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Smartphones of the year: clarity at the high-end

It’s been a wild year in smartphones, with a vast range of new options spelling great confusion in consumer choice. But ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK has no confusion about his high-end phone of the year.

Smartphones become so much more powerful and more aesthetically pleasing every year, it becomes increasingly difficult to choose a stand-out device. Overall features and functionality barely differ from one flagship handset to the next. The result is that one tends to focus on a specific feature or aspect of the phone that stands out from the rest.

This column’s choice of smartphones of the year come down to devices that have exactly that: a stand-out feature or function. This selection excludes phablets – phones with 5.5-inch or larger displays – and focuses on standard-format phones, i.e. smaller than 5.5-inch.

Smartphone of the year: Samsung S6 edge

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The Samsung S6 edge is my choice for smartphone of the year for two compelling reasons. As phones go, it is a beauty to behold. The curved screen edges represent the most significant departure in phone design this year, making it practically the only phone of 2015 to break out of the rectangular block mould.

Initially, the utility of the edge screen was dubious, but once the software was updated to allow apps as well as contacts to be displayed on the edge, it came into its own. It should be said, however, that far more was expected in terms of utilities that specifically took advantage of the format of the secondary screen. There, users are still disappointed.

There has been compensation for this, however, in the dazzling quality of the Super AMOLED display and of photos taken with the 16 MP camera. I have yet to see a phone camera that matches this one for quality and clarity of images. The one-touch automatic light adjustment for shaded images offers almost the equivalent of the LG G4’s manual controls for exposure adjustment. The latter still has the, err, edge in manual settings, but can’t match the S6 for consistent quality in automatic mode.

How does the S6 edge match the Sony Xperia Z in this category, despite the latter’s eye-popping 23MP camera? For one thing, the size of the camera’s sensor plays a bigger role than Megapixels at this level, and both camera’s sport 1/2.6” sensors, as does the G4’s 16MP camera. However, when all else is equal, the software behind the image processing is all-important. Here, Samsung appears to have spent an inordinate amount of laboratory time in ensuring it brings the cutting edge to all its flagship phones, including the S6, S6 edge+ and Note 5, all of which share the same camera specs.

Those for whom high quality photography on the fly is make-or-break on a phone, it will be difficult to look past this one. If aesthetics is their reason to buy the phone, they may want to take heed of a cautionary tale: one cannot keep that gorgeous curved screen in pristine condition without a flip cover. That means its aesthetics will rarely be exposed, except to the user. In other words, not great for those who want a phone for status. I’d be quite happy to enjoy it privately.

Runners-up

The runners-up are all superb phones, but most suffer by their lack of significant advances over previous models.

#2. iPhone 6S

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One can tell that Apple is running put of ideas when it calls its latest phones “the most powerful iPhones ever”. What, a new iPhone would be LESS powerful than the previous model?

Of course, almost every element is improved over the iPhone 6. Of course, it is a better version of a phone that was already superb. And of course, it is a must have for a die-hard iPhone user.

To the casual observer, however, it is the same phone, and it would be absurd to regard it as the best phone of the year. “Second-best” sounds like an insult, but it remains a magnificent device, with a 4.7” screen featuring force touch functionality.

First seen in the Huawei Mate S, touch sensitivity is taken a step further with 3D Touch on the 6S, which allows functionality like previewing content before opening it, from email to Instagram to map locations. That would be enough to keep Apple fans coming back.

#3. Sony Xperia Z5

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If it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for, well, Xperia fans. It has a similar look and feel to the previous editions, from the Z1 through to the Z3+. Sony skipped the Z4, almost as if to say this is a leap in technology.

The main spec change is the camera going from 20 to 23MP and its sensor size increasing from 1/2.3” to 1/2.6”, while the device also becomes even slimmer, from 7.3mm down to 6.9mm. A fingerprint sensor is added, bringing it up to speed with Samsung and Apple competitors.

The camera puts it ahead of the iPhone for photographers, but Sony needs to come up with a real step change rather than tinkering at the edges to be a stronger contender for phone of the year.

#4. HTC OneM9 +

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Like Sony, HTC has also found itself in an arm wrestle of evolution from great previous models to even better new ones. The One M9, like the Xperia Z3+, represented a holding pattern, but the new One M9+ breaks formation. It has a magnificent display, with its 1440 x 2560 pixels and 565 ppi pixel density beaten only by the Samsung S6 phones, and then only marginally.

Like the M9, it has a massive battery, at 2840 mAh, but that translates into a thicker phone, at 9.6mm, which can feel positively clunky against the competition. It stays with a 20MP camera, introducing a second 2.1MP Duo Camera on the rear, but this doesn’t translate into image quality that competes with the Samsung and Sony options.

* 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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Cisco gives pre-owned tech a Refresh

In a market of constant upgrades, Cisco Refresh aims to keep quality product away from landfills, writes BRYAN TURNER.

When one gets a new smartphone upgrade, the old device may be used as a backup or can be used by someone else. In business environments, equipment upgrades may not be conducive to keeping old equipment around, which may send older, working equipment to landfills.

This is where Cisco’s Refresh initiative comes in. At Cisco Connect in Sun City this week, Ehrika Gladden, VP and general manager of Cisco Refresh, lifted the lid on a little-known aspect of the company’s strategy. 

“Refresh is Cisco’s global pre-owned equipment business unit,” said Gladden. “It is certified to meet the quality and engineering standards of Cisco. It is licensed for software and it’s also inclusive of a services warranty.

“Our responsibility in 80 countries around the world is tied to both the recovery of assets and the ability to leverage those assets at a lower price point. This ensures our sustainability and proper usage of the Earth’s resources while providing access to small and medium businesses. The products are typically in the range of 20-40% cheaper. The products represent the entire portfolio for Cisco in some part, the majority of that product set is 2+ years in terms of generation.”

Cisco’s Circular Economy initiative ensures a sustainable loop through businesses willing to pay a premium for the latest, cutting-edge solutions, while Cisco markets older, working equipment for resale to those who don’t require the latest solutions. This ensures far less new components need to be used in a product range.

“We are leveraging the model of remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and reusing,” said Gladden. “Depending on the product set, there is a certain set of product yield that we expect. They vary from product to product, but we do have a percentage that doesn’t make it through.

“Those are always reused, meaning we will look at those products and decide to use them completely differently, leveraging the components, remanufacturing back into the overall build process. If that can’t be done, we will go into a recycle process where we melt those products down to reuse them.”

Repairing and refurbishing older products isn’t just that. Cisco is creating repair centres that are owned by third-parties to uplift local ownership.

“The repair centres, as a global manufacturer, is Cisco’s entree into local ownership,” said Gladden. “I want to be precise about what I mean by local ownership. It’s critical for us to have a localised presence, but doing that through ownership. When you look at inclusive economies, those that are participative, to be sustainable – not in the product set, but generationally.

“The ability as a global manufacturer through a local ownership model  isto create a repair centre where a product can be returned, screened, tested, and repaired, leveraging the talent that the Networking Academy is creating.”

Cisco is working closely with local governments to understand where it operates and how to leverage the skills in the market.

Gladden said: “We are also super excited about the National Development Plan and African Union statements which with we align: eradication of poverty, job creation, ownership, healthcare, education, it all fits in the model. So we were very excited to have the opportunity to come to Africa first to announce this. Over the next twelve months, we want to establish our first repair centres, and in the next 3 to 5 years, build that vision into a reality.”

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Why Data Privacy has become a Pipe Dream

If you’re active on WhatsApp, Facebook or any other social platform, you’re not as safe as you thought, writes
AARON THORNTON, MD of Dial a Nerd

As you begin to read this, let’s perform a quick experiment! How many active conversations are you engaged in – right now – on WhatsApp? When was the last time you shared a picture or video on Instagram? Is Facebook currently open and active on one of your devices? And how many internet- connected devices are you using at this moment? Chances are, you have multiple devices running multiple applications most of the time. So what’s the problem, you ask? Since when did checking in with a high school buddy in Australia via Facebook become a dangerous act?  

In reply, we say, read on if you can stomach it!  

Nation-State Hacking & You  

It might seem like a laughably long shot to say that you are a key player in the increasingly sinister and sophisticated world of nation-state hacking. Well, you are. Given that individuals, businesses and governments are now constantly connected, round the clock, consumers and businesses have become fair game in cyber espionage. And as we create and share more and more data, both the value and accessibility of that data increases. According to a report by McAfee, IP theft now accounts for more than 25% of the estimated $600 billion cost of cybercrime to the world economy.    

With data having become the ‘new gold’, nation states are naturally pouring investment and key resources into building advanced cyber warfare tools. Indeed, entire divisions of armed forces as well as the upper echelons of corporate leadership are devising ways to harness data to gain economic, political and social power. At the highest level, tools and platforms are being developed with the specific aim of perpetrating cyber espionage and data theft. No surprise then, that the consumer and business environments are rife with increasingly advanced malware, ransomware and many other malicious hacking tools and methods.  

Still not convinced? Yes, we can smell the scepticism from here! So let’s take a moment to see how this has already played out, beneath our noses.  

Remember the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal of early 2018? For many, this was a watershed moment in the emerging war for consumer data – and the ensuing tensions between privacy, power and profit. Need a refresh? Well, in 2018, Facebook exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign. In essence, the data was harvested without user consent and used for political purposes.  

Another chilling but less direct example can be found in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. According to Politico, Russia launched a massive social media campaign to ‘sow discord’ leading up to the elections. The website reported that as early as 2014, an infamous Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency – a company linked to Russian president Putin – developed a strategy using fraudulent bank accounts and other fake identity documents to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” 

When referring to the Russian hacks and their impact on election results, one U.S. Representative sagely noted: “They didn’t just steal data; they weaponized it.” 

Ignorance is not bliss 

Okay, so data is being ‘weaponized’, and ordinary people and businesses are being caught in the crosshairs of cyber warfare. A little bit frightening, but the good news is that savvy individuals like you can take steps to protect personal data and actively combat the creeping influence of juggernauts such as Facebook and Google.  

To begin with, awareness is key. As you engage with various platforms and applications at work and at home, take time to understand how your data is being used and what the terms of use are. Is your data being accessed and sold to advertisers? Have you consented to this? In addition to scrutinizing your consent, also pay close attention to how much data you share online – and the nature of the details you are divulging. Always keep in mind that hackers are employing smart social engineering tactics and using the details of your private life (birthdays, holidays, pet’s names, etc) to trick you into opening infected emails and clicking on malware. Whenever you are online, you are a target – and vigilance at all times is critical. Beyond that, it goes without saying that you must commit to following basic security protocols with your devices. So always keep software up to date and keep your data backed up so that you can reboot or wipe a device if needed.   

Now that we’ve left you sufficiently spooked, you can get back to those demanding WhatsApp/Facebook/Instagram notifications (same company, by the way)…albeit, we hope, with a slightly altered [cyber] worldview!  

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