Techradar

Astro A50 Gaming Headset Review

Nothing will enhance your gaming experience quite like a nice headset. The improved audio detail and surround sound creates an immersive atmosphere, and turns the footsteps of a foe into a dead giveaway of his location. Single player campaigns become journeys you won’t want to back out of. Online, too, having a mic makes gaming into a social experience, letting you chat with your teammates and coordinate tactics on the fly.

The Astro A50 is this kind of game-changing headset – and at $300, it really should be. Thanks to the work of Dolby’s Pro Logic IIx format, it can offer digitally mixed, 7.1 simulated surround sound. It’s exactly what you need to truly feel enemy rockets rip past your face, and it’s versatile enough you’ll want to use it for watching movies or listening to music too. Finally, the fact that it’s compatible right out of the box with the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and any PC or Mac with an optical port, makes it more versatile than the Tritton Warhead 7.1, a comparable $300 headset that’s Xbox-only.

Astro Studios is well known in the design space. In 2006 it spun off Astro Gaming, which has been competing with the likes of Turtle Beach and the Tritton brand from Mad Catz to produce the premiere gaming headset/home stereo alternative. While the Astro A50 isn’t perfect, it’s damn close, and the wide range of products it works with makes it a solid investment for tech fans with crowded entertainment centers.

The Astro A50 offers deep bass, crisp highs, and thanks to that Dolby Pro Logic IIx capability, software enabled sound mixing as good as any 7.1 headset on the market. Its only real flaws are a bulky design and a somewhat clumsy interface. You’ll also need to pick up an adapter or two if you plan to connect to anything without an optical port, like a MacBook Pro. We also found that Astro’s estimated 12-hours of battery life was a bit too generous, making a $7.99 Play and Charge Cable a must.

Also, there’s an essential firmware update that fixes an issue with the A50s that causes an intermittent “pop” in the audio. If you purchased the A50s, make sure to download the update and install it.

Design

With great audio power comes a plus-sized headset; the Astro A50 is big and bulky, but still manages to be surprisingly comfortable. Every piece of the headset that comes in contact with your head, meaning the earpieces and the underside of the headband, is covered in soft, foam-like cloth. You’ll definitely notice the weight of the A50s sitting on your head, but the gentle points of contact make it easy to wear. During long gaming sessions or while watching a movie we eventually forgot we were wearing it. You’d have to wear the A50 for a truly extended amount of time for it to become uncomfortable or tiring.

Astro A50 headset review

The fit of the A50s is not as snug as some headphones we’ve tested. It might feel a bit loose if you’re used to something tighter, but we quickly go used to it. A more relaxed fit makes it easier on your ears, but it does mean the audio bleeds a bit. If you’re cranking the sound, people around you will be able to hear it faintly. Just don’t listen to any secret messages with enemy spies around.

Since the unit is large, Astro made a good choice in giving it a stealthy color scheme. The matte black finish is attractive and subdued; no need to draw any more attention to the oversized A50s. Red, semi-exposed cables running up the sides of the headband serve as an eye-catching highlight.

Astro A50 headset review

The microphone is super bendy and durable, and has one clever feature: pointing it straight up locks it in place and mutes it. It’s a neat and convenient bit of design, but we still would have appreciated to option to simply remove the mic. Being able to tuck it straight up is a great feature for LAN parties or long gaming sessions, but makes you look like an unemployed cosmonaut when you’re watching a movie. It would be nice if we could just take it off.

Setup

One of the best features of the Astro A50 is how it plays nicely with so many different toys. As long a device has an optical port, the A50 will work with it right out of the box. Without an optical port, the A50 can connect to devices (like a MacBook) by plugging a standard 1/8th-inch speaker cable into the transmitter.

Astro A50 headset review

Once you’ve plugged in, syncing is relatively painless. Additionally, Astro includes a very simple Quick Start Guide that explains how to connect to a PlayStation 3, PC or Xbox 360S (an original Xbox 360 will require an AV adapter, component cable or use of your HDTV’s optical port).

For most setups, the Astro A50 uses two connections: USB and optical. After plugging into those two ports, syncing is accomplished with by pressing a button on the transmitter and then the headset. LEDs flash for a second or two and then you’re connected. When going between different consoles, all the plugging and unplugging can get annoying, depending on how accessible your home theatre is, but syncing is always reliable and easy.

Astro A50 headset review

However, on the Xbox 360, the A50 requires the dreaded chat cable to go between the headset and the controller. Unfortunately, since Mad Catz has the exclusive rights to true wireless chat on the Xbox 360 with its Warhead 7.1, this is just how it has to be.

Some devices, such as the PlayStation 3, need you to switch audio sources in the settings menu when going between the A50 and your television’s speakers. This is easily accomplished, but may create trouble for other, less tech savvy members of your household.

Interface

Interface simplicity is key with something like the Astro A50 headset. When you’re taking enemy fire in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 or in the middle of an explosive cinematic climax, you don’t want to be fooling with the volume controls. While we wouldn’t call the A50’s interface complex, it’s not as simple as some headsets we’ve encountered, and its method of mixing game and voice sound took some getting used to.

Astro A50 headset review

The A50’s master volume is controlled with a scroll wheel found on the lower part of the right earphone. It’s easy to find at a moments notice, and not so loose that you’ll flip it too fast and blow out your eardrums. However, the big Game to Voice balance button on the right earpiece can be a bit of trouble. Pressing the game side turns up the game volume and turns down voice, while pressing voice does the opposite.

We prefer headphones that treat game and voice sound as two individually adjustable channels, rather than the A50’s method of adjusting one in relation to the other. It’s by no means a deal breaker, but we suggest that you find a level you’re comfortable with and then leave this big button alone in favor of the master volume.

Astro A50 headset review

Audio Quality

The Astro A50 is strong where it counts, and that’s in the sound quality department, strong enough that it justifies its hefty build and heavy price tag. The A50 provides all around stellar sound, with the kind of excellent localization that will take your gaming experience to the next level. It’s got a good amount of power and bass, but still retains great sound fidelity without undo distortion. While nothing can replaces a true physical 7.1 speaker set-up for watching movies in your home, the Astro A50 comes as close as we’ve seen at this price point (yes, headphones do get more expensive than $300).

Astro A50 headset review

Being a software-simulated 7.1 device, the sound mixing is very high quality. The mix is nice and wide, conveying the large sense of space that’s key to games like Battlefield 3. In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, a game where localizing enemy footsteps is key to survival, we felt like we had an advantage, but no more so than anyone else with a good pair of surround sound cans. The mix on the Astro A50s is as good as that of the Tritton Warhead 7.1, another device that uses Dolby Pro Logic IIx.

The A50 has three equalizer settings: Media increases bass, Core evens out all levels and Pro turns up the treble for better gunshot and footstep detection while gaming. Media is great for movies and music, providing booming bass without overshadowing dialogue or becoming distorted. Watching Top Gun, we were rocked by the F-14A Tomcats screaming off the runway, but could still make out every lyric to “Danger Zone.” While the A50 is a gaming headset first, stereo alternative second, you would not insult an audiophile by making him listen to his favorite album with these cans.

Astro A50 headset review

Core, by definition, was a little flat for gaming or music, but was a good balanced mix for general use like watching YouTube videos. Pro was our go-to choice for gaming. It made great use of the very wide mix the A50 provides. Character dialog was still discernable above the din of battle. However, we sometimes struggled to get the voice chat volume to a level that was easy to hear over explosions and gunfire. Chalk that up to the A50’s method of mixing game and voice in relation to each other, rather than as two separate channels.

Battery Life

As a wireless device, battery life determines how long the Astro A50 can actually go without being tethered to a USB port for a charge. The charging cable that ships with the headset is only 3-inches long, so when the charge runs out, you’re basically done playing, unless you pick up a $7.99 Play-and-Charge cable – sold separately by Astro. You can also use any USB to mini-USB cable of suitable length.

Astro A50 headset review

While Astro rates the device’s battery life at 12-hours, we found it to be all over the map, sometimes lasting only half that time. Astro reps told us that this is because different devices, as well as use of the mic, drain the battery at different rates.

The Astro gets its best battery life when used with the Xbox 360, where it gets about 10-hours of use. Otherwise, we would say that 8-hours of battery life is a more accurate average, if you’ll be using the headset across multiple devices. Thankfully the Astro can charge while in use, but during that time it ceases to be a wireless headset.

Astro A50 headset review

Also, the battery is embedded within the headset, and like all things lithium-ion, it will eventually burn out. This will be in a matter of years, but if you keep your A50 that long (at $300 you should), then be prepared to one day pony up for service to have it replaced.

Wireless Signal

As a 5.8GHz device, the A50 stands among the best in class when it comes to signal reliability. The device is rated for a distance of up to 35-ft, and if your living room is bigger than that, you probably don’t need to consider a product review before spending $300.

Astro A50 headset review

In an average living room and in our office, a place filled with cell phones, routers and other wireless devices, we never had a moment of signal interruption. In fact, we had to put two walls between the A50 and its receiver before the signal was marred in the least.

Stand

The A50’s come with a simple plastic stand that the headset hangs from, like a coat on hook. The stand comes out of the box in a few pieces, and clicks together easily. The stand is nothing fancy, just a way to keep your expensive headset above the table.

Astro A50 headset review

The stand feels a little flimsy as part of such an expensive package. While it does an ok job of providing storage for the A50, it doesn’t display it in any grand way, like the stand for the Tritton Warhead 7.1. We also would have appreciated a clip or two to help keep cables looking neat.

Astro A50 headset review

However, unlike with the Warhead, the stand and the receiver are not one unit. With this design, you won’t have to haul the stand with you every time you transport the A50s. The stand is inessential and can stay home.

At $300, the Astro A50 is a big investment. That’s roughly what an Xbox 360 or a PS3 costs these days! Still, we would recommend these pricey cans to anyone with multiple consoles in their home, or someone who likes to game on PC as well as enjoy stereo sound in their living room.

Astro A50 headset review

When going between different devices, the plugging and unplugging can get tiresome, but it’s worth it. The A50s provide high quality sound and relative ease of use with a lot of different devices. They provide phenomenal in-game sound, handle team chat adequately, and are good enough for enjoying movies or music.

We liked

First, the sound quality was top notch. The Astro A50 has a great mix that provides the sort of sound localization that will change your gameplay experience. Other headsets, like Tritton Warhead 7.1, use Dolby Pro Logic IIx just as well, but the A50 provides better sound fidelity.

It also works on more devices, which makes the $300 purchasing price much easier to swallow. If you game across more than one system, this is the headset for you. It’s also good enough for movie watching and enjoying music, which helps to further justify the price.

Astro A50 headset review

It’s also surprisingly comfortable. You may look like spaceman when you wear this big headset, but you won’t be uncomfortable. The soft foam on the ear cups and headband makes the A50 sit very softly, despite its size and weight.

We disliked

The game and voice mixing. We really would have preferred separate channels with individual volume controls, rather than having to adjust them in relation to each other. It was not exactly a deal breaker, but a bit of an annoyance. It was sometimes hard to achieve a good balance between game sound and voice chat, and when we did, we thought, “Ok, I’m never touching that button again.”

Astro A50 headset review

The battery was pretty inconsistent, and Astro’s claim of 12-hour battery life is not an accurate blanket statement. The performance of the charge varies, depending on what device you connect to and whether or not you enable to mic. Still, you should be able to get 8 or so hours out of it, which is nothing to sneeze at, but selling the Play-and-Charge cable separately is a tad insulting. It’s not the $7.99 Astro charges for it (that’s a good price, really), it’s just that it will probably mean another run to the store. When we pay $300 for something, we expect to get everything we need in the box, especially something as essential as a charging cable of a functional length.

Verdict

We heartily recommend the Astro A50 to any gamer who wants a powerful, versatile headset. It offers excellent sound fidelity and mixing, and being able to use it on a PC, Mac, Xbox 360 or PS3 makes it worth the money. While going between multiple devices will always be an annoyance of plugging and syncing, the A50 provides sound quality that’s worth the trouble.

Astro A50 headset review

We were slightly miffed by the variable battery life, but that issue is just plain overshadowed by the powerful sound and flexible options provided by this headset. If you game exclusively on the Xbox 360, you might prefer the Tritton Warhead 7.1 headset, which is better integrated with Microsoft’s console than the A50 is with any single device. At the end of the day, however, we prefer a more versatile, jack-of-all-trades headset to an exclusive one, especially at this price point.

If you do decide to pick up an A50, buy a Play-and-Charge cable as well (unless you already own a long USB to mini-USB cable), and make sure to download the latest firmware update, which completely eliminates an issue with sound “pop.”

Microsoft Surface Go

It’s finally here: Microsoft’s fourth attempt at releasing a miniaturized Surface tablet. The Surface Go is no longer a rumor and now a reality, and while it doesn’t bring about many surprises, perhaps that’s a good thing.

What you see here is what should have been the core conceit of the Surface line since the beginning: everything you love about the Surface Pro tablet, only smaller. No half-baked operating systems, no strange app compatibility issues – just a smaller Surface that works.

Of course, there were some cuts to be made to develop a Surface of this size, namely in the power department, but your expectations should scale accordingly. The Surface Go may very well be what the Surface 3 had aspired to years ago, and it was well worth the wait.

Price and availability

Microsoft is selling the Surface Go at the relatively approachable starting price of $399 (£379, about AU$539). This nets you the starting Surface Go configuration, including an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y processor, 4GB of memory and 64GB of flash storage.

From there, Microsoft is offering configurations with 8GB of RAM paired with 128GB or 256GB of storage, with either model having LTE options available later this year. All models include the gorgeous, 10-inch 1,800 x 1,200 touch display and Windows Hello biometric login via a 5-megapixel (1080p) webcam with an infrared sensor. (The rear camera is rated at 8MP with 1080p video.)

Naturally, and disappointingly, none of these options include the newly-designed Type Cover or tried-and-true Surface Pen in the box. However, Apple too is guilty of selling its iPads without keyboard covers and styluses.

Speaking of which, you likely already know that Apple sells its latest iPad for just $329 (£319, AU$469). Comparatively, that difference in price amounts to half as much starting storage and memory, and neither a USB-C port nor microSD slot. It’s worth noting, though, that Apple’s tablet has a far sharper screen at 2,048 x 1,536 pixels.

Surface Go will hit shelves and online stores August 2 running Windows 10 S Mode (switchable to Home). Schools purchasing in the commercial channel will have the choice between Windows 10 Home in S Mode or Windows 10 Pro.

Design and display

At first glance, the 1.15-pound Surface Go appears simply to be the Surface Pro shrunken down by 2.3 inches on the diagonal, and that’s largely true – excellent kickstand and all. However, Microsoft clearly put some design effort into this version, targeting it directly towards a generally wider audience, specifically students.

The first major hint toward the Surface Go’s intended audience is the rather extreme softening of the edges and angles that Microsoft has applied to the device. Gone are the stark, angled edges of the Surface Pro in lieu of rounder, softer edges that help give this version of the Surface its own identity through such a relatively small adjustment.

Of course, a smaller version of the Surface tablet requires a smaller version of the Microsoft Type Cover. The firm has taken its apparently popular Alcantara fabric and applied it to new Signature Type Covers for the Surface Go. These go for $129 (around £100, AU$170), while a basic nylon version will sell for $99 (around £75, AU$130).

Better yet, Microsoft has managed to deliver full-sized keys (now with more pronounced bowled edges) within such a small amount of space, and has included a glass trackpad that’s larger in depth than that of the Surface Pro. All told, the Type Cover feels just as excellent as it has before – we would say ‘only smaller,’ but it doesn’t feel that much smaller when typing.

Even in such a diminutive state, Microsoft managed to cram a USB-C 3.1 port and microSD card reader into the Surface Go, neither of which the latest iPad has. This means that not only can this tablet’s storage be expanded, but it has two methods of hardwired docking and display expansion to the iPad’s one, thanks to the mainstay Surface Connect port.

As for the 3:2 display, this is one area where Microsoft appears to have simply shrunk down the panel size and changed little to nothing else. The color reproduction and sharpness look nearly identical to that of the latest Surface Pro: crisp and vibrant.

Given that the Surface Pro display puts up 293 pixels per inch (ppi), and the Surface Go just 217 ppi (compared to the new iPad’s 264 ppi), we’re pleasantly surprised that the display left us with such an impression.

Ultimately, the Surface Go will undoubtedly look and feel smaller to those who have come from Microsoft’s 12.3-inch tablet or others. However, the full-sized Type Cover keys and larger trackpad go a long, long way of shoring up that difference when the tablet is on your lap.

Surface Go

Performance

While we won’t know anything concrete about the Intel Pentium Gold processor’s capabilities until we give it a full run of our benchmarks in a review, we’re optimistic about the little-known chip. Behind the Surface’s sharp display, this processor seemed to handle lots of difficult, intense tasks with ease.

Through some extensive demonstrations during our briefing on the new product, we’ve witnessed the Surface Go dock to a larger display via Surface Connect in seconds. We’ve seen the Surface Go render and manipulate 3D imagery in a biology studies app with nary a stutter. We’ve played Minecraft on the Surface Go with not a dip in frame rate.

Granted, these were all carefully-managed demonstrations, but they were all simply cued up from within the very same tablet I’ve laid hands on as we strolled about Microsoft’s New York City loft. So, rest assured that this fanless tablet is well and ready for not only the gamut of educational apps, but for media streaming as well as some (very light) gaming.

Microsoft is unsurprisingly launching the Surface Go in Windows 10 S Mode out of the box, which the option for upgrading to Windows 10 proper for free. Of course, you currently can’t go back on that decision, so choose wisely.

Now, we’ve been told that every performance demo shown will run with the same smoothness and speed in Windows 10 proper as it did in Windows 10 S Mode – not to mention that its battery will run for nine hours on a charge. Of course, we’ll be the final judge of that.

Based on what we’ve seen the latest iPad do both on stage and in the real world, the Surface Go will likely be a worthy contender when it comes to raw performance.

Surface Go

Early verdict

The Surface Go is now Microsoft’s fourth attempt at a smaller version of its Surface tablet, which would give us pause had we not seen the device first. After even just a brief time with the Surface Go, we’re plenty optimistic about it.

This is a smaller version of the Surface Pro only in that you’re getting a smaller device with less power to fit its new dimensions – not one that’s smaller in its feature set, too. While there are a lot of unknowns still, e.g. battery life, we’re confident that Surface Go will find its place.

For starters, the Surface Go is looking like a much better deal in the education sector than the latest iPad at practically all levels, even with a premium on it over Apple’s tablet. Ultimately, a full review will dictate our final judgment, but is Microsoft is looking to seriously shake up the tablet market in 2018 regardless.

Moto G5 Plus

While flagship makers battle for the top spot with small bezels and pixel-perfect cameras, Motorola has been winning a more quiet, but equally important fight: to offer desired features in a phone without costing too much.

Speaking of features, the new Moto G5 Plus has them in spades, even with the Moto G6 Plus and Moto G6 have launched. But the G5 Plus remains cheaper and has a fingerprint sensor, generous heaps of internal storage with microSD support, Google Assistant, fast charging, GSM and CDMA compatibility. The list goes on.

In that regard, it isn’t a far cry from the previous year’s value-packed Moto G4 Plus – not that you’d even know the two were related by looking at them.

Refreshed from top to bottom (and on the inside, too), the Moto G5 Plus has redefined itself and it didn’t even have to.

If you’re strapped for cash, but still want Android Nougat (with Android Oreo still said to be on the way) software, this is on sale for around $229/£230/AU$310, which is actually a little bit cheaper than the G4 Plus. How often do you see phone prices going down instead of up?

Previous owners and newcomers alike will find a lot to enjoy here for the price. So much so that minor exclusions like NFC (this feature is available outside of the US), the non-removable back and the so-so camera performance don’t detract much from the experience or the value. Though, if those features are absolutely key, you’ll want to spend a little more on some of the other best cheap phones.

Moto G5 Plus release date and price

  • Now starts at around $229 (£230, AU$310)
  • Supports GSM and CDMA networks out of the box
  • Available now globally
  • Even cheaper with Amazon Prime in the US

Though most will have the luxury to decide between this and the Moto G5, the plus-sized phone is the only option available to those in the US. The lack of choice is a downer, but thankfully, this phone leaves almost nothing to be desired for the cost.

In the US, it has launched at $229 for the 2GB RAM model with 32GB of internal storage. At that price, it’s slightly cheaper than the Moto G4 Plus, which offered us less for the money in the way of internal storage and a weaker Snapdragon 617 system on chip (SoC).

For $299, you can pick up the US-exclusive model that comes with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of flash storage.

If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, you’ll snag a discount on the 32GB model, with it coming in at $205. You don’t even need to wait for Amazon Prime Day to get a deal on this cheap phone in the US.

Depending on where you are in the world, the configurations available differ a bit.

In the Asia-Pacific region? You have two models to choose from: one with 16GB of storage/3GB RAM and one with 32GB/4GB RAM. In Latin America, there is but one model available with 32GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. To those in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East region, the only G5 Plus available has 32GB of storage with 3GB of RAM. Confusing, we know.

In the UK, you’ll be able to snag Moto G5 Plus for £249, though some stores are now selling it from around £230. Last, but not least, the phone is available in Australia with an RRP of AU$399, though some stores now list it from roughly AU$310.

Thankfully, any version that you pick up is compatible on both CDMA and GSM networks. On Verizon and planning a switch to AT&T, or vice versa? You’re all set with this single phone. Feel free to swap between networks on the fly, or if you’re like me, toss in a Project Fi SIM card that works with both CDMA and GSM and get the best of both worlds.

The fact that Moto can add this broad compatibility across networks in its budget phone lineup is impressive and frankly, all other manufacturers should be taking notes.

Design

  • Revamped design makes it no longer feel like a budget device
  • Borrows from the Moto Z, but carves out a confident look on its own
  • Concave, multi-purpose fingerprint sensor is Moto’s best yet

The Moto G5 Plus takes affordable smartphone design to the next level with a build quality that more closely mimics that of an expensive flagship phone.

Sure, the Moto G4 Plus could be considered good looking in its own right. It was on cue with what we’d expect out of a mid-range phone rolled into a budget handset. But not everyone liked the rubberized back when they equate aluminum or glass with top-tier quality.

This phone is completely made-over and almost unrecognizable next to its previous iteration, which in just about every way is a good thing.

At 150.2 x 74 x 7.7 – 9.7mm, this new phone from Moto trims but a few millimeters from the length and width and has a similar thickness to that of the G4 Plus. Factoring in the reduction from the 5.5-inch screen down to 5.2 inches and the end result is a device that’s easier to hold in the palm.

The slim earpiece cutout and fingerprint sensor on the front borrows from the Moto Z’s styling. If anything, we prefer the feel of the sensor on the G5 Plus more because of its concave design, which makes it easier to find when you’re not looking at the phone.

Set to release in lunar grey and fine gold color options (Moto provided us with the latter for review), the bezels give off a glossy look and are complemented nicely by the metallic effect on the trim that surrounds the phone. We usually see manufacturers opting for a chamfered edge here, so it’s cool to see Moto bucking convention.

From there, the G5 Plus transitions on its back into soft, brushed metal that provides a good amount of grip while avoiding common smartphone plagues, like carrier-specific branding and attracting fingerprints.  As far as buttons and ports go, the G5 Plus plays host to the usual suspects.

On the right side, you’ll find a volume rocker placed above the notched power button. The nanoSIM and microSD card slot sits atop of the device, while the micro USB port and 3.5mm jack occupy its bottom.

Display

Sitting front and center of the G5 Plus is its 5.2-inch Full HD (1080p) screen. A phone is usually only as good as its display and thankfully, this one doesn’t disappoint.

While we take every opportunity to bash manufacturers for not taking the leap to QHD (1440p) in more expensive devices -hrm, Sony -, FHD resolution suits Moto’s latest just fine. Games with a lot of detailed art look fantastic and VR experiences with the best Google Cardboard games will look just fine with its 424 pixel-per-inch (PPI) screen.

Though, due to Google Daydream’s tough guidelines that only let in phones that have OLED screen tech running at 2K, the G5 Plus will have to keep dreaming.

Indoor and out, the IPS display was clearly readable and multimedia is more vibrant than in Moto’s previous budget entries. This is in part thanks to the new settings menu that tweaks the colors of the screen, a welcome feature for those who like to have options.

Interface and reliability

  • Comes with Android Nougat, complete with Google Assistant, stock apps and Pixel-like interface. Android Oreo is on its way soon.
  • Moto’s built-in software features make this phone into something unique
  • Swipe-activated fingerprint sensor is awesome

Some phone makers insist on heavily remixing stock Android software, but Moto is not one of them. Following closely in the steps of Nexus and Pixel smartphones, the Moto G5 Plus does very little to stray for Google’s vision for Android Nougat.

Moto will be rolling out an update to Android Oreo features eventually (the Moto G5S Plus and Moto G5 already have it), but until then, Nougat will have to do.

While the Moto G4, Moto G4 Plus and Moto G4 Play came with the Google Now launcher, the new phone’s software more closely resembles that of the Google Pixel and Google Pixel 2. Instead of an app drawer button, you simply slide a finger up from the bottom to reveal all of your apps.

Of course, you’re free to install the launcher of your choosing, but this refined user interface is at its peak and a lot of people are really going to enjoy it.

All of Google’s stock apps are here, like Phone, Messaging and Contacts. There are even a few surprises built-in, like Duo and Wallpapers and Google Assistant.

There is a little bit of Moto in the mix, too. There’s an app that is aptly titled “Moto” on the homescreen by default and it’s your shortcut to unlocking some interesting features baked into the device.

We’ve seen most of these before, like “twist to open camera” and “chop twice for flashlight”. But making its debut here is the inventive one button navigation.

Once activated, the capacitive navigation buttons that you’re used to disappear and shifts those duties to the fingerprint sensor.

To go home, quickly tap it once. To look at recent apps, tap and swipe right. Going back is a simple swipe left. Like the Moto Z, you can put the phone in sleep mode with the fingerprint sensor as a more accessible alternative to the power button. To do this, just touch it a little longer than a tap, but shorter than a long press. Sounds confusing, but it’s executed pretty well.

In addition to making navigation easier with the fingerprint sensor, Moto has also implemented the Google Assistant to let you do more with your voice. You can either long press the fingerprint sensor or simply bring your phone to attention with “OK, Google”.

Lastly, Moto earns points for its smart display tech. When you move your hand over the phone, a screen lights up that shows notifications and lets you pause music. It’s a nice quality of life touch that makes interacting with the G5 Plus faster and easier.

Music, movies and gaming

  • Delivers a solid multimedia experience on a budget
  • 3.5mm jack and Bluetooth 4.2 support wired and wireless headphones
  • Vibrant Full HD display makes movies look crisp at 1080p
  • Faster Snapdragon 625 and extra RAM helps games run smoothly, too

If you want true multimedia bliss, the Moto Z is definitely the best option offered by Motorola. But that G5 Plus is certainly no slouch and in fact, it one-ups its flagship sibling right out of the gate.

Starting with music, the G5 Plus comes with a 3.5mm headset and Bluetooth 4.2 to ensure that both wired and wireless tech adopters are suited. As you may remember, the Moto Z and Moto Z Force omitted the wired option following the Apple’s controversial decision with the iPhone 7, only to bring it back in the Moto Z Play.

This device comes stocked with Google Play Music as its music player by default, but you’re free as always to load on whichever music streaming service that you’d prefer.

As it does for music, Moto’s budget device calls upon Google’s suite of video apps, Google Play Movies and YouTube to provide what you’re looking for. Like the G4 Plus, the G5 Plus a 1080p display, though it looks plenty vibrant and crisp for its size. Overall, the quality is as expected, but is nevertheless impressive considering the low price tag.

Lastly, your gaming experience on this phone will depend on the types of games you like to play. The classics work without a hitch and even newer titles, like Fire Emblem Heroes and Hearthstone, look stunning and are each a smooth, enjoyable experience on the G5 Plus.

Whatever it is you enjoy doing on a phone for entertainment, the built-in microSD slot that supports up to 128GB of extra adoptable storage will keep the party rolling for quite some time.

Specs and performance benchmark explained

  • Enough power to multitask without a hitch and run the latest games
  • Matches (and in some regions, exceeds) the specs of the Moto Z Play for cheaper, sans Mods

Moto’s G series has always worked against the idea that a low price phone can’t be thoughtfully constructed or packed full of competent specs, and that baton has been passed on to the G5 Plus.

You certainly won’t find a Snapdragon 835 inside, but the Snapdragon 625 octa-core SoC is a small, albeit noticeable speed boost over the 617 inside of the Moto G4 Plus. Also improved inside of that package is the Adreno 506 graphics processing unit (GPU) that operates at a higher clock speed than what was found in last year’s model.

Our review unit has 4GB of RAM inside, so it’s the top of the line in Moto’s G5 lineup in the US (and anywhere else, for that matter).

In fact, that puts it higher than the 3GB of RAM-equipped Moto Z Play if you’re just comparing specs. During our time with it, we spent no time waiting on hanging menus, and multitasking with Nougat’s split-window feature didn’t slow this phone down at all.

When put through its paces on Geekbench 4, the Moto G5 Plus spit out an average of 3,824 for the multicore score. Oddly, that’s well above the 2,600 score put forward by the Moto Z Play, which aside from the 3GB of RAM, matches this new budget phone completely. We think it’s fair to attribute this to inconsistencies in the benchmarking app and/or vast performance improvements from Nougat over Android Marshmallow. One shouldn’t place too much confidence in those scores, anyway.

Wondering where the Moto Mods are? Like you, we were hoping to see them appear on the G series one day. And thankfully, Motorola didn’t totally rule out Moto Mod coming to the budget line when we asked at MWC 2017. But seeing as this Moto G5 Plus is similarly specced to the Moto Z Play, the lack of modular support is a let-down.

  • Want to get the best deal on a Moto G5 Plus in Australia? Compare prices on our sister site Getprice!
  • No batter increase over the G4 Plus, but that’s not a bad thing
  • Impressive fast-charge technology for a budget phone

In some ways, the Moto G5 Plus couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. But when it comes to the battery inside this time around, it’s quite similar.

At 3,000mAh, the capacity offered up is on par for a phone this size. Moto promises all-day performance, so the baseline target for this budget phone is one day before it taps out. During our testing, it was common for the phone to last longer than its advertised lifespan. Obviously, your results will vary depending on your work (or play) load, but the G5 Plus easily meets the mark of a day of battery life.

It’s really no surprise, given that an 90-minute HD movie only drained 12% of the battery.

Although this phone can last quite a while without a charge, plugging it into the included charger once it’s dead reveals another neat trick: it can return to form very quickly. Equipped with Moto’s TurboPower technology, the G5 Plus went from 0-20% in 15 minutes. After another half hour, it reached 62%. And finally, it became fully charged in a total of 85 minutes.

Camera

  • Captures bigger pixels, but the results don’t really show
  • 4K video looks good on paper, but 1080p at 60FPS is the star here
  • Moto’s camera software is becoming a favorite and the app is fast to boot and capture

If you’re a numbers person, the changes in the camera department from last year’s G4 Plus might be setting off an alarm.

The rear sensor in the G5 Plus is now 12MP, moved down from 16MP. But in its stead are some worthwhile improvements that are worth the exchange.

For instance, the main camera is now capable of better low light shooting thanks to the aperture boost from f/2.2 to f/1.7. The sensor now captures larger 1.4-micron pixels in each photograph, which in theory boasts accurate lighting and cuts back on the amount of noise present.

You’ll also be able to shoot video in 4K at 30 frames per second (FPS) – 1080p at 30FPS was the threshold of the G4 Plus. What we discovered from the G5 Plus is that being able to shoot in 4K doesn’t magically turn your footage into Hollywood-caliber gold. While detailed, our results were shaky, slow to focus with colors muddled slightly throughout. There are few places where this phone shows its budget roots and this is one of them.

Lastly, though the specs of its front facing camera haven’t changed one bit, Moto has added its professional and beautification modes to this end. Now, you can modify your shots and tweak your results with both cameras of this budget device.

As someone who uses the Google Pixel XL as a daily driver and main camera, more or less, it quickly becomes apparent how far behind every other phone is. Obviously, the Moto G5 Plus is on the opposite side of the pricing spectrum and it’s unfair to compare the two directly. And while serviceable, I can fairly state that I was a little disappointed with the camera performance here.

It’s hard to expect brilliance at this low price tag, and yes, it is possible to take some nice shots if you have an eye and a steady hand for it. But you may not want to toss out your point-and-shoot just yet.

Moto has improved its less-than-stellar reputation for bad imaging in the past few years, but the G5 Plus isn’t a good indicator of that progress.

Photos were generally murky and lacked the sharp details and colors that we expected to be captured from each scene, especially considering the large pixels. Testing its low-light chops ended with mixed results. It captured photos with enough detail to satisfy, but mixed in the same haze and overblown lights that we saw during the day.

Check out the results in the slideshow below. As you’ll see, still photos are another area where the Moto G5 Plus lives up its its budget reputation, and doesn’t in anyway exceed it.

Despite the so-so performance of the camera hardware, Moto’s camera software is really starting to become a favorite. It’s intuitive, feature-packed and it boots quickly, whether you launch it from the app, the twist-to-open Moto action, or by double tapping the power button.

Motorola is continuing its hot streak in the budget market with the Moto G5 Plus. Flagship features and design have slowly trickled down to the mid-range and it’s good to see Moto absorbing this trend on the low-end. Finally, it longer looks or feels like a budget phone.

While what’s at the core of the new phone is simply a welcome jump over last year’s, it will likely mark a change in perception of the G series. If not for the design, then for inclusions like Google Assistant and other inventive features like the one-button navigation on the fingerprint sensor.

The quality of the images taken with the G5 Plus are the low point here. Otherwise, our biggest gripes with it are centered around what it could be, not what we wished it wasn’t.

Who’s it for?

For those on a budget, but who don’t want to sacrifice decent performance to save some money.

Android Nougat with Google Assistant, Moto’s slick (and light) custom touches, premium design and stacked list of features all make this more than your ordinary phone. All for $229, you say? That’s an easy sell.

Should you buy it?

If you own the Moto G4, you more or less know what you’re in for. For everyone else, there is simply no better deal out there for a phone that essentially does it all.

Sure, you won’t find NFC here if you’re pining to use Android Pay in the US, and the camera performance didn’t impress us. However, those are small blips for a device that gets so much right for very little cash.

Samsung Galaxy S8

The Samsung Galaxy S8 was something quite special when it launched. It was a phone that was unlike anything you’d have seen on the market. And even now, more than a year on, it’s still stunning, especially for today’s lower price point.

The screen is just brilliant – clear, sharp and offers lovely color reproduction to make movie watching a dream, and that’s before you’ve even got to the fact it has a screen larger than the iPhone 7 Plus in a chassis that feels more like the iPhone 7.

The Galaxy S8 isn’t perfect – in the search to squeeze the screen in so completely, other factors were overlooked: namely, the placement of the fingerprint reader. If you want this phone, you’ll need to answer this question: are you OK using an iris scanner, one that doesn’t always work when you want it to?

And if you’re looking for something even bigger, and with a much-improved battery life to boot, then the Galaxy S8 Plus is the way to go – although both have now been replaced by the new Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus.

These are iterative upgrades over the S8, so if you want to saw some money the now-cheaper S8 is still a great shout, but if you want the very best Samsung has to offer then it’s the S9 duo you need to be paying attention to.

Samsung Galaxy S8 price

  • Launch price: £639 ($724.99, AU$ 1,200)
  • Current price: £440 ($499, AU$721)

The Samsung Galaxy S8 carried a hefty price tag when it arrived in April 2017, but more than a year on the cost has reduced significantly making the phone an attractive proposition for those who find the S9 a little on the steep side.

At launch, the SIM-free Samsung Galaxy S8 price was £639 ($724.99, AU$ 1,200), but now it can be found for just £440 ($499, AU$721). In the US, Amazon has it for $499 unlocked – a $225 price drop in a little over a year.

In the UK, the contract price has dropped. Some deals offer the phone for less than £25 per month with a substantial amount of internet included. To find the best deal for you, check out our selection of the best Samsung Galaxy S8 deals in the UK.

We spent a week thoroughly testing the Samsung Galaxy S8 when it first came out – watch our video below to see how we got on.

Not seeing eye to eye

  • Biometrics add time to unlocking the phone
  • Fingerprint scanner in a poor place
  • Facial recognition infuriating

Right, let’s get down to business – and we’ll start with the thing that’s concerning us most about the Galaxy S8.

The main issue we have with this phone centers around how you’ll get into it – most smartphones users now expect to use a fingerprint to unlock their device, making it secure and meaning you don’t have to peck in your PIN a billion times a day.

It’s a good idea, it’s safe enough for most people, and it just works – we’re all in agreement there.

With the Galaxy S6, Samsung got biometric unlocking right, but annoyingly with the Galaxy S8 things have become difficult and confusing.

You can unlock this phone with your face, a fingerprint or an iris scan, in increasing order of security level, making the S8 one of the most secure phones around (assuming nobody knows your PIN, of course, which is the backup method of entry).

However, in creating the massive screen on the front of the Galaxy S8, Samsung has moved the fingerprint scanner to the rear of the phone – and placed it out of the reach of most fingers when holding your phone naturally.

As a result, you’ll need to shift the handset to an unnatural position in your palm to reach the scanner with your digit, and thanks to the elongated lozenge-like shape of the fingerprint sensor it can take a couple of attempts to register.

It also makes it less stable in the hand and prone to being dropped. And in terms of it being uncomfortable in the hand, the Galaxy S8 Plus takes it to the next level, with an even harder time of reaching the scanner at the top.

You will find over a few months’ use that you’ll get used to this – we’ve found after intensive testing it’s not terrible… but it’s certainly not optimal.

The fingerprint scanner, then, is too far away to use naturally. So how about iris scanning? Well, it’s the best implementation we’ve seen from Samsung (far better than we’ve seen on the flammable Note 7) but it’s still not perfect.

There are times when it’s flawless, where you’ll just turn the phone on and be instantly unlocked as the S8 has spotted your eyes and confirmed your identity. (Or just thinks you’ve got lovely irises and wants to impress you… either way, it’s rapid).

On the occasions when it works like this you’ll experience a genuine sense of living in the future.

Other times, when you’re walking or in lower light, the iris scanner just failed time and again (although weirdly it works fine in the pitch-dark).

This meant we sometimes ended up gurning (by the way, we urge you to search YouTube for the gurning world championships) at the S8, trying to force the issue by opening our eyes really wide and moving the phone around in order to unlock it.

On the train, this is not acceptable behavior – and after a couple of days, it actually made our eyes hurt, pushing them out on stalks so often.

There were also times when the iris scanner wouldn’t work even in optimal conditions (sitting still in bright light), and only a restart sorted this issue out.

Not smart, Samsung. If you’re going to make people switch to an iris scanner by putting the fingerprint sensor out of reach, then make it flawless, not brilliant-most-of-the-time-but-sometimes-not.

Over a week or so we did get used to the nuances of the iris scanner; it’s fine – it’s just mildly irritating to have to hold your phone in a certain way, and it’s useless while walking or wearing sunglasses (although it did work through regular glasses).

Facial recognition – despite being the default out of the box – is a non-starter for us. The phone fails to recognise your face far too often, it doesn’t work in low light, and it can be spoofed by a photo. Nope, not happening.

There’s nothing more infuriating about this feature than the fact you can’t see if you’re ‘positioning’ your face correctly. There’s definitely an angle to hold it at that’s optimal… but you have no idea what it is, or why.

This issue has been increased now that Apple has invested seemingly billions in creating invisible dots that fire into your face to verify your identity the same way… the iPhone X is big competition to the Galaxy S8 as a result.

What users now expect from flagship phones – and what Samsung had done perfectly before – is a simple, muscle memory action that opens your phone. No extra pressing, no having to interact with the phone to open it up – just one single press to be securely into your handset.

The workaround we ended up with (as we’re not leaving our phones unlocked, which is what some might be tempted to do) is to use Smart Lock, where you can set up trusted places or connected devices to confirm your identity.

This means that if you leave your phone lying around at work or at home someone can jump right into it though, so you’re basically just preventing a thief from being able to access data if you lose the Galaxy S8 on the train.

In short, Samsung appears to have screwed this one up. We’d heard rumors that the brand was trying to add in a new feature where the fingerprint was in the same place as on the S7 (at the base of the phone) but actually under the screen.

That would have been perfect, as it’s the way most people fire up the screen anyway.

But clearly Samsung couldn’t make this work effectively, so decided to shove the fingerprint scanner way up the back of the S8, as that was the only place left to put it that didn’t require some last-minute retooling of the phone.

That’s the only logical explanation, as otherwise why wouldn’t the fingerprint scanner be above the Samsung logo, which would be a perfect place for it?

A sluggish start for Bixby

  • Bixby still fails to impress
  • Very much a future feature
  • Bixby Vision adds unnecessary bloat to the camera

The other big feature that’s launched with the Samsung Galaxy S8 is Bixby, the brand’s voice assistant rival to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s less-interestingly-named Assistant.

Those who’ve used the Galaxy S3 and S4 will remember that Samsung already tried to match Siri with S Voice, but it was a bit pointless, especially when Google’s voice chops got so gosh-darn good.

Well, Bixby is Samsung’s big play in its bid to compete in the arena of artificially intelligent assistants, and it clearly thinks it can succeed despite being so late to the game.

The aim here is to make Bixby an indispensable accompaniment to your daily life, reminding you of things when you need them, letting you know what you’re looking at, and being a single-button one-stop shop for all the information you need.

In fact Samsung is so confident that Bixby is going to be brilliant that it’s popped a button dedicated solely to this function on the side of the phone.

Yep, a phone that’s so tightly designed that it can’t even have the fingerprint scanner in an accessible place has a whole key dedicated to Bixby… and it’s very hard to see why right now.

Bixby is pretty mundane though, despite having voice functionality added in now. It’s currently only South Korean and US English and it’s inherently inaccurate for voice.

We tested for a while, but as it can’t support many third party apps or properly understand what’s being said – even to a US speaker – it seems a bit futile. It will probably get better over time, but most people won’t care about that.

In the UK, one would assume it wouldn’t be too long – but then again, that region was expecting Samsung Pay a while ago, and it’s only just turning up.

So what does Bixby mean to you, the new phone buyer? Well, nothing. It’s average at best, and pretty much useless at worst.

Bixby Vision, a little icon that lives in the corner of the camera, will be able to analyze what’s being shown through the camera’s viewfinder (both live and from a taken pic) and let you know whether you can buy it, recognize the image and given information or let you know about a place you’re checking out.

Except the results of image recognition just show you things on Pinterest, the shopping element seems to recognize almost nothing at launch and the places option is pretty patchy. It’s slow to work out what it’s looking at and, overall, it’s just a waste of screen right now.

Bixby Home, the screen that lives to the side of the home screen, is much better.

It’s contextual and interesting, and you can pin your favorite elements (like Spotify, for instance) to the top for easy access from anywhere in the phone.

It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s pretty neat – although there is a maddening pause every time you open it for the first time, as if Bixby is trying to remember where it left its home page.

The good news is you can disable the Bixby button from opening the Home screen, which is great as so many times we hit it instead of the volume key. It’s a poor placement.

  • Bixby’s big chance: why this is the perfect time to relaunch

And then there’s Bixby Reminders, where you’ll be alerted to things you’ve made a note of in the past. You can set a location trigger to remind you to buy fruit when you pass a location, or ping you at a certain time to remind you to call someone.

None of this is exactly new though, and there’s absolutely no reason why you’d buy the Samsung Galaxy S8 for Bixby.

Samsung is pretty jazzed about Bixby, and the fact that it’ll be able to understand things contextually in the future. Right now it only can work with a handful of native apps (not even all of them…) and there’s no interaction with third-party options. But from this acorn, Samsung insists, a mighty oak will grow.

Imagine not just being able to set a location to buy fruit, but being pinged when somewhere nearby sells it. Or taking a picture of something and finding it far cheaper online straight away, or being able to ask your phone to do things contextually (for instance: ‘Bixby, can you turn on the heating when I’m twenty minutes from home?’ ‘Bixby, upload those pictures from my run today to Facebook with the caption ‘#blessed #squadgoals #ImsorryforwhoI’vebecome).

That’s the world Samsung is promising, and if you purchase the S8 you’ll be buying into that promise. However, right now, that’s all it is… and there’s no way we can recommend a phone based on a promise, as Samsung could just pull the plug on a feature like Bixby if it really can’t get it to work properly, and a few months on we’ve seen nothing that suggests it’s going to conquer the world of AI.

  • Best-looking phone on the market
  • Premium design
  • Headphone jack remains

The way the Samsung Galaxy S8 is put together has to be the defining feature of the handset. It looks like a phone that’s been brought back from the future, a device that we’ve been crying out for a phone manufacturer to be brave enough to put together.

If you’re coming to the S8 from the Galaxy S5 or S6, or switching from the iPhone 6, then you’ll be genuinely amazed by a phone that would look thoroughly at home in a sci-fi movie.

The glass is curved on both sides, with the popularity of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge convincing the South Korean brand that the time is ripe to make all its flagship phones look rounded and glossy, with the Edge screen now there by default.

If you’re worried about accidental tapping on the side of the screen when using the phone, we found this didn’t happen at all in our early tests.

The Edge features, where you can add in quick links to your favorite contacts or top apps, are neat… but we never remembered to use them.

But back to how Samsung has designed the Galaxy S8… it’s just pure premium from start to finish. The way the front and back of the phone roll into the metal rim that sits around the outside of the phone is simply exquisite, and there’s a real pleasure to be had when just rolling this phone around and around in your palm.

It’s worth noting here that we have heard reports of the Samsung Galaxy S8 proving to be a big fragile when dropped, but it’s not something we noticed in our testing.

Looking around the reports, it seems that the rear glass is more prone to dropping, but it’s hard to tell if the instances are higher than usual or this is just a more popular phone.

The key thing is that it’s glass front and back with less structural support than other devices, so if you’re worried there are some good cases to check out.

 

  • The top Samsung Galaxy S8 cases

The buttons are all well-crafted, and have a pleasant click and travel – and this year Samsung has both removed keys from and added keys to important parts of the Galaxy S8.

We’ve already questioned the need for a  Bixby button on the left-hand side of the handset, but the fact it sits below the volume rocker is annoying.

When feeling for the volume rocker to turn music down it’s very easy to hit that button instead and open up the Bixby information screen.

The power button on the right-hand side is well placed though – a good move to keep it separate and prominent. What’s odd here is that Samsung could have used this ‘clean’ side of the phone, devoid of anything other than this button, to accomodate the fingerprint sensor.

Sony’s placement of the fingerprint scanner in the power key is a sensible move, and if Samsung had done this on the S8 it would have avoided the irritation of the misplaced fingerprint scanner, and this would easily be a five-star phone.

But the rest of the way the phone has been put together is impressive. Samsung knows what it’s doing with phone design these days, and everything has been put in place to make the Galaxy S8 feel premium.

By sticking with the same style of camera sensor and not upgrading to a dual-sensor affair, the brand has been able to keep the back of the phone flat, with no bump.

This is much more attractive than previous versions of the phone, and apart from a small lip to differentiate the camera from the rest of the body (useful when searching for the fingerprint sensor) it’s flush to the back.

For some reason the heart rate monitor remains next to the camera – given the desire to make this phone as sleek as possible, surely that could have been up for the chop?

However, despite the Gorilla Glass on the rear of the phone, it does feel a little plasticky thanks to being so light and thin. It makes sense in terms of the phone design, but it’s not got the same pleasantly tactile feeling that metal has – and it’s here that phones like the iPhone 7 win out.

It’s also good to finally see a USB Type-C connection on the bottom of the phone – and a headphone jack alongside it.

It still feels weird talking about the inclusion of a headphone jack on a flagship phone as some kind of noteworthy achievement, but Apple has made both manufacturers and customers question the utility of the socket, and Samsung has defiantly told TechRadar that it sees the port as something consumers still need.

Already we’ve used two different pairs of headphones with the Galaxy S8, not including those in the box. Listen up, rest-of-the-phone-world: we don’t want to lose the headphone jack yet.

  • Samsung Galaxy S8 – every color you can buy the phone in

Screen

  • Best screen on any phone
  • Far too tall to use with one hand
  • Movies look amazing on it

It almost feels tiring saying this, given that we say it every year, but Samsung has yet again put the world’s best screen on a phone – and trust us, that’s no mean feat.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 has the most stunning display around, and while it’s been proven factually through DisplayMate’s rigorous testing, it’s also clear from the moment you pick up the new S8.

The colors are rich, the black and white contrast is immaculate, and everything just looks so pin-sharp. Streaming content in HD is a dream, and anything that’s saved onto the device looks great.

Let’s get a couple of obvious issues out of the way first though, beginning with the size: the 5.8-inch display is possibly too big.

We know that sounds like an odd thing to say when Samsung has put so much effort into cramming this massive display into a smaller form factor, but, thanks to the new 18.5:9 ratio, it’s terribly long.

It’s similar to the 16:9 widescreen ratio most will be familiar with, but just a bit longer. This means the length of the screen is rather long, so you’ve got no chance of reaching the top right-hand side when you need to go back in an app – it’s just too big for that.

Phew, that’s the poorer stuff out of the way – let’s get back to being chirpy about a sublime feature on this phone. Watching movies on this handset has to be one of the best experiences we’ve had, entertainment-wise, on a phone.

The way the screen arcs away at the side, combined with the longer display, means movies (which are shot in a 21:9 format) don’t noticeably have the black bars above and below the display (well, they do, but they’re almost hidden in the curves).

As a result, watching movies feels akin to doing so in a theater; it’s a far more immersive experience, and, when combined with the rich colors and contrast ratios, a completely joyous one.

It is a little annoying that you need to open the multi-tasking window and tap the ‘expand’ button to make some apps full-screen; some are set this way by default, but others haven’t yet been optimized by their developers, which is irritating, even at this early stage, as many users won’t be aware of how they can make Netflix look so much better.

The same goes for gaming: when you’ve got a title that would work better with more width to play with, the Samsung Galaxy S8 can scale it up nicely to fill the entire screen with some prodding.

Or alternatively, if the app you’re using doesn’t stretch the whole way across, you can use those black bars at the side to house some of the touchscreen controls (during fighting games, for instance) meaning your digits don’t block the action.

Samsung is selling the Galaxy S8 as certified by the UHD Alliance, meaning it’s HDR-compatible… and thankfully we’ve got some content coming through on streaming services.

(HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is used to describe incredibly vivid images through intelligent management of the brightness and colors in any display).

It’s a nice new feature, and now there’s mobile HDR content on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video it’s much better. It’s not earth-shattering, but is a boon compared to standard SD or HD videos.

On Netflix you do need to pay extra for the option though, which sucks a little.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 has 64GB of onboard storage along with a memory card slot, so you’re not easily going to run out of space to hold your movies and other files – and with the powerful Exynos 8895 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, this phone has enough power to plough through even the toughest of games.

 

In short, we loved everything about using the display on the Galaxy S8. The curved corners of the display make everything feel more immersive, and while the design of the phone means navigating through the interface can be something of a chore at times, the overall experience was stunning.

The audio experience was interesting though. There’s only a single speaker at the bottom of the phone, and while it’s loud it’s rather tinny.

The bundled headphones are a lot better – AKG-tuned, they’ve got a big name behind them rather than just being generic headphones from Samsung.

In truth, they don’t sound a lot better than the buds you normally get in the box with Samsung phones, and the build quality is a bit light – they don’t feel like they offer a huge amount of bass when you hold them in your hand.

But the overall sound quality is fine. It’s better than that from Apple’s EarPods, but not in the same league as the bundled headphones HTC chucks in its phones, for instance.

  • To compare prices and score the best saving on a Samsung Galaxy S8 in Australia, head over to our sister site Getprice!
  • Refined user interface is fun to use
  • ‘Swipe to open’ app drawer is great
  • The most powerful phone on the market

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is one of the most powerful phones we’ve ever tested, and anyone who doesn’t buy a Samsung because of the user interface is living in past.

That’s not to say that everyone is going to love the Touchwiz* UI straight away, but to not even bother checking out a Samsung phone because you didn’t like the user interface in 2013 is pointless.

(*Apparently the TouchWiz name has been quietly dropped and it’s now ‘Samsung Experience’, although we’ve not seen that publicized anywhere).

Things are miles better now in the interface, and Samsung has worked hard making everything appear where it should.

If Bixby was as powerful as the brand was promising it eventually will be, the interface would be even less of a thing to talk about, as you could just bark all your commands at your phone and it would do what you needed.

But for now you have to keep exercising those digit muscles and swipe around the display to order your favorite takeaway.

The new user interface on the Samsung Galaxy S8 is more sleek and understated than ever before. It’s running on top of Android Nougat, but you’d struggle to see that… this is not a phone for the Android purists.

Android 8 Oreo launched for the Galaxy S8 along with Samsung Experience 9.0, and they brought new software features carried over from the Galaxy S9. You can rotate apps on the home screen, picture-in-picture, notification dots and fixes to many of our biggest Bixby problem – it’s still not perfect, however.

With Android 7, we got long-pressing on the icons brings up contextual menus (3D Touch from the iPhone, anyone?). The notifications shade design looked premium, even if it was a little bit complex.

One of the biggest problems Samsung will face with the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus is the loss of the physical and soft buttons on the front of its handsets.

Samsung fans will be used to having a phone with a home button and back / menu buttons stuck below the screen, but the Infinity Display has seen to it that we don’t have those any more.

Instead the buttons are virtual, called up with a swipe of the finger whenever you’re using a full-screen app. Samsung has offered a number of tutorials to help users get to grips with this new system, but it takes some getting used to.

There are some nice touches throughout the Samsung Galaxy S8’s interface – for instance, when searching through the menus there’s a search option at the top, and menus end with options for related settings.

The main change is the loss of the app drawer button – but the tray is still there, it’s just accessed with a swipe up or down on the home screen. It’s weird to think that this hasn’t been used in the past on other mainstream phones, as it makes so much sense and is really intuitive.

Sadly, another potentially cool feature is marred by the poor positioning of the fingerprint scanner.

You can swipe down on this sensor to pull down the notifications shade, which saves you jiggling the phone about in the hand to swipe from the top of the screen… well, it would save it if you didn’t have to bounce the phone about in your palm in order to hit the fingerprint sensor in the first place.

The Always-on Display, one of our favorite features of the Galaxy S7, has been included and upgraded – now you can even have your favorite photos saved on there to always look at when your phone’s display is turned off.

Device Maintenance is also another neat feature, gamifying your efforts to keep the phone running at optimal levels. This scans your device and offers a score out of 100 depending on the performance of the battery, apps and CPU – encouraging you to keep everything clean and hit 100%.

Every so often you’ll be pinged with a note that less-used apps are being put to sleep (which sounds a bit dark) and you won’t get notifications until you reopen them, but that’s a small price to pay to keep the phone running optimally.

The main thing that’s improved with the Samsung Galaxy S8’s interface, though, is the overall look and feel of it. The font is clean and crisp, the app drawer sliding up and down is smart, and while the notifications shade can feel like a raucous mess at times, everything has a useful place and there’s rarely anything superfluous there.

(Oh, we could mention that the heart rate sensor on the rear of the phone just doesn’t work over two different units. For some reason it would recognise a pulse, but be unable to give a readout of an actual number).

If you’ve been keeping away from Samsung phones because of the interface, then you’re a fool. You’ve been missing out on excellent phones, and they’re even better now.

Specs

Weirdly the Samsung Galaxy S8 doesn’t have the best spec list out there – but it’s pretty close. The phone will come with either Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 chipset inside, both paired with 4GB of RAM.

While the only storage capacity on offer is 64GB, the SIM tray has a slot for a microSD card which can handle anything up to 256GB of additional memory.

The battery is a 3000mAh affair and the screen comes in at 1440 x 2960 pixels, which equates to 570 dots per inch (DPI) of sharpness.

But what does all that mean in the real world? Well, it basically means that Samsung has made one of the world’s most powerful phones, with a battery that lasts through a day, a high-res display and loads of storage and which exhibits a real snappiness under the finger.

Our Geekbench tests returned a single-core score of 2008 and a multi-core score of 6630, which is one of the best we’ve ever seen at time of testing.

In short, there aren’t many better-specified phones out there on the market, and at least Samsung is putting some technological substance behind that hefty price tag.

All new Bluetooth

OK – bear with us here. The idea of a new Bluetooth standard on the Samsung Galaxy S8 isn’t going to be that exciting to many users – but you really should be.

The new S8 uses Bluetooth 5, and that confers some pretty nifty options. Firstly, with the Galaxy S8 you can pair bluetooth headphones and have the volume controls sync with the phone.

It sounds minor, but this is something that really makes a big difference. It’s been a feature of the iPhone and iPad for a while, but having total control over your audio levels without having to drag your phone out is great.

The second feature that the S8 offers is dual speaker output, something that has been enabled with the new version of Bluetooth being on board.

You can connect two Bluetooth speakers at once, but be warned: they’re not synced together perfectly (which, in fairness, the phone does warn you about).

This is a feature that really only works well when you’re in a large outdoor space and want to spread the sonic love, and nobody can really hear both speakers at once.

It’s not terribly out of sync, but you certainly don’t want to listen to podcasts using the new feature.

  • Battery will easily last a day in most use cases
  • Excellent power-saving modes
  • Fast and wireless charging both work well
  • The Galaxy S8 Plus battery is far superior

The battery life of the Samsung Galaxy S8 was always likely to be pretty good, and in our tests it proved to be just that. Let’s walk you through some of the features that are on offer first though, before getting into the numbers.

The Galaxy S8 has a 3000mAh battery – one suspects this would have been larger were it not for the Galaxy Note 7 fires and explosions forcing Samsung to play it safe with the S8. However, given that’s the same power pack as seen in the S7, and larger than the one in the S6, it should last just fine.

On top of that Samsung has also thrown in fast and wireless charging (using any popular wireless charging standard around), and you’ve got loads of ways to make sure you don’t run out of power with this handset.

In terms of real-world usage, the battery life on the Galaxy S8 is hard to define… ‘better than acceptable’ would be a good way to put it. Under hard use things would get dicey towards the end of the day, but in more sedate conditions it’s easily going to get you home to a charger.

For instance, we were left with over 60% on an average day by lunchtime (when unhooked from a charger at 6am), and performance like that breeds confidence in the power pack.

That’s fine for most people, and it doesn’t feel slippery – but it’s not as good as the Galaxy S7 Edge from last year, for instance. Don’t take that as a reason to not buy this phone, but don’t see battery life as a standout feature either – you’ll basically not have to worry about battery life on the Galaxy S8.

The fast charging, although not improved since last year, is miles better than on any phone that arrived in 2015 or earlier. We started charging the S8 from completely flat, and within five minutes it had reached 7% – good enough to make it home on a commute.

We tested the rapid charge from dead a couple of times, and found that the Samsung Galaxy S8 can go from no power at all to full in around 80 minutes, with a linear charging curve – so it doesn’t taper off at the end, it’s more of a consistent power top-up.

It was 7% after five minutes, 45% at 35 minutes and 72% at 55 minutes, before ending up at 100% on 82 minutes.

We ran our standard battery run-down test, charging the phone to 100% and then running a 90-minute full HD video at maximum brightness, with various apps syncing wirelessly in the background, to see how much the battery drained.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge managed a drop of just 14%, but the Galaxy S8 dropped 19% in the same time – and that was with the resolution set to only Full HD. Set to Quad HD (the highest resolution) the drop was 23% – not a good number compared to the best performers on the market.

That’s quite a lot lower than the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus’ scores when it comes to running the same test: it scored 8% at Full HD, and 11% at QHD – which is a very impressive score indeed.

However, before you read too much into that result, it should be noted that the Galaxy S8 offers higher brightness than nearly any other smartphone around, and when the display is cranked to full it’s actually a bit too bright, with Samsung actually warning about using it at this brightness for too long.

Crank it down to a more palatable level – and the auto-brightness is excellent here – and you’ll get a much longer time using the screen in most conditions.

(For comparison’s sake, we re-ran the battery test with auto-brightness on in mixed lighting conditions, and the drop was only 14%… that still hints that the battery isn’t as long-lasting as the Galaxy S7, but there are more pixels to power thanks to the longer display).

But the extra brightness is great when you’re outdoors, and makes everything wonderfully legible.

The battery interface hasn’t been improved hugely since the Galaxy S6 or S7, with the same information telling the user how long is left with the various power-saving modes.

However, they’re laid out in a much more readable format, labelled as from normal to ‘Mid’ to ‘Max’ rather than as power-saving modes. As such, users will feel more comfortable messing around and extending battery at the expense of power.

The Galaxy S8 is also excellent at learning your power usage habits, so when it tells you that you’ve got eight hours’ battery life left, it’s more believable, and means you can plan more effectively to find a charger if you know you’re going out in the evening and will need a top-up.

The battery on the S8 isn’t brilliant, but will work nicely enough for most people. If you’re looking to get the experience with an immense battery life, then the Galaxy S8 Plus is the way to go.

  • Camera spec not upgraded
  • Images still look superb
  • Some snaps a touch overexposed

The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S8 is, once again, one of the best around. Its main strength is being able to just capture the image you want, taking in sharpness, light and color to make something appear just the way you saw it.

The 12MP camera on the rear and the (upgraded) 8MP sensor on the front are both brilliant in low light as well – often taking snaps that are better than we’ve seen in real life.

There’s a small amount of noise, but while very little else has been improved in terms of spec from the Galaxy S7 to the S8, the ability to cope well in low light is better than before.

Overall, though, what we like about the camera is that Samsung has thought through the interface. It took a gamble in not sticking a dual-lens sensor on the back of the S8, which is the new fashionable thing to do in terms of smartphone cameras, and instead made it easy to take a photo.

You can double-tap the power button to instantly be into the camera app (or swipe from the lock screen) and you’re less than a second away from the shutter firing. It might take a few attempts to learn the rhythm, but once you’ve got it there’s very little lag between grabbing your phone from your pocket and the photo being saved.

The interface on the camera is all very swipe-friendly, which will please those wanting to use the phone with one hand. Swipe from the left to display the modes you can use (and thankfully you’re not overloaded with too many); swipe from the right you’ve got filters than you can customize.

Swipe down to access the selfie camera, hold and swipe the shutter button to zoom into your subject. The Galaxy S8 isn’t brilliant at full zoom – we have seen sharper – but if you just want to get a little closer to your subject and don’t want to lose the framing the zoom will do just fine.

There are also some cute little stickers and augmented reality masks you can pop over yourself (in the front-facing camera) or your friends (when the S8 recognizes them in shots from the rear camera).

This is clearly a play from Samsung to stop people heading out to Snapchat to do the same thing, but given that Snapchat isn’t really a direct rival to the South Korean brand it’s interesting to see this feature being given such a strong place to live in the camera interface.

However, it is something that will delight children and is fun to play around with, so it’s hard to criticize its presence too much.

It is easy to criticize Bixby Vision being here though – it’s just useless in general. While it would be cool to have the phone recognize and store everything, Bixby right now just comes along as a set of annoying green dots that plague your camera viewfinder until you turn the feature off (which you can do easily).

But then when you’re in the gallery, you’ll still get a green dot in the middle of the photo you’re trying to look at as Samsung tries to entice you to recognize the image through Bixby and Pinterest, or give you information on a landmark.

This is definitely not something people want to do, and until Bixby starts doing something useful it’s a hindrance.

Back to the camera itself though, and it’s worth repeating that you’ll very rarely be dissatisfied with the images you’ll take, even quickly. The color reproduction seems a touch more muted and natural than in years gone by, but not by much, and the sharpness on offer is great.

The only real criticism is that the quality of the shots look better on the phone than on a computer screen. Our main issue is with the exposure: check out the camera samples at the bottom of this page and you’ll see that in bright light the Galaxy S8 has a tendency to slightly overexpose images.

It seems that Samsung has been so busy trying to get great low-light shots (which it has managed admirably) that some of the day-to-day snaps suffer terribly from light bleeding in.

On the whole the quality is good, but you will get the odd picture that makes you wince with the amount of light flooding in – especially with bright scenes.

 

One feature we do really like is in the Pro Mode of the camera, where you can manually set the focal length of the image and the S8 will create green highlights to help you confirm that something is in focus.

It’s not a big thing, but it’s a perfect example of how Samsung is making sure that its camera app is as intuitive as possible.

From the speed of launching it to the clearly well-thought-out gestures to get you around the key parts of the snapper, there’s very little to dislike about the S8 camera, and it’s certainly enough to keep us going until we get the revamp Samsung will clearly need to bring in the Galaxy S9.

Camera samples

We’ve also had more of a play with the zoom and manual modes, trying out some of the low-light capabilities here to see the full range of power.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is still one of the best phones on the market, even though it may not be leading the line for the South Korean firm anymore.

Samsung did make you pay for the privilege at launch, but with the S9 coming in to replace the S8 at the top of the tree, there are some great deals to be had for this still-excellent smartphone.

The drop in price doesn’t make the re-jigging of the biometrics and better, but the Infinity Display continues to look fantastic.

 

The fingerprint gamble hasn’t paid off – the methods of unlocking this phone securely aren’t abhorrent, but users will expect more from a phone at this price point, and to be irritated by it at all just isn’t good enough.

The iris scanner / fingerprint placement / facial recognition combination is one of the key things that stops the Samsung Galaxy S8 being a perfect handset.

Ultimately, people were already happy with the security on their phones: the fingerprint scanner was quick and easy to get into at the base of the phone, and now users will have to wait longer and sometimes jump through more hoops to just open their handset.

However, once you’re into the phone it’s hard to stay mad at Samsung for too long, because nearly everything else on offer here is brilliant.

No, it’s not got the best battery life in the world, but compared to the phones of 2014/15 that you’ll be upgrading from, it’s light years ahead, with the S8’s clever battery management and power-saving tips getting you well through a day in normal use.

 

The camera remains strong, despite not being that much better than before – the key point is that it is improved, despite not gaining any megapixels, so there’s a real reason to choose this phone over the previous Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge.

But there’s one massive reason to buy this phone: the 5.8-inch display in a phone that’s just so much more compact than it should be. The Infinity Display is the first time we’ve seen such innovation on a global flagship device, and Samsung should be applauded for implementing it in a mainstream handset.

Yes, the overall user experience suffers as a result of the consequent shuffling of the biometrics – Samsung messed up there – but it’s almost worth it for the massive display.

Who’s it for?

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is designed for those who just want a great phone and aren’t bothered about the cost. It’s a premium handset in every sense of the word – you’re paying more to get something really lovely.

If you’re a mobile movie buff, enjoy gaming on the go or just want something that can do more heavy lifting than nearly any other phone on the planet, then check out the S8 instantly… as long as you can afford it.

This is a pocketable, speedy and impressive phone in so many ways. If you just want a great phone and don’t care about the cost, it’s for you.

Should I buy it?

However, if you’re not desperate to own the Infinity Display on the Galaxy S8, then there’s not a lot of reason for you to buy this phone. The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is very similar in a lot of ways, and while it’s chunkier and less powerful, for most tasks it’s more than up to the job.

The camera is great, the screen is still tip-top, and things like high dynamic range are starting to offer real upgrades over previous iterations of Samsung’s Galaxy line-up.

Samsung has thrown the best of every component it can into this phone, and it performs brilliantly as a result. Get over the high price and learn to live with the erratic iris scanner and you’re holding one of the best phones ever made.

If you’re thinking that the Samsung Galaxy S8’s price is too high, or the biometric issues are too much hassle for you, don’t worry – we’ve picked out a few other phones that you might like instead:

 Samsung Galaxy S9

 

If you want the latest and greatest smartphone from Samsung, the Galaxy S9 (and the even better Galaxy S9 Plus) is where you need to look – but the difference between this and the S8 isn’t huge.

The S9 provides a better fingerprint placement, an enhanced camera and Samsung’s new AR Emoji, but the phone itself is almost identical to its predecessor.

You get the same great Infinity Display and premium body, but there’s also 2018 power under the hood making Android even more fluid and future-proofing the S9 further.

There’s a significant price difference too, so you’ll want to weigh up exactly what you want from your phone.

 

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus

 

If you’re after a bigger screen and slightly better battery life with the same gorgeous Infinity Display, super camera and power under the hood you’ll want to opt for the Galaxy S8 Plus.

Assuming you can afford it. The Galaxy S8 is far from cheap, but its bigger brother is even more pricey – so you might want to check with your bank manager before opting for the Plus.

 

iPhone X

 

Here’s another very expensive phone that may catch your eye when you’re looking to upgrade your handset. The iPhone X is the best phone from Apple right now, but it comes with a very high price tag that means you may not want to grab it without some serious thought.

It does come with a bezeless screen and Face ID unlock method that uses your likeness to unlock your phone and we believe it beats Samsung’s Iris scanner included on the Galaxy S8

 

Samsung Galaxy S8: what businesses need to know

If you’re thinking about the Samsung Galaxy S8 for business, it offers some useful features as Samsung seeks to extend its influence beyond the consumer market.

The use of DeX, a tiny docking station, would probably be the most compelling feature for Galaxy S8 business users; the ability to convert your smartphone phone into an Android-based computer complete with all the functionalities you’d expect from a rich desktop-like experience is something that system administrators will appreciate.

Said administrators would feel more comfortable about using the Galaxy S8 as BYOD (bring your own device) for business as Samsung’s own defense-grade security platform, Knox, makes device management – and keeping work and private life separate – far easier.

For additional security you can also use the biometric fingerprint scanner or iris recognition, and with dual SIM functionality, IP68-rating for ruggedisation and bundled Microsoft Office apps, there’s a lot to enjoy on the Galaxy S8 for the business user.

  •  Techradar Pro is your go-to resource for ruggedised smartphones, business smartphones, business phone deals and more.

Hotspot Shield VPN

 

Editor’s Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.

  • Pricing has changed. There is no lifetime option anymore, but, 2-year and 3-year plans were added.
  • Server locations increased to 25. (June 2018)
  • Extensions for Chrome and Firefox are now available.
  • Kindle isn’t supported anymore.
  • The service introduced Hotspot Shield for businesses, called simply Hotspot Shield Business.
  • Refund duration increased from 30 to 45-days.

AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield is a very popular VPN service, best known for its free account.

Hotspot Shield Elite is the £18.95 ($25, AU$33) per year extended edition (£63.95 lifetime plan – that’s $84, AU$112) which drops the ads, supports private browsing, virtual locations, allows “access all content”, and supports up to five devices.

The service offers a choice of 20 locations including the US, UK, Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Russia, Turkey and Mexico.

There are clients available for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and, unusually, Kindle.

The Elite account comes with a 7-day trial, but you must enter your credit card details when you sign up. You’re charged once the trial is over – however, there’s also a 30-day refund option.

  • Want to try Hotspot Shield? Check out the website here

Privacy

The official product pages never tell you everything you need to know about a service, so we headed off to the Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions pages to uncover the real details. Hotpot Shield doesn’t have the shortest of either of these that we’ve ever seen, but they still do a reasonable job of explaining how the system is run.

There’s not just a blanket “no logging” claim, for instance. Instead it’s explained that personal details such as email addresses and payment information are stored, but not related to your online activities, and any browsing or connection information which might be recorded is deleted when your VPN session closes.

One unusual clause says that “as part of the Service, AnchorFree may install its own certificate on your Device as a Trusted Publisher” – and “AnchorFree reserves the right to make future installs or updates to such certificates on your Device in connection with providing the Service at any time without any notice…”

That isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s certainly more intrusive than most of the competition.

There’s also an age clause, warning that you may not “use the Hotspot Shield Software or the Service if you are under the age of 18”.

  • The best VPN services of 2017

Performance

Hotpot Shield’s colourful client is compact and straightforward to use. Just click a button to connect, optionally change your location as required, and the system clearly shows when you’re protected.

There are an array of buttons for popular streaming and other sites, including Netflix, YouTube, HBO and Facebook. Clicking any of these immediately opens your default browser at that address.

Hotpot Shield Elite has a very small number of settings. The most important – automatically turning on the product for unsafe Wi-Fi hotspots, and preventing leaks – are turned on by default, so you’re not left with much to do.

IPLeak.net showed that the service hid our IP address and avoided DNS leaks. The WebRTC test showed an IP address belonging to an AnchorFree anonymous proxy. This didn’t expose our identity in any way, but it may have allowed other sites to detect that we were using a VPN and block us accordingly.

The results from our performance tests* were excellent, with latency showing only a marginal 11% increase compared to our normal connection, and both upload and download speeds were a little faster once connected to the VPN (30% and 4%, respectively).

Final verdict

We’d like more configurability and a wider range of locations, but Hotspot Shield Elite’s high speeds and low price give it a lot of appeal, and the 7-day trial makes it easy to test the service for yourself.

30/03/2017: AnchorFree recently updated the Hotspot Shield VPN with its new CATAPULT Hydra technology, a proprietary VPN protocol. The technology development was underway for over two years and has been deployed it to all of its VPN users, across mobile and desktop applications. Additionally, CATAPULT Hydra proprietary data transport system is available to their partners licensing and deploying VPN solutions within their own security and privacy solutions.

  • Here are the best free VPN services and links to download them

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we’ve reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.

Fitbit Ionic Review

Fitbit has become synonymous with fitness trackers, but now the company has decided to expand into a whole new market. Long rumored, we finally have the first Fitbit smartwatch, and it’s called the Ionic.

The company has combined its fitness know-how with the smarts of a variety of companies it’s bought – such as Pebble, which Fitbit acquired in 2016 – and brought it all together to add an impressive new wearable to its range.

Offering similar features to expensive alternatives such as the Apple Watch and Wear OS watches, the Fitbit Ionic is a serious contender to be the smartwatch you choose to wear when you’re out running or hitting the gym.

However, there’s now the additional competition of the new Apple Watch 3, which includes the same LTE connectivity feature as the Fitbit Ionic, not to mention the incursion of Garmin into the fitness smartwatch space with the Forerunner 645.

Since the launch of Ionic, we’ve also seen the company introduce a new smaller and more affordable smartwatch called the Fitbit Versa. If you’re planning to buy a new smartwatch from Fitbit check this one out as it costs less, has a great design and many of the same features as the Ionic.

Here we’re going to focus on the Fitbit Ionic though, so read on below for our full review of the company’s very first smartwatch.

Fitbit Ionic price and release date

  • The Fitbit Ionic launched at £299.95 / $299.95 / AU$449.95 
  • It’s an expensive option for a fitness watch
  • Out now around the world, but so is the Versa

The Fitbit Ionic launched as the most expensive wearable yet from Fitbit. At £299.95 / $299.95 / AU$449.95 it costs more than the Fitbit Surge running watch did at launch, but a bit less than the Apple Watch 3 or LG Watch Sport.

Since the launch of the cheaper Fitbit Versa, we’ve seen the price drop some way in the UK and Australia to around £240 / AU$350. Prices in the US seem to have stayed stagnant as we can only find it for around $290 or a touch more.

Expect that price to drop a little more during sale periods as the Ionic was announced in September 2017 so by the time of Black Friday 2018 it’ll be over a year old.

 

Design and display

  • Aluminium build and lighter than most smartwatches
  • Either plastic or leather bands that are easy to swap out

The Fitbit Ionic is a comfortable fit on your wrist, and compared to a lot of modern smartwatches is particularly light – so much so that you’ll instantly notice how lightweight this feels on your wrist, which makes it a more pleasant to wear while working out than, say, the LG Watch Sport.

It’s a good fit for everyday use too, being comfortable to wear at a keyboard, which should encourage you to wear it all day to ensure the most accurate readings possible.

It’s waterproof, so you can take this in the shower or even go swimming with it – more on that in the fitness section.

The body of the watch is made of aluminum and features very small antenna bands on the sides, but it’s attractive and is easily the best-looking Fitbit product so far. That said, we found the design to be rather divisive, with friends and family either loving the look or hating it.

You may well love the look of the Fitbit Ionic, but if you’re bothered about what others think just bear in mind that it’s not likely to have the universal appeal of, say, the Apple Watch.

There’s one hardware button on the left-hand side with another two on the right that sit in similar positions to those on the Fitbit Blaze and enable you to move around the watch’s UI.

Each is slightly raised too – Fitbit presumably thinks this will help you find them more easily when you’re fumbling around for the buttons while sweating and gasping for breath when pushing yourself.

We found the buttons worked for making the UI simple, plus it’s a touchscreen, so you can cycle through the apps by swiping.

There are leather and plastic strap options available with secure fasteners on each so the Ionic won’t fall off when you’re out for a jog.

We used both, and the plastic option is comfortable for when you’re sweating in the gym, while the leather strap is a much more attractive look – so you might want to get both if you want to wear this watch both for working out and dining out.

The display on the Ionic is a full-color screen that’s rectangular, unlike the more square Apple Watch or most Android Wear watches, but it is reminiscent of the Blaze’s screen. This one is quite a bit bigger though, and that’s down to the bezels being thinner.

That said, the bezels are relatively thick on the Fitbit Ionic. It’s one of our major criticisms of the design, and we think there’s a lot of wasted space below and above the screen. Fitbit could have included a much larger and more useful display instead.

Also, the Fitbit logo is annoyingly placed just below the screen, taking up quite a bit of room on the wearable.

The resolution of the LCD screen is 384 x 250, and we particularly like how bright it is – it reaches 1000 nits, which is the same as the Apple Watch 2 and means you can view it even in bright sunlight when out on a run.

We found the touchscreen to be a little slow to respond sometimes, and we often had to move our wrist fairly violently for the raise-to-wake feature to work. That’s particularly annoying when you’re working out and you need a clear look at your stats fast.

Fitness features

  • Suitable for running, cycling, swimming, weights and much more
  • Comes with in-built workouts that you can follow on the watch
  • We love the built-in GPS and heart rate monitor

All of the fitness features we’ve come to know and love on other Fitbit products are here, and there are a few upgraded elements too.

The Ionic features a heart rate tracker, which according to the company is even more accurate than on other Fitbits thanks to shiny new algorithms behind the scenes and a design that means it sits much closer to the skin.

We found it worked much quicker than on previous Fitbit products, and in our testing we found it to be as accurate as other trackers and watches on the market. This is particularly useful for exercising, and Fitbit will use your heart rate for a lot of the information that’s displayed in its workouts app.

There’s built-in GPS here too, and Fitbit reckons your connection should be better than on the Fitbit Surge as the antenna bands are placed in optimal positions to ensure a better tracking connection.

Connecting to GPS sometimes took a little longer than we’d have liked, but we never lost connection while running or walking. Being able to look through your data after you’ve been on a long run or ride is a big feature too.

New features for running include an automatic pause option, which will notice when, for example, you’ve stopped to cross at some traffic lights and pause your workout, then restart when you begin exercising again.

Fitbit has also included workouts in its new Fitbit Coach feature that is accessible from the watch and will offer a similar service to the Fitstar app you can download on your phone.

These are tailored workouts that will show you exactly what to do, and every time you complete one you can supply feedback so Fitbit Coach can work out whether you need something easier or harder next time.

The aim here is to help you improve, and while it seems like quite a basic system it should encourage you to try different types of exercise.

Fitbit plans to also bring audio workouts to the Ionic – and they can’t come soon enough, because it’s a big missing feature here. When trying out workouts within the Coach feature, we found ourselves rushed to get onto the next part.

For example, it’ll start you off with 12 push-ups and give you a buzz on your wrist when you’re done, then tell you your next workout position and give you nine seconds to get ready.

Without an audio cue, you have to look at your wrist, study the form of the workout and then be ready to start, all within nine seconds. When you’re sweating and gasping for breath, we often found this was nigh on impossible.

Fitbit has also included an SpO2 sensor here to monitor blood oxygen levels – in a similar way to the Samsung Galaxy S8 – but the feature isn’t enabled at launch, and is included as something Fitbit will hopefully push out at a later date.

We also now know the Fitbit Ionic is set to be a useful device for those with diabetes. If you pair the watch with a Dexcom G5 Mobile sensor (a specialist device that costs $900 (about £690, AU$1,120) it’ll be able to display your glucose levels so you can monitor them.

It’s an interesting concept, and it could make the Fitbit Ionic a must-have device for those with diabetes.

The Ionic has 5ATM water resistance (50m) and is easy to wear in the water and the sheer number of spacing holes on the strap mean it stays put even on smaller wrists. So you’re all set for swimming.

As with other sport specific features, how useful this is will depend on whether you’re a serious swimmer or someone who takes a more casual approach to getting wet for general fitness.

If you’re the latter, then the Fitbit Ionic’s simple, easy-to-use interface and length, distance and pace tracking should prove more than sufficient for your tracking needs. The fact that the app shows your swim in terms of your overall daily fitness goals is also a nice touch.

If, however, you’re a competitive swimmer then you’ll find Fitbit’s first smartwatch somewhat on the basic side and you might be better off with an alternative swimming watch.

There’s no way to input drills – so a length of kick won’t register, for example – and because there’s no automatic stroke detection, changing stroke in the middle of a length can lead to data registering incorrectly.

Swim tracking is self-explanatory; choose ‘exercise’ from the apps, swipe to swim (yes, swiping worked surprisingly well in the water) and go.

It’s easy to input the length of the pool, and the fact that the screen stays off unless you’ve set a cue – showing you distance, laps and time every 100m for example – is beneficial, as a flashing screen entering your eye line when you’re doing your best Phelps impression can prove distracting.

The Ionic can automatically recognize different exercises, including swimming, so if you do forget to press go you’re sorted.

When it come to accuracy, however, the Ionic swam into tricky waters. Despite inputting the pool length as 25m, we got readings of 8 lengths as 100m and 22 lengths as 450m instead of 550m.

Though, Fitbit say that some inaccuracies may come from shorter swims, stopping to rest in the middle of the pool and stopping for more than 60 seconds at the end of a length (which we probably did when trying to work out why the 100m cue we’d set didn’t go off after four lengths).

Performance and battery life

  • Battery life lasts for four to five days from a single charge
  • Some menus take a long time to load and can be frustrating when exercising

The exact internals of the Fitbit Ionic are a little unclear, and we don’t expect to know much about what’s running under the hood. In our testing, however, we found that the Fitbit Ionic user interface can be a little slow at loading.

For example, setting up a workout can take quite a long time compared to other competing devices, and it can also be frustrating when you want to get accurate fitness readings. We haven’t found that apps crash while using it though.

We found that the Fitbit Ionic’s battery lasted between four and five days with limited usage. If you’re going to be working out a lot with the watch it’ll be a lot less, and the battery gets hit especially hard when using GPS.

Fitbit estimates it lasts for 10 hours of constant GPS tracking, and we think that’s about right  – and it’s still around the same amount of time as your average running watch is able to last for.

You can also upload music to the Fitbit Ionic, with 2.5GB of free space at your disposal. That’s not much, and will only allow for around 300 songs, but if you have particular audiobooks, podcasts or albums you’re always going back to there should be space for some of them here.

You can then connect Bluetooth headphones and listen to music on the go without having to take your phone on your run.

We found the Bluetooth connection remained stable, but it’s irritating that you can’t integrate some of the most popular streaming services, such as Spotify or Apple Music, to download any music you want easily.

In the US you can connect the watch with Pandora – something we haven’t been able to test yet – and you can also connect it up around the world to your Deezer account too. We’ll be sure to update this review when we get the opportunity to test the new feature.

If you’re not a subscriber to those services, you have to own the files and upload them manually using a computer. That all feels a touch too complicated, and it encouraged us to just take our phone out on the run instead.

Apps and compatibility

  • Works on iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices, 
  • You’ll need to be able to download the Fitbit app from your phone’s app store
  • Fitbit’s App Gallery is currently limited, hopefully will improve soon

The Fitbit Ionic will work alongside the Fitbit app on your phone, which is compatible with most modern iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices.

The Ionic comes with its own App Gallery – Fitbit is insistent this isn’t an app store – that includes Fitbit’s own services as well as third-party apps. So far we’ve seen third-party apps from Strava, Starbucks, Philips Hue, The New York Times, Flipboard, Yelp and more.

It’s still a limited set of apps compared to watchOS, Wear OS and even Tizen, but we hope to see the App Gallery expand further especially now the Fitbit Versa supports these too.

  • Best Fitbit apps and watch faces: what to download for your Fitbit smartwatch

At launch everything on the Ionic App Gallery was free, but there may be paid-for alternative apps at some stage in the future.

You can also choose a variety of watch faces within the Fitbit app, and there are currently lots of good choices. We hope the selection will be expanded in the future though, as there still aren’t as many options as you can get on alternative wearables.

Personalization isn’t possible here either – it would be nice to have the option to add different widgets to your prefered style of watch face. We have high hopes this will happen eventually, especially as it was a big focus for Pebble wearables in the past.

Fitbit has included mobile payments on the Ionic through its own service called – you guessed it – Fitbit Pay. This is based on tech from a company called Coin, which Fitbit bought a few years back, and will allow you to use NFC to pay on contactless terminals with your wrist.

Fitbit is partnering with Visa, American Express and Mastercard for this, but you’ll need to make sure your bank is offering the service. You can do that here on the official Fitbit website.

In our testing, we found the payment feature worked well but sometimes took a long time compared to some of the alternatives.

You hold down the button on the right-hand side of the Ionic for a few seconds to make a payment, and you’ll then need to enter a PIN number that you’ve previously set up and place your Ionic near to the reader.

It’s a very similar experience to either Apple Pay on the Apple Watch or Android Pay on Android Wear devices, and it’s especially useful if you need to grab a bottle of water when you’ve gone running without your wallet or phone.

It likely isn’t going to replace your wallet, but it’s a useful extra way of being able to make payments when you’re out exercising.

  • Looking out for great savings on the Fitbit Ionic in Australia? Check out our sister site Getprice to compare prices!

 Verdict

The Fitbit Ionic is a good wearable, but it’s not the great smartwatch some had expected it to be.

There are lots of positives, including strong battery life, Fitbit Pay and built-in GPS, but there’s also a lot missing, and that leaves this device feeling more like a fitness tracker, rather than a smartwatch in terms of features.

Controversial design is something Fitbit loves as well (remember the Fitbit Blaze?) and this isn’t going to be the most attractive device for everyone.

Who’s it for?

Fitbit has decided to bring a few smaller smartwatch features to a fitness tracker, so you’ve got the added benefits of things like Fitbit Pay, but they’re mostly useful in an exercise capacity – so if you’re looking for a fitness watch that goes the extra mile in terms of features, the Ionic could be for you.

It’s also for you if you like the Fitbit brand and have previously used the app. If you’re looking for something a little more substantial than a Fitbit tracker on your wrist but you don’t want to switch to another platform, this will suit you well.

Should you buy it?

Even if you fall into one of the categories above, however, it’s hard to recommend the Fitbit Ionic when there are so many great options out there for smart wristwear that offer better value.

Fitbit has priced the Ionic at around the same level as the most premium Android Wear and Tizen choices, as well as just below the Apple Watch 3, all of which offer a nicer design and better features.

If you really like the design of the Ionic, and think the fitness features on offer are worth the money, then this will be a good purchase for you, but there are lots of other smartwatches that we prefer.

First reviewed October 2017

The competition

Here we’re going to run you through some of the alternative watches you may want to buy instead of the Fitbit Ionic.

Fitbit Versa

Coming almost six months after the Ionic, the Fitbit Versa has a lower price than this watch and comes with lots of the same features. The design is a touch smaller, so if you don’t want a behemoth taking over your wrist, the Versa may be made for you.

The biggest difference is there’s no GPS on the Fitbit Versa. That means you’ll need to go running with your smartphone to be able to track your location by connecting your watch up and using the Connected GPS tech.

Apart from that, there’s a lot to love from the Fitbit Versa and it may be worth you taking a look at our review before you dive into buying the Ionic.

Read our full Fitbit Versa review

Apple Watch 3

The latest wearable from Apple, the Watch 3 is its most accomplished smartwatch yet with LTE connectivity to allow you to use it truly without your phone.

That’s something the Fitbit Ionic can’t offer either, so if you want to be able to go running without your phone and still receive phone calls you may want to opt for Apple’s watch instead.

Read our full Apple Watch 3 review

Fitbit Blaze

The Fitbit Blaze is much cheaper than the Ionic, but is a little more limited and isn’t technically a smartwatch. It’s a touch harder to find now it has been replaced in the official line up by the Fitbit Versa, but we’ve found it still on sale from third-party retailers.

It’s closer to a fitness tracker, but with a much lower price and a focus on fitness features it may be a good alternative to the Ionic for you.

Read our full Fitbit Blaze review

Samsung Gear S3

Samsung has a lot of experience making smartwatches now and the Gear S3 is arguably its best device yet. We gave it four stars when we first reviewed it citing an intuitive interface and great activity tracking features as the key highlights.

There are some issues such as a lack of apps – something the Ionic suffers from too – but that’s something that’s improving all of the time.

UE Boom 2

Chances are, if you’re shopping for a Bluetooth speaker, you’ve probably heard of the original UE Boom, or at least you should have. It’s unmatched in style, offers powerful audio and battery performance – plus includes a ton of features thanks to its companion app.

It was easily one of the best Bluetooth speakers when it came out. Until the UE Boom 2 came out a few years ago.

If you missed out on the UE Boom 2 when it first came out, we wholeheartedly recommend you get to know it now. Beyond what’s mentioned above it’s a colorful waterproof Bluetooth speaker that’s nearly unrivaled in value. It packs in slightly better sound than the original and introduces tap controls to UE’s speaker lineup.

On the other hand, the UE Boom 2 is getting a bit long in the tooth now. If you want a slightly newer Bluetooth speaker that packs in the same great features – plus a voice assistant – check out the UE Blast and UE Megablast.

Design

The UE Boom didn’t need a design overhaul, and thankfully, UE recognized that. There are slight changes, which we’ll dig into along the way, but check out our review of the original UE Boom to get a good sense of its design ID and what makes it so special.

Running across the unit that UE sent to TechRadar for review, we noticed a few welcome changes that deserve a mention. First off, the mesh fabric here looks less porous and feels more durable than what is wrapped around the original Boom.

The controls of the UE Boom 2 are unchanged, and at that, still remarkably simple to use – even if you’re using the speaker for the first time. But, if you’ve got a sharp eye for detail you’ll notice a few cosmetic adjustments around the unit.

UE Boom (left) next to its successor

For a cleaner look, UE decided to omit the Bluetooth logo from the pairing button, and the power button looks a little different. Even with these changes, new users shouldn’t have too much trouble at all figuring things out.

On the bottom of the Boom 2, UE has touched up the port flaps, making them sit flush with the base. More importantly, they are easier to flip open and access because of this change. Just like the last model, the flap door can be removed entirely if you’d rather not mess with it each time you need to charge.

Performance and features

The UE Boom 2 builds upon a strong foundation put forward by the last model, making noticeable strides in its 360-degree sound delivery, one of our biggest gripes about the first. Its room-filling capability frequently left us struck by how powerful this small, cylindrical speaker sounds.

UE Boom 2
The UE Boom 2 is dwarfed by the Megaboom

Just like the last Boom, there’s an impressive set of features inside the speaker, but you’ll need the companion app to unlock them. The UE Boom app allows you to adjust the equalizer effect and Double Up, UE’s way of linking two of its speakers together over Bluetooth to, you guessed it, double the sound. The app can also set alarms to wake you from sleep, but the older Boom can do that, too.

As mentioned earlier, the UE Boom 2 has some new tricks up its sleeve. First off, the app for the new speaker supports Block Party, a feature that allows up to two people nearby to connect to it via Bluetooth and play a track.

The best part? The Boom 2 owner has the power to boot either of the DJ wannabes if their suggestions stink.

UE Boom 2

Next up are the tap controls. Through the app, you can activate them, which allows you to change the song by simply picking up the speaker and tapping it. Just like the remote you find embedded in most headphone cables these days, the UE Boom 2 mimics this familiarized input.

You can also tap twice to skip songs or three times to go backwards. This might seem like a superfluous addition, but this extra level of control was sorely missing from the original model.

In addition to kicking out the jams, the UE Boom 2 also makes for a competent speakerphone. You can pick up and hang up calls by giving the Bluetooth pairing button a press. I found that this speaker can pick up multiple voices speaking at low to medium volumes without any trouble.

The icing on the cake, and the feature that could tempt owners of the original the most, is the waterproofing. Improving over the IPX4 rating of the UE Boom, which couldn’t safely handle more than a splash or two, the IPX7-equipped UE Boom 2 can be submerged in water up to a meter deep for 30 minutes before you run the risk of leakage. This also means that you can leave it out in the rain without the worry that you’ve just flushed 200 bucks down the drain.

UE Boom 2

Final verdict

Owners of the previous UE Boom may find themselves tossed about whether they should upgrade. It might help to think of this as a supplement, rather than a replacement, as you can pair up UE’s latest with the original model. Just make sure you remember which one is waterproof if you take them outside.

The UE Boom 2 offers the same ease of use that we loved about the original, and improves both the audio profile and 360-degree soundstage effect. Battery life remains unchanged from the 15 hours that the original put forward, but it still meets, if not exceeds, the industry standard.

And to think that the UE Boom 2 accomplishes all this while packing in more features, like tap control and waterproofing. If you’re deep in the search for your next –, or first – Bluetooth speaker, you can stop looking now.

  • You’ll find the UE Boom 2 on our list of the best Bluetooth speakers

CyberGhost VPN

Editor’s Note: What immediately follows is a rundown of the latest changes and additions since this review was last updated.

  • The service now boasts over 2300 servers in 60 countries. (June 2018)
  • There is no free plan anymore. (June 2018)
  • A 7-day free trial is available for iOS and Android. (June 2018)
  • Changes to pricing. There are four plans available: 1 Month- $11.99, 1 Year – $4.99 per month, 2 Years – $3.79 per month and 3 Years – $2.75 per month. (June 2018)
  •  All plans now support up to 7 devices at the same time. (June 2018)
  •  L2TP/IPsec and PPTP protocols are now also available. (June 2018)

CyberGhost is a Romanian and German-based privacy giant which provides comprehensive VPN services for more than 10 million users.

This provider boasts more than 1,000 servers across 30 countries, and offers an impressive range of features including custom clients for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, with torrents allowed on most servers. There’s a stripped-back free plan, a 30-day money-back guarantee for everything else, and live support to help you through any tricky bits.

The free plan includes ads, supports connecting only one device at a time, and the company says that it might run at only 20% of the speed of the commercial service (our experience is that it’s usually much better than that). Oh, and there might also be a delay of a minute or so before you can connect, you’re not able to access all the servers, and it’ll disconnect after three hours.

  • Want to try CyberGhost? Check out the website here

But on the plus side, there’s no data transfer limit (other free services might restrict you to under 1GB a month). Also, you don’t have to provide your email address to use it, a major privacy plus. But if you do decide to sign up, the product installs as a trial of the full-speed commercial product for its first three days.

CyberGhost Premium can be up to five times faster than the free service, as mentioned. It drops the ads and gives you full access to any of the company’s 1,000 servers. The plan supports up to five devices, and the standard price is very competitive at €4.99 ($5.90, £4.40) a month billed annually, or €10.99 ($12.90, £9.80) when billed monthly.

All of this is presented in detail on the CyberGhost website, along with some welcome extra touches. While other companies might just list the countries they cover, for instance, CyberGhost shows you every single server, its location, status, current load, and whether it’s available with the free or premium plans.

Privacy

Most VPNs love to advertise their no logging policy in big letters on the front page, but that’s mostly for marketing. To really understand what’s going on, it’s wise to spend some time browsing the company’s small print.

CyberGhost’s privacy policy is better presented than most. It’s long enough to provide useful information, but not so lengthy that no-one will bother to read it. There are only a small number of sections, each clearly described so you can find what you need.

The key logging clauses say the company doesn’t log “communication contents or data regarding the accessed websites or the IP addresses”, or “data on who had used which server and when”, or generate any “statistical data, which can be linked to a user account”. This might leave some scope for minor session logging – a record of when you logged in to the service, say – but there’s nothing that could compromise your privacy.

There’s more good news in the detailed explanation of how CyberGhost manages its accounts. It doesn’t store any personal data, keeps payment data separate by using resellers, and even stored email addresses aren’t linked to user IDs. This isn’t just the company saying ‘we don’t do bad things’, either – it’s explaining how the system works to ensure that kind of logging isn’t necessary.

CyberGhost is moving in the right direction in other areas, too, recently dropping Google Analytics monitoring of its website in favor of its own Piwik installation (a leading open source analytics platform).

  • We’ve rounded up the best free VPN services of 2018

Performance

Installing CyberGhost’s Windows client couldn’t be much easier. There’s no registration required with the free build, not even an email address, we just clicked Download to grab the setup tool, launched it, and our copy of CyberGhost was ready to go in a few seconds.

A tap on CyberGhost’s system tray icon displays a simple interface with a list of countries and a connect button, so even the greenest of VPN novices will instantly figure out what they have to do.

But then we noticed that the client window couldn’t be moved – it disappeared if you clicked somewhere else – and bizarrely, the country list isn’t even in full alphabetical order (reading down the list includes sequences like: Germany, Denmark, Spain, Finland). Sure, you’ll learn where everything is, but it would be much easier if CyberGhost got this extremely basic detail right in the first place.

On a more positive note, the client also displays the last few server connections you’ve made. If you only ever log on to the UK, US and Germany, for instance, they’ll all be listed, and you can choose those destinations again with a click.

A separate ‘Maximize’ button doesn’t actually maximize anything, but instead launches the main CyberGhost app. This uses six colorful Windows 10-like tiles to help you choose whatever VPN task you’d like to perform.

‘Choose My Server’ provides a host of ways to help you find and connect to the best server. You can simply choose a country from a list (properly sorted, this time); manually choose a server within that country; filter servers to find the fastest; choose the best server for specific jobs, including torrents; or add servers to a Favorites list for easy selection later.

‘Surf Anonymously’ is simpler, with just a list of countries (back in the odd not-quite-sorted order) and various useful settings. You can tell CyberGhost to block ads and malicious sites, limit online tracking, compress data to improve performance, redirect HTTP links to HTTPS, and select only Premium servers for extra speed. Once these are set up, you’re able to connect with one click, and CyberGhost can even open your default browser in incognito mode for improved security.

The ‘Unblock Streaming’ and ‘Unblock Basic Websites’ sections work as basic bookmark managers which set up the VPN to access the site you need. If you want to access Amazon Prime in the US, for instance, click Unblock Streaming > Amazon Prime, then CyberGhost automatically connects to an appropriate server and opens your default browser at the site.

‘Torrent Anonymously’ is a similar shortcut for P2P users, automatically connecting to the fastest torrent-enabled server and optionally launching your torrent client at the same time.

The ‘Protect Wi-Fi’ feature is particularly useful, as it allows you to define exactly how you want to treat specific networks. You could choose to always connect via CyberGhost on some networks, never on others, and there’s an ‘Ask’ option if you’re unsure.

The Settings dialog covers the basics, including starting the client with Windows or using OpenVPN with TCP or UDP connections (there are no other protocol choices).

More interesting options include the ability to create ‘exceptions’, hosts or IP addresses which won’t be accessed via the tunnel. CyberGhost automatically detected our email servers and added them to the list, for instance, ensuring our email client still worked correctly when the VPN was active.

The App Connection feature is another highlight. Point CyberGhost at some executable files and whenever they’re launched in future, the VPN will automatically connect first. The service also acts as a kill switch, automatically closing the protected app if the connection drops to prevent any potential leakage of your identity.

We noticed that CyberGhost seemed very sensitive to the presence of other VPN software, to the point that it stopped working on several occasions. The client had an easy fix which worked every time – click Settings > Connection > Repair Virtual Network Card – but if you’re using multiple VPNs or other low-level network software, this could become a hassle.

In our tests*, performance proved to be solid and reliable. UK to UK connections averaged an impressive 30 to 35Mbps downloads, nearby European connections ranged from 22 to 35Mbps, and US connections were a very usable 20 to 25Mbps. Speeds fell to below 5Mbps for very long distance trips (Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong), but that’s not unusual, and they were still just about usable for basic browsing.

We completed our checks by running multiple leak tests, and CyberGhost passed them all with ease – servers were in the promised locations, there were no DNS or WebRTC leaks, and our identity was properly protected at all times.

Final verdict

CyberGhost’s Windows client has some interface irritations, but the speedy performance and lengthy feature list won us over. Take the free version for a spin and see for yourself.

  • The best VPN services of 2017

*Our testing included evaluating general performance (browsing, streaming video). We also used speedtest.net to measure latency, upload and download speeds, and then tested immediately again with the VPN turned off, to check for any difference (over several rounds of testing). We then compared these results to other VPN services we’ve reviewed. Of course, do note that VPN performance is difficult to measure as there are so many variables.

Sonos Beam Review

The launch of the Sonos Beam comes at a time when things are changing at a rapid pace for the smart speaker company. In the not-too-distant past, Sonos was happy with its slightly shallow product pool. The reason: it was confident that the devices it eventually did bring to market were built to last.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: this review doesn’t include the Sonos Beam’s AirPlay 2 functionality. This part of the software is still in beta. When it arrives out of beta, we will update the review accordingly.]

Sonos shied away from the rapid upgrade cycle favored by other tech companies, instead refining the speakers it had with numerous software enhancements. It didn’t need to saturate a smart speaker market it all-but owned.

But this was before Amazon, Google and, to a lesser extent, Apple earmarked the speaker space as their next big takeover; adding in the USP of voice control and promoting their speakers as the gateway drug to the smart home.

This meant Sonos had to stop with its languid release schedule and start to compete. And compete it has. There are currently four Sonos speakers (the Alexa-infused Sonos One, Sonos Play:1, Sonos Play:3 and Sonos Play:5) and three home theater audio setups (Sonos PlayBar, Sonos PlayBase and the new Sonos Beam) you can buy right now. That’s seven products, three of which came out in the last year.

The latest, as you’ve guessed, is the Sonos Beam, a relatively slim soundbar that fills the entry-level home theater audio gap. It’s the small-form size Sonos has been sorely lacking when it comes to its TV connectivity.

The Sonos Beam is a device that’s been paired down enough to be affordable but corners haven’t been cut, merely trimmed and tidied.

Sonos Beam design

The size of the Sonos Beam is key. It’s a soundbar that will happily sit in front of a 32-inch set up or a 40-inch plus TV. We should know, as we tested it on both variants.

Measuring 650 x 100 x 685mm, it’s much smaller than its super-sized sibling, the Sonos PlayBar. In fact, it’s 60% smaller (and that can be said of the price, too) but has the addition of HDMI connectivity – something the Sonos PlayBar sorely lacked.

It’s a slick-looking device, taking its design cues from both the Sonos One and the Sonos Play:5. The controls on the top are touch sensitive and look identical to the Sonos One.

The setup is simple: a four dot square on the left for volume down, the same on the right for up and a play/pause button in the middle. Above this is the ability to turn the speaker mic on and off.

We nearly slipped there and called it the Alexa mic, as that is what it currently is. But Sonos is also promising Google Assistant functionality and Siri integration. Sonos isn’t happy to speak with one voice but many and it’s a smart, shrewd move by the company. There is definitely an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mentality with Sonos at the moment.

That doesn’t mean that it has scrimped on design quality. The 43,000 hand-drilled holes may no longer be there – something the over-engineered PlayBase boasted – but it’s still a lovely-looking device. Instead of a metal grille, fabric is draped over the opening to the speakers.

The soundbar can be mounted or plonked in front of the TV. With a depth of 100mm, most TVs will happily have it sit in front of them and it not impinge on the actual screen, merely block the stand.

Inside the Sonos Beam are four full-range drivers, a center tweeter and three passive radiators which are there to add to the bass. These drivers work together to help the speaker deliver sound somewhere in between a Sonos Play:3 and Sonos PlayBar. The speakers inside have been specially made for the Beam, though, so there is no recycling here by Sonos.

The Sonos Beam is designed for three-channels, but it can nearly make those three channels sound like true surround sound thanks to Trueplay – a software feature that calibrates the sound to the room.

The magic happens during setup when the speaker asks you to use your tablet or smartphone to ‘scan’ the room (essentially wave your device around while the speaker plays a series of sounds).

When Trueplay is enabled, the room fills with sound – it feels like it works better with something like a soundbar as the radius is that much larger. If you’re an Android user, unfortunately you will miss out on this option as Trueplay is only available through iOS devices at the moment.

Flip the device around and the ports are minimal. There’s an ethernet, HDMI slot, power and a Wi-Fi button.

Sonos Beam setup

Setup of the Sonos Beam is two-fold. If your TV has HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel, there will be a symbol near the HDMI slot), then it’s a cinch. HDMI ARC allows the Beam to sync up audio and picture and have everything working through your TV’s remote in a matter of minutes.

That last part is pretty important for the Sonos Beam as the device doesn’t come with a remote. As with all Sonos products, the idea is that you use the Sonos app to control volume, link up speakers and the like. This is fine but in a home theater scenario, you want this as an addition rather than the sole way to control your speaker. And that’s why Sonos chose HDMI ARC.

Without HDMI ARC, things become a little more complicated. Sonos has done its due diligence, though, and added in an optical adaptor to the set up. Plug this into the accompanying HDMI cable and you can use the Beam through the optical port.

To make it work properly, however, you need to delve into the settings of the Sonos app (and the ones on your TV, too).

In our tests, we had to reconfigure the Beam so that it would automatically come on when the TV was turned on. Obviously, you don’t have to do this but it means going into the app every time if it is not sorted.

It wasn’t very clear where and how to do this, but after a few minutes of going through myriad menus, we found the TV Autoplay setting in Room Setting>TV. It’s also here that you can configure the remote control setup. Follow the instructions on the app and you should have the remote working with your Beam in no time.

While we didn’t mind going through the app, it’s clear that Sonos would prefer you use HDMI Arc. Its app, while pleasant enough, is currently setup to help more with making sure your Sonos system works in unison with any other Sonos devices you may have and not to configure a home theater system. Now it has the PlayBar, PlayBase and the Beam, though, we can see this changing in the future.

To give the app some credit, alongside the 60+ audio apps that are compatible with it, it does have a number of nice home theater options. Two of the most used are situated just above the volume slider. These are Night Sound (which takes out any booming bass, so you can watch something when the rest of your clan are in bed) and Speech Enhancement. Since using the Beam we have had Speech Enhancement on almost all the time and it’s really helped with the clarity of speech, especially in any scenes we are watching that are full of bombast.

Dig into the room settings and there is also an EQ option (with bass and treble sliders and a Loudness button), and TV Dialog settings which allows you to sync the voice if it’s a little off (something you won’t get using HDMI ARC).

Sonos Beam voice control

There is, of course, another way to control the Sonos Beam, and that is with your voice. One of the big features of the Beam is its Alexa integration. This is something that was first seen on the Sonos One (where it works extremely well), but using Alexa to control a part of a television is a whole other matter. It’s something that’s happening more and more – Alexa voice control is now available with the Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick and it is also available in the Amazon Fire TV Cube.

There’s a thread here: all of these products are Amazon based, and you will need an Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick to get the most out of the Sonos Beam’s voice functionality. If one of these are plugged into your TV, then the Beam offers up the power to search Netflix and Amazon Prime – something which is fun, if still a little awkward, to do.

Without Amazon’s back-end tech, you can still use the voice controls for things like volume (Alexa, turn it up 30% etc), to request radio stations and to pause and play whatever you are listening to.

It’s fun, if a touch limited. And speaking of touch, we found ourselves using the intuitive touch controls on the top of the Beam far more than we thought that we would.

Having Alexa voice control is all well and good, but it does lock you into an ecosystem. While this is how it will be for the near future, Google Assistant is also coming to the Sonos Beam, as is Siri integration – the latter through AirPlay 2 support. For the context of this review, we were instructed not to use this functionality as it’s still in Beta mode. It will be available for the Sonos Beam’s launch.

While we can’t give our verdict one way or another about the success of AirPlay 2 on the Beam, knowing it is there makes us appreciate what Sonos is trying to do – make the most accessible soundbar it possibly can. Well, accessible within the context that you still need to use it as part of the Sonos ecosystem.

Sonos Beam performance

Before getting the Sonos in for review, we demoed the Sonos Beam in the company of a sound engineer from the company. On the demo reel was a scene from Wall-E, a rather loud clip from WestWorld, as well as some music by Leon Bridges, Radiohead and Beck. All of this was rounded off with a scene from Stranger Things.

In a demo setting, all of these sounded fantastic, offering richer and deeper audio that was of contrast to the size of the soundbar and the relatively modest price.

In a home setting, and with TruePlay configured, the results were still utterly impressive. Our go-to movie was Dunkirk. In the first few minutes, when the devastating sound of the bullets whiz past the young soldiers into metal and brick, the Beam managed to output a really clear and impactful sound.

We paired the device up with two Sonos:1s as rear speakers (something that’s really simple to do within the app) and the surround effect was striking.

Moving on to a television show, the wooziness of Legion oozed from the the Beam; warped sound effects that sometimes masked the rather mumbled dialog separated themselves nicely from the vocals. As we mentioned earlier, the Vocal Enhancement really did help with this.

Music wise, we tried a diverse mix of frail acoustic tracks – Animal Collective’s beautiful Man of Oil and the soft synths of Chvrches’ My Enemy worked well. The moody, rhythm stick driven Miami, by Baxter Drury, sounded immediate. To test the treble sounds, the opening to the Four Tet remix of Bicep’s Opal sounded crisp but deep. When the bass did begin, though, it did sound a little murky. This may be more to do with the mix, however, as when we tried John Hopkins’ euphoric Emerald Rush there was much more impact.

Sonos Beam final verdict

Sonos has finally got it right in the home theater department. The Sonos PlayBar was a good starter for 10 for the company, but its lack of a HDMI slot and chunky industrial looks made it a frustrating, rather than essential, AV accessory. The Sonos PlayBase got a lot of things right – and the Beam takes a lot of its design cues from here – but, again, no HDMI and a form factor that wasn’t for all, made it another contender but it certainly wasn’t for everyone.

The Sonos Beam is a fantastic soundbar for its price, one that takes full advantage of the Sonos ecosystem and is a joy to use (and set up, if your television has HDMI ARC). Its smaller form factor means it’s a device that will sit comfortably next to a 32-inch TV but it’s got enough of a footprint to not be dwarfed by a much bigger set.

The Sonos Beam doesn’t offer earth-shattering bass, but this isn’t missed. The lack of Dolby Atmos support will irk some, but at this price point we’d think it would be more of a surprise if it had been included. The voice control may be Alexa-only for now, but it works well and if you have adopted some of Amazon’s TV toys, it really is worth experimenting with. When AirPlay 2 is fully up and running on the device, we’ll revisit this review but having this will really enhance Sonos’ relationship with Apple adopters.

The Sonos Beam is a great-looking, superb-sounding soundbar. Packed with innovation at a price that’s enticing, we’re itching to add another half star on to this review but will have to wait for all the new features to appear before we consider this.

Edifier Luna HD

Thanks to the design of the revised version of Edifier’s crisp-sounding Luna speakers, the Luna HD stereo speakers could pass for modern art, just like the original set. The sound quality is exceptional for a stereo setup, which it ought to be for $249.99 / £179.99 / AU$299.95 (the same price as the superseded models).

So while they sound great and look even better, we’re disappointed that the speakers don’t offer many inputs – there’s only Bluetooth 4.0, optical (the only addition over the previous model), and a standard 3.5mm jack, and the latter two share the same port.

Nor is there any mention of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa integration, so if you want a digital assistant at your beck and call, you’ll have to look elsewhere, or hook them up to an Android device or an Amazon Echo speaker.

Edifier is promoting the Luna HD’s as being ripe for games consoles, thanks to the inclusion of the optical input. If you’re a little sceptical about having a stereo setup for your high-powered console and married to a 4K screen, you’re not alone – but they pack enough oomph and sonic performance to make you look twice.

Design

While simplicity is the philosophy here, don’t mistake that for boring. The Luna HDs are truly beautiful to look at, and will draw plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.

An exposed three-quarter inch tweeter sits above a 3-inch bass driver on the front of each speaker, mounted on a slightly concave ‘slice’ that angles slightly upward. On the rear, a thick wedge has been carved out of the ovoid shell, giving two passive radiators a chance to flex back and forth under heavy duress.

They are available in three different color options – white, black and red – with a bold, glossy finish.

The right speaker is the master, while the left acts as a slave, connected by a 3m long proprietary six-pin cable. It will comfortably go around the back of a 70-inch TV. The power and the solo source input are hidden on the rear of the right speaker, which also has touch controls. The power on/off and volume controls live on the left-hand side of this right speaker, so you won’t accidentally brush them when walking past.

It’s probably also there to minimise the amount of fingerprints the shell will inevitably collect. Our test unit needed constant polishing (mostly because we were moving them around a lot), but fortunately the two soft cases in the packaging come with a microfiber lining to help remove any blemishes.

The optical input also acts as the port for a 3.5mm male-to-male line-in, and Edifier thoughtfully includes all the cables you’d need: the optical, the long 3.5mm cord and a stereo RCA cord too. Remember, there is just one input here, so you will need a separate control box to hook up multiple streaming devices as well as games consoles, or route them all through your TV.

Turn the speakers on and they will show up on your phone or computer’s Bluetooth list, ready to pair. There is no NFC chip, but you probably won’t need a passcode to connect. (If you do, it’s 0000 by default.)

The touch controls are flush on the side of the casing, and you’ll need to look carefully to find them. Swiping motions take care of skipping or rewinding tracks, as well as muting the volume. This panel is responsive, but you might crave something a bit more tactile, but there is a light on the front of the right speaker to indicate changes in volume.

While the remote control is as slender and simple as the speakers, it only has power and volume controls. You will need to have your device to hand to change tracks, or put your fingers all over the speaker itself.

Performance

If Edifier doesn’t do boring in design, and it certainly doesn’t do boring when the Luna HD speakers are purring or roaring. You don’t have to turn them up to get the most out of them either, though push them to their maximum volume and they will comfortably hold their own with no clipping or loss of clarity.

What they offer is a wonderful balanced sound. Edifier has built in DSP (digital signal processing) and DRC (dynamic range compression) into the speakers, and in doing so keeps the sound tamed while still giving it room to spread wide.

Our test incorporated a few mp3 albums encoded at 320kbps, a Spotify playlist and several games on Xbox One X. With the right amount of room between the speakers – preferably employing the full amount that 3m cable will allow – you’ll be able to appreciate the Luna’s confident sound stage. That’s to be expected, as the speakers use the same hardware as their predecessor.

Tame Impala’s ‘Let It Happen’ blossomed confidently from our setup, while the steely guitar twang in the opening bars of Arcade Fire’s ‘The Suburbs’ were all present. All of the flourishes in the Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’ came through loud and clear.

It’s a similar story using Spotify, with equivalent tracks slightly detuned thanks to the compression, but still worth boasting about.

However, Edifier is partly promoting these as gaming speakers, although a stereo setup doesn’t do games much justice. However, Edifier is confident that its speakers don’t need any gimmicks like virtual surround sound to convince gamers to give them a go.

The snap and crackle of exhausts in Forza Horizon 3, again, shows the Lunas have muscle and scope. Even the sounds of the prairie in Red Dead Redemption build atmosphere from two front-firing speakers, but if you’re coming to these from a surround sound setup you may miss the all encompassing feeling only rear boxes can provide.

Verdict

Simplicity belies spectacular performance. Sill, this is a minor refresh over the outgoing Edifier Luna speakers with only the optical input – primarily designed for TVs and games consoles – worth a bullet point on the back of the box.

Unlike other speakers competing in the same space, there are no smarts integrated into the Luna HD – there’s no app to control the soundscape, no Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa integration, and nor will there be. All of that, however, doesn’t hide the fact that the relatively diminutive Luna HD speakers let the audio quality sell them without the need for all the bells and whistles.

Plant them in your home and you will be treated to audio that sparkles, and can do without you fiddling with the equalizer setting. While Edifier claims the Luna HDs are a fine companion for gaming consoles, more gamers than not will want either a surround sound system or headphones to really immerse them. If, however, gaming is a ‘sometimes’ activity and you crave excellent sound without sacrificing space on your TV unit, you’ve found a superb option.