When Hisense sent out an invitation to media attending the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to “Embrace the next”, not too many took them seriously. After all, while Hisense is a dominant player in the appliances world and leads China in TV sales, its fairly recent entry into smartphones had been a little tame. Value for money and capable devices, yes. Surprise packages and dazzling specs, no.
But Barcelona brought a real surprise. Hisense unveiled two new phones, each packing a punch of a different kind.
The biggest surprise was the new Hisense A2. It has a predictable 5.5-inch high-definition AMOLED screen, offering 1920×1080 pixels and a decent pixel density of 401 pixels per inch (ppi). But turn it over, and it is suddenly a startling device.
The rear of the phone presents us with a 5.2-inch e-ink screen: the same technology that allows one to read paper-quality content on a Kindle, and which ensures that device’s battery can last a month.
Hisense revealed it had conducted research that showed 60 per cent of Chinese smartphone users’ time was spent reading on phones to get knowledge. Because one could use a phone to read anywhere at any time, people were becoming accustomed to using mobile devices for small fragments of time to read.
They added this insight to the knowledge that the only use to which any manunfacturer was putting the back of the phone was for cameras and fingerprint readers.
“We think every inch of the phone is so valuable, the back of the phone should not be wasted,” said Dr Ma, vice president of Hisense Multimedia Group, at the launch. “We spent years working on combining a smartphone with e-ink.”
The two main benefits of the e-ink screen are that it doesn’t generate light, so makes for more comfortable reading, and it uses minimal battery power. The typical colour display on a smartphone is responsible for around two thirds of a phone’s battery use.
It’s not the first phone to feature an e-ink screen. A Russian company called Yota launched a similar concept at MWC four years ago. The Yotaphone was especially useful for mapping, as it would keep going on a long trip well after other phones had been drained by both the colour map and the display. However, little has been heard from the manufacturer for the past two years.
Hisense has added an extra twist to its e-ink screen, however. In “dual mode”, a finger tracking along the e-ink screen on the rear acts as a mouse control on the front screen. A “gesture mode” on the rear controls the back and home functions on the front.
The phone can also be answered on the e-ink screen, so it is an ideal mode for when the battery is severely depleted by app activity on the colour screen. Most apps can be viewed in e-ink mode.
The second surprise from Hisense was its entry into a fairly well-populated market segment, namely sturdy phones that can be used in rough environments. The bulky Cat Phone, made by Bullitt Mobile under licence from Caterpillar, is the quality leader in this category. However, many mainstream manufacturers have built “action” or “rugged” versions of their phones for use on construction sites and the like.
The problem with most of these devices is that they look like they were designed for construction sites. And that is where Hisense has spotted a gap: a rugged phone that also looks like a lifestyle phone.
Due to be launched in South Africa next week, it’s called the Rock, and is a dual-SIM phone with a 5.2-inch high-definition display at 424 ppi. A 16MP rear camera and 5MP on the front and a Qualcomm 1.4GHz octa core processor are packed into a frame that is only 7.95mm thick – almost unheard of in a phone designed for durability.
On that note, it has a large 3000mAh battery for long use out in the field, and is rated IP68, meaning it is both dust and water resistant. The rating is something of a msinomer, however, as the phone can continue recording video while immersed under water. The pièce de résistance, however, is that it can be dropped from three metres onto concrete without either the screen or the insides cracking.
It runs on Nougat, the latest version of Android, and would not look out of place in an office or next to a pool. In demanding terrain, it would be the coolest phone out in the field.