Best of 2014: Fun gadgets of the year

The brand that has redefined action video redefined itself in 2014 with the GoPro Hero4. (Reuters)

The brand that has redefined action video redefined itself in 2014 with the GoPro Hero4. (Reuters)

Let’s get one dirty little secret out of the way in the world of the most unnecessary yet most compellingly fun gadgets: they tend to be absurdly expensive. That’s another way of saying, if you can afford these, then price is probably not the biggest issue in your life. That feature aside, 2014 saw the most marvelously fun gadgets arrive in South Africa.

My top three, in ascending order, were:

3.
Sony PlayStation 4
Arriving in South Africa just too late to take advantage of the previous holiday season, the PlayStation 4 built up steam through the year to become synonymous with gaming consoles in this country. Microsoft’s lengthy delay in shipping the Xbox One to this part of the world contributed to the increasing appeal of PS4, but it won out on its own merits. 

Prime among these was a new function called Remote Play, which allowed certain smartphones and tablets to become second screens via Wi-Fi on a home network. That functionality will eventually be available on most smart devices through the PlayStationApp.

Described as “made by the players for the players”, the PS4 features astonishing high-definition (1 080p) graphics that sometimes seem more real than high-definition live action TV. Some features are the very least one would expect of consoles costing upward of R6 800, such as high memory capacity, an interface that looks more smart TV than gaming device, flawless performance and speed, and a wireless Dualshock controller that is highly effective and interactive when it counts most.

The bonus is that new features added during the year made it a better console by the end of 2014 than it had been at the end of 2013. For example, Share Play allows players to bring friends into games they don’t themselves own. Previously, only videos of gameplay could be shared. Share Play means friends can not only share an interactive experience, but can also take over the controls remotely. Add the option to upload game footage to YouTube directly from PS4, and you start getting the picture of just how social a gaming console can get.

  • Available in most electronics outlets, from R6 800 upwards, depending on accessories and options.

2. Romotive’s Romo the Robot
Romo the Robot is one of the great educational toys of the smartphone era. It’s main drawback is that it cannot function without a smartphone – specifically an Apple iPhone 4 or 5 or a 5th generation iPod touch. But anyone who has one of those lying round unused after upgrading to a newer version will find it has a new lease on life when plugged into Romo’s tank-track base.

A quick download of the Romo app from the iStore later, and the screen of the phone becomes the face of Romo – or whatever one chooses to call the robot.

It started life on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform seeking $100 000 to build a “wallet-friendly, backpack-sized consumer robot” that can provide remote 2-way telepresence, computer vision, autonomous navigation and facial recognition. And, it would be cute…

$170 000 later, the vision became reality, and something more. The training that goes into getting Romo to function in one’s own environment has been positioned as an early form of learning how to compile computer programs. That may seem far-fetched, given the simplicity of the processes, but it sure gets the attention of kids.

Romo appears to have a personality of its own, and uses its tracks as well as the phone itself to respond and adapt to the world around it, photograph what it sees and respond with apparent emotion to interactions with its owner. 

It can be controlled via a web bowser from anywhere in the world, and can double as a video chat tool. Amazon.com offers the intriguing idea that “Dad can go room to room to say good night while away on business” and family and friends can tour the new apartment. 

  • Available in any iStore and related outlets in South Africa for about R1 600.

1. GoPro Hero4 Silver
The brand that has redefined action video redefined itself in 2014 with the GoPro Hero4. The Silver edition and its more expensive Black big brother can be summed up in one word: “aspirational”. Once the aspiration is met, and the device is actually used, it enters the realms of “inspirational”. Between the two lies a hefty price tag, but there are any number of arguments to justify it.

It allows cinema-quality video thanks to 4K (four times HD) resolution at 30 frames per second, which can be scaled down to 2.7K at 60 frames per second or HD (1 080p) at 120 frames per second. The latter makes for excellent slow-motion options, while the 4K option means each frame is in effect a high-definition still photo. All this from a camera that fits in the palm of the hand, and can be mounted on a helmet or a handlebar.

The Silver also features GoPro’s first built-in touch display, allowing for shot framing and playback.

What started life as a tool for athletes to document their performances has gone mainstream in activities ranging from skydiving to children playing.

Battery life remains a challenge, but an optional Battery BacPac offers double the battery power of the camera’s internal battery. 

  • Available in electronics, sports and outdoors stores, from R6 000 up. (Black edition from R7 500; entry-level Hero from R1 999)

Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at //bit.ly/GGadgets

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