Saturday 22 October 2016

Tech review: Adrian Weckler on the latest cool gadgets

Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30

Google Nexus
Google Nexus
Google Chrome Cast
Samsung Gear

Reviewed by our technology editor this week are Google Nexus 6P, Google Chromecast Audio and Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition.

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Big and beautiful: Google's new Nexus

Google Nexus 6P

Price: €649

Rating: 5 stars

A couple of years ago, a six-inch phone seemed freakish. Today, a growing number of us won't brook anything much smaller. And it's no mystery as to why. At the end of 2015, data overtook voice traffic on Irish phones for the first time.

What has happened is that our handsets have become our main computers outside work (sometimes even at work). In other words, the main purpose to a phone is not making calls at all - it's online activity, email, social media, apps, video and messaging. That being the case, why would you want a screen no bigger than the palm of your hand to watch a video or browse an app on?

This is one of the main reasons that Samsung sat on top of the smartphone market for two years - it was the only mainstream manufacturer for years with large screen handsets. It's also a contributing factor as to why Apple has retaken that lead, with its big screen iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models.

So how does Google's latest 5.7-inch addition, the Nexus 6P, compare to the current big screen toppers? Extremely well.

Anyone who already has a Nexus (like 2014's impressive Nexus 5) will love this model, which is made by Huawei. Its elegantly-designed unfussy metal body shows off its superb screen beautifully.

Nexus models are usually known for two things: being around €100 cheaper than similarly-specced premium rivals and using 'pure' Android (the latest version available) without any manufacturer-added complications or bloatware apps. This, again, is what you get with the 6P: if you want to cut through the treacle to get to your own stuff with blazing power, this smartphone will do it for you.

There is no shirking on specs. It has an incredibly sharp 2.5k (518ppi) screen, 4K video recording, 3GB of Ram and a 64-bit octa-core processor. It starts with a generous 32GB of internal storage, too.

The 6P's camera is excellent, though just a twitch off the very best out there (from Sony, Samsung and Apple). This is mainly because of Google's slightly clumsy camera-snapping process. Technically, its 12-megapixel, f2 rear camera is superb, with 'larger' pixels for better light capture. If you find yourself taking selfies a lot, the 6P offers up a fairly high-end super-selfie 8-megapixel front camera, too.

And for those who curse their phones' battery lives, the good news here is that the 6P packs a relatively long-lasting 3,450mAh battery which comfortably takes it through a day's use.

This is just as well, as the phone comes with a couple of pretty decent speakers if you want to play stuff out loud. The 6P also comes with a fingerprint reader placed on the back of the device which is handy for security.

If you're looking for a high-end Android phone to act as your main media device, this more than covers it. It's a really impressive handset that most people will love.

How to save an old hifi speaker

Google Chromecast Audio 

Price: €39                 

Rating: 4 stars

Ever wondered why you keep those old stereo speakers up in the attic? After all, when is the last time you used them? We now live in an age of wireless speakers and music 'collections' largely kept (or, increasingly, streamed) from phones.

In some respects this is a shame. As convenient as portable wireless speakers from Sonos, Bose or Sony are, many don't have the rich tones of the larger speakers we used to proudly display in our sitting rooms as part of our 'music centres'.

Google has come up with a clever little gadget that goes some way to marrying this divide. Its Chromecast Audio device essentially streams music from your phone or tablet into an older stereo speaker (or set of speakers), one that may have been made before the internet became a big thing. Just connect the small round Google gadget to your home wifi (via your phone, tablet or laptop) and then plug it in it to the older speaker via an 'audio in' 3.5mm jack (it can also connect using other cable methods, but the 3.5mm lead is the only one that comes in the box).

A little like Google's Chromecast gadget for movie streaming, it supports certain music streaming apps. As well as Google Music, these include Spotify and Deezer but not Apple Music.

The whole thing is an ingenious way to breathe life back into discarded, good quality speakers.

Samsung's first step into virtual reality

Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition  

Price: €250                  

Rating: 4 stars

Virtual reality is set to be one of the big tech themes, if not 'the' tech theme, of 2016. Soon, we'll get the one most people are waiting for: Oculus Rift. In the meantime, Samsung's Gear VR, which is based on the same Oculus technology, is here to tempt owners of Samsung phones.

The basic deal is that you slip a Galaxy S6, S6 Edge or S6 Edge Plus (or Note 5, but that isn't available in Europe) into the Gear VR's hatch and the hardware turns it into a giant immersive experience. You control things largely by moving your head to 'look' at things with the help of a couple of manual controls on the side.

Even with this relatively limited kit (the full Oculus Rift hardware is far more powerful), it's a convincing process. It's helped by the fact there are quite a number of VR apps now available for this set-up, too. As a recreational thing, virtual reality is still largely aimed at gamers. However, movies and TV shows are catching up: Netflix has an app that makes you think you're in a mountain lodge watching a giant 80-inch screen while watching any Netflix movie or programme.

Nausea is an issue, here: I can't use one of these with a game for more than 20 minutes at a time without feeling queasy. Then again, I have a weak stomach. For many, this may not be a problem.

The Gear VR isn't quite the leap into The Matrix that Oculus Rift promises to be. But at this relatively affordable price, it's a really powerful, persuasive feather in Samsung's cap.

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