In review - Mobile World Congress 2012: Super, or merely smart?
Day One, Monday 27 February:
LG showed off some outstanding devices from the Optimus line, but it’s hard to decide whether the Vu or the 4X HD deserves the spotlight. How about both? The Optimus Vu offers a two-handed mini-tablet experience that I’d call ‘unique’ if it weren’t for the Galaxy Note by LG’s hometown rival Samsung -- but the Vu has a slightly smaller 5” screen that ends up being wider due to the 4:3 aspect ratio, and the basic stylus integration seems lacking compared to Samsung’s impressive S-Pen. Also working against the tablet-like functionality is the Gingerbread OS version, but LG swears up and down that Ice Cream Sandwich is around the corner. On the happier side, the Vu features LTE, a 1.5Ghz dual-core Qualcomm CPU, 1GB of RAM and an 8MP camera, so it’s certainly a contender for the superphone designation in a few different ways.
The Optimus 4X HD, however, has as clear a title for superphone status as anybody. Start with Ice Cream Sandwich, LTE, a quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 and a truly outstanding-looking 4.7” 1280 x 720 display at 312ppi. Additional qualifications include 8MP rear / 1.3MP front cams with serious 1080p HD video recording features, 16GB built-in storage, NFC and a 2,150mAh battery that somehow doesn’t take up any more room than the 1,500mAh one on the 2X model that it replaces. Hmm.
The Nokia PureView 808 ended up taking the Global Mobile Award for Best New Mobile Handset, Device or Tablet, and many had to ask: did it deserve it? If the sole criteria is camera quality, then the answer is a clear, high-definition 41 MP yes (and that’s not four-point-one megapixels, that’s FORTY-ONE megapixels. Or is it 38 MP?). You also get a 1.3 Ghz CPU, NFC capabilities and a 4” screen (but at 640 x 360, not a notably detailed one). Keep in mind that the PureView is running Symbian, and the MWC is a European trade show, after all -- expect a more restrained reception among US reviewers and customers, who will need to pay an unsubsidized $500 - $600 for the device. But the PureView technology itself has plenty of promise, so perhaps we’ll see it on a device and OS with more cutting-edge appeal.
ASUS had plenty of attention for the Transformer series, which gave us a tablet that plugs neatly into a keyboard dock. Next step? The PadFone, a smartphone that plugs into a 10.1” tablet which plugs into a keyboard dock. Toss in a Bluetooth headset/stylus attachment for even more combo points (it’s super effective!). Seriously, the PadFone may have plenty of gadget appeal, but on its own it’s also an ICS Android smartphone (or superphone?), with a 4.3” Super AMOLED qHD (960 x 540), dual-core 1.5 Ghz Snapdragon S4 + Adreno 225 GPU, 1GB memory and 8MP rear/ 0.3 front cameras. Like the Transformers, the 1520mAh battery is both shared and boosted by the tablet and keyboard dock connection, which also provide obvious multimedia and tablet surface / area advantages. I’m a believer.
Speaking of which, ASUS also introduced the lower-cost Transformer Pad 300 to replace the not-quite-year-old original Eee Pad Transformer (TF-101) for the sub-$400 market. Mostly the same as the Transformer Prime, the 300 drops the aluminum casing in favor of plastic, the Super IPS+ screen for standard IPS, and halves the Prime’s 32GB memory. On the good side, it’s still a 10.1” ICS tablet with 1280 x 800 resolution, featuring the quad-core Tegra 3 CPU (for the WiFi model, at least), the front 8MP / rear 2MP cams and HDMI.
We knew it was coming, but the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 is still impressive, especially with that wonderfully precise S-Pen stylus. As you can probably tell, it’s a 10.1” tablet, featuring 4G connectivity, 64 GB storage and 1GB memory, a PLS TFT display at 1280 x 800 pixels, and a 1.4Ghz dual-core processor. The 3MP front / 2MP rear cams are a little ‘last year’ (but then again, the MWC 2012 Best Tablet award winner has <1 MP cams, a 900Mhz CPU and no USB, so perhaps specs aren’t THAT important...).
Also notable from Samsung is the Galaxy Beam, designed and named to highlight its built-in projector functionality. The 15-lumen DLP pico projector can produce a 640 x 480 image that looks good up to 50”, but otherwise the Beam’s specs don’t really scream ‘superphone’ -- Gingerbread, 1 GHz dual core, 4” 480 x 800 screen, 5 MP camera. Still, anyone who finds themselves needing to pack an external projector on a regular basis will certainly appreciate the integration in a very capable current-gen smartphone.
Last on the list alphabetically, but not feature-wise, the ZTE Era deserves the term ‘superphone’ as much as any. The Era boasts a 4.3” screen but a thickness less than â of inch (7.8mm to be exact), with ICS powered by that plucky quad-core 1.3 Ghz Tegra 3 that seems to be all the rage in Barcelona this year. The resolution is qHD (540 x 960), coupled with the 256ppi density, which puts the Era near (but not quite at the top of) the cutting edge. An 8MP camera and a very nice software-based modem ups the ante, but oddly enough, there doesn’t seem to be a headphone jack -- a deal-breaker for me, but understandably not for everyone.
Day Two, Tuesday 28 February:
The second day of MWC 2012 ended up being lighter on big-name product unveiling, but heavier on interesting developments. Video calling was a common focus of both LG (who showed off in-call switching between voice and video on LTE) and AT&T (whose Mobility CEO made a very un-carrier-like appeal for a unified video calling standard).
ST-Ericsson showed off the NovaThor L8540, a dual-core SoC based on ARM’s Cortex A9 (up to 1.85GHz) and PowerVR SGX 544 GPU (up to 500MHz). The NovaThor’s power efficiency is impressive, due to 28nm manufacturing and integrated LTE, HSPA+ and TD-SCDMA as well as pre-integrated connectivity support for Bluetooth, WiFi, WLAN and NFC, among others.
Also on the horizon rather than around the corner, the for-the-moment-unnamed Fujitsu concept phone has succeeded in capturing my otherwise skeptical and cynical interest. Is it because it’s supposed to be waterproof and dustproof? No, the Panasonic Eluga is too, and that device didn’t wow me. A 4.6” screen is impressive, but I’ve seen at least two 4.7” superphones already. Nor is ICS, LTE or quad-core Tegra 3 power exactly rare here at MWC 2012. I’d say it was the 13.1MP camera, but after the PureView even this seems less mind-boggling. Fingerprint recognition? Noise and echo-cancelling microphone technology? Vague claims of adaptive "Human-Centric Technology" and biofeedback sensors?
Huawei is now on board with Tizen, a MeeGo-based OS being developed by Intel and Samsung (which is integrating the platform with its own bada OS). While not a familiar name outside Asia, Tizen has more overall worldwide share than Windows Phone (insert snarky comment here). However, Huawei’s showcase was an Ice Cream Sandwich device, the surprisingly impressive Ascend D Quad. As you may guess from the name, this is a quad-core superphone using Huawei’s own K3V2 SoC based on four Cortex A9s and proprietary GPU, with a good-looking 330-ppi 4.5” LCD screen and Dolby 5.1 surround compatibility. I’m impressed, and looking forward to the projected mid-year stateside release.
Speaking of Asia and Intel, the Lava Xolo X900 raised more than a few eyebrows. Even with a screen (just) over 4”, it’s arguable whether the Xolo really qualifies as a ‘superphone’, as this is strictly a single-core Gingerbread device, with a humble 3MP camera. However, hands-on testing has confirmed that the 1.6 Ghz Medfield Z2460 CPU is an impressively swift little beast compared to ARM chips with the same specs -- and similarly, the smallish-seeming 1,460mAh battery is backed up by impressively efficient power management to deliver 8 hours of talk. All-in-all, the engineering in this stripped-down smartphone is impressive, and I can only hope that the US market sees an Atom contender to light a fire under the ARM-dominated market.
If showing off your phone is just as important to you as specs and apps, the stainless steel Lumigon T2 certainly does more than most to encourage envy. Bucking the trend for multiple cores and >4” screens, the T2 features 3.8 inches of Gorilla Glass and a single-core 1.4GHz Snapdragon S2. The 8-megapixel cam and ICS are more cutting-edge, however, and the T2 tosses some desirable extras into the mix -- such as an assignable button on the front of the casing (for locked-device access to the function of your choice), built-in infrared (finally, a new phone that’s capable of universal remote control) and Bang & Olufsen audiophile sound. So yeah, a designer phone it may be -- but one with useful features that other companies would do well to notice.
Day 3: Wednesday 29 February:
HTC One X. Yikes, this is a superphone by any definition. The insides feature a 1.5Ghz quad-core and 1GB of RAM that run ICS Android quite nicely. The outside is a lightweight but tough polycarbonate body measuring slightly over â ” (or just under 9.3mm, if you prefer), and the One X seems even thinner because of the massive 4.7” screen -- which, by the way, looks great at 720 x 1280 pixels and 312ppi. What else? 8 MP rear / 1.3 front cams, HDMI, 1080p video recording, NFC, and of course LTE. The lack of a MicroSD slot is a bit of a downer, but there’s 32GB of built-in storage and 25GB more with the included HTC-Dropbox cloud storage. Of more concern, due to the power demands of the big screen and 40nm CPU, is the utterly un-removable battery -- but at 1800 mAh, that may or may not be much of an issue.
The only thing that could possibly overshadow the One X was Microsoft’s Windows 8 Consumer Preview Event. The building excitement over the new platform-agnostic operating system is increasingly putting to the lie any rumors of Redmond’s irrelevance, especially with demonstrations of the beta build on a selection of ARM tablets. I’m currently investigating the CP and evaluating the ins and outs of the Metro UI on my desktop PC, but I’ll reserve judgment until I have more details to share.
Acer dropped a pair of Ice Cream Sandwich bombs (interpret that any way you wish) with the CloudMobile and the smaller but similar Liquid Glow. Actually, the CloudMobile was stealth-introduced by a design award press release before the show started, and on first glance this attractive smartphone seems to deserve it. The screen is the nicest part, a 4.3” 1280 x 720 display at 342ppi with amazing viewing angle performance. Under the hood, the Snapdragon S4 SoC dual-core 1.5GHz CPU and 1GB RAM are superphone-worthy (right now, anyway -- but prepare to downgrade to ‘smartphone’ when the CloudMobile is actually released among numerous quad-core competitors later this year). An 8 MP camera is nice enough, but Acer claims zero shutter lag and continuous shot ability, which would be a major bragging point for the CloudMobile (depending on the actual QUALITY of the pics, which I can’t yet confirm). The name, of course, refers to the included access to the Acer Cloud -- and I must admit that I haven’t quite figured out if it’s a proper remote cloud or simply a sync between your mobile and desktop. Perhaps someone can aid my understanding?
The Global Mobile Awards seemed to lack any sense of irony in recognizing Samsung in both the Best Device Manufacturer and Best Smartphone categories as well as giving the absent Apple a Best Tablet award for the iPad 2. Veering away from some of the silliness (oh wait, let’s pause for an /s moment to celebrate the groundbreaking achievement that is Angry Birds Rio), I’ll nominate my own personal picks for Best in Show, in no particular order:
For pure superphone dominance, I’d be hard pressed to choose between the LG Optimus 4X HD and the HTC One X. Neither does anything really NEW, but both do MORE of nearly everything, and both do everything well. Both feature crisply-detailed high-resolution 4.7” screens and slim profiles, both are truly impressive-looking devices with enough ‘eye and finger room’ to make you doubt whether there’s much point in going any further down the down the 5” Samsung Note road, or even the 7” Kindle Fire road. If you put a gun to my head, I’d put my money on HTC, simply based on past satisfaction.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1 is an obvious winner. The elegant S-Pen stylus integration is a small but significant edge over multitouch-only functionality for many of the things that make tablets most worthwhile, and that beautiful HD display puts nearly any other tablet screen to shame. If it weren’t for my third choice, I’d known exactly which tablet I wanted most...
I have to hand it to the ASUS PadFone. Like the original Transformer, the concept seems a little gimmicky and disjointed at first... but then you see the system in action, and begin to appreciate the true potential of consolidating your mobile computing duties (not to mention your data plan needs) into a single smoothly integrated system. For too long, Android tablets have understandably focused on beating Apple on specs, features and price -- and the market just kept responding “I don’t care.” ASUS is taking the oblique approach, offering a novel experience while serving the distinct needs for which people use smartphones, tablets and netbooks. In a way, the company is taking Apple’s walled garden approach and turning it against them -- because as connected as Apple’s ecosystem may be, it’s still a comparative jumble of various cables and software solutions. Cupertino had better pray that ASUS doesn’t recreate themselves into a stylish lifestyle brand...