When I started thinking of my top five gadgets of the year, I realised I was thinking of specific products in specific fields, or the top gadget in each category. So here they are, the best things I have seen in 2021. Also, I had to write a top 5, because every time I thought of a stand-out product I have seen this year I realised one or two isn’t enough.
1) Phone of the year – Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
R38,000 | samsung.co.za
I realised this year that the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the phone I have been waiting for.
I am a closet foldable phone fan because I love the idea of a regular-sized phone that folds into a smallish phablet.
There is a particular kind of usefulness foldable phones offer which may not be for everyone right now, because of their price. But it’s the kind of thing someone like me would use when I need something larger to read on. Let’s be honest: all of us read on our phones most of the time. It’s the device we always have with us, and it’s also the easiest way to just read the news or catch up on something.
I read a lot, almost entirely news websites — the sad habits of a former news editor and practising news junkie. Invariably, the device closest to hand, and always at hand, is a mobile.
I want a larger screen, but I don’t want a larger phone. Something like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 5G is the sweet spot. What I like is that its secondary cover screen is a 6.2 inch AMOLED screen — the size of a normal phone these days. But flip it open and the beautiful Galaxy Fold 3’s main display unfurls to 7.6 inches.
While testing the Fold 3, I found myself marvelling at its overall lightness and seamlessness of the fold in the screen. I ran my finger over the ridge which caused so much controversy the first time, and it really was smooth and level. A foldable screen is a thing of wonder.
Samsung’s head of mobile, Justin Hume, tells me those screens are opened and closed 200,000 times. Or one day with a toddler, my brain automatically added when he said it.
2) Camera of the year – Fujifilm XT-4
From R35,000 with 18-55 lens | fujifilm.co.za
The awesome XT-4 is far too powerful to use as a webcam, but I have been doing it all year. Even if I feel a little foolish practising such overkill, using a R35,000 mirrorless DSLR instead of a R500 webcam produces amazing results. Like everyone else, I have been doing a lot of online meetings, TV interviews and talks. Although I can’t fault my laptop’s webcam – like lots of other people – I use a larger external monitor (Samsung 27-inch) and the laptop screen is at the wrong angle. After Stuff Studios got XT-4s for our Braamfontein studio, our genius creative director Daron Chatz pointed out how easily you can use it as a webcam. I tried it once and haven’t done a video call without it since.
As a camera it’s pretty exceptional – as you can see from all the videos we have shot on it. See Stuff Studio’s videos on YouTube.
3) Mic of the year – Rode NT-USB
R2,000 | musicaldistributors.co.za/
Almost as soon as this dinky but powerful microphone arrived in the Stuff offices, it was nicknamed Rodent. Sorry Rode, but we’re sure you must’ve noticed the possible ambiguity. This is without doubt Stuff’s favourite Rodent microphone – and my personal favourite mic. I set it up at home for my regular Monday night 702 slot on the Money Show with Bruce Whitfield. Like my overpowered webcam, I haven’t taken it down since.
The sound quality is suberb, it has a built in pop-shield and a useful headphone jack for monitoring your own voice. Stuff’s new director of audio Hans Baumgarten – a 30-year veteran sound engineer foolish enough to be friends with me – has taught me the radio tricks that Bruce must’ve been taught and I never was. Headphones make a big difference, it turns out, to how you perceive your voice.
I realised I needed a mic upgrade when I did a podcast with the two geeks who created Eskom se Push (listen to the podcast here).
Read the full Rode NT-USB review here.
4) App of the year – Eskom se Push
Free | sepush.co.za
The undisputed most useful app of 2021, the year of record load shedding, was Eskom se Push. I had a great podcast interview with the two geeks who tried to solve their own frustrations around rolling blackouts, and ended up creating this now-indispensable app. It now tells 2.5m South Africans every day what outages to expect from the power utility. Along the way Herman Maritz and Dan Wells have brought a county together, while demonstrating a key tenet of why innovation in Africa is better: innovation out of necessity. Meanwhile, a grateful nation thanks them. Listen to the podcast here.
5) Soundbar speakers of the year – Sonos Beam 2
The Beam 2 is a compact and powerful soundbar.
As I wrote in my review, because of some damp-proofing in our TV room, I ended up watching the 100 Test between the Springboks and the All Blacks. When we moved into the house seven years ago, I foolishly thought I could use the extra TV set my wife and I now owned from combining households on the patio to watch rugby. It turned out to be a bit of a drag to set it up, but I persevered in the foolish belief we would watch rugby on the patio. I ran a separate TV coaxial cable through the roof, under the eves and into the TV. We used it maybe 10 times in five years.
Firstly, it was always in winter and usually at 5pm and, secondly, the pause-rewind functionality of the DStv Xplora decoder is an USP in its own right.
But, here we were, in a bind for where to watch the game. Luckily interceding years I had replaced the outside TV with our former lounge TV – a delight of an LG LED screen – and now use apps only on that screen – Netflix, Amazon Prime and Showmax obviously – but also the very excellent DStv app, which replaced the now unnecessary Xtra View decoder.
It has become a game changer for our patio, adding significantly better audio to our outdoors area – just in the time for summer.
Read our full review here.