Thursday 19 October 2017

Ask Adrian: Our tech editor tackles your trickiest technology problems


The Google Home speaker is the closest we get to a smart home device in Ireland at present
The Google Home speaker is the closest we get to a smart home device in Ireland at present
Sony XZ Premium
Apple iPad Pro 10.5
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Q We're moving into a new house and I'm wondering about ­affordable 'smart home' options. My son told me to start with an Amazon Echo - is that a good choice?

A The good news is that there are lots of affordable smart home options with everything from speakers and alarms to light bulbs and fridges. The bad news is that the Echo is not a good choice to start with. This is because its features are aimed at the US and UK, where Amazon has its 'Prime' service. In Ireland, it's really just a wireless speaker - and not a very good one at that.

Next year will be better for 'smart' speakers when Apple's new HomePod is released on the Irish market. It will basically let you control lots of 'smart home' devices using Apple's 'Siri' voice-recognition technology (the same as on an iPhone).

Until then, the only speaker that comes close to being a smart home device is Google's Home speaker (€170 from, inset).

But there are quite a few 'smart' gadgets you can be getting going with that don't cost the earth.

If you want to smarten up existing machines you already have, one of the cheapest, most direct ways is to use Wi-Fi-connected WeMo or Belkin smart plugs (from €40 in Currys or Maplin). These plugs are controllable from your phone (via an app) and can be programmed to react to circumstances. For example, if you connect one to a lamp, you can tell the plug to activate the lamp after that day's sunset time (which it searches for online). The same obviously goes for heaters, televisions and any other electrical devices. As such, these plugs are good security aides if you're away for a few days, activating radios, lights and TVs when you want them to.

One of the most established smart gadget ranges in Ireland is the Nest line of thermostats, alarms and cameras. The thermostat (€269 from Currys) is a small silver gadget with a colour screen that connects to your central heating (it has to be installed by a professional).

You can control almost everything about it from your phone and program it to react to certain conditions. But what makes it really smart is that it 'learns' from your behaviour and can adjust the heating to match. For example, it uses sensors and your phone's location. So if you're out but the heating is scheduled to be on, it can readjust itself to 'eco temperatures' to save energy and money.

Nest also has a pretty good set of smart security cameras (from €199). Their main appeal is that they're instantly accessible on your phone in a two-way manner: you can broadcast your voice through them. They also record and save footage to an online facility that you can access, even if the cameras get damaged or stolen.

If you really want to push the boat out on your smart home, there's a growing number of domestic appliances that have Wi-Fi and phone-compatibility built in. These include washing machines, kettles and even refrigerators. For instance, Samsung's new Family Hub fridge (€4,100 from Power City) uses Wi-Fi to show you (on your phone) what's in your fridge at any time.

This might sound frivolous, but it might be handy when you're in the supermarket on the way home from work and are wondering whether you have any milk. It also has a 21-inch LCD screen that you can use to stream entertainment, browse the web or look up recipes.

In short, you have a number of options now with more to come.

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Two to Try

Apple iPad Pro 10.5

(from €749)

Apple iPad Pro 10.5

Apple's new iPad Pro has a significantly bigger screen than the traditional 9.7-inch model but is only marginally larger in size. This is because the 'bezels' (the non-screen bits at the side) have been narrowed to give more space over to the display. There's also way more power, more storage and new technology in the screen via a 120Hz refresh-rate, meaning smoother scrolling and content motion.

Sony XZ Premium

(€699 prepay)

Sony XZ Premium

Sony has a bold take on what a high-end premium phone should look like. In a nutshell, it's very, very shiny. The XZ Premium's 5.5-inch screen is set against shiny silver casing that doubles up as a mirror on the rear side.

It's a bit of smudge-magnet, but has other redeeming features to compensate. These include a brilliant 19-megapixel camera with super slow motion and waterproof certification.

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