Here’s my list of the year’s best products, with a few of the worst products thrown in for good measure.
Best pocket camera
The Sony RX100 is the clear winner for a camera small enough to fit in your pocket. While it’s costly ($650), it significantly raises the standard for how good an image you can get from a camera small enough to take almost everywhere. It accomplishes this by using a 20 megabyte sensor that’s several times larger than what’s found in other cameras of the same size. It adds to that an excellent 28-100 millimeter equivalent zoom lens, a sharp LCD display, and excellent software to produce a camera that has no equal. (sony.com)
Best DSLR camera
The Nikon D600 provides a full-size 24 megapixel sensor in a relatively lightweight (1.6 pounds) package at a relatively affordable price ($2,000 for the body). It takes incredible pictures, offers fast sequential shooting and has a compact body. It compares favorably with cameras from last year that cost twice as much. In the back-and-forth race between Canon and Nikon, this model has now taken the lead. (nikon.com)
Lytro has developed a camera that records not only the image, but also information that allows the focus to be changed after the image is recorded. It’s a marvel of technology, but makes for a terrible camera. It costs $400 to $500, creates a low-resolution image, and has none of the normal camera features, such as a built-in flash. It’s great technology looking for a problem to solve that few of us have, and it is a brilliant research product, not a consumer product. (lytro.com)
Best Notebook computer
The MacBook Air 13-inch computer is not only the most popular, but also the best notebook available, regardless of operating system. It’s lightweight (3 pounds), slim and has a battery life rated at up to seven hours, although in my testing I get four hours. It has a bright, crisp and color neutral display, an excellent illuminated keyboard, and a fast built-in solid-state drive. It’s my computer of choice. (From $1,200, apple.com)
The Lenovo X1 Carbon is a lightweight yet full-function PC notebook that follows Lenovo’s traditional all-black design. It's the company’s version of the Ultrabook designation bestowed by Intel on PC competitors to the MacBook Air. This model, which I reviewed in September, gets everything right. It has a terrific expansive keyboard with newly shaped keys, one of the best 14-inch displays I’ve seen on a PC, and a shock-proof solid-state drive. It’s now available with Windows 8 from as low as $1,250. (lenovo.com)
Best all-in-one printer
The Epson WorkForce WF-3540 all-in-one printer has proven to be a consistent performer doing everything well, including printing, faxing and scanning. Its large capacity (500 pages total) pair of front trays make so much sense, that every printer should make it standard. Quality of output is excellent, and its print cost is less than average. It works with a USB cable connection, Wi-Fi or Ethernet. ($150 street price, epson.com)
Best portable speaker
The Beats Pill is a compact portable speaker system that sounds better than most other speakers of it size. It has a terrific iconic industrial design, shaped much like a giant pill in capsule form. It connects to your music source using Bluetooth wireless and has a built-in microphone that enables it to function as a speakerphone. In side-by-side comparisons with the Jambox, the Pill excels. ($200)
Best Wi-Fi Device
While MiFi hot spots are in less demand because most new phones can be set up as a hotspot, Novatel Wireless’ MiFi Liberate for AT&T might just renew interest in this category. It’s another pocket size MiFi device that creates an independent hotspot by connecting to the 4G phone network. What sets it apart from other models is its color touch display, which simplifies setup and use and displays useful information, such as data speeds and what’s connected. Its best feature is its ability to last for 10 hours between charging. I took it on a four-day trip and never needed to recharge. It’s $50 with a two-year contract from AT&T. (novatelwireless.com)
Best navigation app
The new Google Maps app for the iPhone has been out for less than a week, and in my testing it, I have found it’s even better than the earlier version that Apple pulled from its products. It’s fast, it displays a lot of details, shows three-dimensional views, provides public transit directions, has a database of 80 million businesses located around the world, and integrates Google Earth. For the first time it has turn-by-turn directions that work just like its Android version. Whether you use an iPhone or Android phone, this is a must. Available from Apple’s iTunes store.
Worst navigation app
Is there any question? Apple Maps, which occasionally routes you to the wrong location, has been a huge embarrassment to Apple and has raised concerns on Wall Street about its CEO’s skills. As some users in Australia discovered, it’s also dangerous, sending users to isolated areas that put them in potential danger. Unfortunately, even with Google Maps installed, some of your apps will still default to this app.
This year I have two selections: the iPhone 4 and the HTC One X. Why not the iPhone 5? While the iPhone 5 has a larger screen, is thinner and lighter, and uses 4G, it suffers from too many issues relating to call quality to be the top choice this year. And the iPhone 4 is available from many carriers for free or $99 with a new plan.
The HTC One X takes the top spot for an Android phone. It has a 4.7-inch curved display, a gorgeous industrial design, and uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon quad-core processor. In contrast to Samsung’s Galaxy IIIS, it is better constructed and has a more elegant industrial design. It’s available for $99 from AT&T with a new plan.
This year’s best all-around tablet is Apple’s iPad mini. It does everything Apple’s large tablet does, but in a more compact, lighter package. While it doesn’t have as high a resolution as some, it’s sharper than the original iPad. I picked it for the large number of apps available and its ease of use compared to Android tablets. (apple.com)
Best new health gadget
Pear Sports of Solana Beach has developed a clever training system for those who engage in running, weight training or exercising to lose weight. Using its iPhone app, earbuds and sensors that you wear, you’re provided real time audio guidance from world-class coaches. Pear offers a huge library of content that addresses users at all levels. ($149, pearsports.com)
This year we saw a healthy assortment of new products, although many of the products are just improvements over older models. There were few new categories of products, and some older categories are fading away or have peaked. That includes personal navigator devices, portable DVD players, desktop computers and music players.
Next week I’ll offer my predictions for next year.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.