbours if you start blasting this out at full volume, meaning the Boom will have no problem providing the tunes in an outdoor party. It has a tendency to distort considerably near the top end of its volume threshold, but the occasions where you'll comfortably pushing the Boom that hard are so few as to be a negligible point. Rest assured, if you need volume, the Boom can provide it.

As for the claims of "360-degree sound" touted on the box, that's more arguable. The Boom uses a pair of 1.5-inch drivers on either side of the speaker (paired with 2-inch passive radiators to boost bass frequencies) rather than any truly 360-degree solution, resulting in a mono output signal. This set up does the job though, and you'll be hard pressed to find a point around the speakers circumference from which the speaker's output sounds notably inferior.
Ultimate-Ears-Boom-4.JPG
In terms of sound quality, it's not an audiophile response range across the spectrum, but the speaker still performs admirably. Bass response is solid and, so long as you're not going to ridiculous volume levels, it's a balanced sound that is clear and enjoyable across trebles, mids and lower frequencies. You could argue that it lacks a bit of sparkle at the higher frequencies (and for a penny-shy of £170 it'd be reasonable to expect a really crisp sound), but as far as Bluetooth speakers go, the Boom more than holds its own sonically.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Though we'd hope for a little more depth to the sound os a speaker costing £170, as a whole package, the Ultimate Ears Boom is a wonderful speaker. It's got an eye-catching, portable and rugged design, simple NFC pairing options and a solid battery performance, with sound quality at least a match for its rivals (if a little lacking for the price). If you're planning a wet and wild outdoor party, the Ultimate Ears Boom will feel right at home in the heart of it.review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

REVIEW: Finis Neptune SwiMP3 player

No Comments

Finis Neptune MP3 player.jpgType: Underwater MP3 player

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £119.99

review-line.JPG
This latest generation underwater MP3 player is Finis' first to feature a separate component housing the electronics. Will having to strap this to your goggles in addition to the two ear-pieces make it much more difficult to use? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPG

Design

I must admit when I first saw the design of this MP3 player my heart sank. As a keen swimmer who likes to listen to music while ploughing up and down the lane of my local pool, I've always favoured Finis' products. Of course there are other products on the market that do the job (ie Speedo's range of Aquabeat MP3 players), but of the great things about the Finis range is that there are only two parts to the product - effectively two ear-pieces, one of which houses the electronics to switch between the tracks and turn the volume up and down. That is, until now.

With the latest incarnation, the Finis Neptune, the US company has effectively taken the electronics out of one of the ear-pieces and put it inside a third component which straps to the back of the goggles (similar in principle to the Speedo Aquabeat). Obviously this creates a bit more drag through the water (not something I'm worried too much about) but more importantly it does make it more fiddly to put on before you swim. When you are desperate to get a lane to yourself before some head up breaststroker spoils your training session those few minutes can make all the difference!

Increased storage capacity

Clearly the main reason for this change of strategy is the Finis Neptune's increased storage capacity. From memory my first blue/white Finis SwiMP3 player had only 512MB of music storage which meant it really couldn't hold that many songs. The yellow/black version before this one (see picture below) was much better with 2GB storage, but I found after continued use for over a year it could no longer hold its charge in the water for more than a few minutes.

By comparison, the Finis Neptune boasts 4GB storage (enough for 1000 songs) and can, so the specs claim, go for 8 hours without needing to be recharged. That's long enough to get at least half way across the channel if you are feeling really ambitious. Another key difference is that previous players plugged straight into your PC or USB wall charger (not provided). This one has a separate USB lead, presumably to prevent corrosion of the USB points which can stop the device charging at all after a period of time, especially in heavily chlorinated pools.

Finis 2gb and 4gb (smaller).jpg

Drag and drop

As you would expect from any MP3 player, loading the device up with songs is simplicity itself. Just connect the USB adaptor lead to your PC or Mac (OS9 or higher) and drag them across into the Finis folder. The Neptune is compatible with non protected MP3s and WMA files but if you have AAC files from iTunes then you will need to convert them in iTunes first. Protected MP3/AAC and WMA files can't be played.

One key benefit of the Finis Neptune is that, unlike previous models, it comes with a digital display built into the main unit. At first I thought what's the point of this given that the component is going to sit on the back of your head throughout your swim. But actually it's pretty useful to check battery levels (I've been caught out several times with the MP3 player dying during my swim) and also to choose what music you listen to before setting off. In order to save battery power, the display automatically switches off after about 20 seconds.


Ease of use

At the beginning of this review I made a big deal about how important ease of use is with these devices and how you need to be able to strap them on quickly and simply while in the water. And that the key advantage of previous Finis SwiMP3 models compared to rivals like the Speedo Aquabeat is that you don't have to attach a separate piece of electronics to the back of your head.

neptune-component.jpgWell, I still think that's true. But I must admit I got used to attaching the Finis Neptune to my goggles much quicker than I thought. Importantly, unlike the Speedo Aquabeat which threads through the goggles strap like a belt through a belt loop (believe me, not easy when it's on the back of your head) the Finis Neptune simply clips down onto the back of your goggles like a peg hanging the washing out on the line.

Similarly, the ear-pieces which are a bit smaller than those on previous models (presumably because they don't house the electronics) clip up onto the goggles using a much sturdier and springier grip than earlier units. Why the ear-pieces clip up onto the goggles strap and the MP3 component clips down at the back of the head I'm not quite sure. In addition to the digital display on the main unit there's also a play/pause button on one of the ear-pieces, in case you want to pause briefly to speak to another swimmer or lifeguard. You could do this on previous models too, but it's a much bigger button and therefore much easier to activate in the water.

Bone conduction technology

bone_conduction_text.jpgGenerally listening to music under water can be a quite underwhelming experience. Conventional earphones are difficult to put in your ear in the first place and tend to slip and slide all over the place as you are swimming, thereby impairing sound quality.

The great thing about the Finis ear pieces is that they are not only much sturdier than standard ear buds they also work much more effectively by conducting sound through your bones to your inner ear. This means that although they don't sound great on land, underwater they really come into their own. And although Finis has been using this technology for some time I really do think these are the best I have tested in terms of overall sound performance - in fact much the same as listening to music from an iPod or iPhone.


KEY SPECS

Bone Conduction Audio Transmission
Clear sound in the water without the use of ear buds

Plays all popular audio formats including AAC, MP3,WMA
Compatible with iTunes®, listen to music, audio books, podcasts and more

4GB of Storage
Stores approximately 1000 songs or 60 hours of playback

High Contrast OLED screen
Easily scroll through artist and songs, and view playback features

Hydrodynamic Clips
Spring clips slip on securely to goggle straps and rest on cheekbones for secure placement

Rechargeable Lithium-Ion Battery
Lasts over 8 hours per charge

Waterproof to 3 meters (10ft)
Sound is clearest when submerged in water

Gold Plated Connection Pins
Allows for quick song upload and charging while preventing corrosion in the water

Finis Neptune Underwater 1.jpg

review-line.JPG

Verdict:

Though I was initially sceptical about the design of the Finis Neptune because I thought it would compromise ease of use too much, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I think having firm clips you can grip onto your goggles helps enormously and the digital display is surprisingly useful in helping you to choose what to listen to before setting off on your swim and monitoring battery level. Certainly after the first couple of swims I had learned to put the Neptune on in around a minute which isn't bad going considering there are three components to attach to your goggles. Another major benefit is that sound quality is easily the best I've heard underwater. Let's just hope this model doesn't suffer the corrosion that has limited the lifespan of previous models.

4/5

review-line.JPG
Enhanced by Zemanta

DSCF3828.JPGThe BT HomeHub 4 is BT's latest home broadband router, a significant redesign of the workhorse that was the HomeHub 3, adding a new slim design to the series and bringing dual-band connectivity to the table. And though BT have rained on the HomeHub 4's parade a tad by following up its release almost immediately with the announcement of the HomeHub 5, this is still an impressive evolution of the company's router line. We've been using the router for a few days now. Read on for Tech Digest's first impressions.

The HomeHub 4, though longer than the HomeHub 3, actually proves easier to house thanks to its slimmer profile. It's as flat as its innards will allow, whereas the HomeHub 3 featured a more curvaceous design. In practical terms, it means the HomeHub 4 can fit through a letterbox, meaning new owners won't have to be indoors when the postman arrives to deliver it.

Gone too is the HomeHub 3's glossy finish. A matte textured front plate takes its place, with a little silver strip adding some flair along the bottom. Also improved is the placement of the Wireless WPS and Restart buttons. They now sit along the top edge, clear to see and easier to reach than the near-hidden buttons on the HomeHub 3. As the thinner profile of the HomeHub 4 means the device is no longer free standing, two fold out feet are attached to the bottom, letting the router stand upright.
DSCF3827.JPG
Flip the router over and you'll find the Broadband DSL port for connecting a DSL modem, alongside three standard Ethernet ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, WAN port, USB port for adding a networked drive, adapter power port and a the on/off button. All in, it's a tidy, unobtrusive design.

New subscribers to BT Broadband or BT Infinity will get the router as standard, though BT are also offering the HomeHub 4 as a £35 upgrade for existing customers. So what's here to tempt owners of the HomeHub 3 to part with their cash?
DSCF3824.JPG
Under the hood, the HomeHub 4 is sporting notably improved connectivity options. Dual-band Wi-Fi is the headline feature, offering both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands for your wireless devices to connect to. Though it'd be remiss to call the HomeHub 3 unreliable, dual-band Wi-Fi greatly improves the stability of Wi-Fi connections, especially when many Wi-Fi devices are connected at once, by effectively splitting your network in two, pushing some devices onto one band and the rest onto the other. Keeping devices nearby the router on the stronger 5GHz signal and devices further away on the 2.4GHz band (which offers better range), the router is able to channel hop for devices, giving them the best possible connections dependant on where they are and reducing the chances of interference.
DSCF3829.JPG
Under casual testing, the HomeHub 4 indeed seems to offer improved performance over the outgoing HomeHub 3. Connecting a Retina MacBook Pro over Wi-Fi on the HomeHub 4 (which sometimes suffered from slow Wi-Fi speeds when a distance away from the router, even with a fibre Infinity connection) and using the 5GHz band, there was a significant speed boost. Also, an iPad which sometimes suffered from Wi-Fi dropout when in use in bed kept a consistent connection with the new router.

It is, admittedly, not a huge difference over the HomeHub 3, which we had few issues with to being with. But Wi-Fi stability can differ greatly across properties, so it's worth considering if your HomeHub 3 is struggling to deliver a signal around your home.

A great upgrade for newcomers to BT's service then, but current HomeHub 3 owners may want to wait for the HomeHub 5 - offering 802.11ac and combining the router and modem in one box, it's set to offer greater speeds in (when you take the current standalone modem into account) a far more compact package.

archos-80-titanium-1.JPGreview-line.JPGName: Archos 80 Titanium

Type: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean tablet

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £149.99

review-line.JPG
Borrowing from the best when it comes to design, the Archos 80 Titanium is a dead-ringer for a shrunken iPad 4. Looking to take on the iPad Mini and next-gen Nexus 7, can this Android slate's performance match its good looks? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPG

Design
When it comes to looks, the Android tablet market for the most art just can't compare to the craftsmanship that goes into each and every iPad tablet Apple puts out. While it would be disingenuous to call the Archos 80 Titanium's build an inventive design, by ripping off the iPad it's nonetheless resulted in one of the most attractive Android tablets on the market.
archos-80-titanium-3.JPG
An 8-inch screen sits in a wide white bezel (just like a full-fat iPad's), with the device measuring a tidy 200 mm x 154 mm x 9.9 mm and weighing 440g. It's not the thinnest tablet out there, but it's not the heaviest either, and it sits quite comfortably in the hand. That little extra bezel width is also an advantage when watching movies, as our fingers never fall into a screen-obscuring position. The premium feel of the tablet is capped off with an aluminium backplate, where the rear 2MP camera can also be found (a low-res video calling webcam sits embedded in the bezel around the front). The only black mark against the aesthetic is two visible screws on the top side where the tablet houses its ports. The speaker grille also sits on the rear, and while not unsightly, its positioning means that audio always feels distant and muted.
archos-80-titanium-5.JPG
There's quite an array of ports too, with the 80 Titanium offering up a micro USB port, a microSD card port, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a mini HDMI output along the top edge. That's also where you'll find a dastardly proprietary charging port, meaning you'll always need the 80 Titanium's chunky charger to hand. The top edge also has a small plastic power button on the left side, while the left edge of the tablet has a volume rocker and a rare, small Home return button just above. Though plastic, the buttons feel sturdy, as does the tablet itself: there's no creak or flex to the build, making for one of the better Archos constructions.

The 8-inch screen, running at 1024 x 768 resolution in 4:3 ratio, may not be the sharpest out there (especially when sat beside the new Nexus 7 2's full HD display) but it does make use of a premium IPS display rather than a woeful TN panel. As such, viewing angles are consistently good and colours remain accurate. Brightness levels don't crank up incredibly high but, considering the price, the concessions here are far more easy to stomach than the low-res, high-priced iPad Mini.
archos-80-titanium-4.JPG
The tablet is powered by a 1.6 GHz dual-core A9 processor, backed by 1GB of RAM and a quad-core GPU Mali 400 MP4. It's a middling spec by today's standards, and you get middling performance asa result - though video streaming and even 3D gaming sessions with the likes of Temple Run 2 often ran without a stutter, multitasking could cause the tablet to hang dramatically. With apps downloading, email syncing, and video paused, even simple tasks like re-arranging the home screen caused the tablet to freeze on occasion. Light use shouldn't cause too many problems, but push the tablet too far and it begins to buckle under the pressure.

Packed with 8GB of storage space, there's a few standard features missing here. Both GPS and Bluetooth are notable absences, while there's no option for a 3G connection across the range either (though a 16GB storage variant is available from selected retailers).

It's worth noting that Wi-Fi performance was at times patchy. While there'd be long stretches without a problem, other times would see the connection drop out entirely, despite being nearby our router and all other Wi-Fi devices having no such similar problem.

Interface, Apps
archos-80-titanium-6.JPG
In a wise move, Archos have pretty much stuck with the core Android Jelly Bean UI experience. Five homescreens can be customised to your liking, letting you add app shortcuts across the device from the app drawer. There are also a number of resizable Live Widgets pre-loaded onto the 80 Titanium, offering live updating information at a glance. Calendar, web bookmarks and contact details are among the pre-installed widgest, though others such as condensed Twitter or Facebook feeds, email inboxes or weather reports, for example, can be grabbed from the Google Play store.

In terms of pre-installed apps, Archos kit the 80 Titanium out with the full suite of Google apps (Gmail, Google+, YouTube, Maps, etc etc), as well as a few additions of their own. Angry Birds comes pre-installed, as does the OfficeSuite app for document editing. A demo of World of Goo is also present, as is the Zinio digital magazines app and the News Republic news aggregator. Archos-built media players are also onboard.
archos-80-titanium-7.JPG
And there's of course access to many more apps through the Google Play store. Over 1 million apps are up for sale through the store, and unlike Apple, Google are open to more forms of app submissions, for both better and worse. Though it has a bit more of a Wild West vibe and sometimes attracts hackers, there are also loads of really impressive apps available that can really add to your enjoyment of the Android experience. The catalogue improves all the time; whether you're a gamer, a reader, someone hunting news stories or recipes, a photographer or a blogger, there's something for everyone. Many are free too, and few cost more than £3 or so. When it comes to mapping, the Android version of Google's Maps app is far and away the best navigation solution available, particularly in comparison to the woeful Apple Maps. Likewise, the stock Android web browser is among the best on mobile devices, only bested by Google's own Chrome, itself a free download from the Google Play store.

Media Playback and Gaming
archos-80-titanium-8.JPG
Archos have a long history in the PMP space, and the 80 Titanium's wide file format support sees them continuing in this fine tradition.

Archos's own Archos Video app is included and is a very nice video player app, pulling in video information from sources including IMDB and themoviedb.org (and playing back AVI, MP4, MOV, 3GP, MPG, PS, TS, MKV, FLV files with H.264 HD and MPEG-42 HD codecs). The Archos Music app is a similarly capable library tool for managing your music collection on the tablet, supporting MP3, WAV, AAC3, AAC+ 5.13, OGG Vorbis and FLAC files. Both apps are attractive and easy to navigate, and arguably better than the stock Android alternatives.

For the most part, video playback is solid, with only a rare stutter in some of the high-resolution files we tested on the tablet. It's a nicely sized screen, and streaming a couple of Breaking Bad episodes to the device while tucked up in bed was a pleasant viewing experience.
archos-80-titanium-9.JPG
What was less pleasant was the sound - the rear facing speaker is tinny, and, being directed away from the listener, feels distant and disconnected from the action on screen. Invest in a pair of headphones and you'll be fine, but don't expect to have your friends gathered around the screen with much joy.

MicroSD card support gives you the option of adding a further 64GB of storage space to the device, so as a portable player it's fairly well equipped.

Gaming on the tablet is again generally enjoyable. It'll have no problem playing a round of Angry Birds and other casual titles, and even more demanding games like endless runner Temple Run 2. However, major 3D titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City can at times prove too much for the tablet, booting us on occasion back to the homescreen. Expect the tablet to get quite hot while attempting such gaming sessions too, but never so much as to make it dangerous nor uncomfortable to use.

Camera performance
archos-80-titanium-2.JPG
You'd have to be bonkers to use a tablet as your primary photography device given their size, and even if you insisted, absolutely crazy to chose the Archos 80 Titanium for this purpose. It's rear 2MP camera's shooting abilities are woeful. Washed out and low-resolution, there's no detail in any of the snaps we shot on the device, leading every potential Ansel Adams moments to instead be a watery, blurred mess.

Video suffers equally, with low-resolution 640x480 clips captured at a stuttering 9 frames per second. You can get feature phones that are capable of better than that, and the audio captured is equally poor. Don't even think about shooting stills or videos at night either - terrible low light performance makes a nightmare out of both, and the lack of a flash doesn't help in this respect either.

Battery life

A constant stream of HD video to the Archos tablet over Wi-Fi squeezed four hours and ten minutes worth of battery life out of the device, with the screen set to maximum brightness. Dialling the brightness down to half way and playing back a locally-stored HD video with Wi-Fi switched off pushed that up to just shy of 6 hours. That's not a bad stretch for a battery in a 7-inch tablet, though not quite a match for the 10 hours you can squeeze out of a Nexus 7.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Relatively inexpensive, and with a very attractive design, the Archos 80 Titanium isn't half bad. It has its flaws, including its struggles with multitasking, a poor speaker and so-bad-it-wasn't-worth-including camera, but it is able to counteract these problems with a very watchable screen, a pure Android experience with strong multimedia support and reasonable performance capabilities for basic singular tasks. It's not quite a top flight contender yet, but it shows that Archos have finally begun to understand what it takes to make a worthy Android tablet.review-line.JPG

3.5/5

review-line.JPG

REVIEW: Blue Microphones Spark Digital

No Comments

spark-digital.jpgreview-line.JPGName: Blue Microphones Spark Digital

Type: Microphone for PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price: From £149.99

review-line.JPGBlue Microphones' first desktop mic to support iOS devices out of the box, the Spark Digital is an ace bit of recording kit. Read our review for the full low-down.

review-line.JPG Blue Microphones continue their move away from the studio space to the consumer arena with the Spark Digital microphone. Hooking up to 30-pin iPad and iPhone devices as easily as to a PC over USB, it's a great bit of kit for the on-the-go musician or podcaster.

Making use of a condenser transducer, it's powered over USB or 30-pin Apple connection for computer or iOS device recording respectively rather than requiring a discrete power supply. It's slightly more portable than Blue Microphone's previous offerings too. Though still chunky (and very much a tabletop mic) it's a fair sight smaller than the Blue Yeti which preceded it - handy considering it's being billed as an iPad accessory as much as a desktop recording device.

An attractive bit of kit with metallic blue and chrome highlights, the mic sits on an adjustable tilt stand which features a little vibration and shock absorbing padding on the bottom, which may come in useful in wilder recording locations or during louder, room-shaking sessions. The mic itself is suspended between the arms of the stand on elastic cabling, further removing the prospect of unwanted sounds seeping into your recordings.

A control knob that serves a dual function of swapping between microphone gain and headphone/monitor volume as well as adjusting levels sits on the front. Four LEDs glow orange and blue to show output and gain levels. On the back is a Focus Control switch, which we'll get onto a little later.

Two cables come with the mic, with a USB cable for hooking up to a PC or Mac, and the 30-pin cable for connecting an iPad or iPhone. Each also splits off at the end to offer a separate headphone jack. Those rocking a fourth-gen iPad, iPhone 5 or iPad Mini will need to invest in a separate Lightning connector to use the Spark Digital though - Blue have a Lightning version planned, but we expect it'll be some time until there's enough Lightning devices out there for Blue to bother putting one out there on sale. Lightning adaptors are relatively inexpensive anyway, so this shouldn't be too much of an issue.

It's worth noting though that there's no XLR output this time around, which may limit those looking to send analogue audio to a mixing desk or sound card.

At the top of the cylindrical mic unit sits the capsule, covered in a metal grilling that prevents popping from plosive sounds. It does this job well, but not flawlessly, so you may still need to invest in a pop guard for important recordings.

Even when compared to the audio recorded by the excellent Blue Yeti microphone, the Spark Digital is a superb performer. Hooking it up to my Mac for a few Garageband jams, the mic was able to pick up sound with clarity and supreme definition, with a full-bodied sound that was both warm and as close to natural as I believe you'll get from a mic not aimed at a professional studio. Lone voices in particular came across with astounding clarity, with my voice picked up with a balanced range that didn't lean so heavily on bass tones as other mics I've used.

The Focus Control switch is a bit of a let down though. Intended to offer two separate sound signatures from the microphone, the difference between the two settings is minimal. There's a barely perceptible increase in the presence of mid-range tones, which may make it the go-to setting for podcasts or interviews. But on the whole the default setting is finely balanced enough for you to not need ever switch it on.

When it came to recording on the iPad, the benefits of the Spark Digital became instantly clear. Recording through the iPad's built-in microphone, the tablet picked up an inordinate amount of hiss and noise that was truly distracting - fine for a FaceTime video call, not so cool for a podcast or musical recording. Hook up the Spark Digital and that hiss was, to my ears, completely eliminated, as well as offering a far more natural, well rounded tone than was possible with just the iPad's built-in microphone. Anyone who is considering using the iPad as a semi-pro music recording facility would truly benefit from picking up the Spark Digital, particularly if recording acoustic instruments live (we weren't able to test the mic in a situation with a fully amped-up band however, so can't pass judgement on how well it handles extreme volume input).

The package is completed by a six-month account for both SoundCloud Pro and Gobbler, giving you a couple of months of premium access to the music distribution platforms.

review-line.JPGVerdict:

A flexible and detailed microphone, the Spark Digital from Blue Microphones is easy to recommend for anyone looking to improve the quality of their podcasts or iPad recordings..review-line.JPG

4.5/5

review-line.JPG

MOMENTUM On-Ear blue_semiprofile.jpgreview-line.JPGName: Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear

Type: On-ear headphones

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £169.99

review-line.JPG
Shrinking down their impressive Momentum over-ear headphones and adding a splash of colour, have Sennheiser done enough to claw back customers from the beastly brawn of the Beats brand? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGSennheiser's headphones have never suffered in the style stakes before, offering elegant designs whether in-ear, on-ear or over. What they haven't offered much of in the past though is colour, traditionally sticking with chromes and blacks. If the success of the Beats brand is anything to go by, the more colourful your cans, the more recognisable they'll be too, and more likely to wrestle the pennies out of your pockets to boot. Sennheiser's latest, the Momentum On-Ear headphones, take this on board and offer a very slick look to go with their silky sounds.

Slightly shrinking down the earlier Momentum models which give this latest line their name, the Momentum On-Ear headphones have slightly smaller cups that rest on your ear rather than over them. The line is available in a range of tasteful colours - we tested out a navy blue pair, but you can also pick up pistachio green, coffee brown and cream, and pink versions, with a handful more expected in time for Christmas.MOMENTUM_ON_EAR_4colors.jpgThe colours and construction together add up to a very tasteful design. A stainless steel band (finished off with real leather at the top) pulls the two cups together, each finished with suede-like Alacantara padding - the same you'd expect to find in an oil baron's luxury yacht upholstering. If there's a weak link anywhere, it's the three-button remote's cabling, with a slightly rubbery texture causing the cable to tangle at times. Still, in a wise move, Sennheiser have made the cable replaceable, so if it does fall foul to a tangle you'll be able to replace it inexpensively without having to chuck out the headphones as a whole. Considering their leaning towards the pricier side of the consumer headphone market at £169.99, you'd hope for this flexibility, which Sennheiser have thankfully offered. All in, it's a good-looking package.

In terms of comfort, the adjustable headband (sliding smoothly rather than clicking into notched sizing positions) should fit all but the most bulbous of heads comfortably. The on-ear cups will never feel quite as comfortable as in or over-ear alternatives, but either way never pushed in with so much pressure as to prevent our many-hours-long listening sessions from being a joy.

That joy came mostly from the Momentum On-Ear headphones top-notch sound quality. Measured and clear, it's a much more satisfying sound produced than bass-heavy rivals like Beats.MOMENTUM On-Ear blue_front.jpgThat said, the Momentum On-Ears do sit comfortably towards the bass-y end of the spectrum, but with a warmth that's never over bearing. There's a kick to synth and electronic low-end sounds, while low-mid tones sound full and rich too. Trebles and mids were clear too, but can't quite match the brightness of an open-backed design.

Listening to a wide range of music, we'd say rock and electronic tunes are best suited to the Momentum On-Ear headphones, which didn't quite have the dynamism we'd like for classical recordings. Suede's Coming Up, mixing thick synth sounds and crunchy guitars sounded a treat, with good definition between tones in even the busiest moments of tracks like Trash. Chic's Good Times saw its classic bass-line rumble in beautifully, with the track's strings and key runs sitting nicely in the mix too. Daughter's If You Leave album was an enjoyable listen too, though the fragile moments were less well suited to the Momentum On-Ear's punchy bottom end.MOMENTUM On-Ear blue_side.jpgAnother point of note, the headphones offer little noise cancelling abilities. Sitting on rather than over the ear, it's easy for outside noise to seep into your listening session, which, when combined with the fact that they can't be folded up for storing in a bag, may not make these the most suitable headphones for commuters. Enjoyed in the comfort of your own home however, there's much to like here.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

A beautiful design and solid soundstage, the Momentum On Ears lose a point for the slightly-annoying cabling and lack of sound isolation. Those points aside, they're a worthy purchase, with audio chops to match their good looks. review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

toshiba-store-e-canvio-500gb.jpgreview-line.JPGName: Toshiba Store.E Canvio 500GB (HDTC705ER3AA)

Type: External hard drive

Review Model Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price: From £55.99

review-line.JPGA tidy, small and speedy USB 3.0 drive, Toshiba's latest Store.E Canvio gets the job done nicely. Read our review for the full lowdown.

review-line.JPGIf you're storing important files on an external hard drive, one designed to be portable enough to be pocketable, you're going to want it to be as sturdy as it is good-looking. Toshiba's Store.E Canvio manages to be both. Though not a rugged drive specifically, it's red gloss plastic shell has a thick black band of tougher plastic around its edge, which should go someway towards protecting it should it fall foul of a drop or two.

Finished by four rubber feet on its bottom side, it measures roughly 15mm 80mm x 115cm, with a USB 3.0 port on its top edge, and a blue indicator light showing connectivity and file transfer status on the top flat edge. Bus-powered, you wont require a separate power pack for the Store.E Canvio, drawing its power from the foot-long USB 3.0 cable supplied with the drive. We're not wholly convinced by the quality of the port on the drive itself however - the cable needed to be wiggled into place rather than clicking in satisfyingly. Though we experienced no connectivity problems with the cable, there's a chance the port may wear loose over extended use.

The hard drive achieves solid write and read speeds, averaging a sequential read speed of 105.8MB/s and write speed of 105.6MB/s through the CrystalDiskMark 1000MB benchmark test.tosh-drive-speed-test-pc.jpgThat number dropped slightly when trying the Mac-based BlackMagic Disk Speed Test app, writing at an average of 97.7 MB/s and reading at an average of 85.5 MB/s during a 5GB test. Across both the Mac and PC tests however, the Store.E Canvio proved to be one of the speedier portable external drives out there, and at just over £55 for 500GB, is reasonably priced too.tosh-drive-speed-test-mac.jpgA lifetime license to 10GB of PogoPlug cloud storage is also included, adding a little further value for those that have not yet found a cloud-based storage service to suit their needs.

review-line.JPGVerdict:

Fast, sturdy, good looking and relatively inexpensive, the Store.E Canvio is a solid purchase for those on the hunt for some extra storage space.review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

REVIEW: Company of Heroes 2 (PC)

No Comments

review-line.JPGName: Company of Heroes 2

Genre: Real-time strategy

Platform: PC

Price: £29.99 from Amazon

We use a PNY GeForce GTX 680 for our PC game reviews. To find out why it's our graphics card of choice, click here.

review-line.JPG
The sequel to one of the most revered strategy titles of modern times, Company of Heroes 2 takes on the challenge of depicting World War II's harrowing Eastern front. But can it's wealth of new systems deliver an experience both fun and historically accurate? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGThe Eastern front of the Second World War has never been an easy area to approach in gaming, given the morally dubious tactical decisions Soviet generals employed as they pushed back the Nazi forces. Pulling it off in a sympathetic way in an RTS game is all the more difficult, given that you're in control of sending the digital cannon fodder to their doom.

Company of Heroes 2's single player campaign narrowly manages to pull off this delicate balancing act. You'll live through the memories of one Lev Abramovich Isakovich, a former Soviet officer locked up in a gulag in after questioning his superior's actions. Through his interrogation by his ex-commander, you'll experience harrowing events such as the infamous Order 227 as the Soviets begin to bring the fight to their German oppressors.company-of-heroes-2-14.jpgThe first game in the series was lauded for its truly strategic focus, something that Company of Heroes 2 for the most part retains. There's no emphasis on resource collecting, and scant few moments where rushing out an overpowered tank fleet is a sure fire route to success. Instead, the game requires you to carefully manage your troop placement, making use of cover points littered around the maps as well as occupying buildings in order to maintain a defensible line of sight from which to fire upon enemy troops. With a superbly constructed skill set for the many differing units you control, there's often a broad amount of flexibility to the way each mission can be approached. At it's best it's tense and rewarding, forcing you to think on your feet often in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

The original game looked great, and this sequel looks even better. Zooming in close to the action reveals historically accurate uniforms and vehicles, all incredibly detailed, while the destructible environments are modelled in such a way that they never seem to crumble the same way twice. New weather effects, taking note of the Eastern front's harsh climate, are more than just visual touches too - snowstorms will obscure your troops' view and force them back to camp for fear of freezing, while forces silly enough to stand upon frozen lakes and rivers do so at the risk of being submerged in their icy depths below.company-of-heroes-2-9.jpgThe sound design here is incredible too. From the ping of gunfire to the boom of a mortar strike, the crash of debris and the rain of bomb-churned dirt clods, you're transported right into the thick of the action.

But it hasn't all worked for the sequel, where some of the new additions have caused problems for the campaign.

While attempting to deliver a supreme level of authenticity to the experience, developers Relic Entertainment run the risk of derailing the campaign's fun. As was true of the Soviet forces at the time, poorly trained conscripts make up a large portion of your armies, and can easily be pooled from the edges of the game's maps to soak up fire while your more accomplished troops do the more intricate work. It's an interesting mechanic, one that mirrors somewhat the make-up of Soviet forces at the time, but also runs the risk of unbalancing the entire game - though weak, they're plentiful, and clumping your best troops in the middle of a swarm of conscripts is sometimes enough to "cheat" your way through some of the more challenging portions of missions. company-of-heroes-2-3.jpgWith the population cap (along with munitions, fuel and manpower) being one of few the resources that must be managed in the game, Relic Entertainment have also introduced NKVD officers. Any weakened conscripts you cause to retreat will be sent back past this commissar, who will unceremoniously execute them for desertion, freeing up your population count. Bizarrely, this is the primary method for upgrading your conscript forces too, with the more deserters shot leading to better trained conscript forces entering the fray. Battlefield executions were indeed far too common during the conflict, but to tie it to a skill progression system seems tonally awkward, to say the least. Either way, it's a system that sometimes breaks down - the game's line-of-sight system (often brilliant as it requires troops to be placed precisely in order to effectively fire upon enemies) can sometimes help conscripts avoid their death sentences, simply by creeping out of sight, halting your future conscripts' skill progression.

The campaign takes quite a long time to get into its stride too, with early missions having arbitrary win conditions as the Soviet forces are on the backfoot. It may be historically accurate, but it's a soggy achievement to complete a mission through a successful retreat, employing Stalin's "scorched earth" policy as you go. Later missions that focus on specific units (such as a memorable excursion with a sniper squad, and a challenging encounter with a panzer tank) fare far better. It's sad that the first 7-or so hours of the 14 hour campaign feel so weak however.company-of-heroes-2-12.jpg
There are constant niggles across the entire game too that cause frustration, including weak pathfinding (troops favour a nice gravel path in front of an enemy machine gun trench rather than using rough terrain, despite the new ability to vault over low objects), and a UI that doesn't make it easy to single out ready skill cooldowns among a large group of troops. Navigating larger battles can be a chore too, with the camera unable to zoom out far enough to jump from one battle front to the other efficiently.

The single player campaign's issues extend to the delivery of its story. Cutscenes, using neither flashy CGI nor the game's standard engine, look incredibly dated, while the delivery of what should be intense emotional moments is dampened by a cliche-ridden script and stunted animations.company-of-heroes-2-13.jpgBut that tells only half the story. If the campaign mode is patchy at best, multiplayer and the newly introduced Theatre of War mode are far more easily enjoyed.

Theatre of War mode has clearly been influenced by the Call of Duty series' Special Ops missions. Quick-fire one-shot missions, they can be played either solo or co-operatively, and task you with completing focussed objectives. Avoiding the clumsy story of the main campaign and the feeling of shoehorned factional abilities, Relic has crafted some fiendishly fun scenarios to overcome. From a gloriously explosive artillery strike against German battlements to a stand up fight against more experienced forces, Theatre of War delivers where the overwrought campaign stumbles.company-of-heroes-2-1.jpgMultiplayer battles are incredibly exciting too. Splitting teams of up to four players per side into two opposing forces, you'll battle for supremacy over supply points, scratching away at each other's defences in order to keep supply lines safe. With success dependent on maintaining these supply points rather than wiping out your opponents' forces, tactical strikes at weakened points is often a more effective strategy than swarming outposts en masse.

There are still some balancing issues to fix (tanks are overpowered, and mortars can be spammed, leading to boring encounters with less creative foes) but Company of Heroes' classic strategising finds a harmonious balance with the new additions in multiplayer. Battling the weather and wily opponents, free from the stumbles of the game's haphazard enemy AI, is exhilarating.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

While the campaign mode is inconsistent both tonally, mechanically and visually, Company of Heroes 2 really shines in multiplayer and its Theatre of War missions. Whereas the single player mode frustrates and delights in equal measure, take the game online and you'll be in for some of the most intense, strategically rewarding skirmishes you'll ever play through. It's far from perfect, but forgive the campaign its failings and there's some incredible action to sink your teeth into in the other modes here.review-line.JPG

3.5/5

review-line.JPG
We use a PNY GeForce GTX 680 for our PC game reviews. To find out why it's our graphics card of choice, click here.

REVIEW: MacBook Air 11-inch (2013)

4 Comments

MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-01.JPGreview-line.JPGName: MacBook Air (2013 edition)

Type: Notebook

Review Model Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price: From £849

review-line.JPGThe best just got better, as Apple's MacBook Air notebook gets updated with the latest Intel processors, double the storage and double the battery life. But is the low-resolution screen now dragging the package down? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGAt first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the 2013 edition of Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air was identical to its 2012 predecessor. And from an industrial design standpoint, you'd be almost correct. Aside from an additional microphone embedded in the left hand side to aid noise cancellation during Skype and FaceTime video calls, it's the exact same chassis design as last year's.MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-05.JPGAnd that's no bad thing. The 11-inch MacBook Air remains the pinnacle of portable notebook design, featuring a gorgeous aluminium unibody construction, measuring just 1.7cm thick at its chunkiest point and a startling 0.3cm at its tapered, wedge-like front edge. Weighing just 1.08kg, it's incredible lightweight, making it supremely comfortable for carrying around all day long, and just about the most attractive laptop on the market. Even with the design now a few years old, it's still a staggering achievement.
MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-09.JPG
The left edge of the laptop houses a USB 3.0 port, a 3.5mm headphone socket, the afore-mentioned dual mic array and the magnetic MagSafe 2 charging connection, which handily detaches harmlessly should you accidentally yank or trip over the cable. The right edge houses a further USB 3.0 port and the super-fast Thunderbolt port. It's not exactly an extensive array of ports (you'll need to jump up to the 13-inch model to get an SD card slot, and neither supports a wired Ethernet internet connection without an adaptor) but it's still remarkable that it can all fit in at all given the slight frame they sit within.MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-16.JPGFor the real changes then, you're going to have to delve under the hood, where Apple have made a number of significant improvements to the internal components.
MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-15.JPG
Our review model was an entry-level machine, equipped with a fourth generation (Haswell) 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz), 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3 RAM and 128GB of SSD storage space. These specs can be configured at purchase up to a 1.7GHz Core i7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz), 8GB of RAM and 256GB or 512GB SSD storage sizes, with pricing rising respectively. Keep in mind that, unlike Apple's MacBook Pro models, the MacBook Air cannot be upgraded after purchase, so make sure that you get exactly what you need right away. For instance, though bigger than last year's paltry 64GB entry-level storage, 128GB still isn't much space at your disposal (even if you do make judicious use of cloud storage services), so definitely consider stumping up the cash for a bigger SSD configuration.

Looking firstly at the processor, you'd again be forgiven for thinking there's been no progression here. In fact, considering last year's entry level Ivy Bridge i5 processor was clocked at 1.8GHz, you'd think it was in fact a step backwards. You'd be wrong; with the same max Turbo Boost clock speeds, our Geekbench 2 benchmark saw the 2013 edition hit a score of 6703, compared to last year's managing 5,801.

If that doesn't sound like a massive jump, it's because the Intel Haswell chipsets' real trump card lies in energy efficiency. Drawing far less power than previous generations, it allows the MacBook Air 2013 model to manage 9 hours of standard usage and 8 hours of constant movie playback by Apple's estimations. And they're not far off the mark it would seem. With a full battery charge, I managed roughly 8 hours away from the mains with brightness settings just below the maximum levels and putting the processor under heavy Photoshop and streaming loads. That's incredible, and depending on your usage, you could easily squeeze a couple more hours out of the battery. That's effectively doubling the battery life over last years model.
MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-14.JPG
The Haswell chipset also sports the improved Intel HD 5000 integrated graphics, which will offer a slight boost to gamers, though not the 3D graphics performance a dedicated GPU would deliver. You'll need to stump up for a MacBook Pro to get those benefits, though the Intel 5000 HD improvements do mean the MacBook Air can now support 4K external monitors, naturally leading to speculation that Apple have one in the works.

SSD speeds are also improved. Though the average user may not notice the difference, the use of a PCIe connection for the drive instead of last year's SATA connection almost doubles read and write speeds over the 2012 model. You can expect to hit read speeds upwards of 700MBps and write speeds of 453MBps. Those jumping from a HDD equipped laptop will quickly note the benefits, with the machine booting up near instantly and apps loading much faster also.

The last notable improvement is the addition of an 802.11ac Wi-Fi connection. Without access to an 802.11ac router during the test I was unable to verify just how fast the new standard is, but positive reports suggest that both download speeds and wireless stability and range are markedly improved.
MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-03.JPG
Apple's reputation for kitting out their laptops with superb keyboards and trackpads continues here. Well spaced, backlit Chiclet keys are popped in here, with a lovely balance and tension to the bounciness of the keys. You can type at length comfortably with this machine, despite its small size and low profile. Likewise, that trackpad is as good as it gets - smooth and accurate, and registering multi-touch gestures without a stutter.
MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-08.JPG
If there's one weak spot now in the MacBook Air's otherwise-solid design, it lies with its screen. In many ways, it's a rod that Apple have built for their own back; taken on its own, the 11-inch MacBook Air's screen is fine, offering high brightness levels and accurate colours in spite of its lowly 1366 x 768 resolution. It certainly won't hinder your enjoyment of the laptop. But place the MacBook Air against a Retina Display equipped MacBook Pro or iPad, and there's a marked difference. The MacBook Air just can't compete with the vibrancy or contrast levels of the Retina Macs, let alone their ridiculous sharpness. Of course, popping a Retina Display in the MacBook Air would have a detrimental effect on the laptop's stellar battery life, but with rival Windows ultrabooks of similar size now regularly rolling out Full HD screens, it's the one gap in the MacBook Air's futuristic design. Considering the new MacBook Air is capable of hooking up to 2560 x 1600 resolution external monitors, the power's definitely there to support a Retina Display.

In terms of software, the 2013 MacBook Air comes with OS X Mountain Lion pre-installed. It's set to be superseded by OS X Mavericks a little later this year, but its still a top-notch OS that makes use of incredibly intuitive multi-touch gestures, features Apple's integrated iCloud cloud storage service, has a useful notifications centre for accessing Twitter, Facebook and email updates and plenty of other nifty things. We've written about it extensively in the past and love it, and you can get a great overview of what's on offer by clicking here.
MacBook-Air-11-inch-2013-04.JPG
Mac OS X also comes with a generous suite of pre-installed applications that are all incredibly useful. Standards like Calendar, Contacts and the Reminders programs sit alongside Garageband (a powerful home studio music recording tool), iMovie (an intuitive video editing app), FaceTime (letting you make free video calls to other Apple users - be they on Macs of iOS mobile devices), Messages (for instant messaging fellow OS X and iOS users) and iPhoto (an excellent image editing and photo library management app). You've got everything you need to get going on your machine right out of the box, while the Mac App Store is on hand to grab other applications from, and iTunes ready to manage and purchase music and video files. It's a great package.

review-line.JPGVerdict:

Though there's not enough here to entice a 2012 MacBook Air owner to double-dip for this year's model, the 11-inch 2013 MacBook Air is clearly the superior model, and still more than a match for the best the ultrabook PC market has to offer. Popping in a number of significant upgrades, not least of which is remarkable battery performance, it's still the portable notebook to beat. However, if Apple wants to keep the MacBook Air ahead of the game, it's got to look at equipping the machine with a more striking display; in this age of Retina resolutions and UHD TVs, it's the only weakness in this otherwise-formidable notebook.review-line.JPG

4.5/5

review-line.JPG

REVIEW: Gigabyte U2442F ultrabook

No Comments

gigabyte-U2442F-1.JPGreview-line.JPGName: Gigabyte U2442F

Type: Ultrabook

Review Model Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price: Around £1,050

review-line.JPG
Gigabyte turn their attention away from motherboards to the ultrabook market with the release of the Gigabyte U2442F. A well-rounded portable machine with dedicated graphics, find out just how well it performs in our full review.

review-line.JPGMeasuring 339mm x 233mm x 19mm, and weighing 1.59kg, the Gigabyte U2442F ultrabook is a modestly attractive laptop - not quite as thin or light as some of the more dazzling ultrabooks, it remains stylish thanks to its reserved brushed aluminium finish, and particularly appealing thanks to its relatively powerful internal components.gigabyte-U2442F-5.JPGOur review model came equipped with a 2GHz Intel Core i7-3517U power-efficient processor, 8GB of RAM and an 128GB SSD (an additional 8GB of RAM and as much as a 1TB HDD can also be optionally configured when purchased). Turbo boosting to 3.1GHz, it's a processor not to be sniffed at, even though standard mobile processors can offer a bit more grunt at the expense of power reserves.gigabyte-U2442F-9.JPG
The real selling point here then is the dedicated 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M. Though now superseded by the GT 700 series of Nvidia laptop GPUs, last year's range still offer superb gaming performance for all but the most demanding of titles. And with ultrabooks usually resting on the integrated graphics capabilities of the Intel chips, this makes the U2442F one to watch for gaming enthusiasts. For instance, we ran Dirt Showdown benchmarking test at High quality at the laptop's native resolution of 1,600 x 900, and saw it average frame rates hovering between 50fps and 60fps. Even the still-demanding Crysis 2 at Ultra quality settings at the same resolution was reasonably playable at 20fps, and dialling the graphics settings back more made for a pleasant play session. All in, very impressive for an ultrabook that doesn't brand itself as a dedicated gaming machine.

With gaming performance like this, you can expect the U2442F to serve you well with everyday computing tasks too. Running Windows 8, its 128GB SSD lets you boot up the machine instantly, waking from sleep just as quickly. That 128GB SSD will fill up fast if you've sizeable media libraries however, or if you're looking to exploit the machine's gaming potential, so consider configuring the machine to include the optional HDD. It is worth noting though that Gigabyte mercifully leave the computer free from bloatware, meaning that you've got a pretty clean install of Windows 8 on here out of the box.gigabyte-U2442F-7.JPGThere's a good selection of ports around the left and right edges of the machine too, offering up four USB ports (2x 3.0, 2x 2.0), both VGA and HDMI ports, an SD card reader, Ethernet connection for wired web access and both mic and headphone jacks.
gigabyte-U2442F-8.JPG
Moving onto the keyboard, it's a backlit Chiclet style affair. While the keys themselves have a lightness that makes them feel a tad cheap, they're well spaced, making for a comfortable typing experience. Proving more enticing was the trackpad - offering a slightly textured finish and paired with a single button bar for clicks, it was responsive and made triggering Windows 8's vital gesture controls a breeze.
gigabyte-U2442F-2.JPG
The 14-inch display, maxing out at a 1600 x 900 resolution won't impress those now sporting full HD resolutions and above, but fits the bill for this reasonably-priced ultrabook well. We must admit however that with Windows 8's focus on touch controls, we're increasingly of the belief that Windows 8 ultrabooks should be equipped with touchscreen displays in order to make the most of the OS.
gigabyte-U2442F-3.JPG
Gigabyte have opted for a matte finish on the display, making it infinitely more useable outdoors or in rooms with harsh point lighting. The trade off here is in colour vibrancy and brightness, which is reduced compared to glossy LCD displays. Workers will probably find the matte finish very beneficial, while gamers may prefer the more striking richness of a glossy display. Keeping in mind a matte finish is often a premium configuration option though, its again showing the value of the U2442F.
gigabyte-U2442F-4.JPG
If there's one real weakness here, it's in the speaker array, which sits in a strip just below the screen (in a rather nutty dot-grille pattern, no less). There's a tinny sound from the speakers, and no real sense of stereo direction. Best to pair the machine with a set of headphones for games and multimedia playback then.
gigabyte-U2442F-6.JPG
In terms of battery life, the U2442F also performed well. We squeezed 5 hours out of the battery with the brightness dialled back to halfway. Considering that included firing up the GPU for a session with XCOM Enemy Unknown, that's not half bad, and those just looking to work through some spreadsheets could expect to get nearly a full working day out of the Gigabyte machine without running to the mains.

review-line.JPGVerdict:

A very worthy ultrabook, the Gigabyte U2442F is in the enviable position of being able to provide some decent gaming chops in a portable, fast-booting style. It's not the thinnest, nor the lightest, but its one of the more flexible machines performance-wise, and offers good bang for your buck.review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

creative airwave hdreview-line.JPGName: Creative Airwave HD

Type: Wireless Bluetooth speaker with NFC

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: £129.99

review-line.JPG
Can NFC functionality and stellar battery life elevate the Creative Airwave HD above the masses of Bluetooth speakers available? Read our full review to find out!

review-line.JPGRather than the opting for the standard boxy shape of most Bluetooth speakers, the Creative Airwave HD instead has a triangular, prism shape. It's not unlike a Toblerone, with two curvy recesses at either end. On the front is a plastic non-removable grille that continues the triangular aesthetic. While the design looks a little bland on the black version we tested, a red version we've also seen is actually very bold and attractive, where the shadowing on the grille results in a more distinct and pleasing pattern.creative airwave hdAlong the top of the device you'll find the Airwave HD's controls, including a power slider, a volume rocker (which has an annoyingly large number of minuscule volume steps, taking an age before jumping to the top decibel levels) and a Bluetooth pairing button. You'll also find a battery/Bluetooth indicator light here, as well as an opening for an integrated microphone. Around the rear in a recess you'll find the microUSB charging port (which will work with basically any microUSB charger and can be used for adding juice from the speaker to a mobile device too) and an Aux-in port, next to a cavity for improving bass response.

The Creative Airwave HD measures 3.8 x 10.3 x 3.8 inches and weighs 980g. It's not the tiniest portable speaker out there then, but its extra heft does allow it room for components to push its volume levels strikingly loud, and for a capacious battery; two things we'd happily accept in a trade off against size.creative airwave hdPairing is incredibly simple with the Creative Airwave HD thanks to built-in NFC connectivity - simply switch the feature on on your smartphone, place the mobile against the rear of the speaker and the two become music-sharing buddies. It's great, and far more reliable than sometimes-finicky standard Bluetooth pairing, and we wish it was available in every wireless speaker. If you don't have an NFC-enabled device, you can pair the speaker in the standard Bluetooth fashion by holding down a button on the top of the Airwave HD and selecting the speaker from the Bluetooth menu on your music player. And, of course, there's always the option of a wired connection through the Aux-in port on the rear.creative airwave hdThe wireless systems employed here also have a few other neat features. An integrated microphone will allow you to wirelessly take calls with the speaker (so long as you don't mind your call being broadcast to anyone within earshot), while multipoint Bluetooth connectivity will allow two devices to connect to the speaker wirelessly at once. It's a useful feature for when playing tune-tennis with a pal - as soon as one user pauses their music and the other's starts, the speaker knows exactly which device's sound it should be pumping out.creative airwave hdIn terms of sound, the Creative Airwave HD is a mixed bag. Though cranking up incredibly loudly thanks to an integrated Creative Super Charged amplifier (loud enough to wind up every other person in the park that we tested it in), it's not the most elegant sounding system out there. Trying every genre from classic 70s rock through to the glacial electronic sounds of Alex Metric, the Creative Airwave HD's sound is firmly footed in the mid-range. There's a bit of kick to the bass end, but no warmth to the tone, and treble is harsh rather than detailed. It's not a bad sounding speaker by any means, and sits just behind the better portable systems we've heard, but it's overall a bit flat, and not a patch on the best audiophile home hi-fi's you'll hear. In terms of its soundstage, its size and triangular shape allows for a wider dispersal of sound than similar speakers, though it's still lacking the width of a wider stereo speaker set up, meaning pans get lost in the mix. DSCF3325.JPGTo get overly particular on whether or not the Airwave HD will please audiophiles is sort of missing the point though too - the speaker is intended for outdoor, drunken tunes without hassle, and in one key area its got this totally sewn up: its best feature of all is the incredibly impressive battery life. Though the company state 7 hours of playback on their website, that seems a conservative statistic. Running the speaker constantly, streaming a lengthy Spotify playlist to the Airwave HD, we sailed right past the 8 hour mark with the volume levels fairly loud throughout. We wouldn't be surprised if you could squeeze 9 or more hours out of the speaker from one charge if you dialled the volume down a little lower. Great stuff.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

There's lots to like about the Creative Airwave HD. It's got a punchy sound that hits incredibly high volume levels and, in the red version at least, an interesting and eye-catching design that's portable enough to take with you to a picnic or beach party without too much strain. Though its overall sound lacks detail and elegance, it more than makes up for it with a pain-free NFC pairing system and incredible battery life that will see you dancing away into the wee hours.review-line.JPG

4/5

review-line.JPG

DSCF3311.JPGreview-line.JPGName: Huawei Ascend Mate

Type: Android Smartphone

Specifications: Click here for full specs

Price as reviewed: From £375 SIM-free

review-line.JPG
6.1-inches is just too big for a mobile, right? Find out just how far the boundaries of a smartphone can be pushed in our full review of the Huawei Ascend Mate, the latest handset to blur the line between tablet and phone.

review-line.JPG

Design
DSCF3310.JPG
The Huawei Ascend Mate is big. Like, really big. With a 6.1-inch screen, it's more than a centimetre taller than the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, and 5mm wider to boot. Weighing 198 grams, it's actually quite light given its size, but is still far heavier than a traditionally sized handset would be. Even the elongated iPhone 5 weighs only 112 grams. The Ascend Mate does stay relatively slim at 9.9mm though. Either way, it's the sort of device that the cheesy "phablet" term was coined for - it really is a halfway house between the two. But even having played with the device for a few weeks now, we're torn as to whether or not it can comfortably replace either, let alone both. We'd more likely to consume media like movies on a larger device, and felt pretty weird holding the device up as a phone to our ear. Investment in a Bluetooth headset is going to be a must here.

In terms of design, Huawei keep it simple. Uniformly rectangular on the front with only a thin black bezel either side of the display, when looked at from the front the Ascend Mate looks a little like a stretched iPad Mini. No physical buttons however are present on the front, with Huawei favouring Android's software touch controls throughout. DSCF3313.JPGThere's a slight curvature to the dark grey plastic casing around the back (sealing in the non-removable battery), while chrome-look edging runs around the side of the device. The bottom edge houses a microUSB charging and data transfer port, while the top has a microSIM slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The left hand side has a microSD card storage slot, while halfway down the right-hand side sits the volume rocker with the power button slightly above that. If this seems an odd place for the buttons to go, it actually proves the most comfortable place to reach them, given the size of the thing.DSCF3315.JPGThe key attraction here then has to be that screen, and it is certainly quite lovely. Using a bright IPS LCD display, it has a resolution of 1280 x 720. What it lacks in pixel density (240 ppi compared to the 267 ppi of the nearest comparable handset, the Note 2), it makes up for in readability and brightness - text is large and clear on the handset, making eBook reading and web browsing very comfortable, not to mention watching videos. Watching movies on the device is great, nearly as good an experience as using a 7-inch tablet for the same purpose, and the loudspeaker clean enough to negate the need for headphones the whole time. The screen also supports a "Gloves" mode, letting those in colder climes ramp up the sensitivity of the screen in order to be able to use it without removing mittens.DSCF3317.JPGUnder the hood, the Ascend Mate features a 1.5GHz quad-core processor, backed by 2GB of RAM. That's a premium spec, but the handset's performance just doesn't match it - even the most basic of tasks, such as inputting text, results in noticeable lag, and 3D gaming performance is well below what you'd expect form a quad-core chipset. What's causing this disparity is unclear, and though most basic phone tasks aren't massively affected, it's noticeably more sluggish when sat next to other quad-core phones. Frustratingly, it's a widely varying performance too - playback of a 720p video didn't strain the phone, but messaging did. There's a capable processor in here somewhere but something is dragging it down. It may well be the bespoke UI, which we'll detail next.

Interface and apps
2013-06-07 15.09.49.png2013-06-07 14.59.18.png
Though running Android Jelly Bean, the Huawei Ascend Mate uses the company's unique Emotion UI, giving the handset a few significant differences when compared to stock Android.

It makes use of a single Huawei-built widget that shows date and time, weather reports, music controls and favourite contacts, and can have dozens of different looks applied to it that tweaks the style of the rest of the phone too. App icons get unique different identifiers between each theme, while lockscreens vary in style wildly, even if offering the same basic functionality, (letting you drag small icons to an unlock button to quickly access the dialler, messaging and camera) Every Ascend owner could have a markedly different looking phone than the next without even diving into what's on offer from the Google Play Android store.
2013-06-07 15.02.01.png2013-06-07 15.46.17.png
There's also an intriguing option called the "Suspend Button", which can be placed at six hotspots around the edge of each screen, sitting over the rest of the UI constantly. Tapping it gives quick access to a note taking application, messaging, the camera and calculator. To be honest, we didn't find much use for it, but there's always someone out there who will find this sort of thing invaluable. Either way, it's an optional feature, so you don't need to get hung up over it if it's not for you.

Frustratingly however, it does away with the staple Android app drawer, which initially had me very complexed. Instead, all downloaded apps hit one of the homescreens straight away, rather than optionally being stored in the drawer. You'll have to rely on folders in order to keep your less-regularly used apps in check, making the experience far more like Apple's iOS, though not entirely as intuitive, given the expectations one arrives at Android with.
2013-06-07 15.04.41.png2013-06-07 15.05.41.png
Accessing notifications and settings is handled nicely though. As you'd expect from an Android phone, swiping down from the top reveals updates from apps, messages and emails from contacts. Along the top however is a scrollable row of buttons, letting you tap controls including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off. It's an efficient system.

Other than that, Huawei keep it simple when it comes to pre-installed apps. As well as access to the Google Play store, the full suite of Google apps come pre-installed (Chrome browser, Maps, Google+, et al), as well as Facebook and Twitter. Kingsoft Office is on hand for document editing - something you may find yourself considering more often given the screen size - while there's also a file manager, flashlight, DLNA sharing app and backup manager among the handful of other pre-installed applications. While not as good as the Chrome browser overall, Huawei's own web browser has a feature we still wish was more prevalent in smartphone browsers - text-reflow, letting even words from oversized web-page widths run comfortably without the need to pan.

Contacts, Calling and Messaging
2013-06-07 15.04.05.png2013-06-07 15.00.51.png
Considering the highly-stylised themes offered up by Huawei on the Ascend Mate, the Contacts book and dialler are starkly minimalist. Each uses a plain white screen with black text on grey-tinted buttons. Within the Contacts app, you'll get a splash of colour if your pals have a photo associated with them, which the phone will automatically display alongside their name. There's no Facebook or Twitter integration though, so all contacts will come from your Google Account or SIM card.

The dialler app simply has a list of recent calls above its numbers, sitting empty if you've yet to call anyone. It does have T9 predictive dialling though, letting you tap out letters of a contact's name rather than their number in order to find them. Calls on the whole were clear and cleanly audible on both ends of the line, and we experienced no notable signalling drop out.

The default messaging app and keyboard keep things similarly minimal, with the same white/grey design. Adding multiple contacts to a message is simple thanks to a button that jumps straight to the Contacts app, letting you select multiple recipients at once.
2013-06-07 15.01.47.png
We're not totally sold on the keyboard though. It's a good size (and is scalable to your tastes) given all the space it has to play with, and the haptic-feedback is very strong in the handset, giving a very tactile rumble to every key press. However, auto-correction seems a bit off, and it's not as easy to fix mistakes as some word-tapping solutions offered by rival phones.

As well as Huawei's basic exchange/webmail email account app, the Gmail app is also pre-installed, which is a fantastic mobile build of the desktop variant. Gmail users will be totally at home labelling and starring emails and scrolling through long chains of messages from the same recipient. There's also great search functionality built in, meaning you can easily dive into an inbox brimming with thousands of messages and pull out the one you're after.

Still and Video cameras
DSCF3314.JPGThe Huawei Ascend has a 2MP camera round the front, perfectly adequate for video calling, and an 8MP sensor for serious still photos and video capture around the back.

Though there's a few nifty software additions, such as Instagram like features, some mad facial distortion effects and colour filters, as well as a speedy shutter, the captured results are average at best. Photos look their best when viewed on the handset's screen - popping them onto a PC exposes plenty of artefacts, though colour reproduction is accurate. The interface at least is clean and easily navigable, letting you access a few basic scene selection options with ease.2013-06-07 15.00.29.pngVideo capture tops out at an odd 1920 x 1088 resolution, making for an ever-so-slightly taller image than a standard Full HD video. To the naked eye it's almost imperceptible, but it'll likely play havoc with a TV's overscan settings if you're looking to play back videos recorded here on the bigscreen.

Video capture is reasonably good. Contrast levels are fairly rich, with the image detailed and sharp, aided by a modicum of stabilisation. There's touch focus too, letting you set the frame's main subject.

Battery Life

The Ascend Mate's battery life is really rather wonderful, helped no doubt by being a size large enough to have ample room for a capacious 4050mAh battery pack. With a screen so bright and large paired with a quad-core processor, you'd expect the ascend Mate to eat through its power supply at a good clip, but it manages to eek out considerable spells without needing a top up.

Running video streaming, video playback, web browsing and music playback tests, the battery averaged around 7 hours under a heavy load. Considering only those constantly jacked into The Matrix will sit for seven hours straight on their phones, we expect you could manage two straight days without needing to reach for the charger. It certainly worked out that way for us on occasion during testing.

review-line.JPG
Verdict:

Huawei's Ascend Mate is an unremarkable phone with a remarkably good screen. It's UI is sure to be divisive, a kitchen sink approach that will alienate long-time Android fans despite offering plenty of built-in customisation features. Camera performance is middling, but most frustrating is the processor performance. Everything feels intermittently sluggish, and the reasoning behind it remains unclear, making it difficult to combat effectively. As a multimedia handset it's commendable, and film fans have a lovely portable screen to watch their favourite shows and movies on here. But as a phone it's just too big to comfortably use. There's definitely an audience for a phone this big, but try it out if possible before committing to buy even if you're enamoured with its admittedly lovely screenreview-line.JPG

3/5

review-line.JPG

©2014 Shiny Digital Privacy Policy
Related Posts with Thumbnails