You've been saving for months, fishing coins out of sewers with a piece of gum and a stick and searching under your friends' couch cushions when they weren't looking, just to buy that fancy little chunk of plastic, silicon and nigh-unbreakable glass you've had your eye on. You finally race to the store to fork over your hard-won cash and head home, delighted with your new device. That is, until you pass by a store window and the next darling of the gadget world lures you in with some new feature or a cooler-looking bezel.
That's the way of the tech world. As soon as one device debuts, the manufacturer starts readying the next one for release -- and competitors plan on trying to better it. But even as cluttered as store shelves get with hot electronic gadgetry, there are always a few that really drive the marketplace. We've picked a handful of gadgets, listed in no particular order, that stood out as the biggest gadgets of 2011. Read on to see some of the gizmos that had people talking.
Amazon's e-book reader wasn't the first on the market. But after its release in 2007, the Kindle helped capture the public's attention and encourage people to try reading electronic books. The device has gone through some changes as the years have gone by, including expansions in the lineup to include a larger reader and an advertising-supported version to bring the entry price point down. All of them were dedicated e-book readers with black-and-white electronic ink screens. In 2011, Amazon decided to make some changes to the line yet again.
The new base model, simply called the Kindle, brought the price of the device down to $79 when it was released (the original Kindle cost $399 at launch). A pair of new touch-screen readers, the Kindle Touch and Kindle Touch 3G, offered new functionality. The Kindle Keyboard and its 3G twin closely resemble the previous-generation Kindle, but offer physical keyboards for users who prefer them. The new models helped Amazon stay in the race with its competitors -- especially Barnes and Noble, which debuted a new version of its Nook black-and-white reader in 2011. The devices also kept people talking about Kindles in the age of tablets -- but Amazon had an answer for that in 2011, too, as we'll see later.
Speaking of tablets, on the next page, we'll look at one of the most hotly anticipated gadgets of 2011.
Research in Motion, also known as RIM, is a communications industry darling. Though you may not know the name of the company, you probably know the name of its most famous product, the BlackBerry line of smartphones. Ever since Apple released its iPad tablet, tech wonks began speculating on when competitors such as Google and BlackBerry would release devices to compete.
RIM unveiled its PlayBook tablet in late 2010, but the device didn't hit store shelves until July 2011. Running a custom operating system based on the QNX kernel, the tablet received mixed reviews from the tech press. And unfortunately for Research in Motion, the PlayBook didn't sell as well as the company had hoped -- at least, not initially. In December 2011, RIM still had a lot of inventory and was relying on new marketing efforts and lower prices to push the tablets to more customers [source: Whitney]. The discounts did improve sales somewhat, and as of the end of 2011, RIM hasn't thrown in the towel on the tablet market.
Mobile gaming is a market that's becoming hotter every year. The gadget on the next page is proof of that.
Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
Portable gaming has certainly come a long way since the single-game, red-LED-lit handheld games of the 1980s. Today's devices display thousands of colors and allow interaction by touchscreens. But pure gaming consoles face stiff competition from smartphones, many of which offer a vast selection of apps for gamers on the go.
In 2011, Sony Ericsson delivered on the long-expected hope that the creator of the PlayStation series of home gaming consoles and the PlayStation Portable devices would release a PlayStation phone. The Xperia Play is an Android-powered device is the first PlayStation-certified phone. A slide-out tray gives gamers a set of dedicated gaming controls. The Xperia Play comes with several games on board, including PlayStation classic "Crash Bandicoot." Reviewers generally liked the phone, and Sony Ericsson Head of Market Development Dominic Neil-Dwyer said the phone's sales are meeting the company's hopes [source: Yin-Poole].
Smartphone users chose Android phones such as the Xperia Play more often than phones running other operating systems in 2011. On the next page, we'll look at another device running Google's operating system that stirred up some headlines.
Samsung Galaxy S II
Followers of phones using the Android operating system know that manufacturers seem to release new products constantly. Once the buzz cranks up about one phone, another comes out and steals its thunder. One of the most talked-about phones in 2011 was Samsung's Galaxy S II. With a dual-core processor and Corning Gorilla Glass protecting the sharp Super AMOLED (active-matrix organic light-emitting diode) Plus screen, the device has features that set it apart from many other phones released at around the same time. In fact, at the end of 2011, the phone still commanded a premium price over many other smartphones in the United States, even after factoring in the contract required by many carriers.
The Galaxy S II drew the attention of Apple, which has been suing many competing smartphone manufacturers for alleged patent infringements. Apple managed to block the sale of Galaxy II S and other Samsung products in Australia, at least temporarily -- the ban lifted in November 2011 [source: Los Angeles Times]. Samsung didn't exactly shy away from the attention. Just days before Apple launched its iPhone 4S in Australia, the first 10 customers to visit Samsung's pop-up store for a limited time could get a Galaxy S II for only $2 [source: Paul].
On the next page, we return to the tablet wars. Only in 2011, this product saw an unlikely surge in popularity -- but only after it was discontinued.
In April 2010, Hewlett-Packard acquired Palm and its critically acclaimed webOS operating system. On July 1, 2011, HP released the TouchPad, a webOS-powered tablet computer. Priced to compete with Apple's iPad, the TouchPad featured a dual-core processor and a front-facing camera [source: Krakow]. The devices were received reasonably well by critics, though some complained of slow performance. But it didn't sell. Retailers soon found they had a surplus of TouchPads, and only weeks later rumors surfaced that Best Buy wanted to send thousands of TouchPads back to HP [source: Arya].
On August 18, HP announced that it would stop manufacturing and selling computers [source: Satariano]. The company also announced the end of the WebOS business, less than two months after the TouchPad was released [source: Associated Press].
To get rid of inventory, HP -- and many retailers -- decided to hold a sale. In many cases, the price of the tablet dropped significantly, to $99 for the 16GB version. TouchPads sold out in a hurry. In fact, HP took reservations for the tablets it had ordered but hadn't yet received. Those sold quickly, too. CEO Leo Apotheker's tenure ended shortly after the computer and webOS announcements were made, and former eBay head Meg Whitman took over. HP reversed its decision on making PCs, and in December decided to make webOS open source [source: Ziegler]. Could the sudden popularity of the tablet spur a renewed interest in the OS?
HP wasn't the only company to release a much-hyped product to slow initial sales, as you'll see on the next page.
Nintendo's DS owned the lion's share of the portable console gaming market in 2011. Sony's PlayStation Portable was a distant second. But that market was changing rapidly, thanks to the rise in popularity of games for smartphones and tablets [source: Reisinger]. But Nintendo had a plan in place to create what it saw as the next big step in portable gaming -- a glasses-free 3-D version of the popular console.
Released worldwide in March 2011, the 3DS carried a suggested retail price of $250. But at first, despite the hype, the device's sales didn't meet the company's expectations [source: Kohler]. And then in August, Nintendo dropped the price to $170. Sales immediately picked up [source: Schreier]. Once Nintendo offered a new game just in time for holiday sales, "Super Mario 3D Land," the title became the fastest-selling of its portable games ever and pushed 3DS sales even more [source: Sherr].
The Nintendo 3DS shows us that pre-release hype isn't an accurate predictor of how a gadget will do when it hits the streets. Our next gadget may be a victim of the same phenomenon.
Apple iPad 2
Although tablet computers had been out many years prior to the release of Apple's iPad in April 2010, they seemed to be popular with medical professionals and others who wanted a portable computer with handwriting recognition. And portable computers they were, too -- most were laptops with screens that could be pivoted and closed so that the screen faced outward. The device former Apple CEO Steve Jobs showed off was lighter and used a variation of the same operating system as the popular iPhone.
The tech press and the public were both uncertain of the iPad's success at first, but the public and the competition soon took notice. Many wondered what tablets from BlackBerry and devices running the Android operating system would look like. But then something odd happened -- Apple one-upped itself by launching the iPad 2 in early 2011, before most of the competition had the opportunity to get their tablets to market.
Apple's updated iPad included forward- and rear-facing cameras, a faster processor, a slimmer form factor and lighter weight. Sales of the new iPad took off and never looked back. Meanwhile, HP, BlackBerry and other devices expected to do well sold poorly. Tablets running the Android operating system proved the iPad 2's toughest competitors.
Android powers our next gadget -- read on to see which one.
Samsung Galaxy Nexus
With so many smartphone manufacturers building devices that use the free Google Android operating system, competition can be fierce. There's one line, however, that has moved from one manufacturer to another -- the Nexus brand, reserved for Google's flagship phone. The end of 2011 saw the release of the Galaxy Nexus from Samsung, the first to use Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich.
Android fans like the Nexus phones because they're supposedly more of a pure Android experience, rather than an OS tailored to phone manufacturers' wants. Google's Nexus phones are also more likely to receive operating system updates in a timely manner -- carriers are known for sending updates at their own pace, which can be frustrating for those longing to stay on the cutting edge.
Unlike many phones in the United States, which carry a steep discount if customers agree to a contract, the Galaxy Nexus was expected to launch at a high cost: $299 from Verizon Wireless with a two-year contract [source: Hachman].
The Galaxy Nexus also has a large high-resolution display, a dual-core processor and near-field communication, which enables the user to store his or her credit card information on the phone to use it for payments. These new hardware and software features had gadget fans craving the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for much of 2011.
Android fans discussed Samsung's new phone for some time before its release, but the gadget on the next page caught many people off guard upon its release.
Amazon Kindle Fire
As if Amazon's slate of new electronic readers wasn't enough by itself, Amazon thrilled the tech world by releasing its first tablet computer in 2011, the Kindle Fire. Running a custom version of the Android operating system, the Kindle Fire has a dual-core processor and a display supporting 16 million colors [source: Amazon]. Some believe that the Fire will take over a large share of the Android tablet market.
The initial price of $199 for the tablet undercut market leader Apple's most inexpensive iPad by $300. But Amazon takes a loss on each Fire it sells. Industry analyst IHS iSuppli dissected the device and determined that each unit costs $201.70 to manufacture [source: Epstein].
The tablet runs a proprietary version of the Android operating system, but Amazon has an advantage that most of those manufacturers don't: The retailer offers free cloud storage for digital media purchased from its stores, so Kindle Fire users can access their Amazon-bought movies, books, music and more for free -- assuming they have a wireless Internet connection nearby -- with an unlimited amount of storage.
Tech journalists were divided on the likelihood that the new tablet would succeed. Some said it had too few features. Others said the price point was just right for many who couldn't afford the iPad. After all, HP's TouchPad showed a lower-cost device could sell many units very quickly, even with fewer apps available.
When the last gadget on our list made its debut, many people thought it would be something quite different. But they bought it anyway.
Apple iPhone 4S
Apple lost its co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs in 2011. After returning to the company in the late 1990s, Jobs made the company's press releases much-talked-about events, where at first Apple fans and later geeks of all stripes tuned in to see what new gadgets Apple was ready to release. The company set patterns of release dates for its products, and as 2011 wore on, Apple fans and tech journalists were talking about the features and design of what they believed would be the iPhone 5.
But when the time came, Apple surprised many people by introducing an upgraded version of its previous model -- the iPhone 4S. The design was the same but the update included an 8-megapixel camera, a dual-core processor and improved graphics processing. It also fixed the antenna problems that drew so much criticism over the iPhone 4 when callers could accidentally short circuit the antennas, causing phone calls to drop [source: Beavis]. The phone was also the first of Apple's gadgets to take advantage of a new voice-recognition software called Siri.
Initial public reaction was mixed. Some were angry that Apple didn't release a brand-new device. Others were ready to upgrade and were happy with the new features. By the time December rolled around, the iPhone 4S outsold all other phones sold by AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, the top three U.S. carriers [source: Forbes].
For more information on gadgets and gizmos, process the information on the next page.
Virtual reality makes it easier — and a little more fun — for sick kids to deal with painful medical procedures. Find out more at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
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- Associated Press. "HP Kills TouchPad, may spin off PC business." MSNBC. Aug. 18, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44193385/ns/business-us_business/t/hp-kills-touchpad-may-spin-pc-business/
- Beavis, Gareth. "iPhone 4S review." TechRadar.com. Oct. 18, 2011. (Dec. 7, 2011) http://www.techradar.com/reviews/phones/mobile-phones/apple-iphone-4s-16gb-1031754/review
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- Hachman, Mark. "Report: Galaxy Nexus Superphone Gets Not-So-Super Price: $299.99." PCMag.com. Dec. 5, 2011. (Dec. 7, 2011) http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2397249,00.asp
- Kohler, Chris. "Nintendo Didn't Expect 3DS Sales to Drop Like This." Wired GameLife. April 26, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20054217-17.html
- Krakow, Gary. "HP TouchPad Debut: Gadget Review." TheStreet.com. July 1, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://www.thestreet.com/story/11172655/1/hp-touchpad-debut-gadget-review.html
- Lee, Nicole. "Sony Ericsson Xperia Play (Verizon Wireless)." CNET Reviews. May 23, 2011. (Dec. 5, 2011) http://reviews.cnet.com/smartphones/sony-ericsson-xperia-play/4505-6452_7-34505263.html
- Los Angeles Times. "Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 sales ban in Australia overturned." Nov. 29, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2011/11/samsung-vs-apple-galaxy-tab-101-sales-ban-in-australia-overturned.html
- Paul, Ian. "Samsung Offers Galaxy SII for $2 to Lucky Customers." PC World. Oct. 12, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://www.pcworld.com/article/241760/samsung_offers_galaxy_sii_for_2_to_lucky_customers.html
- Reisinger, Don. "iOS, Android gobbling Nintendo DS market share." CNET News. April 15, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20054217-17.html
- Sony Ericsson. "Xperia PLAY." (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.sonyericsson.com/cws/products/mobilephones/overview/xperia-play?cc=gb&lc=en
- Stevens, Tim. "BlackBerry PlayBook review." Engadget." April 13, 2011. (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.engadget.com/2011/04/13/blackberry-playbook-review
- Stevens, Tim. "HP TouchPad review." Engadget. June 29, 2011. (Dec. 6, 2011) http://www.engadget.com/2011/06/29/hp-touchpad-review/
- Whitney, Lance. "RIM to write down value of poor-selling BlackBerry PlayBook." CNET News. Dec. 2, 2011. (Dec. 5, 2011) http://news.cnet.com/8301-1001_3-57335454-92/rim-to-write-down-value-of-poor-selling-blackberry-playbook/
- Yin-Poole, Wesley. "Sony Ericsson: No need for Xperia Play 2." EuroGamer.net. Sept. 6, 2011. (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2011-09-06-sony-ericsson-no-need-for-xperia-play-2