So as MWC 2017 ended, I got to summarise my three-day trip and detail some of the highlights, some of the gimmicks and some opinion. A lot of opinion as it happens.
The key theme of the event was 5G, but from a consumer perspective, 5G is still a fair way off and not something I could easily explain as being a big ‘next thing’.
The few live demos of 5G involved rack mounted equipment, and a lot of talk was still in the very early stages of development. Qualcomm and Intel threw insults at each other, the former bragging about how it was way ahead of the other. I didn’t stick around to see what happened, but expect more of this over the coming years.
By this time next year it’s going to be something people outside of the industry will want to take an interest in, but for now let’s stick to 4G. And let’s also stick with hardware.
With such a short time in Barcelona, I concentrated on devices. And by that, I mean phones, because smartwatches are not really going anywhere at the moment. Huawei being one exception to the rule with two new models, and LG having announced a further two last month. Of course there are more, but they’re almost all well below the radar.
This year more companies than ever decided to use MWC to make their new device announcements, rather than hold separate events before or after. The exceptions were HTC and Samsung, the latter of which has chosen March 29th to launch the Samsung Galaxy S8 family.
Unlike a very well organised series of press events at CES in Las Vegas, nearly every press launch took place on the same day, at venues dotted all over Barcelona, with very little time (or in some cases, no time) to get from one to the other.
With it being near impossible to see everything, unless paying a taxi driver to keep the meter running while running inside, I only got to attend Huawei’s event. As it turned out, a great deal of people didn’t make it in due to the excessively large crowd.
I’ve become very impressed with what Huawei has achieved over the last couple of years, primarily since the launch of the P8 and Mate S, to the awesome P9 (and its Honor-branded Honor 8 amongst others), the Mate 9 and now two new phones; the P10 and P10 Plus.
Huawei has at last managed to establish itself as a recognised brand, in Europe at least. Gone are the days of being a logo on a broadband dongle .
Huawei P10 & P10 Plus
This time around, the P10 Plus isn’t just a bigger screened version of the newly announced P10, coming with a different lens (f/1.8) that boasts better low-light photography.
The P10 meanwhile features the same camera and dual-lens set up as the Mate 9, which is no bad thing. The combination of a 20-megapixel monochrome sensor and 12-megapixel RGB sensor has been working really well for the Mate 9.
The P10 and P10 Plus get a newer version of Emotion UI (EMUI 5.1) which promises better battery saving capabilities and memory management, and in a few days of using the P10, I can say that I’ve managed 12 hours and almost 4 hours Screen on Time. Not bad for such a tiny, and thin, phone.
The P10 Plus is however the model that interests me most, due to the different lens. It promises to be even better than the Mate 9 and P10 in poor lighting, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to see that separately in the weeks ahead. The P10 Plus also comes with a higher-resolution 5.5-inch display, 6GB of RAM and more internal storage options, but still with the same memory card expansion you also get on the P10.
The P10 will be sold by all networks. It’s no good making good products if nobody can buy them, and EE, O2, Vodafone and Three will be selling both models. Neither model is going to be that cheap, but Huawei is trying to establish itself as a premium brand having all but axed the low-end models it was once famous for.
(Both models were also launched in a huge range of colours, including a bright green and blue. It’s most likely only the more subtle shades will make it onto shop floors.)
Even better news for the nerds amongst us (although just as useful for customers who have no idea) is support for VoLTE and Wi-Fi calling. Plus both phones are 4.5G with 4×4 MIMO antennas for what Huawei claims will be extraordinary signal reception.
The jury is out on that for now, as I found that with the Mate 9 alongside the P10 on the same network, the Mate 9 achieved lower latency and faster speeds in both directions. Perhaps the Mate 9 simply has the edge based on its larger size.
Rather than write news when at MWC (go check The Verge, Tech Radar, Btekt, Recombu, Android Authority, Android Central and others for plenty of that), I had time to go around Barcelona and take some photos with the P10 – which included creating an open gallery that other P10 owners can add to once the phone goes on sale.
Perhaps the biggest change on the P10 is that Huawei has moved the fingerprint sensor to the front, clearly being influenced by Apple, OnePlus, Samsung and HTC.
I was not a fan of this position when unboxing the phone, but I did take the time to switch from using traditional on-screen icons to give the multi-purpose function button a fair crack of the whip.
One quick press operates as back, a long press acts as home, and swiping left or right brings up the recent apps. I’m yet to figure out how to activate the split-screen feature on Nougat using the button.
I have to admit that following my initial concerns, after five days of using my P10 I got surprisingly well used to it. To the point that I’ve since been pressing on non-existent buttons on other phones I’ve picked up.
Perhaps a bigger issue is that with the thin design. It’s very easy to touch part of the screen when simply holding it (like watching a movie, or using the camera) and wonder why you can’t select things. Move you fingers just a little too much and you could then drop the phone.
And talking of dropping the phone, there’s a plastic screen protector fitted at the but it’s rather unsightly. Huawei did the same with the Mate 9 and I hope this isn’t going to be a trend going forward. We must all remember how nasty it was on the Sony Xperia phones before Sony, finally, ditched them in favour of more toughened glass.
A tempered glass protector is probably going to be an essential buy for this, once accessories start to become available.
I believe the reason is that, as Apple discovered, people who spend a lot of money on ‘proper’ watches aren’t buying smart watches. Or at least not expensive models.
And as Pebble discovered rather too late, leading to a buyout by Fitbit, people are more likely buying smartwatches for fitness tracking purposes over something that can run apps or make calls. They want something a bit rougher and tougher.
As a Pebble user, I was rather underwhelmed by the talk of one day battery life (or less) if using the fitness functions, although there is a battery saving mode that turns the watch into a dumb watch for showing the time only.
This extends the battery greatly, but you have to wonder why a normal watch wouldn’t just serve as equally good if you’re going to do that. It would certainly save a few quid. A Pebble goes into a super power saving mode for the last 5% of battery or so, giving almost a whole day of usage – but that’s only after having already gone for as much as 10 days beforehand with full functionality!
It seems that smart watches aren’t turning out to be the cash cow manufacturers were hoping for, and as time goes on I wonder if we’ll see even more dumbing down to appeal to a totally different market than companies first hoped for.
Let’s face facts; smart watches were never going to be sold as investments, handed down through generations or bought as fashion statements.
I’m ever hopeful that a company like Fitbit will come up with something to solve the problem, as I really do think Android Wear and Apple’s Watch have been barking up the wrong tree for some time.
The phone feels a bit thicker in the hand than most modern smartphones, but that’s no bad thing (especially given my comments about the P10 above). It makes the phone easier to hold, and may also help with heat management.
It comes with the same chipset as the Google Pixel and Pixel XL (Snapdragon 821), which has generated a lot of upset amongst hardcore Android fans because it isn’t sporting 2017’s flagship Snapdragon 835.
Yes, it’s possibly a bit of a shame if you like to play the numbers game and be ahead of the pack, but I think a large number of people will not care when they get to see the incredibly bright, HDR10 display.
HDR is going to be awesome for people who use their phone more to watch Netflix and the like than on their home TV. In addition to Netflix, Amazon also intends to roll out an update to enable HDR streaming (and hopefully downloading) in the future.
The G6 was also the first non-Pixel phone announced as getting access to Google Assistant, although shortly after LG’s press conference ended, it was announced that pretty much every phone on Marshmallow or Nougat will get access too.
If LG was left disappointed at having exclusive news that lasted a matter of minutes, consumers will more unhappy to learn that the European variant of the G6 won’t offer wireless charging support. Don’t ask me why, as nobody seems to know.
With such a small bezel, the phone is very pocketable and compares well with phones having much smaller displays. I am not sure a taller 18:9 ratio screen was needed, but perhaps it was to allow more components (and the battery) to fit inside.
At least it’s not a confused mess like LG’s first attempt at a tall screen – the Chocolate BL40 – but I do think the split screen camera app (useful for square photos increasingly shared on social media) is perhaps an answer to a question that was never asked. I didn’t get a chance to see what else LG has adapted to justify the odd screen ratio.
Time will tell how popular the G6 will be, as LG has struggled to get mainstream interest since the G3. I saw the LG V20 on the Qualcomm stand, a phone that was never released in Europe, and just as I said last year that I felt the V20 should be released here, my short play did nothing to change that view, just backup my opinion all the more.
Please LG, consider us for the V30 okay?
Moto G5 and G5 plus
Motorola launched two mid-rangers that take the Moto G up to its fifth incarnation. The Moto G came along in 2014 and shook up the whole industry, but of late it seems to have become a little stale.
Nevertheless, the basic formula remains. A phone that sells for a third of the price of a flagship but still offers a decent processor performance, excellent battery life, a more than passable camera, and a good screen.
The problem is that things have changed a lot since 2014. The game changing Moto G and Moto E phones spawned a huge market in low and mid-range phones that offered a lot of bang for the buck.
Before MWC I did a round-up of many of these. The Moto G5 and G5 Plus become new additions, and hopefully if I get review models they will grow on me, but I certainly didn’t feel that excited by what I saw on the stand.
Lenovo has stated it intends to use the Motorola brand more going forward, which is good news, but when companies like Wileyfox are beating Motorola to introduce similarly specified phones, at even more competitive prices, the G5 family isn’t going to have such an easy ride this time around.
A concern is that Motorola seems to have lots of variants coming, with Amazon advertising an exclusive version with 3GB of RAM, and others making do with just 2GB. Some models have NFC, others don’t.
Android Pay is now well and truly ‘a thing’ so it is simply not acceptable to exclude this feature in my view.
I also wonder why there is any need for so many variables in a saturated market, where it would have been easier to just have two models (based on screen size) and a choice of colours. KISS!
Sony Xperia XZ Premium
Less than two years ago, Sony launched a phone with a 4K screen. It wasn’t mass market, but a good way for Sony to show that it’s ‘still got it’. Thing is, everyone knows Sony has great ideas, but can it translate them into sales?
Now it’s back again with a 4K HDR screen. Despite my early adoption of HD around the home, and being used to HD screened phones, I feel 4K is a step too far on mobile.
Even QHD screens are rarely beneficial for normal operation, proving most useful for showing finer detail on photos and video. Can 4K really improve upon that much when the screen size on the Xperia XZ Premium is just 5.5-inches? In the A/V world, people argue that you don’t need 4K until you’re looking at screens of 55-inches and above.
Of course you’re closer to your phone display, but I still think it’s a step too far. In my work, I can switch between 720p, 1080p and 1440p displays and I only really notice a drop in quality on the 720p screens.
4K is, frankly, unnecessary. But HDR is a great upgrade, and puts the new phone in competition with the LG G6.
Ironically, had Samsung not had a total nightmare with the Note 7, it would have been first. Well, of course, it still was first but you know what I mean. It’s safe to say the Galaxy S8 will have HDR, and by the end of the year it’s something we’ll probably find on all new flagships and eventually trickling down the ranges.
Sony has also reduced the pixel count on the XZ Premium camera to 19-megapixels, to offer more detail, but I’ve already read from people given early access to samples that the post-processing still does a great job of ruining photos.
I sincerely hope this time around they fix it before the phone goes on sale as it’s the primary reason I’ve almost given up on Sony since poor experiences with my Z3, and when looking at the Z5 and XZ briefly.
A feature that did interest me was the ‘motion eye’ camera, shooting at 960 frames per second. It’s a great feature that creates exceptional slow motion video, albeit only at 720, and also only when you press the slow motion button on-screen at the moment you want to record it as such.
Finally, the Snapdragon 835 chip and latest generation modem brings Cat 16 4G speed, or gigabit LTE. This means a potential of up to 1000 megabit downloading! Naturally that will be down to network support, and a data plan capable of coping with such ridiculously fast transfer speeds.
In this regard, the phone should be considered fairly future proofed. So now we have to just wait and see how the camera turns out, as all things considered this might be a turning point for Sony.
Top 6 Gimmicks at MWC
In a totally saturated market, and one where people are increasingly finding themselves perfectly satisfied with what they already own, it did seem as if some things on show were signs of desperation than ground breaking innovation.
Here are some of the things that raised eyebrows, although that doesn’t mean that any of them are necessarily bad – just not necessarily reason enough to whip out the credit card.
1) LG’s 19:8 Ratio Screen
With Samsung rumoured to be doing the same screen on the Galaxy S8, this may well become a new standard, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s essential.
Instagram and others might have made the sharing of square photos and video a thing, but is it a must to have a screen that shows the main viewfinder and captured images – each with a 1:1 ratio – at the same time?
What about 16:9 video that will now have small borders? Or the fact that a taller screen makes the top harder to reach with one-handed usage?
The G6’s super bright HDR display may well mean people won’t care, but what about after six months of ownership and the wish for the phone having been a little shorter instead?
2) Samsung Tab S3 with Staedtler Pencil
When Apple gave us the ‘Apple Pencil’ stylus, who could have guessed how far Samsung would go to copy it?
The Staedtler pencil for the new Galaxy Tab S3 tablet looks just look like the famous pencil used in schools and offices all over the world. There’s no hiding the fact it looks cool, but are tablets even a thing these days?
As someone who bought the first Tab S1, only to discover updates were many months late before ending completely, I think Samsung will have to do a lot more than create a great looking stylus to convince me, or others similarly stung, to invest a large sum of money on one of their tablets.
The Tab S3 does have an HDR display though (notice a theme here?).
Is a stylus that looks like a real pencil the way to spark interest and boost sales, or just a desperate publicity stunt?
3) Alcatel A5 LED
Nokia came up with flashing phone cases around a decade ago, but this is the first smartphone I am aware of with coloured LEDs packed into the back.
The phone is from a company that made no attempt to pretend it wasn’t for fun, and not aimed at any particular demographic. It’s a phone for anyone.
It’s clearly not an essential feature and of all the gimmicks I’ve listed here, Alcatel is one company that would certainly not claim it to be anything else.
What it is banking on is that there are enough people out there wanting a bit of fun and entertainment to help it shift a fair few.
I for one actually hope it does, although I do wish you wouldn’t have to accept the trade-off in specifications (like a pretty basic 720p display) to get it.
Smartphones are by their very nature usually quite boring, whatever the casing colour or build material. Alcatel has created something that definitely stands out.
4) ZTE Axon 7 Max
LG tried, and failed, to introduce a 3D-screen on a phone back in 2011, with the Optimum 3D. In fact, it tried twice with a Max version following after. Suffice to say, we don’t all own a phone today with a 3D screen, and LG didn’t make any more.
But late last year, ZTE launched a phone with an updated attempt to sell 3D to all in the form of the Axon 7 Max.
With a vastly superior screen resolution and higher brightness level to the Optimus 3D models, the phone actually looks pretty decent. However it still requires a very steady view to stop the shifting effect (see the video below) that pretty much renders it unusable for 3D if using the phone when moving, such as on a plane or train.
I can’t help but feel we won’t see more phones with 3D screens anytime soon. But at least ZTE is coming over as incredibly brave by being willing to take a punt as everyone else pretty much gives up on 3D.
5) Nokia 3310 Reboot + New Snake!
The reboot of Nokia 3310 reminds me of when Hollywood ran out of ideas for films and decided to trawl through IMdB looking for classic films from the 80s and 90s to remake. At least that’s how I assume it works.
Clearly this time it wasn’t that Nokia, or more notably HMD Global that makes phones under license from Nokia, failing to come up with new ideas. It was a very well planned opportunity to get much-needed publicity to let the world know that Nokia is back. Sort of.
The 3310 wasn’t the best Nokia phone made, but it was one of the first phones to come with games. And the new phone comes with an updated version of Snake. Everyone loved Snake, although that’s probably more down to the other games of the era being far worse, and downloadable games still some way off.
Beyond Snake we’re talking about a 2G-only phone that, in a normal looking feature phone shell of the type that Nokia has been using for years now, would simply be any other £20-£25 phone sold in a supermarket on PAYG.
HMD certainly got what it wanted, as everyone is talking about Nokia. Some people consider the relaunched 3310 to be the best thing from MWC.
The downside is that people perhaps forgot that Nokia launched three new Android smartphones at the same event. Phones I didn’t even get to see properly as the area of Nokia’s booth set aside for devices was so small I was simply unable to get near it, and with time in short supply, I had to leave before getting a proper look (and any video).
I came away from MWC feeling that Nokia isn’t too bothered about the devices for now, and just wanted to use MWC to say it now makes phones again. It managed that, and now we wait and see what comes later in the year in terms of devices you or I might actually want to buy.
6) Xperia Touch + 4K + Slow Motion Video
The flagship Sony Xperia XZ Premium has both a 4K screen and the ability to make super slow-motion videos. But aren’t both of these things gimmicks that really wouldn’t be missed by owners if not present?
Besides the novelty value of producing slow-motion video, how many people will use the feature after a few tries?
Slightly more interesting, but also in the gimmick category, was the Xperia Touch short-throw projector.
As an Android device in its own right (so not needing to be paired up with a phone, tablet or computer) the £1400 box can be set up anywhere in a matter of seconds to project key information, and respond to your touch.
It’s a very cool idea, but priced such that it will need to drop in price significantly to sell in huge numbers.
I am sure we could all think of possible uses, but when it comes to stumping up the money, I think we’ll all reconsider very sharpish.
It’s yet another demonstration of what Sony can do, rather than what it perhaps should do.
Other Cool Things At MWC
Last year saw the release of the Android-powered Priv, a phone that I really hoped would get the company back on track. As is now known, it didn’t do well even though anyone that did get one had very little bad to say about it.
Switching to Android was a bold (sic), but necessary move for BlackBerry. With all of the key apps also released for any Android phone (albeit at a cost), it was the physical keyboard that made the Priv stand out.
Roll on just over a year and it’s time for the KEYone to make its debut. A £499 SIM-free phone that gets rid of the slide-out keyboard and returns to the more traditional design, but keeping a decent enough screen in the process.
As with earlier models, the keyboard is touch-sensitive to allow navigation with swipes over the keys, and the phone also has a fingerprint reader integrated within the space bar too.
It’s a nice looking bit of kit, but there are alreasy suggestions of another two devices to come later this year. Shouldn’t BlackBerry just concentrate on one for the time being?
Oppo’s 5x ‘Periscope’ Optical Zoom
A decent optical zoom without impacting on design is the holy grail for mobile, and all attempts to date have pretty much failed, or provided lossless zooms by simply upping the pixels on the sensor by a huge number, which then compromises detail and low-light performance. The Nokia Lumia 1020 was perhaps one of only a few exceptions.
Anything that has a decent zoom and good optics always had protruding lenses that turned the device into a camera that could also act as a phone, limiting the appeal massively. Samsung and Panasonic tried a few times to bring such designs to Europe and, well, like 3D, where are they now?
Oppo hopes to have solved this long-running problem, with a phone that has a 5x zoom and no protrusions at all, or the need for multiple image sensors and lenses.
The solution is down to ‘periscope’ design where the optics are fitted sideways inside the phone. The result is no camera hump, plus the smaller design means near instant zooming by pressing on-screen to choose between 1x, 2x or 5x zoom.
Oppo worked for over a year on the design and still has more work to do, so the phone being demonstrated isn’t something you will be able to buy just yet. However, that may change later in the year.
If anyone else comes up with a similar design (you can be pretty sure rivals will copy), it could transform mobile photography in a huge way.
Something to keep an eye on.
ZTE Gigabit LTE Demo
Although Sony is about to launch the XZ Premium that’s ready for 1Gbps 4G streaming, it was ZTE and Qualcomm doing the live demonstrations on their respective booths that caught my interest.
ZTE didn’t have a market-ready phone to demo the speeds, but did have prototypes that utilised the same Snapdragon 835 chipset found in the Sony XZ Premium, and likely many more phones released this year.
It was great to get a taste of the future, and listen to Qualcomm’s explanation of why offering such huge speeds isn’t just beneficial for speed test nuts like me, but a great way to use the available spectrum more efficiently and improve the user experience for all.
5G may well offer significant gains in speed, and cope with many more thousands of users, an essential need for the future for connected devices, but for now I can live with ‘just’ 1000Mbps or so.
That is when the networks are ready to offer such speeds in the real world. EE plans to have some sites upgraded this year, and while clearly 1000Mbps won’t be achievable in real-world conditions, even getting 500Mbps or more is going to be game changing, as well as data allowance depleting.
For more practical uses requiring such fast speeds, ZTE also showed off the MF990 portable hotspot with Gigabit 4G support (1000Mbps down, 150Mbps up).
Vuzix Blade 3000 Smart Glasses
I was never a major fan of Google Glass, and what the Blade 3000 smart glasses have going for them is the fact that they look pretty much like ordinary sunglasses.
In other words, you wouldn’t be too scared or embarrassed to actually wear them.
For me that’s a big selling point, and it also reflects my somewhat lowered expectations of what I’d want from a pair of glasses out in the wild. The Vuzix glasses have a somewhat basic display, more akin to a heads-up display in a car.
But it’s more than enough to relay navigation instructions, incoming messages or other notifications that will save you from getting your phone out of a pocket. In many ways, it reminds me exactly of what made me get a Pebble smart watch – and still use a Pebble even now it is effectively end of life.
There will also be a more advanced model with augmented reality, and the company also does a range of other smart glasses and VR headsets – but whereas most of the other models would be quite hard sells for me, the simplicity of the ‘basic’ model could be that much-needed first step for a lot of people.
MWC is a trade event. As such, 5G was really what was going on. In the future, I’ll do a separate feature about this and what it really means to the end user.
For now, it’s still about devices for most of us and it seems the industry is now having to find new ways to gain our attention.
Share your thoughts on where things are going in the comments below. Have I been too harsh, or is it simply that phones are getting somewhat boring and unadventurous of late?
And if that’s true, what can be done to turn things around?
…And one more thing! Thanks to Vodafone!
My coverage of MWC, which included a great number of posts on Twitter and Instagram, as well as many of the videos you can see here that were uploaded within seconds, was all made easier thanks to Vodafone, who challenged me to use 4G data exclusively throughout my time in Barcelona.
I was provided with a SIM card for use in a portable hotspot, allowing all of my phones and one laptop to be connected everywhere I went. My experience was that 4G roaming is excellent, and apart from the airport, I never had speeds below 40-50Mbps and occasionally peaked at over 150Mbps!
I must express my thanks to Vodafone for the loan of the SIM and can honestly say that I would have found it considerably more difficult to remain connected if I had relied upon ropey Wi-Fi hotspots during my stay.