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5 things we learned at IFA Berlin 2013

Europe's biggest tech trade show is beginning to wind down for another year. We've stalked the aisles, listened to the execs, and fondled the products. So what have we learned?

1. Nobody is impressed by Samsung's Galaxy Gear

Samsung’s smartwatch launch feels like a hasty move simply to keep the company on trend. With Sony now on its second smartwatch and Pebble becoming a Kickstarter sensation, the fledgling wearable tech sector is gathering momentum, and IFA gave Samsung the chance to throw its hat into the ring and pip great rival Apple to a release in the process.

But a ‘seize the moment’ mentality seems to have come at the expense of a quality device. From the first glance the Galaxy Gear looks awkward and bulky. Four ugly screws and a thick metal clasp gives it a crude, mechanical appearance, and for an ostensibly ‘modern’ device, it just doesn’t look cutting edge.

Some argue that smartwatches will never be a fashion accessory however, and that it’s only the tech that really matters. In this light, it is also disappointing that the Galaxy Gear is a mere smartphone companion rather than fully operating phone-come-watch like Sony’s, and that faults have already been picked with the slickness and usability of its UI, as well as its battery life. Integrating a 1.9-megapixel camera is a feather in the Gear’s cap, but with all the controversy around Google Glass this year, is a stealthy spy-cam really hitting the spot right now?

The Galaxy Gear hasn’t been totally derided here at IFA, but as a result of these factors, nobody seems particularly impressed either.

2. The venue needs a refresh

Admittedly, plonking down a fresh venue with 26 giant halls covering 1.7 million square feet like the Messe Berlin isn’t an overnight project, but it certainly feels like IFA needs a fresher home. The tired, grey buildings with low ceilings and dim lights creates the sense you’re wandering around a gargantuan Grange Hill-esque high school from the 1970s. The rest of it is basically a massive car park ensuring you’re eternally dodging traffic on your long treks between halls, even if the pretty Sommer Garten in the centre is a saving grace of sorts.

CES will always be unique with its Vegas glitz and is therefore an unfair comparison, but Barcelona’s MWC benefited greatly from moving out to the attractive and modern Gran Fira complex for the first time this year and it would be good to see IFA make a similar transition before long. Venue critique may sound trivial, but the Messe Berlin runs the risk of amplifying the rather dated formula of the trade show and its equally antiquated homage to washing machines and hoovers. Europe needs its biggest tech conference to stay with the times.

3. Sony should be taken seriously

Sony knew it had a job on its hands on Wednesday as Samsung threatened to steal all its launch event limelight with its own announcement just two hours later. But under pressure, the Japanese company delivered. The new Xperia Z1 is a stunning smartphone that not only packs all the premium specs necessary, but has the distinguishing feature of a truly impressive camera at 20.7-megapixels.

CEO Kazuo Hirai spoke a lot about ‘unifying’ Sony’s technologies and divisions, and in fairness it didn’t have the hollow ring of marketing-speak. The Xperia Z1 snapper shows Sony is serious about effectively leveraging the tech built-up through its history in digital imaging, a sense underlined by the accompanying launch of the Cyber-shot QX100 and QX10 detachable cameras. These lens/sensor combinations work as cameras in their own right, but are designed to latch on to a vast array of smartphones to capture high quality photos. In the age of hyper-snappy phone users where everyone is a budding pro photographer, the Sony releases seemed to hit the right notes.

The Live Social and Info-Eye software features on the Xperia Z1 are also extremely clever, though their respective appeal depends on how much you like to broadcast your life on Facebook, and how much life-assistance you really want from your phone. Sony’s new convertible laptops looked good too, which brings us to our next lesson.

4. Convertible laptops are here to stay

With the PC market in such a well-documented decline, manufacturers are desperate to make notebooks more exciting. How to do this? The consensus is apparently to make them twist, turn, fold, rotate, leap, somersault, and pirouette and in a sequence of acrobatics, allowing the user to use it in varying positions including an alternative tablet form.

The first significant wave of convertible laptops came from Lenovo, who rode the arrival of the touch-friendly Windows 8 with a host of multi-purpose devices that could be used in ‘stand’ and ‘tent’ mode as well as the full tablet option. It seemed a little gimmicky, but in its press conference this week Lenovo said the search terms “convertible” and “hybrid” in relation to laptops were among the the largest growers in tech search queries, seeing a 247 per cent jump over the past year.

Other company’s analytics must be yielding similar results, as the likes of Sony and Acer have also banked on Windows 8 convertibles here at IFA. Don’t settle for the boring old clamshell notebook, get a hold of that screen and make your device get a sweat on.

5. Going big on the brand will always do the trick

Samsung has earned the right, and the cash, to lay it on thick when it comes to launch events and promoting its brand. The Galaxy Gear/Galaxy Note 3 unveiling was another blockbuster show at the awe-inspiring Tempodrom theatre, complete with a full orchestra and a thumping live stream of chart-toppers Icona Pop from Times Square.

The pre-, during-, and post-launch fanfare is raised to such a level each time with Samsung, that a constant element of thrill surrounds its products no matter how special (or not) they are in reality. Of course the Galaxy Note 3 is a mighty device, packed with real power and a plethora of features, but companies perennially in Samsung’s shadow are actually producing equally capable devices. There is not a great deal to choose between the Note 3 and phabets like the LG G2 and even the Acer Liquid S2, but the pure weight of the Galaxy brand will see Samsung shift countless more units with the Note 3.

The Korean firm’s marketing has been so relentless in recent years that even when campaigns are cringe-worthy and off-key, you know the products will sell. Samsung kept things suitably grandiose here at IFA, and you can bet it’ll keep the juggernaut rolling. You wouldn’t envy Apple next week.

We're not quite done here at IFA 2013 by the way, so make sure you stay locked into our live coverage page for more news, analysis and photos.