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Saturday, April 20, 2024

All the Best Gadgets We Saw at MWC 2023

Mobile World Congress, the annual trade show dedicated primarily to the mobile communications industry, has returned to Barcelona. While not the first year of MWC since the pandemic started (it is now officially called MWC, maybe because Mobile World Congress sounds about as exciting as a legislative body), 2023 was the first with the truly bustling halls we remember from 2019 and before. 

What was announced there? True, manufacturers have got into the habit of revealing their top devices at their own events—but there was still plenty of new tech to tout at MWC 2023. Here are some of the highlights. 

Lenovo ThinkPads Get a Rethink

Proving that “mobile” doesn’t have to mean mobile phone, Lenovo announced a bunch of refreshes of its brilliant, if reassuringly expensive, ThinkPad lines at MWC 2023. 

The ThinkPad X13 Gen 4 gets new-generation Intel Core I-series processors and, as senior product manager Matej Misturik explained, one of the heats vents has been moved to the rear. This stops the laptop from overheating if the underside is blocked. 

Lighter weight and an OLED panel bring a little 2023 gloss to one of the most respected business laptop lines. 

Want more obvious gloss? Lenovo Thinkpad Z13 Gen 2 line flips the order of priorities, as a high-end ultraportable with ThinkPad elements. At first glance, not much has changed here bar the use of 7000-series AMD processors. 

However, Sensel tells us its haptic touchpads replace those of the rather vague-feeling Thinkpad Z13 Gen 1. “Lenovo wasn’t happy with their solution, for a variety of reasons, so we were able to slot in for Gen 2,” says Sensel’s Mark Rosenberg. “You want a crisp click feel that fires and then dampens very quickly, to more closely emulate a mechanical button—otherwise it feels and sounds buzzy, which isn’t pleasant.”

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From a quick play I had, the Thinkpad Z13 seems to have a much more substantial, better-grounded touchpad feel than its predecessor. However, it still doesn’t have quite the keyboard key travel as the more traditional Thinkpad X13. 

Motorola’s Rolling Phone

Laptop refreshes are conventional, but Lenovo-owned Motorola had something potentially tastier to show: new kind of flexible phone. Instead of being foldable, it’s rollable. 

In its standard orientation the rollable concept phone has a 5-inch screen. This becomes a 6.5-inch screen when you double-press a button on the side. With a brief motor whir, the extra display appears as if from a scroll, having before formed a second screen on the back.   

The Motorola rollable concept bears the name Rizr, evoking memories of the Motorola Razr series, but the maker actually had a Rizr slide-up phone way back in 2006. Its screen can also shift down a touch to reveal the front selfie camera. And if you’d rather use the rear one for selfies, you have the excess screen to use as a preview window if you like. 

Instead of a fat phone that turns into a mini tablet, the Motorola Rizr concept is a small-screen phone that turns into one with a more normal-size display (with extra benefits).

Motorola also showed off a rollable laptop, with a screen that retreats behind, or into, the screen hinge. Neither of these will go on sale as they are, but may be a sign of gadgets to come. 

OnePlus Keeps Its Cool

OnePlus continues the show's concept trend with another phone you won’t be able to buy, but perhaps should pay attention to. It’s a demo of a new liquid cooling solution called Active CryoFlux that OnePlus says can reduce device temperatures by up to two degrees when gaming. 

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This demo device itself doesn’t feature this cooling, and is instead intended as a visual demo of the kind of liquid channels such a system will use in the future. In action it looks wild, as if an OLED screen under the surface were displaying little oxygen bubbles heading through a maze of tiny tubes. 

This is, we are assured by OnePlus, actually a mix of water and oil, with some mica power for good measure. LEDs light up the liquid inside, which moves heat away from the core components. 

Cooling is the theme of the show for OnePlus, as it also demo’d an even more unusual active cooling device for phones. A pads clamps onto the pack of the phone, and this connects to a box similar in size to a larger external hard-drive enclosure.

Within a few seconds it had made the back of a OnePlus 11 downright cold, and it uses thermoelectric cooling interface to make this happen. Heat is then transferred from this plate interface to cooling fluid that runs through the system’s cabling, pushed around by a motor in the base unit.

OnePlus claims it can reduce temperature by 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), and it uses up to 45W of power doing so. It’s not the most practical solution to thermal throttling in most situations, particularly as it need to be plugged in, but is is a novel one. There’s no word on when this device will be out or how much it will cost just yet.

Lastly, the brand announced that it's got its first foldable phone coming later this year. "We want to launch a device that aims to be at the pinnacle experience of today’s foldable market,” said Kinder Liu, president and COO of OnePlus at the show without offering any other information.

Huawei’s Cyber Watch

Huawei has also been playing around with odd forms of mobile tech, and showed off what comes across as a companion piece to the Huawei Watch Buds—the smartwatch whose face flips open to reveal a pair of true wireless earphones. 

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This is the Huawei Watch GT Cyber, a watch where the strap forms a complete casing for the core, including the bezel. Its entire outer can be replaced, and is indeed  replaced when you switch straps. The actual brains, which Huawei bafflingly calls a “stainless steel movement” despite the whole thing being free of any analog watch moving parts, pops out and looks rather like a pocket watch. 

Two of the strap casings come in the box, and the feature set here is similar to that of a Huawei Watch GT 3, leaning more on the sports and fitness side than smarts. It’s also water resistant to 50 meters. The Huawei Watch GT Cyber is only available in China and SE Asia at the moment, and costs around £180 ($218). 

Honor Vs Xiaomi: High-End Phone Face-Off

More interested in tech you can actually buy? MWC also saw the launch of a pair of true big-hitter phones. 

Honor unveiled the Magic 5 Pro, a high-price model for the Magic series that costs €899 ($954) in Europe. It has a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processor and sparkly textured glass back. But the cameras stay the spotlight here, not least because they are arranged so drastically across its rear. 

These are a trio of 50-MP sensors, an ultrawide, a 1/1.22-inch sensor primary camera, and a 3.5x optical zoom that can be stretched to 100x magnification. And it debuts some new AI software from Honor that claims to be able to capture crisp shots of fast motion. 

The Honor Magic 5 Pro was shown off alongside the company’s Magic Vs foldable phone, which was announced in China back in November. 

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Xiaomi one-ups Honor with a phone that, at arm’s length, looks more conservative: the £1,099 ($1,329) 13 Pro. It joins the still-small cohort of phones with 1-inch camera sensors. Once again it’s part of a trio of 50-MP rear cameras, including a 3.2x zoom lens that bears the Leica name. However, it will also need top-tier processing software if the Xiaomi 13 Pro is to challenge the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra and iPhone 14 Pro.

Xiaomi's AR Glasses With Near 'Retina-Level' Display

Phones a little too pedestrian for your tastes? Xiaomi’s prototype AR glasses might appeal. The Xiaomi Wireless AR Glass Discovery Edition were only shown off behind a wall of plastic, but the hardware inside sounds promising.

The lenses are made of electrochromic glass, able to black out the outside world if necessary, if not with the absolute occlusion of a Sony PSVR 2. A mini LED display sits in front of each eye, capable of 1200-nit brightness and sharpness almost at the level where the individual pixels themselves are not perceptible—58 pixels per degree.

It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR 2 Gen 1 processor, the same found in the Meta Quest Pro. While we were not able to get a first-hand preview at what the headset is like to use, it’s a preview of what the next wave of AR hardware might look like.

Nokia's Repairable Budget Phone

In most respects the Nokia G22 is unremarkable. It’s a plastic phone with humble specs that doesn’t cost much, just £169 ($205). However, the way it is put together is highly unusual. This is a phone you are meant to be able to repair, and Nokia has teamed-up with iFixit to offer kits to replace the battery and the screen.

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Having once spent the equivalent of a full day of work attempting the latter on a “normal” smartphone—with only partial success—I can tell you this is a handy feature. I took apart the Nokia G22 at the company’s MWC 2023 stand to replace the battery. And I timed it. Even with some tutorials from the iFixit rep thrown in, I managed to take apart the G22 and put it back together in under six minutes.

Sure, you have to disconnect the fingerprint scanner ribbon cable, which feels (like all these cables) extremely fragile. And, sure, there are a couple of fiddly little mounting plates that could ping themselves under a couch. However, the process is an order of magnitude easier than it is in a standard smartphone, where the core parts of the phone are glued together.

Here, though, the outer case and inner parts are clipped together. As a result, the Nokia G22 has a pretty dismal water-resistance rating of IPX2. Still, alongside the Fairphone series, repairablility is rarely made such an active concern. iFixit told me replacement batteries will cost €25 ($27), and kits with tools included are €30. For the battery replacement, I only needed a small crosshead screwdriver, a guitar plectrum-like lever and a little poker to help shimmy out a couple of components.

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