by Larry Magid
As 2015 is about to enter the history books, it’s time to take a look at some of the year’s most interesting products.
The Apple Watch was certainly the most hyped. It was the first new product category under CEO Tim Cook. The last time Apple introduced an entirely new product line was when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in 2010.
The watch, which Best Buy and some other retailers recently put on sale for $299 ($100 off), was met with mixed reviews. Apple hasn’t announced any sales figures, but some analysts have reported sales in the millions. Anecdotally, I know a few Apple fans who decided to skip the first version, either because they’re not interested in the category, or because they found it disappointing. Personally I like the way it looks but I find the interface confusing and — as Rachel Metz from MIT Technology Review put it, “overwhelming.”
Samsung also introduced a new watch in 2015 and I found the Galaxy Gear 2 (which works with most Android phones) easier to use than the Apple Watch, which is ironic since Apple is known for creating intuitive products. Like the Apple Watch, the Samsung offering can be enhanced with plenty of apps, but it just doesn’t feel as ambitious or confusing. It took me a matter of minutes to figure out basic functions like tracking my footsteps, measuring my heart rate and retrieving notification.
But despite efforts from Apple, Samsung and numerous other companies, 2015 was not the year of the watch. In the mean time, lots of people did scoop up fitness trackers from the likes of Fitbit, LifeTrak, Jawbone, Microsoft and Garmin.
These devices –many of which have some smartwatch features like call and text notifications — aren’t as ambitious as what Apple and Samsung offer, but there is a clear value proposition when it comes to providing feedback that can encourage the wearer to move a bit more.
Also, 2015 wasn’t quite the year of virtual reality. I had hoped that it would be when Facebook-owned Occulus released its Rift virtual reality headset, but that will come next year. In the meantime, millions of New York Times subscribers got a peek this fall at what virtual reality can deliver when the newspaper bundled an inexpensive Google Cardboard headset with the Sunday paper that turns a smartphone into a virtual reality viewer. Owners of Samsung phones got an opportunity to spend $99 on a higher-end solution, the Gear VR powered by Occulus, that works with Samsung phones. These teaser products show just how immersive VR can be, but they’re far from polished enough to even seriously attempt to turn virtual reality into a mainstream technology.
2015 was a so-so year for smartphones. Despite Apple’s claim that the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus changes “everything,” it really is a mid-stream upgrade to the models introduced in 2014, unless you get super excited over photographs that move a little and the ability to control the phone based on how hard you press, using what Apple calls “3D Touch.” I am actually more impressed with Google’s Nexus 6P, which offers twice the storage as Apple’s entry level similar-size 6 Plus for $200 less. When it comes to beautifully designed phones, Samsung showed up all of its competitors with its Galaxy S6 Edge whose screen practically wraps around its handsome metal case.
Even though PC sales continue to slide, 2015 was a big year for PCs — mostly because Microsoft introduced Windows 10, which corrected a lot of the problems that plagued the previous release, Windows 8. Microsoft also introduced its first full laptop, the sleek Surface Pro that converts into a tablet with a removable screen yet makes no compromises when it comes to its keyboard, trackpad and laptop functions. Microsoft loaned me one and I am impressed.
Apple introduced a remarkably thin and light MacBook this year and — once again — took away a standard feature that virtually all other laptops have. There are no standard USB ports to plug in external devices, but a single, smaller, USB-C port that is used for the charger as well as any external peripherals. It’s the third time Apple has taken away a standard component. The 1998 iMac was the first PC to shed a floppy disk drive and its 2008 MacBook Air had no internal CD-ROM drive. In both cases, the rest of the industry soon followed.
2015 may be remembered as the year of the drone — those little flying machines that were popular holiday presents. Last week, a representative of Enjoy.com (an online store that delivers tech products, sets them up and teaches you how to use them at your preferred location) let me try out a $2,900 DJI Inspire 1, which we flew over Palo Alto. Based on this experience, I can see why the Federal Aviation Administration is requiring consumers to register all drones weighing over .55 pounds. The model I flew — along with some drones starting at under $600, is fast and powerful and capable of flying high enough to get in the way of low-flying aircraft. The guy from Enjoy warned me to keep the drone well below its maximum altitude to avoid getting anywhere near the small planes approaching the Palo Alto airport. As a former private pilot and frequent passenger, I appreciated that advice, but worry that not all drone owners will be as responsible.