Thursday , April 19 2018

Daniel’s Best of 2017


It’s that time of the year when there really isn’t much news about as companies wind down for a relaxing end of the year before the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January. We’ll see some goodies announced at CES, but they won’t appear until later in the year. We’ve been through a lot of announcements here at Ausdroid over the year, and Chris and Scott have outlined their favourites, but now it’s time for me to have a go. So, what’s impressed me?

Phones

We’re all about smartphones at Ausdroid, Android started on smartphones so let’s start here.

Best Entry Level Smartphone

Entry level phones are a big deal in the smartphone market. Not everyone is looking for, nor can they afford a flagship phone. The best phone is the one you have in your hand and while the market is flooded with entries from ZTE, Oppo, Huawei and more. Even though entry level can start at around the $20 mark, the phones I like tend to run upwards of $100 or more.

The phone I chose for my Best Entry Level Smartphone of 2017 is the Alcatel A3 XL.

It runs a Mediatek processor, comes with 2GB of RAM and a mere 16GB of storage, but it’s a winner in my mind thanks to an included fingerprint sensor on the rear making it a much more secure device. It also has a decent 8MP shooter on the rear which Neerav managed to get quite a few good shots out of when he reviewed it back in June. It runs Nougat, but it’s almost stock Android so it gets another tick in my box, as does the sub-$200 ($179) price when you buy it through Optus.

Best Mid-range Smartphone

There’s been a real change in the mid-range smartphone market in the last few years. The mid-range market, a market I personally see running from about the $300 mark to around the $700 mark, has exploded with some phenomenally good devices.

This year, we saw the Motorola Moto G5 and G5 Plus, as well as the G5S and G5S Plus later in the year, and the Moto X4. The Oppo R11 was certainly a contender with a more premium design, but after a brief stint with the latest version of Color OS I can’t recommend it – although I have high hopes for the R13 and I implore Oppo to re-instate Project Spectrum.

But it’s to the OnePlus 5 that I award my vote for the Best mid-range Smartphone of 2017.

It was a combination of factors, including a really great price for great hardware, but it was the main reason was that OnePlus finally listened to the overwhelming requests for them to come to Australia and officially sold the phone here. It was only a soft launch, which they’ll probably do again some time in the New Year for the newly announced OnePlus 5T, likely just before they announce a OnePlus 6 (or 7, who can work out their naming convention?) to clear stocks out.

Best Premium Smartphone

There was a metric butt-tonne of phones premium smartphones announced in 2017 and it shows no signs of slowing down next year – woohoo!

As usual all the big names announced their flagships, and as usual Samsung turned heads with both the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8. I’m enjoying the LG V30+ which I’m currently reviewing (look out for that review shortly) and Sony with their ultra-slow motion video capture and 4K display on the Xperia XZ Premium turned my head. The Huawei Mate 10 Pro with its lovely design and fast response was very close, until I used the software and unfortunately that’s a big part of the smartphone experience this year.

With all these great phones, it’s been pretty close for a number of reasons, but it’s to the Google Pixel 2 XL that I give my Best Premium Smartphone award to this year.

The Pixel 2 XL, despite a less than stellar screen, has all the things you could ask for. It has the newer full screen display that takes up the majority of the front of the phone, and the camera is simply phenomenal – especially that portrait mode. Bonuses on the software front, including updates (feature and security) for 3 years is something you can’t go past in this age of smartphones that are dead after one major update.

So, to Google: Please keep up the Pixel line. I can’t wait to see a more premium Pixel 3, perhaps with a top of the line OLED panel that can match the rest of the phone.


Tablet

Ok, this is a copout and I’m going to cheat. The tablet market is so bad in Australia that we ended up doing an article on tablets you can import into Australia from overseas. I can’t really blame it on the manufacturers though, because the tablet market in Australia appears to be shrinking rather than expanding, so we’re left with a very sad state of affairs here in Australia.

The tablets from Samsung are either over-priced for what they are (Tab S3), while the Galaxy Tab Active 2 is seriously underpowered. The same assessment goes for the recently announced Huawei MediaPad T3 which is seriously under-powered. So, how do I cheat?

Best Tablet

We’ve said it often enough that I’m putting it down as my best of 2017 – the best tablet to buy this year is a Chromebook, specifically an Asus Chromebook Flip 2. The C302 is available to buy from a heap of retailers in Australia for around the $800 mark. It has a tri-factor form factor: Laptop, Tablet and Tent mode thanks to the 360-degree hinged 12.5″ FullHD resolution screen. Specs include an Intel Core m3 processor paired with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of on-board storage.

How is this a great tablet? Well, it runs Android apps natively thanks to Google Play onboard on the Stable Channel, so you can install games, apps and more from the Google Play Store with no issues.


Gadgets

Of course around Android smartphones there’s been some serious gadget launches each year. Google has certainly jumped in with a few, but there’s a bunch more out there from big name – and not so big name manufacturers.

There’s been loads of new gadgets announced this year, some made it to Australia, some didn’t. A trip to CES in Vegas and then CES in Shanghai gave me a chance to check out some big name gadgets in person, and watching Computex and IFA remotely also saw some cool gear announced.

Best VR/AR Gadget

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality was a big deal in 2017. Google re-commited to VR with the new Daydream View gen 2 headset, and then announced some standalone headsets in partnership with both HTC and Lenovo – of which HTC cancelled theirs, and Lenovo hasn’t released theirs. That said, even a Google device didn’t have the chops to sway me when it comes to my favourite VR/AR gadget this year.

There’s just no way to get away from it, but the one gadget announced this year that blew me away was the Lenovo Jedi Challenges Augmented Reality headset combo.

The Jedi Challenges AR headset is a kit which includes a headset that you insert your phone into, a lovingly reproduced replica of Luke Skywalkers light saber from Star Wars: A New Hope, and a room sensor. The game basically lets you put your phone in the headset, and you fight bad guys from the Star Wars universe. There’s sub-games including a modified Holo Chess game, but it’s fighting bad guys with a light saber that really got my attention.

Best Gadget

There’s plenty of gadgets, smart toothbrushes and more, but there was only one thing that helped me find my keys this year and it’s the Tile tracker. They’re not terribly new per se, but they’re fairly new in the Australian market. Tile has recently brought the Tile Pro to JB Hifi where a single unit is priced at $50 or you can get it in a 2-pack for $90.

Best Toy

There were a few Android related toys lined up this year, or more correctly Android controlled toys. There was the Anki Cozmo and Overdrive, the Little Bits Droid Inventor series and some new stuff from Sphero. There’s hopefully going to be lots more next year too, because some of these are great fun.

The winner this year – for me – is the Sphero App-Controlled R2D2.

It may be the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but this little droid is phenomenally well made. It acts just like R2 does in the movies – and you can watch the movies with him and have him react! He has three wheels, one of which retracts when he’s standing still, just like in the movies, and all the lights and sounds are movie accurate, so I can’t go past the Sphero R2D2 this year.


Smart Home

The Smart Home got a lot smarter in 2017. With Google Home (and the Mini) acting as a central smart home hubs we all got a little closer to being able to control all our stuff with one device. In 2018, this should gain momentum with other smart home devices which act as hubs like the Amazon Echo expected to arrive.

So, what are my picks for Smart Home devices.

Best Smart Speaker

There’s only a few real smart speakers on the market in Australia, and of those only two are really working. Sonos tried to turn my head with the Sonos One which incorporates Amazon’s Alexa assistant, and will bring Google’s Assistant next year, but with Alexa not yet available in Australia and Assistant not yet available on the Sonos One here that leaves Google’s offerings. Google Home was launched in the US last year, but only made it here this year, while Google Home Mini launched here almost straight out of the gate.

So, my winner this year is Google Home.

It was a close thing, because at $199 Google Home is pretty expensive (although currently on-sale) but it sounds a heck of a lot better than Google Home Mini which is a lot cheaper at $79 (and cheaper if you get a good deal).

It’s the sound quality and better microphone pickup that does it for me, whereas Google Home can hear me almost anywhere in the room, Google Home Mini tends to need a prod or two before it hears me. If you have only a few dollars to spare, then Home Mini is good to get you into smart speakers, but if you have the money get into a full Google Home.

Best Smart Globe

While you may require an electrician to update your light switches, a smart globe can be added to your home quite easily. There’s a bunch on the market now, and while I haven’t tried a couple yet, I tried a few new ones this year including the update Philips Hue 2.0 lights which offer a phenomenally good white light. I also tried the new LiFX Mini and I aim to try the TPLink bulbs shortly which gained Google Home support this year.

My winner for the best Smart Globe for 2017 is the Xiaomi YeeLight Globes.

These globes are fantastic. They offer a nice warm, white light, I don’t have a requirement for multi-coloured globes in my life, so white is fine by me. The Xiaomi YeeLight Globes offer all you need to get up and running built-in to the globe itself. There’s no external hub, or controller required, just the Mi Home app with an account and you’re good to go.

The fact everything is built-in to the globe, paired with a fantastic price when you order them in makes these a great globe to outfit your house with.

Best Smart Switch

There’s a few smart switches on the market, though with Belkin removing their WeMo switches from sale in Australia (and seemingly everywhere), there’s really only one choice in this category.

The best Smart Switch of 2017 goes to the TPLink Smart Switch HS100.

With prices starting from as low as $29 if you shop around, this smart switch will connect to your Wi-Fi network easily, and allow you to control it all with Google Home. The app works a heck of a lot better than other offerings on the market so if you want to automate your Christmas Tree lights, be able to warm up your bed in winter by turning your electric blanket on remotely or prepare your coffeemaker for a hot cup when you get up the TPLink Smart Switch is a great buy.


Wearables

Wearables, this category counts as watches and earphones, and well, anything else you wear on your body. At this stage, until Levi’s decides to drop Project Jacquard into Australia it will have to stay as just earphones and watches. So, what was my best of 2017?

Best earphones

I don’t go much for over-ear cans, with my main use case for sound coming at the gym where I’m sweating too much to want a set of over-ear headphones. In any case, I reviewed a metric tonne of earphones this year from Bose, Plantronics, Jaybird, Nu Force and BlueAnt (which I’m currently reviewing). There’s loads of good quality earphones out there but of course I have to choose one and it’s the pair I keep returning to.

It’s actually a tie between the Plantronics BackBeat FIT and the Bose SoundSport.

As sports earphones go, the Plantronics Backbeat FIT do everything I want earphones to do. They give decent sound while being waterproof (basically sweatproof), and have the added advantage of giving you the option to hear what’s going on around you – excellent for situational awareness when going for a run in areas where traffic is around.

The Bose Soundsport however offer the advantage of phenomenally good sound which also plug right into your ears to offer great sound. I found the Pulse version with built-in heart rate monitor to be a bit over the top function wise, but the standard SoundSport are great for the gym when drowning out that horrible gym music they pipe out.

Best Watch

I looked at a number of smartwatches, or fitness trackers in 2017. Polar had some good offerings, I enviously watched Chris tackle the Gear S3 and even used one for a time. I used the Ticwatch S, and the Huawei Watch 2 in the Android Wear space and of course Garmin and Fitbit entered the smartwatch market alongside their more traditional fitness trackers. But there can be only one, so my best of 2017 was:

The Huawei Watch 2.

It was a close thing, the Fitbit Ionic after its last update which added apps and a bunch more watch faces came close, but it’s the all over package of the Huawei Watch 2 that won me over. It includes everything hardware wise that I want: GPS, Heart Rate Monitor, NFC and yes, even LTE. Some people won’t want this hardware and may look at price, making the TicWatch S (or E) a better option, but for my money – I got myself a Huawei Watch 2.


Apps

Well, we use smartphones, tablets, TVs and more, and of course we all need apps. There’s new apps from vendors, there’s new apps and games from developers and of course Google has a whole slew of apps they update all the time. But what tickled my fancy this year?

Best App 2017

There’s so many new apps, Google released apps, even small indie developers but my choice for Best App is actually (unfortunately) tied to a device: Sony 3D Creator.

Sony’s 3D Creator software launched with the XZ1 Premium and Compact is a truly innovative piece of software. Creating a 3D model which can be used as an avatar in software, or printed physically from a single lens camera setup is astonishing. As far as I’m concerned the results are a little rough, but has massive amounts of potential, that’s why I’m currently in love with this app.

Best Game

So. Many. Games. Every year we’re innundated with new games, but there’s only so much room in your life to play new games, which is why something fresh, innovative and fun that can occupy your mind for a while is welcome. I’m not a fan of games with micro-transactions or IAP in general unless it’s meaningful, but my winner this year for best game is:

Monument Valley 2

This game was a very big win for me. I loved the original, and though it costs $7.99 and you can complete it in an afternoon if you concentrate, it still has that edge that the original had with a fresh new take. Introducing a second character gave a new twist to some of the puzzles. It has replayability as I keep going back to it and starting again.

If you haven’t, and you loved the original, definitely give Monument Valley 2 a go.

Monument Valley 2
Monument Valley 2
Developer: ustwo games
Price: $4.99

We wrote about, reviewed and looked at a bunch of cool stuff in 2017. In 2018 we hope to look at a bunch more and of course sum them all up next year. Can’t wait till then.

What’s your Best of 2017?

Daniel Tyson   Editor

Dan is a die-hard Android fan. Some might even call him a lunatic. He's been an Android user since Android was a thing, and if there's a phone that's run Android, chances are he owns it (his Nexus collection is second-to-none) or has used it.

Dan's dedication to Ausdroid is without question, and he has represented us at some of the biggest international events in our industry including Google I/O, Mobile World Congress, CES and IFA.

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2 Comments on "Daniel’s Best of 2017"

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Ausdroid Reader

Good timing, Daniel. I was looking to buy some smart switches to use with my new Google Home (also your fault, BTW) and had narrowed it down to the Belkin or TP Link. Looks like you’ve just made the decision for me.

Ausdroid Reader

Yeah the TP-Link switches are good. Not that big that they crowd out a switch (still sizeable of course), very easy to use. Just trying to get the usage detail pulled through to my home-assistant installation so I can track usage.

Ausdroid Reader
Some good picks there Dan. I’m certainly enjoying my Bose SoundSport based on your recommendation. Sorry Duncan and Scott but I was bound to lose one of the Jaybird sport elite earbuds and I love the fact I can pull out one earbud and leave it dangling without the risk of losing it. I called into JB this morning and had a hold of the LG V30+ and man that’s a beautiful piece of hardware. It’s just a pity the software is not great and the camera shutter button lags compared to the Pixel and even the Mate 10 which… Read more »

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