This year I didn’t go to IFA. No press trip, no pre-briefings under embargo with the opportunity to write everything up days before. So, like most people, I’ve been looking on as an ordinary consumer.
But of course, I still have my contacts within the industry, and taking more of a back seat has actually made me feel a lot more relaxed about avoiding the stress of writing up a billion news stories in the space of a few hours.
Instead, I’ve had a chance to sit back and take in all of the streamed launch events, and read the press releases as they arrived, giving me time to pick out the things that I feel stood out – for both good and bad reasons.
I am starting with a pick of all the things announced on day one, so I’ll be adding more over the coming days – including LG, Microsoft, Motorola and more.
After reading, I’d really like to hear your own opinions as to what you thought of the news coming out of Europe’s largest consumer electronics exhibition.
Last month, I expressed my disappointment with the Galaxy Alpha. But I always knew that the Galaxy Note 4 was on the horizon and would soon make me forget.
And that’s exactly what happened, as part of the usual over-the-top stage show that was hosted this time by TV presenter (most notably from Channel 4’s Countdown) Rachel Riley.
The Note 4 was everything we expected. An incredible top-spec phone with S-Pen, introducing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 805 SoC, a 5.7-inch Quad-HD AM-OLED display (1,440×2,560 pixels), 16-megapixel camera (plus 3.7-megapixel camera for selfies), 32GB internal storage (plus card slot), 3GB of RAM and LTE Cat 6 (300Mbps) support in some regions.
Without going into all the detail that can be found on all the other tech blogs that got to see and play with the device before the launch, the Note 4 seems like a killer device for both business and pleasure.
For work, the multiple microphone arrangement allows you to play back audio based on the direction – thus picking out individual delegates – but it will no doubt prove ideal for other purposes. Samsung even suggested how this would improve interviews by journalists, which will no doubt mean we’ll be seeing a lot of them used by the media in the coming year.
I’m not a fan of Samsung’s customisation by any means, but the Note 4 was clearly one of the most impressive smartphones to be unveiled so far this year.
Or was it?
Galaxy Note Edge
Despite some rumours, and a concept phone shown at the start of the year at the CES in Las Vegas, nobody had suggested before the event that Samsung had another phone up its sleeve – but what it announced actually managed to upstage the Note 4.
The Note Edge comes with a curved OLED display that wraps around the right-hand edge, giving an alternative notification bar (or strip) that can be viewed even when the phone is wrapped in a protective case. Developers can even write apps for it, so it could be used to show messages, stock tickers and even play games.
With the same specification as the Note 4, there’s no need to compromise at any point either. The Edge is simply a Note 4 with an, erm, edge.
The downside is that it’s only destined for certain markets, and following the event there were no emails from the UK operators and retailers announcing the pending availability of this here. Of course, that doesn’t mean an operator won’t perhaps announce an exclusive nearer the time. And you could always import one from another market if you really want to be at the cutting edge (hey, Samsung did all these jokes already).
Finally, Samsung launched another new smartwatch, the Gear S, featuring an integrated 3G SIM card slot. With a 300PPI display, it’s the nicest looking effort from Samsung so far, but is it really necessary to have a SIM card and Wi-Fi support?
Samsung suggests you can leave your phone at home when out running, but it means having another SIM card that will mean another tariff to pay for. Operators will love it, naturally, so perhaps that’s why Samsung made it, but I’m quite happy to take my phone with me just about everywhere and that means Bluetooth will do just fine.
Oh, actually, Samsung did have one more thing. A Gear VR virtual-reality headset produced in conjunction with Oculus and using the Galaxy Note 4 as the display. Impressive, certainly, but probably a little bit niche for the time being.
As with every virtual reality product built over the last ten years or more, it’s rather hard to comment on something that you absolutely have to see and try out for yourself. But, for now, you can look at the photo above and imagine how cool it must be.
Just about everything from Sony was leaked ahead of its event (no, make that absolutely everything), which made it quite easy to sort of tune in and tune out of the presentation. With no surprises, it was more a case of checking out for the official press releases to come into my inbox, so I could look at the final specifications.
Even there, no particular surprises.
The Xperia Z3 always sounded like a pretty minor update, based on the leaked information. Whereas the Z1 was quite a bit step up from the Z, with Snapdragon 800 replacing the old S4 Pro, and the Z2 added dual-speakers, digital audio output, noise cancelling headphone support, a larger battery and vastly improved 5.2-inch display, this is a very small update in comparison.
The big change on the Z3 is its design. It’s a lot slimmer (down to just 7.3mm thick), and more rounded. It really does look very nice. Very nice indeed.
There are new colours (in comes copper, out goes purple) and some cool new accessories (including a LG/Samsung-like windowed flip cover) but no native wireless charging support, as was hinted but never confirmed, and no more pixels on the display. Not that I think it needed to go down the Quad-HD route, even though I suspect that in 2015 Sony will go down this route even if it’s currently claiming it’s not necessary.
Sadly it IS necessary to keep up with the competition, just as 64-bit processors will eventually be commonplace even though they offer rather few benefits.
So while there are a few things that gives Sony’s flagship a fresh new look, under the shell is the same SoC, albeit clocked faster, the same 3G of RAM, and a battery that’s actually down by 100mAh to 3,100mAh. Sony does claim it lasts longer than the Z2 (two days instead of 1.4 days), but until I can check that more myself I will remain slightly cynical. Does the hardware consume less power, or is the power management just a lot more aggressive?
The phone now has an audio ‘upscaling’ feature to improve the playback of low bitrate audio files, and can also stream games from your PS4, but how much of this is simply down to software, which could be rolled back to earlier devices if Sony so wished?
Even the camera offering a higher ISO for low-light photos could turn out to be nothing more than a software tweak, although obviously the wide angle lens can’t be copied. And why couldn’t Sony have included a twin-LED (and ideally dual-tone) to improve low-light photos? The single LED isn’t bright enough compared to the competition.
It disappoints me when Sony decides to add features that can be run on older devices, especially when it releases a new phone every six months. The Z3 will be the phone to buy once it comes out if you are upgrading, or seeking to buy a new phone, but existing customers should be entitled to expect they’ll get sufficient upgrades during their time of ownership, and not just OS updates.
Boffins at Xda-developers have successfully ported 4K video, Timeshift recording and the tap-to-wake features that are only available to Z2 owners to the Z1, and will no doubt do the same with the Z3 for earlier Z-models, proving it can done and it’s all down to marketing.
I’m not that ignorant to not understand how marketing works, but I really don’t think Sony is getting this right. It wouldn’t lose many sales by giving features to older models, and probably runs a bigger risk of putting off customers buying a device in the first place if they know it has an incredibly short shelf life.
(I’ve said this countless times before. Regular readers will know it’s something very close to my heart, so apologies for sounding like a broken record).
Another disappointment was the comment in the post-launch Q&A that confirmed the Z3 can still overheat when recording 4K video. The solution, apparently, is to simply use it for short, fun, video clips – not anything serious.
The Z3 will therefore warn users when it runs hot and the camera is going to shut down, but I rather hoped that Sony would have been able to fix the thermal issues that dogged the Z2. Is it really a fix to have screens pop up saying you can’t use the features so heavily promoted as key benefits of owning such a phone?
This is what existing Z2 users have to already endure, and not just for 4K video:
When it comes to the announcement of the Z3 Compact, I have no complaints. Although announced less than a year ago, the differences between the Z1 Compact and the Z3 Compact are far more significant (like the change of screen size from 4.3-inch to 4.6-inches).
With the same hardware as the Z3, bar a lower resolution 720p display, the Z3 Compact continues to offer the ‘best of Sony’ (for want of better words) to users that don’t want such a large phone in their pocket.
And the Z3 Tablet Compact is an entirely new offering, with an 8-inch display and offering a great alternative to the 10-inch Z2 Tablet, which is presumably going to get an update in the not too distant future.
The Z3 Tablet Compact is really thin, and obviously features the same waterproofing as the other models making it an ideal choice for taking to the pool, or reading and watching films in the bath.
I hope you’re all keeping up here, because these are just the flagship devices. I haven’t even mentioned the other Sony smartphone released today. The Snapdragon 400 powered Xperia E3 has a 4.3-inch 480×854 pixel display and 4G LTE. Expected to sell for a similar price to the Motorola G, it could well be a big success. Yet since Motorola launched the Moto G, there’s been a lot of increased competition at the low-end so it might be hard for anyone to repeat the success Motorola enjoyed first time around.
The latest smartwatch from Sony has now adopted Google’s Android Wear platform, which was probably smart move. It’s hard to imagine developers wanting to support a load of different wearable platforms. My opinion also applies to Samsung’s Tizen platform for what it’s worth.
The only problem is that it quickly becomes another quite anonymous device, although you can purchase a SmartWatch 3 in a range of colours including black, white, lime, and pink.
The SmartWatch 3 comes with 4GB of internal storage so it can be used to store music for a run even if you leave your phone behind (connecting to your headphones via Bluetooth), but obviously you won’t be able to make or receive calls like with the Samsung Gear S.
Finally comes the SmartBand Talk, with an ultra low-power e-paper display, plus integrated microphone and speaker (with HD Voice support) so it can be more than just a way of tracking your movements on Sony’s Lifelog app.
Sony also launched updated attachable lens cameras, this time with support for Sony’s E-mount compatible lenses. Sony said that it has addressed a number of issues on the original QX10 and QX100 lenses launched this time last year, including a faster transfer of images to the smartphone or tablet. I had no end of problems with my QX10, especially in congested Wi-Fi areas, so if they have fixed this (perhaps by using 5GHz Wi-Fi?) then it could be a success. Otherwise, I’ll have to consider these as lovely ideas, but rather impractical for most uses.
On the gaming side, Sony announced a mount to attach a compatible Xperia Z3 device to a Sony Dual Shock controller for playing streamed PS4 games.
All in all, a pretty impressive effort from Sony, but you better hurry as you’ve only got until CES in January, and Mobile World Congress in March before Sony announces the Z4 family and another load of accessories…
Okay, so first up, what I’ve got to mention isn’t a smartphone or tablet, but rather a low-cost Windows 8.1 laptop that brings back the ‘Eee PC’ brand, kinda.
The EeeBook X205 comes with an 11.6-inch (non-touch) display, plus Windows 8.1 with Bing. Powered by a quad-core Intel Atom Z3735 processor and only sporting 2G of RAM, and options of 32 or 64GB of flash storage (plus a card slot), it isn’t going to set the world alight in terms of performance, but it stands out for me because it will have a retail price of between £179 and £199.
Given you can currently spend a good £100 simply buying a copy of Windows 8.1, it seems like a positive bargain.
For many years I owned an EeePC 1000 and it served me well at launch events, trade shows and large-scale exhibitions like CES, MWC and IFA. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t particularly light, but it was small, portable, and had fantastic battery life (at least for the time). It was eventually replaced with a MacBook Air, which upped the performance considerably – but at a far greater cost.
I’ll be really keen to see the latest generation of low cost ‘netbook’ style laptops, even if hardcore users are probably best advised to stump up for a Surface Pro 3 or stick with a MacBook.
Far more relevant is the Asus ZenWatch. I’ve often thought that the manufacturers selling more affordable smartphones and tablets could really clean up in the wearables space, and with products like this I feel even more confident I will be proved right.
The sleek looking watch has a 1.63-inch AM-OLED display (320×320 pixels, 278PPI) and is water resistant, as you’d expect. The watch can be controlled through voice commands, while a heart rate monitor features on the front, allowing you to get a reading by placing your finger on the glass.
Asus has also added apps of its own to add functionality to the Android Wear platform based watch, including a ‘find my phone’ app, remote camera control, SOS app, and more. There’s 4G of internal storage and the watch is powered by a Snapdragon 400 processor.
Available before the end of 2014, the ZenWatch will cost £200 or less.
There aren’t that many manufacturers left to release a smartwatch, so by the end of the year there should plenty of choice. And we haven’t even seen what Apple has up its sleeves yet, or indeed how Pebble intends to keep up with growing competition.
And the rest?
That’s about it for the first day, but there’s a whole other day for the press tomorrow – and in my experience from shows gone by, there are also the odd extra stories to come once the show opens its doors to the general public.
So, I’ll be writing up more about the announcements at IFA tomorrow and over the weekend. I hope you enjoyed what I wrote so far. Please do share your comments below.