Belfast Telegraph

Six of the best tech tools to buy in the New Year sales

 

By Adrian Weckler

Many people use the period of January sales to save money on tech tools they’ve been curious about for a while. Here, our technology editor advises on some of the best products for people who need to upgrade their systems.

1. A good Windows laptop within range of £1,000

Not everyone wants a MacBook. This year has seen some excellent Windows machines launched on the market - and you can expect some of them to be discounted in the January sales.

Two to watch are Lenovo's 14-inch IdeaPad 720S (£849.99 from John Lewis) or the 13-inch Yoga 900. Both have lots of power (Intel Core i5 processors with 8GB of Ram memory) and decent storage (256GB). Microsoft's own 13-inch Surface Laptop is very good, too. Its only drawback is that for its basic price you're stuck with just 128GB of storage memory. If you're mainly working with cloud apps, that's probably fine. If you have lots of photos or videos, it won't be enough over time.

Of the two Lenovos I mention above, I'd ultimately plump for the cheaper Yoga 900 for a couple of reasons. First, it's significantly lighter than the slightly bigger IdeaPad (1.29kg versus 1.55kg). 13-inch screens are also more of a standard display size for accessories such as bags and sleeves. Put together, this makes the cheaper machine quite a lot more portable than the IdeaPad.

The other advantage it has is in its superior screen resolution and technology (QHD versus the older 'full HD' standard).

2. A television soundbar

For all their advanced technology, the sound quality on many televisions is quite poor. Ironically, the thinner they get, the worse the speakers - less physical space usually means tinnier, weaker audio quality. This is why vintage tube televisions (the type that used to sit in a room's corner) often had better speakers than today's sets.

And it's also why so many people think of getting an external speaker. One thing many people don't realise when they go to buy an external TV speaker is that it often comes in several parts to work properly.

This sometimes includes a couple of speakers. Even those that try to contain the system to a 'soundbar' still usually require a separate 'sub-woofer'.

For a hi-fi or home cinema enthusiast, this may well be part of the attraction. For the rest of us, it can be a pain, both in having to set all the speakers up and in finding space for the various speakers without the sitting room starting to look very messy and wire-laden.

I prefer single speaker solutions that simply plug into your telly and work beside it. The speaker I've been most impressed with lately is Sky's Soundbox, which plugs into your TV or, if you're a Sky subscriber, your Sky Q box (this is the little set-top box that a lot of Sky subscriptions now come with).

The reason I like it so much is that it has really excellent, warm sound while being very neat: it sits right beside your DVD player, taking up about the same amount of space.

3. A Chromebook or Android-based convertible tablet

Chromebooks are starting to be able to use Android apps directly. For example, the company's latest Pixelbook laptop already has this facility.

However, it's a relatively high-end machine with top-notch materials.

In time, Google says that cheaper Chromebooks will also be able to use Android apps.

In truth, most Chromebooks are comparatively cheap. A typical model is Acer's 14-inch Chromebook (£199.99 from Argos).

It has a very modest internal storage for a laptop (32GB) and basic power (an elementary 1.6Ghz chip). But it's good enough for almost all day-to-day tasks and it should work fine for watching video.

An even cheaper option is Asus's 13-inch Chromebook which has the same amount of storage but slightly weaker power.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend either machine, as both cut a few corners on power and speed. But they will certainly work at a basic level.

4. iPhone X versus iPhone 8

Cost is a factor here - the iPhone X will set you back up to £350 more than the iPhone 8. On the other hand, it is the only iPhone with Apple's new technology in its Face ID and rim-to-rim Oled screen. The facial-recognition technology really does work fairly flawlessly - once you 'set' your face up on the iPhone X, it recognises your mug in virtually all lighting conditions, including pitch-black darkness.

I've seen some people speculating that you might have to stare at the iPhone X for a couple of seconds before its Face ID works. Nope - it works almost immediately, and from a couple of different angles. It's almost like it's not there, because you're naturally looking at the phone anyway when you swipe up from the bottom to unlock it.

However, there are a few learning curve issues. When you think of all the things you use the home button for, Apple has had to come up with some pretty significant workarounds.

The main ones include getting back to the home screen quickly (which used to be a single home button tap), multi-tasking (switching between apps, which you used to do by double-tapping the home button) and downloading apps.

But there are also changes in accessing your screen controls (volume, display brightness, airplane mode and the like) and even in switching the phone off.

The most important change is that swiping up from the bottom of the screen now exits any application you're in and brings back to the home screen.

This actually only takes a very short while to get used to because it's very intuitively done with your thumb, whether you're right or left handed.

Switching between apps is somewhat similar, in that you now swipe up from the bottom but hold your finger on the screen, whereupon your recent apps will appear for you to swipe through on a carousel.

Downloading an app on the iPhone X is changed, too. Touch ID (or your security Pin number) used to be the verification method. But Face ID can't simply replace the Touch ID button on its own as then there'd be a risk you'd just download apps without meaning to because you were looking at the phone.

So the iPhone X now asks you to double press the side power button. It then uses Face ID to verify the purchase. Is this a longer method than Touch ID? So far, I haven't found that to be the case.

So are there any reasons to choose the iPhone 8? Familiarity is one potential motive. Another is that the camera on the 8 Plus matches that on the iPhone X. What's more, its screen is bigger despite being 0.3 inches shorter in diameter.

5. A budget phone

I'll recommend two models here - Motorola's Moto G5 and Vodafone's Smart V8. The Moto G5 gives you quite a lot for your money and is available unlocked (from Rea Communications) or from Virgin Mobile.

It has a really bright, crisp 5-inch screen, a good 13-megapixel camera and extra security in the form of a fingerprint scanner. It also has a bit of metal added into the design of the body which gives it a slightly less cheap look and feel to the plasticky bodies that are typical of sub-£200 phones.

Vodafone's (locked) has an even better 5.5-inch screen and is probably the best-looking budget phone around.

These include a 16-megapixel camera, a fingerprint reader (for security) and a decent 32GB of storage, which is considerably more than you'd get with some other budget phones. The only compromise is that it's locked to Vodafone.

6. A decent quality camera

Want a good camera that's relatively easy to use, has high-quality lenses and is not too big? Right now, I'd recommend either Fuji or Panasonic for those who want to keep it compact and Canon for those on a tight budget. If the purse stretches to around £700, Fuji's 24-megapixel X-T20 may be the best option right now. It basically provides the exact same photo quality as way more expensive models (such as Fuji's X-Pro2 or X-T2). It also has some amazing lens choices. Alternatively, Panasonic's 20-megapixel GX8 is a really good, fairly easy camera to use, with a variety of great lenses available, some of them at a budget price.

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