Switched On: The 2010 Switchies

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

It's that special time of year between the post-holiday sales and the pre-CES hype that presents an opportunity to consider some of the most innovative devices of the year. Switched On is proud to present the Saluting Wares Improving Technology's Contribution to Humanity awards, also known as The Switchies. This year marks the fifth annual Switchies, which are decided based on a rigorous examination of the opinion of me, and do not reflect the opinion of Engadget or its editors. For that latter honor, nominees will need to win an Engadget Award. Let's roll out the red carpet then.

The "You Say 'Big iPod Touch' Like It's a Bad Thing" and Product of the Year Award goes to the Apple iPad. In what can only be explained as the result of determination to return to the fold after being shut out of last year's Switchies, Apple snubbed both the netbook and tablet PC by supersizing the basic platform that had worked so well for its handheld devices. In the process, it brought along changes to the operating system to support richer app interaction. A textbook case of platform expansion, the iPad is now in the reticle of a cross-section of PC, CE and handset makers looking to grab a piece of a device class that has put its own spin on video, games, reading and Web browsing.

The "Sharp Screens, Blurring Categories" Award for Best New E-Reader goes to the Barnes & Noble Nook Color. While the Amazon Kindle has staked out the low ground with a focused book-reading experience, this "reader's tablet" as Barnes & Noble calls it, represents the future of the category where text will meld with color photos and videos. Now Barnes & Noble needs to improve the responsiveness of its device as it broadens platform support.

The "Easy Call To Make" Award for Best New Smartphone goes to the Sprint Epic 4G. Mixing a big, beautiful display with a slide-out keyboard and WiMAX data speeds made this the most outstanding of the Galaxy S smartphones. Runners-up on other carriers include the Droid X, iPhone 4 and the T-Mobile G2.

The "Can't Touch This" Award for Best New Smartphone Operating System goes to iOS 4.2. It wasn't so much that iOS 4 iPhone operating system brought features that hadn't been seen in other operating systems. It's that its biggest story -- multitasking -- was implemented in a way that delivered nearly everything users wanted while preserving some of the best battery life in the industry. Most Improved Smartphone OS Awards go to webOS 2.0 and Windows Phone 7.

The "Worthy of Note" Award for Best New Notebook PC goes to the Acer TimelineX series for providing outstanding battery life in a stylish, thin form factor. Runners-up include the MacBook Air and the HP Envy line, including the powerhouse 3D-capable Envy 17.

The "Leave the Buttons on Shirts" Award for Best New Human Computer Interaction goes to Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360. Sony's PlayStation Move may provide more flexibility for a broader array of game playing, but the Kinect approach captured imaginations and has potential in a broad array of devices moving forward as hackers have already started proving. The "Guess We Just Click" Award for Best New PC Input Device goes to Microsoft's touch strip-enabled Arc Mouse, with Apple's spacious Mighty Trackpad as a runner-up.

The "Set-Top Box That Rocks" Award for Best New TV Set Add-on Box goes to the WDTV Live Hub, a small, versatile powerhouse that packs half a terabyte of storage in an approachable user interface that reveals a wide variety of features. Honorable mentions go to the small and affordable Roku XD/S and the low-profile Monsoon Multimedia Vulkano, the best combination of time-shifting and place-shifting yet.

The "Please Be EVIL" Award for Best New Hybrid Imaging Product goes to the Sony NEX line, which combine a full APS-C sensor in a slim back and tiltable LCD with HD video capture capabilities, whereas the "Poetry in Motion" Award for Best Compact Camcorder goes to the Kodak PlaySport for making 1080p video a pool pursuit.

The "Fourth Screen" Award for Best New Home Internet Appliance Award goes to the Kodak Pulse picture frame, which makes sharing photos over the Internet easy and affordable. The runner-up includes the recently price-slashed, Chumby-powered Sony Dash..

The "What's a Lens Between Friends" Award for Best New Bluetooth headset goes to the Looxcie. It may be little more than a novelty today, but as quality improves, Looxcie could evolve into a valuable tool for recording presentations and lectures. Runners-up go to the app-enhanced SoundID 510 and speech-recognizing BlueAnt Q2.

The "More Than an Inkling" Award for Best New Printer goes to the HP Envy printer. With support for HP's ePrint and Apple's AirPrint wireless printing architectures, it not only symbolizes the future of driverless, remotely accessible printing, but also is one of the most stylish living room-friendly printers to hit the market since the Samsung ML-1630. Not only that, but the extending and receding output tray support definitely creates a rare wow factor in printers.

And, finally, the "2 Cool 2 Be 4 Sale" Award for Best New Vaporware never to ship goes to the Courier. The unique hardware design, slick user interface, and novel utility of this product made it something that could have high appeal, but perhaps not to a broad enough user base to interest Microsoft. Clearly, though, other companies also believe that two screens are better than one, and 2011 will see progress on devices such as the Kno tablet and Acer Iconia. The runner-up was the Allerta InPulse BlackBerry companion watch.

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