If you hadn’t heard the word “bokeh” last year, you’ll certainly learn it this year. It’s the Japanese word for that artistic blur in photographs where the subject is in focus and the background isn’t.
Until recently, to achieve it you needed to have a fast lens with a large aperture so that you could achieve a shallow depth of field, which created the background blur. But few of us carry digital SLR cameras anymore, and even those who did didn’t necessarily have the requisite lenses. However, we all have smartphones and the camera is once again the stand-out feature in this year’s crop of top-end handsets.
This week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Samsung launched its Galaxy S9 and larger S9 Plus with a particular focus on their impressive cameras. The S9 (with a 5.8inch screen) has a clever camera that can adjust its aperture to either f/1.5 or f/2.4 – which work very well in low-light or bright conditions respectively.
The S9 Plus (6.2in screen) has two cameras on the back – a feature launched by Chinese maker Huawei in partnership with Leica, then refined on Apple’s iPhone Plus models where the secondary lens is a telephoto or zoom lens. This difference in focal lengths between the lenses allows the phones’ software to mimic the artistic bokeh effect and lends an air of instant professionalism to any portrait.
Samsung has retained the beautiful curvature of the previous models’ screen but thankfully repositioned the fingerprint reader on the back to under the camera, so you don’t inadvertently put your finger on the lens when trying to unlock it. I am a big fan of this reader on the back of the phone (which Huawei and Xiaomi also do) because it is a very natural position to place your finger and easily the easiest way to unlock the phone.
Samsung’s S9 launch is part of the continuing success story for the world’s largest smartphone maker, which seemed to have irretrievably damaged its brand with the disaster that was 2016’s exploding Note 7 battery. Last year’s impressive Galaxy S8 – which won Stuff‘s phone of the year – constituted arguably the greatest reversal of fortune in the cellular industry. Motorola, Nokia and BlackBerry were all the holders of the crown when they made strategic blunders that cost them their top-dog status.
Samsung appears not only to have turned that around, but continues to build on last year’s success, with a raft of impressive features, not least of which is the DeX Station add-on that effectively turns the S9 into a desktop computer with a screen and keyboard.
This week Barcelona plays host to an extravaganza of phone launches and announcements that set the tone for the rest of the year, which Samsung last year eschewed in favour of tablet announcements.
Huawei, which dominated the conference last year with a huge pavilion and equally huge flagship P10 phone launch, instead announced its very small, very slim MateBook X Pro. Clearly designed to compete against Apple’s MacBook, it’s an impressive device that marks an interesting departure for the world’s third biggest phone maker into the contested laptop market.
Arguably the most nostalgic launch this week was from Nokia, which last year reintroduced a new version of the legendary 3310 that defined the early days of cellphones. This year the Finnish company relaunched its iconic 8810 “banana” phone with its characteristic sliding cover that can be used to answer and end calls.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, you might be temped to say… Except with better cameras.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail