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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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Homemation creates comfort through smart homes

Home automation is more than just turning the lights on and off, Homemation’s Gedaliah Tobias tells BRYAN TURNER

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The world is taking interior design notes from the Danish, in a style of living called hygge (pronounced hoo-gah). Its meaning varies from person to person: some see hygge as a warm fire on a cold winter’s night, others see it as a cup of hot coffee in the morning. The amount of “good feelings” one gets from these relaxing activities depends on what one values as indulgent.

But how does technology fit into this “art of feeling good”?

We asked Homemation marketing manager Gedaliah Tobias to take us through a fully automated home of the future and show us how automation creates comfort and good feelings.

“The house is powered by Control4, which you can think of as the brain of the smart home,” says Tobias. “It controls everything from the aircon to smart vacuum cleaners.”

The home of the future is secured by a connected lock. It acts like other locks with keypads and includes a key in the event of a power interruption. The keypad is especially useful to those who want to provide temporary access to visitors, staff, or simply kids who might lose their parents’ house keys.

“The keypad is especially useful for temporary access,” says Tobias. “For example, if you have a garden service that needs to use the home for the day, they can be given a code that only turns off the perimeter alarm beams in the garden for the day and time. If that code is used outside of the day and time range, users can set up alerts for their armed response to be alerted. This type of smart access boosts security.”

Once inside, one is greeted with a “scene” – a type of recipe for electronic success. The scene starts by turning on the lights, then by alerting the user to disarm the alarm. After the alarm is disarmed, the user can start another more complicated scene.

“Users can request customised scene buttons,” says Tobias. “For example, if I press the ‘Dinner call’ scene, the lights start to flash in the bedroom, there’s an announcement from the smart speakers, the blinds start to come down, the lighting is shifted to the dinner table. Shifting focus with lighting creates a mood to bring the house together for dinner.”

Homemation creates these customised scene buttons to enable users to control their homes without having to use another device. In addition to scene buttons, there are several ways to control the smart home.

 “Everything in the smart home is controllable from your phone, the touchscreens around the house, the TV, and the dedicated remote control. Everyone is different, so having multiple ways to control the house is a huge value add.”

We ask Tobias where Homemation recommends non-smart home users should start on their smart home journey.

“Before anything, the Control4 infrastructure needs to be set up. This involves a lot of communications and electrical cabling to be run to different areas of the home to enable connectivity throughout the home. After the infrastructure is set up, the system is ready for smart home devices, like lighting and sound.”

“For new smart home users, the best bang for their buck would be to start with lighting once the infrastructure is set up. Taking it one step at a time is wise.”

•    For more information, visit https://www.homemation.co.za/

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Face App grabs SA attention

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South Africans generated more than 100 000 search queries for “Face App” on Wednesday, while only generating 50 000 for “Mandela Day”. The Internet wentcrazy over the two-year-old app, which uses artificial intelligence to create a rendering of what users might look like in a few decades. Face App went viral as users posted their aged likenesses on social media in the #faceappchallenge. Privacy experts, however, warned that the app (made in Russia) may pose a threat to users’ privacy as it stores photos on its servers, with US Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, appealing to the FBI to investigate the app. 

In other top searches on Google this week, “Johnny Clegg” garnered more than 500 000 search queries on Tuesday as the news of his passing broke. The ‘White Zulu’ of Juluka and Savuka fame was an internationally acclaimed musician who was also an important figure in the fight against apartheid. Tributes to Clegg have been flooding media and social media over the past couple of days. Clegg succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66.

More than 200 000 search queries were generated for “Mark Batchelor” on Monday after the former soccer star was brutally gunned down outside his Olivedale home in Gauteng. Investigations into the shooting are still ongoing. Batchelor played for Orlando Pirates, Wits University, Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns, Moroka Swallows and Bafana Bafana. 

“Jacob Zuma” also garnered more than 100 000 search queries on Monday as he made his first, much-anticipated appearance in front of the Zondo Commission on state capture. 

On Sunday “Macdonald Ndou” picked up more than 10 000 search queries after reports of theMuvhango actor’s arrest made the rounds. Ndou was held on various charges including extortion and kidnapping. The Hawks have reportedly provisionally withdrawn charges against the TV star, but a spokesperson said the decision to withdraw does not mean the charges will not be reinstated.

“Serena Williams” garnered more than 50 000 searches on Saturday as the tennis superstar suffered a 6-2, 6-2 defeat against Simona Halep in a Wimbledon final that lasted just 56 minutes. Williams later told Agence France Presse, “She [Halep] played out of her mind” and “I was like a deer in headlights”.

Last Friday, South Africans produced more than 20 000 search queries for “Duduzane Zuma” as the Randburg Magistrates Court found the former first son not guilty of a charge of culpable homicide. In February 2014, Zuma was involved in a car crash that took the life of Phumzile Dube when his vehicle crashed into the taxi she was travelling in.

Search trends information is gleaned from data collated by Google based on what South Africans have been searching for and asking Google. Google processes more than 40 000 search queries every second. This translates to more than a billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year, worldwide. Live Google search trends data is available at https://www.google.co.za/trends/hottrends#pn=p40 

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