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Gadgets of the Year

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It was a year of rapid advances, intense competition and crazy new features on devices large and small. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK names his pick of the gadget crop for 2017.

At a time when many thought phone technology could advance no further, innovation in both design and technology delivered a flood of delightful new devices. Advances in virtual reality and 360 degree cams, in activity monitors and wearables, in smart listening devices and home robots, in autonomous vehicles and electric cars, in gaming consoles and entertainment devices, all added up to a bewildering array of tech choices.

I can’t claim to have been exposed to all or most of these, but have tried out, tested and played with enough of them to offer a personal selection of the best gadgets of 2017.

Without further ado:

Smartphone of the Year: LG V30+

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A brand I did not expect to stand out above the rest in 2017 was LG, which had lurched from novelty innovation to novelty innovation in recent years. Finally, it has produced a phone that not only looks and feels good, but also functions better than most, and competes feature for feature.

The LG V30+ does not have more advanced functionality than, say, the Samsung Note 8 or S8 Plus, but it packs similar features into a package so slim and elegant, it comes as a surprise just how cutting edge it is.

Ultra-smooth, curved edges that run through to the back, 6” screen, rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, two rear lenses – 16MP with f1.6 aperture and 13MP – as well as a surprisingly large 3300 mAh battery with wireless charging, all in a 158g package.  If one is not brand conscious, there is nothing not to love here.

Joint runners-up: Samsung Note 8, Samsung S8 Plus, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and Apple iPhone X, are all superb handsets. If you have the budget, none of these will be a mistake

Low-end Phone of the Year: Vodacom Smart Kicka ve

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In the last few years, entry level phones came and conquered, and generally went up in price for new models as demand increased. The Smart Kicka, a phone made for Vodacom by Alcatel makers TCL, has gone in the other direction. The latest model hit the market at just under R400, with a decent 3.5” HVGA display, 1400 mAh battery, 4GB storage and a micro SD slot for expanding storage.

It runs on Android 5.1, which may be two generations behind current devices, but then its target market has little interest in device confectionery like Nougat and Oreo. More relevantly, it comes with a R10 000 voucher for online study material from Top Dog, which covers video lessons, interactive tests, and study tips for grades 4 to 12.

Even if not in the market for an entry-level phone, it makes a great back-up option to keep around for emergencies.

Specialist Phone of the Year: CAT S41 durable phone

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Anyone who works outdoors or a long way from a power supply will know how poorly the high-end phones serve their needs. Waterproof is nothing if a phone screen cracks at its mere impact with rocks and concrete. CAT, a brand derived from the Caterpillar earth-moving equipment company, comes to the rescue with the CAT S41. More specifically, with a tough shell, rubberised edges, and a giant 5000mAh battery giving 44 days standby time.

Gaming device of the Year: Nintendo Switch

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In 2017, Nintendo made a successful return to the console wars decades after its Game Boy first made handheld consoles mass -market,. However,  the flop of the Wii U was still fresh in people’s memory. Much was riding on the new Switch, and much was delivered.

The Switch is several gaming devices in one: Firstly,  a handheld console, albeit a few generations advanced over the Wii U, with a 6.2”, multi-touch capacitive touch screen and display resolution of 1280 x 720; Secondly, the console can be connected to a TV, underlining its competition to the PlayStation and Xbox. Thirdly, the Joy-Con contollers on either side of the screen can also be removed, to become separate devices so that two people can play each other on the same system.

The most significant aspect of the Switch is the extent to which, a year after the groundbreaking Pokemon Go augmented reality mobile game, it underlines Nintendo’s ability to remain innovative.

Robot of the Year: Alpha 1 Pro

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The average robot is a mechanical arm on an assembly line. Alpha 1 is not your average robot. It is a humanoid educational and entertainment tool with some nifty dance moves and extensive pre-loaded content and actions, thanks to 16 high precision servo motors. However, it can also be programmed, using a visual programming language called Blockly.  It can thus be used as a fun vehicle for coding education, or used for direct education on any other subject.

Wearable of the Year: Fitbit Alta HR

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In 2016, Fitbit took the activity band to a new level with the Alta. It was elegant and attractive, sleek and stylish, even carrying a curved OLED screen – something we tend to see only on high-end TVs. It only missed one feature to make it my default fitness device: a heart rate monitor.

This year, it plugged that gap. The Fitbit Alta HR is every bit as elegant, but also a high-tech power play in an aesthetically pleasing form factor.

Best Vehicle Tech of the Year: Land Rover Discovery ATPC

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Anyone who thinks self-driving cars are still years away hasn’t tried the new Land Rover Discovery in impossible driving conditions. An off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control allows the driver to surrender control to the vehicle in difficult terrain. Although the driver still steers, ATPC manages vehicle speed, braking, and applying torque to each wheel for traction.

It’s not a feature that will be in regular use. But, along with Land Rover’s Autonomous Emergency Braking system, which spots potential collissions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated, it reveals the extent to which autonomous vehicles are already possible.

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

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Deezer to host Hotstix’s Mandela tribute playlist

Deezer is celebrating Nelson Mandela on the centenary of his birthday by hosting a tribute playlist created by music legend Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.  

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Mabuse, a legendary figure in African music, first rose to prominence in the 1970s with his band Harari and later developed a name for himself as a solo artist. One of his best known songs was the global hit BurnOut in the 1980s.

The playlist takes the listener on a captivating musical journey through the life of Nelson Mandela.  It was compiled by Mabuse, who consulted with Mandela’s family and friends to ensure that the music would be relevant and accurate. The playlist also features commentary by Mabuse, which was recorded in his Soweto home.  

“I have tried to tell the story of the music that Madiba loved,” says Mabuse. “The Playlist excludes the time in prison obviously, as Madiba would not have had exposure to music in that time.  We have focused on the music we know he loved before and after that period. This recording was really an emotional journey for me, but an incredible opportunity to document these memories.”

The playlist features the music the young Mandela loved, such as The Manhattan Brothers, Solomon Linda, Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba.  It includes struggle songs from Chicco, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela and Yvonne Chaka Chaka.  The playlist also includes Mandela by Zahara, one of the younger artists who caught Madiba’s ear.

Mabuse also offers stories of his own songs, such as Shikisha, a song greatly beloved by the former President.

“I was delighted to share my thoughts and hope the listeners enjoyed the musical journey,” says Mabuse. “Madiba did enjoy music immensely and we all have a purpose wherever we are in the world to celebrate culture and to learn from different cultures and music forms and styles.”

This playlist was inspired by the Nelson Mandela 100 campaign, calling on corporates and individuals to act as sources of inspiration and engage in conversation and action.

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Sports streaming takes off

Live streaming of sports is coming of age as a mainstream method of viewing big games, as the latest FIFA World Cup figures from the UK show. Africa isn’t yet at the same level when it comes to the adoption of sports streaming, but usage is clearly moving in the right direction.

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England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden was watched by just under 20 million viewers in the UK via BBC One. While this traditional broadcast audience was huge, it was streaming that broke records: the game was the BBC’s most popular online-viewed live programme ever, with 3.8 million views. In Africa, the absolute numbers are lower but the trend towards streaming major sports events on the continent is also well under way.

According to DStv, live streaming of sports dominates the usage figures for its live and recorded TV streaming app, DStv Now. The number of people using the app in June was five times higher than a year ago, with concurrent views peaking during major football and rugby games.

Since the start of the World Cup, average weekday usage of DStv Now is up 60%. The absolute peak in concurrent usage for one event was reached on 26 June, during the Nigeria vs Argentina game. The app’s biggest ever test was on 16 June with both Springbok Rugby and World Cup Football under way at the same time, resulting in concurrent in-app views seven times higher than the peaks seen in June last year.

The World Cup has also been a major reason for new users to download and try out the app. First-time app user volumes have tripled on Android and doubled on iOS since the start of the tournament.

“While we expected live sports streaming to take off, it’s also been pleasing to see that the app is really popular for watching shows on Catch Up,” says MultiChoice South Africa Chief Operating Officer Mark Rayner. “Interestingly, some of the most popular Catch Up shows are local, with Isibaya, Binnelanders, The Queen and The River all getting a significant number of views.”

With respect to app usage, the web and Android apps are the most popular way to watch DStv Now, with Android outpacing iOS by a factor of 2:1.

“We’re continuing to develop DStv Now, with 4k streaming in testing and smart TV and Apple TV apps on their way shortly,” says Rayner. “The other key priority for us is working with the telcos to deliver mobile data propositions that make watching online painless and worry-free for our customers.”

The DStv Now app is free to all 10 million DStv customers in Africa. The app streams DStv live channels as well as supplying an extended Catch Up library. Two separate streams can be watched on different devices simultaneously, and content can also be downloaded to smartphones and tablets. The content available on the app varies according to the DStv package subscribed to.

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