The gadgets just kept flowing this holiday, according to most accounts. At least 17 million tablets got unwrapped on Christmas alone, if Flurry’s calculations are on target. In our house, devices had a retro flavor. My daughter fired up her new Nintendo 3DS, mainly to play a Zelda title from a previous generation of console. For my part, I was playing You Don’t Know Jack on my iPhone, Final Fantasy IV on my iPad Mini and Persona 4 on my Vita -- all mobilized versions of games that used to keep us anchored to bigger stationary screens. Such is progress.
Tis the day for ‘best of’ lists, and so it is a good time to review which gadgetry actually influenced my media consumption patterns this past year and which disappointed. Since we all admit that media consumption now is a matter of traversing screens more than platforms, our focus should be shifting from hardware to discrete media consumption experiences.
My Comeback Kid award goes to Android tablets, but not because I know anything about their ultimate sales. This platform finally became a viable low-cost alternative to iPads and even the bookseller tablets by virtue of a much-improved Google app market. The Google Nexus 7 device is itself a strong-performing bargain, but there are enough core apps and games optimized for this screen to make owners feel included in the tablet party. Google Play is a big leap forward, which appears to be reflected in the spike in download activity across Android devices in the second half of 2012. I still can’t get the marquee apps that many iPad owners use to show off the capabilities of their systems, but the Android team is doing a much better job of surfacing the content that does make their tablets shine. And now that more essential services for screens are cloud-based, even low-end tablets can be effective windows on your media.
As much as the Samsung Galaxy III established itself as the first true iPhone contender this year (and I admit I have not had one long enough to get attached), I find that the iPhone 5 continues to impress me as the best smartphone I have ever used. The elegance crept up on me after a month of use as I realized I simply enjoyed accessing media on the thing more than I had on previous phones of all stripes. Its weight, screen technology and incredible speed suggest how much the next generation of hardware actually moves us beyond fetishizing hardware. The brick device becomes a sliver. The display image almost seems to float atop the screen itself. The speed is often faster than WiFi and desktop experiences.
All together it feels as if you are plucking information from the cloud and not suffering the inherent limitations of “mobile.” When mobile gadgets start feeling like windows onto information, then tech blog skirmishes over specs become background noise to a next stage. To keep that retro theme going, let’s invoke Bill Gates’ early 2000s “information at your fingertips” promise is coming true in an even more literal sense than he supposed.
In the “Who Dropped The Second Screen” category, the Wii U gets more of a shrug than a nod. I am a big fan of Nintendo’s corporate philosophy of leading -- not following -- trends. During all those years mobile gaming spent in the wilderness, Nintendo’s brilliant handheld and then touch interfaces always suggested that pocket-able gaming was going to be massive. Their investments in touch and gesture interfaces deserve much more credit than they get. But I have been consistently disappointed in the Gamepad second-screen experience on the Wii U. Generally it is a heavy, cumbersome anchor that doesn’t carry yet enough second-screen functionality to excite the designer’s imagination.
The integrated TV service came late to the party, and I will be damned if I can figure out how it really works with a modern home theater system. The entire unit’s connectivity is sluggish. The software portfolio is so painfully thin it makes the Vita look well-stocked. Theoretically there is time for recovery, but for now the Wii U unit in my test living room is just squatting on a much-needed HDMI channel and waiting to get swapped out for a Google TV 3.0 set top box.
My “Let Me Take That Back” honor goes to the iPad Mini, which turned out to be a compelling rethink of the iPad experience. I initially balked at the lower res screen and the pricing, both of which still bug me. Still, thinner, lighter, and not much reduced from its big brother in terms of visibility, the Mini simply ends up getting used more often in my daily media consumption.
Arguably, the form factor is superior to the full-sized and full-weight iPad in two key use cases -- ebook reading and game-playing. It is easier to prop up in bed and is wonderfully immersive and lightweight enough for game viewing and controlling. Cost is still an issue because the necessary memory to make it the sole tablet in one’s arsenal suffers Apple’s ridiculous pricing on upgraded units. Worse, this is precisely the form factor that makes the portable tablet (mostly used in the home) into a mobile tablet that would most benefit from a cellular data plan. But again, these additional features are just outlandish costs for a device that still has notable limitations.
The “All Dressed Up With Nowhere To Go” nod goes to Sony’s PlayStation Vita, among the most poorly served platforms imaginable. Rarely has the chasm between hardware capabilities and available software been so vast. The hardware is drop-dead gorgeous. The OLED screen, multi-touchpoint control system, and raw processing power here are superb. Priced as high as many game consoles, with game title pricing to match, the Vita overshoots even much of the hardcore gaming market it targeted. But the dearth of quality games for the platform makes this a big disappointment.
Finally, the “Life Isn’t Fair” award clearly goes to Windows Phone 8, which likely will continue to struggle against the sheer momentum of the big two players. I have had a while to play around with the OS running on a mid-level Nokia handset and I am impressed by its fresh and plausible take on mobile that distances itself from the iOS/Android order. The live tiles that surface real-time updates of your most-wanted information arguably offer a more native mobile experience than icons, which are just once-removed from the desktop. The organization of screens exposes the limitations of endless icon pages.
The level of customizability here is also laudable. Some analysts suggest that Nokia’s international presence will give partner Microsoft traction in the overseas and emerging markets and give the OS the chance it surely deserves. My suspicion is that some of the fine ideas and implementations in Win Phone 8 will be taken up in future versions of the two major forces in smartphones as they maintain control. Good thing, too -- because Microsoft’s OS reminds us how me-too its rivals have become.