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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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Deezer to host Hotstix’s Mandela tribute playlist

Deezer is celebrating Nelson Mandela on the centenary of his birthday by hosting a tribute playlist created by music legend Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.  

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Mabuse, a legendary figure in African music, first rose to prominence in the 1970s with his band Harari and later developed a name for himself as a solo artist. One of his best known songs was the global hit BurnOut in the 1980s.

The playlist takes the listener on a captivating musical journey through the life of Nelson Mandela.  It was compiled by Mabuse, who consulted with Mandela’s family and friends to ensure that the music would be relevant and accurate. The playlist also features commentary by Mabuse, which was recorded in his Soweto home.  

“I have tried to tell the story of the music that Madiba loved,” says Mabuse. “The Playlist excludes the time in prison obviously, as Madiba would not have had exposure to music in that time.  We have focused on the music we know he loved before and after that period. This recording was really an emotional journey for me, but an incredible opportunity to document these memories.”

The playlist features the music the young Mandela loved, such as The Manhattan Brothers, Solomon Linda, Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba.  It includes struggle songs from Chicco, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.  The playlist also includes Mandela by Zahara, one of the younger artists who caught Madiba’s ear.

Mabuse also offers stories of his own songs, such as Shikisha, a song greatly beloved by the former President.

“I was delighted to share my thoughts and hope the listeners enjoyed the musical journey,” says Mabuse. “Madiba did enjoy music immensely and we all have a purpose wherever we are in the world to celebrate culture and to learn from different cultures and music forms and styles.”

This playlist was inspired by the Nelson Mandela 100 campaign, calling on corporates and individuals to act as sources of inspiration and engage in conversation and action.

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Sports streaming takes off

Live streaming of sports is coming of age as a mainstream method of viewing big games, as the latest FIFA World Cup figures from the UK show. Africa isn’t yet at the same level when it comes to the adoption of sports streaming, but usage is clearly moving in the right direction.

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England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden was watched by just under 20 million viewers in the UK via BBC One. While this traditional broadcast audience was huge, it was streaming that broke records: the game was the BBC’s most popular online-viewed live programme ever, with 3.8 million views. In Africa, the absolute numbers are lower but the trend towards streaming major sports events on the continent is also well under way.

According to DStv, live streaming of sports dominates the usage figures for its live and recorded TV streaming app, DStv Now. The number of people using the app in June was five times higher than a year ago, with concurrent views peaking during major football and rugby games.

Since the start of the World Cup, average weekday usage of DStv Now is up 60%. The absolute peak in concurrent usage for one event was reached on 26 June, during the Nigeria vs Argentina game. The app’s biggest ever test was on 16 June with both Springbok Rugby and World Cup Football under way at the same time, resulting in concurrent in-app views seven times higher than the peaks seen in June last year.

The World Cup has also been a major reason for new users to download and try out the app. First-time app user volumes have tripled on Android and doubled on iOS since the start of the tournament.

“While we expected live sports streaming to take off, it’s also been pleasing to see that the app is really popular for watching shows on Catch Up,” says MultiChoice South Africa Chief Operating Officer Mark Rayner. “Interestingly, some of the most popular Catch Up shows are local, with Isibaya, Binnelanders, The Queen and The River all getting a significant number of views.”

With respect to app usage, the web and Android apps are the most popular way to watch DStv Now, with Android outpacing iOS by a factor of 2:1.

“We’re continuing to develop DStv Now, with 4k streaming in testing and smart TV and Apple TV apps on their way shortly,” says Rayner. “The other key priority for us is working with the telcos to deliver mobile data propositions that make watching online painless and worry-free for our customers.”

The DStv Now app is free to all 10 million DStv customers in Africa. The app streams DStv live channels as well as supplying an extended Catch Up library. Two separate streams can be watched on different devices simultaneously, and content can also be downloaded to smartphones and tablets. The content available on the app varies according to the DStv package subscribed to.

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