An IFA to remember
Just as CES in Las Vegas is all about glitzy dreams and hazy visions of prototypes that may never come to pass, the annual IFA trade show in Berlin is all about concrete reality. The devices announced at IFA will be on store shelves this holiday season. Period.
And because IFA is the last major electronics conference before that oh-so-crucial holiday season, device makers typically reveal the last big surprises of the year at IFA, hoping to make a splash before shipping products out to store shelves.
This year was no different. Join me for a walk through IFA's most notable announcements, from Chromebook killers to ultra-productive phones to a veritable legion of smartwatches—and more.
Samsung's Galaxy of Notes
Let's kick things off with the latest entry in Samsung's productivity-focused Galaxy Note line. The Galaxy Note 4 triumphs over its predecessor in every way, with a faster processor, more potent 16MP/3.7MP rear/front cameras, a snazzy metal band encircling the frame, and a ridonkulous 2560x1400 resolution crammed into its 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display.
But the Note is nothing without its S Pen stylus. To that end, Samsung's packed new functionality into the Note 4's software to enable simultaneous cutting and pasting from far-flung sources, easier window resizing, and selecting multiple items at once.
Samsung also announced the Galaxy Note Edge, a 5.6-inch device largely similar to the Note 4, but with a curve on the right edge of the screen. That curve is used as a secondary display for launching apps, scrolling notifications, and more. Florence Ion went hands-on with the Note 4 and Note Edge here.
Samsung Gear VR
Another Samsung announcement proved more peculiar. The Gear VR is a wires-free virtual reality headset designed with a focus on mobility. How did Samsung cut all cords when alternatives like the Oculus Rift and Sony's Project Morpheus use wires to connect to game consoles and PCs, you ask? By building the entire rig around the Galaxy Note 4, which slips into the Gear VR's front cover and acts as both a high-resolution display and the processing brains of the headset.
Oculus actually helped Samsung develop the Gear VR. Samsung's headset will feature new Oculus-powered software hubs for immersive media perusal, as well as access to a central Oculus Store for VR-enabled content. Read all the details here.
New Windows Phone hardware and software
Microsoft announced a pair of new Windows Phones at IFA in Nokia's Lumia 730 and Lumia 830—best described as a "selfie phone" with a 5-megapixel front camera and an "affordable flagship," respectively. Each rocks Nokia's signature vibrant color scheme.
But Microsoft didn't stop with new phones. It also revealed new wireless charging and Miracast-based screen-casting accessories for Windows phones, along with details about an impending update for Lumias dubbed "Denim." Check out the full details here.
Low-budget PC battle
Chromebooks were a major focus at IFA 2014, and in more ways than one. HP and Toshiba each announced a pair of Chromebooks, with the Nvidia Tegra K1-powered HP Chromebook 14 (pictured) and Toshiba's 1080p, $330 model being the most eye-catching models.
But Microsoft isn't resting on its laurels as Googley laptops encroach. The company's been working hard to reduce Windows 8.1's hardware requirements and rolled out a licensing cost-free Windows 8.1 with Bing in a quest to bring dirt-cheap Windows laptops to market. It's working: HP teased the $199 Stream 14 pre-IFA, and at IFA, Asus revealed the 11.6-inch, $199 EeeBook, a diminutive notebook—in both size and specs—that's essentially a netbook in all but name. Fortunately, today's Intel Atom chips deliver much more performance than yesteryear's processing clunkers.
How low can tablets go?
The Microsoft-Google price war extended to small-screen tablets, where sub-$200 Windows slates finally appeared, free from the licensing fees that formerly kept them priced so high. Archos and Acer revealed respective $149 Windows tablets, each packing Intel processors and 1200x800 displays paired with modest amounts of storage and RAM. Toshiba's 7-inch Encore Mini, meanwhile, launched with a $120 MSRP (and even more modest specs) but is expected to become the first Windows tablet to sell for $99 on the street when it launches—a figure that includes a free year's subscription to Office 365 and OneDrive, the latter involving 1TB of cloud storage.
Acer also revealed news 8- and 10-inch Iconia Tabs, powered by Android. Asus outed the 7-inch Memo Pad 7 (pictured), a $200, respectably spec'd tablet with a design inspired by "stylish clutch bags and wallets." Finally, Lenovo's $200 Tab S8 has a horrible name, but solid specs and features for the price.
Xperia Z3, powered by PlayStation 4
Let's take a second to single out Sony here. The Japanese electronics giant announced three devices at IFA 2014. The Xperia Z3 is the next generation of Sony's stunning flagship phone, but it's more of a spec bump over its predecessor than anything else. It's still alluring, sure, but with no new bells or whistles. The Xperia Z3 Compact is a shrunk-down, mid-range version of the flagship Z3, while the 8-inch Xperia Z3 Tablet Compact is a new Sony flagship, boasting a 1920x1200 display and a Snapdragon 801 processor.
You can read all the nitty-gritty details here, but here's the most notable feature: Sony's Xperia Z3 variants all support PS4 Remote Play, which lets you stream your PlayStation 4 games to your mobile device. Nifty!
Flipping, folding, switching hybrids
Acer announced a whopping four different 2-in-1 convertibles at IFA: new 13- and 14-inch Aspire R models, as well as new 10- and 11-inch Aspire Switch PCs (pictured). The Aspire R models feature a swivel "Ezel Aero Hinge" similar to the Dell XPS 12's, allowing the hybrid to be used in six different positions, from traditional PC to stand mode to full-on tablet mode. The Aspire Switch's claim to fame is its svelte frame and detachable display. Hardware configurations, sizes, and exact shape-shifting methods vary by model. Check out the full lowdown on Acer's Aspire convertibles here.
HP revamped its consumer convertible lineup as well, revealing a new Pavilion x2 laptop and a pair of new Envy x2 machines. The latter leans on Intel's new energy-efficient Core M chip and features a nifty built-in kickstand, while the former is a detachable powered by Intel's more modest Atom processors.
Wearables, wearables everywhere
This year may be the big coming-out party for Android Wear, but IFA announcements show that Google's smartwatch operating system hasn't quite cornered the market yet. Sure, the Asus ZenWatch (pictured) and LG's round-faced Gear R brought some much-needed class to the previously ho-hum Android Wear ecosystem, and Sony's SmartWatch 3 dropped its proprietary OS to become, well, just another Android Wear watch, but alternative operating systems were just as common.
Samsung's ginormous, curved-screen Gear S runs on Tizen, and unlike Wear watches, it has its own 3G radio and doesn't need to be tethered to a smartphone. Sony's SmartBand Talk fitness band matches the Gear S with its curved display and lack of Android Wear. It sports some unique features, however, including an e-paper display that should read just fine in the sun, and the ability to use the device to actually make calls when it's connected to a phone via Bluetooth.
Let's close things out by rounding up the rest of the PCs announced at IFA, lest you think the entire show revolves around mobile devices. Asus' Zenbook UX305 (pictured) sports a pixel-packed 3200x1800 IPS display and an all-aluminum chassis around an Intel Core M processor, adding up to a very enticing package indeed. Asus didn't announce pricing, but don't expect it to be cheap.
Lenovo, meanwhile, announced a pair of interesting new gaming rigs and a slew of new PCs targeted towards business users, including the ThinkPad Helix 2, the first announced detachable hybrid to use Intel's upcoming Core M processors.