Switched On: The 2011 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 sixth 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 "Brand New Convertible" and Product of the Year award goes the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime. The first quad-core Android tablet, the Prime represented a refinement of ASUS' original Transformer, which debuted earlier in the year. Its detachable keyboard dock accessory addresses one of the key issues consumers have with tablets, the occasional need for a physical keyboard, while also adding a battery boost, SD card reader, and an increasingly useful (for an Android tablet) USB port.

The "Easy Call to Make" Award for Best New Smartphone goes to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Actually, this was not an easy call to make, with many strong introductions during the year. However, the Galaxy Nexus' large display, LTE support, and of course introduction of the Android 4.0 operating system that will unite Android smartphones and tablets gave it the edge.

An honorable mention goes to the sheer engineering showcase of the Motorola Droid RAZR. Introduced just hours before the Galaxy Nexus, this 7.1 mm LTE phone set a new benchmark for LTE devices, and Motorola's thoughtful use of materials such as Kevlar paired with a water-resistant nanocoating and some helpful services married to software help this Droid recapture at least some of the status that its namesake exuded. A second honorable mention goes to the Nokia N9. While launched with the stillborn MeeGo operating system, the N9 introduced the "fabula" industrial design language that has been part of the appeal of Nokia's first Windows Phone flagship, the Lumia 800.

The "Your Pad Or Mine?" Award for Best New Tablet goes to the Apple iPad 2. Apple's follow-up to the pioneering iPad had competitors scrambling with most still far behind the product's thin profile and maturing operating system .Even its Smart Cover accessory displayed more forethought than many products on the market. Honorable mentions go to the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9, the stylus-flirting HTC Flyer, and the Amazon Kindle Fire.

The "Light on Your Lap" Award for Best New Ultraportable PC goes to the Lion-equipped 11-inch MacBook Air. Apple's second-generation 11-incher remains a great compromise between the portability of a netbook and the thinness of an ultrabook, upping the attractiveness of the company's sub-$1,000 laptop offering. Much as with the iPad 2, few competitors have yet to offer as complete and polished of a direct competitor. Nonetheless, an honorable mention goes to the ASUS Zenbook, one of the first and most stylish of the Wnidows-based ultrabooks to compete with the MacBook Air.

The "Quarterbacks Often Make Passes on Screens That Need Glasses" award for best new 3D product goes to the LG Cimena 3D displays. While active shutter technologies certainly have their advantages, the 3D effects on these TVs really pop, and the glasses -- while still an inconvenience -- are more like the inexpensive lightweight variety used in movie theaters. For consumers who place a premium on 3D, passive glasses represent a step forward in convenience. Honorable mention goes to the Nintendo 3DS which, after a somewhat slow start, has been able to capitalize on Nintendo's control of the platform to encourage more game 3D game development then we're likely to see on 3D cell phones for some time.

The "Lens With Benefits" Award for Best New Imaging Product goes to the Lytro. The first light field camera, the Lytro is capable of creating images with dynamic focus. Honorable mentions go to the scarce 24 megapixel-packing Sony NEX-7, and the Looxcie 2, a slimmed down version of the original video camera-equipped headset that has been paired with the Looxcie Live real-time video clip sharing service.

The "Gist on Your Wrist" award for Best New Mobile Glanceable Display goes to the WIMM One. While a somewhat chunky developer product today, WIMM Labs has blended advanced display technology with its own Android variant to produce a new platform for development and licensing. An honorable mention goes to the rapidly maturing Allerta InPulse, which emerged from a long hibernation to expand both its scope and platform support.

The "Display Matches Well With Dat Play" Award for Best New Mobile Monitor goes to the Lenovo ThinkVision LT1421. Time was when being on the road meant that being confined to the display that your notebook came with. For those used to using multiple monitors at work, that could be confining. But this extra 14" of real estate doesn't take up much room in the bag, and provides a reasonably bright workspace at the expense of only about $200 and a USB port.

The "We Value Your Input" Award for Best New User Experience goes to the Apple iPhone 4S for its introduction of an integrated version of Siri. Far from the first voice input or command technology, Siri scratches the surface of what may be possible moving forward in terms of natural dialogue with a computer regarding the world around us. An honorable mention goes to Sifteo Cubes, which combine small screens and sensors to create novel edutainment experiences. The "Guess We Just Click" Award for Best New PC Input Peripheral goes to last year's input device award winner Microsoft for its Touch Mouse with an honorable mention to the Logitech Wireless Trackpad.

The "Set-Top Box That Rocks" Award for Best New TV Add-On goes to the Roku 2 XS. Whlie lacking the purple case cachet of its sub-$50 sibling, Roku continues to add more channels to its lineup while now expanding into casual games via its Wii-like motion controller. An honorable mention goes to the diminutive Biscotti video chat camera, which can bring remote parties to the (coffee) table.

The "Phones Need Friends, Too" Award for Best Smartphone Accessory goes the Motorola MOTOACTV. A standalone iPod nano competitor in its own right, the MOTOACTV can pair with a Motorola smartphone and Bluetooth headphones to create an integrated Bluetooth personal network designed around monitoring one's runs.

The "Server with a Smile Award" for Best New Home Server Product goes to the Netgear ReadyNAS 2. Serving as an easily accessible enclosure that serves backup and remote access needs, the latest incarnation of the product line doesn't deviate much cosmetically from its predecessors, but includes redesigned configuraiton software that makes it easier to keep tabs on centralized storage.

The "Finders, Keepers" Award for New Best Location-Based Product goes to Location Based Technologies' PocketFinder. Finally coming to market after debuting at CES years ago, the puck-like device can be planted in all kinds of bags and pockets to be tracked via a companion iOS app.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.