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25 great gadgets for summer

The best cameras, satnavs, music players and e-readers

Only the most useful, hardest-working gadgets earn a place in PC Advisor's hand luggage. Here are our tips for how to pack light but still be fully kitted out for a summer trip

A gadget used to be a whimsical piece of frippery that was more of a talking point than a practical piece of electronics kit. These days, the focus is on portability, practicality and lengthy battery life. You don’t need to pack a massive digital SLR camera with three different lenses if you’re heading off on a weekend break. A point-and-shoot camera with sufficient zoom range and image stabilisation is probably a better bet. If you must have lens options, a Micro Four Thirds camera is a good compromise, since its body is far smaller than an SLR camera’s and the lenses are commensurately smaller and lighter too.
 
Choose wisely and you’ll be able to snap away to your heart’s content and not need to recharge the battery either, meaning one less charger eating into that tiny luggage allowance. Look for a CIPA-certified indication of battery life. A decent camera will last 300 shots between charges; some models stretch to as many as 1,000 shots, but bear in mind this doesn’t take into account how much battery is drained by browsing through the day’s photos, nor the additional power used up by capturing and playing video or zooming in and out.

Similarly, you may be able to double up on functions. Universal chargers are a great item to pack – provided that you remember to take the necessary international mains adaptor. Don’t forget media cards either, and bear in mind that a single device that does it all may not be all that useful if you need to charge several items at once. A better choice may be a mains adaptor that has a pair of USB ports – Belkin and others sell such chargers for around £19.
 
There’s still kudos to be had from toting just the right camera and mobile, as long as they’re accompanied by the right backpack and you’re wearing the right combination of beachwear.

Pseuds we may be, but we also like to think we know our stuff when it comes to the tech gear that matters. We’ve learned the hard way the cost – and extra expense – involved in lugging around gadgetry you just won’t use. Chargers, international mains adaptors, spare media cards and a simple, reliable camera with a waterproof case (plus perhaps a Kindle for exceptionally long trips) are all we need.

Before you go, see also:


Best Summer Gadgets: Satnavs

Depending on your experience of them, GPS/satnavs are either invaluable or a source of anxiety. They have also become shorthand for stereotypical over-dependence on technology. We like to think we have the balance about right. We'd never forsake maps entirely, but often use a satnav to help us negotiate the winding streets and one-way systems of cities with which we're unfamiliar. With less worrying over whether you need the third or fourth turning, there's more time to admire the scenery you came for.

TomTom Start 20

  • £129 inc VAT

Using a TomTom needn't be a complicated process. The Start 20 is an entry-level satnav that seeks to take the mystery out of using technology to help you get from A to B. It quickly locks on to your current location, asks you to enter a town or postcode and then choose a house number or cross street for a more exact destination.
 
The onscreen keyboard is frustratingly sluggish and, even though the keys are large, we had to backtrack a couple of times to correct the choice we thought we'd made. However, we were impressed that the Start knew which direction the car was facing before we set off (not a given on satnavs) and by its ability to reorientate the screen when we placed it back in its docking cradle.

The slim dimensions mean it slips easily into a pocket when you're out and about.

Despite TomTom's bold claims of having the latest maps and adding thousands more miles of tarmac to its UK and Europe database, we soon caught out the Start, and we took issue with it routing us through north London's congested streets. However, the mapping is very clear, and new context information in the form of lakes, rivers, railway lines and so on help confirm you're on the right track.

Magellan eXplorist 610

  • £399 inc VAT

GPS devices aren't just for preventing hapless drivers from going round in circles in the middle of an unknown city; they can also be used to help to explore the great outdoors. Magellan is the name to know in nautical navigation circles. It makes some similarly impressive (but not cheap) handheld satnavs that focus on exploring off-road locations on foot or two wheels.

The eXplorist 610 works with Ordnance Survey maps, but also functions as a more traditional satnav to help you get to the remote location from whence your great wilderness trek will commence. Relief maps and terrain information are all faithfully plotted. For those who like to go orienteering, a geo-caching model is also available.

Local knowledge

For smartphone users, there's little point in investing in a separate satnav device. You can get some great satnav software in the form of Navigon or CoPilot on the iPhone, or Telmap on BlackBerry. There are apps for almost every sort of activity, from clubbing to eating, to finding the most chilled-out spot to log into  a Wi-Fi connection and catch up with the world and where to rest your head. Berlitz City Guides, TimeOut, TopTable, Harden's, Frommers, Zagat and TripAdvisor all have Android, iPhone and BlackBerry apps, while WorkSnug's internet café ambience reviews app is currently only on iPhone.

Google Maps and BlackBerry Maps do a fine job of ensuring you can skip from recommended venue to recommended venue. If the crowded city has you befuddled, however, an augmented reality app such as Layar or Poynt (available for BlackBerry and Android) can help pinpoint the restaurant or nightclub you seek in among the neon lights. Perhaps more usefully, they also show you which way the nearest tube station is to be found and where to hail a taxi.

If communication rather than navigation is what you need, quick primers on how to order a coffee or beer, plus how to ask directions, are included with most of the travel guides we mention. The Berlitz guides are worth a look since they dovetail with the language-learning programs of the same name. We also tried out a couple of free apps to help ease us into a city break in Spain, but recommend using these in combination with a more formal learning option.

If you've no time (or inclination) for classes, flash cards and repeat-after-me exercises are offered at the BBC website. Of course, if you're taking an eReader, you can load it up with a dictionary and a phrasebook.

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