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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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Samsung unfolds the future

At the #Unpacked launch, Samsung delivered the world’s first foldable phone from a major brand. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK tried it out.

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Everything that could be known about the new Samsung Galaxy S10 range, launched on Wednesday in San Francisco, seems to have been known before the event.

Most predictions were spot-on, including those in Gadget (see our preview here), thanks to a series of leaks so large, they competed with the hole an iceberg made in the Titanic.

The big surprise was that there was a big surprise. While it was widely expected that Samsung would announce a foldable phone, few predicted what would emerge from that announcement. About the only thing that was guessed right was the name: Galaxy Fold.

The real surprise was the versatility of the foldable phone, and the fact that units were available at the launch. During the Johannesburg event, at which the San Francisco launch was streamed live, small groups of media took turns to enter a private Fold viewing area where photos were banned, personal phones had to be handed in, and the Fold could be tried out under close supervision.

The first impression is of a compact smartphone with a relatively small screen on the front – it measures 4.6-inches – and a second layer of phone at the back. With a click of a button, the phone folds out to reveal a 7.3-inch inside screen – the equivalent of a mini tablet.

The fold itself is based on a sophisticated hinge design that probably took more engineering than the foldable display. The result is a large screen with no visible seam.

The device introduces the concept of “app continuity”, which means an app can be opened on the front and, in mid-use, if the handset is folded open, continue on the inside from where the user left off on the front. The difference is that the app will the have far more space for viewing or other activity.

Click here to read about the app experience on the inside of the Fold.

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Password managers don’t protect you from hackers

Using a password manager to protect yourself online? Research reveals serious weaknesses…

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Top password manager products have fundamental flaws that expose the data they are designed to protect, rendering them no more secure than saving passwords in a text file, according to a new study by researchers at Independent Security Evaluators (ISE).

“100 percent of the products that ISE analyzed failed to provide the security to safeguard a user’s passwords as advertised,” says ISE CEO Stephen Bono. “Although password managers provide some utility for storing login/passwords and limit password reuse, these applications are a vulnerable target for the mass collection of this data through malicious hacking campaigns.”

In the new report titled “Under the Hood of Secrets Management,” ISE researchers revealed serious weaknesses with top password managers: 1Password, Dashlane, KeePass and LastPass.  ISE examined the underlying functionality of these products on Windows 10 to understand how users’ secrets are stored even when the password manager is locked. More than 60 million individuals 93,000 businesses worldwide rely on password managers. Click here for a copy of the report.

Password managers are marketed as a solution to eliminate the security risks of storing passwords or secrets for applications and browsers in plain text documents. Having previously examined these and other password managers, ISE researchers expected an improved level of security standards preventing malicious credential extraction. Instead ISE found just the opposite. 

Click here to read the findings from the report.

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