Three useful gadgets to help you make the most of summer

by Peter Griffin / 10 January, 2019
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The Dyson Pure Cool.

An in-depth look at three pieces of technology that will serve you well in the summer.

The summer holidays are for disconnecting, unplugging, shelving your gadgets for two glorious weeks to commune with nature and return to an analogue life for a while.

Yeah right!

Where would I be without my Bluetooth speaker for supplying the BBQ tunes or my Fitbit to track my soaring heart rate as I scramble up the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk? I need my phone to check my AirBnB booking and then Netflix goes and drops a new episode of Black Mirror over Christmas so I need to take my laptop with me to watch it.

Let’s face it, we are so deeply connected to devices and the digital world, it’s probably more traumatic than relaxing to switch everything off for the holidays. There’s some healthy middle ground to occupy.

Here are three gadgets in particular I’ve made good use of over the holiday break and what I think of them...

Dyson Pure Cool (Desk) fan and air purifier

After a dismal start, summer has delivered. So it’s been good to have the Dyson Pure Cool to chill things down a bit as the afternoon sun beams into my stuffy apartment.

Better known for making muscular looking vacuum cleaners, British company Dyson also has a strong pedigree when it comes to fans. Those super-powerful hand dryers you lower your hands into in public toilets were popularised by Dyson and it's had stylish, if expensive house and office fans in the market for years.

Now Dyson is adding air purification to the mix. The Pure Cool sits in the corner of my lounge and sniffs the air using three sensors on its base to check the room’s air quality. Dyson claims the purifier will remove 99.7 per cent of pollutants from your indoor air.

That will include pollen, mould and dust which can cause problems for people with allergies and respiratory conditions, as well as nitrogen dioxide from exhaust emissions, which can have more serious consequences for our health.

Charcoal filters that clip onto the squat, round base of the Pure Cool suck in air from 360 degrees and feed it through a charcoal filter before blasting it back into the room through the powerful fan. The most impressive aspect of the Pure Cool is the air quality sensing and purification. The sensors are, well, very sensitive. I can spray a can of air freshener from a couple of metres away and the Pure Cool’s sensors will detect a spike in particulate matter as the spray droplets are spotted by the sensors.

Frankly, that’s the only time the air quality monitor showed anything of concern on its little LED screen as with Wellington’s Cook Strait breeze/gale blasting up my street more often than not, air quality isn’t really a problem.

But say you live a couple of kilometres from me in the dark recesses of Aro Valley, where houses have “little black flowers that grow in the shower” as made famous by the Phoenix Foundation song ‘Black Mould’, the Pure Cool could literally be a lifesaver.

The other genius aspect is the app which controls the fan and delivers detailed real-time monitoring of the air quality and temperature, comparing the conditions in the room to measurements taken in the city. Everything glowing green suggests easy breathing. When the app glows orange, or God forbid, red, you know someone is burning the toast, or having a pillow fight, or something similarly air polluting. You can even use Alexa to control the Pure Cool using an Echo voice assistant.

As a fan, the Pure Cool really blows. At full strength setting ‘10’ it’s also rather noisy, like a conventional blade fan. But it looks so much more stylish than a conventional fan, with its gaping white ring rotating like an accessory from the Doctor Who Tardis. What the fan doesn’t do is blow hot air (the model that heats as well will cost $899), which makes it a marginal acquisition in my part of the country, where the days requiring additional heating outnumber those needing cooling down.

The Pure Cool impresses with its ease of set-up and use, its quality design and finely tuned nose for detecting and removing particles from the air. Those with respiratory illnesses or living near sources of pollution, both natural and man-made, will hugely value the Pure Cool’s ability to cleanse the air. For the rest of us, this is overkill. Instead you might want to check out Dyson’s fan range, with the equivalent fan minus the air quality detection and purification features starting at $449.

Pros:
Quality build and design
Easy set-up
Air temperature and quality monitoring

Cons:
Limited use for air filtering
Expensive

Rating: 7/10

Price: $749

fitbit charge

Fitbit Charge 3.

Fitbit Charge 3

I’ve tried most Fitbit devices through the years and eventually ditched all of them. I keep drifting back to my Samsung Gear smartwatch, or going watchless entirely, using my phone as a clock and even a pedometer.

Last year’s Fitbit Versa introduced a health tracker with smartwatch-type face and characteristics and was a big step forward in looks and functionality. The Charge 3, its newest device retains the long rectangular face of Fitbit’s sportier offerings with two big improvements: a screen that is 30 per cent bigger than the Charge 2 and water-resistance so you can wear it swimming.

That last attribute has turned out to be the deal-maker for me as the Charge 3 arrived as summer kicked in and I started regularly swimming in the sea. Key to making the waterproof Charge 3 work is the removal of the button on its side, which has been replaced with an inductive sensor. That allows you to activate the screen and navigate settings just by tapping on the side of the watch.

A swim setting lets you track your activity in the water, telling you calories burned and exercise time elapsed.

The increased screen size serves the Charge 3 well, allowing a better layout on the screen which is more of a genuine touchscreen than its predecessor, allowing you to swipe through displays and settings.

Battery life is a claimed seven days, though I struggled to get a week out of it, possibly because I’m tapping on the screen a lot to check my heart rate, which seems to be higher than just about everyone I know with a Fitbit (68 bpm resting).

There’s no GPS in the Charge 3 – if you have your phone on you, it will use that for more accurate distance and location tracking. The GPS feature only appears in Fitbit’s chunkier Fitbit Ionic health tracker.

The feature I’m using the most on the Charge 3 is sleep tracking as I try to improve the amount and quality of sleep I get. I’ve been impressed with its sleep-tracking insights, which have allowed me to make some changes that are paying off, such as investing in better ear plugs and eliminating distractions to allow me to get into a deeper sleep more rapidly.

The app functionality remains impressive overall, though I find it a bit slow to sync with the Charge 3 at times.

The sleep tracking is an advantage over the Apple Watch, which doesn’t do sleep tracking as it needs to be on your bedside table charging most nights. There is apparently a new “SpO2” sensor in the Charge 3, that with an update will allow the tracker to detect if you have breathing difficulties such as sleep apnoea. Smartwatches from Garmin and others already include that feature, so it’s good to know it’s coming to the Charge 3.

I’m still not enamoured with the Charge’s look and feel which is a little crude compared to the Versa. Swapping out the generic black plastic band with a funky looking strap would help on that front. But with its waterproofing and enhanced sleep tracking features, this has the best chance yet of staying with me for the long haul.

Pros:
Waterproof
Good battery life
Good sleep tracking functionality

Cons:
No GPS built-in

Rating:
8/10

Price: $270

The Google Chromecast.

The Google Chromecast.

Google Chromecast

If like me, you’ve spent the holidays shuttling between the spare rooms of relatives and rented baches, you may have found your usual entertainment options somewhat compromised.

Not every household has Netflix on their smart TV, or the ability to dial up Spotify tunes on the big screen. You can solve all of that with a tiny little device you can take on the road with you – the Google Chromecast.

The little Chromecast dongle plugs into the HDMI port on a TV, allowing you to beam content from an Android phone or computer with the Chrome web browser, to the TV screen. Numerous apps, such as the aforementioned Netflix and Spotify, as well as Youtube, Google Music Play, iHeartRadio and Megacast, which lets you play all sorts of files, are available via Chromecast.

The Chromecast has a processor in it, which Google claims is 15 per cent faster than its predecessor. But it's a fairly dumb device. There’s no slick user interface or menu system. It simply allows you to access compatible apps on a computer or your phone, on the TV screen.

But the benefits of that are obvious, as your Chromecast and phone become the default option for having a uniform entertainment experience wherever you are. The Chromecast is also ideal for retro-fitting TVs that don’t support Smart TV apps.

I found that earlier Chromecasts models were plagued with a slight lag when mirroring content from my phone. The lag is greatly reduced with the 2018 Chromecast. When it comes to video quality, you won’t get the 4K (ultra high-definition) that Youtube and Netflix now support for some content and which you need a 4K-compatible screen to display.

But the Chromecast will support full-HD (1080p) content at 60 frames per second. The Chromecast Ultra device ($109) is needed to get 4K video. Chromecast is controlled through the Google Home app on your phone and has support for Google Assistant so you can use voice commands through your phone or a Google Home device to activate apps, search Youtube and marginally useful things like that.

When it isn’t in use, the Chromecast will move to screen saver mode, displaying a nice collection of random photos on your screen, or images from your own Google Photo library if you wish.

The 2018 Chromecast remains a simple method of getting a wide range of content sources onto your TV screen. However, Freeview’s new streaming TV gadget which debuted here in December, the Dish TV SmartVu X, does a lot more. Not only is it a Chromecast, but based on the Android TV platform, it also offers internet streaming of Freeview channels and a slick interface that you can use to navigate live TV stations as well as apps, via a nifty remote.

All of that and it’s about the same size as the Chromecast, though twice the price ($139). Check out next week’s New Zealand Listener (19-25 Jan) for my review of the Dish TV SmartVu X and the Freeview Recorder.

Pros:

Stream 1080p at 60fps
Easy to use
Google Assistant support

Cons:

No 4K video support
No built-in apps
No remote
Dependent on other devices

Rating: 7/10

Price: $70

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