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Best yoga mat: The best yoga mats to buy from £14

Jodie Dewberry

1 hour 35 min ago

Whether you’re a veteran yogi or think that a downward-facing dog is a description of an unhappy mutt (yes, it’s a yoga position), getting the right yoga mat can help make the most of every practice. It doesn’t matter if you prefer bikram or ashtanga, either – a good yoga mat will help you hold your poses wherever you are, so you can perfect your posture and keep your flow without worrying about slipping or sliding.

Just like yoga itself, choosing the right yoga mat is personal to every yogi. Mats differ in length, thickness, texture and material, so it’s crucial to choose one that’s suited to your experience and practice style. You’ll also want to think about where you’ll be practicing - if you’ll mostly be using your yoga mat at home, portability might not really matter for you, but if you’re planning on taking your mat travelling, choosing one that’s lightweight and compact will be a priority.

How to choose a yoga mat

Whether you’re buying your first yoga mat or adding another to an extensive collection, these are the factors you’ll want to consider before you make the decision. There isn’t a best option for any of these categories because it's all down to personal preference and what you need out of a mat. You’ll probably find that one of these factors is more important to you than the others, however, and this can make a great starting point for narrowing down your options from the many yoga mats out there.

1. Thickness

Yoga mats vary in thickness, from sheet-like styles that almost feel like you’re practicing directly on the ground to thick mats that offer a higher level of cushioning. Generally speaking, a thinner yoga mat will be easier to pack up, store and carry around when you’re on the go, and is often used by experienced yogis with a strong, flowing practice. If you’re still fairly new to yoga or need a little extra support - for example, for therapeutic practice - a thicker mat will make your experience much more comfortable.

2. Material

When you think of yoga mats, you probably think of the PVC ones found in most gyms and 80s music videos. While these are still the most common and there are plenty of great PVC mats on the market, they’re certainly not your only option. Greener products are becoming increasingly popular - and increasingly easy to find at affordable prices - so eco-conscious yogis will probably prefer a mat made from rubber, jute or organic cotton. If you’re new to yoga or just want to stick with the most popular type of mat, you’ll still be making a great choice. PVC mats offer a lot of give and are usually the spongiest and comfiest of them all.

3. Texture

Once you’ve decided on a material, you’ll want to think about texture. Yoga mats of all compositions can range from silky smooth to textured surfaces. Just like choosing a material and thickness, texture is largely down to personal preference, with softer mats offering a more comfortable experience at the expense of extra grip. A bumpier texture can be especially useful for yogis who practice bikram or other types of hot yoga, as it will give you more grip to stop you slipping and sliding as you sweat. Jute has a naturally rougher texture than other yoga mat materials, but many PVC mats have a bumpy surface to help with balance.

The best yoga mats to buy

Yoga Mad Warrior Plus Yoga Mat: The best all-round yoga mat

Price when reviewed: £19

The Warrior Plus mat is the bigger sister of the original Warrior mat - one of the most popular yoga mats around. It’s a little longer than a standard mat and offers 6mm of padding for extra cushioning, which is good for sore knees or therapeutic practice. This combined with its sub-£20 price tag means it’s a great mat for beginners and more experienced yogis on a budget.

Yoga Mad claims that the Warrior Plus is machine washable up to 40 degrees, and while this sounds like a really handy feature at first, the fact that it can’t be put through a spin cycle means you’ll probably find yourself wiping it clean instead. It’s a little on the bulky side and not the easiest to carry around, but it’s surprisingly lightweight, portable enough to take to the gym and easy to roll up when you’re done - all at an affordable price.

Key specs - Size: 183 x 61cm; Thickness: 6mm; Material: PVC; Weight: 1.6kg.

Reebok Yoga Mat: The best budget yoga mat

Price when reviewed: £14

Reebok probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think about buying a yoga mat, but the brand’s extensive range of mats make a great entry-level option for new yogis who want a mat that’s actually fun to use. This eye-catching mat won’t just get you loads of compliments at your next yoga class, either - it’s a comfortable mat that feels surprisingly supportive for its compact size.

The mat’s minimal texture gives adequate grip for most practices, but the smooth surface won’t offer enough grip for hot classes and sweaty sessions. It also lacks a mat bag, which might put off anyone wanting to carry their mat on their commute, but it does have a small - albeit flimsy - strap. That said, it’s hard to beat for less than £15 and makes a great first mat for beginners and more experienced yogis who want a functional mat at an affordable price.

Key specs - Size: 173 x 61cm; Thickness: 4mm; Material: PVC; Weight: 1.1kg.

Manduka eKo SuperLite Yoga Mat: The best yoga mat for travel

Price when reviewed: £38

If you’re looking for a mat that you can take anywhere, this is it. As the name suggests, the Manduka eKo Superlite is one of the lightest yoga mats around, and it’s compact enough to easily fit into a backpack or a small hand luggage case. That said, even though the Manduka folds up smaller than most mats - especially ones made from rubber - folding it isn’t the easiest of tasks. As might be expected with such a compact mat, you may find it too thin or need to add a towel if you’re looking for a good amount of cushioning and support.

Unlike most lightweight yoga mats, the Manduka is made from rubber so you still get a good amount of grip - even if it is a little slippy for the first few uses. Unlike most rubber mats, however, Manduka uses only sustainably harvested rubber that’s free from PVC and toxic dyes so it’s a great option for eco-conscious yogis too.

Key specs - Size: 173 x 61cm; Thickness: 1.5mm; Material: Rubber; Weight: 0.9kg.

ecoYoga The Original Eco Yoga Mat: Best eco-friendly yoga mat

Price when reviewed: £36

Eco-friendly products don’t always get the best rep, not least because they often come at a higher price without offering superior function. The ecoYoga mat is indeed one of the pricier mats to make our list, but we think it’s also one of the best when it comes to performance - whether you’re looking for an eco-friendly product or not.

The ecoYoga mat has a 100% rubber base, which gives it maximum grip on smooth floors, but the mixed upper side makes it grippy enough under the feet for every practice. Despite being one of the grippiest mats around, you might find you need an extra layer to protect knees when holding kneeling poses or doing a lot of floor-based work. As with any jute or jute mix mat, you can also expect some shredding over time, but the ecoYoga mat is one of the most durable around and won’t need replacing as quickly as other environmentally friendly options.

Key specs - Size: 183 x 63cm; Thickness: 4mm; Material: Rubber and jute; Weight: 2kg.

Manduka Yogitoes Skidless Mat Towel: The best mat for hot yoga

Price when reviewed: £45

If you’re a fan of hot yoga, a mat that won’t slip and slide when you start to get sweaty is a non-negotiable. Manduka makes our list once again, this time with its non-slip Yogitoes design. The Yogitoes mat will stay put through any series of poses thanks to its Skidless Technology, which guarantees a steadier practice on every floor or carpet and is why it’s an especially great choice for hot yoga sessions.

Like all of Manduka’s yoga mats, the Yogitoes range comes in a wide range of fun, multicoloured designs. It’s hard to believe that the the mat is made from recycled plastic bottles, but the fabric is super absorbent and stays odour-free even after a week of practice. The Yogitoes mat is also super lightweight, weighing just half a kilo, which makes them ideal for travel too - if you’re willing to splash out and pay the premium price tag. If portability, reliability and minimising your impact on the environment are all important to you, the Yogitoes has it all and is worth the extra pennies.

Key specs - Size: 172 x 61cm; Thickness: 4mm; Material: Recycled plastic and poly yarn; Weight: 0.5kg.

Posted on 30 May 2017 | 4:07 am

 

Best strimmer: The best electric, cordless and petrol strimmers from £30

Stuart Andrews

3 days 21 hours ago

A good-looking lawn is a national obsession, but it takes more than a mower to do the job right. Grass strimmers are the essential backup tool, giving you a way of hacking away at long grass to get the lawn in shape for mowing and trimming those awkward areas around garden furniture, decking, raised beds and walls. Most can also be used for edging around the borders, while more heavy duty models can be conscripted for weed-whacking duties on overgrown plots. In other words, a good grass trimmer is one of the most versatile garden tools around.

That said, picking one’s not actually that easy. Can you get by with an inexpensive, lightweight strimmer or do you need something with a bit more beef? Should you go mains-powered, cordless or petrol, line or blade? Well, we’ve picked through the best available models to find the best grass strimmers for every kind of garden and every kind of gardener. Whether you’re after a monster that can slice through meaty nettles or a more manageable tool to quickly spruce your garden up, there’s a trimmer out there that can keep your lawn in shape.

How to choose the best strimmer

How much do I need to spend?

Buying the right garden tools is all about working out your budget, then being realistic about your needs. If you only have a couple of compact lawns to trim and edge, then even cheap, lightweight strimmers at around £30 will do the job, and it’s not worth the extra cost or weight to buy a more powerful machine. As bigger strimmers can be hard to handle, you may even get a worse result. If you have a larger plot and areas of thicker grass, however, you’re going to need that extra welly – particularly if parts of the garden have a tendency to get overgrown.

What do the power ratings mean?

Electric strimmers will be rated somewhere between 250W and 600W, and while manufacturers will claim they use clever gearing systems or integrated processors to do more with less, the more power at your disposal, the heavier the work the strimmer can do. It’s a similar issue with petrol strimmers – look for the capacity in cubic centimetres of the engine – or cordless strimmers, where you need to look at the voltage. There 24v will get you more cutting power than 18v or 12v, and professional models might reach 60v or more.

How important is a strimmer’s cutting width?

It’s no coincidence that the more powerful the trimmer, the wider the cutting width or swathe tends to be. The bigger the figure, the more grass you trim away with each sweeping move and – theoretically – the less time you’ll spend on the job. Strimmers generally go from 20cm up to 35cm, though the professional petrol models used by landscape gardeners can go up to 42cm and beyond.

Generally speaking, the more power you have and the bigger the swathe, the heavier and more expensive the trimmer is going to be – and the more capable it will be of handling a larger plot for many years to come. Trimming is a tiring business, though, so you don’t want to spend more or lug anything bigger than you have to.

What kind of strimmer should you buy?

The next thing you have to think about is how you’re going to power the thing, and here again there are compromises to be made.

  • Electric strimmers usually hit the sweet spot for price and performance, but you’re then restricted by the cord, which is a menace in a larger garden and almost guaranteed to get sliced through in an unguarded moment. That makes choosing a model with a long and preferably replaceable cord a good idea.
  • Cordless strimmers are more convenient, though you’re limited by the battery life; half an hour might not be enough in a larger garden. Here, go for the faster charging, longer-lasting lithium-ion battery models over the cheaper NiMH battery options.
  • Petrol strimmers: If you’ve got a massive garden and a lot of undergrowth to hack through, petrol really is the best option, but petrol strimmers aren’t just environmentally unfriendly, but also bigger, heavier and harder to manage – not to mention sometimes temperamental when you try to start them up.

What other features should you know about?

A strimmer's cutting action relies on a line-and-spool mechanism, where a plastic line emerges from a covered reel and breaks off against the shield (the bit that stops you slicing into your foot) to reach the right length. After that, either a manual feed or auto-feed mechanism keeps the line coming as it’s steadily worn down or snapped off. As a rule of thumb, the thicker the line (usually 1.3mm to 2mm in diameter), the heavier the grass and the bigger the weeds it can cut through. However, some strimmers use plastic blades instead. They’re easier to replace than line, which has to be wound onto the spool, but you’ll generally have to replace them more often. The costs soon mount up.

Some strimmers can also support a heavy-duty line or cartridge, ideal for tackling weeds, nettles, brambles, annoying saplings and daffodil leaves (though you should really leave them to die down naturally, right?).

Otherwise, strimmers can come with a range of useful features, including edging wheels to hold the trimmer in the right position for edging, wheeled decks that turn your trimmer into a lightweight mini-mower and plant protectors: usually thick, wire barriers that prevent you slicing into your prized perennials while you’re thinking about something else – surely one of the biggest pleasures of any garden job.

The best strimmers to buy

1. Flymo Contour XT: The best cheap electric strimmer

Price when reviewed: £33

If you just need a strimmer for some lightweight trimming and edging on one or two small-ish lawns, the Flymo Contour XT has you covered. With a 300W motor and a 25cm cutting width, it’s cheap and light – in fact, it feels lighter than the 2.8kg weight would suggest. It also has some nice practical features, like the chunky wheel for edging, the quick swivel mechanism that takes you from trimming to edging in a few seconds, plus the plastic plant guard and the handy hooks built into the handle to wrap the 10m cable around for easy storage. It’s not the most powerful grass trimmer and certainly not built to take on larger gardens or tougher weeds, but it does a fine job of the basics and doesn’t cost the Earth.

Key specs – 300W motor; 25cm cutting width; 1.5mm line; Weight: 2.8kg

2. Ryobi RL T6030: The best 600W electric strimmer

Price when reviewed: £51

Moving up to the Ryobi gets you a great value 600W corded grass trimmer, with a 30cm cutting width and a range of useful features. At 3.4kg, it’s a fairly heavy trimmer, but surprisingly well-balanced, with a pole you can adjust to match your height. The auto-feed spool works well, and by pressing down on the EasyEdge pedal you can switch almost instantly between trimming and edging modes. Whatever you’re doing, it does a nice, clean job, with a plant protector to stop you doing too much unintentional damage. When it’s time to pack the RL T6030 away, the cord wraps neatly around the top handle and a hook near the cutting head. The only major criticism is that there’s no safety switch, so you could start it up when you grab the handle without being ready. Watch out for your feet!

Key specs – 600W motor; 30cm cutting width; 1.5mm line; Weight: 3.4kg

3. Black & Decker GL7033: The best high-powered electric strimmer

Price when reviewed: £62

Black & Decker’s 700W grass trimmer is built to handle heavier workloads, with a 33cm cutting width that’s ideal for tackling medium-sized and larger gardens and 2mm line that can hack through longer grass. B&D’s E-Drive tech is designed to make sure you get extra power if you need it, and when it’s time to break out the big guns, you can take out the main spool, slot in the one with extra heavy-duty line, and teach thick weeds and nettles some respect. The weight gets tiring on the arms after a while, but the mid-mounted motor and curved shaft improve the trimmer’s balance and keep the business end away from your feet. What’s more, the wheel edging guide helps it do a decent job of edging too. Overkill for smaller gardens, the GL7033 is brilliant for bigger, more unruly plots.

Key specs – 700W motor; 33cm cutting width; 2mm line plus heavy-duty lines; Weight: 3.2kg

4. Worx WG169E: The best cordless strimmer

Price when reviewed: £80

Cordless strimmers tend to be weedy or expensive, but the Worx WG169E might be an exception. With a 1.65mm line and a 30cm cutting width, it can still tackle a decent-sized garden, providing the 30 to 40 minutes use you get from the lithium-ion battery is long enough to do the job. If not, it takes roughly three hours to recharge. The Worx does a fine, clean job of cutting and edging, with a head that titles 90 degrees for work on the border, and a clever tilting head you can reposition to trim almost flat underneath garden furniture. You can even use it on its wheels like a mini lawnmower, though the lawn in question had better be pretty flat. Inexpensive, lightweight and very usable – what’s not to like?

Key specs – 20V; 2Ah li-ion battery; 30cm cutting width; 1.65mm line; Weight: 2.6kg

5. Bosch ART 30-36Li: The best cordless strimmer under £200

Price when reviewed: £199

If you have a larger, rougher garden but don’t want the hassle of a petrol strimmer, the Bosch Art 30-36LI is a good bet. With a 36V battery, it has more power than your average cordless trimmer, which Bosch’s Syneon Chip technology can harness to give you just what you need for the current conditions. With a 30cm cutting width, it can tackle a good-sized plot, though the lithium-ion battery will only last for around 30 to 40 minutes before needing a ninety-minute recharge. Just be warned: at 4kg, it’s one of the heaviest non-petrol strimmers around, and even with a well-balanced design and soft-grip handle your arms are going to get a workout. There is, however, scope to clip a harness on. A serious strimmer for serious garden work.

Key specs – 36V; 2.6Ah battery; 30cm cutting width; 1.6mm line; Weight: 4kg

6. Stihl FS40: The best budget petrol strimmer

Price when reviewed: £159

Some gardens need a petrol trimmer, and the Stihl FS40 is a good, affordable example from one of the biggest names in the business. The two-stroke engine gives you plenty of power for even the toughest, most overgrown gardens, and if the 2mm line can’t get through the weeds, you can fit an optional three-tooth, poly-cut head to get through thicker undergrowth and brush. Stihl has worked to make the FS40 easier to handle, with a simple bump-feed mechanism where you bump the head on the ground to release more line. It’s easier to start than most petrol strimmers too. However, at 4.1kg with the motor placed right at the end of the stalk, it’s not going to be manageable for everyone. Still, this is the kind of rock-solid, heavy-duty strimmer that will last you years.

Key specs – 2 stroke engine; 0.34l tank; 38cm cutting width; 2mm line; Weight: 4.1kg

Posted on 26 May 2017 | 9:43 am

 

Will a VPN hide me from the Snoopers’ Charter?

Expert Reviews Staff

3 days 21 hours ago
Will a VPN hide me from the Snoopers’ Charter?

Much has been written about the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, or Snoopers’ Charter, but despite warnings from digital rights groups to get the bill withdrawn, it went into force on 30 December 2016.

Offer: Get Buffered VPN for £6.50/month

According to the Open Rights Group, the bill is “a threat to the British public’s right to privacy”. It forces ISPs to keep track of the websites you visit, officially sanctions and legalises the hacking of individuals’ personal devices by the government and security agencies.

So what if you disagree with this outrageous erosion of your right to online privacy? Is there a way of thwarting the powers that be and remaining under the radar? The answer is yes, in part, and you need to use a VPN.

How does a VPN protect me from the Snoopers’ Charter?

You’ll probably have heard this term before. It stands for virtual private network and it’s used, most commonly, to “geo-shift” a computer’s online location in order to access online services that might otherwise be blocked. In this way it’s possible to gain access to BBC iPlayer from abroad, or US Netflix from the UK, for example.

I’d also recommend a VPN for anyone who regularly uses Wi-Fi hotspots in cafes and hotels since the connections are rarely encrypted end-to-end and can leave you, your usernames and passwords, and your personal data vulnerable to Wi-Fi eavesdroppers.

But a VPN can also be used to effectively cloak your online activity from being accessed by the government via the Snoopers’ Charter.

How do VPNs do this? You first have to understand how a VPN works. Effectively a VPN does two jobs:

  1. First, it encrypts all data starting at your laptop or phone so data can’t be intercepted and simply read on the way to or through the hotspot.
  2. Second, it changes or “shifts” the location of your IP address to the VPN’s servers at the other end of the connection so your traffic appears to be coming from somewhere else and some other computer.

Does this mean the government can simply shift focus to the VPN provider, forcing them to give up your information instead? Technically, yes, if they’re located in the UK.

However, there’s a huge number of companies offering VPN services and many are based abroad, which prevents or makes it more difficult for the UK government to gain access to their data, and many have a policy of not keeping logs of your internet activities, making it impossible for them to surrender that information anyway.

Offer: Get Buffered VPN for £6.50/month

This is the type of VPN you should be looking for if you’re concerned about online privacy. Also look for VPNs that cover all your various devices: plenty now also offer smartphone and tablet apps, so there’s no excuse for leaving yourself exposed on other devices.

What a VPN can’t do

It’s important to recognise that a VPN is only part of the privacy picture here. Remember that the Snoopers’ Charter effectively legalises the government hacking of smartphones, laptops and other devices; a VPN can’t protect you against the police and security services gaining your information in that way.

However, by using a VPN you can circumvent the most nefarious and controversial part of the bill, which gives the police and security services ready access to the records kept by your ISP of your internet activities. And that means if you care about your privacy, you need to use one – now.

Posted on 26 May 2017 | 9:34 am

 

Fitbit Alta HR review: Pricey, but still a great fitness tracker

Sasha Muller

3 days 21 hours ago
Price when reviewed 
130

If you’re one of those people who think too much choice is a bad thing, then Fitbit owes you an apology. The fitness tracking company has just swelled its range with the addition of a new wearable, the Alta HR. Sitting between the step-tracking Alta and all the all-singing, all-jogging Charge HR 2, the Alta HR brings heart-rate monitoring to Fitbit’s most compact wearable yet.

Fitbit Alta HR review: Tl;dr

If you’re looking for a fitness wearable that packs in heart-rate monitoring without the bulk of more fully-featured devices – such as Fitbit’s own Charge 2, for instance – then the Alta HR could be just the ticket. It’s discreet enough to wear all day, every day, and the slim, bracelet-esque styling is less bulky than more traditional watch-style designs – which means it will be more flattering for daintier wrists. Right now, there’s only one reason to buy something else instead: its price.

READ NEXT: Best fitness trackers of 2017 

Fitbit Alta HR review: Price and competition

The Alta HR’s £130 price puts it in an awkward position. Our favourite Fitbit device – and probably our favourite wearable full stop – is the Fitbit Charge HR 2, and you can now find that online for as little as £120.

Fitbit Alta HR review: Design

In terms of design, the Fitbit Alta HR looks almost identical to the standard model. There’s the same thin, rectangular monochrome OLED display that lets you cycle between the available stats with a firm tap on the screen, and the rubber strap can be quickly and easily swapped out for a new one. The bad news? Fitbit has created another proprietary charger that isn’t compatible with the standard Alta. And you better not lose it: a replacement costs £17.

The only physical differences to the standard Alta are minimal. It’s grown a tad thicker in order to squeeze in the heart-rate sensor, a change that also makes it a tad less comfy, and the wristband is now a classic buckle-and-tang design, which is more secure on the wrist than the press-stud Alta.

Fitbit Alta HR review: Fitness tracking

Fitbit’s decision to add a heart rate sensor to its entry-level wearable makes a lot of sense, though. Where the standard Alta has to rely purely on how many steps you’ve taken to calculate your calories burned, the Alta HR can also monitor your heart rate to ascertain how hard you’re working. It also allows the Fitbit app to monitor your resting heart rate, which is both a useful indicator of general fitness and whether you’re pushing yourself too hard.

The Alta HR’s sleep-tracking has also improved drastically. In addition to monitoring how long you spend in light, deep and awake states, the app now details how much REM (rapid eye movement) sleep you’re getting and displays the whole lot in a snazzy new graph. If it thinks you’re not getting the best quality of shut-eye, Fitbit’s app even gives you tips on how to improve things.

In fact, the app remains one of the best things about Fitbit’s family of products. The app’s tile-based display is super simple and makes it easy to find the data you want to know about your workouts. The ability to connect with friends adds a welcome bit of competition, and you can also sync your data with MyFitnessPal, Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyRun and Endomondo. Alexa integration is included, as well, and the app is also compatible with more weird and wonderful fitness gadgets, such as the Thermos Hydration app, which makes sure you’re drinking enough water.

Crucially, Fitbit has ensured that the Alta HR tracks pretty much everything the average person could ask for. The heart-rate tracking and improved sleep analysis are a nice bonus, but you still get all the basics such as your total number of steps, distance walked, calories burned and how many minutes you’ve been “active”.

There are a few smartwatch-style features, too, with the screen displaying incoming calls and SMS or WhatsApp messages, in addition to upcoming calendar entries.

The best thing about the Fitbit way of doing things, though, is the automatic activity detection: spend more than ten minutes working out, and the Alta HR records the activity as running, walking or whatever you happen to be doing at any time, without any intervention required by the user.

One other handy feature is that you can set silent, vibrating alarms, perfect for making sure you don’t miss those early wake-up calls, and without incurring the wrath of your sleeping partner. And, just like most fitness trackers, the Alta HR can also prod you with a haptic buzz if you spend too long sitting still.

The only disappointment is that, just like the Flex 2, the Alta HR it isn’t rated to survive lengths at the local pool. Swimmers should look elsewhere.

Fitbit Alta HR review: Battery life and performance

Battery life hits the mark nicely. Impressively, the continuous heart-rate monitoring hasn’t impacted the Alta HR at all. It seems to last as long as the standard Alta. For a device that keeps track of your heart rate 24 hours a day, five to seven days of battery life is right on the money.

The Alta HR’s fitness tracking appears to be pretty accurate, too, even if it doesn’t always autodetect every activity. There are no problems with walking and running, but it completely ignored a week’s skiing, despite several hairy black runs sending the pulse racing. Most annoying of all was the fact that it captured the low-intensity runs, or the walks around the town, but not the lung-bursting downhill runs. The lesson? Skiing is not the Alta HRs forte.

In addition, the lack of integrated GPS means you should treat the distances travelled as more of a guide than gospel. Without GPS data to pinpoint your position, it’s only ever going to be an estimate. Still, if you do crave accurate distance data, then the Fitbit app lets you get the best of both worlds: you can piggyback off your phone’s GPS and combine that with the heart-rate data from the Alta HR.

The Alta HR’s general accuracy in other areas is surprisingly good, though. Comparing the heart rate data to a MyZone MZ-3 chest belt showed the Alta HR’s average heart rate was only 5-6% off.

Fitbit Alta HR review: Verdict

If you’re a fan of the Fitbit way of doing things, the Alta HR won’t disappoint. As an easy, hands-off way to monitor your daily activity and pinpoint how and where you can improve, the combination of the Alta HR and Fitbit app are difficult to beat. Fitness fanatics will benefit from pricier fitness wearables with support for more accurate ANT+ or Bluetooth sensors and those looking to specialise in one sport should choose an activity-specific device, but for most mere mortals the Alta HR is a near-perfect compromise.

The Alta HR’s biggest problem is its own stablemate, the FitBit Charge 2, which at the time of writing is available for around £10 less. The Charge 2’s larger screen and extra features make it just that bit more capable and the barometric altimeter makes it capable of more accurately tracking elevation on runs and rides in addition to estimating how many floors you’ve climbed during a day in the office.

So, why would you choose the Alta HR? Simple. Because you want a slimmer, daintier fitness tracker than the Charge 2, and you don’t mind missing out on a couple of features that may not need, or want. Frankly, whichever you choose, you’re not going to be disappointed.

Posted on 26 May 2017 | 5:37 am

 

Apple AirPods vs BeatsX: Two smart sets of earphones battle it out

Ian Betteridge

4 days 2 hours ago

Apple’s AirPods attracted a huge amount of attention on their launch in 2016 but, thanks to delays in shipments, they were beaten to market as the first headphones with the W1 chip by two models from Apple-owned subsidiary, Beats: the Solo3 and BeatsX.

Now that AirPods are more widely available – the shipping date is still an average of several weeks, but you can at least get them – it’s worth looking at whether you should buy them or BeatsX. Both have merits but, as we shall see, one pair wins out.

Style, design and fit

Like smartphones and smartwatches, headphones are as much a statement of your personal style as a functional item. Yes, you want good sound, but you also want them to look good.

AirPods and BeatsX take different approaches to answering the question of what makes a good-looking pair of headphones. AirPods are unique, and probably the most recognisably-Apple product I’ve seen for years. There’s no physical connection between the two pods, each sits individually in your ears. The white plastic design is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the conventional wired iPhone headphones.

There are no physical controls on the AirPods but you can pause the audio by tapping on a pod and invoke Siri by double-tapping. I had constant problems with this initially, until I worked out how to tap “correctly”. However, cleverly, the audio also pauses if you remove one of the AirPods from your ear, which makes up for the awkward tapping issues.

BeatsX, on the other hand, are more conventional in design but still stand out. They have an in-ear neck-band design where the two earpods are connected via a cable that wraps around your neck. There are two plastic blobs, which sit either side of your neck, containing batteries, the on/off button, and a Lightning port for charging. Also on the left is a set of physical controls in a small plastic lozenge that also houses the microphone.

BeatsX offer a superior fit to the AirPods, particularly if the size or shape of your ears deviates from the supposed norm. As a true in-ear design they sit within the exterior meatus of the ear. This results in louder audio than the AirPods, which sit on top of the exterior meatus instead. It’s a setup that also gives better audio isolation and makes BeatsX less likely to fall out of your ears if, for example, you’re exercising.

Overall, the design of BeatsX is less advanced but more useable than the AirPods. Style is a personal thing and AirPods may appeal to you on this count, but the design and fit of BeatsX are more practical.

Battery life

Apple gives a rough guideline of five hours battery life for AirPods, while Beats claims BeatsX should deliver around eight hours of use. In both cases, I think these estimates are fair: both are, realistically, the kind of device that you use most during the day and charge overnight.

However, five hours isn’t the end of the story for AirPods. They come with a nifty little charging case, shaped like a stubby TicTac box, which flips open to hold the earphones and incorporates its very own battery. The case combined with the AirPods delivers around 24 hours of continuous use, which means you can happily take the AirPods away for a weekend or even a week with lower use without having to worry about topping them up.

Both AirPods and BeatsX charge via a Lightning connection, so you can top them up using the same cable as your iPhone, which is one less charger to carry around with you.

Overall, the clever case means AirPods offer superior battery life. How important this is to you will depend on how you use them, but the ability to take AirPods away for a weekend or more without having to worry about charging is a major plus point.

Bluetooth connectivity

Both BeatsX and AirPods use Apple’s W1 chip, which increases the range and reliability of Bluetooth connections, and helps increase overall battery life. My very simple test for range is to put my phone in the living room and walk out through the garage on the side of the house until the audio starts to break up. In both cases the connection lasted until I walked into the garage, at which point the exterior wall started to defeat the Bluetooth connection. The AirPods maintained connection for an extra metre. This essentially means you’re getting very good connectivity that will work well in all real-world cases.

The addition of the W1 also means you gain the advantage of “smart” Bluetooth pairing and connectivity if you’re using a macOS or iOS device. AirPods are the easiest: all you need to do to initially pair them with an iOS device is flip open the top of the case next to your phone. A screen pops up offering to pair and away you go. BeatsX needs to be paired as normal through the Bluetooth preferences but that’s not exactly difficult.

In both cases, once paired with one device, the earphones are paired with all the devices using your iCloud account, including iPads and Macs and now Windows PCs. This is a great feature, and it means you can quickly switch between using your BeatsX or AirPods with an iPhone on the move and then on to the Mac at work. Best of all, switching is easy; there’s no need to disconnect your phone from the earphones before connecting on the Mac.

Bluetooth connectivity, then, is a draw. Both devices offer good range and reliability, and the same level of ease of connectivity. AirPods have a better first-use experience for pairing, but BeatsX isn’t exactly difficult.

One small feature which AirPods have too, is the ability to find them with your iPhone’s “Find my phone” app. Because AirPods don’t have LTE or GPS, this is limited purely to locating them via the strength of their Bluetooth signal, so it’s not that accurate, but it does at least reassure you that you haven’t left them on the train rather than your house.

Sound quality

The sound quality of Beats headphones is always a controversial topic of discussion. Unlike a lot of headphones and earphones, Beats are tuned specifically to have heavier bass and, to my ears, high frequencies. Middle is generally a bit lacking – recessed, I believe the technical term is. There’s no attempt here to achieve some kind of purity of sound.

The result is a tuning that’s optimised for certain types of music, making those genres sound better while making other kinds of music sounds worse. If you’re a fan of complex prog rock, this is not the sound for you. Late 2000’s techno? You’ve found your audio heaven.

 

BeatsX are no exception to this rule but even given this they have one major advantage over AirPods: the in-ear design means less audio leakage, better bass and less need to crank up the volume to unsafe levels. By comparison, AirPods sound quiet unless you crank the volume up, at which point you’ll be getting annoyed looks from anyone sat around you, who will be hearing the “tsssk, tsssk, tsssk” of every hit of a snare drum with excellent clarity.

 

As well as sound going into your head, there’s also the sound coming out of your head to consider. Both AirPods and BeatsX have microphones built-in but the ones on AirPods are significantly better. In a quiet room, someone you’re talking to at the other end of a call will hear you perfectly well in both cases but outdoors I found BeatsX really took a hammering from the breeze, to the point where the person you’re calling can’t hear you at all.

 

Overall, the winner depends on how you’ll use the headphones. I wouldn’t recommend AirPods if you spend a lot of time listening to music, but they’re fine for occasional use or use with podcasts and spoken word. AirPods have a big advantage with their better quality microphones, but for music BeatsX are the best bet.

Conclusions

So which should you buy? The BeatsX are marginally cheaper, but the difference is small enough not to matter. BeatsX, to my ears, have an edge in sound quality, but bear in mind that it’s the “Beats sound” so lacks a little in the middle. BeatsX are also likely to be harder to lose, although if you do misplace them you can’t track them down with your iPhone, as you can with AirPods.

AirPods have the advantage in battery life, at least once you factor in the incredibly cool case. They’re also marginally easier to pair and have a slight edge in terms of Bluetooth range – although in both cases, thanks to the W1 chip, you can walk a long way from your phone before the signal drops off.

That leaves the major factor of design and here personal preference comes into play. BeatsX are a more traditional headphone design and one that’s been executed extremely well. They’re light, comfortable, easy to wear, have physical controls and the attention to detail is fantastic. AirPods are a more adventurous design that comes with some benefits but aren’t as practical for day-to-day use.

Overall, I think BeatsX offers the best balance of sound, performance, convenience, smart design and price. There are two exceptions to this. First, if you’re someone who uses the microphone a lot – for example, using the earphones to make a lot of phone calls. And second, if you just hate the “Beats sound” with its emphasis on bass. Otherwise, BeatsX should be your first port of call.

Posted on 26 May 2017 | 4:45 am