Year in review 2015

7 surprising tech gadgets of 2015

Year in review 2015

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There was certainly no shortage of new tech products in 2015. Many of them were predictable and/or long anticipated, like Google’s update of the Nexus phone line or the introduction of the long-rumored Apple Watch.

But there were still some surprises, and seven of them stood out. Our criteria wasn’t necessarily whether the gadget in question was a bestseller or innovative -- or even good. What mattered most is if it left an unexpected impression on the public and industry in 2015. The following are ordered by their release dates.

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1. Amazon Dash Button (Never run out of diapers or toilet paper again)

Release: March 31

Announced a day before April Fool’s, many thought this was a joke by Amazon, a self-aware parody on online consumerism. The Dash Button turned out to be very real: a push button you can stick wherever, coded to reorder a specific item through your Amazon user account when you press it. It’s obvious how the Dash Button encourages conspicuous consumption, but what’s intriguing about it is what a dumb-simple concept it is, and how suspiciously collectible-looking these buttons are. Each Dash Button is emblazoned with the brand logo for the product in question -- such as diapers, energy drinks, paper towels -- that it will order for you when pressed.

2. MacBook (Any port in the storm)

Release: April 10

The new MacBook premiered with controversy, when many MacBook power users decried the lack of ports. It only has a headphone jack and USB-C port, which also replaces the MagSafe charging port. So physically connecting other kinds of devices to this notebook (an external display, USB flash memory, etc.) requires adapter cables, and, if you want to keep it charged simultaneously, a hub. Although it has a Retina display and Apple’s new Force Touch touchpad technology, this MacBook was criticized for being overpriced when compared to the 2015 edition of the MacBook Pro with 13.3-inch display, which has these same technology features and the same starting price at $1,299. The new MacBook turned out to be less of an advance from the previous model, and more like a rebooting of the MacBook name as an expensive, stylish mini notebook.

3. OnHub routers (Google’s IoT Trojan horse)

Release: September

It may look like a desktop air purifier, but the OnHub is billed as a Wi-Fi router -- a $199 one that was described in reviews as “mysterious.” OnHub is a brand name of routers designed by Google in partnership with device makers. (The first OnHub is built and sold by TP Link. The second by ASUS, released in late October, sells for $220.) They’re expensive, because the sales pitch is that OnHub routers can supposedly optimize your broadband connection over Wi-Fi, and are easy to set-up and configure.

They can be controlled with an Android or iOS app. A dissection by iFixit of TP Link’s OnHub found it’s stuffed with a hodgepodge of tech, revealing that OnHub is intended for more than just broadcasting better Wi-Fi. Google wants it to become the hub for a near-future home filled with wireless, high-tech versions of door locks, lights, surveillance cameras, temperature controllers, etc..

Ars Technica summed this up best by concluding the OnHub is really Google’s “Trojan horse” into the “smart home” market.

4. BlackBerry Priv (Hail Mary)

Release: Nov. 6

It’s been a long decline for BlackBerry the company, which faced more indignity in 2015 when industry analysts determined that BlackBerry OS fell further in worldwide usage -- to fifth place -- beaten by Tizen, the Samsung-developed mobile OS. Practically speaking, 2015 is when the BlackBerry platform died, and BlackBerry, the company, became yet another maker of Android phones with the introduction of the Priv.

Like the Galaxy S6 Edge, it features a display that’s curved back along two parallel edges. From there, the Priv does stand out among the market of similar looking Android phones with a two-piece chassis where the top slides up to reveal a small push-button keyboard, the familiar hallmark of the classic BlackBerry device. However, reviews across the tech news media gave a collectively mixed opinion of this device because of its specs. The general impression is that it might appeal most to those who still use an older-model BlackBerry (the ones that have mini keyboards). Are there enough such devotees to save the BlackBerry company?

5. Apple Pencil (Don’t call it a stylus)

Release: Nov. 11

When Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, revealed the Apple Pencil to the public on Sept. 9, 2015, many in the audience could be heard chuckling. This stemmed from Steve Jobs’ disdain for styluses. (Although it may sound like semantics, “digital pens” are different: A stylus is primarily used for navigating an OS, while a digital pen is for drawing, and has technology inside it to facilitate this.)

The first digital pen by Apple is meant for use with the iPad Pro, which was also announced at the event, as was a keyboard that serves as a protective cover for it, the Smart Keyboard. Why should a mere digital pen (which many reviewers did find to be pretty good) warrant more significance than other new products, such as the Apple Watch that the company released also in 2015?

On the one hand, critics saw it as an example of Apple being forced to play catch-up with the unexpected success of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3. We’d like to take the view that the Apple Pencil best symbolizes the company becoming more accepting about the broader way their customers want to use their products.

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6. Microsoft Surface Book (Powerful, pricey)

Release: November

There had been rumors beginning in early 2015 that Microsoft would release the Surface Pro 4, but the company managed to hide the announcement of their first notebook, the Surface Book. Yes, it’s best to think of the Surface Book as a notebook -- one which has a detachable display that becomes a tablet – rather than a tablet which can also be used as a notebook.

This tablet/notebook is regarded by Microsoft and fans of the brand as a premium product due to its powerful specs and it being pricey (starting at $1,499). The form factor has been widely praised, but we present a slightly contrarian view: Although its hinge has been promoted as a selling point, its mechanism doesn’t close the tablet seamlessly over the keyboard; there’s a significant gap between the two components where they meet at the hinge.

Microsoft would have you regard this as cool-looking and a design feature: It props the tablet in an upward angle when you connect it to the keyboard with its display side facing out. But this is likely a compromise so the keyboard can be lightweight and still keep the tablet propped up without the whole thing falling back.

7. Fairphone 2 (Modular smartphone)

Release: December

The concept of the modular smartphone, where its technical components can be swapped out easily, has been in development for a few years now by Google (their Project Ara) and other companies, but the Fairphone 2 was the first one to arrive in 2015 for consumers to buy.

Produced by a Dutch startup, this Android phone comprises seven modules, each of which, such as the display, can be replaced. Everything is held together by Phillips screws, which are all the same size, and glue is not used to hold anything together, making for easier disassembly.

Its makers claim that this phone uses ethically sourced materials, whenever possible. (The first Fairphone was not modular, but designed to highlight its ethically sourced materials.) The Fairphone 2 was released for around $570. It was designed to be used with European cell and mobile data carriers. A version for the US market could come in 2016, though the Fairphone company have yet to make an official announcement.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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