As the year comes to a close, it seems appropriate to cast my vote for the best (and some of the worst) gadgets I've seen. These are my personal choices for products that I felt were best of breed and really managed to differentiate themselves (or didn't at all). In no particular order, here are my picks and pans.
Best Phones: This was a tricky category, and I'm not breaking it down into different segments. This is just the best on the market in my opinion -- no matter how smart it was considered to be, or how well it did in school.
- iPhone 3GS. It was a simple choice. Take the coolest phones on the market, bump up the memory and make it twice as fast. Add in some new features like a digital compass and toss in an ecosystem of 100,000+ apps. Sure, it's still locked to AT&T but the iPhone is still the phone that many others aspire to be.
- Palm Pre. At this point last year many had written Palm off entirely. Instead of fading away, Palm came back on strong with webOS, a new way of integrating diverse content called Synergy and two devices launched across the globe. Along the way, the Pre garnered much mindshare from consumers, and Palm showed that you don't need to clone the iPhone to drive the state of the art forward.
- HTC HD2. When Microsoft released Windows Mobile 6.5, there was a chorus of groans about more of the same. HTC took up the challenge and proved that there was more to Windows Mobile than slow devices and resistive screens. The HD2 takes Windows Mobile to places never seen before with a capacitive touch screen, a Snapdragon processor and HTC-created extensions that make multi-touch work the HD2's gorgeous 4.3-inch display. Wrap it all up in HTC's Sense UI and you've got the best Windows Mobile device on the market today.
Best Desktop Computers: With the shift from desktop to laptop purchases for many consumers, it's hard to sometimes see anything special in this category. This year, there were two that stood out for me.
- Apple 27-inch iMac. In a crowded market of dull machines, racing to the bottom, the 27-inch iMac stands out of the crowd. Whether you get the 3.06GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or the 2.66GHz Intel Core i5 you'll have a computer that looks like no other with a price / performance ratio that would have been virtually impossible just a few years ago.
- HP TouchSmart. The TouchSmart line has been around for a while, but HP's been able to take the concept to a whole new level with Windows 7's native support for touch. HP filled the gaps in 7 and the Win 7 TouchPack, adding a host of useful touch based applications and creating a framework for other developers to get on board. The TouchSmart is a great example of a vendor building on Microsoft's foundational work and taking a proof of concept to the mainstream.
Best OS. It was a tough year for the OS market. After all, neither Windows nor Mac OS was due for a major release but both found ways to push the envelope forward.
- Windows 7. If you get a new PC or use Vista, the upgrade is a no-brainer -- you want Windows 7. If you're still using XP and it's working for you, that's a tougher call, since it's not easy to directly upgrade from Windows XP. There's also a somewhat-confusing array of SKUs and a pretty high cost to migrate, but overall Windows 7 is no doubt Microsoft's best OS work ever.
- Snow Leopard. It wasn't a major update in terms of features, but a lot happened under the covers that will set the stage for what comes next from Apple -- and Exchange support alone was worth more than the modest $29 upgrade fee. Leaner and faster, Snow Leopard recovered a good deal of hard drive space for users and boosted performance. Lots of goodness for a pretty cheap price.
Best Laptop or Netbook. Another controversial one, since I'm just putting laptops and netbooks into the same category. To me a netbook is just still a laptop with pivotal axis as price.
- Lenovo X200t. It's the evolution of the Tablet PC with some multitouch goodness thrown in. Add in a long-life battery and Lenovo's industry-leading keyboard and you've got one of the best Windows 7 devices on the market, period. The X200t shows just how tablet devices with touch and pen just might become more mainstream next year.
- 13-inch MacBook Pro. It's not a perfect computer. When I use it home, I wish the screen were larger. When it's on the road with me, I wish it were a little thinner and lighter. It is, however, among the most balanced laptops I've ever seen, which is one of the reasons it's a joy to use. From the LED display, to the backlit keyboard, to the extended life integrated battery, it's everything I think a laptop should be. And it not only runs Snow Leopard but flawlessly runs Windows XP and Windows 7 as well.
- Nokia Booklet 3G. Surprisingly, this turned out to be my favorite netbook this year. It's tiny, light, and elegant with some nice touches that make it a joy to use. Sure, I'd like to have seen a faster processor and a speedier hard drive at a better price point but this "multimedia computer" from Nokia has a lot of potential.
General Gadgets That Stood Out From the Pack
- MiFi. When Novatel called to tell me about their new mobile broadband product, I was a little skeptical. I mean, how many USB sticks does one need? Instead what I saw was a miracle the size of the credit card that takes a 3G modem and crosses it with a WiFi hotspot to make the first personal router. It's amazing. With support for five devices you can make any WiFi device 3G-enabled with just a few clicks. MiFi takes an old concept and adds a lot of new life to it.
- Sonos S5. Take the magic that is Sonos and squish it in a box with some amazing speakers. Pair it with an app for the iPhone and iPod touch and you've got the making for next revolution on home music. With support for Rhapsody, Pandora, Last.fm and others and the ability to connect to your entire iTunes library, Sonos bridges the gap to offer the most complete digital audio experience on the market. Add in the cool iPhone app and you've got the first device that's not an accessory to the iPhone, it's now the first accessory to an app. Impressive and well done.
- 3M MPro120. Pico projectors have been around for awhile but this is the first one that's actually usable and is more than a toy. It's easy to connect to a PC or iPod, and while it's not perfect, this technology is going to get a lot more interesting as it gets embedded in more devices.
Worst gadget. Possibly ever.
- WiKi Reader. It's $99. Has Wikipedia on it. No connectivity, just Wikipedia on an SD card. You then have to buy updates for it, as it's already out of date seconds after you buy it. Who is this for? I have no idea. Perhaps to be airlifted and dropped in areas where people have no internet access, have no way to get internet access and want outdated versions of Wikipedia.
Most hyped gadget not in existence, launched or even announced but that was reviewed, critiqued on features and price, as well as forecasted with unit shipments.
Let's just say, take two tablets from Apple and Microsoft and call me in 2010 please.
We mourn the loss and reincarnation special mention.
RIP CrunchPad -- hello Joojoo.
Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.