The Utterly Inessential Shopping List: Supercharged home Wi-Fi, smart headphones and a mobile phone literally anyone can use

Our Utterly Inessential Shopping List returns with some technology that is far cleverer than we are.

It’s been a little while since the Utterly Inessential Shopping List graced the pages of this website (what’s that you say? You didn’t even noticed we were gone? Come now, surely not…) but we’re back now, and that’s a cause for celebration. We’re kicking things off with some extremely clever gadgets that fit right in with our mission statement: namely, to bring you things that you absolutely don’t need, but probably want anyway.

This week, it’s a gadgety special that is ideal for those among us who’ve found that a few weeks of working from home last Spring have morphed into a new reality that means we’ll be blending home and office life for many years to come.

Wireless headphones that make you speak dozens of languages

Google Pixel Buds A-Series

Wireless headphones used to be a fiddle. Fiddly to pair reliably with your phone, computer, tablet, or whatever else you were using them with; prone to falling out, especially during running or walking; and devilishly expensive (especially in the case of Apple’s versions). Various companies have been solving those problems for a while now, but Google’s headphone people have been working away on solving all these problems.

The company’s original Pixel Buds solved one of these problems with the clever miniature arm that sticks out and sits comfortably your upper ear to secure them in place and keep the headphones from falling out. Their latest incarnations solves the other two issues: the connection reliability problems that many encounter with wireless headphones (including the company’s original Pixel Buds) are gone; and the price has dipped under £100, which makes them extremely competitive with other headphones of decent quality. And the sounds quality is, frankly, pretty brilliant.

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What’s more, they’re full of clever tricks: they know when they’re being taken in and out, and pause the music accordingly. They can tweak the volume up and down if you enter noisy or quiet surroundings. They’re rain and sweat resistant.

Most amazing of all, to our ears, is the simultaneous translation. Simply ask ‘Hey Google — be my Spanish interpreter’, and the Pixel Buds team up with your phone to translate what you’re saying into Spanish into English, which it reads out loud to whoever you’re talking to; and then performs the reverse trick with whoever is replying, turning their foreign words into English that’s read out direct into your ears. It’s quite amazing in action —  a real-life version of the Babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame.
Google Pixel Buds A-Series — £99

A supercharged internet at home

Netgear WiFi Orbi 6

Ever sit there twiddling your thumbs in frustration when your supposedly-super-fast internet starts crawling along as if it were still the days of dial-up? Of course you have. Sometimes it’ll be the network itself, but it can quite often be issues with the signals being beamed around your house by your router. Frankly, the gear you get sent by most internet service providers (ISPs) is usually fine at making the connection to the network, but pretty poor when it comes to sending Wi-Fi signals around your home. Replacing it with something beefier can make a huge difference, especially in homes where you’re all trying to stream different things at once.

If you do want something beefier — and something more able to send signals through the often-thick walls of a country house at decent speed — the platinum-plated, money-no-problem option is the Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 RBK852.

It’s pretty simple to get up and running (just plug the cable in to your existing router, then download the app to your phone and it’ll guide you through it), and there are two boxes which come with it. One placed in the hallway and another by the back door covered the house beautifully, with the signal (a ‘mesh network’, if you want the technical term) reaching throughout house and garden with ease. In-depth technical speed tests aren’t Country Life’s forté, of course, but our colleagues over on the techie websites found it to offer quite simply the fastest connection you can get.

It’s particularly effective for those with super-high speed cable connections from Virgin and the like; but in our tests in a property with more modest broadband speeds, the range and penetration through walls was absolutely superb. It can also handle 100+ different connections, making it a great option for small hotels or other hospitality settings. If you’re buying purely for the home, the (much) cheaper Orbi RBK752 model will do almost as good a job much the same job, but at roughly half the price.
Netgear Orbi WiFi 6 RBK852 around £700; RBK752 currently £325 (RRP £450) 

The Orbi sits happily and looking fairly swish and futuristic. (Note: author’s actual house not pictured. You could probably tell that merely by the lack of Playmobil figures strewn across the floor.)

Ahh, you say, but what about garden rooms and home offices beyond even this wireless range? That’s a good point, and if what you really need is to get the internet into your newly-erected garden office (or hastily repurposed shed) then powerline extenders are an excellent alternative. Using technology that, to our minds, borders almost on magic, they somehow send the internet signal down the electrical wiring of your house, then push out a Wi-Fi signal at the other end. I’ve been using the upscale Devolo Magic 2 in my garden ‘shoffice’ (shed/office) for months, and it’s been pretty much flawless.

Beware though: order from somewhere with a hassle-free returns policy, as the condition and arrangement of your property’s electrical wiring mean that there is a chance that this technology may not work for you — and actually giving it a go will be the only way to tell for sure.
Devolo Magic Wi-Fi starter kit, around £180

A mobile phone designed for people who don’t do smartphones

Emporia Smart.5 mobile phone

Forget your phones with cameras good enough for professional photographers. Say no to mobiles with endless apps for everything from telling the time on Mars to letting you know when you can nip out of the cinema to answer the call of nature without missing a good bit. Instead, say yes to a phone which keeps things simple: Emporia’s Smart.5 mobile phone.

The key appeal here, somewhat bizarrely, is a smart cover which actually blocks off the display of this otherwise fairly-standard 5.5-inch Android mobile phone, tuning it into a window with a clock, and offering simple buttons for call, hang up, take a picture and use the phone as a torch.

Flip the cover open and a hugely-simplified version of Android is visible (you can use it without the flip cover, if you like), which offers access to SMS, email, an alarm, and a weather app… and, for the daring, the full Google Play store to put anything you like on the phone. Equally daring is the customisation options: you can change the four buttons on the cover to become speed dial buttons for most-used contacts, a particularly nice touch for elderly, non-tech-savvy relatives.

With those relatives in mind, however, this isn’t a perfect device by any means — and will likely need someone tech savvy to help get everything set up. The Emporia software has to be set up and updated out of the box, for example; while the built-in email app refused to play nicely with Yahoo or Gmail accounts, despite the efforts of Emporia’s tech support. It was remedied by using a different mail app (namely Gmail) which can then be added to the phone’s shortcuts, but this is the sort of stumbling block that means the users this phone is aimed at will need someone on hand to get them set up and settled in.

It’s still worth looking at, though: it really is simple in operation, and there’s even an emergency call button on the back cover. It even comes with a printed (yes, printed) instruction manual that runs to 156 pages, a very decent absolute beginners’ guide to smartphones which is in some ways the most impressive and surprising element of the whole package.
Emporia Smart.5 mobile phone — £249

At three years old, a veritable technological dinosaur

Amazon Echo Dot (3rd Gen)

Decent headphones as seen at the top of this page are all well and good, but sometimes you want a speaker instead of something sitting in your ear — and if you opt for a smart speaker, it’ll also let you talk to Alexa/Siri/Google in those long, lonely hours in your home office. We ran a pretty big test of best smart speakers for non-techie people a while ago, and by far our favourite option — for its mix of price, sound quality and dinky cute looks — was the Apple HomePod Mini.

The main caveat is that if you use your smart speaker to listen to music streaming services, you might end up disappointed. Apple’s glorious gadget works with Apple Music (naturally) and some others including the rather excellent Deezer, but Spotify isn’t supported. That’s meant that I’ve kept an ageing but still pretty good Amazon Echo third-generation (aka the ‘hockey puck’) plugged in while the HomePod Mini has been gathering dust. Amazon are currently selling them off at just over £20, which is something of a bargain, even if it means that a replacement is almost certainly imminent. What comes next has a lot to live up to: the third Echo Dot doesn’t have the best sound, it’s not the best looking, and it’s probably not the best at answering questions, but it’s got a great mix of form and function.
Amazon Echo Dot — £21.99