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The best and worst of Mobile World Congress 2018

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Mobile World Congress 2018: what happened? Maybe it’s best to start with what didn’t happen: Huawei didn’t have a new flagship phone, LG rebadged its old flagship phone, and Motorola and HTC had no phones to show at all. The traditional deluge of new super-specced phones just wasn’t here as it usually is.

But that didn’t leave us with a boring show — far from it. Nokia reached back into the archives to revive another classic, Google’s hardware partners presented their first Android Go devices, and the pervasive buzzwords of 5G and AI were everywhere. There were even some cool laptops to look at. Here are the highlights, followed by the unfortunate lowlights.

The best

The demise of screen bezels

Whether companies call them full-screen, all-screen, FullVision, or Infinity Displays, there’s no mistaking the fact that a modern phone in 2018 is most readily recognized by the scarcity of its bezels around the screen. This is an awesome thing, allowing companies like Asus to give us 6.2-inch flagship phones within a smaller physical footprint than their previous 5.5-inch devices. Such has been the transformation between last year’s Zenfone 4 and this year’s Zenfone 5. As to the wider mobile industry, we’ve gone from Samsung and LG being the exception with their vanishingly thin bezels in 2017 to now being the norm.

You may have been disappointed by the incremental nature of Samsung’s upgrades this year, but it’s hard to argue that there was any better phone at MWC than Samsung’s new flagship duo. With a new dual-aperture camera, a fingerprint reader now sanely position in the middle of the back, and the best and latest processors, the Galaxy S9 is a formidable giant that will tower over the Android phone industry for at least the rest of this year. Its similarities to the existing Galaxy S8 are a strength rather than a hindrance: that phone was one of the best-designed handsets last year and remains a class-leading device today.

Yes, we are all suckers for gadgets that stir up feelings of nostalgia for our lost (or dwindling) youth. HMD Global, the company exploiting the Nokia brand, has shown itself an expert in refining and updating classic models from the Nokia archive for the modern world. Pricing the 8110 at less than $100, the company gives you a surprising amount of advanced functionality to go with the familiar slider styling. This phone has LTE, Google Assistant and Google Maps, Twitter and Facebook apps, Snake (because it has to), and a promised standby time of 25 days.

Not traditional fare for a phone show, but Lenovo’s Chromebooks for schools left a positive impression here at MWC. Each of them has been ruggedized to withstand drops and spills, and the note-taking capabilities of the two higher-end models are great. One allows you to take notes with a regular pencil directly on the screen, while the other has a lag-free stylus input that’s delightful to use. The most expensive among them is a super affordable $349, which is roughly what netbooks used to cost, and there’s more than a passing similarity between these ultra basic Lenovo Chromebooks and the classic Eee PCs from years ago.

Vivo grabbed a lot of attention at CES 2018 by being the first company with a fingerprint reader integrated directly into the display, and it followed that up with a concept phone at MWC that was even more aggressively futuristic. The Apex concept device strips the bezels back even further than we’re now getting used to, and it achieves that by vibrating the screen so as to produce sound without an earpiece. Vivo also shifts the selfie camera to a pop-up module that extends from the top of the phone like a periscope. The Vivo Apex provided a fun exhibit of the current thinking and deliberation among phone designers looking for the next breakthrough.

The worst

The flip side of the new, slimmed-down display bezels is that they allow companies to do weird things with the particular layout and design of their screens. And many, far too many, at MWC 2018 have chosen to simply copy the look of the notch in Apple’s iPhone X. It’s a cynical move, which Asus is especially guilty of and unapologetic about. No one is even attempting to emulate Apple’s Face ID, which is the main reason for the iPhone’s notch; companies are just aping the Apple aesthetic with their own cosmetic alterations. The Asus Zenfone 5 thus represents both sides of the new phone screen trends: the good of slimming bezels and the bad of a deliberately derivative design.

The headphone jack is becoming a rarity

You know those big old ports on the back of desktop computers that companies still keep supporting many years after no one even remembers what they were for? That’s how the mobile industry perceives the headphone jack nowadays. It’s treated as legacy hardware. As such, the 3.5mm audio jack continues to be available on budget phone models (along with the awful Micro USB connector) and from some companies unwilling to follow the mainstream trend, such as Samsung and LG. This year, Nokia and Sony both introduced new flagships without a headphone jack, with their hope being that superior Bluetooth audio codecs will cover for the loss of the convenient, simple, and once-upon-a-time universal 3.5mm wire.

AR emoji galaxy s9

AR emoji galaxy s9

They are dreadful, aren’t they? In its effort to keep pace with Apple’s iPhone and iOS, Samsung this week introduced its answer to Animoji in the form of its own AR Emoji. Technically speaking, these are rather impressive facial scans, given that the Galaxy S9 only uses the front-facing camera and no additional specialized equipment to produce them. But in practice, you get some rather weird, misshapen creations, whose facial animations are worse than anything we’ve seen since Mass Effect: Andromeda came out.

There are many industries in which a company will take an existing product, make a couple of cosmetic tweaks, and then reissue it under a new brand name. With phones, however, the rate of technological change and progress has always been so fast as to make that unnecessary. In 2018, LG has shown that the mobile industry is starting to fall in line with others by reissuing the LG V30 under a new product title of LG V30S ThinQ. The new V30 is identical to the old one, save for the addition of some extra RAM and storage. Everything novel about the V30S, of which there isn’t much, will be back-ported to the V30 in a software update. So LG simply used MWC 2018 as a launch platform for a software patch. Underwhelming to an extreme.

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