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.
The iPhone 4S, Siri, and voice control
While this year's slight refresh of the iPhone was predictable, that was exactly the problem: it was predictable. The hardware improvements Apple made to the iPhone 4S turned few heads, but one piece of software stood out: Siri. The app, a voice-controlled "personal assistant," was more notable for the future it promised, than the actual reality it delivered. Its list of commands are mostly limited to communication and calendaring features right now, with its question-answering and problem-solving aspects falling a little flat. Still, Siri's comprehension of natural speech is a real leap forward, and there's a foundation here for Apple (and hopefully other developers) to extend Siri and make it truly as intelligent as it sounds. Or you could just keep asking it personal questions and see how far you get.
Of course, Apple isn't the only one working on this: Google's voice recognition on Android is getting better and better, and it's more deeply embedded in the operating system than Siri, while Microsoft is heavily emphasizing the voice-control features of Kinect, especially for the sit-back entertainment aspects of the Xbox 360. If the last decade was marked by the emergence of touch gestures and motion control, the next few years might be when voice control and natural language recognition really take off.
Kinect: motion control is here to stay
Yes, Microsoft's Kinect is technically a 2010 product. And yes, the open source drivers were first unveiled in December (kudos to Adafruit Industries and its related bounty). But it really wasn't until this year that the "Kinect hacking" movement really took off. Anyone with the $149.99 motion / voice sensor could download the freely-available tools, and from that came a burst of crazy art projects, robots with better depth perception, new medical research, the requisite Minority Report-style UI experiments, and a lot more — it even made Skyrim for PC a wholly immersive experience. Microsoft eventually joined the fun in a very big way by announcing both a commercial SDK (currently available in beta, expected to roll out officially in early 2012) and a Kinect Accelerator program that'll help fund developers and startups.
On the consumer side, Kinect has continued to sell massively well — 750,000 units on Black Friday alone. The games aren't quite at level yet (2011 standouts include Dance Central 2, Child of Eden, The Gunstringer, and tighter integration with Xbox Live), but that number is growing and it obviously hasn't deterred sales. It's clear there's a fascination with the concept of Kinect even on a consumer level, and Microsoft's made it pretty clear it sees Kinect as an important part of its strategy going forward.
This article was originally published on TheVerge.com as:
“The Verge Year in Review.”