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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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Low-cost wireless sport earphones get a kickstart

Wireless earphone brands are common, but not crowdfunded brands. BRYAN TURNER takes the K Sport Wireless for a run.

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As wireless technology becomes better, Bluetooth earphones have become popular in the consumer market. KuaiFit aspires to make them even more accessible to more people through a cheaper, quality product, by selling the K Sport Wireless Earphones directly from its Kickstarter page

KuaiFit has an app by the same name which offers voice-guided personal training services in almost every type of exercise, from cardio to weight-lifting. A vast range of connectivity to third-party sensors is available, like heart rate sensors and GPS devices, which work well with guided coaching. 

The app starts off with selecting a fitness level: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Thereafter, one has the ability to connect with real personal trainers via a subscription to its paid service. The subscription comes free for 6 months with the earphones, and R30 per month thereafter. 

The box includes a manual, a USB to two USB Type B connectors, different sized soft plastic eartips and the two earphone units. Each earphone is wireless and connects to the other independently of wires. This puts the K Sport Wireless in the realm of the Apple Earpods in terms of connection style. 

The earphones are just over 2cm wide and 2cm high. The set is black with a light blue KuaiFit logo on the earphone’s button. 

The button functions as an on/off switch when long-pressed and a play/pause button when quick-pressed. The dual-button set-up is convenient in everyday use, allowing for playback control depending on which hand is free. Two connectivity modes are available, single earphone mode or dual earphone mode. The dual earphone mode intelligently connects the second earphone and syncs stereo audio a few seconds after powering on. 

In terms of connectivity, the earphones are Bluetooth 4.1 with a massive 10-meter range, provided there are no obstacles between the device and the earphones. While it’s not Bluetooth 5, it still falls into the Bluetooth Low Energy connection category, meaning that the smartphone’s battery won’t be drastically affected by a consistent connection to the earphones. The batteries within the earphones aren’t specifically listed but last anywhere between 3 and 6 hours, depending on the mode. 

Audio quality is surprisingly good for earphones at this price point. The headset style is restricted to in-ear due to its small design and probable usage in movement-intensive activities. As a result, one has to be very careful how one puts these earphones, in because bass has the potential of getting reduced from an incorrect in-ear placement. In-ear earphones are usually notorious for ear discomfort and suction pain after extended usage. These earphones are one of the very few in this price range that are comfortable and don’t cause discomfort. The good quality of the soft plastic ear tip is definitely a factor in the high level of comfort of the in-ear earphone experience.

Overall, the K Sport Wireless earphones are great considering the sound quality and the low price: US$30 on Kickstarter.

Find them on Kickstarter here.

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Taxify enters Google Maps

A recent update to Taxify now uses Google Maps which allows users to identify their drivers, find public transport and search for billing options.

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People planning their travel routes using Google Maps will now see a Taxify icon in the app, in addition to the familiar car, public transport, walking and billing options.

Taxify started operating in South Africa in 2016 and as of October 2018 operates in seven South African cities – Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and Polokwane.

Once riders have searched for their destination and asked the app for directions, Google Maps shares the proximity of cars on the Taxify platform, as well as an estimated fare for the trip.

If users see that taking the Taxify option is their best bet, they can simply tap on the ‘Open app’ icon, to complete the process of booking the ride. Customers without the app on their device will be prompted to install Taxify first.

This integration makes it possible for users to evaluate which of the private, public or e-hailing modes of transport are most time-efficient and cost-effective.

“This integration with Google Maps makes it so much easier for users to choose the best way to move around their city,” says Gareth Taylor, Taxify’s country manager for South Africa. “They’ll have quick comparisons between estimated arrival times for the different modes of transport, as well as fares they can expect to pay, which will help save both time and money,” he added.

Taxify rides in Google Maps are rolling out globally today and will be available in more than 15 countries, with South Africa being one of the first countries to benefit from this convenient service.

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