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Smartphones of the year: clarity at the high-end

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It’s been a wild year in smartphones, with a vast range of new options spelling great confusion in consumer choice. But ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK has no confusion about his high-end phone of the year.

Smartphones become so much more powerful and more aesthetically pleasing every year, it becomes increasingly difficult to choose a stand-out device. Overall features and functionality barely differ from one flagship handset to the next. The result is that one tends to focus on a specific feature or aspect of the phone that stands out from the rest.

This column’s choice of smartphones of the year come down to devices that have exactly that: a stand-out feature or function. This selection excludes phablets – phones with 5.5-inch or larger displays – and focuses on standard-format phones, i.e. smaller than 5.5-inch.

Smartphone of the year: Samsung S6 edge

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The Samsung S6 edge is my choice for smartphone of the year for two compelling reasons. As phones go, it is a beauty to behold. The curved screen edges represent the most significant departure in phone design this year, making it practically the only phone of 2015 to break out of the rectangular block mould.

Initially, the utility of the edge screen was dubious, but once the software was updated to allow apps as well as contacts to be displayed on the edge, it came into its own. It should be said, however, that far more was expected in terms of utilities that specifically took advantage of the format of the secondary screen. There, users are still disappointed.

There has been compensation for this, however, in the dazzling quality of the Super AMOLED display and of photos taken with the 16 MP camera. I have yet to see a phone camera that matches this one for quality and clarity of images. The one-touch automatic light adjustment for shaded images offers almost the equivalent of the LG G4’s manual controls for exposure adjustment. The latter still has the, err, edge in manual settings, but can’t match the S6 for consistent quality in automatic mode.

How does the S6 edge match the Sony Xperia Z in this category, despite the latter’s eye-popping 23MP camera? For one thing, the size of the camera’s sensor plays a bigger role than Megapixels at this level, and both camera’s sport 1/2.6” sensors, as does the G4’s 16MP camera. However, when all else is equal, the software behind the image processing is all-important. Here, Samsung appears to have spent an inordinate amount of laboratory time in ensuring it brings the cutting edge to all its flagship phones, including the S6, S6 edge+ and Note 5, all of which share the same camera specs.

Those for whom high quality photography on the fly is make-or-break on a phone, it will be difficult to look past this one. If aesthetics is their reason to buy the phone, they may want to take heed of a cautionary tale: one cannot keep that gorgeous curved screen in pristine condition without a flip cover. That means its aesthetics will rarely be exposed, except to the user. In other words, not great for those who want a phone for status. I’d be quite happy to enjoy it privately.

Runners-up

The runners-up are all superb phones, but most suffer by their lack of significant advances over previous models.

#2. iPhone 6S

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One can tell that Apple is running put of ideas when it calls its latest phones “the most powerful iPhones ever”. What, a new iPhone would be LESS powerful than the previous model?

Of course, almost every element is improved over the iPhone 6. Of course, it is a better version of a phone that was already superb. And of course, it is a must have for a die-hard iPhone user.

To the casual observer, however, it is the same phone, and it would be absurd to regard it as the best phone of the year. “Second-best” sounds like an insult, but it remains a magnificent device, with a 4.7” screen featuring force touch functionality.

First seen in the Huawei Mate S, touch sensitivity is taken a step further with 3D Touch on the 6S, which allows functionality like previewing content before opening it, from email to Instagram to map locations. That would be enough to keep Apple fans coming back.

#3. Sony Xperia Z5

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If it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for, well, Xperia fans. It has a similar look and feel to the previous editions, from the Z1 through to the Z3+. Sony skipped the Z4, almost as if to say this is a leap in technology.

The main spec change is the camera going from 20 to 23MP and its sensor size increasing from 1/2.3” to 1/2.6”, while the device also becomes even slimmer, from 7.3mm down to 6.9mm. A fingerprint sensor is added, bringing it up to speed with Samsung and Apple competitors.

The camera puts it ahead of the iPhone for photographers, but Sony needs to come up with a real step change rather than tinkering at the edges to be a stronger contender for phone of the year.

#4. HTC OneM9 +

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Like Sony, HTC has also found itself in an arm wrestle of evolution from great previous models to even better new ones. The One M9, like the Xperia Z3+, represented a holding pattern, but the new One M9+ breaks formation. It has a magnificent display, with its 1440 x 2560 pixels and 565 ppi pixel density beaten only by the Samsung S6 phones, and then only marginally.

Like the M9, it has a massive battery, at 2840 mAh, but that translates into a thicker phone, at 9.6mm, which can feel positively clunky against the competition. It stays with a 20MP camera, introducing a second 2.1MP Duo Camera on the rear, but this doesn’t translate into image quality that competes with the Samsung and Sony options.

* 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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SA consumers buy 3.2m smartphones in Q1

Smartphone sales in South Africa grew by 12.4% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018, reaching around 3.2 million units for the period.

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However, the value of the smartphone segment increased by 22.8% as sales of entry-level devices to low- and mid-income consumers continued to drive the market, according to point of sale data from market research firm, GfK South Africa.

GfK South Africa’s data reveals that telecommunications retail enjoyed a strong start to the year, with revenue growing 22.4% year-on-year. The growing popularity of phablets and higher unit prices (as a result of a weaker rand) helped to drive this increase in revenue, against a backdrop of low or negative growth in many segments of the consumer technology market.

“The mobile device market showed good growth in the quarter, despite rising prices during the period under review,” says Norman Muzhona, Solutions Specialist for Telecommunications at GfK South Africa. “In addition to the exchange rate, the introduction of popular, new mid-tier devices by several leading vendors helped to drive higher retail revenues in the telecoms market.”

Information technology retail revenues for the quarter contracted 4.8% compared to 2017, largely because of decreasing monitor prices and a 38.9% decline in tablet revenues. However, desktop computer revenues grew 39% and mobile computing revenues grew 6.5% year-on-year, thanks to higher prices and increased sales of higher-end products.

Says Berno Mare, Solutions Specialist for IT, Office Equipment and Value Added Services: “Retailers introduced new computing devices priced in the R3000 band during the quarter and enjoyed surprisingly strong demand for these entry-level units.

“Telcos enjoyed robust growth in mobile computing retail sales, thanks to credit deals, subsidised contracts and attractive data offers. However, South African consumers are heavily indebted, which may dampen growth for the rest of the year.”

With consumers rapidly migrating to smartphones, sales of traditional mobile phones continued to decline, down 1.6% year-on-year to around 2 million for the quarter. However, the exchange rate and the introduction of higher-priced brands helped to drive a 8.9% year-on-year revenue increase in mobile phone revenues during the period under review.

This follows the 21% drop in mobile phone unit sales in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. “Operators continue to lead the transition from feature phones to smartphones as they pursue higher data revenues,” says Muzhona. “The entry-level market for smartphones is fiercely competitive, and the minimum specs of lower cost smartphones is improving all the time.”

GfK South Africa expects the migration from mobile phones to smartphones to accelerate in 2018. However, it remains to be seen if the introduction of 4G-enabled, Voice-over-LTE-ready feature phones will have any impact on the South African mobile phone market.

Sectors of the consumer electronic market that showed strong growth for the first quarter of 2018 include loudspeakers—revenues up 21.6% year-on-year, thanks to demand of Bluetooth-enabled product—and ultrahigh definition (UHD) panel TVs—where revenues grew 33%, thanks to the growing affordability of the technology. UHD unit shipments were up 76%, while the average selling price of the products fell 24%.

Other market highlights for the first quarter of 2018 include:

  • Photo category revenues were up 8.1% year-on-year.
  • Small domestic appliance revenues grew 8%, following a 10.3% decline in Q1 2016 over Q1 2015. Hot air fryers sold well, as did kettles and toasters.
  • Major domestic appliances showed small year-on-year growth over Q1 2016, despite a decline in average selling price in many sub-categories of this market. Cooling products continued to make the highest contribution to growth in this segment.
  • Office Equipment revenues declined 18% year-on-year, led downwards by lower printer and cartridge sales volumes.
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What kids want online

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Kaspersky Lab’s latest report on the online activities of children – based on statistics received from its solutions and modules with child protection features – highlights children’s online activities and the importance of protecting them when online. For example, video content globally, comprised 17% of searches over the last months. Although many videos watched as a result of these searches may be harmless, it is still possible for children to accidentally end up watching videos that contain inappropriate content.

The report shows anonymised statistics from Kaspersky Lab’s flagship consumer solutions for Windows PCs and Macs that have the Parental Control module switched on and from Kaspersky Safe Kids, a standalone service for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices.

In South Africa, communication sites (such as social media, messengers, or emails) were the most popular pages visited by computers with parental controls switched on – with users in South Africa visiting these sites in 69% of cases over the previous 12 months. Software, audio, and video accounted for 17% of searches. Websites with this content have become significantly more popular since last year, when it was only the fifth most popular category globally at 6%. The top four is rounded off with electronic commerce (4.2%) and alcohol, tobacco, and websites about narcotics (3.9%), which is a new addition compared to this time last year.

The report presents search results on the ten most-popular languages* for the last 6 months. The data shows that the video & audio category – including requests related to any video content, streaming services, video bloggers, series and movies – are the most regularly ‘googled’ by children (17% of the total requests). The second and third places go to translation (14%) and communication (10%) websites respectively. Interestingly, games websites sit in fourth place, generating only 9% of the total search requests.

We can also see a clear language difference for search requests: for example, video and music websites are typically searched for in English, which can be explained by the fact that the majority of movies, TV series and musical groups have English names. Spanish-speaking kids carry out more requests for translation sites, while communication services are mostly searched for in Russian.

More than any other nationality, Chinese-speaking children look for education services, while French-speaking kids are more interested in sport and games websites. In turn, German-speaking requests dominate in the “shopping” category. The leading number of search requests for porn are in Arabic, and for anime are in Japanese.

“Kids in different countries have different interests and online behaviors, but what links them all is their need to be protected online from potentially harmful content. Children looking for animated content could accidentally open a porn video. Or they could start searching for innocent videos and unintentionally end up on websites containing violent content, both of which could have a long-term impact on their impressionable and vulnerable minds,” says Anna Larkina, Web-content Analysis Expert at Kaspersky Lab.

As well as analysing searches, the report also looks into which websites children visit or attempt to visit that contain potentially harmful content which falls under one of the 14 preset categories** for the last 12 months.

The mobile trend is again highlighted in the figures for computer games, which are now in fifth place locally on the list at 3%. As kids continue to show a preference for mobile games rather than computer games, this category will only continue to decrease in popularity on computers over the coming months and years.cleardot.gif

“No matter what they are doing online, it is important for parents not to leave their children’s digital activities unattended, because there’s a big difference between care and obtrusiveness. While it is important to trust your children and educate them about how to behave safely online, even your good advice cannot protect them from something unexpectedly showing up on the screen. That’s why advanced security solutions are key to ensuring children have positive online experiences, rather than harmful ones,” adds Anna Larkina.

The Kaspersky Total Security and Kaspersky Internet Security consumer solutions include a Parental Control module to help adults protect their children against online threats and block sites or apps containing inappropriate content. In turn, the Kaspersky Safe Kids solution allows parents to monitor what their children do, see or search for online across all devices, including mobile devices, and offers useful advice on how to help children behave safely online.

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