Posts tagged review

Honda HR-V rules urban routes

Almost everyone wants to get into a crossover these days, from drivers to the companies that make them. You can’t blame them. Low oil prices and urban versatility make CUVs a wise choice.

With that in mind, Honda is taking aim at the entry level crossover market with its new HR-V.

Honda's HR-V crossover sits on a small footprint, which makes it ideal for city life. Photo: Maurice Cacho

Honda’s HR-V crossover sits on a small footprint, which makes it ideal for city life. Photo: Maurice Cacho

The HR-V is small for a crossover, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t feel that way. Even though it’s based on the small Honda Fit, you’d be hard-pressed to say the HR-V is much smaller than its big brother, the CR-V. Beside a traffic light, the Fit-based crossover appears almost a foot shorter.

Starting at the back, the trunk is big enough to swallow enough groceries from a big supermarket run, or a stroller and an array of bags for a weekend jaunt.

The back isn’t cramped, and I fit my 5-foot-11 frame behind the driver’s seat with knee room to spare but with my head just shy of the roof. No space constraints up front.

Cabin quality is typically Honda-solid. There’s a no-nonsense aspect to the layout and everything is where you’d expect it to be.

The USB ports, stashed at the bottom of the centre console behind the shifter, aren’t the easiest to get to. In a way, you may be less likely to be distracted by your phone with this placement.

Speaking of connectivity, the infotainment system features a screen that’s well-placed and easy to read. Pre-set text message replies are handy, and overall phone integration works well. The voice recognition picks up commands with ease.

One complaint with the infotainment system, however, is that it is really all-encompassing. With its electrostatic screen, you’ll need to ditch your winter gloves to change simple things like the volume. Granted, the steering wheel-mounted audio controls provide another way to adjust your soundtrack.

Despite all the outdoorsy hype that comes with crossovers, the HR-V is most at home on city streets. It handles tight parking spots with the precision of an experienced cakemaker writing a birthday greeting.

Under the hood, however, is where things could use improvement.

The 1.8-litre four cylinder engine, the only available unit, is noisy and feels underpowered in the HR-V when coupled with the continuously variable transmission.

Pairing it with the CVT is perhaps not the best option, but it’s the only way to go if you want the HR-V with all-wheel drive.

If you can drive stick, get the manual transmission. Honda makes great shifters and it should work well in the HR-V.

Opting for the manual ‘box, the buzzing CVT gives way to a six-speed manual that the driver can thrash around, pulling a better response from the engine.

But back to the CVT. Putting the ‘ute into Sport mode improves throttle response. With the HR-V shifter set to “S,” the HR-V feels better on the road.

There’s also Econ mode, activated by pressing a green leaf button, to save you visits to the pumps.

Rock-solid Honda build quality is only available from, well, Honda, and that trait shines through after spending time with this CUV.

Drivers looking for a spacious, compact crossover might find their right vehicle in the HR-V.

 

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+

When the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge first came out earlier this year, I thought it had a neat screen that was particularly useless.

The “edge” in the name reflects the phone’s curved edges along the longest sides.

At first I thought ‘Why do we need a curved edge on a screen?” Consumers usually want more battery life, a bigger screen and more space to store their cat videos and selfies.

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Samsung touted the fact that notifications could show up on the edges, so the whole screen wasn’t bothered by push alerts. It was not a bad idea. But the curved edge also seemed a little gimmicky.

Apparently, I was wrong. Consumers loved the screen so much, it’s back, bigger and better than before.

The latest iteration, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, has a name that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Perhaps the freight-train-long moniker exists so consumers remember it. Regardless, it appears to be aimed to go up against the iPhone 6+.

The screen is spectacular. Measuring 5.7 inches diagonally, it’s the most vivid and sharpest display I’ve seen on a smartphone. Although on paper it’s not as sharp as its predecessor, the S6 Edge, the reproduction is top notch.

With an infinity pool-like screen, the Edge+ easily draws attention to itself and gets noticed.

To take advantage of the edge, the phone has a launcher-like application that lurks alongside the periphery of the screen on whichever side you choose. Swipe out to quickly connect with a contact or launch a favourite app. It’s not obtrusive at all, which sometimes meant I forgot it was there and din’t take full advantage of it.

When reviewing the first S6 Edge, I would often accidentally activate edges of the screen with the palm of my hand. That happens less now with the Edge+. Perhaps the software has been improved and the handset can better detect unintentional contact or I’m more vigilant of how much more of the phone is a touchscreen rather than the frame.

RAM has been upped to 4 GB from 3 GB, while the processor is an octacore.

Nothing appears to get in the way of this phone’s processing firepower. The increase in RAM helps to soothe any concern that Samsung’s Touchwiz user interface, which is slapped on top of Android Lollipop.

The look and feel is upscale, alongside that of Apple’s iPhone 6+. The glass back looks particularly luxurious, but be warned that it’s at the mercy of change and keys in your pocket (while the front display’s Gorilla glass is much hardier).

The camera captures the best images of any smartphone I’ve used. It’s a 16-megapixel unit with a f1.9 aperture and optical image stabilization. The latter is unusual for smartphone cameras, since most use electronic image stabilization, if at all.

In this case, it’s the lens that moves to capture a sharper image, not some software guesswork.

Details are sharp, colours balanced and the shutter is quick. There’s a RAW shooting mode too that will save uncompressed image files which can be better manipulated later on.

The phone can also shoot 4K video and it can stream live directly to YouTube (not at the same time).

Speaking of which, the phone features next-generation LTE technology, enabling a maximum download speed of up to 450 Mbps. (Hint: If you’re in range of a cell tower that offers such connectivity, perform a speed test with someone on a regular connection. Chances are you’ll win).

While the handsets don’t ship with a wireless charger, the device is capable of such charging with optional equipment. Regardless, the handset is also fast-charge compatible, meaning you can juice up completely in about 90 minutes. This feature is also designed to compensate for the fact that the battery is not removable.

Samsung says it found very few users ever removed their batteries, and improving the charging characteristics is a better solution for users looking to get an electrical boost.

With a price tag that starts at $949 for the 32 GB model, this Edge+ is one of the priciest handsets out there.

 

 

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge goes upscale

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Samsung’s Galaxy S line of phones, for the most part, stand out for solid screens, fast hardware and generally good cameras. But the construction never felt as solid as the specs would warrant.

It’s not like the handset of the S5 would shatter if it were to slide off a table, but the phone didn’t feel rock solid.

Not only does Samsung’s latest flagship Android device feature innovative hardware, it now feels like the premium handset that it deserves to be known for.

The perimeter of the device is wrapped in a metal frame, meanwhile the back cover is a solid, albeit permanent, slab of glass.

It survived several tumbles from a spinning bike, and one fall from my hand while I was trying to unlock my car in the freezing cold. The damage? Just a scratch on the edge from the pavement.

Despite the beefy feeling of build quality, the handset is still remarkably light, weighing in at only 136 grams.

The downside is that 1) there’s no option to add a microSD card for expandable memory and 2) you can’t swap out the battery. While many consumers are unlikely to replace the battery after a couple of years, some hardcore users may miss this flexibility.

On the upside, the phone is available in healthy storage configurations: 32 GB, 64 GB and 128 GB varieties.

The 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen looks stunning and is the best-looking display on the market right now. On the S6 Edge, the left and right sides of the display are curved away from the front, thus the ‘Edge’ moniker.

This unique bend in the design makes it appear as though images and video and displayed in pseudo-3D, kinda like icing on a cake that adds depth.

Why else would you want a curved screen? Well, another benefit is the potential to see notifications displayed along the edge, so as to not disturb the rest of what you’re seeing on the screen. Or perhaps it’s a subtle text message visible from the curved display lurking under your phone’s case. The curved screen is not a feature I fell in love with, and there are two other potential drawbacks to consider.

In addition to the ‘Edge’ premium (about $100), the curved display makes it a little difficult to pick the phone off a table without disturbing what’s going on on the screen itself. So, for example, you might accidentally exit an app playing a soccer game, or pause a YouTube video.

Maybe it’s my stubby man hands, but I’d save the $100 to avoid this problem.

The rear-facing 16-megapixel camera features optical image stabilization to help produce sharper photos, and what a camera it is. Inside the dark, dimply-lit Parliament buildings during a recent trip to Ottawa, the S6 captured images in rich in detail despite not using the flash.

That’s thanks to the fast F 1.9 aperture which really excels in low-light situations. It’s also a damn fast camera too, ready to snap stills in 0.7 seconds.

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When asking strangers to take a photo of my and some friends (sorry, no selfie stick here), they would inadvertently think the phone wasn’t taking photos because the shutter was just so fast.

Speaking of speed, the 64-bit octa-core processor provides more than enough juice for the S6 to crunch through everything from gaming to SnapChat.

With such a big screen and a fast processor, what is the battery performance like?

Not bad.

Yes, the battery in the Edge is smaller than what was used in its predecessor, the S5. But on that trip to Ottawa, the S6 helped me navigate through the city, take photos at touristy spots, browse the web, watch YouTube, use Instagram, hail an Uber, call the lost Uber driver, and then stream more YouTube to a TV late into the night.

Samsung has made its Android user interface, Touchwiz, less obtrusive, lending the S6 a fairly no-nonsense Android experience. Sure, it isn’t a pure Android phone (straight from Google, such as with the Nexus devices) but the latest Samsung likely won’t have users noticing the extra layer of software.

If you’re in the market for a smartphone with a big, gorgeous screen and a fantastic camera, the S6 should be on your list. And if you want to stand out from the crowd (and don’t mind paying extra for it), the Edge will turn heads wherever you go.

9/10

 

 

Google Nexus Player: Like Chromecast, but bigger – is it better?

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Google already has a gadget in the streaming video sphere: Chromecast. But the company’s new $99 Nexus Player and Remote is aimed to offer viewers something extra than just a physical remote.

First, let’s review what was already in the market.

Chromecast is a cheap $39 dongle that plugs into a TV’s HDMI slot, and can stream everything from Netflix to what’s open on your desktop web browser.

The Nexus Player, meanwhile, looks like a small, 12-centimetre flying saucer that is connected to any TV with an HDMI cable.

The Player packs impressive 802.11 ac MIMO connectivity, meaning that your home network will never be the reason video stutters or playback fails. Few devices support that standard, and chances are it’s faster than the speeds your own router can support.

Usually, some people would prefer a hard-wired Ethernet port over WiFi for video devices, but 802.11 ac is just as good without the messy cables.

Inside there’s a 1.8 Ghz quad-core Intel Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB of built-in storage. The device runs Android TV, a version of Google’s mobile operating system optimized for the big screen.

A big draw for some users is the possibility to use the Player as a gaming console with the $39 Gamepad (available separately). I didn’t have a chance to try this out, but the hardware inside the Player coupled with the Gamepad suggests the two could work well for gamers.

Otherwise, it’s hard to screw up a streaming stick or a simple set-top box these days, and the Nexus Player doesn’t disappoint here.
Streaming video to the TV from a variety of sources is easy, whether it’s from YouTube, Netflix, Google’s Play store or your own media stash using Plex.

Just use the remote to navigate to what it is you’d like to watch, and the video is piped through to your big screen. The remote also has a built-in microphone, in which case you can just tell the Player what it is you’d like to watch.

The interface is a lot more user-friendly than it is with the Chromecast, and the performance is much more reliable.

The app selection could be broader, but that’s likely to improve over time. It would also be nice if the Player had a USB port or card reader so you could play content from storage devices directly.

For some, the Nexus Player will be an ideal device to get because of its gaming potential. For others, the device is a Chromecast on steroids. Either way, it does what it’s designed to do well

BMW 750i with a ‘Bang’n audio system

IMAG0038_1While doing a motorcycle rider course the other day, I met a fellow who was lamenting the amount of time his luxury sports car spent in the shop.

Ron, let’s call him, had to leave his Ferrari with a car audio specialist for almost a month while they tore out the factory stereo to replace it with an aftermarket system that would sound better than the crummy configuration which was worse than the most basic rental car’s speakers.

Sometimes, if you tick the right boxes on the option sheet when ordering a new car, the factory audio system will be your best bet.

Such is the case with the 2014 BMW 750 equipped with the Bang & Olufsen sound system.

Sure, it is an extra $4,900 option on a car with a $105,500 base price. But for drivers who enjoy great sounding music behind the wheel, it’s one of the better optional extras to choose.

The sedan, as tested, was the 750i x. The x denotes this Bimmer’s all wheel drive system which sends power to all four wheels, coupled with variable torque splitting technology designed to drive the right power to each wheel at just the right time.

And boy, is it a good thing that there are four wheels tasked with the job of transferring the 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8’s 443 hp to the pavement.

From a standing stop, there’s enough power under the hood to push this BMW to the posted speed limit by the time it crosses an intersection, it would seem. The 750i can power on to 100km/h in 4.8 seconds.

Turbo lag is virtually absent and power delivery is smooth and plentiful on city streets while BMW’s xDrive keeps this sedan planted on straights and in corners. The traction is very, very good and it’s not easy to unsettle the plantedness of the 750’s ride.

Beside the gear level sits a series of switches that let you adjust the car’s characteristics, from soft and comfortable in Comfort+ to quick, nimble and sporty in Sport+. I personally found the default Comfort to be a a little boring, so the sedan stayed in Sport when I was behind the wheel. Sport mode also tightened up the steering, making it easy to carve around city obstacles in a large mansion-sized luxury car like this one.

BMW7-12XX-06Wrapping all this power is an elegant design that flows smoothly from a menacing grille at the front to a conservatively crested rear end. Thank goodness the Bangled rear is gone.

Since the model as tested had the M Sport Package, there were minor details that made this one stand out, such as the aerodynamics kit, which adds valences and lips around some of the edges, among other features.

That includes an M steering wheel, the centrepiece of one of the finest automotive cabins you’ll find.

The interior of this 750i is clad in opal white full Merino leather with a sporty alcantara roofliner, meanwhile piano black and wood inlay trim swoops across the dashboard and doors. The inside is a warm, inviting place to stay.

It’s also a high-tech place too, though most of it is disguised with comforting cabin materials and rock-solid build quality,

BMW’s iDrive technology makes navigating the infotainment system reasonably straight forward, and they’ve packed pretty much everything you could need behind the wheel at your fingertips – and a bit more.

For example, you can get news headlines read out to you, or check Facebook while the car is parked (because you can’t do that driving, for safety’s sake!).

The real gem in this cabin, however, is the Bang & Olufsen surround sound system. This things sounds miles better than the home theatre systems many people have in their homes.

Sound engineers from the B & O work with engineers from BMW to blend the best audio technology into the cabin of the 750. Materials are carefully selected, positioning of the speakers carefully checked, so that the music you hear in this car with this sound system comes out loud and clear.

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Boy, does it ever work.

Cranking up some Tragically Hip (sorry if you think that’s bad taste), it’s as if Gord Downie is standing on the hood singing down to you and your passengers inside. Guitar strings sing with clarity and bass notes are balanced in the sound system’s reproduction.

A lot of the clarity is thanks to the dash-mounted speaker, which emerges from the dashboard each time it’s turned on. The acoustic lens spreads highs throughout the cabin so that everyone can be in the listening sweet spot, whether they’re behind the wheel or behind the driver.

There’s even a little microphone inside that listens to what else is going on around the driver, adjusting the sound reproduction to adapt to different situations such as open windows or highway cruising. It sounds as good as a band playing live, minus the spit spraying out below.

The amount of technology packed into the BMW 750i is remarkable, able to help drivers stay in touch while behind the wheel yet it’s not too distracting nor is it intrusive, which is good considering how much fun this sedan is to drive.

And ultimately, a driver with a 7 Series wants to feel a little excitement behind the wheel every now and then – and sometimes it might just be provided by an excellent sound system.

Model: BMW 750i xDrive

Price as tested: $136,150

Rating: 8.5/10

 

Review: Jabra Sport Wireless+ headphones are great for working out with

Jabra_SportWirelessPlus_image_viewer_1440x810_03Maybe it’s my ears, but I have a tough time finding headphones that are good for working out in.

I’ve tried a whole bunch of products, from earbuds that cost hundreds of dollars to headphones that stay put but at the expense of a workout free from cables. Nothing seemed to do the trick.

And finally this, the Jabra Sport Wireless+ headphones.

Ok, so the name is a little long, but there’s not much to these simple earbuds that hug your ear for fit during tough workouts.

Out of the box, take some time to figure out which plastic earbud coverings fit best for your ear type. I went through three workouts with three variations before I settled on one that fit. And boy, did it fit.

From functional fitness routines to plyometrics and basic weight training, these guys stayed put while I worked on staying fit. And for many people who are active, having headphones that stay snug is half the battle.

It’s huge that these headphones connect to your phone via Bluetooth, so there’s no cable dangling and tangling across your body. They can also function with just tunes from the built-in FM radio tuner.

Buttons on the headset are kept to a minimum, with volume up, down, function and play/pause buttons visible to help you stay on top of your workout mixes. Pressing the volume buttons can also work to change the song.

Official documentation suggests the headphones get about four hours of music time, but I found I was able to get about 3.5 hours of time in with them before require a recharge.

Sound quality was reasonably good for headphones that are weather resistant (ie. a little water resistant but don’t try to swim with them). It’s nothing like the range you’d be able to hear from a set of Bang & Olufsen headphones, but you’re not in that price range either.

The bass was a little flat and empty, and the midrange wasn’t as rich as other headphones in this price range. But for me, that was a minor tradeoff considering these fit incredibly well during strenuous workouts.

Overall, for somebody who works out daily and wants headphones that stay put and don’t need constant readjustment, I give these 8/10

Available from Amazon

Review: Asus Transformer Book Trio bridges gap between tablet, laptop

Asus_Transformer_Book_TrioIn this connected mobile world, most people’s laptops are collecting dust while their fingerprints smudge up their tablets from constant use.

But not everyone is throwing in the towel on their laptops. While powerful Android tablets and iPads are almost as capable as their Windows (and Mac) counterparts, some people still need to get stuff done with programs that only run on Windows.

The Asus Transformer Book Trio is one such device that bridges the gap between mobile tablets and traditional laptops.

You see, it’s actually three devices in one. It opens up like a laptop and can run Windows 8.1.

But, you can also use the mouse and keyboard like a laptop with the Android operating system that’s built into the screen — the screen which is detachable (and can function as a standalone tablet).

Essentially, this is the crossover vehicle of laptops, or the Swiss Army knife of tablets. But is the Trio a jack of all trades and a master of none? Nope.

From a technical perspective, the Trio ticks the boxes.

Both “devices” share an 11.6-inch HD touchscreen that appears to be one of the most vibrant I’ve used with a laptop.

The tablet has a dual-core 1.6-Ghz Intel Atom processor that performed much faster than I had expected, while the laptop features a powerful Core i7 4500U processor.

You’ll get 2 GB of tablet RAM with the tablet in Android mode and 4 GB of RAM from the base laptop when running Windows. An array of ports from USB 3.0 to micro HDMI will keep you well-connected.

As a daily device, the Trio makes total sense. Although the pre-production unit I tried out had a few early niggles, the tabtop (my new name for this segment) fit into everyday life.

Editing photos with Adobe Lightroom, the Trio tore through batch processing tasks with ease. There’s plenty of power for other demanding tasks.

But then I began running the tabtop with Android more than with Windows for everyday tasks such as email, surfing and social networking. Using a normal keyboard with a tablet really kicks ass, especially when you want to write long emails or documents.

Then, when it’s time to kick back on the sofa with just the tablet and no keyboard, simply detach the screen and the device runs like any other Android tablet. It’s quite seamless.

The tablet was a tad heavier than most I’ve used, and it would be neat to use the tablet in Windows mode too (not just docked in the keyboard).

Otherwise, the Asus Transformer Book Trio is a good device to bridge people’s digital worlds between tablets and laptops.

Maurice Cacho reviews the Turtleshell Outdoor Boombox

If you want to listen to your tunes on-the-go, check out the Turtle shell Outdoor Boombox.

It connects to your smartphone or audio device using Bluetooth. Use it as a speaker, or take advantage of the built-in microphone to use the device as a audio conference speaker.

A rechargeable battery also means you can take your music with you wherever you go.

It’s more than 90 decibels loud so here is a Maurice Cacho top tip: If you don’t want to be attacked by a bear, don’t have this running at full blast!

Watch my review here

Enjoy YouTube on the big screen, easily from your small screen phone

If you like watching YouTube videos on a TV or large computer screen, but don’t want to always get up near the computer to change the clip – use the YouTube Remote app.

The app lets you use your Android smartphone or tablet as a clever remote to control the YouTube content on a computer or Google TV player that’s farther away than you are. You’re on your couch, right?

Start by pairing the mobile device with the computer on which you want to play the video on. Then, start searching for content using the remote control app.

You can not only search for clips, but find recommended content and related playlists as you go.

The app also offers a bit of a second-screen experience, so you can look up a video topic’s Wikipedia page or a show’s IMDB profile as you watch.

iPhone 5 review: Minor updates keep Apple’s phone in front

Apple’s newest smartphone improves on several features that needed an upgrade, but is it enough to make it the best device out there?

The most noticeable thing you’ll spot with the iPhone 5 is that it’s slightly longer, sporting a 4-inch screen that’s larger only in length. It’s not quite up there with the big 4.3 and 4.8-inch touchscreens on Android devices.

Physically, the handset is only about 4 mm longer, and it’s still the same width. Otherwise, the 5 is lighter and thinner than the 4S.

The taller screen, however, plays 16×9 HD video like a proper widescreen TV, no more letterboxing on the side. With its predecessors, you’d get a bit of black around the edges. It also helps that the screen appears to show deeper colours with more clarity

The iPhone 5 looks good, that’s for sure, with a new aluminum body that looks better and is actually stronger – able to withstand an unfortunate tumble from my hand (down to concrete). In terms of design, it’s almost like the Porsche 911. Very predictable, very consistent, but Apple is just making minor tweaks over the years.

A faster A6 chip powers the phone through apps and multi-tasking better than on the 4S. Apple says it’s up to twice as fast as the old chip (A5) although it’s not blatantly obvious unless you play a lot of games. Those apps, such as Asphalt 7, play smoother and with virtually no lag on the iPhone 5.

My favourite feature on the iPhone 5 is its LTE connectivity, which lets users surf the web at speeds comparable to a home or office Internet connection, compared to connecting via 3G.

While the high-speed LTE coverage isn’t widespread yet, it helps load pages and social media feeds almost instantly when you’re in range.

The iPhone 5 also sports dual-band 802.11n wireless, so you can take advantage of quick Wi-Fi networks and data transfer rates.

Apple is introducing a dramatically new  headphone design with the new earbuds they supply with the iPhone 5. Fortunately, music sounds much better from the new pair.

The camera underwent a minor update, capturing better photos in low-light situations with more vivid colour saturation – but sometimes with noticeable and undesirable chromatic aberration (purple haze) when taking pictures into direct sunlight or indoor lighting.

Ultimately, it’s not all good news. In terms of battery life, it seems the iPhone 5 runs out of juice about 10 per cent earlier than with the 4S. A larger screen, faster processor and LTE connectivity are likely to blame for sucking the juice dry noticeably quicker.

The new Lightning connector is also another sour spot, particularly if you’ve been in Apple’s mobile ecosystem for a while. The connector is sturdier and smaller, but means some will have to buy adaptors for their speaker docks, car chargers, etc. It’s almost like the switch from Beta to VHS years ago. Some of your gear and your media is going to be useless.

If you have any previous iteration of the iPhone except the 4S, the 5 is worth upgrading. The iPhone 5 is also worthwhile if you’re looking for an app ecosystem more robust than what’s available with Android.

But don’t forget to explore the Samsung Galaxy S III or LG’s Optimus G – especially if you’d like a big screen. The iPhone 5 has both close on its heels in its rear-view mirror.

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