Saturday 3 December 2016

Tech review: Weckler on the latest gadgets

Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30

DJI Phantom 4
DJI Phantom 4
Microsoft Holohens
Google Pixel

Reviewed by technology editor this week are DJI Phantom 4, Microsoft Hololens and Google Pixel C.

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DJI on top form with smart new Phantom 4 drone

DJI Phantom 4

Price: €1,599 from Apple.com or DJI.com

Rating: 4 Stars

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Flying a drone isn't idiot-proof,  and anyone who has played a  first-person shooter game on an Xbox or a Playstation won't find one difficult to operate.

Within an hour of taking DJI's new Phantom 4 out of the box, I was flying it high above the rugged Mayo coastline of Erris. The 4K video footage I was getting back was stunning (you can see some of it on Independent.ie - just google 'Phantom 4 Erris Mayo') and quite stable, even in gusty conditions.

The Phantom 4 uses your own phone or tablet as a guidance screen, showing you a live stream of what its 12-megapixel, 4K camera is seeing. I used an iPad mini, which was perfect. (I'd strongly advise a cover to shade the screen as sunlight makes details tricky to work out.) The flight screen, accessed through DJI's Go app, gives you a variety of controls and shows you altitude, speed and other basic metrics. The physical controller itself has two joysticks and a number of buttons for and dials for things like camera control.

For video, the Phantom 4 records in 4K resolution by default, although you can switch down to 'full' HD (1080p) if you want. It's also capable of filming at 120 frames per second, which lets you capture slow motion.

Aside from the remarkable clarity, all of this means that the video files are huge (a whopping 1GB for every two minutes of recording), when you transfer them to your PC or tablet. The drone comes with a 16GB microSD memory card, which will start you off nicely.

I didn't test the drone's range beyond 700 metres but it seems capable of flying beyond that (up to 2km, according to other test flights). If it loses its radio connection with your controller, it automatically starts to fly back toward the spot it took off from. This also happens if its battery reserve reaches a low point.

Like other Phantoms (and drones generally), you're advised not to fly this in the rain and it's not recommended to fly it in wind. Having said that, I sent it up when it was quite breezy in north Mayo and I was very pleased with the way the drone handled the turbulence while still producing smooth, steady video footage. This is partly down to the new gimbal on the drone, which compensates for movement and juddering.

In this context, I like that the camera is built in to the drone. Other models on the Irish market, such as 3DR's Solo, require you to have your own GoPro. It's slightly more hassle.

The main difference between this and DJI's Phantom 3 models of last year is a slightly longer battery life (though there's still just 28 minutes' flying time) and new smart chips made by Dublin company Movidius. In a nutshell, these chips give the drone abilities it didn't have before, particularly the power to know when it might hit something. When this function is switched on, the drone stops with a few metres of the object it's about to collide with, so long as that object is in front of the drone (and not to the side or rear). If it's on its way back to you, it then negotiates its own way around the obstacle. There's also an object-tracking mode, which lets you identify a person or a thing which the drone will focus on and follow.

The Phantom 4 also flies faster than previous Phantom models - up to 72kph when its 'sport' mode is switched on.

This drone is about the width of a 13-inch laptop and around nine inches tall. It comes in a very handy styrofoam case with a handle so you can use it as a carry case.

The only drawbacks I found is that the propellers can sometimes be seen in video footage and its object-tracking mode is a bit hit-and-miss. You'll also really need to buy a second battery (€170) if you harbour ambitions to fly it for more than 20 minutes per charge.

Also, bear in mind that a drone like this needs to be registered with the Irish Aviation Authority. Right now, it's free to do so on the IAA's slightly glitchy sign-up service. You're also restricted from flying a drone over built-up or urban areas or anywhere near an airport.

Microsoft's future is one of holograms and headsets

Microsoft Hololens  

Price: €2,650  

Rating: n/a

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While the world has been getting used to the idea of virtual reality with Facebook's Oculus Rift, HTC's Vive and Samsung's Gear VR, Microsoft has been busy on a slightly different virtual vision. Last week, I finally got my hands on its Hololens, the headset that gives us 'augmented' reality. The difference between 'virtual' and 'augmented' reality is that while VR encloses you completely within its artificial world, in AR you can still see your actual environment with virtual artefacts overlaid onto it. So I can conjur up a digital object and see it placed on the floor in front of me, on a table, or floating in mid-air. To a limited extent, I can also control that object using finger gestures in front of my headset.

The actual experience I had with the Hololens was limited to a couple of games. The only real limitation I found with it was in the field of view, which is very restricted compared to a virtual reality headset. This means that you have to be looking dead ahead to see your holographic images and structures. (Although you can circle them for a complete 3D view.)

Microsoft has been showing off a number of uses for the headset, including a communication platform it's working on called Holoportation. Resembling a cross between the hologram messaging systems in Star Wars and Minority Report, this lets users communicate and play back 3D hologram messages. It also lets you play back the conversation, like a voicemail recording, while you watch your interaction with the person you're talking to.

The headset is a little bulkier than a large set of headphones, albeit one with a screen. It's still at an early stage of commercial production, so the models for sale are 'developer edition' products that are meant to be for those who want to create AR applications.

A pixel tells a thousand words

Google Pixel C  

Price: from €509 (keyboard extra)  

Rating: 3 Stars

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'Pro' tablets are all the rage. Apple now has two of them, Samsung is getting into them and Microsoft has mixed them with laptops pretty successfully. Google's latest device, the Pixel C, tries to get into the game with a fairly powerful processor, nice design lines, a good screen and a slick keyboard (which costs €169 extra). The 10-inch machine has stereo speakers, 308 pixels per inch and comes in either 32GB or 64GB variants. For those whose work or leisure phone is an Android one, this will be a comfortable and stylish machine for pleasure and light work. The keyboard, in particular, is impressive. It also uses USB-C to recharge, which is very fast. On the other hand, it's going up against a rejuvenated iPad line, which is always a big task.

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