MacBook Air, Windows Phone 7, and the Other Best Gadgets of 2011

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 7 2011 6:06 PM

Farhad’s Favorite Things

MacBook Air, Windows Phone 7, Sonos wireless speakers, and the other best technologies of 2011.

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The MacBook Air is one of the best gadgets of 2011

Some people—mostly teenage boys—believe that I have the best job in the world. Every year, I get to try out dozens and dozens of new tech products and services. Most of the time, though, this is duller than it sounds. That’s because much of the new stuff that comes to my door isn’t very good, and some of it is downright terrible (I’m looking at you, BlackBerry Playbook!)

But I did come across a few stand-out technologies in 2011, gadgets and services that I’m guessing you’ll love as much as I did. Here are my favorite things of the year:

A year ago, I bought Apple’s then-new 11-inch MacBook Air for one main reason: The TSA announced that it was thin enough to pass through security without removing it from your bag. That turned out to be a lie—TSA agents across the country demanded I remove it—but I fell in love with the Air anyway. Here, for the first time, was a tiny computer that didn’t feel compromised in any way: It was speedy, it had a great keyboard, and it sold for less than $1,000. Every other computer maker struggled to make something as good for so little—Intel launched a $300 million fund to spur PC-based competitors to the Air—and, indeed, this year the Air was eclipsed. Trouble was, it was Apple that did the eclipsing: This year’s models are substantially speedier than last year’s, and the prices are just as attractive. I replaced my old 11-inch with the new 13-inch. It’s the best laptop I’ve ever owned.

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Windows Phone 7. Available on several phones for all major U.S. carriers.

Microsoft arrived late to the modern smartphone business, but apparently it wasn’t snoozing. Windows Phone 7—which was released late last year, and then substantially updated this year—has a terrible name, but it’s the best-looking smartphone operating system in the industry, and it’s probably the easiest to use, too. As I explained a few months ago, Microsoft has put a premium on speed; common tasks that take two or three steps—or require third-party apps—in the iPhone and Android can be done with just a click on Windows. The only downside to Windows, now, is its relatively paltry app store—but as more people buy these wonderful phones, developers will surely join the party.

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I’ve always loved the concept behind Sonos’ wireless speaker systems: The devices work together to play music—the same music or different music, from your own collection or from online services—in one room or all of your rooms. This year, Sonos upped the ante by making its products both cheaper and easier to set up. Get a Play:5 for a room where you need big sound—the living room, for instance—and the smaller Play:3 for a more tucked-away spot (on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen). Once your speakers are set up, you can control all of your music through your smartphone or your PC. Yes, it can be expensive to accumulate several of these Sonos speakers. But this year my wife and I took the plunge and bought three of them, and now our music is finally liberated from our earbuds and tinny computer speakers. We can listen to all our music, everywhere in the house, all at once. Every day's a dance party.

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The Nest was designed by Tony Fadell, the guy who created the iPod at Apple, so it’s more striking than any thermostat you’ve ever seen. But it’s more than just a pretty face: I tried the Nest out for a few weeks this winter, and I found that it really did what it promised to do—after observing my temperature preferences for a few days, the Nest automatically created a perfect heating schedule for my house. The Nest costs more than just about any other thermostat on the market, but it’s loaded with sensors and learning algorithms that other devices can’t match. If you’re in the market for a new thermostat (and who isn’t?) get this one.

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Last year I called Chrome the best Web browser on the planet. Google quietly updates Chrome seemingly every few minutes, so naturally it got even better in 2011. Among other improvements, the company added something called Instant Pages, a system that “preloads” the first Google search result into the browser’s memory. This makes for faster searching—when you click on the first link in any Google result, the page loads up in pretty much no time at all. All of Chrome’s great features are helping it win converts: This month, Chrome’s market share surpassed that of Firefox. Download it now and help it beat Internet Explorer.

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I’ve got a strangely proportioned body, so finding off-the-rack dress shirts that fit me has always been a drag. This year I tried three services that promised to make shirts exactly to my size for less than I’d spend on shirts at a department store. I liked shirts from all three companies—Indochino, J. Hilburn, and Blank Label; each was better than any other shirt I’d ever purchased. But I liked Blank Label best for its low prices and terrific customer service.

Amazon Prime
. $79 a year.

Prime has long been an amazing deal—for a small annual fee, you can get free shipping on millions of products at Amazon, a feature that will change your approach to shopping (you’ll start to buy everything at Amazon, and you’ll make back your Prime investment in a couple months’ time). But this year the Prime deal got even harder to resist. Amazon added thousands of movies and TV shows that you can stream for free (on your TV, computer, or Kindle Fire). Sure, most of them are bad, but hey—they’re free! Then there’s the new Kindle Owner’s Lending Library: Prime members who own a Kindle get to borrow one free book every month. Some of them are pretty good, too!

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Dimmable LED light bulbs. Around $15 to $25 per bulb, depending on the model.

This year I saw the world’s greatest light bulb—an energy-efficient alternative to the old incandescent bulb that isn’t as ugly or as toxic as compact fluorescents. The amazing new bulb—created by a company called Switch Lightinggenerates light using LEDs, and it solves all the problems that have long plagued LED bulbs. The Switch bulb’s light is warm yellow, not harsh white, and you can dim it. That bulb isn’t selling to the public just yet, but many other dimmable LED bulbs are now on the market, and we’ll see a lot more next year. These light bulbs of the future may sound expensive, but many promise to last for decades. That means that over the long run, they pay for themselves.

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Paying for stuff with your phone is the hot new thing in the tech industry—which is odd, because it’s a dumb idea. What’s the point of paying with your phone when you can just pay with your credit card? Square, Twitter-founder Jack Dorsey’s company, invented a better way to pay: by doing nothing. When you shop at a Card Case-compatible merchant, your phone and the store sync up without you having to remove your phone from your pocket, start up an app, or swipe and sign. Just tell the cashier your name. She sees your picture on her screen and taps it. That’s it: You’ve paid. Card Case satisfies the main requirement of any revolutionary technology—it feels like magic.

Amazon’s E Ink Kindles
. Starting at $79.

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Last year I predicted that Amazon would cut the price of its e-reader—which was then selling at $149—to $99 before the year was out. “And at $99, demand will be unbelievable,” I predicted. Well, I was wrong—Jeff Bezos kept the Kindle above $100 last year. But this year he’s not messing around. The new Kindle line-up gives you the same great e-reader for a rock-bottom price. Even if you already read Kindle books on your iPad or smartphone, it’s still worth a look. After all, E Ink is easier on the eyes than an LCD screen, and you can read it in bright sunlight. Plus, owning a Kindle gets you access to Amazon’s Prime Lending library—which means free books. This is a deal you can’t pass up.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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