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Gadgets of the year: touching deep

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Gadgetry is synonymous with bells and whistles, but sometimes it’s the personal approach that stands out. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s three gadgets of the year all strike a chord, but for different reasons.

The stand-out gadgets of 2015 each makes its presence felt by touching a chord – although not all in the same way. One speaks to health, one to educational needs and one to sheer entertainment – but in a manner seldom encountered in electronics and gadgetry.

Gadget of the Year: Fitbit Charge HR

It is rare for a gadget that emerges early in the year to become an immediate favourite to win the title of Gadget of Year, but the Fitbit Charge HR made an early claim to the title. It is the market-leading activity monitor, still marginally ahead of the Apple Watch in overall wearable sales, and the undisputed leader in dedicated activity monitors.

The original Fitbit Flex was already a winner in getting people to up their activity levels, but it fell dramatically short in not having its own display. The moment a second device – in this case a smartphone – is needed to make a wearable work, it is not a true wearable, but rather what one may call a connectable.

The Apple Watch does not function truly independently of an iPhone, hence its absence from the selection here. The Fitbit began to come into its own with the release of the Charge, with its own mini-screen and a single control button. It still needs to synchronise with a smartphone or computer for maximum tracking benefits, but is not dependent on either for its core functions.

It does, however, have one gap that is quickly being filled by most smartwatches: heart-rate monitoring. That is an integral element of activity monitoring nowadays and, when included in a wristband, dramatically upgrades fitness use from the clunky old chestbands using radio frequency.

Enter the Fitbit Charge HR. It is as slim as the Charge and Flex, and hence as unobtrusive. However, it includes a heart rate (HR) monitor, so HR was added to the name. It offers exactly what a wearable should: it is low-key, with long battery life, and is simple yet effective.  It measures steps, distance and staircases, and, thanks to a recent software upgrade, can detect exercise modes.

Most smartwatches require daily charging, which tends to be the biggest frustration of Apple Watch owners. The Fitbit runs for up to five days, and then charges fully in less than an hour, meaning little activity is lost while charging.

This is a gadget that can and does change lives, and does so in a manner that seamlessly integrates with users’ lifestyles. It started the year as the frontrunner, and ends as the runaway winner.

Educational gadget of the year: Kano computer kit

The Kano Computer Kit starred life on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site where  someone with a great idea appeals to anyone who wants to buy into the idea to fund its development. It raised $1.5-million from more than 13 000 backers, and is now making its way into online and offline stores across the world.

It is a kit that contains the essential components for building a computer, but geared towards children aged 6 to 12, so doesn’t get too technical. No transistors to solder onto motherboards!

On the other hand, it does take children beyond what even their parents imagine a child with no experience can achieve with a computer. From assembly of plug-and-play componenents through to coding the device to make music and games, it awakens both child and parent to a new world of computing possibilities. Merely the fact that it introduces coding languages like Python and JavaScript in an accessible, child-friendly way is already a major recommendation in a world where coding ability is a major asset.

It comes with keyboard, case, low-cost Raspberry Pi computer, processor, build-it-yourself speakers, cables and WiFi connectivity – along with a storybook that guides the child through construction and coding.  It plugs into any monitor with an HDMI port – and Kano is about to releasen a D-I-Y high-definition display too. Expect this one to make waves in schools in 2016.

Fun gadget of the year: Star Wars BB-8 App-enabled Droid

By now it’s old news that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on its way to becoming the biggest box-office hit of all time. Those who have seen it will point not only to the heroes, the epic tale and the magnificent special effects, but also to the arrival of a worthy successor to the beloved droid, R2D2. The newcomer, BB-8, possesses an astonishing array of attitude and emotion for a robot that has only lights and, err, bells and whistles to express itself.

Even before the movie was released, the toy version of BB-8 was on its way to becoming a gift of choice for the 2015 holiday season. In the wake of the movie, it is likely to be a runaway success. Only a few inches tall, it is a faithful reproduction of the “real” thing. It is controlled from any Android or Apple iOS device, and can be guided around most terrains.

Most astonishingly, the mini BB-8 responds to voice and evolves its attitude and actions the longer it is used. It records and sends “holographic” videos, making it as faithful to the original as current technology allows. However, it is sheer adorable quotient that makes BB-8 a winner. Few electronic toys have the ability to create quite the bond that BB-8 does.

Created by Sphero, makers of last year’s hit toy, the Romo Smartphone Robot, it takes smartphone play experience at light speed into a galaxy far, far away.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Deezer to host Hotstix’s Mandela tribute playlist

Deezer is celebrating Nelson Mandela on the centenary of his birthday by hosting a tribute playlist created by music legend Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.  

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Mabuse, a legendary figure in African music, first rose to prominence in the 1970s with his band Harari and later developed a name for himself as a solo artist. One of his best known songs was the global hit BurnOut in the 1980s.

The playlist takes the listener on a captivating musical journey through the life of Nelson Mandela.  It was compiled by Mabuse, who consulted with Mandela’s family and friends to ensure that the music would be relevant and accurate. The playlist also features commentary by Mabuse, which was recorded in his Soweto home.  

“I have tried to tell the story of the music that Madiba loved,” says Mabuse. “The Playlist excludes the time in prison obviously, as Madiba would not have had exposure to music in that time.  We have focused on the music we know he loved before and after that period. This recording was really an emotional journey for me, but an incredible opportunity to document these memories.”

The playlist features the music the young Mandela loved, such as The Manhattan Brothers, Solomon Linda, Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba.  It includes struggle songs from Chicco, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.  The playlist also includes Mandela by Zahara, one of the younger artists who caught Madiba’s ear.

Mabuse also offers stories of his own songs, such as Shikisha, a song greatly beloved by the former President.

“I was delighted to share my thoughts and hope the listeners enjoyed the musical journey,” says Mabuse. “Madiba did enjoy music immensely and we all have a purpose wherever we are in the world to celebrate culture and to learn from different cultures and music forms and styles.”

This playlist was inspired by the Nelson Mandela 100 campaign, calling on corporates and individuals to act as sources of inspiration and engage in conversation and action.

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Sports streaming takes off

Live streaming of sports is coming of age as a mainstream method of viewing big games, as the latest FIFA World Cup figures from the UK show. Africa isn’t yet at the same level when it comes to the adoption of sports streaming, but usage is clearly moving in the right direction.

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England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden was watched by just under 20 million viewers in the UK via BBC One. While this traditional broadcast audience was huge, it was streaming that broke records: the game was the BBC’s most popular online-viewed live programme ever, with 3.8 million views. In Africa, the absolute numbers are lower but the trend towards streaming major sports events on the continent is also well under way.

According to DStv, live streaming of sports dominates the usage figures for its live and recorded TV streaming app, DStv Now. The number of people using the app in June was five times higher than a year ago, with concurrent views peaking during major football and rugby games.

Since the start of the World Cup, average weekday usage of DStv Now is up 60%. The absolute peak in concurrent usage for one event was reached on 26 June, during the Nigeria vs Argentina game. The app’s biggest ever test was on 16 June with both Springbok Rugby and World Cup Football under way at the same time, resulting in concurrent in-app views seven times higher than the peaks seen in June last year.

The World Cup has also been a major reason for new users to download and try out the app. First-time app user volumes have tripled on Android and doubled on iOS since the start of the tournament.

“While we expected live sports streaming to take off, it’s also been pleasing to see that the app is really popular for watching shows on Catch Up,” says MultiChoice South Africa Chief Operating Officer Mark Rayner. “Interestingly, some of the most popular Catch Up shows are local, with Isibaya, Binnelanders, The Queen and The River all getting a significant number of views.”

With respect to app usage, the web and Android apps are the most popular way to watch DStv Now, with Android outpacing iOS by a factor of 2:1.

“We’re continuing to develop DStv Now, with 4k streaming in testing and smart TV and Apple TV apps on their way shortly,” says Rayner. “The other key priority for us is working with the telcos to deliver mobile data propositions that make watching online painless and worry-free for our customers.”

The DStv Now app is free to all 10 million DStv customers in Africa. The app streams DStv live channels as well as supplying an extended Catch Up library. Two separate streams can be watched on different devices simultaneously, and content can also be downloaded to smartphones and tablets. The content available on the app varies according to the DStv package subscribed to.

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