IFA 2015 preview: Android Wear takes over Berlin
A plethora of new watches, phones, and laptops is just around the corner13
Herzlich Willkommen in Berlin! The first week of September marks a revival in activity among electronics manufacturers, as they vie to position their new products for the back-to-school shopping season and the winter holidays beyond it. And the place where that annual contest begins is the IFA trade show in Berlin. IFA is Europe's biggest exhibition of new consumer electronics, and it's previously served as the launch platform for major new devices like Samsung's Galaxy Note series. But this will be the first year in a long time where Samsung won't be taking over the show with a new Note, leaving room for others to grab the limelight — so what can we expect to be the highlights of IFA 2015?
Just because the 2015 Note is already out and available doesn't mean that Samsung will cede its IFA crown without a fight. At the same August event where Samsung launched its new phablets for this year, it teased the launch of its next smartwatch, the Gear S2. The software and specs are still a mystery, but it looks mighty promising already. Like last year's IFA debutant, the Gear S, the S2 will probably be running Samsung's Tizen OS, though unlike its bulky predecessor, the new watch's emphasis appears to be on a sleeker, more refined look. Because, as every electronics manufacturer likes to remind us, watches are as much jewelry as they are utility items.
Announced at Computex and promised for this fall, the ZenWatch 2 is likely to finally receive its price and release date at IFA. It embodies exactly the same philosophy as Samsung is pursuing: fashion and aesthetics first, technology second. Asus was already on this path with the original ZenWatch, and now it's expanding the options on offer with up to 18 different combinations of color, materials, and design. The Taiwanese company promises "dramatically improved" recharging times with a new magnetic connector, and it's also layering on a few extra watch faces atop the standard Android Wear interface.
Asus wouldn't dream of coming to a big trade show with just one new product, though, and we can probably look forward to updates to the company's laptop, hybrid, and tablet lines, especially now that Intel's Skylake processor is making its way into the market.
The other near-certainty in terms of big smartwatch news is Motorola's expected launch of a new Moto 360 at IFA. Leaked images have been flooding in from a variety of sources this month, revealing a subtly updated look that nevertheless retains the "flat tyre" black bar at the bottom of the circular watch. The side button looks to have shifted up to the 2 o'clock position, and indications are that — like the Asus ZenWatch 2 and the Apple Watch — this year's Moto 360 will come in two different sizes.
The biggest upgrade we can expect in Moto's smartwatch will likely be to its chipset, which was outdated even when the watch was first introduced and has been lagging behind the Android Wear crowd. Catching up with the internal hardware while expanding the variety of exterior options should set Motorola up in a good position to compete in the increasingly competitive smartwatch market.
Sony is one of the few companies left that still makes IFA its showpiece event for launching new phones. Having spent the first half of this year struggling to decide whether to call its new phone the Xperia Z3+ or Xperia Z4, it's now wiping away all the confusion with a new handset expected to be called the Xperia Z5. Well, technically, it's a new family of handsets, as recent leaks have revealed a 5.5-inch Z5 Premium model that would likely join the Z5 and Z5 Compact. Knowing how good last year's Z3 phones were, this certainly sounds like a formidable new set of smartphones, but Sony's biggest achievement this year might be to actually find a serious distribution channel for them in the United States. There's absolutely no reason why Sony should keep making such excellent smartphones that are not available in the US.
There's been an unusual silence around Sony's other product ranges, so maybe this is one year that we won't get a new SmartWatch model at IFA. Still, the Japanese company has a growing range of wearable devices and an expanding set of 4K cameras and TVs, all of which could do with an update for the holiday season.
LG is spending this year's IFA fleshing out its OLED TV offerings and adding more audio gear, both for the home and on the move. The company's focus will be on evangelizing the benefits of HDR (high dynamic range) content, with its TV and monitor chief claiming that "Anyone who sees our newest TVs at this year’s IFA will walk away without a shred of doubt that HDR and OLED complement each other perfectly." In keeping with the trend of turning smartwatches and smartphones into jewelry items, LG's new Bluetooth speakers are also going for more colorful and fashionable designs, including a strap to let you casually toss your wireless speaker over one shoulder like a handbag.
A new generation of G Pads is the only significant move expected from LG in terms of new Android devices. The Korean company typically avoids launching new phones at IFA, and the lack of any smartwatch leaks suggests it will also be a quiet show for its wearable gear. There may be an iterative update to its Android Wear range, but the most notable wearable is likely to be this new pair of neck buds. The one thing we can't wait to try out at IFA, though, is the LG Rolly portable keyboard, which could be either a genius idea or a woeful gimmick.
Huawei is teasing a new smartphone for IFA that is all about touch. Rumors have circulated suggesting that the Chinese company would implement its own version of the Force Touch technology that is present in the Apple Watch and rumored for the next iPhone. There's precedent for Huawei attempting to preempt rumored Apple tech at IFA, with last year's Ascend P7 Sapphire being among the first to offer a sapphire crystal display. Then again, those same Force Touch rumors have been subject to counter-rumors about the feature being pulled, so everything is still very much in the air. What's for sure is that Huawei will try to make a splash with something unique at IFA 2015. It's also expected to give an update on the pricing and release date of the Android Wear-running Huawei Watch, which was introduced at MWC in March.
Motorola's parent company should probably be higher on this list — if it were measured in terms of importance, it would be — but unlike the preceding manufacturers, Lenovo seems to have kept most of its IFA plans under wraps. As the world's biggest PC vendor, Lenovo is likely to be one of the highlights of the show with its refreshed lineup of Windows machines. The company's Yoga line of convertible devices could see updates to coincide with the availability of Windows 10 and the new Skylake chips from Intel, along with its consumer laptop lineup. It will also be interesting to see what smartphones, if any, Lenovo chooses to introduce at IFA. Rumors have been numerous if inconclusive, though the most interesting among them is for a 5.5-inch Vibe P1 Android handset that would purportedly come with a 5,000mAh battery. That would be fun to see.
IFA won't be the venue for unveiling Microsoft's new flagship Lumia smartphones, but it will still be a significant show for the Windows maker. With Windows 10 now out, everyone is gearing up to introduce new PCs to capture renewed interest and potential upgraders, and if Intel is able to bring its Skylake processors to market quickly enough, the old Wintel combination could spur a whole host of new machine sales. So consider this a universal prediction for every PC maker at IFA: there will be new stuff, and there'll be more of it than usual in order to sate every sort of demand out there. It's rare to see new processors and a new version of Windows lining up as perfectly as this year, so interest in Skylake computers running Windows 10 is likely to be high.
As with smartphone sales, the "Other" category at IFA is almost as significant as the big headliners. Just as electronics companies are branching out and attempting to build fashionable devices, so it is that companies from other industries are entering the electronics sphere. The most intriguing and outlandish designs at IFA are likely to come from those smaller players. And let's not forget the thriving accessories industry. USB Type-C peripherals are likely to start showing up, from the humble USB drive that can plug into both old and new slots to USB Type-C hubs that make it easier to use the new MacBook and Chromebook Pixel.
IFA is a show about every kind of electronic device, and there's now scarcely a piece of human technology that isn't electronic in some way. So if you want to know what the latest state of the art is with toasters, washing machines, fridges, food processors, air humidifiers, and dehumidifiers, this is certainly the place to be. We can't promise that we'll write about them all, but if we find a rice cooker with a quad-core CPU inside it, we'll be sure to let you know.