How to choose the right portable SSD

The price of an external storage drive is tied to a few factors: the amount of storage capacity you’re looking for, how fast the drive is at transferring your files, and its physical size.

At this point, high-capacity external drives that require power adapters are surprisingly inexpensive. This is a great option for some, especially if lugging it around isn’t a big deal, or you rarely feel the need to unplug it. But those who are looking for something smaller, particularly a more travel-friendly USB-C drive that doesn’t compromise on storage capacity or speed, have a few different roads to take. As you might expect, it can get very expensive to find a drive that ticks all of these boxes. But thanks to the falling rates of SSD prices, you can get a fast external drive with a lot of storage capacity for less than you might expect.

I tested a few 1TB USB-C solid state drives ranging in price from around $160 to $450. This includes two portable SSDs from Samsung that arrive ready to go out of the box: a Samsung X5 Thunderbolt 3 1TB SSD and a Samsung T5 1TB SSD. Then, there’s a DIY external drive built with an Intel 660p NVMe 1TB SSD and a separate enclosure.

What you should know before buying a USB-C SSD

Unlike the buying process for most tech products, simply choosing the one that you think fits your workflow or budget isn’t the end of the road — or at least, it shouldn’t be. You also need to make sure that the macOS or Windows 10 machine that you’ll connect it to can take advantage of its speed. This means that you’ll need to determine the USB interface of the drive you’re interested in, then compare it to your computer’s USB-C port.

USB interfaces are confusing as is, and with USB 3.2 set to launch later in 2019, the classifications listed below will change. Though, you’ll likely continue to see products carry the following naming scheme for a while:

  • USB-C ports with USB 3.1 Gen 1 support up to 5Gbps bandwidth
  • USB-C ports with USB 3.1 Gen 2 support up to 10Gbps bandwidth
  • USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support up to 40Gbps bandwidth

The ports themselves are backwards compatible, so a Thunderbolt 3 port will work just fine with drives that use the slower interfaces. But the same can’t be said for drives themselves. For instance, plugging a USB 3.1 Gen 2 drive with a laptop that can only handle USB 3.1 Gen 1 will work, but it’s a recipe that will churn out disappointment, not fast transfer speeds. If your computer has a Thunderbolt 3 port, it will work with non-Thunderbolt 3 devices, but conversely, the $450 X5 won’t work at all on a USB-C port that doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3.

For this comparison, I tested a 1TB Thunderbolt 3 external SSD, a 1TB USB 3.1 Gen 2 external SSD, and a 1TB NVMe SSD that I installed into a USB 3.1 Gen 2 external enclosure.

USB-C SSD specs

Comparison Samsung T5 Samsung X5 Intel 660p
Comparison Samsung T5 Samsung X5 Intel 660p
Capacity 1TB 1TB 1TB
Price $177.99 $449.99 $115
Drive type SATA NVMe PCIe NVMe PCIe
Interface USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10Gbps) Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40Gbps) USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10Gbps)

As if it weren’t complicated enough, you’ll also need to determine the type of storage that’s inside of your computer. This might seem trivial, since you’re shopping for an external drive, not a replacement for your internal drive. However, the transfer speed of an external drive lives and dies based on what the storage type inside of your computer is capable of. If you have a SATA drive (as many Windows laptops do), it may have a hard time keeping up with a fast external drive. As is the case with most computing components, your rig is only as fast as your slowest part.

These bottlenecks became apparent in the course of my testing. One of the test machines, a 2019 Razer Blade Stealth, has a Thunderbolt 3 port, which should allow for incredibly fast transfer speeds. Though, compared to the flash-based storage used in a 2016 MacBook Pro, another test machine that we used, the SATA-based storage in the Stealth had a significant negative impact on the maximum transfer speeds we saw from the X5 Thunderbolt 3 drive.

I tested the read and write speeds of each internal drive with Novabench, a free benchmarking tool available for both macOS and Windows 10. The Razer’s 256GB SATA drive performed at an average read speed of 481MB/s and an average write speed of 280MB/s. The MacBook Pro, with its 256GB SSD, put up an average read speed of around 2,200MB/s and an average write speed of around 1,300MB/s. The MacBook Pro’s bandwidth to send data to an external drive is much greater than the Razer laptop, and the difference lies in the storage types used in these machines. The Thunderbolt 3 drive suffered the biggest hit from the limitations imposed by the Razer’s SATA drive, though the non-Thunderbolt drives performed similarly on both systems.

USB-C SSD performance comparison

Comparison Samsung T5 Samsung X5 Intel 660p
Comparison Samsung T5 Samsung X5 Intel 660p
Drive type SATA NVMe PCIe NVMe PCIe
Interface USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10Gbps) Thunderbolt 3 (up to 40Gbps) USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10Gbps)
Advertised maximum transfer rate 540MB/s 2,800MB/s read, 2,300MB/s write 1,800MB/s read, 1,800MB/s write (when installed directly into motherboard)
Observed maximum transfer rate on macOS (sequential) 518MB/s read, 475 MB/s write on average 2,410MB/s read, 1,708MB/s write on average 933MB/s read, 910MB/s write on average
Observed maximum transfer rate on Windows 10 (sequential) 508MB/s read, 487MB/s write on average 2,280MB/s read, 598MB/s write on average 961MB/s read, 942MB/s write on average
Time to transfer 13GB file from MacBook Pro 29 seconds on average 9 seconds on average 17 seconds on average
Time to transfer 13GB file from drive to MacBook Pro 25 seconds on average 10 seconds on average 14 seconds on average
Time to transfer 13GB file from Razer Blade Stealth 33 seconds on average 39 seconds on average 29 seconds on average
Time to transfer 13GB file from drive to Razer Blade Stealth 49 seconds on average 45 seconds on average 45 seconds on average

Samsung X5 Thunderbolt 3 1TB SSD

Samsung’s X5 Thunderbolt 3 solid state drive currently costs $449 and proudly wears its premium status with an enclosure that’s fashioned like a sports car. Its design attributes to the cost, sure, but this drive’s main selling point is its Thunderbolt 3 data transfer speeds. This kind of drive is ideal for video producers who need to minimize the time between exporting and moving huge 4K video files to a drive, or even intend to use it as a working scratch disk. Any other passion or profession will benefit from the X5’s speeds, too, but at half the cost of many laptops, this is the best fit for those who regularly deal with large file transfers.

Samsung advertises a maximum transfer rate of 2,800MB/s read, 2,300MB/s write, and the MacBook Pro that I tested on came close to meeting those claims. Using the averages from benchmark apps Novabench and Blackmagic Design Disk Speed Test on macOS, I saw a 2,410MB/s read speed and 1,708MB/s write speed. It took only an average of nine seconds to transfer a 13GB file from the MacBook Pro to the X5.

On the Razer Blade Stealth, I aggregated the benchmark results from Novabench and ATTO. It managed 2,280MB/s read and 598MB/s write speed, both averaged, while plugged into the Thunderbolt 3 port. Compared to the MacBook Pro’s nine seconds, it took the Blade Stealth 39 seconds to transfer the same 13GB file to the X5. This really highlights how much of a bottleneck the internal drive can be when working with an external drive as fast as this — it’s literally four times slower.

Samsung T5 1TB SSD

While the X5 is Samsung’s flagship external drive, the Samsung T5 line is more accessibly priced at around $180 for a 1TB model. The T5 is more of an everyday drive for those that need fast file transfers, but aren’t planning to use it as a scratch drive for video editing. At less than half the price of the X5, its performance is impressive — plus, I prefer its slim, money clip-like design to the X5’s sporty styling.

This drive utilizes SATA storage with a USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface, and since both test machines used in this article feature Thunderbolt 3 ports, the drive’s speed won’t be negatively impacted by the interface. The T5’s interface makes it compatible with a broader array of devices, too: you can use this on both macOS and Windows 10 computers, but also with Android phones. I ran all of the tests with its USB-C to USB-C cable, but it also includes a USB-C to USB-A cable in the box for use with older computers.

Samsung claims that this little drive can reach speeds of 540MB/s for both reading and writing data. My results were fairly close to these claims on both test machines. Using the same benchmarks as before, the T5 registered a 518MB/s average read and 475MB/s write on the MacBook Pro, and an average of 508MB/s read and 487MB/s write on the Blade Stealth.

Transferring a 13GB file from the MacBook Pro to the T5 took an average of 29 seconds, about three times slower than with the Thunderbolt 3 X5. It took 33 seconds on average to perform the same transfer when connected to the Razer Blade Stealth. It’s not clear why the T5 outperformed the X5 on the Stealth, but it does highlight how paying for the faster external drive just isn’t worth it if your computer doesn’t have a fast enough internal drive to keep up with it.

Intel 660p 1TB NVMe M.2 SSD

While the X5 and T5 are pre-built and ready to go right out of the box, building your own external drive using an M.2 NVMe SSD and an enclosure can produce some surprising results. I tested out Intel’s 660p M.2 NVMe PCIe 1TB SSD (currently $110) with an enclosure, which has a few perks over the Samsung T5: it’s a bit cheaper, faster, and lastly, it’s a fun little project to put one of these together.

There are a couple of different types of drives in the M.2 format (which refers to the drive’s physical size), and you’ll want to make sure you’re buying an NVMe PCIe drive, not a SATA-based one. Maximum transfer speeds can vary even among NVMe drives, but if your goal is to use it as an external drive, you don’t need to buy the fastest ones available because you won’t be able to use all of their bandwidth. The 660p drive that we tested is rated at 1,800MB/s for both read and write speeds, which isn’t the fastest you can get but is fast enough to saturate a USB 3.1 Gen 2 connection. Faster NVMe drives, such as Samsung’s popular 970 EVO Plus, cost a lot more money and you won’t get any benefit from using them in a USB 3.1 external enclosure.

Even though they are still relatively new, there are plenty of NVMe enclosures to choose from. The two that I tried out come from Plugable (currently $49) and ElecGear (currently $45). Both are compatible with NVMe PCIe SSDs and each supports the USB 3.1 Gen 2 standard. Depending on the enclosure that you purchase, the total cost is around $160. That’s less than the Samsung T5 costs, and thanks to the 660p’s fast read and write speeds, it’ll outperform it as well. Thunderbolt 3 enclosures, which do have the potential to take advantage of the fastest NVMe drives, are just now starting to hit the market, but they are significantly more expensive than USB 3.1 Gen 2 models. If you want Thunderbolt 3, you should just go with a pre-built drive like the Samsung X5 at this point.

Installing the SSD in an enclosure is simple: open the enclosure (Plugable’s tool-less design makes this incredibly easy; other enclosures will require opening a few screws), align the pins, and secure the drive to keep it in place. Since external SSD drives can generate a lot of heat, it’s advised that you install thermal pads to help keep temperatures down in use. Both enclosures I tested include these pads in the box.

Getting this DIY drive up and running on your computer is a little different than the others that I tested. It’s still a plug-and-play affair on macOS, but Windows 10 won’t recognize this drive once connected; you’ll have to install a partition on it and assign it a drive letter in the Disk Management setting before it can be used like a portable drive. Once you’re done with that, it works just like the T5 and is compatible with the same broad array of USB-C and USB-A ports.

The results from the MacBook Pro and Razer Blade Stealth are mostly at parity with this drive. Using the Blackmagic Design disk benchmark, I got an average of 933MB/s read, 910MB/s write on the macOS laptop, while Razer’s put up slightly faster numbers with the Novabench and ATTO benchmark tools: 961MB/s read, 942MB/s write, on average.

Regarding the file transfer speed, this DIY NVMe drive shows decent improvements over Samsung’s similarly priced T5 SSD. On macOS, I saw an average of 17 seconds for the 13GB file transfer, a roughly 41 percent improvement over the T5’s time. It took an average of 29 seconds to transfer the same file from the Razer laptop to the drive (that’s four seconds faster than the T5, and a whole 10 seconds faster than the X5).

Which one should you buy?

If you’re looking for the absolute maximum data transfer speeds in a portable drive and know that your computer has the right port and fast enough internal storage to keep up with it, Samsung’s $450 X5 Thunderbolt 3 SSD is the best pick. It’s over twice as expensive as the other options, but it’s also over twice as fast, which can make a noticeable difference if you’re working with a lot of huge files.

But if you’re not a professional video editor and you’re just looking for a small, fast portable drive for files or photo library storage, I recommend going with an NVMe PCIe SSD and an enclosure. Setting it up isn’t as daunting as it might seem, and not only is it a better value in terms of performance than the Samsung T5 and the Samsung X5, you can also pop the SSD into a compatible desktop motherboard if you decide to retire it from the portable life.

Buy Samsung’s X5 Thunderbolt 3 SSD: Amazon | Best Buy | Google Shopping

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High-wattage USB-C batteries can keep your laptop charged on the go

Portable batteries have become more stylish, cheaper, smaller, and faster at charging your tech. More improvements are on the way, thanks to gallium nitride (GaN), a more space- and energy-efficient alternative to silicon that can already be found in a few wall chargers. Nice as these advancements are, they mostly impact devices with small batteries. Wall chargers aren’t much help if you’re on the go.

As more laptops and other high-powered devices adopt USB-C and move away from proprietary charging plugs, there’s an opportunity for big, powerful batteries that can augment your power adapters, and ideally, let you charge multiple devices at the same time. And now, a number of options are hitting the market aimed squarely at doing just that.

We have tested a few models that are available now, as well as some that are coming out soon. The list includes Zendure’s SuperTank, Sanho’s HyperJuice, and J-Go Tech’s Tanker Elite and Tanker Xtreme. They all have a few things in common: they aren’t small or lightweight, so your bag will gain more than a few ounces if you stick one inside. Each of these batteries has USB-C Power Delivery ports capable of delivering at least 65W of power (and in most cases, up to 100W). This means that they’re likely powerful enough to charge most laptops and replace a few wall chargers that you usually stick in your bag. Each option also has multiple ports to allow simultaneous charging of other devices. Lastly, you’ll find pass-through charging in each battery, meaning you can route power through their respective ports while the battery itself is being recharged.

From left to right, J-Go Tech’s Tanker Xtreme, Sanho’s HyperJuice, J-Go Tech’s Tanker Elite, and Zendure’s SuperTank.

These batteries do what you expect them to: charge your devices quickly, and keep them alive for longer. Cheaper battery packs suited for devices with lower power requirements do a great job of keeping phones and most tablets going for days. But if you use a Mac laptop, a new iPad Pro, a Google Pixelbook, or a Windows 10 laptop that charges over USB-C, a bigger and more powerful battery pack is a smart buy — especially if you’ll be doing some gaming, or other power-intensive activities that tend to be a quick drain on a battery.

Big, powerful portable batteries compared

Comparison Zendure SuperTank Sanho HyperJuice J-Go Tech Tanker Elite J-Go Tech Tanker Xtreme
Comparison Zendure SuperTank Sanho HyperJuice J-Go Tech Tanker Elite J-Go Tech Tanker Xtreme
Capacity 27,000mAh capacity 27,000mAh capacity 20,800mAh capacity 27,000mAh capacity
Price $99 during fundraising ($149 once it releases in May 2019) $159 during fundraising ($299 once it releases in June 2019) $124 $249
Ports Ports: USB-C (100W, input / output), USB-C (60W, output), USB-A (15W output), USB-A (18W output) Ports: USB-C (100W, input / output), USB-C (60W, output), USB-A (18W output) Ports: USB-C (87W input, 65W output), USB-A (18W output), Micro USB, USB-A Ports: USB-C (100W, input / output), USB-C (60W, output), USB-A (18W output)
Pass-through charging support Supports pass-through charging Supports pass-through charging Supports pass-through charging Supports pass-through charging
Extras included Includes USB-C to USB-C cable Includes USB-C to USB-C cable Includes USB-C to USB-C cable Includes USB-C to USB-C cable and 87W wall adapter

What you get for your money

Tallying up the costs makes it clear that trying to live your life away from power outlets doesn’t come at a bargain. At the very least, your purchase will get you a battery and a USB-C to USB-C cable that can handle fast charging. Having the right cable is worth pointing out because not all USB-C cables are created equally. You’ll have to pay extra for a charger that can refill these batteries quickly, unless you find one bundled with your battery. At half the cost of the battery itself (and sometimes more) it’s worth buying one, if only for the convenience. You can certainly use a less capable USB-C charger to fill one up, but unless you’re charging overnight, it’s an insufferably slow process that will carve out way too many hours in your day.

At $129, J-Go Tech’s Tanker Elite is one of the most affordable options that we tested. That’s not so bad, but it’s before you factor in the cost for the necessary wall charger to quickly recharge the battery in about an hour. The 87W charger that you can purchase bundled with the J-Go Tech Tanker Elite takes just 80 minutes to recharge the entire 20,800mAh capacity. For this added convenience, you’ll need to pay a total of $164 to get the battery with an 87W wall charger included. If you want more power, J-Go Tech’s 100W charging kit sans battery is $79.99 at Amazon, and includes a braided USB-C to USB-C cable, as well as universal plug adapters. Although the Elite doesn’t have the best port selection or capacity (I’d much rather have a second USB-C port than a Micro USB port, though your mileage may vary), it will be among the most budget-friendly batteries once the other options are no longer available with crowdfunding discounts.

J-Go Tech’s Tanker Xtreme offers more capacity (27,000mAh versus 20,800mAh in the Elite) and a better port selection (a second USB-C port in place of the Elite’s Micro USB port). It’s available for purchase at Amazon with its 87W wall charger for $249.99.

The SuperTank (left) with its SuperHub wall charger

At $99, the Zendure SuperTank is currently the cheapest option (the battery will jump up to $149 after fundraising concludes in June 2019), and its multi-port SuperHub charger that can recharge it at 100W speeds is another $69 (it will also go up in June to $100). Most of the batteries that we tested are shaped like big TV remotes, but the SuperTank is smaller and far more stout. This could make it a tough fit in slimmer pockets, but I’m personally fine with its design since it allows Zendure to fit in a good selection of ports, including 100W and 60W USB-C ports and 15W and 18W USB-A ports.

Zendure’s SuperHub mostly mirrors the ports available on the SuperTank. It has both 100W and 18W USB-C ports and a duo of 18W USB-A ports. If you need to charge more than one USB-C device at a time, the SuperHub is an ideal option.

Sanho’s HyperJuice is priced at $159 during its fundraising process, but will cost a whopping $299 afterward — and that’s not counting its 100W charger. That accessory currently costs an extra $39 at Indiegogo, but will cost $79 when it releases later this month. It’s fairly bare bones, and other than a 100W USB-C input to recharge your battery (or straight up power your device), it offers a USB-A port to keep your iPhone, or some other device, topped off.

To compare a few other USB-C chargers currently on the market, Apple’s $79 87W USB-C power charger will definitely get the job done, but obviously won’t be as fast as a 100W charger. Google’s slightly cheaper 45W USB-C charger that costs $60 will make you wait even longer for devices to recharge.

Testing out the batteries

To test these batteries, I used the Microsoft Surface Book 2 because it can charge over USB-C, and it’s notorious for demanding a lot of juice from power adapters. This laptop’s USB-C charging port pulled a maximum of 87W during testing, which I was able to see thanks to a USB-C multimeter. I performed a range of activities to see how these batteries impacted the Surface Book 2’s battery life, including powering the machine in an off state, again while browsing some websites, and lastly, while playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a game that this machine struggles to run at its native screen resolution.

All of the batteries that we tested were able to maintain and build a charge. There was one initial snag, however. The first model of Zendure’s SuperTank fell short of its advertised capabilities, topping out at a 54W output, regardless of the task at hand. The company said the unit we were testing was a prototype and sent over a finalized unit that didn’t have any issues.

Most of the time, the batteries fluctuate between 60 and 80W, depending on the moment-to-moment power requirements. And while I hacked through the endgame of Sekiro, this proved to be enough for the Surface Book 2 to slowly build a charge. When the batteries fall around the 50 percent capacity mark, I noticed a slight dip in throughput in each of them down to around 54W. While that’s not enough to charge the Surface Book 2 during gameplay, it will work to slow the drop. If you aren’t gaming or doing intensive work such as video rendering, this shouldn’t be an issue.

There were a few other quirks to note: they all exhibited a few moments when the laptop’s batteries (it houses one within the keyboard, and another in the detachable tablet) wouldn’t charge during gameplay. But hitting Alt+Tab, then shifting the PC’s power mode to “best battery life” instead of “best performance” calmed the fans down and allowed the battery to fill up — but not without some major hits to gaming performance. This is most likely a Surface Book issue.

The Zendure SuperTank battery

Also, all of the batteries that I tested, at some point, made an error pop up in Windows 10 that claimed the battery was slow, or that the USB device was incompatible. Removing the plug and putting it back in usually resolved the issue, but out of the bundle of batteries we tried, the HyperJuice was the most problematic. It could be another Surface Book quirk, or it could be related to Windows 10. Other devices didn’t put up as much of a fuss, and I didn’t encounter any warnings like this when I used them to charge a MacBook Pro.

In terms of surprises, J-Go Tech’s affordable Tanker Elite surpassed its supposed 65W output limit. It was able to charge the Surface Book 2 as quickly as the others at up to 87W, which is impressive, if not a bit baffling.

Each of the batteries lasted about an hour while charging up the Surface Book 2. From a dead state, the 27,000mAh capacity batteries (the SuperTank, HyperJuice, and Tanker Xtreme) were able to provide about 46 percent of the laptop’s power before needing to be recharged. This might not sound like an achievement, but it’s worth noting that this laptop distributed the charge pretty evenly across its two batteries, putting equal amounts of power into the keyboard’s battery as was found in the tablet.

We also tested these batteries with a 2016 MacBook Pro and the Google Pixelbook. Both of these machines demand less power than the Surface Book 2 (61W for the MacBook Pro, 45W for the Pixelbook), and each battery easily met their maximum wattage demands. The Zendure SuperTank fully charged the Pixelbook in about 90 minutes and still had 41 percent of its battery left. If you’re using one of these batteries to stay topped off while doing some light work away from a charger, the HyperJuice was able to do so while only losing about 10 percent of its capacity after an hour of use. The other 27,000mAh batteries should give you similar results for both computers.

Which big battery is worth the money?

All of these batteries are powerful, and unless you can’t compromise even a few watts, the buying decision comes down to design preference, port selection, and of course, your budget.

For the most power for your dollar, the J-Go Tech Tanker Xtreme offers a lot of juice, a good variety of ports, and since it includes an 87W wall charger, its bundle offers the best value for your money. Zendure’s SuperTank is a great, compact package that offers the best port selection, and if you’re able to buy it for less during the fundraising, the value is good as well.

If you’re hoping to get more work done away from a wall outlet, all of them can help you do that. Each is proficient at directing a lot of power to a single device, as well as spreading it out across several at the same time, like a phone, a set of wireless headphones, and a Nintendo Switch. We expect even more options to come as 2019 proceeds, but the first batch of big, powerful batteries is impressive.

Buy the J-Go Tech Tanker Xtreme: Amazon | J-Go | Google Shopping

Buy Zendure’s SuperTank: Amazon | Google Shopping | Indiegogo

Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.

LG G8 ThinQ review: many gimmicks, not enough progress

If you’re looking for a new phone in 2019 that has a bunch of features, the LG G8 ThinQ should be on your shortlist. Compared to something like the Google Pixel 3, a purposefully plain phone, the LG G8 is on the opposite side of the spectrum. It’s vibrant and chock-full of experimental software tweaks and fan-favorite hardware features. It’s refreshing to use a phone that’s capable of so much. LG places no walls around you; you can use as much or as little as it offers.

At its core, the G8 is a competent Android 9 Pie phone with the latest Snapdragon 855 processor and 6GB of RAM. It has a sharp 6.1-inch OLED display, a screen-rattling loudspeaker, and a headphone jack bolstered by a Quad DAC that sounds incredible with wired headphones. The G8 also offers wireless charging, supports microSD storage, and has an IP68 rating against water and dust ingress.

Most of what I just listed describes what you’ll also get in 2018’s LG G7 ThinQ, which you can find for roughly half the cost of the $840 G8. In fact, the G8’s design is mostly a rehash, with its 19.5:9 screen aspect ratio and wide notch to match, though the G8’s notch is a little different. Populated by a new Z Camera multisensor system, it can unlock the phone securely using your face or your hand’s vein structure. Z Camera also allows for the phone’s other big feature, Air Motion, which lets you use hand gestures to, say, raise the volume or pause a song in Spotify, without touching the G8.

Digging deeper into the G8’s unique features, its notch houses an 8-megapixel selfie camera, a Time of Flight (ToF) sensor, and an infrared emitter. Once the object or person in the frame is covered in infrared light, the ToF sensor can detect its depth, which is critical for LG’s new features, Face Unlock and Hand ID. Face Unlock, as you might expect, gathers a 3D scan of your face angled in different ways, and it won’t unlock with a 2D image. I tried to fool it with a picture and a video recorded on a different phone, but I didn’t have any success. A good failure. Face Unlock is definitely fast and convenient enough that I rarely used the fingerprint sensor located on the phone’s back. However, I can’t say such positive things about Hand ID.

Hand ID unlocks your phone when it authenticates the unique vein layout in your palm above the Z Camera, and LG notes that this is a less secure method of protecting your phone. Hand ID is an interesting idea, but in practice, it’s slow to detect a match, often failing to read my hand accurately. Even when it’s successful, sometimes it asks for a secondary method of authentication. Hand ID is more of a roadblock than it is a viable way to gain access to the G8.

LG’s marketing loudly trumpets these new features, but when you pick up the phone, the device itself doesn’t make much of an effort to convince you to use them. That’s a shame because Face Unlock is one of my favorite features on the G8. But as for Hand ID and Air Motion, which we dig into below, they don’t rise above the status of party tricks that may delight but probably won’t convert onlookers (or even the person using the G8). The unique features are cool when they work. Even when they do, the Z Camera’s additions don’t enrich my experience to the extent that I’d pay a premium for them.

Some retailers are offering the G8 for $699 unlocked for use with any GSM or CDMA carrier, and if you’re able to find it for this price, you’ll get a lot of phone for your money. But my feelings about its highlight features aside, there’s the lingering issue of software updates. The most damning thing about every new LG phone that hits the market is that timely software updates are not forthcoming. Here’s a familiar refrain: LG has done too little to assure prospective buyers that this year’s flagship phone will be kept up to date.

In my colleague Chris Welch’s review of the G7 ThinQ in 2018, he said LG “promised to make a better, honest-to-goodness real effort at delivering future software updates at a timely pace.” That didn’t work out as planned. Android 9 Pie first launched in August 2018, though some G7 users are still waiting for the update. Things may change, eventually, but I don’t think that they’ll be any different for the G8. You’re buying an Android Pie phone that might be stuck on Pie for a long time after the release of its successor. Surprise me, LG.

Relative to the 2018 LG G7, the G8 feels more weighty and substantial, but unless you’re picking apart a spec sheet, you might not notice any differences. The nicest upgrade is the fact that the rear cameras now sit under the same piece of glass covering the rear of the phone, generating no camera bump or disturbance at all. Compared to its Android contemporaries, the G8 is one of the smaller flagships on the market, and it should appeal to people who find the Plus models from other manufacturers to be too big to handle.

On the inside, the G8 features the Snapdragon 855 processor that’s Qualcomm’s current best chip for Android phones, and the phone’s 6GB of RAM makes for a smooth experience. Switching through apps, scrolling around mindlessly, and putting the G8’s camera features to the test didn’t cause any noticeable hiccups. The 3,500mAh battery is a sizeable increase over the G7’s 3,000mAh, and it’s more than you’ll find in the Samsung Galaxy S10 or S10E. I didn’t have to worry about the G8 running out of battery on a typical busy day of taking pictures outside and chatting with friends on Snapchat, but it needed a refill every evening.

LG opted to swap the bright IPS LCD used in the G7 for an OLED display, which gives it deeper blacks and better contrast. The company also got rid of the earpiece, instead utilizing a piezoelectric speaker behind the screen to create sound with vibrations from the phone’s frame. This works well in quiet settings, and when paired with its loudspeaker, it creates a somewhat convincing stereo effect. But if you take a call on a windy day or in a busy restaurant, it is far too weak to hear clearly.

LG also uses the Z Camera to add bokeh to selfie portraits, but that really isn’t much of an improvement. Even the Google Pixel 2’s single-lens computational bokeh worked more effectively than LG’s bespoke hardware. Speaking of the camera performance, I’ve always felt that LG’s optics are on the edge of something great, but they remain a step behind the competition. Easy shots with generous amounts of natural light are decent, but they usually come out fuzzy around the edges and have a cooler color temperature than I like. Good shots are possible even at night, though LG’s Night view doesn’t hold a candle to the Huawei P30 Pro’s low-light capabilities or the Pixel’s Night Sight. Like last year’s phone, the G8 is still slow to capture, which leads to lots of blurry photos. Additionally, it has a hard time getting skin tones right, portrait shots have inconsistent bokeh, and the auto-exposure can be all over the place.

LG was able to patch previous phones with AI features that were said to enhance low-light performance, so I’m interested to see if LG could improve the state of things here. But when it comes to LG and delivering software when a device needs it the most, I’m not hopeful.

Despite its limitations, I think that this is the closest that an LG camera has come to producing photos that I’m happy posting to social media without retouching. If auto mode isn’t getting the job done, you can get good results with the manual mode, which lets you seize control over the usual variables like shutter speed and ISO, and the ultra wide angle shots are always fun to snap.

The Z Camera can do another interesting trick called Air Motion. It’s a feature that lets you control a few tasks with hand gestures. What it actually lets you do differs slightly depending on the app you’re using, though the procedure to initiate it is the same: hold your hand near the phone’s front-facing sensors, and wait until you see a stripe of blue light beneath the notch. Then, a small window will show your hand as viewed through the infrared camera. While using Spotify, for instance, you can tweak the volume by making a knob-turning motion or pause a song by moving your hand left or right of center. The controls are similar for other multimedia apps that you download on the G8, like YouTube, Amazon Music, and the preinstalled music and video apps. For practically any other app, the default Air Motion gesture is a pinch to capture a screenshot. Then you can set a custom shortcut to open any app that you have downloaded by moving your hand left or right of center.

I’m sure that Air Motion will appeal to some, but the only valid use case for the feature that I could dream up was if you need to turn up the volume or pause the music while you’re handling delicate pastry or painting a room. The feature isn’t fleshed out or anywhere near responsive enough to be a useful accessibility tool. In my experience, asking Google Assistant for help gets most jobs done faster, even though Assistant can’t take screenshots. To summon the voice assistant, you can push the dedicated side button on the G8, or just say, “Hey, Google.”

Outside of LG’s own sphere of design, other phones are going all in on new hardware features like hole-punch cameras and in-display fingerprint sensors. It’s not a big strike against the G8 that it doesn’t have these novelties, especially since we found the in-display fingerprint sensor in the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus to be slow compared to traditional fingerprint sensors. But by comparison, the G8’s design is basically a repeat of last year’s LG G7 ThinQ, and sitting still in the smartphone market makes it an even harder sell.

Of course, some mainstays from past LG phones are a good thing. Its best-in-class haptics motor, for example, is always welcome to the party. More phones are beginning to take haptic feedback seriously, providing more nuanced vibrations than bleary buzzes, and LG still leads the pack of Android phone makers. The haptics almost purr when you navigate the G8. Whether you’re running through basic tasks, like texting, or scrolling through your list of opened apps using Android 9 Pie’s pill-shaped home button, expressive haptics make bland tasks a little more fun.

Another feature I’m always happy to see is the headphone jack. And since it’s in an LG flagship phone, it’s not just any headphone jack. There’s a Quad DAC built in that dramatically improves the sound quality with wired headphones. It’s not activated by default, but when I switch on the Quad DAC, music occupies a more expansive soun

Sony Xperia 10 review: easy to hold, hard to use

Phones are getting taller. Just a couple of years ago, all phones had 16:9 displays, but now, many use tall 18:9 aspect ratio screens. This allows for more screen real estate in narrower frames, addressing two things people want: bigger screens in smaller phones. Some phones, like the LG G8 ThinQ, iPhone XS and XR, or Samsung Galaxy S10, are adopting even taller, skinnier aspect ratios. But Sony’s new Xperia 10 lineup takes it the furthest with displays that stretch to a full 21:9 aspect ratio.

The big takeaway is that they’re short on selling points, but their super tall displays is certainly one of them. With it, you can watch a bunch of movies in their native aspect ratios (sans black bars). You can also shoot photos and footage in 21:9 with the phone’s camera app.

When it comes to living with the Xperia 10, its slender proportions make it far more comfortable to hold and pocket than most other big-screened devices. Most of today’s smartphones can’t be used one-handed or fit cozily in anything smaller than a coat pocket. Sony found a way to make that happen, but the rest of the phone fails to back up its most impressive feature.

To name a few of the biggest offenders, its buttons barely raise up out of the frame, making them nearly impossible to feel for or press. The hardware is slow, the cameras are miserable, and the glossy paint surrounding the camera bump chips off after a few weeks of use. If you want to watch 21:9 movies, make sure you’re doing it with headphones because the single bottom-firing speaker is weak. Forgiving cheaper phones for little flaws is easy and expected. But when $300 can get you a great phone, like the Moto G7, Sony’s mistakes are too obvious to ignore.

The 21:9 display is arguably the most eye-catching feature. Both the 6-inch Xperia 10 and the 6.5-inch Xperia 10 Plus feature 1080p LCD displays that extend all the way down to the phones’ bottom edges. Instead of going for a notch or hole-punch camera, Sony’s phones utilize a thick bezel up top to house the selfie camera and ear speaker. It’s similar in execution to last year’s Sony Xperia XZ3, except Sony managed to remove its logo from the bottom chin bezel and replace it with more screen.

It looks good for a phone in this price range, but a phone this tall actually needs a bottom bezel to balance it out. I can appreciate Sony’s effort to stretch the display all the way to the bottom, but the ergonomics yielded from its easy-to-hold design are thrown out the window when I try to flex my thumb toward the bottom of this huge screen. Whether I’m reaching toward essential navigation buttons, typing in Messages, or doing anything that requires me to touch the bottom of the screen, I’m reminded that form was picked over function at every turn. The slight exception is the fingerprint sensor, which is mounted on the side of the phone. It’s slightly concave to serve as a guide for your finger.

Sony seems to expect that ease of use will be an issue for some, and it attempts to alleviate it with a few software features. The first lets you snap the screen into “One-handed Mode” by double-tapping the home button. This shrinks down the screen to something that’s easier to use with one hand. It works, but it looks ridiculous in practice.

The other consideration is its Side Sense user interface. It’s a translucent vertical bar that sits to the right on the screen. When you tap it twice, a pop-out menu appears, giving you access to all of your apps, the notification tray, and various hardware functions within the reach of most thumbs. Of the two solutions, this is the better one, but it still feels like a ham-fisted solution to a problem that its huge screen creates.

The Xperia 10 lineup comes with Android 9 Pie, and the new gesture-based navigation is enabled by default, but you can switch to the button navigation (which I promptly did). If you’re coming from a Samsung phone or a Google Pixel, things will feel slightly different in Sony’s world, but everything’s here. Sony used to make its own version of the essential apps, but it has since shifted to using Google’s stock apps, which I’m not going to argue about. Upon setting up the phone for the first time, it offers to install a bunch of bloatware, including, Amazon, AVG virus protection, Facebook, and other apps, but, thankfully, you don’t have to install any of them.

Despite its tall (or extra wide, depending on how it’s oriented in your hand) screen, using apps and playing games mostly isn’t a problem on the Xperia 10. Most apps work fine and adjust automatically to the 21:9 aspect ratio. However, one of my favorite games to play on the subway, Alto’s Odyssey, has its menus chopped off due to the aspect ratio. Whether it affects you and the apps that you like to use will vary, but chances are, there is an app or game you use that the display will muck up a bit.

What’s worse than these display issues is that its hardware can’t keep up too well. The Snapdragon 636 processor in the Xperia 10 Plus is noticeably faster than the Xperia 10’s Snapdragon 630, though they both don’t work well under even a minor load of common apps, and the user interface animations stutter even when nothing is going on. Its fingerprint sensor, which is one of the best-designed features on the phone, is super slow to recognize fingerprints. I often have to reapply my finger for it to read correctly.

In addition to the screen, cameras play a big role in what phone you end up buying. Both the smaller and larger Xperia 10 phones house a dual-camera system: 13-megapixel and 5-megapixel cameras in the Xperia 10 and 12-megapixel and 8-megapixel cameras in the 10 Plus. No matter what a budget phone gets right, the cameras are usually the point where sacrifices are made, and Sony’s phones are no exception. They are sluggish to launch, slow to capture, and the photo and video results aren’t great. It’s not the worst, but if you like to post photos on Instagram, you probably won’t want to publish these.

Both phones charge over USB-C, and each gets a few points for including a 3.5mm headphone jack. In terms of battery performance, standby mode drains slowly as expected, but regular use of everyday apps, like their camera, can quickly deplete them. Messing around with its goofy portrait selfie mode for a few minutes drained about 5 percent of the smaller Xperia 10’s battery. Unless you bring a portable power bank, don’t expect these phones to last any longer than a day under normal use.

I don’t think that all of my issues with the Sony Xperia 10 and Xperia 10 Plus would be resolved if it instead used 18:9 aspect ratio displays. Sure, my apps would all look the way they’re supposed to, and I would likely see better performance with a smaller screen. To that end, I give Sony credit for trying to raise the bar for itself, but these phones prove that it shouldn’t have been so eager. Even with its eye-catching display, this is a bare-bones Android experience that, in typical Sony fashion, does too little and costs too much.

I’m convinced that there’s a future for 21:9 aspect ratio displays in smartphones — who doesn’t want a bigger screen in a smaller device? — but I don’t think we’ll get there with improvements in power and screen quality alone, which the expensive Sony Xperia 1 brings along with its 4K OLED display and a Snapdragon 855 processor. There are some major usability obstacles to overcome before it becomes the norm, and the Xperia 10 is a bumpy start.

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