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Mobile World Congress 2019 Round-Up

The sun has set on this year’s instalment of the Mobile World Congress and, once again, it has lived up to the hype and been another resounding success. Every year we are astonished by the sheer magnitude of the event alone, which continues to grow year on year. This year, there were two clear themes running through the showcased products at MWC 2019; 5G and folding phones. With that in mind, we’re going to break our round-up into these areas and finish off by touching on some of the more conventional products.

5G

So what 5G goodies did MWC have in store for us? Well, as you already saw from our preview blog there were plenty of new 5G capable devices hitting the shelves, but we’ll go into the details of those later. What’s more important is the availability of 5G networks for these devices to run on. Afterall, what’s the use of having a shiny new Samsung Galaxy S10 5G on a 4G network?

5G Networks

Network upgrades have been taking place for some time, the frequency spectrum has been sliced up and auctioned off in many markets (with plenty more due in the near future) and trials have been going on for a while. Years’ of hard work has got us to this point and there are now a whole host of networks with their fingers on the 5G trigger, poised to fire. So, what are we going to see when the bullet finally leaves the chamber?

Well, the most obvious benefit of a 5G network is speed, and lots of it. Even early adoptions of 5G absolutely blow 4G data speeds out of the water and there is still room for 5G technology to evolve. Ericsson performed tests in Barcelona which utilised what they refer to as ‘dual connectivity’, a system which allows for simultaneous 4G and 5G connections to boost the download speed to over 3Gbps! Okay, in a commercial grade network, outside of the clean test environment we wouldn’t expect to get these speeds, but even a fraction of this would be a huge step up from where we are now.

On top of that extra injection of speed, 5G also offers an increased capacity and almost zero latency. The increased capacity will open the door to a wealth of IoT and connected device capabilities, particularly in areas such as connected and autonomous cars which will need to utilise the 5G technology to connect not just to the network itself, but also to other vehicles and traffic management systems. Lower latency will mean data can travel across the globe almost instantly. The removal of this delay will reap huge benefits in VR and AR technologies where even a fraction of a second delay can induce motion sickness. It will also allow for remote communications and control of critical technologies. There were demos at MWC which involved controlling a truck from another country and even a surgeon assisting an operation, held at a Barcelona hospital, from the conference stage.

5G Devices

In terms of mobile devices themselves, we saw a huge breakthrough with 5G at MWC this year. Gone we’re the concepts, rumours, timelines and theoretical data speeds flaunted off at previous iterations of the show. This year we finally saw real, consumer ready devices with release dates, pricing and spec sheets. Not just from one or two of the top manufacturers either, you were hard pushed to find any remotely significant device manufacturer that wasn’t pushing a 5G variant of their latest flagship.

We already know about the Galaxy S10 5G from our preview blog , but here’s a look at a few of the major competitors to Samsung’s 5G throne.

Huawei

We mentioned in our preview blog that we were expecting Huawei to make big statements at MWC amidst it’s ongoing legal and political issues with the US. Well, we were right. On the network side they pushed their progress on 5G developments, as expected, but it was their device division that really made the biggest impact. Along with a few updates to their laptop range, most notably in the form of the Huawei MateBook X Pro, they also dropped a new phone; the Mate X. This is undoubtedly Samsung’s biggest rival across two markets; 5G and foldable phones. Impressively the controversial Chinese brand has managed to cram both features into a single, reasonably sized device. The main reason why Huawei’s folding attempt is sleeker than Samsung’s effort is that its full-sized screen sits around the outside of the device when closed, removing the need for a thick outer screen. When closed you have a primary 6.6” front panel and slightly smaller 6.4” screen on the back. When the “Falcon Wing Mechanical Hinge” (yep, that is genuinely the awesome name they gave their foldy bit) is opened up the screens combine to form an almost square tablet spanning an 8” diagonal.

This design gives it a much slimmer and generally nicer look, but the obvious drawback of this is that the scratch and smear attracting plastic screen is constantly exposed on both sides. Samsung’s design ensures the primary screen is protected by closing the device like a book, while the non-flexible outer screen can be glass covered to avoid scratches. Here lies one of the major issues that will need to be resolved before folding phones become mainstream. Currently there are too many compromises and sacrifices that have to be made. You will not find the perfect folding phone right now, there will always be a major issue that you will have to live with… That’s not ideal when the Mate X will set you back an eye watering €2,299. This is the price you pay for early adoption of such advanced tech, over time the kinks will be worked out and that price should come down.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G

We were expecting an update to LG’s current G series flagship but, while it does look like the G8 ThinQ will be coming fairly soon, LG opted to not to show it off at MWC and instead let the V50 ThinQ take centre stage.

With the V50, LG decided against going for a folding design, but they clearly didn’t want to fall behind in terms of offering more screen real estate and better multi-tasking ability. So, to keep sight of the rest of the pack, LG are offering a dual screen attachment accessory. This could be a smart move, we’ve already gone into some detail about the drawbacks and high price of foldable tech, but this provides a kind of stepping stone. You won’t get a full tablet mode since there is a noticeable gap between the two screens but what you will get is enhanced multitasking and more screen space in a phone that is virtually the same size as its predecessor. It can act as control pad for gaming and we would also expect a few more quirky uses once developers have a chance to play around with the new format. Conveniently, it also doubles as a protective case by closing up over the main screen so, all-in-all, this is a very practical option in a currently un-practical market.

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G

Xiaomi aren’t exactly king of the hill in the eyes of mainstream European consumers, in fact, you’ll be hard pushed to find an average Joe on the street who has heard of them, or who could pronounce the name if it were written in front of them (this might help for those still struggling). However, those of you who are desperate to be at the forefront of mobile tech and have a 5G phone before any of your friends may want to keep a close eye on Xiaomi. While most of the companies bringing 5G devices to MWC have kept us guessing by using deliberately vague wording when it comes to release schedules, Xiaomi has stated that you can expect the Mi Mix 3 to hit the shelves ‘around May 2019’. We also know the price, with it coming to Europe at a reasonable €599. For that modest price tag, you will get a 6.39” full screen display thanks to a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and a small top slider to hide the selfie camera. Under the hood, it’ll be powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset and come with 6GB RAM and 256GB of internal storage. With that pricing you can expect a few compromises and it’s likely to have a heavily skinned version of Android which could cause some lagging over time, but on the face of it that’s a lot of bang for your buck. You will constantly have to teach people how to pronounce Xiaomi when they ask you what your new phone is though, which will be incredibly annoying.

ZTE Axon 10 Pro

As with Xiaomi, ZTE isn’t a name on the lips of most of Europe’s general public, aside from those who are particularly au fait with mobile tech. In many ways this is a shame, as ZTE are one of the biggest innovators in the mobile industry. They were one of the first to successfully house the fingerprint reader in the screen, a feat that was celebrated on a much wider scale when others did the same later. They could also be credited with kickstarting the foldable phone revolution. While the Axon 10 isn’t itself foldable, the Axon M, which was first shown in 2017, did feature two regular sized screens which folded out to become a single large display or a second multi-tasking screen. Quite frankly, it looked horrendous, used a physical hinge which created a border between the screens and generally just didn’t work very well, but they should still be commended for thinking outside of the box and being brave enough to bring a risky product to market. The ill-fated Axon M could well have been the spark that kicked the likes of Samsung into gear and sped up the advancement of what we are now seeing as foldable phones. Another area that ZTE have excelled in is 5G technology, with ZTE prototypes being used by many networks for their live demos and 5G trials for a long, long time now. So, it’s no surprise to those in the know that ZTE will be one of the first to bring a 5G phone to the consumer.

Foldable Phones

Once again, Samsung got in there very early with their announcement and took the crown as the first company to show a real, working, production model of a phone using true flexible screen technology. That’s hardly a surprise since their research into this field has been the industry’s worst kept secret for some years now. What is maybe a little more surprising is just how many people were hot on their heels. Most of the chasing pack are still in the concept stage, something that readers of our MWC preview blog will know I’m pretty happy about. But there was, of course, Huawei’s Mate X, which likely sits at the top of the podium as the phone of MWC thanks to its folding screen, 5G capability and sleek design. LG went for more flip than fold, but you can bet your bottom dollar they are sitting on something comparable to the rest, biding their time and only showing their hand once the technology has matured. Elsewhere though, here’s a few of the smaller names who were brave enough to show off their concepts.

Oppo

Several of the Chinese manufacturers have a habit of adopting suspiciously similar design trends, maybe this has something to do with China’s more or less non-existent copyright laws, maybe this is pure coincidence… who am I to speculate. Either way, Oppo has done it once again with their concept which, if you look closely enough is likely to still have ‘Huawei Mate X’ printed under the Oppo logo. That’s no bad thing, of course, it’s a decent design from what we’ve seen so far and could well become the benchmark for other companies going forward. At the moment, the official standpoint from Oppo is that they may develop the design into a full release if it sees enough demand from the market. In other words, they’re ready when you are, but aren’t going to throw money into producing something that people won’t buy. A clever move and a strategy likely to be helping Oppo keep their relatively low price point, which will hopefully continue when they do eventually go public with their foldable phones.

TCL

Owners of the Blackberry and Alcatel brands, TCL, showed off two very different options for making the most of flexible screens. The more conventional of the two is essentially the same concept that we have seen from the Galaxy Fold; a large tablet style device which folds in like closing a book with an extra cover screen which acts as the main phone screen. It manages a much slimmer design than Samsung’s but seeing as this is still a concept it’s likely missing several components and will bulk up if/when it gets to full release. TCL’s other take on the fold is somewhat of a rebirth of the flip phone of yesteryear. Unfolded, you have what appears to be a standard modern phone, but this can be folded from bottom to top when it’s not in use. An interesting attempt at getting a bigger screen into a still pocket-sized product. There’s no outer screen when folded so this is purely a space saving idea and a showcase of the technology itself. It is also possible that this design could be used to wrap around your wrist like a band, eliminating the need for the pocket all together.

Nubia

Following on nicely from the potential wrist band design from TCL comes Nubia with the Alpha, a phone/watch hybrid. This isn’t a concept piece, this is penned for official release (although pricing and availability details are still being kept under wraps). This is a big surprise because, how do I put this nicely… this should not be released. That didn’t come across very nice at all, but there’s really no other way of putting it. I’m a big fan of Nubia; the even lesser known child of the ZTE brand, but this is a strange product to give an official release to. Take one look at the Alpha and you will instantly understand what I mean, especially if it’s the garish gold coloured band that you happen to cast your eyes on. The technology that it houses and the idea behind the principal are fantastic. Merging both phone and watch and housing the hybrid on your wrist has been written in destiny since the birth of science-fiction movies. This has only been enriched by the addition of cellular modules within today’s smart watches. So, with a flexible screen in a phone/watch hybrid, you find yourself with a vision of the future, something that would be fitting in to today’s sci-fi movies, but it’s simply not ready yet. It looks bulky, uncomfortable and down right ugly (in my opinion, at least) but, more importantly, the demand isn’t there. I can’t think of a single person who would look at a product like this and even consider replacing both phone and watch for the single device. The benefit of staying in ‘concept mode’ is that you don’t need a full working product, this allows you to remove a few components, slim down the device and focus on something that plants a seed into people’s minds while looking great at the same time. If it is done well, over time this seed will grow into genuine desire amongst your customer base while also stalling release until the technology is ready. What we have here, unfortunately, is a product that isn’t ready, penned for release to a public who have no desire for it. I’ve been wrong before, I’ll be wrong again, and I kind of hope I’m wrong here but I cannot see this being a success and it could even put a downer on the general idea and steer other companies away from the brilliant concept that is hidden within.

Best of the Rest

Not everything at MWC folded in on itself or boasted one more G than last year’s model, we also had the usual array of new devices with today’s market in mind. It’s easy to forget these and leave them hidden under the hysteria of this year’s main headline grabbers. We barely have time to even scratch the surface, given the number of devices launched in and around Mobile World Congress, but here’s a few of our picks.

Nokia

One of things I was most excited for at MWC ’19 seems to have sadly been pushed towards the bottom of the pile. Not because it was a let-down but because of the success of everything else around it. The rumours surrounding the Nokia 9 Pureview were true, that crazy 5-camera setup on the back is now reality and early indications suggest that this could well be the camera to beat when it comes to mobile photography. Interestingly the 5 lenses are all 12MP Carl Zeiss units, but only two shoot in colour, the other three are monochrome. The cameras work simultaneously to collect up to 10x more light than a single smartphone camera. It will take a more in-depth, hand-on review to get to grips with a smartphone camera as complex as this, but some of the sample shots are incredible and we’re expecting the Pureview to knock the Google Pixel off of its camera perch and set the bar for camera phones to come.

Aside from the Pureview Nokia gave us a bit of a surprise. I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong so I’ll have to hold my hands up here. In our preview blog I said that it would be Motorola bringing us this year’s helping of nostalgia by bringing back the Razr and for once Nokia would be leaving the past in the past… Turns out I was mis-informed on both points. The Razr didn’t make an appearance (although more leaks and designs have since come to light and that is expected soon) and Nokia did indeed continue form by giving us another nod to the glory days of Nokia how we used to know them. Although this came in the form of the 210, which hardly falls into the same category as the 3310 or 8110.

Sony

Sony were one of the few that kept us guessing until after the doors officially opened at the Fira Gran Via, leaving their press conference until day one of the show. That being said, it was pretty much what we expected from Sony. The Xperia 1 is a 6.5” super tall phone thanks to the 21:9 aspect ratio. The screen itself is a 4K OLED, which is a first for a smartphone. It is powered by the same Snapdragon 855 as most of the big boys, and packs 6GB of RAM with 128GB on board storage. Sporting a triple camera setup on the back and is by far the best design we’ve seen from Sony. It will still be a few months before it actually hits the shelves where it’ll be priced somewhere in the region of £850. As we touched on in the preview article, it could be a risky game trying to compete at the top end without a clear standout selling point, but time will tell on that.
If all else fails, there were also mid-range offerings from Sony in the form of the Xperia 10 and 10 plus. As you would expect, general specs are slightly lower across the board from the Xperia 1, but both do maintain that 21:9 aspect ratio.

Energizer

There’s a name you probably weren’t expecting in an MWC round-up. Yes, you did read that right; Energizer, like the batteries… turns out they make smartphones too. I’ll give you three guesses to what the main feature of the Energizer phones are. Did you get it? That’s right, it’s battery life, who would have thought it, eh? Okay, so a smartphone focused on battery life… you might expect it to last two days without charge maybe three at a push. How about SEVEN? That’s what Energizer claim; a solid week on a single charge, it’s like going back to the good old days of the Nokia 5110. Since everyone is always complaining about battery life, you might think that there would already be queues on your local high street to pick one of these up. Unfortunately, I doubt that’ll be the case. There’s always a catch, at this point we would usually question the accuracy of these claims and suggest that seven days is likely to be a bit of an exaggeration, but this time around I fully believe that the figures banded around are more or less accurate. Given that it is juiced by an 18,000 mAh battery (roughly three times that of a top-end modern smartphone) it’s not unlikely that you’d get somewhere around that mark on mid to low end Android product. The catch here is that there’s a good reason that no one else has put an 18,000 mAh battery into a smartphone… it doesn’t fit, not even close. Back in the day we used to talk about handsets being bricks, this might actually be the size of one. It’s roughly three times as thick as a regular smartphone, so it’s hard to tell if this is a phone with a big battery attached or a big battery with a phone attached, the only thing we can be sure on is that it’s big. Pricing and release dates are still to be confirmed but unless you’re planning on taking a week off getting lost in the outback, trekking through the Andes or spending a week away from a power source for some other reason, I wouldn’t rush out to get one.

 

That’s about all we could cram in to our MWC ’19 round-up. As always, if we’ve missed anything that you were desperate to hear about, drop us a line and we’ll try our best to give you a follow up.

We’re not quite done with our MWC coverage though, this year’s event really did seem to have a special significance, even greater than previous instalments. We thought this deserved recognition, so we’ll be back next week to talk about why we think this is the most important MWC there has ever been and why this is such an important time for mobile technology and its application in every aspect of our lives.

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