Sunday 25 September 2016

Tech review: Adrian Weckler on the latest and coolest gadgets

Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30

HP Spectre
HP Spectre
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0
Microsoft Lumia 950 XL  

Our technology editor reviews the HP Spectre X2, Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0 and Microsoft Lumia 950 XL.

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HP's tablet hybrid is nice but overpriced

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HP Spectre X2

Price: €1,299

Rating: 4 Stars

Hybrid tablet-laptops are all the rage. What started out being the pioneering demesne of Microsoft's Surface line is now available from most big computer makers.

Some do them well, others not so well. When you first take HP's Spectre X2 out of the box, there's a strong suggestion that this is going to be one of the better models out there. I'd classify it as better than average, if possibly a little overpriced.

First the positives. This is definitely one of the more nicely designed hybrid devices out there. Both the screen PC and the keyboard cover are in the box, a big advantage over the Surface range (where you have to buy each separately). The keyboard cover is fairly comfortable to use and, although not as efficient or reliable as a laptop keyboard, is as good as you'll get for a hybrid. I especially appreciate the large touchpad area: most hybrid keyboards still have touchpads that are too small. The matt silver finish on the keyboard is also attractive.

The screen and keyboard connect and detach very easily thanks to the (by now standardised) magnetised connection between the two. Closing it over automatically puts the machine into sleep mode and opening it wakes it up. The X2's form factor when closed is nice and slim, capable of being transported or used in tight places. Like most hybrids, it's not really very efficient when used on your lap.

The X2 has two USB-C ports which act as its physical external connectivity and its power source. This is good, as USB-C will soon be something of a standardised charging process.

The X2 unit I had was powered by an Intel Core M processor, 4GB of Ram and 256GB of storage. The processor, which is weaker than Intel Core i models, sets out what HP thinks you're going to use this computer for: light work, browsing, some entertainment.

This is probably spot on, although I usually like to have a slightly more powerful chip. The machine comes with a stylus pen which, in concert with every other tablet I've ever owned, I just didn't use for anything.

There are a couple of small niggles that I experienced.

The audio set-up very much flatters to deceive.

Maybe it's just me, but when I see the name 'Bang & Olufsen' on an elegant-looking tablet and keyboard cover, I'm thinking that its sound output is going to be a major strength. Disappointingly, it isn't.

This is about as tinny as you might expect from an ultra-portable laptop. It's certainly below the quality of either a Microsoft Surface or an iPad.

HP has divided the audio between three speakers - two on the screen and one on the keyboard. They look good but, sadly, they don't really deliver. This may not matter so much for many people, who default to headphones anyway.

I also have a minor issue with the stand on the device. It's a silver bar that is quite awkward to manouevre, partially because it requires a switch on the side of the machine to be pushed.

And this is a teensy bit heavier than it should really be. Finally, it would have been great for the 12-inch screen to have a smaller bezel. The inch of black frame that surrounds the screen makes the machine a bit physically bigger than it needs to be.

All that said, this is still a good touchscreen laptop hybrid: I've written all of this week's reviews on one.

The fact that its keyboard cover comes with it is a real trump card.

Sennheiser has Momentum with top-class headphones

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Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0

Price: €399 from PC World

Rating: 5 stars

Sennheiser doesn't lack pedigree when it comes to premium headphones. At this month's giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, your correspondent queued for 15 minutes to try out its top end cans. They sell for an eye-watering $50,000 yet Sennheiser won't have much of a problem finding customers for them. A little closer to planet affordability sit the company's full-sized, over-ear Momentum Wireless 2.0 headphones. They're not designed to be the be-all and end-all for audio fidelity. But they ooze premium construction nevertheless.

As wireless headphones, they work with just about any Bluetooth-connected audio source, including almost all smartphones. They also have the expected microphone on board to make or take calls when paired with your mobile.

The headphones use a codec that improves the quality of audio streaming over Bluetooth. This is worth noting: wireless music streaming invariably shaves a little of the quality off, compared to cabled listening. (You can use a cable with these headphones also.)

The active noise-cancelling technology used by the headphones is clever and effective. All sorts of external clattering, chattering and rumpus-making is gently muffled away, from in-flight scratchcard promotions to work colleagues shouting into their phones. If you're not a fan of noise-cancellation, it may be best to use a cable with these headphones, as the technology kicks in automatically when you use them over Bluetooth.

The Momentum's physical construction is impressive, too. Sennheiser hasn't skimped on quality here. The leather used on the earcups is both super-comfortable and extremely efficient at helping to soundproof your ears from external noise, even when switched off. A slim line of padded leather coats the inner aluminium cranial covering for comfort, too. If you are very sensitive to things sitting on your bonce, you might feel it after a while, despite the padded layers. But I have managed to use them for long periods comfortably.

Finally, the headphones fold up so you can bring them around in a bag (they come with their own molded carrying case).

These are not cheap. But for what you're getting, they're not really expensive, either. They easily stand up there with the best wireless headphones you can currently get for under €500.

Bigger screen for Microsoft users

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Microsoft Lumia 950 XL  

Price: €699 from Microsoftstore.com  or from free on contract  

Rating: 3 stars

Broadly, there are three types of Windows phone user - (i) Early adopters, (ii) Kids looking for the cheapest phone, (iii) Those forced to use them by their office.

Some original early adopters still use the phones but many have gone. The market for kids is drying up. That largely leaves people who are forced to use them as part of their workplace's overall IT strategy. This isn't a bad niche demographic and it's not entirely out of whack with Microsoft's own thinking on how Lumia phones are positioned, with the software giant's dominant pitch now being one of synchronicity between phones and PCs (home to work and back to home again). So for those with no option but a Windows phone, the 950 XL provides some welcome screen diversity. It's a 5.7-inch phone with a decent display, a good 20-megapixel camera and a generous 32GB of internal storage (expandable to 200GB). While the handsome Nokia manufacturing standards that gave Windows an early foot in the door are beginning to wane, it's still a reasonably nice looking device, too. While the app gap is significant, those using their handset mainly for Microsoft-related work tools won't be at any disadvantage.

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