How much more can manufacturers do with smartphones? Six new releases offer numerous clues, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the first of a two-part series.
Will it bend? Will it float? Will it think? Will it simply disappear?
Smartphone manufacturers wrestle with these and numerous other questions from consumers who believe handset innovation has run its course. The questions do not embody expectations, but rather disbelief that there’s anywhere else for phones to go.
However, the phone makers keep revealing new frontiers and new ways to be smart. The same questions were being asked three years ago when Samsung was planning the Galaxy S6, the first phone with curved-edge screens. And when it was building the “infinity” edge-to-edge display of the S8 this year.
They were being asked before Huawei announced the first dual-rear camera in the P9, and the first artificial intelligence capability in the Mate 9, last year. They were also being asked last year before Motorola unveiled the Mod family of snap-on accessories for the Moto Z, which also happened to be the thinnest flagship phone in the world at the time.
It’s more than three years since LG showed off the first curved-body – and slightly bendable – phone with the Flex. No one has followed suit, because there was no serious use for that functionality. Two years later they came up with a modular phone, the G5, with interchangeable parts. That also didn’t take off, due to the invasiveness of the interchanging process.
Apple, of course, keeps innovating, although it now tends to play catch-up instead of leading smartphone innovation, as it did for at least five years after the 2007 launch of the iPhone. But it was still the first with fingerprint recognition on a phone, with Touch ID on the iPhone 5S in 2013.
Even the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t Nokia still surprises, introducing two-way selfies – which they call “bothies” – in the Nokia 8 this year.
As these examples show, innovation is no longer about a revolution in gadgetry, but about steady increases in functionality.
Did someone say “performance”? Yes, performance keeps improving, but that’s a given. Every year, when Apple announces that its latest handset is “the best iPhone ever”, many observers grit their teeth at the obviousness of the statement.
The very basis of technology evolution is the ability to put more computing capacity into smaller spaces every year, resulting in the ability of any technology manufacturer to deliver improved performance with every new iteration of any device. If performance does not improve, it’s usually because someone isn’t doing their engineering job.
On that note, we consider the latest devices from Huawei, Samsung, Apple, LG, Sony, and even the little-known phone brand CAT, more renowned for bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment. First, this week, we look at the latter three:
LG V30+: a multimedia dream
Every year for the past four years, LG has announced a “revolutionary” new phone. Every year, the media have looked, marvelled, and moved on. In most cases, it was more novelty than revolution.
Now, it is allowing the phone to speak for itself. And the new LG V30+ is eloquent indeed.
From the front, with its curved edges, it is easily confused with the Samsung S8. The curve runs through to the back, and both front and back are coated in Corning Gorilla Glass 5, giving it an ultra-smooth look and feel. The edges are made of an aluminum alloy and, with an H-beam construction method for greater tensile strength, makes it more impact resistance than most flagship phones. It is designed for outdoors, rated IP68 for dust and water resistance.
A 3300 mAh battery supports wireless charging as well as Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 – charging from zero to 50% in half an hour.
The most remarkable aspect of the phone is how light it is. Despite a Quad HD 6” display, it feels like a 5” handset, and weighs only 158g.
The V30+ is claimed to be the world’s first phone with a camera lens aperture of f1.6, meaning it lets in more light than any other phone camera. It marginally edges out the f1.7 aperture of the Samsung S8 range. It carries two rear lenses, with one a 13 megapixel wide angle lens, and the wide aperture lens being a standard angle, 16 megapixel lens using Crystal Clear, LG’s own standard for the first glass lens on a phone.
The front camera has a 5MP wide-angle lens with f2.2 aperture, allowing group “wefies” as opposed to one- or two-person selfies. A function called Graphy brings up pre-loaded sample photos that allow the user to choose a mood or style, and apply it to a new photo being taken.
An additional range of video and audio functions and capabilities – supported by
a Cine Video mode that is claimed to produce movie-quality videos, and Hi-Fi Quad DAC audio, with sound tuning by B&O PLAY – make the phone a multimedia dream.
Sony XZ1: the creator’s edition
The Sony Z series was legendary for its camera performance, with images outshining those from phones with more megapixels, lenses and shooting modes. With the XZ series, it is doing the same with video.
The XZ1 carries the same functionality as the XZ Premium, unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. So, for example it uses the Motion Eye camera system, which allows it to records video in 960 frames per second. This, in turn, allows ultra-slow motion video playback function, so that the phone can capture high-speed action and freeze individual frames. That lets the user capture movement that is not usually visible with the naked eye.
The most novel feature of the phone is its ability to create 3D images. By panning the camera round a face, head or physical object, the user creates an image that can be viewed from any angle, and built into 3D environments. It takes practise, but is one of the few phone features on any phone that lives up to the promise of making the user more creative.
It appears, however, that Sony’s heavy investment in time, as well as research and development, on camera capability has come at the expense of design. The boxy rectangular shape has barely changed since the start of the Z series, and makes the phone appear dated alongside the sleek new designs of its main competitors.
However, one can see this as camouflage: it hides capabilities that will make many photographers and videographers weep at the investment they had made into bulky equipment that is often matched in output by a handheld device.
CAT S41: Phone for the field
This is the one most people will never hear about, because they are not in the target market. It is built for a category known as rugged phones, with a brand known for its rugged equipment.
CAT is short for Caterpillar, famed for its bulldozers and other industrial equipment. It has licensed the brand to Bullitt Mobile to make phones that are intended to operate in the same environment as its other machinery. In other words, it has to be rugged, durable, and designed with both the nature of field usage and the nature of the environment in mind.
For this reason, its two most important features are its tough shell and its large battery. The rubberised edges take into account the hits the phone will take from being dropped, knocked around and exposed to the elements. It is rated IP 68 for water- and dust-resistance, and can withstand a 1.8 metre fall onto concrete.
The battery is a mammoth 5000mAh, offering 38 hours talk time and no less than 44 days standby time, meaning one can take it where electricity does not follow
For its specific purpose, this is probably the best smartphone in the world.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.