Switched On: The 2008 Switchies

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|01.19.09

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Switched On: The 2008 Switchies
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
The fourth annual Saluting Wares Improving Technology's Contribution to Humanity's awards were not held in the opulent imaginary venue of previous galas due to the subprime lending crisis of 2008. Rather, they were hastily distributed behind the Engadget trailer at CES 2009. Also, due to budget cuts and with the imaginary gold for the statuettes at record highs, we've had to consolidate the portable and home awards into a single ceremony.

Last year's Product of the Year was the Apple iPhone, which became the reference point for other touchscreen smartphones after its release. While Apple added important improvements and unleased thousands of applications with the iPhone SDK, the 2008 Switchie for Product of the Year goes to the T-Mobile G1. While its body may be a little out of shape, the first Android phone sports a wide keyboard, strong browsing and mapping capabilities, and an open development environment should enable a wide array of follow-on handset models to deliver a stronger consumer experience than they do today. There is also much potential for Android to creep into other kinds of devices, as was shown by the Movit Mini at CES 2009.

Honorable mentions in the cell phone category are awarded to the sleek Nokia N73, the solid Sony Ericsson XPERIA X1, and the integrated Samsung Instinct.
The "Most Improved Product" award goes to the Slacker G2 Personal Radio. The original Slacker radio took up the mantle of offline access to Internet radio from the promising but doomed 2007 Switchie award winner, the Sansa Connect, but the smaller size, better reliability, and improved user interface of the G2 made it a better alternative for those who want the best offline Internet radio experience, especially if you don' have a BlackBerry Bold. However, the "Scintillating Cylinder" award goes to the iriver Spinn for showing that novel forms of navigation don't have to smudge up your screen. And the "Best MP3 device for listening to Little Feat's "Let It Roll"" award goes to the Sony Rolly, the $400 disco football of a digital music player that Sony wisely enabled to move about, thus enabling it to avoid being buried in the backyard by Aibo.

The only "posthumous" Switchie is for for "Two-Way Traffic Ahead", which goes to the Dash Express. The portable navigation device with a flattop broke ground in traffic accuracy and search, but faced an uphill climb getting distribution. The dream is far from dead, though, with Telenav, Best Buy and TomTom all having announced two-way connected portable navigation devices. Airbiquity, which delivers data for the OnStar service through cost-effective voice modulation, has also announced that it will offer its services to connected PNDs.

Speaking of connected devices, the "Wherever I May Be-Mail" award goes to the Peek, which revived the notion of a mobile e-mail appliance from the early days of Blackberry and simplified and modernized it for today's consumers. With many smartphones still needing to improve in ease of use and a newfound willingness to offer lifetime service akin to TiVo, Peek is at the forefront of a new wave of affordable connected products.

The "Best Yet-Book" award goes to the HP Mini 1000 netbook. Packing the comfortable keyboard of the 2133 into a more consumer-friendly, thinner package, the Mini 1000 was the netbook to beat in 2008, and one that Dell has certainly set its sights on with the revamped keyboard of the Inspiron Mini 10. For Mac users who have been hoping for an Apple netbook, using something like the mini with your iMac may be facilitated by this year's winner of the "Cable That's Able" award, which goes to the the Kensington Media Sharing Cable. The bulging brick inside this two-headed USB cable contains software that allows Macs and PCs to easily trade files back and forth, even allowing Macs to write to NTFS-formatted PC hard drives. If you use regularly share data between platforms, you may be surprised at how often you use it.

The "Pen That's a 10" Award goes to the Livescribe Pulse smartpen. While there are cheaper and simpler alternatives such as the Dane-Elec ZPen, the Pulse's ability to sync notes to audio recordings are great for jogging your memory. For extended meetings where a netbook won't do, the smartpen is a viable alternative and 2009 should see more applications for it.

In 2008, most digital picture frames continue to be islands, but not the D-Link Internet Photo Frame, winner of the "Getting the Picture Across" award. In addition to slurping down photos from is own dedicated Web site, the frame can cull photos from many popular Web services such as Flickr and Facebook.

The "DMA with a difference" award goes to the Sling Media SlingCatcher. Launched a bit under the radar after a long gestation, the SlingCatcher can do most of what other products on the market can, but adds SlingProjector, which allows ad hoc sharing of PC media like the DLink PConTV, as well as accommodate external storage like the Western Digital WDTV for local playback. And the "Shoot and Point" award goes to the Kodak Theatre HD Player. Not to be confused with the Kodak Theater where they give out those "other" awards, the device focused on displaying photos in the living room uses technology form Hillcrest Labs to provide an engaging on-screen experience.

One of the most exciting developments in media centers this year, however, was not hardware at all, but rather a fork of the XBox Media Center called Boxee. The winner of the "Talking about Television" Switchie, Boxee can run on desktop computers as well as Apple TV. The software does the best job to date of integrating social networking into a media experience.

In digital imaging, high-speed photography became greatly simplified with the "Faster Than a Flash" award winner Casio FH-20. While not quite as fast as the larger, more expensive EX-F1, it was no slouch in the specs department, shooting up to 40 frames per second and capturing 1,000 fps video through its 20x zoom lens. Panasonic also broke ground with its "More Than Fractional Improvement" award-winner, the Lumix G1, the world's first Micro Four-Thirds camera and the smallest digital camera that can accommodate interchangeable lenses. And Pure Digital's Flip minoHD preserved all the appeal of its standard-definition predecessor while added revamped software to win the "Compact Camcorder" Switchie.

Finally, the "Not Engendering Real Trust" Award goes to Real Networks for Real DVD, a software program that strongly promoted its legal status to consumers as it prepared to be the target of movie studio legal action. Real took exceptional measures to maintain and even extend the copy protection contained on DVDs, but has nonetheless had to stop distributing the software, much to the apathy of those using other unauthorized DVD ripping software.

CES 2009 provided some glimpses at strong candidates for the 2009 Switchies, including the Palm Pre, PogoPlug, Son VAIO P, Panasonic portable Blu-ray player, Netgear Digital Entertainer Elite, Cisco home music system and iriver Wave Home. We'll soon know the tale of the tape, which may be able to be played back in the Panasonic Blu-ray/VHS player combination player.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own
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