+ Friday August 23rd, 2019

Duncan’s best smartphone and smart home gear for 2018

As 2018 draws to a close the annual tradition of introspection, prognostication and general navel-gazing is upon us. To that end, let’s look back over 2018 at what in the consumer tech sphere piqued my interest.

I have to admit that with each passing year “mobiles” feel increasingly…. monotone. 2018 brought us notches. They are not an innovation in my book, they are at best a transition to something else, but mostly I just dislike them, Also I miss a chin on the bottom of my phone, the smaller my phone’s chin, the more typos I seem to make…. I’ll blame arthritis.

That’s not to say that phones haven’t improved, cameras are getting better in all situations, with computational photography and Machine Learning becoming more important than sensors and lenses to some extent. I wasn’t a believer in multi camera devices until the Mate 20, now I understand the real advantages and I want to see more of that…. done well like the Mate 20.

If I had one reservation it would be the consistent and unjustifiable, in my opinion, increase in cost for smart devices. Led by Apple, the mobile industry is charging incrementally more each year, seemingly seeking a point at which consumers will stop paying. Unfortunately, thanks in part to carrier plans and interest-free deals combined with the fetish for mobile phones that end price point may not yet have been reached with phones topping out over $2000 AUD.

The real excitement for me this year was in the wider Home Automation tech, with Google Assistant, Google Smart Displays and more “smart” devices flowing onto the market.

Best Smartphone

I have to admit I didn’t get extensive hands on time with a lot of the “top tier” devices this year, partly because of my geographic location (it’s hard to swap devices with each other over lunch when you’re 1000 km away), and partly because I am on a personal bent to find the “perfect” price:performance device.

My choice this year isn’t the easy choice of the Pixel 3 line up, mostly because of the release issues that many users have experiences with lost images and memory management. But I’m sure there’s also plenty of happy Pixel fans out there.

The Huawei Mate 20 line takes my “best premium phone” of the year for 2018. I wept as I placed my review unit back in the box and handed it to the courier. The performance of the Kirin 980 is amazing, the cameras are out of this world, and as I said I now understand the benefit of multiple lenses, especially for lossless zoom.

 

Huawei has crafted a seriously great piece of hardware and their end to end control of most of their components is beginning to show. Here’s my 2019 wish. A top tier Huawei Android One device, with their imaging prowess along for the ride, please 2019 make this happen, I shan’t be holding my breath..

Best Value Smartphone

As I hinted at before I have been looking for the phone I’d recommend to people not wanting to spend all the $$. Or a phone for someone who wants something reliable that will remain up to date.  For this my best devices is actually more a range of devices, Nokia phones by HMD global.

The price:performance of the Nokia line is close to unbeatable, and with Android One/ Go across the line you’re looking at a guaranteed 3 years security and 2 years OS updates. For phones that start at around $200 AUD that’s great value.

For instance I used a Nokia 2.1, and while it was missing feature I  feel I need, NFC and Fingerprint sensor for example, it was still usable and I’ve put a few on the hands of people who “just want a phone for phone calls” and they are very happy, and I’m happy knowing that the devices will be “safe” for 3 years..

The Nokia 7 Plus is my undisputed winner in this category, however. I have recommended this phone to so many people who are happy with having it, and I myself have used one daily (except when reviewing another device) for almost the entire year, I miss it when I’m not using it, that’s all I need to know.

I’d be very interested in getting hands-on time with the Nokia 7.1 which may be the spiritual successor, or perhaps even the new Nokia 8.1 if it ever comes to the Australian market. To be clear, I am not saying that the 7 Plus performs as well as the top of the line devices, but I am say it performs well enough for me every day to remain my daily driver.

Best Accessory

I couldn’t let 2018 pass without acknowledging what could be my favourite piece of technology, my Jabra Elite 65t Bluetooth wireless earbuds. I listen to a lot of podcasts and am on a lot of teleconferences for work. As such I use my Jabra headphones multiple times a day.

I love them. I still dislike the Bluetooth protocol for quality and reliability, and I still want a headphone jack on my devices, but the quality of the Jabra Elite 65t headphones is outstanding. If I had I had one complaint it would be that it charges over Micro USB, for a product this premium I think Jabra need to move to USB C, and yes that would likely make me upgrade… again. If you’re looking for a set of completely wireless earbuds these have my highest recommendation.

Best Smart Watch

I’m a smart watch believer, I’ve worn one from the launch of the Moto 360, and I’ve never taken them off since. Yes I’ve got stamina for technology that I want to work, even when it doesn’t. That said, Wear OS as a platform continues to evolve, Wear 2.0 was a significant improvement in the over all UI, the Snapdragon Wear 3100 has finally been released and devices have started to trickle out.

But for my money 2018 was the year of the TicWatch. Mobvoi has splashed onto the consumer tech stage with a geek centric product offering that strikes a balance between tech, price and looks. The culmination of this was the TicWatch Pro, a device that I bought the second it was legitimately available here and adorns my wrist as I write,

With Wear OS 2.0 the platform feels almost complete, with Google Pay built in the Smartwatch is definitely a valued tool in my arsenal, all I’m waiting for now is a device that doesn’t take 45 seconds to execute some of the more complex functions (like changing your default Google Pay credit card), and for Google Assistant to be integrated with parity with other form factors, eg routines still do not work on Wear OS.

In 2019 I hope to get my hands on a wear 3100 device with 3 buttons, a digital crown and NFC payments of course. When such a device crosses my wrist I have high hopes that Wear OS will finally feel like a no compromise solution.

Best Smart Home device

Again playing the middle of the road here my best device is technically a category of devices, Google Smart Displays, or to be more precise Google Smart Displays with a camera. Yep, for me the Google Home Hub is a no goer. I had one for a few weeks but the lack of video chat, which I do a lot with my family, made it basically an overly small photo frame.

I’ve got both the JBL Link View and Lenovo 10.1-inch Smart Display and I love them both. They are both excellent smart displays with a slight niche purpose. The 10.1 inch display on the Lenovo makes it an excellent photo viewer, even from slightly further away, and the speakers on the JBL are just that bit better, especially in the low range making it better for audio, but honestly you can’t go wrong with either.

That said I do love them both and I will now commence the process of swapping over all of my Google Homes to smart displays, well most of them anyway.

Best IoT product

IoT and Smart Home could be considered the same thing, regardless of that my last “best of” product continues with my theme of not being a single product but in this case an entire ecosystem, Z-Wave/ ZigBee. Years before IoT was even a mainstream term there have been platforms working to automate our world. Many of you would likely remember X10, which has mostly passed into obscurity but emerging from those days are two standards: ZigBee and Z-Wave.

These two standards provide an interoperability layer between smart things such as garage door openers, and smart systems eg “Hubs”. For example the SmartThings platform that Samsung bought operates on many standards including Z-wave and ZigBee. Thanks to a lot of support from the guys over at SmartHome one of Australia’s leading specialist in IoT hardware I’ve been slowly dipping my toes into the world of Hubs, Z-wave and home automation.

And I’m sold, thanks to the open nature of Z-Wave, there are a lot of options on the market including for example “smart switches”. A smart switch has revolutionised smart lighting for me and completely fixes all of my old issues with smart bulbs. Thanks to some install help from my local electrician I now have the best of both worlds, smart and physically controlled lights, with Google Assistant integration!

How is this voodoo done you ask? Scott and I are working on a bit more coverage in this space so hopefully we can share more of this with you in 2019. If you are looking at home automation I seriously urge you to look at a Z-Wave/ZigBee Hub based system, just remember to buy from an Australian store, we use different frequencies to the rest of the world, and you don’t want to shell out for incompatible devices, and you definitely don’t want to use overseas frequencies in Australia (that’s very illegal).

Overall 2018 was a great year for tech, smartphone cameras continue to get better, the mid range continues to catch up to the flagships, Smart Devices are growing in both number and features. If 2018 was any indication I think 2019 is going to be just as good. Perhaps Australia may even get a little of that US based tech gravy spilling over onto our table. I would love to see the full range of Google/NEST products retailed here in Australia, or to have SmartThings hubs available wider than just for NRMA customers.

Duncan Jaffrey   Associate

Duncan Jaffrey

Duncan has been interested in technology since coding "Mary had a little Lamb" in Basic on his ZX Spectrum. A fan of all things Android, most days you'll find Duncan trawling the web for Android news or quietly editing away on Map Maker.

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Simon
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Simon

Hi Duncan, looking forward to the coverage of smart home devices in 2019, I’ve also looked into the smart switches devices but have been worried that an electrician will sting me for installation. For comparison purposes can you share a little about what scale of install you got electrical help with and roughly what it cost you?
Thanks in advance.

Eggman
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Eggman

I have a few Belkon WeMo smart switches and I’ve never really understood why they are less popular than wifi bulbs (installation aside). Having control physically, as well as from Voice or phone is essential for convenience. Unfortunately, they are no longer available in Australia. Hopefully this is an area of IoT that wills more options, and ones that can be controlled directly from Google or Alexa.

gth
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gth

The biggest issue I continue to have with the evolution of mobile phones is the retrograde steps:

– infra red remote built into my phone? Great! New phones come out: the great new feature is gone?!

– a huge wide angle second rear lens on my LG G5? Sweet! Get the whole scene and a portrait without moving my feet. But nope, not on my next phone, the P20 Pro. Guess I’m not Pro enough…

Lindsay
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Lindsay

For me, the most significant ‘retrograde step’ is the abolition of the 3.5mm headphone jack. Does that make me a dinosaur?

Jeni Skunk
Ausdroid Reader

The retrograde step of removing the headphone jack, is why there’s a large swathe of phones I will not ever consider.
After that, comes chopping out chunks of the display to account for the electronics. Proper top bezel please. No on screen notches, no on screen holes.

Lindsay
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Lindsay

Seconded!

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