Samsung Galaxy S5, Nokia X hog headlines at Mobile World Congress

NBR gets a sneak peek at Samsung's latest, due in NZ April 11 | After a lousy first attempt, Samsung takes another stab at a smartwatch | WhatsApp to offer free voice calling.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Samsung has taken the wraps off its latest smartphone, the Galaxy S5.

The the new handset will be released worldwide, including New Zealand, on April 11 through Telecom, Vodafone and 2degrees, for a price yet to be announced. 

NBR was able to have a quick play with the S5 at a parallel event in Auckland this morning (see photos above). It's the biggest Galaxy S series phone yet, with the display bumped from the S4's 4.9 inches to 5.1 inches. It's very light, but also reminiscent in size to the first generation Galaxy Note "phablet". There is a slight increase in heft in the S5 (145g) vs the S4 (120g) and a margin increase in chunkiness (the S5 is 8.1mm deep vs the S4's 7.9mm).

 A hero feature is an external heart rate monitor, placed just below the rear camera.

There's a ton of fitness apps out there, and various hardware add-ons that work with them, but Samsung says this is the first time an external sensor has been built into a phone.

You open Samsung's S Health app, lay your finger on the sensor - which then glows, ET like - then a measure is taken of your heart rate. Apple has already signalled that a health and fitness app will feature strongly in the next iPhone; this is becoming a competitive space.

The S5 also adds a fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone. Unlike the iPhone 5S, whose physical home button doubles as a sensor, the S5 features an onscreen sensor. A PayPal partnership has also been announced, taking in merchants that support PayPal mobile or in-store payments. Only limited countries have the PayPal support however. Samsung could not immediately say if NZ was on the list.

Other new features include water and dust resistance to the IP67 standard.

And there's also download booster technology that Samsung says will "boost data speed by bonding wi-fi and LTE (4G cellular) simultaneously. It'll be interesting to see if that works with real-world wi-fi and commercial 4G networks. As with other recent handsets, the S5 has Cat 4/LTE support. That is, the fastest type of 4G supported by Telecom and Vodafone, for theoretical maximum download speed of 150Mbit/s.

There's also a raft of incremental improvements. The rear camera has been boosted from 13 megapixels or 16 megapixels, and the processor has been bumped from 1.6GHz quad core to 2.5GHz quad core.

The camera app has a new selective focus mode, selective focus mode allows you to pick where you want the photo to focus and can blur the rest of the photo. Samsung also claims the S5's 0.3 auto-focus time is industry leading and as quick as some DSLRs. In the challenging low light of this morning's breakfast event, however, NBR didn't always find it that fast.

An HDR mode has been added for better low light pics, and you can now shoot 4K or ultra high definition video. So can new handsets from Sony and LG; this is an area were Apple's iPhone is behind the times.

The operating system software is Android 4.4.2 (aka KitKat). From a very quick first look, the general feel is that there's easy access to Google apps, and that Samsung has pulled back a little on its Android customisation habit.

Despite rumours the S5 would adopt an all-metal case, the new Galaxy retains plastic backing, put it now features a dotted surface that makes it easier to grip.

The upside of the S5 being marginally heavier is that the battery has more capacity - 2800 mAh to the S4's 1570 mAh. Samsung says this will boost talk time from 10 hours to 21 hours, and allow 12 hours' video.

New Samsung Smartwatch on the way - will it have workable battery life?
NBR wasn't impressed by Samsung's Galaxy Gear Smartwatch, released last year.

It' camera, social media, calendaring, messaging and other apps were easy to use, but the one-day battery life was a deal-breaker - and more so because the screen constantly went to sleep to stretch out that modest 24-hour timespan (it could be woken up with a flick of the wrist - but it had to be a "just so" practised flip of the wrist. NBR was constantly furious when it took several shakes to wake the watch).

It didn't look like many Samsung staff were impressed, either. NBR noted that execs at this morning's S5 briefing were wearing traditional watches. 

Now the company has a new model on the way, in a couple of months - and the Gear 2 (Galaxy has been dropped from the name) will feature three times the battery life, Samsung claims - which would make it three days. Peeble, the upstart Smartwatch brand that's been getting a lot of press, claims 5 days.

Along the way Android (which powered the Gear 1) has been dropped in favour of Tizen - a new-ish operating software system for Smartwatches, Smartphones and tablets backed by Samsung, Intel, Huawei and others. Like Android, it's based on Linux.

The Galaxy 1 had a camera bulging on its wristband. The Gear 2 moves the 2 megapixel camera to the body of the watch, while an alternate model, the Gear 2 Neo, loses the camera altogether.

Other frills include support for Bluetooth wireless music streaming, a heart rate monitor and dust and water resistance - but it will all be for nowt if the battery life is still marginal. We already spend half our lives looking for tablet, laptop and smartphone charges. We don't need another device with lousy life.

If you fine the orange model (pictured above) a little too goofy, there are also grey and black options.

They'll also get a slimmed down version, the Gear Fit, which features a smaller screen and no camera, but still supports email, messaging and scheduling, plus fitness apps like a pedometer, heart rate monitor and timer. Rated battery life is 3 to 5 days, and it weighs just 27g.

Nokia does Android
The World Mobile Congress also saw Nokia unveil its much-rumoured phone running Google's Android software - though also with the ability to access some Microsoft services, including Skype.

Smartphones in the new Nokia X line will sell for between €89 and €109, and are targeted at emerging markets.

As always in the Nokia world over the past two years, there's an element of confusion. 

Microsoft is in the process of buying Nokia's phone business for around $US7 billion. 

Does the Nokia X line have Microsoft's blessing, and will they be kept on when the deal finally closes?

Microsoft's head of communications Frank Shaw told US media Microsoft is "pleased" to see Microsoft services introduced on Nokia's new Android devices. He added however, that Microsoft and Nokia are still operating as "independent companies" until the deal closes, and that Microsoft remains committed to its Windows Phone strategy.

"Our primary smartphone strategy remains Windows Phone, and our core device platform for developers is the Windows platform," Mr  Shaw said.

WhatsApp to offer free voice calling
WhatsApp - which agreed to sell itself to Facebook for $US4 billion cash and shares worth around $US15 billion last week - dropped a bombshell at the Mobile World Congress.

In a keynote speech, founder and CEO Jan Koum said the messaging service would add free voice calling from April - initially for iPhone and Google Android handsets, but with Windows Phone and BlackBerry to follow.

The move will but WhatsApp, which claims 465 million users - 70% of whom it says use the service every day - into more direct competition with the Microsoft-owned Skype, which has somewhere north of 300 million users. Skype offers free calls to others using its software, but charges for calls to regular landline and mobile numbers.