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Samsung and gadget lovers win big at Mobile World Congress

By Brian S Hall / March 5, 2014

Samsung and gadget lovers win big at Mobile World Congress

The annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is the mobile world’s equivalent of the Oscars. This year’s event did not disappoint. Attendees were treated to a $25 open-source smartphone, a shiny new and affordably priced BlackBerry, even larger phablets, a line of low-priced smartphones from Nokia that (surprisingly) run Android and an array of wearable computers and connected devices for the home, office and auto. But the big winner of this international tech event was none other than Samsung.

Samsung’s “Unpacked 5” showcase at MWC garnered significant media coverage and generally positive reviews. The company offered plenty to capture our attention, including:

  1. Galaxy S5, the latest version of the company’s flagship smartphone
  2. A S5 fingerprint scanner open to third-party developers and ready-made for payment services
  3. The Galaxy Gear 2 and Galaxy Gear Neo, a pair of colorful, highly-functional smartwatches that operate on Tizen, not Android
  4. A fitness wearable, the Gear Fit, with a small but gorgeous display and surprisingly robust hardware

The company’s message was clear: Samsung is a dominant player in all things mobile, and it won’t be dependent on one product, one product line or even one operating system.

The World Has Gone Mobile

If you count smartphones and tablets as “computers” — and you should — then Samsung is the world’s biggest computer maker by far, capturing 24% of a global market that spans 1.5 billion smartphones, tablets, PCs and laptops. Trailing Samsung with 18% of this market is Apple, maker of the popular iPhone and iPad lines. For now, at least, Samsung’s share is growing, while Apple’s is falling.

Samsung has achieved its lofty position by offering a range of devices across price points. At this year’s MWC, however, the company appeared more focused and eager to embrace utility over specs.

Samsung Galaxy S5

The Samsung Galaxy S5 looks similar to last year’s Galaxy S4 with a slightly larger 5.1 inch screen, but as the old adage goes, it’s what’s inside that really matters. Within the charcoal black, shimmery white, electric blue or copper gold casing sits:

  • 1920 x 1080 display
  • 2.5 GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor
  • 16 megapixel camera with 4K video camera and real-time HDR processing
  • Heart-rate monitor
  • Pedometer
  • IP67 rated for water resistance (can be submerged in up to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes)
  • Android 4.4.2 KitKat

The S5 also touts improved battery performance and the latest version of patented Samsung apps, including the S Voice personal assistant and the S Health app, which can log your steps, distance and changing heart rates.

The new fingerprint identification feature is similar to the one already found on the Apple iPhone 5s, but what’s noticeably different from Apple’s implementation is Samsung’s willingness to open this feature to third-party developers. In fact, Samsung and PayPal have already teamed up to enable secure payments using your fingerprint. But don’t get too excited just yet. In addition to security concerns, early reviews suggest that the Galaxy S5 doesn’t read fingerprints as reliably as the iPhone 5s.

CNet came away somewhat unimpressed with the S5, considering it less attractive than the expected new HTC One or LG’s newest flagship device, but I think this is a mistake. The Galaxy S5 may not be revolutionary, but it’s a clear iterative improvement over last year’s mightily popular S4, offering more features and improved integration between hardware, software and services.

As mentioned before Samsung, didn’t stop at a new smartphone. The company also solidified itself as the leader of wrist wearables by announcing a pair of smartwatches and a new fitness tracker that makes the latest FitBit look about as technologically advanced as a jelly bracelet.

Samsung Gear 2 & Gear 2 Neo

Available in April, with an expected price of $249, the Gear 2 smartwatch improves upon the look and operations of their prematurely released Galaxy Gear. The update includes a better camera, a pedometer and a heart-rate monitor, all packaged together in a sleeker body. Thanks to Bluetooth 4.0 LE, it delivers streaming music to Bluetooth-equipped earphones (or via the small included speaker), and allows users to take Bluetooth-connected phone calls as well.

The Gear 2 (and Gear 2 Neo) synch with newer Galaxy smartphones, meaning that the smartwatch can display your notifications directly on your wrist. There’s also the ability to control your Samsung television via the WatchOn app.

Despite the bells and whistles, the real surprise came when Samsung announced that the Gear 2 will run on the Tizen OS instead of Android. The Linux OS will allow for better battery life and code optimization, both vitally important to less powerful hardware like smartwatches and fitness bands.

Although this shift from Android could potentially limit the Gear 2’s appeal to developers, Samsung announced that BMW, eBay, CNN, PayPal, Under Armour, iHeart Radio and many others have already committed to offer apps for the device.

The Gear 2 Neo is essentially the same as it’s swankier brother, minus the camera and the luxurious strap. Other than that, price is the biggest differentiator, with the Neo being rumored to cost at least $100 less than the Gear 2. Even with the sizeable discount, the Neo still offers a 1.63-inch, 320×320 pixel resolution display, heart-rate monitor, pedometer and 1 GHz dual-core CPU. Unless you’re that obsessed with photographing every second of your life, the Neo should be able to meet all of your smartwatch needs — as long as you have a compatible Samsung device.

Samsung Gear Fit

Another surprise Samsung “unpacked” was the Gear Fit, a fitness band that includes a curved 1.84-inchy Super AMOLED display, pedometer, heart-rate sensor and sleep tracker.

The Gear Fit can also synch with select Galaxy smartphones and can similarly display your phone’s notifications, including app notifications and email on your wrist. All three are expected to be ready for sale by April, though prices remain unconfirmed.

TechRadar was mostly impressed with the Fit’s technical prowess, praising its long-lasting battery, heart rate monitor and OS. However, they were slightly disappointed in one aspect of the hardware design:

“[The flexible OLED screen] both looks and feels cool, although it’s really disappointing that the device is covered in plastic and can’t be bent and flexed – that surely would be the goal for fitness bands.”

Once they looked past the restrictive plastic casing, TechRadar felt that the Gear Fit will be a true contender in the fitness market, as long as Samsung can price it in the same range as the Nike+ Fuelband or FitBit Force.

Android. Now you see it. Now you don’t.

The two biggest stories to come out of MWC this year, by my estimation, were Samsung’s surprising decision to not use Android in its Galaxy Gear smartwatches and Nokia’s equally shocking decision to use Android in its new line of “X” phones.

Conspiracies aside, these are actually rational business decisions. Samsung wants to see what it can achieve with Tizen — while reducing its glaring dependence on Android — and Nokia, which will soon be formally acquired by Microsoft, badly needs to sell more devices.

The Windows Phone platform is growing but remains a distant third. Nokia’s “Asha” line of low-priced smartphones are under threat by low-cost Android devices. Incorporating Android could prove to be a masterstroke, provided the company can ensure that users embrace Nokia and Microsoft services — and possibly even trade-up to pricier Nokia Lumia devices in the near-future.

Early reviews of the Nokia X line have been mostly favorable. Nokia has long been known for beautiful design and great build quality. By embracing the Android operating system, maintaining the “Metro” look of Windows Phones and incorporating services like Outlook, OneDrive, Bing and HERE Maps, Nokia believes it may be offering buyers the best of both worlds. It’s a risky strategy, but it may be just what Nokia needs to sway the hundreds of millions of consumers not able or willing to pay more than $200 for a smartphone.

This year’s Mobile World Congress showed us that smartphones continue to get faster, prices continue to drop and wearables are on the cusp of mass market adoption. It’s a great time to be a consumer.

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