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Sony makes a Premium bet

With every new flagship phone, Sony Mobile reminds the market that it is still a technology force. The XZ Premium is the latest example, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

Sony is the brand that just won’t go away. Every time Apple, Samsung or Huawei releases a new phone that threatens to sweep away all the minnows of the smartphone market, Sony Mobile pops up with a device that says, “We’re still here.”

So it was that the annual showcase of the latest in gadgetry, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, saw the brand muscle in amid the big unveils, like the new Nokia 3310 and Huawei P10.

To rise above the noise at an event like that – close to 100 000 people attend, and more than 2 000 exhibitors push the hype to a frenzy – a product has to have something special.

Sony came up with a new flagship phone called the Xperia XZ Premium, but if it had been merely “its most ground-breaking smartphone to date”, as a press release bizarrely crowed at the time, it would have vanished along with every other brand’s most ground-breaking hype.

Rather, it had one of the best differentiators of the show. To quote Sony Mobile: “a camera so advanced it captures motion that the human eye can’t see”.

The Sony camera heritage has been a hallmark of the Xperia range for some time, always positioning the top-of-the-range models among the best camera phones in the world. Gradually, the phone is catching up to the capabilities of dedicated compact cameras, like the Sony ‘α’ and Cyber-shot models, by embedding the technology used in those devices.

The result is the new Motion Eye camera system, which features the Exmor RS sensor built into premium compact cameras. The more conventional benefits are that it provides five times faster image scanning and data transfer, but that alone would not be enough to differentiate it.

The highlight of the device is that it records video in 960 frames per second, and combines this with an ultra-slow motion video playback function that it claims to be four times slower than other smartphones. This means that, in ideal conditions, the phone can capture high-speed action, and then freeze individual frames of movement that would not have been visible with the naked eye.

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Not many phones cam make a virtue of being both the fastest and the slowest.

“It’s a first of its kind,” says Sony Mobile country manager for South Africa, Christian Haghofer. “It shows Sony’s technology leadership, its innovation leadership, and its ability to be first in the market. Being able to perform that on a mobile phone, and see things never seen before on a phone, means it is getting very close to professional cameras.”

The still camera is almost as impressive, with a feature called Plus Predictive Capture that automatically starts buffering images when it detects motion before the user presses the button. That means that if one, for example, missed the baby’s smile by a micro-second, one could find that moment from a selection of four shots taken a second before the button was clicked.

The camera has a 19 megapixel high-resolution sensor and, claims Sony, 19% larger pixels, “to capture more light and provides exceptional detail and sharp images even in low-light and backlit conditions”. If that’s not enough, the

Xperia XZ Premium is the first smartphone with a 4K HDR (High Dynamic Range, 2160 x 3840) 5.5” display.

It draws on technologies developed for Sony’s Bravia TVs – sadly no longer available in South African appliance stores.  Aside from 4K HDR, it also uses Sony’s Triluminos Display technology, X-Reality for mobile, and Dynamic Contrast Enhancer. While these may sound like marketing padding, each represents an enhancement over traditional imaging technology.

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The phone is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, so that it is potentially able to support virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, as well as LTE mobile broadband of up to 1Gbps – if that ever arrives in South Africa.

The device is also water resistant and dust-proof, and uses Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on both the front and back to reduce scratching and extend its physical life.

It doesn’t come cheap, at a recommended retail price of R15 000. However, that puts it on a par with the flagship devices from Samsung and Apple, and sends the message that it intends to compete directly with them.

It doesn’t mean Sony has abandoned the mid-market or even entry-level smartphone users, says Haghofer:

“For those who can’t afford the Premium, we have launched the XA1 Ultra, which has the same camera as the previous flagship, the Xperia Z5: a 23Mp rear and 16Mp front camera, positioned as a high-quality selfie camera. We’re targeting the urban mass market at a price of R6999 for a phone that is equivalent to the premium handset of two years ago and is now mid-market.

“We’ve extended the lifecycle of entry products, the E5 and XA, bringing that to the market at R1999 and R2999. It’s a critical move from us. We see a decline in disposable income and people spending less money on smartphones, and we want to address that.”

His parting shot is a warning to the dominant brands: “We are going to regain relevance in terms of volume share.”

  • 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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3D printed room-service? Visit the hotel of tomorrow

To mark its 100th birthday, Hilton predicts the trends that will change travel and hospitality in the next 100 years.

Intergalactic getaways, fast-food nutrient pills, 2-3 hour working days and adaptable, personalised rooms that can transport guests everywhere from jungles to mountain ranges. These are some of the predictions for the next 100 years that the Hilton hotel group has put together in celebration of its 100th anniversary.

In a report supported by expert insight from the fields of sustainability, innovation, design, human relations and nutrition, findings reveal the impact of the growing sophistication of technology and climate change on the hotel industry in the future.

Key predictions for the hotel of the future include:

Personalisation is King

  • Technology will allow every space, fitting and furnishing to continuously update to respond to an individual’s real-time needs – the Lobby will conjure up anything from a tranquil spa to a buzzy bar, giving every guest the perfect, personal welcome
  • From temperature and lighting, to entertainment and beyond, microchips under the skin will enable us to wirelessly control the setting around us based on what we need, whenever we need it

The Human Touch

  • In a world filled with Artificial Intelligence, human contact and the personal touch will be more critical and sought after than ever
  • Technology will free up time for hotel staff to focus on what matters most: helping guests to connect with one another and building memorable moments

‘Sustainable Everything’ – The Role of Responsibility

  • Only businesses that are inherently responsible will survive the next century
  • Sustainability will be baked into everything about a hotel’s design – from weather-proofed domes, to buildings made from ocean-dredged plastic
  • Hotels will act as the Town Hall of any community, managing local resources and contributing to the areas they serve with community-tended insect farms and vertical hydroponic crop gardens

Menu Surprises and Personalisation

  • Our diets will include more plant-based recipes and some surprising sources of protein – Beetle Bolognese, Plankton Pies and Seaweed Green Velvet Cake will be menu staples!
  • Decadent 3D-printed dinners and room service will provide unrivalled plate personalisation
  • Chefs will be provided with biometric data for each guest, automatically creating meals based on preferences and nutritional requirements

Futuristic Fitness and Digital Detoxes

  • Outswim a virtual sea turtle in the pool, or challenge yourself to climb the digital face of Mount Everest, your exercise routine will be as unique as you are. What’s more, exercise energy generated from workouts will be used to power the hotel, providing a zero-impact, circular system. Guests could even earn rewards based on reaching workout targets
  • Pick up where you left off with trackable workouts and holographic personal trainers
  • Offline will be the new luxury as we seek to find moments of tech-free time

“Since its inception in 1919, Hilton has pioneered the hospitality industry, introducing first-to-market concepts such as air-conditioning and in-room televisions. Last year, Hilton also became the first hospitality company to set science-based targets to reduce its environmental impact,” said Simon Vincent, EVP & President, EMEA, Hilton. “We enter our second century with the same commitment to innovation, harnessing the power of our people and technology to respond to guest demands. Our research paints an exciting future for the hospitality industry, highlighting the growing importance of human interaction in an increasingly tech-centric world.”

Futurologist Gerd Leonhard said: “In 2119 we will still be searching for unique experiences, but they will be more personalised than ever. As technology shapes our lives we will seek out moments of offline connection with others, including hotel team members who will help us truly get what we need from our stays. 100 years from now hotels will have to create opportunities to converse, collaborate and connect, delivering moments that matter, individually, to each and every guest.”

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Gadget ed to chair Digital Council

Specialist financial services provider Sasfin Bank has established a Digital Advisory Council to provide the market with industry-leading expertise and insights on trends shaping the use of technology in financial services.

Digitalisation is one of the most powerful forces for change shaping Finance today. This has turned Fintech into one of the most vibrant sectors in both information technology and among start-ups, generating billions of dollars in investment and development globally. The South African fintech space is dynamic, and Sasfin is playing a leading role in the transformation of local financial services and the resulting enhancement of customer experiences.

“We have been investing in fintech development in-house and acquiring or integrating fintech start-ups,” says Sasfin CEO Michael Sassoon. “Over the last year we have built further digital offerings, integrated via APIs into leading businesses and invested in fintechs. We built and launched B\\YOND, an innovative digital business banking platform and SWIP, a digital wealth and investing platform. We have invested in Payabill, an online SME lender and DMA, a digital trading platform. We recently announced our alliance banking relationship, leveraging open banking, with Hello Paisa to offer seamless banking to the unbanked. We feel that there is a huge opportunity to improve the experience of South African businesses and savers through using technology. We have therefore created an independent forum to assess how to even better improve financial services for South Africans by leveraging the digital economy.”

Arthur Goldstuck, founder of high-tech research consultancy World Wide Worx, editor-in-chief of Gadget, and a globally respected technology analyst has accepted Sasfin’s invitation to head up the Sasfin Digital Advisory Council, an independent think tank that will help Sasfin and its clients decipher the fintech present and future.

“The Sasfin Digital Advisory Council is broader than providing only the bank with a source of insight on how digital services are evolving and lessons from across the world,” said CEO Michael Sassoon. “Sasfin has been involved in fintech investing for many years and we are leveraging this experience as well as the experience of independent experts such as Arthur to provide insights and guidance to interested stakeholders in this space.”

The team appointed to the Digital Advisory Council is being selected for the breadth and range of knowledge they would bring to the table, with further appointments to the Council being announced soon.  There will also be room for the Council to co-opt specialist expertise as it is required.

Goldstuck, who has been covering the fintech sector as an analyst, commentator and columnist for many years, says he sees the role as a welcome challenge.

“There has been a long-standing need for a clear understanding of the impact being made by fintech today, and the exponential change it will cause tomorrow,” said Goldstuck. “My role will be, partly, to curate the wide spectrum of fintech and digitalisation knowledge and insights that the members will bring to the Digital Advisory Council, and help create scenarios that businesses and policymakers may use to navigate the future – both inside and outside Sasfin.”

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