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Phones

Samsung Galaxy S9 will blow away the phone field at MWC

The S9 is the sole headliner of the Mobile World Congress trade show, with LG, Huawei and HTC among the big players holding back their best phones for later.

If last year's Mobile World Congress trade show was a Royal Rumble of phones, this year's conference is more akin to WrestleMania -- if Samsung is perennial winner Roman Reigns.

The 2017 edition of MWC faced a giant hole when Samsung opted to launch its Galaxy S8 at a later, separate event at Carnegie Hall in New York. That vacuum gave comeback kids BlackBerry and Nokia the opportunity to shine.

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Samsung is back in a big way at MWC.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But Samsung's back, and no one else really wants to play.

While MWC has been a nexus of discussion about future tech like 5G, virtual reality and really, really wonky network terminology, it's a must-see for any handset fanatic because that's where you're likely to see some of the biggest phones of the year. The event, which brings handset makers, wireless carriers and equipment manufacturers to Barcelona, is like CES, but completely focused on mobile.

This year promises to be different, though, with Samsung grabbing virtually all of the attention. Its crosstown rival, LG, has dropped its long-standing tradition of holding a big press conference to unveil its latest flagship phone, while other companies like Motorola, HTC and Huawei are keeping their own marquee devices away from the show.

Still, it'll by no means be a ghost town. Here are some of the big phone stories we're expecting to see at the show, which officially kicks off on Monday.

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung Galaxy S9 could wow with camera features
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Samsung, Samsung, Samsung

It's no secret that Samsung will be releasing its Galaxy S9. (What else is it going to call its next phone?)

The promotional teases have all focused on the camera, which is a smart bet given how much we care about selfies now. The question is whether Samsung will be able to get consumers excited about a phone that doesn't appear to have many significant physical changes.

But hey, if it works for Apple, why not Samsung?

To monopolize the spotlight, Samsung will hold its unveiling on Sunday, a day before the conference starts.

Can Nokia surprise again?

Nokia was the darling of MWC 2017 thanks in large part to the return of the classic Nokia 3310. Finnish startup HMD, which is stocked with former Nokia executives and has licensed the brand, will have to work hard to repeat the magic from last year.

"This is where Nokia 2.0 made its debut and comeback, and volumes so far show that its phones are very much in demand," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at research firm IDC.

Could we see another retro comeback? And will it once again overshadow the products its maker actually wants people to buy?

Chinese controversy

One of the underlying themes over the last two months has been the increasingly vocal US government opposition to Chinese phone manufacturers Huawei and ZTE. Huawei was widely expected to announce in its CES keynote last month that AT&T would be its partner in selling its flagship Mate 10 Pro, but that never happened.

Instead, Richard Yu, CEO of HUawei's consumer business, capped off his keynote by saying the loss of US carrier support was really a loss for consumers

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, touts the Mate 10 Pro Porsche Edition at CES.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, touts the Mate 10 Pro Porsche Edition at CES.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But the rumblings didn't end there. Later reports noted that Verizon also wouldn't be selling a Huawei phone. And last week, FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he was "deeply concerned" about the cybersecurity risks posed by the two companies. He was among several intelligence officials who expressed concerns about the two companies.

Huawei has long disputed the allegations, noting that it operates in 170 countries. ZTE already has a presence in the US, and touts the security and US-made components of its products.

It'll be interesting to see whether any of that dialogue carries over to the European show, given that most of the local carriers and governments are more receptive to the two companies.

And… everyone else

Get ready to see a raft of phones that don't quite hit that flagship bar. LG is expected to unveil a phone that's similar in look to the V30 (and may even share the name with an S variant or some minor tweak), but will tout camera-based artificial intelligence it's calling "Vision AI."

Other companies like Sony, ZTE and Alcatel will likely show up with new phones, but there's little expectation that any of these companies will magically upstage Samsung. (Or even Nokia, for that matter.)

Some of the products may not even be phones. Ian Fogg, an analyst at IHS Markit, believes companies will start looking at different categories again. And we'll likely come across some at MWC. 

"This year we'll see product launches in the larger device category -- the tablet and particularly the connected PC category," he said.

And then there's Google. No, you won't see any new Pixel phones at the show, but there will almost certainly be collectible pins and other Android swag.

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