December 25, 2010

2010 In Hardware: Top Ten New Gadgets In Our Home

2010 has been a fantastic time to be a tech geek and gadgets fan. Led by the rise of tablets to give technophiles another item between a phone and a laptop to take with them constantly, and flamed by the fans of competition between Google's Android and Apple's iOS, the users are reaping the rewards.

We now expect to have always-on connections to high speed Internet. We expect to have access to all our data in the world from any device, and to be able to find practically any media and play it anywhere. With this backdrop, I'd like to briefly outline the top ten new devices that entered our world in 2010 in hardware, and why they made the list. The order may surprise you. Keep in mind that this reflects my personal experience and preference, and doesn't suggest one is any more "successful" than the rest in terms of sales or market penetration. Sometimes, as an early adopter geek, it makes sense to go a different way.

1) Sonos S5

The addition of the Sonos S5 wireless music system to our home has been transformative. I liked the first demo unit I received, that I purchased it, and later bought two more, when my family and I traded up our living space and finally had room to support excellent sound in every corner of the house. Now, I take it for granted that I can tap into my computer, my iPad, or any of my Android devices and pull down streaming radio, satellite radio, or even Spotify.

The Sonos S5 sound and form factor is such a dramatic win that it has been the centerpiece of many gatherings with friends and family who marvel at how great the sound is and how fast I can get almost any song in the world, all managed from a mobile device. The addition of a Wireless Dock to support iPods or iPhones is a big boost too for those living in a world of iTunes.

2) MacBook Air

At the beginning of the year, I shed a few pounds, not from some New Year's Resolution, but from going down from a MacBook Pro to my MacBook Air. The Air is speedy, light and is the first step at moving to the cloud, almost by necessity, thanks to its 128 GB SSD disk, about half what the Pro offered. While the Air was a 2009 model, and is already out of date compared to the newest offerings from Cupertino, it is running great and goes everywhere with me.

3) Samsung Galaxy Tab

Regardless of Steve Jobs' comments, the 7 inch tablet form factor is impressive. I haven't fully written up my experience with the Galaxy Tab yet, but it brings the best of the world of Android in a design that fits simply in one hand - perfect for e-mail, photography, surfing the Web, Facebook, or reading books. It starts on the fly with full access to the Android Market, and actually fits in your jeans pocket, or inside jacket pocket. The device is actually very fast as well. It is inevitable to be compared to the iPad, which came first, and some may find it crazy to choose the Galaxy Tab over the iPad, but I've never really warmed up to the iPad, which is used much more by my kids than me. With the Air and Galaxy Tab, the iPad is essentially the odd one out.

4) Apple iPad

The iPad is going to be #1 on many different lists this year, from sales to innovation. For years, Apple was rumored to be working on a tablet device, and in 2010, it finally came, to tremendous success, just as the iMac and iPod and iPhone before it had. It replicated the iPod experience in a much larger screen, and is the go-to device for my toddlers. The sheer weight and bulk of the device made it less of a fit for me, especially when squeezed by the MacBook Air, but I'd be naive in saying the iPad didn't break open the market for tablets in a big way.

5) Samsung Epic 4G

Having caught the Android bug, and finally having found a phone network (Sprint) that didn't drop every other call (I'm looking at you, AT&T), I was excited by the great number of solid reviews of the Epic 4G, and its inclusion of a full-featured keyboard. The device runs all my Android apps, connects to all my email services in the cloud, takes great video and photos, and yes, lets me type very quickly when answering longer emails or chat sessions. The biggest major drawback I have with the Epic is its poor GPS support, which art times can be debilitating. Regardless of this, I am quite happy with the Epic.

6) Barnes and Noble NOOKColor

I recently wrote up my experience with the NOOKColor, which delivers a nice slim 7-inch Android tablet masquerading as an eReader. It's got smart integration with Barnes and Noble's book supermarket, and syncs with the NOOK app, so I can begin reading a book on one device and pick it up on a second. Added support to transfer my own music and rich media files via USB make it smarter than a dumb eReader and getting to the Web is a few clicks away. While it doesn't come with full Android Market, it has proven extensible, so I would watch this space closely.

7) Google Chrome CR-48 Notebook

Reviewing or ranking my experience with this 2010 device isn't really fair. Turns out I got it today. I have high expectations with the direction Google is taking with the ChromeOS and making our lives more cloud-centric. It's a big reason I started migrating to the Air in the first place at the beginning of the year. My initial impressions are as expected, with tight integration to the Chrome browser (essentially the full experience), a great thin frame and nice keyboard. The trackpad, pilloried by others, still needs some work. Putting a beta product on a pedestal against established innovative leaders like the MacBook Air is not fair, but I would bet that a mix of ChromeOS and Android features will lead to some interesting product pushes in 2011 and 2012 from these teams.

8) HTC Evo 4G

The Evo 4G I picked up at Google I/O this Spring was my first dive into the world of Android, and the way it performed against my aging iPhone 3G was remarkable - giving fast performance and real multitasking in a place I had never expected. The Evo's GPS and access to the Android Market made it very solid, and put me on a strong phone network for voice for the first time in years. The drawbacks to the Evo, including bulk and low battery life, mixed with the lack of a hardware keyboard had me switching to the Epic with no hard feelings.

9) Apple TV (2010 Edition)

Established Apple TV owners since the first 40 GB generation, the long-awaited development of the new Apple TV was well anticipated, and landed with a mixed experience. The machine is incredibly small and fast access to Netflix or streamed videos and TV is great, but the greatly reduced library was a disappointment. Truth be told, the best Netflix access in our home is actually with our Nintendo Wii, so the Apple TV only really gets use when we want a movie in the evening.

10) TyPad for iPad

With the launch of the iPad came the launch of iPad accessories. One of the more useful for me was the TyPad, which combined an elegant looking iPad case with a full-fledged bluetooth keyboard. If you're one to type out full e-mails on the iPad, the TyPad is very cool. The only downside is that once I had a keyboard, I found myself also reaching for a mouse or trackpad. Old habits die hard.

Christmas also brought a second NOOKColor into our home as I bought one for my wife, so now we have two iPads, two NOOKColor devices, and one Samsung Galaxy Tab, so we have 5 tablets to go with our three laptops (counting the CR-48). I am curious to see if 2011 will be as strong. But if you haven't checked out the Sonos S5, Galaxy Tab or are in the market for a new laptop, try out the Air or CR-48. Great stuff this year.