Tech Review: Adrian Weckler on the latest cool gadgets
Our technology editor reviews Nest Protect, Plantronics Backbeat Pro, Alba Bluetooth speaker and Sony A7s Mark ii.
Nest's new smart alarm is smoking
Price: €120 from Harvey Norman
Rating: 4 Stars
It's hard to conceive of a smoke alarm resembling anything like a cool gadget. And yet Nest somehow manages to pull it off. The device, which protects against smoke and carbon monoxide fumes, is 'smart' in two ways. First, it's largely controlled by your phone, wherever you are, via your home wi-fi.
That means you get immediate alerts in case it detects anything. It also means you can test it or change its settings from an easy phone menu. Secondly, the alarm checks its own sensors assiduously - up to 400 times a day. If anything is a little wonky, you'll be told. And that's the other thing about this gadget: it talks. So it's not a case of deciphering whether one long beep means smoke versus two short beeps for carbon monoxide.
It actually speaks out loud, in English: "please be aware, there's smoke in the living room". Or: "emergency, there's smoke in the entryway". Or wherever it is that you put it (you pick its location name from a menu when you first set it up). The Protect device even works with its sibling thermostat gadget to inform itself when you're home or not. (This way it can test the alarm without freaking you out.)
But it's the little additional effects that remind you that this product was made by the guy who originally designed the iPod (Nest co-founder Tony Fadell). When you walk underneath it at night, the circular halo bulb lights up to give you a little help navigating your landing, hall or kitchen in the dark. It's a really nice touch.
Equally nice is the fact that you don't need to get a professional to install this, as is necessary with the Nest Thermostat. It's easy to set up out of the box.
It takes six AA batteries: when it finally runs low on power, you won't have to go driving to specialist hardware stores to find some weird rectangular battery. It's products like Nest that are really starting to make long-mooted 'smart homes' a reality.
Ugly headphones but good sound
Plantronics Backbeat Pro
Price: €200 (including delivery) from Amazon
Rating: 3 stars
These headphones make you look dorky. Perhaps that should be a secondary concern to proper music fans. But even for someone like me, who likes (and regularly wears) overhead earphones, these Plantronics cans are just a bit too aesthetically show-offy for comfort. They simply stick out from your head too much.
If that doesn't bother you, it's an entirely different scenario. The sound quality from the Backbeat Pro headphones is very decent and they're pretty comfortable, too, thanks to nice padded bands and ear cups. On-board noise cancellation makes them handy on a plane or a noisy train and a clever power-management system gives these cans really good battery life. Being wireless brings with it the usual benefits of being able to make and take calls from your phone and no trailing cables to trip you up.
Cheap plastic speaker that's loads of fun
Alba Bluetooth speaker
Price: €18 from Argos
Rating: 4 stars
It may look like a small piece of plastic crap from a cheapo manufacturer, but this little speaker reminded me that I don't play music out loud nearly enough. I was genuinely pleased with just how passable the quality on a mini 1.5-watt speaker is these days. It's no Bose, but it's miles better than a phone speaker.
At about two-thirds the size of a mouse, the gadget has four little control buttons on the back, including a handy 'pause' control that stops and starts your phone's music feed whether it's iTunes, Spotify or some other content source. Set-up is idiot-proof: as soon as you switch it on, it connects to whichever phone, tablet or laptop you're using once you spot it in your Bluetooth settings.
The carabiner clip on the back acts as two things: a stand (for three different angles) and a physical clip for a bag, keyring or anything else you'd normally clip something to. (Yes, including your jeans. Get ready, fellow Nightlink passengers.)
You get about four hours of playback from a single charge (via the same type of Micro USB charger that most smartphones use) and there's also a 3.5mm audio-in jack in the unlikely case you want to physically hook up a CD player or non-Bluetooth audio source.
In terms of sound quality, this doesn't compare to bigger wireless speakers. But it is a small fraction of the price and it's quite a lot better than you'd think. Available in a range of colours, this is really good fun.
Sony's shrinkwrapped power comes at a big price
Sony A7s Mark ii
Price: €3,400 (body-only; pre-order)
Sony believes that the future of quality photography lies more in lightweight mirrorless bodies than in large devices currently dominating the genre from the likes of Canon or Nikon. Some photographers agree: I know of one very successful outdoor landscape and watersport photographer who has largely switched over to 'mirrorless' cameras since they improved to 'full frame' quality.
Still, it could be a long haul. Most top lenses - which often dominate photographers' decisions - are still aimed at larger cameras. There are some key differences between Sony's new A7s Mark ii and its existing A7s Mark i. Internal 4K video recording is added, which seems to be a prerequisite for cameras these days even though there's still not much you can do with 4K.
There are also new stabilisation and auto-focus systems on board, which will definitely help to take better photos. There is a large issue that could hurt this camera, though - the price. Whereas the current A7s is €2,200 in Ireland, the new model is set to cost a whopping €3,400. This is mostly because of the euro's collapse against the dollar. Even still, a 50pc hike in the price might makes this a boutique upgrade instead of a significant market force.