Friday, 3 January 2014

Best of 2013

From touch-enabled devices and ultra-thin PCs to connected cameras and smarter televisions, 2013 has been an exciting year. Izwan Ismail and Nicholas King check out some significant innovations

THERE’S never been a boring year in tech or one without great innovations. For the past 365 days, we’ve seen hundreds of new products — some were great, some were just updates while a few failed to shine.
The year started with expectations of big hits. Segments that were hot in the consumer tech industry were smartphones, cameras, tablets, portable PCs and TVs.
This is the most happening segment. Who’s without a smartphone nowadays?
As devices get cheaper, the Internet becomes more ubiquitous and social networks the extensions of our lives, smartphones are must-haves.
Based on a Gartner report, worldwide smartphone sales to end-users reached 250.2 million units, up 45.8 per cent from the third quarter of 2012. Asia Pacific led the growth in smartphone and mobile phone markets at 77.3 per cent and 11.9 per cent growth respectively.
The year has seen quite a number of new launches in this segment, led by South Korean tech giant Samsung, followed by Apple and Nokia.
Samsung showed its dominance with the most number of launches, especially in the bigger screen segment with models like Galaxy S4, S4 Zoom, Note 3, Galaxy Grand, etc. The company managed to delight consumers by marrying the phone and camera in the likes of Galaxy S4 Zoom or pairing a wearable with its smartphone like the Galaxy Note 3 with the Galaxy Gear.
Meanwhile, Samsung’s greatest competitor, Apple, broke the tradition of launching one phone a year by rolling out iPhone 5s and 5c. The 5s comes with a more powerful processor and touch ID features, while the 5c is more of a repackaged iPhone 5 in a colourful plastic casing.
Nokia made a better comeback this year with its line of colourful Lumia Windows phones such as 41MP Lumia 1020, Lumia 925, Lumia 525 as well as the affordable Asha series. This could be due to the better apps ecosystem in the Windows marketplace which has totalled more than 125,000 towards the end of 2013.
While the majority of smartphone makers registered good sales, the same couldn’t be said of BlackBerry.
2013 was truly a do-or-die year for the Canadian smartphone maker, formerly known as Research In Motion. When it announced the release of BlackBerry 10 and devices based on the OS, it hoped to bring BlackBerry back to the black but it just didn’t meet expectations. Revenues dropped 56 per cent in the latest quarter as business continued to shrink.
Another interesting development was that even though purely mobile phone makers still dominated the smartphone market, computer makers like Lenovo, Acer and Asus were slowly introducing their versions of Android phones like the Lenovo K900 and P780, Acer Liquid E1, S1 and Z3, and Asus Padfone 2.

Almost every major vendor introduced cameras with wireless connectivity, allowing pictures or videos to be shared almost instantly on social network sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
Although not a traditional camera vendor, Samsung started the trend with its full Android-based camera like the Galaxy NX Camera, which evolved from the 2012 Galaxy camera. It’s more like a hybrid device which combined an interchangeable lens camera with a smartphone, resulting in a device that looks like a big Android smartphone from the back and a camera on the front. No other vendor has yet to come out with a similar device.
Beside the Android camera, smart cameras — ones with WiFi, Bluetooth, NFC — are almost everywhere. These are not just cameras with connection capability but also built-in filters and smart modes to make images look more professional and creative.
The dSLR segment also got hit with the WiFi trend when Canon unveiled the first WiFi capable fullframe camera, the EOS 6D.
With this capability, users can shoot objects from a distance via their mobile devices like smartphones and tablets when paired with the camera.
There are a number of functions that one can do with the WiFi functions, transfer images between cameras, connect to smartphones, remote control via PC or Mac, print from WiFi-enabled printer, upload to social media sites like FB, Twitter via computer and also view images on smart TV with WiFi function.
2013 was also a year where many camera makers decided to go retro with design and colour schemes that mimiced the old film-camera, but packed with modern tech.
FujiFilm, which had been coming out with retro-looking cameras over the years, came out with the X100s and X-E2.
Nikon meanwhile launched its retro-design fullframe Df camera, which looked just like a Nikon from the film era. The camera comes with dials that control shutter speed, exposure compensation, and sensitivity and exposure mode on the top of the camera. But inside is the same 16.2 million pixel full-frame sensor and processing engine as the flagship Nikon D4.
Such high-end retro-style cameras are expected to be the trend next year.

SMART and curvy
3D didn’t quite make it this year despite much publicity and coverage probably due to the lack of 3D content. Smart LED TVs, however, fared better, as well as larger sizes TVs, 40-inch and above.
Smart TV platforms will continue to evolve with faster Internet services. Advanced features like TV-human interaction and free online TV content enjoyed by users of smart TVs could further drive up the demand for this type of TV.
2013 was also the year where new types of TVs made their debut like the ultra-HD 4K TV and curved TVs. The Ultra-HD 4K TVs delivers four times the picture resolution of 1080p Full HD or eight million pixels compared to the usual two million pixels. This means finer details, greater texture and real-life image quality.
Curved TVs, meanwhile, gave a wider field of view than its flat-screen counterpart and improved brightness uniformity.
LG, Samsung and Sony are among the top players in this area, but these two technologies are still in the early stage and would probably take a few more years to mature.

It has been a tough year for PC makers with plunging sales and still no surefire way to make a comeback since the advent of tablets and more advance smartphones.
In 2013, the segment saw its largest drop in recent years. Research firm International Data Corporation Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker estimated that worldwide PC shipments fell by 10 per cent from 2012 which was also said to be by far the worse annual drop on record.
The report highlighted the reasons for this: Low demand for replacing PCs and the emergence of more tablets and smartphone. Nonetheless, the segment wasn’t being replaced but merely in need for more innovation. One such innovation was the PC-tablet hybrids or 2-in-1 devices, with increased number of launches this year.
Another report by research company GfK said portable PCs, particularly affordable ultra-thin and 15.6 inch ones, make up the bulk of the market.
It is also no surprise why current market leader Lenovo is pushing their Yoga and S series laptops. Just before the closing of the year, the company focused on launching ThinkPad Yoga, Yoga 2 Pro, Yoga Y410p Flex 20, S210 Touch, and Tablet Miix 10: All feature either 2-in-1, slim or lightweight as their selling point on top of other standard products.
We have also seen many companies doing the same: Asus with its Transformer Book T100T, Dell’s new XPS11 2-in-1 Ultrabook and, Sony with its VAIO Fit multi-flip and VAIO Tap 11.
Addressing the need to upgrade your PCs, Intel recently launched its Trade-Up My PC programme offering customers the option to trade in their old PCs for cashback rebates of up to RM650 when they purchase selected Intel PC models.
There was an increasing need to feel or deliver premium performance as a product to cope with new market expectations. Dell’s new range of Inspiron 7000 series and HP’s Envy Touchsmart all sported aluminium finish.
Dell’s new XPS 15 and Samsung’s Ativ Book 9 Plus, from built to performance, were designed to compete with Apple’s ever popular MacBook Pro series.
A surprise was the year’s push for gaming laptops such as MSI notebooks and Razer’s Blade and Blade Pro.
Were these innovations enough? GfK’s report pointed out that the portable PC market was still strong here, valued at over US$478 million (RM1.5 billion) in January to October for the year.

The rage behind the tablet market can only be described in one word: Explosive. Research company GfK reported that nearly 450,000 tablets were sold here from January to May this year, 61 per cent more compared to the first five months of 2012.
The findings also showed at least 78,000 tablets were sold each month since the beginning of the year, with the highest sales of 97,000 in May alone.
The latest GfK report indicated that in May, there were 142 tablet models in the market launched across 44 local and international brands.
Tablets may also be the most influential segment right now with each smartphone company having a phablet (a combination between smartphone and tablet due to its screen size) in their line up and PC companies churning out more 2-in-1 PCs.
In fact PC companies have created enough competition in the market with their own tablets: Lenovo’s Idea Tab A3000 and Yoga Tablet, Asus’ Nexus 7, Acer’s Iconia W-4 and Dell’s to-be-launced Dell Venue tablets.
The market is still dominated by Samsung and Apple. Samsung launched a slew of Galaxy Tab 3 models with an utterly cute Galaxy Tab 3 Kids. A follow-up to the original Galaxy Note 10.1 was the Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition which greatly improved on the S-Pen stylus functionality.
Apple launched lighter and sleeker looking iPad models: iPad Air and iPad Mini.
The rate at which the market moves begs the question: How different are the products from one another? Ingenuity and innovation may be a struggle for the market but as tablets become ever more affordable and come off more of a necessity than option, they are expected to dominate the connected device market sometime soon.

Read more: Best of 2013 - Tech - New Straits Times


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