Monday 5 December 2016

THE GADGET REVIEW

Ireland prop and tech whizz Mike Ross trials the latest and greatest gadgets on sale

Published 15/04/2016 | 02:30

Nespresso Prodigio

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Nespresso machines came along and made decent coffee easily available at home, no more the horrors of instant! Very simple devices, you fill them up with water, pop in the capsule of your choice and enjoy your coffee. The Prodigio aims to change that by adding a bit of high-tech functionality to the process, namely the addition of a Bluetooth chip and a dedicated app. The app will allow you to set a coffee going, schedule a brew at the time of your choosing, alert you to the water level, allow you to see how many capsules you've used and order extra capsules.

It's a useful machine to have in the kitchen or office, allowing you to prep a coffee without moving from your chair. There's a couple of drawbacks though. One, you need to have the capsule ready to go, and two, the range is limited because it utilises Bluetooth. If you don't mind these limitations, then there's no reason not to get the Prodigio, €199, over other models in Nespresso's range. The coffee is just as good, and the extra functionality is a useful addition.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is Samsung's follow up to its highly successful S6 Edge. The S7 Edge still has the lovely curved screen which wraps around the device, but there have been a few major changes along the way to differentiate it from its predecessor. It's gotten bigger, now having a 5.5 inch AMOLED display but keeping the 1440p resolution. It also now has a micro-SD slot, something that was left out of the S6 and was missed by a lot of people. The battery has also increased in size by a whopping 1000mAh, now tipping the scales at 3600mAh (sadly still non removable). Finally, the S7 Edge is now water resistant, so if you drop it into a running bath (as happened to me recently!) you won't be staring at an expensive repair bill. It's IP68 certified, so it should last half an hour submerged in up to 1.5m of water.

Aside from those major changes, there are a lot more subtle ones. The S7 Edge has a new chip, the Exynos 8890 running at 2.4GHz, paired with with 4GB of RAM. It runs Android Marshmallow very smoothly, with no lag or stuttering, as befits what is Samsung's flagship phone. The camera has had a minor rejig too, and now sits a lot flusher to the back of the phone, as opposed to the pronounced bulge it had before. There's still a small lip, but it's not nearly as noticeable. Internally the camera has had a resolution downgrade, from 16MP to 12MP, but it uses dual pixel technology meaning that there's two light sensitive photodiodes working together. This means it works a lot better in low light conditions, up to 4 times faster than its predecessor, and faster autofocusing.

The battery life is really good thanks to the increased capacity, I often had a good 25-30% left after a day of high usage. The S7 Edge comes with a fast charger too and will charge up to 50% in half an hour, and also supports wireless charging. Often phones at the higher end have mediocre battery life thanks to their power hungry components, but that is definitely not the case here.

At the moment, the S7 Edge seems to be the phone to beat. It's lightning fast, looks great and has superb battery life. Phones from other manufacturers will be coming out to challenge it in the next couple of months but for now the S7 Edge has the stage to itself. From €119 per month on bill pay from Carphone Warehouse.

Samsung Gear VR

Virtual reality is the future. We've been hearing that for a while but this year looks to be the year of VR with devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and the Sony Playstation VR all promising to be released this year. These devices will come with a hefty price tag, well north of €600, so the Samsung Gear VR aims to give you a great experience at the bargain price of €99. How it does this is simple; it utilises the display and power of your phone with some clever software to deliver a compelling experience. The headset was developed in conjunction with Oculus, one of the pioneers in today's booming VR market, and you have access to select titles from the Oculus store. Admittedly, you will require a high end Samsung phone. The phones that the Gear VR is compatible with are the S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+, S7, S7 Edge, Note 4 and Note 5. Not a bad line-up to choose from, but if your preference is another manufacturer then you're out of luck.

Physically the headset is sturdy enough. It looks a bit like a snorkel mask, with two special glass lenses set into the frame that enable you to perceive the VR effect. The lenses are adjustable via a wheel on the top of the headset so you can focus the image to your liking. There are two adjustable straps that hold it on, one that runs above your ears and another that goes over the top of your head, and the fit is quite comfortable with plenty of foam cushioning. There's a touch panel and return button on the side of the headset, allowing you to navigate through menus and even play some games without requiring a controller. The way it works is simple: you seat your phone into the front of the device where it acts as the screen. Samsung have designed it so you can plug headphones into your handset as well, so you get the complete VR experience.

So, that's the hardware part. It's the software that really shines. Once you plug the phone in, it automatically launches Oculus Home, a portal from where you can install different software. I first tried the Netflix app, and it's very clever, putting you in a large virtual movie theatre which automatically dims when your show starts to play. There's also a 3D photo viewer, which takes you to various exotic locales like the pyramids and allows you to look around as if you were actually there. I also had a lot of fun playing games like Eve: Gunjack, which puts you into a gun turret on a huge starship and has you fight off endless waves of enemy fighters. Looking around the turret is very cool, even if it's a little unnerving to see a huge void beneath your feet!

If you have a Samsung phone, then this is a great gadget to get. It won't break the bank, and offers a fantastic intro to the world of virtual reality.

Microsoft Surface Book

I'm usually very picky when it comes to choosing a new laptop. On my current wish list is something that's small, light, powerful enough for a bit of gaming and has decent battery life. Usually it's a case of picking 3 out of 4 of those criteria, but Microsoft have come along and released their innovative Surface Book. The Surface Book isn't just a laptop either; at the press of a button the screen detaches and turns into a fully fledged tablet. This is a really neat feature, and adds hugely to the versatility of the device.

Out of the box, the Surface Book looks impressive, beautifully crafted from two solid blocks of magnesium alloy. The screen and the body of the laptop are connected by what Microsoft refers to as the dynamic fulcrum hinge, which is segmented and interestingly leaves a small gap reminiscent of the spine of a book when the laptop is folded shut. There's some neat technology in the hinge too, Microsoft uses what's known as muscle-wire to lock the screen to the base. Muscle wire deforms when current is applied to it, and then goes back to its original state when the current is switched off. This keeps a rock solid attachment between the screen and the base which is a good thing! The screen itself is a 13.5 inch affair, with a 3000x2000 resolution. The screen also houses the motherboard and CPU with an integrated graphics chip, so it can function independently of the base. You've a choice of two Intel Skylake CPUs - the base model i5-6300u running at 2.4GHz, or the i7-6600u running at 2.6GHz. You have the option of combining these CPUs with differing levels of RAM and hard drive space, and you can choose whether to have a dedicated graphics card or not. I'd recommend going with the card; Microsoft have chosen a slightly cut down Nvidia Geforce 940M, which sits in the base. Having a discreet graphics card makes a big difference, and I found the Surface Book could happily play Battlefield 3 on medium with framerates hovering around the fifties. It also handled Civilisation V well, which is a good thing as it makes long journeys go very quickly!

Admittedly, the model I had was at the higher end of the Surface Book spectrum, sporting the i7-6600u, coupled with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD along with the dedicated graphics card, but you could probably go for the cheaper i5 model and not miss out on too much performance, especially with games. The Surface Book also comes with the Surface Pen, which allows you to use the screen as a very useful drawing surface, great for graphic designers or budding artists. The pen clips on to the side of the screen using magnets, but you might want to consider getting a cover with a separate pocket for it just in case.

Overall I was highly impressed with the Surface Book - it ticks every single one of my boxes when looking for a laptop. The only downside is that it's not cheap, this is a premium device and priced to match. At the moment you expect to pay upwards of €1500 for the base model, with the model I was using coming in around the €2000 mark. The power and versatility it offers makes it worth your consideration though, there's nothing quite like it on the market.

Irish Independent

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