But what’s more exciting are the unexpected surprises we see on the gadget front. This year, awesome advances in cameras, speakers—even lightbulbs experienced great improvements. Below are 15 favorites gadgets of 2012:
15. Switch Lighting Co. Switch Bulb from $43
The first LED lightbulb range that can replace pretty much all of your traditional bulbs. Switch’s appeal is as simple as that—until now, if you wanted to replace traditional lightbulbs in your home for low-energy ones, you’d immediately run into trouble if you wanted to mount one in an awkward place, or you wanted it to run bright at 100 Watts, or even if you wanted one on a dimmer.
Switch’s bulbs also feature a unique liquid-cooling method and they look great too. Sure, they’re pricey per bulb, but as each bulb is reckoned to last up to 25 times longer than conventional incandescent bulbs, they’ve made low-energy lighting pretty much a no-brainer.
14. TDK Wireless Sound Cube $299
It’s stylish, functional and super portable—anything a tech-loving music fan could ask for. TDK’s latest wireless design is the Sound Cube, which is essentially a room-filling sound device that sits at one point in the room. The cube device features four 2" drivers, two 5.25" passive radiators and a 5.25" subwoofer in a complex package: enough power to crank some tunes on a Friday or quietly fill a room on a Sunday morning. Add in auxiliary ports and a charging port for USB devices and a remote control and you’ve got one of the most effective portable stereos on the market.
13. GoPro Hero3 from $199
What got its start in extreme sports and has been recently billed as the world’s most versatile camera just got a little more powerful. The GoPro Hero3 takes what many loved about its easy-to-use, super-sturdy predecessor and improved with a smaller size, lighter weight and much more power. With built-in Wi-Fi Remote and compatibility with any tablet that runs a GoPro app, here’s a camera that’s not just for extreme sports enthusiasts anymore.
12. Samsung Galaxy S3 from $199 with service plan
This is it: the King Daddy of all Android super-phones. Featuring a beautiful design that feels great (even in one hand) and an incredible, perfectly-sized 4.8-inch display, this phone became the one to beat in 2012. Samsung’s Android overlay really came into its own here: not only was the user interface easy to understand—even for first-time smartphone owners—but it was also decidedly powerful. The Galaxy S3‘s ability to easily share data via NFC with its S Beam feature or its ability to truly multi-task with Pop Up Play, or even its Smart Stay feature that detects whether or not you’ve fallen asleep while reading, make it one of the most feature-rich phones on the planet. Powerful, beautiful, and as feature-loaded as can be, the Galaxy S3 has changed the way many of us look at our cellphones.
11. Kindle Paperwhite $119
The Kindle Paperwhite is a huge step up for the Kindle lineup, and one that makes what was already one of the best e-readers around far better. The improved resolution is the first huge deal: with over 60 percent more pixels than previous Kindles, the Paperwhite is a big step up as far as pixel density goes. It’s not a Retina-quality screen, but it’s a huge (and necessary) improvement that makes the Paperwhite a little closer to the paper-like quality that Amazon has been pushing all along. Beyond that, a new built-in light can increase the screen’s brightness for night-time reading without damaging your eyes. Thanks to the e-ink screen technology, the Kindle is a lot gentler to read than any LCD screen, and the Paperwhite is easily the best Kindle e-reader yet. My advice? Get the $140 model without advertisements.
10. Sony Vita from $249
We’re in the middle of a massive change in how we consume our media. These omnipresent digital devices are rewriting how we receive information, and thus rewriting how we interact with culture on the most basic levels. Print has been withering away for years, and tablets might strike the killing blow. How can gaming handhelds, with their high price tags, expensive games and overpriced peripherals ($99 for a 32 GB Vita memory card?), avoid the same fate? Launching the Vita in 2012 is almost like launching a new nationwide newspaper that costs three bucks a copy.
So yes, it’s easy to be skeptical about the PlayStation Vita. It’s easy to make fun of it when you haven’t held one in your hands. It’s easy to dismiss the Vita as superfluous when you’ve never actually played one. Spend any time with the Vita, and you’ll realize that Sony’s new system could fill the dwindling niche for dedicated gaming handhelds better than any other device on the market.
9. iPad Mini
As Apple points out, the brand new iPad mini might be smaller, but that doesn’t make the experience suffer. It was introduced earlier this year along with the iPhone 5 and boasted a size that was 23 percent thinner and 53 percent lighter. You could even hold it in one hand if you wanted, and with features like this, the folks at Apple maintain that it’s at a perfect miniature size (7.9 inches if we’re counting) to capture function and the full iPad experience. Throw in already great features like the iPad’s long battery life, HD video camera and thousands of apps and the iPad mini can be a no brainer for the on-the-go iPad lover.
8. Nike+ FuelBand $149
Everyone’s jumping on the health and fitness technology bandwagon. And the FuelBand is just one of a whole series of exercise-tracking devices that have launched in the last year. So, apart from the “swoosh” logo, what makes it more worth your attention?
The FuelBand offers a simpler and more user-friendly approach. You wear it on your wrist constantly (it works as a watch too), and it tracks your activity level, automatically and wirelessly uploading this to your smartphone. This, combined with its “Fuel” activity score and social-media integration means it’s easy to use, but successful at motivating you to move around more often.
Other fitness gadgets may offer more accuracy, as a wrist motion tracker is fairly easy to fool, but none look as good or are as simple to use so far.
7. iPhone 5 from $199 with service plans
Apple had to step up the game with their newest iPhone this year: Not only was it the most anticipated gadget of the year, but Apple was facing stiff Android competition from the likes of the S3 and the HTC OneX. It didn’t disappoint: A new 4” display, a drastically thinner and lighter body, and the fantastic camera really shine here. What’s really impressive is that, despite the more compact body, the hardware is easily twice as fast as the iPhone 4S—and finally includes LTE network capabilities. With the iPhone 5 came the new Apple EarPods, which are so much better than the old earbuds that shipped with previous iPhones that a comparison hardly seems fair. iOS 6 occasionally shows some grey hairs, particularly in the Maps app, but it remains the most intuitive phone OS in the market.
6. Nintendo Wii U from $299
With the Wii U, Nintendo has added a tablet-like touchscreen element to its motion-sensing control system. As a solo player, in games like Zombi U, you’re now forced to juggle visually between the TV and your touchscreen at crucial moments. Even more innovative, so far, has been the GamePad’s use in multi-player-where one player can play a different role to others, using the touchscreen to gain extra information or work against other players.
There are issues, however. There’s not many games worthy of the technology yet; there’s new consoles from Sony and Microsoft coming in 2013; and, most dangerous of all, the Wii U’s chief competition is increasingly the touchscreen tech found in smartphones and tablets. How many of us need a dedicated console and an iPad, after all?
5. Nest Learning Thermostat from $249.99
The Nest Learning Thermostat is a look into the bright future of home gadgetry and consumer technology. The first of its kind, this learning thermostat originally came out in October of 2011—but became widely available earlier this year as we saw it broaden to retailers like Amazon and Lowe’s. But more importantly, 2012 saw the release of the second generation of Nest thermostats. The Nest still learns your heating and cooling schedules and can still be controlled from your smartphone, but the second generation boasts a new slim design and a 90 percent compatibility rate in homes. As more and more of our home appliance become “smart,” the Nest will most certainly be seen as the device that started it all. Who knew thermostats could be so exciting?
4. Nokia Lumia 920
The Lumia 920 is not a perfect phone. For starters, it’s a bit on the heavy side and the battery life is fairly unimpressive. Furthermore, the limited ecosystem that Windows Phone 8 provides is enough to turn a lot of people away—the app selection and support is simply just not there. With all of this said, there is no doubt that running Windows Phone 8 on a beautifully designed piece of hardware like the Lumia 920 feels remarkably fresh. This OS removes most iOS tropes and replaces them with something altogether different, but nearly as innovative. Combine that with some great Nokia apps and a killer 8.7-megapixel PureView camera and you’ve got the premiere handset to run the new Windows OS.
3. Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S isn’t technically a gadget, but take a seat in one and your smartphone will start to feel like a child’s toy. The Model S is the car people have been dreaming about for decades. While it doesn’t fly, it does boast a completely touch-screen digital interface, a lithium-ion powered electric engine, a body manufactured in America, and just about every luxury commodity you could imagine. Furthermore, with the tax credits and government incentives included, the Tesla Model S’s price tag isn’t a huge leap from other new high luxury vehicles. This full-sized sports sedan is a glance into the future of cars—at least as we’d like to see it.
2. Google Nexus 7 from $199
This year, Google’s seven-inch touchscreen tablet has proven not only massively popular, but also seriously threatening to other technology companies. Steve Jobs famously hated 7-inch tablets, yet Apple now makes the (7.9-inch and far more expensive) iPad Mini. And the eReader market has been so threatened by the arrival of the Nexus 7, Amazon’s responded with its Kindle Fire range.
Why is it so threatening and so popular? The Nexus 7 offers most tablet users 90+ percent of the usability and productivity of a 10-inch device, at a fraction of the cost, and in a far more portable form factor.
Seven-inch tablets also trash dedicated eReaders on everything but extended battery life (only really useful if you’re going on holiday on a desert island). And the Nexus 7 specifically remains far more compelling than all its rivals on a spec v price trade-off.
1. The New iPad starting at $499
The tablet market in 2012 is a very different thing than it was back in 2010 when Steve Jobs revealed the original iPad to the world. This year will no doubt be remembered as the year that Apple finally got some serious competition in the tablet space, but it will also be remembered as the year Apple proved once again that when it comes to sleek design and hardware innovation, the Nokias and Samsungs of the world still lag behind. It’s not a huge technological step forward from the iPad 3 that came out earlier this year, but with its super high-res “retina display” screen and substantial processor upgrade, the fourth generation iPad is simply the best tablet money can buy.