2014 is still young but the largest show for mobile devices and technology - the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona - has just shut its doors which makes this a good point in time to look back at the most interesting new products on show.
In 2013 mobile imaging technology made a massive leap forward. We saw the introduction of bigger imaging sensors on volume models such as the Nokia Lumia 1020 or the Sony Xperia Z1. Optical Image Stabilization became a standard feature on Nokia's Lumia line and some Android high-end devices, such as the HTC One or LG G2. With the Samsung Galaxy Note III and the Acer Liquid S2 the first mobile devices capable of recording 4K video were introduced, taking mobile video quality to another level. Enthusiast users were excited about Raw capture on mobile devices which first appeared on the Nokia Lumia 1520.
On high-end models 5-inch 1080p Full-HD screens became the standard, making image framing, viewing and editing more pleasant tasks, and we saw a slew of new camera app features introduced, including Nokia's Refocus, Google's Photosphere or Samsung's Eraser and Drama modes.
All those new features and technologies mean that smartphone cameras can not only compete with, but in some areas even surpass dedicated compact cameras. With mobile imaging innovation going full speed ahead in 2013, here at Dpreview Connect we were hoping for the pace to be kept up in the new year. Let's look at some MWC highlights!
Let's get started with the blockbusters. To most observers the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 were the stand-out devices of the show and both of them have a lot to offer to mobile photographers.
At first sight the Samsung's camera specification in the official press release looks, apart from the mandatory megapixel increase, not particularly exciting. However, digging a little deeper reveals that the phone's 16 million pixels are now distributed across a 1/2.6-inch sensor. This is by no means a large sensor, after all most consumer level compact cameras and the Sony Xperia Z1 and Z2 come with a 1/2.3-inch sensor, the Nokia Lumia 1020 even with a much bigger 1/1.5-inch variant, but it's larger than the tiny 1/3-sensor in the Galaxy S4 and a step into the right direction.
We have no official word from Samsung yet but from the Exif-data of sample images that are floating around the web it appears the S5's camera comes with an F2.2 aperture and 31mm equivalent focal length. Like its predecessor it does not offer an optical image stabilization system but the 4K video mode gains at least digital stabilization. The reflector integrated LED-flash should allow for wider illumination angles and there is a new Refocus software feature that allows you to change focus points after you've taken the shot, similar to a feature that we've already seen on the latest Nokia models.
Also very interesting is the phase detection autofocus that according to Samsung allows AF acquisition in 0.3 seconds. We will only find out how the system exactly works and how good it is once we hold a reviewable device in our hands but for now we assume the S5's AF is a hybrid contrast/phase detect system that follows similar principles to the ones used in mirrorless system cameras such as the Sony A6000 or the Olympus OM-D EM-1.
Not strictly a photography feature but certainly useful to mobile photographers and other users alike is the Galaxy S5's water-resistant housing (IP67 standard) which means you can, just like with the Sony Xperia Z-series, keep snapping even when the weather turns nasty.
The Sony Xperia Z2 is another top-end device from a large manufacturer that was announced at the show. Its predecessor, the Z1, was only announced in September last year, so it makes sense that the new model is a solid update but not brand new in every respect. The Z2's full-HD display now measures 5.2 inches and offers better viewing angles than the Z1's 5-inch equivalent. A new SoC (Snapdragon 801) and 3GB of RAM offer plenty of processing power but the camera specification is as good as identical to the Z1's. Images are captured by a 20.7 MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor and the lens has a fast F2.0 aperture. Like the Galaxy S5, there is no optical image stabilization on the Xperia Z2.
Most of the Z2's new camera features are more interesting to videographers than still photographers. The device is now capable of recording 4K video and the STM10 external stereo-microphone promises sound-quality way beyond what we're used to from mobile devices, making the Z2 an interesting option for serious video-shooters. New software features includes Timeshift Video which captures footage at 120 frames and allows you to slow down portions of your footage for dramatic effect and Background Defocus which simulates a shallow depth of field by capturing two photos at different focus settings and blending them.
The third manufacturer to announce a heavyweight device is LG. The Korean manufacturer launched the LG G Pro II just before the show. There's bad news though: at least initially this Galaxy Note III and HTC One Max challenger will only be available in Asian markets. The G Pro II is a 5.9-inch phablet with a top-end specification and a promising-looking camera module that features a 13MP CMOS sensor and an improved version of the optical image stabilization that we've already seen on the LG G2.
While MWC 2014 was a comparatively quiet show in terms of high-end devices we were bombarded with launches in the mid- to low-end segment. Devices in this bracket of the market might not be announced with the same glitz and glamour as their top-of-the-line counterparts but nevertheless some of them come with impressive spec sheets and can represent very good value for money for mobile photographers on a budget. Virtually all manufacturers, including HTC, Ascend, Acer, Huawei, Lenovo, Sony and Alcatel had new models to show. We've picked the ones we found most interesting and had a closer look.
With its 6-inch screen the ZTE Grand Memo II falls firmly into the phablet category and while its Snapdragon 400 SoC and 720p resolution screen are not quite on par with high-end models its camera module looks like it might be worth a closer look. The ZTE comes equipped with a 13MP Sony BSI CMOS sensor and a fast F2.2 lens. Boasting 5MP the front camera sports an unusually high pixel count and features the same aperture as its counterpart on the back which makes the Grand Memo II an ideal looking device for video callers and selfie-shooters.
LG's G2 Mini looks like an interesting device for those who have not yet gotten used to the large dimensions of today's high-end phones. Like Samsung with the Galaxy S4 Mini, HTC with the One Mini and Sony with the Xperia Z1 Compact, LG is now offering a scaled down version of its flagship phone. That said, the LG G2 Mini is not only smaller than the original G2 but also comes with a slightly downgraded specification. The Snapdragon 400 SoC should provide plenty of power for most apps but the 960 x 540 pixels resolution is a little lower than we would prefer.
That said, at least the Latin American LTE version of the G2 Mini will come with the same 13MP camera module that we've seen on the original G2, making the new device an interesting alternative for budget-conscious mobile photographers. Users in other regions will have to make do with with an 8MP module though.
The Nokia XL will retail at only €109 but was still one of the most talked about devices of the show. The reason for that is simple. It's not the 5MP camera or 5-inch screen but the fact that the XL is the first Nokia phone which to run Google's Android OS, albeit a "forked" version of it that makes use of Microsoft and Nokia services instead of the Google ones and comes with its own App Store, similar to what Amazon offers with its Kindle Fire tablets. First reports of Google Play running on the X-series devices have surfaced on the web and according to Nokia any Android-app can be side-loaded, so Nokia XL users will be able to enjoy the same selection of apps as the users of regular Android devices.
When first rumors about a Nokia phone with an Android OS started floating around the web many mobile photographers, including readers of our site, were hoping for an Android powered version of Nokia's high-end models, such as the Lumia 1020 or 1520. However, it appears the Finnish manufacturer's intention was to replace the aging software platform of its low-range Asha phones with the open source Android OS. So for now there won't be any editing of Lumia 1020 PureView images with Snapseed or VSCOCam but we'll have to wait and see if Nokia will expand the use of Android to its premium devices at some point in the future.
There wasn't too much movement in the tablet space at MWC 2014, arguably because quite a few models had already been launched at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas in January. Nevertheless there were a handful of interesting new models at the show that are worth another look.
The Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet was arguably the most high-profile tablet launch at MWC and makes an ideal companion to Sony's new Xperia Z2 smartphone. It comes with the same Snapdragon 801 SoC, Android 4.4 OS and water-resistant housing as its smaller sister model and is only 6.4mm thin. If you like taking pictures with your tablet you'll be happy to hear the Z2 Tablet features an 8MP rear camera that offers many of the functions we are use to from the Xperia smartphones, such as HDR for both photos and video, Burst Mode, Scene Recognition, Sweep Panorama, Smile Detection, Face Detection and Touch Focus.
If you like the Sony's 8MP shooter you'll be enthused by the 13MP Sony BSI CMOS sensor that can be found in the Huawei MediaPad X1. This 7-inch device comes with a 1200 x 1920 LTPS display and all around high-end specs which makes it a serious alternative to Google's Nexus 7, the Kindle Fire HD or even the iPad Mini. Not only does the Huawei offer full voice-calling capability, it also has by far the best camera specs in the 7-inch segment. So if you want your screens big and don't mind carrying a 7-inch device you could even consider replacing your phone with the MediaPad.
A quick glance at the spec sheet makes the Yoga Tablet 10HD+ look like a fairly common mid-range tablet but visually the Lenovo 10.1-inch tablet stands out from the crowd. The cylindrically-shaped battery allows for a firm grip when holding the tablet or a slight tilt when placed on a surface. There is also a built-in kickstand that extends from the tablet’s battery and lets you adjust it in an upright position, without using any additional stands or cases. The unusual shape also allows for the use of a very large battery and according to Lenovo with its 9000 mAh battery the the Yoga can be used up to 18 hours before a recharge is due.
Like the other new devices the Yoga Tablet 10HD+ comes with a, for tablet standards, well equipped camera. The rear module has an 8MP sensor and the SNAPit Camera app offers panorama, burst and low-light modes, filters and editing functions, including removal of unwanted objects and animated GIF creation.
MWC also tends to be a good occasion to see specialist and niche devices that you probably won't find at your local AT&T, T-Mobile or Vodafone shop. YotaPhone presented a new generation of the device we first saw at last year's MWC. Like its predecessor the new model comes with a regular color-touchscreen on the front and an e-ink display, similar to the ones you'd find in an Amazon Kindle e-reader, on the back. The idea is that you only use the front screen when necessary and opt for the energy-efficient e-ink display for tasks that don't require a color display, such as reading emails or an e-book. The new model now comes with larger screens on both sides and the e-ink display has gained touch-sensitivity.
Another much talked about device was the Blackphone which is targeted at individuals, enterprises and government agencies with elevated security requirements. The hardware looks like a very common mid-range phone the PrivatOS operating system which is built on Google's Android and combined with a bunch of security and privacy applications, promises protection from all unauthorized surveillance, commercial use of your data and any kind of privacy or security breaches.
Also worth a mention is BlackBerry trying for a comeback with the new Q20-QWERTY-phone. That said, the new model looks so far away from final production that at this point it's unclear if we will ever see it in the shops.
Other new devices included 5-inch rugged Windows Phone and Android ToughBooks from Panasonic, an Ubuntu phone from ZTE, Firefox devices from ZTE, Alcatel and Spreadtrum and a bunch of armbands and smartwatches, such as the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2, Gear Neo and GearFit and the Huawei TalkBand B1. There is simply too much stuff to show it all.
What's coming up?
It's also worth having a quick look at the list of devices that were actually not on show, so we know what to look forward to in the coming weeks and months. As usual the rumor mill was running hot before MWC but some of the anticipated devices did not make an appearance. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited new model, HTC's successor to the One, which is expected to come with an innovative 5MP dual-sensor camera, did not materialize and is now expected to be launched at a separate event on March 25th.
Neither did the Oppo Find 7 show up, the new top-end phone from the Chinese makers of the N1 and its tiltable camera. Its launch has now been scheduled for March 19th. We were also waiting in vain for Huawei's new flasgship, the Ascend P7, and Nokia's international version of the Verzion-only Lumia Icon, that combines the 20MP PureView imaging module of the Lumia 1520 with a pocket-friendly 5-inch screen.
Notably absent were also any devices sporting 4K-UHD screens or Android phones with Raw-shooting capabilities, despite much rumor and speculation. However, where there is smoke there is fire and we have no doubt we will see all those devices and technologies announced in the nearer future, be it at individual launch events or one of the forthcoming trade shows. There is still much to look forward to for smartphone users and mobile photographers in 2014.
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