Unfiltered

Smartphone makers need to stop chasing numbers

How close are we to smartphone launch fatigue?

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The year 2019 has to be one of the busiest for everyone in the mobile technology industry. A decade back, it was dominated by the likes of Nokia, BlackBerry, and Motorola. Samsung was just gaining momentum and Huawei simply existed in the consumer electronics space.

Back then, we saw one-year refresh cycles for phones. Apple would release a new iPhone every year, Samsung’s S and Note series were a huge hit and each got an upgrade every year, and all other brands started following a similar format. Then came a time when HTC, LG, and Samsung would compete to build the perfect flagship.

With the introduction of new players like Xiaomi, Vivo, OPPO, and Realme, strategies and product launches have drastically changed. These new players rule the affordable and midrange segments and have managed to dethrone Samsung in terms of market share.

But this quick rise to fame has been on the back of repetitive launches. Earlier, a year-long cycle was maintained for each series and this was slowly brought down to six months. Now, we see a new phone launching every one to three months. And each new offering undercuts the previous product. Basically, even if they belong to a different lineup, they end up killing the previous one.

In an attempt to cover every possible price bracket, each of these new launches is also accompanied by a host of configuration options and limited editions. While there is no doubt that this has made the buyer a king in terms of choices, the market is headed in stormy waters from a long-term point of view.

Each of the new offerings come with incremental upgrades. It’s something you can definitely live without for a long time, but your purchase is bound to age quickly. And this brings to an even more important question, are smartphone makers blindly chasing numbers?

Should smartphone makers give up or should they just keep chasing numbers?

A couple of years back, every brand wanted to offer as much RAM as possible. We’ve reached a point where a full-fledged Windows 10 laptop comes with 8GB RAM and a “mobile” operating system like Android needs 12GB.

2018 was all about chasing the screen-to-body ratio figure. Just to get a few more points, brands tested out pop-up cameras, water-drop notches, and even cut-outs. Now, thanks to the rise in popularity of mobile gaming, the processor is a crucial part of the phone.

Recently, Realme’s CEO, Madhav Seth had an interview with the folks over at GSMArena and when asked about the quick update cycle between the Realme 3 and Realme 5 Pro, this is what he had to add:

Now if I say for 3 Pro and between 5 Pro, what would be the difference, mainly? I’d say there are two differences: the performance doesn’t compromise much because I don’t play this game of this processor – the 710 and 712. There isn’t much of a difference between your day-to-day usage. Even while you are gaming, there’s not much of a difference. There is a difference, but not that drastic.

Yes, the executive agrees there’s “not much difference”, but there is a difference. And the brands are able to cash-in on this. A difference of just two digits between the 710 and 712 has given brands an opportunity to launch a brand new product within just four months.

How many megapixels do we really need?

Similarly, another department where brands are going nuts is the camera. How many megapixels do you need? Apparently, as many as possible. You’ll always end up clicking a 12-megapixel picture with a 48-megapixel sensor on a normal basis unless you start the dedicated mode. But, on-paper, 48 is a larger value than 12. We’ll also ignore the fact that pixel size or software processing also matters. There’s a reason why Pixel 3 is the best camera phone with just a single 12-megapixel sensor.

While this thought process of amping up numbers has been fairly common in the Android ecosystem, OnePlus has been able to carve out a different niche for itself. Sure, it packs all the latest hardware. However, this doesn’t force it to focus just on specs and launch a new phone every now and then. They have a fixed six-month cycle for years and a secret weapon — their Android skin.

What sets a phone apart from the pack?

OxygenOS is a well-carved product that perfectly compliments the hardware. This is assuring for the user because they know a T-series phone will not practically affect them and the brand won’t forget about software updates after a few months.

Similarly, even Apple relies on a year-long refresh cycle. Their weapon is iOS. This single piece of software lets them completely omit figures like RAM, battery size, and even camera lens details. They don’t reveal the nitty-gritty details because the end-user doesn’t care. It’s an iPhone.

On the other end, even Android players are proud of their software. Xiaomi has MIUI, Realme has ColorOS, and Vivo has Funtouch OS. But the main question is, how long do they last? Software updates are quite often delayed, the UI is bug-ridden, and simply lacks a polishing touch. Not to forget, a few brands like Honor literally forget they’ve launched quite expensive phones and should ideally provide support.

From a long-term perspective, this confidence in products is what makes Apple a “brand”. Even OnePlus and Samsung have achieved a similar status among the masses and consistency and commitment should be the key focus. Samsung has transformed itself from being a TouchWiz meme master to deploying OneUI on every possible new phone.

In the affordable segment, Nokia-branded phones have done a fairly good job. They stick to stock Android and deliver on their promise of consistently supporting older phones. A reputation is formed, something that’ll last.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not favoring stock Android. I’m personally not a big fan. However, I’m stressing that brands keep aside the numbers game and focus on delivering an experience. If you’re just going to assemble hardware, there’s no difference between you and defunct players like Micromax and Karbonn.

Unfiltered

My Internet service provider sucks and I can’t do anything about it

Is this what living in a third-world country is about?

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It’s 2020 — a year that many people were looking forward to. To some, it’s another year to chase after their goals and dreams. While for others, it’s merely the start of a new decade.

In the technology industry, 2020 was supposed to be a culmination of the innovation we’ve had for years, bringing the future to the present. Technology should’ve been ripe enough to usher us into a truly digital age.

Frankly, we’re already living in the so-called digital age. We have gadgets and technology focused on communication and connectivity, aiming to improve people’s lives. The most recent development is the 5G connectivity taking over some parts of the world.

Yet even with the promise of bringing technology closer to people, I still can’t feel it.

The struggle of being in a third-world country

I live in a third-world country, where having a good, stable Internet connection is a privilege. In the Philippines, the major telecommunication companies and some smartphone brands have been aggressively pushing for it this year, dividing most people regarding its arrival.

Some techies and geeks rave about the hopes of having the future right in the palm of their hands. But most people — distressed customers like me — are wondering why there is so much emphasis on innovation, yet there are no solutions to most problems consumers currently face.

While I cover stories about new technology and occasionally try it out before it finds its way to more people, my heart never goes too giddy at the sight of new tech. Instead, I look for the functionality, purpose — how can it help the average consumers e.g. my family, friends, colleagues, and people who are just constantly trying to keep up with new technology.

That was what lingered on my mind when people discussed 5G connectivity. “How could you keep on blabbering about the next generation, when we haven’t experienced the proper service we deserve?” or so I thought.

All my angst are channeled to a certain Internet service provider I’ve been subscribed to. I’m just not getting my money’s worth. Whether it was a DSL connection from a few years ago or a recently-installed Fibr connection, they never fail to disappoint.

Living life with the Internet

I’m not alone in my frustrations. I know that thousands of people out there have similar complaints. Imagine paying for a 15Mbps connection, but only getting around to 2-3Mbps. It’s been this way since March 2020 despite our numerous attempts to have the problem rectified. That’s six months of having sluggish connection while paying the same amount. On top of the speed issue, I experienced multiple disconnections and loss of dial tone.

When the pandemic struck, everyone was reliant on proper Internet speed yet the limited number of players proved to be difficult to handle millions of subscribers just from the nation’s capital. We stayed at home, alienated, and struggled with the so-called new normal. In the wake of the devastating situation we were thrust into, my life went on even with the disruptive issues I encountered with my Internet service provider.

I lost count of how many virtual meetings were interrupted because of my sudden disconnection. I can’t exactly remember how many times I’ve wanted to call my bank regarding my finances and purchases. Moreover, I stopped tracking the amount of money I spend on mobile data to keep me connected and to continue my life — whether it’s working remotely, ordering food, and staying alive by not going out.

What irks me the most is my ISP’s customer service. They have been harder to reach, given the limited personnel caused by the coronavirus health crisis that’s taking so long to be addressed. The last ticket I created with their customer service representative took more than two weeks to get the repair service I requested.

We’re all glorifying the remote working setup as the future of productivity and distance learning as the future of education, yet we continuously forget how difficult it is to handle when Internet access isn’t the same for everyone.

We’ve been dependent on the Internet and online services, to keep us safe and continue our lives in this pandemic. Yet somehow, the company I trusted my money, livelihood, and perhaps my life too, doesn’t give the service I rightfully deserve.

Exhausting options, on the brink of giving up

Maybe you’re wondering, “Why don’t you just switch providers?” That’s easy to say when you have options. Believe me, I’ve tried. I considered three more providers, only to find out my area isn’t serviceable.

I’m nearly giving up on the mere fact that this hopeless situation won’t improve. I’ve been exhausting all possible options, using prepaid services to connect to the Internet so I can resume my life and work. But it’s taking a toll on my financial, emotional, and mental health.

What’s the point of paying an enormous amount for a service that’s considerably trash? When the sudden disconnection causes you to become agitated when it disrupted your work? We’re all glorifying the remote working setup as the future of productivity and distance learning as the future of education, yet we continuously forget how difficult it is to handle when Internet access isn’t the same for everyone.

I’ve tried looking for answers, too, given my inquisitive nature. When I had a conversation with a friend — an engineer who worked on the project of bringing 5G in the Philippines — I learned the difficulties of setting up towers in different areas, and mostly had to do with red tape. Limited towers mean there will be limited connection. In case you didn’t know, it’s what the 5G connectivity is trying to solve: bringing access to places that 4G connectivity is having a difficult time reaching.

Despite having the knowledge about how it works, I’m still disgruntled. At the end of the day, I’m just a consumer. All I want is to get the service I paid for, sans souci. I’m certain a lot of people feel the same way. This collective frustration forced the Philippine government to break the duopoly and let another player enter.

Frankly, I’m even more skeptical. When most players are struggling with the infrastructure needed, how is another player going to help? It might just bring more disappointment. But that’s something we can all worry about more in the future.

For now, I just need my Internet service provider to become competent in handling after-sales, customer service, and being true to what they advertise. Because I’m already resigning to my fate that being in a third-world country means you won’t get the service you deserve, and you can’t hold anyone else — private entities or the government — accountable. (Unless you’re a pretty celebrity with four million followers.)

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Unfiltered

realme has been a true disruptor

And it’s messing with everyone’s expectations

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There’s been an influx of midrange smartphones around Southeast Asia over the past few weeks. Long-time players like Huawei, OPPO, vivo, and Xiaomi are in the race, but they seem to have trouble keeping pace with relative newcomer, realme.

realme calls itself a disruptor, and for the most part, it walks the talk. The company kicked-off this recent midrange smartphone barrage and I’m inclined to say they might still be in the lead.

However, they are messing with everyone’s expectations.

A high screen refresh rate isn’t the end all, be all

Too many times over the course of the phone launches, I would check the comments section on our Facebook page and would see a number of them saying a variation of “nO 90Hz sCReEn rEFreSh rATe, aUTo PaSS.”

It’s annoying.

That feature at this segment is a “nice to have” more than a “must have.” I don’t think enough people realize that.

That said, realme did a great job by bringing over that experience to a more affordable pricing segment. For context, here’s a quick specs comparison on some of the smartphones that launched recently.

realme 6 pro Huawei Nova 7 SE Xiaomi Mi Note 10 Lite vivo V19 Neo OPPO A92
Display 6.6” IPS LCD, 90Hz refresh rate 6.5” LTPS IPS LCD, HDR10 6.47” AMOLED 6.44” Super AMOLED 6.5” IPS LCD
Processor Snapdragon 720G Kirin 820 5G Snapdragon 730G Snapdragon 675 Snapdragon 665
Max ROM + RAM 8GB + 128GB 8GB + 256GB 8GB + 128GB 8GB + 256GB 8GB + 128GB
Rear cameras 64MP + 12MP  + 8MP + 2MP 64MP + 8MP  + 2MP + 2MP 64MP + 8MP  + 2MP + 5MP 48MP + 8MP + 2MP + 2MP 48MP + 8MP + 2MP + 2MP
Selfie camera/s 16MP + 8MP 16MP 16MP 32MP 16MP
Battery 4300mAh, Fast charging 30W, VOOC 4.0 4000mAh, Fast charging 40W, Reverse charging 5W 5260mAh, Fast Charting 30W 4500mAh, Fast charging 18W 5000mAh, Fast charging 18W
Price PhP 16,990 (US$ 339) PhP 19,990 (US$ 400) PhP 18,990 (US$ 380) 17,999 (US$ 358) PhP 15,990 (US$ 320).

realme is punching above its weight class

At first glance on paper, the realme 6 Pro is a runaway winner. After discussing for a little bit with the rest of the team, “runaway” might be a stretch, but they are still ahead. They simply offer the best overall value.

I also snarkily remarked to the team what vivo and OPPO are still doing here. It’s like they’re not even trying. But, as you know, they are putting more effort into releasing phones that can rival premium flagships. OPPO has the Find X2 Pro from earlier in the year, while vivo recently announced the X50 Pro+.

Our extraordinary team member also pointed out that these midrangers from the two companies may just be excess parts. They might have purchased an exorbitant amount of chips and lenses without projecting how much the landscape will change in such a short time.

One can argue that what OPPO and vivo have here are baseline specs for midrangers. Xiaomi is firmly in the middle having dominated this segment for a while. And then realme and Huawei offer features (90Hz screen refresh rate and 5G, respectively) that are typically reserved for phones over PhP 20,000 (US$ 400).

The knock on Huawei is the lack of Google Mobile Services, which they are trying to address. realme, on the other hand, has the full suite of Google’s offerings.

Offering something better than its price suggests

What realme has been doing is pretty clear. It’s taken some “flagship-level” features and put them in phones that are well within the midrange budget.

Late last year, they had the realme XT which featured a 64MP quad-camera setup. It was a time when the standard was still 48MP for the smartphone camera’s main sensor.

In 2020, they did it again on the realme 6 series. They brought over a 90Hz screen refresh rate which had only been seen on flagship smartphones until they decided to slap it on their midrangers.

This is something that realme continues to do at any segment — meet the specs expectation in that segment but add one extra feature that’s only available on more expensive smartphones.

It’s smart and helps them standout.

Is what they’re doing replicable? 

If realme can do it, so can other brands, right? Well, there are plenty of factors that come into play here, but mostly it has to do with the company’s strategy and direction.

As I mentioned earlier, the likes of OPPO and vivo are trying to get to the same atmosphere occupied by the likes of Apple and Samsung. It was a feat that Huawei achieved, but factors outside its control might be keeping it from staying afloat.

Recent sales numbers suggest otherwise, but  — fair or not — their brand reputation is certainly taking a hit.

Look for Xiaomi to move aggressively. They have owned the “best value” market for a better part of the last half decade, and don’t think for a second that they will relinquish it without a fight.

Can realme keep it up?

What realme’s doing here is aggressive and that’s how you have to be if you’re the challenger. I write this as I test drive another realme phone that’s looking to shake-up another pricing segment. Based on my experience so far, it’s eXtremely promising.

Competition between brands is great. It forces them to be better. So for consumers’ sake, I sure hope realme keeps the pedal to the metal.

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Smartphones

What we want to see on the Samsung Galaxy Fold 2

It can only get better

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By now you’ve all probably heard or read everything that people have to say about the Samsung Galaxy Fold. It certainly made several headlines in 2019 for various reasons.

While we do think it is a step in the right direction, we also believe it needed a bit more time in the oven. After spending roughly two weeks with the Galaxy Fold, here are a few things I wish would happen with the inevitable Galaxy Fold 2.

A form factor that makes more sense 

As it is now, when folded, the Galaxy Fold’s screen feels like it’s half a phone, and when unfolded it feels like it’s three-fourths of a tablet. This current form factor just isn’t it.

That’s really bad screen-to-body ratio

We’ve already seen reports of a Galaxy Fold that’s more of a phone and then folds into something smaller. Something reminiscent of the Motorola razr.

I don’t think that’s the only thing Samsung is doing. Best believe the direction is still to have something that’s a fully functioning smartphone when folded, and a full-sized tablet when unfolded.

Better app support

If they can figure out how to do this properly, that might solve many of the Fold’s shortcomings. For instance, as of writing, the Galaxy Fold doesn’t support the latest version of Netflix.

No Netlfix and chillin’ on this one :(

I was so excited to binge on this thing only to find out that, unfortunately, I can’t.

Because of the form-factor, some games also just do not look right. The controls on NBA 2K20 take up nearly half the screen. It’s nearly impossible to see what’s going on, making the whole experience just unenjoyable.

Controls completely blocking off a huge part of the screen

I guess it doesn’t make sense to have regular app updates for a device that only a handful of people own. That’s one of the major hurdles of foldables.

Take away that ugly notch

Whatever you’re watching, whatever you’re playing, it’s impossible to not notice the eyesore that is the front-facing camera. I also dread the punch-hole solution but that would have been way better than what we got.

Not a pretty sight

Make it thinner and lighter

The Galaxy Fold is just unwieldy. Sure, you can grip it with one hand when it’s folded but it’s a little too thick than what I’d like.

Hard to tell here because I have fat hands 😂

The tablet form is pretty much what you’d expect from other tablets when it comes to weight and thickness. Which might be an indication that the Galaxy Fold was first a tablet before a phone.

Here’s the folded Galaxy Fold next to a PS4 game’s Blu-ray case

Whatever the case is, a thinner and lighter version will be more than welcome.

Race to be the best

Everything I mentioned here are pretty much expected growing pains from a first-generation device. We don’t always get it right the first time and that’s okay.

Samsung can now claim they are the first to market this new device category. But will they also be the first one to perfect it? If they are the innovators they claim to be, then I wouldn’t be surprised if they completely re-imagine their approach to foldable devices.

For more thoughts on the Galaxy Fold read our hands-on. For some laughs, check this one out.

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