The highs and lows, the ups and downs--there were a lot of them this year in the world of gadgets. Laptops made a comeback, now that there are several models that are light and thin enough to use all day but still pack enough power for video and photo editing. Two smartphones competed for our attention, one from Apple and one from Google. And, virtual reality finally went mainstream. Here are my top picks for even the fussy gadget shopper.
There's no question Apple hit a home run with this larger 5.5-inch version of the iPhone 7. There are two lenses in the camera so you can create a blur effect for portrait photos; it's now water-resistant enough to survive a dip in the sink. Apple Siri now supports third-party apps like Uber, and cases and accessories from companies like Mophie make it even better.
The best laptop HP has ever made, this two-in-one has a screen that folds all the way back around the laptop to become a Windows 10 tablet. The screen is bright and clear, and the battery lasts a full 12 hours per charge. The design is a big step up; the laptop is so thin and light, you barely notice it in your laptop bag. And the keys are responsive enough for all-day typing sessions.
PC gaming snapped back into the limelight in 2016, especially since major games like Star Wars: Battlefront, Forza Horizon 3, and Overwatch look and play better on Windows 10 than the consoles. The Acer Predator G1 has the best graphics card around, looks like an alien from a sci-fi movie, and, with a smaller form factor, doesn't overwhelm your desk.
Smartwatches took a nosedive in 2016. IDC claimed the Apple Watch sales plummeted, and Fitbit had to snap up Pebble from imminent extinction. Yet as an elegant timepiece you don't need to recharge constantly, the Fossil Q Nate still tracks your steps and notifies you about incoming texts and emails. And a button lets you switch between time zones when you travel.
Arguably packed with more intelligent features than the iPhone 7, this "first" smartphone from Google uses an intelligent assistant that can answer questions about the weather, remind you about an appointment, and even turn on the light at your command. The phone is powerful, light, and has an amazing 12-megapixel camera.
My favorite gadget from Lenovo in years, the Yoga Book comes with a writing pad and stylus. What you jot down in a meeting transforms into digital transcriptions. If you skip the pad, there's an electronic keyboard for typing that actually works. The Book is small enough to double as an e-book or magazine reader (say, using the Texture app for Windows 10).
I normally don't get too excited by cases, but this Mophie model can change how you work. You set a pad down on your desk, and when you want to charge, you set your phone on the pad. Mophie makes a car mount as well, which means no more cable clutter.
My big surprise with the Google Home speaker is that it sounds so pristine, with loud enough bass to make you skip the earbuds at your desk. Like the Google Pixel phone, the speaker lets you talk to a voice-enabled assistant to ask questions and get reminders, play movies on your TV, and turn off the lights at night. The design--small, compact, and trendy--is also a standout.
Another game-changing product, this keyboard has a rubber cradle for your tablet or smartphone. Once you sync over Bluetooth, the full-size keyboard works like you're on a desktop. And the keyboard does double-duty, since it can sync with a desktop or laptop, as well using USB.
It's not a business product, but the Sony PlayStation VR deserves some credit for being so innovative. Once you connect to the PlayStation console, the VR headset works smoothly without as much configuration as other headsets. The games are noticeably better (there's even a new level for Star Wars: Battlefront in VR). Plus, the kit costs about half as much as the HTC Vive.
Worst gadgets of 2016
Not everything was perfect in gadget-land last year. These products might have made a splash initially, but were either outclassed or had some other reason for tanking.
1. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (Not Available)
I've written enough about the Note 7 battery problems. Suffice it to say, this product could be the worst gadget of all time, not just 2016. Known for overheating and exploding, the larger version of the Galaxy 7 tried to cram a battery into a small compartment.
2. Oculus Rift ($600)
Talk about controversial. I know people love this VR headset, but backorders and broken promises about shipping to early adopters, the fact that the controllers were not ready in time (something the HTC Vive had available at launch), and a lackluster selection of launch titles (especially compared to the Sony PlayStation VR) made it one to skip.
3. Google Chromecast 4K ($69)
The price tag on this media-streaming device is the main reason it failed to impress me. For $69, you can play 4K movies out of a meager selection (about 125 movies, many of them older), and that's about it. A Roku for $120 does much more. More important, a cable to connect an Android smartphone to do the same thing costs $25.