3 Jun 2016

Gear: Top 6 travel gadgets revisited

Three and a half years ago I posted an article about my top 6 picks for travel gadgets. A summary of my picks back then:

  • 6. Bluetooth headset—Sena SMH5
  • 5. Tablet—iPad mini (WiFi+3G)
  • 4. Camera—Nikon D7000
  • 3. Universal charger—TomTom High Speed Multi-Charger
  • 2. GPS—BMW Navigator IV
  • 1. Smartphone—iPhone 5
Technology advances quickly so what’s changed since then?

6. Camera (nice to have)

Dropping from 4th to 6th place, I was considering leaving out the camera altogether as smartphones have begun to match or surpass the quality of even higher end compact cameras. Put another way—the average untrained non-photographer will almost certainly take a better photo with a late model smartphone than with even a DSLR. Not to mention DSLRs are huge and heavy, with my Nikon D7000 weighing in at an obese 2 kg with the speedlight attached.

The £399 Fujifilm XF1 caught my eye one day when I was at an electronics shop and I had a quick play with a display unit. When I got home, I read up on it and saw the XF1 was consistently receiving high ratings. A few weeks later it went on offer for an amazing £129 and I nabbed one.

The camera is tiny, a bit bigger than a deck of cards, and the main advantages over a smartphone include an lens with optical zoom and a real flash (noting that onboard flashes on any camera make for ghastly photos when used directly, but they can useful in slow-sync mode).

While it takes acceptable photos in Auto mode, Fujifilm included plenty of controls and features (including PSAM modes) which means a DSLR user like me is immediately at home with familiar settings. By being able to select metering, focus area, aperture, exposure compensation etc I can easily get the look I want and, in the right hands, this little camera is capable of taking some extremely good photos in conditions less than ideal for a smartphone.

If my trip focussed specifically on photography I would still take my Nikon DSLR, otherwise the tiny, light XF1 is all I need to get shots I’d probably not attempt with my phone. The battery life is just adequate at a few hundred shots (without flash) between charges, but this means a downside—the camera doesn’t charge over USB which means carrying a small battery charger.

Photo: Fujifilm XF1—£129 (on offer)

5. Bluetooth headset

Up a notch from 6th to 5th place, the Sena SMH5 is a low-cost, reliable, robust and reasonably well-featured headset—in fact I still use the same unit I reviewed back in 2013.

The speakers have become a bit crackly at higher volumes but replacements are only about £20. Otherwise the unit has proven virtually bulletproof, having survived temperature extremes, weather extremes, various drops on concrete and even a crash in the Czech Republic.

The battery still lasts more than a day with the intercom channel open and it charges via USB in about 2 hours. Software updates are quick and easy using Sena’s firmware update software and means the unit has actually gained features through the years.

I’m so happy with this headset, if it ever dies I would replace it like-for-like.

Photo: Sena SMH5—Single £90/Dual £170

4. Ultrabook

Moving from 5th to 4th place and replacing the tablet, the ultrabook is just more versatile. Last year Apple introduced the new MacBook range with the 12” retina model and I fell in love with it.

On paper it looks hugely underpowered with only a 1.1–1.3 GHz (depending on version) Intel Core M processor but, countered with an extremely fast SSD, for everyday purposes it never leaves you waiting. Although it was never intended to run high-overhead software like Photoshop and InDesign, it does so respectfully smoothly—and the high resolution (2,304x1,440) screen makes using it a pleasure.

Despite the full-sized keyboard, it is not much different in size and weight to a standard iPad which means it takes virtually no space in a pannier—it is about the size of a stack of 25 sheets of standard copier paper.

As the only port is USB-C (for charging and data transfer) I don’t bother bringing the charger—only a USB-A to C cable (for charging with a universal charger) and a small USB-C to A dongle (for connecting a camera etc). For internet access on the go, I use hotel WiFi or connect via my phone’s personal hotspot feature.

For those who like to edit video on the road, I understand the 2016 update (which brings next generation Core M processors) has encoding hardware built into the video card which enables it to process up to 4k video in near realtime, despite the humble processor speeds.

It’s small, light, beautifully built and finished, and silent in operation as it does not have a cooling fan—but this all comes a rather premium price. I wouldn’t call it an entirely rational purchase but so what—I absolutely love it!

Photo: Apple 12” MacBook in space grey—£1,049–1,419

3. Universal charger

Still in 3rd place is the universal charger which enables charging USB devices such as smartphones, ultrabooks, headsets etc on the go—useful for any device not powered directly by the bike.

The TomTom multi-charger has one high speed (2.4A) and one standard (1A) port which means fast charging supported devices such as smartphones or even an ultrabook in sleep mode.

I’m going to cheat a bit on this one—with the space I save by leaving my DSLR at home I have more than enough room to include a mains powered USB charger. US-based Anker, which was started by a group of Google employees, make a well-designed and engineered 6-port USB charger—the PowerPort 6—which means simultaneously charging both headsets, ultrabook and smartphone simultaneously overnight.

The charger’s IQ feature automatically detects how much current the device can take which means it will supply 2.4A to smartphones and ultrabooks and 1A to headsets automatically, regardless of which port the devices are plugged into.

A USB-C version has since been released which replaces one of the standard ports with a USB-C port providing even more current for ultrabooks.

In practice I don’t often need charge on the go so I could do without the TomTom (I say this until I realise my phone is nearly flat and I need to book a hotel for the night!) in lieu of the essential ability to charge my devices overnight and the convenience of doing so with a single charger. Having both chargers is ideal, but the Anker is essential.

Photo (top): TomTom High Speed Multi-Charger—£20

Photo (bottom): Anker PowerPort 6—£26

2. GPS/satnav

Still in 2nd place is the essential-for-me GPS—not just for getting to unfamiliar destinations but also for the safety net of always knowing precisely where I am.

When ordering my new bike I decided to upgrade from the solid but not so responsive BMW Navigator IV to the fully revamped Navigator V.

This updated unit features a much faster processor for noticeably less lag when scrolling through maps and quicker routing for complex journeys. It links in directly with the bike’s computer systems, giving access to readings such as fuel range, speed etc and stats such as number of shifts and brake applications during the last journey. For data, an app needs to be running on a smartphone which enables the unit to pull weather and traffic information on the go.

The Navigator V also plays nicely with both my headset and smartphone, whereas the Navigator IV didn’t like being simultaneously connected to both while they were connected to each other. It also conveniently snaps into the R1200’s locking cradle—which is theft-deterrent but certainly not theft proof—and is powered directly by the bike.

Device and map updates are carried out by plugging the unit into a computer and using the Garmin Express app—previous versions of this app have, quite frankly, been truly astounding pieces of programming poo, but Garmin has really pulled it together and the latest version works perfectly with a simple, attractively designed interface.

One complaint I mentioned in a previous post is that the unit only has 8gb of onboard storage (or a touch more than the size of the EU map)—this means after spending more than £500 on the device you have to fork out a silly £5 more for a micro SD card or it’s not possible to run a map update.

It’s very pricy, but it’s fully featured, fully integrated with the bike’s controls, and best of all, does everything it should, quickly, consistently and without any fuss.

Photo: BMW Navigator V—£549 (with maps of Europe and no mount/cradle)

1. Smartphone

The smartphone is the one device I would struggle to live without and stays firmly in 1st place on my list. It’s a single device which can be a camera/video camera, a GPS, a computer, a tablet, a debit or credit card, a music player, a compass, a pedometer, an alarm clock, a television, a boarding pass and so on. Oh, and it makes calls obviously.

If I could only bring one device on this list when travelling, it would be my smartphone—since 2013 I’ve moved from the 4” iPhone 5 to the 5.5” iPhone 6s plus which means the phone now fulfils many of the functions of a tablet.

The camera on the 6s is really very good—as good in most conditions as the XF1 above, and not too far off the Nikon D7000. An added bonus is that photos and videos automatically synchronise to my computer wirelessly.

With ApplePay available almost everywhere in the UK (due to our contactless infrastructure introduced nearly a decade ago) it replaces my wallet for most day-to-day payments—in fact it’s becoming quite rare to find a shop which doesn’t take contactless payments yet.

I keep PDFs of my device and bike handbooks, insurance documents etc on the phone so everything is easily accessible in one place. As everything backs up to the cloud, even if the worst happens (phone drops down a sewer, for example) all my files, photos and information can still be accessed from a computer, and if it gets lost or stolen it can be wiped remotely.

Essential to the functionality of a smartphone of course a generous data plan. I have an unlimited data plan on Three which includes free roaming in most EU countries—this costs a reasonable £17/month.

Whichever smartphone you choose, it is an indispensable tool for travel—I would be lost without mine!

Photo: iPhone 6s plus—£619–789 (contract-free)