As 2011 draws to a close, there’s a lot of focus on tech that flopped. And while part of me likes rubbernecking as much as the next guy—RIM’s “Amateur hour is over” ads for the PlayBook were indeed priceless—it’s also important to recognize the mobile companies that innovated throughout the year. To help celebrate these triumphs, I hereby announce the winners of the first annual Spoony Awards, highlighting my favorite mobile tech advancements. The most telling thing about this list is that it’s not so much about the gadgets themselves anymore but the software that powers them.
Wysips Photovoltaic Film
No, it’s not inside a real product yet, but an innovation from Wysips could change mobile devices forever. The company’s transparent photovoltaic film literally sips energy from ambient light, allowing a next-generation phone or tablet’s screen to help power the device. No more hunting for outlets by lunchtime, as we’ve seen with certain 4G LTE phones and tablets, such as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for Verizon or Motorola Droid Xyboard. The company won first place in CTIA’s 2011 Emerging Technology competition, and it’s been commissioned by the French government to co-develop the first self-powered 4G tablet. The future can’t come soon enough.
HTC Sense 3.0: A Smarter Lock Screen
While the iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Nexuslet you launch the camera from the lock screen, HTC lets you do a lot more with Android phones running its Sense 3.0 software. You can pull one of four shortcuts into a ring to launch the app directly from the lock screen: Camera, Mail, Messages, and Phone. This is a huge timesaver, and you can swap these choices out for other shortcuts from within the settings menu.
Siri: Raise to Speak
Even months after launch I’m still pretty amazed that I can tell the iPhone 4S to schedule an appointment for me just by saying the words aloud to Siri. She can even tell me if there’s a conflict so I can suggest an alternate time. But I probably wouldn’t talk to her if it were not for the Raise to Speak feature. You can activate Apple’s voice-controlled assistant just by holding the iPhone 4S up to your head. If you’re going to have frequent conversations with something that’s not a real person, it’s best to do it as quickly as possible.
Groups Feature in Windows Phone 7.5
Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS is just better than the competition when it comes to staying in touch with your most important peeps. Exhibit A is the Groups feature in the Mango update, which lets you create groups of contacts for family, work, or whatever. From there you can send a text or email to everyone on this list or just see what your favorite people are up to by looking at their social networking updates.
iPad Smart Cover
You know the competition had to be kicking itself when an accessory for Apple’s tablet got 10 times more publicity than their slates. And yet in this case the hype was justified. The Smart Cover for the iPad 2 seamlessly attaches to the razor-thin iPad 2 and automatically turns on the screen when you flip it open—just like a refrigerator door. This is what happens when you make your own hardware and software. The fact that the Smart Cover doubles as a stand when folded over is icing on the cake.
Peel: A Smarter Remote
In general I’m not wowed by tablets or smartphones that double as universal remote controls because they merely replicate what your current clickers do. The Peel is different. This clever app learns what you like to watch and gives the traditional program guide an extreme makeover, so you’ll never complain again that there’s nothing good on. You can also use Peel to activate your DVR and share what you’re watching via social networks. What started as an accessory for the iPhone and iPad is now also built into the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7 Plus tablet. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a TV maker or cable provider snap up this tech next.
Samsung Central Station
A high-priced but highly innovative accessory for laptops, the Samsung Central Station is a combination high-definition monitor and wireless docking station that works like magic. Just walk into the same room as this screen and it will light up, letting you extend your desktop to a 23-inch or 27-inch monitor. Even better, the Central Station has a USB hub built in, allowing you to connect all sorts of gadgets, from a mice and keyboard to a printer and portable hard drive.
Motorola Droid RAZR: Design Still Matters
In a year dominated by the cloud and new OS updates from Apple and Google, hardware design understandably took a back seat to software. But that doesn’t mean people want to carry a slab that looks like everything else on the shelf. Kudos to Motorola for making a smartphone in the Droid RAZR that’s not only breathtakingly thin but also solid as a rock. The body has a Kevlar-infused design that feels incredibly durable, and we appreciate the scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass screen and water-repellent coating. Bonus: It’s now available in white.
Sometimes it pays to be first. While Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are gearing up to launch Isis by late 2012, Google has a huge head start in the mobile payment race with Google Wallet. Launched this summer, the service lets you pay for items at thousands of participating merchants by just tapping your NFC-enabled phone to a compatible checkout device. Plus, Google was smart enough to roll in incentives to use Google Wallet instead of your leather and plastic, such as money-saving offers and the ability to rack up loyalty points. The only thing missing is more phones.
Infinity Blade II
One of my favorite apps of 2011 is a sequel to one of the best mobile games ever. Infinity Blade II is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous sword fighting title with landscapes that are so luscious that I spent as much time during the first few hours just panning around to admire the developers’ attention to detail as I did fighting new enemies. I love the ability to wield two swords at once, but the heavy weapons really give me that kid-in-a-candy store feel. Bottom line: No other game does a better job of making me forget that I’m playing on a phone or tablet.