Starting at January's giant Consumer Electronics Show, this year has brought a stream of substantial and sometimes silly technology designed to entertain us, inform us, or simply separate us from our money. Some of the best might still make good holiday presents, except for those looking for a more frugal list. The worst might best be forgotten.
These stars arrived with breakthrough technology:
Hybrid electric bikes. Hopping on the Giant Twist Freedom DX ($2,000) produces a "wow" moment in technology. An electric motor subtly eases pedaling and automatically disengages when pedaling is stopped. With a range of 70 miles on its rechargeable batteries, the bike can take the sweat out of a two-wheel commute. Less expensive versions are available from Currie Technologies, and a high-style model comes from Pi Mobility.
Geotagging. The Eye-Fi Explore ($130) not only adds 2 GB of memory to a digital camera but also links a camera wirelessly to a Wi-Fi access point—and "geotags" each photo with location data. Geotagging makes it easy to map your travels, though the Explore depends on a database of Wi-Fi access points that largely limits its reach to metro areas. The bulkier ATP Photo Finder ($100) packs a more accurate and wider-reaching GPS receiver.
Superthin TV. The Sony XEL-1 is startling not only for its ultrathin screen but the image that it produces, which is better than any LCD's or plasma's. Only one-eighth-inch thick, the first screen made with organic light-emitting diodes is also only 11 inches wide. But it comes with an outsize price tag of $2,500. Competitors are expected soon that should help shrink prices and expand screen sizes.
Extra-fast cameras. Casio introduced consumers to super slow motion with the Casio Exilim EX-F1 ($1,000), which can shoot 60 frames per second of high-definition stills. It can also shoot standard-def video at an astonishing 1,200 frames a second. A newer sibling, the EX-FH20 ($600), trims those speeds a bit to 40 frames and 1,000 frames, respectively. Samsung's HMX20C ($850) is a video camera with its own super slo-mo at 300 frames a second.
Dot reading. The Leapfrog Tag Reading System ($50) is a penlike stylus that reads aloud from children's books, either the whole story or a word at a time. Tapping pictures adds dialogue and songs, and bonus games help keep kids engaged. The system uses paper covered with tiny dots to know where the pen is focused. The Pulse Smartpen from Livescribe ($150) uses the same dot system, sort of in reverse. It records audio as the pen writes notes. Tapping the notes later replays the related audio.
These duds included fumbles and foibles:
Overpriced movies. Yes, the picture from Blu-ray disks is the best available to mere mortals, and the audio rocks. But greedy manufacturers fumbled what was to be the format's big year after it vanquished competitor HD DVD. Until recent weeks, few if any players could be found for less than $200. Even now, those usually come crippled with no Internet connection and slow-starting hardware. The format might thrive in 2009, but competitors are gaining, and standard DVDs look good enough to most folks.
Destroyed data. The failure of the Linkup service is a warning that no single backup is enough protection for valuable data. Once called Streamload and then MediaMax, the service offered free and paid accounts for storing digital media. But a botched transfer committed the cardinal sin of deleting user files, and then the company went out of business. Honorable mention to Apple's MobileMe for also losing user data in its messy rollout, but at least the company stuck around to apologize.