2012 wasn’t a breakthrough year for tech. We didn’t get an innovative new category-bursting device—the Apple TV remains a pipe dream and Microsoft’s Surface was, for me, a dud. Many startups, meanwhile, seemed like they were offering new takes on ideas the tech world has been playing with for a while. (How many ride-sharing services does the world need?)
But this was a year for improvement: Everything good got much, much better. That’s the theme you’ll notice below, in my list of the best technologies of 2012. Four of the companies I laud—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Square—offered radical improvements of their core products. And then there are a couple of head-smackingly obvious innovations, too. On to the list.
The iPhone 5 (with Google Maps). From $199 with a two-year contract.
Let me just quote from my review (headline “The iPhone 5 Is a Miracle”):
[The iPhone 5] is the best phone ever to grace the earth. It beats every single rival on just about every metric you can think of, including speed, battery life, and especially beauty and workmanship.
I’ll go even further: When I pick up the iPhone 5 and examine it closely, I find it difficult to believe that this device actually exists. The iPhone 5 does not feel like a product that was mass produced. In a strange way, it doesn’t feel like it was built at all. This is a gadget that seems as if it fell into the box fully formed. If you run your hands around its face, you scarcely feel any seams or other points of connection; there’s little evidence that this thing is a highly complex device made from lots of smaller things. Instead it just feels like a single, solid, exquisitely crafted piece of machinery, and once you pick it up you never want to put it down.
A couple months later, I continue to feel the same way. The iPhone 5 is my favorite gadget of the year and certainly the best smartphone I’ve ever used.
Sure, like other reviewers, I wasn’t happy with Apple’s mapping app. But I argued that it wasn’t a big problem, because soon Google would release a maps app for iOS, making the iPhone 5 even better.
That happened last week. The app is fantastic. So now you’re all set. You’ve got no excuse for using any other phone.
The iPad and the iPad Mini. From $329.
In March, just after Apple announced what many people called a slight upgrade of its tablet—adding a high-definition screen and faster cellular networking—I called the iPad “unbeatable.” I argued that, in the same way that it had dominated the market for music players with the iPod, Apple was improving its product, lowering its prices, and broadening its lineup just fast enough to keep its rivals in the dust.
Then, in the fall, Apple strengthened my argument. Not only did it launch a fantastic, smaller, cheaper iPad—the Mini—to capture the low end of the market, it also put out a new, faster, regular-size iPad. In a year of intense competition in tablets, with better devices from Google, Samsung, Amazon, and Microsoft, the iPad remains by far the best on the market, especially if you take into account its dominant App Store. If Apple keeps doing what it’s doing, it’s hard to see how anyone can catch up to the iPad now.