We look back at the tech products that were released for sale to the general public in 2014, and picked out the ones that left an impression.
Gadgets of the year
We look back at the tech products that were released for sale to the general public in 2014, and picked out the ones that left an impression. Being popular or top-selling wasn’t a deciding factor. Instead, trying to stand out from others, or introducing new ideas, even bad ideas, was.
GOOFY: Nokia X (The Walking Dead)
We never understood why Nokia was developing Android phones (without the official blessing of Google) while they were selling devices running Windows Phone, and cheerleading for the Microsoft mobile OS platform. When Microsoft completed its purchase of Nokia’s mobile devices business, it was assumed the Nokia X would be killed, but this didn’t happen right away. Except in North America, these Android phones were released throughout the world. A second generation, the X2, was even launched before Microsoft cancelled both lines on July 17.
GREAT: Surface Pro 3 (Third time’s the charm)
It took three tries, but we think Microsoft finally got things right with their Surface line in 2014 by engineering and selling the Surface Pro 3 to be used mainly as a notebook, not a tablet. Starting at $799, this notebook-in-a-tablet-body isn’t cheap, though it includes a stylus that feels like a nice, expensive pen in your hand. (The keyboard/protective cover, the Type Cover, sells separately for $130.) So it’s best to think of the Surface Pro 3 as a luxury-model, ultraportable Windows 8.1 notebook.
GOOFY: OnePlus One (Equals zero)
This smartphone was in high demand due to its impressive specs, low price without mobile contract (starting at $299), and the fact that it runs CyanogenMod — the free, highly customizable mobile OS that’s built on the open-source release of the Android codebase.
Unfortunately, China-based OnePlus could only manufacture limited batches of the OnePlus One at certain times. So they instituted an invite-only system where buyers had to somehow be given an authorization code to buy this smartphone online. This led to frustrated potential buyers, and a PR faux pas when the company held a contest for women to submit a selfie to be awarded an invite.
GREAT: Blackphone (Spy Games)
The Blackphone runs a version of Android that has been modified to supposedly keep your mobile activity obfuscated from spies, but for the steep price of $629. In an era where it’s pretty much assumed that an outside party — corporate, government or hacker — could access your online activity or personal data, there’s a market for devices that claim to help to ensure your privacy. The Blackphone made a name for itself in 2014 by capitalizing on this worry.
GOOFY: Fire Phone (Now at fire sale prices)
Amazon’s first smartphone uses four cameras to simulate a 3D visual effect on its display when you move the device while looking at it. As impressive as it is, this gimmick may not have been compelling enough to entice many people to buy the phone. Amazon hasn’t released sales figures, but one cannot help but conclude this device has been a flop. When it was first released, you had to pay $200 for the entry-level model under a mobile contract, but now you can get it essentially for free on contract.
GREAT: BlackBerry Passport: (Cool to be square)
Like the Moto 360, BlackBerry’s Passport pulled off an unexpected, shape-defying design: This smartphone has a square, 4.5-inch display screen. Its physical keyboard is unlike the one of previous BlackBerry phones, with a thinner and more spread-out layout, and the surface of its keys have touchpad-like feedback. The rationale for these two features is that they make viewing and editing documents, including presentations and spreadsheets, better on a handheld device. According to BlackBerry, the Passport has been selling well for them, giving the company hopeful news in the midst of their continuing struggles in the smartphone business.
GOOFY: HP SlateBook (aka StrangeBook)
For some reasons, HP released a notebook with only Android as its OS. The HP Slatebook is pretty much a large-screen (14-inch) touchscreen tablet with a keyboard, altogether within a sleek notebook case. While Android can be workable as a notebook OS, there are quirks that can arise because most smartphone or tablet apps aren’t designed for keyboard-and-touchpad/mouse input, of course. When we reviewed this odd notebook, we also couldn’t imagine there being much buyer interest for a pricey, Android-only notebook, but we gave kudos to HP — a major PC maker — for at least giving this crazy idea a shot.
GREAT: Moto 360 (Watchmen)
Right when Apple announced and showed off their long-rumored smartwatch, the Apple Watch, we like to imagine that the engineers at Motorola let out a huge sigh of relief: “Thank goodness it’s not round!” Initial shipments of the Moto 360 sold out on the day of its release. The major factor was likely it being the first smartwatch with a round display screen. Otherwise, it doesn’t really have any other feature setting it apart from other smartwatches that also run Google’s Android Wear OS. Many people buy watches to wear as a fashion accessory, and the Moto 360 followed this cue to became the smartwatch to grab popular attention due to its traditional wristwatch look.
GOOFY: ASUS EeeBook X205, HP Stream 11, and HP Stream 13 (Imitation Game)
In 2015, Microsoft hopes to blunt the steady progress Chromebooks have made into the low-end notebook market over the last four years. These three notebooks have technical specs that are generally on par with most Chromebooks, though running Windows 8.1 instead of Chrome OS, with competitive prices: $199 for either the ASUS EeeBook X205 or the HP Stream 11 (both of which have an 11.6-inch display) and $229 for the Stream 13 (with 13.3-inch display).
The question, though, is whether matching Chromebooks on price alone will be enough. Chromebooks appeal to those who prefer to avoid dealing with a traditional desktop/notebook OS, and can fulfill all of their computing needs through a web browser, which Chrome OS basically is.
GREAT: iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 (SIM City)
These two new iPads came with expected hardware updates (better cameras, faster processors, more on-board storage, the iPad Air 2 being lighter and thinner than its predecessor). What stood out is that the cellular versions of the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 include the Apple SIM card, which allows you to switch among four mobile data carriers within the same tablet (in the U.S., your choices are AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile). So you don’t need to ditch either tablet for one that has its communications hardware set for another carrier. (Unfortunately, it was discovered that AT&T isn’t playing nice with this feature. Once you choose AT&T, the Apple SIM becomes locked, and you can’t switch to another carrier with that card. You’ll need to use another Apple SIM or SIM card.)