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Gadget Ogling: Fresh Fires, Tablet Touches, and Underwater Drones

By Kris Holt
Sep 19, 2015 10:00 AM PT
amazon-fire-tv

Welcome to Gadget Dreams and Nightmares, the column that gazes wistfully across the landscape at a sea of changing leaves and wonders what new gadgets the fall will bring.

In our deciduous forest this week are an updated Fire TV, a low-end Amazon Fire tablet, a case that adds touch functions to the rear of iPhones and iPads, and an underwater drone.

As ever, please do not consider these reviews, for they are not. The ratings reflect only how much I'd like to try each item, and in no way relate to how much I need to have a pumpkin spice latte immediately.

Burning Up TV

In case you didn't already know it, Amazon has designs on taking over your television, and Fire TV (pictured above) seems a strong competitor to the refreshed Apple TV.

Fire TV's big advantage is that it can stream video in ultra high-definition 4K resolution, while Apple's device cannot. Nor can Roku or Chromecast. Fire TV also has voice control in the form of Alexa, which one could use to check the weather or sports scores while watching a show on Netflix.

Storage is just 8 GB, but it's expandable with a memory card.

There already are some fine games available for Fire TV, and there's a gaming edition of the system available with a controller. I like that one can search for shows and movies from across a breadth of services at once (though, curiously, Netflix is not among the list of services included in the cross-platform search at present).

At US$50 less than the latest Apple TV, I'm more tempted to pick up one of these, even though I'm more invested in Apple's ecosystem.

Amazon's making a bold statement with its latest upgrades to Fire devices, and I certainly would like to have a Fire TV in my living room.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Watch It's Hots

Bringing the Fire

Amazon's Fire tablets are more an entry point to purchasing content and shopping for physical goods than devices for productivity or quality photography. They're all about consumption.

So Amazon's plan to get its tablets into the hands of as many people as possible by offering a new introductory tablet for just $50 is a smart move.

fire-$50-tablet
It promises ro perform decently with a quad-core processor. Like the Fire TV, there's just 8 GB of storage, but it too is expandable with a microSD card, onto which you can download movies and shows from Amazon Prime for offline viewing.

There's a new speed-reading function that displays a word at a time in the middle of the screen at whichever speed you're most comfortable. That might help me read more books.

The 7-inch screen seems more than fair for the price. It looks like a fine budget alternative to an iPad, and if you're just looking for an on-the-go device to watch video, it's a solid option.

I can't fathom why anyone would opt for a regular Kindle over this unless they want distraction-free reading.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Catching Fires

Capacitive Case

As I mentioned in my last column, which focuses on Apple's new slate of mobile devices and Apple TV, I'm not a fan of playing complex games on my iPhone.

Anything that requires more than a few taps or swipes is best served with a physical controller, since it's difficult to manipulate multiple controls at once and make sure you're not covering the screen with your hands.

Handycase appears to go some way to resolving said problem. It's a crowdfunded iPhone and iPad case that adds touch controls to the back of the device. You know, where your fingers naturally rest while you're holding it.

It frees up screen real estate from one's sticky digits, though if you really want to see what your fingers are doing, Handycase's apps can superimpose them onto the screen.

While the idea's great -- and I hope it works well in practice -- it seems that it would require Apple to open up iOS to allow for a secondary input before Handycase had complete control over your device.

It also needs developers -- particularly ones of more complex games -- to let Handycase use it as a controller as well.

As it stands, I'm itching to get my hands on one, in the hope I can control Lego game characters and see what I'm doing at the same time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Tablet Boosts

Under The Sea

I'm not sure when or why we started calling remote-control submersibles "underwater drones," but I'll run with it as I am determined to take the plunge with OpenROV Trident.

It's a submersible that can help one explore ocean life and learn about what's hanging out under the docks in your town's seafront. I'm particularly tickled by the option to view what the camera sees through a virtual reality headset, though I can't imagine my river would have life remotely as vivid as in Finding Nemo.

It's essentially snorkeling for layabouts, and though I love open water, I'm frequently nervous about what lies beneath the surface, so taking a look before diving in would reduce my fretting.

I'd still worry that the tether line that sends back images would snag or break, though I'm trusting the line is sturdy.

At the very least, It should prove a killer educational experience. I'd have ached for one if they were around in my youth.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Seabed Surprises


Kris Holt is a writer and editor based in Montreal. He has written for the Daily Dot, The Daily Beast, and PolicyMic, among others. He's Scottish, so would prefer if no one used the word "soccer" in his company. You can connect with Kris on Google+.


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Is "too much screen time" really a problem?
Yes -- smartphone addiction is ruining relationships.
Yes -- but primarily due to parents' failure to regulate kids' use.
Possibly -- long-term effects on health are not yet known.
Not really -- lack of self-discipline and good judgement are the problems.
No -- angst over "screen time" is just the latest overreaction to technology.
No -- what matters is the quality of content, not the time spent viewing it.