At the Mobile World Congress show last week, I saw many new smartphones and tablets, but what struck me the most was how similar most of these devices were. (I had similar thoughts about CES.) Apple doesn’t participate in the show and Research In Motion didn’t introduce any new BlackBerry devices (although it released a new version of the PlayBook software right before the show.) so, the vast majority of new devices at the show ran Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and those that didn’t mostly ran Windows Phone. Overall, the landscape consisted of minimalist designs emphasizing large screens with fast processors and a focus on imaging, entertainment services, and social networks.
Indeed, it seemed like all the major vendors were talking about how they were going to differentiate their offerings, but most ended up choosing the same concepts. still, there were some notable trends and differences among the vendors.
Above: Huawei Ascend D
Chinese vendor Huawei may have had the biggest surprise at the show, introducing a new line of smartphones including the Ascend D quad family, which runs Android 4.0 and has a 4.5-inch display. what makes these different is that they run Huawei’s own K3V2 processor from affiliate HiSilicon Technologies. this processor runs at 1.2 GHz for the Ascend D quad and 1.5 GHz for the Ascend D quad XL, and is based on four ARM Cortex-A9 cores, with a 16-core GPU and a 64-bit memory controller. The company said the D quad is “the world’s fastest smartphone,” and advertisements say “It flies.” (As always, I take such claims with a grain of salt; certainly it’s not very aerodynamic.)
Huawei also showed a number of other devices, including the MediaPad 10 FHD, a quad-core 10-inch tablet based on the same processor with a 1920-by-1080 display; and other phones, including those with TI OMAP processors and with the company’s own LTE modems. Huawei, which is not yet a presence in the US market, clearly made speed its emphasis at the show.
ZTE, the other big Chinese vendor (and indeed one of the world’s largest makers of handsets), showed a wide range of phones, including the PF112, a 4.5-inch version running a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor; a smaller version called the Era; the Mimosa X, running the Tegra 2 processor; and many others. what made this a bit different was ZTE’s stated intention to make these mainstream phones (as opposed to high-end phones) by the end of the year; its focus on the US market; and the variety of different devices in the line. The company even showed a range of 10-inch tablets, including one running a Tegra 3, the other running Qualcomm’s dual-core S4 at 1.7 GHz. In addition, at Intel’s press conference, ZTE said it would be introducing a phone running Intel’s Medfield processor later in the year.
My initial impression is that the company is willing to make a huge variety of devices, trying hard to find a particular hit. The overall line is certainly impressive, if a bit scattershot.
HTC, which has also been one of the largest handset makers, took the opposite approach by introducing a simplified lineup including the HTC One X, S, and V. The highlight of the line is the One X, with a 4.7-inch 1280-by-720 display that looked particularly impressive and a new image processing chip. this looks like it will be available with HSPA+ in a model using the 1.5 GHz Tegra 3 quad-core processor or with LTE with a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor (which seems to be the version headed for the United States). The other models include the One S, with a 4.3-inch, 960-by-540 display (which may well be large enough for most people) using the Snapdragon S4, and the One V, with a 3.7-inch 800-by-400 display with a single-core Snapdragon S2 processor.
HTC is talking up its image processing features, particularly shutter speed and low-light features. It seems like a good attempt to differentiate, even though the focus isn’t unique in the industry.
Above: Sony Xperia lineup
Indeed, imaging was one of the focuses that Sony stressed when it introduced its new Android Phones, the Xperia P and U, at the show.
The Xperia P, with its 4-inch, 960-by-540 screen, includes an 8.1-megapixel Sony Exmor R CMOS lens and the company’s Bravia Engine image processor, with features such as 3D sweep panorama (just like the company’s point-and-shoot cameras). The Xperia U has a 3.5-inch, 854-by-480 display and a 5MP sensor. (Both are based on ST-Ericsson’s 1 GHz dual-core U8500 processor, and run Android 2.3 Gingerbread now, with an Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade promised shortly.) these join a lineup including the Xperia Ion, with a 4.6-inch display, and the Xperia S, with a 4.3-inch display, as shown at CES.
Sony recently bought out its long-time handset partner Ericsson and is now marketing the phones under the Sony name. Kazuo Hirai, currently executive deputy president and soon to be CEO of Sony Corp., said the goal is to create “One Sony,” leveraging the company’s assets in its digital imaging, entertainment, and gaming into the mobile world. In addition to the imaging efforts, the company is pushing the “PlayStation Certified” and Sony Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited stores on the devices, as well as near-field communications.
It all sounds like a reasonable strategy, but Sony hasn’t yet been able to leverage its entertainment assets in a way that makes its electronics stand out, and I haven’t seen anything that suggests it will be all that different now.
Above: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
With all its competitors introducing new phones, including some new flagship models, Samsung in some ways surprised me by not doing the same. It seems content for now with its Galaxy S II and Nexus lines. Samsung is the second-largest smartphone maker (after Apple), and instead used the show to emphasize its tablets, particularly the new Galaxy Note 10.1, which adds a pressure-sensitive stylus to its tablet line. this follows in the steps of the Galaxy Note introduced at CES. while other vendors (notably including LG) have stylus-based devices, no one else is making the push for drawing that Samsung is, and this does seem to be a method of differentiation.
The one noteworthy new phone from Samsung is the Galaxy Beam. It adds an LED projector (capable of producing 15 lumens), has a 4-inch display, uses ST-Ericsson’s 1 GHz U8500 processor, and runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread. this is a niche phone, but again, it is a bit different.
Speaking of LG, the company had a huge line-up of new Android products at the show, with a new flagship phone in the LG Optimus 4X HD. Again, this is another very large Ice Cream Sandwich phone, with a 4-7inch, 1280-by-720 display, 1.5 GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, and an 8MP camera. It’s a very nice looking phone, though a lot of the high-end phones seem very similar. LG also announced the Optimus L7, with a 4.3-inch 800-by-600 display and a 1 GHz processor; the Optimus L5, with a 4-inch 480-by-320 display and an 800 MHz processor; and the Optimus L3 with a 3.2-inch 320-by-240 display, aimed at the entry-level smartphone market (probably in other countries).
All these phones look fine, but not particularly different from other offerings. however, the company is still promoting 3D via its Optimus 3D Max (which looked better than last year’s offering, but I’m still not convinced that the 3D is good enough) and the Optimus Vu, with a 5-inch, 1024-by-768 display and a stylus. Its 4:3 aspect ratio makes it look even more tablet like than the 5-inch Galaxy Note, but it doesn’t have the pressure-sensitive display. It does, however, have a 1.5 GHz Qualcomm S4 processor.
In some respects, Nokia’s devices stood out more than the rest, largely because it backs Windows Phone, when everyone else was backing Android. (HTC and Samsung also have Windows Phone models, but they didn’t stress them.)
Probably the most important entrant here is the Lumia 610, with a 1 GHz Qualcomm processor. this seems markedly slower (and smaller) than the higher-end Lumia 900 announced at CES and the 710 and 800 introduced a bit earlier. It is, however, aimed at a broader market.
Similarly, Nokia showed a new line of feature phones, known as Asha, aimed at the developing world. these are Symbian phones and meant to be quite affordable, but with features reminiscent of dated smartphones, such as a full keyboard and Exchange mail support on the Asha 302, and a variety of games coming pre-installed on the Asha 202 and 203.
The most surprising of the lineup was the Pureview 808, with its impressive 41MP camera sensor. The company said it took five years to develop, so it’s understandable it would come first to Symbian. still, it’s surprising given that Windows Phone is clearly Nokia’s new smartphone platform.
Nokia CEO Stephen Elop spoke very highly of Windows Phone as a differentiator in the market, and talked about how the company would also be using its Maps, Drive, and Music applications as differentiators within that market.
There were a number of other interesting mobile devices at the show, such as Toshiba’s 7.7-inch version of the Excite Android tablet that I saw at CES.
In some ways, it was most interesting to see Intel trying to make a splash with its Medfield processor. ZTE, Lava, and Orange all showed new Android-based devices, in addition to the Lenovo phone shown at CES and the Motorola partnership announced then. It’s still not clear when or if US customers will see Medfield-based phones, however.
In a world of smartphones that are getting ever smarter, it seems clear now that a big focus will be on radically reducing the price of smartphones, so they can take the place of feature phones, first in the developed world, and later even in emerging markets.
Indeed, I saw a wide variety of inexpensive smartphones, usually from companies whose names are unfamiliar in the west. Low-end processor makers, such as MediaTek, and IP companies, such as MIPS (which competes with ARM), particularly showed a variety of such devices.
Today’s mid-range smartphone is faster and more powerful than the fastest phone on the market just a couple of years ago, and I see no signs of that trend fading. Indeed, the highest-end phones are now getting even faster multiple-core processors and very large screens, leaving room for mid-range or even low-end phones that are quite powerful. The progress just makes differentiating the phones on the high-end harder and harder.
MWC Roundup: Phone and Tablet Makers Struggle To Differentiate
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