Stuff happens

The <em>NS</em> team casts its collective eye over the latest gadgets

Mitsubishi i MiEV, from £20,000

My first, and until this week, last experience of driving an electric car was in the Sixties, when for my tenth birthday treat Tom the Milkman let me drive his Express Dairy milk float. As far as I can remember it had one headlight, one forward gear, one reverse gear and a bench seat. When the accelerator pedal was pressed to the metal it rattled along at about 5mph with Tom jogging along beside to ensure that nothing untoward happened to either vehicle or cargo.

Even then I knew, although I did not tell Tom, that it was uncool. It was no Ford Cortina. It was an embarrassment on three wheels that I, who had sent off for and received Stirling Moss’s autograph, knew was no more likely to evolve into acceptable transport for the modern charioteer than the butcher’s bicycle or the baker’s brown “baby” Austin A35 van.

That was why I did not bother with string-back driving gloves when I arrived to test Britain’s first all-electric car from a major car manufacturer, namely the Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle (i MiEV). The bright red-and-white i MiEV pod, which looked like a courtesy car for Flash Gordon, was waiting for me at the headquarters of Mitsubishi UK in the Cotswolds town of Cirencester. It was a curious urban vision in this rural protectorate of 4x4s and elderly shooting brakes.

I turned the switch and there was silence. The only sign of motoring life was a lit-up big dial to show me when I was charging the battery and three small dials the size of 50 pence pieces indicating mph, mileage and how much juice there was left (it can do 80 miles on a full tank unless it’s a wet December night, when windscreen wipers, heater and lights reduce the journey distance to roughly 60 miles). The automatic gearbox is virtually indistinguishable from a normal car and when I slipped it from “Park” to “Drive” it whistled forward with the speed and efficiency of a horizontal elevator. And still the only sounds were the pinging of the unbuckled seat-belt warning light and the squeak of the wipers.

The i MiEV is the first proper electric car, as opposed to the G-Wiz “quadracycle” or electric hybrid, to go on sale in the UK. Two hundred of them will be available in the autumn and, at £20,000-plus each, most are expected to be bought by companies.

Only the silence and the fear that, at least in the countryside, one is nowhere near a three-pin socket distinguishes the electric machine from its petrol-driven sibling. It is true that it frightens the horses because they can’t hear it creep up behind them, and there are moments when it sounds like a Tube train, but otherwise its high-energy lithium battery allows it to belt along the lanes as comfortably as any CO2-pumping “dirty” car. In fact, I managed a comfortable 80mph on the motorway. All in all, it is as nimble and punchy as a bantamweight boxer. Or to put it another way, it has, as was chanted about the Seventies Arsenal footballer Charlie George, “more bottle than a milkman’s float”.

Adam Edwards

Leyio Personal Sharing Device,£159

This is a curious but fun portable 16GB hard drive to share documents, music, video, images and more. Of course, you can transfer files using a computer and a USB memory stick, but the rugged, rubberised Leyio lets you share stuff without the PC. So, provided both you and your friend have Leyios, you simply shake one and the selected files are transferred to the other. It uses a fast shortwave radio connection (no need for a wifi network) to move files at 80 megabits per second, so a batch of music tracks can be transferred from one device to another in well under a second, though there’s no music playback – you need to move them to a computer or player for that. Your files are secure, thanks to a fingerprint sensor integral to the Leyio’s operation. It’s not that easy to use, but this may be the first of a new wave of file-sharing devices.

Nikon D90 camera, £1,092.49

This is a substantial piece of equipment in every sense. Cumbersome, sporting 12.3 megapixel resolution and an equally impressive price tag, the D90 is designed for the serious photographer. The quality of the photos is outstanding and there are enough settings to keep even the most experimental hand occupied. But what makes this camera stand out against its peers? The improvements on its predecessor, the D80, may seem like fine tuning, but actually incorporate significantly new technology, such as D-lighting and 3D tracking, which keeps the subject in focus when you change a photo’s composition. The big letdown is the video mode – the image quality is much poorer, and at times blurred. But it’s an outstanding model, whether you are a novice or a professional. Given the number of settings, it is remarkably easy to navigate your way to taking your first picture, which is unlikely to be a bad one.

Vuzix AV230 XL video eyewear, £149.99

Worn like a pair of sunglasses, the latest in “iWear” allows you to watch DVDs on your iPod through a binocular display that promises a “virtual 44-inch home theatre”. So, it is disappointing to find that the uncomfortable design – too heavy, with a nose bridge that pinches – lets the Vuzix down. That said, the images are crisp and the colours vivid. Although the AV230 XL is the basic model, it is compatible with a broader range of devices than later versions. You can connect it to an iPhone or portable DVD player, as well as the iPod, with minimal fuss. Ultimately, it’s the idea behind the Vuzix – private viewing in public places – that is exciting, not the technology. But when and for what would you want to use it? On the way to a Star Trek convention or to watch rude videos on the train, one is tempted to think.

Toshiba NB200 netbook, from £319

Netbooks are the latest computing phenomenon: lightweight laptops with a built-in wireless internet connection, cheap and small enough for working on the move. The cost is held down by the lack of an optical drive (so no playing CDs or DVDs) and because they have small screens – usually nine or ten inches. The NB200, out this month, has a ten-inch display and the extra size makes for a better-than-average keyboard, too, though it’s still no replacement for a full-sized model when it comes to extensive typing. Nonetheless, it’s comfortable to use and the hard drive (160GB) is pretty capacious, unlike some earlier netbooks. Further models will be released with built-in mobile broadband, permitting internet access via the mobile-phone network.

Flip Mino HD camcorder, £169.99

Rectangular, black and small enough to fit in your pocket, the Flip camcorder looks like a mobile phone. Given that most new phones have built-in video cameras anyway, you might wonder what, if anything, makes this gadget special. For one thing, the video quality is impressive for such a compact device – although the clarity of the image does deteriorate if you move around much when filming, it’s no worse than some of its larger rivals. It can record up to an hour of high-definition (720p) video footage, and although the sound isn’t flawless, it will meet the requirements of most users. It has simple controls and boasts
a pop-up USB stick that allows you to download videos on to your computer quickly. Stephen Fry, high priest of Twitter and avid techie, has already praised the Flip range, so expect the buzz to grow.

Jura Impressa Z5 – Generation II, £1,795

Rather presumptuously named (“Impressa”? We’ll be the judge of that, thank you), but for those who don’t have the time to boil their espresso on the hob, still less heat and froth milk for a cappuccino, this beast of a machine is a great labour-saver. Just press the appropriate button and at once the beans are a-grinding, the milk a-steaming and whatever-cino you desire from its seven settings is ready within seconds. However, the price is as hefty as the Impressa is bulky. Those who like their ristretto to be treacly enough to stand a row of spoons in might also find the results a little weak. Suitable for an office or a cafe, but a little de trop for home use.

Fatman iTube ValveDock Carbon Edition 2, with Speakers, £349.99

An iPod dock-and-amp combo fitted with vacuum tubes might seem as intuitive as an energy-saving light bulb with a candle inside it. In fact, in the world of high-end audio the valve is king. And sure enough, the sound of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” was nothing short of revelatory: here was real heft, tonal fullness and a beautiful, see-through quality to the music. Whether the Fatman was fed Miles Davis, Kraftwerk or L’Arpeggiata’s recent Monteverdi recordings, the sound beguiled. Solidly built, with a good remote, additional inputs and 28 watts a channel, the Fatman is a genuine bargain. And available in any colour you like, so long as it’s black.

Android G1 mobile phone

The Android G1 from T-Mobile, Google’s foray into mobile-phone technology, plucks at the coat-tails of Apple’s triumph. Like the iPhone, it has downloadable applications and a touch screen, but the phone is clunky. Its virtues? You can swing out a QWERTY keyboard with individual keys, which helps the fat-fingered among us. And it has an inbuilt compass, which is pleasingly quaint. A sleeker version is due out early this month – but by then most iPhone users will have downloaded the app that makes a cup of tea for them, while the G1 will still be blithely pointing north.