Make no mistake, the Web is taking over. Applications are moving to browsers en masse, and technology to take Web apps offline promises to smooth the road ahead. And let's not forget breakthrough devices advancing the Web-anywhere world: Apple has redefined the phone, and One Laptop per Child's sub-$200 laptop is delivering Internet-style collaboration to kids in developing nations. But innovation isn't all on the Web; the PC is evolving as well. Apple has reenvisioned backup, HP has created the first useful touch-screen PC, hybrid hard drives boost speed and battery life, and ultraportables have become even more useful. Chosen from the hundreds of products we reviewed in 2007, here are 25 that will change the way you work, communicate, and play this year--and beyond.
1. Google Gears
Innovation: Plug-in lets Web applications work offline.
Benefit: Tackles the single biggest hurdle to making Web apps truly convenient.
Imagine firing up only one application--a Web browser--for handling all of your daily computer tasks. It's a nice dream, but it has one major problem: What do you do when you're offline? Google Gears, a Windows application now in beta, solves this problem by allowing service designers to create versions that still work when your PC doesn't have an Internet connection. Google Reader, Zoho Writer (which added offline editing via Gears in late 2007), and online task manager Remember the Milk already use it, and Google is working to add Gears to other applications in its stable. (If you're thinking of ditching desktop software entirely, read one writer's take in "Life Without Desktop Software.")
2. Apple iPhone
Innovation: Gee-whiz touch-screen interface and spartan case dial up a mobile revolution.
Benefit:Mac OS-simple software offering slide-and-glide access to bright, colorful menus sets this cell phone apart from its rivals.
The $399 iPhone has taken some criticism for its shortcomings, mainly its lack of 3G connectivity, but you can't deny that the sleek handset is innovative. Apple made navigating via a touch screen--sure to be a staple in future PDA phones and other small devices--intuitive and fun. iPhone's Safari browser makes the handset a great mobile Web device (at least when you can get a Wi-Fi connection.) And, sure, many phones play music, but Cover Flow cranks the iPhone up to 11 as a music player. (See PC World's iPhone Central for much more.)
3. One Laptop per Child XO
Innovation: $200 laptop does mesh networking, is sand- and waterproof, and works well in direct sunlight.
Benefit: What every child in the developing world needs; makes you ask, "When will my laptop be able to do that?"
Innovation isn't always about being bigger, better, and faster. One Laptop per Child's Linux-powered XO laptop, with a 7.5-inch display--designed for children in poor countries--is one of the cheapest, most power-conscious, and sturdy notebooks on the planet. It also has features you might wish you had on your mainstream laptop. One clear standout: XO's Wi-Fi allows it to function as a mesh-network node that can connect with other XOs, even when no Internet connection is available.
4. Time Machine, in Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard)
Innovation: Backs up changes hourly to an external drive behind the scenes, then lets you "go back in time" to restore data.
Benefit: Makes light work of the one task that every computer user should do and most people put off--and gives the function a pretty face, to boot.
Time Machine is the killer feature in Leopard. You'll either love or hate this wild and wacky space-and-time user interface, but performing backups will never be the same. One question: Why doesn't Windows Vista have anything this simple and useful? (For more information about the new Mac OS, read our Leopard review.)
5. Amazon Kindle
Innovation: Device takes the e-book to the next level with free EvDO connectivity.
Benefit: Tight integration with Amazon's bookselling site; thoughtful design.
Electronic-book readers are not new, and Sony's experience with its Reader shows that sales are not guaranteed. But with its Kindle reader ($400), Amazon has brought the e-book into the connected age by including free EvDO wireless connectivity to the e-commerce giant. Did we mention the seamlessness of buying books with this always-on device? EvDO could be the magic that e-books have lacked.
6. NetGear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000
Innovation: Only streaming-media device to play protected files in both iTunes and Windows Media formats. Also handles 1080p HD video and acts as a DVR.
Benefit: It makes life easier in a multiple-DRM world.
Netgear's Internet media player, the NetGear Digital Entertainer HD EVA8000 ($400) busts through the DRM (digital rights management) wall, and even allows you to check your e-mail and watch YouTube videos on your television.
7. HP TouchSmart IQ770 PC
Innovation: The first all-in-one PC on the market to boast a touch-screen display.
Benefit: Does for the computer what the iPhone has done for mobile handsets.
HP's kitchen-friendly computer, the HP TouchSmart IQ770 PC ($1650), is beautifully designed, and its touch screen makes it suitable for use on a countertop as well as a desktop. HP also supplies a software interface, optimized for use with the touch screen, that ties into news, weather, and calendar details, among other daily-living information. The handy, customizable HP control panel lets you quickly access photos, launch a photo editor, and play back music, too.
8. AT&T Tilt
Innovation: Clever, unique hinge lets you slide the screen up at an angle.
Benefit: Well-positioned QWERTY keyboard results in what looks like a tiny notebook that you can use in your hands or rest on a table.
The tilting screen is the main innovation, but the Tilt (made by HTC under the name TyTN II, $400 with a two-year AT&T contract) is one of the most powerful phones available, period. Want a quick rundown of the specs? How about the Windows Mobile 6 operating system, a large screen, 3G wireless connectivity, GPS, a 3-megapixel camera, and the ability to talk to corporate BlackBerry servers? Top that, iPhone.
9. Facebook API
Innovation: Platform lets anyone with a good idea and some coding chops add real value to Facebook.
Benefit: Facebook taps developers' creativity, in turn permitting Facebook users to customize their pages.
Sure, the killer app of Facebook has not been written yet--and many of the ones that exist now are kind of silly. But Facebook has been on a roll in more ways than one, having led to the creation of the Google-backed OpenSocial, which looks likely to result in open platforms' becoming widespread. Common ground should spark lots of creativity, and it should keep the social networking and media buzz alive.
10. DeviceVM Splashtop
Innovation: Allows a PC to boot in a few seconds into a simple, secure interface with a Mozilla-based browser.
Benefit: Lets you save energy by keeping your PC powered off when you're not using it.
DeviceVM's Linux-based technology allows you to boot into its Internet-appliance-like platform in a few seconds, so you don't have to spend minutes waiting for Windows to start up. If all you want to do is check your Web mail account or make a Skype call, for example, you'll save both time and watt-hours. Though the technology is currently shipping as a feature only in the Asus P5E3 Deluxe/WiFi AP motherboard, it should be more widely available in desktops, laptops, and additional motherboards in 2008.
11. Toshiba Portege R500
Innovation: First ultraportable laptop to squeeze in an optical drive.
Benefit: You don't have to give up much at all to go truly lightweight.
Thin takes on new meaning with the lightweight Portege R500 ($2000 for the R500-S5002). But you don't have to sacrifice function for form with this laptop, which is equipped with an ultralow-voltage Intel processor. The stylish 2.4-pound ultraportable manages to include both a rewritable-DVD drive and a 12.1-inch LED-backlit display in its svelte, 0.77-inch-thick chassis. Enough said.
12. Data Robotics Drobo
Innovation: High-end, redundant storage for the masses.
Benefit: USB 2.0 storage appliance delivers RAID 5 benefits without mind-numbing complexity.
"Redundant array storage" and "sexy" don't normally go hand-in-hand. But Data Robotics' unique Drobo ($500) offers high-end storage features in a sleek design with software that doesn't require a master's degree in IT to figure out. Drobo uses storage virtualization algorithms to provide many of the benefits of RAID 5, but is relatively easy to set up: Just place the drives into the case, plug in the USB cable, install the software, and you're off.
13. Hybrid Hard Drives
Innovation: First hard drives with a built-in NAND flash memory cache.
Benefit: Power savings and performance boost for laptops.
Samsung and Seagate each have shipped new hard drives that combine traditional hard-disk media with a flash cache to improve both reliability and performance. Our tests of the Samsung Spinpoint MH80 and the Seagate Momentus 5400 PSD ($250 and $190, respectively) showed that the 256MB NAND flash cache provides some clear benefits--particularly in power saving and read speed.
14. Eye-Fi Card
Innovation: Allows digital cameras to upload wirelessly to photo-sharing sites or your PC.
Benefit: Wi-Fi-enabled SD Card bridges digital photography's wireless divide.
The Eye-Fi Card ($100) does what few digital cameras have done, and what no digital camera has done well: enable wireless uploading to a photo-sharing site. Pop the 2GB SD Card into your camera and fire off a few shots, and the Wi-Fi-enabled card transmits the images to your preferred site--and, if you like, to your PC. The setup is simple, the device imposes no limitations on the image size, and the uploads happen.
15. Panasonic TH-42PZ700U
Innovation: Packs full 1080p high-definition resolution into today's most popular size for flat-screen televisions, 42 inches.
Benefit: Stellar image quality.
Though 1080p LCD sets quickly became commonplace in 2007, showing 1080 vertical lines on a plasma TV this small remained technically difficult. Panasonic's efforts paid off: In our tests the TH-42Z700U ($1800) earned stellar image-quality marks. With high-definition content from Blu-Ray and HD DVD sources, the picture is phenomenal; and because it's a plasma, even standard-definition programs look pretty good.
16. Yamaha Tenori-On
Innovation: Inspired and intuitive handheld instrument redefines music-making.
Benefit: Nothing else even comes close to Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai's digital instrument.
While the Tenori-On is likely to appeal to a fairly specialized audience, the device screams innovation. Consisting of a 16-by-16 grid of LED-illuminated buttons that a user touches to manipulate sound in a variety of intuitive and eye-catching ways, the Tenori-On--designed by the creator of the cult-hit Nintendo DS music game Electroplankton--is like nothing you've ever seen (head to the Tenori-On clip on YouTube for a product demonstration video). It has 256 built-in sounds, and an integrated SD Card slot lets you copy original samples from your computer. You can also use its MIDI-out port to connect with your PC's music software or your other hardware instruments. Currently it is sold only in Great Britain, but anybody willing to pay £599 (about $1200) can order one from dolphinmusic.co.uk.
17. Zoho Notebook
Innovation: Web-only app stores just about any kind of content and allows you to share it with anyone.
Benefit: More full-featured than competing online tools.
AdventNet's Zoho tools include everything from wiki software to customer relations management and project management applications, many of them free. Zoho Notebook (free, in public beta) continues the winning streak. You can enter text, graphics, audio, video, and embedded content from other sites onto your notebook's pages--or use the page as a single word processing document or spreadsheet. Put together everything on a certain subject, and you're ready to share your work with online compatriots.
18. 'In Rainbows' by Radiohead
Innovation: Band allows its fans to pay whatever amount they want for this new album, starting at zilch.
Benefit: Approach calls the bluff of illegal downloaders, who say they're happy to pay artists but not music studios.
The recording industry is desperate for new ideas about how to sell music. Radiohead's pay-what-you-want approach may not work for all acts--and the band has remained mum on reports that 62 percent of early downloaders paid nothing for the group's new album--but the strategy certainly does one thing that most music companies seem loath to do: It respects fans. And all of the voluntary fees go directly to Radiohead, not to a publisher.
19. IOGear Wireless USB Hub and Adapter
Innovation: USB-speed connections without cable spaghetti.
Benefit: Presents none of the flakiness and proprietary technology that hobbled previous wireless USB products.
IOGear's hub and adapter are based on an industry standard that should soon be built into laptops and other devices. Setting up IOGear's Wireless USB Hub and Adapter ($160) was tricky, but once we had everything arranged, our data flew, thanks to its streaming, HD-capable, 250-megabits-per-second throughput. Wireless USB will become more versatile once it's built into devices.
Innovation: Web site aggregates your financial account transaction data, alerting you to any unusual activity or to a rapidly dwindling balance.
Benefit: Takes most of the work out of keeping on top of your money.
Signing up for Mint requires a leap of faith--you must give the site the numbers and passwords for your bank and credit card accounts. But once you do, it acts as your personal-finance lackey. Mint downloads your latest transactions for all accounts and does its best to categorize them. You decide when you want to receive an alert, such as for when a bill is due, a big purchase appears on your credit card, or you just got a nice, fat deposit.
21. Microsoft Popfly
Innovation: Lets you use Microsoft's Silverlight platform to create Web mashups.
Benefit: Though Popfly is still in early beta, its operation is clearer and its display is more attractive than that of the similar Yahoo Pipes tool.
If you ever played with Legos as a kid, then you should be able to assemble a Web mashup in Microsoft's Popfly. No coding know-how needed--using Popfly is as simple as choosing content sources (such as pictures, video, or news feeds from various online sources) and connecting them to a display model (such as a video player, a dynamic box for text, or a game of whack-a-mole that pops up pictures, for instance). Voilà, you have your mashup. You can embed the resulting creation in a blog entry or Web page, or just share its URL so others can admire your work.
22. Sprint Airave
Innovation: Delivers cheap, unlimited Internet-based calling at home through any Sprint CDMA handset.
Benefit: You can use your cell phone (and all of the contacts you have stored in it) as a universal phone, with better reception, while at home.
T-Mobile was first to enhance at-home cell calling with the debut of its Hotspot @ Home service, but that offering requires use of one of the company's few dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular handsets. Sprint's device, made by Samsung ($50 with Sprint service), creates a mini cell tower in your home to which your phone can roam. As a result, you can enjoy more convenience and even bigger savings than what you get from VoIP providers such as Vonage.
Innovation: Melds comprehensive search results more coherently than competing universal searches do.
Benefit: Proves that not every site needs to mimic Google, and that a venerable search engine company can do cool new stuff.
Ask.com, a compete redesign of the former Ask Jeeves site, asks very little but gives a lot via its thoughtfully designed interface, including search suggestions as you type. With one query you can retrieve traditional search results as well as news, images, blogs, video, and more. Once you've searched, you can filter the results with useful suggestions to home in on just what you were looking for. The site is visually minimalist, but you can skin it for a new look. If privacy is a concern, AskEraser wipes away private data that search engines typically store.
Innovation: Allows Excel users to share their spreadsheets, online or off.
Benefit: Melds the best of traditional office software and Web-based services.
eXpresso ($80 per seat per year) adds a new twist to Web applications, offering both Web-based sharing in a standard format and tight integration with the most familiar spreadsheet application, Microsoft's Excel. Users can share spreadsheets in real time using eXpresso's service, which also allows you to restrict some users' access to certain segments of a master spreadsheet. In a nutshell, eXpresso is delivering today what Microsoft has promised that its Office suite will do in the future.
25. Kodak EasyShare All-In-One Printers
Innovation: The printers are slightly more expensive, but their ink is priced more like the no-name stuff advertised around the Web.
Benefit: You can print cheaply without worrying that the cartridge will burst all over your printer.
Kodak's midlevel EasyShare printers (from $150) may be a bit pricier at first. But when you combine one with the company's paper-and-ink packs, you can print photos for as little as 10 cents each (according to Kodak)--about half the industry average. The printer's pigment-ink system uses one black-ink cartridge and one five-ink tank; replacing them with non-photo-specific inks directly from Kodak costs just $10 and $15, respectively. We think most people will appreciate the benefit of having one source for affordable, reliable replacement ink cartridges.
Last Year's Innovations: The Keepers and the Flops
Sometimes the public embraces a product breakthrough like a long-lost friend. Other times, being innovative just isn't enough. (Remember the Apple Newton?) Maybe the company just can't find the right way to sell its idea. Or perhaps the public simply isn't ready for a new technology. With that in mind, we look back at the winners and losers among our Innovation Award picks from last year.
Intel Core 2 Duo:Intel's Core 2 Duo line of CPUs pumped up processing while reducing power consumption--no mean feat. The company's launch in late 2007 of its 45-nanometer Penryn chips (see our first desktop review, "Desktops: Penryn PC Takes Power Prize") looks likely to extend its current lead over key rival AMD.
Nintendo Wii: The wee, $250 Wii broke new ground with its innovative motion-sensing controller. Since then, the appeal of this still-hard-to-find console to casual gamers has helped it outsell the more powerful PlayStation 3.
Parallels Desktop for Mac: Apple's dual-boot software, Boot Camp, is now in Leopard--great. But who wants to reboot every time they need to switch operating systems? Parallels Version 3 ($80) adds Windows gaming prowess.
Sony PlayStation 3: The long-delayed introduction of the PlayStation 3 landed it in the eighth spot in our "Top 21 Tech Screwups of 2006," and the console might be the poster child for engineering overkill: Even though the original 60GB model cost $599, analysts speculated that Sony was still losing $200 on each living-room "supercomputer." The new $399 entry-level PS3 model should make the console more popular with buyers, at least.
Sony Reader: Last year, we were wowed by this svelte e-book reader's electronic-paper display, which delivers long battery life and exhibits no flicker. The company later improved the screen with its $300 PRS-505, but the Reader has failed to become an "iPod for books."
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