We've had the winners. Now that this dumpster fire of a year is finally coming to a close, it's time to look back on the disasters (real, political and humanitarian) we've survived and heave a sigh of relief. We made it, guys. But not everything came out unscathed at the end of 2018. We saw some real doozies of products this year -- from deeply disappointing chipsets and completely useless phones to a wearable baby monitor that caused eczema outbreaks. Then there are the gadgets that wouldn't have made this list if they hadn't been emblematic of their company's mindblowing inability to read the room. Sigh. Let's take a break from shaking our heads and walk through the garbage alley of 2018's biggest tech fails.
Facebook Portal and Portal+
On paper, Facebook's Portal and Portal+ look like they would be worth every penny. They're 10- and 15.6-inch smart displays, respectively, that sport a camera which can follow you around a room as you're talking. The Portal and Portal+ are designed to be the ideal video chat devices for Facebook Messenger users, of which there are more than 1.3 billion every month. And they don't cost that much, either: $199 for the Portal and $349 for the Portal+, which seems like a small price to pay if you want to, say, gift one to your out-of-town parents or significant other. You know, people who you only get to see regularly on video.
The problem with the Portal and Portal+ is the timing of their launch: They arrived in a year when Facebook's been facing major scrutiny over data privacy issues. To make matters worse, the company was seemingly confused about what type of data the Portals were going to be collecting and what it would be used for. When the devices were announced, Facebook execs said no data collected through the hardware, including call logs, would be used for targeted ads on its site. But, later on, Facebook changed its tune.
A company spokesperson admitted to Recode ten days after the launch that, when you make a video call on Portal, it collects data such as the length and frequency of calls -- just as it does on other Messenger-enabled devices. Facebook might use the information to show you targeted ads across its platforms, along with other general usage data.
If it had been any other time, you could say that confusion was a simple mistake by Facebook. But with incidents like a major breach that exposed the private information of 29 million users, it's just hard to look at the Portal as anything but a tone-deaf product.
Senior Editor, Mobile
Disconnecting from our phones was a big theme this year. Apple and Google introduced a handful of software tools to illustrate how people spend their time on their smartphones and give them the power to limit their usage. The recently revived Palm looked at the problem and came up with a very different solution. To help people disconnect a bit from their cacophonous online lives, the company built a tiny secondary smartphone for when you want to leave your main device at home.
As concerns over smartphone addiction continue to pick up steam, the Palm seemed like just the right kind of phone at the right time. Sadly, the reality fell well short of the idea's promise. For one, it's a Verizon exclusive and doesn't fully work with iPhones, so only a fraction of the people who might have benefitted from a device like this could actually use it. Its tiny body, while frankly adorable, meant the phone could be difficult to use, and the built-in cameras will make you wish you just brought your regular phone. Ultimately, the Palm wound up feeling like a half-baked solution to a problem that deserves serious consideration.
To be absolutely clear, not everyone agrees with us about the Palm -- some people honestly appreciated that the Palm offered just enough connectivity in a package that made it easy to move on with their days. And beyond that, we still think the idea of a sidekick phone for those days when you just want to live your life is a fascinating and powerful one. The thing is, a device like this only has to do a few things very well, and because the Palm falls short on those fronts, it can't help but feel like a loser.
Snapdragon Wear 3100
Let's face it: We haven't had much hope for smartwatches over the past few years. But when Qualcomm and Google first teased a new made-for-wearables chipset at I/O this year, we were all intrigued. It came two years after the chip maker's original flagship Wear 2100 chipset, and was supposed to deliver "no-compromise" smartwatches. The Wear 3100 launched in September, promising battery-extending modes and ambient watch faces that make wearables feel more like real timepieces.
While the more-detailed always-on screen indeed felt more watch-like, the long-lasting battery we were hoping for didn't materialize. Instead of getting days more juice, we got hours extra, which pushed runtime to almost a full day instead of just 15 or so hours. Womp.
Then there's the dedicated sports mode, which is supposed to let you continuously use the GPS, heart rate monitor and other power-intensive sensors for up to 15 hours. But that's not available yet. The first watch to ship with the Wear 3100 ended up feeling like just another Wear OS device, with no significant improvements.
Altogether, it sounds like a lot of hype surrounding a product that ultimately delivered very little. Whether it's a matter of over-promising and under-delivering or simply an industry that got too excited over what ended up being a nothing-burger, this was one of the greatest disappointments of the year.
NVIDIA RTX 2080 TI
It says a lot that NVIDIA's RTX 2080 Ti was a contender for both Winner and Loser this year. I guess it makes sense: Taken in isolation, the RTX cards are a big improvement on the 10-series that came before them. The RTX 2080 Ti is the fastest consumer graphics card ever, and the new Titan RTX is set to be even faster. Their ray-tracing features, too, are undoubtedly going to play a huge role in gaming graphics moving forward. But raw speed alone doesn't make RTX a Winner.
Instead, RTX is a story of price tags and unfulfilled promise. To the average gamer looking for a new card, it doesn't matter that the RTX offers a generational leap in performance, because the price has increased to match. Broadly speaking, the RTX 2080 is comparable in both price and performance to 2017's GTX 1080 Ti; and the RTX 2080 Ti, while a powerful card, currently sells for around $1,300, which used to be Titan money. Those numbers just don't make sense right now, at least, not with the current state of RTX.
RTX cards have dedicated hardware for both ray-tracing and AI functions like DLSS (deep learning super sampling). But the number of games that support these features can, at the time of writing, be counted with one finger. Early adopters always get the short end of the stick, but with RTX, there's not even enough stick to grab onto.
By no means am I saying that the RTX 2080 Ti is a bad piece of hardware: It's a fantastic graphics card, which we scored highly. If you have the cash and want the best, go for it. But it's been three months since our review, and the issues we raised then -- high price and a lack of support -- still weigh heavily against it. For every month that passes with no new RTX-ready games, NVIDIA is hemorrhaging goodwill. Let's hope it's sorted itself out before AMD launches its RTX competitor next year.
Tablets trying to be laptops
Tablets are dead. But that's not stopping companies like Apple, Google and Samsung from still trying to make something happen with them. It seems like the tech titan trio has finally realized that Microsoft got something right with the Surface Pro series, and wants a slice of that delicious pie.
At first glance, it looked like each of them had a promising contender. The iPad Pro packs serious muscle in a premium tablet. But iOS' limited multitasking ability and the poor selection of compatible accessories kept this from being the laptop replacement Apple's marketing promised it would be.
Meanwhile, Google's Pixel Slate offered a versatile OS in its tweaked version of Chrome, but sadly it was buggy software that kept the Slate from succeeding as a 2-in-1. And although Samsung's Galaxy Book 2 was a compelling Surface alternative thanks to its built-in LTE radio, ultimately its ARM-based processor made it unreliable for getting real work done.
The Surface Pro isn't perfect -- Windows still needs work as a mobile-first OS -- but it's as close to a good laptop replacement as tablets can get so far. Perhaps in 2019, we'll see a true Surface rival from Apple or Google with an operating system that makes sense for both productivity and play.