PLUS Video-specs, a smart watch that looks like a watch and the Google smartphone that talks back: this month's new tech
£49.99; available now
This little glimpse of the future has got the tech sphere all a-flutter, as it brings voice automation to the home. Like other sci-fi dreams-made-real, the Amazon Echo Dot promises to usher in a new tech era, which has already been imagined in fiction. In truth, it’s not the first of its kind. Apple, and Microsoft and Google are at it too. But this is affordable, and it works pretty well.
Instead of Siri on your phone, we have Alexa in your home – a disembodied female voice, which comes out of a circular speaker unit with a blue-green glow ring on top. She’ll read the news, play music, and help with the crossword. Set-up is easy; the rear of the unit also features 3.5mm port to connect external speakers for music playback.
If you have other smart home devices on your Wi-Fi network – lighting, switches, thermostats – she will provide voice control for those as well. It’s not a perfect system. It doesn’t always have the answer, even when you think a computer should. Alexa doesn’t do subtlety either, and isn’t much good at jokes. But she can order and track Amazon deliveries (of course), and set an alarm, take notes, and convert imperial to metric. And, like a child, her capabilities will grow, as the etch world builds an ecosystem around home automation. This is the future – yours for 50 quid.
2. Google Pixel
£599 / £42p/m; available now
If the Amazon Dot Echo (above) is the future of home automation, then this is its equivalent on the road. Google’s latest attempt at smartphone hardware brings its own voice assistant, which can pull information like the best of them – about the traffic, say, and what goes with the colour red. It can hit play on Spotify, and call up YouTube videos – and even push them to your television set.
It can also engage in a naturalistic two-way conversation by taking context into account. This way, you can follow up a question about the today’s forecast, by loosely asking, ‘and what about tomorrow?’ Again, it’s not perfect, and you’ll find yourself re-working your diction to fit. But the Pixel is an astonishingly accomplished smartphone as well, which gives the best from Apple and Samsung a run for their money. It claims the best camera in the business, enough juice to last the day with all engines on, and unlimited cloud storage for photos and videos.
3. Leica Sofort
£229, available for pre-order
An instant camera bearing the fabled Leica dot? Yes, indeed. The German maker has got in on the retro camera game. It has also attached a hefty premium to its dinky little box, as it appears in most ways like a reworking of the Fuji Instax Mini 90 Neo, available for £100 less – it takes the same Fuji film and has the same focal length.
Even so, it looks great, in mint, orange or white, and features a bunch of different camera modes – such as macro, bulb, action, party and double exposure. It has a timer, and a ‘selfie’ mode too, and a free-style function that lets you take charge of the focus, flash and exposure yourself. That it prints and develops the photos before your eyes is pretty magical in itself, and the colours are reassuring vibrant. It’s a Leica, after all!
4. Snapchat Spectacles
£100; coming soon
Judging only by their looks and their maker’s meagre press statements, these look like a fairly left-field option. They sit on top of your nose, take photos and video, and look pretty wild. But they’re not a new concept – smart glasses have been tried out by various types, including Google, with limited success. The novelty, here, is these are made for social media. The camera shoots 10-second point-of-view style videos for upload to video messaging app Snapchat via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
They’re intended for moments in time, shareable on social media, rather than long party montages. They need recharging too – and do so wirelessly, inside their case. It all sounds rather wacky, but they’ll be picked up as an impulse purchase, and will likely burn brightly in the fashion pages and among the teen Snapchat crowd, before fading fast.
5. Withings Activité Steel
£139.95; available now
Withings, with a well-deserved reputation for well-made smart devices, has come up with a smart watch that looks like a conventional timepiece. Which is a welcome turn-up, given most tech firms think we need wedge-shaped rectangles with digital faces and rubberised wrist-straps.
Its maker hasn’t bothered too much with the pyrotechnics – this does basic fitness tracking (steps, distance, calories), and pairs with a smartphone app, but won’t work in the pool, say, nor score your triathlon times. It won’t deliver phone alerts and messages to your wrist either, like the expensive units from the likes of Apple and Samsung. But it looks stylish and modern, all analogue dials and pleasing lines.
Crucially, it’s well priced too.