Saturday 10 December 2016

Tech review: Adrian Weckler on the latest gadgets

Published 20/02/2016 | 02:30

Huawei Mate 8
Huawei Mate 8
Pioneer XDP-100R-K
Fitbit Alta.

Our technology editor reviews the Pioneer XDP-100R-K, Huawei Mate 8 and Fitbit Alta.

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High-res music enters a golden era

Pioneer XDP-100R-K

Price: €699

Rating: 4 Stars

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Are we entering a new golden era of ­personal digital audio? In the last 12 months, a slew of digital players, amps, headphones and speakers have come on to the market that are changing our notion of what to expect from streamed music. Instead of mediocre MP3s, we're now getting high-resolution digital tracks twice to three times the quality of basic downloads. What's more, all the big streaming services are at it. Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and Deezer all now support higher 'bit rates' for streamed songs.

And even though you still need a higher-than-average budget to reach this high resolution audio standard, the price has come down a lot since the technology was first floated at the portable audio market. For example, Sony's original high-resolution Walkman cost over €1,000 last year. But it now offers high-resolution players for closer to €300 now.

This is the backdrop against which ­Pioneer has launched its 100R player, a metal encased touchscreen Android music device with special firepower under the hood to boost audio levels beyond ­conventional equipment.

Specifically, its high-resolution chops come courtesy of superb flexibility in the digital files it will play (almost anything) and in a special codec that lets it download and stream tracks at a much more efficient bit rate than most high-resolution digital files. For audio fans, this is something worth paying for, especially as it only comes with 32GB of storage (expandable to 432GB via memory card slots).

That the device comes with a five-inch Android touchscreen (and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) is testament to how far streaming services have also come in the high-resolution audio universe. Two years ago, there wouldn't have been any point in having a dedicated portable music player for Spotify or Deezer, as they were limited to middle-of-the-road quality. By adding the touchscreen (and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), Pioneer is making this gadget a self-sufficient high-resolution music centre.

Not everyone will like the ultra-modern touch aesthetic. Android touchscreens are commoditised and, as a style market, are the epitome of non-exclusive. This might actually matter a little to audiophile snobs, some of whom like their high-end equipment to appear as analoguish as possible (even if they have NASA-grade tech under the hood).

But this is no phone. There is no microphone, speaker or camera on board. So while it hosts Google's Play Store (which can download apps like WhatsApp or Facebook), you won't be relying on this as a communications device. Meanwhile, every other particle of the 100R meets the precepts of genuine techno lust. The gadget is housed in a dark grey brushed metal format with no rounded corners or plastic. The volume is a gorgeous wheel nozzle on one side, with power, play and forward-rewind buttons on the other. It feels solid, rather than heavy.

It's a beautiful object to handle and hold. The 100R has two memory card slots that add over 200GB per slot to the existing 32GB of on-board storage. It also recharges via a standard Micro USB connection, the ones you already use for most Android phones.

There are two distinct markets for this product: the 'serious' audiophile and the home music user looking for a modern stereo replacement. The audiophile might bring this about with them, playing bulky audio files offline or streaming high-res tracks from the likes of Tidal (using the phone as a personal hotspot). That's however, is a two-device strategy. And as cool as this gadget is, as much as I want to believe that the added bit-rate quality will encourage me carry it around with me, I'm not yet sure that I will. Convenience (one gadget, not two) often triumphs.

On the other hand, there is a highly plausible scenario where you buy this as a home audio solution, using it with speakers that adapt to high resolution audio. (There are umpteen such speakers now available at affordable prices.) The bottom line? The 100R is a gorgeous piece of music tech. If you can squeeze it into your life, you probably won't regret it.

Pushing the boundaries on size of mobile phones

Huawei Mate 8  

Price: €599 for 32GB  

Rating: n/a 

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When is a phone too big? I've been arguing for years that larger phones are the future for all of us. But there must be a size limit somewhere, right? This will come down to a personal choice but, for me, Huawei's Mate 8, with its whopping six-inch screen, is still within the bounds of usability. To put a six-inch phone into context, take an Apple 6S Plus (the huge one that people sometimes confused for a mini-tablet) and add another 15 to 20pc of screen real estate.

It's a device that only giants will be able to use single-handed. But here's the thing. Phones really are about more than one-handed texts or dials, now. My phone is now used almost as much for video consumption as it is for messaging. And I'm not the only one. That makes an extra-large phone extra useful. It also comes with the fringe benefit of having a larger battery which always means better battery life.

I've only played with the Mate 8 a little while so can't give a definitive ruling on the performance of every last feature over time. But my first impressions are good: it is very nicely built, has a good screen, comes with plenty of power and storage and have a decent 16-megapixel camera. It's also pitched at a very competitive price compared to other premium Android phones (Samsung models in particular).

There's no 4K and the screen is slightly below the resolution you'll find in other top-tier handsets. But it comes with a dual sim card slot, which is very handy for travellers.

Fitbit steps beyond Scout-chic

Fitbit Alta  

Price: €130 om pre-order  

Rating: n/a

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Be honest: are you still using the fitness tracker you bought in a flurry of new year zeal last month? Or is it sitting in a bedroom drawer 'temporarily'? Fitness trackers tend to meet with the same fate as January-bought gym memberships. But indolence is just one reason. The ugliness of fitness trackers is just as big an issue in their abandonment as a fall-off in will power.

The truth is that while chirpy hikers think that orange plastic bands are trendy in the office, many of us think of them as a form of regimented Scout-chic. Fitbit is aware of the issue and is trying to make fitness trackers a little more attractive to ordinary people.

Its Alta model comes in a slightly more jewellery-friendly silver frame as well as its regular colour line-up. It does all the things its predecessors do, including the measurement of steps, distance, calories burned and sleep-tracking. But it does it without marking you out as a wannabe fitness zealot.

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