MWC, Sunday 24 February 2019

Our pick of the day’s news

Huawei Reveals Foldable Mate X Smartphone

Huawei grabbed the headlines on Sunday with the unveiling of its Mate X smartphone with a folding display. It comes hot on the heels of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold (see Instant Insight: Samsung Unveils Galaxy Fold and Galaxy S10 Portfolio).

Like Samsung, Huawei did not provide hands-on access to its folding phone, but a demonstration at the launch was extremely impressive. The design looks significantly more compact than the Galaxy Fold and will doubtless be scrutinized by Huawei’s Korean rival.

Over the past few years Huawei has proved extremely good at producing exceptional hardware, and the Mate X is further evidence of this. During the launch it made repeated comparisons with Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.

The only area where it appeared Huawei did not beat Samsung was price, with the 5G-capable Mate X revealed to be a staggering €2,299, compared with the Galaxy Fold’s €2,000. The gasps in the audience at both launch events underline how ambitious the prices are, but there’s little doubt that many gadget lovers will find the devices irresistible. Ironically, it doesn’t seem that long ago that the industry was worried about iPhone products smashing through the €1,000 barrier.

The Huawei Mate X confirms that we’re entering a new era in smartphone design, with flexible displays offering an array of fresh possibilities. However, without hands-on time with these two new devices it would be reckless to draw conclusions. Samsung’s and Huawei’s refusal to allow anyone to touch the new products raises questions about their readiness — particularly in terms of software.

Huawei also revealed several new MateBook laptops and a 5G mobile broadband terminal. It also announced there will be a 5G variant of the Mate 20X smartphone. This is likely to be a popular addition to network operators’ 5G line-ups alongside products from Samsung, LG, OnePlus and others.

Microsoft Unveils HoloLens 2, Promising the Next Phase in Computing

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella hosted the company’s press event at MWC and outlined his vision for ubiquitous computing from the cloud to the network edge. He also stated his belief that artificial intelligence is being “infused into every experience” and that Microsoft’s goal is to put “people at the centre of experiences, rather than the device”.

In this context, the biggest announcement was the unveiling of the HoloLens 2, a significant upgrade to the first mixed reality HoloLens device announced in 2016, with double the field of view and a sleeker more comfortable design.

This is a critical moment in Microsoft’s ambitious plans for HoloLens and for mixed reality in general. The jury is still out on whether Microsoft can convince companies to go all-in with HoloLens, but if there is one company that can do it, it is probably Microsoft.

Improvements to the device’s security and design are major plusses, but Microsoft needs to ensure that its partners produce durable and rugged models for industrial applications and that HoloLens works well on a range of Wi-Fi signals if it is to overcome previous problems and gain mass appeal. The first participant in Microsoft’s HoloLens customization programme, construction hardware company Trimble, joined Microsoft at MWC to show off its XR10, a hard hat with integrated HoloLens.

We expect a 5G HoloLens model to appear as 5G networks take off. Another key to unlocking the potential of HoloLens will be the developer community. Microsoft already has an enviably position in this area and the financial resources to offer developers incentives to back the platform. However, it remains to be seen whether Microsoft will succeed where so many others have failed in augmented reality.

HMD Global Unveils Full Spectrum of New Nokia Mobile Phones

HMD Global started its media event at MWC by underlining its market leadership in affordable feature phones. These have been an essential element of its growth to date, and it was little surprise that it announced a new feature phone, the $35 Nokia 210. This is a 2G device with basic Internet access that will fit well into its portfolio of low-cost feature phones. In contrast to previous years, the company didn’t announce an updated version of a classic Nokia device like 2017’s Nokia 3310 and 2018’s Nokia 8110 4G.

HMD Global also unveiled three low- to mid-range Nokia devices. The $99 Nokia 1 Plus is an entry-level Android (Go edition) smartphone with a 5.5-inch display. The Nokia 3.2, starting at $139, features a 6.3-inch display and a claimed two-day battery life. The Nokia 4.2, priced from $169, has a very attractive design with a glowing notification indicator around the power button, a 5.7-inch screen, and a fingerprint sensor. The Nokia 3.2 and 4.2 feature a dedicated button to access Google Assistant.

The company’s new flagship device, the Nokia 9 PureView, is priced at $699 and available now. We expect it to be one of the big talking points at MWC. It resurrects one of Nokia’s strongest brands, PureView, to underline the device’s camera technology. HMD Global has partnered with Light, a company that developed an advanced multi-lens camera, the L16. Interestingly, Light recently announced it is working with Sony to bring its technology to other smartphone makers (see Lights, Camera and Sony)

The Nokia 9 PureView is a big bet on Light’s computational approach to photography. It has a constellation of five rear-facing cameras — two colour sensors and three monochrome ones — allowing a theoretical 240-megapixel picture to be captured. This detailed image allows users to choose from 1,200 focal planes, compared with the usual 10 on smartphones with fewer cameras.

The sheer engineering effort to integrate the technology is impressive, but the proof of whether it was worth it and whether consumers will be interested will come from the quality of images the Nokia 9 PureView can deliver. It is unsurprising that HMD Global has decided to embed this cutting-edge technology at a time when all smartphone makers are using multiple cameras in an effort to set their devices apart from the crowd. Nokia is betting it can take mobile phone photography to the next level, but with the ability to refocus pictures available on so many rival devices, the Nokia 9 PureView will need to produce truly outstanding results.

Xiaomi Announces 4G and 5G Smartphones with Stunning Prices

Xiaomi joined the swelling ranks of smartphone makers offering 5G devices, unveiling its Mi Mix 3, powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 and X50 chips. Its specifications look largely similar to those of other 5G devices being announced in Barcelona, but its €599 price tag is certain to catch headlines. It sets the bar for 5G smartphone pricing, and is in line with Xiaomi’s mission of “amazing products with honest pricing”. The price is sure to have appealed to the six operators it announced as launch partners for the device: Orange, Sunrise, Telefonica, Three, TIM and Vodafone.

Xiaomi has taken a similarly aggressive approach to the pricing of its new 4G smartphone, the Mi 9. With a starting price of €449, it will alarm manufacturers keen to preserve margins in an already challenging market. Xiaomi’s tack will be particularly troublesome for small-scale players like LG and Sony, which are likely to find it near-impossible to compete profitably at these price levels.

Surprisingly, Xiaomi did not announce a smartphone with a folding display, despite having hinted at it in a video weeks before the show.

Xiaomi’s strategy will depend on it being able the achieve the economies of scale needed to sustain such competitive prices. Having successfully expanded from China into India and other Asian markets, it is making a concerted effort to build up its presence in Europe. It doubtless hopes it will be able to break into the strategically important US market, but given the current political tensions between the US and China, this may prove challenging.

LG Reveals V50 ThinQ 5G Flagship and G8 ThinQ 4G Smartphone

The LG V50 ThinQ is a 5G device with a 6.4-inch OLED display. As with other 5G devices announced at the show, it uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 and X50 5G modem. LG has signed deals with 10 major network operators around the world, including Sprint in the US and operators in South Korea, Australia and Europe. At first, the V50 ThinQ will support the sub-6 GHz variant of the 5G standard, with a later version also supporting millimetre-wave networks.

The most notable distinguishing feature of the V50 ThinQ is its Dual Screen companion device. However, it is hard to believe LG’s clip-on second screen for the new smartphone will be particularly popular. It feels like something LG decided to offer in the absence of a smartphone with a folding screen. At a combined weight of over 300 g it is a bulky package. The most interesting thing about the companion device were some of the uses LG suggested for a device with double the screen space. Some ideas, such as taking a screen shot of the secondary screen and pasting it into a messaging app open on the other screen, or using the second screen as a game controller, are likely to be adopted by future generations of foldable smartphones.

LG also unveiled the G8 ThinQ 4G smartphone and an “s” variant with a slightly larger screen and battery. Like LG’s new 5G flagship, the G8 ThinQ has three rear cameras to allow zooms from wide angle to telephoto shots. Its major differentiator is the front-facing depth-sensing camera in addition to a standard eight-megapixel sensor. This enables a feature called Hand ID, which recognises the shape, thickness and other individual characteristics of veins in the palms of a user’s hand. LG claims this is more secure than fingerprint recognition technology.

It works surprisingly well and much better than previous attempts at gesture-based solutions that used the standard front-facing camera. But as with all new ways of interacting with electronic devices, it will come down to whether consumers understand what it offers and whether they find it useful.

Both the V50 ThinQ and G8 ThinQ are nicely designed products with the latest technology, and LG has made a great start with the number of operators it has signed up for its 5G-capable flagship. But LG will find it hard to make its products stand out in amid the intense competitive pressure of the global smartphone market.

Qualcomm Announces Snapdragon X55 5G Modem

Barcelona will see a wave of 5G devices based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 platform paired with its first-generation X50 5G modem; the company claims more than 30 device designs in 2019 will use its 5G silicon, underlining its strength and leadership in this area.

The announcement of a second-generation modem using 7 nm process node reaffirms this strength. The design adds multimode 2G, 3G and 4G support to millimetre-wave and sub-6 GHz 5G connectivity. It also features time- and frequency-division duplex (TDD and FDD) modes of 5G operation and support for standalone 5G. These are essential introductions given pending network upgrades to standalone operation without reliance on LTE as an anchor, and launches in China later in 2019 based on standalone mode.

Qualcomm will see competition build from Huawei, Intel, MediaTek and Samsung, but it has led the transition to 5G and remains firmly ahead of the pack. Others will inevitably make claims and announcements of varying substance at MWC, particularly relating to the integration of 5G into system-on-chips for reasons of cost and performance. However, Qualcomm’s commercial progress in news from Barcelona shows the chip-maker remains the benchmark for 5G device silicon.

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