When you write about technology for a living, a lot of folks ask you for buying advice. And, while we get to test the latest and greatest gear on the planet, telling others what to spend their money on is often easier than shopping for ourselves. Only a select few devices are deemed worthy of our dollars. These are the best gadgets we bought in 2015.
My wife's seven year old iMac died this year. After years of delivering email, editing photos and being used exactly once to boot Windows XP, I'm pretty sure it was the power supply that did it in. Naturally, the only option to replace that 17-inch computer was a 27-inch, 5K Retina display iMac with a 1TB drive. The screen is amazing. It makes all those stored photos look way better than they actually are. Also, that email text is really, really crisp. It's really great for watching Rick and Morty when your wife commandeers the TV to watch a period piece on PBS. The computer, while probably more than we needed, is making our lives a bit better. If only OS X El Capitan would stop putting it to sleep and refusing to wake back up when pinged by the network — even though I've set it to wake for network access. Really, if that niggle were fixed, it would be the perfect emailing, photo editing, random cartoon-watching machine.
While we shelled out a hefty chunk of cash to use only ten percent of that 5K iMac's potential (We'll grow into it!), I'm actually pretty thrifty. So, a few months ago I treated myself to a soldering station with a magnifying glass and two alligator clips to hold my delicate pieces of electronics while I melted metal to metal. I've used it to fix a few microphones (I'm in a band) and I totally intend to use it to finally put together that LED sign set I bought at DEFCON. In recent years, I find myself gravitating more towards these maker type of tech purchases. Sure, I buy a new iPhone every year or two, but as I look at the commercial hardware filling the tech world, I'm largely unimpressed. On the other hand, the DIY/Maker world is currently where the fun is at. BRB, I gotta go buy some LEDs.
Like millions of other people, I also stayed up late to pre-order the Apple Watch on the night of April 10th, 2015. I'd tried many smartwatches before that, including the original Moto 360, but none of them ever managed to become an essential part of my life. Not that I was expecting the Apple Watch to do what those couldn't, but having recently switched back to an iPhone and it being Apple's first take on this kind of device, I simply couldn't resist. I did debate whether or not to pull the trigger on the stainless steel version, but ultimately decided to wait until the second generation before springing for the higher-end Watch.
So, I bought the entry-level model.
Eight months later, I find myself wearing it every day and suffering no buyer's remorse. That's much to my own surprise, since I've never been a "watch guy." Worst case scenario, I figured I could return it to Apple if I didn't end up using it much. But here it is, strapped to my left wrist as I type these very words. Now, the Watch is far from being a gadget I feel the need to be rockin' on a daily basis. While it's a nice extension of my iPhone, letting me view notifications or use Apple Pay directly from my wrist, I would be okay without either of those features. That said, the Watch is now one of the first things I grab when I start getting ready for the day, which says a lot about its effect on me.
More than anything, I just love the way it looks and feels. Unlike the Moto 360 I have, Apple's 42mm Watch doesn't feel big or bulky on my wrist -- most of the time I forget I'm even wearing it. My favorite part of the Watch, however, is the feature that reminds me to stand up if I've been sitting for long periods of time. If I'm at my desk, every hour I get a notification telling my to stand up and walk around for a few minutes. Considering my job requires me to be in front of a computer for nine or more hours every day, those periodic reminders are much appreciated, since chronic sitting just might slowly be killing me. That the Watch does what it does in style is just a plus, and it really pops when paired with that Product Red band I purchased a few weeks ago.
My favorite gadget purchase this year is actually something released last year: Amazon's Echo. I've written a love letter about the Echo already, but as we near the end of 2015, it's worth reiterating just how great it is. I usually start every day by asking Alexa, the Echo's digital assistant, to play WNYC, my local NPR station. As I'm feeding my cats, I ask about the weather. When I'm making dinner, I can have Alexa set timers and change music tracks, all hands-free. At this point, the Echo is basically the household computer I've always wanted.
Even today, Siri and Google Now can't compete with the Echo when it comes to listening and responding to voice commands. Apple only recently added hands-free Siri support to the iPhone with iOS 9, a feature that's nice to have, but has been mostly frustrating in my testing. I've had better luck with Google Now, but it still sometimes takes several tries of shouting "Okay Google" for it to work properly. Since the Echo is always plugged in and has an array of microphones at the ready, it's simply better at listening to your voice.
I'm also a big fan of the Chromecast Audio, which can transform just about any speaker into a modern, connected music machine for just $35. It sounds a lot better than streaming Bluetooth audio, and it's not locked into a proprietary platform like Apple's AirPlay. The Chromecast standard is also far easier to connect to than either Bluetooth or AirPlay, and it also allows you to do other things with your phone without messing up music streams. And Google just made it better by adding high-res music support and multi-room syncing. If you've already got decent speakers, Chromecast Audio can give you a Sonos-like experience without shelling out big bucks (or being locked into a more closed ecosystem).
My favorite tech purchase this year came in the form of the Fitbit Charge HR and Aria scale -- both of which I purchased as part of the #EngadgetFitnessChallenge. The Charge has been fantastic, pulling triple duty as timepiece, pedometer and health/sleep tracker. The associated FitBit app, especially its calorie tracking feature, has been a boon as well. I can see exactly how much I've done in a given day, plot my progress over time, check my heart rate and keep tabs on how many Doritos I've crammed into my face during the past 24 hours.
I initially had a couple issues with the Charge HR because, prior to the last firmware update, the unit did not automatically track my exercise and I would continually forget to manually activate the feature. Or worse, I'd forget to stop it after my workout ended and would wind up with results for 10 hours of "exercise." Still, the Charge HR has motivated me to not only exercise consistently for the first time in years but also change my eating and sleeping habits. Armed with this information, I've managed to drop 8 pounds over the past two months.
The Aria, however, I despise -- namely because it keeps pointing out how fat I still am whenever I stand on it.
The 5X is my third Nexus phone. My first was a Samsung Galaxy Nexus I picked up while waiting for the iPhone 5 to be released, and never looked back. I followed that up with a beautiful red Nexus 5, which served me well until two months shy of the 5X launch, when I dropped it and cracked the screen. I suffered with it for weeks, as shards of glass slowly flaked off, until my new Nexus 5X finally arrived.
I wasn't sure what to expect from LG's third Google offering, but I'd become a fan of its immediate predecessor's raw Android experience, light weight and affordable price. The 5X's ice blue shade doesn't quite pop like the brilliant red of the 5, but it still lets me escape the mundanity of basic black and white. Sadly, Qi wireless charging — a favorite feature of mine — failed to make the cut this time around. And, being ahead of the curve with USB-C requires you to plan out your charging regimen, since compatible cables are scarce. The phone feels great, but its plastic exterior and ultra-lightweight build look a bit like a budget phone — which, to be fair, it kind of is.
OK, I lied before, this is technically my fourth Nexus phone, since I had to return my first 5X. It arrived with a speck on the inside of the lens that ruined every photo. After attempting to replace it through Nexus Protect, I learned that a) Google handles all warranty replacements itself and b) the insurance company administering claims doesn't use email to update you — it uses actual, physical letters. Despite the archaic means of communication, my new handset arrived a few days later. Unfortunately, I still see bits of stuff on the inside of the camera lens, though they have yet to interfere with the camera. It may have something to do with the rattling noise that emanates from the phone — an issue that spans all three 5X handsets I've checked.
It's not all bad, though. The second-rate camera that's plagued the Nexus line for several iterations has been improved upon a great deal in the 5X. Photos are crisp and bright, especially in low light, so you can finally get to Instagramming at parties with the best of them. Another great leap forward is the 5X's fingerprint sensor that provides quick and secure access to the phone. The rear placement meshes well with how I hold the thing and it's saved me a lot of time compared to entering a pin code repeatedly.
Could it be better? Sure, but the price, feature set and design make it a worthwhile purchase. Being first in line for Android updates is also a nice bonus. Android 6.0 Marshmallow works well, feels comfortable and doesn't suffer from skinning or bloatware like many forked versions. Thus far, I'm happy enough with this most recent Nexus that I see Google reference phones in my hand for the foreseeable future.
Though I often tell people that I am not a gamer, the truth is that I do enjoy and play video games. I have fond memories of Doom, The Secret of Monkey Island and Myst, and I had Atari and SNES consoles as a kid. I've even owned a PS2 and an Xbox 360. But I'm really more of a casual gamer with a closer affinity to Threes than Halo or Call of Duty. That fact — combined with my nostalgic love for Nintendo titles like Super Mario Bros and Zelda — is why I bought the Nintendo Wii U this year instead of an Xbox One or PS4.
The first two titles I bought were Splatoon and Mario Kart 8; the former was more for my husband, while I've always been a fan of the quintessential kart racing game. While I rarely partake in Splatoon, I still enjoy watching my husband wreak havoc in paint-festooned battlegrounds, blasting his opponents with blanket color bombs. But the real fun comes when we compete against each other in Mario Kart -- few things are more satisfying than yelling "BLUE TURTLESHELL INCOMING" to your spouse and laughing (perhaps a bit too loudly) at his misfortune when it hits home.
Since then, we've expanded our repertoire with Super Mario Bros 3D World and, most recently, Yoshi's Wooly World, which is the most delightful game I've played this year. Little Yoshis made of yarn? Swallowing enemies and then pooping them out as yarn balls? It's charming game that never fails to lift my mood every time I play. This combination of whimsy and solid gameplay is precisely why I bought the Wii U, and why Nintendo will always hold a special place in my heart.
Earlier this year I found myself on the basement level of a mall in China standing face-to-face with the MOTQRONA, a hideous gold knock-off of a Zach Morris-era Motorola phone. I obviously couldn't leave without it (never mind the price), and it's by far the best gadget I bought in 2015. It might even be the best gadget I've ever purchased, period, because it's so damned versatile.
Goodness, where to even start? First off, it's enormous, and the huge battery wedged in its back should make the MOTQRONA an effective weapon in a pinch. That battery pulls double duty, too — thanks to a full-size USB port, the MOTQRONA also works as a power bank, though I dare not use it to charge anything I actually like. There's a big LED embedded in the top of the phone for lighting up those dark, wintry New York City streets, too. And next to that, the already-long antenna telescopes outward to become even more ridiculous looking, yet ideal for picking up radio stations and OTA television signals. (That TV capability is pretty much useless here in the States, but I did manage to watch a few moments of... something... in my Shenzhen hotel room.)
Did I mention that the MOTQRONA also has the loudest speakers known to man? Just ask anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot when I've turned the phone on or off — the phone plays a traditional melody that would be delightful if it wasn't loud enough to burst an eardrum or two. Even better, there's no way to turn that insanely loud greeting off. At this point, I'm fairly sure no one in our New York office can stand the sight of me or my hulking gold monstrosity. And the pièce de résistance: whoever made this phone slavishly copied iOS's design, from the slide-to-unlock mechanic (yes, it has a touchscreen) to just about every single icon. Oh, and the MOTQRONA gets bonus points for speaking aloud the names of menu items in Mandarin, just because.