Gear of the Year

Forget boring tech: Here are some of the most innovative, interesting products we’ve seen (or are waiting to see) this year.

Finding the Most Innovative Gear

From netbooks to network storage, smart phones to smart GPS devices, and all sorts of audio and video players: Thousands of new electronic gizmos debut every year, but few of them are truly innovative. Not so with this group of gadgets. Some are available now; others won't appear until later in the year. All are potential game changers in one way or another.

HP Mini 1000 (Vivienne Tam Edition)

In this year of the netbook, few will be as stylish as the Vivienne Tam–designed HP Mini 1000, with designer handbag looks--and a price tag to match ($700). Basic black versions running XP Home or HP’s own Mobile Internet (Mi) interface built on top of Ubuntu Linux start at $360. All three 2.5-pound base models feature surprisingly spacious keyboards, 9-inch screens, and up to 16GB of solid-state storage or 60GB hard drives. One option lets you access high-speed 3G wireless networks.

Available: Now

Price: $360+

Sony VAIO P Series

Even more petite--yet more powerful--than HP's offerings, the Sony VAIO P not-quite-a-netbook defies simple definition. The whole thing measures 11 by 7.9 by 0.9 inches--think an overstuffed business envelope--and weighs a mere 1.5 pounds. But inside there's an Atom CPU, 2GB RAM, and a 60GB HDD. Even its tiny 8.9-inch screen (with a native resolution of 1600 by 768 pixels) is surprisingly crisp for Web browsing. But the $900-plus price tag might discourage some window shoppers.

Available: February

Price: Starts at $900

HTC s743

Is even a netbook too hefty for your high-flying lifestyle? Try this Windows Mobile smart phone on for size. The HTC s743 packs more features into its slim 4.6-by-1.7-inch frame than most full-size notebooks offer. You get two keyboards, for instance: a 12-key pad for making calls and a slide-out QWERTY unit for two-handed texting. And you get a 3.2-megapixel camera for stills and video. Also, the s743's Wi-Fi and 3G antennas give you two ways to connect.

Available: First quarter

Price: $500-$600 (unsubsidized)

Palm Pre

The Palm Pre smart phone--which will mark the long-awaited debut of the new Palm operating system called WebOS--emerged as one of the most talked-about items unveiled at January's 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Slick looking, with an ergonomic curved body, a slide-out vertical QWERTY keyboard, and a multitouch screen, the Pre (which will roll out first on Sprint's EvDO network) could pose a major threat to both the iPhone and T-Mobile's G1 (which is based on Google's Android OS). Palm's WebOS can handle full multitasking--something that the iPhone can't do--and the Pre can save pages for offline viewing on the Webkit-based browser, another feature that competing smart phones lack.

Available: By midyear

Price: To be determined

D-Link Xtreme N DIR-685

Is it a Wi-Fi router, a network-attached storage device, or a digital photo frame? It's all three at once, and a lot more. D-Link throws everything but the kitchen sink into its next-generation DIR-685 802.11n router. Plug a 2.5-inch drive into the DIR-685's open slot, and it's a NAS device that lets you access files from anywhere on your home network or on the Internet, thanks to D-Link's FTP server software. Plug a printer or a hard drive into one of its USB ports, and you can share that device across your home network. The 3.2-inch LCD doubles as a status gauge and as a digital photo frame that supports Framechannel, so you can display RSS feeds, weather or news headlines, or online photos from services like Flickr and Picasa.

Available: First quarter

Price: To be determined

Linksys by Cisco Wireless Home Audio

Move over Sonos. Linksys by Cisco enters the Wi-Fi hi-fi business with its Wireless Home Audio system, which lets you distribute high-quality music in two rooms for less than $1000. It uses your existing 802.11n network to transfer the music, whether you’re using the Conductor (second from left, a stand-alone player with a CD slot and built-in speakers), the Director (third from left, a 50-watt amp that connects your speakers), or the Player (far left, streams digital music to an existing stereo). The Controller (far right) lets you pick which music you want to hear in what room.

Available: First quarter

Price: $1000 (for a kit with Director, Controller, and two IR remotes)

Novatel Wireless MiFi

Why hunt for a hotspot when you can carry one in your pocket? Novatel's slender, cigarette-case-size MiFi lets you build a portable Wi-Fi network around a high-speed 3G cellular connection. You can share a single mobile broadband account between multiple users and/or devices, whether you're at home, in a hotel room, or in some dark region of the world where even a Starbucks hotspot can't be found. (You will, however, have to supply your own lattes.) Available for EvDO Rev A and HSPA (GSM) networks from selected wireless carriers, as yet unannounced.

Available: By midyear

Price: $200+

SanDisk Sansa SlotRadio

You can pay 99 cents a track for music--or you can get the player and 1000 songs for $100 with Sandisk's 1.5-inch-square Sansa SlotRadio. The catch? Someone else picks the songs, not you. But with artists like Keith Urban, The Killers, and U2 on the bill, there is sure to be something for everyone.

The SlotRadio takes fingernail-size, high-capacity memory cards; the base model ships with a card that contains 1000 songs handpicked from Billboard charts in six genres (alternative, country, urban), or grouped by theme (“chillout” or “workout”). Additional 1000-song slot cards will be available later this year for $40 apiece.

The device’s touch screen and side buttons enable you to jump between genres and skip songs you don’t like; or you can tune in the built-in FM radio.

Available: Early this year.

Price: $100

Ipevo Kaleido R7

More than just another pretty picture holder, Ipevo's Wi-Fi–enabled 7-inch digital frame displays Flickr photo streams, blogs, and other Web sites via a built-in RSS feed reader. Install Ipevo's EyeStage software on your iPhone or your Windows Smart Phone, and you can snap pix with your cell and beam them directly to the frame. Buttons on the bottom let you choose the source of photos and launch them in your PC's browser. Flip the screen 90 degrees to view images in landscape or portrait mode. Use a USB cable to add pictures to its 512MB of internal memory or plug in the usual variety of memory cards. Or just place it on the shelf with the power switched off; it looks good all by itself.

Available: March

Price: $199

Location-Based Technologies PocketFinder

Locate your luggage, your pets, and/or people anywhere on the planet with these cookie-size GPS devices. Just hook one to your cat's collar, a suitcase, or your child's keychain; then log on to the Web or dial a number to find out where they are, within 30 feet of their location. The PocketFinder can tell you how fast your leadfoot teenagers are driving and send you a text message when they enter or leave predesignated areas (like the school library or the mall). Batteries run for 7 days on a single charge, and you get a text message when the juice is running low.

Available: March

Price: $129, plus $13 a month for locator service

Microvision Show WX

Tired of squinting at videos on a tiny handset? Connect your phone or laptop to Microvision's pocket-size projector to display photos, movies, and more on the wall--at image widths of 6 to 100 inches. Roughly 4.5 inches by 2 inches and just 0.5 inch thick, the Show WX is a fraction of the size of most business projectors, yet it can project DVD-quality images in wide-screen format. Road warriors can take their dog-and-pony shows anywhere--without feeling like a pack mule. Still just a prototype, but expected to go into production this spring.

Available: Second half of the year

Price: $300 to $500

Silicon Mountain Allio High-Definition LCD TV

It's like having a big-box store in a single box. The Silicon Mountain Allio combines a big-screen HDTV with a Blu-ray/DVD player, an integrated DVR, and a Vista PC. The flagship 42-inch model features an Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 processor, 4GB of memory, a terabyte of storage, a wireless keyboard, and 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium for around $2800. A 32-inch LCD set with less hefty specs starts at $1699. Picture-in-picture and split-screen features allow you to integrate Internet content with broadcasts and disc-based entertainment, so you can watch NFL games while scanning stats at, or keep up with a game while you watch a Blu-ray disc.

Available: First quarter

Price: $1699 to $2799

Samsung 8000 Series LCD TV

How green is your TV? Because they use low-power LEDs for backlighting instead of fluorescent lamps, models in this line of Samsung HDTVs use 40 percent less energy than equivalent LCD sets. LEDs also offer greater contrast ratio, deeper blacks, and crisper colors. The 8000 series adds a 240-MHz refresh rate--four times the rate of standard LCDs--for blur-free fast-motion scenes. An ethernet port lets you hook the set to your home network and access content from Yahoo, YouTube, or Flickr (selected via widgets at the bottom of the screen). And did we mention that it's barely more than an inch thick?

Available: First half of the year

Price: To be determined

IOGear Wireless USB Audio/Video Kit

Looking for an easy way to watch YouTube on the boob tube? Iogear's Wireless USB Audio/Video Kit lets you transmit the wealth of media content stored on your PC's hard drive--or pulled from the Net--to any display located up to 30 feet away. Connect the Wireless USB Host to your PC, and the audio and VGA adapters to your display; it will transmit stereo sound and video of up to 720p in resolution. Now you can listen to Pandora and watch Hulu without having to strap your laptop to the idiot box.

Available: March

Price: $350

Gefen Wireless for HDMI Extender

For years vendors have been promising (but not delivering) wireless high-definition streaming. Now Gefen has finally cut the cord. Its HDMI Extender uses ultrawideband (UWB) technology to beam 1080p HD video and 7.1 surround sound audio from any HDMI device to high-def displays up to 30 feet away--without interference from Wi-Fi, cordless phones, or other wireless signals. No need to run cables behind the walls or to squeeze your DVR, Blu-ray player, PlayStation 3, or Xbox 360 into an overcrowded component console. And if you want to move your player or screen, you won't have to tear it all out and start from scratch.

Available: Now

Price: $999

Olympus Stylus Tough-8000

This ruggedized 12-megapixel camera takes a licking and keeps on clicking. Go ahead: Knock it off the table, or sit on it. The T-8000 can withstand 6-foot drops and 220 pounds of pressure. Accidentally drop it in the drink? No sweat. The T-8000's interior rubber gaskets seal out seawater down to 33 feet, while its water-repellent coating keeps droplets from forming on the lens. Take it snowboarding--the T-8000 operates at temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if your hands are shaking from the cold, your photos won't show it, thanks to the camera's dual image stabilization.

Available: February

Price: $400

Acoustic Research ARW51

Despite the hype about surround-sound home theater, most people never connect all five (or more) speakers because they don't want to run wires all over the room. Acoustic Research's modular wireless speaker conversion system fixes that (and unlike most competitors, does so for all speakers and subwoofer, not just the rear ones). Connect the ARW51's transmitter to your A/V receiver and wireless receivers to each speaker and subwoofer, and then place them wherever you want; a 60-watt digital amp in each receiver gives plenty of audio oomph. The transmitter's circuitry avoids interference from other devices.

Available: First quarter

Price: $599

Psyko 5.1 Gaming Headset

In online games, sometimes the only difference between nailing a perfect kill shot and being a stain on the pavement is a few milliseconds of latency. Psyko Audio Labs claims that its gaming headset delivers "instant positional awareness," so you can hear your opponent's movements moments before he or she hears yours. The secret? The company's proprietary psychoacoustic technology simulates 5.1 surround sound without the use of digital signal processors, reducing delays to almost nothing and permitting real-time game play. So go ahead, kill or be killed--it's up to you.

Available: First quarter

Price: $299

Innergie mCube90G

Tired of schlepping separate AC adapters for each cell phone, media player, camera, laptop, and every other portable gizmo you own? So are we. That's the reason we're so excited about the Innergie mCube90g, which promises to be the first one-plug-fits-all solution for gadgets. The mCube converts electricity from wall outlets (65 to 240 volts) to the DC power your device requires. It even adapts to DC power sources such as those in cars and commercial airliners. The caveat? Devices must support Green Plug's Greentalk protocol; at launch, qualifying products will include some HP TouchSmart PCs, NEC laptops, Panasonic cordless phones, Ricoh cameras, Canon printers, iPods, and iPhones. Could be more, but a good start.

Available: Second quarter

Price: Under $100

Pioneer AVIC-F500BT

It's not the destination; it's how you get there that counts. Pioneer's first dash-mounted navigation and entertainment system gets you there in style—without your having to rip out your factory-installed stereo. Just connect it to your car radio's auxiliary port; the F500BT gives you voice control over your cell phone and an Apple iPod via Bluetooth connections. A 5.8-inch touch-panel display offers big, easy-to-read maps, along with turn-by-turn directions and all of the other things you expect from a world-class GPS device.

Available: Now

Price: $600

Telenav Shotgun

This two-way GPS device is for strangers in strange lands--or at least business travelers in unfamiliar cities. Using the Telenav Connected Service, you can track how many miles you've driven merely by clicking the Start Capture button, assign the mileage to a client or project, and then download reports from the My Telenav site in Excel or PDF format, making expense reporting a snap. A browser plug-in lets you grab addresses off the Web and send them to the de­vice. The service also displays the cheapest local gas prices and reviews of local restaurants and hotels, and lets you rate the businesses yourself.

Available: Now

Price: $299 plus $10-$12 a month for the Telenav Connected Service

When not making truly awful puns, Contributing Editor Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

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