End of the year lists are usually about the “best” and the “greatest,” parlance that typically translates to “you should buy this.” But we have one list for the finale of 2012 that is less about great purchases and more about the work that went into them—and future gadgets.
That list is what we call the Technical Excellence Awards, or Tech Ex for short. This is the 29th year in a row that we’ve singled out the breakthroughs in science, electronics, and technology that we think have the most impact. Not all of what you see here will even make it to market, but our analysts still believe the ideas behind the creation of items on this list will benefit the industry, consumers, and businesses for years to come. Sometimes great tech debuts before it’s truly time to shine. Sometimes vendors get the implementation entirely wrong. That’s up to you to judge.
For now, we’ll celebrate a few innovative products that seem to have it right and a few of the breakthroughs that make them possible. And be sure to tell us in the comments if we missed something fantastic.
Raspberry Pi Foundation
We’ve become a society that uses tools we don’t understand. Perhaps the most egregious of these is the computer, where things magically appear on a screen and we have no idea why. The Raspberry Pi wants to change that. This is an entire computer that is the size of a credit card and that you connect to a TV and keyboard to get going. Total cost? $25 or $35 dollars, depending on the model—the more expensive one has two USB ports instead of one, Ethernet, and uses less power.
It’s as basic as basic can be, and our review makes clear that this is not for everyday use. This is for “the kind of exploration and tinkering that are nowadays often relegated to even the fringes of the DIY and enthusiast communities, and demands your active participation and intellectual engagement,” wrote reviewer Matthew Murray. For example, you’ll need to run a bootable operating system off a USB thumb drive. Is it worth it? The learning experience on this tiny, brilliant, inexpensive proto-computer definitely is.—Eric Griffith
HTC Droid DNA Display by Sharp
Can we halt the display density arms race now? The Droid DNA, a device that sits somewhere between phone and tablet, has an incredible 443-pixel-per-inch display. It looks great, and without resorting to tricks like Samsung’s PenTile tech (which can make screens look fuzzy on some handhelds). The HTC Droid DNA’s 5-inch screen consumes an amount of power comparable to competing displays, and it allows you to show 1080p videos without downscaling.
After some cajoling, we got HTC to reveal that the display is created by Sharp. Here’s hoping many other handheld devices start sourcing screens from them soon.—Sascha Segan and Eric Griffith
Hybrid devices are nothing new but the VSD220 is something new, especially for what could be a 22-inch monitor. It also happens to double as an Android-powered all-in-one with a touch screen. It has a 1GHz, dual-core TI OMAP4 processor and runs a relatively clean version of Android 4.0.4, complete with the Google Play store. Is it a display? An Android-powered all-in-one? A tablet? The mind reels. But what the ViewSonic VSD220 definitely is, flaws and all, is innovative. —Laarni Almendrala Ragaza
Project Glass, sometimes called “Google Glasses,” is Google R&D’s experiment with a wearable computer with voice and gesture controls. Using an interface and augmented reality heads-up display, the user sees through glasses with only one lens. If you could wear your Android phone over your eyes and still see the world around you, it might look like the Project Glass specs, but not quite, because it’s not really running Android as known today. The headset includes a camera that can record whatever you see, a microUSB port for charging, and probably little to no onboard storage, so expect a wireless connection of some sort.
Will Project Glass ever be an actual mainstream product for the masses? Will it be a product at all? If so, will it be more than just a gimmicky toy for the über-geeky? Only time will tell, but it definitely sets the stage for actual useful, wearable computers. Not that others haven’t tried this before. Companies like Vuzix have Smart Glasses already running Android, but Google’s the most likely company to make the interface stick.—Eric Griffith
Microfluidic Tactile Touchscreen
There was a time when many people feared going from a phone with a tactile keyboard to a touch screen. There may be a few of you left. If so, hold out for a few years longer and maybe you’ll be able to get a phone with both.
Tactus Technology is working on screens that would have a plastic panel over the screen that could fill in certain discrete areas with fluid from a reservoir found on the device, creating pop-up buttons on the screen that the users can actually push. This is a big step up from just haptic responses, such as vibration or even a shock when you push a “button” on the flat panel; Tactus wants to give you an actual button, so your thumbs can find the right spot.
The company has raised a few million in investment to keep going, and might have something in place to give manufacturers by late next year, but don’t expect it to replace Gorilla Glass on phones in the near future.—Eric Griffith
PCMag reviewed the Nokia PureView 808 smartphone, and while the phone itself is a compromised device with almost no appeal, it does have an amazing camera. Inside is a 41-megapixel sensor (though some reports say 38-megapixel) that measures 1/1.2 inches, only slightly smaller than the sensor in a Nikon J1. That sensor is not really for taking huge images, but instead for getting a digital zoom that causes no loss in picture quality, as well as generating 5- to 8-megapixel images that have no noise on them by oversampling the images. The giant sensor also makes it possible to have advance optical image stabilization (OIS) that eliminates blur and movement even in videos.
PureView has been four years in the making, and was derived from satellite imaging technology. Nokia didn’t do itself any favors when it ended up in an ethics scandal by trying to pass off footage from another camera as the Nokia Lumina 920′s. But keep an eye out for smartphones with the technology and the extra-large sensor; you’ll be amazed by what you can see with a PureView picture. In good light, the PureView 808 was the best phone camera we’ve ever shot with in PCMag Labs.—Eric Griffith
Today, almost all cell phones double as cameras. This has created a culture of instantaneous photography—if your photo isn’t on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook within moments of being captured, there is a perception that it is no longer relevant. Great photos may be timeless, but the current trend is one of immediacy.
This is where connected cameras come in. As ubiquitous as phone cams are, they still can’t match the quality—or optical zoom capabilities—of a point-and-shoot or interchangeable lens camera. Samsung has led the pack, putting Wi-Fi into cameras like its WB850F superzoom and NX1000 compact interchangeable lens body. And then it went all-in, releasing the Galaxy Camera EK-GC100—essentially an Android-powered device with always-on 4G connectivity and a 21x zoom lens. Other camera makers are adding Wi-Fi to their lineups: Nikon has its own Android point-and-shoot, the Coolpix S800c; Canon put Wi-Fi into its full-frame EOS 6D D-SLR; and Sony has added the feature to its HX30V superzoom and its NEX-5R and NEX-6 interchangeable lens cameras. But none of these offer experiences as streamlined as what Samsung delivers with the Galaxy Camera.—Jim Fisher
An $8,000 digital camera that only shoots black-and-white images? Leica is the only company with that would even think about bringing such a camera to market. Announced this May and still in short supply, the Monochrom is essentially an M9 without the color filter array that allows it to capture images in color. This is no doubt a niche version of a niche camera. The firmware and CCD sensor have been tweaked for black-and-white capture, with a top ISO sensitivity of 10,000—four times that of what the M9 is capable of.
Photographers who have never considered picking up a roll of color film are likely to be intrigued by the Monochrom, but its high price (not to mention the cost of Leica glass) limit those who will be able to afford it. Photographer Jono Slack has been gracious enough to release some raw DNG files taken with the Monochrom so curious photographers can decide if the Monochrom lives up to the promise of producing images that are truer to black-and-white film than converted color digital files.
If the price of the Monochrom is a dealbreaker, or if you just aren’t a rangefinder shooter, New Jersey-based company MaxMax will sell you a Canon D-SLR that has been specially converted to shoot in black-and-white only, but expect to pay nearly as much as the Leica if you want that camera to be a 5D Mark III. —Jim Fisher
Nvidia’s Kepler Architecture
The latest video architecture from Nvidia is, as expected, a major change that’s having a big impact. (New architectures don’t come around for video as often as they do for processors, after all.) Kepler is Nvidia’s 2010 release of “Fermi” taken to the next level; the Fermi Streaming Multiprocessors (SMs) have been replaced with “next-generation Streaming Multiprocessors” (or SMXs), each with 192 CUDA cores, for a total of 1,536 cores for every Kepler graphics processing unit (GPU), yet all running with less power.
Kepler also introduces improved memory systems, includes a GPU Boost tech to dynamically increase clock speed on desktop systems, and has a new display engine to power up to four monitors at once. That’s just the flashy stuff. If you get a system with the latest GeForce GTX 640, 650, or 660 video cards inside, you’ll personally see the difference.—Eric Griffith
MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories
Moore’s Law says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles about every 18 months to two years, doubling performance. At the same time, today’s chips keep shrinking. But more transistors need more power, and silicon can only take so much current. So is Moore’s Law going to cease to be followed?
Scientists from MIT, Purdue, and Harvard are all working on the next transistors and MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories announced this month that it has created a compound transistor that’s only 22 nanometers in length using indium gallium arsenide. There are three nano-wires inside, each getting progressively smaller, so a cross-section of the transistor looks like a tier Christmas tree. There is still a lot of work to do, and we probably won’t see actual chips with indium gallium arsenide transistors for a decade, but rest assured that there’s something out there to guarantee our gadgets continue to get even smarter.—Eric Griffith
This is an idea that’s overdue. If malware has wrecked your PC’s ability to boot, boot from FixMeStick. It’s a bootable USB drive with antivirus software loaded that automatically scans the system with three antivirus engines (Kaspersky, Sophos, and VIPRE). Everything is automatic; you don’t have to interact until it finishes. If you can boot Windows, it contains a launcher that automatically triggers a reboot from the device. And if there’s any problem, remote assistance is built into the product. It’s not perfect in our tests, but with two releases of the product in 2012, it’s already showing improvements.—Neil J. Rubenking
Voice over LTE on MetroPCS
Nearly all of the world’s wireless carriers will be moving to voice-over-LTE over the next decade, turning all cellular calls into VoIP and retiring their old 2G networks. But the very first one is little MetroPCS, which successfully launched VoLTE this year, and it’s probably a year or more ahead of any of its competitors. MetroPCS was our first LTE carrier, too, and it’s doing LTE on channel sizes that other carriers would consider impossibly small. It’s a true wireless MacGyver.—Sascha Segan
Most people associate wireless with radio. Even today, our Wi-Fi and 3G and 4G connections are all variations on that same theme. Unfortunately, the frequencies available are quickly being gobbled up, range is limited, and bandwidth can never be fast enough. Where does one turn for the next big advances in wireless communication? Light, where the spectrum is 10,000 times larger.
VLC, or visible light communication, has been around for a while with this potential to turn, for example, light bulbs into communication hubs, piggybacking data with illumination; it’s the basis of an IEEE specification called 802.15.7. Imagine an LED light bulb pulsing so fast you can’t detect it, but that pulse is streaming a full-length HD movie to your devices. Sound far-fetched? It’s already been demonstrated.
Li-Fi would be the supposed superset of VLC, moving to full optical wireless communication with new technology still to come. It’s meant to encompass use of the infrared right to the ultraviolet spectrum and all we can see in between to generate gigabit-speed connections over line-of-sight connections. It’s not even limited to LEDs or lasers. As such, a Li-Fi Consortium has already been founded to foster optical wireless technology. It’s not ever likely to supplant radio-based wireless completely, but it could be an alternative for everything from satellite to Ethernet in the next decade.—Eric Griffith
Goodyear Self-Inflating Tires
Back in the 1960s, the Batmobile could automatically re-inflate its tires even after Batman and Robin drove over tacks in the road. Starting next year, Goodyear will follow suit and start testing tires with a sensor inside that can sense low-pressure and open a valve to let air in. The government of Luxembourg and the U.S Department of Energy are funding Air Maintenance Technology (AMT). All if this means better gas mileage on cars in the future, since most drivers can’t be bothered to check their tire pressure and make sure it’s where it should be. OK, so AMT isn’t exactly equivalent to the Batmobile recovering from a super-villain attack, but it’s still pretty amazing compared with what’s on your vehicle right now.—Eric Griffith
iOnRoad Augmented Driving
This $4.99 app turns your iPhone or Android smartphone into a high-tech driving aid by adding collision detection, headway distance monitoring, and lane departure warnings to your vehicle—features that normally cost thousands of dollars extra from car manufacturers. Simply mount your smartphone up on the windshield so the phone can see out using its camera sensor and the app will warn you of dangers as you drive.
iOnRoad handles other tasks too, although some cross over with existing apps; still, it’s nice to have them all in one place. For example, iOnRoad has a car location feature that works via GPS, complete with a photo snapshot of your last parking spot. The app also reads text messages out loud to you as they come in, and you can set speed alerts so that you don’t mindlessly accelerate to 80mph on a highway.
The company says its app is not meant to replace actual safety systems that come with cars, but it’s certainly indicative of the kinds of out-of-the-box thinking today’s mobile devices—with their GPS radios, gyroscopes, compasses, and other sensors—can realize.—Jamie Lendino
In the movie Prometheus, the ship’s crew goes underground and sends out flying orbs that travel around the interior of caverns to provide a detailed 3D map. Well, we’re nowhere close to that technology, but Bouncing Imaging might be on the right track.
It’s developing ball-shaped sensors filled with cameras and wireless transmitters perfect for first responders and soldiers to toss into an unfamiliar location they have to enter. The sensor will send a panoramic image to a handheld, including information like the temperature and levels of radiation, O2, or CO2 in the room. It could be a lifesaver. Hopefully the company will find a way to make it fly around on its own like in the movies.—Eric Griffith
Cambridge Laser “Unprinter”
University of Cambridge, Department of Engineering
These days, when you no longer need pages you’ve printed, you toss them in a recycle bin. In a few months, they may come back to you after being pulped and turned, once again, into fresh sheets of paper. Researchers at England’s University of Cambridge this year created a process that could cut out that recycling middle-man.
The unprinter would take a used sheet of paper and zap it with lasers to remove the ink in a process called “toner ablation.” Doing this without ruining the paper is tricky, but the scientists have found a way to make it work with green laser light. It could take years for this to come to fruition and maybe by then we’ll be a totally paperless society… but probably not.—Eric Griffith
Sparse Fourier Transform
MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab
There’s computing, and then there’s computer science. The former is what we all do; the latter is the building blocks of how we do it. And one of those blocks we all unknowingly rely on every day is called the discrete Fourier transform (DFT). Let’s just say it involves waveforms and lots of math, and it makes things like wireless networks do what they do so well by helping move data along. The fastest version of this is the fast Fourier transform (FFT), or at least it used to be. This year, four computer scientists have unveiled what they call the sparse Fourier transform (SFT). This algorithm can process streams of data as much as 100 times faster than FFT does. Faster means less power is needed. It could be the answer to many of today’s networks problems, from battery life to transfer speed. And it was all done with the magic of math. The moral is: stay in school, and take a programming class.—Eric Griffith
By Eric Griffith, PCMag