Whew! What a way to start a week. While most of us were groggily waking up this morning (me more than anyone -- I've been offline for quite a while, in case you hadn't noticed), the mobile tech world was in the midst of its one of its busiest-ever bursts of news.
The reason? A crazy lil' event called MWC, or Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona. It's a time when all the Android hardware-makers, software writers, and even carriers come together to announce as much stuff as possible in a short amount of time. (That's the gist of it, anyway.)
True to form, this year's event has been a nonstop rush of noteworthy new developments -- along with the usual flood of not-so-significant shouts and announcements. And boy, is there a lot of noise to sift through.
So what do you really need to know from MWC 2015? Here's a quick tour of the most significant info:
1. The Galaxy S6 is coming -- and it's genuinely different from anything Samsung's done before.
Samsung is finally answering the years of criticism by stepping up its design game with the newly unveiled Galaxy S6. The phone avoids the company's typical chintzy plastic build and instead goes with a far more premium and sophisticated-looking glass-and-metal approach.
The GS6 has all the high-end specs you'd expect from a Samsung flagship, including a 5.1-in. Quad HD display and anywhere from 32 to 128GB of internal storage, depending on which model you get. Notably, though, the device marks a departure from past Samsung phones in that it lacks an SD card slot for external storage expansion as well as a removable and easily replaceable battery. Tradeoffs, eh?
Design aside, the Galaxy S6 sports several interesting enhancements like a faster camera that promises to deliver even better images, built-in support for wireless charging, and a revamped fingerprint sensor that works with a simple press instead of an awkward swipe. Samsung is also offering a version of the phone called the Galaxy S6 Edge that has a distinctive curved glass display, which slopes over its left and right sides to create a more rounded effect.
As for the software -- well, it's still TouchWiz. The new Galaxy phones are based on Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop OS but include that pungently familiar Samsung flavor. Sammy is talking up the fact (again) that it's cut back significantly on feature bloat this go-round, but early hands-on evaluations suggest the difference is far less dramatic than you might expect. (Gee, who woulda thought?)
The GS6 and GS6 Edge are set to launch around the world starting on April 10th. No word yet on specific availability dates for the various U.S. carriers, which often like to stick to their own arbitrary schedules for smartphone releases.
2. The HTC One (M9) is about to launch, too -- and it's pretty darn similar to last year's One (M8).
Samsung isn't the only Android player with a shiny new toy to show off. After weeks of "leaks" and rumors, HTC has taken the wraps off its next-gen flagship phone, the HTC One (M9). At a glance, the new One looks pretty similar to its predecessor -- but you know what? That's not necessarily a bad thing.
Last year's One (M8) was hands-down one of the best Android phones ever made -- "close to the ultimate high-end device," as I wrote in my review at the time. And unlike some phones that feel disappointing or dated even weeks after their release, it's held up remarkably well over time.
There were really just a couple of main complaints about the M8: First, its "UltraPixel" camera -- while capable of capturing some great shots, especially in low-light environments -- wasn't terribly versatile. And second, its tall nature made it feel a bit awkward to hold and use, especially with its top-of-phone power button placement.
The new M9 -- set to launch globally in March -- addresses those gripes while hanging onto the sleek design and all-metal construction that made the previous One so special. With its latest phone, HTC has moved the "UltraPixel" camera onto the front and introduced a new 20-megapixel primary shooter on the back. The company has also refined the body of the phone with a slightly shorter and narrower frame that features an updated finish and a more pronounced edge on its trim. Oh, and that power button? HTC's moved it down into a far more reachable side-of-phone position.
Software continues to be a strong point for HTC's One line: The M9 runs a new version of HTC's custom Sense software with the Android 5.0 Lollipop OS beneath it. The latest Sense introduces a few intriguing new features, like the ability to have your home screen intelligently predict what apps you might want to use based on your location and the ability to customize your phone's appearance with a wide range of themes -- one of which is even able to dynamically change the look of your entire home screen based on your current wallpaper (an effect that'll be familiar to anyone who's used Action Launcher 3).
All in all, the One (M9) appears to be an incrementally but meaningfully better version of the One (M8) -- and considering how impressive the previous phone was, that ought to make for a compelling if somewhat unsurprising device.
3. It's official: Google is getting ready to offer its own wireless service.
During his MWC keynote address, Google's Guy In Charge of Practically Everything (that's pretty much his title at this point, right?) Sundar Pichai said the Big G would be launching an "experimental" effort that'd combine different mobile and Wi-Fi networks in a "seamless" way for consumers.
Pichai said Google doesn't plan to become "a network operator at scale" and will instead work with its existing carrier partners on the service. That seems in line with a recent Wall Street Journal report that suggested Google would give subscribers "the ability to pick the best signal from a variety of sources" -- selecting "whichever offers the best signal to route calls, texts and data."
According to Pichai, details will be announced sometime in the coming months.
4. It's also official: Google's getting ready to split up Google+ into a few standalone products.
Nothing's being "killed," but Pichai confirmed during his talk that Google+ would soon be broken apart into multiple standalone services. Pichai's remarks -- along with an online posting by another Google exec -- point to three resulting services: Hangouts, which started in G+ but has already largely branched out into its own entity; Photos, which would presumably be the various image storage and editing functions currently bundled into G+; and Stream, which sounds like some version of the main G+ site for general content sharing.
[Update: Google+'s chief architect has further clarified this point and says that though things are being reorganized internally, there will be "no big user-facing changes" with any of the services involved.]
5. Google is expanding its wireless payment platform with something new called Android Pay.
The new "mobile wallet framework" will allow developers to tap into a secure payment system for Android phones. It won't replace Google Wallet; rather, it'll be the underlying system that powers Wallet along with a variety of other payment-oriented apps.
Odds are we'll hear much more about the specifics at Google's developers' conference this May.
6. Sony has an awesome-looking new Android tablet on the way.
Sony's Android devices may not have the best traction here in the States, but they're among the finest phones and tablets around -- and the company's newly announced Xperia Z4 Tablet looks to continue that trend with some compelling new twists.
The Xperia Z4 Tablet boasts Sony's trademark design and build quality in an unusually thin and light form that also manages to be waterproof. The tablet has a 10.1-in. 2560-x-1600 screen and runs a lightly modified version of Google's Android 5.0 Lollipop OS. It also has an optional docking keyboard accessory that aims to provide a laptop-like experience via some interesting software optimizations.
Making a tablet that's memorable and desirable is no small feat in this day and age -- and Sony's latest effort looks to be one of a select few that could be up to the task. The big question, of course, is how much it'll cost. With a launch target of June, we may have to wait a bit longer for that answer.
7. Android Wear is about to get a couple of classy new options.
There's no shortage of smartwatch options for Google's Android Wear platform, but most of the current choices come with significant compromises. LG and Huawei are hoping to turn things up a notch with their newly announced offerings, the LG Watch Urbane and Huawei Watch.
Both watches have classy and premium bodies that look more like jewelry than gadgets. The LG Watch Urbane is basically a fancier version of the company's existing G Watch R, which excelled in functionality but fell somewhat short in form. The Urbane has a slimmed-down frame and a shiny stainless steel exterior, available in silver or gold. It has the same exceptional P-OLED display as the G Watch R, meanwhile, and the same stuff under the hood -- which by and large is a good thing.
The Huawei Watch takes things a step further with a stainless steel body -- available in silver, black, and gold -- and a super-strong Sapphire Crystal screen protecting an unusually high-res (for a smartwatch, at least) AMOLED display. More than anything, though, the quality and design are what make this smartwatch stand out. Plain and simple, this thing's a looker.
The Huawei Watch and LG Watch Urbane are both slated to start shipping later this year, so once again, we'll have to wait on specific availability and pricing details. For now, though, we can say this: Some tantalizing new choices are on the way -- and Android Wear's about to look sharper than ever.