Do you understand me?
Ten years ago, Microsoft conducted a live demo in China of a computer that translated spoken English into spoken Mandarin. It was an extraordinary moment, an impressive demonstration of how technology can overcome language barriers. Watching it then, you felt it would only be a couple of years before Douglas Adams’ fabled Babel Fish (the universal translator featured in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) would become a reality. We would get something in our left ear and be able to understand languages from any number of distant countries.
That dream is still a bit away, but we are moving forward, bit by bit. Skype has been translating conversations in near real-time for a while now, and there are some devices dedicated to translating spoken sentences on the fly. The marker-sized Scan Reader Pen 3 PRO is one of these. Choose your spoken and translated language from a list of 112 – from Arabic to Vietnamese – say a few words, and in a few seconds you’ll hear the translation spoken and see it displayed on the built-in screen.
As the name suggests, it is also a scanner. Swipe it over lines of printed text in any of 55 languages (including Japanese, vertical swiping allowed) and you can hear them read back, or have them translated into the language of your choice, or save them in text format for export to a computer or mobile unit. You can swipe at surprising speed (it claims to handle 3,000 characters per minute with 98 percent accuracy), and if you happen to need to define individual words, it’ll do that in Chinese and English, too. Of course, it’s also a voice recorder and MP3 player – why wouldn’t it be?
It has a limitation; if you don’t connect it to WiFi, it can only translate between English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean – but hotspot it to your smartphone and you can instantly access the full range of languages. It’s a remarkably capable little gadget. No wonder it beat its crowdfunding goals earlier this year. NewYes Scan Reader Pen 3 PRO, £157.80
I remember my first guitar amp, kindly bought for me by my parents in 1988. A 10W Yamaha model about a foot square, it sounded terrible. (Penantly, there is recorded evidence of this.) The 10W Spark MINI is half the size and sounds divine. Pair it with a smartphone and you can use its app to select any number of styles and effects, all minutely adjustable, powerful and gloriously sharp. The app also lets you select any song from your streaming library (Spotify or Apple Music), analyzes the chords and shows them to you as it plays (not always 100 percent accurate, but pretty close). I would have dreamed of owning such a device as a beginner, and I’m excited to try it out like a pro. Positive Grid Spark MINI, £199
Join the fold
Foldable phones have been around for decades, but the earliest models were criticized for subpar performance, poor design, or simply falling to pieces. The Galaxy Z Flip4 offers proof that things have improved immeasurably, with a style that echoes the clamshell phones of yesteryear, but with an updated spec (a snappy Snapdragon chip, a 6.7-inch OLED display, wide and ultra-wide 12-megapixel cameras and a variety of shooting modes). Yes, the “crease” of the screen is visible in some lights, but the image on the screen is hardly affected. And yes, it’s twice as thick when folded and thus chunky in your pocket, but hey, that’s what happens when you fold things in half. Cute, groundbreaking, capable. Samsung Galaxy Z Flip4, £999
Oh so quiet
The market is full of wireless headphones at every price point, but these don’t play music. No, the QuietOn’s mission is to provide glorious silence in the most discreet way possible, and they start off promisingly by weighing just 1.8g each and sliding neatly into the ear with a push and a turn. While the foam tips simply act as earplugs, the built-in Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) handles annoying hums and other persistent sounds. There’s no on/off switch, but the ANC gently eases on shortly after taking them out of the bag. Put them in your ears at bedtime, and after 20 seconds or so you’ll experience an eerie transition to something approaching calm. QuietOn 3.1 sleep buds, £249
The original Ticktime appeared on a crowdfunding platform in April 2020 with a goal of around $1,300 and immediately raised almost $500,000. People were charmed by this no-faff timer; you simply pinged it on the table with a number facing up (3, 15, 10, 15, 25 or 30) and it beeped when that number of minutes had elapsed. The Cube is its successor; it retains the simplicity that made the original so popular, but looks more elegant and adds a number of features, including a special timer to help with the Pomodoro time management technique (work for 25 minutes, rest for five). So, not only a great kitchen or desk accessory, but also a pocket-sized reminder not to mess up your life. Ticktime Cube, $32