mwc 2019

5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

Posted by | 5g, Android, Apple, Asia, barcelona, broadband, Caching, China, deutsche telekom, donovan sung, Europe, european commission, european union, huawei, Intel, Internet of Things, iPhone, LG, Mobile, mwc 2019, Qualcomm, Samsung, singtel, smartphone, smartphones, south korea, TC, telecommunications, Xiaomi | No Comments

This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

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The best of MWC 2019

Posted by | hardware, huawei, Mobile, mwc, mwc 2019, Samsung | No Comments

After years of promises, 5G finally arrived at MWC 2019 — kind of, sort of. Barcelona served as the launching pad for several 5G handsets, set to arrive later this year. Though your actual 5G mileage may vary.

Foldable displays, another long-promised smartphone tech, also had its moment in the sun. Several companies debuted foldables — some were actual handsets with actual price tags, while others fell firmly within the concept camp. And pretty much all of them were behind glass.

Other notable trends for the event included cameras, AR/VR and security of all sorts. Here are the highlights and lowlights from the world’s biggest mobile show. All in all, we’re here for the weirdness.

5G comes of age

It’s been an MWC talking point for years now, but at this week’s show, the first 5G handsets finally arrived.

Huawei Mate X
LG V50 ThinQ 5G
Samsung Galaxy Fold
Samsung Galaxy S10
Xiaomi Mi Mix 3
ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G

OnePlus, which promised last year that it would be among the first to hop on the 5G train, didn’t have a handset to announce, but it did demo a prototype and announce an initiative for 5G app devs.

Unfolding the future 

Time to unfold the checkbook. The first foldables are here, carrying an average price of ~$2,000. That’s like two phones for the price of, well, two phones. Whether or not the phones will be worth it, however, is another question entirely.

Huawei Mate X
Samsung Galaxy Fold

TCL showed off a prototype at the show, promising to deliver a more affordable take on the space at some point next year. Oppo, too, is still very much in the prototype phase.

AR/VR/MR

The biggest hit of the world’s biggest phone show may not have been a phone at all. Microsoft used the event to launch the second generation of its HoloLens, a headset firmly focused on business.

Microsoft HoloLens 2
Microsoft Azure Kinect
Vive Focus Plus
Qualcomm XR chips

Security

Huawei had a lot to say about accusations of security threats around its 5G equipment. Ditto for the European Commission’s digital commissioner. Android, meanwhile, will be getting more password-less logins.

Misc

Energizer’s 18,000 mAh phone
Light is expanding from smartphone cameras to self-driving cars
HTC’s blockchain phone can now be purchased with fiat currency
Sprint to launch 5G service in 4 cities in May
Facebook expands its internet infrastructure projects
New microSD format promises insane transfer speeds, better battery life
Nubia’s ‘wearable smartphone’ might be the next step for flexible displays

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Samsung Galaxy S10+ review

Posted by | galaxy s10, hardware, Mobile, mwc 2019, Reviews, Samsung, samsung galaxy, TC | No Comments

Launching around the globe a few days ahead of the world’s largest mobile show was the ultimate big-dog move. Samsung celebrated the 10th anniversary of its flagship phone line by launching its latest device on Apple’s sometimes-stomping grounds at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Center.

The timing was less than ideal for all of us jet-lagged gadget reviewers, but the effect clearly paid off. Dozens of the world’s highest-profile reviewers have been roaming the streets of Barcelona with the S10 in hand and Galaxy Buds in ears. You couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity.

And, naturally, none of us minded testing those new photo features in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.

But the 10th anniversary Galaxy arrives at a transitional time for Samsung — and the industry at large. The last couple of years have seen smartphone sales plateau for the first time since anyone started keeping track of those sorts of numbers, and big companies like Samsung and Apple are not immune.

That manner of existential crisis has led to one of the most eventful Mobile World Congresses in memory, as companies look to shake the doldrums of a stagnant market. It also led Samsung to open last week’s Unpacked event with the Galaxy Fold — first the cryptic product video and then the product unveil.

It’s a heck of a lead in, and, quite frankly, a recipe for disappointment. Here’s a look at the future, and now let’s talk about the present. Several people saw that I was carrying around a new Samsung device, got excited and were ultimately disappointed with the fact that I couldn’t unfold the thing.

None of this is any reflection on the quality of the S10 as a device, which I will happily state is quite high. But unlike the iPhone X, Apple’s 10th anniversary handset, the new Galaxy isn’t an attempt at a radical departure. Instead, it’s a culmination of 10 years of phone development, with new tricks throughout.

The Galaxy S10 doesn’t offer the same glimpse into the future as the Fold. But it does make a strong claim for the best Android smartphone of the moment. Starting at $1,000, it’s going to cost you — but if Samsung’s $1,900 foldable is any indication, smartphones of the future could make it look like a downright bargain.

Screen time

The Samsung Galaxy S10+ has been my daily driver for a week now. It joined me on an international road trip, through several product unveils from the competition and is responsible for all of the images in this post. Sometimes the best camera is the one in your pocket, as the saying goes.

Like other recent Samsung flagships, it’s going to be a tough device to give up when review time comes to a close. It’s a product that does a lot of things well. Tending, as Samsung often does, toward jamming as much into a product as possible — the polar opposite of chief competitor Apple’s approach.

But in the case of the Galaxy line, it all comes together very nicely. The S10 doesn’t represent a radical stylistic departure from its predecessor, maintaining the same manner of curved design language that helps the company cram a lot of phone into a relatively limited footprint, including a 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio in the case of the S10+.

That means you can hold the handset in one hand, in spite of the ginormous 6.4-inch screen size. This is accomplished, in part, by the curved edges of the display that have been something of a Samsung trademark for a few generations now. It has also helped the Infinity-O design display, a laser cutout in the top-right of the screen, to fit the front-facing camera in as small a space as possible. In the case of the S10+, it’s more like an Infinity-OOO display.

Samsung was going to have to give in to the cutout trend sooner or later, opting to go ahead and skip the whole notch situation. The result is a largely unobtrusive break in the screen. Just for good measure, the phone’s default wallpapers have gradually darkening gradients that do a good job obscuring the cut out while not in use.

But while the whole more-screen-less-body deal is generally a good thing, there is a marked downside. I found myself accidentally triggering touch on the sides of the display with the edge of my palms, particularly when using the device with one hand. This has been a known issue for some time, of course.

Oh, and there’s one more key aspect in helping the S10+ go full screen.

Putting your finger on it

As with many of the features here, Samsung can’t claim to be the first to have the under-display fingerprint sensor. OnePlus, in a rare push to be first to market, added a similar technology to the 6T, which arrived last fall. But Samsung’s application takes things a step further.

The S10 and all of its variants are among the first to implant the fingerprint technology that Qualcomm announced at its Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii last year. The key differentiator here is an extra level of security. If the OnePlus’ fingerprint sensor is akin to your standard face unlock, this is more in line with what you get on the iPhone or LG’s latest handset.

The ability to sense depth brings another layer of security to the product — quite literally. Here’s how Qualcomm describes it:

Combining a smartphone’s display and fingerprint reader for a seamless and sleek look, 3D Sonic uses technological advances and acoustics (sonic waves) to scan the pores of a user’s finger for a deeply accurate 3D image. An ultra-thin (0.2 mm) sensor enables cutting-edge form factors such as full glass edge-to-edge displays, and can be widely used with flexible OLED displays.

Setup proved a bit fussier than the standard physical fingerprint button. Once everything is squared away, the reader is actually fairly responsive, registering a rippled water animation and unlocking the phone in about a second.

Getting your finger/thumb in the right spot might take a couple of tries on the first go, but after that, it’s muscle memory. There’s also a small fingerprint shaped guide that pops up on the lock screen for help. It can still be a bit tricky for those times you’re not looking directly at the display, or if you switch between hands.

It’s also worth noting that the unlock can be tricky with some screen protectors. Samsung will be working with accessory manufacturers to design compatible ones, but picking the wrong company could severely hamper the unlock function.

In some ways, though, the in-display fingerprint reader beats face unlock. I tend to lay my device down next to my keyboard when I work. Lifting the phone up to my eyes in order to read notifications is a bit of a pain. Same goes for when I need to check messages in bed. Here you can simply touch, check the notifications and go on with your life.

Ports in a storm

Around the edge is a mirrored metal band that houses the power button on one side and volume rocker and devoted Bixby button on the other. Yes, the Bixby button is back. And no, it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Samsung is wholly devoted to the smart assistant, and the company’s mobile devices are the one foothold Bixby currently commands.

The complaint about the Bixby button mostly stems from the fact that the assistant was, quite honestly, pretty useless at launch — particularly when compared to Android’s default assistant. In fact, when Google announced this week at Mobile World Congress the upcoming arrival of Assistant buttons on third-party devices, the news was generally welcomed by the Android crowd.

Samsung, meanwhile, gets hounded about the Bixby button, as though its inclusion is a way of forcing its assistant on users. Once again, Samsung relented, giving users the ability to remap the button in order to launch specific apps instead. This has played out time and again with the last several Galaxy devices.

The fact is, after an admittedly rocky start, Bixby has slowly been getting better, feature by feature. But the assistant still has catching up to do with Google’s headset, and frankly doesn’t offer a ton of reasons to opt into it over Android’s built-in option. Samsung has certainly made big promises of late, coupled with the imminent arrival of the Galaxy Home Hub.

Of course, that device was announced more than half a year ago, and when it does finally arrive, it will likely be carrying a prohibitive price tag. Beyond that, Bixby is currently the realm of things like Samsung refrigerators and washing machines. None of this adds up to a particularly compelling strategy for a multi-million-dollar AI offering that has become something of an inside joke in the industry.

But Samsung sticks to its guns, for better or worse. Sometimes that means Bixby, and sometimes that means defiantly clinging to the headphone jack. Turns out if you avoid a trend for long enough, you can become a trendsetter in your own right — or at least a respite from the maddening crowd.

It’s been a few years since the beginning of the end came for the jack, and the whole thing still leaves plenty of users with a sour taste. Even the once-defiant Google quickly gave in and dropped the jack. Samsung, however, has stood its ground and the decision has paid off. What was ubiquitous is now a differentiator, and even as the company hawks another pair of Bluetooth earbuds, it’s standing its ground here.

All charged up

The back of the device, like the front, is covered in Gorilla Glass 6. The latest from Corning, which debuted over the summer, promises to survive “up to 15 drops.” But don’t try this at home with your shiny new $1,000 smartphone, as your results may vary.

The material also helps facilitate what is arguably the device’s most compelling new feature: Wireless PowerShare. Samsung’s not the first company to roll out the feature — Huawei introduced the feature on the Mate 20 Pro last year. Still, it’s a cool feature and, perhaps most importantly, it beat Apple to the punch.

The feature needs to be activated manually, by swiping down into notifications (it will also automatically shut off when not in use). From there, tapping Wireless PowerShare will pop up a dialog box, letting you know the feature is ready to us. Turn the phone face down on a table and place a compatible phone on top, face up, and the S10 will go to work charging it.

Placement can be a bit tough to get right the first couple of times. The trick is making sure both devices are centered. Once everything is where it should be, you’ll hear a quick notification sound and the phone will register as charging. In the case of the new Galaxy Buds, the sound is accompanied by the appearance of the case’s charging light.

It’s a neat feature, for sure. I can certainly imagine lending some ill-prepared friend a little juice at the bar one night. I wouldn’t go throwing out my power bank just yet. For one thing, one of the phones needs to be face-down the whole time. For another, wireless charging isn’t nearly as fast as its wired counterpart, so beyond the initial novelty of the feature, it may not ultimately be one you end up using a lot.

And, of course, you’re actively draining the battery of the phone sharing power. It’s a little like a Giving Tree scenario, albeit with the lowest stakes humanly possible. Thankfully, the handsets all sport pretty beefy batteries. In the case of the S10+, it’s a massive 4,100 mAh (with the 5G model getting an even nuttier 4,500 mAh).

It’s clear the days of Samsung’s Note 7-induced battery cautions are well behind it, thanks in no small part to the extensive battery testing the company implemented in the wake of a seemingly endless PR nightmare. As it stands, I was able to get around a full day plus two hours with standard usage while roaming the streets and convention center halls of Barcelona. That means you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of energy by day’s end — and you may even have a bit to spare before it’s all over.

Camera ready

You know the drill by now, Samsung and Apple come out with a new flagship smartphone, which quickly shoots to the top of DxOMark’s camera ratings. The cycle repeats itself yet again — with one key difference: It’s a three-way tie.

[Left: Standard, Right: Full zoom]

Really, there’s no better distillation of the state of the smartphone industry in 2019 than this. The latest iPhone, which is now half-a-year-old, is now a few spots down the list, with Samsung in a three-way tie for first. The other two top devices are, get this, both Huawei handsets. It’s been a banner year for the Chinese handset maker on a number of fronts, and that’s got to leave the Apples and Samsungs of the world a bit nervous, all told.

For now, though, there’s a lot to like here… 109 points’ worth, in fact. The last several generations of camera races have resulted in some really well-rounded camera gear. It’s a setup that makes it difficult to take bad shots (difficult, but hardly impossible, mind), with the combination of hardware and software/AI improvements we’ve seen over the course of the last few devices.

The camera setup varies from device to device, so we’re going to focus on the S10+ — the device we’ve spent the past week with (though, granted, the 5G model’s camera warrants its own write-up). The plus model features a three-camera array, oriented horizontally in a configuration that brings nothing to mind so much as the original Microsoft Kinect.

[Left: Samsung S10+, Right: Pixel 2]

It’s been fascinating watching companies determine the best use for a multi-camera array. Take Nokia’s new five-camera system, which essentially compiles everything into one super-high-res shot. Here, however, the three lenses capture three different images. They are as follows:

Wide (Standard): 12 MP, 26mm
Telephoto: 12 MP, 52mm
Ultrawide: 16 MP, 12mm

The system is configured to let you seamlessly switch between lenses in order to capture a shot in a given situation. The telephoto can do 2x shots, while the ultrawide captures 123-degree shots. The 5G model, meanwhile, adds 3D-depth cameras to the front and rear, which is a pretty clear indication of where Samsung plans to go from here.

That said, the current setup is still quite capable of pulling off some cool depth tricks. This is no better exemplified than with the Live Focus feature, which applies a Portrait Mode-style bokeh effect around the objects you choose. The effect isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty convincing. Above is a shot I took on the MWC show floor and used in the led for a story about the HTC Vive.

There are some fun tricks as well, like the above Color Point effect. I’m not sure how often I’d end up using it, but damn if it doesn’t look cool.

All of that, coupled with new touches like wide-image panorama and recent advances like super-slow-motion and low-light shooting make for an extremely well-rounded camera experience. Ditto for scene identification, which does a solid job determining the differences between, say, a salad and a tree and adjusting the shooting settings accordingly.

Oh, and a low-key solid upgrade here are the improved AR Emojis, as seen above. They’re 1,000 times less creepy than the originals. I mean, I’m still not going to be sharing them with people unironically or anything, but definitely a step in the right direction.

Today’s Galaxy

The present moment is an exciting one for the mobile industry. There were glimmers of promise all over the MWC show floor and a week prior at Samsung’s own event. A stagnant industry has caused the big players to get creative, and some long-promised technologies are about to finally get real.

The Samsung Fold feels like a clear peek into the future of one of the industry’s biggest players, so it’s only natural that such an announcement would take some of the wind out of its flagship’s sails.

The S10 isn’t the smartphone of the future. Instead, it’s the culmination of 10 solid years of cutting-edge smartphone work that’s resulted into one of today’s most solid mobile devices.

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The Shadow Ghost turns cloud gaming into a seamless experience

Posted by | BLADE, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, mwc, mwc 2019, shadow, Startups | No Comments

French startup Blade, the company behind Shadow, is launching a new set-top box to access its cloud gaming service — the Shadow Ghost. I’ve been playing with the device for a couple of weeks and here’s my review.

The Shadow Ghost is a tiny little box that doesn’t do much. The true magic happens in a data center near your home. When you sign up to Shadow, you don’t even have to get a box. You can simply subscribe to the service without any hardware device and use the company’s apps instead.

Shadow is a cloud computing service for gamers. For $35 per month, you can access a gaming PC in a data center and interact with this computer. Right now, Shadow gives you eight threads on an Intel Xeon 2620 processor, an Nvidia Quadro P5000 GPU that performs more or less as well as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080, 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. You can optionally get more storage with an extra subscription. It’s a full Windows 10 instance and you can do whatever you want with it.

Most subscribers now access Shadow using one of the company’s apps on Windows, macOS or Linux. You also can connect to your virtual machine from your iOS or Android phone or tablet. And now, you can buy the Shadow Ghost if you want to use the service on a TV or without a computer.

I first used Shadow during the early days of the service back in early 2017. My first experience of the service felt like magic. Thanks to my high-speed fiber connection, I could play demanding games on a laptop. The best part was that the laptop fan would remain silent.

But it wasn’t perfect. Nvidia driver updates failed sometimes. Or your virtual machine would become completely unaccessible without some help from the customer support team.

In other words, the concept was great, but the service wasn’t there yet.

Things have changed quite drastically after years of iteration on the apps, the streaming engine, the infrastructure and even the GPUs in the data centers. Blade co-founder and CEO Emmanuel Freund told me that the service has been working fine for just a few months.

It’s no surprise that those technical improvements have led to less churn, more referrals and more subscriptions. In July 2018, the startup had 20,000 subscribers. Now there are 65,000 subscribers. There’s even more demand, but the company has had a hard time keeping up with new machines in data centers.

Shadow is currently available in France, the U.K., Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and parts of the U.S. The company simply can’t accept customers from anywhere in the world because they need to live near a data center with Shadow servers.

Playing with the Shadow Ghost

The original Shadow box was a bit clunky. You could hear the fan, you had to rely on dongles if you wanted to pair a Bluetooth device or connect to a Wi-Fi network and there was no HDMI port — only DisplayPort. Internally, Blade has been debating whether the company needs another box.

In 2017, it was too hard to explain the product without some sort of physical device — you can replace a PC tower with a tiny box. But now that gamers understand the benefits of cloud gaming, there’s no reason to force you to buy a box.

And yet, the Shadow Ghost can be a useful little device in some cases. For instance, while the company has released an Android TV app and is testing a new app for the Apple TV, your current TV setup might not be compatible with Shadow. Or maybe you primarily use a laptop and you want to create a desktop PC setup with a display, a keyboard, a mouse and a Shadow Ghost.

Everything has been improved. It is now a fanless device that consumes less than 5W when it’s on. It has an Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, an audio jack and a single HDMI port. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have finally been integrated in the device.

When you boot up the device, you get a menu to connect to a Wi-Fi network or control your Bluetooth devices. You also can change some streaming settings, like in the app launcher.

Once you press the start button, the video stream starts and it feels like you’re using a Windows computer. With Steam’s Big Picture mode, you get a convenient setup for couch gaming. I had no issue playing demanding games, such as Hitman 2. It works perfectly fine with a Wi-Fi connection and a Bluetooth controller.

Using the Shadow Ghost feels just like using the Shadow app on a computer. So it’s hard to say whether you need the Shadow Ghost or not. It depends on your setup at home and how you plan to use the service.

Last summer, Blade planned to manufacture 5,000 units. But now that the user base has grown significantly, that first batch could disappear in no time. It is available starting today for $140.

A gold rush

Cloud gaming is a hot space right now. While some companies have been experimenting with this concept for a while (Nvidia, Sony), it feels like everyone is working on a new service of some sort. Maybe the next Xbox is going to be about streaming a game from a data center. Maybe Amazon will offer a game library in the cloud as part of your Amazon Prime subscription.

Emmanuel Freund believes that it could be an opportunity for Shadow. Everybody is going to talk about cloud gaming if Apple and Google announce new services. But the startup has years of experiences in the space and has tried hard to compensate when it comes to latency and internet speeds.

It’s going to be harder to compete on content though. Game publishers and console manufacturers could start releasing exclusive titles on their cloud gaming services. That’s why Blade is thinking about new gaming experiences and exclusive content that would make Shadow more than a technical service.

(Controller for scale)

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Bring on the mobile weirdness

Posted by | hardware, Mobile, mwc 2019 | No Comments

CES 2019 was a dud. It happens. Some years are more exciting than others. The world of technology ebbs and flows. Time is a flat circle. All that glitters is gold. Only shooting stars break the mold.

MWC, on the other hand — I’ve actually been pretty excited about this show for a while now. The mobile industry is at a crossroads. Smartphone sales have begun to stagnate and recede for the first time since analysts began tracking the things. Heck, this was the year the conference name officially changed from Mobile World Congress to MWC Barcelona.

That sort of sly rebranding takes some of the heavy lifting off the “mobile” bit for what has come to be regarded as the world’s premier smartphone launching pad. Don’t be too surprised to see the show attempt a shift into the broader world of consumer electronics, à la CES or IFA.

Meantime, smartphones are very much still the thing. The devices are still a ubiquitous part of our lives and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. There are a number of reasons for the slowdown in sales, but the primary factors are slowed upgrade cycles and phones have gotten better and new features have become less compelling, coupled with rough economic trends in places like China, which were anticipated to be the primary driver for the category going forward.

The upshot of all of this is a newfound sense of experimentation. Keeping shareholders happy requires constant upward growth, and kickstarting sales will take some compelling reasons to upgrade. This year was the first time, perhaps since the original iPhone, that we’ve seen a radical shift in form factors, with Samsung, Huawei, TCL and Oppo all announcing foldable phones in the last couple of weeks.

Making sure they’re ready for prime time is another question altogether, but I’m definitely on-board for the manner of differentiation they bring. While it’s true that a number of major players all got on the foldable train at roughly the same time, we’ve seen some unique approaches as the industry scrambles to figure out the best way to utilize flexible technology.

The fact is that none of these are going to be big sellers out of the gate — the average price point, which is currently hovering around $2,000, will see to that. Huawei, for one, seems to have tempered its expectations around the category. Mobile chief Richard Yu quite nearly apologized for the price of the Mate X onstage the other day.

But the inability to pay double the price of a flagship smartphone shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of interest, nor should it be used as justification for pulling back on experimentation. In a recent conversation, the CEO of Light discussed how the maturation of the smartphone category could afford smartphone makers the opportunity to better target different user needs.

He was speaking specifically about different camera arrays on the backs of phones, but I don’t see why that can’t apply to the space in broader terms. Plenty of smartphone makers have gotten burned trying to compete with similar products on the same field as Apple or Samsung.

For years, smartphones have constituted one of the very few consistent trends in an otherwise fragmented media landscape. It’s not too hard to imagine smartphones undergoing a similar transformation, in which smartphones are less uniform, but better suited to users’ individual needs.

Of course, it seems just as — if not more — likely that handset makers will ultimately pull the plug on any devices that fail to catch the world on fire. Just look at the recent rumors that Razer has abandoned plans for a third gaming phone.

Here’s hoping, however, that this year’s MWC marks the first step for a mobile space long overdue for a radical shakeup.

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We’re ready for foldable phones, but are they ready for us?

Posted by | hardware, huawei, Mobile, mwc 2019, Royole, Samsung, TCL | No Comments

This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. After years of prototypes, the age of foldables has finally arrived. They’re here. I’ve seen them, and even, briefly, touched one.

And that’s about as far as it goes, to be honest. A week after Samsung kicked off its S10 event with an in-depth look at the Galaxy Fold, the device made its IRL debut at MWC, this week. We got to the show an hour early on the first day, only to find four devices trapped behind glass cases.

They weren’t doing much of anything at all. Two were splayed to show the backs of the devices and two showed off the screens. We were able to get within a few inches of the things before security swooped in and put up the ropes. The Fold has a release date that’s just under two months away, and yet here we are, stuck admiring the thing from afar.

Huawei was a bit better. Another morning session yesterday found us backstage at the company’s booth, getting up close and personal with the Mate X. But things got a little weird. I’m used to being babysat with pricey new devices, but Huawei went out of its way to severely limit interactivity with the product, as noted in the story.

TCL’s product got a similar behind-glass treatment as the Fold. Though there’s one key difference: the company gave a 2020 time frame for its more affordable (more affordable than $2,600, that is) take on the category. That, hopefully, is enough time to work out all of the kinks ahead of product launch.

That neither Huawei nor Samsung feel confident enough to let us go a bit more in-depth with their soon-to-be-released devices isn’t the kind of thing that really instills one with confidence in an emerging space. Royole, to its credit, let the press go fully hands-on with its products back at CES, though, by nearly all accounts, the product feels more like a developer device than anything.

And that, really, is the fear. Samsung’s charging an arm and a leg for the device, at $1,980. Huawei’s tossed in another limb, bringing the total up to $2,600. That’s not beta-tester levels. That’s double the cost of already exorbitant flagship smartphone pricing for products that appear to still have a lot of bugs to work out.

It’s true that there’s a lot that needs to be redesigned after generations of coalescing around the same basic form factor, both from a hardware and software perspective. But it’s one thing to announce a concept and another entirely to bring it to market. If these initial devices ultimately prove buggy or are otherwise a letdown from a user perspective, it’s going to be a fairly inauspicious start for a long-promised form factor.

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Energizer’s P18K Pop is basically a giant battery with a smartphone built into it

Posted by | energizer, hardware, Mobile, mwc 2019 | No Comments

This is the future you asked for.

When people read smartphone reviews, one of the first things they want to know is whether the battery life is going to be sufficient for their use cases. Well, what if the battery life was the only stat that mattered?

At MWC in Barcelona, phone maker Avenir Telecom is turning heads with an Energizer-branded behemoth that packs a punch.

The P18K Pop has a truly massive 18,000 mAh battery built-in — the manufacturer says you could play videos for two straight days without depleting the battery. By comparison, the phone in your pocket probably has a battery in the 2,500-3,500 mAh range, so this thing would likely be able to keep you going for several days with regular usage.

for some how this thing is called a smartphone🙄
and i thought the #SamsungFold was THICK#energizer Power Max P18K Pop with 18000 mAh 🔋
3 to 4 cm sickness!! pic.twitter.com/tc24X3MOVz

— ahtk (@AHTK250) February 26, 2019

Consumers haven’t always been psyched about manufacturer’s never-ending desire to trim thickness from their phones; that’s not an issue with the P18K Pop, which is 18mm thick at its thinnest point. Hilariously, the thing is thick as hell but manages to not have a headphone jack.

It is abundantly unclear how big the market is for this chunkster, but Paris-based Avenir Telecom says they will start shipping them to customers sometime this summer.

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Light is expanding from smartphone cameras to self-driving cars

Posted by | hardware, hmd, Light, Mobile, mwc 2019, Nokia, Sony, Xiaomi | No Comments

This year’s MWC has been very much the beginning of a new phase for Light. Until now, the Palo Alto startup has been best known for its 16-lens DSLR competitor, an utterly fascinating, if not particularly practical device.

At this week’s show, however, we’re seeing a wholly different side of the company, one focused on partnerships. The event has seen the company announce three big alliances — Nokia device maker HMD, Chinese handset company Xiaomi and Sony, whose component manufacturing division will be teaming with Light to develop advanced modules for its near-near-ubiquitous camera hardware.

It’s a promising new start for the five-year-old company, and one that could help Light become a major player for mobile cameras going forward. In an interview, CEO Dave Grannan told TechCrunch that the trio of deals are just the beginning, with more partnerships planned for a 2019 announcement.

The Nokia 9 is the first product of these deals. Announced at the show this week, the five-camera limited-edition flagship is the product of a module that appeared last year, utilizing the array to create complex composite image similar to the sorts of RAW shots one takes with an SLR. It’s one of a number of different arrays that can utilize Light’s technology to build a better mobile multi-camera system.

“When we started Light five years ago, it wasn’t obvious that we would build a dedicated camera to begin with,” Grannan tells TechCrunch. “We realized that we really needed to build a reference device. Something to show the world what could be done. The idea from the first days was to prove to the world that it could be done and then start licensing our technology into other verticals starting with mobile phones.”

The proof-of-concept 16-camera system was always meant to be a limited-edition product, according to the executive, and it ultimately sold out of its initial run. That number was in the tens of thousands, according to Grannan, though he won’t go into any more detail beyond that.

He was happy to discuss the startup’s future, however. In July, Light raised a whopping $121 million, led by SoftBank, bringing its total funding up to $181 million. It was the CEO Masayoshi Son who suggested the next step in the company’s evolution, moving to autonomous vehicles. While Light would be a new entrant in a field that already involves dozens of focused startups, Grannan believes it can offer imaging systems at a fraction of the cost of current LIDAR rigs — at around $5,000 apiece.

Light also plans to expand into security cameras, helping systems better process the information they collect. For now, however, it’s focused on mobile. And in spite of a push toward a more software-focused approached to mobile camera improvement, Grannan believes that phone camera arrays will continue to expand — though perhaps not quite to the 16-camera level Light implemented on its own devices. Currently the company is working on a nine-camera module.

“Within a couple of years, three cameras will seem quaint,” Grannan says. “People are going to need this approach because it’s never good enough with imaging.”

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OnePlus, EE and Qualcomm start a contest for 5G apps

Posted by | 5g, Gadgets, Mobile, mwc 2019, OnePlus, pete lau | No Comments

Today at MWC Barcelona, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau unveiled an initiative to spur apps for 5G networks. The timing is right, too. With 5G launching around the world this year, carriers, phone makers and consumers alike have yet to develop a killer app for the massive increase of speed provided by 5G. Basically, OnePlus is asking for help developing uses for 5G.

OnePlus sees a lack of imagination around 5G in the long term. Speaking on a panel, CEO Pete Lau stated he does not believe people have thought enough about how 5G can change lives in the long term.

This contest will select 20 finalists, who will get OnePlus devices. The winners will get a trip to OnePlus HQ, access to 5G testing labs and support from OnePlus and EE.

Such contests were common around the launch of 4G as mobile device makers were attempting to bolster app marketplaces. But 5G apps could look much different from 4G apps, as much of the processing is offloaded to a central data center instead of happening on the device.

The promise of 5G is nearly here, but it will take initiatives and programs like this one from OnePlus to help make the possibilities clear to consumers.

Earlier this week OnePlus, along with nearly every other mobile phone maker, unveiled a 5G device.

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Here are all the 5G phones announced at MWC

Posted by | huawei, LG, Mobile, mwc 2019, Samsung, TC, Xiaomi, zte | No Comments

Mobile World Congress is underway, which means there are a handful of brand spankin’ new 5G phones hitting the market soon.

How ever will you decide?

Here’s a look at all the 5G phones announced thus far:

Huawei Mate X

The Mate X is a foldable 5G phone with one 4.6-inch screen, another 6.6-inch 2480×1148 screen and (when unfolded) an 8-inch 2200×2480 display.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Kirin 980
  • Battery: 4,5000mAh
  • Memory: 8GB RAM, 512GB internal
  • Price: $2,600
  • Size: 11mm folded, 5.4mm unfolded

LG V50 ThinQ 5G

Aside from its unbearably long name, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G’s claim to fame is a new biometric security measure called Hand ID, which reads the veins in your hand to authenticate your identity. Plus, the new LG flagship has a dual-screen case, which effectively turns the phone into a foldable.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • Memory: 6GB RAM, 128GB internal
  • Price: Unknown

Samsung Galaxy Fold

The Galaxy Fold is likely to be the most talked-about phone out of MWC because 1) it folds and 2) it’s made by the biggest phone maker in the world. The handset, with a 7.3-inch 1536×2152 Super AMOLED unfolded display and a 4.6-inch cover display, will be available April 26.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,380mAh
  • Memory: 12GB RAM, 512GB internal
  • Price: $1,980
  • Size: 17mm folded

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

The Samsung S10 5G is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s packed with all the bells and whistles that might appeal to the customer who wants the top of the line phone regardless of price. It sports a 6.7-inch 1440×3040 AMOLED display.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,500mAh
  • Memory: 8GB RAM, 256GB internal
  • Price: Unknown

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3

Interestingly, Xiaomi opted to leave 5G out of its flagship phone for the year, the Mi 9. That said, the 5G Mi Mix 3 has a handful of its own interesting features, including a sliding front-facing camera that results in a 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio. It also has a dual-camera system that offers the ability to shoot slow-mo videos at 960 frames per second.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 3,800mAh
  • Memory: 6GB RAM, 64GB/128GB internal
  • Price: $680

ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G

The Axon 10 Pro 5G doesn’t have many tricks, like a folding display, but it does come with a triple-camera system and what appears to be an in-display fingerprint reader. It also sports a 6.7-inch 1080p display. The phone will definitely launch in Europe and China, but no word on whether it will make its way stateside.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • Memory: 6GB RAM, 128GB internal
  • Price: Unknown

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