Samsung poised to grab lion’s share of handset buzz: MWC Preview

Samsung is expected to gain early buzz by announcing the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus on the eve of the show. (Image: FierceWireless)

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In sharp contrast to previous Mobile World Congresses, the 2018 edition of wireless’ biggest get-together will be largely devoid of big, splashy handset announcements, with most vendors opting to premiere their new top-of-the-line devices at other points in the year. This means that all eyes will be on Samsung—along with a rash of other device developments that go beyond the flash of flagship hardware.

Samsung is expected to gain early buzz by announcing the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus on the eve of the show (Feb. 25 at its Unpacked event). The online leaks-and-rumors engine has been going strong on the specs for this one, with a consensus that the high-end Android device will feature the long-anticipated Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, a Super-AMOLED curved display, fingerprint scanner, the Bixby AI assistant with a dedicated button, and a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera (plus an 8-megapixel front-facing lens). However, those specs may belie something more innovative from the Korean giant.

“The teaser strapline for Samsung's event [is] ‘The camera. Reimagined,’" said analyst firm CCS Insight, in a research note. “We expect to see as many as four or five cameras built into the devices (up to three rear-facing cameras and two lenses at the front for taking selfies).”

Another potential major launch could be the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, which is said to also sport the top-tier Snapdragon 845 chipset and Android Oreo, along with an interesting artificial intelligence (AI)-based scene recognition camera. The release date has been a closely-guarded secret, but some are betting the Chinese vendor will choose Barcelona as its venue for the launch—even though it has no press events scheduled.

Then there’s Sony, which debuted the Xperia XZ Premium at MWC last year and could be prepping the second version for this year. The company does have an event scheduled for the morning of Feb. 26, and management has signaled that it plans to reaffirm its commitment to the smartphone space with a launch in a new direction, in light of its struggles to compete with Apple and Samsung for the top end of the market. To that end, the Xperia XZ Premium 2 is expected to include the Snapdragon 845 chipset, along with a fingerprint scanner and a major general redesign. There’s also talk of a “Pro” version of the Xperia XZ.

Meanwhile, big names like Google, HTC, Huawei, LG and others have indicated they won't launch flagship devices in Barcelona—likely because they can garner more attention by having their own individual events outside of the glut of announcements at MWC. And in some cases, the timing doesn’t work, given their latest-generation devices were announced in the second half of 2017. The HTC U12 is expected to arrive in May, while Xiaomi is targeting a September launch date for the Mi MIX 3 handset, as is LG for its V40. Google's Pixel 3 will likely launch in October.

What the industry will definitely see is a number of mid- and low-tier feature phones, from Nokia’s HMD Global division, Huawei, Sony and many of the smaller Chinese phone makers—an altogether less exciting proposition, to be sure. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty else to watch.

For one, the dearth of major top-tier launches means that niche players will get a chance to stand out from the crowd. Sailfish 3, for instance, will launch on Monday, Feb. 26, with a rash of accompanying devices. Sailfish bills itself as an alternative mobile operating system—as an open-source Linux distribution, it’s a playground for developers. And Bullitt, a maker of rugged phones, will show off its new Land Rover Defender device. MWC 2018 is likely to be a showcase for concept devices, too, like smartphones with folding screens.

There will also be a new crop of wearables to keep an eye on, including Sony and Ericsson's noninvasive glucose-monitoring wristband for diabetics. On the more fun side, Omate is teaming with Japanese toymaker Diablock on a kids’ smartwatch that takes more than a few style points from Legos; and Huawei and LG may unveil the latest versions of their smart watches for adults.