Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event in San Francisco, Wednesday, March 7, 2012. Apple has begun an event where it's expected to reveal a new iPad model. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Updated: December 29, 2012 2:16PM
There’s only one valid criteria for choosing products and services for my “best of the year” list: what stuff stands out in my mind, without my having to go back and re-read all of my 2012 columns, or check out a news site’s month-by-month timeline of releases? What stuff made such an impact that it still seems important, even several months after I wrote my column?
I can often find the Best of 2012 on my desk, or in my laptop bag, or on the drives of my devices. They remained a big part of my day-to-day life after the review was over and done with. Even the loaner hardware that I’ve long-since returned leaves behind a powerful impression, if the device deserves a “Best Of” tag.
Microsoft Office 2013
Maybe the most miraculous update that any company pulled off in 2012 was Microsoft Office 2013. Historically, Office has been about as exciting as a beige cubicle divider, but this latest edition is...jeez, I’m trying, but my fingers refuse to type the word “exciting.” Nonetheless: Microsoft has revitalized the whole suite by elevating “the cloud” from a buzzword into a mandate. They’ve altered Office’s architecture to allow its apps and features to be projected pretty much anywhere. The full app will “stream” to any Windows machine. Any computer with a modern browser can access a familiar-looking and surprisingly feature-rich set of Office apps. And SkyDrive has become the most flexible, powerful, and rational cloud storage and document sharing system available.
Over the past three years, compact cameras have been getting better and better. But it was Sony’s RX100 which introduced a new phrase into the consumer debate: “Why on earth would you even want an SLR?” The RX100 is priced like one, to be sure. Yet $650 doesn’t seem like a lot of money when you look at the quality of its images, which are barely distinguishable from what you’d create with an interchangeable lens camera costing hundreds more. And it easily fits in a shirt pocket...meaning, you’re more likely to have it at hand when wonderful things are happening around you.
Samsung Galaxy S III, Galaxy Note II
If you set aside a U.S. district court’s billion-dollar judgment against Samsung in their intellectual property dispute with Apple — and if you wait ten months, another court might beat you to it — Samsung had a terrific year. The Galaxy S III and the Note II are beautifully-designed phones that nimbly transition from communication device to entertainment player to reader to business computer, and the choice of sizes provide consumers with an option for every comfort zone. Just a year ago, a phone with a 5.5” screen seemed absurd to me. Today, the Note II asks me why I’d want to buy and carry both a phone and a compact tablet, or ebook reader. I don’t have a good answer.
Samsung’s great year is partly the residue of Android’s huge leap forward. With version 4.2, Android clearly stopped defining itself as a response to iOS. It’s an OS that can inspire Apple just as much as iOS...OK, let’s be charitable and stick with “inspired”...Google.
Google Nexus 7
Really, Android 4.2 and the Nexus 7 tablet should almost be the same item on the list. The Nexus 7 is so valuable because of the OS, and as a Nexus product, it’s one of few Android devices that shows the operating system off to its full advantage. It’s one hell of a great tablet, at a $199 price point that brings post-PC computing to a much wider range of people than even the $329 iPad Mini; in fact, it might be the greatest bargain in the entire computing market. It’s a cheap tablet, but it’s not a cheaply-made one. And it certainly doesn’t lack features. In fact, its screen is of a higher quality than the $329 iPad Mini, and it includes GPS...which is a $130 option for the iPad.
iPhoto for iOS
iPhoto demonstrates every strength of iOS as an application platform. Its feature set shames many of the consumer photo editors available for Windows and MacOS. More than that, the “rightness” of editing photos directly with my fingertips is so obvious that using the app has changed my thoughts about multitouch on desktop PCs. You put your finger on a spot in the sky, you rub rub rub, and the spot’s gone. You don’t even have to spit on your finger first.
On my iPad, iPhoto is another reason why I can leave my laptop at home when I travel. On an iPhone, it’s so powerful that I think iPhoto might have been given to us by grateful space aliens after Superman saved their homeworld.
Did Comixology suddenly manifest itself in 2012? Of course not. But they notably elevated their game and entered a new phase. The Comixology comic book store and reader is the third-highest-grossing iPad app of 2012; the company has been quick and aggressive in supporting new hardware, rolling out a new ultra-high-definition comic book format for the 2012 iPads’ Retina-grade display and introducing a Modern-style version of their app for Windows 8 while the new OS was still in its consumer preview phase; they introduced a new distribution program that makes it easier for independent comic book creators to get their books into the Comixology store; they’ve signed a deal that puts Dilbert, Doonesbury; and shortly after selling their 50,000,000th comic...they sold their 100,000,000th.
Add it all up, and Comixology is now in their “with great power comes great responsibility phase.” The good news for comics readers? While purchasing content locked inside a DRM scheme is neither ideal nor desirable, Comixology is clearly here to stay...and they’ll try very hard to make it easy for you to read your comics on whatever screen happens to be closest to you at any given moment.
The Best New Product Of 2012
What produce of 2012 wins the overall crown? It has to be the third and fourth-generation iPads, which I shall cheerfully glom together into one winner.
They’re much faster than the 2011 edition, yes, but the magazine-quality Retina screen that elevates a familiar tablet, already accustomed to praise, to a new level of worshipful grace. The brain shifts into a whole different mode of understanding once it’s no longer able to perceive the pixels on a screen. The level of reality of the content of the iPad 4’s screen is as valid as the David Bowie poster on my wall or this bottle of water on my desk.
It seems impossible to overstate the impact that the iPad has had on how I work and play. I carry it everywhere because it enables and inspires me to work better, have more fun, and be more creatively experimental. It only wants to please me, whether I want it to be a book, a set of watercolor paints, a word processor, a musical instrument, or the screen of my Mac back at the office.
Despite being a workhorse device that earns back every penny of its purchase price...it’s a wonderful object to hold and behold. Many of my reviews of Apple’s 2012 products contained at least one impatient sigh, as I noted a useful feature that had been deleted or kneecapped for what appeared to be purely aesthetic reasons. That’s not the case with the iPad. It’s Apple’s perfect product, a computer in which the styling, the manufacturing, and the feature set are all in perfect harmony, embracing and reinforcing each other instead of undermining.
As I predicted in 2011, 2012 was a great year for Apple’s competitors. The iPhone is simply one excellent smartphone in a field of many equally good devices. The iPad Mini is the best compact tablet, but it’s not an exceptional one; the Nexus 7 is a more attractive option for many people.
But there’s still no alternative of any kind to the full-sized iPad. Nothing is as well made, as well thought out, as simple, as straightforward, and so eager to work. For now, and for the foreseeable future...nothing else comes close.