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When Hisense starts making sense

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Just when everyone thought new smartphones could no longer surprise, along comes a brand that has rediscovered how to turn heads, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When Hisense sent out an invitation to media attending the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to “Embrace the next”, not too many took them seriously. After all, while Hisense is a dominant player in the appliances world and leads China in TV sales, its fairly recent entry into smartphones had been a little tame. Value for money and capable devices, yes. Surprise packages and dazzling specs, no.

But Barcelona brought a real surprise. Hisense unveiled two new phones, each packing a punch of a different kind.

The biggest surprise was the new Hisense A2. It has a predictable 5.5-inch high-definition AMOLED screen, offering 1920×1080 pixels and a decent pixel density of 401 pixels per inch (ppi). But turn it over, and it is suddenly a startling device.

The Hisense A2

The Hisense A2

The rear of the phone presents us with a 5.2-inch e-ink screen: the same technology that allows one to read paper-quality content on a Kindle, and which ensures that device’s battery can last a month.

Hisense revealed it had conducted research that showed 60 per cent of Chinese smartphone users’ time was spent reading on phones to get knowledge. Because one could use a phone to read anywhere at any time, people were becoming accustomed to using mobile devices for small fragments of time to read.

They added this insight to the knowledge that the only use to which any manunfacturer was putting the back of the phone was for cameras and fingerprint readers.

“We think every inch of the phone is so valuable, the back of the phone should not be wasted,” said Dr Ma, vice president of Hisense Multimedia Group, at the launch. “We spent years working on combining a smartphone with e-ink.”

The two main benefits of the e-ink screen are that it doesn’t generate light, so makes for more comfortable reading, and it uses minimal battery power. The typical colour display on a smartphone is responsible for around two thirds of a phone’s battery use.

It’s not the first phone to feature an e-ink screen. A Russian company called Yota launched a similar concept at MWC four years ago. The Yotaphone was especially useful for mapping, as it would keep going on a long trip well after other phones had been drained by both the colour map and the display. However, little has been heard from the manufacturer for the past two years.

Hisense has added an extra twist to its e-ink screen, however.  In “dual mode”, a finger tracking along the e-ink screen on the rear acts as a mouse control on the front screen. A “gesture mode” on the rear controls the back and home functions on the front.

The phone can also be answered on the e-ink screen, so it is an ideal mode for when the battery is severely depleted by app activity on the colour screen. Most apps can be viewed in e-ink mode.

The second surprise from Hisense was its entry into a fairly well-populated market segment, namely sturdy phones that can be used in rough environments. The bulky Cat Phone, made by Bullitt Mobile under licence from Caterpillar, is the quality leader in this category. However, many mainstream manufacturers have built “action” or “rugged” versions of their phones for use on construction sites and the like.

The problem with most of these devices is that they look like they were designed for construction sites. And that is where Hisense has spotted a gap: a rugged phone that also looks like a lifestyle phone.

Due to be launched in South Africa next week, it’s called the Rock, and is a dual-SIM phone with a 5.2-inch high-definition display at 424 ppi. A 16MP rear camera and 5MP on the front and a Qualcomm 1.4GHz octa core processor are packed into a frame that is only 7.95mm thick – almost unheard of in a phone designed for durability.

The Hisense Rock

The Hisense Rock

On that note, it has a large 3000mAh battery for long use out in the field, and is rated IP68, meaning it is both dust and water resistant. The rating is something of a msinomer, however, as the phone can continue recording video while immersed under water. The pièce de résistance, however, is that it can be dropped from three metres onto concrete without either the screen or the insides cracking.

It runs on Nougat, the latest version of Android, and would not look out of place in an office or next to a pool. In demanding terrain, it would be the coolest phone out in the field.

  • 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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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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