The annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Sunday saw one of the biggest mobile device launch days ever, with South Africa now a priority territory, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
When ten of the world’s largest mobile manufacturers launch new devices in the same 24-hour period, it’s clear that battle has been joined in one of the most competitive markets in the world.
Samsung, Alcatel, HTC, Sony, Microsoft, Acer, Lenovo, Huawei, LG and ZTE all unveiled new flagship smartphones, tablets or smartwatches at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.
Most eyes were, as usual, on Samsung, both to see what the world’s smartphone leader would come up with next, and for a sense of whether it has been able to play catch-up with deadly rival Apple once again.
It didn’t disappoint on either score, although there were few surprises. In the same way as Apple’s launches nowadays confirm rumours and expectations, it’s become difficult for Samsung to pull any rabbits out of the hat.
The biggest surprise was probably that the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge were smaller than their predecessor, if only marginally so. At 5.1-inches compared to the S5’s 5.2-inches, it bucked the trend of ever-larger smartphones. However, it was set apart by the introduction of a curved screen comprising a second display area – a feature that previously had only been seen on the large format Samsung Note Edge, launched late last year.
Samsung Galaxy S6
The user can decide whether the edge screen occupies the left or right side of the phone’s display, giving the device a symmetry that was lacking in the Note Edge. Neither of the phones resembles their predecessor, overcoming one of the biggest criticisms of the S5, which was almost indistinguishable from the S3 and S4 at a glance.
More notably, the phones represent a leap from the S5, which proved something of a damp squib last year due to its sense of “sameness”. This time round, there is a sense of looking further than just the phone itself, with the introduction of Samsung Pay, a direct challenge to the Apple Pay service currently being rolled out in the United States.
It combines fingerprint recognition, near field communication (NFC) for making payments with a tap of the phone on an NFC payment device, and a technology called magnetic secure transmission (MST) that allows the phone to be used for credit card payments on old-fashioned magnetic stripe machines.
From a South African perspective, the most significant aspect of the phones is that the local release will occur simultaneously with the global release across 20 countries on April 10. This positions South Africa as a priority market for Samsung.
A brand that has been quietly emerging from under the radar to become one of the most serious challengers to the leaders has taken a similar view of South Africa.
Alcatel OneTouch is now the fourth biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world, from being almost invisible just three years ago. Alcatel Idol 3
It launched its new OneTouch idol3 flagship phones on Sunday with the intention of offering premium quality devices at mid-tier prices. As with Apple’s iPhone 6 release, it has produced both a 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch version. And like Samsung, it has included South Africa in the first wave of releases.
The phones will be released in this country around May as part of a global launch across 30 priority markets. The larger of the units will probably cost around R3000 – a quarter of the R12 000-plus price-tag expected for the Samsung S6 edge.
The idol3 is premised on being the “Zara of the mobile world”, inspired by the fashion brand’s focus on bringing the latest fashions to market at accessible prices, while continuing to innovate in its own right. So, for example, it offers the best camera experience in its price range, with a 13 Megapixel rear camera and a feature called Fast Face Focus, which detects faces in 0.15 seconds. Along with HDR real-time video at 30 frames per second, it has the potential of changing the status of mid-tier smartphones.
HTC, Acer and Lenovo all released new handsets at MWC, while Acer, LG, and Huawei revealed new smartwatches. Huawei and Sony kept their new smartphone plans under wraps, but the latter made a splash with the new Xperia Z4 tablet. Its 6,1mm thickness once again gives Sony bragging rights for the thinnest 10-inch tablet in the world, yet able to claim 17 hours battery life. HTC M9
Acer intensified its focus on new categories outside the laptop, showing off its smartwatch capabilities with the Liquid Leap. More significantly, however, it released a range of new smartphones, led by the Liquid M220, the first in the Liquid range to run on the Windows Phone 8.1 operating system. It will also be upgradable to Windows Phone 10, representing a shot in the arm for Microsoft as well as to its own credentials as a broad-based consumer electronics brand. Acer Liquid M220
Camera power was a standout feature of the new phone launches, with Samsung in particular making a point that the 16 Megapixel rear camera and 8 Megapixel front camera on its S6 phones produced superior images to anything the iPhone could deliver.
However, the most serious camera claims were made by HTC, which launched its new flagship, the One M9, packing a 20 Megapixel rear camera. Until now, only Sony had standardised on that size. Combined with an automatic photo editing app called Zoe and high-quality audio, the multimedia credentials gave the M9 a place among the standout devices at MWC.
Even Microsoft was in on the mobile action yesterday, firmly consigning the Nokia brand to mobile history by unveiling two new Microsoft Lumia devices. The 64 and 640XL also take a dual-device strategy, with a 5-inch and 5.7-inch version, both running Windows Phone 8.1 and upgradeable to Windows 10 when it arrives. Microsoft 640
The smartphone war was supposed to be over a long time ago. In Barcelona, however, the troops are digging in for a long battle ahead.
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets