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Some months it feels like there’s nothing happening in the tech world even vaguely related to travel. Other months, my inbox and Twitter feed seem to be an endless succession of announcements.
The last few weeks have definitely been in the latter category, so apologies in advance for this news roundup being longer than usual!
This month: a quartet of exciting new phones, a couple of gadgets that seem tailor-made for travelers, Uber’s super-handy new feature, and eight years later, the Macbook Air’s finally getting a proper update.
Hello, Would You Like a New Phone?
Unless you’re Apple, October seems to be the month for smartphone releases. Many new phones aren’t that interesting for travelers, so I don’t bother mentioning them, but there’s plenty to get excited about in the latest round of updates.
After endless leaks, Google finally launched the Pixel 3. The hardware (at least on the smaller model) is attractive and well-designed, with useful new additions like wireless charging and an HDR display. As usual with Google, though, it’s the software that blows away the competition.
The camera, especially, is mind-blowingly good. There’s now a wide-angle front camera for getting everyone into your selfies, and some amazing AI smarts that turn unusable low-light photos into, well, this. It combines multiple near-simultaneous photos to come up with the best image. There’s a RAW mode, and much, much more.
The downside of the Pixel 3? The price: the non-XL version (a better buy, unless you absolutely love big phones) costs $150 more than the previous model. It feels like Apple’s given everyone else permission to push up the price of premium smartphones in the last year, but I really don’t love a starting price of $799, thanks all the same.
If you want a very good phone that doesn’t cost close to a thousand bucks, check out the new OnePlus 6T instead. Announced earlier this week, this incremental upgrade to the impressive OnePlus 6 starts at a much more reasonable $549 (and that’s with 128GB of storage, no less.)
The main highlights include an in-display fingerprint sensor, better battery life, and the usual blistering performance we’ve come to expect from OnePlus devices. If you don’t need wireless charging or the absolute best smartphone camera out there, you get a hell of a lot for your money with the 6T.
On a strict budget? Nokia continues to impress, with an update to its 3.1 handset from earlier this year. The Plus model will still cost under $200, with a similar attractive industrial design, but has a larger screen and battery, faster processor, and extra rear camera. It’s great value for money — keep an eye out for it in the US and other markets in the near future,
Finally, Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro is simply a remarkable piece of engineering. It looks gorgeous, and is even more impressive on the inside. It’s blazingly-quick, with loads of storage and memory, but that’s pretty standard for a premium Huawei device. What’s less standard? Try a 40MP rear camera, mammoth 4,200mAh battery, proper 3D face unlock, and an in-screen fingerprint sensor.
It has IP68 water and dust resistance, and something we’ve never seen before: reverse wireless charging. What the hell is that, I hear you ask? You can use the Mate 20 Pro to wirelessly charge any other device (including the new iPhones) that use the Qi charging standard. How often will you do that? Who knows, but it’s great for bragging rights, at least.
Sadly, there are no plans to bring it to the US — but if you’re in Europe, Australia, or Asia, this ultimate flagship device is available now. It costs a small fortune, but there’s nothing else quite like it on the market.
A Waterproof Kindle Paperwhite, and USB-C Earbuds That Don’t Suck
As someone who once managed to drown their Kindle by dropping it into the ocean, Amazon’s latest update to the Kindle Paperwhite excites me perhaps more than it should. Our favourite e-reader now has IPX8 water resistance (that’s up to an hour in six feet of water) which means you can safely read it in the bath or beside the hotel pool without fear of a watery demise.
The waterproofing is the main difference, but the latest Paperwhite also has at least 8GB of storage, mainly for audiobooks, and support for Bluetooth headphones to listen to them. The price remains about the same, starting at $129, and you can pre-order it now.
Smartphones without a headphone jack still feel like something that literally nobody is asking for, but at least now there’s an alternative to Bluetooth or dongle hell. Google’s shipping some surprisingly-good USB-C earbuds with the new Pixel 3, but it’s also selling them separately for anyone else who wants them.
For $30, you get some nice simple earbuds that never need charging, and sound clean and crisp even at high volumes. There’s a microphone and remote on the cable, plus support for both Google Assistant and the company’s real-time translation feature that vaguely works some of the time.
There isn’t much noise isolation or bass output, but as far as low-cost listening devices that work with pretty much all recent smartphones (and even Macbooks and other USB-C laptops), you’ve finally got an option that doesn’t suck. It’s been a long time coming.
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Contacting Your Uber Driver Just Got Easier Overseas
If you’ve ever used Uber overseas, you’ve probably come across one of its frustrations: contacting the driver.
If you’ve picked up a local SIM card, the number won’t match what’s in your Uber profile, and they can’t call you. When you’re roaming, making a phone call is expensive no matter whether it’s you or the driver doing it, and if you’re on Wi-fi only, you’re screwed.
End result? Lack of communication and extra frustration before you even get in the car. Not ideal.
Uber’s realised that as well, and recently added a VoIP calling feature to its app to try to solve the problem. Using cell data or Wi-fi to make the call, you and your driver can talk directly from within the app. In most cases, that’ll cost very little or nothing — and will certainly be a lot cheaper than dialing an international number or making a roaming call.
It’s a simple thing, but for international travelers in particular, it saves time, money, and hassle. Nice work, Uber.
Apple Just Updated the Macbook Air. Wait, What?
Like almost everybody outside Apple, I’ve long assumed the Macbook Air was a dead man walking. The laptop hadn’t received a proper update since 2010, and every year it didn’t get one seemed another nail in its coffin.
Well, the company confounded pretty much everyone on Tuesday, announcing a revamped Air with the latest Intel chipset, Retina display, and a pair of USB-C ports. Unsurprisingly, maybe, it looks and feels a lot like a thinner, lighter version of a recent-ish Macbook Pro.
There’s no Touch Bar, but there is a fingerprint scanner, and the keyboard is apparently based on the one found on the latest Macbook Pro. That hopefully means it’s less noisy and prone to breaking than the earlier generations of that keyboard, which can only be a good thing.
For Apple-loving travelers, the Air may well once again be their best laptop option, but we’ll wait until the reviews start coming in before passing judgment. Pricing seems high — $1199 for a machine with 8GB of RAM and a puny 128GB of storage would be a hard sell if any other company made it — but this is Apple, and the normal rules of economics don’t seem to apply to its products.
Speaking of expensive Apple gear, the company also pushed out an update to the iPad Pro at the same event. With much thinner bezels and a pin-sharp screen, it’s a gorgeous device in either 11″ or 12.9″ sizes.
Inexplicably, there’s no longer a headphone jack, but there is still a big camera bump on the back. Because more people take photos with their enormous tablet than plug in wired headphones? I seriously doubt it, but here we are.
Other notable changes include the loss of the home button — it’s Face ID-only now — and a switch from Lightning to USB-C charging. With that comes a change to the Apple pencil as well, which is smaller and now charges wirelessly while attached (magnetically) to the side of the device. Neat.
Sadly, if you thought the cost of the new Macbook Air was high, you won’t be thrilled by the new iPad Pro either. Starting price has jumped from $649 to $799, and that fancy pencil costs an additional, jaw-dropping $129.
If you need to type more than a few paragraphs at once and need to throw in the keyboard case/stand as well, you’re up over $1100 already, and still only have 64GB of storage. Damn that’s expensive.