ICYMI: Catch up on a busy week of console and phone reviews

A second round of iPhones and all the latest from Microsoft and Sony.

Chris Velazco / Engadget

While last week Engadget was focused on putting the newly released Xbox systems through their paces, this week we were focused on new iPhones and an inexpensive Android tablet. We spent time finding the features and flaws of the Xbox Series X and Series S to see how they stack up against each other and the competition. Then we put Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max, 12 Mini and HomePod mini through their paces to see where the upgraded gadgets did their best work. Lastly, we took a good look at the Galaxy Tab A7 to see what it offered users.

The Xbox Series S is a good next-gen starter console but simply doesn’t have enough storage. Meanwhile the Xbox Series X offers gamers everything they could want in a top-of-the-line system, but there is a lack of compelling titles to play right now. Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is a hefty handset with incredible cameras, and the smaller iPhone 12 Mini has great specs (aside from its battery). Apple made some smart choices in upgrading both the hardware and the software of the HomePod mini, but the compact speaker still has stiff competition. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab A7 is a good budget tablet for Android users, but the screen was disappointing. Here, we collected the week’s reviews, so read on for more details about each device.

Xbox Series X is built to compete with gaming PCs

Xbox Series X
Aaron Souppouris/Engadget

Microsoft’s Xbox One release got off to a rough start, an experience the company seems to have learned from with the Series X. Released with an 8-core Zen 2 CPU, a 1TB SSD, and 16GB of RAM, the console is faster than previous Xbox consoles and is capable of playing old games with HDR. Devindra Hardawar called the hefty 9.8-pound system the “ultimate gaming console” for its performance improvements and feature set. Like the Series S, the Series X includes a quick resume but unlike the less powerful console, the Series X supports 4K which helps support ray tracing.

Devindra felt that a lot of thought had been put into the Series X design, and that the machine felt strong and sturdy. He welcomed the upgraded menu UI, the spectacular gameplay and — like Jess Conditt’s experience with the Series S — the quiet fans. The Series X can also be upgraded with the Seagate storage expansion, but can also use a standard USB 3.1 external hard drive for “cold storage” of games. Though Devindra felt the Series X is clearly focused on providing the best experience possible to gamers, he wanted to see more compelling games developed for the beast of a system.

The Xbox Series S has a compact design but lacks power and storage

Xbox Series S
Aaron Souppouris / Engadget

“Cute” was the word that Jess Conditt used to describe the new Xbox Series S. And the shoebox-sized system is indeed a slim, attractive console at 4.25 pounds. But she also acknowledged that the Series S has a place as a starting point for next-gen gaming. The 512GB SSD, 10GB RAM and 4-teraflop GPU provides gamers with faster loading times and improved frame rates. Jess particularly enjoyed the quick-resume feature that allows players to leave games on “pause” in the background and restart them without having to load a title screen. She also liked how quiet the console was, the sturdy yet light controller and the bumps that identify inputs on the back by touch.

However, she felt there was no getting around the system's drawbacks, namely the lack of storage, the missing 4K support and the absence of a disc drive. She was able to fit 13 games and 22 apps on the system before running out of space. While Seagate does offer a pricey expansion card, it bumps up the overall price of the system by $220. And while the Series S has a large backward-compatible library of games, they don’t look that great without 4K support which was noticeable in games like Control. Jess recommends the system for gamers looking for a system with smoother frame rates and rapid loading screens but allows that storage space and power could become an issue.

Sony’s PlayStation 5 has a lot to offer gamers, including a unique hardware design

Sony PlayStation 5

We also reviewed Sony’s next-gen console, the unusually-shaped PlayStation 5. Like Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, the PS5 has support for 4K gaming, an SSD for faster load times and 16GB of GDDR6 RAM. But Devindra Hardawar felt Sony held the edge over Microsoft’s console, in part because of the handful of exclusive titles. And he also liked that Sony lets you play a game during system set up, unlike the Series X. Sony also refreshed the DualSense controller with thicker, comfortable grips, a mute button and more advanced haptic controls, which Devindra approved of.

He was less thrilled about having to set up the stand for the 10.2 pound, 15.4-inch by 10.2-inch console, which wasn’t entirely intuitive despite Sony’s included instructions. The system isn’t stable in a standing position without it: it attaches with a screw to stand the console up and slides on for a horizontal position. Devindra said when adjusting the console or plugging in cables, it slipped out easily. Despite going overboard on the design, he overall felt that the PS5 had plenty of features that gamers are looking for.

Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro Max is large and in charge

Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
Chris Velazco/Engadget

Chris Velazco wasn’t expecting to like the iPhone 12 Pro Max as much as he did; without a commute or much outside travel, he wasn’t sure he would find the large handset as useful as if he were regularly out and about. However, the 6.7-inch Super Retina XDR screen, MagSafe support and new A14 Bionic chipset won him over. Chris thought that the slight alterations to the physical handset, specifically the flat edges, thinness and weight, made it a comfortable phone to hold in the hand. And as he points out, the 5G network support and extra RAM should make it a useful phone to keep around as apps and OSes alike become more complex.

The camera improvements also made this phone worth recommending. The telephoto lens, a 12-megapixel sensor that moves around inside the body of the phone for better image stabilization and upgrades to the Smart HDR image processing all made a difference in the shots Chris got on his tests. But he said the cameras were also temperamental and the physical size — or price — of the phone might not work for everyone.

Apple iPhone 12 Mini is powerful but has an insufficient battery life 

Apple iPhone 12 mini
Chris Velazco/Engadget

In contrast, Chris said he couldn’t recommend the iPhone 12 mini for most people — and said he wouldn’t buy one himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t find anything to like about the smaller handset — it’s $100 cheaper than the iPhone 12 but has the same A14 Bionic chipset, 4GB of RAM, 5G support and exceptional cameras. Its 5.4-inch Super Retina XDR display is also just as bright, and has the same ability with color gamuts and HDR. The Mini only has 12W wireless charging though, making it less ideal for MagSafe accessories.

The downside was the battery life. As with most small phones, the iPhone 12 Mini suffered here. On a day that started at 8am, Chris was nearly out of battery by 4; at home he was able to get 12 or 13 hours from it. He also found the price point to be a disadvantage ($699) because the same amount got users a bigger phone, and battery, just last year. The iPhone 11 has a competitive price point at $650, further tempting those who would be interested in a 12 mini.

Apple’s new HomePod mini is an improvement on the original

Apple HomePod mini
Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

Nathan Ingraham’s first impression of the new ball-shaped HomePod mini was that the diminutive smart speaker was intended to be tucked away in a variety of locations. At just 3.3 inches tall and four inches wide, with a white or space gray fabric cover, it blends easily into a variety of environments. He was pleased to find that, despite its small size, the speaker sounded better than expected courtesy of the full-range driver coupled with two passive radiators. It worked well for music control with Siri in his testing, though finding the right command phrases required some trial and error.

The voice assistant features have been improved, too. Apple has added voice recognition to correct the security issues with the previous model. And over 100 brands now work with the HomeKit protocol, making the smart features more useful across a range of devices. With a price point of $99, the HomePod mini has competition from both Amazon and Google. While it’s still playing catch up in some areas, there’s a lot more on offer with the new speaker.

The Galaxy Tab A7 is a decent Android tablet but the low price comes with compromises

Samsung Galaxy Tab A7
Brian Oh / Engadget

There’s a lack of budget Android tablets on the market these days, with the exception of Amazon’s Fire line, and Cherlynn Low was satisfied but not impressed with the Galaxy Tab A7. For $230, the Galaxy Tab A7 gives users a 10-inch LCD screen, a Snapdragon 662 chipset, 3GB of RAM and runs Android 10. Cherlynn found the tablet a bit laggy compared to higher-end competitors; it often took an extra beat or two to search for, open and switch between apps. The minimal processing power and a dim 2,000 x 1,200 display with limited viewing angles were the main drawbacks but she also found the tablet’s speakers underwhelming.

However, the Galaxy Tab A7 still has a lot going for it. At 1.05 pounds, it’s lightweight and it includes a headphone jack and microSD card slot. The 7,040mAh battery lasted 11 hours and 35 minutes during Cherlynn’s testing, making it an ideal machine for media consumption. Overall, she felt it was a solid purchase, especially for those who want a no-frills tablet that lives in Google’s ecosystem.

The Roland TR-6S gives professional-grade sound from a small machine

Roland TR-6S
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Other Engadget editors have had positive experiences with Roland’s music devices in the past, and Terrence O’Brien’s time with the TR-6S was overall enjoyable. The paperback-sized drum machine provided impressive digital emulations, as well as an FM percussion engine and sample playback. Terrence found it versatile, and obviously easily portable, as well as entertaining to test.

But like any diminutive machine, the TR-6S makes trade-offs for its small stature. In this case, the interface required a lot of menu-diving as all the controls relied on the same three knobs. This made using the devices features a bit inconvenient. And unlike the bigger, studio-bound TR-8S, there’s no way to directly sample sounds on the TR-6S. However, the sound is outstanding, and the hardware feels sturdy and strong enough to stand up to travel.

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