Friday 16 November 2018

Bargain hunt: Six of the best tech tools to look out for when this year's sales begin

Tech Editor Adrian Weckler on the best phone, tablet, laptop, camera and soundbar options you can buy

1. Lenovo Yoga 900
1. Lenovo Yoga 900
2. The Sky Soundbox
3. Acer 14-inch Chromebook
4. iPhone X
5. Moto G5
6. Fuji X-T 20 camera
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Although Christmas is still four days away, the sales are just five days away. Many people use this period to save a few euro on discounted stock from December 26.

They also take advantage of it to equip themselves with tech tools they've been curious about for a while.

Here, technology editor Adrian Weckler advises on some of the best products lo look at for people who need to upgrade their systems.

1. A good Windows laptop within range of €1,000

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1. Lenovo Yoga 900

Not everyone wants a MacBook. This year has seen some excellent Windows machines launched on the market - and you can expect some of them to be discounted in the January sales.

Two to watch are Lenovo's 14-inch IdeaPad 720S (€1,199 from Harvey Norman) or the 13-inch Yoga 900 (€979 from Harvey Norman). Both have lots of power (Intel Core i5 processors with 8GB of Ram memory) and decent storage (256GB). Microsoft's own 13-inch Surface Laptop (€1,169) is very good, too. Its only drawback is that for its basic price you're stuck with just 128GB of storage memory. If you're mainly working with cloud apps, that's probably fine. If you have lots of photos or videos, it won't be enough over time.

Dell's superb XPS laptop range used to be in the €1,200 range but has since been bumped up closer to MacBook Pro (€1,500-plus) levels.

Of the two Lenovos I mention above, I'd ultimately plump for the cheaper Yoga 900 for a couple of reasons. First, it's significantly lighter than the slightly bigger IdeaPad (1.29kg versus 1.55kg). 13-inch screens are also more of a standard display size for accessories such as bags and sleeves. Put together, this makes the cheaper machine quite a lot more portable than the IdeaPad.

The other advantage it has is in its superior screen resolution and technology (QHD versus the older 'full HD' standard).

Over time, this makes a difference. It also has a hinge that allows it to flip right over, propping it up as a portable video player, letting you control playback with screen touches.

This feature is largely sold as 'making it a tablet', but the real benefit is in its video consumption applications.

It also makes it a much better fit for the likes of reading (such as with the Kindle app), as it means you have a flat device to hold.

2. A television soundbar

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2. The Sky Soundbox

For all their advanced technology, the sound quality on many televisions is quite poor. Ironically, the thinner they get, the worse the speakers - less physical space usually means tinnier, weaker audio quality. This is why vintage tube televisions (the type that used to sit in a room's corner) often had better speakers than today's sets.

And it's also why so many people think of getting an external speaker.

One thing many people don't realise when they go to buy an external TV speaker is that it often comes in several parts to work properly.

This sometimes includes a couple of speakers. Even those that try to contain the system to a 'soundbar' still usually require a separate 'sub-woofer'.

For a hifi or home cinema enthusiast, this may well be part of the attraction. For the rest of us, it can be a pain, both in having to set all the speakers up and in finding space for the various speakers without the sitting room starting to look very messy and wire-laden. I prefer single speaker solutions that simply plug into your telly and work beside it. The speaker I've been most impressed with lately is Sky's Soundbox, which plugs into your TV or, if you're a Sky subscriber, your Sky Q box. (This is the little set-top box that a lot of Sky subscriptions now come with.)

The reason I like it so much is that it has really excellent, warm sound while being very neat: it sits right beside your DVD player, taking up about the same amount of space.

It's reasonably easy to set up, too, although if you feel bamboozled by HDMI cables and the like, get someone to help. The only thing that might stop people getting it is its price - its €300 price tag is only for existing Sky Q subscribers (€350 for normal Sky subscribers).

But while it works with any telly and any system, if you're not a Sky subscriber it's over twice the price.

Also, €300 might seem a bit steep for plenty of people.

If this includes you, I'd look at two cheaper options. The first is Sony's HT-XT100 (€129 from PC World or Currys), which is a plug-in-and-play sound bar with all the required components (including the sub woofer) built in. It's audio quality isn't as good as the Sky Soundbox but it's less than half the price.

If something even friendlier on the wallet is required, try Bush's ultra-budget 45-watt soundbar (€25 from Argos).

I'd only advise this option, though, if the telly you brought is a cheap or small one, as the sound output from this won't be significantly better than what you get from medium-priced new televisions in Irish shops.

Of course, you can always stick in a pair of headphones to the telly (some budget headphones come with two or three-metre leads) if there's a TV item you really want to hear urgently, but that's a little unsocial.

3. A Chromebook or Android-based convertible tablet

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3. Acer 14-inch Chromebook

Chromebooks are starting to be able to use Android apps directly. For example, the company's latest Pixelbook laptop (for my earlier review of which, see independent.ie) already has this facility.

However, it's a relatively high-end machine with top-notch materials, meaning it costs around €1,200. In time, Google says that cheaper Chromebooks will also be able to use Android apps.

If that promise is good enough, there are a few options below €600.

In truth, most Chromebooks are comparatively cheap. A typical model is Acer's 14-inch Chromebook (€279 from Argos).

It has a very modest internal storage for a laptop (32GB) and basic power (an elementary 1.6Ghz chip). But it's good enough for almost all day-to-day tasks and it should work fine for watching video.

An even cheaper option is Asus's 13-inch Chromebook (€229 from PC World), which has the same amount of storage but slightly weaker power.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend either machine, as both cut a few corners on power and speed. But they will certainly work at a basic level.

Unfortunately, there isn't really much of a middle ground pricing structure for Chromebooks: they're either really cheap or over €1,000.

If a 10-inch screen size sounds okay, there are a few outright Android machines to choose from. I'd recommend either Lenovo's Yoga Tab 3 Plus (€379 from Argos) or Samsung's Tab S2 (€479 from PC World).

Both have 32GB of storage are both have high quality screens with adequate speakers that will serve as a portable TV as well as a computer. Bear in mind that you'll want an attachable keyboard to use the tablet as a laptop.

My choice would be Logitech's Universal Folio keyboard (€75 from Argos).

4. IPhone X versus iPhone 8

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4. iPhone X

Cost is a factor here - the iPhone X will set you back up to €400 more than the iPhone 8. On the other hand, it is the only iPhone with Apple's new technology in its Face ID and rim-to-rim Oled screen. The facial-recognition technology really does work fairly flawlessly - once you 'set' your face up on the iPhone X, it recognises your mug in virtually all lighting conditions, including pitch-black darkness.

I've seen some people speculating that you might have to stare at the iPhone X for a couple of seconds before its Face ID works. Nope - it works almost immediately, and from a couple of different angles. It's almost like it's not there, because you're naturally looking at the phone anyway when you swipe up from the bottom to unlock it.

However, there are a few learning curve issues. When you think of all the things you use the home button for, Apple has had to come up with some pretty significant workarounds.

The main ones include getting back to the home screen quickly (which use to be a single home button tap), multi-tasking (switching between apps, which you used to do by double-tapping the home button) and downloading apps.

But there are also changes in accessing your screen controls (volume, display brightness, airplane mode and the like) and even in switching the phone off.

The most important change is that swiping up from the bottom of the screen now exits any application you're in and brings back to the home screen.

This actually only takes a very short while to get used to because it's very intuitively done with your thumb, whether you're right or left handed.

Switching between apps is somewhat similar, in that you now swipe up from the bottom but hold your finger on the screen, whereupon your recent apps will appear for you to swipe through on a carousel.

Downloading an app on the iPhone X is changed, too. Touch ID (or your security Pin number) used to be the verification method. But Face ID can't simply replace the Touch ID button on its own as then there'd be a risk you'd just download apps without meaning to because you were looking at the phone.

So the iPhone X now asks you to double press the side power button. It then uses Face ID to verify the purchase. Is this a longer method than Touch ID? So far, I haven't found that to be the case.

So are there any reasons to choose the iPhone 8? Familiarity is one potential motive. Another is that the camera on the 8 Plus matches that on the iPhone X. What's more, its screen is bigger despite being 0.3 inches shorter in diameter.

5. A budget phone

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5. Moto G5

I'll recommend two sub-€200 models here - Motorola's Moto G5 and Vodafone's Smart V8. The Moto G5 gives you quite a lot for your money and is available unlocked (from Rea Communications) or from Virgin Mobile.

It has a really bright, crisp 5-inch screen, a good 13-megapixel camera and extra security in the form of a fingerprint scanner. It also has a bit of metal added into the design of the body which gives it a slightly less cheap look and feel to the plasticky bodies that are typical of sub-€200 phones.

Vodafone's (locked) has an even better 5.5-inch screen and is probably the best-looking budget phone around.

These include a 16-megapixel camera, a fingerprint reader (for security) and a decent 32GB of storage, which is considerably more than you'd get with some other budget phones. The only compromise is that it's locked to Vodafone.

The cheapest iPhone you'll get is the SE at €399. It's a very decent handset with a lot of power and an excellent camera, but it screen is a lot smaller than the other two models.

6. A decent quality camera

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6. Fuji X-T 20 camera

Want a good camera that's relatively easy to use, has high-quality lenses and is not too big? Right now, I'd recommend either Fuji or Panasonic for those who want to keep it compact and Canon for those on a tight budget.

If the purse stretches to €900, Fuji's 24-megapixel X-T20 may be the best option right now. It basically provides the exact same photo quality as way more expensive models (such as Fuji's X-Pro2 or X-T2).

It also has some amazing lens choices. What's more, for an extra €50, you get the kit 16-50mm lens that you get with it is really good with decent depth of field. The whole thing is superb.

Alternatively, Panasonic's 20-megapixel GX8 is a really good, fairly easy camera to use, with a variety of great lenses available, some of them at a budget price.

For €800 you'll get the camera plus Panasonic's really good 12-60mm kit lens (which is the equivalent of 24-120mm, an excellent zoom range for casual use).

If that still sounds steep on the budgetary end, Panasonic's GX80 is an excellent semi-budget mirrorless camera that takes all the same lenses as the GX8. You'll get the camera body plus the decent 12-32mm kit lens for €540. (Bear in mind that this lens won't give you much of a zoom.) One advantage to Panasonic is that it shares its lens range with Olympus, which is also an excellent semi-compact mirrorless brand.

That means you have the benefit of some 70 lenses, including really high end models designed by Leica. So quality isn't an issue - it's absolutely there.

That said, with these brands you are paying a little more for the handy size.

If you're happy to use something a little bigger, you'll save a few quid. For example, the entry level Canon 1300D produces some really good quality at a very basic price.

For €399, you get the 18-megapixel camera and the decent 18-55mm kit lens. For an extra €80, you get that plus a 75-300mm lens. I've personally used this zoom lens to take some sports and sunset photos - it's basic but absolutely decent.

The Canon DSLR ecosystem also has the benefit of the best quality budget lens in the world - the 50mm f1.8 (€140).

This gives amazing depth of field on any Canon DSLR camera, cheap or expensive. It's absolutely perfect for parties and family occasions. If you end up getting a Canon camera, you'll do yourself a big favour getting this lens.

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