From Windows 10 to Amazon Echo to virtual reality, this was a year to be thankful for if you’re a tech consumer.
NEW YORK—The year in tech is winding down and consumers with gadgets on the brain have a lot to be thankful for.
Smartphones got better, new software added dazzle to traditional computing systems, and there were advances in voice search, live broadcasting, wearable tech, the Internet of Things, and the promising reality that is virtual reality.
Here’s what left a mostly positive impression after a year of reviews:
*iPhone 6S/6S Plus. The iPhone is still the standard by which other phones are measured. The iPhone 6S and its jumbo sibling the 6S Plus offer superb cameras that let you shoot 4K video, or capture what are called Live Photos, in which a second-a-half of video is recorded before and after you shoot a still image. Never mind that it’s gimmicky, it’s fun.
A more significant advance comes through 3D Touch, a new feature baked through the 6S/6S Plus experience is built around a pressure sensitive screen.
The new iPhones also exploit the latest iOS 9 mobile operating system which brings a bevy of mostly small but useful changes, from public transit directions in the Maps app to smarter proactive search. The 6S starts at $649, the 6S Plus, $749.
*Google Nexus 6P. Android remains remains the world’s most popular operating system and you can make a strong case for any number of superb handsets: Among others, there’s Samsung’s S6 edge+ or its Note5 phablet, the more budget-oriented Motorola Moto G, or any of the fine phones from Chinese makers such as as OnePlus.
But I’m a big fan of Google’s own Nexus 6P ($499 for 32GB, $549 for 64GB or $649 for 128GB), produced in partnership with another Chinese company, Huawei. The phone is fast, has a superior camera, and is one of the few handsets to support Project Fi, Google’s own wireless service. Its 5.7-inch display is beautiful. The phone includes the versatile USB-Type C charger that is an emerging standard. And it runs Marshmallow, the latest flavor of Android.
*Windows 10. The fresh new version of Microsoft’s venerable operating system represents a winning fusion of Windows past and present. Start with the newly revamped (and more useful) Start menu. Add Microsoft’s voice assistant Cortana, a new Edge Web browser, and universal apps that are meant to work across your tablet, PC, phone, even the Xbox, with a hint of some really cool HoloLens augmented reality experiences to come. All the usual computing suspects have embraced Windows 10 on new PCs, but Windows 10 is also a worthwhile upgrade for the many of you sticking with an older computer.
*Surface Book. Microsoft has arguably delivered the finest new hardware to work with Windows 10. It is called Surface Book, and it is the company’s fast and powerful answer to Apple’s top-notch MacBook Pro laptop. The first-rate keyboard and gorgeous 13.5-inch touch screen on Surface Book can be detached, transforming the machine into a large display clipboard or slate, similar in size to Apple’s new iPad Pro. But Surface Book is primarily a laptop, and a really good one at that. Alas, at $1499 up well past $3000, it is going to cost you.
*Google OnHub. You wouldn’t expect an Internet router to appear on a list like this. But then Google’s new OnHub routers (produced in partnership with TP-Link and Asus) are not your ordinary routers. I reviewed the cylindrical slate gray OnHub from Asus, which doesn’t look like your typical router. It is meant to be out in the open, and not just because of aesthetics. By placing it in plain site you’ll likely see faster Wi-Fi throughout the house. You can also give priority to a device in your house that needs more bandwidth; on the Asus model you can do so by waving your hand over the router. Moreover, Google can update OnHub as needed, which you can set up and control via an Android or iPhone. You will pay more than most routers–$219.99 for the Asus model, $199.99 for the TP-Link version.
*Periscope. In March at the SxSW conference, Meerkat pretty much put live streaming on the map, with technology that let anyone become an instant broadcaster from his or her smartphone. Soon, though, Meerkat’s Twitter-owned rival Periscope captured the fancy of the general public, as well as a number of celebrities. The power of this new medium was evidenced by the number of people who watched the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight for free while others paid $100 to watch (in much higher quality) over pay-per-view.
The DxO One is a tiny gadget that attaches to your iPhone—and greatly improves its photographic capabilities.
*DxO One: The cameras in recent vintage smartphones have gotten really good. But they’re not that good.
The digital image processing company DxO has delivered a clever $599 palm sized DSLR-capable camera that connects (a tad awkwardly) to the Lightning connector on an iPhone. The iPhone display becomes your viewfinder, but you can also use DxO One as standalone shooter. You can take excellent pictures in low light, thanks to a professional grade 20.2-megapixel sensor and an app that lets you adjust the aperture, shutter speed and other settings, with more controls promised in a December upgrade. If need be, the DxO One leverages the flash on your phone. You can shoot standard JPG images, or capture pics in the RAW file format favored by many serious photographers. The high price does also get you some fancy DxO desktop photo editing software for your PC or Mac.
*Amazon Echo. Siri got smarter in 2015. Same goes for Google voice search. And as noted above, Cortana expanded its reach to Windows 10.
But Alexa, the voice inside Amazon Echo, has made great strides. Echo is a 9¼-inch-tall Bluetooth speaker that resembles a container for a small, rolled-up poster, and that responds to your own voice commands. Originally available by invitation-only, Echo recently moved into retail, and between Nov. 26 through Nov. 30 will cost $149, $30 off its regular price. Alexa can play music on request (via Pandora and Prime Music, among other services), read an audio book (via Amazon-owned Audible), tell a joke, and deliver news, sports scores, traffic, and weather, or handle your To-Do list. Just added: An “If This, Then That” feature. For example, you can create a rule to have Echo call your phone should you misplace it by saying “Alexa, trigger find my phone.”
Samsung Gear VR. Virtual reality is on the precipice of taking off. And Samsung, teaming with Facebook-owned Oculus, is helping to make it happen with Gear VR. At $99.99, the price for Samsung’s immersive headgear strikes me as highly reasonable, though you will have to purchase one of four Samsung flagship phones to make it work, making it a non-starter for owners of the iPhone or other rival devices.
The beauty behind the technology is that you can be someplace or be part of something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. So you might watch NBA basketball as if you were sitting courtside or watch a Netflix flick as if sitting on the moon.
Be aware though that fit, comfort and focus will be a challenge for some.
One Smart Piano. I always wanted to learn piano. And the $1499.99 One Smart Piano from the One Music Group is a great way to learn. This digital wooden upright has 88 weighted keys and three pedals. But what makes it stand out is that you can connect an iOS or Android device, download an app onto your phone or tablet and watch video tutorials as you play.
What’s more, the video lessons, as well as the interactive sheet music, are synchronized so that LEDs above the keys you are meant to strike at that moment light up. The biggest bummer is that you have to assemble it yourself.
Apple Watch.Apple Watch isn’t included here because it’s a perfect product. In fact, you can summon a rather lengthy list of reasons to skip this first generation.
The watch isn’t essential like a smartphone. Phone calling from the wrist isn’t a great experience. There’s a learning curve. Battery life—about a day and a half—could be better. It still relies on the phone in your pocket. I even prefer the rotating bezel interface on the rival Samsung Gear S2 watch.
And yet Apple Watch, $349 to —yikes — $17,000, is the first smart watch to truly matter, though others, including devices based on Android Wear, beat Apple to market. Apple Watch is the most fashionable, inspiring other smart watchmakers to pay closer attention to style. There’s broad app support. I really like using Apple Pay with the watch to pay for stuff at stores that accept it. I’ve grown accustomed to bite-size news snippets, and notifications on the watch, and appreciate that I can dictate a response by voice.
It’ll be worth watching how it and some of the other products on this list improve further in 2016.
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