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Product Reviews

Nissan LEAF leads the charge

The Nissan LEAF is the first all-electric car to hit South Africa. SEAN BACHER tries it out and finds it well-kitted, but still needing work.

When we think electric cars, many of us think sluggish, square and heavy vehicles that are more of a novelty than a safe and reliable transport mode.

Nissan has changed this perception with the LEAF (Leading, Environment Friendly, Affordable, Family car), the first all-electric car to reach South African shores. Yes, it is heavy, but it is by no means sluggish and its size makes it a comfortable family car.

On the outside

When I first saw the LEAF I was surprised by its size. I was expecting a little two-door hatchback no bigger than the Ford Ka. But the Nissan LEAF is spacious. It doesn’t have a transmission, doesn’t have a gearbox and doesn’t have any differentials, so all this means more space. Four grown men can fit in it comfortably. The 370-litre boot is big enough to store a set of golf clubs and more. A hidden cargo well is also located in the boot to hide valuables.

The LEAF won’t get full marks in the looks department, but the car has been designed to “slice” through the air as it moves along, instead of creating wind resistance.

This is immediately noticeable when you look at the car’s front. Its headlights are oversized and protrude from the body like shark fins. This design enables them to deflect most of the air away from the wing mirrors, which are the only flat surfaces on the car that will cause wind resistance.

Secondly, because the LEAF does not have an engine, there is no need for a radiator for cooling, so the bonnet curves all the way down to the bumper without any openings, thus creating a completely smooth surface, buffering air over the windshield and away from the car. This curved bonnet also helps to keep the front drive wheels down at high-speed.

The Nissan LEAF

The bonnet

The LEAF has a bonnet (or hood, in American-speak) like any other car. When opened, you see only an aluminium block that houses the 80kW motor and a 12-volt car battery to power the windscreen wipers, lights and indicators, along with a windscreen wiper water receptacle and a fuse box. But no dipstick to check the oil or a place to top up the car’s oil and water.

The interior

Buyers have the option of going with leather or cloth finished seats. The rear seats fold down, giving more room, for example when the dog needs to come for a ride.

When I first climbed into the car, I found myself riding quite high, which was a disconcerting at first as I felt rather detached from the road, but this quickly passed. The ride height is a result of Nissan stowing all 192 batteries under the front and rear seats. This not only enables the mechanics to gain access to them easily should they need to be swapped out, but it also keeps the car’s centre of gravity low and keeps the load even (the batteries being one of the heaviest components in the car).

Four grown men can easily fit in the LEAF

Let’s get things started

The Nissan LEAF really shows its true colours once you are in the driver’s seat and are ready to roll.

The LEAF is packed with most of the features found on high-end cars

Firstly, the car is completely keyless, meaning the car automatically locks itself once the remote is out of range. In fact, the remote does nothing more than sit in your pocket and is only used for when the central locking or alarm has to be over-ridden.

Once the Start button is pushed, you get what can only be described as an eerie silence. No engine means no rumbling sound coming from the car. Instead, you are greeted by a Nissan tone indicating that the car is starting up. A logo is displayed on the infotainment unit on the centre console and, when all the system checks have been performed, the car is ready to drive. It is more like the Nissan is booting up instead of starting up.

Once the dashboard lights are on and all the systems have been checked, it is a matter of pushing the gear knob from park into reverse or drive and releasing the handbrake, which is actually activated and deactivated using your left foot. As a safety measure, the car will only go into gear when the brake is engaged. Once in drive and the brake released, the car will start rolling forward – much like an automatic.

On the open road, the car operates like an automatic, but it doesn’t change gear – as there is only one. This is a little disconcerting at the beginning, but something that I didn’t even notice after a few days.

The Nissan LEAF offers two heads-up displays. The first shows the speed, the date and time and a leaf, which indicates how economically you are driving. The more economical, the more the leaf grows: the more abrupt the driving habits, the quicker it dies. The second heads-up display shows battery heat and the distance the car can drive until it needs to be recharged. Like most new cars, this can be changed to display the average speed, distance travelled and maximum speed. A power meter that shows the driver the acceleration status and how much the motor is being use to slow the car down. The motor acts like dynamo in that it recharges the batteries when it is used to slow the vehicle down on a decline.

The dual heads-up displays

The centre infotainment 7″ WVGA (Wide Video Graphics Array) display shows the car’s on-board navigation system, current radio station, cellular reception and a rear-view camera for when reversing. Nissan has taken a lot of the guesswork out of working the display, as it is touch-operated, allowing drivers to navigate from function to function without taking their eyes off the road too much.

When the car is parked, drivers can change settings, like the delay between the lights turning on and off and how much the batteries should charge until they are full. (Nissan recommends not charging the batteries to 100% until they have been properly worn in).

The steering wheel controls allow users to adjust the radio’s volume, make and receive calls and manage the car’s cruise control. An Eco button allows the driver to switch the car into a power-saving mode. When this feature is activated, the motor’s power is limited, allowing the driver to get a further range, albeit at a much slower speed.

The LEAF’s centre infotainment display

Recharging

The Nissan LEAF does not perform so well in the recharging department. Firstly, the car needs to be recharged for around 11 hours each evening, depending on how far it was driven that day. Secondly, users cannot just plug it into their home wall socket: a charging station needs to be bought and installed at their home. This is over and above the cost of the car.

The LEAF has a range of only 180km, and this is driving it gingerly with the Eco feature activated. When the Eco feature is de-activated, the range reduces to just over 100km. That said, Nissan has outfitted a handful of its dealers around South Africa with quick-charging stations, allowing drivers to pull in and top up their batteries. However, these quick chargers are only for emergencies and shorten the battery’s life due to the way they “spike” large amounts of voltage in a very short time.

The Nissan LEAF with being charged

Conclusion

The LEAF boasts loads of features, putting it in the same class as some high-end luxury cars. It has also been awarded an NCAP 5-star rating and is great for the environment with its zero emissions. But, even though it is well-suited for driving around town, it’s limited range means it is not the car you will take down to the coast, or even to the next city. There is still some time before drivers will trade in their old gas-guzzler in favour of the LEAF. And, with a price of R480 000, the LEAF is out of reach for most South Africans.

Specs at a glance:

Output: 80kW

Battery type: Lithium ion

Maximum speed: 144km/h

Range: 180km – depending on driving habits

Acceleration 0-100km/h: 11,5 seconds

Weight: 1 521kg

Number of airbags: 6

Price: R480 000 including the charging station.

Service plan: Three years or 90 000km

* Sean Bacher is editor of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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The car most certainly can be plugged into a normal outlet. It is then that the car takes up to 11 hours to charge, depending on how much charge was left when you plugged in. You can buy a 240 volt fast charger that can reduce that time from 11 hours to 3.5 hours, and you can charge it as much as you want without fear of damaging the batteries. Alternatively, there is an even faster charger that can charge it from 0 to 80% in about a half hour. It has its own special plug and is meant to be used sparingly. I have yet to see one of these chargers where I live and I don’t know if I ever will.

Also, turning off Eco Mode does not decrease your range from 180 to 100. At most it would decrease it by 10, not 80. Using the heater in the winter and traveling at highway speeds are the two biggest drains on the battery. The car comes standard with heated seats and a heated steering wheel to try to help people turn the heat off for longer periods, the theory being if your hands and butt are warm then you won’t need to run the heat as much.

I just wanted to clear those things up for anyone interested in getting one of these cars. We love ours, and while we do have a second car for longer trips, the Leaf is our main car.

If you charge it with a Level 2 Charger (220V), it takes only 4 hours to fully charge. It takes only 2 hours to charge to 50%.

Quick Charging at a Nissan dealership is not for “emergencies only””. Nissan themselves state that the Level 3 (440V) can be used every

day. Over the lifetime of the battery (10 years) it will result in only a fractional battery capacity loss.””,””body-href””:””””}]”

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Product Reviews

Bose Portable: quality at a price

The Bose SoundDock Portable looks great and performs well, but SEAN BACHER finds the price doesn’t justify the better sound quality.

Since its inception in 1964, American-based audio specialist, Bose, has built a name synonymous with quality. Along with that, it has built a reputation of being more expensive than many of its competitors, but not deterring many from making the expensive investment. The mini sound speakers are quite often used in boardrooms, bars and restaurants around the world and offer crystal-clear sound that rivals most speakers twice their size.

Testament to the Bose sound quality is that it is used as the standard audio system in luxury cars like Audi, BMW and Mercedes, and according to Wikipedia, Bose products can be found in many military and NASA applications.

It is therefore not surprising to find Bose accessories compatible with smartphones. One example is the Bose SoundDock Portable. A portable docking station for iPhones and iPods that works off rechargeable batteries.

We put the Bose SoundDock Portable through the Gadget Five Question User.

1. Ease of use (including set-up)

Although the Bose SoundDock Portable, comes with instructions, they are not needed and in most cases, it will be ready to operate the minute it is removed from the box and an iPhone or iPod is plugged into it.

If the batteries on either the phone or docking station are flat though, the charger needs to be plugged into it before it can be used. You don’t need to wait for the batteries to charge fully before using it.

Bose has taken the minimalist approach with the SoundDock as on the right are two touch-sensitive Volume buttons and that’s it. No Power or other controls. The included remote is also very easy to use. It uses standard Play, Pause, Volume and Skip buttons, all well labelled.

The front of the docking station is made up of a silver grill, below which is the retractable iPhone dock. Although the casing around the connector is designed to accommodate an iPhone’s protective skin, it was not big enough to for the bumper I had on my phone, which meant I had to take the phone out of the case every time I wanted to plug it in.

On the plus side though, unlike many other portable docking stations, the Bose will charge a docked phone even if it is just running off battery power.

The Bose SoundDock Portable’s ease of use along with its elegant design cannot be faulted. But its dock connector counts against it.

Score: 18/20

2. General performance

The two front facing speakers offer crisp sounds and when the volume is cranked up all the way the SoundDock does not distort at all and is deafeningly loud.

At the rear is 3.5mm jack, allowing you to connect non-Apple phones, MP3 players and other audio equipment.

According to Bose, the 1 900mAh rechargeable battery pack will offer up to three hours of music at a maximum volume a different approach to rating battery life as most other vendors rate operating times at ‚”typical listening volumes‚”. I have been using the SoundDock on and off and not at full tilt for the past week without having to plug the mains adapter in yet.

This is however a good thing. Although the Bose SoundDock Portable is elegant and well made, Bose didn’t pay to much attention to the adaptor. It is a bit bigger than two cellphone chargers placed next to each other. It monopolises all the other electrical outlets, when plugged into the wall, meaning you need a dedicated plug for when you want to charge the battery.

The Bose SoundDock Portable provides a beautiful sound, its battery life is great, but the giant-sized charger is a complete let down.

Score: 12/20

3. Does it add value to your life?

Unlike many docking stations that are designed for bedside listening, the Bose SoundDock Portable is powerful enough to offer good sound in an average sized dining room or lounge.

Weighing in at just under three kilograms, it is not the lightest of them all, but the rear, recessed-handle makes carrying it fairly easy. (A carry bag is available as an optional extra.) Overall, it is a nice addition for a picnic or where an electrical outlet is not available.

18/20

4. Innovation

Sound docks have been around for years, and although the SoundDock offers superior sound, it offers nothing in the way of innovation. In fact, the lack of Bluetooth or any wireless connectivity for that matter is limiting.

13/20

5. Value for money

Much like the die-hard Apple Mac fans that will spend more on a product that performs much the same as cheaper alternatives, you get the same in the audio/visual world.

This becomes especially clear when reading the various reviews posted on the Internet. Reviewers either dislike the Bose SoundDock Portable due to it price, while others like it, saying the sound quality justifies the price.

But at R5 000 for a docking station I would have to agree with the former reviewers. R5 000 is ridiculously overpriced, even though it offers superior sound.

10/20

Conclusion

There is no faulting the Bose SoundDock Portable in terms of elegance and sound, but its clunky charger and high price are complete turnoffs.

Total score: 71%

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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Product Reviews

Nokia Lumia 720: Well rounded: great battery

The new Nokia Lumia 720 has been punted as a mid-level phone. This means Nokia would have had to cut back on features and specifications to keep the phone’s price down. SEAN BACHER checks what’s missing.

For a few years, Nokia was almost forgotten in the smartphone market. This changed with the release of the N9, running its in-house developed MeeGo operating system. Sadly for its many fans, MeeGo was then summarily dropped. Instead, Nokia unveiled a range of high-end Lumia phones running the Windows 7.5 operating system and, finally, a second generation Lumia range running the Windows 8 platform. At the same time, the company targeted the entry-level market with its Asha feature phones, running the Symbian Series 40 operating system.

Between the top end Lumias and the Ashas, it has been quietly filling out its offering, The latest, the Lumia 720, is intended to be a mid-level phone with high-end features.

We put it through the Gadget Ten Question Task Test to see how it copes as a mid-level phone, and to find out what’s missing.

1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)

The Lumia 720 follows a similar design to its siblings in that it uses a unibody design, meaning there is no removable back plate or battery. Three virtual buttons are located below the screen and it has a Volume rocker, Power and Camera button on the right.

The plastic chassis has a rubber feel to it, which makes it easier to hold and less prone to scratches and dings. On the right is a microSIM card slot and at the top an SD card slot, both allowing for easy access.

The phone fits comfortably in your hand and is quite easy to operate with one hand.

7/10

2. Slippability (Weight and size, ability to slip into a pocket unnoticed)

Nokia has significantly cut down the weight of the Lumia 720, which comes in at 128g: the 920 hits 185g. Size-wise, it measures 128x66x9mm, making it a confortable fit for most pockets and its curved edges make it easy to lift off flat surfaces.

The phone cannot be faulted in terms of size and weight.

8/10

3. General performance (speed, responsiveness, multi-tasking)

Running the Windows Phone 8 operating system is a 1GHz Qualcomm dual-core CPU, which is complemented by a dedicated Adreno 305 GPU. The phone packs 512MB RAM and 8GB on-board storage. On paper, these specs are not too impressive, but in practice there is nothing wrong with them.

The Lumia shows no signs of slowing or freezing, even after numerous apps are opened. The active tiles update effortlessly and playing processor-intensive games like AE 3D Motor, which uses the phone’s accelerometers to guide a bike through traffic, does not jolt.

The 8GB of on-board storage is not that great, especially when movies and music start to fill the memory, but the Lumia 720 accepts SD cards, meaning that the storage can be beefed up to 64GB putting it on a par with high-end devices.

The phone performs very well, even with a lower-end set of specifications: the ability to install an SD card really is a plus.

9/10

4. Life as we know it (How’s the battery life?)

The non-removable Li-ion 2 000mAh battery is said to provide up to 520 hours of standby time and over 13 hours of talk time. Both of these claims are tall orders for most smartphones that typically provide just over a day’s usage before they need to be charged.

But, the Lumia 720 lives up to Nokia’s reputation of having some of the longest-lasting batteries found in a phone. Although I did not count the number of hours the 720 went without being charged, it was able to hold its own for over three days. In that time it was bombarded with new apps, was constantly being used for WhatsApp messaging and was also continually used for making and receiving calls. The battery went over and above what is required in terms battery-life on a current smartphone.

10/10

5. Vision of the future (picture, video and browsing quality)

The IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD capacitive touch screen measures 4,3‚” and boasts a maximum resolution of 480×800 pixel per inch. Although this is not the biggest, nor the clearest of screens, it was more than sufficient to view videos and images. In fact, the only time the sub-standard screen quality was noticeable was when the 720 was put next to its bigger brother, the 920.

Windows Explorer on the phone launched effortlessly and displayed all websites without any hassles: the pinch to zoom option came in very handy when inputting credentials to access a website.

The Lumia 720 uses a 6.1MP rear-facing camera, which features Carl Zeiss optics and thus makes images vibrant and clear. The front 1.2MP camera made a viable option for video calling and both record videos.

When making an entry or mid-level phone, manufacturers have to cut back on certain specifications to keep the price low. Even though the Lumia’s screen is not the greatest, it is more than adequate. But the oversized bezels around the screen count against the phone.

The bezels all around measured more than 5mm, which could have been converted into a larger screen.

7/10

6. Talk to me (quality of audio)

The Lumia 720 single loudspeaker is clear enough to hold conference calls, and is great for streaming music from TuneIn radio. No distortion was heard when the volume was cranked all the way up.

Overall, the audio quality is on a par with most other smartphones, but is not anything that will blow the user away.

7/10

7. Message in a bottle (range, speed and efficiency of messaging solutions)

Adding e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts is very easily done through the Account Settings function, but the phone streams all this content to a single hub, making it difficult to work out which message is from which account.

That said, individual apps are available from the Windows Phone Store that will present their relevant streams. Many of these apps can also be moved to the Home screen, and can be set to update on the fly, meaning that the latest content will be updated and automatically displayed.

8/10

8. Keep control (How effective are hardware and software controls?)

The physical buttons located on the right of the phone are all within easy reach when using the phone with one hand, and do not sit flush with the chassis, so are easy to identify in the dark.

The three virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen allow users to return to the Home screen, go back when in an app and quickly search the phone for a contact or app. Pressing and holding the Home button launches a task manager, from where apps can be closed and sent to the background and new ones opened.

The control buttons are very similar to other Windows Phone 8 smartphones, so the Lumia scores average here, too.

7/10

9. The new new (innovations, unique features)

On the hardware side the Lumia 720 offers no unique or ‚”wow‚” features, but a few of the preinstalled apps deserve a mention.

The phone is Office 365 ready, meaning that a user merely has to input his or her Office login details and is immediately able to view, edit and download documents from SkyDrive.

The Nokia Drive app contains most country maps, and a user merely has to choose a country, and the map is downloaded to the phone. Turn-by-turn instructions can also be downloaded and different languages can be chosen. Ever heard a woman giving you South African driving instructions in Chinese?

Then there is Nokia City Lens. Launch the app, calibrate it and point the phone down a street. The phone employs augmented reality and puts shopping, dining and points of interest on the screen with descriptions and contact details.

Although these apps are not unique to the Nokia Lumia 720, they count in its favour, especially when considering it is a mid-range phone.

8/10

10. The wallet test (Is it competitively priced?)

Coming at R5 500, the phone fits comfortably in the mid-range market. It also slots in well between the entry-level Lumia 520, which retails for R1 899, and the higher-end Lumia 820, which will cost R6 400.

8/10

Conclusion

Overall, the Lumia has a great set of features built into it. Its battery life is amazing and, even though the screen is of sub-quality, it is adequate.

Total score: 79%

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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