In the battle for gadget attention, there are a few dead certs. One is a new shape or format in smartphones. Another is a new way of viewing content. And a third is a classic 80-year old vision: the phone watch. Not so certain would be the likes of a new kind of printer.
In all four of those categories, though, Samsung has taken aim both at the competition and at critics who question the company’s ability to continue innovating. At the annual IFA consumer technology expo in Berlin this week, it rolled out an astonishing range of new technologies:
- The Galaxy Note Edge: part of its 5.7-inch screen literally curves round the left edge of the phone, providing a secondary display that can be customised for notifications or specialised tools. It is one of the first truly new ways of displaying information on a smartphone since the first iPhone. Launched along with a Galaxy Note 4 with high-end specs but normal 5.7-inch screen;
- Gear S smart watch: Finally, a smart watch that doesn’t need to connect to a smartphone to serve a useful function. This one takes a 3G SIM card and, aside from an initial pairing with a smartphone to kickstart it, the Gear S becomes an independent wristphone with full voice and messaging functionality – both sending and receiving – and has its own app ecosystem;
- Gear VR: a virtual reality viewer that is in effect a new interface to a smartphone. Load a VR game, immersive training environment or even movie onto a Note 4, and beam it into the Gear VR for a full virtual reality experience. The headset addresses a long history of unconvincing VR with faster processing on the handset, Super AMOLED display and a 96-degree viewing angle; and
- Smart MultiXpress: a new range of “smart printers” that come with touch-screens running a version of the Android operating system, meaning they can function independently of PCs or other devices. Printable content can be created on the printer, and the interface allows web browsing and printing directly off the Internet.
The only one of these that may not be ready for prime time is the VR headset. While the immersive effect is impressive, the visual quality remains a little underwhelming for, say, watching a movie.
Tellingly, Samsung has not yet revealed pricing, so this may be a little like the first Galaxy Gear smart watch, which seemed to be a proof of concept rather than a serious attempt to conquer a market. In the same vein, then, we can probably expect a second or third edition in the coming years that will dazzle.
Despite this tentative effort, Berlin has fallen to the rest of the Samsung weaponry.
New products from Sony
The stiffest resistance came from Sony, which also rolled out a family of new products, most notably:
- Xperia Z3 smartphone, with 5.2-inch Full HD display, remote play for PlayStation 4, 20.7-megapixel camera with 25mm wide-angle lens, and 2.5GHz quadcore processor;
- Xperia Z3 Compact, similar specs as Z3 but a smaller device, with 4.6-inch display;
- Z3 Tablet Compact, a tablet with 8.1-inch display, 6.4mm thick and weighing 270 grams, once again giving Sony bragging rights for the thinnest tablet on the market;
- SmartBand Talk, a fitness band with built-in microphone and speaker, curved 1.4-inch e-paper display and voice control of a smartphone and
- SmartWatch 3, with GPS and compass that keeps Sony at the cutting edge of smart watch technology.
Then there was Asus with its ZenWatch, unusual in that it sports a leather strap. And Mota, pushing the wearable boundaries even further with a SmartRing, which delivers notifcations from a smartphone to a ring on your finger.
The most fascinating aspect of these products is where they are taking wearable devices. The SmartBand Talk positions Sony not so much against Samsung as alongside it. The companies’ devices are advancing on independent fronts rather than slugging it out for the same exact target market.
Of course, the big brands may not see it that way when they find they cannot dominate the overall category.
It does mean, however, that consumers will have an increasingly wider choice of wearable devices that suit their specific needs, rather than being forced to choose sides in a battle between identical formats.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za