Smartphone for Snapdragon insiders initial review: An impressiv

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(Pocket-lint) – The Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders sees Qualcomm working with Asus to present a phone – as part of a bundle – designed for those who love all things Snapdragon.

That might sound like something of an abstraction, a little like Intel making a laptop for its fans, but what it does is give Qualcomm the chance to push a device of its own. With over a million fans in the Snapdragon Insiders community, it’s these people this phone is aimed at.

But at its heart, the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders is a flagship-grade Android device and one that should be of interest to all Android users.

Design and build

  • 173.1 x 77.2 x 9.5mm, 210g
  • Rear fingerprint scanner
  • Dual stereo speakers

The Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders has been built by Asus and that gives you a big insight into what to expect. While Asus has launched its own flagship – the Zenfone 8 – and it’s dedicated gaming phone – the ROG Phone 5 – it doesn’t have anything in this sort of position.

What is this position? A big flagship phone.

It’s something of a combination of the experience of the Zenfone with much of the size and spec of the ROG Phone – and that’s a solid foundation to start from. It’s a big phone, naturally, but there’s a quality to the design and finish, with a couple of notable elements to make it stand out. The most obvious is the Snapdragon logo on the rear of the phone.

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This will illuminate either as a static logo or with a pulsing breathing effect. It only offers white illumination so it’s not the RGB effect that’s popular elsewhere. You can turn it off if you don’t want it, you can have it turn off when the screen is off – but sadly there’s no link to systems like Do Not Disturb – so if you unlock your phone in the middle of the night, the logo will illuminate the darkened room.


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We ended up turning it off for this reason, which is a bit of a shame, because it’s nicely unique.

The other slight oddity of the Smartphone for Snapdragon insiders is that it uses a rear fingerprint scanner, rather than an in-display scanner. It’s also flush mounted with the surface, so we found it slightly less effective than those that are slightly recessed, with occasional reminders for us to cover the whole scanner, but you will get used to it.

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The screen is flat – reflecting the display of the ROG Phone 5 – with stereo speakers offering great performance watching video or playing games, but there’s no 3.5mm headphone socket.

There’s also no IP rating which seems an oddity for a phone at this price. We suspect that’s because it’s based on the ROG Phone 5 which doesn’t have an IP rating either. That’s probably the biggest criticism we have of this phone considering the price, although that’s a complicated story which we’ll move onto now.

What’s in the box?

While most of the interest will be on the smartphone itself, there’s a lot more to this bundle – which goes some way to explain the price.

The biggest element is the headphones that come in the box. These are custom versions of the Master & Dynamic MW08 headphones – headphones that cost £279 or $299. That’s a big cost to be bundling into the box, but it is an exceptionally good set of headphones.

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Subtract that from the asking price for the phone – and the cost becomes a lot more competitive.

The MW08 headphones have been included to showcase Snapdragon Sound – including 24-bit 96kHz wireless audio for listening – as well as wideband support for voice calls too. However, at the time of writing, the headphone sample we had was a preproduction version, so although it sounds fantastic, it’s not the full 96kHz experience yet. We will update when we have a final sample from Qualcomm.

There’s also a 65W charger in the box. Many have been stripping out chargers, but this is a full Qualcomm Quick Charge 5 unit, with two braided cables – the sort of charger you’d want to keep and use for all your devices.

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Finally there’s a bumper to protect the phone. While it only covers the edges, it provides protection for the corners and a lip front and back to protect the screen from scratches when you put the phone down. Again, it’s good quality and a useful addition.

So the package is very much what this phone is about – and there’s nothing here that’s junk that’s just thrown in. At the same time, if you already have a pair of high-quality headphones, it might seem like you’re spending money on headphones again and to a certain extent that’s true – although your existing headphones might not support Snapdragon Sound.

Display

  • 6.78in, 2448 x 1080 pixels (395ppi), 144Hz
  • AMOLED, HDR10+
  • Gorilla Glass Victus

As we said, the screen on the Qualcomm phone is flat, most likely because it’s the same as the ROG Phone 5 panel. It’s a Samsung AMOLED display, measuring 6.78 inches on the diagonal and sporting a 2448 x 1080 pixel resolution. This equates to 395ppi.

This isn’t the highest resolution around – you’ll get more from the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra for example – but many phones are offering such full HD+ resolutions, especially gaming phones.

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Qualcomm is offering up to 144Hz refresh rate on this display – like the ROG Phone 5 again – with the option to select an adaptive refresh, or to pick 60, 120 or 144Hz. That gives you the freedom to choose your preference, we suspect most will stick to auto and leave it at that.

We’ve found the display on the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders to be a great performer, plenty of brightness with 1200 nit peak, with that good quality you expect from a Samsung AMOLED. That gives plenty of pop and saturation for rich visuals, but also offering Asus’ Splendid system so you can tune the display to your preference.

It supports HDR, so you’ll see that compatibility when you’re streaming from a source that offers it, like Netflix, making sure you’re getting the best quality from your content.

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Overall, the display is impressive and we’re very happy with the experience that this phone has offered us.

There’s a couple of things to note around the design, such as the wider bezels top and bottom than you’ll find on some phones. This has given Qualcomm the opportunity to keep the front camera in the bezel rather than use a punch hole or a notch and we much prefer that.

It’s a design that lends itself to gaming – which makes sense considering the close relationship to the ROG Phone 5 – and we’ve found it a good performer in gaming sessions.

Hardware and performance

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 888, 12GB RAM
  • 512GB storage
  • Dual SIM, global 5G, Wi-Fi 6E
  • 4000mAh, 65W charging

It’s no surprise to find the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 at the core of the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders and it’s no surprise to find that this is a smooth and powerful phone. That’s exactly what Qualcomm intended and exactly what we’ve found from other Snapdragon 888 phones too.

There’s 12GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. Again, that higher level of storage is something that will make this phone a little more expensive, but there’s no microSD card support here.

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With Qualcomm having been a huge driving force behind 5G, there’s global 5G support, so there are no regional versions of this phone – it’s one phone and everyone gets support for everything. We’ve found the wireless connectivity to be solid, allowing us to hotspot in remote regions and keep all our devices connected.

One of the things we like about this phone is that it runs smoothly without getting too hot, so those long gaming sessions won’t see the phone heating up in the same way it does on the Asus Zenfone 8, so that experience is better here.

Again, there’s a lot going for the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders as a gaming device – but the lack of any software to control the gaming experience (aside from sound) means that some might prefer the ROG Phone 5 for the Game Genie options.

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The thing that might come as a surprise is that there’s only a 4000mAh battery. Ok, it’s still pretty large, but with 5000mAh common on this size of device, this is a rather small battery capacity.

The phone will also munch through that battery pretty quickly when you’re gaming on 5G, with top brightness and those speakers firing – so we can’t say that this phone has the best endurance out there.

The support for 65W wired charging is welcomed therefore and as we mentioned, there’s a bundled charger in the box that will give you these speeds. There’s no wireless charging support.

Overall, it’s a flagship performance from the Qualcomm phone and it’s hard to see that anyone would be left wanting – but watch that battery on longer days.

Camera performance

  • Triple camera system:
    • Main: Sony IMX686, 64MP, 1/1.73in, 0.8μm, f/1.8, OIS
    • Ultrawide: Sony IMX363, 12MP, 1/2.55in, 1.4μm, f/2.2
    • Telephoto: 8MP, 3x optical, 12x digital, OIS
  • Front: 24MP

There’s a triple camera system on the rear of the Smartphone for Snapdragon Insiders, pairing a 64-megapixel main camera, with a 12-megapixel ultrawide and 8-megapixel telephoto. There’s no periscope lens for more extreme zoom, so there’s 3x optical stretching up to 12x digital.

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We’ve been using this camera in a wide range of situations, but Qualcomm has been in touch to say that there is a further software update coming that will elevate the experience more, so we’ll be updating in the near future once that’s come through – but these are our experiences so far.

The main camera is generally good, offering good HDR performance and able to capture good shots in most conditions. It’s not the strongest performer in low light – indoor photos can get a little soft losing detail – and low light photos, even with the night mode, don’t get quite the lift we’ve seen phone phones like the Pixel in the past – but Qualcomm says there are improvements to come here.

The ultrawide is generally pretty good and the telephoto give an easy 3x optical zoom option, although you’ll notice a colouration change due to the smaller aperture, photos losing sharpness and warming slightly as you shift to the zoom, again, with struggles in low light conditions.

There’s 12x digital zoom and we like the fact you can pinch in and out through the whole zoom range, from ultrawide out to the full 12x, although at the far end things are a little softer and less accomplished.

There’s a useful portrait mode from the main camera, which defaults to 2x zoom, but can be knocked back to the wider 1x view if you prefer. It will accurately pick out the subject, letting you adjust the level of blurring as you wish, both before or after taking the shot.

Strangely, there’s no portrait mode on the front camera, so it’s just a case of point and shoot. The front camera – all 24-megapxiels of it – has an “optimisation” mode in the settings which sharpens the image. That might give a better photo, but it also makes faces sharper, which isn’t always very flattering, often highlighting wrinkles and blemishes.

The front camera, again, isn’t especially good in low light conditions, getting softer quickly as the light dips, so it can’t match a phone like the Pixel.

There’s some impressive stabilisation on rear video, which will keep those steps and pans smooth, with capture up to 8K. There’s the option for HDR on video too, although this only works on the ultrawide rear camera and the front camera. In both cases, we found the HDR function can leave things looking a little unrealistic, especially things close to the camera (like your face), so it’s not especially useful.

There’s also an autotracking function on video, designed so you can get it to focus on your dog (for example) and make sure that stays in focus as it moves around the frame.

Overall, the performance of the cameras on the Qualcomm phone will serve most people pretty well. There’s three useful lenses, an app that’s simple to use without being overcomplicated with lots of functions you might never find.

The camera also doesn’t break any new ground: rival flagships offer great zoom options, there’s better low light performance elsewhere – and we’ve had a couple of strange mash-up images in our photo roll (which you can see below) – but with improvements still to come for the camera hopefully we’ll get a better overall performance.

Software

  • Android 11
  • Some app duplication

It’s on the software front that you see some of the influence of Asus. As we discovered on the Zenfone 8, Asus has a light touch with software, generally leaving it to Android to run the show.

Qualcomm announced this as a pure Android phone and that’s almost what you get, although the launcher is from Asus and there’s a Gallery app as well as a duplication of the contacts and call apps. The icons are essentially identical to those from Google too, so you might never notice, unless you go hunting for a feature that Google offers that Asus doesn’t – you can’t remove those duplications either, so many, we suspect, will stick with Asus’ versions rather than Google’s.

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There’s a bundled weather app and an app to manage the Master & Dynamic headphones. As we said, these were preproduction headphone in our review package and so the fact that the app wouldn’t update the firmware doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

To support the sound side of this phone, there’s a couple of options to control the sound, outside of the dedicated headphone app. When connected to the headset you’re told that it’s using Qualcomm aptX Adaptive (if supported), with the option to toggle off the 96kHz if you want, while there’s also a Sound Optimization are of the settings, letting you customise sound for music, movies, games or voice – with an automatic profile to sit over the top.

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This means you can opt to tune different audio outputs differently, for example boosting bass on music, but switching that off for movies, and boosting voice instead. You have to switch manually, or just leave it on auto and let the phone do it for you.

Overall, it’s a good clean experience on the software front and it’s only the desire for more detailed gaming controls that we think could be useful. There are Elite Gaming Options in the settings menu, which will allow you to select the refresh rate and customise the graphics performance for each game – but we find ourselves missing a proper gaming menu on a phone like this that plays games well.

First Impressions

When Qualcomm announced that it was launching its own phone for fans – with Asus – most people expected it to be accomplished. It’s a good phone, with few shortcomings, and a couple of improvements to come through software that Qualcomm has already confirmed with us, which might make a difference.

So who should be interested in this phone? It really has nothing to do with being a Snapdragon fan – it’s a flagship level Android phone, but there’s no shortage of those, with the likes of Samsung dominating this sector – and available around the same price.

For many, the decision on whether to buy this phone will come down to how attractive that package looks – there’s a lot in the box, but before we can recommend you rush out and buy this phone, we want to see more from those promised updates.

Alternatives to consider

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Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is one of the top phones of 2021 offering power, a great display, and a range of useful cameras offering functions you don’t get on rival devices.

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Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on .





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