What to expect at Mobile World Congress 2017 (MWC): Five flagship smartphones and the return of the brick
Every year the smartphone industry gets together and has a big conference in Barcelona, Spain called “Mobile World Congress.” The show floor is open from February 27 through March 2, but most of the big press conferences happen the day before the show: February 26.
This year, we expect a slew of flagship smartphones to be announced at Mobile World Congress. BlackBerry, LG, Motorola, Huawei, Sony, and Nokia will all be in attendance with anticipated, high-profile launches. With many OEMs presenting at the show, let’s go around the horn and check in on everyone’s plans for MWC.
LG: The LG G6 packs last year’s processor into this year’s phone
The LG G5 was a bit of a mess last year. It has a modular system that didn’t actually result in any compelling modules, other than perhaps the removable battery. It had a lot of build quality issues like sharp edges and a poorly fitting bottom piece. And while the body was metal internally, it was covered in an outer plastic coating that made the phone feel cheap.
This year, LG is starting over with the LG G6. The company is scrapping the modular system and going the standard route of a phone with a sealed battery and water resistance. The company also promised a “full-metal body” in a teaser site earlier, so hopefully it should feel more premium than the plastic-coated metal.
Right now, the LG G6 is probably the worst kept secret in the industry. LG itself has already detailed the screen for the G6—an extra-tall 18:9 (or 2:1) aspect ratio LCD with a 2880×1440 resolution. At 5.7 inches, this puts it at 564 PPI. The tall screen is there to fill the space left by the G6’s slimmer bezels while still having a normal-ish phone body size. In another interesting touch, the corners of the display are rounded.
Pictures from Korean site UnderKG, which has had several accurate leaks in the past, shows a brushed metal back with LG’s usual dual camera arrangement and rear fingerprint reader. There have been conflicting reports on what the back will be made of. Some reports claim a “full metal body” while others say the back will be glass. The pictures also show a headphone jack, a single bottom-firing speaker, and a USB-C port.
As unbelievable as it may seem, several reports now have said the LG G6 will have a Snapdragon 821 instead of the soon-to-launch Snapdragon 835. While the Snapdragon 821 debuted on the Google Pixel in October, there are almost no differences between the Snapdragon 821 and 820, so essentially the G6 would ship with a year-old processor. We’ve seen CNET, The Verge, and Forbes all claim that Samsung is “hoarding” the initial supply of the Snapdragon 835 for the Galaxy S8, leaving other OEMs out in the cold.
The CNET report explains the issue, saying that launching with the Snapdragon 835 would mean “LG would have had to delay the launch of the G6 to April.” Delaying to April to launch with this year’s Qualcomm SoC seems like a totally reasonable thing to do, but LG’s strategy seems to be to cede the spec race to Samsung in exchange for launching a month earlier. Won’t consumers just opt to wait a month? Won’t LG have to seriously cut the price of the G6 in a month once faster, more efficient Snapdragon 835 devices come out?
To make matters worse, it seems LG will only be making that “Pre-Samsung” launch window in Korea, where VentureBeat says sales will start March 9. In the US, the G6 won’t make it to market until April 7, giving it mere weeks of separation from the launch of the Galaxy S8. And by then, Samsung’s pre-release marketing blitz might have already started.
On the software side of things, the G6 is expected to be one of the first non-Google phones to launch with the Google Assistant, Google’s revamped voice command interface. On Android phones, the feature is currently exclusive to the Google Pixel. But as a major interface for Google’s flagship product—Search—the Assistant can’t remain hardware limited for long.
The Blackberry “Mercury”—one last in-house design
BlackBerry is exiting the phone manufacturing business and will soon outsource hardware design and production to TCL Corporation, a Chinese electronics company that also owns the Alcatel brand. Before that happens, though, Blackberry has one last in-house design to ship out the door. Pictured above, the new device is known as the BlackBerry Mercury. (Quietly, the BlackBerry-to-TCL transition seems to already be underway, with TCL handling the marketing for this device.)
The hype run-up to a phone launch can take all kinds of forms. Sometimes we see genuine leaks from factories or ad agencies, sometimes the company itself plants controlled leaks in the media to hype up consumers. Here, Blackberry/TCL took the unusual step of letting some news outlets try a pre-production version of the new device months ahead of launch.
Fan site CrackBerry was one such outlet. It seems they were taken into a room, allowed to touch and photograph the device, but weren’t given any official details from Blackberry. As a result, we know what it looks like and not much else. Seriously, we don’t even know the name. The device is commonly known as the “BlackBerry Mercury,” but that might just be a codename.
What we can see is a QWERTY-bar phone that looks a lot like the BlackBerry Priv—BlackBerry’s first Android phone—minus the sliding keyboard. The permanently affixed keyboard means the screen is a bit shorter than the usual 16:9 aspect ratio. Judging by the pictures, the display looks to be about 3:2.
CrackBerry described the phone as having a metal body with a soft-touch back. It has a USB-C port on the bottom, and the big party-piece is a fingerprint reader hidden in the space bar.
Blackberry hasn’t talked about any kind of specs or pricing yet, but rumors peg the device as having a Snapdragon 625 processor and a 4.63-inch display with a 1620×1080 resolution. This lines up with rumors from nearly a year ago, when this device was first leaked as the “BlackBerry Rome.” Back then, it was described as “mid-range” and expected to come in at the $400 price point.
The Mercury is launching two days before MWC officially opens on February 25 at BlackBerry’s press conference.
Nokia: Forget smartphones, welcome back the Nokia 3310
One of the more interesting storylines from MWC will be the Nokia brand’s return to the smartphone market. A Finnish company called “HMD” signed a 10-year licensing deal for the Nokia phone brand, and MWC promises to be the company’s coming out party. Unlike the typical “Zombie Brand” setup that seems to be happening with BlackBerry and TCL, HMD was recently founded by old Nokia employees. Seemingly, the organization’s singular focus is licensing the Nokia brand and resurrecting the phone division.
If reports from VentureBeat’s Evan Blass are to be believed, HMD will be resurrecting one of the most legendary Nokia phones ever: the Nokia 3310. Yes, that’s the indestructible brick of a feature phone with a week-long battery, and it’s making a comeback. If HMD wanted to make a statement that said “we care about the Nokia brand,” hitting everyone with a nostalgic throwback device is a good way to do it. The big questions are 1) will anyone buy it and 2) just how updated will it be?
HMD has inherited a line of “modern” Nokia feature phones from Microsoft, which all run the “Series 30+” OS. S30+ was originally developed during the Microsoft era, and it’s not related to Nokia’s S30 or S40 platforms. You can still spot lots of Microsoft DNA in the S30+ devices—it has Bing search, MSN Weather, and Skype GroupMe messaging. There’s no app platform, and the only browser is Opera Mini.
It’s unclear if HMD’s Nokia 3310 homage will continue to use Microsoft’s S30+ OS. The Microsoft loadout doesn’t really make sense for an independent company. The lack of an app platform means S30+ devices don’t support WhatsApp, which is ubiquitous in the developing world—no doubt the biggest market for feature phones (for those unfamiliar with the terminology, remember feature phones have less functionality than your typical smartphone). Whatever it runs, there had better be a port of Snake.
HMD will also have some Android-powered smartphones if you care about that sort of thing. The VentureBeat report mentions the Nokia 6, Nokia 5, and Nokia 3 making an appearance at the show. These devices start at $260 with a Snapdragon 430 SoC and work down from there, so it doesn’t sound like a flagship is coming just yet. The Nokia flagship has been referred to as the “Nokia 8” or “Nokia P1,” but there aren’t any serious details from reliable sources yet.
Huawei: New phones, new watch
On the smartphone side of things, Huawei is expected to have the usual “P10” and “P10 Plus” variants. This year the Plus is apparently going to have a Samsung style curved screen, while the regular P10 remains a standard flat phone. Pictures show Huawei’s usual Leica-branded dual-camera system, a USB-C port, and headphone jack.
Other than that, it’s hard to nail down much from reliable sources. A GFXBench listing from November showed a “LON-L29” listing (the P10 Plus, supposedly) with a 5.5-inch 2560×1440 display, Kirin 960 SoC, 6GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage. Leaked documents from PhoneArena dispute the 256GB storage option, but those show 6GB of RAM on the highest 128GB storage tier.
Android Wear 2.0 has recently launched, which opens the door for a round of new hardware from the usual suspects. VentureBeat claims the Huawei Watch 2 will feature cellular connectivity like the recently released LG Watch Sport. The site also says to expect a “sportier” look, which is a shame given that the good looks were a big reason to recommend the original Huawei Watch.
Motorola: The Moto G5 and G5 Plus
Motorola has an MWC event scheduled where it will most likely announce the new Moto G5 and G5 Plus. Almost everything about these devices has been leaked already: we have press images and specs from a website listing that went live early, and there are even real-life pictures of a prototype.
There’s not much exciting here. It seems like an easy cruise-control update to the G4 with an updated processor, new camera design, and a different fingerprint reader shape. According to the website leak, the G5 Plus has a 5.2-inch 1080p display, a 2GHz Snapdragon 625, 2GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, a MicroSD slot, Dual SIMs, and a 3000mAH battery. The G5 has a 5-inch 1080p display, 1.4GHz Snapdragon 430 with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, a MicroSD slot, dual SIM slots, and a 2800mAH battery. The spec page actually claims the G5 battery is “removable” but not the G5 Plus. We aren’t sure if this is a mistake or not—the G4 battery could be exposed by peeling the back off, but it was not officially removable. Both devices have fingerprint scanners, dual SIM slots, and ship with Android 7.0 Nougat.
In January, a listing for a “Moto G5 Plus” prototype popped up on an online marketplace site. The attempted sale of confidential Motorola property (with fully visible identification marks!) probably didn’t work out very well for the seller, but he did provide lots of nice pictures of what is clearly a Motorola prototype device. The one surprise was a Micro USB port on the bottom, which might seem a little dated in the world of flagships, but this is a cheap phone.
Sony—a 4K, Snapdragon 835 device?
Sony is another MWC attendee that is due for a new flagship smartphone. Rumors claim Sony is bringing a big pile of five smartphones to MWC. The one we care about—the flagship—is apparently codenamed “Yoshino” and has a 5.5-inch 4K screen and a Snapdragon 835. Sony has been recycling the same phone design since 2013, so it’s easy to imagine what it will look like: a big, flat rectangle with tall bezels and rounded sides.
The Yoshino would be one of the rare Snapdragon 835 phones at MWC. Its presence might poke a hole in the reports that Samsung is hogging all the 835s for the Galaxy S8, but Sony is no stranger to announcing a device months ahead of launch.
Samsung isn’t bringing the Galaxy S8 to MWC this year. This is in contrast to prior years, where the device was the headline launch of the show. After the Note 7 fiasco, we can’t blame them for taking a little longer. Samsung does have an MWC press conference, but the invite only teases an Android tablet—most likely the Galaxy Tab S3. We’ve already seen tons of leaks about the Galaxy S8, and the device looms over MWC like a spectre.
Xiaomi has stated it isn’t coming to MWC, but the company is due to release a new flagship (the Xiaomi Mi 6) soon.
HTC just released a Snapdragon 821 device (the HTC U) last month, so we can’t imagine it would have another “flagship” phone coming soon. In an interview with Tbreak Media, HTC President of Smartphones Chitlin Chang said, “When the next flagship CPU comes, HTC will be one of the very first tier doing that.” So far, we haven’t heard a peep about an MWC presence. Chang also flatly stated, “We’re not going to have an Android watch.”
That should just about cover all the major players in Barcelona next week who are likely to unveil a flagship smartphone. Ars will be in attendance, and our coverage of Mobile World Congress 2017 kicks off on Sunday, February 26. We’ll be looking to try out all the new gadgets and scouring the show floor for hidden gems. Be sure to tune in—and expect a few signature Ars reviews down the line.
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