Farhad’s Favorite Things
MacBook Air, Windows Phone 7, Sonos wireless speakers, and the other best technologies 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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.