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Most useful gadgets of the year

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Sometimes, gadgetry doesn’t have to be cool or sexy – or expensive – to be must-haves. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK chooses the most practical new gadgets he tried out in 2015.

The most useful or practical gadgets are not the ones that will grace the covers of magazines or compete for product placement slots in movies. They tend to skulk unobtrusively in the background, or enhance high profile devices like laptops, tablets and even action cameras.

Some have been around, as product categories, in various formats for years. However, they are coming into their own via improved technology or design or both. For example, I had little faith in range extenders due to dismal performance delivered in the past. So dramatic was the performance delivered by a new variation on the theme, however, it leapfrogged the rest to hit number one on the list.

1. TrendNet N300 High Power Wireless N Range Extender (TEW-737HRE)

A regular frustration of home or office Wi-Fi is the dramatic drop-off in signal strength once the user is on the opposite end of the building from the access point, or even a few rooms away. A range extender works on a simple principle: it looks like a regular adaptor plug that fits into a regular power socket, and synchronises with the WiFi router to extend its signal, often to double the original range.

The TrendNet version is similar to many alternatives, including options from Asus and Linksys. But, as its name suggests, it packs high power into a small package. No installation is needed, and a single button is used to synchronise via a sync button found on most WiFi routers. While it may bother the securrty conscious by automatically adopting the router’s password and encryption, it also supports advanced wireless encryption for data protection.

As pervasive connectivity becomes an ever-greater need, range extenders like the TrendNet device will become common household accessories.

Price: R700-R900 from electronics and discount stores, online and offline

2. ErgoProp laptop stand 

The laptop computer remains the preferred working tool for serious computer users, offering more productivity options and versatility than a tablet. The downside is that these very benefits result in the user typically being hunched over the device when hard at work. This invariably results in neck and shoulder pain, and even repetitive stress injury (RSI).

The Ergoprop is a deceptively simple approach to addressing this problem, allowing a laptop to be propped up to a more comfortable angle – and keeping it cooler by allowing air to pass under. It has a foldable foot so that it can be slipped into a laptop bag – although requiring slightly larger than average bags – to be available on the road as well.

Price: R299 from http://www.ergotherapy.co.za

3. Brydgeair Keyboard

This aluminium keyboard for the iPad Air and Air 2 is not unique and it’s not cheap, but it pairs better with an iPad Air than any other Bluetooth keyboard I’ve tried. It transforms an iPad into something very close to a small MacBook Air, with synchronisation options so seamless, it has the feel of being made by th4 same company.

Brydge is an independent iPad accessory company that started as a Kickstarter crowdfunding project and, like the company at which its accessories are aimed, is focused on design excellence.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the keyboard integrates superbly with the iPad, both visually and technically.

It offers passable built-in speakers, backlit keys as on the MacBook Air, a 180 degree hinge for flexible viewing angles, and up to 3 months of battery life.

Price: R2800 at any iStore or online at http://www.myistore.co.za

4. Gatekeeper Wireless Computer Lock & Tracker

Another low-cost gadget from a start-up, the Gatekeeper comprises a tiny USB jack that makes up the lock, and a small metal fob that acts as a remote key. The key links to the computer via Bluetooth, automatically locks the computer as the user moves away from it, and unlocks it or signs in when the user returns. The lock distance can be set for user preferences, although the setting is not very accurate, with a scale from “near” to “far”.

It’s not exactly plug and play, as it requires software to be downloaded and set up before its ready to run – or let you run.

It doubles as  a location tracker, helping to  locate devices and allowing users to set an alarm when a device is out of range. However, it’s ultimate benefit is as a security and privacy protector for computers used in workplaces, student study areas and other areas where unwanted access may occur as the user steps away from the computer.

Price: $35 ($125 for a 5-pack) online at http://www.gkchain.com (Shipping $15 worldwide)

5. World Panel SunStream

Portable power banks have become essential accessories for smartphone users in South Africa, as they find diminishing battery life not often balanced by access to charging points. But these, too, depend on plug points to get the power into the bank in the first place.

WorldPanel CEO John Anderson started off providing solar power for homes in Africa, but quickly realised there was as much of a need for solar smartphone chargers. The result is the SunStream, which converts sunlight into electricity that is streamed directly into the phone.

It is claimed to charge phones at the same speed as a wall plug, but does not provide quite the same consistency of throughput. Nevertheless, if one can “simply point the handheld panel toward the sun and plug in a device to stream electricity”, as the package states, it plugs a gaping hole in the handset ecosystem in Africa.

An optional PowerStream 3000 mAh power bank allows solar power to be converted into stored energy for later use – and is enough to provide a full charge for most smartphones.

Price: R200 from select Vodacom outlets (SunStream only; accessory prices on enquiry)

6. RED-E 4000mAh PowerBank & BikeBar Mount Combo

This one is a little more specialised, aimed at keen bikers, particularly those who record their antics with GoPro and other action cameras. The downside of most of these cameras is limited battery power, sometimes offering as little as half an hour of recording.

The Red-E 4000mAh PowerBank and BikeBar Mount Combo attaches securely both to the bike’s handlebars and to the GoPro camera. The benefit of the dedicated secure connection is that vibration is minimised, but the overwhelming plus is the hours of extra recording time it offers, at a price that won’t stress the wallet.

The battery can be bought separately – meaning spares can be carried on a long trip – and delivers the established quality of RED-E power banks to action users.

Price: R895 online from http://www.actiongear.co.za

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

Africa News

Smart grids needed for Africa’s utilities

Power utilities across Africa should rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem, says COLIN BEANEY, Global Industry Director for Asset-intensive and Energy and Utilities at IFS.

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Africa’s abundant natural resources and urgent need for power mean that it is one of the most exciting and innovative energy markets in a world that is moving rapidly towards clean, renewable energy sources. The continent’s energy industry is taking new approaches to providing unserved and underserved communities with access to power, with an emphasis on smart technologies and greener energy sources.

Power systems are evolving from centralised, top-down systems as interest in off-grid technology grows among African businesses and consumers. And according to PwC, we will see installed power capacity rise from 2012’s 90GW to 380GW in 2040 in sub-Saharan Africa. Power utilities are needing to rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem.

Energy and utilities providers are transforming from centralised supply companies to more distributed, bi-directional service providers. They can only achieve this through the evolution of “smart grids” where sensors and smart meters will be able to provide the consumer with a more granular level of detail of power usage. This shift from an energy supplier to “lifestyle provider” will require a much more dynamic and optimised approach to maintenance and field service.

African companies must thus embrace digital transformation as an imperative. This transformation begins by embracing enterprise asset management to improve asset utilisation. The subsequent steps are enhancing upstream and downstream supply chain management; resource optimisation; introducing enterprise operational intelligence; embracing new technologies such as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and predictive maintenance; and becoming a smart utility.

Embracing mobility to drive ROI

Getting it right is about putting in place an enterprise backbone that accommodates asset and project management, multinational languages and currencies, new energies and markets, visualisation of the entire value chain, and mobility apps. Mobile technologies that support the field workforce have a vital role to play in driving better ROI from utilities’ investments in enterprise asset management and enterprise resource planning solutions.

Today’s leading enterprise asset management solutions feature powerful functionality for mobile management of the complete workflow of work orders – from logging status changes and updates, from receiving and creating new orders to concluding the job and reporting time, material and expenses. Such solutions are easy to deploy and intuitive for end users to learn and use.

Importantly for organisations operating in parts of the continent with poor telecoms infrastructure, connectivity is not an issue. The solutions work offline and synchronises when network connectivity is available. Users can work on any device—laptops, tablets, and smartphones—commercial or ruggedised.

By ensuring that field technicians have easy access to information and processes, the mobile solution enables technicians and maintenance engineers to easily do the following tasks:

·         Create a new work order on the fly and log new opportunities

·         Access both historical and planned work information when requested

·         Permit customers to sign when the job is completed

·         Capture measurements and inspection notes on route work orders

·         Create new fault reports on routing

·         Facilitate documentation through photo capturing

·         Provide easy access to technical data and preventive actions.

The power of mobility allows the engineer to be the origin of all data capture on a service event. They can easily inquire on asset history, record parts used or parts needed for repair, record labour hours, and expenses as they occur, and any notes of repairs performed. When coupled with workforce management tools, such solutions unlock significant productivity gains for utilities who are trying to get the most from their workforce and assets.

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Brands fall for app vanity

The experience of a mobile screen full of icons, representing independent apps that your need to open to experience them, is making less sense. Instead, businesses should serve customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the digital platform they already use, says PIETER DE VILLIERS, Group CEO at Clickatell.

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Many brands remain obsessed with creating mobile apps. This not only defies trends that point to increasing consumer app apathy, but can exclude a sizeable portion  of your customers in emerging economies. Companies need to engage with their users where they are rather than forcing them onto an app, in what can only be described as brand vanity. 

In 2017 there were around 2.2 million apps available in the iOS app store and over 3 million on Google Play. And, while the number of apps being downloaded continues to rise, analysis shows that consumers are only using 30 apps per month and accessing just 9 on a day-to-day basis. 

While these numbers still seem attractively high, in reality the majority of the apps we use are for messaging (like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat) and our social networking, gaming, leisure, dating or utility activities. 

Despite the facts, the application strategy as the holy grail for digital transformation is still being pushed even within large progressive brands. What’s more, some advertising agencies and digital consultants are still pushing apps as the best means for companies to connect with their customers. This has resulted in some organisations stubbornly doubling down on app strategies which are simply not showing return on investment (ROI). 

It’s not immediately clear to us whether the fascination with apps is a roll-over from long overdue projects or whether brand owners equate a mobile-first strategy with a mobile app. Mobile-first in 2018 means customer first, and therefore embracing chat commerce in order to deliver services with convenience and simplicity in mind. 

Why apps won’t win the internet

The problem with apps goes beyond user fatigue. In the first instance, many apps are poorly designed, assuming technical sophistication which may not match reality for the average customer. Poor user interfaces and attempts to provide complex engagement can result in even the best ideas missing their targets due to lack of engagement. 

Secondly, we all know that economic realities drive consumer behaviour. In Africa, new mobile phone users typically opt for feature phones over smartphones. With a longer battery life and a much more accessible price point, feature phones still allow for a basic internet connection, chat platforms like WhatsApp, and call and message functionality. In these regions, the cost of an app – even if it’s free – goes far beyond installing it. Constant updates require reliable and cheap access to the internet. For the average phone owner in an emerging market, this can be a serious challenge. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, apps must be relevant to their intended market. Frequency of usage is a key measure of relevance. 

Apps which are used on a daily basis, like health and fitness trackers, enjoy constant engagement. New features which are added are eagerly awaited by users who are happy to update their apps. 

However, users may well question the relevance of the app if they are required to conduct updates on a monthly or even weekly basis when they are only making use of the app once or twice a year. 

On average, I download one app per quarter. Some I use more frequently than others, but all of these apps need to be regularly updated to maintain security, update features, and fix bugs. Many apps are pushing out updates much more frequently. I noticed over the past year that I could go from having all apps updated, to 32 apps requiring an update in five days.

When it comes to a customer-first digital strategy, companies should be asking themselves if an app is really the best way to reach their target audience. 

In fact, at the end of 2016, Gartner predicted that by 2019, 20 percent of brands would ditch their mobile app. What’s more, in its 2018 predictions, the company forecast that by 2021, more than 50 percent of corporations would spend more per annum on bots and chatbots than on mobile app development. 

So, we need to ask, what is the alternative for CIOs, CDOs, CMOs, and digital leaders who are looking for ways to reach, retain and grow their customer base? 

The logical app alternative 

The old battle advice goes: fight your enemy where they are not. Military strategists agreed that having your enemy come to you and fight you on your own terms was preferable. In a world where customers have access to thousands of offerings and millions of deals online, we need to flip that idea to Meet Your Customers Where They Are. 

Any marketeer will tell you just a how difficult it is to drive app downloads. Development, cross platform testing and user interface aside, the marketing campaign required to get customers to download the app can swallow entire annual budgets and still come up short. 

Looking at the facts, it makes infinitely more sense to work within the digital platforms already being used by your target audience. 

Clickatell is already enabling chat commerce for some of the leading global brands with its Touch solution. This allows organisations to serve their customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the chat or browser platform of their customer’s choice (Twitter, Facebook Messenger, etc.) 

Brands can now send an actionable Touch link such as ‘find the nearest ATM’ or ‘reset my password’ within a chat stream that will open an intuitive touch card without the user having to download an app to perform the action. Services can also be linked to the in-app experience for brands not looking to abandon their app efforts. 

Working with our clients, many of whom are global innovators and thought leaders, we’ve found that having the courage to design with an ‘end user first’ approach and dealing with the back-end complexity behind the scenes results in cost efficient customer delight and ROI. 

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