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Samsung’s Galaxy S20 was one of the worst kept secrets in the phone history. By the time of the official launch everyone interested in the company’s hardware knew the $2200 top model Galaxy S20 has a main camera can capture 108 megapixels. It can also zoom 100 times.

The phone is also one of the first to work with 5G mobile networks.

There was a bizarre New Zealand twist to Samsung’s secrecy. Two days after the company advertised the phone during the US Super Bowl television broadcast and less than 24 hours before the official launch the company asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

I’m not in the habit of signing these anyway, they are all about timing launches to maximise the marketing impact, that should never be a journalist’s concern. But to ask for one when all the details about the phone are already public is nothing but madness.

Samsung is on its second generation of foldable phones. Motorola and Huawei are a step behind, but remain in the game. Will your next phone be one you can fold?

The technology is impressive. All the foldable phones I’ve seen to date look great. They are also useful.

Folding means a handheld phone can morph into a small iPad Mini sized tablet. They make reading and simple online tasks easier than on everyday phones.

From a phone maker perspective they do three important things.

First, they give phone buyers a reason to upgrade. People have been hanging on to phones for longer because there is less pressing reason to upgrade. Adding a new functionality breaks that cycle.

Out of the cul-de-sac

Second, they give phone makers a route of the design cul-de-sac.

Phone formats have stabilised as slabs of glass and metal. They would be almost featureless if it were not for the ever swelling camera bumps. Makers add more lenses and more receptor pixels in a bid to competitive1.

Folding phones open up new ways to differentiate and compete.

The third benefit of folding phones for phone makers is they sell for premium prices. Phone makers can increase the average unit price at a time of intense competition downward pressure on prices.

Phone makers announced two more foldable models in the last week or so. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Lenovo’s $1,500 Motorola Razr are both flip phones with folding screens.

Foldables have not got off to a good start. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold was a botched launch. A second wave of models was better, but they are still fragile and expensive at NZ $3400.

Fragile

The Motorola Razr is as fragile and has poor battery life.

In other words, the models we’ve seen so far are undercooked. They will sell to well-heeled early adopters. These people will pay a king’s ransom to act as guinea pigs. Meanwhile the phone makers can go back to the drawing board and perfect their designs.

They will make it into the mainstream in one of two ways. Either Apple will create a folding iPhone that gets the technology right and resets the market or Samsung will brute force its way to success. The other possibility is that folding phones go the way of 3D television sets.

There’s no doubt this is a development worth watching. My advice is to hang on to your money for now, maybe squeeze another year from your existing phone. The benefits of having a bigger screen are not enough to outweigh the risk of spending a lot of money on something that’s easy to break.


  1. It’s questionable this is what most buyers want. ↩︎

Hear me on this week’s NZ Tech Podcast. I talk with Paul Spain about Huawei teaming with Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi as a defence against Chinese phone makers being locked out of Google’s Android services. We talk about the incredible progress made by New Zealand’s games developers who have doubled revenues in two years. We also discuss Telsla’s latest moves and a plan to test flying taxis in Christchurch.

You can listen to the podcast on the site or use one of the download services.

After spending more time with the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, like me, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Power Supply

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

Not everyone thinks phones have a negative effect on youngsters. At the New York Times Nathaniel Popper writes:

“A growing number of academics are challenging assumptions about the negative effects of social media and smartphones on children.”

Research by two psychology professors sifted through 40 studies examining links between social media use, adolescent depression and anxiety. They conclude the link is “small and inconsistent”.

Social media

In other words this isn’t about phones, it’s about social media. Phones are what people in the computer security business call the attack vector.

Earlier research published in the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 suggests there is a link between Facebook and depression. That was later revised.

Since then here have been many similar high profile reports. One researcher linked social media to teen suicide.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.”

“The debate over the harm we — and especially our children — are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.”

With academics you have to take note of all the words. Odgers talks of ‘significant risk’. That doesn’t mean there is no risk. Her point is that the panic is overdone. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the risks.

A mirror

Odgers says: “In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.”

This is true. But do phones, or social media, reveal or amplify the problems?

While this story may make sense from an academic psychiatry point of view, there’s another dimension. We know social media outlets and their advertisers manipulate emotions because they have admitted as much and, in some cases, promised to improve future behaviour.

So by all means dial down your concerns about children and phones, but don’t wash your hands of the matter. There are things to worry about, they just are not as bad as excitable commentators would have you think.