Switched On: The 2006 Switchies -- Portable Products

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

The "Ink Well" Award (and Portable Device of the Year) goes to the Sony Reader (pictured at right). With a slim, portable design, restrained feature set, breakthrough display and great battery life, the Reader was a bit of a sleeper from a company known for its audiovisual heritage. The product would benefit from better bitmap scaling, color, and a clip-on light like the "Itty Bitty" variety available for print books, but it represents the kind of smart design and well-integrated service that could have made the electronics giant a stronger competitor in the digital audio player market.

The "Big Ideas in Small Sound" Award goes to the Altec Lansing InMotion 500, the slim battery-powered speaker dock optimized for the iPod nano, and which is compatible with both generations of the popular digital audio player. Altec Lansing's decision to use its own speaker technology for this paid off; it produces far superior sound to its closest competitor. Runners up include the Samsung K5, iriver clix, and the Samsung Helix/Pioneer Inno and the Coby MP-C341 Portable MP3 Boom Box.

The "New World 'Corder" Award goes to the Pure Digital Point and Shoot Camcorder and its better-named twin, the RCA Small Wonder. Both products abandoned the "do everything poorly" philosophy that permeated the low-end flash camcorder space and were recently upgraded to enable more recording time, and have best captured the new spirit of short, good quality video clips that are now dominating the Web.

The "Ripe for Skype and MP3 Hype" Award goes to the Sony Mylo, a convergence cornucopia including a Wi-Fi-enabled Skype handset, instant messenger, and portable media player. With a hotspot directory and promotional offer on T-Mobile Hotspot access, Sony put in a good effort to move beyind the product's small frame, but the price could be a bit friendlier and Bluetooth and AIM support are two key missing features.

The "Watch This Space" Award goes to the Abacus Smart Watch 2006, a great improvement over previous smart watches using Microsoft's SPOT technology albeit one that Fossil itself seemed less excited about than the category runner-up, the Fossil Men's Bluetooth Watch. While the Bluetooth watch offers a more conventional face, it's as thick as previous smart watches and only officially supports Sony Ericsson phones. Fossil also offered a slick LCD watch with its Philippe Starck O-Ring Digi Watch for Fossil, which provides a clear visual reminder of when its time to get your wrist hair waxed, but the hipsters at Tokyo Flash have struck out with the JLr7. a timepiece that brings incredible complexity to what should be a simple act of telling time.

The "Wireless Wonder" Award goes to the Motorola Q, which took the slim form factor of the company's juggernaut RAZR line, applied it to a QWERTY device and threw in 3G network speeds for good measure. The Q has already inspired competitors such as the T-Mobile Dash and Samsung BlackJack. Runners-up include the RIM BlackBerry Pearl and the Cingular 3125 by HTC. While its usability remains rough, Windows Mobile dominated the new smartphone scene in 2006.

The "Blister in the Sun" Award for best packaging to highlght an innovative product goes to the Microsoft Wireless Notebook Presenter Mouse 8000, itself an award-worthy mashup of tilt-wheel notebook mouse, presentation remote and laser pointer. Not only does the package include inserts for cutting through the plastic, but it highlights the product's unique presentation controls by offering a rotating plastic pod that functions as a hard carrying case once the product is unpacked. The runner-up is the waste-reducing plastic shell enclosing the second-generation iPod nano.

Finally, this year sees the first Switchies for consumer services. The "At Your Service" Award goes to Grand Central, for making great progress against the longstanding holy grail of unified messaging. The basic service is free, but comes at the price of having to obtain yet one more phone number (to rule them all). Runners-up include Cozi, a software/service combination to help organize busy familes and La La, the peer-to-peer CD trading service.

Congratulations to all the winners and see you next year.

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