From first-gen wearables to cracking cellphone contracts, what comes next for tech?
NEW YORK — In a year in which my favorite tech products included a "smart" basketball, one can only imagine the places tech will bounce next.
Some of the most important product developments had less to do with the technology itself and more with changes in how we purchase stuff. With a strong push from T-Mobile and others, the two-year cellphone contract, as we know it, doesn't seem quite as ironclad. At the very least, you will have the opportunity to upgrade handsets more frequently. Given the pace of innovation, that's a potential boon not only to you and me, but also to the companies hawking the latest devices.
And some of what we saw in 2013 falls in the "intriguing but not quite there yet" category, starting with the well-publicized spectacle that is Google Glass. The $1,500 developer prototype is still very much a work-in-progress. But Glass can already snap a picture (5-megapixel), record video (720p high-definition), get directions, send a message, handle searches, make a call or help you perform a Google Hangout. And you do almost everything with your voice.
What's more, Glass is not nearly as dorky as you might think. And for better or worse the eyewear has emerged as the poster child for wearable computing. It will be interesting to see how it evolves in 2014. What compelling uses might surface? Once it is closer to becoming an actual product ordinary folks might buy, what it will cost?
SMARTWATCHES: NOT QUITE THEIR TIME
The wearable category is also noted for the many smartwatches that went on sale in 2013, from Kickstarter-darling Pebble, to what may have been the most hyped — or over-hyped — watch of all, Samsung's Galaxy Gear.
Pretty much all the high-tech timepieces that I've seen are companion accessories for the smartphone in your pocket. Though capabilities vary by model, you can follow Twitter or Facebook feeds on your wrist, answer or make calls, control music playback and more. Samsung's Galaxy Gear has a camera lens embedded in the wristband. But smartwatches still don't do well enough on their own to justify an expenditure that can exceed a couple of hundred bucks. The watches generally would benefit from longer-life batteries, more apps (which is starting to happen) and from a killer app or two that have yet to emerge.
BAIG REVIEW: Samsung smartwatch ticks in the right direction
There's ongoing speculation that Apple is working on a smartwatch, but you could have turned the clock back a year and heard the same rumors. Could it happen in 2014? I wouldn't bet the farm on it not happening.
Message here: Expect wearables to get better, before they wear thin.
WHAT'S PLAYING IN TV TECH
Folks continue to wonder what Apple might do in TVs. My own wish is not so much for an Apple-branded television. There are already splendid and cheap televisions out there. But I'd like to see a major update to the company's $99 Apple TV set-top box — one that would let you add iOS-style games and other third-party apps.
BAIG REVIEW: Sony 4K TV — Splendid TV, not so splendid price
Apple rival Google delivered what has to be the biggest bargain item of the year, the clever $35 Chromecast. Plug this sub-3-inch-tall dongle into a high-definition television, and it lets you wirelessly stream — or in Chromecast lingo "cast" — movies, TV shows, videos and music from Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, HBO Go and Google Play apps on your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet. You can also use it with the Chrome browser on your Windows PC or Mac to display the Web page you are looking at on the TV, though this last feature is still being "beta" tested. Look to Google to add more Chromecast partners in 2014. And you can't argue with 35 bucks.
At the other end of the pricing spectrum are the recently introduced video game consoles Xbox One from Microsoft and PlayStation 4 from Sony. Of course, these are formidable game machines. But especially in the case of the Xbox, think of them more broadly as entertainment systems for watching TV and movies, initiating video calls (via Skype) and more, and controlling such functions with your voice.
On the subject of TV, the 4K televisions that provide four-times the resolution of high definition hardly went mainstream in 2013 — certainly not with precious little native 4K content and at the multi-thousand dollar ransom you still typically have to surrender. You'll need the bandwidth for 4K, too. The thin and elegant 65-inch Sony XBR-65X900A that took up temporary residence in my family room cost around $5,500 at the time, though prices are falling. All the major TV manufacturers are backing 4K or Ultra-HD TVs (as they're sometimes called). You'll hear and see a lot more about them at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. I had no quibbles with the technology. The Sony I tested provided a magnificent picture that's bolstered by more than 8 million individual pixels, and a vibrant color palette. The sound was pretty special, too. But are consumers clamoring for 4K? Dream on.
THE YEAR IN TABLETS, SMARTPHONES AND MORE
Of course, the year has also had more predictable product unveilings: new tablets, smartphones, computers and cameras.
Apple unleashed its best iPhone with the 5s, which by a close call in my opinion remains the best smartphone out there. It not only adds beefier processing and a fancier camera, but the Touch ID fingerprint reader that's built into the home button. Touch ID is actually useful for unlocking your device and for using your paws to authenticate purchases in iTunes and the App Store. I was a little disappointed the feature didn't make its way onto Apple's latest iPad Air or iPad Mini with Retina display, something I would expect to see eventually.
BAIG REVIEW: New iPhones and iOS 7 team up for winning combo
There was a plethora of excellent new phones and tablets in 2013. Among the former, I weighed in favorably on the HTC One, Motorola's design-it-yourself Moto X, Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Google's LG-made Nexus 5, each in the Android camp. That last device can be had "unlocked" (or without a contract) for as little as $350, a bargain price for a phone with such a strong pedigree.
Meanwhile, Nokia set the standard for cellphone photography, with the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020, a Windows Phone. Exceptional zooming capabilities are one of its strengths, the lack of expandable storage (beyond 32 gigabytes) one of its shortcomings.
Apple again prevails in the tablet space, with the thin and powerful iPad Air and the smaller iPad Mini with Retina display that's based on almost all of the same specs. But rivals flaunted some pretty impressive alternatives as well.
Though pricey, I reserved high praise for the thin, attractive — and ready to withstand a spill — Sony Xperia Tablet Z, which has a 10.1-inch display. I actually gave the tablet a cold shower, with no ill effects.
You'll want to keep Google's newest Nexus 7 tablet dry, but it's an excellent budget choice among smaller-screen tablets. And give major credit to Amazon.com for the live personalized 24-7 Mayday video tech support that is the banner feature in its newest Kindle Fire HDX tablets.
On the computer front, Apple unleashed OS X Mavericks, the 10th release for OS X for Mac. Mavericks bolsters battery life, supplies new versions of iBooks and Maps, and adds features Mac loyalists will appreciate such as Finder Tabs and Tags. The overall upgrade is relatively modest. But having used Mavericks for several months, there's no reason I can think of why Mac owners who haven't already done so shouldn't accept the upgrade. Especially since it is free.
At around the same time, Microsoft made available Windows 8.1, a worthwhile update for owners of Windows 8 PCs. It brought back a (limited) version of the familiar Windows Start button. Tapping on it, though, just brings you back to the default tile-based Windows 8 touch environment — so much for going back to the future. Windows 8.1 also better integrated Bing search and Microsoft's Sky Drive online locker, redesigned the Windows Store and made Windows generally more customizable.
One ongoing trend is what pundits refer to as the Internet of Things. Following up on their success in turning the thermostat into a sexy thing, the folks at Nest did it again with the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Prior to blasting a shrill alarm, Nest gives you a polite early warning. "Heads up, there's smoke in the kitchen," giving you a chance to remedy the situation before it escalates. You can silence alerts by waving your arms underneath the detector. It also uses LED lights and notifications on your smartphone to report potential trouble.
And then there's the 94Fifty smart basketball, from start-up InfoMotion Sports Technologies. Inside what appears to be an ordinary regulation-size synthetic leather basketball is Bluetooth technology and sensors that communicate with a companion app on your iPhone or iPad. The app "coaches" you with drills that cover such things as your dominant hand speed, weak hand speed, crossover speed and behind-the-back speed. The app can count the number of dribbles, and detect when you've lost control of the ball. It can measure how fast you get off shots, what kind of backspin you have on your shot, and what kind of arc you have when you throw the ball up toward the hoop.
Alas, at $299.95, a smart basketball doesn't come cheap. Chromecast aside, the best new products of the year rarely do.
Personal Tech columnist Ed Baig goes hands on with the 94Fifty basketball, which uses Bluetooth and an iOS app to help improve your game.