At a time when many thought phone technology could advance no further, innovation in both design and technology delivered a flood of delightful new devices. Advances in virtual reality and 360 degree cams, in activity monitors and wearables, in smart listening devices and home robots, in autonomous vehicles and electric cars, in gaming consoles and entertainment devices, all added up to a bewildering array of tech choices.
I can’t claim to have been exposed to all or most of these, but have tried out, tested and played with enough of them to offer a personal selection of the best gadgets of 2017.
Without further ado:
Smartphone of the Year: LG V30+
A brand I did not expect to stand out above the rest in 2017 was LG, which had lurched from novelty innovation to novelty innovation in recent years. Finally, it has produced a phone that not only looks and feels good, but also functions better than most, and competes feature for feature.
The LG V30+ does not have more advanced functionality than, say, the Samsung Note 8 or S8 Plus, but it packs similar features into a package so slim and elegant, it comes as a surprise just how cutting edge it is.
Ultra-smooth, curved edges that run through to the back, 6” screen, rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, two rear lenses – 16MP with f1.6 aperture and 13MP – as well as a surprisingly large 3300 mAh battery with wireless charging, all in a 158g package. If one is not brand conscious, there is nothing not to love here.
Joint runners-up: Samsung Note 8, Samsung S8 Plus, Huawei Mate 10 Pro, and Apple iPhone X, are all superb handsets. If you have the budget, none of these will be a mistake
Low-end Phone of the Year: Vodacom Smart Kicka ve
In the last few years, entry level phones came and conquered, and generally went up in price for new models as demand increased. The Smart Kicka, a phone made for Vodacom by Alcatel makers TCL, has gone in the other direction. The latest model hit the market at just under R400, with a decent 3.5” HVGA display, 1400 mAh battery, 4GB storage and a micro SD slot for expanding storage.
It runs on Android 5.1, which may be two generations behind current devices, but then its target market has little interest in device confectionery like Nougat and Oreo. More relevantly, it comes with a R10 000 voucher for online study material from Top Dog, which covers video lessons, interactive tests, and study tips for grades 4 to 12.
Even if not in the market for an entry-level phone, it makes a great back-up option to keep around for emergencies.
Specialist Phone of the Year: CAT S41 durable phone
Anyone who works outdoors or a long way from a power supply will know how poorly the high-end phones serve their needs. Waterproof is nothing if a phone screen cracks at its mere impact with rocks and concrete. CAT, a brand derived from the Caterpillar earth-moving equipment company, comes to the rescue with the CAT S41. More specifically, with a tough shell, rubberised edges, and a giant 5000mAh battery giving 44 days standby time.
Gaming device of the Year: Nintendo Switch
In 2017, Nintendo made a successful return to the console wars decades after its Game Boy first made handheld consoles mass -market,. However, the flop of the Wii U was still fresh in people’s memory. Much was riding on the new Switch, and much was delivered.
The Switch is several gaming devices in one: Firstly, a handheld console, albeit a few generations advanced over the Wii U, with a 6.2”, multi-touch capacitive touch screen and display resolution of 1280 x 720; Secondly, the console can be connected to a TV, underlining its competition to the PlayStation and Xbox. Thirdly, the Joy-Con contollers on either side of the screen can also be removed, to become separate devices so that two people can play each other on the same system.
The most significant aspect of the Switch is the extent to which, a year after the groundbreaking Pokemon Go augmented reality mobile game, it underlines Nintendo’s ability to remain innovative.
Robot of the Year: Alpha 1 Pro
The average robot is a mechanical arm on an assembly line. Alpha 1 is not your average robot. It is a humanoid educational and entertainment tool with some nifty dance moves and extensive pre-loaded content and actions, thanks to 16 high precision servo motors. However, it can also be programmed, using a visual programming language called Blockly. It can thus be used as a fun vehicle for coding education, or used for direct education on any other subject.
Wearable of the Year: Fitbit Alta HR
In 2016, Fitbit took the activity band to a new level with the Alta. It was elegant and attractive, sleek and stylish, even carrying a curved OLED screen – something we tend to see only on high-end TVs. It only missed one feature to make it my default fitness device: a heart rate monitor.
This year, it plugged that gap. The Fitbit Alta HR is every bit as elegant, but also a high-tech power play in an aesthetically pleasing form factor.
Best Vehicle Tech of the Year: Land Rover Discovery ATPC
Anyone who thinks self-driving cars are still years away hasn’t tried the new Land Rover Discovery in impossible driving conditions. An off-road feature called All-Terrain Progress Control allows the driver to surrender control to the vehicle in difficult terrain. Although the driver still steers, ATPC manages vehicle speed, braking, and applying torque to each wheel for traction.
It’s not a feature that will be in regular use. But, along with Land Rover’s Autonomous Emergency Braking system, which spots potential collissions and applies brakes automatically if an accident is anticipated, it reveals the extent to which autonomous vehicles are already possible.