HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and many other smartphone manufacturers sat CES 2014 out. Most of the big companies in the market did not reveal new products at the glitzy trade show, and instead talked up their existing product lines. That left plenty of opportunity for firms such as Asus, Huawei, Meizu, and ZTE to step into the spotlight.
Asus announced no fewer than five new Android devices. The most significant are the PadFone X and PadFone Mini, which are smartphones and tablets in one. The PadFone X, which will be sold by AT&T later this year, features a flagship-class smartphone with a 5.5-inch screen. It docks with a 9-inch tablet sled. The smartphone serves as the brains behind the device, but the tablet sled has a nice big screen and its own battery. The combo allows users to carry a smartphone and instantly transform it into a tablet by docking it with the tablet piece. The PadFone Mini is a smaller version, offering a 4-inch smartphone and a 7-inch tablet. The PadFone Mini will be available for scant $249. Pricing for the PadFone X has not yet been announced.
Asus has long sold the PadFone line in China, but the PadFone X will be its first foray into the US market. The downside of these devices is the large, bulky tablet hardware, which is useless without the smartphone docked.
Asus also debuted an entirely new line called the ZenFone. The ZenFone series encompasses three models -- the ZenFone 4, ZenFone 5, and ZenFone 6 -- each of which features a successively larger screen size. All three share the same DNA and have identical design language, build quality, and materials. The ZenFone, with its 5-megapixel camera, is the cheapest at $99. The ZenFone 5 follows with an 8-megapixel camera for $149. The ZenFone 6 rounds out the series with a 13-megapixel camera and a $199 price tag.
[Wearable tech goes way beyond watches. See 10 Wearables To Watch At CES 2014. ]
Huawei made a bit of a splash with the Ascend Mate2 4G, a second-generation phablet. The Mate2 boasts a 6.1-inch display and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core processor at 1.6 GHz per core. The Mate2 has a large 4,050 mAh battery and can be used to charge other devices. The main camera rates 13 megapixels, and the front camera offers 5 megapixels with a wide-angle lens. The screen is sensitive enough to use with gloves. The Mate2 runs Huawei's Emotion UI 2.0, which supports mini apps that float above other apps, and a driving mode with a simplified interface. The device will reach the US later this year and will be compatible with the LTE networks run by AT&T and T-Mobile.
Meizu, a firm that’s probably unknown to most North American consumers, did not announce a new phone, but said that it will bring a variant of the MX3 to the US during the third quarter of the year. Available in China since last year, the MX3 is a flagship-class device with a large HD screen, powerful processor, capable camera, and unique user interface elements.
Sony is perhaps the most visible smartphone maker to show off new hardware at CES. Sony and T-Mobile announced the Xperia Z1S, a flagship smartphone that will arrive later this month. The Z1S is an attractive, waterproof device that offers a beautiful 5-inch HD screen, capable 20.7-megapixel camera, and tons of customized software from Sony, including its streaming music and movie services. T-Mobile is selling the device for no money down, followed by 24 monthly payments of $23. Sony also revealed the Xperia Z1 Compact. Sony is forgoing the term “mini” in favor of “compact,” which it believes has a more positive connotation. The Z1 Compact may be smaller with a 4.3-inch screen, but it offers the same design language and features as the larger Z1S.
ZTE revealed three new Android smartphones. A follow-up to last year's flagship Android smartphone, ZTE calls the Grand S II a "high-precision voice phone" that's able to act on commands such as unlocking and picture taking. It also features three microphones to help improve the clarity of voice calls. The Sonata 4G is headed to AT&T's Aio Wireless prepaid service. It includes a 4-inch screen, 1.4-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor, and 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video capture. Last, ZTE announced the Iconic Phablet. Yes, that's the device's real name. The Iconic Phablet has a 5.7-inch HD screen with Gorilla Glass, a quad-core processor, Dolby Digital, and wireless charging. The device will be able to run two apps on the screen at the same time, much like the Samsung Galaxy Note.
The big boys have clearly decided that they like to announce new phones at standalone events. Samsung is prepping the Galaxy S5 and may reveal it as soon as next month, according to various reports. LG is regrouping around its new flexible screen technology, and HTC should have big news in the next eight weeks.
Notably, Windows Phone was almost entirely absent from CES. At this writing, no new Windows Phone devices were announced at the show. Perhaps Windows Phone OEMs are waiting to see how the Microsoft-Nokia acquisition plays out and what Windows Phone 8.1, scheduled for an April debut, has to offer.
Eric Zeman is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies.
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