Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

26 Feb 2018633 Views

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Mobile World Congress 2018. Image: John Kennedy

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Phones are still turning heads at Mobile World Congress.

We checked out the new flagship phones from Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Huawei, HTC and surprise newcomer Ikimobile at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018.

On the face of it, smartphones appear to still be the sexiest things at MWC. However, under the hood, the trends of 5G and edge computing in particular are where the smart money really are.

But you can’t touch radio waves and so, smartphones will for now remain our portals into the world of tomorrow.

This morning (26 February), about 100,000 people entered the halls at the Gran Fira in Barcelona to talk about the latest trends and technologies.

Mobile manufacturers such as Samsung and Nokia had already raced to be out of the traps while Sony took the wraps off its latest wonder machines this morning.

So, what’s special about the latest crop of smartphones?

Sony Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Sony Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact. Image: John Kennedy

It is hard to distinguish one smartphone from another these days, as most of them are usually slabs of glass around 6in in size. That means smartphone makers are digging deep to be different.

Sony has thrown a challenge by embracing its core areas of strength: sound and vision.

The new XZ2 (5.7in screen) and XZ2 Compact (5in screen) come in a light aluminium unibody with a nice array of metallic colours.

They are attractive to look at and hold but the real differences are under the hood.

HDR playback in 4K is the core differential here and the devices come with full HD-plus 18:9 display. Users can record movies in 4K HDR and not only that, but the phone will convert content up to near-HDR.

But the thing that won me over about the new Xperia XZ2 and its compact sister was audio.

The devices come with high-res audio, which again upscales audio to perfection using DSEE HX technology.

Another neat feature is the new Dynamic Vibration System, which analyses audio and lets you feel it in your hands. I expected to find this annoying but instead found it to be quite emotionally engaging, reminding me of that feeling at gigs when the vibrations almost rattle your ribcage.

Another cool feature is the ability to take photos in 3D, which can then be 3D printed.

Sony has dug deep and presented the gold.

Samsung S9 and S9 Plus

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Samsung S9 Plus. Image: John Kennedy

Every year, Samsung puts on the glitz and goes large on its new devices. While the Samsung S9 generation is certainly a head-turner, featuring a beautiful sleek and shiny metallic unibody in compelling, stunning colours, this should go down in smartphone history as Samsung’s most social phone yet.

The camera is the big deal here, with some great editing capabilities such as blur removal. You get the sense that it really wants to take Apple head-on in terms of the editing capabilities you can find on the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X.

I was particularly struck by the slow-mo feature at up to nine frames per second at 720p resolution. It has some nifty little features such as the ability to add music and make your little vignette more dramatic and cinematic.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Samsung S9 Plus. Image: John Kennedy

The prevailing trend amongst the high-end smartphone vendors is the addition of more intelligence and power into the camera sensors – in Samsung’s case, a brighter aperture on its 12MP camera that lets in 28pc more light and, at the same time, reduces noise 30pc.

The screen is quite stunning, with super AMOLED panels on both the 5.8in S9 and the 6.2in S9 Plus.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Samsung S9 Plus avatar generator. Image: John Kennedy

As well as the slow-mo feature, another nod to Apple is the addition of what Samsung calls AR Emoji, which lets you capture an image of your face and create a custom 3D character of yourself, which you can then use in messages and to shoot little movies.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

The author as an avatar on the Samsung S9. Image: John Kennedy

Huawei Mate 10

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Huawei Mate 10. Image: John Kennedy

While Huawei didn’t officially launch a smartphone at MWC this year – preferring instead to announce a new notebook called the MateBook X Pro as well as two tablets – its main phone is its latest flagship Mate 10, which it launched before Christmas.

Having carried the Mate 10 for the last few months, I think it can ably hold its own against the new Samsung S9 series, Apple’s iPhone X and Sony’s new Xperia XZ2 series.

This is down to the device’s neural processor, which enables AI-powered real-time scene and object recognition. It also has an AI-accelerated translator, co-developed with Microsoft, which can enable real-time conversation across more than 50 languages.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Huawei Mate 10. Image: John Kennedy

When it comes to camera sensors, the real battle is between the Huawei Mate 10 and Samsung S9. The Mate 10 boasts a 12MP and 20MP dual sensor array, which it developed in partnership with Leica.

Where the Huawei Mate 10 leads the field – as far as I can tell – is its 4000 mAh high-density battery that can go for days. It is a beast. And, not only is it formidable in terms of endurance, it charges pretty rapidly, going from 1pc to 20pc in just 10 minutes, and up to 58pc in 30 minutes.

Also, if you plug the phone into a TV screen, you can convert it into your own personal computer.

Nokia 8 Sirocco

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Nokia 8 Sirocco. Image: John Kennedy

Nokia didn’t just launch one new flagship phone, it launched five new devices. These include the flagship Nokia 7 Plus, the Nokia 8 Sirocco, a new and improved Nokia 6, an accessible Nokia 1 with a version of Android Oreo for devices with 1GB of RAM or less, and a reimagined Nokia 8110 with 4G data capabilities.

I decided to focus on the new Nokia 8 Sirocco. In style terms, it holds its own with the new flagship Samsung S9 and Sony XZ2 series.

It’s a while since a Nokia felt good in my hand, but the Sirocco, with its 5.5in display, is very comfortable.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

Nokia 8 Sirocco. Image: John Kennedy

Appearance-wise, it has a stainless steel unibody and looks very high-end, especially thanks to its almost invisible bezel, just 2mm thin at the edge.

Its camera is powered by Zeiss optics, consisting of a 12MP camera with wide-angle capabilities and a secondary 13MP sensor.

Judging by the crowds swarming Nokia’s stand, the company is definitely back in the phone business.

HTC U11

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

The squeezable HTC 11. Image: John Kennedy

HTC once dominated MWC with its clever take on Android, and the Taiwanese manufacturer has not quite left the smartphone field, despite its penchant for VR.

The U11 that I saw at this year’s event is novel in that you can easily take photos by just squeezing the device – yes, squeezing it.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

The HTC U11. Image: John Kennedy

This is made possible by a new technology called Edge Sense, which can be optimised to do different things as well as take photos.

You simply squeeze the lower half of the phone to take your shots, possibly an indication of where phones might be going next in terms of interactive potential.

Ikimobile Bless 8

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

The Ikimobile Bless 8. Image: John Kennedy

A feisty new smartphone player to watch isn’t actually Asian or Nordic, it’s a start-up phone manufacturer from Portugal called Ikimobile.

The Bless 8 is the flagship device of Ikimoibile and it is 65pc manufactured in Portgual, with the battery and chips coming from China.

Co-founder Pedro Alves Vilela explained that the idea is to mix nature with technology and, true enough, the device is made from materials mostly comprising the Portuguese national tree, cork oak.

The result is a device that feels extremely light in your hand. Not only that but, because of the natural materials, it shields 50pc of the radiation from the battery.

Hands-on with the top smartphones of Mobile World Congress 2018

The Ikimobile Bless with cork material backing. Image: John Kennedy

But seriously, a smartphone maker from Europe? Again? “Why not,” Vilela shrugged. “We are already distributing in Europe, Israel and Africa. In 2013, we had the idea to produce phones made from natural materials. And it works.”

The Bless 8 comes with a 13MP camera front and back, and features a vibrant 5.9in screen.

The founders’ ambition and novel use of natural materials is a welcome change in a world where too many phones just look the same. Bravo.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com