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The Meizu 16s offers flagship features at a mid-range price – TechCrunch

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Smartphones have gotten more expensive over the last few years even though there have only been a handful of recent innovations that really changed the way you interact with the phone. It’s maybe no surprise then that there is suddenly a lot more interest in mid-range, sub-$500 phones again. In the U.S., Google’s new Pixel 3a, with its superb camera, is bringing a lot of credibility to this segment. Outside the U.S., though, you can often get a flagship phone for less than $500 that makes none of the trade-offs typically associated with a mid-range phone. So when Meizu asked me to take a look at its new 16s flagship, which features (almost) everything you’d expect from a high-end Android phone, I couldn’t resist.

Meizu, of course, is essentially a total unknown in the U.S., even though it has a sizable global presence elsewhere. After a week with its latest flagship, which features Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 855 chip and under-screen fingerprint scanner, I’ve come away impressed by what the company delivers, especially given the price point. In the U.S. market, the $399 Pixel 3a may seem like a good deal, but that’s because a lot of brands like Meizu, Xiaomi, Huawei and others have been shut out.

It’s odd that this is now a differentiating feature, but the first thing you’ll notice when you get started is the notchless screen. The dual-sim 16s must have one of the smallest selfie cameras currently on the market, and the actual bezels, especially when compared to something like the Pixel 3a, are minimal. That trade-off works for me. I’ll take a tiny bezel over a notch any day. The 6.2-inch AMOLED screen, which is protected by Gorilla Glass, is crisp and bright, though maybe a bit more saturated than necessary.

The in-display fingerprint reader works just fine, though it’s a bit more finicky that the dedicated readers I’ve used in the past.

With its 855 chip and 6GB of RAM, it’s no surprise the phone feels snappy. To be honest, that’s true for every phone, though, even in the mid-range. Unless you are a gamer, it’s really hard to push any modern phone to its limits. The real test is how this speed holds up over time, and that’s not something we can judge right now.

The overall build quality is excellent, yet while the plastic back is very pretty, it’s also a) weird to see a plastic back to begin with and b) slippery enough to just glide over your desk and drop on the floor if it’s at even a slight angle.

Meizu’s Flyme skin does the job, and adds some useful features like a built-in screen recorder. I’m partial to Google’s Pixel launcher, and a Flyme feels a bit limited in comparison to that and other third-party launchers. There is no app drawer, for example, so all of your apps have to live on the home screen. Personally, I went to the Microsoft Launcher pretty quickly, since that’s closer to the ecosystem I live in anyway. Being able to do that is one of the advantages of Android, after all.

Meizu also offers a number of proprietary gesture controls that replace the standard Android buttons. These may or may not work for you, depending on how you feel about gesture-based interfaces.

I haven’t done any formal battery tests, but the battery easily lasted me through a day of regular usage.

These days, though, phones are really about the cameras. Meizu opted for Sony’s latest 48-megapixel sensor here for its main camera and a 20-megapixel sensor for its telephoto lens that provides up to 3x optical zoom. The camera features optical image stabilization, which, when combined with the software stabilization, makes it easier to take low-light pictures and record shake-free video (though 4K video does not feature Meizu’s anti-shake system).

While you can set the camera to actually produce a 48-megapixel image, the standard setting combines four pixels’ worth of light into a single pixel. That makes for a better image, though you do have the option to go for the full 48 megapixels if you really want to. The camera’s daytime performance is very good, though maybe not quite up to par with some other flagship phones. It really shines when the light dims, though. At night, the camera is highly competitive and Meizu knows that, so the company even added two distinct night modes: one for handheld shooting and one for when you set the phone down or use a tripod. There is also a pro mode with manual controls.

Otherwise, the camera app provides all the usual portrait mode features you’d expect today. The 2x zoom works great, but at 3x, everything starts feeling a bit artificial and slightly washed out. It’ll do in a pinch, but you’re better off getting closer to your subject.

In looking at these features, it’s worth remembering the phone’s price. You’re not making a lot of trade-offs at less than $500, and it’d be nice to see more phones of this caliber on sale in the U.S. Right now, it looks like the OnePlus 7 Pro at $669 is your best bet if you are in the U.S. and looking for a flagship phone without the flagship price.

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Apple doubles down on Fitness+ with new “Time to Walk” Apple Watch content

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Today, Apple launched a new component of its Fitness+ personal health subscription service: “Time to Walk.” With it, users who own an Apple Watch can take a tracked walk exercise while listening to stories or inspiring talks from “influential and interesting people.”

These talks will be automatically downloaded to users’ Apple Watch, provided those users subscribe to Fitness+. When users start listening to one of the 25-40 minute episodes, the Watch will begin tracking a Walk workout. For users in weelchairs, Time to Walk is instead called “Time to Push” and offers up an Outdoor Weelchair Walk Pace workout instead.

The announcement states that “each Time to Walk episode is shaped by the guest’s personal, life-shaping moments and includes lessons learned, meaningful memories, thoughts on purpose and gratitude, moments of levity, and other thought-provoking topics, recorded while walking outside or in locations that are meaningful to them.”

The stories and talks obviously involve audio of the figure speaking, but Apple says this feature will also surface photos on the Apple Watch at specific times during the talks to illustrate the stories or points.

Also, the talks are followed by short playlists composed of songs that gave the speaker “motivation and inspiration.”

The first Time to Walk episodes come from the following guests: country singer Dolly Parton, NBA player Draymond Green, musician Shawn Mendes, and actor Uzo Aduba. New episodes will be released each Monday “through the end of April.”

The announcement came with this statement from Jay Blahnik, Apple’s senior director of Fitness Technologies:

Walking is the most popular physical activity in the world, and one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies. A walk can often be more than just exercise: It can help clear the mind, solve a problem, or welcome a new perspective… Even throughout this challenging period of time, one activity that has remained available to many is walking. With Time to Walk, we’re bringing weekly original content to Apple Watch in Fitness+ that includes some of the most diverse, fascinating, and celebrated guests offering inspiration and entertainment to help our users keep moving through the power of walking.

Experts and organizations like the United States Department of Health and Human Services advise that people get 150 minutes per week of medium intensity exercise, which for some could include walking—but many Americans don’t get anywhere close to that.

Increasingly, personal tech products like smartphones and smart watches have become parts of the battle against that problem in the United States and elsewhere. Apple launched Apple Fitness+ in December—its first health-oriented subscription. There are also numerous third-party apps on the iOS and Android App Stores that offer similar content and features, and many other big tech companies have been looking to make waves in personal health as well.

Listing image by Apple

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Google Maps will soon show COVID vaccine locations

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Enlarge / Vaccine info in Google search.

Google

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine means a ton of people are soon going to be looking for vaccination sites. As usual, Google wants to be at the center of getting people where they’re going, and in a new blog post Google says it will start loading Search and Maps with information on vaccination sites. “In the coming weeks,” the company writes, “COVID-19 vaccination locations will be available in Google Search and Maps, starting with Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, with more states and countries to come.”

Soon you’ll be able to search “COVID vaccine” and get location results showing access requirements, appointment information, and if a site has a drive-through. Google says it is partnering with the Boston Children’s Hospital’s VaccineFinder.org, government agencies, and retail pharmacies for the data.

Elsewhere in the Google Empire, the company says it will open up various Google facilities as vaccine sites.

To help with vaccination efforts, starting in the United States, we’ll make select Google facilities—such as buildings, parking lots and open spaces—available as needed. These sites will be open to anyone eligible for the vaccine based on state and local guidelines. We’ll start by partnering with health care provider One Medical and public health authorities to open sites in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area in California; Kirkland, Washington; and New York City, with plans to expand nationally. We’re working with local officials to determine when sites can open based on local vaccine availability.

Google also says it plans on launching a “Get the Facts” campaign across its services, probably to counter the conspiracy theories the company is often caught promoting via the YouTube algorithm. The post says the initiative will run across Google and YouTube to “get authoritative information out to the public about vaccines.”

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How desperate are you for GPUs, CPUs, consoles? Newegg tests with new lottery

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Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Over the past 12 months, electronics retailers have been under increased fire and scrutiny for mishandling how they sell brand-new consoles and high-end PC components. This week, online retailer Newegg has moved forward with a new, peculiar system for selling high-demand, low-supply electronics: the Newegg Shuffle. (Or, as the site’s metadata calls it, the Newegg Popular Product Lottery Queue.)

If you catch this article early enough on Friday, January 22, consider this a drop-everything suggestion to rush to the site by 5 pm ET and place a product-purchase request. Really: Do that right now if you’re interested in recent AMD CPUs, Nvidia GPUs, or the all-digital PlayStation 5. It’s free to try. We’ll wait.

OK, so, that process might have been a bit confusing. What’s going on with the Newegg Shuffle?

Shuffling into a forced bundle? Not necessarily, but likely

The Newegg Shuffle buzz began earlier this week when savvy shoppers noticed a limited-time lottery event under the same name in messages sent to a limited pool of Newegg customers. It advertised a variety of CPUs and graphics cards, and the lead-in page included a sales pitch: Pick what you want to buy, sign into your established Newegg customer profile, and submit a request. Do this by a certain time, and within a few hours, you’d get notified if your account was selected to purchase any of the products you picked. (Meaning, you could try to sign up for every listing, or just one, without the choices apparently changing your odds of being randomly selected.)

The problems with that early test, however, came in the form of furious customers sharing images of what the shopping interface actually looked like. After clicking a shiny new AMD processor, or an Nvidia RTX 3080 graphics card, you’d be shown the real shopping option: a forced bundle. Every single option appeared to require purchasing a brand new motherboard, even if you didn’t need one. That was particularly egregious in the case of Nvidia’s graphics cards, which are compatible with the common PCI-e 3.0 standard and thus don’t necessitate a new motherboard for interested PC gamers.

When pressed by PC Mag about this anti-consumer, forced-bundle promotion, Newegg clarified that its Shuffle feature was still in “beta.” The promotion would cut down on forced bundles once it rolled out to all customers. Friday’s Newegg Shuffle launch has confirmed this—but a few forced bundles remain.

Both of today’s available AMD CPUs, the Ryzen 5 5600X and Ryzen 7 5800X, can be purchased as standalone options. They’re additionally listed with bundles, however, and that means you essentially have a better shot at purchasing them from Newegg if you’re willing to attach a motherboard purchase to the CPU. The same goes for one of the promotion’s GPUs, an ASUS flavor of the RTX 3070, which can either be purchased a la carte or with a bundled ASUS motherboard.

Three other GPUs appear in the promotion; two of them can only be purchased a la carte, and one, the ASUS RTX 3080, can only be purchased with a bundled ASUS motherboard (for a whopping combined price of $1179.98).

And the all-digital PlayStation 5 on offer can only be purchased as part of a bundle, adding a staggering $160 to its normal $399 price with an extra controller (sure), a 1080p webcam (meh), and a media remote (ugh). Them’s some serious Gamestop vibes, and not in a good way.

Microsoft taking leadership in the space

The worst part about Newegg Shuffle is that it’s arguably the best system currently on the market for interested PC-parts shoppers. Otherwise, your best bet is following in-the-know Twitter accounts and online-shopping guides to learn exactly when high-end computer components and consoles are in stock—since retailers seem completely disinterested in, you know, letting us pre-order these things and enter a purchase queue.

The sole exception in this madness seems to be Xbox Series X/S. Microsoft has developed a somewhat scalper-proof purchasing system in the form of Xbox All Access. Combine a monthly subscription price with a dedicated Xbox account (and associated mailing address), and you can get your hands on a shiny new Xbox. Such systems are a pain for scalpers to transfer account ownership with. (As a bonus, buying a Series X/S this way may save you money compared to buying the hardware and attached subscription rates at retail prices.)

Until we see more retailers embrace customer verification systems, purchase limits, and anti-scalper efforts, we’re likely going to see more funky “lottery” systems like Newegg’s, complete with predatory bundle-enticement offers.

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