Home telephone service without a monthly bill. A bookstore that delivers best sellers to an e-book reader in a jiffy. And a smartphone that all but rewrites the rules of what a cellphone should be. These were among the tech items to capture my fancy this year.
It's customary for columnists to compile annual "best of" lists. A list this year has to start with Apple's aaplseminal wunderkind, the iPhone.
And yet even as it advances the state of the art, the iPhone — and all the products on the 2007 Baig's Best list — is something less than perfect. Perhaps more than other years, the roster includes products because they're cool or broke new ground, rather than because they can't dramatically improve. So Baig's "Pretty Good" might be a more apt descriptor for the list.
I selected honorees from the pool of products I reviewed in my Personal Technology column. They were chosen because I (mostly) liked them — not because they necessarily racked up big sales.
Living up to the hype. I'd love to see an iPhone that's compatible with a speedier third-generation, or 3G, data network, which provider AT&T thas hinted is coming next year. IPhones now work with Wi-Fi or AT&T's poky Edge network. The 8-gigabyte version costs $399 — $200 off its debut price — and requires a two-year voice and data plan (in the USA) with AT&T.
The device marries a slender fashion phone with a slick iPod and true-to-life Internet browser. IPhone has a striking 3.5-inch touch-screen display that shows off pictures and movies beautifully. And there's a virtual keypad or keyboard that turns up only as needed.
Apple OS X Leopard:
One cool cat. With all the hoopla surrounding the iPhone and iPod, it's easy to forget that Apple sells computers — very good ones. Apple's latest operating system for those machines, OS X Leopard (included on new Macs; $129 to upgrade), boasts several terrific new features, from prettier e-mail to a prettier desktop environment.
My favorite feature is called Time Machine, which lets you easily back up and restore files on your computer using cool outer-space-like special effects. (An external hard drive is required.)
Leopard also includes Boot Camp, which lets you run Windows XP or Vista on a Mac, provided you supply Windows software.
Oceans and Curves and Centros, oh my. Smartphones aren't just for businesses anymore, and iPhone wasn't the only new device to reinforce that point.
The Helio Ocean, starting at $199, is among my favorites. The "dual-slider" device has a regular keypad for dialing and a slide-out qwerty, or traditional, one for banging out text messages and e-mail, key functions for the targeted social-networking crowd.
Meanwhile, with the new thin and light (3.9-ounce) BlackBerry Curve, Research In Motion continues to prove that BlackBerrys aren't the staid corporate-only handsets they used to be. Curve includes software for transferring music, videos and pictures — and has a standard jack for connecting stereo earbuds.
There's nothing about the Palm Centro smartphone that will have you line up in advance to get one. The keyboard is cramped. And yet it's a competent smartphone that borrows several features from its more expensive Treo siblings. Sprint is selling the device at an attractive $99 (after rebates and data plan).
Book 'em. Kindle gets the nod over portable e-book rivals. How come? Unlike competitors, you can wirelessly buy books (and other content) and transfer purchases directly to the device in less than a minute. Amazon amznuses the same EV-DO technology used in some cellphones.
The virtual ink on the device is highly readable, like paper. Kindle can hold more than 200 titles in built-in memory (more with an optional memory card).
At $399, it isn't cheap. The placement of large buttons on both edges sometimes made me flip pages when I didn't want to. It's kind of homely.
A "free" phone line. Start-up Ooma wants to make monthly telephone bills a thing of the past. That's a tall order, given how easily start-ups bite the dust. Still, the company in Silicon Valley's Palo Alto says it will increase retail availability in 2008, beyond Ooma.com and Amazon.com.
You shell out $399 (the price will climb to $599 early next year) for a box that's smaller than a typical answering machine. This Ooma Hub connects to your broadband Internet service and an ordinary telephone handset. From then on, all local and long-distance calls in the USA are free. You can plug in extra handsets through optional Ooma Scout devices ($39.95 each).
Through a "virtual second line" feature, you don't have to hang up your call because someone else in the house needs the phone. Downside: If your Internet connection dies, there goes your phone service.
Lovely Internet radio. The Pandora online music service lets you build instant custom radio stations just by typing in an artist or song. You can click on a thumbs-up or -down button on every song it serves up to help it learn what you like. Pandora, which recently added classical music, costs $36 a year or is free with ads.
A new mobile TV. It's a football tailgater's dream, within limits. DirecTV dtvSat-Go is a complete satellite TV system in a briefcase. The briefcase's lid doubles as the antenna. You can use the 17-inch LCD display as a second DirecTV tuner at home.
Admittedly, this is a niche product. The geeky-looking briefcase is heavy (27 lbs), wide (19½ inches) and vaguely reminiscent of the "luggable" computers of the 1980s. The price has dropped to $999 from $1,499 when I first reviewed it in May (plus the cost of DirecTV programming). Alas, setup can be tricky if you lack clear access to the Southern sky. The screen is hard to see in direct sun. Battery life is lousy.
All that said, for the right audience, Sat-Go is really cool. And as the products on the list prove, "cool" goes a long way to making you forgive a few blemishes.