It is impossible not to have noticed Mobile World Congress taking place in Barcelona this week. In fact, our very own Ewan flew out for a day this to witness the action on the show floor.
Several years ago, I visited MWC as an exhibitor for a small streaming video company called Vidiator (a sister company to Hutchison Whampoa’s Three), and I can confidently say that it’s one hell of a long week giving demos and talking with customers, as well as putting up and taking down exhibit/stand materials, and generally trying to cram in as much as possible over the course of a few days.
I have not been lucky enough to attend in person this year, but there has been no shortage of press announcements and product releases from MWC this week.
Here is just a small selection of six of the products that stood out for me.
Mobile World Congress highlights
Samsung Galaxy S6
Samsung has been having a hard time of late against Apple for premium devices, and Chinese Android manufacturers on the low end, and so there was a general feeling that the Korea company needed to pull something special out of the hat for its latest flagship device.
On Sunday, Samsung held its unpacked event, where the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge (that has a curved screen on both sides) were unveiled. Thankfully, this time around the company dispensed with the theatre show concept that drew criticism last year, and instead focused on the devices themselves.
Did they live up to expectations? On the whole, yes. Both smartphones have gone decidedly upmarket, eschewing plastic for and all metal and glass unibody construction, a more powerful Exynos processor, a better camera, and considerably beefed up specs in all departments.
If anything can help Samsung regain lost ground (and improve its image), it’s the S6 and S6 Edge. Unfortunately, in the name of progress, some design compromises had to be made – the removable battery beloved of so many Android fans has gone, as has the SD card. The new models are also not waterproof, but while the loss of a few features might alienate some fans, both phones are likely to tempt new buyers that won’t miss a few such details.
Only one thing remains to be said about the S6 – it seems to have drawn some design inspiration from the iPhone 6…
HTC Vive virtual reality headset
Virtual reality and gaming headsets appear to be the latest hi-tech product gaining the attention of dozens of electronics companies, even though there isn’t much consumer demand yet.
That hasn’t stopped HTC from partnering with Valve to create its first VR headset that uses Steam’s VR technology. It’s a product that should eventually compete with Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, when those devices are finally released.
“It’s rare that a company has an opportunity to forever transform the ways in which people interact with the world and communicate with each other, but that is exactly what we plan to do with Valve,” said Cher Wang, the chairwoman of HTC.
In terms of specifications, the Vive ticks all the right boxes – it has two 1,200 x 1,080 resolution displays in front of each eye that can show content at 90 frames per second. The Developer Edition also has a gyro sensor, accelerometer, and a laser position sensor.
Vive offers the most immersive experience of any VR package, plunging people into other worlds at a moment’s notice. HTC and Valve have introduced a Full Room Scale 360 Degree Solution with Tracked Controllers, letting you get up, walk around and explore your virtual space, inspect objects from every angle and truly interact with your surroundings. Setting a new benchmark for performance, the headset features high-quality graphics, 90-frames-per-second video and incredible audio fidelity – HTC press release
You can watch the Vive promotional video on YouTube here.
Silent Circle Blackphone 2
Security and privacy are becoming increasingly important for mobile devices, as hacking, data leaks, and other security breaches seem to occur every day.
There is one mobile device that has capitalised on the need for absolute privacy and security – Silent Circle’s Blackphone. The new handset, the Blackphone 2 (as well as a new tablet, the Blackphone+) was unveiled at Mobile World Congress, and will be available to buy later this year. It runs the company’s secure Android-based PrivatOS, in addition to its range of encrypted apps and services.
The Blackphone 2 has a 64-bit eight core CPU, 3GB of memory, a full HD 5.5-inch screen (covered by Gorilla Glass 3) and a non-removable 3,060 mAh battery. Specs-wise, it’s a massive improvement over its predecessor, and puts it firmly in the premium smartphone bracket.
Silent Circle describes PrivatOS as having “no hooks to carriers, and no leaky data”. The Blackphone 2 also offers encrypted voice calls, contacts, messaging and conference calls (no email encryption yet, though co-founder Phil Zimmerman says it’s in development). Apps can be downloaded via Silent Circle’s encrypted app store.
ZTE Spro 2 Smart Projector
The ZTE Spro 2 is a hybrid product that combines a mobile hotspot, projector and Android device. The Spro 2 is, unsurprisingly, the successor to the Spro, but the Chinese company has added lots of features and improved many aspects of the diminutive device.
For example, the projector now outputs 200 lumens (increased from 100) and includes auto-focus as standard, as well as auto ‘keystoning’ – which means any image warp is corrected, caused by the projector not being perpendicular to the screen).
The Spro 2 is also capable of beaming images up to 120-inches, at 720 HD resolution – not bad for such a small device. The projector runs Android 4.4.2, though has a simpler interface, that can be navigated by using the 5-inch screen on the top of the unit. And as the old model, you can download movies and games from Google Play, or insert a microSD card that contains your own content.
Even though it’s fair to say the Smart Project is a niche product, it’s nice to see Android being used to develop some innovative products that aren’t simply mobile phones.
Airvana OneCell Cloud RAN
Perhaps one of the most innovative products at this year’s MWC, Airvana’s cloud RAN OneCell is a plug and play supercell that aims to improve indoor 4G LTE coverage.
Airvana OneCell is an LTE small cell system for enterprise and consumer applications, which mobile operators can use to enhance their capabilities in servicing customers in both urban and indoor settings.
One of the limitations of LTE (and wireless signals in general), is that signal strength is typically reduced by obstructions.
“Outdoor macro cell towers cannot fully penetrate building walls to deliver quality LTE service indoors, and upgrading legacy distributed antenna systems (DAS) for LTE is prohibitively expensive,” says Airvana.
The OneCell can be used instead of standalone small cells (which would not necessarily be effective in large enterprises as they create lots of cell borders). “These borders create large areas of interference between cells that result in low throughput, poor VoLTE quality, frequent handovers, complex RF planning, and macro interference challenges. Furthermore, they have static capacity, limited upgradeability, and support only a single operator”, says Airvana.
With the Apple Watch on the cusp of release (there is an event on Monday, where the company will unveil more details such as pricing and availability), it seems that lots of companies are rushing to get a foot in the door before Apple does.
At Mobile World Congress, Huawei have released the Huawei Watch, a circular device that looks much more like a traditional watch than the Moto 360, LG G Watch R, or other Android Wear products.
Huawei has spent several years building up its consumer presence with some excellent smartphones, but in markets like the US, it has met with limited success. That may change when the Huawei Watch is released, and should certainly get people to sit up and take notice.
“We’re trying to make Huawei a more fashionable brand,” says Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer division. “We’re trying to change our image”..
Mobile World Congress is the place to be for anyone in the mobile industry, and it’s certainly not disappointed so far this year in terms of innovative new products, apps and services. The mobile industry in the UK has undergone a rapid transformation in the last couple of years, with more turmoil and change to come with the amalgamation of the UK’s biggest operators. Hopefully, the technologies and products shown at MWC will lead to better networks, smartphones (and other devices) that will revolutionise the way we communicate.
Roll on next year!