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LG makes early running at Mobile World

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LG is the surprise front-runner in new technology roll-outs at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Barcelona has come to be associated with great football, great food and, for a few days a year, great technology. When the Mobile World Congress comes round every February, the world watches to see where the technology road map will take their smartphones, apps and digital identities.

For the last few years, the technology has been almost as predictable as the food and football, with no surprises as the usual football teams, restaurants and technology brands – think FC Barcelona, the Moments two-Michelin-star restaurant and Samsung Galaxy devices – has continued to dominate the popular imagination.

It therefore comes as shock when a follower – say Espanyol’s football team or a local tapas bar – takes any honours. Or, say, a technology brand like LG.

That’s exactly what happened when the big guns of mobile technology began rolling out their latest products in a series of spectacular launches across the city.

The first brands out of the gate were LG and Huawei, but it was the former that seemed likely to cross the finish line first as it broke with numerous conventions – its own and those of others – in the design of the new LG G5 smartphone.  It has dispensed with the curved screen that tended to be a curiosity rather than a benefit in the G4, and has reduced screen size from the 5.5” phablet format to a more petite 5.3”display. That means it has a deliciously thin form factor: a mere 7.7mm, and dramatically down from the 9.8mm predecessor.

The battery is only slightly smaller, at 2800 mAh compared to 3000 in the G4, One rear camera boasts the same 16Megapixels and 2160p resolution, but a second 8MP camera on the back opens numerous creative options. RAM goes up from 3GB to 4GB, while a more powerful Snapdragon processor – the 820 instead of the 808 – drives the phone.

The standout element is not one specific feature, though, but the overall design: it is a modular phone that allows components to be removed, replaced and added. While it is a “unibody” full-metal device, it allows the bottom to slide out to access expansion card slot and replace the battery – a feature that seems to have become anathema to Apple and Samsung. An optional camera grip, the LG Cam Plus, with battery and hardware controls, can slide in here to turn the phone into a full digital SLR camera.

An add-on co-designed with Bang & Olufsen, the HiFi Plus DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) module, provides high-resolution audio and puts the device in a sound class of its own.

The clue to the potential of the device lies in the repetition of that Plus brand: aside from the Cam Plus and HiFi Plus, we can expect to see many more plus-one modules not only from LG, but also from other developers.

The phone would have been enough to confirm LG’s ascent to new innovation heights, but it has clearly been hard at work across various technology categories. It also unveiled the surround-view LG 360 Cam and a the LG 360 VR, a pair of lightweight virtual reality goggles that link to the phone. The devices are part of a new family of devices called LG Friends, which includes the remote-controlled Rolling Bot robot. It seems almost frivolous alongside the rest of the technology, but has serious applications in home monitoring.

The latest offerings from Samsung, revealed a few hours later, were almost tame in comparison. The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge appear to be almost rthe same devices as last year’s S6 and S6 edge, except more powerful and energy efficient.

Samsung has also backtracked in response to user demands, restoring the SD card slot that allows for expanded storage. It was inexplicably removed from the previous editions, despite the fact that the need is greater than ever before as users generate more high-resolutuon content than ever before. Apple remains the only major hold-out in this regard, but the return of SD to Samsung may just force Apple’s hand as well, the way Samsung did with the success of larger displays.

Samsung’s new phones offer one more feature that put them on the same level as LG: an always-on display that allows notifications, time, date and other inmformation to be viewed even while the phone is in sleep mode.  According to LG, this mode uses less than 1% of battery capacity.

The main shift in the design of the Samsung S7 and S7 edge is in restoring the dust-proof and water-proof feature offered in the S5. An IP 68 rating means it compares well with the market leaders in this particular category, Sony’s Xperia devices.

The latter has also led in camera technology in recent years, but was unable to set the market alight with its Xperia Z-series phones. This week, it unveiled the first “X: series devices, with an Xperia X, Xperia X Performance and Xperia XA. Their main differentiator builds on Sony’s strengths, with what it calls a “next-generation camera”. 

A feature called Predictive Hybrid Autofocus lets users choose a subject and then predicts its motion, so theyu can capture action without blurring.

Sony also builds on a less-well known strength, namely superior batter management. It takes this a step further with Adaptive Charging technology, which promises two full days of usage.

Like LG, it launched the phone with a family of products carrying a unified naming convention, with the likes of the Xperia Ear wireless ear-piece powered by voice technology, the Xperia Eye wearable wide-angle lens camera that can be attached to clothing, and the Xperia Projector for projection on any clear surface of an interface that responds to touch, voice and gestures as if it is on the smartphone screen.

Samsung, for its part, also launched a new virtual reality (VR) product, with the Gear 360 spherical camera, which can capture VR content for viewing on the Gear VR headset.

Some will debate whether LG or Samsung is playing catch-up here, but the real story is the continued innovation by all brands across all areas of mobile technology.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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AppDate: Prepare for space

In this week’s AppDate, SEAN BACHER highlights Space Nation Navigator, Hitman Sniper, Snake Mask, Memrise, WhatsApp Web, and Carrot Weather.

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Space Nation Navigator

Space Nation Navigator is a bit of a strange app. It is part game, part exercise and part educational. On the game side, users have to navigate the Mars Rover, put the International Space Station back into orbit or move their Martians to safety before a sand storm hits Mars. When it comes to exercise, Space Nation Navigator provides users with a range of exercises and Yoga videos to prepare them for space travel and working in an anti-gravity environment. The education aspect teaches users about the planets, and star constellations, and then offers quizzes on what has been taught.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Memrise

Memrise takes a new approach to help people learn new languages. Instead of providing a user with random phrases and words to memorise, the app connects you with a person already fluent in the language you want to learn. In turn, the person you are speaking to wants to learn the language in which you are fluent. Once your profile is filled out and languages selected, it connects you with people around the world who are interested in your language, and then allows you to chat with them in real-time. Memrise also lets one learn new languages through games, chatbots and grammarbots that help with spelling, tenses and pronunciations.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: A free download.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Hitman Sniper

Hitman Sniper is loosely based on the Agent 47 movie released a few years ago. The game offers players the ability to hone their shooting skills through a range of training courses and, once they think they are ready, they can start taking out the bad guys. Things start off easy enough, but they get more and more difficult as one progresses through the 150 missions on offer. One will also have to upgrade various gun components, like scopes, magazine capacities and silencers, to make the missions a little easier. Hitman Sniper lets users buy 16 to tackle each of the missions – either with real money or via the points accumulated by completing missions. Money and points can also be used to upgrade firearms.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: R7 – with a range of in-app purchases.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

 

Snake Mask

The iconic Snake game that was preinstalled on most older Nokia phones has had a complete make-over. It now uses Facebook’s AR technology, meaning that you have to navigate the snake around obstacles in your home or office, all the while collecting coins and stars that change the snake’s speed and length. Unfortunately, Snake Mask is only available on Nokia’s new range of smartphones. However, it should not take long before it slithers onto other devices.

 

Platform: New Nokia smartphones running Android.

Cost: Free to use through the Facebook app installed on the device.

Stockists: Available through the Facebook app.

 

WhatsApp Web

Although this is by no means a new app, it is an extremely useful one, and one that not many people know about. Tapping out WhatsApps on your phone is easy enough, but thanks to WhatsApp Web it can be even easier. Open the WhatApp Web page under WhatsApp and you will see a QR code. Scan this code through WhatsApp on your mobile and you will be shown a replica of what you would normally see on your phone. You can then type and reply to messages using your computer instead of having to stop everything and unlock your phone every time a message comes through. WhatsApp Web is great if you share your computer with other people as it automatically disconnects when the browser is closed. However WhatsApp also offers an app that when installed will stay connected to your phone unless you manually remove it.

 

Platform: Any up-to-date Internet browser

Cost: Free to use and install

Stockists: Visit www.WhatsApp.com

 

Carrot Weather

There are thousands of weather apps on the Internet these days and all of them do the same thing – inform you of the weather in your area. However, Carrot Weather has taken what is just another app and turned it into something fun. By fun, I mean sarcastic, rude and completely politically incorrect. A user starts off by selecting religious and political views. It then asks about personality, ranging from friendly to homicidal to overkill – which includes profanity. So, for instance, instead of waking up to to the standard partly cloudy forecast, Carrot Weather will display something like: “It’s only partly sunny, the sun is a total effing failure.” It also has a range of insults that it throws at you whenever you open the app – some of them downright insulting, so it is definitely not for those who are easily offended. The app’s user interface is very simple, displaying a week’s daily forecast and hourly forecasts for the day selected.

Platform: Android and iOS

Cost: Free to download but with adverts. The premium, advert free version costs R12 per month.

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device.

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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SA Start-up reinvents PABX

For any South African business, the idea of setting up or changing a telephonic switchboard system is the stuff of nightmares. Dealing with expensive hardware and hearing things like QSIG and VOIP is not what you’d call exciting.But now there is an app.

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Enter BuzzBox (www.buzzboxcloud.co.za), a web-based telephone switchboard that is aimed at small and medium sized businesses wanting to take the hassle and cost out of the company switchboard. Whether you are a small one-man operation or a larger organisation with staff working remotely, BuzzBox is the best switchboard solution.

What sets BuzzBox apart from anything else on the market is its easy-to-use dashboard. It puts you in control of everything from picking your phone number to setting up voice prompts and managing your business-hours schedule.

BuzzBox was developed when the startup behind it, Jini-Guru, needed such a service for its own use across multiple continents. “When we started Jini-Guru we could not find a seamless online process that would allow us to set up a full web-based switchboard, so we decided to build one for ourselves,” says Mike Smits, Director at Jini-Guru.

He says a lot of startups today are tech savvy and know how to use apps and the services that go with it. “It’s the uberisation of services and its driving demand for instant service activation.”

BuzzBox works as an app on both iOS and Android but users wanting a desk phone option can choose from a variety of devices on offer or use their existing VOIP phones.

Setting up a BuzzBox account takes 5 minutes. During registration your FICA documents are uploaded [ID and proof or residence] and you get to pick your phone number before the account is created. Companies that want to keep an existing number can do so too.

The real magic happens when you log on to the BuzzBox Dashboard. The main screen displays a summary of statistics for your account while the left-hand menu provides you quick access to various configuration settings and reports.

Setting up new extensions or external numbers is done with a few clicks and you can even set up various departments which is a great way to route a call to various people in a department, like sales or support.

The intuitive user interface also makes it easy to set up hold-music and voice prompts. You can add voice prompts by recording them straight to your phone, just make sure you use a clear voice with quiet surroundings for the best customer experience.

One of the main features of BuzzBox is its call recording feature that allows an organisation to record calls for legislative purposes, such as a lawyer, or for customer service purposes such as support. Recordings are stored securely online, and you have the ability to download recordings for playback. Companies can opt-in for this service and it’s free to use. Recordings are stored online and are fully encrypted so only you can listen to, or download them. Storage costs R1 for every 1000 minutes of stored recordings.

Other features include call forwarding and scheduling. The latter allows you to set office hours for your organisation which will divert calls to an after-hours messaging service. You also have the option to enable routing to an employee who is on call after hours.

BuzzBox also has a reseller program for companies wanting to offer this as a switchboard solution to their existing customers.

The costs for this service is R89 p/m for the first phone number which includes your first extension for free. Thereafter you’ll pay R89p/m per extension. Calls between extensions are free but you pay per second for all outgoing phone calls. More info on pricing can be found here: https://buzzboxcloud.co.za/pricing/

BuzzBox is offering a Launch promotion where they are offering the first line and extension free for 12 months. Only pay for calls. Use promo code “feoifyaa” during sign-up to apply your discount.

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