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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

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Wannacry still alive

One and a half years after its epidemic, WannaCry ransomware tops the list of the most widespread cryptor families and the ransomware has attacked 74,621 unique users worldwide.

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These attacks accounted for 28.72% of all users targeted by cryptors in Q3 2018. The percentage has risen over the last year, demonstrating more than two thirds growth against Q3 2017, when its share in cryptor attacks was 16.78%. This is just one of the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q3 IT threat evolution report. 

A series of cyberattacks with WannaCry cryptor occurred in May 2017 and is still considered to be one of the biggest ransomware epidemics in history. Even though Windows released a patch for its operating system to close the vulnerability exploited by EternalBlue 2 months prior to the start of the attacks, WannaCry still affected hundreds of thousands devices around the globe. As cryptors do, WannaCry turned files on victims’ computers into encrypted data and demanded ransom for decryption keys (created by threat actors to decipher the files and transform them back into the original data) making it impossible to operate the infected device.

The consequences of the WannaCry epidemic were devastating: as the victims were mainly organisations with networked systems – the work of businesses, factories and hospitals was paralysed. Even though this case demonstrated the dangers cryptors pose, and most of PCs around the world have been updated to resist the EternalBlue exploit, the statistics show that criminals still try to exploit those computers that weren’t patched and there are still plenty of them around the globe.

Overall, Kaspersky Lab security solution protected 259,867 unique users from cryptors attacks, showing a substantial rise of 39% since Q2 2018, when the figure was 158,921. The growth was rapid yet steady, with a monthly observed increase in the number of users.

The rising share of WannaCry attacks is another reminder that epidemics don’t end as fast as they start – there are always long-running consequences. In the case of cryptors, attacks can be so severe that it is necessary to take preventive measures and patch the device, rather than deal with encrypted files later,” said Fedor Sinitsyn, security researcher at Kaspersky Lab.

 To reduce the risk of infection by WannaCry and other cryptors, users are advised to:

  • Always update your operating system to eliminate recent vulnerabilities and use a robust security solution with updated databases. It is also important to use the security solution that has specialised technologies to protect your data from ransomware, as Kaspersky Lab’s solutions do. Even if the newest yet unknown malware does manage to sneak through, Kaspersky Lab’s System Watcher technology is able to block and roll back all malicious changes made on a device, including the encryption of files.
  • If you have bad luck and all your files are encrypted with cryptomalware, it is not recommended to pay cybercriminals, as it encourages them to continue their dirty business and infect more people’s devices. It is better to find a decryptor on the Internet – some of them are available for free here: https://noransom.kaspersky.com/

·         It is also important to always have fresh backup copies of your files to be able to replace them in case they are lost (e.g. due to malware or a broken device), and store them not only on the physical object but also in cloud storage for greater reliability (don’t forget to protect your cloud storage with strong hack-proof password!)

·         If you’re a business, enhance your preferred third-party security solution with the newest version of the free Kaspersky Anti-Ransomware Tool.

·         To protect the corporate environment, educate your employees and IT teams, keep sensitive data separate, restrict access, and always back up everything.

·         Use a dedicated security solution, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business that is powered by behaviour detection and able to roll back malicious actions. It should also include Vulnerability and Patch management features that automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and installs updates. This reduces the risk of vulnerabilities in popular software being used by cybercriminals.

·         Last, but not least, remember that ransomware is a criminal offence. You shouldn’t pay. If you become a victim, report it to your local law enforcement agency.

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Nokia 6.1 gets slice of Pie

HMD Global has announced that the Nokia 6.1 will start receiving Android 9 Pie – the second smartphone in the portfolio to receive the latest version of Android less than a month after the update arrived on the Nokia 7 plus.

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Packed with Google’s newest software and building on the features of Android 8.0 Oreo, Android 9 Pie’s focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning gives owners a more customised and tailored experience.

Powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 630 Mobile Platform, the Nokia 6.1 is over 60% faster than its predecessor. Also, now offering enhanced Dual-Sight, ZEISS optics, USB-C fast-charging, Nokia spatial audio and pure, secure and up-to-date Android Oreo.

The Nokia 6.1 has been selected by Google to join the Android One family and therefore users get exclusive access to Apps Actions – a feature only available to Android One and Google Pixel devices.  App Actions helps users get things done faster by predicting their next move and displaying the right action on right away.

Now with Android 9 Pie, the Nokia 6.1’s already impressive battery life is further complimented with the introduction of Adaptive Battery, an update that uses deep learning to understand usage patterns and prioritise battery power on the most important apps.

Other key features of Android 9

·       Slices – Identifies relevant information on favourite apps to make them more easily accessible when needed

·       Adaptive Brightness – Automatically adapts phone brightness by learning from interactions with different settings

·       New system navigation – Features a single home button that provides intelligent predictions and suggestions (user enabled)

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