Part II: Best of Tech 2011 (Gizmos)

by Peter Lewis   |   December 8th, 2011

In last week’s episode we awarded “Best of 2011” honors to a bushel of Apples: The Macbook Air (portable computer), the iPhone 4S (smartphone), and the iPad 2 (best tablet). Although it wasn’t a category, Apple as a company wins the “Best Tech Company of 2011” honors. Apple doesn’t just dominate major categories in consumer technology; it sets the agenda for all the others, in almost every category it chooses to enter. The obvious question is if Apple can continue to dominate in the post-Steve Jobs era. My Tech.pinions colleague and longtime Apple observer Tim Bajarin makes a compelling case that Tim Cook-era Apple will be the No. 1 PC vendor in 2012, and Ben Bajarin writes that Apple is poised to reinvent television in 2012.

While Apple clearly earned multiple “best” title in the tech scene in 2011, and seems likely to win even more in the new year, my holiday wish for Apple is that it sets the industry agenda in even more areas: the health and welfare of the hundreds of thousands of workers who assemble its products, the environmental consciousness of its production processes and product lifecycles, and its corporate philanthropy for social and civic causes, which was moribund under Steve Jobs’s leadership. There are positive signs that Tim Cook is already beginning to make positive changes in some of these areas.

But back to gizmos and gadgets. The following is a continuation of my picks of “Best Tech Gear of 2011.”

BEST E-READER

Based on my observations on my daily Amtrak commute into the city, Amazon’s Kindle Touch is the 21st century’s best attempt yet at digitizing the paperback book. It’s not the smallest or lightest Kindle or, even at the deceptive base price of $99, the cheapest. It’s not the first tablet to have a touch-screen interface, and the 6-inch E Ink black-and-white display is not as responsive to touch as the (much more expensive) Apple iPad. It’s not much good for anything other than buying, downloading and reading books. But for buying, downloading (via WiFi or free 3G, depending on model) and reading books and articles, it’s the Goldilocks device: Not as small and cramped as a smartphone, and not as big and relatively bulky as a full-featured tablet or laptop. It can also entertain you with MP3 music and audio books. Is it the perfect e-reader? Not by a long-shot, but it wins the “best of” honor because of the combination of size, weight, functionality, price and simplicity.

BEST PORTABLE STORAGE

As a storage device, the $200 Seagate GoFlex Satellite 500-gigabyte portable hard drive is big enough to hold your entire music collection or favorite photos or a trip’s selection of videos, yet small enough to fit in your pocket. That’s cool. But then you factor in the built-in battery, the an 802.11b/g/n WiFi module and a built-in web server, and suddenly you can stream your digital library to your iOS portable device. Although it works with non-iOS devices including Android phones and tablets, it works best with iPads, iPhones and iPods. If you’re one of the folks who bought a 64GB iPhone and then agonized over which of your favorite artists and TV shows and home videos and documents to take with you, this portable cloud almost certainly solves your problem. Take them all! It runs four or five hours on a single battery charge, and there’s an AC power plug. I’ve had mixed results with Seagate hard drives in the past, but then, I’ve had mixed results with other brands of storage devices too. For now, though, this beautiful streamer is the best accompaniment for my Mac OS X and iOS portables. Let’s hope Seagate comes up with a seamless solution for Windows and Android users in 2012.

BEST AIRPLAY SPEAKERS

Normally I’m a grump when it comes to gizmos that require frequent polishing with white gloves and microfiber rags. But with the Klipsch Gallery G-17 Air, a relatively pricey ($530) soundbar speaker system that works best with Apple iDevices, the glossy black case is worth the occasional dusting. The whole assembly weighs about 8 pounds and seems built like a tank, but that results in the best sound these ears have heard from WiFi AirPlay speakers in any price range. (Caveat: Audiologists often say that it’s rare to find people with “golden ears” over the age of 40, and my ears, veterans of too many loud rock concerts back in the day, are hardly golden. Even so, the G-17s sound better to me than, say, the runner-up Bose Zeppelin Airs. Your mileage may vary.) Even cranked up to neighbor-annoying levels, the G-17 speakers didn’t rattle or buzz or distort appreciably. The ability to stream music from an iPhone to the speakers via AirPlay is thrilling.

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Peter Lewis

Peter Lewis has covered the tech industry since 1982 as a Senior Writer at The New York Times (where he personally registered the nytimes.com domain), Senior Editor at Fortune magazine, and professor of digital journalism at Stanford University. He is a veteran of two startups. One was named "Cool Company" of the year by Fortune, and folded six weeks later.