The Galaxy Nexus isn't a product of the year just because it's a member of Google's Nexus series. It's also a product of the year because it's the first to run Android 4.0 — the deepest revamp of Android since its commercial debut — and also, well, simply because it's a stellar device. The US launch on Verizon hasn't been without its fair share of drama: the carrier has been accused of blocking Google Wallet in favor of its own Isis initiative for mobile payments, and we saw countless rumored release dates come and go — it wasn't until the very day before the phone was on store shelves that Verizon finally confirmed availability.
The MacBook Air gets serious
It might seem odd to call the 2011 MacBook Air a "product of the year," as the svelte laptop has been with us in one form or another since 2008, but this was the year that it morphed from an underpowered thin-and-light machine into the everyman's fully-fledged portable computer. Apple only added a handful of things to last year's razor-thin aluminum unibody frame, but they made a meaningful difference without bumping up the price at all. Core i5 / i7 Sandy Bridge processors more than double the performance, the backlit keyboard makes the ultraportable viable in the dark, and a Thunderbolt port hints at the promise of fancy external expandability over the months to come (but not yet: see Disappointments of the Year above). Sure, we'd still like a matte screen and a dedicated graphics chip, but starting at $999 for the 11-inch model, you won't find a more desirable blend of portability, build quality and performance for the price in any Windows laptop out there. Just ask any of the manufacturers feverishly working on "ultrabooks" right now.
LTE spoils us
Blazing download speeds (we've seen them as high as 60Mbps) and latencies that rival wired broadband: this is the future, and thanks to LTE, it's here today. In fact, Verizon has pushed LTE so aggressively — both through market deployments and compatible smartphones like the Thunderbolt, Droid Charge, Droid Bionic, and Droid RAZR — that for many users it's already starting to become an expectation. Three years ago, did anyone think we'd already be calling EV-DO and HSPA "glacial"?
The door that Sony cracked open with the NEX-5 has been blown wide open by the NEX-5N. Besides making the body marginally thinner and adding a touchscreen, Sony endowed the NEX-5N with a truly supreme image sensor. Its 16-megapixel CMOS sensor competes with the Nikon D7000 and Canon 60D (each company's latest and greatest midrange DSLR) for noise performance, while delivering image quality that leaves other mirrorless cameras in the dust. If the NEX-5N had a universal microphone input and a more generous battery, it'd be a formidable DSLR replacement for professionals as well. As it stands, it's the top choice for any hobbyist looking for the best image-quality-to-camera-size ratio.
Kindle catches Fire
Amazon took a dramatically different approach to the tablet market in 2011: instead of trying to compete head-on with the iPad, the company focused on content delivery and consumption with its $199 Kindle Fire, which runs a heavily-modified version of Android. The low price and tight integration with Amazon's services have already made the Fire a hit, even though the overall experience is a little rough around the edges. And how will Amazon manage what is effectively a second version of Android, free of Google's influence or control? We'll find out in 2012.