Mobile Phone Reviews
It looks like Samsung’s not afraid of batteries anymore. While the S Pen is still the key feature on the new Galaxy Note 9 phablet (starting at £999.99), it’s going to attract some folks with its big 4,000mAh battery–a major upgrade over both the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy Note 8. Otherwise, the Note 9 doesn’t have any really disruptive features.
We’re in the process of testing the phone, but have some initial impressions ahead of its release on August 24.
Not Much Physical Difference
The Note 9 looks almost exactly like the Note 8. At 6.38 by 3.01 by 0.35 inches (HWD) and 7.09 ounces, it is very slightly narrower, very slightly thicker and 0.2 ounces heavier than the Note 8, but you probably won’t be able to notice the difference immediately from the front. In the US, it will come in blue and purple, but surprisingly not black.
It won’t fit into Note 8 cases, because they moved the fingerprint sensor on the back. While the Note 9’s dual 12-megapixel main cameras are horizontally oriented, like on the Note 8, the fingerprint scanner is under them, like on the Galaxy S9+. That will please people who thought putting the scanner next to the camera resulted in too much lens smudging.
Otherwise, the phone has a 6.4-inch quad HD Super AMOLED curved screen, and USB-C and headphone jacks. I’ll spin out some more buzzwords here just to get them out of the way: Like other Samsung phones, the Note 9 has IP68 waterproofing, fast wireless charging, Samsung Pay, Knox security, and the Bixby voice assistant as well.
The phone’s cameras and audio come straight from the Galaxy S9+, so check out our review of that phone; I think performance will be very similar. The Note 9 gets top and bottom stereo speakers, like the S9+ but unlike the Note 8, and the dual-aperture low-light main camera from the S9+ as well. So, physically, we have a mix of Note 8 and S9+ elements, as we expected.
S Pen Upgrades
The S Pen gets two noticeable changes here.
For one thing, it isn’t black anymore. We saw a black phone (which won’t be available in the US) with a yellow pen, and a purple phone with a purple pen. Sure, this is cosmetic, but it also makes it a lot harder to lose a bright pen in your couch cushions.
The pen also now uses Bluetooth Low Energy, turning it into a remote control for your phone. It’s a very limited remote, because it only has one button that can send three signals: press, long press, and double-press. Those actions, at least, are customizable in settings, and Samsung will offer an API for third-party developers to control their apps using the button.
This feels…not transformative. What would have been transformative? Being able to write on any surface and have it appear on your Note, maybe.
The Bluetooth feature means the S Pen now has a tiny battery in it, although it should still work for writing when the battery dies (as the old S Pen had no battery). Samsung says it will charge for at least 30 minutes of use in 40 seconds. That said, no other phone has anything really like the S Pen.
There are stylus phones–I’m thinking of the LG Stylo line–and you can use a capacitive stylus with almost any phone, but their styli aren’t as precise or as responsive; it’s like using a crayon versus a fine ballpoint pen. If you take notes or draw, the S Pen will still be your best friend.
Why Are All the Cameras Smart Now?
Phone makers and component makers this year are obsessed with AI, although none of them have been able to explain why we should really care. Still, I’m going to pass the Note 9’s unexciting AI message along to you here.
LG and Qualcomm have both made big deals about this feature; I haven’t yet been able to find a consumer who actually notices. Frustratingly, the Note 9 comes close to a genuinely useful feature as well: It tells you, after you take a photo, if the photo is blurry or backlit. That happens far too often on phone photos, so that’s great–but the phone can’t take the next step to fix the next shot, whether that be pumping up the shutter speed (admittedly, at the expense of brightness) or trying to use a fill flash to fix the backlighting issue.
Bigger, Faster, More
We already discussed the Note 9’s big battery, which may become the phone’s major selling point.
Storage and RAM are also getting major bumps. Samsung will sell two models of the Note 9 in the US–one with 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM, the other with 512GB of storage (!) and 8GB of RAM. Considering the phone also has a microSD card slot, that means you’ll be able to get a terabyte of storage into your smartphone.
I can’t think of anything else on the market with that kind of space. The idea is that you’ll be able to fill up space like that with the Note 9’s class-leading LTE and Wi-Fi speeds. The phone has the same Category 18 LTE capabilities as the Galaxy S9, which is the phone we’re using for Fastest Mobile Networks testing this year because it’s the fastest one available. (We have a chart explaining this.) The Note 9 will run at the maximum possible speeds offered by every US and Canadian network right now, on every band they support.
Multimedia will get better with dual stereo speakers. This feature came first with the S9 series, using the earpiece as a speaker along with the more usual bottom-ported speaker. The Note 8 didn’t have this, so expect better audio on the Note 9.
The Note 9 will have class-leading call quality, too. Like last year’s Samsung phones, but unlike every iPhone so far, it works with EVS, a high-quality voice codec that Verizon and T-Mobile support.
Sexing Up DeX
Samsung’s DeX desktop system has been an ambitious idea, supported since the Galaxy S8, that hasn’t really taken off.
As we said in our DeX review, the problem is mostly that people don’t carry around keyboards and mice with their phones. So a new £49.99 HDMI adapter aims to reinvent DeX a bit as a multimedia and presentation system. Plug the adapter into any HDMI TV or monitor, and you can run the multi-windowed DeX mode on that monitor, using the phone itself as a keyboard and touch pad.
The basic goal here is to get a little bit beyond screen mirroring–to be able to run various apps and select different kinds of content onto the big screen. You can also use the phone as a secondary screen, for instance reading your presentation notes on the phone while simultaneously presenting from it. That’s a neat trick.
Four Nights of Fortnite
Samsung is offering two preorder bonuses with the Galaxy Note 9. One of them connects to the company’s four-day exclusive on the popular battle game Fortnite. If you preorder a Note 9 before August 24, you can get 15,000 units of Fortnite’s in-game currency.
If you don’t play Fortnite, you can get some AKG on-ear noise-canceling headphones instead. Or, you can get both for £99. The Galaxy Note 9 will be available in blue and purple, from all the major US carriers and unlocked from Samsung, on August 24.
It will be expensive. The 128GB model will cost £999.99, and the 512GB model will cost £1,249.99. The unlocked 128GB Galaxy S9+, meanwhile, costs £889.99.
You’re paying another £110 for a bigger battery and an S Pen, mostly, which I think a lot of people will consider a decent trade-off. For comparison, the iPhone X also costs £999, for only 64GB storage, and £1,149 for 256GB. So while the Note 9 is expensive, it’s in line with prices from its number-one competitor.
We’ll have a full review soon.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9
Bottom Line: The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is an attractive pen-enabled phablet with a fast processor, a terrific modem, and a huge battery.
LG G6 vs. Samsung Galaxy S8
Apple iPhone 5s vs. Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 vs.
Samsung Galaxy S7
- ^ phablet (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Galaxy Note 5 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Galaxy Note 8 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Note 8 cases (www.pcmag.com)
- ^ IP68 waterproofing (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ our review of that phone (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ See How We Test Phones (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Fastest Mobile Networks (www.pcmag.com)
- ^ a chart explaining this (www.pcmag.com)
- ^ high-quality voice codec (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ DeX review (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Fortnite (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ noise-canceling headphones (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ iPhone X (uk.pcmag.com)
There’s no shortage of unlocked phones in the £200 to £300 range, but at £99.99, the Alcatel 1X is one of the rare options to come in right below the £100 mark. Unfortunately, its low price comes at the cost of significant performance limitations, despite Android Go’s software optimizations. While the Alcatel 1X can handle your basic calling, texting, and browsing needs, you’ll get a much better overall experience with the Moto E5 Play for only a little more money.
Design, Features, and Display
The Alcatel 1X doesn’t have any surprises in the design department, but it does have a grippy, dark gray soft-touch back and an 18:9 aspect ratio, for a more premium and modern feel than the Moto E5 Play.
The 1X measures 5.8 by 3.3 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.3 ounces, making it a bit squatter than the E5 Play (6.0 by 2.9 by 0.4 inches, 5.3 ounces), but not so much that it makes a difference in usability.
A clicky volume rocker and power button are on the right, a micro USB charging port is on the bottom, and a 3.5mm headphone jack is up top. The left side has a SIM/micoSD card slot that worked fine with a 256GB card. The back cover isn’t removable so you can’t swap out the battery, but there is a fingerprint sensor below the camera, which is nice to see at this price.
The 5.3-inch display is slightly larger than the 5.2-inch on the Moto E5 Play.
Despite the marginal increase in size, it doesn’t measure up in quality, with a grainy 960-by-480 panel that works out to a sparse 203 pixels per inch (ppi). That’s far less crisp than the E5 Play’s 720p IPS display (282ppi). Viewing angles aren’t great, with a hazy tint when viewed off angle.
Color accuracy also leaves something to be desired, with colors often appearing dull and washed out. Outdoors, the screen is too dim and reflective to use in direct sunlight.
Network Performance and Connectivity
The Alcatel 1X is available unlocked and supports LTE bands 1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/13/17/28, which limits it to GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile. It supports most of the bands needed for good connectivity on those carriers, but you’re missing some of the coverage bands found on higher-end devices.
We tested the 1X on T-Mobile in midtown Manhattan and saw similar results to other phones we’ve tested on the carrier recently.
Call quality is poor. Transmissions suffer from significant crackling and noise cancellation struggles to diminish background noise. The sounds of traffic and other interference bleed through calls, along with a persistent hiss that degrades clarity.
The earpiece doubles as a speaker, making for reasonably loud calls, but mediocre speaker volume.
Additional connectivity options include dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2.
Processor, Battery, and Camera
The Alcatel 1X is powered by a basic MediaTek MT6739 processor clocked at 1.3GHz with just 1GB of RAM. These are specs that used to be common on entry-level phones a few years back, but seem a little out of tune with the market these days, when even most affordable phones come with at least 2GB of RAM.
Unsurprisingly, the 1X didn’t fare well in benchmark testing, scoring 2,842 in the PCMark work performance test, which measures a variety of tasks like web browsing and photo and video editing. That’s quite a bit lower than the E5 Play (3,477), and not even close to the Snapdragon 630-powered Nokia 6.1 (4,856).
Despite the lightweight Android Go software (more on that in the next section), the Alcatel 1X is sluggish in regular use.
There’s noticeable lag when launching new apps or attempting to multitask. Playing graphically intensive games isn’t possible.
Battery life is on the low side. The 1X clocked 4 hours, 4 minutes in our rundown test, in which we stream full-screen video over LTE at maximum brightness.
That’s just a few minutes shy of the E5 Play (4 hours, 8 minutes), but unlike the E5 Play, the 1X lacks a removable battery. It also falls far short of the 4,000mAh Moto G6 Play, which outran our 12-hour test video with plenty of juice to spare. And the 1X doesn’t support fast charging.
Camera performance is also disappointing.
The 1X has an 8MP rear camera that’s been digitally upscaled to shoot in 13MP. The results are blurry, noisy shots even in good lighting. The 5MP front-facing sensor, which is upscaled to 8MP, fares similarly.
In addition, the camera app itself is slow to launch, slow to switch between modes, and locked up when we tried to record video.
The Alcatel 1X runs Android 8.1 Oreo (Go edition). This means that it ships with special optimizations to take advantage of limited system resources, along with a suite of Lite versions of various apps like Google, Facebook, and others. These optimizations and tweaks work reasonably well at keeping the phone functional with just 1GB of RAM, though as mentioned earlier, it still feels quite slow.
The software load is minimal, so out of 16GB of internal storage, you have 11.16 available for use.
You can use a microSD card if you need more space.
If you are on a very tight budget and require an unlocked phone, the Alcatel 1X works for basic calling, texting, and browsing. Beyond that, we find it hard to recommend. The Moto E5 Play varies in price depending on where you buy it, but it’s available on several low-cost carriers ranging from £40 to £120.
Even if you have to pay a little more, it’s a huge step up from the 1X in terms of screen resolution, features, and performance. Our Editors’ Choice, the Moto G6 Play, costs more, but has a massive, long-lasting battery, a capable camera, and solid specs. Both phones are excellent options for tight budgets, and spare you the frustration of having to deal with the laggy Alcatel 1X.
Bottom Line: The Alcatel 1X is a basic unlocked Android phone that costs less than £100, but it makes a number of sacrifices to achieve that low price.
LG G6 vs.
Samsung Galaxy S8
Apple iPhone 5s vs.
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy Note 5 vs.
Samsung Galaxy S7
Your smartphone is always with you, a constant companion that can connect to the web to look up any tiny nugget of trivia, and generally keep you in constant contact with the outside world. It’s one of the key items you grab before leaving the house, and the last time you (probably) turned it off was at the movie theater. This also makes your phone your take-everywhere, shoot-anything digital camera.
Just a few short years ago, making images and video with smartphones was a compromise, with poorer image quality but a heck of a lot more convenience than a good point-and-shoot camera. But times have changed and phone cameras have gotten better and better. The latest models offer superior imaging and video to budget point-and-shoot cameras, and offer nifty software tricks to blur backgrounds, just like an SLR and f/2 or f/1.4 lens.
Check out these tips to get the best images you can get from your phone. But remember, even with the latest tech, phones aren’t as versatile imaging tools as modern interchangeable lens cameras.
Start With a Good Camera Phone
Smartphone camera quality has enjoyed a big leap forward in quality over the past couple of years. If you’re using an older handset, chances are the camera isn’t up to snuff.
If camera quality is a priority when shopping for a new one, make sure you peruse our list of the top camera phones we’ve tested. But remember that you really can’t go wrong with the latest Apple iPhone, Google Pixel, or Samsung Galaxy devices.
Look for the Light
Smartphones have very bright lenses–the Samsung Galaxy S9 has one that opens up all the way to f/1.5. But sensors are much smaller than you find in a premium compact camera with a 1-inch sensor like the Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II.
That gives them a distinct disadvantage in image quality in dim lighting. To get the best shots, look for opportunities where your phone’s sensor can shine. If you’re indoors, try to set up your shot so there’s light falling on your subject–some window light will do more to improve your photos than a new phone or camera.
It’s always a better option to find good light as opposed to using your phone’s underpowered LED flash.
Smartphones are the modern point-and-shoot, but the apps that run their cameras typically offer some level of manual control. The most basic adjustment you can make is exposure–brightening or darkening a scene–and using it effectively can turn a bland image into a head-turner. Use it to brighten the shot of your fancy dinner to make it perfect for Instagram, or to darken shadows in a portrait for a more dramatic look.
The feature isn’t always labeled the same. On an iPhone you’ll want to drag the sun icon, to the right of the focus confirmation box, up to brighten an image or down to darken it. Android phones typically have the more traditional +/- icon for exposure adjustment.
Turn On Your Grid
Pro SLRs typically have framing grids in the viewfinder window to help you better square up shots and conform to compositional guidelines like the rule of thirds. (For more on composition and other photo basics, read our tips for basic photography, which apply as much to smartphones as they do to pro cameras.)
You can turn on the same thing in your phone’s camera app. Adding a grid line gives you help in keeping the horizon straight and is a big plus for portraits in front of famous landmarks. With the notable exceptions of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, it’s generally a good idea to keep upright structures perfectly vertical in your photos.
Learn Your Camera’s Features
The imaging capabilities of modern smartphone cameras are staggering.
We’ve seen advances in computational photography that allow you to blur the background of images, mimicking the look of a wide aperture lens and big image sensor, and some handsets can also capture insanely slow-motion video. Your phone probably has a good burst mode too, and it’s never a bad idea to take a few images in a sequence to get the best one–just make sure not to post all of them. iPhone owners can check out Live Photos, which mix still images and video together.
Try an Add-On Lens
Your phone’s camera certainly has one lens, and some models offer dual rear cameras with the second lens capturing a tighter or wider angle of view than your phone’s main eye. A quality add-on lens will cost you–the bargain-basement ones we’ve reviewed have been universally terrible.
Go with a trusted brand like Moment or Olloclip. Picking the type of add-on lens is important too. I think a macro adds the most versatility to your phone’s camera, but you may prefer an ultra-wide, a fish-eye, or a telephoto conversion lens.
Even without a macro add-on, your phone can focus pretty close.
Use it to your advantage. You can snap a shot of your fancy dinner and get close up, but keep the whole frame in focus. That’s something you can’t do with a big camera shooting at f/1.4 or f/2, and one of the areas where small image sensors have a practical advantage over larger ones.
Get a Gimbal
It’s not all about images.
Entry-level compact cameras are stuck at 720p, but if you’ve got a recent smartphone you have a 4K-capable video camera in your pocket. Flagship models include optical image stabilization, but that can only go so far. If you want truly smooth, great-looking video, think about a powered gimbal to keep your phone steady.
Add a Microphone
When shooting video, good audio is more important than sharp footage. Your phone’s internal mic is meant for making phone calls–not recording high-quality audio. Headphone jacks may be disappearing from phones, but you can get a microphone that plugs directly into your USB or Lightning port, or one that works with your phone’s audio dongle.
Just make sure to read some reviews to make sure the mic is compatible with your particular phone and its operating system.
Edit Your Shots
Your phone is a powerful handheld computer, just as capable of making basic image adjustments as a high-end laptop running Photoshop. You should download some image editing software–my favorite is VSCO, a free download for both Android and iOS–or use the basic image editing tools built into your operating system.
More advanced photographers can enable Raw capture, which will deliver much more leeway in editing. And if you have a dual-lens iPhone, you can add an app like Focos, which allows you to adjust the amount of and quality of background blur in your Portrait Mode shots.
Your Best Tips?
We hope you’ve learned something new and will continue to use your smartphone to capture the world around you. For more advanced suggestions, check out our 10 beyond-basic digital photography tips.
Do you have a favorite tip, photo app, or accessory for use with your smartphone’s camera?
Please share it in the comments below.
- ^ smartphone (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ point-and-shoot camera (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ phone cameras (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ top camera phones (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Samsung Galaxy S9 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ basic photography (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Moment (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Olloclip (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ DJI Osmo Mobile 2 (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ VSCO (uk.pcmag.com)
- ^ Focos (itunes.apple.com)
- ^ 10 beyond-basic digital photography tips (uk.pcmag.com)