This is the time of the year where we tech journalists like to talk about big things: The best products, the major trends, the colossal screw-ups.
Still, why not take some time to appreciate the little things? Sometimes the best ideas in tech aren’t the ones that transform lives, but the smaller-scale innovations that make our daily routines a bit easier, or prove to the rest of the industry that there’s a better way to do things. Herewith, a tribute to the cleverest ideas we saw this year.
With Android 9 Pie, Google made a big deal about the “Digital Wellbeing” feature that can monitor and limit your time with specific apps. That’s a nice addition, but Android 9’s most mindful new feature is much more subtle: When the system notices that you routinely swipe away notifications from a particular app, it’ll offer to disable those notifications permanently. This is the most proactive step yet by a mobile operating system to deal with notification overload.
“The fewer moving parts, the better” is a good rule of thumb for consumer tech products, so it’s anybody’s guess how well the Vivo Nex phone’s motorized, pop-up selfie cam will hold up over time. Still, it does make the phone pretty to look at, with no unsightly camera notch to break up the all-screen design. At a time when many Android phone makers are embarrassing themselves with cheap iPhone X clones, you have to admire this small act of resistance.
The spill-resistant smartwatch
Even if you never have to use the Apple Watch Series 4’s automatic fall detection, you might appreciate that it’s there. Apple trained the Watch’s motion detection algorithms to recognize the distinct upward gesture that our arms make reflexively during a hard fall. If you take a tumble, you can then notify emergency services and your emergency contacts by swiping on the screen; the Watch will do so automatically if you’re not moving after a minute or so. Along with the Series 4’s built-in ECG, this feature could help save lives.
A new breed of bundling
The idea of bundling services together at a discount is neither new nor innovative, but the partnership between Hulu and Spotify is more inspired than most. Although the two companies aren’t related, they probably figure the same crowd that’s interested in streaming on-demand video might also want to stream on-demand music. Those who pay for both can now get a $5 per month discount. The bundle is both a fine growth tactic and a sly way to migrate customers out of Apple’s billing system (and corresponding 30% cut of subscription revenues), as the only way to get the deal is directly through Spotify’s website.
Over here, Uber
To spare you from gesticulating wildly on crowded street corners, Uber now lets you light up your phone’s screen with a unique color. The feature, called “Spotlight,” is supposed to help drivers pick riders out of a crowd, and prevent passengers from having to hunt for their ride when it doesn’t have its own light-up “Beacon” on the dashboard.
Just the free stuff, please
Roku has recently made a mission out of surfacing free video on its streaming players and smart TVs. This fall, for instance, the company launched a “Featured Free” section on its home screen, pulling together ad-supported movies and shows from a wide range of sources. Most impressive, though, is the “free” filter on Roku’s voice remote. Just ask for “free sci-fi movies,” or “free sitcoms,” and your Roku will spit back a list of results that won’t cost you anything. When most other platforms are more interested in peddling subscriptions, Roku’s focus on freebies is a refreshing change of pace.
Not just for drawing anymore
With the Galaxy Note 9, Samsung managed to pack a Bluetooth radio into its S Pen stylus, transforming it from a writing tool into a versatile remote clicker. By pressing a button on the pen, you can advance through PowerPoint slides, and control media playback.
Browsing without a trace
Even if you’re browsing the web in a private or incognito tab, websites can still get an idea of who you are through a method called “fingerprinting.” With this method of tracking, websites try to pick out individual users through the unique attributes of their computers, such as system configuration, fonts, browser plugins, and time zones. In MacOS Mojave, Apple’s Safari browser only supplies limited system information to websites, so that every Mac looks the same. Sorry, snoops!
A camera that knows where you are
Sure, it’s too bad you can’t trust the company behind it, but the camera on Facebook’s Portal smart display has a brilliant way of following users around the room during video chat. By not making users stand in one spot, Portal solves the biggest annoyance with video chat on other smart displays, such as Amazon’s Echo Show and the Google-powered Lenovo Smart Display. Here’s hoping other companies will shamelessly copy the approach, a tactic Facebook can surely appreciate.
Keep quiet, Alexa
Next time you feel like to turn down the thermostat in the middle of the night, try whispering your request to Alexa. Assuming that you’ve enabled Whisper Mode, your Amazon Echo will whisper back. To be clear, this is incredibly unsettling in practice, but it’s a clever idea and it can be useful if someone’s sleeping right next to you. (See also: Brief Mode, which replaces many of Alexa’s spoken responses with a chime.)
Putting Shortcuts to work
With iOS 12, Apple included a new feature called Shortcuts to help people get things done faster. The praise here isn’t so much for Apple itself, but for all the folks who’ve come up with handy Shortcuts on their own. By using Shortcuts, you can talk to Google Assistant through Siri, download videos from YouTube, bypass paywalls online, and quickly dictate text into your clipboard. The possibilities for cleverness are practically unlimited.
Posting into the void
In a former life, Brizzly was a social media app that added richer features to Facebook and Twitter feeds. It was bought by AOL in 2010, and suffered the sort of fate that usually transpired for cool things that were bought by AOL. This year, original founder and Google Reader creator Jason Shellen bought Brizzly back, and promptly turned it into a social media posting tool that goes nowhere. Brizzly posts are neither saved nor published, so you can have all the satisfaction of blurting out your thoughts online with none of the potential embarrassment. Shellen has made vague promises of an actual product to come, but for now Brizzly is part joke, and part release valve for our dumber musings.