Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last year marked the first annual Saluting Wares Improving Technology's Contribution to Humanity awards, also known by its laboriously contrived simpler name, the Switchies. The Switchies honor some of the year's best products by coming up with a category to fit them into, since great products often break out of the accepted boundaries. This year saw so many product introductions that I'll be covering the awards in two columns, focusing on home and portable products. With that said, let's roll out the red carpet for the former:
The "Setting Things in Motion" award (and Device of the Year) goes to the Nintendo Wii. Navigating between the Scylla of Sony and the Charybdis of Microsoft and accused of relying too heavily on its stable of retro-friendly character franchises, Nintendo built upon its maverick strategy success with the Nintendo DS to buck the trend of the graphics wars. It also followed my advice to bundle in Wii Sports with the console.
Company insiders admit that they wish they could have accommodated high-definition graphics with the Wii, and it remains to be seen whether gamers will tire (perhaps physically) of the novelty offered by the Wiimote control scheme. For now, though, Nintendo has not only recaptured the respect of its rivals, but is offering innovation at a price that resonates with the sweet spot of where the console market has long been. The Wii's channels and WiiConnect24 features could achieve everything from an affordable way to get photos to grandma to the functionality of WebTV without the monthly fee.
If you can't find a Wii this holiday season, you may consider picking up a XaviXPort device. While its graphics are even less sophisticated than the Wii's, it's even smaller and cheaper than Nintendo's product and the controllers are closer replicas of their real-world counterparts, such as bowling balls, tennis rackets, and boxing gloves.
The "I Have a Hard Disk and I'm Not Afraid to Use It" award goes to the Sony PlayStation 3. Much of the attention regarding Sony's pricey successor to the PlayStation 2 has focused on its optical drive, its advanced processor and its rare sightings by people nipping on the moonshine while driving on dirt roads late at night . However, Sony has released the first mainstream non-PC product that delivers a media center experience local to the living room. Now, it needs to recognize that digital content resides on other devices in the home as well, following the best practices of its high-definition gaming rival, the Xbox 360. The PlayStation 3's launch titles may not be blowing away reviewers, but there's much promise ahead for the PS3.
The "Making Boobs Out of Tubes" award goes to LCD televisions. Finally available at price points that compete with brand name CRTs of similar sizes this holiday season, LCD has been a winner for market leaders Sony and Samsung as well as a host of no-name brands offered promotionally by a host of retailers. While plasma displays also saw great gains, performance improvements, and price drops this year, LCD effectively fought the war on two fronts, driving down prices in small televisions while getting more competitive with plasma at 42-inch and larger sizes.
The "High on High-Definition" Award goes to the Toshiba XA1. While the HD-DVD player had its share of glitches (as did the first Blu-Ray players), the introductory price point of under $500 was low enough to entice early adopters to take a chance and experience picture quality worthy of succeeding the DVD. Runners-up include the TiVo Series3 -- the most impressive hardware offering ever produced by the company and probably the best DVR experience commercially available for those taking advantage of its CableCARD capabilities -- and the Sony PlayStation 3. However, TiVo also made one of the most consumer-hostile moves of the year when it discontinued its popular lifetime plan option.
The "VOD Don't Make No Junk" award goes to MovieBeam, which finally achieved what several dotcom startups sought -- an affordable, wireless gateway into the living room for premium content. The MovieBeam device can be had for a song, and there's no subscription fee. Sure, there are other emerging paths to getting digital video into the living room, but MovieBeam does it with a minimum of fuss and in high-definition as well. The runner-up is the RCA Akimbo Player, which allows viewing of long-tail content with more responsive controls and easy television access to MovieLink.
The "AT&T'd Off" Award goes to the nearly identical Belkin and Netgear Wi-Fi Skype phones, which use advanced WiFi technology and embedded Skype technology to avoid (or redirect, as the case will be next year) long-distance charges that are increasingly part of a long distance flat-rate plan, VoIP-based triple play or cellular minutes. But, hey, if you've invested in a SkypeOut calling plan, these phones provide a great way to roam around your home with the PC off.
The "One Step Forward, Two Steps Backup" Award goes to the HP Media Vault, a NAS device which combines network-aware imaging software, a hard drive expansion bay with a nearly fullproof SATA connection, and a CinemaNow movie for streaming to a PC. It's a great way of making sure you don't lose any photos, digital music or recordings of telephone conversations.
Next week, the Switchies will continue recognizing some of the best new portable products of 2006.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.