8 most significant tech gadgets of 2016: Winners and losers

winners loser tech gear 2016

Every year, tech companies come up with fantastic ideas for cutting edge, futuristic products. Some of these products turn into huge hits. Others end up bombing. And still others become precursors or inspirations for the next generation of innovations. Here’s our list of eight products that caught our eye this year.

The criteria aren’t rave reviews or popularity, but the impact the technology had on the tech gadget scene in 2016. Some seem destined to succeed and others, while well-intentioned, have a flaw which could doom the product. So, we looked into our crystal ball and are making an educated guess on which ones seem like winners and which one seem like potential losers in the competitive world of tech gadgets.

WINNER: Phab 2 Pro

Manufacturer: Lenovo
Price: $500
Began shipping in November
Why it’s a winner: Augmented reality

The Phab 2 Pro features Google’s Tango, an augmented reality system that uses three cameras to capture a room you’re standing in and map it out in 3D. An app can then overlay interactive 3D graphics in real-time into the environment that’s seen on the phone’s display while you move the cameras around the room. For example, a game app can show a virtual pet sitting on your living room couch. An app by the home improvement store chain Lowe’s helps you see what a new refrigerator looks like in your kitchen; you can walk around the virtual appliance, seeing it from other angles through the phone’s display.

This kind of technology has that “showroom wow” factor when you first play with it, but then you wonder if it’s something you’ll use much after some time has passed. (How often do you replace your kitchen appliances, anyway?) Still, it’s always nice to see a technology that we’ve read about in development for a while become available to the general consumer. Since it’s Google’s own technology, it’s possible that Tango might become a standard feature in new high-end Android phones.

LOSER: Elite x3

Manufacturer: HP
Price: $799
Release date: Aug. 29
Why it’s a loser: Expensive, runs on unpopular mobile OS

hp elite xp Bing

HP pitches the Elite x3 as the most powerful Windows 10 Mobile smartphone on the market for the business and enterprise user. An included dock stand lets you connect a display, keyboard and mouse. Using it this way, the user interface of Windows 10 Mobile switches to a desktop environment that looks like the desktop version of Windows 10. So far, so good. The problem is you can’t install and run traditional Windows desktop applications. You can only use Universal Windows apps on it. (These are apps installed from the Windows Store that can run on either Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile devices; the Microsoft Office suite is available as Universal Windows app versions, for example.)

It was reported that Dell was developing a similar smartphone, codenamed Stack, but which would have run Windows 10; therefore, Windows desktop applications would have theoretically been compatible with it. The company cancelled this product for unknown reasons. The Elite x3 is the closest thing to this that was brought to market, however impractical it may be for most people due to its price and lack of developer support for its unpopular mobile OS.

But it’s a teaser into how a hypothetical future smartphone that runs the desktop version of Windows could function.

WINNER: Yoga Book

Manufacturer: Lenovo
Price: $500 (Android), $550 (Windows)
Release date: Oct. 17
Why it’s a winner: Innovative sketchpad/writing pad technology

Here’s another personal computing gadget that looks like an experimental product, and it defies categorization: Is the Yoga Book a mini notebook, a tablet with an attached touch keyboard, or a digital drawing and writing pad with an attached display? This device comes with either Android 6.0 or Windows 10 installed. (Alas, you can’t buy one with both OSes on it so that you can switch between them.)

Despite its notebook appearance at initial glance, the Yoga Book is probably best for artists and graphic designers to use as a digital sketch pad that has an attached 10.1-inch touchscreen display. After all, its drawing surface half is a Wacom brand graphics tablet that captures your doodles and writing, showing your handiwork in real-time on the display side. A touch keyboard lights up from this drawing surface, but it only provides haptic, not mechanical, feedback when you “press” a key.

Lenovo gets kudos for having taken risks over the years in introducing new tablet device forms, and their Yoga Book is the most intriguing example this year.

LOSER: Moto Mods

Manufacturer: Motorola
Price: $60 to $300
Release date: September
Why it’s a loser: Impractical

Both LG and Motorola released Android phones with hardware expansion features, bringing the concept of modular smartphones to the masses, since these devices are sold by the major U.S. carriers. Motorola’s modular platform is more impressive than LG’s: The hardware modules magnetically attach to the backplate of the Moto Z line of phones. These “Moto Mods” add better sound, extra battery power, or a mini-projector. A notable one attaches a Hasselblad brand camera lens to the phone. (LG’s modular platform used on the G5 phone has fewer expansion choices currently. The bottom edge of the G5 housing can be swapped out for another containing hardware that gives this phone extra features.)

Sounds cool. But it’s doubtful if expansion modules make much financial sense for most smartphone users (i.e. adding an expensive camera attachment to an old phone vs. buying a new phone with a better built-in camera). The market potential for modular smartphones might have also been dealt a blow when Google reportedly “suspended” in September their own such concept that they had been working on since 2013, Project Ara. Due to sluggish developer interest for their platform, Motorola on Nov. 3 launched an Indiegogo campaign inviting the public to submit ideas for Moto Mods modules.

WINNER: Touch Bar (with MacBook Pro 2016 edition)

Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $1,799
Release date: December
Why it’s a winner: Useful innovation for MacBook Pro users

It’s a full-color touchscreen OLED that’s set above, and stretches across, the MacBook Pro’s keyboard. Think of the Touch Bar as a smartphone display, but a really long one with a 2170-by-60 pixel resolution.

The Touch Bar can show multimedia keys (e.g. media playback buttons, volume slider) that you touch to activate. Its interface changes depending on if you’re using an application which has been designed to utilize it: When you’re using an email program or word processor, the Touch Bar could show text formatting buttons. A photo editor could put its tools on it, like a color picker. Scroll through tiny thumbnails of your photos; touch one to show the full image on the MacBook Pro’s main display. And, of course, the Touch Bar can conveniently let you access emojis while you’re using a messenger.

This is a design idea we haven’t really seen before, except maybe with the ASUS Eee Keyboard, which was released six years ago and didn’t gain much attention. It was a PC inside a keyboard-style housing, and had a touchscreen display which was the size of a large smartphone set to the right of the keyboard. Maybe Apple has figured out a better way for implementing a touchscreen display to complement a keyboard. If not, the Touch Bar looks like it can at least dazzle shoppers in the Apple Store into buying the latest MacBook Pro.

LOSER: AirPods

Manufacturer: Apple
Price: $159
Release date: Late 2016
Why it’s a loser: Lost earbuds can be expensive

airpods Google

Wireless earbuds are nothing new. Other companies have been making them for years, including ones with in-ear microphone technology like the AirPods’, and throwing in a charging case. (A pair of AirPods come with a storage case that can also charge them.) Most of these sell for much less than the AirPods.

Apple’s wireless earbuds do perform some helpful tricks with your Apple gadget (Apple Watch, iPad, iPhone, Mac) that you’ve connected them to: When you put the AirPods in your ears, they automatically play audio from the device. Take them out, and the playback pauses. Tap twice on an AirPod that’s in your ear, and Siri, Apple’s personal digital assistant, will be summoned on your Apple device to accept your spoken commands.

The AirPods got lots of press and online reaction, as is usual with most Apple product announcements. Commenters joked about how losing one, like when you’re outside jogging, would be expensive. There goes $160, even if only one pops out of your ear and falls into the sewer drain -- because you’ll have to buy a new set of AirPods (if you want to continue hearing music in both ears). So third-party accessory companies saw the opportunity to make money selling lanyards that clip to the AirPods, which sort of undermine the “freedom from wires” design aesthetic of them.

WINNER: Echo Dot

Manufacturer: Amazon
Price: $50
Release date: Oct. 20
Why it’s a winner: AI on your kitchen table

The Amazon Echo didn’t seem technologically significant when it was released (for $180) in November 2014. Because the very idea of it sounded like a gimmick that would soon be forgotten by the public -- a cylinder that looks like an air purifier with a digital voice assistant inside. Tell it to look up something on the internet, or request it to do something (e.g. control your internet-connected devices, play your digital music collection, set a reminder), and its virtual persona, Alexa, obliges with a pleasant voice.

Yet the Echo managed to catch on in sales and the popular consciousness, gradually over the last two years, to the point that Google saw an opportunity in this concept and released their own take on it, Google Home. Alexa, in her Amazon Echo form, appeared prominently and conversed with a character in the critically acclaimed hacker drama series Mr. Robot.

Now you can talk to Alexa in her more petite form -- the Echo Dot does away with the higher quality sound speakers meant for listening to music that come built into the original Echo, thus reducing its size and also greatly its cost. So at this low price, you can more affordably say to her: “Alexa, do you love me?” or “Alexa, can you forgive me for doubting you?”

BIGGEST LOSER: Galaxy Note 7

Manufacturer: Samsung
Price: Starting $850
Release date: Aug. 19
Recall date: Sept. 1
Re-release date: Sept. 28
Ceased production: Oct. 11
Why it’s a loser: See photo

samsung Google

The tech gadget that garnered the most attention in 2016 probably isn’t a surprise. Upon its release, the Galaxy Note 7 got good reviews from several tech news sites. But things went downhill fast as owners began reporting on social media and to Samsung that their Note 7 exploded. On Sept. 1, Samsung confirmed 35 reported incidents globally of the Note 7 overheating. They determined the problem stemmed from a “battery cell issue,” and ordered a recall of at least 2.5 million of them.

Meanwhile, more incidents of exploding Note 7s continued to hit the news. They were suspected of setting ablaze the garage of a house, exploding in a hotel room, burning down a Jeep, and bursting into flames while in a man’s front pants pockets, causing him severe burns.

On Sept. 19, in South Korea, and on Sept. 21 in the United States, Note 7s with replacement batteries were made available to all owners under a free exchange program. “The Note 7 with the new battery is safe,” assured the president of the U.S. division of Samsung.

Then things got worse: Reports started coming in of the exchanged Note 7s with the supposedly safe battery blowing up, too, including: On a Southwest Airlines plane that fortunately was still parked at the gate before departure, the owner of a replacement Note 7 powered down the device and put it in his pocket, and that's when it started smoking. He pulled it out and dropped it on the floor where it burst into flames; all passengers were safely evacuated. In another disturbing incident, a man awoke to his bedroom filled with smoke from his Note 7 which was on fire -- the phablet wasn’t plugged into a charger.

On Oct. 9, AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon pulled the “fixed” Note 7; Samsung told other vendors to do the same, and for owners to stop using it. On Oct. 11, the company gave up and announced it was permanently ceasing production of the Note 7. Samsung started sending thermal-insulated boxes for owners to send their Note 7s in (via ground shipping, not air) for a refund. The company said it would destroy all of these phablets that had been sold because it was unable to figure out what exactly caused at least 112 of them to explode.

It was estimated Samsung would lose at least $5.3 billion from this disaster.

On Oct. 18, a class action lawsuit was filed in New Jersey against Samsung over the Note 7. On Oct. 25, at least 500 Note 7 owners in Samsung’s home country, South Korea, filed a class action suit against the company.

The Galaxy Note 7 was the biggest tech gadget to bomb in 2016 -- figuratively and literally.

Wen is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howardwen@gmail.com.

This story, "8 most significant tech gadgets of 2016: Winners and losers" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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