Here's the second installment of our year-end top-10 series. Following the rather negative top-10 disappointments of 2006, we are continuing with ten (actually twelve) contestants which we believe had the greatest impact on the hardware industry this year.
Just like the preceding article (Top-10 technology disappointments of 2006), our ranking is purely subjective; there is no objective measure, such as a reader voting, behind our results. However, it is a listing of products and announcements that clearly stood out in the past year and had, the headline suggests it, a significant impact on the way we used hardware in 2006, the way we will use in 2007 and, in many cases, beyond.
We do not consider this listing to be an award ceremony. It's intended to remind you of the great new products we have seen. We strictly avoid any personal comments in most of our reporting throughout the year; this article allows us to emphasize and recognize those who keep this industry interesting and exciting.
Since January of this year we have received more than 50,000 press releases and announcements, which, of course, means that that there were more than ten outstanding products in 2006. When it came down to the last ten, we had to eliminate promising products such as the popular Slingbox, Gateway's impressive HD displays, Nokia's N91 hard drive phone, RIM's Blackberry Pearl, IBM's Power architecture (due to its comeback in all three next-gen game consoles), Dell's fantastic XPS M2010 portable PC, or - sorry guys - the Playstation 3.
Don't take it personal, if your favorite product hasn't made the list. Join us in a discussion and let us and other readers where you agree with our choices and where you don't. You will find the link to the discussion thread at the end of this article.
Keep in mind that we used two very simple guidelines to compile this list.
First, the announcement had to refer to or result in a product that actually was available (for general purchase) during the year in significant numbers. This requirement, for example, disqualified AMD's 65 nm processors or the firm's merger with ATI: Products such as the stream processor did not have a visible impact yet.
Second, the announcement or product needed to define either a completely new product category with a promising future or redefine an existing product category while having a mass-market potential.
What is it:
A Wi-Fi phone that supports the Skype VoIP IM Why we chose it:
I am somewhat glad that we got that sorted out before someone decided ten years down the road to research which phone was the first Skype phone, just like there was a search for the camera phone inventor last year (see article here). We firmly believe that Skype Wi-Fi phones, or similar phones supporting competing services, have the potential to change the way we use our home phone. It does not take much talent to predict the implications of a handset you can use at home, almost like a similar phone, and talk for free to friends or call any US landline number for a little cash ($30 flat fee for 2007). It will not only motivate more companies to develop such products in the future, but impact traditional phone service as well. At least basic communication has the potential to become much less expensive than today, while you will pay for advanced data services instead.
Netgear's SPH101, to our knowledge was neither the first Wi-Fi phone on the market (don't confuse "announcement" with "availability"), nor is it the best Skype phone we can imagine. Netgear shipped the phone after Accton and SMC had made available very similar devices. But, after heavily promoting the device at CES in January, Netgear had the phone out sometime in October and we believe that it set the benchmark for all devices that either already have been launched or devices that will be launched in coming months.
What we like about it is that it acts in a self-contained fashion, which means that it does not require a computer that is running Skype. It comes with a nice interface and offers a decent range. Compared to the first Wi-Fi phones (Accton/SMC) it offers a much better battery life. Clearly, there are some downsides in the SPH101, such as a buggy speakerphone and the lack of text-based chat, but overall we are convinced that this is the baseline device that all other Wi-Fi phone manufacturers have to beat.
What it means to you:
VoIP carries a certain magic that gets people excited about a less reliable phone service in exchange for bragging rights over using something new and paying less money for basic voice communication. But as VoIP matures, devices become more sophisticated and necessary features such as 911 dialing will be more available, there will also be very convincing reasons to look into such a device.
Predictions for 2007:
Expect a wealth of new contenders in this space and falling device prices. We would be surprised if there wasn't a Skype Wi-Fi phone, with features similar or better than those of the SPH101, for around $100 available next year (the SPH currently retails for around $230).
Review of the Netgear SPH101 on SmallNetBuilder