Thursday 15 November 2018

Tech Talk: Mike Ross reviews the latest and greatest gadgets on the market

Mike Ross
Mike Ross

Mike Ross

I’ve been in the real world for nearly a year now, after I finally hung the boots up in June of 2017. It’s been a bit of an eye opener. No longer do I have my days and weeks mapped out in fine detail – if I want to do something I have to organise it myself!

It’s been liberating in a way, I can take holidays in months that aren’t June, and bank holidays finally apply whereas before the mantra was “if you want bank holidays, go work in a bank”.  I do miss the camaraderie of the dressing room though, the big days and the hour or so after a memorable win when all is right with the world. On the flip side of that is the ‘sports depression’ you get after a loss, so my emotions are on more of an even keel these days. I still retain a love for gadgets and tech though, and it’s something I’m even freer to indulge in as my work duties (with Dublin software company Wizuda) often cross over into these areas.

Samsung S9
Samsung S9
Samsung Gear Sport
Parrot Disco FPV
Fitbit Ionic

Fitbit Ionic

I’ve had a lot of Fitbits over the years, from the original Charge, to the Charge HR, the Charge 2 and then the Blaze. The Ionic is the sequel to Fitbit’s successful Blaze, a fitness tracker I used myself for quite a while. This time around, Fitbit have created a completely new product, one that acts more and more like a smartwatch than just a fitness tracker.  In Fitbit’s product range, it sits right at the top, being their new flagship device.

The Ionic features a nice bright rectangular full colour touchscreen, with a resolution of 384x250.  Under the hood, it has a lot of things it can do. Besides counting your steps, it has a heart-rate monitor, a sleep tracker, a calorie counter and it also has built in GPS to track your distances, helpfully coming with that app beloved of runners, Strava.  As you exercise the Ionic will build an estimate of your VO2 max, which is a measure of how aerobically fit you are. It does this by tracking how long it takes you to complete distances and what your heart rate is at the time. The app will then break down how you compare with other people your age so you can feel good (or bad) about it.

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Fitbit Ionic

You can also load music onto the watch, so you can leave your phone behind, but you will require a pair of Bluetooth headphones. There’s room for 2.5GB of songs which is enough for any run. Sadly, you’ll have to load songs onto it manually as it doesn’t yet support Spotify but apparently Deezer support is on the way.  Another feature that encourages you to travel light is ability to use the Ionic to pay for things using the Fitbit Pay app.  Once your details are loaded in you can then pay by tapping the watch on a card reader, much like Apple Pay. Useful if you forget your wallet, although only KBC support it in Ireland for now.

Unlike previous trackers, the Ionic is completely waterproof down to 50m so you can take it swimming or into the shower with you. The battery life is excellent too, and will last you around five days. The charger has been revamped again, and now plugs directly into the back via a proprietary cable, one of my chief annoyances with the Fitbit range. I’ve had a few watches that used micro-USB, and I don’t see why Fitbit can’t do this. Mind you, they’re not alone in this regard as many other manufacturers seem to do the same thing.  The changeable straps allow you to dress it up or down too, depending on whether you’re going to the gym or out to dinner.

Overall, I really liked my time with the Fitbit Ionic. The smartwatch features put the icing on what’s a very good fitness tracker already and is well worth your consideration if you’re looking for one.

€349, Arnotts

Samsung S9

The Samsung Galaxy S9 is Samsung’s follow up to its highly successful S8.  When designing the S8’s successor, Samsung seem to have taken the maxim of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to heart, and they’ve made a few upgrades to differentiate it from its predecessor. It’s gotten heavier and thicker, owing to engineering improvements designed to make it more durable and harder to break. It still has a 5.8 inch AMOLED display with 1440p resolution, and as usual Samsung’s AMOLED tech makes it probably the best smartphone display available. The micro-SD slot is retained, and in a wildly popular move, so is the headphone jack. 

The battery has also stayed the same at 3000mAh. The battery life is similar to the S8, which was very decent and I often had a good 25-30pc left after a day of high usage. The S8 comes with a fast charger too and will charge up to 50pc in half an hour, and also supports wireless charging. It remains IP68 certified, so it should last half an hour submerged in up to 1.5m of water.

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Samsung S9

Aside from those minor changes, there are a lot of more subtle ones.  The S9 has a new chip, the octacore Exynos 9810 running at 2.4GHz, paired with 4GB of RAM. It runs Android Oreo very smoothly, with no lag or stuttering, as befits what is Samsung’s flagship phone.

The camera has had a bit of a rejig too, and now features a dual aperture. In low light, the camera will shift to F1.5 from F2.4., meaning you get better picture quality in low light conditions. Internally the camera is still 12MP, but it uses dual pixel technology meaning that there’s two light sensitive photodiodes working together. The phone can shoot 4K at 60 frames per second, 1080p at 240 frames per second and 960 frames per second ‘Super Slo-Mo’ video at 720p.

At the moment, the S9 seems to be the phone to beat. It’s lightning fast, waterproof, 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 S9 has the stage to itself.

Prices start from €199.99 on bill pay, or €809 (S9) and €899 (S9+) pay as you go. Available from operators nationwide including Carphone Warehouse, Three, Vodafone and Eir.

RRP: Pricing is subject to individual retailers.

Samsung Gear Sport

Unlike the Fitbit Ionic reviewed here, which is a fitness tracker with smartwatch features, the Samsung Gear Sport is a smartwatch with fitness tracker features. This is an important distinction, as it means the watch is targeted at slightly different markets, in this case people who are after a smartwatch but also want some fitness features.

Samsung has gone for a 1GHz dual-core processor with 768MB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage. Samsung love their AMOLED screens, and it’s no surprise that that’s what they’ve opted for with the Gear Sport – the 1.2” screen having a resolution of 360x360 and a 302ppi. This results in a great image, crisp and clear and viewable even in direct sunlight.  You can swipe on the screen to move around and leave unsightly fingerprints, or you can use the rotatable bezel on the watch to do so, which is a useful feature. The watch runs Tizen, a Samsung developed operating system used by a lot of the Korean manufacturer’s devices. It’s snappy and responsive but it does cut you off from a lot of useful Android apps.  However, it has access to Spotify though, and this is a real plus for the Gear Sport.  You can offline songs to the watch and then go for a run, allowing you to leave the phone behind as the watch can directly connect to any Bluetooth headsets. Your activity integrates with Samsung’s own Health app, although it’ll also work with Under Armour Record.

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Samsung Gear Sport

The watch is also fully waterproof, so you can take it swimming with you. Indeed, it ties in with the Speedo ON app to record your swims – something that a lot of trackers couldn’t do before. As well as this, the Gear Sport has built in GPS, heartrate monitor, sleep tracker and a NFC chip which promises to work with Samsung Pay when it becomes available in Ireland.

Charging the 300mAh battery is via a cradle, so you’d better look after this or you won’t be able to charge it. Battery life is decent, I got around 3 days of use out of it.  All things considered the Gear Sport is a nice piece of kit. If you’re moderately active and in the market for a new smartwatch, it’ll cover both bases very well.

€319 on promotion at Arnotts

Parrot Disco FPV

I must admit that drones have largely been a thing that has passed me by. Since the first ones came out, clunky unsteady things with five minute battery lives, the tech has progressed steadily to the point where you can now buy ones that auto take off and land, with a 7km range and that carry 4K cameras to boot. There’s now even drone racing competitions, and some of the skill displayed in the clips I’ve seen on YouTube is breath-taking. Most of the drones you see are the quadcopter types, but the Parrot Disco FPV is a fixed wing drone, looking like a small flying wing. Dimensions-wise, the Disco weighs about 700g and has a wingspan of over a metre at 115cm. The body is made of expanded polypropylene and carbon tubing which helps keep the weight down. Fixed into the nose is a 14MP 1080p camera, with 32GB of on-board storage. It’s powered by a 2700maH battery, which is good for about 45 minutes of flight time, a lot longer than conventional quadcopters.

The drone comes disassembled for ease of transport, but it’s three minutes work to put it together. The wings clip on easily and the battery slides into its slot.  Launching the Disco is like throwing a Frisbee: you hold one of the wings with one hand, engage the rear propeller by hitting the Take-off/Landing button on the Skycontroller 2 remote control, then throw the drone away from you.  The drone goes straight up to 50m, and then engages in a holding pattern, flying in circles above you. It has a theoretical range of 2km using MIMO Wi-Fi, but I didn’t test this and was a lot more conservative. 

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Parrot Disco FPV

The really cool feature that the Disco offers is the CockpitGlasses headset. You download the Parrot app onto your phone and then slide the phone into the headset. Once you’ve done this you’re treated to what the drone sees, giving you a virtual reality flying experience. The controller is easy to get to grips with, looking a lot like an Xbox controller so seasoned gamers should be right at home. It does take a bit of getting to grips with but all the parts of the drone are replaceable if you should have an accident. One thing I found though is that it’s a good idea to have a lot of space. Unlike quadcopters the Disco requires a bit of a runway to land, and it’s best that this is grass. I took it for a spin on my parent’s farm and that was perfect – city dwellers would be advised to find a park.

The Disco is definitely a lot of fun, and a good introduction to the world of drone flying. It’s not cheap (although you can find bargain prices on Amazon these days), but the range and CockpitGlasses largely justify the cost, along with the fact that if you break it it’s easy to fix.

€595, Currys PC World

Miele CM6150 Coffee Machine

Miele are a well-known brand for high-end domestic appliances.  They’re decidedly not cheap, but year after year they top the rankings when it comes to reliability.  If you subscribe to the maxim of “Buy once, cry once” then you probably have something by Miele in the house. They’re better known for their vacuum cleaners, laundry appliances and ovens, but they’ve also been steadily making inroads into the coffee machine space.

That’s where the CM6150 comes in.  A fully automated bean to cup machine, the CM6150 takes its design cues from the rest of the Miele range, a combination of glossy plastic and stainless steel. A 15 bar pump pressure and Miele’s proprietary AromaticSystem ensures that every last bit of flavour is wrung from the beans, and the espresso it produces is top notch, with a large amount of crema. For milk based drinks like cappuccinos and lattes there’s the removable milk jug, and it produces very good, frothy milk. Every aspect of your coffee is customisable, from the temperature to the size of the grind. You can programme user profiles too, so members of your household can have their desired beverage at the press of a button. Programming the device and changing the settings is via a TFT touch screen on the front, and the menus are simple enough and easy to grasp. Cleaning the machine is also uncomplicated: just flip open the front of the machine and you can pull out the used grounds securely held in a plastic tub.  The grounds tub, drip tray and milk jug are all dishwasher safe. It is expensive and you can probably get results just as good as the CM6150’s for less money, but it’ll be difficult to find something as simple and convenient.



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