For raising the bar on digital technology—again. What won Apple the most buzz in the past year—aside from its patent disputes—was the svelte iPhone 5, which sold a record-breaking 5 million units in three days. The company’s greatest achievement, however, was bringing its Retina display to the MacBook, which had websites scrambling to adjust to the eye-popping resolution, and competitors scrambling to roll out their own pixel-packed displays.
For wising up smart TVs and creating the phablet trend. Patent infringements or no, Samsung has no parallel in what it does best: adding innovative features to existing devices. Smart TVs weren’t really that smart until the company added gesture and voice control, and the beautiful Galaxy SIII smartphone—featuring a huge screen and multi-user log-in—briefly became the best-selling phone in the world.
For leading the evolution of television. Roku’s popular set-top box boasts more than 700 channels and goes toe-to-toe with Apple TV in sales. But last year, it unveiled a game-changer: a thumb-drive-like dongle that plugs directly into smart TVs, doing away with the need for a box. Roku is now trying to take over cable TV by partnering with VOXX to embed digital antennas in the streaming sticks and by adding Time Warner’s 300 live channels to its service.
For remodeling our digital living rooms. Last fall, Microsoft released SmartGlass, the free app that seamlessly combines Xbox, Kinect, and Windows mobile devices. It teamed up with more than 90 companies, from Nike to Warner Bros., to create gaming, exercising, and jamming experiences that change the definition of home entertainment.
For mainstreaming the fitness-tracking movement. Last year, the world’s largest sporting-goods maker introduced the FuelBand, a consumer wristband that tracks steps, calories, and activity minutes, then translates the activity into NikeFuel points that athletes (and wannabe athletes) can brag about on social media.
For proving that 7-inch tablets can be amazing. Tired of standing by as its Android partners struggled to topple Apple, Google released the Nexus 7, a 7-incher that packs a stunning display, quad-core processor, and the versatility missing in both the iPad and Kindle.
For snatching up half the headphone market. Dr. Dre & Co. are building an audio empire—the ubiquitous Beats By Dre headphones now account for 50% of the billion-dollar market, and last year the company moved into larger territory by embedding its technology in phones and computers.
For putting the game controller front-and-center. The Wii U’s two-screen dynamic—one of which is in the GamePad, which also controls what’s happening on the TV—is a fresh take on the console and, despite cooling sales, a welcome step forward for the flailing industry.
For transforming the 3D printer from experiment to home-office appliance. Last year, MakerBot released the sleek Replicator 2, which can rapidly produce super-precise physical objects from 3D designs, winning plaudits from designers and engineers. Then in January, the company followed up with the Replicator 2X—a robust upgrade that can construct models in multiple materials and colors, just to remind tinkerers that it hadn’t forgotten its roots. Up next is a series of workshops for aspiring 3D-printing aficionados.
For electrifying gamers with a cheap, hackable console. The Kickstarter darling shook up the industry last year with the first-ever open-source gaming console, and though the $99 device won’t be ready for retail until June, its potential to finally unleash developers into the world of console gaming is most promising.[Image: Flickr user Hideya Hamano]