Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Google Pixel XL Review


So I've already reviewed the Note 3--my previous phone before I purchased a Google Pixel XL. Now I've totally switched over and here are my thoughts on the Google's elusive and pricey flagship phone (which will probably be replaced by the rumored Pixel 2 in October 2017 and is currently being overshadowed by the hot new Samsung Galaxy S8).
  • Latest Android Version (Nougat) without extraneous crap - After using a Samsung phone, with its bastardization of Android (okay maybe bastardization is too strong a word) it's refreshing to use vanilla Android Nougat for the first time. Android in its purest form... Heisenberg would be proud. There's nothing really revolutionary about it though compared to iOS or Android Lollipop (I skipped Marshmallow because there was no official update for the Note 3), but I like the speed and responsiveness of the interface on the Pixel XL. "Now on Tap" and the "Google Assistant" seem like useful features but they haven't really been life-changing or vast improvements over the version of Google Now I'm familiar with from Android 5....yet.
  • Better Battery Life / Faster Charging - The Pixel XL definitely lasts much longer than the Note 3. I don't know how much of that is due to the better battery management in the latest version of Android (the "doze" feature, which prevents apps from waking the phone excessively) or if  it's because of other mysterious unknown factors. The Pixel XL can easily last for the entire day without having to be too stingy on phone usage or without fiddling with the settings too much (though I'm accustomed to tinkering with settings excessively in order to squeeze the best possible battery life out of my phone, which is a hard habit to break). Even if the Pixel is low on battery, there's fast charging from the included/supported AC adapters/cables which allow you to quickly add more power in a pinch (the google website says you can add up to 7 hours in just 15 minutes of rapid charging). After reading about the Moto Z Play's amazing battery life, though, I'm still left with a little phone envy. I still have to charge my phone more often than I'd like (remember when Nokias would last for days without recharging?) and I still need to turn off the Pixel's features to save battery. The Moto Z Play appears to be a modern phone that raises the bar for battery life standards. The Pixel XL is better than my old phone, but still not where I'd like it to be in terms of smartphone battery life.
  • Migrating Data From my old phone - Transferring data from my Note 3 to the Pixel was pretty simple. You use the charging cable and connect the other end to the Pixel with the included micro usb-to-usb-c adapter. It transferred my contacts, custom ringtones, etc, but it had problems transferring over my existing wifi settings and I had to re-download all of my apps (possibly an unavoidable inconvenience since you probably want the latest versions of the app and not sure if the apps downloaded for Android 5 will work on Android 7?).
  • Speaking of slick... the Pixel XL is kinda slippery - I'd be very careful with it and recommend getting a case that will allow you to get a better grip on the phone. I got this one.
  • No waterproofing - The phone isn't waterproof/resistant like a lot of the newer phones, but I've never had problems dropping my phones into the toilet or accidentally jumping into a body of water with my phone in my pocket or getting a cooler of Gatorade dumped on my head (knock on wood). If you're careful and you get a case like I mentioned above so the phone won't easily slip out of your hands (or spend more and get a waterproof case or pouch), it shouldn't matter unless you really like showering/swimming with your phone.
  • The camera, backed by some impressive Google software, lives up to the hype - Check out this comparison of shots from different phones, taken within a few seconds of each other in the same lighting conditions.
Galaxy Note 3: SCREW YOU THERE'S NOT ENOUGH LIGHT HERE TO TAKE A PICTURE

iPhone 6S: Alright I'll take a picture in these dim conditions but I'm not really gonna like it

Google Pixel XL: LIGHT IS OVERRATED
The Pixel's camera can take some pretty amazing photos in low-light conditions, but you've got to trust HDR+. It's not always a miracle worker though and can't save every dimly-lit picture you're going to take. While the Pixel is not going to replace my DSLR completely, this camera is awesome for everyday use and capturing those special moments in your life, like when the sun is setting behind your dog taking a dump at Fort Funston. There still is much debate about which phone camera is the best. There have been instances when iPhone 6S pics came out better than the Pixel's despite being a year older (see the picture comparison in the linked article to my Note 3 review). The iPhone 7, with its image stabilization and larger aperture, would give a more interesting comparison. I'm not very familiar with iPhone 7's camera and pics but the general consensus seems to be that both cameras are really good, and each camera excels under certain conditions, but it may come down to personal preference more than anything, as I've seen articles where the iPhone 7's phone comes out on top and others where they say the Pixel's camera has the edge. I also hear that the Samsung S7, S7 Edge, and S8 are also strong contenders for the coveted "best phone camera" award.

Here are some night shots with the Google Pixel XL taken in and around the Presidio of San Francisco. They don't always come out great (like the last one of the Palace of Fine Arts) and if you zoom in it's not always that sharp, but overall I think these are pretty good for handheld tripodless shots with a phone camera (these shots are straight from the Pixel camera with no editing).
Ok this one was from Polk street, not near the Presidio














Here's a video taken from the Pixel XL at night, of my dog being freaked out by a statue:



Here's some slow-mo video:

  • The Awkwardly-Placed Fingerprint Sensor - I found it weird having the fingerprint sensor on the back after using my wife's iPhone 6S, but I got used to it (hmmm, that wounds kinda weird... might want to go back and re-edit that sentence later or just leave it in for comedic purposes). If you're serious about keeping your phone secure though, it might be better to leave the fingerprint sensor off and use a long pin/password or a complicated pattern instead.
  • Live Wallpaper - Not sure about these new wallpapers. First, I'm concerned about battery usage and if it's worth it to get a slightly more dynamic wallpaper. Will need to test first. Second, I'm not sure what's so great about the Live Earth Wallpapers. For example, why get a 3D rendering from Google Earth of say, Shinjuku, when you can get a better, real image of Shinjuku as your wallpaper. Sure, it may not be animated, but at least it won't look like you made your wallpaper out of a screenshot from Sim City.
  • Blank, unused space at the bottom of the phone (the part of every Pixel review where the reviewer loudly complains about bezels) -  Take a look at this picture of the Pixel XL:

If you look at the bottom, it feels like there's a bunch of wasted space there (the dreaded bezel which many new phones have shunned and banished). There aren't any physical/capacitive buttons down there, and the unused part of phone feels weird to me after having used phones where not even a single square millimeter of the phone is wasted. I'm sure it was probably made like this to balance the top part of the phone where the speaker and the front camera are located or due to how the innards of the Pixel are laid out, but I think it would've been cool if they could've either added buttons, moved the fingerprint sensor there, extended the screen, or if they could have made the phone smaller/lighter by removing that part. I'm sure there's some good engineering/design reason that the Pixel is the way it is.. but the waste of space is a small nitpick from me. I should also mention that you get free unlimited storage of all your photos and videos at full resolution on Google Photos with the Pixel, which is a great perk to have and helps you free up lots of space on your Pixel.

  • Google Assistant - I used Google Now since it came out a few android versions ago and now it's just called "Assistant" although for all intents and purposes it's almost the same thing. It is useful in that you see notifications about flights or appointments from your email/calendar, gives you traffic updates on your regular commute, can bring up search results based on whatever's on your screen (Google Now on Tap), but you need to give Google access and permission to keep track of almost everything you do on your phone, like your web & app history, location history, etc. There's not really much granularity about what you can give Google access to. It's almost all or nothing, because when you decline to give Google complete access, it limits what you can do with Assistant (basically makes it a glorified web portal page). It also constantly has annoying notifications and reminders begging you to give Google access. Even if you ask Google something that has nothing to do with your web/app/location history, like "Call X" it won't work without giving up your web activity.

Conclusion


Pros:
  • Camera - awesome camera, which uses Google magic and HDR+ to make your photos even better.
  • Pure Unadulterated Android Nougat with the latest updates directly from Google.
  • Google Assistant is pretty useful but... (see negative comment below)

Cons:

  • Hard to find - The Pixel is available to buy unlocked from Google's online store, but it's constantly out of stock. You could also buy the Verizon version as well but not sure if you can use it on other networks.
  • Expensive - $834 bucks (after tax) for the unlocked base XL model (however with Google financing you can spread out the payments over 24 months, interest-free). T-Mobile has a promotion where you can get back $325 in credit on your T-Mobile bill over 24 months if you bring a Pixel to use on their network. Check if the offer is still valid and applies to your plan first, but that could make the price more bearable. The Pixel's still pricey--compare that to the Moto Z Play which has a much better battery (though it has a crappier camera) for only $450. If the Moto Z Play had the Pixel's software to back its camera, I'd totally be trading my Pixel XL. Also, with the Pixel 2 coming in late 2017, this iteration of the Pixel will probably come down in price.
  • HUGE BEZELS are a waste of space on the front of the phone. The phone has been called "ugly" but I don't think I'd go that far. A phone is a phone. How ugly can a small rectangular object be?
  • Google Assistant requires you to give up a lot of privacy. For example, you can't even say "Call X" without giving up permission to all of your web and app activity to Google.

Verdict: The Google Pixel XL is a solid (but expensive) phone with an awesome camera, but it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend it right now, since it will probably be replaced by the Pixel 2 in less than a year. If you absolutely must buy a phone now, the Moto Z Play with it's multi-day battery life and cheaper price would be a better deal overall for most people. You can also probably still find the Nexus 6P around if you're looking for a bargain as well. If you really want a Pixel phone, though, I recommend waiting for the Pixel 2 to come out, which will give you more options to choose from. If you're impatient like me and want Nougat and the famed Pixel camera RIGHT NOW, by all means, go for it. I'm having a blast with it.

PS--You should also have a good hard look at your privacy settings and what you're willing and unwilling to share with Google. Assistant, one of the most touted features of Android Nougat, becomes almost useless unless you're giving Google access to everything you're doing on your phone.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lightroom HDR vs Google's HDR+

When I saw the news that the Lightroom Mobile app had a new feature to create HDR images, I naturally thought "That sounds really similar to the HDR+ feature touted on the Google Pixel XL phone. I wondered what the difference is? Did one of the main reasons I bought this phone just become available to all other phones for free?" After extensive research failed me (a couple of Google searches), I decided that if you want to get something done, maybe you should attempt to half-ass it yourself.

First, the HDR feature in Lightroom Mobile is very processor intensive, so it only works on a handful of phones right now (Currently it works on the iPhone 6S/SE and above and for Android, it works on the Samsung S7/S7 Edge, and the Google Pixel/XL phones). So in that regard, the HDR functionality from Lightroom isn't really quite available to many other phones yet.

How does it compare to Google's HDR+ though? Well, in my unscientific tests, I found that when you take a picture with the Pixel's default camera app, it has HDR+ on by default and it's so fast you don't really even notice it processing. If you try to check your picture immediately after taking it, you may see an "processing HDR+" notification. Typically it finishes processing the HDR in seconds and you get a pretty good picture. However, when you get an image you don't like, I'm not sure if there's a way to go back and easily make adjustments to the HDR because all you get is a jpeg.

Adobe Lightroom, on the other hand, requires you to take a picture through the Lightroom app. It takes much longer to process (it takes 3 raws then combines them into a new raw) and it takes up a ton of space on your phone to store the raw dng files. The positive side of it is that you can make adjustments to the HDR as much as you like after the fact. Exporting to a jpeg takes a few extra steps and a little more processing time but you can get pretty good results. The automatic result isn't always as good as HDR+ out of the box, but you can always tune it in the Lightroom app. I did notice in one image there were some artifacts in the resulting Lightroom HDR though (see below), which is something I hadn't experienced yet from HDR+

What's the verdict?

For something with fast and consistently good results, Google's HDR+ is pretty solid. In most situations you won't have time to open up Lightroom, click on the camera, and take a steady shot. With HDR+, you can open up the camera instantly (there's a shortcut to open up the camera by double-pressing the Pixel's camera button) and even if you're not completely still, the result you get from HDR+ is still usually pretty good. Nothing can really beat the speed and convenience of how HDR+ is integrated into the Google Pixel camera.

If you have time to wait, extra storage space, and have a picture you really want to get right, it might be best to take a Google HDR+ shot first, then switch to Lightroom and take an HDR there too. That way if you're unhappy with the HDR+ shot, you can go back to the raws in Lightroom and make an image more to your liking.

I should also mention that HDR+ can do some amazing post-processing to improve low-light images by subtracting random noise from the burst of shots it takes (at least that's how I think it works on a simplistic level). If you try to take a low light picture with Lightroom HDR, you'll get something like this:


Lightroom HDR at night

Compare that to HDR+ used to take a picture
under the same conditions


Samples

In the examples below, the HDR+ pictures are more saturated have more contrast compared to the Lightroom HDRs, but I believe they could've been tuned in Lightroom to match the HDR+ photos more closely, but I was pretty lazy and just did some basic adjustments. Lightroom was making the HDRs to bright by default so I had to tone it down. The highlights were already tuned down as low as they could possibly go.
HDR+

Lightroom HDR

HDR+

Lightroom HDR.. the speedometer is much clearer in this pic

HDR+ (the outside sky looks a little too saturated and blown out here)

Lightroom HDR (the HDR looks a little more natural here, but when zooming in to where the blankets overlap with the window, there are some artifacts that don't exist in the HDR+ picture... check the closeup below)

HDR+ (left) doesn't have the artifacts seen on the Lightroom HDR (right). It looks like chromatic aberration along with an outline around the blanket



HDR+
Lightroom HDR
HDR+

Lightroom HDR.. for this pic, the HDR+ pic just looks way better. I tried to match the  Lightroom HDR to the HDR+ photo but didn't have much luck.



HDR+

Lightroom HDR (brighter and more detail captured under the tree, so I'd say Lightroom HDR wins this time)

HDR+

Lightroom HDR (this one looks a little washed out/blurrier)
HDR+
Lightroom HDR (the lightroom HDR in this case wasn't as sharp as the HDR+ pic)
HDR+

Lightroom HDR (this one came out better than the HDR+ photo by default)





Summary (tldr;)


Google's HDR+
Pros:
fast
convenient
very good results probably 95% of the time (I made up that number)
can improve low-light images dramatically

Cons:
making adjustments afterwards to a jpeg doesn't give you as much control

Lightroom Mobile HDR
Pros:
More control over the final image and access to the raw images

Cons:
slow
takes up more storage space
sometimes has artifacts or bad default results that you need to tune to make look better
doesn't help with low-light images the way HDR+ does

Monday, April 10, 2017

Galaxy Note 3 Review in 2017 (I Like Big Phones and I Cannot Lie)

Oh, my, God Becky, look at his phone 
It is so big, it looks like
one of those rap guys' phones


I'm switching over to a new phone (the fabled and hard-to-find Google Pixel XL), and I wanted to look back and reflect on my previous phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (no not the exploding one). When I bought the Note 3, it had already been out for over a year, and the Note 4 had just come out, so I was able to buy it at a discount. It was $450 from T-Mobile at the time, but now I believe you can get it for under $250 online. I was originally looking for something extremely cheap like a Moto G but decided I wanted to play XCOM: Enemy Within on the go and also thought I could make good use of the Note 3's S Pen. This trusty phone, despite some of the problems I list below, has been very reliable and has been with us through thick and thin... we've taken it on our travels to Disneyland, to Europe, the Philppines, Mexico, and Hawaii...  This phone (plus TMobile's free international data) has been a life-saver on international trips.

Screen 

The screen is great, and possibly the biggest selling point of the Note 3. It's very crisp and clear and I've gotten so used to the large screen size, going back to a smaller phone would admittedly be an adjustment (that's what she said). I haven't had problems fitting the phone into my pants pocket or operating the phone with one hand (that's what she said... although if you try it while jogging or operating heavy machinery then you've got bigger problems than one-handed phone use). And while my Note 3 has scratches, dings and some gross gunk stuck to the plastic on the back, the screen remains virtually pristine. I did have a screen protector on at one point but I ditched it long ago and I've never had problems. With larger screen sizes becoming the norm, I didn't look like as big of a weirder as I thought carrying around a huge phablet.

Battery

The battery life has been disappointing, although I've never had a phone where I could leave all of its features on and have it last for the whole day. I'm hoping the Pixel XL bucks that trend but the jury's still out. After upgrading the Note 3 from Android 4 to 5, I could barely get through the entire day without charging, despite the Note 3's 3,200mAh battery. Using GPS with Google Maps or Waze seems to drain the battery extra fast. On a 30 minute drive to work in the morning, The battery usually goes from 100% down to about 70%. I always have to keep a spare charger at work and in the car, or keep an external battery with me whenever we were traveling. Not sure if it's my fault and the apps I've installed (shouldn't have installed Battery Sucker) that are draining the battery or just stupid Android Lollipop, but I had a ritual of turning on and off features as necessary whenever I needed  to conserve power. I'm accustomed to it now but I sometimes wish I could just leave everything on and not have to worry about it killing my battery. When I read about phones like the Moto Z Play, which can last for days without a recharge, it just makes me want to break down and cry.

A feature which I thought I would take more advantage of is the removable battery. Being able to keep a second battery around to instantly swap out if I'm low seemed like a good idea a couple of years ago (Samsung even had this commercial touting the removal battery "feature") but I was too lazy to order a second battery and I've just been using external battery chargers instead. It also seems like most phones are doing away with the replaceable battery anyway.


Performance

The most intensive game I played on the Note 3 was XCOM Enemy Within, which runs pretty well with only the occasional crash. I feel like age has crept up on this phone, though, as there are times when opening apps can feel a little sluggish (XCOM takes a little while to load on the Note 3, but on the Pixel XL the load time is way shorter). I'd also like to install the latest Android on this phone but seems like Samsung has abandoned the Note 3. I could install a custom rom but who knows how safe those are and if the S Pen would still be supported?

I've never had issues with using up the 32 GB of storage space on my phone (I remove apps and back up all my pictures religiously, which allows you to use Google Photos' "free up disk space" feature) and haven't really had to use the external micro sd slot but it was nice to have it there "just in case."

Interface

I'm not a big fan of Samsung's TouchWiz UI and all the extraneous apps/overhead they add to Android. The samsung calendar app is impossible to turn off permanently (or I just couldn't figure out how to do it in 2.5 years). That being said, I can't really say whether I like Android better or iOS better... they're almost the same, for all intents and purposes. Android does give you access to a proper filesystem and makes it easier to copy files to your computer by simply connecting through a usb port, while iOS makes copying stuff to and from your phone a chore of ridiculous proportions. Other than that though I don't like one more than the other. They get the job done and get out of the way so you can enjoy your phone.

S Pen

The S Pen is great.. I just wish I had used it more often to practice sketching or for its other neat features. Unfortunately I turned most of the S Pen features off in order to save battery. The pen is probably the thing I'll miss the most but honestly it's not really necessary for a phone. You can do everything with the touch screen and typing on the virtual keyboard is faster for me than scribbling with the S Pen. For sketching, it's useful to have on a phone but I should probably just go back to the old-school method of using physical pencils and paper.

Camera

When the Note 3 first came out, the camera was highly regarded as one of the best available (and even when I first got the Note 3 in late 2014), but now it may be my second least favorite part of the phone (the crappy battery life takes first). The camera app takes about three seconds to open, which doesn't sound like a lot, but if you want to take a quick snap, three seconds is enough to miss important moments, like when my cat tried to hump the dog but realized he has no balls. Can you believe I almost missed filming this precious moment???

Daytime photos are pretty good but low-light and the pictures taken with the Note 3 camera flash are pretty bad. There's an HDR mode which works pretty well but is even more sluggish because it takes a few seconds to process the HDR after taking the picture. In dim light, comparing the Note 3's pictures to more recent phones like the iPhone 6S or Google Pixel reveals just how much detail gets lost in the Note 3 images (see below for comparison images. Why the iPhone 6S and not the 7? We've got to work with what we've got...that being said, the 6S still has a great camera which in some cases in my tests, took better pictures than the newer Google Pixel XL).

When it comes time to take a group picture or a pic of some touristy scenery, we prefer to use my wife's iPhone 6s. It generally gives better, more consistent results. I only used the Note 3 camera when I didn't have my GoPro or DSLR with me (or I didn't feel like pulling one of those out). Now that I have a Pixel XL, we'll see whether we use it more as our main casual camera or not.


Camera Comparisons

What mobile phone review would be complete without comparing some pictures? Here are some unedited pictures taken in dimly lit areas with different phones for comparison in an extremely unscientific and uncontrolled comparison test. These pictures were taken within seconds of each other under the same lighting conditions using auto mode and no flash.

Galaxy Note 3 (can't even see my cat's beautiful face here)
iPhone 6S (looks a little washed out and blurry but still better than the Note 3. Still dark though)


Galaxy Note 3 (really loses a lot of the detail in the shadows)

iPhone 6S (still a little blurry but overall the picture is better and retains more detail)


Galaxy Note 3 (left) vs Google Pixel XL (right)


Notice how the dark areas from the Note 3 (left) are seen more clearly with more detail in the Pixel XL photo (right). The Pixel image looks sharper, too.

Galaxy Note 3 (left) vs Google Pixel XL (right)


In this pic, the Pixel XL (right) has a lot less noise than the Note 3 (left)
Note 3
Pixel XL




Now here are some pics comparing all three phones (iPhone 6s, Galaxy Note 3, and Pixel XL)
iPhone 6S
Galaxy Note 3
Google Pixel XL
The iPhone6S took the sharper picture here of my dog. The Pixel took a good shot but it didn't seem to be as sharp when I zoomed in. The Pixel's color is also cooler (cooler as in temperature, not cool as in awesome). I prefer the cooler image, but that's just personal preference.




iPhone 6S

Galaxy Note 3

Google Pixel XL
The iPhone 6S took a better picture of my cat looking out the window.






iPhone 6S

Galaxy Note 3

Google Pixel XL
The 6S and the Pixel do a better job capturing the texture of our cat's blanket


Note 3

iPhone 6S

Pixel XL
Wow, in this test, the Google Pixel's low-light capabilities really shine. Believe it or not, these three were all shot under the same lighting conditions. The Note 3 wasn't even able to get anything from this scene. The iPhone 6S got a decent image but the Pixel really didn't have any trouble at all getting a bright, detailed photo.


Final test: early morning, window blinds closed.. almost no ambient light. 
Pixel XL

iPhone 6S

Galaxy Note 3
In these extremely low-light test, the 6S can barely make out any detail at all, while the Note 3 seemed to say "screw you I'm not even gonna try." Even the Pixel is really struggling under these lighting conditions.

THE VERDICT: Don't take pictures in the dark

The Note 3 has been a great, reliable phone. If I didn't want a better camera and a better battery life, I could have probably continued to use this phone for at least another two years. As it is, I'll probably keep the Note 3 around as my home "tablet" with wifi only (goodbye trusty, but extremely slow 2012 Nexus 7). If you need the latest phone technology, speed, and the ability to play the latest games, you'll probably have to go elsewhere. But if you just need a solid phone that gets the job done, lets you do basic you surfing, check email, social media, etc and has a pressure sensitive pen, the Note 3 can be a great bargain. However, you should also check out newer low-cost Android phones like the new Moto G Plus ($250) if you don't want a four year old phone that isn't really supported by Samsung anymore. I've also been hearing good things about the Moto Z Play (~$450 unlocked) and its amazing battery life.