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Review: The iPad Pro and the power of the Pen(cil)

Laptop users have been focused for a very long time on whether the iPad Pro is going to be forced upon them as a replacement device.

Depending on who you believe, Apple included, it has at one point been considered that, or a pure tablet with functions to be decided completely by the app development community, or something all its own.

But with the iPad Pro, the Smart Keyboard and the new version of Apple’s Pencil, some things are finally starting to become clear.

The new hardware, coupled with the ability and willingness of companies like Adobe to finally ship completely full-featured versions of Photoshop that handle enormous files and all of the tools and brushes of the desktop version, are opening a new door on what could be possible with iPad Pro — if Apple are ready to embrace it.

Pencil

Does the double tap gesture feel natural? Yep. I’ve been using electronic drawing surfaces since the first generation Wacom that had a serial port connector. Many of them over the years have had some sort of ‘action button’ that allowed you to toggle or click to change drawing modes, invoke erasers or pallets and generally save you from having to move away from your drawing surface as much as possible.

That’s the stated and obvious goal of the Apple Pencil’s new double-tap as well. Many of the internal components are very similar to the first generation Pencil, but one of the new ones is a capacitive band that covers the bottom third of the pencil from the tip upwards. This band is what enables the double tap and it is nicely sensitive. It feels organic and smooth to invoke it, and you can adjust the cadence of tap in the Pencil’s control panel.

The panel also allows you to swap from eraser to palate as your alternate, and to turn off the ‘tap to notes’ feature which lets you tap the pencil to you screen to instantly launch the Notes app. When you do this it’s isolated to the current note only, just like photos. One day I’d love to see alternate functions for Pencil tap-to-wake but it makes sense that this is the one they’d start with.

I never once double tapped it accidentally and it felt great to swap to an eraser without lifting out of work mode — the default behavior.

But Apple has also given developers a lot of latitude to offer different behaviors for that double tap. Procreate, one of my favorite drawing apps, offers a bunch of options including radial menus that reflect the current tool or mode and switching between one tool and another directly. Apple’s guidelines instruct developers to be cautions in implementing double tap — but they also encourage them to think about what logical implementations of the tool look like for users.

The new Pencil does not offer any upgrades in tracking accuracy, speed or detection. It works off of essentially the same tracking system as was available to the first Pencil on previous iPad Pros. But, unfortunately, the Pencil models are not cross compatible. The new Pencil will not work on old iPad Pros and the old pencil does not work on the new model. This is due to the pairing and charging process being completely different.

Unlike the first one, though, the new Pencil both pairs and charges wirelessly — a huge improvement. There is no little cap to lose, you don’t have to plug it into the base of the iPad like a rectal thermometer to charge and the pairing happens simultaneously as you charge.

The ‘top’ (for lack of a better term) edge of the iPad Pro in horizontal mode now features a small opaque window. Behind that window are the charging coils for the Pencil. Inside the Pencil itself is a complimentary coil, flanked by two arrays of ferrite magnets. These mate with magnetic Halbach arrays inside the chassis of the iPad. Through the use of shaped magnetic fields, Apple pulls a bit of alignment trickery here, forcing the pencil to snap precisely to the point where the charging coils are aligned perfectly. This enables you to slap the pencil on top quickly, not even thinking about alignment.

The magnetic connection is tough — almost, but not quite, enough to hold the larger iPad Pro in the air by the pencil — and it should hold on well, but it’s fairly easy to knock off if you come at it from the side, as you would when pulling it off from the front.

There’s also a pleasant on screen indicator now that shows charge level.

When the Pencil launched, I brought it to my Dad, a fine artist who sketches more than anyone I know as a part of his creative process. He liked the tracking and the access to digital tools, but specifically called out the glossy finish as being inferior to matte and the fact that there was no flat edge to rest against your finger.

The new Pencil has both a matte finish and a new flat edge. Yes, the edge is there to stop the pencil from rolling and also to allow it to snap to the edge of the iPad for charging, but the ability to register one edge of your drawing instrument against the inside of your control finger is highly under-valued by anyone who isn’t an artist. It’s hugely important in control for sketching. Plenty of pencils are indeed round, but a lot of those are meant to be held in an overhand grip – like a pointing device that you use to shade, for the most part. The standard tripod grip is much better suited to having at least one flat edge.

Your range of motion is limited in tripod but it can provide for more precision, where the overhand grip is more capable and versatile, it’s also harder to use precisely. The new Pencil is now better to use in both of these widely used grips, which should make artists happy.

These fiddly notions of grip may seem minor, but I (and my drawing callous) can tell you that it is much more than it seems. Grip is everything in sketching.

The Pencil is one of the most impressive version 2 devices that Apple has released ever. It scratches off every major issue that users had with the V1. A very impressive bit of execution here that really enhances the iPad Pro’s usability, both for drawing and quick notes and sketches. The only downside is that you have to buy it separately.

Drawing and sketching with the new Pencil is lovely, and remains a completely stand-out experience that blows away even dedicated devices like the Wacom Cintiq and remains a far cut above the stylus experience in the Surface Pro devices.

Beyond that there are some interesting things already happening with the Pencil’s double tap. In Procreate, for instance, you can choose a different double tap action for many different tools and needs. It’s malleable, depending on the situation. It’s linked to the context of what you’re working on, or it’s not, depending on your (and the developer’s) choices.

One minute you’re popping a radial menu that lets you manipulate whole layers, another you’re drawing and swapping to an eraser, and it still feels pretty easy to follow because it’s grounded in the kind of tool that you’re using at the moment.

Especially in vertical mode, it’s easy to see why touch with fingers is not great for laptops or hybrids. The Pencil provides a much needed precision and delicacy of touch that feels a heck of a lot different than pawing at the screen with your snausages trying to tap a small button. Reach, too, can be a problem here and the Pencil solves a lot of the problems in hitting targets that are 10” away from the keyboard or more.

The Pencil is really moving upwards in the hierarchy from a drawing accessory to a really mandatory pointing and manipulation tool for iPad users. It’s not quiiiite there yet, but there’s big potential, as the super flexible options in Procreate display.

There’s an enormous amount of high level execution going on with Pencil, and by extension, iPad. Both the Pencil and the AirPods fly directly in the face of arguments that Apple can’t deliver magical experiences to users built on the backs of its will and ability to own and take responsibility of more of its hardware and software stack than any other manufacturer.

Speakers and microphones

There are now 5 microphones, though the iPad Pro still only records in stereo. They record in pairs, with the mics being dynamically used to noise cancel as needed.

Th speakers are solid, producing some pretty great stereo sound for such a thin device. The speakers are also used more intelligently now, with all 4 active for FaceTime calls, something that wasn’t possible previously without the 5-mic array due to feedback.

Let’s talk about ports, baby/Let’s talk about USB-C

I’m not exactly an enormous fan of USB-C as a format, but it does have some nice structural advantages over earlier USB formats and, yes, even over Lightning. It’s not the ideal, but it’s not bad. So it’s a pleasant surprise to see Apple conceding that people wanting to use an external monitor at high res, charge iPhones and transfer photos at high speed is more important than sticking to Lightning.

The internal and external rhetoric about Lightning has always been that it was compact, useful and perfect for iOS devices. That rhetoric now has an iPad Pro sized hole in it and I’m fine with that. A pro platform that isn’t easily extensible isn’t really a pro platform.

It’s not a coincidence that Apple’s laptops and its iPad Pro devices all now run on USB-C. This trickle down may continue, but for now it stems directly from what Apple believes people will want from these devices. An external monitor was at the top of the list in all of Apple’s messaging on stage and in my discussions afterwards. They believe that there is a certain segment of Pro users that will benefit greatly from running an extended (not just mirrored) display up to 5K resolution.

In addition, there are a bunch of musical instruments and artist’s peripherals that will connect directly now. There’s even a chance (but not an official one) that the port could provide some externally powered accessories with enough juice to function.

The port now serves a full 7.5W to devices plugged in to charge, and you can plug in microphones and other accessories via the USB-C port, though there is no guarantee any of them will get enough power from the port if they previously required external power.

Pretty much all MacBook dongles will work on the iPad Pro by the way. So whatever combos of stuff you’ve come up with will have additional uses here.

The port is USB 3.1 gen 2 capable, making for transfers up to 10GBPS. Practically, what this means for most people is faster transfer from cameras or SD Card readers for photos. Though the iPad Pro does not support mass storage or external hard drive support directly to the Files app, apps that have their own built in browsing can continue to read directly from hard drives and now the transfer speeds will be faster.

There is a USB-C to headphone adapter, for sale separately. It also works with Macs, if that’s something that excites you. The basic answer I got on no headphone jacks, by the way, is that one won’t even fit in the distance from the edge of the screen to the bezel, and that they needed the room for other components anyway.

The new iPad Pro also ships with a new charger brick. It’s a USB-C power adapter that’s brand new to iPad Pro.

A12X and performance

The 1TB model of larger iPad Pro and, I believe, the 1TB version of the smaller iPad Pro, have 6GB of RAM. I believe, according to what I’ve been able to discern, that the models that come with less than 1TB of storage have less than that – around 4GB total. I don’t know how that will affect their performance, because I was not supplied with those models.

The overall performance of the A12X on this iPad Pro though, is top notch. Running many apps at once in split-screen spaces or in slideover mode is no problem, and transitions between apps are incredibly smooth. Drawing and sketching in enormous files in ProCreate was super easy, and I encountered zero chugging across AR applications (buttery smooth), common iPad apps and heavy creative tools. This is going to be very satisfying for people that edit large photos in Lightroom or big video files in iMovie.

The GeekBench benchmarks for this iPad are, predictably, insane. Check out these single-core/multi-core results:

iPad Pro 12.9” 5027 / 18361

MacBook Pro 13” 2018 5137 / 17607

MacBook Pro 15” 2018 6-core  5344 / 22561

iMac 27” 2017 5675 / 19325

As you can see, the era of waiting for desktop class ARM processors to come to the iPad Pro is over. They’re here, and they’re integrated tightly with other Apple designed silicon across the system to achieve Apple’s ends.

There has basically been two prevailing camps on the ARM switch. One side is sure Apple will start slowly, launching one model of MacBook (maybe the literal MacBook) on ARM and dribbling it out to other models. I was solidly in that camp for a long time. After working on the iPad Pro and seeing the performance, both burst and sustained, across many pro applications, I’ve developed doubts.

The results here, and the performance of the iPad Pro really crystalize the fact that Apple can and will ship ARM processors across its whole line as soon as it feels like it wants to.

There are too many times where we have ended up waiting on new Apple hardware due to some vagary of Intel’s supply chain or silicon focus. Apple is sick of it, I’ve heard grumbling for years about this from inside the company, but they’re stuck with Intel as a partner until they make the leap.

At this point, it’s a matter of time, and time is short.

Camera and Face ID

The camera in the iPad Pro is a completely new thing. It uses a new sensor and a new 5 element lens. This new camera had to be built from the ground up because the iPad Pro is too thin to have used the camera from the iPhone XR or XS or even the previous iPads.

This new camera is just fine image quality wise. It offers Smart HDR, which requires support both from the speedy sensor and the Neural Engine in the A12X. It’s interesting that Apple’s camera team decided to do the extra work to provide a decent camera experience, rather than just making the sensor smaller or falling back to an older design that would work with the thickness, or lack thereof.

Interestingly, this new camera system does not deliver portrait mode from the rear camera, like the iPhone XR. It only gives you portrait from the True Depth camera on front.

iPad photography has always gotten a bad rap. It’s been relegated to jokes about dads holding up tablets at soccer games and theme parks. But the fact remains that the iPad Pro’s screen is probably the best viewfinder ever made.

I do hope that some day it gets real feature-for-feature parity with the iPhone, so I have an excuse to go full dad.

Of similar note, both hardware and software updates have been made to the True Depth array on the front of the iPad Pro in order to make it work in the thinner casing. Those changes, along with additional work in neural net training and tweaking, also support Face ID working in all “four” orientations of the iPad Pro. No matter what way is up, it will unlock, and it does so speedily — just as fast as the iPhone XS generation Face ID system, no question.

I also believe that it works at slightly wider angles now, though it may be my imagination. By nature, you’re often further away from the screen on the iPad Pro than you are on your phone, but still, I feel like I can be much more ‘off axis’ to the camera and it still unlocks. This is good news on iPad because you can be in just about any working posture and you’re fine.

Keyboard

Like the Pencil, the Smart Keyboard Folio is an optional accessory. And, like the Pencil, I don’t think you’re really getting the full utility of the iPad Pro without it. There have been times where I’ve written more than 11,000 words at a stretch on iPad for very focused projects, and its ability to be a distraction free word production machine are actually wildly under sung, I feel. There are not many electronic devices better for just crashing out words without much else to get in the way than iPad with a good text editor.

Editing, however, has always been more of a mixed bag. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet with the latest iPad Pro, but it’s a far better scenario for mixed-activity sessions. With the help of the Pencil and the physical keyboard, it is becoming a very livable situation for someone whose work demands rapid context switching and a variety of different activities that require call-and-response feedback.

The keyboard itself is fine. It feels nearly identical to the previous keyboard Apple offered for iPads, and isn’t ideal in terms of key press and pushback, but makes for an ok option that you can get used to.

The design of the folio is something else. It’s very cool, super stable and shows off Apple’s willingness to get good stupid with clever implementation.

A collection of 120 magnets inside the case are arranged in the same Halbach arrays that hold the pencil on. Basically, sets of magnets arranged to point their force outwards. These arrays allow the case to pop on to the iPad Pro with a minimum of fuss and automatically handle the micr-alignment necessary to make sure the the contacts of the smart connector make a good connection to power and communicate with the keyboard.

The grooves that allow for two different positions of upright use are also magnetized, and couple with magnets inside the body of the iPad Pro.

The general effect here is that the Smart Keyboard is much much more stable than previous generations and, I’m happy to report, is approved for lap use. It’s still not going to be quite as stable as a laptop, but you can absolutely slap this on your knees on a train or plane and get work done. That was pretty much impossible with its floppier predecessor.

One big wish for the folio is that it offered an incline that was more friendly to drawing. I know that’s not the purpose of this device specifically, but I found it working so well with Pencil that there was a big hole left by not having an arrangement that would hold the iPad at around the 15-20 degree mark for better leverage and utility while sketching and drawing. I think the addition of another groove and magnet set somewhere on the lower third of the back of the folio would allow for this. I hope to see it appear in the future, though third parties will doubtlessly offer many such cases soon enough for dedicated artists and illustrators.

Design

Though much has been made about the curved corners of the iPad Pro’s casing and the matching curved corners of its screen, the fact is that the device feels much more aggressive in terms of its shape. The edges all fall straight down, instead of back and away, and they’re mated with tight bullnose corners.

The camera bump on the back does not cause the iPad to wobble if you lay it flat on a counter and draw. There’s a basic tripod effect that makes it just fine to scribble on, for those who were worried about that.

The overall aesthetic is much more businesslike and less ‘friendly’ in that very curvy sort of Apple way. I like it, a lot. The flat edges are pretty clearly done that way to let Apple use more of the interior space without having to cede a few millimeters all the way around the edge to unusable space. In every curved iPad, there’s a bit of space all the way around that is pretty much air. Cutting off the chin and forehead of the iPad Pro did a lot to balance the design out and make it more holdable.

There will likely be, and I think justifiably, some comparisons to the design of Microsoft’s Surface Pro and the new blockier design. But the iPads still manage to come in feeling more polished than most of its tablet rivals with details like the matching corner radii, top of the line aluminum finish and super clever use of magnets to keep the exterior free of hooks or latches to attach accessories like the Smart Keyboard.

If you’re debating between the larger and smaller iPad Pro models I can only give you one side of advice here because I was only able to test the new 12.9” model. It absolutely feels better balanced than the previous larger iPad and certainly is smaller than ever for the screen size. It makes the decision about whether to mov e up in size a much closer one than it ever has been before. Handling the smaller Pro in person at the event last week was nice, but I can’t make a call on how it is to live with. This one feels pretty great though, and certainly portable in a way that the last large iPad Pro never did – that thing was a bit of a whale, and made it hard to justify bringing along. This one is smaller than my 13” MacBook Pro and much thinner.

Screen

The iPhone XR’s pixel masking technique is also at work on the iPad Pro’s screen, giving it rounded corners. The LCD screen has also gained tap-to-wake functionality, which is used to great effect by the Pencil, but can also be used with a finger to bring the screen to life. Promotion, Apple’s 120hz refresh technology, is aces here, and works well with the faster processor to keep the touch experience as close to 1:1 as possible.

The color rendition and sharpness of this LCD are beyond great, and its black levels only show poorly against an OLED because of the laws of physics. It also exhibits the issue I first noticed in the iPhone XR, where it darkens ever so slightly at the edges due to the localized dimming effect of the pixel gating Apple is using to get an edge-to-edge LCD. Otherwise this is one of the better LCD screens ever made in my opinion, and now it has less bezel and fun rounded corners — plus no notch. What’s not to like?

Conclusion

In my opinion, if you want an iPad to do light work as a pure touch device, get yourself a regular iPad. The iPad Pro is an excellent tablet, but really shines when it’s paired with a Pencil and/or keyboard. Having the ability to bash out a long passage of text or scribble on the screen is a really nice addition to the iPad’s capabilities.

But the power and utility of the iPad Pro comes into highest relief when you pair it with a Pencil.

There has been endless debate about the role of tablets with keyboards in the pantheon of computing devices. Are they laptop replacements? Are they tablets with dreams of grandiosity? Will anyone ever stop using the phrase 2-in-1 to refer to these things?

And the iPad hasn’t exactly done a lot to dispel the confusion. During different periods of its life cycle it has taken on many of these roles, both through the features it has shipped with and through the messaging of Apple’s marketing arm and well-rehearsed on-stage presentations.

One basic summary of the arena is that Microsoft has been working at making laptops into tablets, Apple has been working on making tablets into laptops and everyone else has been doing weird ass shit.

Microsoft still hasn’t been able (come at me) to ever get it through their heads that they needed to start by cutting the head off of their OS and building tablet first, then walking backwards. I think now Microsoft is probably much more capable than then Microsoft, but that’s probably another whole discussion.

Apple went and cut the head off of OS X at the very beginning, and has been very slowly walking in the other direction ever since. But the fact remains that no Surface Pro has ever offered a tablet experience anywhere near as satisfying as an iPad’s.

Yes, it may offer more flexibility, but it comes at the cost of unity and reliably functionality. Just refrigerator toasters all the way down.

THAT SAID. I still don’t think Apple is doing enough in software to support the speed and versatility that is provided by the hardware in the iPad Pro. While split screening apps and creating ‘spaces’ that remain in place to bounce between has been a nice evolution of the iPad OS, it’s really only a fraction of what is possible.

And I think even more than hardware, Apple’s iPad users are being underestimated here. We’re on 8 years of iPad and 10 years of iPhone. An entire generation of people already uses these devices as their only computers. My wife hasn’t owned a computer outside an iPad and phone for 15 years and she’s not even among the most aggressive adopters of mobile first.

Apple needs to unleash itself from the shackles of a unified iOS. They don’t have to feel exactly the same now, because the user base is not an infantile one. They’ve been weaned on it — now give them solid food.

The Pencil, to me, stands out as the bright spot in all of this. Yes, Apple is starting predictably slow with its options for the double tap gesture. But third party apps like Procreate show that there will be incredible opportunities long term to make the Pencil the mouse for the tablet generation.

I think the stylus was never the right choice for the first near decade of iPad, and it still isn’t mandatory for many of its uses. But the additional power of a context-driven radial menu or right option at the right time means that the Pencil could absolutely be the key to unlocking an interface that somehow blends the specificity of mouse-driven computing with the gestural and fluidity of touch-driven interfaces.

I’m sure there are Surface Pro users out there rolling their eyes while holding their Surface Pens – but, adequate though they are, they are not Pencils. And more importantly, they are not supported by the insane work Apple has done on the iPad to make the Pencil feel more than first party.

And, because of the (sometimes circuitous and languorous) route that Apple took to get here, you can actually still detach the keyboard and set down the Pencil and get an incredible tablet-based experience with the iPad Pro.

If Apple is able to let go a bit and execute better on making sure the software feels as flexible and ‘advanced’ as the hardware, the iPad  Pro has legs. If it isn’t able to do that, then the iPad will remain a dead end. But I have hope. In the shape of an expensive ass pencil.

iPad Pro (2018) review: Apple reinvents the tablet… again

Using the average of three CPU tests, the new iPad Pro scored 5,027 on single-core and 18,050 on multi-core compared to the 2017 iPad Pro’s 3,964 single-core and 9,529 multi-core scores. That makes the new iPad Pros 27 percent faster on single-core and 89 percent faster on multi-core — all within Apple’s claims.

As I’ve said over and over again, synthetic benchmarks like these CPU scores give you an idea of where the new iPads pro rank in comparison to other devices. But what you really want to know is what kind of tangible performance you can get from such power and will it actually make a difference in your work.

I can’t speak for every kind of person’s needs, but I can tell you editing video on the go is not easy. Ask any video producer and they’ll recommend using a beefy laptop with a discrete graphics processor, especially if you’re crunching 4K video files, and rendering lots of transitions and effects, etc.

The more powerful your CPU and GPU, the faster videos will render and export. So I put the iPad Pro’s to the task.

Using Adobe Premiere Rush CC, I created a 3-minute long project file consisting of five 4K video clips (taken with an iPhone XR for our XR review), tossed in a title at the front and a “Subscribe” card at the end, added three video clip transitions (two dissolves and one dip-to-white), and color-graded two clips each with one filter preset.

The entire project weighed in at 179MB and although I had hoped to export the video in 4K, the highest settings you can export in Rush CC on mobile is 1080p at 30 fps. Since the videos were shot at 24 fps, I selected settings for 1080p and 24 fps, and then hit the export button.

I did this on multiples iOS devices running iOS 12.1 and took the average of three exports tests and here’s what I got (don’t worry, all devices were charged to 100 percent and remained plugged in to prevent any kind of performance throttling from depleted battery health:

  • 12.9-inch iPad Pro (2018): 54 seconds
  • 10.5-inch iPad Pro (2017): 1 minute and 24 seconds
  • 9.7-inch iPad Air 2 (2014): 7 minutes and 18 seconds
  • iPhone X (2017): 1 minute and 56 seconds
  • iPhone XS (2018): 1 minute and 13 seconds

I also did the export test on my MacBook running the newest version of macOS Mojave and a Surface Pro running the latest version of Windows 10 Pro:

  • 12-inch MacBook (2015) with 8GB of RAM: 2 minutes and 1 second
  • Surface Pro (2017) with GHz + 8GB of RAM: 8 minutes and 8 seconds

Breaking down the numbers, the new iPad Pro exported the video 56 percent faster than last-gen iPad Pro, and 711 percent faster than a four-year-old iPad Air 2, and 115 percent faster than the iPhone X.

The performance gap is smaller compared to the iPhone XS — the new iPad Pro exported the video 35 percent faster — but still speedier. The time saved from waiting for an export to be finished is time that can be put towards uploading or doing something else.

Even more nuts is the iPad Pro’s performance compared to laptops. It exported the video 124 percent faster than my 2015 12-inch MacBook and 804 percent faster than a 2017 Surface Pro.

These are preliminary performance tests, too. It’s up to developers to optimize their apps to tap into the A12X Bionic’s insane power so it’s very possible better code could mean even faster performance.

Many of the apps I tested such as Rush CC, Lightroom CC, Procreate, and others weren’t optimized for the the iPad Pro’s screen resolution (you’ll know because they don’t fill out the entire display), but I expect them to be updated on the day of the tablets’ release or shortly after.

The A12X Bionic’s raw power makes everything on iOS (and I mean everything) feel faster. Beautiful 3D games like Asphalt 9 and Fortnite run smooth and rarely with any framerate issues. It’s very telling when Fortnite at “high” graphics settings is playable at 30 fps, but a 2017 top-of-the-line 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro with discrete graphics can barely load it without lag.

Battery life is also as excellent as on previous iPads. Apple advertises “up to 10 hours” for mixed usage and I got just about exactly that for reading, playing some games, watchings lots of YouTube and Netflix, and typing out some of this review. More intensive apps like Rush CC and iMovie will drain your battery quicker, so keep that in mind. But even still, I still got around 7-8 hours while working with pro-level apps.

Google Chromecast (2018) review: Same as the old Chromecast

Quick and easy setup • Affordable • Casting from phone to TV still dirt-simple
Few upgrades over previous model • Does not automatically pause videos for calls • Amazon video not Cast-compatible
The latest Google Chromecast is still a good buy for anyone looking for a simple, affordable streaming option, but if you already have a second-gen model, you should pass.

Mashable Score4.0

The new Google Chromecast was conspicuously absent from the spotlight at Google’s recent hardware event. But there was indeed a new, updated version of Google’s streaming dongle; it’s just the company decided to roll it out quietly. Spend a few minutes with the new Chromecast and you’ll see why the company didn’t brag about the refresh at the event — there’s really nothing new to brag about.

Looking over the specs of this third-generation Chromecast, I thought a fitting tagline would be, “Meet the new Chromecast, almost the same as the old Chromecast.” Now that I’ve spend some serious time with the new model, I regret using “almost.”

Don’t get me wrong, the Google Chromecast overall is a fantastic streaming product for $35. It’s cheap, it’s small, it’s cheap, it’s out of the way, and did I mention it’s cheap? Also, I will say that the idea of just throwing content from your phone to your TV screen, aka “casting,” is still really cool if not exactly revolutionary anymore. At the core of what it does, the Google Chromecast works really well. If you don’t have one and you’re looking for an affordable way to stream content to your TV, Chromecast is a really great option.

That being said, I’m someone who already owns the previous model, the second-generation Chromecast. If you’re one of the tens of millions of people who, like me, already own a Chromecast, there’s really not much here for you.

Chromecast evolution

The jump from the first-generation Chromecast released in 2013 to the second-gen model in 2015 was a significant one. It was complete redesign, transforming from a stick to the circular-designed HDMI dongle you’re probably more familiar with.There was also a noticeable change in performance as the older device could be a bit laggy at times. 

The new third-generation Chromecast (left) and second-generation Chromecast (right).

The new third-generation Chromecast (left) and second-generation Chromecast (right).

Image: MATT BINDER/MASHABLE

In contrast, Google’s 2018 Chromecast is practically the same as the previous model. Save for a few more minor performance and appearance upgrades, you likely wouldn’t even tell the difference. The new third-gen Chromecast still comes in round dongle form, albeit there has been a change from a glossy plastic shell to a matte casing. The logo on the device has also changed from the Chrome graphic to Google’s little ‘G’ logo. While it certainly gives the device a nicer, sleeker look, you’ll rarely even see it, as the device will find its home plugged in to the back of your TV screen on most television sets.

Setting up the Google Chromecast is still quick, easy, and done entirely through the Google Home app on your smartphone. Because your phone is likely already connected to your WiFi network, I didn’t even need to input my WiFi password when setting up the new Chromecast.

While the older Chromecast model streamed at 1080p, one major performance upgrade with this latest version is that it now can stream at 60 frames per second. This fixes the choppiness mentioned in our previous review when it came to watching videogame streams and videos. However, if you’re not typically watching gamer Ninja’s latest Fortnite stream, you really won’t notice a difference. Google also claims the hardware performance of the new Chromecast is 15% faster. It certainly was fast in my testing, but I never really had any issues with my older model running slow. Also, since a Chromecast, by its nature, has no menus to scan through, it’s a fairly unnoticeable upgrade.

The Cast Achilles’ heel

Speaking of the user interface, one of my main issues with Chromecast has long been the fact that you have to use your phone to run the thing. Yes, I know that’s the point, but that means there’s no on-screen user interface at all, which isn’t always the best solution.

Using only your smartphone, you go to whatever video service app you want to watch like Netflix or Hulu and then “cast” the video to your Chromecast-connected TV screen. With other devices like the Apple TV ($149), or — even more analogous to the Chromecast — the Roku Express ($30) or the Amazon Fire Stick ($40), you can pick up the device’s remote and pause what you’re watching, raise and lower the volume, switch to another show or app, whatever! With Chromecast, there’s the extra step of unlocking your phone to change what you want to do on your Chromecast-connected TV set. You control it all from the video player options of the app you’re casting. 

In fact, my biggest pet peeve with Chromecast is that, if you receive a call on your smartphone, it won’t automatically pause what you’re watching. (It supposedly depends on the app, but in my years casting Netflix, HBO, and YouTube with the previous model, I’ve never seen this happen.) Every time, I’ve had to take the call while whatever I was watching awkwardly played in the background until I could bring up the app for whatever video service I was using to pause it. It’s a choice between that or declining the incoming call, pausing the video, and reaching back out to whoever called me. Annoying.

One new feature that could solve the phone call issue is the addition of Google Assistant to control your Chromecast. You can use your voice for some basic controls, like changing what you want to watch on Netflix or YouTube. It’s limited, but it works. The hiccup here is that you need a Google Home speaker or a phone with Google Assistant for this to even work. If you don’t already own one of those devices, you might as well splurge for a full-featured set-top streaming box like the Apple TV instead of getting these other Google Home devices if all you’re going to really use them for is a workaround for Chromecast’s standalone flaws.

An incremental upgrade

All in all, the new Chromecast is just as good as its predecessor. It’s just as bad, too. It can still be a bit clunky using your phone to cast. If you want to browse movies and shows to watch with your family, be prepared to gather around the smartphone screen, because again there’s no Chromecast menu options for your TV set. I guess you could cast your web browser and look at the web version of Netflix (or whatever service you’re using), but that’s an irritating extra step. There’s other little issues like changing the volume on your phone to control your Chromecast-connected TV’s audio, which isn’t always very responsive.

Speaking of sound, multiroom audio support is coming to the Chromecast by the end of the year, but that’s not necessarily a reason to buy this device: it’s supposedly rolling out to second-generation Chromecasts, too.

In my opinion, the Google Chromecast is a worthy secondary TV streaming device. However, if you already have one, there’s not a lot of reason to upgrade to this third-generation model — especially if you have the second-gen Chromecast. 

If you purchased a 4K TV since the older Chromecast model came out, the refreshed device isn’t the streaming option for you either. Google still has 4K streaming reserved solely for it’s more expensive Chromecast device, the now 2-year-old Chromecast Ultra ($69).

However, if you don’t already own a Chromecast and you’re not looking to stream 4K content, it’s certainly among the cheapest options to consider. I wouldn’t use it for my living room set where I watch TV socially with family and friends, but when it’s perfect for the bedroom and just want to put something on since it’s so straightforward.

However, if the lack of an onscreen menu doesn’t work for you, there are plenty other similarly priced options nowadays. For example, the Amazon Fire Stick offers all that and is currently only five bucks more than a Chromecast. Oh, right, that’s another thing! Amazon’s video app doesn’t support Google Cast. So, if you really want to stream some Amazon Prime video, Chromecast may not be the option for you.

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Samsung SmartThings Wifi review: A fast, all-in-one networking solution

Sleek and clean node design • Plume’s adaptive technology is included • Easy to set up
Maxes out at 866Mbps for download and upload • No advanced network controls
Samsung’s SmartThings Wifi is an easy way to put a mesh WiFi network in your home, and its built-in smart home connectivity gives you more value for the $279.99 price.

Mashable Score4.0

Mesh Wi-Fi routers aim to improve on traditional routers by creating a network of nodes that covers your whole home. Samsung, with its SmartThings Wifi system (that’s the way they spell it), takes the idea a step further by also having the router serve as a smart home hub.

SmartThings Wifi incorporates Plume’s adaptive network system, which prioritizes bandwidth for the devices that need it most.

At $280, Samsung SmartThings Wifi isn’t the cheapest mesh system out there, but how does it perform?

What’s in the box

The three-pack gives you enough routers to cover up to 4,500 square feet.

The three-pack gives you enough routers to cover up to 4,500 square feet.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Samsung SmartThings Wifi includes three nodes which together provide about 4,500 square feet of coverage. Each node is dual-band (2.4GHz and 5.0GHz) and supports MU-MIMO (multi-user, multi-input, multi-output), which basically means it’s equipped to handle several people doing a lot of different support simultaneously. And the dual bands, which are standard these days, mean both modern and legacy gear can connect.

Each node serves as a smart home hub, using Bluetooth 4.1, Zigbee, and Z-Wave wireless tech. This allows you to easily control smart home devices like lights, locks, and appliances through the same app.

Sometimes mesh nodes can look pretty obtrusive, but the design of these is quite simple. There isn’t really much to them on the outside except for the ports and an LED indicator light. They should blend well with the décor of most homes.

An Ethernet cord and three power adapters are included in the box. 

Setting up a network

You set up the nodes one at a time.

You set up the nodes one at a time.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Setup, which you’ll need to handle through the SmartThings app, is simple.

Unlike other mesh Wi-Fi systems that have one main node with a distinctive design, the three here are identical. Each node has a DC power port and two Ethernet ports: One input and one output This allows each node to act as the central hub. Plus, you can attach an external storage drive for a NAS (network-attached storage) setup.

You get two Ethernet ports and a power port.

You get two Ethernet ports and a power port.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

First, you’ll want to download the SmartThings app to your iOS or Android device and create an account. From there, you’ll power on one of the SmartThings nodes and connect it to your modem with an Ethernet cord. Then, open up the SmartThings app and select Samsung SmartThings Wifi to start the setup. You’ll create a network, set the password, and choose some basic parameters. 

Once the first node is set up, you’ll plug the next one into a power outlet and use the app to get it online. The app will tell you how strong the connection is; if it’s not Good or Excellent, you’ll want to move it closer to the other node.

While the starter kit includes three nodes, you can add additional ones for $119.99 each.

The SmartThings app is pretty basic. You can’t do much within it or even see all the devices connected. That’s where the Plume app comes in. While using this typically requires a subscription fee and Plume hardware, Samsung SmartThings Wifi gets you free access for life. The Plume app is excellent, acting as your personal traffic-monitoring system.

Two apps are better than one

The Samsung SmartThings app is simple.

The Samsung SmartThings app is simple.

Image: Smartthings

The customized Plume SmartThings experience.

The customized Plume SmartThings experience.

Image: Plume

For the networking geeks out there like myself, the app lets you customize port forwarding, the network mode, and DNS (domain name servers) info. Unfortunately, much of this isn’t editable when the device is in bridge mode. Most users will have it in this mode, since you don’t want two identical networks being sent out. Neither the Plume nor SmartThings app offers advanced networking capabilities, which is frustrating.

Advanced Settings aren't all that advanced.

Advanced Settings aren’t all that advanced.

Image: Plume

However, I love the interface that Plume offers. You can jump from a broad network level view to an individual node one. The app interface shows you the device you’re using the app with (in my case, an iPhone XS Max) and how it’s reaching the internet — along with identifying the signal strength.

Hitting the network button gives you a command report of your network. Plume will automatically test the network speed every few hours, which you can see mapped out. For some reason, the test maxes out at 280.0Mbps, even though the nodes can hit 866Mbps on 5GHz and 400Mbps on 2.4GHz.

The max number on the test appears to be a reporting error, as speed tests on connected devices report higher results. In my testing, the SmartThings app also provided a more accurate network speed result.

The design of the SmartThings Wifi is small and simple, meaning it won't be obtrusive in your home.

The design of the SmartThings Wifi is small and simple, meaning it won’t be obtrusive in your home.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

This same network screen in the Plume app allows you to see total data download numbers for the previous 24 hours. It’s a simple way to see which devices are using the most data and how Plume is adjusting the network to handle it. I have more than 30 devices on my network, including Google Homes, Amazon Echoes, smart TVs, streaming boxes, smart speakers, laptops, tablets, and phones, and the performance has been pretty good on SmartThings Wifi. 

It was great to see how the adaptive system would figure out which channel was best for each device. For instance, while I’m writing this review on my laptop upstairs, I am connected to the central node in the basement. Using the in-app speed test function, my computer got 123Mbps down and 88Mbps up, which is pretty darn good. Via the device screen, you can see which network it’s using, either 2.4GHz or 5GHz, the channel it’s on, and the node it’s connected to. 

It gets the job done

Samsung SmartThings Wifi easily stacks up to the competition.

Samsung SmartThings Wifi easily stacks up to the competition.

Image: ZLATA IVLEVA/MASHABLE

Plain and simple, Samsung SmartThings Wifi offers a simple all-in-one solution for home networking. Plus you get the advantages of each node being a smart hub. The $279.99 starter pack should cover most homes or apartments with up to 4,500 feet of connected range.

I think most users should be able to get over the lack of advanced networking customization, and there’s always the chance that Samsung or Plume could add these customization options in the future.

After testing for several weeks, I can see that the SmartThings Wifi is easy to manage, provides a blazing fast connection (although ultimately your internet speed is dependent on your ISP), and can also power your smart home.

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Huawei Mate 20 Pro review: Android’s dark horse champion

Amazingly versatile camera • Every feature under the sun • Great battery life • Fast performance
Software needs polish • Pricey
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the most feature-packed phone you can currently buy.

Mashable Score4.25

It took a while for Huawei to get here. 

Nothing about the company’s boring smartphone lineup in, say, 2013, indicated that Huawei might one day produce phones that can hold their own against the best flagships around. 

But Huawei kept refining its approach with each launch. Its phones got good. Then really good. In April this year, Huawei was the first major smartphone manufacturer to launch a phone with a triple rear camera, an all-around great device called the P20 Pro. And it’s been selling well. Despite being effectively banned from selling its phones in the U.S., Huawei has overtaken Apple to become the second largest smartphone maker in the world.

Now, with the launch of Mate 20 Pro, Huawei — perhaps for the first time — is a legitimate contender for the position of the best smartphone around, period. 

SEE ALSO: How iPhone XS compares to Pixel 2, Galaxy S9, and Huawei P20 Pro

The Mate 20 Pro is a big upgrade to the P20 Pro. It, too, has three rear cameras (with major differences, though; more on that later), but it has a bigger, better screen, a faster processor, better water resistance, a bigger battery, and wireless charging. 

Huawei went beyond a spec bump, though. The Mate 20 Pro also has an under-the-display fingerprint scanner and reverse wireless charging (meaning you can charge other gadgets simply by placing them onto the phone’s back). You won’t find either technology on flagships from Apple or Samsung. 

A phone is more than a list of specs, certainly. But I’ve used the Mate 20 Pro as my primary phone for a week, and it’s lived up to the promise. It’s fast and powerful, and it has every bit of tech I ever wanted from a smartphone — not to mention it took stunning photos and its battery lasted forever. 

A little bit of everything

The phone has a big screen, but it feels just right in my hand.

The phone has a big screen, but it feels just right in my hand.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

The Mate 20 Pro’s display is excellent. It makes the phone look like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 had a baby with the iPhone XS. It has a notch on top, rounded edges on the sides, and a small but noticeable chin on the bottom. I like the look, but it’s essentially an imitation of not one but two famous phones, which may be a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. Original it is not. 

On the back, the phone’s three cameras and flash are organized in a rectangle that’s unique. The phone can be had in the “Twilight” color, which is a beautiful purple-to-blue gradient, first seen on the P20 Pro. You can also get it in “Emerald Green” or, like my review unit, “Midnight Blue.” Both have a subtle line pattern on the back that glitters when moved under a light source. I liked the color, but when you’re in a dark room, it doesn’t really shine as it does in Huawei’s promotional materials. Finally, you can get the phone in black; I haven’t seen that one, but it appears to be the least exciting of the four colors. 

Details like the red power button, tapered edges, or a (very) subtly textured back that should improve grippiness (it does, but ever so slightly) give the phone a premium feel. And just like most Huawei flagships of late, the Mate 20 Pro oozes quality and precision. 

The phone’s size hits a perfect spot for me. It sounds big — a few years ago, 6.4-inch phones were enormous beasts — but due to its tiny bezels and display that’s curved on the sides, the Mate is actually slightly smaller than the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max. 

Overall, the Mate is unique in some ways and yet derivative in others, but even then, it’s unique on the market, as no one else has copied both the iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy phone at the same time. Bottom line: It looks and feels very nice, and this, I assume, is what most users will care about. 

Incredibly sharp display

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro's display is beautiful, but reflections along the curvy sides can be annoying.

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s display is beautiful, but reflections along the curvy sides can be annoying.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s display is a crisp 6.39-inch OLED with a 3,120 x 1,440 pixel resolution and HDR10 support. I’ve compared it directly to the iPhone X (unfortunately, I didn’t have an iPhone XS for a direct comparison), and it’s noticeably brighter, with better contrast and more vivid colors.

Not everything’s perfect, though. The Mate 20 Pro’s colors pop more, but somewhat unnaturally so. The display’s color mode is “Vivid” by default, which makes this worse, but even after you change it to normal, the colors were still a bit too much to me. Check out the example below; on the iPhone X’s screen the color of the guitar appears natural. On the Mate 20 Pro, it’s nearly orange. Sure, the Mate’s display looks flashier at first, but some will prefer the iPhone X’s more natural colors. 

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Furthermore, there’s quite a lot of color shifting to blue when you tilt the phone forwards, backwards or to the sides; far less so than on the iPhone X. 

Huawei has an interesting (and, to my knowledge, unique) feature that automatically reduces screen resolution when it’s not needed. Furthermore, the phone has a lower, 2,340 x 1,080 pixel resolution enabled by default; you need to manually switch to 3,120 x 1,440 pixels if you want the highest resolution. In regular use, you’ll have to look closely to notice any difference, so leaving this setting on default is probably the way to go, as it saves battery. 

The display has all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern flagship. A feature called “Natural tone” adjusts color temperature based on ambient lighting, similar to the iPhone’s “True Tone” setting. Additionally, you can reduce the screen’s blue light emission for a better nighttime reading experience, although the iPhone still does a better job at this. You can also hide the notch with a black bar, if you want to. And, just like on LG’s recent flagships, there’s also an “Always on display” setting, which displays time and date even when the screen is (mostly) off. 

One minor drawback: The screen’s curved edges look gorgeous, but they don’t serve a particular purpose. And since the screen is quite reflective, you’ll often see distorted reflections along the edges, which can be distracting. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is something to consider. 

Excellent performance and a battery that refuses to die

The Mate 20 Pro's battery comfortably lasted a day and a half in my testing.

The Mate 20 Pro’s battery comfortably lasted a day and a half in my testing.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

Huawei claims its Kirin 980 chipset — which is built with a 7-nanometer manufacturing process, just like Apple’s A12 — offers a 75% CPU performance upgrade and a 46% GPU performance upgrade over Kirin 970, while consuming significantly less power. It’s hard to test these numbers in real-life usage, but the Mate 20 Pro is definitely very, very fast. 

These days, most smartphone flagships perform excellently, but the Mate 20 Pro had that little extra oomph, occasionally surprising me with how fast it was. Touch anything on the phone, and it’ll launch immediately. This especially goes for the camera, which launches roughly as fast as the camera on the iPhone X. Thanks to Huawei’s new Kirin 980 chipset and 6GB of RAM, the Mate 20 Pro never stuttered, no matter how many apps I had open.

In the Geekbench performance testing software, the Mate beat every other Android phone except the Galaxy S9+ in the single-core test with a score of 3,264, and every other Android phone in the multi-core test with a score of 9,684. And when I manually put the phone in “Performance” mode, which optimizes the phone’s settings for maximum performance, the numbers climbed to 3,334 and 10,096. 

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

Apple’s iPhone XS is still far ahead of everyone with scores of 4,796 and 11,222, respectively. Note that several manufacturers, including Huawei, have been caught cheating at these tests, so I wouldn’t put too much faith in them, but the numbers do confirm that this is one of the fastest phones around in terms of performance. 

Huawei managed to stuff a 4,200mAh battery into the Mate 20 Pro. That’s better than the iPhone XS Max, better than the Samsung Note 9, better than the company’s own P20 Pro. And battery life was certainly excellent. The phone lasted a day and a half of heavy use, which is in line with the best phones I’ve tested. In normal use, I could see it comfortably lasting two days or more. 

The phone supports quick charging, and, unlike the P20 Pro, it also has wireless charging on board. But Huawei took it a step further with reverse wireless charging, which turns the phone into a wireless charging pad. Place a device that supports wireless charging on top of its back, and the Mate will charge it. 

The feature wouldn’t make sense on most phones, but the Mate has a battery so juicy that I could easily imagine a situation in which lending some of its battery life to a pair of earphones or even another phone could be a good idea. In any case, you won’t mind having the option, and you can turn the feature off if it bothers you for any reason. 

A new take on the best smartphone camera

The camera is excellent, but there are phones who offer a more straightforward experience.

The camera is excellent, but there are phones who offer a more straightforward experience.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

This is going to be a long section — there’s just so much to cover that I can’t make it any shorter. But the TL;DR is this: The Huawei Mate 20 Pro’s camera is the best smartphone camera I’ve ever used. 

Now, for the details. 

While the Mate 20 Pro’s camera setup sounds similar to the one on the P20 Pro, it’s actually different with one key regard. On the Mate, Huawei ditched the monochrome sensor and replaced it with an ultra-wide sensor. So the cameras are now, in order: a 40-megapixel f/1.8 sensor, a 20-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide sensor, and an 8-megapixel f/2.4 telephoto sensor. 

This versatile sensor array enables Huawei to do a ton of cool tricks. By default, the camera takes 10-megapixel photos, and Huawei combines input from all three sensors to get more features than you’ll find on any other phone. The best thing about these is how seamless it all is for the user. Fire up the camera, and in normal mode you’ll be able to choose between 3x zoom, 5x zoom and 0.6x zoom (which is ultra-wide mode). Sure, that 5x zoom isn’t really optical zoom; rather, the software is combining the image coming from the telephoto sensor with the information gathered by the 40-megapixel sensor to create a hybrid optical/software zoom effect. But here’s the thing: It just works, and you’ll be taking 5x zoom photos that actually look decent in no time. 

The bird was 15 feet away, but using Mate 20 Pro's 5x zoom, I easily took several beautiful photos before it flew away. There's no way I'd get a photo this good with any other phone.

The bird was 15 feet away, but using Mate 20 Pro’s 5x zoom, I easily took several beautiful photos before it flew away. There’s no way I’d get a photo this good with any other phone.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

Here’s another example, just to show what that hybrid zoom can do. The photo on the left was taken at 1x zoom, while the photo on the right was taken from the same position at 5x zoom. 

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Switching to 40-megapixel resolution shuts down most of these extra features, but sometimes, when the conditions were good, I was able to take some stunningly detailed photos in this mode. 

Zoom in as much as you like. That's 40 megapixels for you.

Zoom in as much as you like. That’s 40 megapixels for you.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

Inexplicably, Huawei has HDR stashed away as a separate photo-taking mode, accessible only through the camera’s “More” menu. As you can see in the comparison below, HDR is pretty useful and it would’ve been nice if I were able to enable it with a single tap from the main camera’s screen. 

Taken with the Mate 20 Pro in normal photo mode.

Taken with the Mate 20 Pro in normal photo mode.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Taken with the Mate 20 Pro in HDR mode.

Taken with the Mate 20 Pro in HDR mode.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Then there’s the AI. I don’t care much for the scene selection feature (which is enabled by turning on the “Master AI” option in the settings; it’s clever to see the camera recognize various scenes and adjust accordingly, but I’ve often found that these adjustments go a bit too far. 

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to just turn the Master AI off and be done with it. Without it, the phone won’t fire up certain important features as the super-cool Super Macro mode, which lets you go really close to the subject and take a macro photo. 

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The phone’s AI capabilities also enable features like the Night Mode, which lets you take gorgeous photos in low-light scenarios. Sure, most of it is software wizardry and it takes a few seconds to take a photo, but the results are stunning. I wasn’t able to replicate this with any other phone I had on hand. 

Huawei's Night Mode takes roughly 5 seconds to take a photo, but you'll often get great results with very little light.

Huawei’s Night Mode takes roughly 5 seconds to take a photo, but you’ll often get great results with very little light.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

And, if you were wondering, you can combine Night Mode with the ultra-wide screen mode or the 3x/5x zoom mode. 

Unfortunately, Night Mode sometimes generated ugly artifacts on my photos. The photo below would’ve been great given the conditions — if it weren’t for that horizontal line in the upper half of the image. Worse, the line was persistent; I took several photos from the same position, in both vertical and horizontal mode, and I couldn’t get rid of it. I hope this is either an anomaly on the unit I’ve had, or something Huawei can fix via a software update, as it renders Night Mode nearly unusable. 

Just like on the Huawei P20 Pro, the Mate 20 Pro's Night Mode sometimes leaves ugly artifacts on the photo.

Just like on the Huawei P20 Pro, the Mate 20 Pro’s Night Mode sometimes leaves ugly artifacts on the photo.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

Obviously, you’re not always going to take photos in Night Mode; it’s just too slow. But the Mate 20 Pro does a decent job of snapping low-light photos from its default camera mode. In the comparison below, the Mate took a sharper photo with more realistic colors than the iPhone X — though, in fairness, the iPhone snapped that photo in a fraction of a second, while the Mate instructed me to hold my hand steady for a second or so.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Portrait mode takes photos that are oddly soft, and while not everyone will be a fan of the look, I was overall happy with the photos I’ve gotten. You can choose between 1x and 3x zoom in this mode — something you can’t do on the iPhone. 

Portrait mode photos are soft and, in low light conditions, oddly hazy. Call it a style.

Portrait mode photos are soft and, in low light conditions, oddly hazy. Call it a style.

Image: Stan schroeder/Mashable

And while Portrait mode is only for taking photos of people, Aperture mode will let you take photos of any object with various degrees of bokeh. It’s a hit or miss, as you can see in the photo below (left) which is blurred in all kinds of weird ways. But guess what: If the photo’s not perfect, you can go in afterwards and change both the focal point and the amount of bokeh applied. 

The parts of the stone monument are blurry, and they shouldn't be.

The parts of the stone monument are blurry, and they shouldn’t be.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

Now the agave is in focus.

Now the agave is in focus.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

The 24-megapixel selfie camera takes excellent, extremely detailed selfies. In portrait mode, the resulting photos are, again, way too soft to my liking, but are generally pleasing to the eye. In low-light scenarios, the phone will do the familiar trick of turning its big, bright screen white and thus lighting up your face, which won’t result in beautiful selfies but it’s better than nothing. 

Can't argue with 24 megapixels.

Can’t argue with 24 megapixels.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

The Mate 20 Pro can, at best, take 4K video at 30fps — this is one area where even the iPhone X, which is a year old, is nominally better, as it can take 4K video at 60fps. And, overall, the Mate’s video capabilities are a mixed bag. I took an evening video while walking, and the video was very bright but also unbearably twitchy as the device apparently tried and failed to stabilize the image. 

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The iPhone X’s video (below) was the opposite: Better (though still far from perfect) when it comes to image stabilization, but not nearly bright enough. 

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Daylight videos with the Mate were gorgeous, but basically every flagship these days will produce something similarly good. Bonus points for Mate: Even in 4K mode, you can use some of its multi-camera tricks to take a wide-screen or a zoomed-in video. 

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Overall, the Mate’s camera isn’t perfect. You’ll get photos that blow everything else away, yes, but the overall experience won’t be as straightforward as it is on an Apple phone or even a Samsung. Still, the Mate matches every other phone out there on features and does OK even in areas where it’s just copying others, like the bokeh mode. And none of the other new flagships — even the myriad ones that came out this fall — can take 40-megapixel photos or photos with 3x optical zoom. 

Can we please just stick with Google?

Huawei’s EMUI software, which comes in version 9.0 on the Mate 20 Pro, is better than most Android skins, but it’s not perfect. There’s a zillion options on offer; a dark version of the entire UI, iOS-like task switching, granular battery optimization and a built-in password manager are among the highlights. There’s also a wide choice of wallpapers and themes, though downloading new themes requires signing up for a Huawei ID (more on that later). And it’s all based on Android 9 Pie, so you’ll find the latest bells and whistles from Google under the hood as well. 

There are also bugs, most of which have to do with the notch, which will sometimes obscure parts of content, and which definitely doesn’t leave enough space for icons. Huawei sort-of addresses the latter issue: When you swipe down from the top of the screen, the shortcut menu will show up and the status icons will drop below the notch, which means you’ll finally be able to see all of them. Mercifully, zoomed YouTube videos extend over the entire surface of the display, which isn’t the case on many of Mate’s Android competitors. 

Hello darkness, my old friend.

Hello darkness, my old friend.

Image: Stan Schroeder/Mashable

Sometimes the UI’s look was inconsistent. I’ve paired a dark grayish theme I liked with a blue wallpaper, and yet as I swiped from the middle of the screen to get the search field, the phone’s blurred background would go purple, as if the device is confused on which theme it’s using. 

None of these quirks bother me much; perhaps I’ve gotten used to user interfaces by Chinese smartphone manufacturers, all of which are similar, all of which slap some iOS features onto Android, and all of which are slightly buggy. But Huawei’s software is definitely a class below Samsung’s or Apple’s. 

The biggest issue I have with Huawei’s phones (not just the Mate) is the company’s insistence of drawing users into its services ecosystem. While accessing various features and pre-installed apps on the phone, Huawei offered me to create a Huawei ID and sign up for Huawei Cloud or HiCare. I’m already way too invested in Google’s ecosystem of services to bother with any of these, and I suspect most users outside of China are, too. And while you can certainly ignore all of these and use 99% of the phone’s features, frequent prompts to sign up for Huawei this or that will surely alienate some users. 

So many extras

The red power button on the phone's side is a nice touch.

The red power button on the phone’s side is a nice touch.

Image: STAN SCHROEDER/MASHABLE

I’ve already mentioned the reverse wireless charging, which is a nice, albeit minor, feature. But this phone has plenty more surprises in stock. Its face unlocking capabilities are excellent in all conditions. It didn’t matter if I had my sunglasses on, or whether I was under direct sunlight, both of which cause trouble to the iPhone X’s face unlocking system. It’s hard to judge how secure Huawei’s system is, but it sure as hell beats Apple’s on practicality. 

Should you desire it, you can also set up a fingerprint unlocking scheme, with the fingerprint scanner residing under the display. It’s the first time this actually worked well for me, and I’ve tried similar scanners on a bunch of other phones. But the feature, long-rumored to be coming to Apple and Samsung phones, feels like an afterthought. The face unlock works so well that I turned fingerprint scanning off after a day — I simply didn’t need it. 

In fact, I dare you to find a feature the Mate 20 Pro doesn’t have. AptX, hi-res Bluetooth sound is on board, as are stereo speakers (though they aren’t very loud). IP68 dust and water resistance, dual SIM, memory card support (Huawei’s proprietary nano memory cards are used instead of the ubiquitous microSD standard), NFC, dual-band GPS, a fast LTE Cat.21 chip, an infrared sensor — the Mate 20 Pro has them all. The only thing I found lacking — and for me, it’s a serious offense — is the headphone jack; mercifully, Huawei includes a 3.5-mm-to-USB-C adapter in the box. 

The Mate 20 Pro is, without a doubt, the most feature-packed phone ever. 

Finally going Pro

It's got everything you can ask from a smartphone, except the low price.

It’s got everything you can ask from a smartphone, except the low price.

Image: Stan Schoeder/Mashable

The Huawei Mate 20 Pro is the best smartphone you can currently buy. But choosing a smartphone is not just about how feature-packed it is, or how nice it looks. Huawei doesn’t have the brand power of Apple or Samsung. And there’s the elephant in the room:  the Mate 20 Pro won’t even launch in the U.S. For many users, this is more than a logistical problem — this is a problem of trust. Not to mention that finding a decent price and warranty might be an issue, too. 

Finally, the price. The Mate 20 Pro costs €1,049 ($1,193) in Europe, which is less than the iPhone XS Max or even the XS (in Europe, not the U.S.), but it’s still a lot. All things considered, I can’t say the price is unfair, but it wouldn’t hurt it to be a little cheaper. 

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