The best new tech of 2015
By Ben Taylor, Graphiq
For many tech gadgets, 2015 was a year of refinement rather than revolution. HTC, LG and Apple made solid -- but incremental -- improvements to their smartphone lines. Smartwatch makers fixed some of the worst bugs, but forgot about others. Laptop manufacturers released faster models with slightly better battery life, but PC sales continued to decline.
That said, a handful of 2015 tech products stand out in an otherwise routine year. At SpecOut, we poured over the last 12 months to pick 10 products with clear innovations and strong reviews from the experts.
For each product, we'll highlight the key features that made the gadget stand apart in 2015.
Why it made the list: Gorgeous design and leading camera
For once, Samsung beat Apple on both design and camera quality. Yes, the Galaxy S6 Edge is a pricey device, but the curved-glass display and premium metal body earned glowing remarks from almost every reviewer. Meanwhile, some critics found the iPhone 6 and 6S too slippery — a pretty device where function took a backseat to form.
And then there's the S6 Edge's camera. Yes, Galaxy phones have always had good camera specs on paper — from sensor sizes to megapixel counts — but only in 2015 did the Galaxy truly trounce the competition in real-world conditions. Camera quality test lab DxOMark gave the S6 Edge's camera an 86/100, second only to the Sony Xperia Z5, and four points better than the iPhone 6S.
Why it made the list: By far the best e-reader on the market
It's easy to forget about Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite, a device that lacks the power of top-tier smartphones and the display quality of leading tablets.
However, Amazon quietly improved just about every facet of the device in 2015. The latest Paperwhite now has a crisp 300-pixels-per-inch display; a new, cleaner typeface ("Bookerly"), better read-time tracking and handy on-page notetaking features.
Amazon has paced the pack of e-reader manufacturers for several years now. But in 2015? They just lapped the field.
Why it made the list: The Surface device we've always wanted
For years, Microsoft marketed the Surface Pro as "the tablet that can replace your laptop." The results were promising, if a little awkward — in the end, the device was still better at portability than productivity.
With the Surface Book, Microsoft built the device many of us were waiting for: a legitimate laptop, just with tablet-like features. It's got the power of an entry-level gaming laptop -- including eight gigs of RAM -- but the features of a 2-in-1 laptop-tablet hybrid. (Most 2-in-1 laptops have far worse performance.) Detach the keyboard when you're on the road, then slip it back on when it's time to get real work done.
What's more, the keyboard contains its own GPU slot, a fascinating feature that's both nifty and novel. For casual PC gamers, the Surface Book could be the perfect laptop, tablet and gaming device, all in one.
4. Amazon Echo
Why it made the list: A household innovation with tons of future possibilities
The Amazon Echo seems a little spooky at first. It's a small black cylinder that sits in the corner, always on, always listening. Once you get over the creepiness, however, you'll find a smart device with loads of helpful features -- just the sort of thing you'd expect from Amazon.
You can set reminders, ask for a sports score or re-order batteries, all in a matter of seconds. It's Amazon convenience meets Siri helpfulness. At $180, it's an accessible and affordable first step toward the smart home of the future.
Why it made the list: The best drone you can buy for around $1,000
There's a good chance we'll look back at 2015 as "the year of drones," and the DJI Phantom 3 Professional was among the year's very best.
With a 12MP camera that records in 4K, the Phantom 3 Professional will satisfy any image and video snob. It makes for a big step up from the blurry videos captured by most cheaper models. Add in a 2,000-meter operating range, and you're getting premium travel capabilities at a mid-range price ($1,259).
But more than the raw specs, we love the Phantom 3 Professional's vision-based positioning system, which allows the device to navigate without GPS, even indoors.
6. Apple Watch
Why it made the list: For all its flaws, a clear trendsetter in a young product category
We know what you're thinking. The Apple Watch got mixed reviews. Most third-party apps remain painfully slow. And that price point ($349) still seems high, even for the entry-level sport model.
The reality: The Apple Watch remains the best smartwatch on the market, and a catalyst for the industry at large. With its emphasis on strap design and simple, elegant watch faces, Apple shifted the conversation from notifications to design aesthetics, from text message alerts to fashion.
Regardless of whether the Apple Watch becomes a true success, the device shaped an industry in 2015 -- more than you can say for its competitors.
Why it made the list: The most intriguing iPad in three years
If there's one black spot on Apple's stellar earnings, it's iPad sales. The Cupertino firm's tablet has been struggling since 2013, with two years of flat sales and a noticeable decline in 2015.
Make way for the iPad Pro. With a 13-inch display, massive battery and enough power to be mistaken for a laptop, the newest iPad could breathe new life into Apple's ailing tablet business. Toss in an Apple Pencil ($99) and Adobe's Creative Cloud iPad apps, and the iPad Pro is the best tablet for artists to date.
Why it made the list: Wireless function, accurate sound, fair price — all in one
When it comes to headphones, most customers want great sound, a fair price and solid portability. Unfortunately, you can usually only guarantee two of the three.
The Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless headphones might just be the answer. No, they're not cheap, but where else can you get a wireless pair of cans that sound this good? In our minds, that's more than worth the $400 price tag.
The experts agree, praising the product's 22 hours of battery life and comfortable, memory foam ear cushions.
Why it made the list: Great sound in a rugged, waterproof speaker
Call it the GoPro of wireless speakers. The Ultimate Ears Roll has nine hours of battery and is waterproof up to one meter for 30 minutes. Complete with a built-in bungee cord, it's the perfect pick for the active adventurer or pool partier. Order straight from Ultimate Ears, and they'll throw in an "inflatable pool floatie" (six-pack not included).
Why it made the list: A solid early entry in the emerging virtual reality market
Most serious virtual reality sets will come out in 2016, but Samsung — in typical company fashion — jumped ahead of the pack with its Samsung Gear VR. The headset is powered by Facebook's Oculus, which means you'll have access to hundreds of apps and games from the get-go.
What's more, Gear VR includes motion sensing in the goggles themselves, not just the companion smartphone, allowing for more precise tracking and accurate movement than other early VR models.
Just make sure you have the right handset before snapping one up. Gear VR requires a Samsung smartphone, a little like the Apple Watch needs the iPhone. If nothing else, it's a great excuse to get your Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge.
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