Smartphone Battles of 2014- Hype, Disappointments and an Unexpected(?) Winner!

The mobile tech annual release cycle is in full swing, and with CES and MWC out of the way, we have now seen most OEMs announce and launch their flagships for 2014 (with the notable exceptions being Apple and LG). The embargoes have lifted, the blast of buzz has come and gone, and the length and breadth of the internet is stocked full of articles, editorials and blog posts. Comment threads have burst into activity with haters and defenders, and now lay dormant for the most part. It’s around this time that the tech press says that “The dust has settled”, but I beg to differ. As from how I see it, none of the top OEMs- be it Samsung, Sony or HTC have kicked up any dust in the first place. 

It’s the time of year when the tech enthusiasts of the world begin forming their opinions about their choice of “Best Flagship of 2014”. A glut of video reviews, unboxings, hands-ons, benchmarks… everything is following the pattern we’ve all come to know of and whether you love it or loathe it- all this talk does affect us in some way. 

This year though, I grew weary of this mobile tech release cycle right from the start. All the leaks, the speculation, and the discussions pointed to yearly refreshes in hardware with some gimmicks slapped on as an afterthought, and in that respect, each and every major OEM so far has followed the trend, so to speak. There were many who hoped for something unexpected, but those hopes were crushed soon enough, and I don’t expect LG or Apple to break the mold, either. 

While I’ve been disappointed by new releases in the mobile tech space for quite some time now, there are times when I really feel like I want a certain device. This phenomenon was very prevalent when I first began following the tech space closely back in 2010. Back then the space was quite different in many ways, android was laggy, processors were beginning to go dual core, and feature phones made up a major chunk of the user base. It was then when I was truly enamored by the Asus Transformer. The design, the specs and the laptop-tablet hybrid form factor really wowed me. Then came the Galaxy S2 in 2011. Since that time though, due to increased coverage, more detailed leaks and the simple face that a lot more people now carried smartphones, annual releases just seemed all too evolutionary. Beefier specs, bigger screens, more ostentatious gimmicks and crazy amounts of marketing- “true innovation” seemed to be lost somewhere in the midst of all this. 

MWC happened this year, and an insane amount of coverage followed it. But amidst all the devices that were announced and launched there, there was one that really caught my attention- the Yotaphone. And after a long time, I felt truly enamored by a device once more. That’s right, my top pick for smartphone of the year, the one to trounce them all, the one I really, really want- the Yotaphone 2014. 

To me, this device brings the best hardware together with the most useful “marquee feature”. The device packs beefy specifications and a good design- but the real story is about what’s at the back- a a multi-touch, color, e-ink display. 

I’ve been using a smartphone for more than two years now, and I know the things people have to deal with when using a smartphone day in and day out. One of the most important considerations though, are battery life, and outdoor visibility. 

Phones these days come with battery packs much beefier than the lowly 1500 MAH battery my device uses, but the battery life situation is more or less the same- upto a day’s worth of moderate to heavy use on a single charge. No matter which phone you have, you’re going to need to plug it into a charging socket daily if you use your phone extensively and want to keep using it. Check the battery usage stats on your device, and you’ll see that the display (screen on time) amounts for a major chunk of the power consumption, and it doesn’t matter whether its an LCD or an AMOLED panel, the more you keep the display powered on, the more battery it’s going to consume.  

Another thing smartphone users have to deal with is poor outdoor visibility. If its too bright outside, you’re going to have a hard time trying to look at your phone’s display, and you’ll find yourself shielding it with your hands making it an overall cumbersome experience. 

The Yotaphone’s secondary e-ink display does away with both those problems very elegantly. For the uninitiated, E-ink displays use a fusion of chemistry, physics and electronics to provide an easily readable display that consumes very less power. One of the most important differences between generic displays and an E-ink display is that while normal displays use backlight to project images, E-ink displays use the ambient light of the surroundings, reflecting it back into your eyes. 

Secondly, E-ink displays don’t need a continuous power supply to work. The display uses special pigments that turn white or black based on an applied positive or negative electric field. Moreover, the new Yotaphone has a color E-ink display rather than a standard black and white one found on eBook readers, allowing for much more functionality. 

The addition of this secondary display also helps outdoor visibility as it has a “matte finish” and no backlight, thus mimicking the look of ink on paper. 

E-ink technology consumes less power, is easier to read and has a longer shelf life than traditional LCD/AMOLED displays. However it’s the secondary screen for a reason- E-ink displays in their current incarnation lack the vibrancy and sheer color gamut that other backlit displays provide. Low light visibility is also another factor. All these factors notwithstanding, an E-ink display can really come in handy when the phone is low on battery and you want to continue working, for example if you’re using maps to navigate. Also, it allows you to get a screen shot of the primary display, and view it even when the phone is switched off- a truly welcome, functional feature with many practical uses. 

A secondary E-ink display at the back of a phone is a good thing. But a secondary E-ink display that supports multi touch and has more colors than just black and white? That just knocks it out of the ball park for me.

The Yotaphone may not have the latest in fingerprint recognition, or heart rate monitors, it may not have the dust and immersion resistance ratings or a glut of gimmicks backed by a marketing machine or the latest in image sensing, but what it brings to the table is a practical and highly useful, truly innovative blend of hardware and software, with the end user kept in mind. 


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Meh-bile World Congress: MWC 2014 Views

There was a time when I was enamored by MWC. Back in 2011, I was a mobile tech virgin, a newbie who quickly fell in love with the hallowed event held in Barcelona, a gathering of every major OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer, the ones who make phones) present there to announce their new devices and their roadmap for the future. These days however, with leaks, an overabundance of tech reporters and the understandable plateauing of hardware specifications, in 2014 it doesn’t seem to be too enticing to me. 

It wasn’t all that bad however, so here’s a look at all the interesting and not so interesting things at the recently concluded MWC 2014. 

1. Blackphone

I’m going to start off by talking about an interesting concept called Blackphone- a joint venture by Spanish manufacturer Geeksphone and the security company Silent Circle. This is a smartphone running a modified build of Android, tweaked to provide better security by ironing out some security flaws. Called PrivatOS, this security oriented android build is totally compatible with all other versions and does not create any fragmentation. It apparently uses better crypto engines and will get direct and frequent updates from the company itself. 

The feature set includes secure phone calls and messaging using a secure network provided by Silent Circle. It also provides a remote wipe feature in case of misplacement or theft, which does not involve any third party companies or cloud services, and a host of other features like a VPN service without the advertisements and resulting overheads and slowdowns. 

The million dollar question here is, how secure is this device, really? In the wake of the NSA revelations and the heightened awareness (or hype) surrounding data privacy, will the Blackphone concept really keep data away from the prying eyes of the Governments and corporations of the world? 

The security features that the Blackphone project aims to provide, act at the application level. This means that although these features give users the appearance or at times the illusion of privacy, there might be some undiscovered vulnerabilities that a hacker worth his/her salt will be able to exploit. Application level security solutions do not have access to low level hardware or resources such as a phone’s radios and the baseband and if someone really wanted to access your data, that’s probably what they would use to get to it. 

Such security feature packed devices bring with them a totally new problem- a false sense of security. 

2. Yotaphone 2014

By far one of the coolest things at MWC, the new Yotaphone brings the dual-screen aesthetic with the latest in terms of hardware under the hood. A Snapdragon 800 processor powering a 5 inch 1080p primary display and an 8 megapixel camera amongst the usual things that make for a flagship or thereabouts device today. What’s interesting about it though, it’s what’s at the back. A curved, full touch, electronic paper display, (or e-ink display). E-ink displays are found in eBook readers like the kindle, and use very little power. The yotaphone has a monochrome e-ink display at the back, and the ability to display information or updates like scores or fitness stats. Developers can use the Yotaphone API and take advantage of the e-ink display. This secondary display can come in handy in situations like navigation, where if your phone’s running out of juice you can simply switch over to the display at the back, which can also store a screenshot of what’s going on at the front. 

The only issues with this device are availability and pricing. By the time this releases the specs won’t really be flagship, and if you’re a spec junkie that’s a bit of a problem for you. Also the pricing.

3. The Rest

The rest was the usual fare from the heavyweights- Samsung launched the Galaxy S5 at the unpacked event, and although it’s a good device with top of the line specifications in and of itself it’s exactly what everyone had come to expect from it. A slight refresh, with the fingerprint scanner, the bigger camera, and updated internals. What I found peculiar about the S5 was the inclusion of a heart rate monitor at the back. The new galaxy gear lineup has heart rate monitors included and that seems to be a much more intuituve usage scenario.

Sony announced the Xperia Z2, the Tablet Z2 and a mid range phone. Same old sandwiched glass, same IP fifty-something dust and water resistance, etc. 

LG announced a host of new devices.

In conclusion, the Mobile World Congress wasn’t too exciting for me, because

  • Everything was leaked and known to everyone beforehand
  • The spec war is reaching its long and drawn out conclusion, the next frontier of battle for the OEMs to slug it out is hopefully software
  • Did you see the amount of reporting that went on?   


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