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Samsung S9 extends lead – and catches up

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The new Samsung S9 smartphones launched in Barcelona on Sunday introduce killer features that other phones had last year, but add a few of their own, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

What do you do when you produce the world’s most advanced gadgets in their class, but a distant rival knocks the spots off you in one category?

If you’re Apple, it can take a few years to admit the shortfall, because you have so much else going for you. If you’re Samsung, on the other hand, you incorporate those features as quickly as possible, and add enough others so that the gadget extends its cutting edge in as many other categories as possible.

The new Galaxy S9 and S9+, launched at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on Sunday, have taken already superb camera functionality and made it the best in the world. To do this, however, they’ve had to catch up with the cutting edge delivered by Sony a year ago, at the 2017 edition of MWC.

The standout feature of the Sony Xperia XZ Premium – also subsequently built into the XZ1 and XZ Pro – is its ability to capture video in 960 frames per second. This means it can replay in slow-motion, and capture still images of micro-moments of an action video.

This week, Samsung announced 960 fps video on the S9 and S9+.

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And then there was the XZ’s ability to create 3D images by panning the camera round a face, head or physical object.  The S9 and S9+ introduce the ability to create animated avatars, using 3D face modeling and tracking.

So far so similar. On the surface.

Samsung made a dramatic departure, however, in the capabilities it adds to these features.

The most significant hardware improvement lurks in its rear-camera set-up. Until now, the widest aperture available on a phone camera was f1.6, first introduced in the LG V30+, followed by the Huawei mate 10 Pro. The Samsung S8 came in at f1.7, meaning it let in a little less light than the LG and Huawei devices, potentially giving the rivals an edge in low-light photography.

Now, the S9 and S9+ raise the light bar with a lens that takes this year’s line honours for aperture. In a bold move, the main lenses on the rear of both phones feature moving parts that make it the most complex phone camera yet. It allows for the aperture to adjust automatically, based on light conditions, starting at f2.4 for bright li. It adjusts all the way down to f1.5 as light fades, promising to take low-light photography on a phone to new depths of darkness.

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The S9+ offers an even more moving experience, with a second rear lens that features 2X optical zoom and 8X digital zoom, matching the market-leading specifications of Samsung’s large-format Note 8.

The camera is central to another Samsung leap forward, although here it is software innovation that differentiates the phone. Where Apple’s iPhone X introduced the Animoji, an option to personalise one of a dozen animal emojis with one’s own expressions and sound, the S9 phones allow for users to turn their own faces and expressions into emojis.

Erin Willis, Samsung senior manager for channel marketing, put it neatly into perspective at the S9 launch on Sunday: “From emoticons to emojis, these are symbols and shortcuts that helped us to express a mood or emotion, but it didn’t help us express ourselves as individuals. Now you can map your facial expressions and emotions to make emojis that look like you.”

The function allows the user to take a selfie in augmented reality (AR) emoji mode, simulate the expression of the user, and adapt it into an avatar – a digital representation of the individual. As with Animojis, the user can add voice notes to the emoji. Unlike the Apple version, it can be shared with friends in messaging apps regardless of what smartphones they have. Up to 18 personalised emojis can be created in this way, along with a variety of characters that can have one’s own expressions added.

A partnership with the Walt Disney Company means that several Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Incredibles, can also be turned into AR emojis.

This is likely to prove an ingenious viral marketing vehicle, as users increasingly send what one could call selfie emojis to each other. The more people receive these compelling messaging objects, the more they are likely to want to send similar messages on to others. And this is probably just the beginning.

“What was announced in terms of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Incredibles has now created the association with Disney,” said Craige Fleischer, vice president of IT Mobile at Samsung Africa, at the launch. “We do believe that the relationship will expand to include other Disney properties in time.”

While Fleischer was not able to spell it out, this suggested that franchises like Star Wars would eventually enter the emoji world, providing Samsung with yet another opportunity to create viral marketing messages.

The handsets break ground in several other areas, including “intelligent biometrics”, a fusion of iris and facial recognition, allowing users to choose the log-in or authentication method that suits them best. It is likely, however, that many users will not discover a high proportion of the phone’s features.

That won’t be a bad thing in itself, as even what people don’t use will provide guidance in what should be added to devices in the future. As Samsung mobile head DJ Koh put it at the launch, “It’s only when technology is in people’s hands, that real magic happens and our lives are transformed.”

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CES: So long, and thanks for all the beer!

Last week, the Las Vegas expo showed off its fun side with state-of-the-art technologies for enjoying beer, writes BRYAN TURNER

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From craft beer-making machines to robots that pour beer, CES had more beer than usual in Las Vegas last week. And even free beer if you found the right stand. Stampede’s saloon-style booth offered beer to visitors who tried out its latest drones, virtual reality, and other gaming products. No beer tech, though.

Here are some of the beer technologies that stood out:

LG HomeBrew – Craft beer made at home

LG’s HomeBrew craft beer-making machine,  debuted at CES 2019, brings the brewing process home thanks to single-use capsules,  a self-cleaning feature, and an algorithm optimised for fermentation. 

Like a Nespresso coffee machine, the beer maker uses capsules, which contain malt, yeast, hop oil and flavouring. At the press of a button, LG HomeBrew automates the whole procedure from fermentation and carbonation to ageing. A companion app lets users check HomeBrew’s status at any time during the process, from their handsets.

The beer machine not only offers a simple way to make craft beer, but also enhances the quality of beer it makes. The fermentation algorithm intelligently controls the fermenting process with precise temperature and pressure control. It automatically sanitises itself, using nothing more than hot water, ensuring everything is hygienically clean for the next batch.

Designed with discerning beer lovers in mind, HomeBrew allows for in-home production of batches of more than 4 litres of beer in a variety of styles. The following five distinctive, flavoured beers are available now: 

  • Hoppy American IPA
  • Golden American Pale Ale
  • Full-bodied English Stout
  • Zesty Belgian-style Witbier
  • Dry Czech Pilsner

The only catch? It takes about two weeks to make, depending on the beer type.

“LG HomeBrew is the culmination of years of home appliance and water purification technologies that we’ve developed over the decades,” said Dan Song, president of LG Electronics Home Appliance & Air Solutions Company. “Homebrewing has grown at an explosive pace, but there are still many beer lovers who haven’t taken the jump because of the barriers to entry, like complexity, and these are the consumers we think will be attracted to LG HomeBrew.”

Click here to read about the party speaker that holds beer and robots that pour beer.

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CES: Alienware gets Legend-ary

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At CES in Las Vegas last week, Dell’s Alienware released a family of high-end, thin, light, and affordable machines for both amateur and professional gamers – and a new identity.

Alienware marked CES 2019 as a brand milestone with the debut of a new design identity, Alienware Legend. It aims to set a new bar of excellence for what gamers want most – performance and function. Alienware says it evaluated multiple concepts and chose one that was the biggest and boldest departure from its current look.

Alienware Legend, says the company, stays true to the brand’s core design tenets, taking cues from its deep roots in sci-fi culture and its early industrial designs, to distinguish the brand from the rest of the industry. The new Legend design is optimised with cutting-edge thermal cooling technology to achieve and sustain overclocking power, improved AlienFX lighting, and ultra-thin screen borders. It also unveiled a new “three-knuckle hinge” design that reduces the overall dimension while creating a stronger assembly, all combining to yield a better gaming experience.

“We’re excited to come to this year’s CES with some truly groundbreaking products, next-gen software and strategic partnerships that will bring more people to experience PC gaming and advance the industry,” said Frank Azor, vice president and general manager of Alienware. “The legend design answers the call for more and better from our gaming community, and the new G Series laptops will make PC gaming even more accessible to those looking for high-performance gaming at a cost they can appreciate.”

Click here to read about Alienware Legend in action with the Area-51m and m-series laptops

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