Samsung's S9 Launch and Other Mobile World Congress News: 4 Key Takeaways

A lot of what was announced this week at the world's biggest mobile industry trade show had already been telegraphed or was similar to prior announcements from industry peers. But mobile carriers, hardware firms and chipmakers also uncorked a few surprises along the way.

Here are some key takeaways from the 2018 Mobile World Congress, which was held this week in Barcelona.

1. Samsung's Galaxy S9 doesn't wow, but delivers the goods.

As rumored, Samsung's 5.8-inch Galaxy S9 and 6.2-inch S9 Plus look a lot like their predecessors, sport high-quality rear cameras that deliver great low-light shots and support ultra-slow-motion video recording and are powered by next-gen Samsung (SSNLF) and Qualcomm  (QCOM) system-on-chips (SoCs). The S9 Plus also comes with a second rear camera.

But the phones are a little cheaper than expected: The S9 starts at $720 in the U.S., and the S9 Plus at $840. By comparison, Apple's (AAPL) iPhone 8 and 8-Plus start at $699 and $799, respectively, while the iPhone X starts at $999. Samsung also made its latest flagships more durable -- they feature thicker glass backs and stronger aluminum frames than the S8 and S8+. And the S9's OLED display has received high praise from testing software firm DisplayMate, which calls its color accuracy "visually indistinguishable from perfect" and also deems its brightness and color gamut to be unmatched.

Those trying out the S9 aren't as keen about its AR Emoji feature (meant to be an alternative to Apple's Animojis); The Verge calls AR Emojis "creepy, and not in a cute way." And the lack of massive hardware improvements make it unlikely that Samsung's latest phones will see blowout sales. But sales expectations aren't especially high, and the S9's pricing and incremental upgrades might just allow Samsung to surpass them.

2. Smaller Android phone makers try to stand out.

As smartphone sales come under pressure -- research firm IDC believes global shipments fell 6.3% in Q4, and were roughly flat for the whole of 2017 -- smaller Android vendors are desperate to find ways to differentiate in a crowded field. Some of the efforts are better than others.

The Nokia  (NOK) 8 Sirocco -- it's made by Finland's HMD Global, which has a license to sell phones under the Nokia brand -- managed to turn some heads. It has a 5.5-inch edge-to-edge OLED display, dual rear camera lenses featuring Carl Zeiss optics and a stainless steel frame, and is just 7.5 millimeters thick.

Also drawing attention: Asus' ZenFone 5, which like the iPhone X has a display that takes up nearly all of the device's front, outside of a notch near the top. However, the phone has an LCD panel rather than an OLED, and its conventional front-camera system can't compare with the iPhone X's TrueDepth system. Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) is reportedly prepping an Android refresh that (among other things) paves the way for Android OEMs in general to launch phones with iPhone X-like notches.

Jim Cramer and the AAP team hold positions in Apple and Alphabet for their Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL or GOOGL? Learn more now.

LG launched the questionably-named V30S ThinQ, an update to its V30 flagship. It features memory and storage upgrades, and comes with AI-powered software that analyzes what the phone's camera sees to optimize image-processing. Meanwhile, Sony (SNE) launched its Xperia XZ2 flagship, which can record 1080p video at 960 frames per second (fps) and a "Dynamic Vibration System" that analyzes media content and makes the phone vibrate in response. We'll know soon just how entertaining (or annoying) consumers find the latter feature.

3. 5G plans are being sped up a bit.

The first 5G phones aren't due until 2019 (possibly mid-2019), and it might not be until 2020 that sales really start to take off. But carriers, infrastructure providers and chipmakers contending with top-line pressures all seem eager to commercialize the technology on a large scale as soon as it's technically feasible to do so.

Sprint  (S) promised to start laying the groundwork for 5G rollouts in six cities this year, ahead of a full network launch in the first half of 2019. T-Mobile US (TMUS)  promised to have a 5G network up and running in 30 cities this year, and suggested phones will launch about a year from now. Australia's Telstra promised a 2019 5G rollout, and China's Huawei revealed a 5G modem relying on a home-grown chipset.

Qualcomm showed off a 5G reference platform (it contains a slew of Qualcomm chips) meant to make it easier for OEMs to launch 5G phones. And Intel showed off a prototype laptop containing a 5G modem (a bulky kickstand is needed to house its antenna module). The sooner large-scale 5G rollouts start, the better it is for mobile infrastructure giants Nokia  (NOK) and Ericsson (ERIC) .

4. RF technologies make waves.

It's no secret that 5G, which will rely in part on high-frequency mmWave spectrum, is much more demanding from an radio frequency (RF) technology perspective than 4G. Announcements and demos at MWC drove home both the challenges and opportunities this presents.

Those 6 cities where Sprint will lay the groundwork for 5G rollouts this year? They'll see the launch of cell sites supporting massive MIMO arrays featuring 128 antennas (64 for transmitting signals, 64 for receiving). Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung will be supplying the necessary hardware.

Qualcomm, meanwhile, unveiled an advanced RF front-end module platform for 4G and 5G phones (it's called a hexaplexer) that can simultaneously transmit and receive signals from three frequency bands, and argued that its ability to provide end-to-end solutions covering modems, RF modules and everything in between will be a major competitive advantage as 5G arrives.

Tech analyst Patrick Moorhead thinks Qualcomm's emergence as an RF chip rival to the likes of Broadcom (AVGO) , Skyworks (SWKS) and Qorvo (QRVO) is part of the reason why Broadcom is bent on acquiring the company. Regardless, 5G stands to further grow the dollar value of the RF content going into the average phone, as well as help grow the number of mobile radios shipping into the IoT hardware market. That's good news for all of the RF market's major players.

Apple, Broadcom and Alphabet are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL, AVGO or GOOGL? Learn more now.

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