Sunday 4 December 2016

Tech review: Weckler on the latest cool gadgets

Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30

The new Apple iPhone 6S
The new Apple iPhone 6S
Groov-e Solar Bank
Sony h.ear MDR100 headphones.

Our technology editor reviews the iPhone 6Sm, Groov-e Solar Bank and Sony h.ear MDR100 headphones.

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iPhone 6S plus is the gold standard

iPhone 6S plus

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Price: €869 (16GB) from Apple.ie

Rating: 5 stars

Every time a new iPhone comes out, hordes of people wonder whether they should upgrade. It's no different with the new iPhone 6S. So should you take the punt? The 6S may be the latest, but is it the greatest?

I've been using the 5.5-inch 6S Plus for the last two weeks. There are a few differences I've noticed between it and the older 6 Plus model. The one that I'm most fond of is the camera. Apple has injected extra quality into the lens of its 6S series and it shows. You now get 12 megapixels instead of 8 (and a 5-megapixel selfie camera with a new flash feature), which means you get appreciably more definition in images. To be fair, megapixels are not the be-all and end-all of camera technology: on a list of priorities, they rank only as middling. But this camera has added other upgrades, such as a little more optical stabilisation. This means you're less likely to take a blurry photo at any time. It also means that you can take photos in lower light.

The combination of these features is powerful. A camera is something I score heavily when it comes to high-end smartphones. So it's not lightly that I now regard the 6S camera as probably the best on the market. That is the first time I would have ever said that about an iPhone camera: while the camera on the 6 and the 6 Plus was very good, it was marginally outshone by the lenses on Samsung's S6 and Sony's Xperia 5 (and Xperia 3 Plus). But the 6S hits a new level: photos are very, very vivid. For anyone interested, Apple has also added 4K recording (which is twice the resolution of 'full HD') to the 6S and boosted its slow-motion mode to 1080p ('full HD'). The aforementioned video stabilisation also applies to video recording.

The last thing to note about the 6S camera is that it now has a feature called "live photos" where, once activated, the camera records just over a second of video footage either side of the moment you snapped to give you context. To be honest, this is not a feature I have found myself using much.

What else is new on the iPhone 6S? Other than the camera, the biggest new feature is probably 3D Touch. This is where you press harder on a screen to see a shortcut menu pop up for certain apps such as Instagram, Photos, Camera or Mail. It's very handy once you get the hang of it - you can take a shortcut to writing an email, Facebook, Whatsapp or Snapchat message or post with a single tap, rather than a couple. A few big third-party apps support it, although none of Google's apps (Gmail, YouTube, Docs) do yet.

Technically, the 6S has boosted its power by "up to 70pc" over the 6 model, thanks to Apple's new A9 chip. It comes in 16GB, 64GB and 128GB versions. While I would recommend getting at least the 64GB version, the 16GB is now doable, thanks to better memory management by Apple.

Battery life on the 6S Plus is, in my experience, slightly better than the 6 Plus. I have not yet needed to recharge it before 8pm or 9pm on the same day. To be fair, this could also have something to do with the fact that I'm using a smartwatch more, meaning that I often now glance at the watch to see whether I need to engage with a message or notification, rather than taking the phone out and switching the screen on.

In look and feel, the 6S is almost exactly the same as the former 6 model. It uses slightly stronger aluminium and glass, which may be Apple's way of nipping any potential 'bendgate' controversy in the bud.

In general, 'S' models of iPhones tend to stick around longer than non-'S' models (think about the '4S' and '5S' models compared to their '4' and '5' counterparts). This may be because once the 'S' model is created, any physical kinks and quirks of the originating model will have been ironed out through quality control. Whatever the truth of that, the iPhone 6S is now the best phone you can get on the market, without any reservation. Perhaps Samsung, Sony and HTC might come up with something special in the next few months. But for now, Apple has fully retaken the crown.

Let the sun shine in

Groov-e Solar Bank

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Price: €30 from mymemory.ie

Rating: 3 stars

Is it possible to help save the world when you're recharging your mobile gadgets? That's the mission that Groov-e is on with its Solar Bank charger. It could be feasible in Spain or California. In Belmullet, it's a trickier proposition. The deal here is that if it is left in direct sunlight, the Solar Bank will recharge in 36 hours. That means three days of 12-hour direct sun. To be honest, I don't actually know whether it's 36 hours or 136 hours. Because in 10 days with the device, my Dublin surroundings had about eight hours of cumulative sunshine, mostly in the morning. (It will charge in cloudy conditions, but it takes much, much longer.) If you can't wait this long, you can charge it via a wall-charging electricity boost in four hours and then take it with you to act as a backup for your phone or tablet. This, though, defeats the purpose of its renewable mission.

The Solar Bank is aimed squarely at Android devices with a microUSB charging connection built in. (It also comes with a variety of adaptors, but not for the iPhone.) The device has 6,000mAh of battery back-up, which means it will charge a full-sized Android smartphone twice over when fully charged itself.

Hi-res cans music to the ears

Sony h.ear MDR100 headphones  

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Price: €210 PC World  

Rating: 4 stars

There are so many headphones doing the rounds out there that it's difficult to pick a pair out. Most pairs under €250 are pretty decent, so they generally differentiate themselves by fashion or design. But some are increasingly offering clearer quality audio compatibility as a selling point. In particular, the rise of 'high-resolution' audio is starting to become a thing in audio set-ups. Sony was an early adopter here and is now starting to add the feature to more affordable models. Such is the case with its new h.ear MDR100 headphones. At first glance, it's fairly clear that these cans are designed to appeal to youthful types, with bright colours that stand out. (The pair I wore were black: I'm not sure I'd walk around with the yellow ones.) But under the hood, they also support high-resolution audio. To hear this additional quality - 24-bit versus a CD's 16-bit standard - you have to be connected to a device or a streaming services that also supports it. Tidal, for example, is a high-resolution service (for those willing to pay €20 per month). Otherwise, these headphones have a few nice additional touches. They support any type of smartphone with inline controls and fold up quite neatly for transportation. They're also pretty comfortable.

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