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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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Apple buys Shazam, plans to make it ad-free

Apple has announced it has completed its acquisition of Shazam, one of the world’s most popular music apps, with hundreds of millions of users.

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Apple has announced it has completed its acquisition of Shazam, one of the world’s most popular music apps, with hundreds of millions of users.

“Apple and Shazam have a long history together. Shazam was one of the first apps available when we launched the App Store and has become a favorite app for music fans everywhere,” said Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music. “With a shared love of music and innovation, we are thrilled to bring our teams together to provide users even more great ways to discover, experience and enjoy music.”

Shazam lets users identify songs simply by listening to the music playing around them. The app will soon offer its experience ad-free for all users so everyone can enjoy the best of Shazam without interruption.

Shazam has been downloaded over 1 billion times around the world, and users identify songs using the Shazam app over 20 million times each day. With pioneering innovation in music identification, Shazam helps people discover, interact with and share video, audio or printed content across devices and mediums — and allows music fans to follow their favorite artists and share in the thrill of discovery.

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Cars will run on Android

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi and Google have announced a technology partnership to embed the Android operating system in vehicles sold by the world’s leading automotive alliance, providing intelligent infotainment and customer focused-applications across multiple models and brands, scheduled to start in 2021. 

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Under the technology partnership, vehicles sold by the Alliance members in many markets will utilize Android, the world’s most popular operating system, and will provide turn-by-turn navigation with Google Maps, access to a rich ecosystem of automotive apps on the Google Play Store and have the ability to answer calls and texts, control media, find information, and manage vehicle functions with voice using the built in Google Assistant.

The Alliance, whose member companies last year sold 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets, will integrate Google applications and services into infotainment and cloud-based systems to enhance the experience for customers of Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors brands. While a range of Alliance vehicles will share the Android platform, each brand will have flexibility to create a unique customer interface and specific features on top of the common Android platform.

The infotainment partnership forms part of Alliance moves to equip more vehicles with connectivity and cloud-based services as part of its Alliance 2022 mid-term plan. Today’s announcement, coinciding with the first anniversary of the mid-term plan, symbolizes the Alliance focus on next generation technology. Under the plan, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi is targeting increased sales of more than 14 million units a year by the end of 2022.

The plan also involves the launch of 12 new zero-emission electric vehicles, new autonomous-driving technologies and the ongoing rollout of the Alliance Intelligent Cloud.

The Alliance Intelligent Cloud will provide next-generation infotainment systems with secure connectivity by offering a platform to integrate data management, infotainment systems and to facilitate over-the- air upgrades and remote diagnostics in Alliance member-company vehicles.

By combining the latest technologies from the Alliance and Google, the Alliance member companies’ vehicles will have one of the most intelligent infotainment systems in the market.

Drivers and passengers will be able to leverage Google and Android’s capabilities to access an ecosystem that includes thousands of existing applications and an ever-expanding array of new apps. This integration, combined with the broad knowledge and a vibrant community of developers, will enable easy in-vehicle access to popular applications. The system will also be compatible with devices running other operating systems, such as Apple iOS.

Hadi Zablit, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, said, “Our partnership with Google will offer owners of our vehicles rich user experiences that are currently available only outside the vehicle or, to a limited extent, by connecting an Android device to supported vehicles. We are building powerful connected and seamless on-board / off-board experiences into our vehicles in addition to the features of Google applications and services that many users are accustomed to, including Google Maps, the Google Assistant and the Google Play Store.”

Kal Mos, Global Vice President of Alliance Connected Vehicles at Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, added, “With the integration of the Android platform into our infotainment systems, we are adding a new level of intelligence to our connected vehicles. In the future, the Google Assistant, which employs Google’s leading AI technology, can become the main way customers interact with their vehicles, hands-free. With Google Maps and the Google Assistant embedded in Alliance infotainment systems, our customers will have some of the most advanced AI based applications at their fingertips. And with invehicle access to the Google Play Store, our customers will enjoy an open and secure ecosystem of Android apps engineered for vehicles.”

Hiroshi Lockheimer, Senior Vice President of Platforms & Ecosystems at Google, said, “Google and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi share a common vision of delivering an intelligent, safe and seamless incar experience with apps and services that are familiar, upgradable and connected. We’re thrilled to partner with Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi to bring the Google Assistant, Google Maps, and other popular apps via the Play Store and Android to drivers and passengers around the world.”

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