May 19, 2024

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Digitally first class

Future lacks wow factor with great gadgets in short supply

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What is the new, new thing in tech? Is it NFTs? The Metaverse? What about augmented reality?

ell, it’s certainly not in hardware or gadgets. 

As someone who reviews more tech than perhaps anyone else in Ireland, this is the first period I can recall in a long time where there’s nothing really new or surprising to have come into our lives recently.

Unless Apple pulls out a surprise hit in its expected upcoming smart glasses, the signs for the immediate future look a bit bland, too.

Take last week’s latest iPhone release. The iPhone SE is – as my in-depth review on independent.ie illustrates – a decent update to the previous model of two years ago. Its senior sibling, the iPhone 13, could also be described as being a bit better than the iPhone 12.

But unless you’re a chip enthusiast, the improvements here are largely incremental.

The same goes for Samsung. Its latest Galaxy S22 phones, all of which I reviewed, are impressive devices in their own right, but anyone with last year’s S21 isn’t missing out on much – and maybe even the S20 from the year before.

What about Moore’s Law? Where’s the equivalent to the big-screen breakthroughs of a few years back, which changed the way all of us use phones and computers, as well as how we access media and news content?

Where is the repeat of the staggering camera upgrades we saw during that same 2016 to 2018 period, which not only spawned an entire generation’s social media platform (TikTok), but is also the main reason we see smooth, clear footage from war zones in Ukraine – as opposed to jittery, cloudy videos before that.

Sure, we might say a handful of Chinese companies have brought the price of good quality handsets down, but by and large smartphones have settled into something of a conservative upgrade cycle. The result is fewer breakthroughs and more physical sameness than at any time in my 20-plus years evaluating them.

Try telling the latest OnePlus apart from the new Samsung, Huawei or Oppo. It’s almost impossible. And it’s even worse in other tech categories.

TVs? There honestly hasn’t been anything significant to write about since the mainstream introduction of Oled some five years back. Yes, you can get an amazing, budget-friendly picture on a 55-inch set now, but that’s been the case for four or five years.

TVs are now basically commoditised displays with a chip built in to show Netflix and Disney Plus, with a port for a Sky or Virgin set-top box. The advent of decent-quality wireless sound bars has helped, but there’s otherwise no real transformation in how the large screens might otherwise fit into our lives, such as occasional use for high-quality video calls.

It’s not just that we’re not interested in those uses – the tech to do it with simply isn’t very good.

What about laptops and PCs? Again, there’s not much to get them beyond the tech pages to the front pages. What is different about Dell’s best XPS laptop now compared to three years ago? Or HP’s Spectre X360? Or Lenovo’s top ThinkPad (a brand which prides itself on its familiarity of design and features)? Very, very little.

I can only think of one single innovation in the laptop world in the last two years: Apple’s M1 chip. This single engine part has basically given us MacBooks with 20-hour battery life capacities, something that is a genuine breakthrough.

But other than that, you’re missing nothing if you haven’t upgraded in the last 18 to 24 months.

I could go on and on. Headphones? Nothing much since AirPods and their clones. Smartwatches? You can do very little with a Fitbit, Garmin or Apple Watch that you couldn’t do in 2019. Alexa and smart speakers? There isn’t much that’s new.

Home appliances? Dyson is plugging away with hair dryers and handheld vacuums, and there are a handful of coffee-makers and cookers that have added more powerful chips and smartphone controls, but there’s not much else happening.

The much-ballyhooed smart fridge never did capture our hearts. Gaming machines? They’ve been essentially the same for years.

In one way, this is all fine. Some elements of it are good, as standardisation brings minimum quality expectations across the board.

But where’s the wow factor? Where are the jaw-dropping new features?

For what it’s worth, the product most people think will get the most attention when launched is Apple’s smart glasses. These are expected to be some flavour of augmented reality (AR), building on its iPad’s AR cameras and the company’s long-term belief in AR games and apps.

There’s no guarantee they will have mass appeal, given the niche success (although they are a success) of virtual reality goggles and visors. Then again, they said the same about the Apple Watch, which is now by far the world’s best selling watch of any kind.

The truth is that when it comes to gadgets there is very little so far this year – or last year – that has really caught anyone’s imagination.

Instead, we’re all caught up in hype cycle around NFTs, crypto and Web 3.0. That’s fine, and there are arguments why each of those could change the world as some new type of smartphone or smart glasses. But unless something sparkles soon, we’re entering a phase of comparatively dull gadgetry.

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