CES may dominate the technology calendar in the United States, but for wireless at least, Mobile World Congress is the trade show that matters. No event is more important, and as the calendar turns to February, you can bet that the entire industry will flock to Barcelona, Spain, to outflank and outshine the competition.
Of course, no gadget show would be complete without a gaggle of tech journalists scurrying to cover the news and the flood of product announcements. And as we've done over the past few years, CNET was on the ground in Barcelona to bring you the scoop on the show. It was a staggering amount to cover, from the moment we arrived in town last weekend to the hour that the show ended on Thursday. Here are the winners and losers as we saw them.
Yes, you would read that correctly. Fresh on the heels of its strong showing at CES with the award-winning Lumia 900, Nokia doubled down on its rediscovered energy with a successful Mobile World Congress. Its booth was massive and crowded at all times, and it introduced an interesting, if somewhat disparate, group of handsets. That's not to say that all of its new smartphones are guaranteed of success, but each device brought something unique to the smartphone table.
When talking about Nokia's Spanish expedition, you have to start with its new 808 PureView. Sure, it's a bit of a Frankenphone and the Symbian OS caught some people off guard (and may have angered others), but never before have we seen a 41-megapixel mobile. So not only did Nokia shove aside the 8-megapixel shooters that have long defined the upper end of the camera phone technology, but also it took that limit and pushed it into the stratosphere. As CNET's Josh Goldman explains, the 808's PureView's resolution wasn't a random call, but rather an attempt to develop a lossless digital zoom. That's an impressive feat for a device that's built primarily to make calls (or these days, send a text), but that's what Nokia did. We'll have to wait until we get a review unit to see if the 808 PureView is worth the hype, but there's no denying that Nokia pulled a new trick out of its hat.
Our Finnish friends also delivered the Lumia 610. Though not unique in features or design, I appreciate the effort to broaden the appeal of Windows Phone 7 with an entry-level device. I also liked two of the handsets in the company's new Asha series. The Asha 202, for example, awesomely accommodates two SIM cards, whereas the Asha 302 takes a comfortable keyboard and Microsoft Exchange support and packs them in an uncomplicated package.
Another device that dares to be explained, the Asus Padfone morphs from a smartphone into a tablet into a notebook. Totally original and completely absorbing, the Padfone is one of those devices you have to see to believe. Again, it's not about what the phone can do, but about what you can do with it. Indeed, Asus deserves credit for taking its already excellent Transformer Prime and running with it. And I don't mean a race, but more of a marathon.
Quad-core chips, Ice Cream Sandwich, and NFC
As I said in my Mobile World Congress preview, the show promised an Ice Cream Sandwich with quad-core chips. Though not every new device came through on that prediction, there were enough to make both features a solid trend. Most of the handset manufacturers introduced such a phone with Sony being the obvious and disappointing exception. Support for NFC was popular, as well, with a decent selection of new devices supporting mobile payments technology.
Somewhere along the line, Microsoft decided that Mobile World Congress was the show to make splash. Two years ago it debuted Windows Phone 7, last year it highlighted its Nokia partnership, and this year it offered the beta of Windows 8 (see Seth Rosenblatt's hands-on for a close analysis). That gave us a lot to ponder outside the world of smartphones that normally dominate the Barcelona proceedings.
Sorry, Sony, but after a solid 2011 Mobile World Congress with the Xperia Play, this just wasn't your show. Your two devices, the Sony Xperia P and U, offered nothing that we haven't seen before. Yes, the support for the Sony Entertainment Network and the Bravia graphics are nice, but the chips are dual-core and they have only Android's Gingerbread OS. Similarly, while their designs built on the sleek profile of the Xperia S, that device is so CES. And as far as your press conference goes, I have two pieces of advice: more chairs and laptop power, especially if you're going to start an hour late.
I debated putting Moto here since the company has never made an effort in Barcelona. That's certainly its call to make, especially after the long-lasting Droid Razr Maxx impressed us at CES. On the other hand, if Motorola is going to show up in Barcelona at all, at least it could arrive with more-interesting devices than the average set of handsets it showed at its booth.
Let's call it a draw
There's been a lot of talk about HTC struggling to get its groove back, but at Mobile World Congress it took a decent step forward. Of the three phones that the company unveiled, the One X gave us the most to savor. It offered both Ice Cream Sandwich and a quad-core chip plus Sense 4.0, Beats Audio, and an upgraded camera. It's frustrating, though, that for the U.S. market AT&T and HTC can't deliver the One X both with LTE and the quad-core processor. HTC's other announcements aren't quite as thrilling, but the One S and One V bring Ice Cream Sandwich. Gingerbread be gone.
In my previous four years at Mobile World Congress, Samsung arrived in force so I was surprised when the company postponed the Galaxy S III for later this year. Heck, it even chose not to hold a press conference in Barcelona. Of the products that it did unveil, the Galaxy Beam gets some points for sheer novelty. As CNET's Jessica Dolcourt wrote, we've been taking about pico projectors for years, so it's nice to see Samsung make a device almost consumer-ready (and the demo is pretty cool). Sammy's other products from the show, additional versions of the Galaxy Tab 2 and the Galaxy Note 10.1, were nice, but nothing terribly new.
Sammy's Korean rival took a different track by announcing several new editions to the Optimus family before Mobile World Congress began. At the head of the pack is another Android smartphone with Ice Cream Sandwich and a quad-core processor, the Optimus 4X HD. It's a handset both powerful and beautiful that drew plenty of admirers to LG's booth. Yes, we'll need to see how the chip affects power consumption, but LG included a 2,150mAh battery.
On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about LG's entry into the new phablet space, the Optimus Vu. Though its specs are roughly comparable to the Samsung Galaxy Note, it has a faster processor (1.5GHz vs. 1.2GHz) and a more comfortable basic stylus. Yet, the display's 4:3 aspect ratio is a tough call at this point. Though The Optimus Vu is shorter than the Galaxy Note and Web browsing is a comfortable experience, it's also wider than Samsung's handset so it can feel rather awkward. Gingerbread was an obvious distraction, as well.
Similarly, while the Optimus 3D Max has an eye-popping display, the 3D capability still hasn't won me over. Without any gimmicky features, the company's L-Style handsets are strictly middle of the road. Ice Cream Sandwich saved the L7 and L5 from complete obscurity, though the L3 faded into the background.
Until next year, that's it from Barcelona and Mobile World Congress.