Best Tech Gear 2011

Peter Lewis / December 1st, 2011

Perhaps you skipped Black Friday because of some aversion to rampaging, drooling, pepper-spraying bargain hunters. And Cyber Monday was kind of a dud once you realized that it’s really Cyber Week, and that the best bargains for tech gear are yet to come.

But now here we are at Vague Sense of Anxiety Thursday, when, according to www.xmasclock.com, there are fewer than 1.9 million shopping seconds left until Christmas, and you still haven’t decided which products deserve your attention, or Santa’s.

Here and in this space in the coming 1.9 million seconds are some suggestions, in the form of my picks for the best tech products of 2011. We’re going to look at the basics today, before moving on to Best Gizmos of 2011, followed by Best Software and Services.

And no, I don’t get paid by Apple and no one in my family owns Apple stock.

BEST SMARTPHONE:

Q: Siri, what’s the best smartphone introduced in 2011?

Although Verizon’s tantalizing 4G LTE network remains out of its reach for now, the Apple iPhone 4S is still at least a generation ahead of a growing pack of rivals. Yes, it has a new dual-core processor, but in real world performance you’re unlikely to be dazzled. Yes, it has an improved camera, front and back, still and video, but it’s a catch-up feature, not a flashy innovation.

So much for the yes-buts. Two things pushed the iPhone 4S ahead of a pair of runners-up from Samsung, the Galaxy S II and the forthcoming Galaxy Nexus, which is expected to make its debut on the Verizon network any day now. The first is the iPhone’s new antenna configuration, which improved the connection rate and quality of calls on the two networks I tested, Sprint and AT&T. The second is Siri, the voice-control system that everyone is talking about. Siri is huge, and it’s just the beginning.

BEST LAPTOP:

I’m typing this on a 13-inch Apple Macbook Air, which got a much needed and long-awaited makeover earlier this year. My colleague Ben Bajarin has already written convincingly about its charms, so let me just add this: At least once a day I either lose the Air under papers on my desk, or panic because I think I left the office without the Air in my briefcase. A quick pat on the side of the bag reassures me that no, the Air is in the bag. Unlike the feeble chips in earlier models, the new processor has enough horsepower to run all but the most demanding applications. And yes, if you must, you can run Windows on the Air.

The keyboard is a full-size delight, but I still find the 11- and 13-inch displays a bit claustrophobic on occasion. (So, my latest secret vice is taking the Air on a trip not instead of, but rather along with, my Apple iPad 2. Then I can use the iPad as a separate display for the Air, putting email and Twitter and other distracting apps on the remote screen, and doing word processing or other tasks on the main display.) Rumor has it that Apple is cooking up a 15-inch Macbook in the Air form factor, and if so, I’ll find it hard to resist. But for now, this year, the Air is almost perfect.

Runner-up? Samsung’s Series 9.

BEST TABLET

By popular consent, 2011 was the year of the tablet. And one tablet completely dominates the rest. The new Apple iPad 2 dazzles on the hardware front, and it’s simply a delight to use. But the real strength of the iPad is the software, not just the much improved iOS 5 operating system, but also the universe of thousands upon thousands of useful and entertaining and productive apps. No other tablet has the app library that the iPad has. If you create stuff, whether for work or play, the iPad is superior to all the others. Even if you just consume stuff, including movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, music, ebooks and the like, the iPad will become your new best friend.

That said, Amazon’s Kindle Fire gets the runner-up nod on the basis of its consumer friendliness. As they say, the Fire allows Amazon to get in bed with its customers. The Fire is quirky, but it’s going to be fun to see it develop.

BEST POCKET CAMERA:

In a photo finish, the winner is Apple’s new … Just kidding! Apple’s cameras basically suck.

On a purely technology basis, I’m intrigued by the Lytro Light-Field, the first camera that allows the photographer to focus a shot after the picture has been taken. But it doesn’t qualify because it won’t be out until early 2012. And I love my Canon 5D Mark II SLR, but it was introduced before 2011, so it doesn’t qualify, either.

My problem is that the big Canon is too heavy to carry everywhere, and the camera built into my iPhone leaves a lot to be desired. So, I’m always on the lookout for a pocket-size camera that takes great pictures.

Two models from Canon share the Best Pocket Camera award: The PowerShot S100, an upgraded version of the delightful S95, and the PowerShot ELPH 300 HS.

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.
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