Five years ago, which represents many lifetimes in the smartphone world, Samsung sent shockwaves through the industry when it announced it had sold 10-million units of its Galaxy Note, the device that introduced the world to the “phablet” concept of large-screen phones.
Its wild popularity utterly contradicted all the derision heaped on it by hip online technology media. Engadget, then still enamoured with the iPhone’s miniature screen, harrumphed that it was “obnoxiously large”. No wonder people tend to forget the first Note had a mere 5.3-inch screen.
By the time Apple caught up with a 5.5-inch screen on the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014, the same publication soothingly declared, “The market has changed, and it was high time Apple did the same.”
Today, the phablet market is the most vigorously contested of all smartphone segments. However, the main contenders for the large-screen crown have all but abdicated. Samsung’s beautifully designed Note 7 not only crashed and burned, but also proved to be such a public relations disaster that it became the first device ever banned by model name from all major airlines.
Meanwhile, Apple declared the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus to be “the best iPhone we have ever made”, stating the obvious while launching a truly unexciting phone. Only Samsung’s failings made Apple look good.
Now suddenly, a new contender has stepped into the breach. Chinese-headquartered Huawei, which has slowly clawed its way into third place in global smartphone sales with quality phones at competitive prices, is about to make a big leap.
At a launch event in Munich last week, it unveiled one of the most ambitious phablets the market has seen, packing no less than 5.9-inches of display into its new Mate 9. But the size is not the main thing going for it. Two other features stand out dramatically.
Almost as a response to the Samsung battery blow-out, Huawei has made “a safe, faster-charging battery” one of the centrepieces of the phone. It houses a massive 4000 mAh high-density battery, using its own technology that it has branded SuperCharge.
It promises more than two days of uninterrupted performance., and early tests bear this out. Using the new USB-C connector type and a proprietary cable, it charges in half the time of previous versions, and a 10 minute quick charge gives half a day of usage. This is on top of the kind of battery management options that have given the Huawei P series an edge since it startled the industry with the P6 in 2013.
To overcome fears that this “super battery” could be another Note 7 debacle in the making, Huawei has provided more details on its battery management tools than ever before, spelling out what it calls “Super Safe 5-gate protection”, and providing the user with “real-time voltage, current and temperature monitoring to eliminate safety hazards”.
The second standout feature of the phone is a dual-lens camera engineered in collaboration with lens pioneers Leica. Their relationship made its debut with the Huawei P9 earlier this year, and has been cemented just eight months later with an even better camera: one that gives the Samsung S7 and S7 Edge a run for their image money.
The optical performance of the camera module is given steroids by the dual-lens format, made up of a 12-megapixel/F2.2 RGB sensor and a 20-megapixel/F2.2 monochrome sensor. Huawei has used what it calls “fusion algorithms” to enable the two lenses to work in concert.
“The RGB sensor captures true-to-life colours, while the monochrome sensor captures intricate details and depth, resulting in the iconic Leica Image Style,” ran the launch announcement. “When paired with the leading dual-lens camera Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) solution and the industry’s first dual-camera pixel binning technology, the Huawei Mate 9 has a superior night shot capability.”
At the launch, Huawei Consumer Business Group CEO Richard Yu said that the phone was also designed to address the “top three pain points of smartphone users: ageing performance, meaning it slows down over time; not enough battery life; and an average camera”.
“You always need a better camera,” he declared. That is taken for granted by most users. But how does one address ageing performance? The longer a phone is in use, the more the battery degrades, the more memory allocation becomes clogged, and the more the software becomes corrupted. Yu believes Huawei has the answer. And it is close to artificial intelligence.
“A machine learning algorithm makes predictive allocation of resources. This enables smart memory allocation, and smart storage optimisation. By learning the user’s behaviour patterns, it makes sure the highest priority applications are given priority in system resources.
“Our new EMUI 5.0 interface for Android learns from users and from apps, and provides spontaneous resource optimisation. So, after eight months of usage, instead of the phone having deteriorated, you will see over 80% performance improvement.”
This potential allowed Yu to deliver one of the most powerful punchlines yet in the brief history of smartphone launches: “Born fast, stays fast.”