While it’s often hard to tell amidst the persistent rain and capricious temperatures, Summer is finally upon us and while many of you will be planning sojourns to sunnier climes, we can think of some far better uses for your hard-earned cash. We bring you nine gadgets and gizmos that have been lovingly developed to make your lives just that little bit better.
Soundbars are increasingly replacing separates as the home cinema speakers of choice but with this particular combination, Sonos offers what might just be the best of both worlds. The Playbar is a neat, stylish-looking unit with a deep detailed soundstage that easily fills a decent-sized room. What’s more, for those seeking true immersion, adding a pair of Sonos’ Play:1 wireless hi-fi speakers (£169 each) allows for genuine rear channels with none of the connecting wires. The bar works standing up or wall-mounted (it sounds noticeably better with the wide edge facing forward, though) and both bar and satellites can act as part of Sonos’ multi-room audio system, allowing you to stream Spotify, Tidal, Pandora, Amazon Music or practically anything else you can imagine with little difficulty. HDMI in/out ports would have been a welcome addition to the Playbar’s optical connection, but despite that omission this is an elegant, hassle-free solution to fit your home cinema needs.
Logitech’s Harmony remotes have long dominated the universal market, thanks to intuitive, activity-based functions and slick design. The Elite – as the name might suggest – represents the pinnacle of the Harmony line thus far. Easier to hold than the Harmony Touch, with more intuitive placement of key buttons, the Elite works with the Harmony Hub to control up to 15 devices via IR, RF or Wi-Fi – whichever is required. The integrated touchscreen handles any non-standard commands, which comes into its own when you extend the remote beyond home entertainment duties and start including smart home devices like Phillips’ Hue bulbs or a Nest heating system. Limited battery life means it won’t survive more than a couple of days without the charging cradle but that aside, this is the finest remote money can buy.
iPad Pro 9.7”
When Apple unveiled the iPad Pro last year, we were presented with an incredibly powerful tablet with a slightly impractical form factor. This year’s 9.7” iteration packs (almost) all the punch of its predecessor but into a body the same size as the iPad Air 2. Like the 12.9” model, this boasts four separate speakers, providing a far richer sound field than the Air when watching movies. Meanwhile, the 12 megapixel rear camera now boasts a flash, while the 5Mp front-facing one makes use of the same retina flash feature (the screen lights up) used by the iPhone. Add to this accessories like the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard and you have a powerful, versatile device that, while not banishing laptops to the scrap heap, does provide a compelling alternative.
If you’re of the opinion that e-readers are among the more tedious gadgets on the market, Amazon’s Kindle Oasis might just change your mind. The smallest Kindle to date, it’s just 3.6mm thick and lighter than any save the sveltest paperback. Two hardware buttons on the side make page-turning far more natural than the Paperwhite’s touch screen or the Voyage’s bezel and can be even be flipped for lefties. The screen is pin-sharp at 300 PPI and the adjustable backlight, while lacking the Voyage’s ambient sensor, is noticeably brighter and easier to read. The Oasis comes with a case included, one with an integrated battery pack that extends the device’s use time to somewhere around six weeks. Aimed at the premium end of the e-reader market, this is the most expensive available. It’s also the best.
If there’s on persistent problem with home cinema AV receivers then it’s size. They invariably take up the most room beneath your television; a black dial-strewn block the size of an infant hippo. Happily, Yamaha’s RX-S601 joins the growing selection of newer slimline units and manages to retain much of the power found in Yamaha’s full-size amps into a stunning unit that’s just 11cm high. Despite its streamlined form, the S601 puts out a detailed, texture-rich sound over 5.1, with clear dialogue and throaty bass. As well as handling everything from DTS to TrueHD audio, the S601 has built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (no add-on dongles here), 4K passthrough, AirPlay and the basis for a multi-room audio setup via Yamaha’s MusicCast system. A small package but one that’s jam-packed with features.
£359 (16GB), £439 (64GB)
Apple’s unexpected shift from their annual phone refresh cycle brought with it a similarly unexpected handset. Returning to the slender, 4” form factor and squared off sides of the iPhone 5, the SE is a familiar beast. More than just a throwback to 2012, however, this is aimed squarely at users who feel ever increasing smartphone size is an unnecessary strain on both wallet and pocket stitching. The cheapest iPhone to date, the SE fits the power of the 6S into the body of the 5S, while knocking its bigger brother out of the water in terms of battery life. For those upgrading from a 5S, The 12MP camera (with Live Photos) and 4K video are also a significant step-up. If you’re among those who hark back to the days of one-handed texting and genuinely pocket-sized handsets, the SE is is the phone for you.
Fire TV Stick
£34.99 (£44.99 with voice remote)
Amazon’s inexpensive yet surprisingly powerful media stick could easily become the only bit of streaming kit your living room needs. The size of a (bulky) USB stick, it slots happily into your TV’s HDMI socket, logs on to your Wi-Fi and enables you to run games and apps to your heart’s content. iPlayer and the various other terrestrial on-demand apps are available, as are Netflix, Sky News and Spotify. The interface does push Amazon’s own Prime service quite hard, which could prove irksome if you’re not actually a subscriber, but that’s a relatively minor quibble. This second iteration of the stick adds a voice remote, allowing the use of voice-activated search and the Alexa assistant, both of which work surprisingly well. If you want 4K then you’ll need the Stick’s larger relative, the Fire TV, but if not, this is a storming little device for less than £50.
£99 setup plus Sky subscription
If it feels like that Sky box under your TV hasn’t changed for over a decade, that’s probably because it hasn’t. Sky+HD launched back in 2006 and since then there’s been little innovation or advancement in the satellite giant’s set top boxes. With Sky Q, however, Sky has more than made up for lost time. A fraction the size of its predecessor (yet with up to 2TB storage), the Sky Q has an all-new interface, intelligent viewing suggestions and the ability to record four show simultaneously while watching a fifth. The Bluetooth remote features a nifty touchpad, which takes some getting used to but, once mastered, makes navigating the GUI a breeze. What’s more, additional Q Mini boxes allow wireless multi-room streaming of broadcasts without the need for multiple Sky cards. Apple AirPlay is an added bonus.
Bringing a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘keeping up with the kids’, the Emicro One may not look significantly different to the average child’s scooter (though at 7.5kg it certainly weighs more) but it’s a very different beast. Rather than using a throttle, the built-in motor kicks in (quite literally) when you push off with significant force. It’s an unnerving experience when you first try it out but soon becomes second nature. If you do feel like the scooter is getting away from you then one quick tap on the mudguard brake will cut the motor and put you back in control. The three speeds (Eco, Standard and Sport) impact the battery life as well as your kph, but on average you’ll get around 12km out of a single charge. Immensely fun to ride and foldable for easy stowing on public transport, the only downside to the Emicro One is the eye-watering price.