Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact hands-on

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact hands-on: High-end features in a tiny body

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact release date: September 2017

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact price: £TBC

Sony Mobile has used IFA 2017 in Berlin to unveil a few new smartphones. While the Sony Xperia XZ is likely to receive many plaudits as a result of its HDR display, I’m far more excited about the rebirth of the Compact line.

Related: IFA 2017 – Everything you need to know?

It’s true that Sony did launch an Xperia X Compact last year, but this was a mid-range handset hamstrung by the fact that it looked like a bathroom tile from the 1970s. The Xperia XZ1 Compact conforms far better to what the line is trying to achieve: a device that features top-end specs, in a body that’s comfortable to use in one hand.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact – Design

Sony’s mobile design has barely changed since the Xperia Z way back in 2013. The Xperia XZ1 Compact follows the XZ1 and XZ Premium, but just in a smaller – and chunkier – shell.

The company has ditched the aluminium of the XZ1 for a woven plastic, but it actually feels super-nice. It lacks the cold touch of metal, and I imagine it’s far more durable and will wear well. There’s a fingerprint scanner baked into the lock-button on the side of the device, below the volume rocker, and it’s IP68-rated for water-resistance – a good-to-have feature that was missing in the last Compact device.

The boxy look that is typical of Sony’s handsets isn’t really to my taste, and in a world where the Essential Phone and LG G6 are ditching the bezel, the XZ1 Compact feels old-fashioned in comparison. It lives up to its name at least, feeling diminutive compared to the typical Android smartphone. It’s noticeably smaller than the iPhone 7, which makes it unique. If you’ve been longing for a small Android phone then the XZ1 is really your only choice.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact – Display

A 4.6-inch, 720p display is a rarity in 2017, and the panel on the XZ1 Compact will feel instantly odd if you’re used to something bigger. You’ll initially notice the low-resolution; even though the LCD panel is small, it could still do with a few more pixels. Icons felt fuzzy and text lacked that crisp edge you’d normally expect.

Everything apart from the resolution is fine: it’s bright, colourful and the use of LCD over AMOLED means viewing angles are better; but blacks are slightly murkier.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact – Performance and software

What has set previous iterations of the Compact apart from other, smaller Android phones is the inclusion of high-end components. The Xperia XZ1 Compact features exactly the same internals as the XZ1 – and that’s a good thing. There’s a Snapdragon 835 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot.

Considering all that is powering only a 720p display, it won’t be a surprise to discover that the Xperia XZ1 Compact is likely to be a fluid, fast phone.

It will also be one of the first handsets to run Android Oreo out of the box. You’ll still have to put up with some of Sony’s software ‘enhancements’, but the majority of its additions are fine. The Stamina modes offer a huge improvement over the basic Android power-saver options, and even Sony’s selection of media apps are well designed. Sony’s audio heritage comes into play with support for both Hi-Res tracks and DSEE HX for upscaling.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact – Camera

Like the Xperia XZ1 and XZ Premium, the XZ1 Compact packs a 19-megapixel Sony sensor with an f/2.0 aperture. It’s a ‘memory stacked’ sensor, which basically means there’s a modest amount of RAM attached to the camera to speed things up and reduce lag whilst you’re shooting. It’s capable of capturing 960fps slo-mo video at 720p, but you’ll need to be shooting in good lighting for this to be useful.

There’s a wealth of tech inside this camera, and I found it fast to both focus and shoot during my short time with it. Captured images display plenty of detail, but it does have a tendency to oversaturate bright, colourful pictures.

3D scanning is one of the new Xperia lines biggest tricks – although whether or not it will prove useful remains to be seen. This nifty feature uses some software trickery, along with the high-res camera on the rear, to scan faces, which you’ll then be able to manipulate and share on Facebook. It’s a clever party piece, and the results I was shown looked surprisingly good.

The biggest difference between the camera in the Xperia XZ1 and XZ1 Compact is the front-facing sensor. The Compact’s bonus wide-angle 8-megapixel selfie camera will mean that you can cram a greater number of faces into the shot.

Sony Xperia XZ1 Compact – Battery life

Sony’s strangest move with regards to the Xperia XZ1 and XZ1 Compact is including the same 2700mAh battery in both. This is disappointing for the larger Xperia, but a bonus for the Compact.

That’s a decent-sized battery for a phone running a small 720p display and an efficient Snapdragon 835 processor. Previous Compact phones have been able to see out two days from a  single charge; hopefully, the same will be true here too.

First impressions

The Compact is Sony’s most interesting line of phones, simply because there isn’t anything else quite like it on the market. This is the only Android phone boasting both high-end components and camera, but which isn’t a phablet.

Although the Compact still struggles with being a little thick, and it lacks the metal body of the Xperia XZ1, it still benefits from the majority of the flashier phone’s features and will great for anyone looking a smaller phone.

Sony Xperia XZ1 hands-on: More of the same?

Sony Xperia XZ1 hands-on: An HDR display-toting flagship that will 3D scan your face and food

Sony Xperia XZ1 release date: September 2017

Sony Xperia XZ1 price: £TBC

Sony’s high-end phones appear thick and fast, and even though the Xperia XZ1 isn’t a replacement for the disappointing Xperia XZ Premium, it does take some of the biggest features from that 4K beast and crams them into a smaller package.

Sony Xperia XZ1 – Design

The Xperia XZ1 is unmistakably a Sony phone. A flat front and back is paired with rounded sides and a chunky bezel surrounds the 5.2-inch display. It isn’t the most modern of designs – in fact, ‘tired’ would be closer to the truth – but in this smaller form factor it kind of works. On a positive note, it is IP68-rated for water-resistance.

The metal construction feels great, and I’m a fan of Sony’s decision to offer the device in an array of pastel shades. The phone I was using was a blushing pink colour in its entirety; it was different to anything else out there.

Related: Everything you need to know about IFA 2017

Sony continues to build phones that feel well made, but I do wish the company would spend some time addressing those hard edges. I’d also have loved to see a slimmer bezel, although considering there are two fairly powerful front-facing stereo speakers flanking the screen, it was hardly likely.

The fingerprint scanner continues to sit inside the power button on the side for European models. If you’re in the States, you’ll have no fingerprint scanner due to ‘business reasons’. It’s a fast scanner, but having it on the power button means the lock-screen is basically useless as you whizz by it every time you turn on the device.

Sony Xperia XZ1 – Screen

HDR screens have cropped up on a few phones this year – The Galaxy S8, LG G6 and Note 8 – and that’s great, but both Samsung and LG have struggled to actually get viewable content to consumers. Sony does better here, with both Netflix and Amazon Prime providing HDR – in the HDR10 standard – content for the Xperia XZ1 out-of-the-box.

In my mind, I’d much rather have an HDR screen on a phone than a 4K one since it does actually make a visible difference. Flicking between standard and HDR content on the XZ1, the richer contrast and deeper blacks were instantly noticeable; it looked great even on the 5.2-inch panel.

That 5.2-inch display is still 1080p, rather than the now more common quad-HD resolution, but I’ve always been a fan of the LCDs Sony uses, regardless of resolution, and that remains the case here. Colours are rich, text is crisp and viewing angles are noticeably better than AMOLED panels.

Sony Xperia XZ1 – Camera

Considering it’s the part of the device that Sony spent the majority of its briefing talking about, I was surprised that I was kind of disappointed by the 19-megapixel camera on the Xperia XZ1.

It’s pretty much the same camera as the XZ Premium, with a RAM-stacked sensor for quicker shooting, nifty smile detection and a burst mode that captures in full resolution rather than cropping down. But the sample images I captured during my albeit short time with the phone were wildly inconsistent.

The biggest flaw appeared to be colour accuracy, which is way off. For instance, the light-pink flower I was using as a subject appeared more neon-pink in shots. I understand that the majority of phones add some extra vibrancy and saturation to photos, but I haven’t seen anything quite this harsh before. There will be those who love this look, but it isn’t for me. Sony also doesn’t really give you many options aside from the Superior Auto Mode. There’s a manual mode, but there’s no auto-HDR option.

Colours aside, the pictures display good detail and since they pack plenty of pixels, you can zoom into the results and not have them turn into a blurry mess.

Another feature plucked from the XZ Premium is super slow-motion video capture at 960fps. If you’re in super-well-lit situations with an obvious subject then the results are ridiculously cool. However, as soon as the light goes down, so does the quality. Still, it’s impressive that Sony has managed to bring this sort of tech to phones.

The biggest addition to the camera on the Xperia XZ1 is a new 3D scanning feature that could either be the biggest gimmick I’ve seen on a phone, or something genuinely clever. This lets you take 3D scans of faces, food and lots more to then share; they can be turned into animated GIFs too.

The actual face-scanning tech is a mixture of the camera on the rear and some algorithms in the software at play, and the demos I was shown looked impressive. The scans were placed into popular GIFs and animated to dance; they can be shared on Facebook, but they’ll have to be manipulated using a special viewer. You’ll also be able to print out the scans via a 3D printer.

Sony reiterated numerous times that this was very much its first attempt at bringing this tech to a phone – and it will improve in the future. I think the tech seemed fine; it’s just what you’d do with the scans after that caused confusion.

Sony Xperia XZ1 – Performance and software

Nothing too interesting in this department, since the Xperia XZ1 has similar internals to the majority of flagships. There’s a Snapdragon 835 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 64GB storage with microSD expansion. The appeared to be pretty swift in my demo, but then there were no apps installed.

As touched upon above, below the display sit two front-firing speakers that sound fine. Thankfully, their placement means that they won’t become blocked by your hands when watching a video.

Sony will ship the Xperia XZ1 with Android Oreo off the bat – a thumbs up from me – although it’s been marginally ‘Sony-ified’ with different icons and a load of its own media apps. It looks fine, and Sony has kept all the Oreo features – such as notification dots and long-press actions – in tact.

Sony Xperia XZ1 – Battery life

The battery inside the Xperia XZ1 is a 2700mAh cell, making it one of the smallest out there. This is one of my biggest concerns about this phone, and unless there’s some serious software optimisation going on, I can’t see this phone comfortably lasting the day. This isn’t a small device, so it’s slightly odd that Sony would put in such a meagre battery.

First impressions

Sony tends to use its heritage as an iconic brand to differentiate itself from the smartphone competition, and in lots of ways this is true here. But it could do so much more.

There’s a lot to like with the Xperia XZ1. I appreciate the way it’s built and I love the colour options and how precise the finish is, plus the display is predictably slick. But this camera just isn’t winning me round and then there’s the small battery.

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 hands-on from IFA 2017

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 hands-on: The best AirPod alternative?

Beoplay E8 release date: October 12, 2017
Beoplay E8 price: £259/$299/€299

Wireless earbud headphones aren’t new, but there have been noticeably more models on the market since the arrival of the Apple AirPods.

Now it’s the turn of B&O Play, offshoot of luxury Danish audio brand Bang & Olufsen. It has revealed the Beoplay E8, which are distinctive for being the most attractive and feature-packed wireless buds out there right now.

I got to have a play with them ahead of their launch at IFA 2017, and they’ve left a very good first impression.

Beoplay E8

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 – Design

B&O always puts out nicely designed products, so aesthetics were never going to be an issue here. The design of the Beoplay E8 is lush.

I’ll start with the buds. They’re subtle, which might be an odd thing to say about ear buds, but nevertheless worth pointing out in comparison to the showy ‘dangling toothbrush’ design of the Apple AirPods.

The E8 are designed to sit in the gap just outside your ear canal (known as the concha). Five pairs of ear tips are included to ensure a proper fit. They’re a little nondescript at first glance, but look closer and you’ll notice aluminium accents mixed with the plastic. This may appear insignificant, but it makes a difference in handling.

Related: Best Bluetooth headphones

Beoplay E8

Place the buds into the charging case, and the magnets within ensure they fit with a satisfying snap. This triggers a sensor and the buds automatically power down.

The case is where B&O has really been able to display its design skills. It’s a leather-bound pebble, attached to a braided fabric strap. I’m not a naturally fidgety person, but I couldn’t resist fondling the case, turning it over and over in my hands. The materials add a warm, tactile element generally not found in electronics. There’s an element of ceremony whenever you decide it’s time to take it out of your bag or pocket.

Beoplay E8

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 – Features

The Beoplay E8 aren’t just the most eye-catching wireless earbuds around; they’re also the most advanced.

You might not suspect it from the pretty exterior, but the buds are splash- and dust-resistant. B&O tells me they’re not designed for sports, but it’s good to know that a bit of sweat from a particularly horrible afternoon in a sweaty train isn’t going to bring their life to an end.

Then there are the controls. The buds use touch-sensitive pads to control music and take calls. There’s also a Transparency feature, which enables audio passthrough so you don’t entirely shut the world out. That’s useful for maintaining awareness of your surroundings – when you’re crossing the road, for example. There are three levels of audio passthrough, which you can adjust in the Beoplay app. Once you’ve chosen your setting in the app, the buds will remember it until you change it again.

You can also adjust tonal balance and soundstaging to suit your mood and music types. If you’re not too confident, there are EQ presets too.

Battery life is quoted as four hours from a single charge. A fully charged case holds enough juice for a further two full charges. The case itself is charged via a micro-USB cable, which is included in the box.

Beoplay E8

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E8 – Performance

Unfortunately, my hands-on demo was just that – hands on. The E8s I played with didn’t have any power, so it’s impossible to say here how they perform. Nor can I comment on the stability of the wireless connection, which is the one great strength of the Apple AirPods.

That being said, the ear-canal design of the earbuds means that silicone ear tips will provide a proper seal. That will provide better passive sound isolation, and potentially better bass. Having a bunch of size options also means these buds have a greater chance of fitting a range of ear shapes. That’s a clear advantage over the Apple AirPods, which are known to have issues with fitting.

I’ll report back with an in-depth review after I receive my fully functioning review sample.

Beoplay E8

First impressions

The Beoplay E8 wireless earbuds leave a great first impression. It’s hard not to be impressed by the gorgeous design, and it’s even harder not to be wowed by that extensive features list.

That being said, the E8 aren’t cheap. At £259, they cost £100 more than the Apple AirPods. In order to justify that, they must have a flawless wireless connection and a clear advantage in audio performance.

If they can do that, Beoplay is onto something truly special.

Path of Exile Review | Trusted Reviews

Available on Xbox One, PC

I’m not one to boast, but I’m carrying a sword that spits out fireballs with every swing, while my shield creates a wall of ice that crushes my enemies as it holds back their attacks. My boots are imbued with the power to leap into battle and scatter my foes. And if I don’t like these abilities, I can change them just by switching my weapons or replacing the magical gems I’ve socketed in them. Skills and attributes matter in the endless skirmishes of Path of Exile, but in this game, building your character is all about the gear.

Path of Exile is an action RPG in the Diablo mould – or, more particularly, the mould that spawned Diablo 2. It’s darker and more sinister than Diablo 3 and a little more hardcore, swapping the polish and production values of Blizzard’s epic for ludicrously deep character progression and a more aggressive attitude. It’s been available for a few years on PC but is only now making its console debut on Xbox One. The other thing you need to know is that it’s free to play.

By that I don’t mean that it’s the kind of game where you can play it free; but, rather, the whole experience is designed to extract regular micro-payments. There are no dubious practices where you have to buy gems with real money or splash out to avoid delays. No, you can actually enjoy the game while paying nothing. There is an in-game store where you can buy pets and a range of cosmetic enhancements, but I’ve been playing it and having a whale of a time without coughing up a single penny. I’m not sure how the good people at Grinding Gear Games scratch a living from this, but I guess that’s their concern. I’ve played full-price games that are greedier for your micro-transaction cash.

Related: Best PC Games

There’s something a little ambiguous and minimalist, even Dark Souls-like, about the storytelling. You play an exile dumped on a cruel, inhospitable island for your crimes of thought or deed against an oppressive empire. Your quest for the first few hours is simply to survive, then by taking on quests for your fellow exiles, strike back against the corrupt forces that have put you here.

The best way to do this, of course, is to slaughter epic quantities of shambling undead drowners, feral cannibals, goatmen, skeletons, assorted beasts, psychotic apes, tentacled monstrosities, dodgy soldiers, evil bandits and a whole lot more – often because they won’t stop attacking you while you’re trying to get from A to B. In other words, it’s hack-and-slash action all the way.

This is where all those gems and sockets come in. Your current weapon has one weak default attack, mapped to the A button on Xbox One, but by collecting gems and sticking them in every available socket on your weapon(s), shield or armour, you can use a range of more powerful, often magical attacks, triggered by the other face buttons alone – or with an R trigger modifier.

These gems don’t just boost your damage per second or attack speeds, but actually define the attacks you can pull off; this could mean a criss-cross double-swipe, a crowd-clearing slash, or some other brutal blow. Other gems act in a supporting role, imbuing your attacks with elemental damage, or increasing the area of effect. Others still act as spells or magical abilities, so that you can, say, summon a totem with a bound guardian monster who’ll batter any enemies in range.

Needless to say, the actual combat is only half the challenge. Sure, Path of Exile throws enemies at you thick and fast, expecting you to hammer away at the face buttons to reduce the rush of monsters to a manageable crawl. However, while there’s some skill in selecting attacks, positioning and crowd control, there’s arguably more in building and tweaking your character and load-out to handle every situation.

This means not just upgrading your weapons and optimising gems and sockets, but also using the elaborate passive ability skill tree to create a build that supports your chosen style of play.

Related: Xbox One X latest news

The progression systems may seem over-complex – and there’s a lot of micro-management – but it offers an enormous amount of flexibility. Path of Exile has Diablo-style preset characters, covering your basic warriors, witches, bow-wielding rangers and assorted rogues, but you can set up your character to borrow abilities and combat styles from across the whole range. And – as in any good Diablo clone – the simple cycle of slaughter, levelling up, looting, upgrading and quest completion makes for a devilishly addictive time. Path of Exile is every bit as more-ish as the bigger name action RPGs.

That doesn’t make it a Diablo 3 killer. Visually, it isn’t bad at all by the standards of the genre, with well-designed creatures and some beautiful scenery. The console version benefits from less screen furniture and a more dynamic close-in view. However, you can see signs of a team working hard to stretch fewer assets, while Blizzard’s mastery of art, animation and detail puts Diablo 3 on a different level – although some hardcore D2 fans will prefer Path of Exile’s less colourful style. I’ve also found Path of Exile more linear and one-note than Diablo 3, although sheer drive takes it an awful long way.

More seriously, the Xbox One version isn’t exactly a paragon of stability or technical polish. While it’s a lot better than the initial closed beta, it still hangs or disconnects from time to time, while the action is regularly interrupted by sudden freezes, followed by an equally sudden burst of hyper-speed motion, presumably as the server catches up. It requires a live server connection, so there’s no getting around this, and it can result in a death if it happens in the wrong time at the wrong place. I’ve docked half a star from the score with this in mind.

Related: Age of Empires 4 latest news

Luckily, Path of Exile has some other advantages to compensate. The community seems pretty friendly, and the MMO-style shared town spaces give you opportunities to socialise or trade directly with your fellow adventurers. You can also play co-op with up to five players, and since the game is effectively free to enjoy, that’s great news if you have a bunch of Xbox One-owning mates. You’re not asking anybody to invest any cash just to join you online.

Most of all, there’s a generosity of spirit here. True, Path of Exile appeals to the more hardcore action RPG fan, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible or difficult to pick-up. It feels like a game made for fans by fans who don’t want to stitch up those fans. Tweaks, enhancements and the expansion from four acts to ten makes the console Path of Exile even more of a steal than the PC version was at launch (and the free Fall of Oriath expansion gives PC players parity there).

It isn’t perfect and its technical issues need serious work. Overall, though, Path of Exile is a cracker of an old-school action-RPG. And it’s free. Do you like Diablo? Want to take your first steps into the genre? Well, frankly, what the hell have you got to lose?

Verdict

It’s a bit buggy and prone to repetition, but Path of Exile is a free-to-play Diablo clone that’s seriously worth playing. It’s dark and stylish-looking, with a rich and interesting progression system – and the cycle of slaying, looting and upgrading is as compelling as it is in Diablo 3. Given the price, it’s hard not to recommend. Grab some friends if you can, then join the trail.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III hands-on Review

What is the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III?

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III is a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lens, based on the Micro Four Thirds standard. It’s designed for budding photographers who want to take a step up from their smartphone camera. It will be available in black or silver, and will cost £699.99 with the compact 14-42mm EZ lens.

Related: Best cameras

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III is a mirrorless camera styled to look like an old film SLR

The camera industry has changed dramatically over the past decade. Casual photographers overwhelmingly now use smartphones rather than compact cameras, sharing their photos instantly online. However, there will be some budding photographers who inevitably find that their artistic ambitions outstrip the relatively limited abilities of their phone cameras, and therefore will look to upgrade to a ‘proper’ camera. The challenge facing the traditional camera manufacturers is how best to appeal to these potential customers, who are used to touchscreen-driven operation and always-on connectivity.

It’s into this market that Olympus has introduced its latest SLR-styled mirrorless model, the OM-D E-M10 Mark III. On the surface it looks like a relatively minor update to the two-year-old OM-D E-M10 Mark II, with essentially the same body design and broad feature set. It gains an updated 121-point autofocus system and 4K video recording, thanks to Olympus’s latest TruePic VIII processor, but that’s pretty much all that’s new. Incidentally, Olympus says the Mark II will remain in its lineup for now.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III black top

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III will also be available in silver

More interestingly, though, Olympus has radically overhauled the camera’s interface and firmware in a bid to appeal to smartphone upgraders. The idea is clearly to make both simple and advanced features more accessible to novices and experienced users alike. I’ve been using the camera for a few days ahead of its official launch, and I think the firm has done a pretty good job.

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III is due to go on sale in mid-September for £699.99 with the slimline 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 EZ electronic zoom lens. Opting for the larger, mechanical-zoom 14-42mm f/3.5-5.6 II R will save you £50, while for those with existing MFT lens collections, the camera will also be available body-only for £629.99.

Related: Best camera bags

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III – Features

Olympus has based the camera around a 16-megapixel Four Thirds sensor that appears to be similar to those used in the previous two generations of E-M10. Its sensitivity range runs from ISO 200 to 25,600, with an extended low setting equivalent to ISO 100, which is more likely to clip highlight detail. It offers a continuous shooting rate of 8.6fps, dropping to to 4.8fps when you need focus and exposure to be adjusted between shots.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The retro body design is based on Olympus’ 35mm OM SLRs

The autofocus system is adapted from the pro-level E-M1 Mark II, but unlike that camera, it relies on contrast-detection only, which means it won’t have the same ability to keep up with moving subjects. It uses 121 focus points that cover practically the entire frame, and you can either select an individual point or use a group of nine, which is likely to work better when you want to the camera to track a moving object. Face detection is also available, with the option to focus specifically on your subject’s eyes.

In perhaps its single biggest update, the E-M10 Mark III gains the ability to record video at 4K resolution (3840 x 2160) and 25fps, and it’s possible to extract 8-megapixel stills from the resulting footage during playback. Alternatively, you can shoot in Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at up to 50fps, with a variety of in-camera effects. There’s also a high-speed (slow-motion) mode at 120fps and HD (1280 x 720) resolution. However, there’s no option to attach an external microphone.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The LCD tilts up and down, and Olympus has redesigned the user interface

On the camera’s rear you’ll find a touchscreen that tilts 90 degrees up and 45 degrees down, and above it there’s a 2.36-million-dot EVF with a decent 0.62x equivalent magnification. Both are similar to those on the Mark II, offering bright and clear views with colour that accurately reflects the images you’ll get. Compared to the optical viewfinders on DSLRs, this can be a huge advantage in making sure you have the correct settings before you take a picture; but it does come at the expense of shorter battery life.

One crucial feature is Olympus’s 5-axis image stabilisation, which works with every lens you can mount on the camera, although you’ll have to program in the focal length manually with non-electronic lenses. The system is extremely effective at reducing blur from handshake when shooting still images with long shutter speeds, with Olympus claiming up to four stops of stabilisation. It’s also remarkably good at smoothing out handheld video footage in an almost Steadicam-like fashion.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The BLS-50 battery and SD card slot into a compartment in the base

As expected, the camera has built-in Wi-Fi for connecting to a smartphone via the Olympus Image Share app for Android and iOS. This makes it easy to copy your favourite shots to your phone for sharing on social media, and also enables full remote control of your camera from your phone, complete with a Live View display. You can even allow the app to use your phone’s GPS to keep track of your location, then use this data to geotag your photos based on the date and time they were taken.

Outside of this core, the E-M10 Mark III has a healthy array of additional features to keep more ambitious users happy. The key change is that it aims to make these far easier to access than before.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III – Body and design

As we see a lot these days, Olympus has essentially re-used the existing body design of the E-M10 Mark II, with all the buttons and dials in all the same places. However, many of them have been re-purposed with the aim of making the camera easier to use for beginners. As a result, the newcomer operates in a somewhat different fashion to its predecessor.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

A small flash is built into the ‘pentaprism’ housing

Some things haven’t changed, though. The masterful retro design is reminiscent of Olympus’ 1970s film SLRs, and a careful choice of materials makes the E-M10 Mark III look and feel rather more expensive than it really is. You might not get the weather-sealed magnesium-alloy construction of its more expensive sibling, the E-M5 Mark II, but the camera still feels very sturdy in your hand.

An enlarged, redesigned grip offers a secure hold, aided by a prominent rear thumb pad, and the control dials click with satisfying precision. Compared to similarly priced black plastic DSLRs, it’s quite simply a more tactile and desirable object. If you buy it with the retractable 14-42mm EZ zoom, it’s also much slimmer and easier to carry around.

Two electronic dials on the top plate are used to change exposure settings, while the exposure mode dial alongside them is raised to make it easy to operate. It provides access to a familiar set of modes, with a full auto mode for novices alongside PASM modes for enthusiasts. The SCN position gives access to a large range of subject-based scene modes, but these are now organised into six categories using a new touchscreen-based interface. This should make it easier for beginners to select the most appropriate one for any given shooting situation. Olympus’ signature Art filters are also onboard offering more stylised image processing, including a new Bleach Bypass filter that gives interesting, washed-out colours.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The new AP mode accesses a range of useful features

Perhaps the E-M10 III’s best new idea is the AP (Advanced Photography) mode on the top-plate dial. This takes a whole bunch of existing features that Olympus had previously hidden away in its labyrinthine menu system, and groups them onto a dedicated position on the mode dial; the features are selected by a touch menu that includes a brief description of each.

Here you’ll find some fairly common options such as double-exposure, HDR shooting, silent mode, and autoexposure bracketing. But several more are unique to Olympus, including Keystone Correction for fixing converging verticals, and Live Time and Live Composite modes for getting perfect long-exposure shots at night.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The new AP mode makes plenty of interesting features much easier to access

Many of the camera’s buttons have changed functions, and in a marked change of tack from Olympus, only two are customisable. So while the D-pad was previously used to move the focus point directly, you now have to press the left key first. The other keys now give direct access to ISO, flash and drive modes. Unlike on the higher-end PEN-F, it isn’t possible to revert this setup to direct focus area selection.

You can use the touchscreen to move the focus point instead, which works even when you have your eye to the viewfinder. This has become a common approach recently, but on most cameras it’s all too easy to reset the focus point by inadvertently contacting the screen with your nose. However, Olympus has come up with a fix: double-tapping the screen turns the touchpad AF function on and off. It’s a simple and clever idea, and works really well. Combined with the EVF’s relatively generous clearance from the screen, this makes the E-M10 Mark III the first camera with which I’ve really been happy to use the touchscreen for this purpose. 

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

The button beside the power switch brings up a context-sensitive options menu

One key new interface feature is that the button beside the power switch – previously Fn3 – is now used to bring up an on-screen menu with options tailored to each mode. So with the mode dial in the SCN, Art and AP positions, it allows you to choose between the various available modes. In movie mode, it selects between recording resolutions; in the PASM modes, it calls up the on-screen Super Control Panel that gives access to most shooting settings. This brings a sensible coherence to the camera’s operation.

The only buttons that are still customisable are both on the left side. The thumb-operated Fn1 button engages auto-exposure or autofocus lock, and I suspect most users will keep it his way. Meanwhile, the Fn2 button beside the shutter release is set to engage the 2x digital teleconverter. This may look like an odd choice to enthusiast photographers, but I suppose smartphone users are very familiar with the idea, and the 4-megapixel effective resolution is more than adequate for social-media use. Personally, I’d set it to operate something more useful such as depth-of-field preview, focus peaking or magnification.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Olympus’ proprietary USB connector has been replaced by a standard micro-USB

In a very welcome move, Olympus has also finally stripped down its notoriously over-complicated menus. So rather than packing in the same detailed but rarely used operational tweaks as its top-end models, the E-M10 Mark III has a reduced set of options that still gives broadly the same degree of customisability as you’ll find on mid-range DSLRs. I think the firm has done a really good job here – I was able to tweak the camera’s setup to my personal taste, without finding any key options had gone missing.

However, one area that I’d say Olympus has sadly over-simplified is that of in-camera raw conversion. On its other models you can adjust settings such as colour mode and white balance for each individual image, and preview the results before conversion, which is great for tweaking your favourite shots before sharing them using Wi-Fi. But on the E-M10 III, Olympus has reverted to its bad old ways, as you have to make the changes to the camera’s current shooting settings to apply them to an in-camera raw conversion. This is clunky and is liable to leave you with the camera incorrectly setup next time you start shooting. Frankly, it makes no sense at all.

First impressions

With the OM-D E-M10 Mark III, Olympus has made a camera that’s more interesting than it at first looks. The specifications and feature set may not have changed all that much compared to its predecessor, but the overhaul of its interface should make it much more approachable for novice users. It’s also now more distinctly differentiated from the next tier up in the line – the enthusiast-orientated E-M5 series.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

With its slim, attractive design, the E-M10 Mark III begs to be picked up and used

In terms of features, there’s nothing especially new or unknown here. The 121-point AF system offers finer control over exactly where in the scene you want to focus, while 4K video recording offers much more detailed footage than Full HD – even if you’re only viewing on a HD display.

Image quality seems broadly similar to previous Olympus Micro Four Thirds models: technically, the smaller sensor might not match APS-C cameras for resolution and high-ISO noise control, but in return you get Olympus’ consistently attractive in-camera JPEG colour and white balance, and extremely effective in-body image stabilisation.

Crucially, if you’re planning on building up a system, Olympus also makes a good range of relatively affordable, lightweight lenses that are well-matched to the E-M10 Mark III, and you can use Panasonic lenses too.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III

Olympus makes a good range of lenses to match the E-M10 Mark III

In summary, the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark III offers a strong feature set in a compact, charismatic body at a very keen price point. It looks like it will be a great choice for smartphone photography enthusiasts looking to upgrade to their first proper camera, but it should also be a capable second body for owners of Olympus’ higher-end OM-Ds. Stay tuned for our full review, which should appear in the next few weeks.

 

LG V30 hands-on: The most exciting phone of 2017?

LG V30 hands-on: More exciting than the incoming iPhone 8?

LG V30 release date: September 2017

LG V30 price: £TBC

For the first time, LG is bringing its secondary flagship ‘V’ series to the UK via Carphone Warehouse – and it’s using IFA 2017 in Berlin to announce it.

The LG V30 is a bezel-free device with numerous clever additions. The focus is on audio and videography, but LG isn’t forgetting about smartphone basics. This is a gorgeous, powerful phone that could well be one of the year’s best.

LG V30 – Design

The LG V30 is the brand’s slickest phone to date and there won’t be many who question that. If the G6 showed that LG had started to care about how its phones look, then the V30 takes that to the next level.

Yes, it does have a whiff – and a strong one, at that – of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, but I feel this is simply the direction in which phone design is headed. Like the S8, the LG V30 says ‘bye-bye’ to bezels and ‘hello’ to a screen that makes up much of the front of the phone.

The sides of the screen curve ever so slightly and so does the rear, making it super-comfortable to hold. Considering the V30 has a 6-inch display, it feels almost unbelievably compact – and ever so light at just 158g. There’s so little wasted space; it’s a complete contrast to Sony’s hulking XZ Premium, which has a healthy chin above and below the display.

Gorilla Glass 5 covers both the front and back, which in turn makes the shiny rear a magnet for grimy smudges and grease. Moments after unboxing the V30 will be covered in fingerprints, so it’s handy that LG pops a little cleaning cloth in the box. A fingerprint sensor sits on the back of the device – typical for LG – and this acts as a lock button too.

The V30 will be available in a few colours: a shiny black, blue-tinged silver, a much darker blue, and an odd but lovely deep purple. Thankfully, all have a black front.

LG V30 – Screen

Even though the company builds some of the finest OLED televisions on the market, LG has stuck to LCD panels for its flagships phones recently. That all changes with the V30, which features an OLED display instead.

OLED panels offer more vivid colours, deep blacks and in general display more punch than the LCD counterparts. The 6-inch 2880 x 1440 ‘Full Vision’ HDR 10 panel here looks immediately better than the one on the G6. It boasts the same 18:9 aspect ratio and QHD+ resolution, but visually it appears much more colourful.

I loaded up The Defenders in HDR on Netflix and the experience didn’t at all feel like I was watching it on my phone; it drew me in with its vibrancy. LG has added a new ‘Enhanced Colour Mode’ that gives non-HDR content a faux-HDR look. Samsung offers such a feature as well.

Previous entries in the ‘V’ series paired a smaller display with the main one, which acted almost like a shortcuts bar. I’m sure it had its fans, but I’m glad it’s gone here. It always felt like wasted space; besides, it really wouldn’t have worked with the new design.

LG V30 – Performance, software and audio

By trying to get the phone onto shelves before Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S8, LG had to forego including the latest components inside the LG G6. There have been no such compromises here. The V30 features the latest Snapdragon 835 SoC, 4GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB internal storage.

I will save my full performance impressions for the final review – but predictably, the V30 feels quick.

LG’s downfall has often been software. Too many times it’s layered Android with an ugly skin that not only looked odd, but slowed down the handset in question. I don’t think LG has done a complete about-turn in this area, but there has been plenty of improvement.

LG’s skin is built over Android 7.1.2 and it retains many typical Android features. There are a couple of additions to stretch apps to fit the long display and a better battery saver mode, but most of LG’s work has resulted in altering the icons, native apps and the notification panel. None of the changes are overly offensive, but it isn’t as good-looking as vanilla Android on a Google Pixel, for example.

During the phone briefing, LG distanced itself from confirming when Android 8.0 Oreo would hit the V30. The company seemed to suggest it would be within six months; hopefully, before the end of the year. Neither is too positive, and considering Oreo is out already, I’d like to see it much sooner.

While the iPhone 7 and Moto Z2 Force are ditching the headphone jack, LG is actively improving and championing the port. Not only do you get a nice pair of B&O earbuds in the box in certain markets, but there’s a quad-DAC inside the phone that seriously improves sound quality.

LG V30 – Camera

The camera on the LG V30 is absolutely stacked with features, making it an exciting prospect.

Like the LG G6, there are two cameras on the rear. The ‘main’ camera is 16 megapixels with OIS and a wide f/1.6 aperture that should help low-light photography. Next to that sits a wide-angle camera that captures pictures with a 120-degree field of view. This secondary camera lacks optical image stabilisation, but it still has a wide f/1.9 lens.

Personally, this is my favourite combination of cameras. You might not get the ability to losslessly zoom or enter a bokeh enhancing ‘Portrait Mode’ – a feature LG simple calls gimmicky and would be reserved for cheaper devices – but the variation of shots achievable with that wide camera is far more useful in my opinion.

I took some sample shots in a dark hotel and the results were good, but I’ll need to use it at greater length to really get an idea of just how good this camera is.

LG’s second big push is in the area of video, with the V30 boasting a number of recording options that I haven’t seen before. The biggest of these is a new file format called LG Cine Log, which essentially allows you to colour grade your footage with a number of pre-made filters. These range from ‘Blockbuster’ to ‘Noir’; and in my short time with the phone, they look good. LG will ship 15 filters with the V30, and I’m sure there will be scope to add more.

Another new feature is ‘Point Zoom’, which lets you lock onto a target when you’re filming and softly zoom directly on the subject.

The only part of the camera that hasn’t been updated is the front-facing sensor. It remains a 5-megapixel unit, with LG basically admitting that it’s sacrificed the selfie-taking skills of this phone to rid the bezel.

LG V30 – Battery life

There’s a 3300mAh battery to keep the LG V30 going, which is the same size unit included in the smaller LG G6. It’s far too early to judge the battery capabilities of this phone, but hopefully the more efficient CPU will help it perform better than its sibling. It charges via USB-C and supports fast as well as wireless charging.

First impressions

I don’t say this often, but I’m excited by the LG V30.

It looks gorgeous and focuses on areas that other phones just don’t. The quad-DAC sounds exceptional and the included B&O earbuds are better than any other boxed headphones I’ve experienced to date. As someone who listens to a lot of music via my handset, I appreciate a good audio setup.

The camera, with its f/1.6 aperture, sounds great too. I’m slightly more interested in its photographic capabilities than video, but the new Cine Log recording and colour-grading feature that go along with it do sound interesting.

Depending on how much it eventually costs, the LG V30 could be an Android smartphone that ticks all the boxes – and one that really takes on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole preview

South Park: The Fractured But Whole release date, trailer, news, pre-order info and everything you need to know

South Park: The Fractured But Whole is set to be bigger and better than 2014’s South Park: The Stick of Truth in a number of ridiculously rude ways. The unexpected yet long-awaited sequel aims to provide a deeper array of gameplay mechanics and a suite of new gags that will no doubt remain faithful to the iconic source material.

Pre-order South Park: The Fractured But Whole from Amazon UK | Amazon.com

We’ve compiled all the latest news for South Park: The Fractured But Whole, followed by an in-depth preview.

Watch: Latest South Park: The Fractured But Whole trailer

The Fractured But Whole was originally set to launch on December 6, 2016 for PS4, Xbox One and PC, but has since been delayed to Q1 2017. Ubisoft is yet to announce a new release date, or whether those who pre-order into 2017 will still receive a free digital copy of South Park: The Stick of Truth.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole plays much like its predecessor, albeit with more ambitious mechanics, exploration and character classes. Oh, and the fantasy setting has been swapped for one filled with superheroes. With a total of 12 playable classes and the choice of two gender options, the possibilities for player customization are bigger than ever before. Ubisoft is taking a brilliantly self-aware stab at the superhero genre, with all the South Park flavoured humour fans have come to expect.

Related: Call of Duty: WW2 preview

south park

The Fractured But Whole takes place immediately after the first game, as Cartman and friends ditch their fantasy attire for superhero outfits. As the “New Kid” you must work together with The Coon (Eric Cartman’s raccoon-inspired superhero alter-ego) to infiltrate the enemy stronghold and end their imaginary plans for a multi-million dollar superhero franchise.

Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny are back, who will accompany you throughout much of the game. It appears Butters and his alter-ego Professor Chaos will act as the game’s antagonist, although screenshots suggest that he will fight alongside our heroes at some point. Wendy and the other girls from South Park Elementary will also play an important part in the narrative this time around.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole Preview by Brett Phipps

As a massive South Park fan, I love The Stick of Truth. It’s one of my favourite games. We can all sit and point at the simplistic combat mechanics and limited RPG customisation, but it’s an amazing representation of why South Park is the best show on TV. The jokes are perfect, the characters spectacular and you question how on Earth some sequences were cleared (a few, of course, weren’t for Europe, but the writers still managed to make hilarity from the censorship).

With The Fractured But Whole, the team is taking on the current superhero craze, and based on my time with it, this entry will not only delight fans of the show, but also people hankering for a good turn-based RPG.

While playing the game, I also got to try the Nosulus Rift, an alternative virtual reality device in the form of a (very well-made) nose mask. It injects a scent whenever your character farts or poops – which was quite an experience, as our video preview shows.

Related: FIFA 18 preview
south park

Smells aside, the game begins in very familiar territory, resuming immediately after the events in Stick of Truth, with the player as “King Douchebag”. I begin in Cartman’s house, and to gain access to the kids’ secret lair, I must first find the password.

I venture upstairs to Cartman’s mum’s room and, much like in the predecessor, her drawers are filled with erotic materials. After collecting the blindfold and lube, I head to Cartman’s room. Picking up his journal – full to the brim with gay pornographic doodles involving him, Kyle and Butters – I have the password. Technically it’s a three-digit code, but the boys use words for each number, so after entering “F*** You Mom”, I head into the lair.

The open-world mechanics are the same as in Stick of Truth, which is no bad thing. The Fractured But Whole still looks exactly like a TV episode, with characters and environments replicated perfectly. The shine hasn’t worn off of walking around the homes of characters I’ve watched for over a decade.

Entering the lair, Lord of the Rings is no longer the role-playing game of choice, with the kids engaged in a superhero Civil War. The Coon and Friends are planning how they’re going to monetise their alter egos, with the plan being to find someone who works at Netflix. The aim is to beat The Freedom Pals – Coon and Friends’ rival gang.

Related: Best RPG Games
 south park

The whole gang is suddenly very dismissive of The Stick of Truth’s saviour, mainly because I’m currently playing a different game to them. While they all engage in “Confidential Coon Business”, Cartman lets me join the team, but first I need an origin story. Cartman decides mine involves walking in on my mum and dad showing how they love each other very, very much.

The writing is still absolutely spot on – so far beyond the line of acceptability while consistently funny. This is classic South Park scripting and the whole sequence is laugh-out-loud funny.

It’s here where we discover the new character-customisation tools. Players will now be able to choose from a number of different hero archetypes, each with their own attacks and abilities. Only the Flash-inspired ‘Speedster’ is available in this demo, but the game will include at least 12 different styles, with players able to switch between, and even combine, them throughout the campaign.

Re-playing my origin story also gives me a chance to check out combat. Criticised for how simple this was in Stick of Truth, Ubisoft has now adopted a chess-board-style battle plane in which you and your enemies are able to move around before attacking. Different attacks will have varying ranges and areas of effect, and placing Douchebag and your team strategically will take much greater precedence.

Related: Destiny 2 preview
south park

Getting the chance to play the combat myself, it’s very reminiscent of The Banner Saga. Making sure your team is spaced effectively on the battlefield in order to deal the most amount of damage, while also avoiding multiple members taking damage with one attack, means I have to think in every turn. I’m not simply spamming a powerful strike and trying to get back to the story; this combat is far more enjoyable. The only downside is that the tutorial isn’t very comprehensive. The origin story simply explains the very basics of the new system, so when the game expands and I’m in a full squad fight against Freedom Pals, it takes a good while to understand all the mechanics in play.

However, getting a chance to try the new mechanics in a full fight offers a great insight into how much it adds to the game. The trailers won’t be able to sell the added depth and complexity, but it’s there.

Also making a welcome return are the over-the-top specials. The Speedster has The Multiverse Strike, which involves unloading a barrage of strikes like E. Honda and doing outrageous damage. Each character will have their own special, with amazing animations to show off each hit.

The demo skips ahead to “Later that day”, and I’m on the streets of South Park, tasked with confronting Freedom Pals. It seems that now, instead of choosing one buddy to walk around with you, Fractured But Whole instead calls upon particular heroes to help you in certain situations. Once again the power of your ass is in play, and combining it with Human Kite means you can now reach treasure chests in hard-to-reach areas.

Related: Xbox One X vs PS4 Pro
south park

It is, however, the close of the demo that shows how hilarious Fractured But Whole will be. The confrontation with The Freedom Pals involves the gangs clashing and arguing over which side they’ve chosen. Timmy – South Park’s paraplegic character who can only say his own name – is our Professor Xavier, and after wheeling forward with that adorable grin, dons a very serious face and telepathically communicates with The Coon in well-spoken English. It’s brilliant.

First Impressions

With the limited gaming time available in this first hands-on, it was difficult to fully scope the changes coming in The Fractured But Whole. The writing is still fantastic, as it was always going to be, while combat has been given a refresh to hopefully avoid the monotony of Stick of Truth.

Outside of combat and the new character customisation, this looks set to be more of the same, with you venturing around South Park collecting all sorts of strange items, meeting your favourite characters and enjoying an absolutely bonkers story.

Pre-order South Park: The Fractured But Whole from Amazon UK | Amazon.com

If you’re a fan of the TV series, this is obviously going to be a must-buy, and now it looks like it has the potential to appeal to RPG fans too.