Saturday 1 October 2016

Tech review: Adrian Weckler on the latest cool gadgets

Published 14/11/2015 | 02:30

Sony Xperia
Sony Xperia
MiPow Power Cube
Oppo HA-2 headphone amplifier
Lindy 50X earphones

Reviewed this week are Sony Xperia Z5, MiPow Power Cube 9000, Oppo HA-2 headphone amplifier and Lindy 50X earphones.

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The Sony Z5 hits cameraphone heights

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Sony Xperia Z5

Price: from €700

Rating: 4 stars

How do you designate a top smartphone? For me, it boils down to three main things: design, power and a great camera. That is the benchmark against which I rate Sony's Xperia Z5. And that's why it's one of the best phones out there today.

As with other Xperia models, the highlight rests with its camera technology. Sony has not generally gotten the kudos it deserves for its phones' cameras: they're always top of the range (or thereabouts).

The Z5's 23-megapixel camera is another clear example of this. Its sensor (which defines shots in low light) is the best you can get in a smartphone, while its autofocus and zoom make it a genuine snapper's companion. Yes, the 23 megapixels add a lot of detail in photos to the overall effect, but megapixels aren't always the be-all and end-all for cameras: the iPhone 6S's 12 megapixel camera is a much better device than some rivals' 20-megapixel lenses. It also shoots in 4K ('ultra high definition') and its screen is a retina-standard 428 pixels per inch.

Another thing that Sony has generally pulled ahead of rivals on is battery life. The Z5 isn't quite as good as the absolute leaders (such as Motorola's X Play), but if you apply the settings correctly, it beats most competitors, including the iPhone 6 and 6S. I had little problem getting a full day's use out of it.

Like other Xperia phones, this one is also waterproof. So if you drop it down the toilet, or want to bring it paddling with your kids, it's pretty safe. It's also aimed partially at iPhone users, having a nano-sim format instead of a micro-sim.

The Z5 is a handsomely designed device, if not quite the knock-out that previous Xperia models have been. It doesn't have a 'wow' factor in the same way as Samsung's S6 Edge Plus, either. It is almost exactly the same size as Sony's existing Xperia Z3 Plus (which is the best you can get under €600 out there at present, and one of the best overall phones in that price range).

The Z5 has a fairly generous 32GB of storage as standard, with a further memory card slot for up to 200GB of storage.

Fight the power drain

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MiPow Power Cube 9000  

Price: €85 from store.mypow.com  

Rating: 4 stars

Battery life is a big, big problem for many of us. The more we start using 4G and letting videos autoplay on our Facebook or Twitter feeds, the earlier in the afternoon our phones start warning us they've fallen below the 20pc power level.

The problem is such that restaurants and hotels now routinely offer to charge customers' phones while they're on-site. But what can we do? With the exception of phones like Motorola's X Play (reviewed in these pages last week), there's little sign of battery life improving in our phones. One answer is to carry a miniature power stick around, like Techlink's Recharge battery pack (€20 from Harvey Norman). But if you're travelling with more than one phone and tablet, you might want to consider something like MiPow's Power Cube 9000.

This recharges a full-sized iPhone 6 three times or a full sized iPad one-and-a-half times. It's aimed at iOS devices by default, with a Lightning cable built in. But it also comes with an Android-friendly cable. A small button lets you check how much reserve power the device has left. The Power Cube 9000, so called because of its 9000mAh battery, is one of the most elegant power back-up accessories you can get: if Apple made a power back-up device, it might look something likes this. It's not especially light, which is a bit of an issue when carefully assessing travel items. But if aesthetics are important to you, this is a nice device.

Audio treat for real music fans

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Oppo HA-2 headphone amplifier  

Price: €400 from Hifihut.ie 

Rating: 4 stars

This is a rare piece of luxury for anyone who takes their music listening seriously. It's an elegant, slim little device that helps you boost and improve the quality of music from any phone, tablet, PC or iPod.

The HA-2, which is about the size of a small, slim smartphone, works in a similar way to a stereo HiFi amplifier. It connects, via a short 3.5mm cable jack, to a music device such as a phone or iPod. The unit itself then becomes the music amplifier into which you stick your headphones. The difference in audio quality is noticeable. What was decent sound opens up into something a little richer and, if you want, louder.

The extra volume comes thanks to the HA-2's additional controls, one of which is a switch to increase the audio's gain. This is very handy for headphones that don't have a sufficiently high volume reach. It's useful, too, when you're on a plane and need an additional audio bump. There's also a bass-booster on board if your headphones don't give you enough depth.

The gadget needs to be charged itself (via standard microUSB connection) and comes with a fast-charging cable to this effect. You'll get around seven to nine hours of playback from a single charge. It also has a very handy additional feature: it can be used a powerbank. This gives you an extra excuse to bring it around with you; it recharges your phone. You'll get about half a full phone charge from it if you're also using it to amplify your tunes.

It also looks great. I wouldn't discount this: for an accessory to be used and loved, it helps if it's styled nicely. The HA-2 has a stylish leather case that makes if feel like an object of desire.

The HA-2 works with any kind of smartphone or tablet and comes with USB, microUSB and iOS Lightning cables.

True to the general rule about good quality audio equipment, this accessory isn't cheap. But the difference it makes to your audio quality is definitely there.

It's all about that bass

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Lindy 50X earphones  

Price: €60 from Amazon.co.uk  

Rating: 3 stars

Judging 'bud' style earphones can be harder than their overhead brethren. For one thing, a lot more depends on the physical shape of your ear. Many people find it difficult to get earphones into the 'right' position within their lugholes. Some even struggle to stop them falling out altogether. I confess that I am one of these people. My ears are unconventional. So getting the most out of Lindy's 50X earphones was a bit of a challenge.

For example, the main feature of note from these earphones is a twistable 'dynamic' bass control that allows you to add a little more bass to the sound. It does this by opening up a little more space in earphones' small chamber when you twiddle the barrel on the earphones. I liked this: it resulted in a small but appreciable difference. However, because of my special ears, I had to spend a few seconds burrowing the earphones in perfectly to get the effect. And in most instances, the advantage dissipated when I let the earphones settle naturally. (This happens to me a lot with in-ear mini-cans.) So for me, what's the point? To be fair, the earphones come with a few different earbud sizes that you can fit according to your own aural canal dimensions. And most probably don't have my weird ears. But be warned that much of an in-ear pair's performance comes from getting them to actually fit.

Otherwise, the earphones come with a nice little carry case and a one-button control on the cable that allows you to pause and resume music.

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