The advance of personal technology is typically measured in increments of innovation, but this year saw some fascinating leaps forward, including wearable technology to fingerprint-scanning phones to cheap, plug-and-play smart television sticks. At Consumer Reports, we place a priority on objective measures of performance, but we're also willing to drop a few oohs and ahhs when we see devices with a high dose of nerdy gee-whizness. So here's our list of the most innovative products of 2013.
Apple iPhone 5s Touch ID (phone starts at $199 with two-year contract)
The iPhone 5s, introduced last September, has a bunch of incremental improvements to its predecessor's camera and processors and one futuristic feature that, in our tests, has proved surprisingly useful.
Touch ID is a fingerprint scanner built directly into the phone's home button that automatically unlocks your phone by scanning your fingertip at subepidermal layers of skin. Because this is faster and easier than entering a PIN, it might inspire people to regularly lock their phones. With all the sensitive data on today’s smart devices, that's a real security advance.
Google Chromecast ($35)
Now you can turn any TV into a smart TV for just $35. That's the incredible proposal of this little device that plugs into the HDMI port of any TV, then syncs up to your Wi-Fi network to stream content from the Internet.
The Chromecast has no remote; you just queue up audio or video from apps such as Netflix and Pandora or the Google Play store through a computer, tablet, or smart phone, then play the content through your TV. Sometimes, innovation is about making high-end technology simple and affordable.
Google Glass ($1,500)
Say what you will about the practical value of wearing a computer on your face, but there is no denying that Google Glass is a supremely sophisticated piece of technology. The 1.8-ounce frame sits across the bridge of your nose like a pair of glasses and has a small screen that floats in your peripheral vision, a camera, motion sensors, and a touchpad at the temple that lets you scroll through the interface—though most of the interaction is done through voice control.
Google introduced the technology in 2012, but 2013 was the year it was made available to at least some of the public through the Google Glass Explorer program (it's still not generally available at retail). That makes Glass the latest technological justification for staring into the distance and talking to yourself.
Microsoft Xbox One ($500)
We were duly impressed by both major game-console launches this year. The Sony PlayStation 4 is a powerful platform for hard-core gamers, but it was the Microsoft Xbox One that pushed consoles into surprising new technological territory.
By making the motion-tracking and voice-recognizing Kinect sensor an integral part of the system rather than an add-on accessory, Microsoft has created a human-machine interface that lets you interact intuitively with the Xbox, through words and gestures. In practice, sometimes that experience was more frustrating than efficient. But for better or worse, it points the way towards a brave new world of machines that pay attention to you.
And the Xbox One makes a play for complete control of your living room AV system. By acting as a HDMI pass-through between your cable or satellite box and TV, then controlling the cable or satellite box with an HDMI emitter, the Xbox One serves up its own channel guide and extends the voice and gesture control to your TV service—although it somehow manages to neglect your DVR.
In a year when two super-advanced gaming consoles launched at $400-plus prices, another new console platform was introduced in the $100 price range. The Ouya leverages the increasing power and sophistication of mobile processors and the Android operating system to create a couch-and-controller gaming experience at a discount price—with a consumer-friendly, try-before-you-buy game marketplace.
For sure, the Ouya lacks many of the sophisticated streaming media services of the upper-end consoles, and no one is going to confuse its visuals with those of a Sony PS4 or Microsoft Xbox One. But given the year-to-year improvement that we've seen in mobile processors, don't be surprised if a few years from now, Android consoles are giving Microsoft and Sony a run for their money.
Pebble smart watch ($150)
It wasn't the first smart watch, nor was it even this year's most advanced wrist gadget, but this $150 Kickstarter-funded Pebble watch nails the balance between functionality, fashion, and affordability.
The Pebble works with a Bluetooth link to your smart phone (unlike many other smart watches, it's cross-platform, compatible with both iOS and Android devices), and it displays incoming calls, instant messages, emails, and lets you control music. Its low-power monochrome display is always on, and can be backlit with a simple shake of the wrist. And its battery lasts 5 to 7 days on a charge. Plus, the Pebble tells time.
Pogoplug Safeplug ($50)
In a year when NSA spying revelations further pushed back our expectations of privacy on the Internet, along comes a new product that could reclaim some of the lost territory. The Safeplug is a piece of hardware that routes your home's Internet traffic through the Tor (short for "the onion router") network, bouncing your requests around through a random series of servers around the world and promising to anonymize your Web surfing for anyone who might be snooping. The best part is that Safeplug requires no special software or tricky setup to keep you cloaked in sweet secrecy.
Samsung KN55S9C OLED TV ($9,000)
OK, we’re the first to admit that $9K ought to buy you both a 55-inch TV and a used Toyota Corolla. But the Samsung KN55S9C points the way towards a future of stunning picture quality. The OLED display combines the brightness of a LCD with the incredible contrast of a plasma display, with almost none of the drawbacks of either of the conventional display technologies.
The Samsung KN55S9C also points to a future of design experimentation in TV design. Just when you thought the term "flat-panel" meant, well, flat, the KN55S9C shows how television makers are willing to bend the shape of TV to imitate large IMAX-style theater screens. We're still a bit dubious about the benefits of curved screens, but we expect to see more of this trend in the coming year.
Sony Bravia XBR-65X900A HDTV ($5,000)
This was the year Ultra HD TVs finally nudged their way into the realm of affordability. The Sony XBR-65X900A wasn't the cheapest of the lot—Chinese upstart Seiki Digital sells Ultra HD sets for as little as $700—but Sony's set is the first that truly delivers on the promise of 4K resolution, while still being a great HD set.
Our tests revealed excellent color accuracy and very good black levels for both HD and Ultra HD content. Plus, the XBR-65900A, unique design integrates side-mounted front-firing speakers that both look and sound beautiful.
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-QX10 ($249) and QX100 ($499)
Lens . . . camera . . . what’s the difference? We never would have thought to ask that question before we saw the Sony Cyber-shot Q series of "attachable lens-style cameras," as the electronics giant calls them.
These devices are self-powered zoom lenses with built-in sensors that can clip to an iOS or Android smart phone, and data-link the lens to the phone via Wi-Fi. You can also not clip them at all, and just point the lens-camera wherever you want to take a picture or video. The Q series use the big, high-resolution screen of your phone as a preview screen and interface, and they take far better images than any phone camera could.