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Microsoft Office is getting yet another major update, though this time it’s nothing to do with new collaboration tools or a UI change. Instead, it’s the app icons that are getting a new look.

The announcement came via a Medium blog post penned by Jon Friedman, who heads the Microsoft Office design team. Using hues that are “bolder, lighter and friendlier” and “gestalt principles to further emphasize key product changes”, the first icon revamp will be for the following 10 apps: Outlook, OneDrive, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, SharePoint, Teams, Yammer, and Skype. According to Friedman, there are plans to update the icons for other apps such as PowerBI, Sway, and Visio.

Personally, I think the icons look good. The last time these app icons got updated was in 2013, and Office has changed a lot in terms of features and UI in the last five years (design trends, too), so it’s high time for an update. On a broader level, I also see this as Microsoft bringing Windows 10’s Fluent Design System closer to the Office suite. My only gripe is that on iOS, these icons lose their unique look when they’re set in a white round-rect icon – at a glance, this icon-in-an-icon look reminds me of Google’s iOS app icons.

Microsoft will be rolling out the new Office icons in the coming months.

Overview & Design

Overview

The Apple iPhone XR is the third iPhone to be launched this year, after the iPhone XS and XS Max. The XR can be seen as Apple’s ‘budget’ model – although I use that word hesitantly as the cheapest XR still costs S$1,229 – with a similar design, features and much of the same experience as the iPhone XS, but at a starting price that’s S$420 cheaper.

What do you give up for that lower price? The XR has a lower resolution LCD display with bigger bezels around it and it doesn’t support 3D Touch. It’s slightly thicker and heavier and it’s made of aluminum instead of stainless steel, and it only has one camera on the back.

But other than that it’s pretty similar to the XS. It’s got the same full-screen design with the same notch and TrueDepth camera and Face ID system, the same powerful A12 Bionic processor, and the single camera on the back is the same as the wide-angle 12-megapixel camera on the back of the XS and XS Max.

The XR is also available in a far wider selection of colors, six in total: Black, White, Coral, Yellow, Blue, and Red, making it the most colorful iPhone ever.

Design

The core design of the XR is pretty much the same as the XS and XS Max. The frame isn’t as shiny because it’s matte aluminum instead of stainless steel, but the back is still glass and the front bezel is still black, no matter what color you get.

Our review model comes in this unique new color - Coral.

Speaking of colors, the XR is the most colorful iPhone Apple has ever released with six colors available at launch (for a closer look at each color, check out this gallery). On each, the aluminum frame is color-matched to the back of the phone, except for the white model, which has an unpainted silver aluminum finish.

I really like the black and white models, as the deep black and stark white remind me of the colors of older iPhones, before Space Gray and Silver replaced them. In my opinion, the iPhone 4 in either black or white is still one of the most beautiful phones ever designed.

If you’re considering one of the more colorful options, the Project Red model looks absolutely gorgeous with its deep, blood red color, while Coral is probably the most interesting, with its unique pink-orange hue.

Like the XS and XS Max, the XR has glass on both the front and rear. It’s worth noting that for the XS and XS Max, Apple claims that the glass on both the front and rear is the most durable ever used on a smartphone, whereas for the XR, Apple only claims that it has the most durable front glass, so clearly, the back glass isn’t quite as durable.

Size-wise, the XR sits right between the XS and XS Max. It’s actually a great size, and to me, the 6.1-inch display feels the best out of the three phones. The XR is slightly thicker than both the XS and XS Max, but it’s not that noticeable, and it doesn’t feel unwieldy.

On the back, there’s a single rear camera instead of the dual camera setup of the XS and XS Max. The camera bump is quite large, but this is something that’s become typical of all iPhones. A nice touch is that the ring surrounding the camera is the same color as the frame of the phone.

One other difference worth noting is that the extra antenna lines on the bottom and top of the iPhone XS and XS Max aren’t there on the XR. This is because the XS and XS Max both support 4G LTE up to Cat 16 (1024Mbps), while the XR only supports it up to Cat 12 (600Mbps), the same as last year’s iPhone X.

On the plus side, the missing antenna lines makes the bottom of the XR look a lot more symmetrical, with six holes on each side (although like the XS and XS Max, sound only comes out of the right ones). Having said that, the XR is not without its own quirk, as the Lightning port is lower and slightly out of alignment with the speaker grilles, presumably due to the LCD display taking up more space internally.

Finally, the XR is only IP67-rated for dust and water resistance. This means it’s not as water-resistant as the XS and XS Max and can only be submerged underwater up to a depth of 1m instead of 2m. I can’t imagine this actually being a deal breaker for anyone, but it’s something to take note of anyway.

Everything else is pretty much the same as it is on the XS and XS Max. The elongated power button is still on the right side, with the single SIM tray beneath it (like the XS, the XR is dual-SIM, but the second SIM is eSIM only), while the two volume buttons and silencer toggle remain on the left.

Overall, while the XR isn’t as nice or polished (literally) as the XS or XS Max, there’s nothing cheap-feeling or inferior about it, and it looks and feels just as premium as any other flagship smartphone out there.

 

Display, Audio & Software

Display

The iPhone XR has a 6.1-inch, IPS “Liquid Retina Display” with a 1,792 x 828 pixels resolution (326ppi). This is exactly the same pixel density as the iPhone 8, but less than the iPhone 8 Plus (401ppi), iPhone X, XS and XS Max (458ppi). 326ppi was perfectly acceptable on smaller 4.7-inch iPhones, but is a little low for a screen this big. Compared to the iPhone XS, there’s a slight but noticeable drop in clarity. You won’t really notice this in everyday usage (unless you routinely use a magnifying glass to inspect your screen), but a Full HD resolution equivalent display would have been nice.

The XR display also has noticeably thicker bezels around the screen compared to the XS and XS Max. This is presumably because of the extra backlight required for the LCD. Having said that, the bezels are still thinner than many other smartphones, including those with OLED displays.

The XR display also lacks Dolby Vision and HDR10 support, as well as Apple’s 3D Touch feature. I know not everyone uses 3D Touch, but if you’ve become accustomed to it, it’s quite annoying to use an iPhone without it.

Despite these drawbacks, the display itself is still remarkably good. It’s bright, going up to 700nits at maximum, which makes it easy to view even under bright sunlight, and the contrast is also surprisingly good for an LCD display. Colors are vivid without looking over-saturated, and as with Apple’s other iPhone displays, the display supports DCI-P3 wide color and Apple’s True Tone technology that adjusts the color temperature based on ambient lighting.

Audio

The XR has the same improved stereo speakers you’ll find on the XS and XS Max. These speakers are louder than last year, and also offer a wider stereo soundstage. Audio quality is excellent and there’s no distortion even with the speaker at max volume.

Like the XS and XS Max, the iPhone XR does not come supplied with a Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle. You still get the Lightning connector EarPods, but you’ll have to buy the dongle for S$15 if you want to use your own headphones.

 

Software

    

The XR runs on iOS 12 and provides exactly the same UI experience as the XS and XS Max, except for the aforementioned lack of 3D Touch. One nice touch is that the default wallpaper is color-matched to the color of your phone. If you prefer something with a little more contrast, all of the other colors are also available in the wallpaper gallery.

I suspect for many people, the XR will be their first upgrade to an X-style iPhone, so I’ll give a quick rundown of what’s new compared to older iPhones like the iPhone 8.

The main difference between X-style iPhones and older iPhones with Home buttons is the new swipe-based navigation system. On any screen other than the home page you’ll see a white line called the Home Bar. If you swipe up from this line, you’ll go back to the home page. Swiping left or right along the line will switch between apps.

To open the Control Center, you need to swipe down from the area to the right of the notch. To open the Notifications pane you swipe down from the top left. To launch the app switcher you swipe up from the bottom of the screen and then long press the screen.

To activate Reachability mode, which pulls the top of the screen down to make one-handed usage easier, you have to swipe down on the bottom edge of the display.

While this all sounds quite complicated at first, it becomes second nature fairly quickly.

For a full rundown of everything else new in iOS 12, check out my iPhone XS and XS Max review and this article.

Face ID

If this is your first X-style iPhone, say goodbye to TouchID and hello to FaceID. FaceID on the XR is exactly the same as FaceID on the XS and XS Max, and uses the same TrueDepth camera found in the notch. You’ll use FaceID to unlock your phone, for Apple Pay, and whenever you use Apple’s Animojis.

FaceID this year is even faster and safer than last year and now unlocks the phone almost instantaneously and it still works just as fast in the dark too. Like the XS and XS Max, you can also add a second person to FaceID. You can do this by selecting the “Set Up an Alternative Appearance” option in the FaceID setup menu.

For an in-depth explanation of exactly how FaceID and the TrueDepth camera system work, check out this page from last year’s iPhone X review.

Introduction

Note: This article was first published on 19th July 2018.

The TP-Link Deco M9 Plus. (Image source: TP-Link)

What’s this?

The TP-Link Deco M9 Plus is a mesh networking system and smart home hub built into one neat compact package.

 

Erm, what’s mesh networking?

Mesh networking lets you expand your Wi-Fi coverage using the same SSID.

Come on, where have you been? But, not to worry as we can fill you in. To put it briefly, it refers to a wireless system where multiple nodes contribute to spread Wi-Fi across an area and using the same Wi-Fi network name (SSID). This is particularly useful in solving the problems of Wi-Fi dead spots in homes. You know what? You should read our mesh networking guide before you continue reading this review to ensure you’re familiar with the basics.

 

Right, so what’s a smart home hub?

A smart home hub is a controller for all your smart home devices like your smart sensors, smart light bulbs, and what not. These devices need to connect to something so that they can be easily managed. Furthermore, some of them use low-power wireless standards like ZigBee and Z-Wave, so you need a compatible smart home hub for that too.

 

So the Deco M9 Plus is two devices in one?

Bingo!

 

What are its networking specifications like?

With three separate networks, the Deco M9 Plus is able to dedicate a single network to backhaul communications which boosts overall mesh performance. (Image source: TP-Link)

The Deco M9 Plus is a tri-band AC2200-class mesh networking system. Its single 2.4GHz network supports speeds of up to 400Mbps while its two 5GHz network support speeds of up to 867Mbps.

One of the 5GHz networks is set aside for backhaul communications, which frees up the remaining 2.4GHz and 5GHz network for client communications. However, if it detects heavy network traffic, it can also use the other available networks to supplement the single 5GHz backhaul network. It can use up to 50% of the other two networks, which gives it a total backhaul capacity of 1,500Mbps (867Mbps + 433.5Mbps + 200Mbps) If your home already has a LAN network in place, the Deco M9 Plus will also support Ethernet backhaul.

 

How is it packaged?

Unless you live in a huge home, two Deco M9 Plus nodes should be sufficient.

You can buy the Deco M9 Plus either as a pack or two or separately. A two-pack bundle is $369, whereas a single Deco M9 Plus is $199. Obviously, it makes far more sense to get the two-pack bundle.

 

Why no three-pack bundle?

Simply because TP-Link believes that a two-pack bundle would be sufficient for most homes. According to them, two nodes can cover an area of up to 4,500 square feet, which is more than enough for most apartments here. If you are lucky enough to be living in a large penthouse or landed property, you can purchase additional nodes to expand coverage.

 

Sounds great, what about ports?

Each Deco M9 Plus node has two Gigabit Ethernet ports and a USB port. The USB port is unusable for now.

It has two Gigabit Ethernet ports that can function either in LAN or WAN modes. Apart from connecting it to your main router or ONT, you can also use it to connect your LAN network for Ethernet backhaul, or you can use it to connect to other devices that require connectivity like your TV or gaming console. There is also a USB 2.0 port but that has been deactivated for now. TP-Link says it has been ‘reserved’ and might be activated in a future firmware update.

 

Oh, the wife asks if it will look out of place at home?

Thanks to its plain design and compact size, it is unobtrusive and blend into your homes. (Image source: TP-Link)

That’s hard to say. If your home has black wallpaper, tinted windows, and black furniture, then I suppose the Deco M9 Plus will look out of place. Personally, I find the Deco M9 Plus to be very pleasant looking. It has an all-white exterior and is shaped like an asymmetric hockey puck. Its noticeably larger than the Deco M5, but it is still relatively compact, comparatively speaking. To get a better sense of the size, it measures 14.4cm in diameter and it’s just over 6cm tall.

To give you a better idea of the Deco M9 Plus' size, here it is next to an iPhone 8 Plus.

I find it to be one of the better-looking and more stylish mesh networking systems around but I don’t speak for everyone. As the old saying goes, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

 

She also asks if it is easy to set up.

Yes, it is dead simple. Simply plug in the Deco M9 Plus, download the Deco app on your iOs or Android device, and follow the on-screen instructions. Adding extra nodes to the network is simple too. Again, just plug in the Deco M9 Plus, fire up the Deco app and choose to add extra Decos to the network, and follow the on-screen instructions again. That’s all there is to it. Adding nodes to the network is quick enough but I found that the Deco M9 Plus was quite slow to update its firmware. Since there was a new firmware, I had to update the firmware of each node individually and each time it took me about 5 to 7 minutes.

 

Mesh networking systems are usually short on networking features, what does this have?

Not much in the way of advanced settings and options.

For advanced users who want to tinkle around and set up stuff like private VPNs or changing DNS servers, the Deco M9 Plus is not the router for the job. You will want to stick to a traditional kind of router. In the case of the Deco M9 Plus, there are only a handful of settings that you can play around with including port forwarding, DHCP reservation, VLAN, and dynamic DNS. It is not much, but I reckon it should suffice for most users who don’t intend to tinker with the router beyond the initial setup.

One notable feature is the built-in anti-virus protection that part of the Deco M9 Plus’ HomeCare package. It provides real-time protection with rules continuously updated from Trend Micro. As part of the HomeCare package is QoS and also Parental Controls.

The Parental Controls options are pretty nifty and extensive.

For parents, the Deco M9 Plus has a pretty extensive Parental Control feature that gives parents a lot of flexibility in how they want to manage their children’s internet access. One nifty thing about the Parental Controls feature here is that it comes with predetermined filter levels like Child, Pre-teen, and Teen that has a default list of blocked sites. For example, selecting Pre-teen would block out a preset list of adult, gambling, and social networking sites. For Teens, the filter would block out adult and gambling sites but leave social networking sites accessible.

 

So what smart home kind of things can it do?

You can create automation rules with the Deco app.

For a start, the Deco M9 Plus supports Bluetooth 4.2 and ZigBee. It also works with Amazon Alexa, so if you happen to have a smart speaker that supports Alexa, you can issue voice commands to control your smart devices. The Deco M9 Plus also supports the free online rules platform IFTTT, which enables users to set up rules to manage their smart devices and sensors. For instance, you could program your lights to turn on whenever a motion sensor is set off.

 

Performance Analysis & Conclusion

So, how does it perform?

The TLDR version: Performance was mostly a mixed bag. The TP-Link Deco M9 Plus exhibited good range and provided good download speeds. Uploads speeds, however, was mostly quite disappointing. Overall, its performance was a match for the Linksys Velop and much improved over TP-Link’s first mesh networking system, the Deco M5.

For the rest of you who like to pore over graphs, here they are. But first, a quick run through of our test setup.

 

Test Setup

To test this new breed of mesh networking systems, we’ve changed our test environment, but our test setup remains relatively unchanged. We have two notebooks, one acting as a host machine and the other as a client device. The router, or in this case, node, acts as a gateway. Since mesh networking systems typically manage channel settings on their own, we will leave it that way. For systems where manual settings are possible, a channel bandwidth of 40MHz is selected where applicable, while 80MHz or more is used for the 5GHz AC band.

The client device is a 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is one of the few client devices in the market to come with a 3×3 Wi-Fi receiver, allowing it to achieve wireless speeds of up to 1,300Mbps.

Here is a graphical representation of our network test setup.

To evaluate, we will be measuring the time and calculating the speed achieved when transferring a 1GB zip file. We will do multiple tests with different setups and different distances to simulate use around a typical single story flat and in a multi-story home.

Here are the test distances we used and what they represent:

  • 2m – Right beside the router
  • 5m – In an adjacent room
  • 10m – In a room that is farther away
  • 15m – To simulate extreme distances (e.g. master bedroom toilet)
  • Second story – One floor above
  • Third story – Two floors above

Here are the different TP-Link Deco M9 Plus setups we used:

  • A single TP-Link Deco M9 Plus router
  • Two TP-Link Deco M9 Plus nodes over a single floor
  • Two TP-Link Deco M9 Plus nodes over two floors

To further clarify, in tests where nodes were placed on the second or third floor, the measurement would be taken with the client device about two meters away from the node. Finally, included in the graphs are results of other mesh networking systems including the TP-Link Deco M5, Samsung Connect Home Pro, Google Wifi, Linksys Velop, and Netgear Orbi.

 

Single node performance

In this test, we will be looking at the performance of a single TP-Link Deco M9 Plus router in a single-story (using the different distance markers) and multi-story home. All other competitive mesh networking system results are also that of a single node setup.

The performance of a single TP-Link Deco M9 Plus router was a bit of a mixed bag. While download speeds were generally quite good, especially at the 10-meter range, its upload speeds were lacking. At 2 and 5-meter, its upload speeds were the lowest. Like the rest of its competitors, we didn’t manage to establish a meaningful connection at the extreme ranges of 15m and from the second and third floor.

 

Mesh performance at 15 meters

In this test, we placed a second TP-Link Deco M9 Plus node in between the first node and the 15-meter mark to create a mesh network to get signal to the problematic 15-meter mark. We did the same for other mesh networks to see how their performance would compare.

With a node in place, we got pretty respectable numbers. The Deco M9 Plus was clearly faster than the other dual-band mesh networking systems. However, it trailed slightly when compared to other tri-band systems like the Linksys Velop and Netgear Orbi.

Mesh performance on 2nd floor

In this test, we placed a second TP-Link Deco M9 Plus node on the second floor and created a mesh network to expand Wi-Fi coverage on the second floor. We did the same for the other mesh networks to see how their performance would compare.

With a node on the second floor to bridge the distance between our client device and the main router, we got mixed performance. Its upload speed was one of the highest, behind only the Linksys Velop and Netgear Orbi. Its download speed, however, was a little disappointing as it trailed the Netgear Orbi, Google Wifi, and Samsung Connect Home Pro.

 

Mesh performance on 3rd floor

Typically, we would place a third node on the third floor for this test, but since the TP-Link Deco M9 Plus only comes in a two-pack, results that you see here are from me on the third floor connecting to the node on the second floor in the test we did earlier.

While the other systems had a third node, I was still connecting to the Deco M9 Plus node on the second floor for this test since the Deco M9 Plus only comes in a pack of two. Despite this, the Deco M9 Plus’ numbers were very respectable, which is a testament to its range. Its upload speeds were still faster than a 3-pack Deco M5 and its download speeds were surpassed only by the Netgear Orbi.

 

How does it compare to its rivals?

The Deco M9 Plus' price is attractively priced for a tri-band mesh networking system with smart home capabilities.

Performance was mostly a mixed bag. Range is above average but its upload speeds were generally quite a lot poorer than its download speeds. Overall, the Deco M9 Plus was significantly quicker than other dual-band mesh networking systems and it was a good match for the Linksys Velop. If performance is a priority, the Netgear Orbi is still the outright performance king.

Performance may not be its strong suit but the Deco M9 Plus’ smart home capabilities give it a leg up against competing tri-band mesh networking systems in the market. The Velop and Orbi cannot act as smart home hubs. So if you are thinking of adding smart devices to your home, the Deco M9 Plus can streamline that process. The only other mesh networking system with smart home capabilities is the Samsung Connect Home Pro, but that’s a dual-band system and it is really pricey.

Price Comparison
Mesh networking system Price for a set of three
TP-Link Deco M9 Plus S$568
TP-Link Deco M5 S$399
Samsung Connect Home Pro S$894
Google Wifi S$597
Linksys Velop S$689
Netgear Orbi S$949

Speaking of price, that is perhaps the Deco M9 Plus’ strongest suit. At S$568 for three nodes ($369 for a pack of two, S$199 for a single node), it is significantly more affordable than its rivals. The Samsung Connect Home Pro, which is also a mesh networking system with smart home capabilities costs a whopping S$326 or 57% more! In light of its price, performance, and features, the Deco M9 Plus arguably offers the best value.

To sum up, the TP-Link Deco M9 Plus is a competent mesh networking system that offers a lot of value. Performance was a little erratic and upload speeds were generally poor, but it makes up for that with above-average range and competitive download speeds. On the design front, it has a clean aesthetic that should look good in most homes. Finally, it is one of the most attractively priced mesh networking systems in the market.

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