Innovation is everywhere: In sleek industrial design (Apple's iPod Nano), in unique technologies that enable new capabilities (Kodak's dual-lens EasyShare V570), and in products that bring the cost of high-end technologies down from the stratosphere (Sony's Handycam HDR-HC1 high-definition camcorder). Innovative products and services do it first, do it well, or re-imagine what's been done before. They're the kind of products that make you wonder: Why didn't I think of that?
It wasn't easy to narrow down this year's list of PC World Innovations Award winners--but the 25 hardware devices, software products, and Web services spotlighted here say a lot about where technology is today and where it's going. While some products, notably Fujitsu's LifeBook P1510D convertible Tablet PC/notebook and NEC's MultiSync LCD2180WG-LED monitor, are aimed at boosting productivity, this year's picks clearly have a common theme: The majority of them aim to change the way you consume media and entertainment--whether in the living room, the den, or on the go (see our methodology for more on how we made our picks).
As PC World Editor in Chief Harry McCracken noted in his recent Up Front column, many of these products defy clear categorization. Nonetheless, we've managed to group our 25 favorites into five categories: Audio, Cameras and Camcorders, Entertainment, Mobile and Wireless, and Video. And the winners are...AudioMobile and WirelessApple iPod NanoAirgo True MIMO Gen3JVC RX-D702B AvvenuSonos Digital Music SystemFujitsu LifeBook P1510DYamaha RX-V4600 Google EarthYamaha YSP-1000Nokia N91Cameras and CamcordersPanasonic OxyrideJVC Everio GZ-MG70VideoKodak EasyShare V570 Maxtor Shared Storage PlusSony Cyber-shot DSC-R1Mitsubishi HC3000USony Handycam HDR-HC1NEC MultiSync LCD2180WG-LEDEntertainmentSling Media SlingboxCreative Zen Vision Sony DVDirect VRD-MC1Microsoft Xbox 360Toshiba RD-XS54Nintendo Nintendogs for Nintendo DSTiVoToGoAudio
Apple iPod Nano PORTABLE AUDIO PLAYER ($249) Overnight, the svelte iPod Nano () irrevocably altered the landscape for portable audio players. Not only did this model take clean design aesthetics to a new level, but it brought us the first high-capacity (4GB) flash-based player--and one priced within reach of the masses, no less. Now, if only it didn't have that scratch-prone surface....
JVC RX-D702B HOME THEATER RECEIVER ($880) There are lots of ways to play digital music on your stereo system. The problem is how to make the music sound good, since speakers of any quality will show the imperfections of compressed audio files. JVC's receiver () uses a wireless USB link to transmit music from your PC to your stereo, but the real magic is what the receiver then does with it. Technology the company has dubbed "CC Conversion" cleans up digital music signals, making even music streamed off the Internet sound fabulous on my system. One caveat: We found that the wireless USB link broke up if we moved the notebook more than 15 to 20 feet from the receiver. If you want to use a distant PC, you'll need to connect it to the receiver through an ethernet cable.
Sonos Digital Music System AUDIO STREAMING DEVICE ($1200) The Sonos system () is an elegant, if pricey, way of hearing digital music all around your house. Setup is simple: Load the Sonos software on your PC, and then connect the company's ZonePlayers--squat boxes that combine a wired or wireless network client and an amplifier--in any room where you want to hear tunes. You can connect any set of speakers to the ZonePlayers. Sonos's remote control combines a sharp color screen and iPod-like scroll-wheel navigation to let you manage music for a single zone or the whole house. But as with a lot of network devices, we found that the Sonos system occasionally lost contact with our network and had to be reconnected. The $1200 Introductory Bundle includes two ZonePlayers and a remote. Extra ZonePlayers cost $500 each.
Yamaha RX-V4600 HOME THEATER RECEIVER WITH HIGH-DEFINITION RADIO ($1899) Yamaha's RX-V4600 () is the first home theater receiver with an integrated high-definition radio tuner. HD radio is to FM radio as FM is to AM--the improvement in audio quality is easily discernible. Because HD is a digital format, it also addresses problems like FM multipath distortion, a type of signal interference that makes FM broadcasts almost unlistenable in, say, a house in a hilly area. The RX-V4600 initially plays the standard FM or AM broadcast, and then transitions seamlessly to the HD broadcast, so you can hear the static melt away. Too bad it can't do anything about annoying commercials, but unlike satellite radio, HD radio is free. Otherwise, the RX-V4600 is a monster of a receiver, with 7.1 channels, two zones and two remotes (so it can output different sources in two different rooms), plus Yamaha's Parametric Room Acoustic Optimizer for automatically setting up the receiver for your room.
Yamaha YSP-1000 SPEAKER SYSTEM ($1700) Surround sound generated by one box might be old news, but Yamaha's YSP-1000 () stands out from the rest. This unique device includes 42 speakers packed into one long horizontal unit that's compatible with the latest formats, including Dolby Digital, DTS, Dolby Pro Logic II, and DTS Neo:6. Instead of hooking up to a receiver, the YSP-1000 includes its own internal amplification. Yamaha trumps its competitors and takes surround sound a step further by auto-calibrating and optimizing its sound according to the parameters of the room it's placed in. The result? Amazingly rich and vibrant surround sound. The unit's elegant design makes it a perfect match for 42-inch flat panel TVs, and as an added bonus it can be wall-mounted. At $1700 it's not a cheap alternative to a multiple-speaker setup, but auto-calibration and easy installation make this one-unit speaker a winner.Cameras and Camcorders
JVC Everio GZ-MG70 CAMCORDER WITH HARD-DISK DRIVE ($799) You don't record your TV shows onto tape anymore--you use DVDs. And you don't copy music to tape anymore--you use CDs or MP3s. So why are you still recording your home movies to videotape? The JVC Everio GZ-MG70 () is one of the first camcorders both to jettison videotapes and to record video to the same type of compact hard drive that MP3 players like the iPod use. This means it can store more video: A MiniDV digital videotape can hold up to 90 minutes of video, while the GZ-MG70 can hold up to 14 hours. Although this camcorder isn't perfect (the video quality is not as good as that of a comparably priced MiniDV camcorder and most video editing programs can't import the video directly), the future of camcorders is clearly hard-drive based, and the GZ-MG70 marks a big step in that direction.
Kodak EasyShare V570 POINT-AND-SHOOT DIGITAL CAMERA ($399) When you're taking a group shot, it's a drag to have to squish everyone into the picture. One solution is to get a camera with a really wide angle lens--like Kodak's V570 (). It's the first point-and-shoot model--stateside--to incorporate two lenses (and two CCD image sensors) inside a compact 5-megapixel camera. One lens handles 23 millimeter wide-angle shots and the other takes care of the 3X optical zoom shots between 39mm and 117mm. Combined, the lenses are capable of magnifying up to 5X, allowing you to zoom into a subject from a distance. Kodak went the dual-lens route (instead of, say, one ultrawide 5X zoom lens) to keep the camera small and fairly slim. The result is stylish and impressive--and the camera takes good-looking photos, to boot. (if available)
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-R1 ADVANCED DIGITAL CAMERA ($999) Sony's big and heavy Cyber-shot DSC-R1 () may be a fixed-lens camera, but it uses a 10.3-megapixel, SLR-size CMOS image sensor--making it the first cross between a digital point-and-shoot and a digital SLR. Unlike current digital SLRs, this camera can display a real-time preview of the image you're capturing, directly from the sensor. You can frame shots through the unit's electronic viewfinder or use its fully adjustable 2-inch LCD, which pops up from the top of the camera. An added bonus: The Carl Zeiss lens offers a versatile zoom range, between 24mm and 120mm.
Sony HandyCam HDR-HC1 HIGH-DEFINITION CAMCORDER ($1999) Although it's not the first camcorder to record high-definition video, Sony's HDR-HC1 () is the world's smallest and lightest. At 23 ounces, it weighs only 2 ounces more than Sony's DCR-DVD403 camcorder--the company's smallest model. It captures gorgeous video, with sharpness and color depth far beyond what a standard-definition camcorder offers. You'll need a very fast computer to edit the high-definition video files it creates, and your options for exporting high-def movies are limited. The hefty price is more than twice what an otherwise-comparable SD camcorder costs. But it's easy to understand why when you see its incredible image quality.Entertainment
Creative Zen Vision PORTABLE MEDIA PLAYER ($400) Even Steve Jobs admits that the new video-enabled iPod is a music player that offers video as a bonus, not a video-centric device. If you're looking for a truly multimedia handheld, Creative's Zen Vision () may fit the bill better than any product with an Apple logo on it. And the Vision is decidedly more practical than the bulky, pricey first-generation portable Media Center players that debuted in 2004.
Compact enough to fit (just barely) into a shirt pocket, the Vision has a knockout 3.7-inch display that makes the video iPod's screen look like it shrank in the wash. Movies in a variety of formats are very watchable indoors and out, and you can output them to a TV. You can also load photos onto the Vision's 30GB hard drive, via its USB port, a built-in CompactFlash slot, or an optional adapter for other memory-card formats. And, hey, this video player offers audio as a bonus, including subscription services based on Microsoft's Windows Media 10. It even sports an FM radio tuner.
What the Vision lacks is a service for acquiring video that's as simple and seamless as the iTunes Music Store's new TV downloads. But if you're willing to put some effort into getting video onto this gadget, it'll sure look good once it's there.
Microsoft Xbox 360 GAME CONSOLE ($400) Within a few days after it launched, the Xbox 360 () sold out in stores and started appearing on eBay for $5000 and above--games included. It earns points for being the first console with a well-integrated online gaming component, support for high-definition TVs with resolutions up to 1080 interlaced, and impressive 3D graphics horsepower. The first time you power up the Xbox, it asks you to create a log-in name, which you'll need if you participate in Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming community. Games, such as Activision's Call of Duty 2 and Microsoft's Perfect Dark Zero, look very impressive on the new Xbox. In fact, Call of Duty looks about as good on the 360 as it does on a relatively new PC with a low- to mid-level graphics card. You can use up to four controllers with the 360, and we appreciate that Microsoft improved the game controller; it's better designed and more comfortable to hold than the one that came with the first-gen Xbox. If you plan to put the system in a room without an ethernet connection, consider dishing out an extra $100 for the Wi-Fi adapter.
Nintendo Nintendogs for Nintendo DS GAME ($30) Nintendo's () uncannily realistic canines, including Labrador retrievers, Chihuahuas, dachshunds, and other breeds, are irresistible. This title for the DS handheld isn't just addictive--it's also one of the most inventive games in years, taking full advantage of the DS's quirky features. You interact mostly through voice commands ("sit!") and by using the DS's pen to do everything from taking your pup for a walk to scratching him or her under the chin. You can even blow bubbles by gently blowing into the handheld's microphone.
The game has no particular goal other than to raise a happy and well-behaved pooch, and the closest the game gets to conflict is if a fellow doggie parent chews you out for failing to clean up after your pet. But if you're a fan of dogs, simulation games, or both, you'll love this puppy.
TiVoToGo DVR (free with TiVo subscription) No longer is the content on your beloved TiVo tethered to the hard drive you recorded it on. TiVoToGo unleashes your recordings onto your home network, and lets you take those recordings with you. Connect a wireless adapter to a Series2 TiVo and install the free software on your Windows PC, and you can transfer as many recorded episodes of The Simpsons as you can fit on your hard drive. Watch your action flick on the computer in the den while a romantic comedy plays in the living room. Or load up a laptop with shows before a trip, and watch all your favorites on the road. Plus, TiVoToGo lets you browse and play all the digital music stored on your computer through your TiVo. The company recently started rolling out for transferring TiVoToGo content to Apple's video-capable iPod.Mobile and Wireless
Airgo True MIMO Gen3 WI-FI CHIPSET Wireless networking at 10/100 ethernet speeds: That's the pitch for products (specifically the Linksys SRX400 and Netgear RangeMax 240 lines) based on the latest chips from Airgo Networks, and--amazingly, given the hype surrounding most Wi-Fi speed claims--that's what we've observed, at least at close range with encryption turned off. Airgo has been wowing the Wi-Fi world with its True MIMO spatial multiplexing technology for a couple of years now, but the company has outdone itself here, enabling a future in which streaming video from the den to the bedroom will be commonplace.
Avvenu REMOTE ACCESS and FILE SHARING (Free) Avvenu's new, free service provides ready access to files on any Avvenu-enabled computer from any other computer, Web-enabled phone, or PDA. After installing Avvenu's software on a Windows PC, you can browse through all the files on that computer, or search using Google Desktop, by logging in to the company's Web site. Download any given file via the site; or share files or entire directories by sending someone an e-mail with a Web link to (only) that folder or file. Want to show all those great travel pictures on your phone? No problem: Avvenu resizes photos on-the-fly for mobile devices.
Fujitsu LifeBook P1510D NOTEBOOK ($1649) At 2.2-pounds, the LifeBook P1510D from Fujitsu () is eye-catchingly small and slim, with a twist-around screen that converts this notebook into a slate-style tablet. It's also the first notebook using Microsoft's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition operating system to have a touch-screen display that conveniently works with any stylus pen, or even your fingers. The notebook comes with a stylus and tablet-friendly apps such as EverNote and RitePen, so you can easily jot notes and annotate documents.
Google Earth SATELLITE MAPPING SERVICE (Free) One of the search king's handful of out-of-browser experiences, Google Earth lets you pan and zoom over satellite images of the far-flung corners of the globe. Then when you're ready to find a cheeseburger in Paradise, Michigan, simply check the Restaurant option in the Layers panel on the left to view specific locations (the same goes for hotels, gas stations, parks, schools, government buildings, and millions of other points of interest). And if you're getting ready for a road trip, just enter your start and end points to view the route superimposed over the satellite image, along with turn-by-turn directions in the left pane. Fun, practical, and free--that's a tough combination to beat.
Nokia N91 CELL PHONE (around $700) Nokia takes cell phones to the next level, with the hard-drive-equipped N91, the first of its kind in the United States. (Samsung was the first to announce a hard-disk-based phone, but for now the company plans to sell it only in Korea.) That's certainly exciting news given the amount of files that are being stored in phones these days, including photos, music, video clips, contacts, and text messages. Although the N91 () is a bit hefty, its capabilities--such as a 2-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi--more than make up for its large size. The phone's substantial 4GB hard drive lets you store thousands of files--be they photos, songs, or videos. With this much storage capacity, it trumps competing music phones such as Motorola's Rokr and Sony Ericsson's Walkman W800i. At press time, Nokia had not yet announced carrier partnerships; it plans to ship the phone in the first quarter. (if available)
Panasonic Oxyride BATTERY ($4 for four AA batteries) For the same price as disposable alkaline batteries, Oxyrides can keep your portable devices going significantly longer than today's top-of-the-line alkalines. That's great news given the proliferation of high-drain battery-powered devices these days, such as cameras, MP3 players, and handheld gaming devices. In PC World tests using the Canon A400 digital camera, the Oxyride disposable AAs lasted more than twice as long as alkaline AAs. What's behind the power boost? Panasonic uses a patented process and a combination of new and improved electrolytes to manufacture these AA and AAA cells. (if available)Video
Maxtor Shared Storage Plus NETWORK HARD DRIVE ($500) We've seen lots of network hard drives, but Maxtor's () is the first to hit 500GB--plenty of room even for digital movie and music pack rats. This model has the added advantage of compliance with the Universal Plug and Play and Digital Living Room Networking Alliance specs, so it can be used independently of your PC--for example, to stream video and audio files to any media devices that support those specs. Plus, when you're using it connected to your PC, it has integrated backup and file-sorting software as well. (if available)
Mitsubishi HC3000U HOME THEATER PROJECTOR ($2999) This projector () aims high, and it shows. The HC3000U--the first to use Texas Instruments' DLP chip set with BrilliantColor technology--provides outstanding image quality. BrilliantColor is an approach to image processing that's designed to increase color depth, which in turn improves overall image quality. We were also impressed by the projector's 720p native resolution, 4000:1 contrast ratio, and compact 6.4-pound chassis. (if available)
NEC MultiSync LCD2180WG-LED LCD MONITOR ($6750) The LCD industry has been buzzing with talk about LED backlights, saying that the technology will deliver not only evenly bright screens and a wide color gamut, but also mercury-free LCD monitors that are environmentally friendly. The LCD2180WG-LED () is the first of these monitors we've seen, and it lives up to the hype. In our tests in the PC World Test Center, it showed more accurate flesh tones than we'd seen before on an LCD monitor. In photographs, flesh tones still looked realistic and correctly shaded, without the masklike effect you sometimes see. What really knocked us out, though, was its expertise in handling areas of extreme dark and light: The LCD2180WG-LED displayed the nuances of snowy Mount McKinley while making a black zipper and black zipper pull stand out from a black jacket.
Although the screen's a knockout, for now so is the price: $6750. For a high-powered graphics professional, perhaps that's worth it. The rest of us will just have to wait until the decimal point moves a place to the left.
Sling Media SlingboxVIDEO STREAMING ($250) These days, a number of devices let you watch your video even if you're not sitting in front of the recording device. Of the few approaches to this we've seen, we particularly liked Sling Media's catchy-looking Slingbox (). This unit has audio/visual connectors on the back that connect to whatever video device you plan to use with it (TV, DVD player, digital video recorder, but not HDTV). Add it to your home network, and you can use the device as a conduit to access channels and watch TV anywhere in the house, as if you were sitting in front of your TV in the living room. Then, install the SlingPlayer software on your notebook or remote computer, and you can view your video from afar. The Slingbox compresses video using the Windows Media 9 codec and optimizes the video stream automatically for the available bandwidth. The faster the bandwidth you get across a network--whether the Internet or your home network--the better the image quality Slingbox will provide.
Sony DVDirect VRD-MC1 DVD DRIVE ($300) Sony's DVDirect VRD-MC1 () aims to give you the best of the PC burner and stand-alone DVD recorder worlds. At its heart is a 16X, double- and dual-layer DVD burner. Connect it to your PC through the USB 2.0 port, and it will function as an external drive. Use it in stand-alone mode, and it will convert video and still images (when connected to a VCR, cable box, TV, or camcorder via its composite-video, S-Video, or DV inputs; or when you insert a flash memory card into one of the supplied slots). This third-generation unit becomes exponentially more useful thanks to a snazzy redesign that adds a 2-inch color LCD screen (for menu navigation and playback) on the top surface of the unit, as well as integrated media card slots for creating photo slide-show discs on a DVD-R. It can also print images to a PictBridge-compatible printer (when connected to the printer via USB). (if available)
Toshiba RD-XS54 DVD RECORDER ($700) The Toshiba RD-XS54 () may be pricey, but it's also one of the most feature-packed DVD recorders we've seen. Topping its impressive list of features are the capabilities to connect the unit to your network, and to program recordings over the Internet using its Network NAVI feature, which lets you access the recorder from any Web browser. On top of all that, this unit did an impressive job of capturing video: We saw sharp video with plenty of depth and good contrast.Methodology and Full List of Products
A team of PC World editors surveyed the products we'd seen and learned about in 2005, nominated a few dozen of the most original, and then voted for the 25 winners that ultimately made our list. Our criteria for innovation included such elements as design, and the integration of technology with function. In all cases, we looked for products and services that did something first, did it much better than its predecessors, or reimagined what had been done before.Airgo True MIMO Gen3Apple iPod NanoAvvenuCreative Zen Vision Fujitsu LifeBook P1510DGoogle EarthJVC Everio GZ-MG70JVC RX-D702B Kodak EasyShare V570 Maxtor Shared Storage PlusMicrosoft Xbox 360Mitsubishi HC3000UNEC MultiSync LCD2180WG-LED Nintendo Nintendogs for Nintendo DSNokia N91Panasonic OxyrideSling Media SlingboxSonos Digital Music SystemSony Cyber-shot DSC-R1Sony DVDirect VRD-MC1Sony Handycam HDR-HC1TiVoToGoToshiba RD-XS54Yamaha RX-V4600 Yamaha YSP-1000