Opinion: The 25 most innovative products of the year

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 Inc. has redefined the phone, and One Laptop per Child's sub-$200 laptop is delivering Internet-style collaboration to children in developing nations.

But innovation isn't all on the Web; the PC is evolving as well. Apple has re-envisioned backup, Hewlett-Packard Co. 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 Inc. 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's iPhone

Innovation: Gee-whiz touch-screen interface and Spartan case dial up a mobile revolution.

Benefits: 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 (third-generation) 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.

3. One Laptop per Child XO

Innovation: $200 laptop does mesh networking, is sandproof and waterproof, and works well in direct sunlight.

Benefits: 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-in. 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 in 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 (a.k.a. Leopard)

Innovation: Backs up changes hourly to an external drive behind the scenes, then lets you "go back in time" to restore data.

Benefits: Makes light work of the one task that every computer user should do and that 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?

5. Amazon.com's Kindle e-book reader

Innovation: Device takes the e-book to the next level with free EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) connectivity.

Benefits: Tight integration with Amazon.com Inc.'s bookselling site, thoughtful design.

Electronic-book readers are not new, and Sony Corp.'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 EV-DO wireless connectivity to the e-commerce giant. Did we mention the seamlessness of buying books with this always-on device? EV-DO could be the magic that e-books have lacked.

6. NetGear's Digital Entertainer streaming media device

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 digital video recorder (DVR).

Benefit: It makes life easier in a multiple-DRM world.

Netgear Inc.'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's TouchSmart IQ770 all-in-one 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 ($1,650), is beautifully designed, and its touch screen makes it suitable for use on a counter top 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 information. The handy, customizable HP control panel lets you quickly access photos, launch a photo editor and play back music, too.

8. AT&T's Tilt keyboard

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 High Tech Computer Corp. under the name TyTN II, $400 with a two-year contract with AT&T Inc.) 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, Global Positioning System (GPS) capability, a 3-megapixel camera and the ability to talk to corporate BlackBerry servers? Top that, iPhone.

9. Facebook's API

Innovation: The application programming interface (API) lets anyone with a good idea and some coding chops add real value to Facebook.

Benefits: Facebook Inc. 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 those 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 the open system becoming widespread. Common ground should spark lots of creativity, and it should keep the social networking and media buzz alive.

10. DeviceVM's Splashtop security software

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 Inc.'s Linux-based technology allows you to boot into its Internet-appliance-like system 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/Wi-Fi AP motherboard, it should be more widely available in desktops, laptops and additional motherboards in 2008.

11. Toshiba Portege R500 laptop

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 ($2,000 for the R500-S5002). But you don't have to sacrifice function for form with this laptop, which is equipped with an ultra-low-voltage Intel Corp. processor. The stylish 2.4-lb. ultraportable manages to include both a rewritable DVD drive and a 12.1-in. LED-backlit display in its svelte, 0.77-in.-thick chassis. Enough said.

12. Data Robotics' Drobo storage

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 Inc.'s 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 Universal Serial Bus cable, install the software, and you're off.

13. Hybrid hard drives

Innovation: First hard drives with a built-in NAND flash memory cache.

Benefits: Power savings and performance boost for laptops.

Samsung Electronics Co. and Seagate Technology LLC 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. The Eye-Fi Card for cameras

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's TH-42PZ700U television

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 Corporation of North America's efforts paid off. In our tests, the TH-42Z700U ($1,800) earned stellar image-quality marks. With high-definition content from Blu-Ray and HD DVD sources, the picture is phenomenal. Because it's a plasma, even standard-definition programs look pretty good.

16. Yamaha's Tenori-On music maker

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. It is currently sold only in the U.K., but anybody willing to pay £599 (about $1,200) can order one from dolphinmusic.co.uk.

17. AdventNet's Zoho Notebook Web tool

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 Inc.'s Zoho tools include everything from wiki software to CRM 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 online album 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% of early downloaders paid nothing for its 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's wireless USB hub and adapter

Innovation: USB-speed connections without cable spaghetti.

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