MWC 2017 Preview: What to Expect at Biggest Mobile Event

The LG G6, other new flagship phones and a closer look at the latest version of Android Wear figure to dominate the headlines at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in February, while the next Galaxy smartphone now looks like it's spending the week on the sidelines even as Samsung unveils another new product.

The annual trade event — think of it as a mobile device-focused version of CES — kicks off Feb. 27 in Barcelona, Spain.

The G5 was a bust, but LG hopes to make up for that with the G6.

The G5 was a bust, but LG hopes to make up for that with the G6.

Tom's Guide will be on the ground in Barcelona covering all the news to come out of the show. We're expecting a lot of big product unveilings at MWC, but we're also keeping an eye out for any trends at the show that figure to define where smartphones and other devices are headed in 2017.

Here's a round-up of what we're expecting to see once MWC gets underway.

Plenty of Major Smartphone Debuts

LG has already put its stamp on MWC. On Feb. 26, the day before the show officially begins, LG will hold a press event where it's expected to take the wraps of its latest phone, the LG G6. LG has already confirmed that the phone will have a nearly bezel-less 5.7-inch display. Rumor has it that the G6 will also drop the modular design LG introduced with the G5 at 2016's MWC.

LG has set a date for its Mobile World Congress event.

LG has set a date for its Mobile World Congress event.

The time between the G6's unveiling in Barcelona and its arrival in the US could be shorter than it was with last year's G5 release. LG reportedly wants to get the G6 on the market quickly before Samsung rolls out its expected Galaxy S8. (More on Samsung shortly.)

MORE: LG G6 Rumors: Design, Display, Release Date and More

Other phone makers planning to make headlines at MWC include Motorola — it's also scheduled an event on Feb. 26 which could feature a successor to the Moto G4 or perhaps new accessories for its modular Moto Z phone — and Huawei. Nokia will hold an event as well, though the company's initial Android phones, under the direction of HMD Global, have been limited to China. Sony, which unveiled its Xperia X lineup at the 2016 MWC, plans a press event on Monday, Feb. 27 at this year's conference.

We should find out more about this BlackBerry phone at Mobile World Congress.

We should find out more about this BlackBerry phone at Mobile World Congress.

During January's CES event, TCL Communication gave everyone a sneak peek at the next BlackBerry phone. (TCL, which is the parent company of Alcatel, now owns the global rights to the BlackBerry Brand.) We still don't know the price, the specs or even the name of that phone, which is code-named Mercury, but TCL promised more details at MWC and has announced an event for Feb. 25 when we're expecting to get the full picture on the new BlackBerry device.

Here's a quick summary of when you can expect MWC phone announcements from which brands. We'll update the list as more events are announced.

  • Feb. 25: BlackBerry
  • Feb. 26: LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung
  • Feb. 27: Sony

What About the Galaxy S8?

Samsung press events have been a mainstay at MWC in recent years. Last year's event saw the debut of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge along with the Gear 360 camera and a special appearance by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to talk up virtual reality. It seems like MWC 2017 would be an ideal venue for Samsung to showcase the Galaxy S8 it's reportedly developing, but after last fall's disastrous Note 7 launch and recall, the company is rumored to be taking its time on the S8.

The latest rumor has Samsung launching the Galaxy S8 in April after previewing it at a special post-MWC event in March. Samsung essentially confirmed as much, with the company's mobile chief saying that the S8 won't be announced at MWC.

But Samsung's not skipping the event entirely. The electronics giant has sent out invitations for a Feb. 26 press event in Barcelona. And while the invitations bear the "Galaxy" name, it's a tablet and not a phone that figures to be in the spotlight. The latest rumors suggest Samsung will unveil the Galaxy Tab S3 at MWC, which will be a successor to its 2015 tablet.

MORE: Tablets Are Dying. Do You Still Need One?

More on Android Wear 2

If rumors are correct, we'll actually get our first look at the latest version of Google's OS for wearable devices a few weeks ahead of MWC. Android Wear 2.0 will reportedly debut on Feb. 9, with LG launching two new smartwatches powered by the updated OS.

While reportedly leaked images of the watches already have been floating around online, MWC will be the first chance a lot of people have to see the rumored LG Watch Sport and LG Watch Style in action. And Google has said to expect additional devices from other smartwatch makers after the first watches make their debut, so we could see announcements on that front at MWC. Given the lackluster showing for wearables at last year's MWC, that would be a welcome change.

Digital Assistants Everywhere?

This year is shaping up to be the year of digital assistants on smartphones, as device makers look to keep pace with Apple and Amazon and the success those two companies have enjoyed with the voice-powered Siri and Alexa assistants, respectively. Already this year, HTC introduced the U Ultra, a $749 phone with an assistant powered by artificial intelligence to offer you recommendations and context-aware alerts. An AI-powered assistant is also rumored to be among the marquee features in the Galaxy S8.

HTC's U Ultra has a digital assistant. Will more phones follow?

HTC's U Ultra has a digital assistant. Will more phones follow?

There's a reason you're seeing more phone makers turn to digital assistants, even on Android devices where Google has an assistant of its own. "They're all going to go down this path because you have to keep up with the Jonses," Jack E. Gold of research firm J.Gold Associates said.

It's likely, then, that the phones we hear about at MWC may include digital assistants among their many features, as it offers a way to potentially stand out from the crowd. Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis, notes "the potential for real competitive differentiation if your proprietary AI is genuinely helpful, and it can also have lock-in effects. Once an AI learns enough about the consumer and provides a more customized experience, that consumer is far less likely to switch to a different brand."

The trick, Gold says, will be for phone makers to come up with a digital assistant that's truly helpful. "The question is not 'Can they add it?' but 'Will it work and will people use it?'" he added.

VR on the Horizon

Virtual and augmented reality have found themselves with a bigger role on the MWC stage. Last year, for example, HTC offered demos of its Vive headset, which would launch a few months later, while the Google-backed Project Tango had an MWC showcase as well.

Look for phone makers to add devices that work with the Daydream View headset. (Photo: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide)

Look for phone makers to add devices that work with the Daydream View headset. (Photo: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide)

This will be the first MWC since Google launched its Daydream virtual reality platform, so expect to see phones with the horsepower and OS version to support Daydream. Some exceptions, according to Greengart, are Samsung, which is partnering with Oculus on the mobile VR front and phone makers from China, where Google services are few and far between.

Gold isn't sure that consumers are ready to embrace a device that also requires them to buy a high-end phone. Instead, they might be holding out for standalone VR headsets, but even then, Gold sees an issue with the number of VR-friendly apps. "Outside of gaming, what are the compelling apps that would make me want to buy [a VR headset]?" he asked. "I can't think of one."

Budget Phones

Flagship devices like the LG G6 and the Galaxy S8 (if it shows up) may garner the headlines, but MWC also gives us the chance to see what mid-tier and budget phones will look like in the coming year. "MWC is often a good place to spot Chinese vendors looking to break into Western markets, and it's a great place to see just how sophisticated the Shenzhen supply chain has become," Greengart said.

Huawei's Honor 6X (Photo: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide)

Huawei's Honor 6X (Photo: Jeremy Lips/Tom's Guide)

We already got a taste of this at CES, where the big story on the phone front involved features you typically see in higher-end phones making their way onto less expensive models. Both Huawei and ZTE showed off sub-$250 phones with dual rear cameras — the Honor 6X and the Blade V8 Pro, respectively — and we could see similarly priced phones with higher-end features making an MWC debut.

Plenty of 5G Talk

We're another year closer to the expected rollout of the next-generation wireless network, known as 5G, so expect lots of talk about 5G's potential at MWC. 5G promises much faster speeds than our current 4G network — theoretically, it's 100 to 1,000 times faster than 4G LTE — and it's built to handle all the connected devices that are becoming a growing part of our lives.

Look for everyone from carrier to hardware makers to talk up the benefits of 5G and how they're positioned to make the most of it, even if that talk remains theoretical at this point.

"Everyone will say, 'We're doing 5G trials.' That's all well and good to do trials, but how real is it if there's no real standard yet?" Gold said.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.