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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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Opera launches built-in VPN on Android browser

Opera has released a new version of its mobile browser, which features a built-in virtual private network service.

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Opera has released a new version of its mobile browser, Opera for Android 51, which features a built-in VPN (virtual private network) service.

A VPN allows users to create a secure connection to a public network, and is particularly useful if users are unsure of the security levels of the public networks that they use often.

The new VPN in Opera for Android 51 is free, unlimited and easy to use. When enabled, it gives users greater control of their online privacy and improves online security, especially when connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots such as coffee shops, airports and hotels. The VPN will encrypt Internet traffic into and out of their mobile devices, which reduces the risk of malicious third parties collecting sensitive information.

“There are already more than 650 million people using VPN services globally. With Opera, any Android user can now enjoy a free and no-log service that enhances online privacy and improves security,” said Peter Wallman, SVP Opera Browser for Android.

When users enable the VPN included in Opera for Android 51, they create a private and encrypted connection between their mobile device and a remote VPN server, using strong 256-bit encryption algorithms. When enabled, the VPN hides the user’s physical location, making it difficult to track their activities on the internet.

The browser VPN service is also a no-log service, which means that the VPN servers do not log and retain any activity data, all to protect users privacy.

“Users are exposed to so many security risks when they connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots without a VPN,” said Wallman. “Enabling Opera VPN means that users makes it difficult for third parties to steal information, and users can avoid being tracked. Users no longer need to question if or how they can protect their personal information in these situations.”

According to a report by the Global World Index in 2018, the use of VPNs on mobile devices is rising. More than 42 percent of VPN users on mobile devices use VPN on a daily basis, and 35 percent of VPN users on computers use VPN daily.

The report also shows that South African VPN users said that their main reason for using a VPN service is to remain anonymous while they are online.

“Young people in particular are concerned about their online privacy as they increasingly live their lives online,” said Wallman. “Opera for Android 51 makes it easy to benefit from the security and anonymity of VPN , especially for those may not be aware of how to set these up.”

Setting up the Opera VPN is simple. Users just tap on the browser settings, go to VPN and enable the feature according to their preference. They can also select the region of their choice.

The built-in VPN is free, which means that users don’t need to download additional apps on their smartphones or pay additional fees as they would for other private VPN services. With no sign-in process, users don’t need to log in every time they want to use it.

Opera for Android is available for download in Google Play. The rollout of the new version of Opera for Android 51 will be done gradually per region.

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Future of the car is here

Three new cars, with vastly different price-tags, reveal the arrival of the future of wheels, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Just a few months ago, it was easy to argue that the car of the future was still a long way off, at least in South Africa. But a series of recent car launches have brought the high-tech vehicle to the fore in startling ways.

The Jaguar i-Pace electric vehicle (EV), BMW 330i and the Datsun Go have little in common, aside from representing an almost complete spectrum of car prices on the local market. Their tags start, respectively, at R1.7-million, R650 000 and R150 000.

Such a widely disparate trio of vehicles do not exactly come together to point to the future. Rather, they represent different futures for different segments of the market. But they also reveal what we can expect to become standard in most vehicles produced in the 2020s.

Jaguar i-Pace

The i-Pace may be out of reach of most South Africans, but it ushers in two advances that will resonate throughout the EV market as it welcomes new and more affordable cars. It is the first electric vehicle in South Africa to beat the bugbear of range anxiety.

Unlike the pioneering “old” Nissan Leaf, which had a range of up to about 150km, and did not lend itself to long distance travel, the i-Pace has a 470km range, bringing it within shouting distance of fuel-powered vehicles. A trip from Johannesburg to Durban, for example, would need just one recharge along the way.

And that brings in the other major advance: the i-Pace is the first EV launched in South Africa together with a rapid public charging network on major routes. It also comes with a home charging kit, which means the end of filling up at petrol stations.

The Jaguar i-Pace dispels one further myth about EVs: that they don’t have much power under the hood. A test drive around Gauteng revealed not only a gutsy engine, but acceleration on a par with anything in its class, and enough horsepower to enhance the safety of almost any overtaking situation.

Specs for the Jaguar i-Pace include:

  • All-wheel drive
  • Twin motors with a combined 294kW and 696Nm
  • 0-100km/h in 4.8s
  • 90kWh Lithium-ion battery, delivering up to 470km range
  • Eight-year/160 000km battery warranty
  • Two-year/34 000km service intervals

Click here to read about BMW’s self-driving technology, and how Datsun makes smart technology affordable.

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