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exhibition hall at Mobile World Congress

Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress is the telecommunications industry’s annual showcase and conference.

As the name says, the emphasis is on mobile technology. That’s where you’ll find today’s action. Everyone from consumers to small businesses to corporations depends on devices you can carry.

Apple wasn’t at MWC 2016, but every other technology company worth talking about was at the show. This makes it an ideal place to get a taste of where technology is heading.

If the device makers get their way, we’ll all be using more virtual reality. The devices were everywhere. At the moment they are no more than expensive toys and there’s little worthwhile VR content. The technology may take off, but don’t hold your breath.

Phone innovation stalls

One possible reason for the VR product surge is that phone makers have reached the end of the line with conventional devices.  This year’s crop of phones from the big brands offered little that is new or revolutionary. Screens were not bigger. They did not offer higher resolution. Most phones are still flat touch screen glass slabs with metal cases.

In almost every case, the changes were incremental with phone makers refining their wares.

Samsung, the world’s largest phone maker, used MWC to launch the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge models. Launch razzmatazz aside, there’s something tired and stale about the Galaxy S range. The phones offer little that’s new or exciting.

That doesn’t mean existing Samsung users won’t want to upgrade.

Samsung fixes shortcoming

From what I saw in Barcelona the new models were fixes correcting flaws in the lacklustre S6 models. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 phones have more rounded bodies. There are no sharp corners making them more comfortable in the hand. Samsung has restored the microSD slot — something many Galaxy fans missed in the S6.

Samsung says the new phones have bigger batteries than the S6 models. They need to be bigger, a busy S6 user might struggle to get past lunch time on a single charge.

None of this is groundbreaking.

There was no new phone buzz at the Samsung pavilion when I visited. The new models were only on show behind glass cases. Visitors appeared more interested in Samsung’s virtual reality products than in the phones.

While you can’t write Samsung off, it is clear we have gone past peak Galaxy. 

LG tries a different approach

The lethargy around Samsung contrasted with the hands-on excitement at LG’s stand. Demonstrators showed how the modular G5 can change features by snapping-in new capabilities. You can add a better camera, hi-fi sound or even something resembling a tiny robot.

A modular phone is a clever idea, but in its current form it feels like novelty for novelty’s sake.

Even so, this was the most radical phone innovation on show at MWC. It could put life back into LG which has struggled to make money from phones. Show visitors seemed interested in LG’s modular approach.

For me the curious aspect of this is that the underlying G5 is LG’s best every phone. I only had hands on for second, but I could get a lot more excited about owning the G5 than the Galaxy S7.

Sony: A new hope

Sony showed mid-range Xperia X and XA models. The phones I saw on the stand show a possible new direction.

Xperia X and XA phones have less heroic specifications than the flagship Xperia models with emphasis on camera and battery life. Sony says the phones will cost less than rival models although how that works in New Zealand isn’t clear. They’ll need to come in at less than NZ$800 to make an impact.

The market hasn’t been kind to Sony. The company loses money and there’s no obvious sign than will stop. Which is a pity because the Sony Xperia phones are a good choice for less geeky users. I suspect many Samsung Galaxy customers would have a better experience with a Sony phone.

HTC chooses VR

HTC’s phone losses are so bad I doubt we’ll see much more from this once-great brand. There were new midrange phones from HTC, but the emphasis was on the Vive virtual reality headset.

You couldn’t get close to the HTC stand for the crowds queuing to try the Vive. HTC sent a press release earlier this week saying Vive is available for pre-sale, whatever that means. You’ll need deep pockets HTC says it will cost US$950 in New Zealand. That includes GST but doesn’t include shipping — a strange way of telling us the price. At a guess that means you’ll need to pay around NZ$1500.

There were new phones from ZTE and Xiaomi at MWC. I ignored them as they are unlikely to make it to New Zealand, at least not through official channels.

Bill Bennett travelled to Mobile World Congress as Huawei’s guest. 

 

HTC One M8

Update: Telecom NZ says there are delays with the HTC One M8 reaching New Zealand and the phone may not now be available in April.

Going by the reaction in sections of the overseas technology press, last year’s best phone was the HTC One. That’s right, a phone hardly anyone heard of and even fewer people bought.

On paper, at least, reviewers said is was better than Apple’s swanky iPhone 5S or the popular Samsung Galaxy S4.

HTC says the reason the phone didn’t sell in large numbers was down to problems with the company’s supply chain. It says it couldn’t keep up with demand. As a result HTC suffered a bad year. Today the company is smaller.

Now it gets another roll of the best phone dice with the One M8. The people who named it should be taken  out and shot.

If nothing else, the One M8 proves HTC can still make good phones, even if its marketing is less than respectable.

Once again overseas reviewers are full of praise for the phone. Telecom NZ says it will start selling the One M8 in mid-April.

It’ll be interesting to see how the phone fares here. Overseas the One M8 costs less than rival devices. The New Zealand list price is $1099 – much the same as you’d pay for a Samsung Galaxy S5.

 

HTC’s Sensation is not a direct competitor to Huawei’s Ideos X5.

At NZ$1100, HTC’s flagship Sensation costs almost twice as much as the NZ$600 Ideos X5.

How much extra hardware and user expereince does an extra NZ$500 buy?

It boils down to four things:

  • Display quality,
  • processor power,
  • battery life and
  • bundled software.

There are other minor differences. These are the ones that count.

Smartphone display

Spending an extra NZ$500 buys a better display. The HTC Sensation’s screen is 110mm across the diagonal compared to the Ideos X5’s 97mm. This doesn’t sound much. More important, the Sensation has 960 by 540 pixels while the Ideos X5 is just 800 by 480.

In practice these numbers add up to a huge difference.

Photos look better on the Sensation screen. Movies are stunning.

The Sensation’s 906 by 540 resolution is one-quarter of an HD screen. In a tiny handheld package it feels almost as good as watching HD. And there is sound. It is not great, but you can hold the Sensation in your hands and watch a movie in relative comfort. The Ideos X5’s screen isn’t bad for movies, but there’s a wide quality gulf between the two.

That extra resolution is also put to good use displaying text and web pages. Reading documents, email and other information is far better on the Sensation. Text is clearer and crisper. I can read the Sensation’s screen for much longer without tiring my eyes.

Dual core processor and bundled software

At first sight HTC’s 1.2Ghz dual core processor gives less of a performance boost than you might imagine.

The Ideos X5’s powerplant runs at just 800Mhz, so you’d expect a leap moving between the phones. In practice, HTC swallows much of the extra grunt with the Sense user interface. This is overlaid on top of the standard Android front end.

Sense is nicer to use and the animations are pretty. But there’s nothing essential about it.

There is little difference between the phones when performing most tasks. Sure, the Sensation is smoother experience. Yet the extra power doesn’t translate into extra productivity. There may be applications where it matters – so far I haven’t used them.

HTC says Sense boots faster – that’s true the Sensation phone boots faster than the Ideos X5. Yet, this doesn’t matters, I wouldn’t expect to book an Android phone more than once or twice a month. There’s some clever caching – which speeds some applications – and a built-in social networking hub. The customisable lockscreens are a good idea, but once again, not productivity boosters.

A great weather widget that comes as standard on the Sensation. I managed to download the same software from the Android store on my Ideos X5.

Battery life

In theory there should be nothing between the Ideos X5 1500 mAh battery and the Sensation 1520 mAh. In practice, the Sensation lasts longer despite its bigger screen and more powerful processor.

Over the long haul the Ideos X5 is good for about 12 hours use between charges. Of course this depends on which power-draining components you switch on. Also on whether applications update often and your usage pattern.

I found the HTC Sensation offers a few more hours before running out of juice. This could be because the review phone has a newer battery. I suspect the phone does a better job of managing power during down times.

What’s important is the Sensation can make it through an extended working day. There is still have enough power left to call a cab at the end of the evening.

Is the Sensation worth an extra NZ$500?

There’s no question the HTC Sensation is a better phone than the Ideos X5. What’s harder to decide is how much better and whether the extra stuff is worth  NZ$500. It comes down to what you want from a phone.

I work from home and generally only spend a day or two each week on the move in town. I’m a journalist, so I often carry a laptop computer – and may carry an iPad. The extra features of the Sensation are nice to have, but they do little to help my work. I could find better ways to spend that extra $500.

If I was working in an office, I would find the extra for the HTC Sensation – especially if I needed to spend lots of time reading information on its screen.