I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but the world of smartphones is going to look very different in 2019 than in the years prior. Instead of seeing incremental changes and improvements, silly notch size comparisons and feeble iPhone copycats, we’re seeing some genuine originality and creativity. Sony has stretched the phone, Nokia has riddled it with cameras, Huawei and Samsung have folded it, Energizer has fattened it up, and Nubia has bent it around the user’s wrist.
These experiments aren’t all going to turn into great products, but the overall thrust toward exploring the boundaries of smartphone design for a winning new formula sure makes for an exciting show. Here’s our recap of the good, bad, and ugly debutants from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.
It’s difficult to overstate the splash that the Huawei Mate X made upon its debut at MWC. Even with an unfortunate leak the day before its official announcement, this phone-tablet hybrid still grabbed the spotlight with its polished, ultra-thin design and handsome display. Huawei asserted its design credentials with a device that folds without a gap to a very reasonable thickness of 11mm, while measuring just 5.4mm when opened up. With minimal bezels around the screen and a triple camera system integrated into a grip on the side, the Mate X looks like a terrific first draft for our foldable phone future.
At a price of €2,299 and with a release date sometime around June, the Mate X is a distinctly premium, distinctly of-the-future device. Being made by Huawei, it’s also not going to be sold in the United States at all. Which means that the best foldable so far has many hurdles to overcome before it’s able to reach everyone’s pockets — but the movement toward our foldable future has begun.
I’m loathe to give Xiaomi any credit after the torturous MWC presentation the company gave, but the Mi Mix 3 5G is a hard device to argue with. It has a top-tier spec, built around the latest Snapdragon 855 processor, and it achieves a prettily minimal bezel by tucking the selfie camera away behind a slider mechanism.
The addition of 5G to the Mi Mix has necessitated an improved cooling system and a sizeable 3,800mAh battery, which are great features to have whether or not you have a 5G network to connect to. LG has done similar things with its V50, bumping up its battery and cooling capabilities to account for the greater demands of the 5G hardware. I wouldn’t recommend anyone buy a phone today because of 5G, but that doesn’t mean that 5G phones won’t be good phones in their own right. Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G is in the lead today because of its top spec and highly reasonable €599 price.
It is an empirical fact that the new LG G8 ThinQ is absolutely stunning in red. People might complain that the G8 hasn’t advanced much relative to its predecessor — the G7 ThinQ, which in itself wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking smartphone — but I’m inclined to disagree. LG has put a new OLED panel on the 6.1-inch G8, which the company boasts is the best OLED display in the world. That screen is also used as a speaker, which contributes to an audio system that I still consider the best in the mobile world.
The G8’s main camera has 1.4μm pixels, a long overdue upgrade that should help LG catch up on the imaging front. And whether you choose the two-camera or three-camera system on the rear, LG fits all its lenses and sensors under the same Gorilla Glass surface as the rest of the phone, leaving you free of any camera bumps. It’s a slick and refined look. In a year of wild experimentation, LG’s more restrained approach of polishing up the basics might just pay off.
No phone at MWC combined basics and aesthetics better than the Punkt MP02. This black slab does phone calls, text messages, alarms, and little else. The MP02 is the phone for people who want to escape the barrage of notifications and alerts tugging at their attention. Its basic UI concept is to eliminate the ever-present indicators even for fundamentals like signal strength or remaining battery, with the idea that “if there’s no indicator, everything is fine.” It’s relaxing just to contemplate that idea.
In my conversation with the Punkt CEO this week, he forcefully threw his personal phone down onto the ground, then picked it up and texted his wife about Belgian potatoes. Using the T9 keyboard. It was an amazing throwback to days gone by, and I can see all those longtime holdouts still using original Nokias from a decade ago being tempted by this $349 upgrade. The Punkt MP02 even has a 4G connection for VoLTE calls and tethering to connect the noisier devices in your life up to the internet.
I think 5G will change our lives in more meaningful and immediate ways than foldable devices. It’ll mature sooner, and it’ll turn us into even bigger mobile data consumption addicts. But it’s not ready. Companies like Qualcomm are straight up lying to people when they emblazon the words “5G is here today” on the side of their MWC stands. Everyone at the show is pretending to be ready for 5G, and they’re obviously not.
Xiaomi retrofitted 5G into its Mi Mix 3, Samsung made an XXL Galaxy S10 to accommodate all the necessary 5G antennas, and Motorola’s 5G Moto Mod is a fat block that you slap onto the back of the existing Moto Z3. LG’s V50 is more or less a V40 adapted for 5G, and LG is open about the fact that it won’t start selling the V50 until a 5G network gets off the ground in either the United States or Korea. We’re still months away from truly original 5G phone designs, never mind the fact that fully functional networks with meaningful coverage are still a promise rather than a reality.
Foldable phones may well be our future, but they’re certainly not our present. That’s why I like LG’s pragmatic approach with its new Dual Screen accessory for the 5G-equipped V50. Instead of asking upwards of $2,000 for a foldable, LG is going to offer V50 buyers the option to simply buy a second screen. A folio case with a 6.2-inch display built into it will furnish the company’s upcoming flagship phone with similar multitasking capabilities as a 7-something-inch foldable, but at a much saner cost. As with foldables, LG will have to do a good job of the software to make the effort worthwhile. But anyone trying to cram as much screen as possible into their pockets without breaking the bank will be well served to check this out.
Differentiating a smartphone through its camera performance has become extremely difficult in recent times, because smartphones are now almost universally good to great at taking photos. What you have to do is go to extremes, and the extreme is where we find HMD, the company building phones under the Nokia name.
The new Nokia 9 has five cameras on its rear: two color sensors and three monochrome ones. HMD’s designers didn’t want to just do some boring column or row arrangement, and they’ve organized the 9’s cameras, together with their accompanying flash and depth sensor, into a unique circular formation. This makes the Nokia 9 unmistakably recognizable at first glance. Should the images from the camera live up to the hype, this device is likely to become yet another iconic design from the brand that gave us the Lumia 1020, Nokia N9, and so many other memorable phones.
The fashion for slick and slim phones has many detractors, and Avenir Telecom, the company selling Android handsets under the Energizer brand, has decided to challenge them. You want a thicker phone that can last longer, how about a nearly inch-thick battery? The Energizer Power Max P18K pop is more a battery with a phone in it than a phone with a large battery. It’s so much about the battery, in fact, that this chunky unit has camera bumps and no headphone jack. Because who’s got internal space to waste on such things when there’s more battery to be had?
We used to think phone cameras were great except for only a couple of things: night photography and zoom. Well, Google fixed the night problem last year with its Night Sight, and at MWC 2019, Oppo did its best to rectify the zoom problem with a clever, periscope-like system. I tried a prototype device that could scale the level of optical zoom from 16mm to 160mm (in 35mm-equivalent terms), and it worked as promised. We can’t yet know how good the image quality will be from the final retail device that will feature this camera system, but come June 2019, we’ll have the opportunity to find out.
I tried the Nubia Alpha at IFA last year, and after a few months of tweaks and improvements, the device has come to MWC for its proper retail launch. Over that period of time, my feelings toward it have gone from curiosity and mild skepticism to violent aversion. Consider how purposeful and minimal the best designs are, how they use only the necessary physical components to get the job done and nothing more. The Alpha is the exact opposite of that.
This supposedly wearable smartphone has a huge bracelet that looks and feels more like one half of an oversized pair of handcuffs, and it’s got big thick borders surrounding its 4-inch display. The display has no reason to be as long as it is, and the user gains nothing from the increased screen real estate, owing to the weird aspect ratio. This is a gadget that exists solely for the sake of being new and different, and anyone pondering whether to spend the minimum asking price of €449 should probably think about an Apple Watch, a Withings Steel HR Sport, or literally anything else that fits on a wrist first.
There’s no disputing the fact that, when the history of foldables is written, the Huawei Mate X will loom large. This has been the device that converted hundreds and thousands skeptics to the idea that foldables might indeed have a future. This has been the device that showed Huawei can lead on design instead of merely copying and iterating on existing forms.
For its transformative and symbolic powers — as a brand halo device and as an Android innovation ambassador — the Huawei Mate X deserves the title of being both the most important and the most impressive device of Mobile World Congress 2019.