The year gone by has provided ample proof of this. And in India, we have been offered pretty much everything that has been globally available, usually at lower prices, thanks to good old jugaad or frugal engineering.
This is our countdown list of the greatest gadget categories in the year gone by. As you can see, this is not a ranking of specific brands but of the class of gadget.
10. VR headset
In 2016, most of us got our first look at Virtual Reality and its cousin, Augmented Reality. Both had been around for a few years but pricey delivery mechanisms kept them out of our reach. Google first foray in AR—Google Glass was a flop. Oculus who pioneered VR headsets priced themselves out of the consumer market. In India, it costs over Rs 80,000, 100 times the cost of an indigenously made model. It was left to a handful of mobile phone makers and a few third-party players to launch VR headsets that cost less than Rs 2,000, or were given away free as an phone accessory. Forget the ultra cheap Google Cardboard: it was not even good as a school project. My personal favourite is an Indian offering, the Zeb VR from Zebronics that was a comfortable fit, with focus-adjusting lenses that retails for less than Rs 1,000. It works with any phone up to 6 inch screen size. Today there is no lack of VR clips to watch. As I write this, I searched for VR video on YouTube and over 7 lakh video turned up.
9. Health band
Yes, yes, we know. Walking/jogging is good for us. The diabetics among us have been warned of dire consequences if we don’t take our daily 30 minute ‘constitutional’. (For those too young to understand this word, it is an old-fashioned expression that means “a walk taken regularly to maintain or restore good health”). Finally in 2016, we ran out of excuses to avoid that morning walk or run: someone had gifted us a health tracker. Of all the avatars of smart wearable technology, only the health band has caught public fancy. Mind you, what the band basically does, is to measure the steps or strides you take and your heart beat. All those displays of calories burnt and cardio fitness, is so much extrapolated hocus-pocus. But measuring your heart rate was a great thing. It alerted you if you overdid things. Global brands like FitBit can cost Rs 8,000 or more if you want extras like sleep monitor, GPS, phone alerts etc. Indians were offered basic models at around Rs 700- 800. Many health band makers created subscription models so that users could have a real-life trainer, egging them on when their enthusiasm flagged. We tried out quite a few attractively priced health bands this year.
Samsung had a cool idea of combining a health band with a music player and 4G of storage for some 1,000 songs in the Gear Fit 2. We reviewed it though we were not exactly singing when we heard the price of nearly Rs 14,000.
8. Pocket Hotspot
Your access to the Internet is great at home, because you have subscribed to a fibre optic cable-driven broadband connection and then turned it into a wireless hotspot with a home router. But what happens when you step outside? The data plan of your mobile phone is patchy when it comes to coverage. Things get worse when you stay at a hotel—many of them charge from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 for a day’s connectivity.
The pocket WiFi hotspot came as a huge help in 2016. This is because the small pebble-shaped device worked with any make of SIM and set-up was a cinch. Many customers now prefer to have a second dedicated SIM only for the mobile hotspot and to use it on a prepaid plan. For me, faced with a couple of outstation trips every month, the mobile pocket has been a Godsend. I got one of the early models from D-Link but you can find half a dozen options from TP-Link, Huawei etc and they all cost around Rs 2,000 to 3,000. We reviewed some models a few weeks ago in this space.
Most mobile service providers have their own pocket routers which are a bit cheaper, but somehow I don’t like the idea of a device that works for only one make of SIM. In my experience, no single provider has uniformly good coverage all over India and I usually carry two data SIMS which I switch to get the best data speeds in any city.
7. Power Bank Plus
The humble power bank figures in this Top Ten list because unlike all other gadgets, this one is a life saver. Phones have become slimmer, lighter, more app heavy and less reliable. Most of us have had the experience of a phone going dead just as we are about to book a cab or buy a ticket. Inspite of the hype, only few phone batteries last a full day of intensive online use without needing a recharge. Power banks are becoming cheaper and cheaper per mAh of power, and more versatile. Some double as external storage by throwing in a few hundred GB of flash space. We have reviewed the Kingston Mobilite Wireless Pro, which offers 64 GB of emergency storage that can be wireless accessed, with its 6,700 mAh battery.
These days you have to carry them in your hand baggage on flights, so it doesn’t make sense to carry a jumbo model that gives 10,000 mAh etc. In any case, these are emergency devices and I prefer to carry a small pocket-sized power-bank of around 5,000 mAh which costs about Rs 500. UIMI Technologies based in Delhi recently launched the first solar chargeable power bank under the Make in India programme. The 6,000 mAh UIMIU3 for Rs 799 is great value for money.
6. Raspberry Pi
Picture this: a credit-card sized computer which can connect to an HD display and as many peripherals as a full-fledged desktop. The Raspberry Pi with its Lilliputian design has been available since 2012 and its use has spread like wildfire, especially in engineering and professional colleges in India where students have embraced it as a platform to create a host of Internet of Things applications. This minion packs 2 GB of storage, USB, WiFi, Micro SD extensions and a HDMI port. Today you can buy it online for about Rs 3,000.
If any single device unleashed the creativity of young Indians this year it is the Raspberry Pi. In Kerala, they started even younger: the state distributed 7,500 Pi kits to school children to encourage programming skills. In the strict sense, the Raspberry Pi is not a gadget, but thousands of young Indians are turning it into many cool gadgets, which is why it makes it to our list.
5. Smart TV
From YouTube to Hotstar to YuppTv to the latest entrant to India—NetFlix—2016 saw Indians watching a good chunk of their movies and serials on the Internet. So it was inevitable that the PC-TV sangam would make smart TVs a compelling proposition for us in 2016. Add to that the tumbling price of LED-LCD TV sets plus the tipping point in screen resolution, from Full HD to Ultra HD and 4K—and what resulted was bonanza year for TV buyers. The sweet spot: for less than Rs 25,000 was a 32 inch to 35 inch HD TV. Viewers faced a dilemma. For a few more thousand rupees , should one go for a larger set or a smarter one?
Smart TV was the way of the future, allowing us (with a connection to the home WiFi network) to seamless switch from cable or dish channels to Internet channels on the same set. Did you miss the evening transmission of Karutha Mutthu(Malayalam TV serial) or Yeh Hai Mohabbatein (in Hindi)? No worries! Catch up with the missed episode on Hotstar before the next evening. For millions of Indian viewers, this was the first ‘worthwhile’ use of Internet and they duly cast the deciding vote for smart, rather than big. Chinese entrants to the TV arena like LeEco and TCL, graduating from the tiny screen of the mobile phone, offered jumbo-sized smart UHD TVs at disruptive prices, well below Rs 1 lakh.
The year also saw LED slowly being replaced by Organic LED ( OLED) which helped make TVs unbelievably thin. This holds out the possibility of roll-up-and-carry TVs in the not-too-distant future.
4. Bluetooth speaker
Wireless speakers are no big deal but trust makers to add an interesting spin to the basic device that works outdoors, on batteries and lets you take your calls. In 2016, we saw water-resistant speakers for those wet-n-wild outdoor parties and a model that comes with its own little rubber raft, so you can set it floating in the pool—the Ultimate Ears UE Roll2 from the New Jersey maker costs Rs 8,485 in India.
Another class of Bluetooth speaker throws in LED bulbs so it also serves as mood lighting or a desk lamp.
3. Lampless projector
Projectors have been around as long as cinema. Through all these years, the light source of the projector was its Achilles Heel. The old theatre arc lamps, always held out the danger that they would ignite the celluloid film and set the hall on fire. Even with home and office projectors, the intensely hot lamp was a nuisance that seemed designed to prove Murphy’s Law—anything that can go wrong will go wrong—usually dying on you when you were in the middle of a critical screening.
In 2016, the lampless projector arrived and was hailed as the biggest advance in cinema after colour and digital filming. It uses a laser as light source together with one of three competing technologies to create the colours—3LCD, Digital Light Processor or Liquid Crystal on Silicon.
2. Dual-lens camera phone
The harsh and cardinal truth about photography is this: get the focus right or lose the photo opportunity forever. Software like Adobe Creative suite’s Photoshop offered a ‘sharpen’ tool but this was never good enough to rescue a badly focused photo. And photos become out-of-focus especially if you fall back on the auto focus option. It is easy to deceive this option –it looks for the brightest light source in the field of view and assumes that is also the most important.
For me, the biggest news of 2016 was a phone with a camera that lets you shoot first, focus later. It achieved this by offering a rear camera with two lenses: one colour, one monochrome. The sum of what these two lenses separately shot was spectacularly greater than its parts. And biggest bonus: it allowed us to change the focus after taking the shot. I say ‘change’ not ‘sharpen’ deliberately. These days there is a fashionable school of photography which wants to deliberately blur some portions of the image for artistic effect. It is called the Bokeh effect.
The epitome of the dual lens camera in 2016 was Huawei’s P9 with a Leica lens system. Its successor was the Honor 8 which I got to try and shared my experience with readers. But Huawei is by no means alone and in recent months many phones with dual lens cameras have hit the market— LG G5, iPhone 7, Lenovo Vibe S1, LeEco Le X 850 and Samsung Galaxy S8. The next Vivo phone—V5 Plus—will offer dual lenses with the front or selfie cameras.
1. 3-D printer
Commercial 3-D printers first appeared in India two years ago, but remained costly tools that were mostly used by design houses to create prototypes of mechanical parts. Then a new wind of of innovation blew across the business. The huge potential of printing or rather fabricating solid structures with a printer that used resins rather than ink, was unlocked when startups discovered how cheap it could be. In fact this is one technology that caught the big names in the digital printing business —the HPs, the Canons and the Epsons—sleeping. Dozens of unknown names in India, began selling basic 3D printers either assembled or in kit form for as low as Rs 20,000. What you do with a 3D printer is limited only by your imagination—from replacing a broken spectacle frame to crafting a spare set of false teeth for granny. It is the ultimate fusion of art and science, and this is why we rate it as the top gadget that touched Indians in 2016.