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Gadgets of the year: touching deep

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Gadgetry is synonymous with bells and whistles, but sometimes it’s the personal approach that stands out. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK’s three gadgets of the year all strike a chord, but for different reasons.

The stand-out gadgets of 2015 each makes its presence felt by touching a chord – although not all in the same way. One speaks to health, one to educational needs and one to sheer entertainment – but in a manner seldom encountered in electronics and gadgetry.

Gadget of the Year: Fitbit Charge HR

It is rare for a gadget that emerges early in the year to become an immediate favourite to win the title of Gadget of Year, but the Fitbit Charge HR made an early claim to the title. It is the market-leading activity monitor, still marginally ahead of the Apple Watch in overall wearable sales, and the undisputed leader in dedicated activity monitors.

The original Fitbit Flex was already a winner in getting people to up their activity levels, but it fell dramatically short in not having its own display. The moment a second device – in this case a smartphone – is needed to make a wearable work, it is not a true wearable, but rather what one may call a connectable.

The Apple Watch does not function truly independently of an iPhone, hence its absence from the selection here. The Fitbit began to come into its own with the release of the Charge, with its own mini-screen and a single control button. It still needs to synchronise with a smartphone or computer for maximum tracking benefits, but is not dependent on either for its core functions.

It does, however, have one gap that is quickly being filled by most smartwatches: heart-rate monitoring. That is an integral element of activity monitoring nowadays and, when included in a wristband, dramatically upgrades fitness use from the clunky old chestbands using radio frequency.

Enter the Fitbit Charge HR. It is as slim as the Charge and Flex, and hence as unobtrusive. However, it includes a heart rate (HR) monitor, so HR was added to the name. It offers exactly what a wearable should: it is low-key, with long battery life, and is simple yet effective.  It measures steps, distance and staircases, and, thanks to a recent software upgrade, can detect exercise modes.

Most smartwatches require daily charging, which tends to be the biggest frustration of Apple Watch owners. The Fitbit runs for up to five days, and then charges fully in less than an hour, meaning little activity is lost while charging.

This is a gadget that can and does change lives, and does so in a manner that seamlessly integrates with users’ lifestyles. It started the year as the frontrunner, and ends as the runaway winner.

Educational gadget of the year: Kano computer kit

The Kano Computer Kit starred life on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site where  someone with a great idea appeals to anyone who wants to buy into the idea to fund its development. It raised $1.5-million from more than 13 000 backers, and is now making its way into online and offline stores across the world.

It is a kit that contains the essential components for building a computer, but geared towards children aged 6 to 12, so doesn’t get too technical. No transistors to solder onto motherboards!

On the other hand, it does take children beyond what even their parents imagine a child with no experience can achieve with a computer. From assembly of plug-and-play componenents through to coding the device to make music and games, it awakens both child and parent to a new world of computing possibilities. Merely the fact that it introduces coding languages like Python and JavaScript in an accessible, child-friendly way is already a major recommendation in a world where coding ability is a major asset.

It comes with keyboard, case, low-cost Raspberry Pi computer, processor, build-it-yourself speakers, cables and WiFi connectivity – along with a storybook that guides the child through construction and coding.  It plugs into any monitor with an HDMI port – and Kano is about to releasen a D-I-Y high-definition display too. Expect this one to make waves in schools in 2016.

Fun gadget of the year: Star Wars BB-8 App-enabled Droid

By now it’s old news that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is on its way to becoming the biggest box-office hit of all time. Those who have seen it will point not only to the heroes, the epic tale and the magnificent special effects, but also to the arrival of a worthy successor to the beloved droid, R2D2. The newcomer, BB-8, possesses an astonishing array of attitude and emotion for a robot that has only lights and, err, bells and whistles to express itself.

Even before the movie was released, the toy version of BB-8 was on its way to becoming a gift of choice for the 2015 holiday season. In the wake of the movie, it is likely to be a runaway success. Only a few inches tall, it is a faithful reproduction of the “real” thing. It is controlled from any Android or Apple iOS device, and can be guided around most terrains.

Most astonishingly, the mini BB-8 responds to voice and evolves its attitude and actions the longer it is used. It records and sends “holographic” videos, making it as faithful to the original as current technology allows. However, it is sheer adorable quotient that makes BB-8 a winner. Few electronic toys have the ability to create quite the bond that BB-8 does.

Created by Sphero, makers of last year’s hit toy, the Romo Smartphone Robot, it takes smartphone play experience at light speed into a galaxy far, far away.

* 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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Huge appetite for foldable phones – when prices fall

Samsung, Huawei and Motorola have all shown their cards, but consumers are concerned about durability, size, and enhanced use cases, according to Strategy Analytics

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Foldable devices are a long-awaited disrupter in the smartphone market, exciting leading-edge early adopters keen for a bold new type of device. But the acceptance of foldable devices by mainstream segments will depend on the extent to which the current barriers to adoption are addressed.

Major brands have been throwing their foldable bets into the hat to see what the market wants from a foldable, namely how big the screens should be and how the devices should fold. Samsung and Huawei have both designed devices that unfold from smartphones to tablets, each with their own method of how the devices go about folding. Motorola has recently designed a smartphone that folds in half, and it resembles a flip phone.

Assessing consumer desire for foldable smartphones, a new report from the User Experience Strategies group at Strategy Analytics has found that the perceived value of the foldable form does not outweigh the added cost.

Key report findings include:

  • The idea of having a larger-displayed smartphone in a portable size is perceived as valuable to the vast majority of consumers in the UK and the US. But, willingness to pay extra for a foldable device does not align with the desire to purchase one. Manufacturers must understand that there will be low sell-through until costs come down.
  • But as the acceptance for traditional smartphone display sizes continues to increase, so does the imposed friction of trying to use them one-handed. Unless a foldable phone has a wider folded state, entering text when closed is too cumbersome, forcing users to utilize two hands to enter text, when in the opened state.
  • Use cases need to be adequately demonstrated for consumers to fully understand and appreciate the potential for a foldable phone, though their priorities seemed fixed on promoting ‘two devices in one’ equaling a better video viewing experience. Identification and promotion of meaningful new use cases will be vital to success.

Christopher Dodge, Associate Director, UXIP and report author said: “As multitasking will look to be a core selling point for foldable phones, it is imperative that the execution be simplified and intuitive. Our data suggests there are a lot of uncertainties that come with foldable phone ownership, stemming mainly from concerns with durability and size, in addition to concerns over enhanced use cases.

“But our data also shows that when the consumers are able to use a foldable phone in hand, there is a solid reduction of doubt and concern about the concept. This means that the in-store experience may more important than ever in driving awareness, capabilities, and potential use cases.”

Said Paul Brown, Director, UXIP: “The big question is whether the perceived value will outweigh the added cost; and the initial response from consumers is ‘no.’ The ability for foldable displays to resolve real consumer pain-points is, in our view critical to whether these devices will become a niche segment of the smartphone market or the dominant form-factor of the future. Until costs come down, these devices will not take off.”

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Huawei puts $1-bn into local developer programme

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Huawei Mobile Services (HMS) South Africa has announced the launch of a local Developer Programme called Shining-Star. Huawei announced an investment of $1-billion in support of this programme across global markets, of which South Africa forms part.

‘‘HMS already has more than 570 million global users, including more than 15 million in Africa, with our business covering more than 170 countries,’’ says Likun Zhao, vice president of Huawei Consumer Business Group for Middle East and Africa. “We provide a trusted, device-centric and inter-connected eco-system that improves the user experience, helping them to discover quality content while ensuring security and privacy.”

The developer programme, announced at AfricaCom in Cape Town last week, is the first of its kind in South Africa. Huawei says it “will provide an encompassing eco-system that aims to encourage local developer innovation and support, while Huawei’s AppGallery provides a platform for developers to showcase and publish their apps”.

The platform offers open e-point access and intelligent global distribution for all apps, ranging from smart home, gaming and music to education and health-related apps.

The Shining-Star Programme has been successfully implemented in Malaysia, which has the highest number of Huawei users relative to other smartphone brands in this country. Like Malaysia, South Africa has a considerable number of Huawei users.

Shining-Star will focus on assisting local app developers who face challenges like lack of funding for app eco-systems, testing, and monetisation of their apps. South African developers particularly struggle to market their games and find investors.

“We are committed to working on empowering local app developers by offering them some much-needed infrastructure, guidance, skills and support to grow local talent,” said Zhao. “Our focus is to provide an open platform for developers that they can use to launch and market their apps, as well as give them extensive support in the form of technical development, testing, and legal and marketing tools.”

Huawei HMS Core is a hub with tools like the Account Kit, which enables users to access developers’ apps using Huawei IDs; Game Service, which enables game development; Location Kit, which provides developers with hybrid locations; Drive Kit, a data storage and management solution; and Map Kit, which offers customisation of map formats to developers.

In addition to these developer-specific tools, the Huawei HMS Core hub has growth enablers like the Push Kit and an Analytics Kit, which enable, respectively, the sending of messages and analysis of user behaviour. An Ad Kit and In-App Purchases Kit are also available, so developers can earn income from their apps. Key resources such as API reference, development guides and sample code assist are also part of the programme.

At present, more than 50,000 apps are connected to HMS Core worldwide.

* App developers with a completed app can visit https://developer.huawei.com/consumer/en/, or contact the Huawei SA Business Development team on developersa@huawei.com to find out how Huawei can support them.

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