The most useful or practical gadgets are not the ones that will grace the covers of magazines or compete for product placement slots in movies. They tend to skulk unobtrusively in the background, or enhance high profile devices like laptops, tablets and even action cameras.
Some have been around, as product categories, in various formats for years. However, they are coming into their own via improved technology or design or both. For example, I had little faith in range extenders due to dismal performance delivered in the past. So dramatic was the performance delivered by a new variation on the theme, however, it leapfrogged the rest to hit number one on the list.
1. TrendNet N300 High Power Wireless N Range Extender (TEW-737HRE)
A regular frustration of home or office Wi-Fi is the dramatic drop-off in signal strength once the user is on the opposite end of the building from the access point, or even a few rooms away. A range extender works on a simple principle: it looks like a regular adaptor plug that fits into a regular power socket, and synchronises with the WiFi router to extend its signal, often to double the original range.
The TrendNet version is similar to many alternatives, including options from Asus and Linksys. But, as its name suggests, it packs high power into a small package. No installation is needed, and a single button is used to synchronise via a sync button found on most WiFi routers. While it may bother the securrty conscious by automatically adopting the router’s password and encryption, it also supports advanced wireless encryption for data protection.
As pervasive connectivity becomes an ever-greater need, range extenders like the TrendNet device will become common household accessories.
Price: R700-R900 from electronics and discount stores, online and offline
2. ErgoProp laptop stand
The laptop computer remains the preferred working tool for serious computer users, offering more productivity options and versatility than a tablet. The downside is that these very benefits result in the user typically being hunched over the device when hard at work. This invariably results in neck and shoulder pain, and even repetitive stress injury (RSI).
The Ergoprop is a deceptively simple approach to addressing this problem, allowing a laptop to be propped up to a more comfortable angle – and keeping it cooler by allowing air to pass under. It has a foldable foot so that it can be slipped into a laptop bag – although requiring slightly larger than average bags – to be available on the road as well.
Price: R299 from http://www.ergotherapy.co.za
3. Brydgeair Keyboard
This aluminium keyboard for the iPad Air and Air 2 is not unique and it’s not cheap, but it pairs better with an iPad Air than any other Bluetooth keyboard I’ve tried. It transforms an iPad into something very close to a small MacBook Air, with synchronisation options so seamless, it has the feel of being made by th4 same company.
Brydge is an independent iPad accessory company that started as a Kickstarter crowdfunding project and, like the company at which its accessories are aimed, is focused on design excellence. It should come as no surprise, then, that the keyboard integrates superbly with the iPad, both visually and technically.
It offers passable built-in speakers, backlit keys as on the MacBook Air, a 180 degree hinge for flexible viewing angles, and up to 3 months of battery life.
Price: R2800 at any iStore or online at http://www.myistore.co.za
4. Gatekeeper Wireless Computer Lock & Tracker
Another low-cost gadget from a start-up, the Gatekeeper comprises a tiny USB jack that makes up the lock, and a small metal fob that acts as a remote key. The key links to the computer via Bluetooth, automatically locks the computer as the user moves away from it, and unlocks it or signs in when the user returns. The lock distance can be set for user preferences, although the setting is not very accurate, with a scale from “near” to “far”.
It’s not exactly plug and play, as it requires software to be downloaded and set up before its ready to run – or let you run.
It doubles as a location tracker, helping to locate devices and allowing users to set an alarm when a device is out of range. However, it’s ultimate benefit is as a security and privacy protector for computers used in workplaces, student study areas and other areas where unwanted access may occur as the user steps away from the computer.
Price: $35 ($125 for a 5-pack) online at http://www.gkchain.com (Shipping $15 worldwide)
5. World Panel SunStream
Portable power banks have become essential accessories for smartphone users in South Africa, as they find diminishing battery life not often balanced by access to charging points. But these, too, depend on plug points to get the power into the bank in the first place.
WorldPanel CEO John Anderson started off providing solar power for homes in Africa, but quickly realised there was as much of a need for solar smartphone chargers. The result is the SunStream, which converts sunlight into electricity that is streamed directly into the phone.
It is claimed to charge phones at the same speed as a wall plug, but does not provide quite the same consistency of throughput. Nevertheless, if one can “simply point the handheld panel toward the sun and plug in a device to stream electricity”, as the package states, it plugs a gaping hole in the handset ecosystem in Africa.
An optional PowerStream 3000 mAh power bank allows solar power to be converted into stored energy for later use – and is enough to provide a full charge for most smartphones.
Price: R200 from select Vodacom outlets (SunStream only; accessory prices on enquiry)
6. RED-E 4000mAh PowerBank & BikeBar Mount Combo
This one is a little more specialised, aimed at keen bikers, particularly those who record their antics with GoPro and other action cameras. The downside of most of these cameras is limited battery power, sometimes offering as little as half an hour of recording.
The Red-E 4000mAh PowerBank and BikeBar Mount Combo attaches securely both to the bike’s handlebars and to the GoPro camera. The benefit of the dedicated secure connection is that vibration is minimised, but the overwhelming plus is the hours of extra recording time it offers, at a price that won’t stress the wallet.
The battery can be bought separately – meaning spares can be carried on a long trip – and delivers the established quality of RED-E power banks to action users.
Price: R895 online from http://www.actiongear.co.za