I always wrap up the year with a look at significant technologies, the products that seem to define where we are in the evolution of computing. Heres what caught my eye in 2013:
• When it comes to full-sized tablets, I stick with the old reliable. There are good devices out there, to be sure, and I like Samsungs Galaxy Note 10.1 a lot. But the iPad Air impresses me because Apple has removed the weight penalty from the earlier Retina models, giving you a superb screen in a sleek, thin frame. Moreover, the 1-pound design sacrifices no battery life. As a productivity and display tool, the slimmed-down iPad Air gives Apple a clear lead.
• Microsoft Surface has been controversial, as you would expect from an entirely new design from Microsoft showcasing an operating system in transition. But I find much to like in the Surface Pro 2, which now ships with Windows 8.1 and functions crisply with the Surface touchscreen. Im not generally in favor of hybrid products, but the slim keyboard of the Surface opens up all those Microsoft Office tools, and Windows 8.1 on a tablet device with easy cloud connectivity has much to offer. Lets see if Surface can secure its transitional niche in 2014.
• Those who are using email less and various social media more know how hard it is to keep multiple presences on the various social sites coordinated. On that score, an app called IFTTT may be one of the most helpful to emerge in the past year. IFTTT lets you set up recipes that can build actions on your phone. Want to get a text when an item youve been shopping for shows up in an online store? How about sending a Facebook photo automatically to DropBox? IFTTT (if+then) helps you integrate everything from Twitter to Google calendar.
• And what kind of phone will you be doing all this on? The iPhone 5s has many admirers, but for my money the phone of the year was the HTC One, an Android device with a stunning design, an excellent camera and a beautiful 4.7-inch screen with 1920 x 1080 resolution. I cant find any phone that feels this good in the hand even if, with its aluminum chassis, its heavier than most of the competition. The edge-to-edge screen, distinctive speaker grilles and curved back really set this one apart if you live in the Android universe.
• Forget the set-top box. Google Chromecast is a $35 stick that plugs into an HDMI port on your TV, allowing you to view the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Pandora and other streaming services using an external device like an Android or iOS tablet to control the results. Setup is swift using a laptop or smartphone. If youd like to watch video you formerly watched on your laptop on the big screen, Chromecast is a fast way to do it until the day, coming very soon, when all these dongles and add-ons are simply incorporated by TV manufacturers into their new sets design.
• I give this one marks for sheer chutzpah. Googles Chromebook Pixel takes the idea of an online operating system and pushes it way out of the low-end computer market, where it may well have languished forever. The Pixel is a high-end device that draws its power and software from the Web, running everything in Googles Chrome browser no Microsoft Windows here. The 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution screen and otherwise high-end specs go well beyond what Chrome OS needs to function in the cloud its a great design, but what a nervy product introduction! Only time will tell whether the market is ready to support Chrome OS at $1,299.
• I always try to include something truly speculative, and for me one of the most interesting stories of the year is the possibility of a digital memory prosthesis that could help people with problems like Alzheimers. No, it wont be ready in the near term, but work out of Theodore Bergers team at USC suggests such an implant could help Alzheimers victims or stroke patients restore the ability to create long-term memories. We may be heading for the day when repairing key brain functions becomes as common as cochlear implants. Stay tuned.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at email@example.com.