Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

2005 was The Year of the Switch, but certain companies distinguished themselves with outstanding products and intriguing strategies. To recognize their accomplishments, to honor their creators, and to pander shamelessly to any emerging cable network out there desperately searching for another awards show, Switched On is pleased to present the first Salute Wares Improving Technology’s Contribution to Humanity Awards, otherwise known as the Switchies. While none were perfect, they were all among the year’s most innovative hardware products. Here are this year’s awards and winners:

The “Do No TiVil” Award goes to Sling Media for the Slingbox. When creating its networked television accessory, temptation must have been high to adopt the subscription model with which TiVo continues to struggle and which couldn’t sustain its retail rival ReplayTV. The Slingbox is an affordable alternative to springing for another cable box and a perfect match for many DVRs. Unfortunately, though, unlike TiVo, the Slingbox can’t yet transfer recordings or record remotely on a PC’s hard drive, something that some humble digital media receivers can do.

The “In ‘Pod We Trust” Award goes to Sonos for the Sonos Digital Music System. Everyone talks about how the “iPod economy” has focused on things like FM transmitters, cases, and speaker docks, Sonos embraced the design philosophy of Apple’s portable player by focusing on music and simple connectivity with an aversion to embracing some popular standards. The result has been a product that executes well for a premium price.
The “Taking the Urgency out of Convergence” Award goes to Sony for the PlayStation Portable. In terms of pure processing prowess, the PSP represented the most impressive balance of portability, style, and functionality seen this year. However, Sony’s positioning of the PSP as a portable convergence device has come in three not-so-easy pieces. A large Memory Stick Duo card is a separate purchase as is Sony’s nicely executed but late to arrive media management software. Runner-up: While it represents a new high water mark in networked media support for home consoles, the Xbox 360 does not allow personal media other than natively ripped CDs to be stored on its hard disk.

The “Keep It Simple Security” Award goes to Stingray, Inc. for the Stingray firewall. This fish-shaped firewall is a great alternative for grandmas who want to use broadband to get those high-resolution pictures without being a target for treacherous Internet hackers. Its lack of flexibility may frustrate advanced users, but will clear a safe path for casual users.

The “Beatles for Beetles” Award goes to PodGear for the PocketParty Shuffle. Lots of docks are available for most flavors of iPod, but few capture the essence of their intended music player better than the minimalist PocketParty Shuffle. Consisting of little more than a pair of tiny speakers, battery compartment and a jack to connect to the iPod Shuffle’s audio out jack, the bug-sized boombox lets you air your tunes practically anywhere.

The “Taking the NAS out of Nasty” Award goes to Netgear for the Netgear Storage Central. It’s hard to make storage sexy, but Netgear has created an intriguing solution for techies who don’t mind cracking open a case to install a hard drive or two. With features such as RAID mirroring, capacity allocation, and virtualization across multiple units, the Storage Central is a compelling option for advanced home networks or SOHO workers. Runner-up: The Maxtor Shared Storage Plus represents the wave of the future of network storage, combining left-brain network backup with right-brain media serving with the hard disk already inside.

The “Betamax Booyah” Award goes to Hasbro for the VuGo. Its low video resolution will keep it far from the short list of any adult portable media player purchase decision, but the VuGo extends Hasbro’s lead in the “kideo” wars by offering an inexpensive flash player that can directly record analog audio and video sources. Forward-looking Hasbro deserves kudos for not only providing an alternative to video clips it sells online, but to the DVDesque Personal Video Discs that include episodes of Spongebob Squarepants, The Fairly Oddparents, and other video crack for kids.

Congratulations to all our winners and see you next year.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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Switched On: The Switchies