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Smartphone shopping (virtually) for my family at CES 2016

by Ken Hyers | 1月 11, 2016

Every time a new trade show rolls around I tend to play a little game and ask myself which new smartphones announced and exhibited I’d want. This year’s CES 2016 was no different, and as I looked at the different handsets I asked myself which I’d want or consider buying for my family.

When playing this game I tend to benchmark against whatever phone I’m currently using – this year things are much harder for the contenders since I’m currently using what I consider the current best-in-class smartphone available, Samsung’s Galaxy S6 edge +.  Given that Samsung’s current flagship is probably the best smartphone I’ve used, the bar is set pretty high, so I’m more focused on which of the new phones I’d give to family members. They’re all using older lower spec phones, but despite that they each have distinct preferences, so it’s not as easy as just handing them a new device and saying “job done”.  Also, it’s worth remembering that most of the top-tier Android brands save their flagship offerings for MWC in Barcelona (and Apple has its own event so doesn’t even exhibit at trade shows).

I tend to rank smartphones based on who is using them and what they want and need. I demand an excellent camera because I like to document everything – my kids, my travels, cars, slides flashed up on the screen in presentations, exhibits at trade shows, etc. I also want a big screen – 5.5 to 5.7 inches is the sweet spot as anything bigger is a pain to carry in trouser pockets – and it’d better have a brilliant display since I’ll be wanting to look at those pictures I snapped, as well as watch Netflix shows and HBO Now while I’m on the road. For the rest of the family it’s more of a mix – 4.5 to 5.5 inches is the preferred screen size, they want to watch video, play games, and Facebook – and for my wife a good speaker for calls is essential. For the kids durability is key, but the entire family is also really focused on the UI and has definite preferences. For reference, they’re currently using an HTC M9, a Samsung Galaxy Alpha and (I kid you not) the LG Optimus G Pro pictured below.

Nina Phone

So with those requirements out of the way, on to the CES 2016 offerings:

First, the Windows Phones.

From Acer and Alcatel OneTouch we have two differing visions of what a Windows 10 smartphone could be. Alcatel’s offering is a 5.5 inch Fierce XL Windows 10 smartphone which offers a lot of bang for the buck given its $140 retail price, but is short on higher-end specs and doesn’t stray far from Microsoft Lumia styling. It’s the phone for folks who want a Windows 10 smartphone on a budget. From Acer there’s a more stylish premium Windows 10 smartphone, the Liquid Jade Primo. While it’s likely in the same price range as Microsoft’s own 950 and 950 XL offerings ($550 to $600 retail) it’s considerably better looking than any other Window phone on the market right now.

Alcatel Fierce XL & Acer Liquid Jade Primo:
5055W_front left specialacerliquidjadeprimo770x726


​Would I want one of these or offer one to a family member? I’ve used Windows phones for many years – in fact the Lumia 1520 was my primary handset for two years before my current Samsung came along. For accessing corporate email, opening Microsoft Office documents and presentations, and taking great pictures, a Lumia is tough to beat. If the Liquid Jade Primo had come out before I got my hands on the Samsung S6 edge + I’d definitely say that this new Windows smartphone from Acer was the handset for me. However, I’ve moved back into the Android camp so this phone isn’t to be for me. For the rest of the family, I’ve only been able to get one, my youngest, to use a Windows smartphone (the Lumia 920) but after moving to the Samsung Alpha a year or so ago, she has zero interest in switching back to a smartphone that lacks most of the apps that she uses to communicate with her friends, even if the Acer hardware specs are substantially better. Verdict – the Acer Liquid Jade Primo is a great looking phone, but its addressable market in the Hyers household (and in the world at large) is vanishingly small. Microsoft needs to step on the pedal to give people a reason to switch to its mobile experience; Acer has done its part (as has Alcatel in the budget price category) and it’s now up to Microsoft to bring applications, services, security and privacy to its mobile platform in order to give people a compelling reason to switch.

The Android offerings:

Like the market at large, Android offerings made up the majority of new smartphones announced at CES 2016. From entry to premium devices, there’s seemingly something for everyone. But (spoiler alert) I’ll cut to the chase right now and say I didn’t see anything that I’d trade my Samsung Galaxy S6 edge + for. With that out of the way, let’s see whether there’s anything for the rest of the family….

From Huawei came two devices – a refresh of the Nexus 6P, in gold, and the Mate 8. Both devices are large – the 6P is 5.7 inches and the Mate 8 is 6.0 inches. Since the Nexus is unchanged except for the exterior color, no need to go in depth about it here, except to say it’s still a terrific phone that highlights the best from Android, and if you want a premium pure Android experience and you want it in gold, this is the phone for you.

Huawei Nexus 6P Gold & Mate 8:

6p-nexus-goldhuawei-mate-8




The Mate 8 is a horse of a different color (though it also comes in gold). Huawei clearly decided to go its own way, using its own processor, the blazingly fast Kirin 950, and its own UI. It has a premium build and is likely to be retail priced in the $600 to $700 range, which is appropriate for a top-end device of this size. The big drawback (for some) of the Mate 8 is that it uses Huawei’s own Emotion UI, which feels sort of like an iPhone clone. A number of Android makers copy elements from iPhones to a greater or lesser degree, but frankly, if I wanted an iPhone I’d just buy one from Apple.  I prefer the Android experience and wish Huawei had simply gone the Nexus route with the Mate 8, possibly creating a near-perfect super phablet. I suspect that anyone in my family would be happy with the Nexus 6P, but we’ll likely leave the Mate 8 on the shelf.

From ZTE there were two phones, the Grand X3 and the Avid Plus, respectively 5.5 and 5.0 inches, which places them squarely in the sweet-spot, size wise for my family. Both are budget phones, with budget specs though, targeting the entry prepaid markets and neither is for me, nor, I suspect for anyone else in the family.

LG offered the K7 and K10, two entry-level phones whose design language is more reminiscent of its offerings from several years ago. These are affordable devices, which mean the specs are not top-of-the-line.  The K7 has a 5.0 inch FWVGA screen and 8 MP rear, 5 MP front camera, while the K10 has a 5.3 inch 720p display and a 13 MP rear, 8 MP front camera; however both break the mold with front LED flash, which is much needed on any phone for selfies.

LG K7 & K10:

lg-k7-k10


Normally I’d say everyone in our family has moved on from the tech in these budget phones, but the LG K10 just might be the one I could offer to get my kid to switch from her barely functioning Optimus G Pro. I imagine this is also a good phone to offer kids for their first phone and to those looking for an inexpensive prepaid smartphone of reasonable quality (albeit with older specs). The K7 will be coming to Boost Mobile soon, though no word on whether the K10 will make it to the US.

From relatively unknown smartphone maker Nuu Mobile comes the X4, a $170 retail 5.0 inch dual-SIM smartphone. In nearly all ways this well priced and reasonable well spec’d handset is a good value that won’t stand out from the many similar devices available or coming soon to market. It looks to be a good offering for a smartphone newcomer or for someone who needs an inexpensive replacement for their just broken higher-end phone. If I had it, I’d probably give it to my mother, since a nicer phone would be lost on her (sorry Mom).

From Alcatel comes three new Pixi 4-branded smartphones, whose main differentiators are their size – 3.5”, 4.0” and 6.0 inch. These budget handsets do offer some higher-quality features such as Polaroid software for customized camera editing and Arkamys optimized speakers for better audio.

I’ve been impressed with Alcatel’s smartphones and the amount of value their affordable handsets offer. In fact, I used Alcatel’s Idol 3 for several months last year until I dropped it, and I would recommend it to anyone who needs a good phone on a budget. Unfortunately the latest Pixi 4 offerings fall outside of the size range I or my family would consider, being either too small or too large. However I think the 3.5 and 4.0 inch offerings would make a great first phone for a kid.

Two other notable Android phones of CES 2016 come from Kyocera. Known for making very durable smartphones, Kyocera has carved a small but healthy niche in the US market, Kyocera brought out its 5.7” DuraForce XD (for around $360 retail) shock, dust and waterproof smartphone and the Hydro View, a 5.0 waterproof smartphone available for all of $80 retail! Either of these would be my go-to for when I’m camping or on vacation – but I think the Hydro View with its price and ruggedness would be great for my kid that has never met a phone she couldn’t damage (and then says to me “I just…”).

Shifting gears away from the budget handsets, to me one of the most intriguing newer handset makers of the past year has been Letv. The company, sometimes called “China’s Netflix”, maker of consumer entertainment products and now a concept car, also makes high-end smartphones. For CES it introduced the Letv Le Max Pro, a 6.3 inch superphone, the first smartphone to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 chipset.

Letv LeMax Pro:

Letv Le-Max-Pro-c

Running Android Marshmallow 6.0, offering a 21 megapixel main camera, fingerprint scanner, USB Type-C, and quick charge technology, from a hardware perspective this phone ticks all of the right boxes for me. In fact, despite its gigantic size I still can’t wait to get my hands on this beast of a phone and put it through its paces. 

Thinking through the offerings, if I were to choose new phones for my family based on what I saw at CES, I’d choose Huawei’s gold Nexus 6P, Kyocera’s Hydro View and for me, the Letv Le Max Pro. Not getting a new phone from CES 2016 would be my daughter with the Samsung Alpha – honestly there were no devices in its class at this year’s CES to replace it.

I’ll end this by saying that while there’s a lot of conversation lately about slowing innovation in smartphones, that’s not strictly true, despite the number of non-groundbreaking inexpensive handsets that were unveiled at CES 2016. Innovation isn’t just about offering devices with the latest and greatest specs, but is also about offering devices that meet a market need. From that perspective there has been a decided shift in the market over the past year or so towards less expensive handsets that can be bought outright, rather than on contract and over time.

Handset makers have done an impressive job bringing out smartphones that meet a price with good enough specs, and they should be applauded for that. On the other hand, cutting-edge devices like the Letv Le Max Pro are just the kind of handsets, packed with the latest tech that excites me as an analyst and makes me want to meet with smartphone makers to see what they’re planning to do next. While it’s great that handset makers are meeting consumers’ budgets, for 2016 I’ll be focusing on the groundbreaking tech that will be in phones in 2017 and beyond.

For more mobile device coverage of CES 2016 from Strategy Analytics, see the following posts: Pre-CES 2016 preview, day one, day two, day three, and day four.
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