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Smartphones of the year: clarity at the high-end

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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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Samsung A51: Saviour of the mid-range

For a few years, Samsung has delivered some less than favourable mid-range devices compared to the competition. The Galaxy A51 is here to change all that, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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It’s not often one can look at a mid-range phone and mistake it for a flagship. That’s what you can expect to experience when taking the Galaxy A51 out into the open.

Samsung went back to the drawing board with its new range of devices, and it shows. The latest Galaxy A range features some of the highest quality, budget-friendly devices we’ve seen so far. The Samsung Galaxy A51 is one of the best phones we’ve seen in a while, not just aesthetically, but in what it packs into a sub-R7000 price tag.

Looking at the device briefly, it’s very easy to mistake it for a flagship. It features a four-camera array on the back, and an Infinity-O punch-hole display – both of which are features of the high-end Samsung devices. In fact, it features a similar camera array as the Galaxy Note10 Lite but features an additional lens in the array. The cameras line up in an L-shape, clearly avoiding looking like a stovetop.

Apart from the camera array, the back of the handset features a striking pattern called Prism Crush, a pattern of pastel shades that come in black, white, blue, and pink. For the review, we used the Prism Crush Blue colour and it looks really great. The feel is clearly plastic, which isn’t too surprising for a mid-range device, but the design is definitely something that will make users opt for a clear case. It’s also great to see a design pattern that deviates from the standard single iridescent colours many manufacturers have copied from Huawei’s design.

Along the sides, it features a metal-like frame, but again, it’s plastic. On the left side, we find a SIM and microSD card tray while the right side houses the power button and volume rocker. The bottom of the phone features a very welcome USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack, which isn’t too uncommon for mid-range phones.

On the front, the device is pretty much all screen, at an 87.4% screen-to-body ratio, thanks to a tiny chin at the bottom and the small punch hole for the camera. The earpiece has also been hidden inside the frame in attempts to maximise this screen-to-body ratio. When powered on, the 6.5-inch display looks vivid and sharp. That’s because Samsung opted to put a Super AMOLED display into this midrange unit, giving it a resolution of 1080 x 2400 (at 405 ppi) in a 20:9 format. This makes the display FullHD+, and perfect for consuming video content like Netflix and YouTube in HD.

Hidden underneath the display is an in-screen fingerprint sensor, which is very surprising to find in a mid-range device. While it is extremely accurate, it takes some getting used to because the sensor is so large that one needs to put one’s entire finger over the right part of the display to unlock it. Most other types of non-in-screen fingerprint sensors don’t mind a partial fingerprint. The display itself feels nothing like the back and that’s because it’s not plastic, but rather Gorilla Glass 3, to prevent the screen from shattering easily.

What’s interesting about this device is finding accessories which aren’t quite available in phone stores yet. When browsing online for screen protectors, one has to be on the lookout for screen protectors that are compatible with the in-screen fingerprint sensor. Make sure to check out the reviews of users before purchasing them.

In terms of software, Samsung has made a great deal of effort to make the experience slick. Gone are the days of TouchWiz (thank goodness) and now we have OneUI in its second version. OneUI makes the phone easier to use by putting most of the interaction on the bottom half of the screen and most of the view on the top part of the screen, where one’s thumbs don’t usually reach.

Out of the box, the device came with Android 10. This is a huge step forward in terms of commitment to running the latest software for major feature updates as well as for Android security patches to keep the device secure.

It also has most of the cool features from the flagship devices, like Samsung Pay, Bixby, and Link to Windows. Samsung Pay is an absolute pleasure to use, even if it still confuses the person taking your payments. From linking my cards, I have stopped taking my wallet out with me because all merchants that accept tap-to-pay will accept Samsung Pay on the A51.

Bixby is useful if you’re in the Samsung app ecosystem, especially for owners of SmartThings devices like Samsung TVs and SmartThings-enabled smart home devices. Otherwise, Google Assistant is still accessible for those who still want to use the standard Google experience.

Link to Windows is an interesting feature that started with the Galaxy Note10 and has since trickled down into the mid-range. It allows users to send SMS messages, view recently taken photos, and receive notifications from the phone, all on a Windows 10 PC. This can be enabled by going to the Your Phone app found in the start menu.

The rear camera is phenomenal for a mid-range device and features a 48MP wide sensor. The photos come out as 12MP images, which is a common trick of many manufacturers to achieve high-quality photography. It does this by combining 4 pixels into a single superpixel to get the best colours out of the picture, while still remaining sharp. It also performs surprisingly well in low light, which is not something we were expecting from a mid-range device.

The 12MP ultra-wide angle lens spans 123-degrees, which is very wide and also useful for getting shots in where one can’t move back further. It’s not as great as the main lens but does the trick for getting everyone in for a group photo in a galley kitchen.

The 5MP depth-sensing lens supplements the portrait mode, which adds a blur effect to the background of the photo – the same lens as its predecessor, the Galaxy A50. It features a 32MP wide-angle selfie camera, which is perfect for fitting everyone into a large group selfie.

The processor is an Exynos 9611, which is an Octa-core processor. It performs well in most situations, and there is software built in to give games a boost, so it performs well with graphically intensive games too. In terms of RAM, there are 4GB, 6GB, and 8GB variants, so keep an eye out for which one you are trying. For the review, we had the 4GB, and it performs well with multitasking and day-to-day tasks.

For storage, it comes in a 128GB model on Samsung’s website, which seems to be the standard size. This is extremely welcome in the mid-range segment and is the largest we’ve seen for internal storage capacity as a starting point.

At a recommended selling price of R6,999, the Samsung Galaxy A51 marks the beginning of a great era for Samsung, because it provides a feature-rich handset at an affordable price.

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Prepare now for 2030

Traditional businesses are toast unless they start preparing for the future now, warns ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Various forecasts point to the likelihood that technologies using artificial intelligence will generate up to 15% of the world’s gross domestic product by 2030. PwC suggests that it will add $15.7-trillion to the global economy. 

That, in turn, will ensure that a sizeable proportion of the world’s business will be conducted on advanced digital platforms. In other words, the 15% is just the springboard for vast swathes of activity that will dominate business. Those that stick to the old way of doing things will simply be left out of the new economy.

This means traditional businesses are already toast, but only if they decide not to start preparing now.

“This future economy is something that should be on everybody’s mind and in every government’s strategy,” says Mohammed Amin, Dell Technologies senior vice president for Middle East, Russia, Africa and Turkey. During a visit to South Africa this week, he said it was no longer a matter of selling technology for its own sake.

“If you’re not part of this wagon to the future, you need to jump on it. The world’s IT companies are not pushing digital transformation and multi-cloud strategy just for the sake of selling technology. We’re doing it to optimise your business and to help make you part of the future.”

He says three primary trends need to be leveraged by business.

“I believe that artificial intelligence is the ship that is going to take us for the future. The fuel is going to be data. And infrastructure will be software-defined. You have to build an agile, dynamic infrastructure to thrive in this future.”

Amin, an Egyptian-Canadian, points to the sensation created by his late compatriot, the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, who died 45 years ago. Last year, she appeared in the world’s first hologram concert, at the World Youth Forum in Egypt. Then, in December, she performed – as a hologram – for paying audiences in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. 

“Imagine people paying for tickets to watch a hologram. It means the world is open to this. It is moving so fast, and we are in the heart of this.”

It is also an example of how technology companies are no longer focused only on technology but also on enhancing human lives. 

“We’re involved in so many projects, from healthcare to education. Education especially is very important, because it is shifting from ‘what to learn’ to ‘how to learn’. It’s an amazing shift. You need to know how to learn because you will need to experience and learn in so many fields to be qualified for the future.”

Amin does not believe doomsday prophecies of much of the world’s population being rendered jobless by robots and AI. However, some “straightforward” jobs will be readily replaceable. Even lawyers and general practice doctors, for example, could be replaced by smartphone apps.

“The job market will grow, but the profile required is going to change. Jobs will be available, but for certain profiles. By 2030, 85% of the job market will be for jobs we don’t know today. This is the challenge that education faces.” 

  • 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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