Plus the last Blackberry, Lego drones, next-generation Fitbit and the smart candle: this month's new tech
1. Apple iPhone 7 / 7 Plus
£599 / £719; or available on contract
In case you missed it, Apple’s upped the stakes again with a new iPhone. So, what’s new? In short, it’s introduced a couple of new colours, doubled the storage capacity, crammed in a bigger battery and a better camera, and made the whole package water resistant. That’s about it. Except, it’s done it twice, on two different models. And, oh yes, it’s also removed the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Of all the new trickery, this last adjustment, to make room for the new processor and battery, has proved most controversial. Why? Because it messes with a long-established hardware standard, around since 1964. And just because it’s new, and different. Apple has said it should be congratulated for its bravery. Indeed, it should; the future’s always been wireless, and it is high time the future was here.
Instead of the old analogue jack, Apple has introduced a pair of wireless headphones, which feature touch controls for making and taking calls, and for activating voice controls, and last for five hours on a single charge. Alternatively, you can connect a set of wired headphones via the Lightning port, rather than the old analogue jack – meaning you can’t listen and charge-up at the same time anymore.
Yes, it sounds awkward. But this is the march of technology, and Apple is leading it. Suddenly, the iPhone has decent storage options – both new models come in 32GB, 128GB and 256GB versions, all of which will take time to clutter-up. The new camera on both has a larger aperture and optical image stabilisation, allowing more light into the lens, a clearer focus and a bunch of other clever stuff.
The camera brings out differences between the models. The iPhone 7 Plus adds two-times optical zoom and 10-times digital zoom; the iPhone 7 allows only five-times digital zoom. They diverge on the basic dimensions too, of course. The bigger phone has 5.5 inch screen with full HD resolution (401ppi); the standard model has a 4.7 inch display, with a 326ppi pixel density.
For many, without thinking, these will be the only stories in town, when they’re shopping for an upgrade. For everyone else, they’ll do just fine.
2. BlackBerry DTEK50
£270; available on contract
Having cornered the market for secure, high-end business phones a few years back, the Canadian firm, like Nokia and others, was undone by the rise of Apple and Google, and twin mastery of the app market. It retrenched, reinvented itself, and fell in with the Android crowd – but at the end of September announced it was going to stop developing new phones, to concentrate on software instead. The company says, however, that there will continue to be Blackberry-branded phones in the marketplace.
For now, we have the new DTEK50.
Buggy and over-priced, the BlackBerry Priv, the company's first Android phone, had little to recommend it, but for some familiar huff about security. Now, just as Apple takes the sticky-back plastic off its latest iPhone (see above), we have the more keenly priced DTEK50, which keeps Android (Marshmallow) but does away with BlackBerry’s trademark keyboard.
Again, security, the firm’s absolute constant, is central to the proposition. This is, BlackBerry tells us, the “most secure smartphone in the world”. And there’s method here – security flaws, some imagined and some real, have been a mark of Android. But the market is relatively narrow, especially at this price point. Most of us employ basic common sense, and avoid trouble. Google has put focus on security holes with its latest Marshmallow platform, and will address others with its forthcoming Nougat release. Across the way, Apple’s locked down iOS and more popular mid-range Android phones bring their own measures.
So, unless you’re an enterprise with heightened paranoia about data security – which the DTEK50 goes a way to address – then choice comes down to design and features. And, here, BlackBerry blows it. It has stuck to what it knows, and outsourced the rest. The hardware is by Chinese multinational TCL, which owns the Alcatel brand. And to all intents and purposes, the DTEK50 is a clone of the Alcatel Idol 4, dressed up as Fort Knox. The processor, screen and camera won’t get you out of your seat; the higher security grade might, just.
3. Fitbit Charge 2
Fitbit is the biggest name in fitness bands, and this new entry is the successor to its best-selling Fitbit Charge HR. So how does it fair? Well, it looks good, for starters; it has the familiar design language of its forebear, but incorporates a much larger OLED display, some sleeker lines, various customisable clock faces and various strap/body combos, including a number of leather-look options.
The worlds of trackers and watches are colliding, and this device alerts you when calls and messages arrive on your phone (as well as showing the date and time). It also goes beyond the basics of counting steps and distance, and discerning one activity from another.
The display module houses a new heart rate monitor at the rear, which measures your pulse day and night, and provides a keener picture of your all-round cardio fitness. It also has a new Relax mode, for focused breathing, relaxation and recovery.
The fact it doesn’t cover swimming is remiss, but it automatically detects and tracks everything from walking to weights to sleep, with post-exercise summaries on the display, a detailed summary on the app, and prompts and tips throughout. It even claims to record peak oxygen uptake (VO2 max). There’s a lot to like here, and the battery life (five days) and price make it a considerably better option than a smartwatch.
$149 [c. £120]
Open source software has created a ‘maker’ movement of DIY enthusiasts, and it has crept into the toy market with coding and robotics. This build-your-own-drone kit falls into this category, and uses good old Lego bricks as the basis for all manner of hair brained flying machines.
The computing brains come in the form of an microcontroller board, which can be fitted and wired into motors, propellers and boom-arms that clip into your Lego designs, programmed using open-source code and controlled from a smartphone app. The basic Flybrix kit comes with all the designs and components for an out-of-the-box flying experience.
As with Lego, the fun here is to design and redesign, build and rebuild, and see where your imagination takes you – except the sky is the limit, and you can wire in flashing LEDs, GPS trackers and other computing components.
The makers say the technology is designed for over-14s, although younger kids may also enjoy it with adult supervision – as “together time” – and get a easy-won education in elements of engineering, physics, design, and geometry. Prices start at $149 [£120] for the starter kit, with limited supply available through to the end of the year.
5. LuDela Smart Candle
Whether phones, cars or toothbrushes, it seems there’s a smart-everything, these days. Now, we have a smart candle – a real, dimmable candle, with built-in safety features, which can be controlled by your smartphone. Apart from the app, it comes in three parts that fit together like a Russian doll: an outer wax shell, a silicon module with a bunch of sensors and tech wizardry, and the candle itself, which is replaceable.
The technology is clever, and allows you to ignite, dim and extinguish a real flame from your smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. Heat is channelled from four electric nodes to light the wick, and control the flame; a miniature fan beside it blows the flame out. Beyond this, a series of safety features, activated by the sensors and scanners in the middle contraption, mean the candle is extinguished in the event it is tipped or knocked, and prevented from lighting is the air is unsafe.
The flame can also be programmed to extinguish when the sensors pick up nearby movement, from a child or pet, say, or to flicker only during certain times of the day. The candles come in various paraffin-free blends of beeswax, soy, coconut and palm oils, and are spring-loaded so the wick shows, and burn to the last. For a candle, it’s not cheap, and pricing of replacement cartridges is unconfirmed as yet. There’s a queue as well – pre-orders are live now, for shipping in early 2017.