A week in reviews: 12 - 18 October
Another week rolls on by and it's been busy, busy, busy. In addition to the announcement of the 10th Pocket-lint Awards, due to take place at the end of November, there have been all kinds of mighty products rolling in through the office.
Top of the list is the HTC One Max. It's an HTC One "phablet". Yes we said that word out loud again, and yes we feel guilty for it. Does a supersize HTC One make any sense, or is it a disappointment?
But that's not the biggest phone that's ended up in our laps - that's the only place we've been able to put the super-supersize Sony Xperia Ultra as it's too big for our jeans pocket. Is its huge size an indication of its huge performance, or is it a massive disappointment when considered as a phone?
That paired up with the Sony SmartWatch two finishes up our Sony coverage for the week. Is the second-gen smartwatch a step ahead or does it still fall into various traps as its predecessor did?
Elsewhere we've seen a smattering of Bluetooth speakers, the launch of Windows 8.1, Fujifilm's entry-level compact system camera, the 2D version of the Nintendo 3DS (yes, you read that right), a whole new BMW series, an 11-inch HP Chromebook, a mighty 65-inch Panasonic 4K TV, Skylanders Swap Force and a Philips Bloom lamp for use with the smartphone-controlled Hue system. We need a bit of subtle mood lighting to calm us down as this mad week rolls to a close.
But there's no stopping the non-stop reviews this month, and there's some quality kit on the horizon. As we gear up for the Awards there'll be a whole stack of kit skirting around the Pocket-lint offices.
BMW 435i M Sport
What difference does a name make? Or a number? This is the new BMW 4-Series, or the 435i M Sport to be name precise - and it's a brand new model number in the BMW range that waves goodbye to the outgoing 3-Series Coupe.
And boy oh boy has BMW has made a fun-to-drive, fast and comfortable four-seat coupe. Is it sufficiently different in feel to the 3-Series to justify the change and extra cost? It sure is.
It's hard to make a case against the 4-Series. Look around at the competition and its case gets even stronger. The Audi A5 is ageing, while the Mercedes C-Class coupe feels its extra weight and is even less standout.
Price: £48,160 (as tested)
Quick verdict: Fast, versatile, packed with leading technology. The 4-Series might be a new name, but underneath it's the same old BMW recipe that few will quibble with. Only the emission of the 8-Speed auto gearbox on the test model and a design which could offer greater differentiation from the saloon mark it down from perfection.
Full review: BMW 4-Series 435i Sport
Divoom OnBeat 500
There are so many portable Bluetooth speakers spilling out into the market that it's hard to know which to pick. When we first heard about Divoom - a name that we're none too familiar with - we approached with caution, thinking it might be another one of those throw-away brands.
How wrong we were. The OnBeat 500 delivers sound with serious welly considering its sub-£100 price point. The 3-inch internal sub handles the low end well too, so it'll give plenty of thump to all genres of music.
It might be a bit plastic in appearance and is a fingerprint magnet, but the simple design will otherwise fit in pretty much anywhere around the home. Bluetooth and NFC connectivity make it easy to ping audio over and the battery lasts out for a decent period of time too. We like.
Quick verdict: If you're not familiar with Divoom then don't let that put you off considering buying the OnBeat 500. For its sub-£100 price point it thumps out the audio. It's loud, there's lots of bass considering the small size, and tracks sound full. Diboom is more like it.
Full review: Divoom OnBeat 500 portable Bluetooth speaker
The Nintendo 2DS is a stroke of genius as much as it is a stroke of necessity. A 3DS minus the feature that barely anyone uses, i.e. the 3D feature - great. A handheld that'll make buying Pokemon X & Y accessible to a wider audience - very shrewd.
But the 2DS is just a bit ugly. It inability to fold means you can't slip it into a pocket, and no carry case is included in the basic purchase. The wider-than-3DS design and necessity to handle more of the device's height when playing might also not suit smaller hands. And the battery life offers next to zero improvement over the original 3DS from 2011, and this is without the 3D feature.
For us the 2DS bounces somewhere between shrewd by concept and slovenly by design. However, when all's said and done, it's the games that will sell it - and there are plenty of 5-star ones available now. In other news this is one a Pokemon peddler if we ever saw it, which speaks for itself. Touché Nintendo.
Quick verdict: The newest model in the 3DS handheld console line ditches the 3D autostereoscopic screen. Confused much? You needn't be (well, maybe): the 2DS plays all 3DS and DS titles and does so well. But without the ability to fold down, and with no true battery performance push there are shortcomings here. It's shrewd though, as it launches alongside Pokemon X and Y, so it'll be popular for sure.
Full review: Nintendo 2DS
If you're not familiar with Sonos then the Play:1 might make you stand up and pay attention thanks to its more affordable price point.
The Sonos concept it to deliver music via Wi-Fi around the home. You can buy a range of speakers and have up to 32 of them delivering tunes all around the house; they needn't play the same tuneage either as you can control different "zones" all from your smartphone, tablet or computer.
Until now this hasn't been particularly cheap, however, with the basic system coming in at £250. The Play:1 retails for £169 and, until Christmas 2013, will come bundled with the Bridge so you can set everything up straight out of the box.
Despite being wireless, the Play:1 is wired, in that it needs to be plugged into the wall. But irrelevant, the speaker sounds great - although it's not as punchy as the Play:3 or Play:5 models, obviously - and is the perfect start to setting up the modular Sonos system.
Quick verdict: The Sonos Play:1 is the perfect entry point into the Wi-Fi audio system. It sounds decent for the size and will see you building up your kit in modular fashion over the months we're sure.
Full review: Sonos Play:1 speaker system
HTC One Max
The phablet category of devices is an odd one. The home of giant phones that haven't quite reached tablet sizes, and the HTC One max finds itself nestled into this awkward pack. For those looking for a big smartphone experience, then that's what the HTC One max delivers: it's the HTC One experience, but on a larger scale.
There are some notable benefits: the display is lovely, the microSD card convenient, the BoomSound speakers excellent and the user interface nicely refined. The aluminium finish still looks great compared to some plastic rivals and it's on these points that you should consider the HTC One max.
However, it's not the most powerful device out there and if you're looking for innovation at this size, then the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 takes the praise: Samsung invented this kingdom of huge devices and still looks to rule it. No integrated stylus sees the HTC One max be a different kind of prospect, no software functions looking to utilise the additional space feels like a missed opportunity.
Quick verdict: The HTC One max won't be for everyone, but if you've got big pockets and want the HTC experience on a bigger phone, then this is the One for you. But we suspect that for many, the original HTC One will be the better option.
Full review: HTC One Max
HP Chromebook 11
The Chromebook remains a strange kettle of fish in our view. Whether you'll warm to it mostly relies on whether or not you think Chrome OS is a good or bad idea. Clearly to make the most of the operating system you have to be online, although you can now use Chrome OS offline in some cases too just to quieten those naysayers.
That said, we are still confused as to why you would opt for the Chromebook 11 over the Acer C720 Chromebook, or something like a Nexus 7 tablet with Bluetooth keyboard. The Nexus 7, also from Google, has a better screen, all the same Google features, a tablet form factor when you aren't working on the keys, a better battery life, a quicker charge, and a better array of apps.
It's close to being an improvement to the budget category thanks to its IPS screen, but the HP Chromebook 11 just doesn't have the boosted performance for even more basic tasks that it really needs.
Quick verdict: The Chromebook 11 looks good, but poor performance and cheaper yet more advanced alternatives have us struggling to recommend this over other products on the market. The Chromebook is getting better, but it's still a long way from being a worthwhile investment as far as we're concerned.
Full review: HP Chromebook 11
No doubt lots of people will say that Windows 8.1 is what Windows 8 should have been from the start. To be fair to Microsoft though, it deserves some real credit for listening to the complaints people made about 8 and acting on them. While this sounds like basic customer service, it's enormously rare for companies to take feedback and use it in their products. Within a year, Microsoft has taken Windows 8 from a stable and speedy operating system, into one that has far better usability.
On a touchscreen device, Windows 8 makes lots of sense. We can't speak highly enough of devices like Samsung's old Slate, the Surface Pro and Dell's amazing XPS 12. On these devices, 8.1 is fabulous and the modern interface is something you'll want to use.
Things still make less sense on a desktop computer, but the core of the operating system, the desktop, is better than ever. It's easy to forget that Windows 8 is a massive jump in performance for Windows. We've got some Windows 7 laptops around, and simply rebooting proves what a jump forward Windows 8 is.
Price: £Free update (for existing users)
Quick verdict: Don't listen to the hype about Windows 8.1 being a disaster. Like Windows Vista, Microsoft's latest OS has been maligned by those who didn't like the change in interface in the first place. We do, this is Windows on the up, complete with Start button and all.
Full review: Windows 8.1
Sony Xperia Ultra
The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a lovely thing, but as a dedicated phone - if you like to lift a phone to your ear as you should - then it's just way too big to be practical. We can't help but see it as more of miniature tablet.
You'll know in yourself whether you're one of those people that wants a larger-than-life phone experience or not, but the Ultra really pushes the limits to what we'd call a phone. For us it brings too many compromises when it comes to practical use.
You'll either love the concept of a phone bigger than your head or you won't, and that's the bottom line here.
Quick verdict: The Sony Xperia Z Ultra is a marvel as a device, but it's equally niche and that marvel might be limited in appeal. It doesn't make sense as a phone, even if it is a great device.
Full review: Sony Xperia Ultra
Sony SmartWatch 2
Smartwatch. Wearable tech. There are those buzzwords again. But does the Sony SmartWatch 2 get us buzzing with excitement?
The second attempt from the Japanese giant, the latest SmartWatch can be paired up with any Android device, namely a phone, in order to simplify viewing those all-important emails, tweets, Facebook messages and the like. It can also act as a sports watch to some degree and, but of course, it's there for telling the time - just like a normal watch.
But as is common with early adopter tech, the SmartWatch 2 doesn't feel like the finished article. We had problems with our first review sample, and the second one was frustrating to setup, has a lacklustre screen, and offers a disparate consumer experience. If you can bear to live with those shortcomings - be a beta user basically and go with the ride - then you'll have fun with the device, but if you like your kit to be simple, effortless, and deliver with minimal effort on your part, you'll ultimately be disappointed.
So we still don't think Sony has cracked it yet. If this was a first attempt then it'd be a great stab at it. Problem is this isn't - this is second generation stuff so we expected more.
Quick verdict: At the moment the Sony SmartWatch 2 is very early adopter stuff. We think the future is bright, but at the moment it's still not quite there - and this from a second generation device. It's less advanced than the Samsung Galaxy Gear, too.
Full review: Sony SmartWatch 2
Fujifilm's compact system camera series is seeking out a new entry-level audience - and that's what the X-A1 is all about.
But that doesn't make it "entry level" in its abilities. Decent image quality from its 16-megapixel sensor - which is the first X-series system camera to not deliver Fujifilm's unique sensor pattern array, hence its more budget £499 price point - and ample performance for the cash make it a strong enough performer.
Thing is there are so many other competitor models out there that this Fuji's got its work cut out; we felt it was missing a few niceties when stood beside its closest competitors. We still like it plenty, but it's not going to be that immediate "must have" for everyone.
Quick verdict: It's Fujifilm pushing the entry-level. The key thing about the X-A1 is its £499 price - and that includes the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens - which makes it a bit of a bargain. But it's got its work cut out given the strength of the compact system camera competition out there.
Full review: Fujifilm X-A1
Skylanders Swap Force
Skylanders straddles the divide between gaming and toy collecting. The latest title, Swap Force, adds something new into the mix: the latest toys are made up of two parts - top and bottom - and can be "swapped" out to create new character mixes to "teleport" into your console via the portal device included in the starter pack.
Confused yet? Your kids won't be. Like Pokemon, Moshi Monsters and other such collectables, Skylanders: Swap Force is as much about collecting the toys and having fun with them as it is playing out your creations in the virtual 3D platform world.
The game is fairly easy, however, and you'll need to earn the right to open up the Nightmare difficulty setting. Other game sections will also be off limits unless you have the necessary physical toy characters to play - but that's not to say you can't complete the game using just the basic starter pack. As it's backwards-compatible, older Skylanders toys from the previous games are also compatible.
Fun to collect, fun to play, but potentially costly. Still, it's just one of those things like so many collectables. We've found it to be a lot of fun.
Price: £52 (starter pack price)
Quick verdict: Accessible, easy to play and paired up with fun-to-collect toys: Swap Force is a force to be reckoned with and the best Skylanders game in the series yet. It won't challenge seasoned gamers, but then this is aimed at the kids for the most part... even if we did enjoy sneakily playing it ourselves a whole lot.
Full review: Skylanders: Swap Force
Philips Hue LivingColors Bloom
Philips makes a lighting system called Hue where you can control light colour and brightness throughout your home. At £180 to install it's not cheap, but it is awesome - we use it every day.
Now there are new accessory lights that can be added in to the setup, including Philips LivingColors Bloom, a lamp-style product. But unlike a lamp its LED bulb doesn't get hot, while its 120 Lumens output isn't going to light up a whole room, more mark it with a lick of subtle colour and mood.
Just like the recently announced LightStrips, we think there's a lot of good in the LivingColors Bloom. It's a shame that it only comes in the white finish, but otherwise it's super easy to integrate into the Hue system. Bloomin' marvellous, eh?
Quick verdict: You'll need to have Hue before considering the Bloom as an option, but we like the extra corner-lighting solution - it adds yet more variety and control to creating a detailed mood lighting system in the home.
Full review: Philips LivingColors Bloom