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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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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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