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Sony makes a Premium bet

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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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Android Go puts reliable smartphones in budget pockets

Nokia, Vodacom and Huawei have all launched entry-level smartphones running the Android Go edition, and all deliver a smooth experience, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Three new and notable Android Go smartphones have recently hit the market, namely the Nokia 1, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 and the Huawei Y3 (2018). These phones run one of the most basic versions of Android while still delivering a fairly smooth user experience.

Historically, consumers purchasing smartphones in the budget bracket would have a hit-and-miss experience with processing speed, smoothness of user interface, and app stability. The Google-supported Android Go edition operating system optimises the user experience by stripping out non-important visual effects to speed up the phone. Thish allows for more memory to be used by apps. 

Google also ensures that all smartphones running Android Go will receive feature and security updates as they are released by Google. This is a major selling point for these smartphones, as users of this smartphone will always be running the latest software, with virtually no manufacturer bloatware.

Vodafone Smart Kicka 4

At the lowest entry-level, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performs well as a communicator for emails and WhatsApp messages. The 4” screen represents a step up for entry-level Android phones, which were previously standardised at 3.5”.

The display is bright and very responsive, while the limited screen real estate leaves the navigation keys off the screen as touch buttons. It uses 3G connectivity, which might seem like an outdated technology, but is good enough to stream SD videos and music. Vodacom has also thrown in some data gifts if the smartphone is activated before the end of September 2018. 

Its camera functionalities might be a slight let down for the aspirant Instagrammer, with a 2MP rear flash camera and a 0.3MP selfie snapper. Speed wise, the keyboard pops up quickly, which is a huge improvement from the Smart Kicka 3. However, this phone will not play well with graphics-intensive games. 

Nokia 1

Next up is the Nokia 1, which adds a much better 5MP camera, improved battery life and a bigger 4.5” screen. It supports LTE, which allows this smartphone to download and upload at the speed of flagships. It also sports the Nokia brand name, which many consumers trust.

Although the front camera is 2MP, the quality is extremely grainy, even with good lighting. This disqualifies this smartphone for the social media selfie snapper, but the 5MP rear camera will work for the landscape and portrait photographer. 

The screen also redeems this smartphone, providing a display which represents colours truly and has great viewing angles. Xpress-on back covers allows the use of interchangeable, multi-coloured back covers, which has proven to be a successful sales point for mid-range smartphones in the past. 

Huawei Y3 (2018)

The most capable of the Android Go edition competitors, the Huawei Y3 (2018) packs an even bigger screen at 5”, as well as an improved 8MP rear camera and HD video recording. The screen is the brightest and most vibrant of the three smartphones, but seems to be calibrated to show colours a little more saturated than they actually are. 

Nevertheless, the camera outperforms the other smartphones with good colour replication and great selfie capabilities via the 2MP front camera – far superior to the Nokia 1 despite the same spec. LTE also comes standard with this smartphone and Vodacom throws in 4G/LTE data goodies until the end of September 2018. The battery, however, is not removable and may only be replaced by a warranty technician.

Comparing the 3

All three smartphones have removable back covers, which provide access to the battery, SIM card and SD card slots. The smartphones have Micro USB ports on the bottom with headphone jacks on the top. The built-in speakers all performed well, with the Y3 (2018) housing an exceptionally loud built-in speaker. 

Although all at different price points, all three phones remain similar in performance and speed. The differentiators are apparent in the components, like camera quality and screen quality. It would be fair to rank the quality of the camera and battery life by respective market prices. The Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performed well, for its R399 retail price. The Nokia 1, on the other hand, lags quite a bit in features when compared to the Huawei Y3 (2018), bwith oth retailing at R999.

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SA gets digital archive

As the world entered the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth on Mandela Day, 18 July 2018, South Africa celebrated the launch of a digital living archive. 

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The southafrica.co.za  site carries content about the country’s collective heritage in South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Designed as a nation building,  educational and brand promotion web based tool, the free-to-view platform features award-winning photographic and written content by leading South African photographers, authors, academics and photojournalists.

The emphasis is on quality, credible, factual content that celebrates a collective heritage in terms of the following: Cultural Heritage; Natural Heritage; Education; History; Agriculture; Industry; Mining; and Travel.

At the same time as reflecting on the nation’s history, southafrica.co.za celebrates South Africa’s natural, cultural and economic assets so that the youth can learn about their nation in their home language.

Southafrica.co.za Founder and CEO Hans Gerrizen conceptualised southafrica.co.za as a means for youth and communities from outlying areas to benefit from the digital age in terms of the web tool’s empowering educational component.

“We can only stand to deepen our collective experience of democracy and become a more forward planning nation if we know facts about our nation’s past and present in everyone’s home language,” he says.

Southafrica.co.za, with sister company Siyabona Africa, is the organiser and sponsor of the Mandela: 100 Moments photographic exhibition that runs until 30 September at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront-based Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.  The 3-month exhibition, which runs daily from 08h00 until 15h00, is showcasing one hundred iconic Nelson Mandela images taken by veteran South African photojournalist and self-taught lensman Peter Magubane.

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