Goldstuck on Gadgets

As smart as it gets

December 6th, 2017
A string of new phone releases reveal the state of the smart art, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series. This week, Huawei, Samsung and Apple in focus.
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There was a time when only two smartphone brands could get the world to sit up and take notice when they released new handsets. Now they’ve been joined by a third. Apple and Samsung will have to bunch up their seats at the top table to make space for Huawei.

The latest handset from the Chinese phone maker is one of the most advanced devices ever put in the hands of ordinary consumers. But then, it has to be if Huawei wants to compete with Apple and Samsung, which each recently released their own contenders for that accolade.

Here is a look at where each of the phones claim maximum points:

Huawei Mate 10 Pro

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Phones can’t think yet, but Huawei hopes to change that.

Its secret weapon is the Kirin 970 chipset, a processor designed to augment the smarts of both the phone and its user.  While we often associate artificial intelligence (AI) with machines that think for themselves and function independently of human beings, the Mate 10 points us in a more practical – and useful – direction for the algorithms that power AI.

For example, intelligent photographic algorithms identify different scenes and objects while the user is focusing, and automatically adjusts colour, contrast, brightness and exposure. That means, when one focuses on food or beach scenes, the lighting is automatically adjusted to what suits that kind of scene best.

On a business level, the phone takes the standard contacts list to a new level. It connects the address book on the phone to the user’s LinkedIn account, so that profile information on LinkedIn contacts are directly integrated into the phone’s contact list. This combines callers’ contact details with their professional identity, giving the phone user instant access to useful information on the person calling or being called.

“As we enter the age of intelligence, AI is no longer a virtual concept but something that intertwines with our daily life,” said Likun Zhao, general manager of Huawei Consumer Business Group SA, at the recent launch of the phone. “AI can enhance user experience, provide valuable services and improve product performance. The Huawei Mate 10 Series introduces the first mobile AI-specific Neural Network Processing Unit (NPU).”

The Microsoft Translator app has been customised for the Huawei Mate 10 series to provide the handset with the world’s first fully neural, on-device translations.

A company statement says: “The phone’s NPU allows every Mate 10 user to have native access to online quality level translations, even when they are not connected to the Internet, which means faster and more accurate interactive translation for a smoother communication experience.”

The Kirin 970 is claimed to deliver 25 times better performance and 50 times greater energy efficiency for AI-related tasks, compared to typical quad core chips. Once mobile networks integrate new connectivity technologies, the Mate 10 will also be ready: Huawei says it is “the world’s fastest smartphone supporting super-fast LTE connectivity and download speeds”.

If all one wants is a superb phone, though, the Mate 10 still delivers. A 6-inch OLED display that runs almost edge-to-edge, in a 3D glass body curved on all sides, puts this handset on a par with the elegance of its main competitors.

The new Leica Dual Lens delivers an f/1.6 aperture, drawing level with the LG V30+ as the world’s largest aperture on a phone. The lenses come in a 20MP monochrome sensor and 12MP RGB sensor, with optical image stabilisation.

This is all powered by a mammoth 4000 mAh battery, with “AI-powered battery management, which understands user behaviour and intelligently allocates resources to maximise battery life”.

These smarts are exceptional, but they don’t come cheap. The Huawei Mate 10 Pro has a recommended retail price of R18 999.

Samsung Note 8

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The original Samsung Note, back in 2011, shocked Apple out of its small-screen obsession when it popularised the “phablet” category of large-screen phones. It is astonishing to think, then, that the first Note carried only a 5.2” screen – small by today’s standards.

It is also astonishing to recall that Apple made TV ads that mocked that size. It tried to convince the market that no one would ever want to use two hands to operate a phone. Its mockery was eventually silenced by the market, and Apple gave in with the 5.5” iPhone 6 Plus in 2014.

The Note series is as much about Apple as it is about Samsung, as it tends to clear a path for Apple’s next iteration – which the American media then hails as invention and innovation. Samsung doesn’t mind too much, as it manufacturers many of the key components that go into Apple devices.

Most of all, it tells us about the size of the next, next iPhone. There seems to be a three-year lag between the Note going for the next size up, and Apple following suit, so the iPhone XIII in 2020 can be expected to carry a screen similar to the 6.3” beast on the Note 8.

The Note 8 display is dazzling, thanks to its Quad HD screen, at 1440 x 2960 pixels, with an incredibly dense 521 pixels per inch (ppi). It is powered by the cutting edge Snapdragon 835 chipset, which is also found in the LG V30+ and Sony Xperia XZ1 reviewed last week, meaning greater efficiency for its 3300 mAh battery.

The software allows simultaneous 4K video and 9MP image recording, along with face and smile detection. Facial recognition is the start of the biometrics on this device, rounded out by an iris scanner, and rear-mounted fingerprint recognition.

That sensor goes a step further for the health conscious, with heart rate measurement as well as SpO2 – peripheral capillary oxygen saturation – designed for high-performance sports or fitness enthusiasts to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood. Until now, that was only available on specialist fitness devices.

The one area where Samsung did follow Apple was in its voice assitance technology, which has evolved from the S-Voice search engine to the Bixby AI-enhanced system for context recognition, natural language commands and dictation.

If that sounds like a remarkably rich package, it is matched by its price tag, which starts at R18 500.

Apple iPhone X

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The iPhone X has been hailed by Time magazine as one of the inventions of the year, which says more about American media coverage of technology than it does about the iPhone.

Saying it “is arguably the world’s most sophisticated smartphone, with a screen that stretches from edge to edge, a processor optimised for augmented reality and a camera smart enough to allow users to unlock the phone with their face”, TIme admits in parentheses: “though some of these features first arrived on devices from Samsung and LG”.

Those features to indeed make it a superb phone, in a frame that remains one of the most imitated phone bodies in the world. Probably the most outstanding feature is the one that is no longer there: the home button, which is replaced by a swipe gesture.

Here, Apple does lead the way, towards a phone world where specific buttons will be less important than voice, gesture and context. In most other respects, it matches up to the innovations of its peers. A dual 12MP camera with simultaneous 4K video and 8MP image recording (sound familiar?) and smile detection makes it similar to the Note 8.  However, a telephoto lens now  includes image stabilisation, meaning smooth zooming in and out while filming.

The one area where the iPhone does stand head and shoulders above any Android device is that its software updates roll out uniformly across all devices, and don’t leave any recent models behind. That., however, is a feature of the iOS operating system, rather than the iPhone X as such. In combination, though, it makes for a package as compelling as anything an Android device can throw at the market.

It would need to be, since it starts at R20 499 for the 64GB model, and around R3 000 more 256GB.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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