Saturday 3 December 2016

Tech review: Weckler on the latest and coolest gadgets

Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30

Ipad mini
Ipad mini
Bush Leather DAB/FM Radio
HTC1One1AP
Playbulb Colour

Our technology editor reviews the iPad Mini 4, Bush Leather DAB/FM radio, HTC One A9 and Playbulb Colour.

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Slim difference on lighter iPad Mini 4

iPad Mini 4

Price: from €409 (16GB)

Rating: 4 stars

I've always preferred Apple's iPad Mini to its bigger 10-inch models. The smaller variants just seem so much handier.

You can slip them into bags and folders that might not quite fit a larger machine. They're also easier to hold up when you want to read or watch a video in bed or on a plane, the things I generally use tablets most for. So I've usually opted for the 8-inch variant whenever I've actually shelled out.

That said, the margins between successive iPad mini models are getting slighter. The jump from the first model to the second 'retina' version was huge, mainly because of the difference in screen quality. But there isn't as much of a leap between this year's iPad Mini 4 and last year's iPad Mini 3. In truth, there isn't even that huge a difference between the new model and the (still available at €100 less) iPad Mini 2 from 2013.

So is it worth getting a new one? There are some definite upgrades in evidence. For me, the biggest of these is the 4's thinner, lighter form factor. It's 18pc skinnier and 10pc lighter than both the iPad Mini 3 and the iPad Mini 2. You can just about feel this when you hold both versions (the 4 and the 3) in different hands at the same time. The new model also has a little more power under the hood than the old one, though not as much as the year-old 10-inch iPad Air 2 or the new iPhone 6S. Its screen is also now laminated with an anti-reflective coating.

The camera megapixel power is upped from five to eight on the main rear lens, something that's lost on me. (I have yet to take photos with any tablet.)

One minor crib about the iPad mini 4 is that Apple has added a couple of millimetres to the case, meaning that any old accessory cases you may have will have to be junked.

Are these combined marginal upgrades enough to make you choose the new iPad mini 4 over the still-available iPad mini 2? One thing we've learned about iPads is they have a much longer shelf life than smartphones. This is largely because the jumps in technology have not been as pronounced in tablets. So it's not a clear cut case of iPad mini 4 versus the cheaper iPad 2 model.

However, it's usually worth paying the extra few euro for the latest version of Apple's hardware as they tend to optimise new services for the newest equipment.

As for competition with Android models (such as Samsung), iPads still retain a lead. They're just better: most Android rivals have to be at least €100 cheaper to justify consideration.

Small sound but cute case

Bush Leather DAB/FM radio   

Price: €75 from Argos  

Rating: 3 stars

Radios must now be one of our least-purchased electronic items.

Think about it: when is the last time you went shopping for a radio? Where would you even buy one? And yet, most kitchens at some point will reverberate with the sound of spoken voice across the airwaves. This medium-sized model from Bush looks nice, because of its leather covering and handle.

It is strictly a voice radio machine, as the 4 watts it emits make music sound pretty puny in any kind of open space. It operates with both FM and DAB (although there are hardly any DAB radio stations in Ireland outside a few RTE variants). It has a discreet digital display on top of the unit that also acts as an alarm. Available in couple of different colours, it comes with a mains adapter but can also work using batteries (four medium-sized 'C' batteries).

Sleek looks but features are a little more ordinary

HTC One A9   

Price: €550 sim-free   

Rating: 3 stars

The most obvious thing about HTC's new 5-inch A9 phone is just how much it looks like an iPhone 6.

It's not just sort of similar: this looks like HTC simply 3D-printed out an iPhone and made a few cosmetic changes to it.

I am ashamed to say that such a bare-faced tactic works beautifully. Only the most harrumphish of intellectual property guardians would not concede that the all-metal A9 is a gorgeous handset to touch, hold and operate. HTC has always had the prettiest Android handsets and this one is no exception, regardless of how they arrived at its form factor. So if design is really important to you, this is worth looking at.

On the other hand, that is probably where the A9's recommendation maxes out. Because the rest of the phone's features, while decent, are a little ordinary for what you're paying.

For example, the A9's 13-megapixel camera is good but doesn't quite match the best (Sony Z5, Samsung S6, iPhone 6S), despite some extra features such as hyperlapse and raw capture. Its battery life is average, too. And its power quotient, while adequate, is behind other phones you can get at this price range.

What is boils down to is that you're paying a hefty premium for the metal and styling that HTC has deployed here.

Sure, it comes with Google's latest Marshmallow Android operating system, which tweaks things like app shortcuts and voice search. But you'll largely get the same technical features on a handset like Motorola's X Play (see review two weeks ago on Independent.ie) for €200 less.

One element that is still an advantage is the MicroUSB charging system.

Some new Android phones are changing over to USB-C, but most people are more likely to have a few of the older variants knocking around.

The HTC One A9 comes with 16GB of storage but also takes expandable memory cards. It is also available in several colours.

In dark as to use for Franken-bulb

Playbulb Colour   

Price: €100   

Rating: 2 stars

How would you like to stuff a tiny speaker into a lightbulb and make it controllable from your phone?

That's the basic idea behind Mipow's Playbulb Colour, a sort of Frankensteinish light fitting that surely tries too hard to do too much. Once you set up the 40-watt bulb into a screw socket, you can connect to it via Bluetooth from your phone (and the bulb's iOS or Android app). You can then control its colours or play music back through it.

I've been scratching my head trying to think of the use for this gadget. A restaurant table? A funky conference call (although it has no microphone)?

Because of the speaker's physical presence within the bulb, the light filament only really shines downwards instead of all around it. And the audio quality from the speaker is, as you'd expect from something crammed into a lightbulb, pretty wan and tinny. Perhaps this is aimed at Japanese-style eateries where pop-culture personalisation can be achieved at every table. But for the rest of us, it's just an amusing novelty.

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