We test and use so much technology that it's easy to get blasé. Smartphone with a 5" screen and video chat? Pens that record ink and what you're saying at the same time? Kinect recognising every joint in your body? That's so 2010…
A lot of things have impressed me in 2011 but the ones that have really made a difference to what I do or how I do it are rarer and they're less about big technology changes and more about what I've found truly useful. I want to put Office 365 on the list, not because it gives us anything we didn't have running our own Exchange 2010 server but for what it takes away (running our own Exchange server); it's the right kind of cloud service that doesn't expect me to through away rich client apps or change the way I work, it just makes things easier, cheaper and more convenient. If you don't find that impressive, you've never run your own IT…
There are things I've seen this year that have really impressed me, like Direct Access in Windows Server 8 that you can set up without having an IPv6 network consultancy on call, but we won't actually get that until 2012.
One thing I'm looking forward to still isn't anything more than a (slightly but acceptably rigged) demo. It's not even a promised feature and at this point it's mostly just a direction of research - it's the technique shown at the Sneak peek session at Adobe MAX this year for unblurring a photo by computing and subtracting the motion of the lens while the shutter was open. It works very well in the demo, but it also requires a lot of knowledge about the scene so the Photoshop developers are going to have to do a lot of work to make it into a usable feature. This kind of computational photography is behind the Lytro camera and the trillion frames per second of MIT's streak camera and I'm looking for some exciting developments in 2012.
So what does make my top five?
Proporta waterproof gadget bags These aren't new as such, but they're suddenly more useful to me personally, since I got a phone with a good speaker and TuneIn Radio for streaming stations from the US plus Spotify for specific tracks. In the office, the bedroom and the kitchen we use a variety of Sonos boxes to stream music from TuneIn, Spotify and our music collection, but we've never found a good solution for the bathroom. What with the steam, the wet hands, the way the room gets cold with the door open to let cables in and the inadvisability of powered equipment in a small, steamy bathroom combined with the irritation of anything that needs batteries changing frequently, I've been stuck with an old waterproof FM radio. When I was testing the Lumia 800 and the Mix Radio app that comes with 100 categories of streaming music, I spotted a waterproof bag Proporta had suggested for use on the beach and realised the two of them make an ideal bathroom music setup - although I prefer Spotify and TuneIne until Nokia comes out with the artist-driven mixes from Echonest they've promised. The Windows Phone interface is great for swiping through the bag, the Lumia sounds good and the bag is properly waterproof. The combination is what I've wanted in the bath for a decade. Now if I could only find a decent DLNA client for streaming music from the server locally.
Fitbit The other gadget that's made possibly the most difference to me personally this year is the Fitbit; I started carrying one in late 2010 but they only go on sale in the UK next week so I'll split the difference and include it. It's a digital pedometer that uploads your stats wirelessly, it's small enough to carry everywhere and cute enough to pull out and show people and when you start noticing how much or little you walk, it gets easier to be more active. After wrenching my ankle badly five years ago and getting out of the habit while I was recovering, I'm now power-walking up escalators again and expecting the 30 miles of CES week to feel slightly less exhausting than this last year.
Roomba (and Dyson) I've been a fan of Dyson vacuums for a long time because they work, and a fan of their handheld cleaners in particular because it's time we had a major improvement in the electrical motor - doing way with the carbon brushes is great idea. The same motor as in the Blade hand drier (the only air drier that doesn't turn into a breeding ground for exactly the kind of germs you don't want to bring out of the loo with you) makes the Root cleaners very efficient. But I'm a big Roomba fan as well; you can tell them to clean up every now and then and just forget about vacuuming the floors unless something awful happens. Empty the hopper when the red light goes on, keep the cables out of the way and let the robot do the dirty work. Perfect.
Samsung Series 7 and 9 The MacBook Air is truly lovely, but I'm never going to use a notebook that doesn't have an Ethernet port (twice this year I've been at events where there was a wired network for the press and no wireless connectivity at all). There are plenty of Ultrabooks promising those sleek, lightweight lines with the PC features I want but the first out was the Samsung Series 9 so I'm personally counting that as the game changer.
And a tablet is no use to me unless I can pull out a pen and write and draw on the screen without worrying about my hand brushing against it (Microsoft has the patent on that palm rejection and Windows has had it in for years, along with handwriting recognition). I'll be picking up a Samsung Series 7 tablet with my own money as soon I can find one in stock...
Windows Phone 7.5 Again, this is an absolutely personal view. I find Android unusable for several reasons, but the showstopper for me is not being able to search Exchange email without a third-party client. I've simply never taken to the iPhone, again for personal reasons - I can't type accurately on the screen and I literally cannot press the P key on the keyboard (I have astigmatism and I'm shortsighted and where I press on screen, I always, always, always get an O instead of a P), plus when an iPhone is in a holder in a car, I frequently cannot get the screen to register my touch without someone else adding capacitance by touching my hand, which is awkward when using a navigation app. Windows Phone has excellent OneNote and Exchange support, it is the only touch screen keyboard I can type accurately on and while there are apps I'd like to see that aren't there - a Sonos controller being top of my list - there are plenty of useful apps and engaging games, to the point that I have more apps on my personal phone that I've ever had on any platform. Does it have flaws? Of course. It's still the best mobile OS Microsoft has ever produced, and an excellent mobile OS in its own right, both of which are significant milestones. I've been using words like beautiful, elegant, charming and whimsical ever since I first got my hands on the phone - compared to the suspicion with which I approached it when I'd only seen presentations and specs. Windows Phone is an OS that you're not going to appreciate without using it. And ultimately, the best technology is the technology you use and want to keep using because it makes your life better.