Mobile World Congress 2015 Awards

Greetings From Barcelona

Sometimes we must make sacrifices for our readers. That may mean playing with heavily testing hot new tech weeks before it's released to the general public. Sometimes we have to game for hours to fully evaluate some hardware. In other cases, we must travel to Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, for Mobile World Congress (MWC), which we did recently. You're welcome, folks. 

MWC is, of course, rife with new handsets, but there's so much more to see there. There's new mobile component technology, new standards being implemented, emerging trends and so on. That's not to mention plenty of startups pushing new ideas, concepts and technologies.

This MWC was a study in contrasts. Some of the major developments, such as OEM strategies in emerging markets, were important but not exactly sexy, while others such as HTC's and Valve's shocking Vive VR announcement left even the most jaded techies in a downright tizzy. 

What follows is what we believe to be some of the most noteworthy products and technologies from MWC.

Best To Watch: Yezz Project Ara Module Development

Although some would debate the need for or excitement over Google's Project Ara modular smartphone, the prospect of a true enthusiast-type smartphone — that is, one with discrete parts that users can upgrade piece by piece, just as they do a PC — is tantalizing for many.

So much of Project Ara is promises and plastic prototypes, but there is a pilot launch happening this year (in Puerto Rico), and at least one company, Yezz, is actually producing modules for Project Ara. The company stated that it will have at least 10 modules for the Spiral 3 pilot (exactly enough to flesh out a full Endo, or Ara phone skeleton).

It does not appear as though many companies are diving into module-making, likely because they're nervous about the eventual success of Project Ara. That's unfortunate, because if indeed Project Ara works out, forward-thinking and brave companies like Yezz will be the ones to hit the ground running on a new and exciting (and potentially quite lucrative) cottage industry.

It's still possible that Project Ara amounts to nothing more than vaporware, but keep your eyes peeled for developments. Yezz deserves recognition for being gutsy enough to plan a full spate of modules for Project Ara.

Best Security: Qualcomm Sense ID & Vkansee Fingerprint Scanner

Security was an important topic again this year at MWC. With apps for encrypting messages, to virtual machines for sandboxing apps, to encrypted phones claiming to be unhackable, it was difficult to put our finger on just a single solution. So instead, we chose two different fingerprint scanners that overcome the limitations of current capacitive sensors.

Qualcomm's Sense ID is a FIDO-compliant ultrasonic fingerprint scanner that uses sound waves to penetrate the outer layer of skin, imaging not just the ridges and valleys but the sweat pores of your fingertip. Because sound travels well through water, this sensor still works even if your finger is wet or covered in hand lotion, something existing capacitive sensors like Apple's Touch ID have trouble with.

If improved security and accuracy aren't enough, Sense ID's ability to work through glass, metal and plastic means OEMs don't need to cut holes in the cover glass or housing for the sensor, leading to sleeker looking designs.

Qualcomm wasn't the only company to show off cool fingerprint scanning technology, though. Vkansee, a company with a background in forensic fingerprint scanning, revealed its new UTFIS optical scanner.

Replacing the bulky prism-and-lens system used by traditional optical scanners with a thin film Matrix Pinhole Imaging Sensor (MAPIS), this new technology can be easily integrated below the cover glass of smartphones and tablets. With a 2000ppi imaging resolution, Vkansee's scanner can also detect details such as sweat pores. Based on the demo we saw, this optical scanner also works with wet fingers.

Both of these technologies offer big improvements in security and accuracy over existing capacitive sensors and should find their way into products later this year.

Best IoT Innovation: Rambus Lensless Smart Sensor (LSS)

Even though the Internet of Things (IoT) may be the most overused tech buzzword in recent memory, what it actually refers to is a huge change in how technology will impact our daily lives. In the near future, our interactions with technology won't just be limited to when we use our computers, phones, wearables and now increasingly, our cars. Soon almost all our everyday objects, from kitchen appliances to street lights to the next generation of medical devices will all be interconnected and sending data about their surroundings to each other. By the year 2020, there could be up to 50 billion connected devices, and many of them will require sensors to interact with the world.

Rambus, who many of you probably only know from the days of RDRAM, was at MWC to show off the final version of its revolutionary Lensless Smart Sensor (LSS). What Rambus has come up with is a tiny (as in smaller than a human hair) image sensor that doesn't use a lens like a traditional optical sensor but collects data through an inexpensive diffraction grating.

Although this initially produces an unintelligible image, by using algorithmic computations built right into the sensor, a recognizable, yet still low-resolution image can be reconstructed. This data can then be used for gesture recognition, object recognition, and even depth and range tracking. Another benefit of the LSS's simplicity is that it has extremely low power requirements. We were told it can run for 10 years on a single watch battery.

At the same time, the information capture is not detailed enough to infringe on your privacy. Although it can recognize that it is looking at a face, it can't tell whose face it is. With the growing number of IoT devices sensing and potentially recording our every action, designing technology that respects your privacy is paramount, and Rambus understands this.

Best Value: Sony Xperia M4 Aqua

There were many new phones released at MWC, and two of them were flagship devices from two of the leading smartphone vendors. We definitely thought both the HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S6 were great devices and could have given either them an award for best phone of the show (in fact we did give the S6 another kind of honor).

However, this year we wanted to recognize that not everybody needs (or can even afford) a $600 - $700 (and up) flagship phone. There were quite a few good mid-range phones announced at the show, and while many of them won't be finding their way to North America, one of them, the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua, will be, and it's our pick for the best value in a handset.

At first glance, the Xperia M4 Aqua looks very similar to Sony's current flagship, the Xperia Z3 — which is great, because the Z3 is one of the best-looking of the current Android flagships. The M4 trades much of the Z3's metal for plastic, but it retains the attractive glass front and back. Like the Z3, the M4 is also waterproof, but it one-ups its older brother by having an uncovered USB charging port while maintaining the IP68 rating.

Inside, it is powered by Qualcomm's mid-range Snapdragon 615 SoC, which sports a 64-bit octa-core CPU (made up of two quad-core A53s, one running at 1.7GHz and one at 1.0GHz) and an Adreno 405 GPU. This should be more than powerful enough to keep things running buttery-smooth on the M4's 5-inch IPS HD display.

The M4 Aqua has a good camera for a mid-range phone, with a 13MP Exmor RS sensor on the back and a 5MP on the front. For software, the M4 Aqua will be the first Sony handset to ship with Android 5 Lollipop, and the build of the OS we tried at MWC was an attractive combination of Google's Material Design language and Sony's own look and feel.

The Xperia M4 Aqua will start at €300, which is about $350 USD, and will be coming this spring to the U.S. initially as an unlocked device directly from Sony. It will also be coming to Canada, both as an unlocked device and from yet-unnamed carriers.

Biggest Surprise: HTC Vive VR

On the first day of this year's MWC, we expected to see two important things: the latest phones from HTC and Samsung. However, in the run-up to Sunday's HTC event, hints had been dropped by HTC on social media that we should expect a surprise. However, when HTC's CEO Peter Chou announced the HTC Re Vive we were shocked!

Everyone expected that the rumored surprise would either be a bigger phablet-sized phone or some kind of wearable, not a virtual reality headset. What's more, the Vive has been developed in partnership with Valve. We all knew that headsets were coming for Valve's SteamVR platform, but we never guessed that its initial partner would be HTC. We also didn't expect to see a VR headset announced at MWC when the Game Developers Conference (GDC) was taking place the same week. (It turned out, though, that the Vive was demoed at both events).

Still, while the HTC Vive was the biggest surprise of the show, the question remained how good it would actually be. Could HTC, a company one usually doesn't associate with gaming products, create a VR headset that could compete with the efforts of Oculus and Sony, even with the backing of gaming giant Valve? Well, after trying it out at both MWC and GDC, we can report that HTC and Valve have knocked it out of the park. The Vive is currently the best VR experience you can get (that is, if you can get your hands on a developer kit). This year's MWC "best surprise" was also one of the best surprises of any tech show in recent memory.

Most Controversial: Samsung Galaxy S6 & S6 Edge

Although we didn't give it an official award, Samsung's Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge couldn't escape our scrutiny. Perhaps placing form over function, the sleek, all-metal and -glass construction of its latest flagship phones are like no other Galaxys Samsung has ever produced.

Inside the shimmering exterior, Samsung packed in some serious technology, including an Exynos 7420 SoC built on the latest 14nm FinFET process with four of the fastest 64-bit ARM Cortex-A57 CPUs we've seen (along with four lower power A53 cores). The speedy SoC is paired with 3GB of high-bandwidth LPDDR4 RAM and up to 128GB of internal UFS 2.0 NAND.

All of the latest wireless capabilities are also onboard, including 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2x2 MIMO Wi-Fi with speeds up to 620Mbps, Bluetooth 4.1 LE, NFC, IrLED, and a LTE Cat 6 modem. There's even built-in wireless charging, covering both the WPC (Qi) and PMA standards.

The fingerprint scanner has been upgraded from a swipe-style to a more user-friendly touch capacitive sensor, which pairs nicely with Samsung Pay, a wireless payment solution supporting both NFC and Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST). Both cameras are vastly improved, and the Android Lollipop-based OS is more refined and easier to use.

With such a long list of enhancements, you might be wondering why it didn't win a Best of Show award. Although the technology inside the new S6 models is certainly impressive (and might not be matched by any other phone this year), Samsung sacrificed the very features that attracted people to the Galaxy brand — namely, a removable battery and microSD card support (IP67 dust and water resistance is another casualty of the new design).

Will the radical new look of the S6 and S6 Edge attract new buyers to the Galaxy brand as Samsung hopes, or will its betrayal of the Galaxy faithful backfire? It's going to take a while for this controversy to be resolved.

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  • g-unit1111
    I definitely thought the Samsung S6 was deserving of the "most controversial" award. However, I feel the biggest disappointment of the whole show was the HTC One M9 - which looks practically identical in every way to the M8 except for a slightly better camera. I'll be looking forward though to the LG G Flex 2 which looks like one of the better phones that was unveiled there.
  • Eggz
    I love how the HTC Vive VR is listed as "mobile." Can you imagine walking down a busy city block, where there's taxis and people, while wearing that thing on your face? Instant.Death.
  • coolitic
    I personally do not like the s6.
  • DeltaProtocol
    I love how the HTC Vive VR is listed as "mobile." Can you imagine walking down a busy city block, where there's taxis and people, while wearing that thing on your face? Instant.Death.
  • DeltaProtocol
    I love how the HTC Vive VR is listed as "mobile." Can you imagine walking down a busy city block, where there's taxis and people, while wearing that thing on your face? Instant.Death.

    Sorry. Let's try that again:
    Maybe that's what HTC had in mind?
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    Regarding the M4 Aqua: As an Xperia Z3 owner my ego appreciates that they didn't out-flagship my flagship with a mid-range phone, even though they easily (in my opinion) could have.

    The cap-less and water-proof micro USB port is very nice, although by using magnetic chargers on my phone I feel that I'm extending it's longevity my not using the micro USB port.
  • avensis
    Mobile is now establishing itself as a key driver for innovation, and as expected Samsung introduces the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge excellent smartphones, designed to better compete with the iPhone 6.