Outside of CES, there probably isn't a tech trade show that sees more consumer product launches than IFA, which is held in late August and/or early September in Berlin. And while IFA individual product launches naturally get just a fraction of the publicity of big Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Samsung phone launches, in aggregate there's a lot of useful news for both investors and tech junkies to digest.
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Here are some notable takeaways from this year's batch of IFA announcements, and what they imply for tech companies large and small.
1. Google is hungry to make up lost ground against Amazon in the home speaker wars.
As Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) sees surging demand for its Echo speaker line and strikes as many deals as it can with OEMs to extend the reach of the Alexa assistant powering the Echo, Alphabet Inc./Google (GOOGL) is suddenly eager to return fire. At IFA, Google announced five third-party speakers, including ones from Sony, Panasonic and JBL, will support the Google Assistant service and thus function much like the company's own Google Home speaker. These moves follow a deal with Nvidia Corp. (NVDA) to integrate Assistant with Nvidia's Shield TV console and Spot speakers.
Google also announced Assistant-powered devices will be able to control certain LG home appliances. Though Google fully opened up Assistant to developers in May, Alexa for now maintains a big lead over Assistant in terms of the number of smart home devices and third-party Internet services it supports.
While Amazon has an ecosystem edge and greater consumer mindshare thanks to its head-start, Google can still sell consumers on the high quality of its assistant and their its to integrate with Google services such as Search, Maps and Gmail. And when it comes to Android users, Google can pitch the convenience of having a common set of personalized assistant services for one's phone and home speaker.
In the short-term, Alexa speakers will probably continue to easily outsell Google Assistant speakers. But Google might be on better footing in a year or so.
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2. Microsoft and its friends are well-positioned to push virtual reality headset prices down.
Dell, HP, Acer, Asus and Lenovo all unveiled headsets based on Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows Mixed Reality platform at CES. In spite of the platform's name -- meant to signify its support for both augmented reality and virtual reality experiences -- the new headsets, each of which come with motion controllers, are all VR devices.
The headsets require pairing with Windows 10 PCs, and the controllers even come with Windows buttons. One interesting feature: In addition to playing VR games and content, the headsets can be used to run 2D PC apps in a Windows desktop view. Though perhaps ahead of its time, this feature could let headsets turn into portable workstations once the displays and GPUs used by headsets are good enough.
The first hands-on reviews for the headsets are (drumroll...) mixed. Some gaming and entertainment demos received positive ink, but reviewers also criticized software glitches and controller ergonomics, among other things. But some of the headsets are aggressively-priced: Acer's costs only $299, and Lenovo and Dell's each sell for $349. And whereas Facebook Inc. (FB) /Oculus and HTC's PC-connected headsets need relatively powerful GPUs, Windows headsets can work with certain integrated GPUs built into Intel and AMD processors.
All of that gives Oculus good reason to consider making its current $399 promotional price for a bundle featuring its Rift headset and Touch controllers (the bundle costs $499 otherwise) permanent. Though the Rift might provide a better VR experience than Windows headsets, VR experiences in general remain too flawed -- especially in terms of display resolution -- for Oculus to justify a major price premium.
And if Windows headsets, aided by their lower hardware requirements, significantly outsell the Rift, VR developers are bound to take notice. By keeping Rift prices competitive and pricing its upcoming standalone VR headset aggressively -- Bloomberg reports it will sell for around $200 -- Oculus helps itself stay on solid footing in what's still a very young market.
3. Smartwatch makers are focusing on health and fitness features rather than challenge the Apple Watch head-on.
Fitbit's Ionic smartwatch is touted as "the ultimate health and fitness smartwatch," with Fitbit emphasizing features such as 4-plus days of battery life, a blood oxygen sensor and automatic activity and sleep tracking. The touchscreen on Garmin's Vivomove HR layers a small amount of text -- it shows things like notifications and fitness activity data -- on top of a standard clock view. The interface on Garmin's Vivoactive 3 is a little more advanced, but the emphasis is still on sports and fitness features. Likewise, Samsung's Gear Sport is also focused on being a fitness activity companion.
Unlike Apple with its Watch, there isn't much attempt to promote these smartwatches as luxury devices (replete with premium materials). And while some of them come with media and communications features, none are backed by a major ecosystem of third-party apps that can greatly expand what the watch can do beyond health and fitness features.
Though it's not for everyone, Apple Watch does effectively have the high-end smartwatch market to itself. And the pending launch of a third-gen Watch containing a 4G modem -- it will reportedly be unveiled at Apple's September 12th event -- should strengthen Apple's dominance within this niche.
4. OLED displays are on their way to becoming standard on high-end smartphones.
While several mobile OEMs unveiled new Android phones at IFA, LG's V30 high-end phone was easily the biggest head-turned. And of the various upgrades provided by the device relative to last year's V20 model, none turned more heads than the 6-inch OLED screen that takes up nearly the entire front of the phone and replaces the 5.7-inch LCD found on the V20.
Apple, of course, is set to launch an iPhone 8 with a curved OLED display. Samsung has long used OLEDs on its high-end phones, and has begun putting them on some mid-range phones. Google's Pixel phones also use OLEDs, as do Chinese OEMs Lenovo and OnePlus' flagship phones.
While there are still some holdouts such as Sony, OLEDs, owing to their colors, contrast, viewing angles and thinness, are quickly becoming table stakes for high-end phone launches. It's fitting that the V30 launch came just before OLED materials and licensing firm Universal Display Inc. (OLED) soared on a bullish Deutsche coverage launch that (among other things) predicted soaring smartphone OLED penetration rates.
5. Notebook makers are finding new ways to push the envelope.
CES saw a slew of quality high-end notebook launches, and PC OEMs doubled down on their efforts at IFA. Thanks to Nvidia's Max-Q design technology, Dell made its Inspiron 7000 gaming laptops smaller and lighter while still managing to pack a powerful Nvidia GPU. Acer, for its part, created a fanless notebook with a detachable screen that nonetheless has an Nvidia GPU and one of Intel's recently-launched 8th-gen Core i7 CPUs.
Asus put these parts inside its Zenbook Flip 14 notebook/tablet convertible, which with a thickness of just 13.9mm is said to be the world's thinnest 2-in-1 device. It's nonetheless promised to deliver 13 hours of battery life. Both Dell and Asus, meanwhile, are providing optional 4K displays for thin-and-light 15-inch laptops.
As numbers from Intel, HP, Apple and others show, the high-end notebook market has been a strong point for the PC industry, with convertibles, gaming notebooks and powerful thin-and-light systems all playing roles. With the help of both their own engineering teams and Intel and Nvidia's, OEMs are still coming up with new ways to keep the momentum going.
Meanwhile, AI is still hot.
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