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Moto Mods: towards the next big thing

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Motorola, the name that kicked off the mobile revolution, arrives back in South Africa this week – with more than just a smartphone, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

South Africans associate two brands with the dawn of the mobile revolution: Motorola, which started it all, and Nokia, which practically owned the phone world for a decade. It’s one of the serial ironies of the mobile industry that Nokia killed off Motorola in this market, only to be killed off in turn by BlackBerry, which was then all but destroyed by Apple and Samsung.

Meanwhile, Motorola stayed alive through various incarnations, including a resuscitation attempt by Google. Now, under the stewardship of Lenovo, it is taking another shot at redemption.

And what a shot it is. This week, it will announce the arrival in South Africa of the Moto Z smartphone, a handset that redefines what smartphones can do. At a time when it is conventional wisdom that we can only expect incremental advances in smartphone technology, this may seem absurd.

Moto Z Force Droid Edition product photography

However, it is an absurdity four months in the making. The Moto Z was unveiled in San Francisco in June, along with four add-on devices called Mods. Short for modifications, they take the functionality of smartphones to a new level.

To start with, the Moto Z itself is a revelation. The 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display puts it on a par with anything on the market: a resolution of 2560×1440 and a pixel density of 535 ppi makes for dazzling images and video. Despite these heavy specs, it lies a mere 5.19mm deep, earning the title of the thinnest flagship smartphone in the world. It harks back to the second generation Razr, which itself seemed impossibly thin, at 7.1mm, so many years ago back in 2011.

Some argue that mere mortals wouldn’t notice whether a handset is 5mm or 7mm thick. They’ll notice with this one. The real difference emerges when one attaches an additional device to the back of the handset, and it still fits into a pocket.

The rear of the phone is distinctive for two features: a protruding camera lens, and an array of metal connectors. Both combine to allow easy and instant clipping on of the Mods. A round hole in each of the add-ons aligns instantly with the protruding lens, and the connectors latch onto the magnetic rear of the Mods.

These, in turn, extend the phone’s functionality, in various directions.

Along with the Z’s slightly bulkier sibling, the Moto Z Play, Lenovo has released four Mods. The most exciting is called the Moto Insta-Share, a somewhat retro name for a device that points the way to the future. It is a mini-projector, which projects the phone interface onto any surface. It’s 11mm thick and weighs 125g, about the same as a light smartphone, and attaching the Moto Z seems like adding only a thin layer.

It projects a sharp image at up to 70 inches, which translates into a large TV display. In other words, one can use it to view ShowMax, Netflix or any other videos streamed or stored via the phone. With an adjustable fold-out kickstand, it also makes for a great presentation device. The one drawback is that it requires a fairly dark environment for optimal viewing, meaning it can’t replace TV sets in all conditions. Yet.

While it can use the phone’s power supply, the Insta-Share also houses an 1100 mAh battery, which allows for around an hour of additional viewing. The Moto Z’s own 2600 mAh battery provides the phone with up to 30 hours of mixed use.

The Insta-Share points to a future where a phone’s interface will be displayed or used on any surface, and will make the specs of the handset irrelevant, as the user will only interact with the display. The phone and its projector may as well be housed in a necklace or ring. But that is still a few generations away.

A Mod that generated similar levels of enthusiasm at the launch, the Hasselblad True Zoom, turns the phone into something closer to a DSLR camera.

The camera on the Moto Z itself is not too slack: at 13MP with f/1.8 aperture and dual LED flash, it compares well with the market-leading Samsung S7 edge. It captures video in full HD as well as 4K.

So far so great. Now add the Hasselblad. Photographers will appreciate the specs: a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS sensor, focal length of 4.5-45 mm, equivalent to 25-250mm on a 35mm camera, 10x optical and 4x digital zoom, with macro zoom of 5cm @1x to 1.5m @10x. A wheel next to the shutter button controls the zoom function, with the lens protruding or retracting accordingly.

The strategy is to adapt the phone for any number of special interests. The JBL Soundboost mod turns it into a boombox, while the Incipio Offgrid power pack is a 2200 mAh add-on battery, for another 22 hours of usage.

Lenovo has issued a challenge – with $1-million in funding – for the best prototypes of third party mods. If the challenge turns into a viable and sustainable build-out of a new ecosystem around the Moto Z, the Motorola brand will be propelled far beyond its nostalgia value.

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  • 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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Rain, Telkom Mobile, lead in affordable data

A new report by the telecoms regulator in South Africa reveal the true consumer champions in mobile data costs

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The latest bi-annual tariff analysis report produced by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) reveals that Telkom Mobile data costs for bundles are two-thirds lower than those of Vodacom and MTN. On the other hand, Rain is half the price again of Telkom. 

The report focuses on the 163 tariff notifications lodged with ICASA during the period 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2018.

“It seeks to ensure that there is retail price transparency within the electronic communications sector, the purpose of which is to enable consumers to make an informed choice, in terms of tariff plan preferences and/or preferred service providers based on their different offerings,” said Icasa.

ICASA says it observed the competitiveness between licensees in terms of the number of promotions that were on offer in the market, with 31 promotions launched during the period. 

The report shows that MTN and Vodacom charge the same prices for a 1GB and a 3GB data bundle at R149 and R299 respectively.  On the other hand, Telkom Mobile charges (for similar-sized data bundles) R100 (1GB) and R201 (3GB). Cell C discontinued its 1GB bundle, which was replaced with a 1.5GB bundle offered at the same price as the replaced 1GB data bundle at R149. 

Rain’s “One Plan Package” prepaid mobile data offering of R50 for a 1GB bundle remains the most affordable when compared to the offers from other MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) and MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators).  

“This development should have a positive impact on customers’ pockets as they are paying less compared to similar data bundles and increases choice,” said Icasa.

The report also revealed that the cost of out-of-bundle data had halved at both MTN and Vodacom, from 99c per Megabyte a year ago to 49c per Megabyte in the first quarter of this year. This was still two thirds more expensive than Telkom Mobile, which has charged 29c per Megabyte throughout this period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, from having positioned itself as consumer champion in recent years, Cell C has fallen on hard times, image-wise: it is by far the most expensive mobile network for out-of-bundle data, at R1.10 per Megabyte. Its prices have not budged in the past year.

The report highlights the disparities between the haves and have-nots in the dramatically plummeting cost of data per Megabyte as one buys bigger and bigger bundles on a 30-day basis (see graph below).

For 20 Gigabyte bundles, all mobile operators are in effect charging 4c per Megabyte. Only at that level do costs come in at under Rain’s standard tariffs regardless of use.

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Qualcomm wins 5G as Apple and Intel cave in

A flurry of announcements from three major tech players ushered in a new mobile chip landscape, wrItes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Last week’s shock announcement by Intel that it was canning its 5G modem business leaves the American market wide open to Qualcomm, in the wake of the latter winning a bruising patent war with Apple.

Intel Corporation announced its intention to “exit the 5G smartphone modem business and complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices”.

Intel said it would also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business, sharpening its focus on a market expected to be dominated by Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

Intel said it would continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G smartphone modem product line, but did not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020. In other words, it would no longer be supplying chips for iPhones and iPads in competition with Qualcomm.

“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel, and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realise the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”

The news came immediately after Qualcomm and Apple issued a joint announced of an agreement to dismiss all litigation between the two companies worldwide. The settlement includes a payment from Apple to Qualcomm, along with a six-year license agreement, and a multiyear chipset supply agreement.

Apple had previously accused Qualcomm of abusing its dominant position in modem chips for smartphones and charging excessive license fees. It ordered its contract manufacturers, first, to stop paying Qualcomm for the chips, and then to stop using the chips altogether, turning instead to Intel.
With Apple paying up and Intel pulling out, Qualcomm is suddenly in the pound seats. It shares hit their highest levels in five years after the announcements.

Qualcomm said in a statement: “As we lead the world to 5G, we envision this next big change in cellular technology spurring a new era of intelligent, connected devices and enabling new opportunities in connected cars, remote delivery of health care services, and the IoT — including smart cities, smart homes, and wearables. Qualcomm Incorporated includes our licensing business, QTL, and the vast majority of our patent portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Strategy Analytics released a report on the same day that showed Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia will lead the market in core 5G infrastructure, namely Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment, by 2023 as the 5G market takes off. Huawei is expected to have the edge as a result of the vast scale of the early 5G market in China and its long term steady investment in R&D. According to a report entitled “Comparison and 2023 5G Global Market Potential for leading 5G RAN Vendors – Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia”, two outliers, Samsung and ZTE, are expected to expand their global presence alongside emerging vendors as competition heats up.

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