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Taking the trial out of travel (Part 1)

As foreign travel becomes more of a mission than a pleasure, sites and services are emerging to help reduce inconvenience, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Foreign travel should be fun. But, in recent years, security controls, delays, high cost and the pervasive bureaucracy of airlines and airports has turned it into a trial. Add business travel to the mix, when you have to lug equipment with you worrying about compatibility with power supplies around the world and it becomes almost a matter of luck whether a trip will be successful.

At the same time, though, more and more resources are emerging to reduce the element of luck, and help travellers regain control. Here are some of the best I have found.

Power socket guides

Not sure what plug you will need for what country? Or whether you need to take extra plugs at all? One of the best resources in the world to keep this one firmly plugged in is at http://www.worldstandards.eu/electricity.htm. The site provides a comprehensive country chart with the types of plug in use in each country. For a point-and-click option, it includes a colour-coded socket map of the world, along with both diagrams and photos of each type of socket and plug.

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AC_power_plugs_and_sockets) provides a less structured approach, but offers far greater depth as it drills down into the detail of each plug and explains the history and standards behind each.

Too much information? Not when you’ve been stuck with a powered down laptop in a foreign country where the nearest electronics outlet is at the airport the one you just left behind..

Seat selection

Nothing can make or break a long trip more than having a good or bad seat on a flight. With most airline web sites allowing online booking only in the last 24 hours before a flight, it is usually a matter of luck to get an aisle seats or one of the emergency row seats.

However, if you know in advance what type of aircraft you will be boarding, you can identify ideal seats by their exact seat numbers. Your airline won’t tell you? There is a site for that. Visit Seatguru.com, type in your flight number and date of flight, and it will not only tell you what plane you will be boarding, but will also show a detailed seat map.

Seating plans are available for every aircraft in use by commercial airliners. The map even flags problem seats as well as those with special benefits, like extra legroom. It is invaluable in preparing for long flights, indicating power supply in seats and even Wi-Fi on board along with advice on where to sign up in advance for special deals. Want to strategise getting an aisle seat on the exit row? This is the blueprint.

Assuming you’re a member of a frequent flyer programme if you’re not, do sign up call the programme’s support line and request pre-allocation of the specific seat you have identified. This may not always be possible, but it is the single travel act with the highest return on effort.

Choosing a hotel

There isn’t yet a seatguru equivalent for hotels, but Tripadvisor comes close. Travellers themselves supply reviews and ratings by category of travel, which means you can see a hotel through the eyes of a business traveller, a family or an elderly couple, for example. This means that ratings go beyond one person’s viewpoint, bringing relevance to your needs to the fore.

Tripadvisor has become such a standard tool, many hotels have its plaque at their entrance, with the average stars awarded on the site replacing traditional tourism association star ratings.

Phone maps

Using digital maps in foreign countries can consume huge amounts of data if you’re using wireless roaming. Prepare for bill shock on your return, unless you’ve learnt this little trick and have a phone with built-in GPS navigation: While in a WiFi zone, i.e. with data access that doesn’t incur extra cost for how much you use it, call up the map of the area you are most likely to explore, ensuring that you explore the map to download all likely areas in which you will move around. On an iPhone, don’t close the map, so that the data remains active. In Android, the map data should remain active as long as you don’t switch off the phone or manually stop the app from running. Now, with mobile data disabled, the phone’s GPS will continually show you where you are on the map.

General tools

There is an app for almost every travel need, from airport gate maps to flight trackers to weather. Simply search the app store linked to your device, and the choices pour out.

There is one final rule: most of these work only if you plan in advance. This, by definition, does not include starting once you’re at the airport. More on the topic next week.

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

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What US game of phones means for Huawei

The Trump administration shocked the world with its ban on US companies supplying Huawei. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK digs deeper.

The Trump administration shocked the world with its ban on US companies supplying Huawei. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK digs deeper.

In the same week that the wildly popular Game of Thrones series reached its climax with major characters meeting their startling destinies, US president Donald Trump took the game of phones to a new level in a move that was as startling.

By declaring a trade ban on Huawei, he in effect blocked any US technology from being supplied to the world’s fastest growing smartphone manufacturer. The immediate consequence: Google revoked Huawei’s access to the Android operating system, the Google Play Store, and Google apps like Maps, Gmail and YouTube for all future phone models.

However, Google announced on Twitter, through its Android account, that it would not pull the plug on current devices. It said:

This means that the current market-leading phone, the Huawei P30 Pro, won’t be affected by the ban. Huawei said it had stockpiled chips from US suppliers with this possibility in mind, so it should at least be able to meet demand for the current model.

Huawei is also known to have worked on its own operating system for some years now, with a view to it eventually replacing Android and reducing the company’s reliance on Google. However, the severity of the ban, and its catch-all nature, shook the market. A smartphone without any Google products is a phone that will see little demand outside China, which itself has banned most Google apps and services.

Notably, the first impact of the shock wave was on American companies that supply Huawei. Chipmakers Intel and Qualcomm were hit, and a wide range of other corporations, from Microsoft to Corning, could also be affected. Apple could be next, as the Chinese government may well block the assembly of its products in China. Currently, all iPhones are put together at factories in China. Should it retaliate in this way, Apple will have to develop a new supply chain, both delaying its next versions and increasing its cost due to its loss of a cheap source of labour.

That is not to say that Huawei won’t be a big loser in this trade war. It’s a massive blow. Until now, Huawei could carry on blithely in the face of a sales ban in the USA, knowing it is dominant in the rest of the world in both 5G equipment and in handset sales.

However, its smartphone leadership is founded on a particularly good implementation of Google’s Android ecosystem. Losing that means it has to go back to the drawing board in developing and evolving its own operating system and even apps environment. It can do it, but it will lose years of development to Apple and Samsung.

The bottom line, then, is that everyone loses in this trade war. If the Huawei ban is not rescinded, Donald Trump will have dealt a crippling blow to the entire smartphone industry. This could, in turn, presage a slump in technology shares on the stock markets of the world.

It may, then, appear baffling that the US administration would take such drastic steps. The ostensible reason is that Huawei is subject to a Chinese law that requires local companies to cooperate with authorities. This is interpreted as meaning that Huawei would install secret backdoors in handsets to give the Chinese government access to them, and secret spy technology in 5G networks to allow the government to eavesdrop on all communications.

This is clearly an absurd accusation, as any evidence to this effect would instantly destroy Huawei as a credible provider of technology to the world. No such evidence has been presented, and most arguments to this effect have been on the level of conspiracy theory rather than presentation of facts.

It also speaks volumes that the US has not banned trade with China’s Lenovo, which acquired the IBM hardware business a few years ago, and the Motorola handset division more recently. Motorola is still perceived to be an American brand, while Huawei is perceived not just as the challenger brand it had been for some years, but in fact as an invader brand.

Can foreign policy be based on mere perception? In the case of the Trump administration, that tends to be the rule rather than the exception. And the perception is further clouded by the halo effect that surrounds Apple products in the USA. The iPhone makes up well over a third of all American smartphone sales. Typical iPhone users tend to be rather enthusiastic about their loyalty to the brand, to the extent that they are usually disparaging of any other brands.

Grudging respect for Samsung, which has been going head-to-head with Apple for much of this decade, does not extend to Huawei, which emerged seemingly from nowhere to become the world’s third biggest smartphone brand. Its current sales trajectory has it overtaking Apple very soon, and reaching the number one position by the end of the year. Until, that is, Donald Trump brought its momentum to a halt.

Again, why not ban Motorola and Lenovo in the same breath? The answer may well lie in the pathology of the Apple fanboy. American-born Motorola and Lenovo handsets pose no threat to Apple’s dominance of the US market, whereas the interloper, Huawei, is a fundamental threat. It is, therefore, the enemy, merely by virtue of its existence as serious competition when it is seen as having no right to compete with the likes of Apple. Trump is known to be an enthusiastic iPhone user, using two of the devices simultaneously, and would almost certainly buy into this mindset. That, in turn, makes it a natural kneejerk reaction simply to ban American companies from doing business with Huawei.

Whether this is merely idle speculation is beside the point. The ban also represents self-inflicted harm, which extends the pathology argument to an entire administration.

It will be a blow to both countries, symbolic of how a trade ban can hurt the country imposing the ban. It also casts a dark shadow over world trade, and is a shameful example of how trade wars wreck so much in their paths. 

  • 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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Race to 8K TV is on

TV brands are all rolling-out 8K displays. Even if you don’t want it, the race is real, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

It’s the most near-perfect technology ever for watching TV, but there is almost no reason for the average consumer to invest in it. It’s called 8K, and it offers double the resolution of the current high-end, known as 4K, which itself offers twice the resolution of regular high-definition TV.

It sounds incredible, and it is. One has to step right up to an 8K screen, with ones nose almost to the glass, before one can see the tiny grid that makes up the display pattern.  Where HD has 1920 horizontal lines down the TV screen, 4K has 3840, and 8K 7680 lines. When multiplied by vertical lines – HD at 1080, 4k at 2160 and 8K at 4320 – one sees an exponential increase in the number of pixels. These light elements that make up the picture leap from 2-million in HD to 33-million in 8K.

There is one fundamental problem with this dramatic leap in display technology: the world of content has yet to catch up with it. So, unless one has money to burn and an appetite for showing off, there is little point in buying an 8K set – for now.

What it really represents is the TV manufacturing industry demonstrating both its readiness for the content revolution, and its ability to lead in technology. This means that, because a Samsung or LG unveils an 8K unit,  consumers will have their perception of that company’s technology leadership reinforced, and feel more compelled to buy one of their lower-end TVs.

The further reality is that the new cutting edge technology that gets announced today is the mainstream technology three years from now and the entry-level in five to ten years. When the first OLED display was unveiled by Sony at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a decade ago, a tablet-sized screen would have cost $20 000, or nearly R300 000 in today’s money. Yet, the same technology is now available in large-screen TVs for less than R10,000. A few years on, Samsung and LG unveiled the next big thing, Quantum Dot TV screens, at well over R50,000. Now Samsung’s version, called QLED, and HiSense, with ULED, are available for under R10 000.

In other words, the price of the cutting edge keeps coming down, and each new cutting edge drops in price faster than the one before.

So, when Samsung announced recently that it’s new QLED 4K and 8K TV models will be available at select retailers in South Africa from this month, it wasn’t mere hype.

Samsung argued that the 2019 editions of the Q80 and Q90 feature “Ultra Viewing Angle technology, which restructures the TV’s panels so the backlight passes through the panel with lights evenly onto the screen”.

The Q70, Q80, and Q90 models offer “Direct Full Array technology that uses a panel featuring concentrated zones of precision-controlled LEDs”. These adjust automatically to display deeper blacks and purer whites, delivering dramatically improved contrast.

Users of the Q900 model series won’t have to wait for content to be made in 8K format either. It uses the company’s Quantum Processor 8K to “up-scale” lower resolution content to 8K and optimises audio and video to the specific content on the screen.

In the same way, the QLED 4K models feature Quantum Processor 4K, which up-scales HD to improve brightness, picture quality and sound, based on each individual scene.

Meanwhile, at a Global Press Conference in Andalusia, Spain, last month, the organisers of the annual IFA tech fest in Berlin gave the media a sneak preview of what to expect at the event in September. Top of the list was 8K TV.

Hisense and Skyworth both signalled their intentions to join the 8K TV technology race, but at a far more affordable level than the industry leaders.

Hisense showcased the 74U9E 8K TV, a 75-inch monster that is due to be launched in China this year, and is likely to come to South Africa early next year.

It offers improved contrast and more vivid colours over the previous Hisense U range TV, while sound is integrated, with a subwoofer embedded into the stand of the TV. Like the Samsung 8K machines, the display dynamically upscales 4K content in real time.

At the IFA press conference, Skyworth showcased its 8K TVs via German TV brand Metz, which it acquired last year. The company offers a “premium-affordable” sub-brand called Metz Blue and, startlingly, this low-cost brand was chosen to showcase 8K TV, meaning it will reach the mass market even more quickly than previous high-end technologies.

With Skyworth having brought the first Android-based TV to South Africa last year, it came as no surprise that its new S9A 8K OLED is an Android TV, combining vivid picture colour with Android TV functionality. As Gadget’s Bryan Turner, who attended the event, put it: “Witnessing the 8K and OLED combination was incredible and felt like getting a new set of glasses.”

It supports the latest streaming apps, and can be controlled via the voice-controlled Google Assistant, which is available on most Android phones. 

In short, 8K is on a fast-track to our living rooms, at a speed never seen before in cutting edge TV.

  • 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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