Cortana, shown here, started off as a character in an insanely popular Xbox franchise. And then a funny thing happened: The character became real, embedded into Windows Phones and actually working to make our lives more productive.
That theme played out over and over again for me in 2014, as hardware, software, and services that would have been impossible a decade or two ago became decidedly real.
In this gallery, I highlight 10 technologies that made the jump from science fiction to everyday reality for me this year.
It's a highly personal list, and it's highly likely that your list will be very different from mine. I deliberately eschew Google products and services, for example, and my list of preferred products and services skews heavily toward the Pacific Northwest.
One theme that became apparent as I assembled this list is the amazingly competitive technology landscape we live and work in. Yes, there are some players who have staked out a dominant position, but recent history teaches us that those advantages can vanish in the blink of an eye...
This year, the Surface Pro 3 completely replaced my laptop.
For the first time in two decades I don't own a conventional clamshell-style laptop. And I don't miss it at all.
All told, I've spent about eight months traveling with the Surface Pro 3 this year. It's been an extremely accommodating traveling companion—light enough to throw in my traveling bag without a second thought, with an equally svelte power supply that also allows me to charge an additional device using a USB port on the power block. The 3:2 aspect ratio and high-resolution display make it easy to use as a tablet, even in portrait mode, which was certainly not true of the previous, clunky Surface Pro models.
The most surprising part is that by the end of this year strangers stopped asking me, "What's that?" and instead either told me they owned a Surface Pro 3 themselves and loved it or asked for advice on which model to buy. That's one indication that Microsoft might actually have a hit on its hands.
I have used solid-state drives (SSDs) in every PC I've owned for the past three years, desktop and portable. Besides being much faster, they're also noiseless, generate little heat, and don't drain batteries, unlike conventional hard drives with spinning platters. (Cheap tablets typically contain eMMC flash storage, which is not nearly as fast but is still much faster than spinning drives.)
Several years ago there was legitimate concern that SSDs were unreliable and failure-prone. That fear turns out to have been misplaced, with SSD technology having matured to the point where they are far more reliable than conventional hard drives.
And there are definite differences in performance between different brands and models of drives. On my main desktop PC, I recently upgraded a two-year-old SSD, which was nearly full, to a brand-new 480 GB SanDisk Ultra II drive. (SanDisk has sent me some review samples, including the Extreme II SSD, which was as impressive, performance-wise, as it was pricey. The one I bought and installed on my desktop PC was a better value.)
The improvement in performance that I saw with this upgrade was profound, not just because the underlying memory modules are faster but also because of smarter controllers and firmware on the newer drive. And having that much extra free space on the drive is a blessing as well.
Now, every time I go back to a PC that uses a conventional hard drive, I grit my teeth and count the minutes till I can switch back.
Amazon didn't exactly have the greatest year, with the Fire Phone turning out to be a complete belly flop and a long-running dispute with publishing giant Hachette alienating some longtime customers.
But for me, the Amazon ecosystem just gets better with age. Yes, it's focused on entertainment, but it's made me more productive regardless, by making it easier for me to enjoy digital media without having to play IT manager for books and music.
The new Fire HDX 8.9 is the best tablet I've ever owned, with a sharper display at a much lower cost than the iPad Air 2.
This year I moved my entire music collection to the Amazon cloud, where I can access any recording (including those that aren't in Amazon's store) from the web or from Amazon's excellent mobile apps. The cost of an upgraded Amazon Music subscription, $25 a year, is the same as Apple's iTunes Match. The difference is that it doesn't require me to install iTunes, it runs on Android and Kindle devices as well as on Macs and PCs and iOS devices, and it lets me upload or match up to 250,000 tracks, 10 times the capacity of Apple's service.
Amazon also endeared itself to me this year by finally offering the ability to merge my wife's extensive Kindle e-book library with my much smaller collection in a shared family library.
And the best addition of all is the Amazon Echo, a compact cylinder that has earned a welcome place near the kitchen, where it entertains, informs, and amuses us with a superbly engineered control center that responds to voice commands with astonishing accuracy. My colleague James Kendrick called it a perfect 10. I agree.
Not all that long ago, I had hundreds of RSS feeds arranged in folders and synchronized to a dedicated feed reader that I checked several times day.
These days I rarely open a feed reader. Instead, to stay on top of news and events I rely on a diverse Twitter timeline made up of more than 1000 interesting people, companies, and publications. If something interesting is happening anywhere in the world, the news will show up there first, with photos and links and smart analysis and the ability to quickly search for more information. That's not true of any other social media service I'm part of—not Facebook, not LinkedIn, and definitely not Google+. (Although all of those services have their place.)
Every once in a while I have nightmares that Twitter will fail at its task of monetizing itself and will be unable to sustain itself. But I also know enough smart people working in Twitter HQ to think they'll figure it out.
You can find me on Twitter here: @edbott.
As I wrote earlier this year: When it comes to smartphones, size matters. (My alternative headline, "I like big screens and I cannot lie," was rejected. I can't imagine why.)
This year I carried a half-dozen phones, giving each one at least a full month of heavy use so that I could adjust to its unique characteristics. In general, the bigger the phone, the more likely I was to like it, although the 6-inch Lumia 1520 was definitely at the outer edge, size-wise.
I purchased a refurbished iPhone 5S this fall and used it for about a month. There's no question that it's an exquisitely engineered and built device, but I found the screen just too small to become comfortable with. I know from experience how much less eyestrain I experience with a 5-inch (or larger) display.
So I traded that small phone for an iPhone 6 Plus and am using it for the foreseeable future. So far, the size seems nearly perfect and the display quality is excellent. As for productivity, I'll write about a little later.
In the meantime, you can keep your tiny phones, thank you very much.
On ZDNet this year:
I literally cannot imagine doing what I do for a living without Microsoft Office. I use all of the Office desktop programs to research and write articles, with OneNote in particular being the glue that keeps my work and personal lives organized.
My Office 365 Business subscriptions also include excellent email support, based on Exchange Online. But the biggest benefit of Office 365, as far as I'm concerned, is that I no longer have to keep track of CDs and product keys. Instead, I can install the software on up to five PCs and five tablets just by signing in to my Office account. And I can transfer a license from one device to another with one click.
In 2014, Microsoft's two most important Office 365 upgrades had nothing to do with those Windows desktop programs, though. First, it released an extremely capable version of Office for the iPad, and then, after first announcing that every Office 365 subscription would include a terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage it decided to completely remove capacity limits on that cloud storage.
Yes, Google Apps is getting better. But Office 365 is getting better faster.
Until you've actually used Miracast, it's hard to appreciate how it changes the way you interact with a large screen. That's equally true in the living room and in the conference room, where in either case you no longer have to rely on a physical cable to project your mobile device onto a large display.
Last summer, I reviewed Belkin's Miracast Video Adapter. Since then I've picked up a Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter ($60) and an Amazon Fire TV Stick ($39, although I picked mine up at an introductory price of $19).
Miracast works perfectly with my menagerie of Windows 8.1 devices and Amazon tablets. It takes seconds to connect the Surface Pro 3 or Fire HDX 8.9 to a large-screen display and begin watching a movie or a webcast. The Microsoft adapter is in my experience easier to use than the Fire TV Stick, which requires jumping through a few extra hoops to connect.
I especially like the fact that Miracast is standards-based, unlike Google's Chromecast, which insists on forcing you into the Chrome browser and using Chromecast apps. Now if Apple would just add Miracast support to iOS…
On ZDNet this year:
This was the year when cloud storage stopped being a product and became a feature.
At the beginning of the year, 5-10 GB of online file storage was standard and 100 GB was something to brag about. Then, in March, Google cut the price of a terabyte (1000 GB) on Google Drive to $10 a month. Microsoft trumped that by including a terabyte on OneDrive with every subscription to Office 365, even the $70-a-year Personal subscriptions.
And then, this fall, Microsoft went all in, removing all storage limits from OneDrive and OneDrive for Business accounts for anyone with an Office 365 subscription.
At the moment, the biggest hurdle to actually using all that storage is bandwidth. Even on a relatively fast connection in the United States, it can take weeks to upload a terabyte of data.
Still, the glut of online storage has changed the way I work forever. My personal backups are in OneDrive and my work files are divided between OneDrive for Business and Intermedia's SecuriSync. I haven't given up local backups, of course, because old habits die hard. But someday, in the not-so-distant future, we'll marvel at the idea that people used to keep terabytes of data on big hard drives.
On ZDNet this year:
Siri understands me. So does Cortana (on Windows phones and soon on other Windows-powered devices). And so, for that matter, does Alexa, the voice of the Amazon Echo.
All those smooth female voices represent a revolution in how we interact with information. This year I have grown accustomed to dictating text messages and short notes, asking for weather reports and restaurant recommendations (and expecting accurate results), and setting reminders and appointments.
At this point, Cortana (shown above) is arguably the most advanced of the bunch, capable of a much wider range of tasks than Siri or Alexa. The good news is that all that competition means that voice recognition in general should improve tremendously in the months ahead, giving us plenty to talk about next year at this time.
The more we rely on portable devices, the more we become servants of the tiny power cells inside those devices, and the more obsessed we become with topping off so we don't run out of power before we run out of day.
For me, the biggest annoyance in that whole process is finding the right cable and then connecting its business end to the tiny charging port on a phone. Which is why I absolutely love Qi wireless charging.
I've been spoiled by the last two Windows phones I used, the Lumia 928 and Lumia Icon, both of which have Qi charging capabilities built in. The Tylt VÜ wireless charger shown above ($70) sits on my desk at a 45-degree angle, making it easy to read and reply to messages and alerts. I've got other charging pads scattered around the house, allowing me to set a phone down and begin charging instantly without the hassle of plugging in.
The two phones I'm using these days, an iPhone 6 Plus (Verizon) and a Lumia 925 (T-Mobile), don't come with wireless charging as a standard feature, but I've made up for that glaring omission with simple jackets that snap on to add Qi capability. The Nokia add-on uses tiny connectors on the back of the standard case; the iPhone jacket requires a plug that's less elegant but still tolerable.
I'm not sure how long it will take before wireless charging is available for every portable device. Soon, I hope.