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Moto Mods: towards the next big thing

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Motorola, the name that kicked off the mobile revolution, arrives back in South Africa this week – with more than just a smartphone, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

South Africans associate two brands with the dawn of the mobile revolution: Motorola, which started it all, and Nokia, which practically owned the phone world for a decade. It’s one of the serial ironies of the mobile industry that Nokia killed off Motorola in this market, only to be killed off in turn by BlackBerry, which was then all but destroyed by Apple and Samsung.

Meanwhile, Motorola stayed alive through various incarnations, including a resuscitation attempt by Google. Now, under the stewardship of Lenovo, it is taking another shot at redemption.

And what a shot it is. This week, it will announce the arrival in South Africa of the Moto Z smartphone, a handset that redefines what smartphones can do. At a time when it is conventional wisdom that we can only expect incremental advances in smartphone technology, this may seem absurd.

Moto Z Force Droid Edition product photography

However, it is an absurdity four months in the making. The Moto Z was unveiled in San Francisco in June, along with four add-on devices called Mods. Short for modifications, they take the functionality of smartphones to a new level.

To start with, the Moto Z itself is a revelation. The 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display puts it on a par with anything on the market: a resolution of 2560×1440 and a pixel density of 535 ppi makes for dazzling images and video. Despite these heavy specs, it lies a mere 5.19mm deep, earning the title of the thinnest flagship smartphone in the world. It harks back to the second generation Razr, which itself seemed impossibly thin, at 7.1mm, so many years ago back in 2011.

Some argue that mere mortals wouldn’t notice whether a handset is 5mm or 7mm thick. They’ll notice with this one. The real difference emerges when one attaches an additional device to the back of the handset, and it still fits into a pocket.

The rear of the phone is distinctive for two features: a protruding camera lens, and an array of metal connectors. Both combine to allow easy and instant clipping on of the Mods. A round hole in each of the add-ons aligns instantly with the protruding lens, and the connectors latch onto the magnetic rear of the Mods.

These, in turn, extend the phone’s functionality, in various directions.

Along with the Z’s slightly bulkier sibling, the Moto Z Play, Lenovo has released four Mods. The most exciting is called the Moto Insta-Share, a somewhat retro name for a device that points the way to the future. It is a mini-projector, which projects the phone interface onto any surface. It’s 11mm thick and weighs 125g, about the same as a light smartphone, and attaching the Moto Z seems like adding only a thin layer.

It projects a sharp image at up to 70 inches, which translates into a large TV display. In other words, one can use it to view ShowMax, Netflix or any other videos streamed or stored via the phone. With an adjustable fold-out kickstand, it also makes for a great presentation device. The one drawback is that it requires a fairly dark environment for optimal viewing, meaning it can’t replace TV sets in all conditions. Yet.

While it can use the phone’s power supply, the Insta-Share also houses an 1100 mAh battery, which allows for around an hour of additional viewing. The Moto Z’s own 2600 mAh battery provides the phone with up to 30 hours of mixed use.

The Insta-Share points to a future where a phone’s interface will be displayed or used on any surface, and will make the specs of the handset irrelevant, as the user will only interact with the display. The phone and its projector may as well be housed in a necklace or ring. But that is still a few generations away.

A Mod that generated similar levels of enthusiasm at the launch, the Hasselblad True Zoom, turns the phone into something closer to a DSLR camera.

The camera on the Moto Z itself is not too slack: at 13MP with f/1.8 aperture and dual LED flash, it compares well with the market-leading Samsung S7 edge. It captures video in full HD as well as 4K.

So far so great. Now add the Hasselblad. Photographers will appreciate the specs: a 1/2.3-inch BSI CMOS sensor, focal length of 4.5-45 mm, equivalent to 25-250mm on a 35mm camera, 10x optical and 4x digital zoom, with macro zoom of 5cm @1x to 1.5m @10x. A wheel next to the shutter button controls the zoom function, with the lens protruding or retracting accordingly.

The strategy is to adapt the phone for any number of special interests. The JBL Soundboost mod turns it into a boombox, while the Incipio Offgrid power pack is a 2200 mAh add-on battery, for another 22 hours of usage.

Lenovo has issued a challenge – with $1-million in funding – for the best prototypes of third party mods. If the challenge turns into a viable and sustainable build-out of a new ecosystem around the Moto Z, the Motorola brand will be propelled far beyond its nostalgia value.

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  • 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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AppDate: Shedding light in our times of darkness

SEAN BACHER’S app roundup highlights two load-shedding apps, along with South AfriCAM, NBA 2K Mobile, Virgin Mobile’s Spot 3.0 and SwiftKey.

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Load Shedding Notifier

With all the uncertainty about when South Africans will next be plunged into darkness by Eskom, the Load Shedding Notifier tries its best to keep up with Eskom’s schedule. The app is very simple to use. Download it, type an area in and click the save button. The app automatically tells you what load shedding stage Eskom is on, the times you can expect to start lighting candles and for how long to burn them.

Multiple areas can be added and one can switch between the different stages to see how each one will affect a certain area.

A grid status is also displayed, showing how strained the country’s electrical network is.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

EskomSePush Load Shedding App

EskomSePush does much the same as the Load Shedding Notifier, but allows multiple cities to be tracked. However, they may just want to rethink the name of the app if they want wider respectability.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

South AfriCAM

South AfriCAM enables users to add branded stickers and frames from popular lifestyle magazine titles to their posts, including Huisgenoot, YOU, Drum, Move!, TRUE LOVE, Women’s Health and Men’s Health. 

In the process, they can earn JETPoints for their social influence: through the app’s built-in JET8 social currency, users are rewarded for their engagement. For every in-app like, comment, and share, users earn JETPoints, which can be used to redeem products online or over the counter across more than 2 500 retail stores in South Africa. Users are additionally awarded JETPoints for cross-posting onto external social media networks.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

Click here to read about console quality graphics on a mobile phone, Virgin Money payments made easier, and an app that redesigns the keyboard.

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Drones to drive
Western Cape agritech

Aerobotics is set to change how farmers treat their crops by using drones and machine learning, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Western Cape is poised to be a hotbed of innovation in the agritech sector, with drone piloting set to playing a major role in in the tech start-up scene.

This is the view of Tim Willis, chief operating officer of pioneering drone company Aerobotics, a Cape Town drone company recognised as a world leader in agritech.

“Drone piloting is a key skill that feeds into the value chain of the budding 4th Industrial Revolution,” said Willis. “Cape Town and the Western Cape is uniquely positioned to be the melting pot for innovation in the agritech sector, as a leading agricultural exporter and a hub for creative tech start-ups.”

He was speaking at AeroCon, a drone expo organised by Aerobotics and held in Johannesburg this week aimed at providing opportunities for drone pilots to apply their skills in South Africa, and to show how drones are being used to collect data on crops. 

The event was supported by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Wesgro, PROMMAC, MicaSense, and Rectron, among other

“We’re starting to sign up farmers across the country,” said Willis. “It’s exciting because farmers are starting to use drone technology on their farms. When a farmer wants a drone flown, they want it flown [now] so it’s important for us to capture that data as quickly as possible to show that drones are fast and effective.”

According to aerobotics, drone technology can help farmers reduce pesticide use on their crops by up to 30%. The result is environmentally friendly farming, reducing stressed crops and a healthier harvest. 

“We use aerial imagery from drones to recreate a 3D model of every single tree on a farmer’s orchard,” said Willis. “We’ve done this for millions of trees and it starts to give the farmers metrics of what they’re doing. We provide them with the health of the trees, the height, the volume, the canopy area, which enable the farms to make decisions on what to do next.”

Click here to read more about AeroCon and what it offers to those wanting to get into the drone industry.

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