SLIDESHOW

The future is now: The 10 biggest tech innovations of 2014

A hoverboard. A virtual reality headset. A PC with a drawing board and 3D imaging capabilities. Believe it or not, all these things are real today. See them for yourself right here.

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It's amazing and it's real

Perhaps the most noticeable story in consumer hardware in 2014 was what didn’t ship. Intel’s 14nm Broadwell chips suffered massive delays. AMD never introduced a new line of graphics cards. Valve’s hotly anticipated Steam Machines failed to launch whatsoever. Blech.

But don’t let the no-shows fool you. Some staggering technological innovation hit the streets in 2014—tremendously powerful gear that seemed like futuristic fantasy but is sitting on store shelves today.

Speaking of the future, let’s kick this off by getting back to it.

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Hendo Hover

Eat your heart out, Marty McFly. You’re looking at a real-life hoverboard. No, this isn’t the next chapter in that hoverboard prank from Funny or Die—this thing is legit and already fully functional in prototype.

From the Kickstarter description: “The magic behind the hoverboard lies in its four disc-shaped hover engines. These create a special magnetic field which literally pushes against itself, generating the lift which levitates our board off the ground.”

Whoa. The Hendo Hover isn’t expected to ship until 2015, but for now we have an oh-so-sweet video of skateboarding legend Tony Hawk riding a real-life hoverboard.

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Samsung Gear VR

Lawnmower Man is finally real. After several fits and false starts in previous eras, affordable, truly compelling virtual reality has at long last materialized. Only it wasn’t Oculus Rift that pulled us into the future—it was Samsung.

Samsung’s $200 Gear VR headset uses the company’s Galaxy Note 4 phablet as its brains and display to create believable, wire-free virtual reality. The software inside is actually powered by Oculus, and the headset itself outshines the Rift in some ways. Sure, the need for a Note inherently limits Gear VR’s potential audience, but you can buy it today—while the launch of the consumer version of Oculus Rift is still months off.

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SSDs get faster, stronger

Solid-state drives rock, period. Even the crappiest, oldest SSD can make your PC feel like greased lightning. Two innovations in 2014 cranked SSDs to yet-higher speeds.

Samsung’s 3D V-NAND technology—which stacks flash cells rather than laying them side-by-side—was used to create the effixient and expeditious 850 Pro series SSDs. Then Samsung applied V-NAND techniques to three-bit-per-cell “TLC” flash to create the 850 EVO, which brought insane SSD longevity to the masses.

If the 850 Pro’s SATA-saturating speeds aren’t enough, crazy-fast M.2 PCIe SSDs started hitting the shelves in 2014, delivering respective read-write speeds north of 700MB/s and 500MB/s, depending on the model. Daaaaaaaang.

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The future of Wi-Fi

Speaking of blistering fast speeds, the next generation of Wi-Fi—802.11ac—became the current generation of Wi-Fi early in 2014, when the standard was officially ratified. Using a mixture of beamforming, packing more data into each spatial stream, and other improvements, 802.11ac delivers significantly more than double the transfer speed of previous-gen 802.11n routers in PCWorld’s real-world testing—and that’s using a 2x2 802.11ac adapter. You can nearly triple that speed using an 802.11ac bridge.

In fact, 802.11ac is so fast that groups are scrambling to create new Ethernet standards just so wired networks can keep up. Check out PCWorld’s networking section for a slew of 802.11ac router reviews.

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Intel’s power play

Okay, so Intel didn’t ship Broadwell on time. Hardcore PC types probably didn’t even notice, since Chipzilla tossed enthusiasts two mighty enticing bones in the form of Haswell-E and its new Devil’s Canyon chips.

Haswell-E is Intel’s most powerful consumer CPU ever; the flagship 3.0GHz Core i7-5960X rocks eight cores (16 processor threads), 20MB of cache, and 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes. It’s Intel’s first-ever octa-core consumer chip, and it’ll set you back a cool grand. Then there’s Devil’s Canyon. The quad-core Core i7-4790K comes clocked at 4.0GHz, with a 4.4GHz turbo clock—the first Intel chip to ever crack the 4GHz barrier.

Sure, AMD chips have cracked 5GHz and had eight cores for a while now—but they’re just not as beefy as Intel’s top-end processors.

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DDR4

Haswell-E dragged another cutting-edge tech into stores shelves along with it: DDR4, the next generation of RAM. Faster and far stingier with energy than DDR3, DDR4’s arrival has been long-awaited—though currently available DDR4 kits cost an arm and a leg and don’t really provide a jaw-dropping performance boost over their older brethren.

PCWorld’s DDR4 primer can explain what all the hub-bub is about. (Hint: It’s all about power.)

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USB Type-C

OK, OK, one more connection technology and I’m done, I promise!

I’m drooling just thinking about USB Type C, and I’m not normally a “drool over networking” kind of guy. Why? Because Type-C is reversible—no more fumbling around to plug your USB cable in the right way! Because Type-C USB will deliver USB 3.1's blazing 10Gbps speeds and up to a whopping 100 watts of power. Whoa. But that’s not all! Type-C will also be able to deliver DisplayPort audio/video signals. That’s some kind of wonderful.

USB Type-C was finalized and entered production this summer. We maaaay see compatible products squeeze onto shelves before the end of the year, but 2015 appears more likely.

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5K displays

Did you finally splurge for 4K display this year, now that prices are coming down to semi-reasonable levels? Congratulations! Your fancy new display is already obsolete.

Apple released a Retina iMac with a “5K” display in October, while Dell released a standalone 5K monitor of its own in December. The 5120x2880-resolution screens pack the equivalent of 14.7 megapixels, which is almost twice as many as a 4K display and seven times the resolution of a typical 1080p monitor.

Each will set you back $2,500, but at least Apple tosses a fully functional computer in for that price.

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Minority Report lite

Hardware makers also tinkered with fancy concepts that blurred traditional PCs, touchscreens, voice commands, and even 3D scanners into singular workstations that blend the physical with the digital.

Both HP’s Sprout and Dell’s Smart Desk rock regular monitors in their usual positions, but each also puts a touchscreen “mat” on the desk, where a keyboard would normally go. There, you can manipulate objects with your hands. HP’s Sprout goes a step further with its “Illuminator” atop the traditional monitor, which gazes down at your tactile work area and can make 3D scans of objects you place on the mat.

Will these hybrid devices ever take off? Who knows. But Dell and HP deserve props for taking PCs in an imaginative direction.

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Smartwatches

Yeah, yeah, smartwatches technically existed before this year, but they truly seemed to come alive in 2014.

Android Wear, with its colorful displays and Google Now-powered smarts, sparked an unprecedented flood of smartwatches and only got better as the year went on. The long-rumored Apple Watch emerged from the shadows, complete with incredibly intriguing “Taptic” technology. Even stalwarts like Pebble upped their game after Apple and Android appeared in force.

The wearable revolution is on in full force now—but is this uprising coming from the people, or from electronics companies hungering for a new hit category now that smartphone and tablet sales are starting to taper? We’ll likely know more after the Apple Watch’s launch in early 2015.