Digital Life: Va va zoom - it's the great Sony vs Samsung WiFi camera face-off
My favourite camera of last year was not a sexy, slim sliver of shiny circuitry nor a serious and stocky slab. Sony's Cyber-shot HX9V straddled a middle ground of pocketability and power, full of goodies for the photographic enthusiast but capable of great snaps on automatic.
Technology never rests and Sony has followed up this year with the HX20V, an improved version that barely sets a foot wrong. This compact camera won't win any style awards with its heavyset looks. But its plain design conceals a multitude of features and remarkable photographic prowess.
Just about everything from the 2011 model has been upgraded: more pixels, more zoom, more speed. Perhaps most impressive is the versatility of the lens, now up to a whopping 20x zoom (equivalent to a 500mm telephoto) and down to 25mm at wide angle (though, strangely, that's less than last year's 24mm).
The HX20V starts up quickly and zooms rapidly, assisted by intelligent autofocus that rarely fails to home straight in on the subject even at full telephoto range.
Sony's expertise with image quality is on full show here, particularly in low-light situations that can be so many cameras' downfall. In broad daylight, the results are pin-sharp and punchy.
Versatile and smart, the HX20V would be near perfect if only it included some internet connectivity. Sony also makes the HX30V, which is identical to the HX20V but with built-in WiFi to upload your photos automatically to Facebook, etc. Foolishly, though, Sony doesn't sell it in Europe.
But if a WiFi camera sounds like your thing, consider Samsung's new WB850F. Think of it as an understudy to the Sony. Roughly the same size and shape, it outperforms its rival in some categories by a small margin. The lens zoom is 21x and the wide angle is 23mm, for instance.
Where it counts most -- picture quality -- the Samsung is no slouch and won't disappoint most people. But it simply can't touch the Sony when the lights go down and its autofocus is slow and skittish, particularly when zooming.
The WB850F's true advantage lies in its slick ability to connect to WiFi networks and smartphones. Once hooked up, the camera can send photos directly to Facebook, other online photo services, your computer or phone. An iPhone/Android app enables you to use your phone as a remote viewfinder, taking a photo with the WB850F from several metres away, for instance.
Costing €360, Sony's HX20V is the clear victor in a face-off but the €400 Samsung will serve you very well if internet connectivity is important.
Spec Ops: The Line
Sigh. Another shooter. Gruff military types pumping bullets into anonymous terrorist types who babble in Farsi. A main character voiced by Nolan North, the most overused actor in recent videogame history.
And yet. And yet. It doesn't take long for The Line's distinctive flavour to bubble to the surface amid the glinting sunshine and destroyed beauty of its Dubai setting.
The initial clue sits right there up front -- you're sent into the desert city after a tremendous sandstorm consumes its glittering skyscrapers, on the hunt for a missing commander named John Konrad. The well-read will recognise the nods towards Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, rendered on the big screen as Apocalypse Now.
Eerie scenes of desolation confront you and your two-member special-ops squad. Executed soldiers, civilian bodies, lynch mobs. Something is not right here. This wasn't just a sandstorm.
For all its successful efforts to transcend the genre and introduce a bit of morality about, y'know, mass murder, The Line still resorts to traditional gameplay. It's pop and shoot of the Gears of War variety, without the variety.
But as your relationship with your squadmates degenerates into acrimonious bickering and you face grim decisions of whose lives to spare, the pull of the storyline is too much to ignore. This is shooter as satire, a phrase I thought I'd never write.
Lego Batman 2: DC Heroes
It might have Batman and Robin on the cover but the real draw in this familiar mash-up of pop culture with Lego bricks is the supporting cast, including the wonderful Gotham City.
Like other Lego games (enjoyed by kids and -- sneakily -- adults too), this Batman sequel is built on a formula of exploration and brick-bashing with a dash of construction.
But it's tweaked with many extras, including the special suits that grant the duo new powers, such as invisibility and water-freezing. The biggest smiles, though, derive from the roster of DC superheroes who are gradually unlocked for play as you work through the storyline of a mass prison breakout masterminded by The Joker.
Suddenly, you can soar as Superman over Gotham's gorgeous panorama, neatly soundtracked by John Williams' classic theme. Or take control of The Flash and The Green Lantern.
Stuffed with secrets and replayability, LB2's slight undoing (particularly for its kids audience) is an occasional lack of clarity in its missions and a few uncharacteristic problems with level design in co-op play.
A remake of a Kinect launch title -- but this time for joypad only -- Joyride Turbo gleans most of its inspiration from Mario Kart. So it's a knockabout, cartoonish racer with few aspirations beyond simple fun.
As a cheap Xbox Live download, you could certainly do a lot worse, but its racing mode has less to recommend it than its amusing stunt park with some wild rides and wacky goals.
Bits and Bytes
• The smartphone app stores are not short of shopfronts for taxi firms but a new contender looks a little more technically adept.
The Hailo app was launched last week for iOS and Android phone and works only in the Dublin area.
But it automatically matches your location to available taxis and can quickly tell you when a cab will get to you.
Because you pre-register for the service, you never need to carry cash because the fare is charged to your credit or debit card.
The only potential downside is that the fleet of Hailo cabs numbers just 500 out of the thousands of others on the streets at any one time in the capital.
• Amazon is expected to bring its popular Kindle Fire tablet this side of the pond before the end of the year.
The seven-inch tablet has proved to be the only real challenger to the iPad but has so far been sold only in the US.
But Google is lining up the worldwide launch of its seven-inch Nexus tablet for approximately €200 and Apple is rumoured to be unveiling a similar-sized iPad.
So Amazon faces a tough battle when it brings the Kindle Fire to Europe in October unless it uprades the year-old machine.
The online retailer is also believed to be working on a smartphone to compete against Apple and Google.