China Smartphone Sales Slowdown

[ Financial Times ] Simon Mundy:

A large part of the problem for the industry is a slowdown in handset sales in China, where the smartphone market had been growing at a double- or triple-digit pace in recent years. But last year, that growth rate was only in the “low single-digits”, according to researchers at IDC, who think the pace of global smartphone sales growth will continue to decline.

Samsung is forecasting lower smartphone sales. Apple is too. Apple bet the farm on China, but Apple’s products are more expensive and folks with more money generally buy them. Folks with more money are less impacted by the economy and so maybe Apple might not experience as steep a decline as Samsung. Unlike Apple, Samsung has a broad range — hundreds? — of smartphones; sales of mid- to low-end smartphones will be more exposed to economic downturns.

You might think an economic downturn might actually help sell lower-end smartphones. That might be true if your financial situation changes a little bit, but not when an economic downturn hits you hard. When you’re hard pressed for money — money for food, electricity, rent, etc. — you’re not thinking, “I need to upgrade my smartphone, but since I don’t have money I’ll upgrade to a cheaper one.” No, that’s not what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “My smartphone works, so I’ll wait to upgrade until my financial situation gets better.”

The Best Virtual Assistant

[ The New York Times ] Brian X. Chen:

Apple was the strongest at productivity tasks like calendar appointments and email; Google was the best at travel and commute-related tasks. Alexa excelled at music, and Cortana was mediocre across the board.

Could someone build a meta virtual assistant who asks all four, decides which is best, and then gives the best answer?

Windows Phone is Dying

[ The Verge ] Tom Warren:

Microsoft only sold 4.5 million Lumia devices in the recent quarter, compared to 10.5 million at the same time last year. That’s a massive 57 percent drop.

No wiggle room here; Windows Phone smartphone sales dropped. Actually it tanked. Windows Phone is dying and will soon die if Microsoft doesn’t do something about it, and soon. Warren does mention the rumor that Microsoft is working on a Surface Phone. If Microsoft is indeed working on a Surface Phone it should consider it a life or death situation for Windows Phone and make sure to do it well, exceptionally well.

Here’s what Microsoft needs to do: Surface Phone’s hardware needs to have the best camera, the best display, the best battery, all in the thinnest and lightest all-metal chassis. The Windows Phone operating system needs to be super powerful, super intuitive, and super cool. Microsoft needs to build a strong developer ecosystem and fast. Windows Phone needs a ton of awesome mobile apps. I’m sure all of you already knew this and I’m certain Microsoft knows it too.

But can Microsoft execute? I’m not so sure, but I hope so. I want Microsoft to be a viable alternative to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

Dell XPS 15 Review by Ars Technica

[ Ars Technica ] Peter Bright:

The fine-looking 4K screen starts at $1,799, which gets you 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD, as well as the discrete graphics. I think this is probably the best-rounded system.

The 15.6-inch IPS LCD can be equipped with an optional 4K display with a pixel format of 3840×2160, good for a resolution of 282 ppi. And the massive number of pixels are powered by a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M GPU with 2GB GDDR5 VRAM. The XPS 15 posted some solid benchmark numbers, beating the competition in most.

The thin bezels around the display make the XPS 15 look nice, nicer than most MacBooks (Airs and Pros) except for maybe the 12-inch MacBook. The only weird feature on the XPS 15 is the location of the webcam: it’s underneath the display. I guess the bezel was too thin to put a camera up there.

Google AlphaGo AI Beats European Go Champion

[ Wired ] Cade Metz:

“AlphaGo learned to discover new strategies for itself, by playing millions of games between its neural networks, against themselves, and gradually improving,” says DeepMind researcher David Silver.

According to Silver, this allowed AlphaGo to top other Go-playing AI systems, including Crazystone. Then the researchers fed the results into a second neural network. Grabbing the moves suggested by the first, it uses many of the same techniques to look ahead to the result of each move. This is similar to what older systems like Deep Blue would do with chess, except that the system is learning as it goes along, as it analyzes more data—not exploring every possible outcome through brute force. In this way, AlphaGo learned to beat not only existing AI programs but a top human as well.

AlphaGo beat European Go champion Fan Hui five out of five times. Doesn’t sound like a big deal. Deep Blue beat chess champion Garry Kasparov. Watson beat Jeopardy champions. And now AlphaGo beat a European Go champion. So? Well, think about this: the possible moves on a Go board is more than all the atoms in the universe. In other words, there’s a lot — way more than chess — to compute.

In March AlphaGo will challenge South Korea-based grandmaster Sedol Lee who is the current world champion and considered the best Go player in the world.

Google Pixel C Review by AnandTech

[ AnandTech ] Brandon Chester & Joshua Ho:

Ultimately, the Pixel C ends up being a strange mix of things that may have worked together in a much more cohesive manner had it shipped with Chrome OS like it was clearly intended to. Unfortunately, Android just doesn’t provide an acceptable tablet experience, and Google’s own applications are some of the biggest offenders.

Google makes both Chrome OS and Android. And Google made the Pixel C. Google handled both software and hardware, and ended up doing a better job with the hardware. The 10.2-inch 3:2 2560×1800 LTPS IPS LCD — that was a mouthful — is quite good, but falls short of best. I like the 3:2 aspect ratio; the original iPhone up until the iPhone 4s sported the same aspect ratio.

As for the hardware, the first thing to talk about is the SoC. Tegra X1 is very fast on both the CPU and GPU sides, and as far as Android tablets go it offers the best graphics performance that you can get. The display on the Pixel C is also very good, with accurate color rendering and a high brightness as well as deep blacks. The greyscale accuracy could use some work, and Google needs to improve on hiding their digitizer and cutting down reflections in general, but for the most part it’s a very good panel.

A display with high reflectance. A glossy display. A reflective display. These are all signs of not-so-good. Apple is better, but the industry overall needs to work on reducing reflectance on every single display where a human being needs to look at it in an environment where there is light, natural or man-made.

Here are some display test results:

  • Max Display Brightness: 495 nits. Lagging behind the iPhone 6s Plus (582), iPhone 6s (567), Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (566), and Huawei Mate 8 (522).
  • Black Levels: 0.27. Only behind the iPad Pro (0.25).
  • Contrast Ratio: 1,818. Leading the pack, followed by the iPad Pro (1,644), and the Huawei Mate 8 (1,607).
  • Grayscale Accuracy (Average DeltaE 2000): 3.19. The Pixel C is way down the list. At #1 is the iPad mini 4 (1.02).
  • Saturation Accuracy (Average DeltaE 2000): 1.88. Again, way down the list. The iPad mini 4 is again at the top with 0.87.
  • Gretag-MacBeth Accuracy (Average DeltaE 2000): 2.46. Way down the list again. The iPad mini 4 (1.32) is #1.

The Pixel C’s screen doesn’t seem to be the most accurate in terms of grayscale and color.

Brandon Chester:

In its current state, I honestly can’t give the Pixel C any sort of recommendation, even to the biggest fans of Google products. Its software needs a lot of work, and I hope that Google’s upcoming patch fixes the major problems. The Pixel C may improve with future updates, but for now it’s best to hold off and see how things change going forward.

Joshua Ho:

Overall, I’m not even sure this measures up to the iPad Air 2 which is well over a year old by this point. I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone buy this tablet until the touch screen issues and generally poor performance has been resolved, and even then that recommendation would be to a limited group of people solely interested in a touch-only Android tablet.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, A Physical-Based Digital Approach

[ Studio Daily ] ILM VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett in an interview with Barbara Robertson:

When you see the little speeder moving across the landscape, it’s a completely digital shot. But because we’d been there, when we recreated that moment, we did it from a physically-based approach. I don’t know if J.J. [Abrams] knows how we constructed the images, but he was at the location and he knew how it looked.

My son and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in IMAX 3D. Both of us enjoyed the movie. The 3D wasn’t overdone, but I’d like to watch it again at an IMAX theater without 3D. I’ll probably head on over to The Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose in the very near future.

I did see the little speeder, a hovercraft, moving across the landscape. The speeder with Rey played by Daisy Ridley at the wheel was zipping through the desert far away; it looked analog, like film, but modern high-resolution film. The overall feel of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a nice mixture of Star Wars IV, V, and V in terms of the visual experience.

Xiaomi Redmi 3

[ The Next Web ] Here are some hardware specs for the Xiaomi Redmi 3:

  • Display: 5-inch 1280×720
  • CPU: Octa-core Snapdragon 616 with 2GB RAM
  • Storage: 16GB
  • Camera: 13MP/5MP
  • SIM: 2 (or use 1 for microSD up to 128GB)
  • Battery: 4100mAh

The all-metal Redmi 3 is decidedly a mid-level Android smartphone, but the price is rock bottom: about US$100, in China.

iPad Pro Review by AnandTech

[ AnandTech ] Joshua Ho, Brandon Chester, and Ryan Smith:

The panel itself also appears to have dual domain pixels and a conventional RGB stripe. Viewing angles as a result are quite good. The cover glass also contains the AR coating first introduced with the iPad Air 2, which cuts reflectance roughly in half relative to a display that doesn’t have such a coating. This effectively doubles outdoor contrast, so it’s great for outdoor use.

You want a display to have as little reflectance as possible. Here are some test results:

  • Brightness: 426.71 nits (max). The iPad Pro came in the middle of the pack, with the iPhone 6s Plus at #1 with 582.01, and just ahead of the iPad Air 2 at 406.99.
  • Black Levels: 0.25 nits. The iPad Pro was #1 followed by NVIDIA’s SHIELD (0.29) and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 (0.30).
  • Contrast Ratio: 1,644. The iPad Pro was #1 followed by Huawei Mate 8 (1,607) and iPhone 6s (1,532).
  • White Point: 6,908K. 6500K is optimal. The Google Nexus 5X (6,541K) and Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 (6,466K) were the closest.
  • Grayscale Accuracy: 1.80 (average DeltaE 2000). The iPad Pro came behind the iPad mini 4 (1.02), Google Nexus 5X (1.38), and Surface Pro 4 (1.80).
  • Saturation Accuracy: 1.37 (average DeltaE 2000). Similar to grayscale accuracy, the iPad Pro came in at #4 behind the iPad mini 4 (0.87), Surface Pro 4 (1.34), and Google Nexus 5X (1.35).
  • Gretag MacBeth (GMB) Accuracy: 1.55 (average DeltaE 2000). Second only to the iPad mini 4 (1.32), with the Surface Pro 4 (1.56) and Google Nexus 5X (1.65) right behind.

AnandTech concludes by stating the iPad Pro display as “one of the best available on the market today.”

Foxconn Bids For Sharp

[ The Wall Street Journal ] Foxconn has bid about ¥625 billion (~US$5.3 billion) to take over Sharp. Japan’s Innovation Network Corp., which owns a controlling stake in Japan Display Inc. (JDI) has also offered a bid of ¥300 billion for Sharp.

Japan wants Sharp to remain a Japanese company, but it depends on Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. and Mizuho Financial Group Inc.; together are owed between ¥500 and ¥600 billion. Will they choose money or patriotism?

Here’s my take. Foxconn builds a lot of stuff for a lot of companies including Apple. Apple procures most of its displays from LG Display (LGD). If Foxconn succeeds in bidding for Sharp, Foxconn will most likely be able to offer incredible deals integrating LCDs manufactured by Sharp to Apple and other companies like Dell, HP, etc.

Both LGD and Sharp can manufacture displays with IPS technology with oxide/IGZO backplanes, though LGD is considered to be the best IPS LCD supplier in terms of quality, engineering, and quantity as of this writing. Foxconn might also be interested in Sharp’s thin film solar panel manufacturing technology and capability.