The Grading Scale
Below are our criteria for grading the top mobile companies and operating systems shown off at MWC. (Editor's note: Fortunately none of the companies we followed earned an F, but we've included it here for good measure.)
- A - Groundbreaking products, best-in-class design or features
- B - Exceeded expectations with impressive products or services
- C - Average products, design and lineup
- D - Performed below expectations, poorly executed products and services
- F - Would've been better off not coming
SAMSUNG - MWC VALEDICTORIAN
Samsung had a slight advantage over the competition this year. It tweaked its new flagship where it counted, and it stood out by unveiling an entire trio of new smartwatches in the hopes of addressing multiple demographics. What's more, Samsung earned our top marks this time because it was able to quickly address complaints, come out with much-improved hardware within five months, and introduce a trio of watches to appeal to more people.
Even though the Galaxy S5 is just an iterative improvement over previous versions, this one felt much more different than the spec sheet implies: Samsung added a fingerprint scanner and heart rate monitor, made sweeping improvements to its imaging features and made it water-resistant. Meanwhile, it elected to fine-tune and scale back TouchWiz UI instead of adding heaps of gimmicky S-branded features. It's almost as if Samsung was really taking some of our feedback into consideration for once.
Samsung's "consumer first" mantra is even more evident in the pair of Tizen-branded Gear 2 watches, which fix a large number of the concerns we expressed in our review of their predecessor. The company improved battery life, added swappable straps, opened the software up to developers and made the design more attractive. There's also the Gear Fit, which is a sleek, good-looking device that adds more variety to Samsung's watch lineup; given its attractive design, curved AMOLED display and simple emphasis on fitness and notifications, we have a feeling it will be a success.
It's strange that we just went through an MWC event where Stephen Elop announced more Android phones than Windows Phones, but Nokia is keeping us on our toes. If the rumors hadn't already spoiled the surprise, Nokia's trio of Android-based X phones would've been just as mind-blowing (if not more so) than the time it revealed the 41MP sensor on the 808 PureView. But frankly there are more intriguing things about the X beyond the fact that it actually exists. These devices, which run a tile-based launcher and Asha's notification system atop the Android Open Source Project, represent an interesting change in Microsoft's strategy: Get users in "growth markets" to embrace Microsoft-branded services like OneDrive, Outlook and Skype at a lower price, in hopes they'll eventually upgrade to a higher-end smartphone (in this case, Windows Phone) that offers the same services.
Whether or not this strategy will pay off in the end for either Microsoft or Nokia is impossible to predict at the moment, but we admire both companies for being flexible enough to try new approaches to gain market share in developing countries, especially in a pricing tier that Windows Phone may not have penetrated yet. And it may have an even deeper impact on emerging markets than we expect. This completely new approach to an untouched segment of the market is very intriguing, and it's exciting enough to get a solid grade.
Nothing Sony announced this year would be considered a groundbreaking achievement, but the company came to MWC with a powerful trio of devices: the new flagship Xperia Z2, which comes with the best specs you can get in an Android phone; the waterproof Xperia Z2 tablet, which is actually thinner and lighter than the iPad Air; and the Xperia M2, which is a decent 4.8-inch mid-range smartphone for $300. It was a solid showing and we can't wait to get our hands on the Z2 devices, but we can't shake the feeling that we didn't see a whole lot new here.
There were no surprises from LG, which likes to announce all of its devices before the show even begins, but we did see a couple of quality smartphones, along with a whole batch of L-series budget phones. The most notable of the bunch is the G Pro 2, which beefs up the display size and processor, while bumping up to KitKat, the latest version of Android. It didn't necessarily blow any minds in the specs department, but we liked the company's new Knock Code feature and a few other software tricks.
Additionally, there's the G2 mini, which doesn't really impress on overall specs, but hopefully will awe us with its sticker price and software when it comes out. All told, LG had a decent showing at MWC, but we didn't see anything impressive outside of the G Pro 2.
We have mixed feelings about HTC's showing at MWC. Its next flagship device will be announced in less than a month, meaning its booth was devoid of a freshly announced top-of-the-line product. Instead, the company used MWC to announce a pair of LTE-enabled Desire phones: the Desire 816 (one of our favorite mid-range phones this week) and the less expensive 610. Neither phone is a game changer, but we like their design and HTC's plans to push out a greater number of smartphones at various price points to more markets.
Aside from a couple decent devices, HTC also introduced an inspiring initiative called Power to Give. It's a clever idea: There isn't a lot of processing power being used when your phone's idle, so you can contribute the leftover power to research great and noble causes like curing diseases, searching for extraterrestrial life and making sure kids have clean water. It may not be a profitable idea for HTC, but we love that it's come up with clever new ways to help make life better for people all over the world. That creativity along with two new mid-range devices earns HTC an above-average grade.
ZTE's lineup was pretty light this year, as the company featured only two new phones: a follow-up to last year's Grand Memo and a new Firefox OS phone. The former isn't much of an iterative improvement over its predecessor, featuring a 6-inch 720p display and Snapdragon 400 processor, but we were happy to see that it's impressively thin, has a respectable battery and runs on Android 4.4. If this is the best the company's got for the show, however, it's not enough.
Of all the major companies represented at the event, Huawei brought what was arguably the most varied product lineup of them all. At the show, the company introduced the MediaPad X1 (a fantastic 7-inch phone/tablet hybrid for $300), the affordable Ascend G6 (which comes with superfast LTE), the cleverly designed TalkBand wearable, the MediaPad M1 8-inch tablet and the company's very first Firefox OS phone. There's certainly a lot of new stuff to digest here, but we came away more impressed with Huawei's spread than we originally expected. Since we saw a few creative ideas and a respectable lineup of new devices, Huawei gets a good grade.
BlackBerry wasn't expected to make much of an appearance in Barcelona this year. So, we were pleasantly surprised not only when the company announced two new smartphones (the Indonesia-bound Z3 Jakarta and the upcoming Q20 Classic), but also when we got to see one of them make a brief physical appearance. This was certainly more than we expected, but we would've loved more details about each device, such as features, in-depth specs and -- in the case of the Q20 -- photos. Overall, we saw a spark of life from the company we weren't expecting at this year's show, but we needed to see a whole lot more; that's why we're giving BlackBerry just a smidge below an average grade.
Mozilla's Firefox OS appeared at last year's show and received mixed reviews. It was hard to tell exactly how well the concept of an open-source operating system based on HTML5 would fare in a competitive industry, but it's shown some progress in the last year. This week, we got to play with a large number of new devices, including the very first Firefox OS device running LTE. There were new options from Alcatel, Huawei and ZTE, as well as a new version of the OS; but the most important announcement from Mozilla was a prototype that shows that a $25 smartphone may very well be within reach in the near future, thanks to a chip from Spreadtrum. A total of five new phones isn't too bad for the year-old OS, but we still haven't seen much that convinces us that it can stand the threat of competition from low-cost Android phones and Windows Phones in emerging markets. It seems like the company's off to a reasonable start, but its showing didn't give us any reason to get too excited, which is why we gave it a slightly better-than-decent score.
It's hard to get a good read on Tizen and its future, but it's never a good sign when the chairman stands up at a company event and admits that the OS hasn't progressed quite as fast as he expected. Admittedly, we didn't know what to expect out of Tizen this week, since most of the rumors about an upcoming Samsung phone dried up and companies like NTT Docomo and Orange were said to have backed out of the OS' supporting Tizen Association. About the only good piece of news for Tizen at this year's show was the fact that Samsung is still making use of the OS in its Gear 2 series of smartwatches. Fortunately, the company released an open SDK for developers to create Gear apps, which may offer a bit of a boost for the Tizen ecosystem, but let's face it -- when it comes to smartphones, Tizen is sputtering. Since its appearance (or lack thereof) at this year's show failed to inspire much confidence, we're giving it a less-than-adequate grade for its performance.
The previous two years have been rather boring shows with very little major news of interest. This year was a revival of sorts, as we saw a few flagship devices, new wearables, connected cars and even a handful of notable things we never would've expected to see in 2013 (hello, Android-based Nokia phone). It was certainly better than previous years, but it's still not quite A+ material.
(image credit: Getty Images)