On the hunt for new gadgets? Does it need to have the latest tech baked in, or are you happy with something a little more retro? How about something genuinely useful, or a gizmo that just look good on the mantelpiece?
Yes, just like you we like cool stuff too, and we’ve probably been itching to get our hands on it as well, which is why we try some of the best new tech around and give it a once over. That way you can see if it gets our seal of approval.
These are our honest thoughts and feelings about toys and devices we get our hands on, and although they are by no means comprehensive reviews, you can be sure that we’ll let you know the good, bad and the ugly about every device. Be sure to check back with our collection of cool new gadgets as we’ll be frequently updating it, and be sure to let us know if there is anything you’d like to get our opinion on by contacting us on Twitter at @sciencefocus.
ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo laptop
Laptops are hardly the most thrilling of new gadgets – it usually goes something like “ooh that’s pretty”, opens it up, start working… – which is probably why we don’t get our hands on too many of them, but every once in a while, something comes along that does pique our interest more than others. The ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo is that laptop, thanks almost entirely to the addition of second screen which sits snugly above the keyboard.
Most laptops are content with just one screen, so what does the second add to the party? Well anyone who has worked with two monitors knows the benefits of separating the spreadsheets you’re working on from your Twitter feed, so having that flexibility on a laptop if you’re working away from your desk is a neat addition. In practice, it works really well, with the screen stretching all the way across the length of the laptop making it the same width as the 14” screen above it. That means you can comfortably squeeze on two or three windows (albeit at an ridiculously wide 32:9 aspect ratio).
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Both are touch screen, so you can either drag windows from one to another with your finger or the supplied stylus, or push a handy shortcut above the trackpad to swap what’s on the screen around. There are also a few nifty shortcuts on the screen itself to quickly launch programs or groupings of windows, so you could set it to open your Netflix on the left and browser on the right.
Other than that, it’s very much a second monitor, so it does pretty much all the things you would expect one to do. It does take a little getting used to given the second screen sits at an unorthodox angle, so I found it most useful for having my Spotify playlist on show and my Twitter streaming away, but I was still able to fire up FarCry 5 for a little surreptitious fragging at work. The positioning also means the actual keyboard sits very low on the laptop, making the supplied wrist support essential if you’re planning on doing some serious typing.
Second screen aside, the laptop itself has a hefty amount of grunt to it, packing the latest i9 Intel processor and 32GB of RAM, and is a sleek, if not a little weighty unit. There are a few other perks, like Amazon Alexa and an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 GPU graphics card, making it a good allrounder, but really, the ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo will appeal to anyone who can’t live without a second screen.
- The local coffee shop takes none too kindly to you setting up a second monitor next to your flat white.
- Portability is a priority
Simba Hybrid Pillow
Yes, this is a pillow. At first glance not the most technologically astounding product on a list of cool new gadgets – it doesn’t even have a USB port for crying out loud – but don’t be fooled by its analogue exterior, this pillow is packed with some “cool” features.
First off is that there is nary a feather to be seen. Instead the pillow is packed full of foam ‘Nanocubes’, which provide the head support you need to get a good night’s sleep. Not going to lie, when I first head of an ‘adjustable pillow’ I naïvely assumed it would be some sort of digitised air pump, but instead you just pull out a few of the cubes and store them in a handy bag to get the pillow to the height and firmness you find most comfortable. Again, very analogue, but then the idea of sleeping anywhere near anything that needs a plug socket terrifies me (electric blanket…? Never!). Also, it means you can genuinely get the pillow exactly how you want it, without having to hope that the super-soft pillow you have just bought will be ‘the one’.
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There is more tech in the pillow than just cubes though. The material the cover it is made from a ‘phase-change fabric’ called Stratos, which was inspired by the technology that helps regulate the body temperature of astronauts. Apparently, it reacts to your body temperature, drawing away heat when you warm up, and releasing it back again when things get colder. To me, it always felt pleasantly cool, which I suppose is what you expect from the Simba pillow when that’s what is justifying its near-£100 price tag.
It’s not cheap as far as pillows go, but I eventually found myself eschewing my second pillow for this one once I found the sweet spot for comfort, and being vegan friendly and made from recycled materials, I could allow myself to dream of a better planet in the process.
- You yearn for an astronaut-inspired space pillow.
BenQ GV1 projector
My house doesn’t have much space for a television. In fact, I live on a canal boat, so pretty much anything I watch is on a laptop or tablet – fine for the odd episode of EastEnders, but underwhelming for films. Sooooo, a portable projector screen sounds like a good idea. I got my hands on the BenQ GV1, to see if that could be my cinematic saviour. In short, sort of.
Size-wise, it’s about as big a as a litre bottle of milk, so very portable, and looks almost adorable with its grey and yellow styling. I had no problems finding a spot for it to sit on, and the image was crisp and sharp when projected on the opposite wall, despite the resolution being only 480p (a far cry from 4K and even HD). Anyone who has been on a canal boat know that the walls aren’t exactly flush, but the auto keystone was good at automatically making the picture square without me having to faff around in the settings.
So far so good, but living life on the open, er, ripples, mean I don’t have Wi-Fi, so I had a few connectivity issues, especially as I use an iPhone with the lightning connector (the GV1 has USB-C). When I was finally able to fire up a film, everything looked peachy.
One major gripe I have though is that the sound quality isn’t great (especially galling given it can also be used as a Bluetooth speaker). Inside it was fine, but when I set it up outside for a bit of al-fresco viewing, the sound was too thin. It’d be great if there was a line out so I could plug it into an external speaker and get the best of both worlds. It also means the kids (and more specifically their sticky fingers) wouldn’t have to be camped around the projector.
– Steve Boswell, Designer at BBC Science Focus Magazine
- An impromptu cinema session is in order.
- You want to use it as a speaker.
Muse 2 meditation headband
Close your eyes for a moment, breathe slowly, and try to empty your mind of anything that might be troubling you. Feeling relaxed yet? If so great, but for the rest of us, meditation isn’t something that comes particularly easily, which is why the Muse 2 meditation headband is designed to help you find your inner zen.
Although when sitting over your forehead it looks like a slipped hair band, the Muse 2 is actually an electroencephalogram (EEG), a device commonly used by neuroscientists to measure brain wave patterns cause by electrical activity in the brain.
While you meditate, the device measures what’s going on in your noggin, and through the accompanying app translates this into an audio representation of how busy your mind is. When it’s firing on all cylinders the noise is loud and relatively intense, an audio cue that you need to focus your attention on your breathing or posture (whatever the bundled lessons have you practising), bringing the volume levels down and providing a much more relaxed atmosphere. If you clear your head sufficiently, you’ll be rewarded with birdsong.
It’s a neat way to gamify your meditation experience, and anything that helps me take a moment to actually slow down and relax for a moment probably going to improve my life no end.
There are a four different mediation types, which focus on your breathing, heart, mind or posture, and you can change the duration of a session for anything up to three hours, although I found 10 minutes was as much as I could muster before my thoughts wandered towards the latest episode of Star Trek (or I fell asleep). That said, the idea of the Muse 2 is that you’ll keep coming back to improve the quality of your meditation sessions so that they are more effective and last longer, and you’re rewarded with badges as hit your goals.
While £239 sounds a lot to spend on such a delicate device (it would have been nice if it came with a case – a £39 extra – especially if you are planning on meditating on the go), but given it essentially functions as a guided meditation personalised to your individual brain waves, it’s far cheaper than having a meditation teacher on-hand at all times.
- Only technology can bring you inner peace.
- You think yoga pants are fashionable, because this headband plainly isn’t.
iRobot Braava jet 240
Unless you can channel your inner Marie Kondo, mopping is probably the worst of the household chores. Ok, maybe cleaning the toilet is less fun, but still, nobody likes faffing around with a bucket of mucky water.
Robot vacuum cleaners have been around for a while now, and while they are great at sucking up the dust that accumulates on your floors, what remains is the gunky residue of spilled salsa and muddy boots. That’s when it’s time to bust out iRobot Braava jet 240 to, quite literally, mop up the rest of the cleaning.
The teeny-weenie 170mm x 178mm robot is super easy to use. There are three types of clean available – dry sweep, damp mop or full scrub – and you select which program you want by slipping the specific pad on the bottom (disposable and not cheap, but you can get reusable ones that last 50 washes, making them far better on your wallet and the environment). Then it’s just a case of putting the robot mop in the corner of the room, pressing the ‘Clean’ button, and then it’s off, swiffing up all the remaining dust, hair and grime that is stuck to the floor.
Note to self: clean more
You can also switch it on using the app, but aside from this it doesn’t really do much more than tell you the battery life, set up a virtual wall or tell the robot to give a certain area an extra scrub. I would have loved it to show me a plan of what it thinks my room looked like but sadly, this isn’t an option.
The battery has enough power to clean a room between 13.9 m² and 18.5 m² depending on the cleaning program, so don’t expect to clean the house in one go, but that was enough to do my distinctly averagely-sized kitchen. The Braava jet 240 also had no problem getting into its nooks and crannies, and skirted the furniture legs with no more than a gentle thud.
It’s not as quick or as effective as a mop and bucket, which is not to say it didn’t do a good job, but there are always going to be parts of the floor that will need a good bit of elbow grease to get spotless. I would say the best case use would be to give your floor a proper, old fashion scrub every once in a while, and use the Braava jet 240 to keep on top of things. Or just when you can’t be bothered to clean, which is exactly why you’d get a robot mop in the first place.
- You’ll do anything to avoid housework.
- Plates are overrated and eating off the floor is perfectly adequate.
As much as I would love to spend many thousands of pounds of my hard-earned cash on a top-of-the-line gaming computer, alas, boring things like mortgages get in the way. However, the Shadow Ghost, a new type of computer that lets you stream games over the internet, could be a pretty affordable alternative.
At first glance, you be forgiven for thinking there is no way this diminutive box could run anything more advanced than Minesweeper, let alone the latest games with settings pushed to max. And yeah, you’re right, but then that’s not what the Ghost does.
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Similar to how Netflix or Amazon Prime TV streams films from the cloud, the Ghost streams games to your TV from a super-powered PC, packing 3.2GHz Xeon processor, 12GB RAM and a NVIDIA GTX 1080 graphics card – as anyone into PC gaming will know, those specs are mouth-watering.
With such a beast of a machine running the games, everything looks stunning, and so long as you have a robust and speedy internet connection can frag away to your heart’s content without any noticeable lag or glitches. It comes with Bluetooth 4.1 and plenty of USB ports to connect controllers and keyboards, HDMI to plug into your TV and fast Wi-Fi, so you don’t even need to dig out a LAN cable.
- You’re trying to play games on a Mac.
- You don’t have a fast internet connection.
£109.95 monthly subscription to the Shadow service from £26.95, shadow.tech
Airbubbl in-car air purifier
According to the folks at Airbubbl the average commuter passively smokes 180 cigarettes worth of nitrogen dioxide a year in their vehicle, which is why their in-car air purifier fits on the back of your headrest and filters out toxic gas ozone, VOCs, PM2.5 and PM10 particles, bacteria and even odour.
If you don’t quite know what that all means, rest assured it’s not good for your heart and lungs (listen to our Science Focus Podcast episode about air pollution to discover its true horrors), so a device like this will come as a breath of fresh air.
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So, does it work? Well, probably. It’s not the easiest thing to give a fair go without having the right equipment in the car to actually test the levels of nasties floating about (one of these might have helped), but let’s just assume it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a big device, that comes on loud for five minutes when you want a boost of fresh air in the car, something my toddler found highly amusing sitting in the back staring at it. But size and sound aside, it’s simple enough to use, and can be controlled via the app or with the easily findable button on the side that you can switch on by reaching around the back of your headrest without taking your eyes off the road.
I’m pretty sure my lungs were thankful for the whole experience.
- You spend time in a lot of traffic.
- You’re a smoker, this gain in lung health is a little too marginal.
Remember the funky Nanoleaf lights we featured last year? Well, they’re back, and this time even groovier than ever – and by that I mean not only are they bigger (and square rather than triangle), but they also respond to music.
With the starter pack, you get one control square and eight add ons, which you can plug into all manner of different shapes depending on how many you have. I went for an imaginative rectangle, but it all depends on how much space you have to fill (I had a rectangular space to fill, natch), and then it’s just a case of plugging them in. And oh boy, these light are BRIGHT!
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In the app you can set up different scenes and colourways, or you can shuffle through the preinstalled ones using the control panel. And all of the panels are touch sensitive, so you can prod away at them and make the colours ebb and evolve. There is also the option to play games like Simon or a simple memory game. Given it was tested during the season to be jolly, I set mine up with IFTTT so whenever I said “Happy Christmas” to my Google Assistant, the Nanoleaf Canvas would shimmer in all manner of festive colours.
- You need to get this party started!
- You think disco floors are tacky.