Pump up the volume: when carmakers and audio specialists collaborate to make beautiful music
When car technology makes the national news, it’s rarely attached to a positive story. The release last week of footage featuring a new luxury car being stolen with ease, due to its keyless entry system, will have caused pangs of worry for those with similar cars. And although news of the ‘relay theft’ method had been raised previously, seeing it occur on video makes it much more real.
Before this came to light, paranoia as to whether the keyless system automatically locked the car when walking away was possibly the biggest security concern. Not anymore. Modern convenience features like keyless entry are meant to make life easier, but the fear of your car being stolen without criminals even needing the physical keys starts places a question mark over the benefits.
Yes, it might be useful for your car to automatically unlock as you approach – and do the same as you leave – but was a momentary ‘blip’ with a key fob causing consumers such undue hardship? Oh, and there’s also the issue of where to put the typically huge key, in a car now without a receptacle for it.
So while a traditional central-locking key might have been mildly inconvenient, at least it didn’t allow criminals to quietly remove your car from your drive. Or leave a questionable bulge in your pocket.
A touchy subject
The widespread adoption of touchscreen multimedia systems has allowed manufacturers to cram controls for multiple systems into one place. It’s eliminated the need for countless buttons, letting designers create impressively minimalist interiors. But they cause multiple challenges for drivers.
Combine a modern vehicle featuring stiff ‘sporty’ suspension with a touchscreen system, and changing settings becomes more akin to ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ than a seamless user experience. It’s notable that although controllers like BMW’s iDrive were derided when new, they are often still the preferred solution in premium machines – offering the benefit of direct feedback between driver and car.
Voice command is mooted as a solution to fiddling with buttons or scrolling through touchscreens or media menus. And the latest systems have progressed a long way, with the ability to recognise and learn individual accents.
Yet voice commands are still far from infallible, and often add multiple steps to confirm even simple actions, making them less efficient than using steering wheel-mounted controls or dashboard buttons. It risks being a gimmick that drivers might try once, then never use again.
Conversely, our love for – and reliance on – satellite navigation may become a distracting obsession. A number of high-profile accidents, caused by drivers either paying too much attention to sat nav units, or slavishly following them into danger, demonstrates the pitfalls. That the Driving & Vehicle Standards Agency has felt the need to update the driving test to include taking direction from sat navs also illustrates the importance of the issue.
It might also show how slowly the wheels of bureaucracy turn, given that standalone sat navs, like those included in the driving test, are becoming obsolete due to smartphone-based apps. Whatever type of sat nav is used, it has arguably made visiting new destinations simpler, even if it has created other problems as a result.
Unintended consequences have also created new cars reliant on parking sensors and cameras, as modern vehicle designs create blind spots and hamper visibility. With protruding noses to meet crash-test requirements, plus pillar-box-like rear windows as a by-product of sweeping rooflines, cameras and sensors are almost mandatory for manoeuvring many new cars.
This might well be a successful case of using technology to solve a new problem. Nevertheless, it makes drivers reliant on features to undertake basic tasks that millions managed unaided for decades.
Internet of things
Tesla has been praised for the use of over-the-air software updates, meaning tweaks and changes can be made to cars without the need to visit a dealership. This has even included adding an ‘Insane mode’ to performance versions, but also other operating system tweaks such as updating maps – or even the range of adjustment on the headrests.
It again marks Tesla out as having more in common with a tech company, rather than traditional car manufacturer. Using over-the-air updates will be familiar to anyone who owns a smartphone, even if it does bring an inevitable lack of familiarity when a new operating system changes things overnight.
The practicality of fixing flaws and problems without needing to take a car to a dealership is unquestionably a benefit. However, it also opens the possibility for companies to dishonestly cover their tracks. Imagine a ‘dieselgate’ situation, where purely over-the-air software changes could have been used to make all cars compliant with legislation, and the temptation becomes apparent.
The march of new car technology is not going to stop, and the rise of autonomous abilities will make future cars ever more complicated. In itself, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and a self-driving destiny has the potential to make commuting and city driving substantially easier.
However, engineers, designers and marketing staff need to ensure they put making the lives of those buying cars easier and safer as priorities. Pointless gimmicks, or technology that is fatally flawed, will do little to make buyers ready to trust their car with more advanced driving tasks – including actually chauffeuring them around.
In-car satellite navigation systems – often shortened to ‘sat nav’ – have come a long way in three decades. But their development stretches back to 1909, when an engineer named J.W.Jones invented the Jones Live-Map in-car navigation system.
As reported by The New Yorker, the Live-Map was connected to a car’s odometer and consisted of a glass-enclosed dial, on which you could place a disk representing a particular trip.
The disk had mileage numbers around the edge, along with driving directions printed on the face. As you made your way along the road, the disk would rotate, telling you where you needed to go. In truth, it wasn’t all that good, but it laid the foundations for future development.
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OnStar: born in 1966?
That said, the pace of development was surprisingly slow. The motoring world had to wait until 1966 for the next chapter in the history of the sat nav, when General Motors engineers designed a system called DAIR, or Driver Aid, Information and Routing.
DAIR relied on punch cards to provide information for basic turn-by-turn directions. The driver could ‘record’ a route with turns being represented as different gaps in the card’s surface. GM proposed a series of radio relay stations and magnetic sensors buried in roads, communicating everything from directions to road conditions and accident reports.
In many ways, DAIR was an early, albeit primitive version of the modern OnStar system, found in new Vauxhall models.
“Picture yourself on a long, lonely segment of highway,” said the research material distributed to GM personnel only. “It’s a rainy night, and you’re trying to stretch your gasoline to the next service station.
“Sure enough, the engine begins to stutter. You coast to the shoulder and stop. Your wife, who suggested a stop at the last town, gives you the special look she saves for such occasions. It’s a bad situation at best.”
GM promised motorists that DAIR could avoid such situations, but while the company’s ambitions must be applauded, it never really stood a chance. Just imagine how much investment would have been required to provide the necessary infrastructure.
The Electro Gyrocator
It was left to the Japanese to accelerate the growth in development. The brilliantly named Electro Gyrocator was launched as an optional extra in the Honda Accord in 1981, and is widely accepted to be the world’s first commercially available in-car navigation system.
Nine years later, the tech-laden Mazda Eunos Cosmo became the first car to be fitted with a built-in GPS-based navigation system, with Toyota another early pioneer of navigation systems.
The availability of GPS (global positioning by satellite) was the real turning point for in-car navigation. The technology was developed by the United States in the 1950s, with President Reagan making it available for civilian use in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, from a spare bedroom in Surrey, NextBase created the AutoRoute journey planner: a complete digital road map of Britain. For the first time, motorists had an alternative to the humble road atlas.
In the early days, in-car sat navs were the preserve of flagship motors, such as the BMW 7 Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Renault Safrane, which featured Carminat in 1995: a European CD-based system featuring a colour interface and 2D map not too dissimilar to the systems of today.
The birth of intelligent sat nav
Today’s systems are far more advanced. The Rolls-Royce Wraith, for example, uses GPS to select the right gear for an approaching corner. Meanwhile, Audi’s adaptive cruise control works with the navigation to select the appropriate pace for corners, junctions and speed limits.
After the turn of the millennium, the in-car navigation system came into its own. No longer the preserve of luxobarges, the availability of sat nav filtered down to humble superminis and city cars. There was a cost, of course, but there was also a choice.
The likes of Garmin, TomTom and Navigon flooded the market with aftermarket devices, the majority of which were considerably cheaper than the OEM systems. A manufacturer might have offered a system for a four-figure sum, while an aftermarket sat nav could cost a couple of hundred pounds.
For years, experts warned against splashing the cash on an expensive OEM system, arguing that it would be obsolete in a few years and you’ve never be able to recoup the cost when it came to resale.
Today, the lines are a little more blurred. Many motorists buy a car via a PCP deal, meaning the issue of obsolescence is no longer an issue. Equally, the growth of smartphone connectivity has meant that motorists already have the maps and apps required before they buy a new car.
Garmin DriveSmart 50: short review
Does this mean the end of the aftermarket sat nav system? Garmin doesn’t think so, which is why we were sent a DriveSmart 50 to review.
Truth be told, it’s been a while since we used an aftermarket sat nav. The majority of test cars are loaded up with gadgets, while we tend to rely on traditional maps when driving our own cars (for the true retro experience).
Garmin unveiled its latest range of sat nav systems at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2016, with the DriveSmart sitting just above the entry-level Garmin Drive.
The DriveSmart is aimed squarely at the smartphone generation, featuring customisable smart notifications that allow drivers to display calls, text messages and app notifications on the navigation screen.
Press the appropriate button on the screen and the Garmin lady will read your text, email or social update to you and anybody else travelling in the car. It’s a little like Apple CarPlay in this respect, although there’s no option to voice a reply to a text.
Other advantages of the DriveSmart over the basic Drive are the availability of a voice-activated navigation, Bluetooth for hands-free calling and real-time access to traffic and weather reports via a Smartphone Link app.
The 50 in DriveSmart 50 refers to the size of the screen – in this case five inches. If size matters and you fancy something a little larger, the DriveSmart is also available with six-inch (60) and seven-inch screen (70).
Garmin DriveSmart 50: what’s in the box?
In the box you’ll find the obligatory suction mount, 12v socket to mini USB charging cable, USB to mini USB charging cable and a few leaflets. There’s no manual, so you’ll have to find this online.
Be warned: although the DriveSmart 50 will operate straight from the box, you’ll need to download Garmin Express via the internet to take advantage of its features, not to mention the most current software. There’s no clear instruction to tell you this, just a diagram hinting that this might be the case.
Using a 60mb broadband connection and an iMac, it look less than an hour to install the required software and update the maps, but it’s worth bearing this in mind if you’re intending to use the sat nav before a long trip or a holiday. Update it first!
There’s a bewildering array of options to scroll through, including the vehicle icon to show on the map, driving map view, map detail, layers and audible driving alerts. But once you’ve established your ideal settings, you’re unlikely to feel the need to change them again.
Garmin DriveSmart 50: audible driving alerts
The audible driving alerts are a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s good to be alerted to schools, animal crossing points, speed limits and bends, but it can also be incredibly annoying.
After three ‘bongs’ alerting you to various bends ahead, you will be reaching for the off button. Fortunately you can pick and choose the alerts you want. Our guess is that the majority of drivers will remove them all.
They’re not exactly consistent, either. On the rural roads of Dartmoor, we were warned about animal crossing points a number of times, but not once did it alert us about a school. Some consistency is required.
On the plus side, the voice control system is very good. Even with Ken Bruce chattering away in the background, the Garmin was able to recognise our commands and reacted accordingly. Again, you’ll need to spend a few minutes to set things up, but the reward is a reliable and intuitive system.
Garmin DriveSmart 50: maps and guidance
As you’d expect from Garmin, the maps and route guidance are very good. It’s easy to get carried away with the array of apps and smartphone integration, but the primary role of the DriveSmart 50 is to get you from A to B with the least amount of hassle.
Inputting a town or postcode is easy, not least because it features predictive text, while the voice control allows you to make changes on the move. A neat touch, and something you don’t often find on OEM systems, is its ability to provide street names as part of the instructions.
In other words, while the OEM system we tested alongside the Garmin simply told us to turn right, the DriveSmart instructed us to ‘turn right onto Rose Cottages’. Makes things a bit easier, especially in a built-up area.
It’s not perfect. On a few occasions, the estimated time of arrival was a little pessimistic, saying we’d arrive at our destination a full 10 minutes later than the actual ETA. Not a problem on a four-hour journey, but not great when the journey only took 25 minutes.
It also warned us about traffic delays that simply weren’t there. In fairness to Garmin, this problem tends to affect other systems, but it might result in a few needless diversions.
The screen itself is clear, if a little prone to reflections, while the maps are easy to use. Zooming and panning is simple thanks to ‘pinch and zoom’, although this can lead to a few smeary marks on the screen.
Garmin DriveSmart 50: clutter
In fact, an aftermarket sat nav probably isn’t the best choice if you’re not a fan of clutter or mess. With the Garmin attached to the windscreen, you’ll need to find a safe home for the trailing charging cable, while the suction mount will leave a circular mark on the glass when removed.
Being picky, we’d also like some kind of pouch or sleeve to keep the sat nav safe when not in use. We’re forever being told to remove sat navs from our cars when parked up, so some kind of protection would be handy.
Other gripes – which aren’t isolated to the DriveSmart 50 – include the fact that, unlike OEM systems, the volume of the stereo isn’t lowered when commands are being read out. Furthermore, the commands sound a little ‘tinny’ compared to the OEM sat navs which have the advantage of using the car’s speakers.
Garmin DriveSmart: conclusion
But with prices starting from under £150, it’s hard to argue with the Garmin DriveSmart 50. Our system is the more expensive 50LMT-D, which features lifetime map and traffic updates, along with UK, Ireland and Western Europe maps, and costs £189.99.
The OCD in us would prefer the simplicity and uncluttered convenience of an OEM navigation system, but when even the Media Nav Evolution on a Dacia Sandero costs £300, it’s easy to see the appeal of an aftermarket system.
Besides, the DriveSmart is as smart as the name suggests, with an ability to look at previous journeys to inform you if there are any expected delays on your daily commute. Features such as this will encourage you to continue using the system, rather than leaving it in the glovebox.
Equally, the free traffic and map updates for life will keep the DriveSmart current, long after after sat nav units have been condemned to that drawer containing all the other gadgets you’ll never use again.
One final point: for us, the jury is out on the whole notifications thing. While we can see the attraction of having texts, emails and social updates read out on the move, isn’t it just another distraction for drivers?
What’s more, without the ability to voice command a reply, isn’t there a temptation for drivers to pick up their smartphones and respond in real-time? At least with Apple CarPlay you can reply to a text message without touching your phone.
Thinking of splashing out on a new car to enjoy the latest tech – think again. We’ve put together a list of retrofit gadgets that will turn your existing motor into a technological powerhouse, making you the envy of all your mates. Stick with us as we teach your old car some new tricks.
Thanks to the arrival of smartphone mirroring and touchscreen infotainment systems, it’s never been easier to secure a sat nav in a new car, but it remains a costly business. Order a Dacia Sandero in plush Laureate trim and the Media Nav Evolution navigation system will set you back £300. Alternatively, opt for the Audi A3 SE and you’ll need to find £495 for the excellent MMI Navigation. Fortunately, aftermarket sat navs are more cost-effective and you won’t need to worry about it being obsolete in a few years time
We’ve been using a Garmin DriveSmart 50, which is about as thin as a tablet and available in three different sizes: 5-inch, 6-inch and 7-inch. In entry-level 5-inch guise, it’s a bit on the small side compared to modern infotainment systems, but as it’s Bluetooth enabled, you can ask for directions via voice command.
It also features driver alerts, such as the whereabouts of speed cameras, dangerous corners and animal crossing points. You need not worry about upgrades and the sat nav becoming obsolete, because you get a lifetime of free map and traffic avoidance updates. At the time of writing, the Garmin DriveSmart 50 5-inch is available for the reduced price of £143.99, although there are many other sat navs available.
In-car coffee machine
This is one in-car gadget that might put you ahead of your friends and neighbours – an in-car coffee machine. The Handpresso Auto is the self-proclaimed ‘espresso machine for the car’, and it does exactly what it says on the box.
Plug it into your car’s 12v socket, fill it with cold water, add an Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pod and – two minutes later – a fresh espresso is served. The Handpresso Auto is designed to fit most cupholders and it could save you a fortune on takeaway coffees.
The Handpresso Auto will set you back £133, which is the equivalent of 80 or so takeaway espressos, and while you do need to factor in the cost of ESE pods, it is possible to use your favourite ground coffee. If you spend much of your time on the road, and too much money in coffee shops, this could be classed as a must-have accessory.
Until relatively recently, a car cupholder wasn’t a thing. Climb aboard a car from the 80s or 90s and you might be disappointed to find nowhere to put your energy drink. But don’t worry, because help is at hand in the form of an aftermarket cupholder, which you can buy for not much more than the price of an overpriced takeaway coffee. Sadly, it won’t be as cool as the cupholder in a Saab 9-5 (pictured).
Under new rules likely to come in next year, motorists will receive six points on their licence and a £200 fine if they’re caught using a mobile phone at the wheel. While many new cars are fitted with Bluetooth connectivity, an older car will need upgrading if you want to make and receive calls on the move. A Parrot Minikit Neo 2 HD costs less than £80 and features HD sound quality, plus an ability to switch between two phones.
The digital radio switchover could happen as soon as 2017, meaning traditional FM/AM receivers will be about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Not a problem if you own one of the 90% of new cars fitted with a DAB digital radio, but not so good if you’re making do with an old head unit. There are many options available if you fancy listening to DAB radio in an old car, including adapters and entirely new systems. Some companies will even retrofit a DAB system to an old unit, which will appeal to classic car owners who favour originality.
Alarm/immobiliser with remote central locking
Adding an alarm and immobiliser will not only secure your car, it might save you money on your car insurance. Some systems also offer options such as remote central locking and automatic window/sunroof closure, adding additional convenience.
Once upon a time, a cigarette lighter – or cigar lighter, if your car was a bit posh – was a sign that you’d splashed out on a higher trim level. You can make use of what might otherwise be a dormant socket by converting it into a USB charger. For just a few pounds you can charge one, two, three or even four accessories on the move. New life for the cigarette lighter!
These days, Apple CarPlay is available on everything from a Suzuki Baleno to a Ferrari GTC4Lusso, but don’t feel that you have to buy new in order to enjoy the joys of seamless iPhone connectivity. The Pioneer SPH-DA120 offers a 6.2-inch touchscreen, GPS, Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay – simply plug in and play. It’s available from Halfords for £329.
General Motors was the first carmaker to introduce a head-up display (HUD), with a system debuting on the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Once the preserve of premium motors, HUD has filtered down to more humble vehicles, while it’s also possible to retro-fit a system to just about any car. The Garmin Head-Up Display receives navigation information from your smartphone and projects it onto a transparent film on the car’s windscreen. It’s compatible with the Navigon and Streetpilot apps.
Dashcam with added safety devices
These days, a dashcam might be considered less of an accessory and more of an essential requirement. Not only will it provide evidence in the event of an accident, it can also reduce the cost of your insurance. Prices start from around £50, although for £160 you can buy a ‘world first’ rear-view mirror camera, which also features forward collision and lane departure warning systems
Powerful headlight bulbs
Compared to new cars, many older vehicles may as well be running with candles perched on the edge of the front wings. Upgrading the headlight bulbs is a cost-effective way of improving visibility and staying safe. For example, a pair of Philips X-treme Vision bulbs will provide up to 130% more light, with a 45m longer beam, while a pair of Osram Night Breakers will add 110% and 35m respectively. Bank on paying between £20 and £30.
Tyre pressure monitor
The AA recommends you check your tyre pressures every couple of weeks, but how many of us remember to do so? Maplin offers a Bluetooth tyre pressure monitoring system, similar to that used in new cars. It monitors real time tyre pressure and temperature, and comes with an app for automatic monitoring and instant alerts. Yours for £149.99.
If you’re one of the many motorists who don’t enjoy parking, help is at hand from as little as £10. This might seem like a small price to pay for an aftermarket reversing sensor, but the reviews appear to stack up. The only problem – you’ll have to fit it yourself, although the reviewers endorse the claim that the system is “easy to install”. Worth a look?
Alternatively, you can watch where you’re going with an aftermarket reversing camera. We found one on the Maplin website, complete with 3.5-inch colour monitor and automatic switching when reverse gear is engaged. It costs £84.99, but at the time of writing this price has been reduced to £64.99.
If you like the comfort of a warm bottom on a winter’s morning, you’ll be pleased to know it’s possible to retro-fit heated seats to the front seats of most vehicles. Heating elements are placed between the upholstery and the seat cover, without altering the shape or look of the seat. Why not go the whole hog and add lumbar support?
If you run your sat nav via a smartphone or modern system, the chances are you already enjoy the benefits of real-time traffic monitoring. If not, it’s worth considering Waze, which claims to be ‘the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app’. Using insight from other motorists, Waze suggests the fastest and most optimal route possible to any destination. Best of all, it’s free!
Seat-back tablet mounts
This is one example of where an older car can stay ahead of the game. Rear-seat entertainment systems are fine, but technology moves on at such a rate, they’re soon outdated and outmoded. Besides, consumers want portability, so why not install a seat-back tablet mount – so you can take your entertainment with you? We found one for as little as £10.
Turn your car into a wi-fi hotspot to provide your passengers with internet access while on the move. EE offers a 4G wi-fi, allowing users to check newsfeeds, stream music, play online games or post social updates commenting on your poor driving skills. The system supports up to 10 wi-fi-enabled devices at once, and there are various tariffs available.
TomTom Curfer plug-in dongle
If your car was registered after 2004, you should be able to fit a TomTom Curfer. By plugging into your car’s OBD port, the Curfer links to your smartphone to provide feedback on your driving technique and your car’s performance. Curfer scores acceleration, cornering, braking and idling in real-time, along with detailed data on your car’s battery voltage, oil temperature and engine load. It’s geek heaven for £59.
Buy a new car
Combine all of the above and we reckon you could turn your old motor into a techno powerhouse for around £1,500. Considering the Dacia Sandero Access – Britain’s cheapest new car – costs £5,995, and that doesn’t even have a radio, we think that represents excellent value for money. Alternatively, nip out and spend a shed load of cash on a BMW 7 Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
The mobile phone is a relatively recent invention, but it’s very difficult to imagine life without it now.
These portable computers are with us around the clock, taking care of schedules, photos, news, social networking, entertainment, security, payments and much more besides.
Here we look at the most important mobile phones in history.
Nokia 3210 (1999)
It looks plain by today’s standards, but the Nokia 3210 was the start of a real hot streak for Nokia and the culmination of three years’ work on Web-enabled handsets.
It got the combination of form, features and price just right and it was the first mass-market handset that didn’t have an external antenna ruining its aesthetics. It was pretty much the iPhone of its day… at least until the 3310 came along.
Sharp J-SH04 (2000)
There’s some debate about which was the very first phone to have an integrated camera: most tech historians seem to agree it was the Samsung SCH-V200 released in South Korea early in 2000, but we know more about the Sharp J-SH04 pictured here (on sale in Japan in November of that year).
Whatever the exact timing, these two handsets introduced a phone feature that we wouldn’t dream of trying to live without nowadays.
Nokia 3310 (2000)
The 3210 was good, but the 3310 was perhaps even better — as the 20th century turned into the 21st century, Nokia pulled off a one-two double-hit that made it the undisputed king of the mobile phone market.
The 3310 was smaller and lighter than its predecessor, though it kept all of the key features (including Snake) and most of the design of the earlier model. It eventually sold more than 126 million units — a huge achievement for the time.
Motorola Razr V3 (2004)
The Razr V3 will have a special place the hearts of many people of a certain age. While it didn’t have any standout features that were particularly innovative or unique, it combined form and function in a way that felt like the future.
Motorola went on to sell some 50 million Razr V3s in the two years after its launch, making it the most popular clamshell phone ever made, and it influenced a host of imitators.
It’s hard to overstate the original iPhone’s significance: it introduced concepts like the touchscreen and the app store before anyone else was taking them seriously (though the first model famously didn’t have support for third-party apps).
At first glance it seemed like a crazy departure from the smartphones that had gone before it, but the hardware and software template set down by the iPhone have defined the years since in terms of smartphones and tablets.
Nokia N95 (2007)
It came out the same year as the iPhone, and it didn’t have a touchscreen, but we shouldn’t forget the importance of the Nokia N95.
With a decent camera, mapping capabilities and a large colour screen, it was one of the first handsets that showed just how powerful smartphones would eventually become — in fact in terms of raw specs and features (a 5-megapixel camera!) it was a notch above the first iPhone.
T-Mobile G1/HTC Dream (2008)
There was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the T-Mobile G1 with the exception of the software running on top of it: a fledgling mobile OS called Android, bought by Google in 2005.
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine Google without its mobile apps and mobile OS, but this was a real departure for the company that made a search engine and Gmail. At this stage Android wasn’t much to write home about, but it definitely had potential.
BlackBerry Bold 9000 (2008)
For a few years after the iPhone hit, BlackBerry continued to make high-quality smartphones that business users loved, and the Bold 9000 was one of the best that the Canadian company ever put out.
It’s classic BlackBerry, with the full QWERTY keyboard and that trackball in the centre of it. It was definitely an attempt to capture the imagination of the consumer market, but by this point it was already too little too late.
Samsung Galaxy Note (2011)
Samsung gets a lot of flack for copying Apple, so let’s give the South Korean company credit where it’s due: Samsung realised we all wanted big phone screens long before anyone else did.
The original Note’s 5.3-inch screen was gigantic for 2011, but now it seems par for the course (this year’s Galaxy S6 is just a little smaller at 5.1 inches). The super-sized Note series has been one of Samsung’s most reliable sellers.
Nexus 5 (2013)
Google’s Nexus series is worth an entry in our list, but it wasn’t until the fifth device (manufactured by LG) that the handsets really made sense. The Nexus 5 hit the sweet spot of specifications, price and features, and with Android 4.4 KitKat on board, people signed up to buy it in their droves.
It remains the most well-loved phone in the Nexus series, though the new Nexus 5X (again from LG) might change that.
iPhone 6 Plus (2014)
All the iPhones that Apple has put out since 2007 have been influential in some way or another, but last year’s iPhone 6 Plus was more significant than most: it showed the Cupertino company admitting that there was demand for phones with larger screens.
The 5.5-incher has been followed by another one this year, and it looks as though the larger iPhone is here to stay — even if it hurts sales of the iPad mini.
Lumia 950 XL (2015)
We’re mentioning the new Lumia 950 XL from Microsoft not because of what it is but because of what it represents — Microsoft’s final roll of the dice as far as smartphones are concerned.
Can Windows 10 make its mark on mobile devices as well as desktops and laptops? Can Microsoft break the dominance of iOS and Android? The flagship Lumia 950 XL handset should tell us one way or the other in the near future.
Spotify has grown from being a small Swedish startup to become the most well-known music streaming platform in the world, dragging the whole industry into a new way of thinking about music along the way.
Whether you’ve joined up for Spotify yet or not, chances are you’ve heard of it, and there’s more to the Spotify apps than you might think.
Run smarter searches
The search box is the centre of the Spotify experience but you don’t just have to type out the name of a band, album or track.
You can restrict your search by adding “year:1980-1985” to the query, for example, to find songs and albums recorded during those years; you can also use the “genre:” operator to look for music matching a particular genre, like rock, disco or punk.
Filter your playlists
Those Spotify playlists can get a little out of hand can’t they? That’s why the Spotify apps for Windows and Mac include a simple filter tool: just get the playlist in question up on the screen, then tap Ctrl+F (or Cmd+F on a Mac) and enter your query — tracks matching whatever you’ve typed show up on screen.
Don’t forget you can sort playlists by particular columns too by clicking on the column headings.
Control Spotify remotely
Spotify’s apps for Android and iOS have a special feature that you might not have noticed before: they can control playback on your computer, and vice versa.
Via the playback controls on your desktop and mobile apps (look for the volume icon or devices link respectively) you can switch between your different devices seamlessly and control the playback from any of them — you just need to be signed into the same Spotify account on the same Wi-Fi network.
Bring back your deleted playlists
If you deleted a playlist you want to get back don’t panic, because you can undelete it for a limited period of time (it’s not clear how long) through the Spotify website.
If you log into Spotify.com (not the Spotify Web player) then you’ll find a Recover playlists link on the left-hand side, and you can bring back any playlist listed here with a click. The same Web portal lets you manage your other account settings as well.
Put your playlists into folders
We’ve already mentioned one tip for taming your playlists and here’s another: you can put your playlists into folders if you want to clear some room on the left-hand side of the Spotify interface.
Open the File menu and click New Playlist Folder or right-click anywhere in the playlist list and choose Folder — you can then give your new folder a name and start dragging existing playlists into it.
Import your own songs
One of Spotify’s best features actually harks back to the old days — the days of the MP3. If Spotify doesn’t have something in its catalogue, such as a rare b-side or outtake, then you can import the track from your hard drive instead.
From the desktop app, go to Edit and then Preferences, and under the Local Files heading you can set the folders that Spotify should watch: any files added to these folders get imported automatically.
Change the quality
When you’re out and about listening to songs on your mobile device, you can either stream tracks and take the hit on your mobile data bill, or cache them in advance for offline listening.
Whichever option you choose, you get to pick the quality of the tracks — head into the Settings page on your Android or iOS device and you’ll find a music quality section where you can choose from a list for both streamed and downloaded music.
Go back in time
If you want to get back to a great track you heard a few minutes (or hours) ago, it’s not always easy — but there is a way to do it. If you click the queue button on the playback bar inside the desktop app, you can switch to see your listening history as well as the upcoming queue.
It’s perfect if you want to go back to something you’ve just listened to – but it’s not yet available on the mobile apps, unfortunately.
Add Last.fm to Spotify
For those of you keen to go back even further and build up a truly comprehensive picture of your listening history, we can wholeheartedly recommend the free service Last.fm.
It works with Spotify as well as a host of other services (Rdio, iTunes), tracking everything you listen to through a process called ‘scrobbling’. You can then look back on months or years of listening and get new recommendations based on your tastes.
Touch and hold to preview
This one’s just for the Spotify app on iOS, but it’s very useful: if you’re browsing a playlist, you can tap and hold to preview a song without actually committing to it.
Keep your finger down and move it around to preview other tracks, and when you lift it off the screen you’ll go back to whatever you were previously listening to — it’s a handy way of checking out other playlists without messing up your current queue.
Keep your playlists private
Anyone who visits your profile on Spotify can see what you’ve been listening to and any playlists you’ve made public — and you don’t necessarily want to share your love of cheesy 80s pop with the wider world (or maybe you do?).
Right-click on any of your playlists to set them to public or private; you can also set the default behaviour for new playlists by going into the Settings page and toggling the Automatically make new playlists public switch one way or the other.
Work on playlists with others
Got a road trip or a big party coming up in the near future? Take advantage of Spotify’s collaborative playlist feature, which lets you work on playlists with other users — right-click on one and choose Collaborative Playlist to get started, then right-click again and choose Share to pick who you want to help you.
The playlist automatically appears in his or her Spotify account too, and you can both add tracks to it.
Steal other people’s playlists
You probably know you can subscribe to other people’s playlists on Spotify, which is a great way of finding new music to listen to: the downside is that those playlists can be changed without notice by their owners.
To create a copy in your own account, highlight all the tracks in the playlist, then choose Add to Playlist and create a new playlist. You can also add the songs to an existing playlist if you prefer.
Sing along with your music
Have you spotted the lyrics option down on the playback bar in the desktop apps yet? Click on it and you get the chance to turn Spotify into a makeshift karaoke machine.
You can toggle the Full Lyrics switch to see more of what’s coming up, and use the Options button to change the font size and turn off the background image (usually a picture of the artist in question). Lyrics are provided by the Musixmatch website.
Power through Spotify with keyboard shortcuts
Like most other desktop applications, Spotify has a bunch of keyboard shortcuts you can use to move around the interface more quickly.
There’s a full list on the Spotify website, but here are some useful ones: Ctrl+Shift+Down to quickly mute the volume, Ctrl-Right or Ctrl+Left to go backwards or forwards through the current playlist, and Space to pause playback (and start it again). You can also quickly jump to the Spotify Preferences screen by hitting Ctrl+P on the keyboard.
If you like cooking up a storm in the kitchen then there a huge number of mobile apps ready and waiting to help.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive directory of recipes then it’s difficult to beat the BigOven app, which boasts some 350,000 in total (enough for the fussiest of eaters).
Recipes can be searched or browsed by category, the app can put together a shopping list depending on what you’re making, and one of its best tricks is being able to come up with a meal based on the leftovers you have spare. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
A clever app that can recommend alternative ingredients if you’re baking or cooking for someone with food allergies.
Whether you need to cut out gluten or alcohol, this app can help find a substitute, and over 1,200 different ingredients are covered in an interface that’s a pleasure to navigate around. It even syncs across iCloud so you can use it seamlessly across several devices (as long as they’re made by Apple). [£2.29 on iOS]
Yummly is one of the biggest and most well-loved cooking networks on the Web, and the accompanying mobile apps are just as polished and in-depth as you would expect.
Through the use of big, appealing pictures and an intuitive layout, making a recipe from the app is a piece of cake whether or not you’re actually baking one. Save your favourite recipes, get personalised recommendations, create shopping lists and more. [Free on Android and iOS]
Getting meals and dishes arranged in advance can make a big difference to the cooking process, giving you more time for preparation and experimentation.
Food Planner is one of the best apps for working out what you’re going to be cooking and when, and it’s not just about scheduling either: the app also offers shopping list and recipe features, and you can get at your account through any Web browser as well. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
Described as an “interactive” baking app, Perfect Bake does a better job than most at actually guiding you through the process of making your cakes, cookies, pancakes and waffles — in fact if you have a compatible smart scale to hand then it can help measure out the ingredients too.
Wilton Cake Ideas
Wilton has been in the cake business for 85 years or so, so the company has a good chance of knowing which recipes work and which don’t.
This straightforward but well-presented app is great for finding inspiration about new ideas and cake designs when you’re feeling short of creativity — you can browse through the cakes in a number of ways, read reviews from people who’ve tried them and even ask questions. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
What Epicurious does well — besides its neat layout and freshly updated content — is combine user-submitted recipes with ones pulled from professional publications.
You can’t really see the join and that means there’s always a wealth of different meals and dishes to try out whatever your situation. Unfortunately the Android app doesn’t seem to get quite as much love as the iOS equivalent, but both are available. [Free on Android and iOS]
There are many apps for managing the whole cooking experience on your phone or tablet, but Paprika is one of the best, and it’s available on just about every platform you can think of as well.
You can keep your favourite recipes, lists of ingredients, meal plans and cooking tips all in one place, and everything syncs via the cloud to wherever you happen to be (recipes can be saved from anywhere on the Web too). [£3.17 on Android, £3.99 on iOS]
100 Cakes & Bakes Recipes
Just a few minutes staring at the mouth-watering photos inside the 100 Cakes & Bakes Recipes app is enough to get you in the mood for a lengthy baking session, and — as the name of the app suggests — there are plenty of recipes to get started with.
You can browse around based on category or occasion, or search for something specific instead, and you get a full list of ingredients and instructions with each recipe. [Free on Android]
This app adds something a little extra to your cake creations: it started off concentrating on firework displays but now there are a few other tricks to explore, including dancing unicorns and pirates.
It works via augmented reality, so you (or your child) holds up the smartphone to see the cake come to life. There’s also the option to capture a few special moments as the birthday boy or girl blows out the candles. [£2.36 on Android, £2.29 on iOS]
This baking calculator app sticks to the basics and does them well. While other apps in this round-up may have more features or more polish, you can’t argue with Panadero’s usefulness: it lets you quickly compare recipes against each other (to see which is sweeter, drier and so on), and scale them up or down by any amount.
You can identify bad recipes and get accurate cost estimates for your ingredients as well. [Free on Android]
Cake Recipe Book
If cakes are your thing then Cake Recipe Book is a free app that’s definitely worth checking out on your next browse through the app store — it gives you access to a whole host of different recipes, from cakes that are quick to make to seasonal choices to the frosting on top of your creations.
In each case you get a list of ingredients and cooking instructions, together with an estimate of how long it’s going to be before you’re finished. [Free on iOS]
Allthecooks is another recipe app that’s both packed with a lot of content and yet simple to find your way around in.
There are several hundred thousand recipes here, many of them submitted by fellow users of the app and the Allthecooks community: one of the best parts of the app is the way you can follow related recipes to get variations on the same theme. Of course, you can submit your own recipes too if you wish. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
Escoffier Cook’s Companion
Something for the more discerning chef here, this app brings with it a whole bunch of tools for making your life easier in the kitchen: a measurement converter, a kitchen timer, an ingredients list, an equipment list, a cooking glossary and more besides.
Everything is wrapped up in a tasteful interface that’s a world away from some of the other cooking apps you can find on the iOS and Android app stores (naming no names). [Freemium on iOS]
Cupcake Maker Salon
If you don’t want to get your hands (or the kids’ hands) sticky then making virtual cupcakes is the next best thing to cooking: you can teach youngsters the basics before setting foot in the kitchen.
The other advantage to an app like this is it lets you send cakes to faraway friends with a simple tap of the share button. There are plenty of in-app purchases here, but you can still get creative without paying anything. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
Fittingly called the LG Rolly Keyboard, it folds along four rows and comes with a ‘stick’ to carry it in (or chuck into your handbag or manbag).
LG says it’s extremely comfortable to use because the 17mm key pitch is almost identical to the 18mm pitch of most desktop keyboards.
Because it’s made of polycarbonate and ABS plastic, it has ‘satisfying tactile feedback not found on flexile silicone keyboards’.
Keys are high-contrast and there’s a fold-out section to stand a mobile device on.
Folding out the KBB-700 Rolly Keyboard turns it auto-on, connecting via Bluetooth 3.0. It’s powered by one AAA battery, good for three months’ use reckons LG.
Cleverly, it can be connected to two devices at the same time: users toggle between the two by pressing a key.
And if you thought this tech accessory was clever, stay poised, said Seo Young-jae, vice president in charge of Innovative Personal Devices at LG Electronics.
“LG Rolly Keyboard is just one of the many premium input devices we’ll be unveiling in the coming months as we expand our accessories offerings.”
The range from making yourself understood while abroad and improving your mood, to making your own music and video messaging friends more easily…
Moodnotes is a journal-style app that aims to improve how you feel by getting your thoughts down on (digital) paper and working through the feelings they bring up. The idea is that by identifying what influences your mood you can change your perspective and develop healthier thinking habits.
The only downside is you need to pay £2.99 to see if it works, but the developers are the same team behind the excellent Monument Valley. [£2.99 on iOS]
The latest in a long line of apps promising to help you get your inbox in order and prevent email from taking over your life — as long as you use Gmail.
Once you’ve connected InboxVudu to your Google account, it can prioritise the most important messages, remind you about emails you need to follow up on, and schedule meetings effectively. You can also use InboxVudu’s magic with Gmail on the Web. [Free on iOS]
MSTY — which stands for My Song To You, in case you were wondering — is a new twist on the instant messenger and is based around music. Pick a song from the extensive catalogue, add an image, write your message and you can send the whole package to a contact of your choice.
You might find it easier to just send a track through Spotify’s messaging system but MSTY is an interesting idea and well worth a look. [Free on Android and iOS]
Google Translator isn’t the only app in town for getting your phrases from one lingo into another. 50 different languages are supported and because the app works with audio as well as text you can practice your pronunciation too.
Sway is another app from Microsoft, this time one designed to help you pull together text, images, links and other elements in an appealing format that’s a breeze to swipe through — it’s pretty much PowerPoint for the mobile generation and it’s also available on the Web (though not on Android yet).
Use it for reports, presentations, newsletters, personal stories and more. [Free on iOS]
Out for a while now on iOS, Ninja Jamm makes the jump to Android devices this month and so earns a spot in our round-up. It’s a music-making workflow that manages to strike the right balance between accessibility and sophistication: anyone can dive right in and start creating, but there are more advanced tools here too if you need them.
There’s an awful lot of news and gossip to keep up with on today’s Web, and working your way through it isn’t easy.
Wildcard wants to help out by giving you the most important stories in bite-sized chunks that you can digest whenever you have a spare moment: it’s not a completely new app but the version 2.0 released this month is a significant upgrade. Popular stories you like can be browsed in depth. [Free on iOS]
Kaboom takes the Snapchat idea of disappearing messages and applies it to your other social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter (it also works with email, SMS and WhatsApp).
You craft your message, set when you want it to expire, and Kaboom takes care of the rest — your friends don’t even need to be using it for it to work. Just remember a quick screenshot can make your post a lot more permanent. [Free on Android and iOS]
As mature as our smartphone platforms now are, developers are still trying to crack the challenge of bringing together contacts from various different services into one central hub.
This is easier on Android of course, where you can completely replace the dialler app, and that’s exactly what Drupe does: recent interactions are collected by contact and you can simply swipe someone’s avatar over to an app shortcut to get in touch. [Free on Android]
Morpholio Journal isn’t the first app we’ve seen to let you jot down your ideas and imaginings on a digital scrap of paper, but it’s certainly one of the best-looking and easiest to use. Who knows, you might find yourself coming up with an idea that makes you famous.
Photos and text can both be added in, and if you want some more drawing and background options you can pay inside the app. [Freemium on iOS]
Yahoo was one of the original dot com companies but it’s struggling to stay relevant in the new mobile-first world. Livetext is its latest attempt to get traction with smartphone users: it’s a live video messaging service reminiscent of Snapchat or Periscope, but the twist is there’s no audio, so you can view your messages in the library.
It could still use some polish but it’s a promising start for Yahoo’s latest venture. [Free on Android and iOS]
Down The Mountain
If you’re looking for a new game to while away those spare moments in the office canteen or on the train, you could do a lot worse than Down The Mountain.
Okay, it’s not the most original game in the world in terms of either mechanics or appearance, but it’s still a lot of fun and nicely designed — your aim is to make your way down an infinite mountain, picking up stars and power-ups and avoiding enemies along the way. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
Farms & Castles
Our second game pick of the month is a far more sedate affair. Farms & Castles uses a simple puzzle gameplay mechanic but it’s very addictive and you’ll find yourself constantly wanting to dip back into the game or spend just a few more minutes trying to build your empire.
The appealing visuals and option to compete against your friends both help, and the magic orbs and trading possibilities keep the game from being boring. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
Lrn promises to help you “learn to code at your convenience” — it introduces you gently into the basics of coding for the web and for mobile devices.
Rather than giving you stacks of dry and impenetrable information, it uses interactive mini-quizzes to help you remember different terms and functions, though you need to pay within the app once you move on to more advanced topics. An Android version is coming soon. [Freemium on iOS]
Get some clarity in your writing with the help of Monospace Writer, a pared-down, minimalistic word processor for Android with a beta label still attached. It supports basic text formatting, Dropbox syncing, Markdown exports and a simple tagging system to keep your notes organised.
Whether you want to write the next great novel or just keep a shopping list close at hand, Monospace Writer is worth checking out and designed specifically for touch interfaces. [Free for Android]
Thankfully, the parent of 2015 has access to a whole arsenal of smartphone apps and games that can educate children at the same time as keeping them quiet.
My Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been entertaining children since the end of the 1960s and now it’s available in 21st century digital form. This 3D interactive app offers a variety of different experiences for young children, letting them explore the caterpillar’s world, grow food for the caterpillar to eat, and even peek into his toy box.
BBC CBeebies Playtime
You can usually rely on the Beeb for apps and games with high production values and BBC CBeebies Playtime is no exception.
The app holds a series of rotating games that entertain as well as educate, focusing on some of the shows currently on TV (Andy’s Dinosaur Adventure, Alphablocks, Tree Fu Tom). Based on the reviews left for the app, both children and parents alike love it. [Free on Android and iOS]
Lego City My City
For children who are a little older, the latest game from the Lego stable is worth a look. It’s a series of mini-games covering car chases, firefighting, deep sea exploration and more besides – part city simulation game and part traditional block builder.
With so much variety on offer the kids won’t easily get bored, and the graphics and interface are as professional as you would expect from Lego. [Free on Android and iOS]
Toca Life: City
The Toca Life format moves to the city, giving older kids the chance to shop, explore and entertain themselves in the virtual world much as they might do in the real one.
Toca Boca’s games are always polished and full of depth, and this latest one is no different: there are four locations and 28 customisable characters to play around with, and once you’ve bought the app there’s nothing else to pay. [£2.49 on iOS]
Apps featuring favourite characters from TV and the movies are always sure to go down well with younger people, and Peppa Pig is a prime example.
This officially sanctioned painting app lets your children explore their creative side as well as spend time with Peppa and George: there’s the option to start a new work of art from scratch or to do some colouring in instead, and pictures can easily be saved. [Free on Android and iOS]
Learn Music For Kids
Many kids enjoy bashing away on rudimentary musical instruments, and this app recreates the experience digitally. The app aims to stimulate intellectual and sensory development, and there are five instruments to pick from: piano, xylophone, drums, guitar and tubular bells.
Your children can play around with the instrument of their choice, learn a song or explore some real-life sounds. [Free on Android]
You’d be hard-pressed to find more well-loved characters than the Despicable Me Minions right now, and this endless runner puts the crazy yellow creatures at the centre of the action.
As well as the fast-paced main game there are bonus mini-games and a handful of goodies that are sure to please kids who loved the movies. The in-app purchases aren’t too obtrusive and new content has just been added. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
You may not want to stump up £5.99 and above for access to Netflix for yourself, but what you might not know is that there’s a wealth of kids programmes on there as well — it has its own shows (like Inspector Gadget and Danger Mouse remakes), classic movies (like Aladdin and Monsters, Inc.) and plenty of sing-a-long music content.
Inside Out Thought Bubbles
If the film reviews are to be believed, Inside Out might even hit the heights of Frozen in terms of broad appeal, and as you would expect there’s a tie-in mobile game to keep the children occupied.
Players are challenged to progress through 125 levels of bubble-shooting action, with new characters, backgrounds and power-ups appearing on a regular basis. It’s nicely done, if not particularly original. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
Minecraft Pocket Edition
What is there left to say about Minecraft? It’s one of the gaming sensations of our age, and if your children aren’t already into it then they soon will be.
The blocky open world environment allows kids to let their imaginations run wild, and there are options to introduce survival elements and cooperative play into the mix as well.
Endless Reader boosts your child’s early reading skills while keeping him or her quiet at the same time — it’s the follow-up to Endless Alphabet, and has the same appealing cartoonish interface and attention to detail.
Youngsters can use the app to learn the common ‘sight words’ that form the building blocks of reading, but you only get the first six words for free before the in-app purchases kick in. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
The Jungle Book
Just because the kids of today are swiping across touchscreens rather than leafing through pages doesn’t mean we have to leave the old literary classics behind: The Jungle Book is a beautifully done adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century masterpiece and all of the best-known characters from the stories are here.
What’s the most reliable way of keeping your kids entertained? If you answered “monsters” then Monster Mingle is worth a look — it’s an open-ended exploration game (with no fixed aim) where your children are free to use their imaginations and create their own journeys through a colourful and cartoon-like world.
Promising to be the app that “makes bedtime fun”, Goodnight Caillou is a sweet and gentle collection of mini-games that get your kids ready for the land of nod.
In total there are 20 different sections to explore, using a range of gameplay mechanics and covering everything from practising maths to learning about hygiene. The graphics and sounds in the app are all top-notch and professionally done too. [Freemium on Android and iOS]
LumiKids Park has been picking up app awards left, right and centre, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you have younger children eager for some entertainment.
There are a variety of mini-games here to educate and delight, and the app adapts to suit the learning level of the young person playing it. You don’t even need an adult to show them the ropes, though there are tips for parents included too. [Free on Android and iOS]
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