From the Editor's Desk: Wrapping up MWC 2017
Even without a big phone announcement from Samsung, MWC was a wild ride.
Mobile World Congress is always crazy. This was my sixth year covering the Barcelona-based show, which each year lives up to its reputation of being a whirlwind of hype, announcements, events and surprises. It’s exhausting, but never a chore.
The absence of a big Galaxy S8 announcement from Samsung created a vacuum that just about everyone else tried to fill. In the Android phone space, that meant new flagships from LG, Huawei, Sony, BlackBerry and Nokia, along with the usual scattering of wearables, tablets industry buzzword-mongery (5G! — it’ll be great once we figure out what it actually is!)
For me, the winning phone of the show was the LG G6, which will be my daily driver for the foreseeable future. (Go read our review to find out why.) In the U.S., the G6 stands a decent chance of being the de facto (Android) alternative to the GS8 — though it’s pretty much inevitable that it’ll be steamrolled by Samsung in terms of sales and public mindshare.
LG will eventually be forced to lower the G6’s price, or get steamrolled by Samsung.
The G6’s greatest strength is that it’s no longer chasing gimmicks, and instead focusing on being a solid overall device, differentiated by one or two great features, like the extremely fun wide-angle camera and extra-tall display. Sooner or later, LG will be forced to compete with the Galaxy S8 on price — especially if, as listed by one retailer, it launches at £699 unlocked in the UK. Nevertheless, coming from what was basically a total dud in the LG G5, the G6 represents a promising return to form. LG is back in the game.
On a related note, some of background on the G6 review, since we were pretty early in publishing this time. Review timings involve balancing a lot of different factors: Sometimes you’ll be dealing with non-final software or hardware (whenever that’s the case, we’ll always say so upfront in the “About this review” section.) Sometimes there are pre-planned embargo times to hit, sometimes it’s less clear-cut.
With the G6, we went about as quickly as I’d want to for a new phone, pushing an initial review after a couple of days with it in Barcelona, and a good amount of time with it in Korea the previous week. For each phone we review the circumstances are different, but with the G6 review I think we struck a good balance between speed of delivery and depth of analysis. As always when we’re dealing with pre-release firmware, we’ll update our review once we have final builds in-hand.
Meanwhile, Chinese juggernaut Huawei brought us two pretty good phones and one pretty meh smartwatch. First, the not-so-great: The Huawei Watch 2, on a functional level, is perfectly fine. The problem is that the name places it as a direct successor to a very different wearable with very different priorities, and in design terms there’s just no way you can make a favorable comparison between the first Huawei Watch and its successor. One actually looks reasonably stylish, at least by smartwatch standards. The other is an ugly plasticky toy. (Incidentally, the pre-release paperwork inside our review device’s box mentions the name “Huawei Watch 2 Sport,” a monicker which may have made more sense.)
The problem with the Huawei Watch 2 is the name as much as the cheap, boring design.
The Huatch 2 Classic looks less objectionable, but does little to justify its eye-watering €399 price tag.
Huawei did a better job with its phones. The P10 Plus in particular, with its top-notch specs and promising f/1.8 camera, should do well in the UK, where it’ll be ranged on all but one of the major operators. (The smaller P10 will launch on all four, plus Carphone Warehouse.)
But I’ve been vexed by what seems to be an insane product decision from Huawei. As far as I can tell, neither P10 model has an oleophobic layer on its screen. (That’s a smudge-resistant layer included in all but the cheapest phones as standard.) Sure, there’s a factory-fitted screen protector on there out of the box, which many P10 buyers may leave intact. But if you want to use it without a screen protector, your display will soon become a maddening hellscape of fingerprint smudges. I’m currently trying to confirm with Huawei that retail P10s will also exclude the olephobic layer; if so, it’s a baffling decision, and perhaps a reason to pass on these phones altogether.
Trying to replace a button is the definition of over-engineering.
I’m also not keen on the newly relocated fingerprint scanner on the P10, nor the weird gesture input Huawei touts as an alternative to Android’s soft keys. (Single-tap on the scanner for back, long-press for home, swipe for recent apps.) Vlad Savov of The Verge makes a good case for the new gesture setup. My counter-argument is that trying to replace a button (a button!) is pretty much the definition of over-engineering. At least soft keys are still the default button configuration on the P10, in what appears to have been a last-minute change. (At a briefing a few days ahead of the announcement, we were told gestures were the default.)
Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium, which I got to fondle for a few minutes at MWC, is another nice-looking Sony phone which will probably fail to move the needle for the Japanese firm. The standout features include the Snapdragon 835 SoC — which, given that Samsung has first dibs on the chip, means the XZ Premium will ship in May at the earliest — and a 4K display which isn’t VR ready, giving it questionable utility.
Next to the likes of the G6, Sony’s new flagship is a boxy, bezely beast — and I’m still not sure what exactly Sony’s supposed to be doing better than anyone else, with the exception of pixel density. And then there’s the whole fingerprint sensor situation, which has Sony, because of bad business deals made some years ago, releasing an $800+ phone with a core feature disabled in software in the U.S. (Andrew Martonik has the scoop on that over here.)
It’s been a good couple of years since Sony released a phone that I found exciting in any way. It’s possible that the XZ, with its new camera features and unique mirrored chassis, will reignite that fire. But on the surface, this appears to be another incremental, half-yearly upgrade for the Xperia range.
Beyond the hype over new flagships, it’s been cool to see some of the genuine enthusiasm (fuelled as much by nostalgia as anything), around Nokia and BlackBerry. Both brands saw a resurgence at MWC, with Nokia promising well-built mid-rangers with software that doesn’t suck — your move, Motorola — and BlackBerry Mobile kicking off a new range of phones with a QWERTY device aimed squarely at the core CrackBerry enthusiasts, as well as enterprise and government.
I’m more optimistic about BlackBerry (Mobile)’s chances in the long run, especially if the KEYone is followed by a compelling display-centric device for normals that’s able to boast the same performance, software features and battery life. By comparison HMD’s pretty but under-specced Nokias have a mountain to climb — first of all, the brand has to clearly convey what’s special about a Nokia phone in 2017.
Other odds and ends for a post-MWC weekend:
That’s it for MWC week. Roll on GS8 launch season!