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Gadgets of the Year

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It was a year of rapid advances, intense competition and crazy new features on devices large and small. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK names his pick of the gadget crop for 2017.

At a time when many thought phone technology could advance no further, innovation in both design and technology delivered a flood of delightful new devices. Advances in virtual reality and 360 degree cams, in activity monitors and wearables, in smart listening devices and home robots, in autonomous vehicles and electric cars, in gaming consoles and entertainment devices, all added up to a bewildering array of tech choices.

I can’t claim to have been exposed to all or most of these, but have tried out, tested and played with enough of them to offer a personal selection of the best gadgets of 2017.

Without further ado:

Smartphone of the Year: LG V30+

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A brand I did not expect to stand out above the rest in 2017 was LG, which had lurched from novelty innovation to novelty innovation in recent years. Finally, it has produced a phone that not only looks and feels good, but also functions better than most, and competes feature for feature.

The LG V30+ does not have more advanced functionality than, say, the Samsung Note 8 or S8 Plus, but it packs similar features into a package so slim and elegant, it comes as a surprise just how cutting edge it is.

Ultra-smooth, curved edges that run through to the back, 6” screen, rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, two rear lenses – 16MP with f1.6 aperture and 13MP – as well as a surprisingly large 3300 mAh battery with wireless charging, all in a 158g package.  If one is not brand conscious, there is nothing not to love here.

Joint runners-up: Samsung Note 8, Samsung S8 Plus, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and Apple iPhone X, are all superb handsets. If you have the budget, none of these will be a mistake

Low-end Phone of the Year: Vodacom Smart Kicka ve

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In the last few years, entry level phones came and conquered, and generally went up in price for new models as demand increased. The Smart Kicka, a phone made for Vodacom by Alcatel makers TCL, has gone in the other direction. The latest model hit the market at just under R400, with a decent 3.5” HVGA display, 1400 mAh battery, 4GB storage and a micro SD slot for expanding storage.

It runs on Android 5.1, which may be two generations behind current devices, but then its target market has little interest in device confectionery like Nougat and Oreo. More relevantly, it comes with a R10 000 voucher for online study material from Top Dog, which covers video lessons, interactive tests, and study tips for grades 4 to 12.

Even if not in the market for an entry-level phone, it makes a great back-up option to keep around for emergencies.

Specialist Phone of the Year: CAT S41 durable phone

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Anyone who works outdoors or a long way from a power supply will know how poorly the high-end phones serve their needs. Waterproof is nothing if a phone screen cracks at its mere impact with rocks and concrete. CAT, a brand derived from the Caterpillar earth-moving equipment company, comes to the rescue with the CAT S41. More specifically, with a tough shell, rubberised edges, and a giant 5000mAh battery giving 44 days standby time.

Gaming device of the Year: Nintendo Switch

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In 2017, Nintendo made a successful return to the console wars decades after its Game Boy first made handheld consoles mass -market,. However,  the flop of the Wii U was still fresh in people’s memory. Much was riding on the new Switch, and much was delivered.

The Switch is several gaming devices in one: Firstly,  a handheld console, albeit a few generations advanced over the Wii U, with a 6.2”, multi-touch capacitive touch screen and display resolution of 1280 x 720; Secondly, the console can be connected to a TV, underlining its competition to the PlayStation and Xbox. Thirdly, the Joy-Con contollers on either side of the screen can also be removed, to become separate devices so that two people can play each other on the same system.

The most significant aspect of the Switch is the extent to which, a year after the groundbreaking Pokemon Go augmented reality mobile game, it underlines Nintendo’s ability to remain innovative.

Robot of the Year: Alpha 1 Pro

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The average robot is a mechanical arm on an assembly line. Alpha 1 is not your average robot. It is a humanoid educational and entertainment tool with some nifty dance moves and extensive pre-loaded content and actions, thanks to 16 high precision servo motors. However, it can also be programmed, using a visual programming language called Blockly.  It can thus be used as a fun vehicle for coding education, or used for direct education on any other subject.

Wearable of the Year: Fitbit Alta HR

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In 2016, Fitbit took the activity band to a new level with the Alta. It was elegant and attractive, sleek and stylish, even carrying a curved OLED screen – something we tend to see only on high-end TVs. It only missed one feature to make it my default fitness device: a heart rate monitor.

This year, it plugged that gap. The Fitbit Alta HR is every bit as elegant, but also a high-tech power play in an aesthetically pleasing form factor.

Best Vehicle Tech of the Year: Land Rover Discovery ATPC

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Anyone who thinks self-driving cars are still years away hasn’t tried the new Land Rover Discovery in impossible driving conditions. An off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control allows the driver to surrender control to the vehicle in difficult terrain. Although the driver still steers, ATPC manages vehicle speed, braking, and applying torque to each wheel for traction.

It’s not a feature that will be in regular use. But, along with Land Rover’s Autonomous Emergency Braking system, which spots potential collissions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated, it reveals the extent to which autonomous vehicles are already possible.

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

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Earth 2050: memory chips for kids, telepathy for adults

An astonishing set of predictions for the next 30 years includes a major challenge to the privacy of our thoughts.

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Buy 2050, most kids may be fitted with the latest memory boosting implants, and adults will have replaced mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought.

These are some of the more dramatic forecasts in Earth 2050, an award-winning, interactive multimedia project that accumulates predictions about social and technological developments for the upcoming 30 years. The aim is to identify global challenges for humanity and possible ways of solving these challenges. The website was launched in 2017 to mark Kaspersky Lab’s 20th birthday. It comprises a rich variety of predictions and future scenarios, covering a wide range of topics.

Recently a number of new contributions have been added to the site. Among them Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Professor at Cambridge University and former President of the Royal Society; investor and entrepreneur Steven Hoffman, Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner, along withDmitry Galov, security researcher and Alexey Malanov, malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

The new visions for 2050 consider, among other things:

  • The replacement of mobile devices with direct connectivity through brain implants, powered by thought – able to upload skills and knowledge in return – and the impact of this on individual consciousness and privacy of thought.
  • The ability to transform all life at the genetic level through gene editing.
  • The potential impact of mistakes made by advanced machine-learning systems/AI.
  • The demise of current political systems and the rise of ‘citizen governments’, where ordinary people are co-opted to approve legislation.
  • The end of the techno-industrial age as the world runs out of fossil fuels, leading to economic and environmental devastation.
  • The end of industrial-scale meat production, as most people become vegan and meat is cultured from biopsies taken from living, outdoor reared livestock.

The hypothetical prediction for 2050 from Dmitry Galov, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab is as follows: “By 2050, our knowledge of how the brain works, and our ability to enhance or repair it is so advanced that being able to remember everything and learn new things at an outrageous speed has become commonplace. Most kids are fitted with the latest memory boosting implants to support their learning and this makes education easier than it has ever been. 

“Brain damage as a result of head injury is easily repaired; memory loss is no longer a medical condition, and people suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression, are quickly cured.  The technologies that underpin this have existed in some form since the late 2010s. Memory implants are in fact a natural progression from the connected deep brain stimulation implants of 2018.

“But every technology has another side – a dark side. In 2050, the medical, social and economic impact of memory boosting implants are significant, but they are also vulnerable to exploitation and cyber-abuse. New threats that have appeared in the last decade include the mass manipulation of groups through implanted or erased memories of political events or conflicts, and even the creation of ‘human botnets’. 

“These botnets connect people’s brains into a network of agents controlled and operated by cybercriminals, without the knowledge of the victims themselves.  Repurposed cyberthreats from previous decades are targeting the memories of world leaders for cyber-espionage, as well as those of celebrities, ordinary people and businesses with the aim of memory theft, deletion of or ‘locking’ of memories (for example, in return for a ransom).  

“This landscape is only possible because, in the late 2010s when the technologies began to evolve, the potential future security vulnerabilities were not considered a priority, and the various players: healthcare, security, policy makers and more, didn’t come together to understand and address future risks.”

For more information and the full suite of inspirational and thought-provoking predictions, visit Earth 2050.

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Pizoelectrics: Healthcare’s new gymnasts of gadgetry

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Healthcare electronics is rapidly deploying for wellness, electroceuticals, and intrusive medical procedures, among other, powered by new technologies. Much of it is trending to diagnostics and treatment on the move, and removing the need for the patient to perform procedures on time. 

Instruments become wearables, including electronic skin patches and implants. The IDTechEx Research report, “Piezoelectric Harvesting and Sensing for Healthcare 2019-2029”, notes that sensors should preferably be self-powered, non-poisonous even on disposal, and many need to be biocompatible and even biodegradable. 

We need to detect biology, vibration, force, acceleration, stress and linear movement and do imaging. Devices must reject bacteria and be useful in wearables and Internet of Things nodes. Preferably we must move to one device performing multiple tasks. 

So is there a gymnast material category that has that awesome versatility? 

Piezoelectrics has a good claim. It measures all those parameters. That even includes biosensors where the piezo senses the swelling of a biomolecule recognizing a target analyte. The most important form of self-powered (one material, two functions) piezo sensing is ultrasound imaging, a market growing at 5.1% yearly. 

The IDTechEx Research report looks at what comes next, based on global travel and interviewing by its PhD level analysts in 2018 with continuous updates.  

Click here to read how Piezo has been reinvented.

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