BERLIN — In the technology trade show calendar, IFA is the most misunderstood. And for good reason. The massive and long-running event in Germany’s capital is open to the public, it has a red-wigged mascot (Miss IFA) straight out of “Run Lola Run” and it casts a very wide net in what it defines as tech. It’s as if CES, Mobile World Congress and an appliance convention all got together and had a child.
With so much to see, from smartphones to TVs, to laptops, to smart home sensors, it’s a confusing mess to navigate that’s best represented by the labyrinthine Berlin Messe (the city’s exhibition center) where IFA takes place. But, fueled by currywurst, we powered through to chronicle the most interesting tech of the show. Here’s what we found.
Though Samsung broke from tradition by expanding its Note line before IFA this year, it was hardly a wallflower with two events that opened and closed yesterday. There wasn’t a new phone in sight, but the company did show the word’s first ultra-high-definition Blu-ray player. The UBD-K8500 promises 4 times the resolution and 64 times higher color expression compared to standard Blu-ray (and you thought that was top-notch). It also can upscale content to deliver UHD resolution for any disc and support UHD streaming services.
UHD Blu-ray players have been due for a while, so Samsung’s announcement was not unexpected. More surprising, though, is that Samsung is the only company at IFA to announce such a player (so far, at least), and the K8500 won’t be on sale until next year, thus missing the holiday buying season. The company promised a price of “less than $500” (roughly £350 or AU$700) and said the device will launch in the US and Europe first. How the improved image and sound quality of Ultra HD Blu-ray will compete with widely available 4K streaming services remains to be seen, but Samsung has never had a problem throwing the latest tech against the wall just to see if it sticks.
And better TV
If the sharpest picture is your thing you’ll also need a TV — and LG’s EF9500 might be just the screen for you. The company’s first 4K OLED TV, its first appeared way back at CES in January, but LG brought it back to IFA just as we learned some pricing details. The 65-inch 65EF9500 costs $6,999 and the 55-inch 55EF9600 $5,499. Expect them in US stores by the middle of this month. Pricing and availability for other regions wasn’t immediately available.
As CNET’s TV guru David Katzmaier wrote in his EF9500 preview, OLED delivers significantly better images than other display technologies such as the still-dominate LED LCD and the now-discontinued plasma, with both a perfectly dark shade of black and a very bright white on the same screen simultaneously. Add in 4K resolution and you should get a pretty sharp picture. As OLED is also difficult to manufacture, though, only large companies like LG (and Panasonic) are really able to do it.
A 4K phone? (Yes, really.)
Speaking of 4K, Sony wants to bring it from your TV to your phone (or maybe one day merge those two devices completely). I speak of the Xperia Z5 Premium, one of a trio of new phones that Sony showed in Berlin. It goes a step further than handsets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and Sony Xperia Z3+that just shoot 4K video by sporting an actual 4K display. That means you’ll be be able to shoot 4K video and watch it back at full resolution on the same device.
Of course, the big questions are whether a 4K phone is just too much and just how such a sharp picture will impact battery life. You’ll have to wait for our full review before we can answer those questions, but the Z5 is more than respectable even if the screen is a bust. It comes in a shiny and solid mirrored glass case and has features like a fingerprint scanner, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, Android Lollipop and a whopping 23-megapixel camera.
Samsung’s spinning S2
After it wowed us Thursday morning with its fancy new Blu-ray player, Samsung invited us back to see its new Gear S2. Samsung’s first smartwatch in a year, the Gear S2 enters a crowded space (now with Apple as a resident) where Samsung once ruled alone. But the Gear S2 caught our eye for a number of reasons, the main one being the rotating bezel for navigating through the menus and features. It works much like a diver’s watch, and as Luke Westaway found, it’s easier to use than the finicky digital crown on the Apple Watch.
More importantly, it shows that real design innovation can happen in smartwatches beyond the shape of the bezel. It comes in a 3G-capable version for making calls without a phone, and it promises an impressive two to three days of battery life. It runs on Samsung’s Tizen instead of Android Wear, Samsung promises 50 apps at launch (including Samsung Pay), and its features include an accelerometer, gyroscope, heart rate monitor, ambient light sensor and barometer.
Appliances for home and abroad
2015 has been a great year for delightful new features in large appliances. Samsung and LG both introduced clever washing machines in January at CES; now Chinese manufacturer Haier follows suit here in Berlin with two new appliances showcasing some aggressive differentiation. The Haier double-decker Duo washing machine looks like something you’d find in a commercial setting, but the company says the monster unit is indeed coming to the market in China later next year. Joining that unit in China and also coming to the European market will be the captivating Smart Window refrigerator, a beautiful T-type fridge with a two-way panel on the door. Step close to the fridge and a motion sensor will activate a light inside that renders the panel transparent enough to let you look inside the Smart Window fridge without opening it.
You’ll notice no mention of US release timing for those appliances. Annoying for us Yanks, but but Haier isn’t alone there. Samsung and KitchenAid also had appliances here that caught our eye (a washing machine with a hatch to add items midcycle, and an in-wall sous vide/freezer combination device, respectively), but also with no information on US availability. We’ll simply have to spend more time with our plain-old door-in-door fridges and luxury ovens with Android tablets built into them while we wait.
A second-gen SmartThings
We saw new connected products from Philips, Neato and others here at the show, but Samsung made the most significant debut with the second-generation SmartThings control hub. The new version of SmartThings gets some useful feature upgrades — things like a battery back-up system, built-in video streaming capability, and a thoughtful cloud storage program for saving recorded video clips from a connected camera.
More important than those updates is the push to take SmartThings to mainstream consumers. You’ll see the new SmartThings hub on shelves in physical retail stores in the US and the UK before the end of the year. SmartThings also took a pass through its app to make the interface and set-up easier to understand. Because Samsung has embraced SmartThings as the anchor point for connecting devices across many of its consumer product lines, it’s hugely important for Samsung that this new hub starts catching on with mainstream buyers.
Until next year (or CES)
That wraps it up from IFA 2015. Like I said, this show has everything that plugs in or just runs on batteries. There were other cool things, from phones to wearables to PCs. Keep clicking through ourfull IFA package, but for now, Auf Wiedersehen.