It wasn’t the best of times or the worst of times. But 2016 was a notable year for personal technology.
Setting aside the, um, explosive Samsung Galaxy Note 7 for a moment, 2016 was the year smartphones got boring. Sales growth was flat for the first time ever, with device makers selling an estimated 1.45 billion handsets, basically unchanged from 2015.
But the real reason 2016 was so boring was that none of the new devices improved appreciably over their predecessors. You could write that off to a maturing market, but in some important cases, new phones were actually worse than the predecessors.
The iPhone 7/7 Plus was the best smartphone of 2016, even though it’s just a modest step up, overall, from the iPhone 6S/6S Plus. But the vaunted camera in the iPhone 7 Plus, in particular, does not live up to Apple’s claims, and is not better in real world use than that of its predecessor. In fact, it’s worse, with flatter, duller photos, and a Portrait Mode that is more gimmick than useful feature.
The blandness of the new iPhones didn’t cause much of a ripple, and the phones quickly sold out, with fans waiting several weeks to receive their preorders in some cases. But there was lots of griping about Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack, at least until the company pissed off even more people with the lackluster and expensive new MacBook Pro laptops. But as I wrote at the time, and have found to be the case ever since, this design change isn’t a huge problem.
Speaking of disappointing, Google finally released its first phones, the Pixel and Pixel XL, assuming you can ignore several generations of Nexus devices. But these devices, too, represent a step back from their Nexus 5X and 6P predecessors: Their cameras are excellent but not as good, they lack stereo speakers, and the hardware design is both bland and derivative. Worst of all, the new Pixel and Pixel XL are priced in the iPhone stratosphere, which makes no sense at all.
How weird are the new Pixels? I am relatively certain they’re the best Android phones you can buy right now. And they never once rise above bland.
Meanwhile, the less said about Samsung the better. This company was the butt of jokes for most of the second half of 2016, but let’s just be happy there weren’t even bigger accidents.
Mobile apps and games
Compared to a year ago, my mobile app usage has changed only somewhat, and I still stick with the same basic core set of apps—Google Inbox, Google Calendar, Google Maps, Microsoft Authenticator, Microsoft Skype, Google Play Music/Microsoft Groove, Pocket Casts, Audible, Google Photos, MSN News, NYTimes, Pocket,Twitter, Untapped, Facebook, and Duolingo—whether I’m using iPhone or Android.
But there were some notable developments in 2016.
Microsoft killed off Sunrise, finally, and steadily improved Microsoft Outlook, and I now go back and forth between Google Inbox/Calendar and Outlook depending on my mood. (One rub: You cannot edit/add contacts on Outlook for Android because who the hell knows why.)
Both Microsoft and Google improved their mobile app translation capabilities in 2016, and while both are impressive, I choose Google Translate every time. It’s magical.
Speaking of Google, they’re a force on mobile. I don’t commute or have a car with integrated Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but I love that Google made Android Auto available as a standalone app on Android. And their Project Fi service improved all year long with better international support and a group plan, among other things. Project Fi is amazing and it has transformed international travel in particular. I just wish I could use it with iPhone.
I listen to Audible every single day, and this amazing mobile app/service also got better throughout 2016, adding new features like [Clips](Clips https://www.thurrott.com/mobile/65450/audible-introduces-clips-feature) and Channels. Be sure to check out my list of favorite narrators.
After avoiding Instagram for years, I finally became a regular user in mid-2016, and have now integrated it into my social media “strategy,” which is perhaps too strong a word. I’ll write about how I use social media soon. Maybe.
And then there were the games. Truth is, despite being a lifelong gamer, I don’t mind many mobile games to be very compelling. ButSuper Mario Run and Pokemon Go are almost certainly neck-and-neck for game of the year and I bet I will finish the former at some point. That said, I was interested to see how Pokemon Go could attract many millions of non-gamers, including my daughter.
I move back and forth between music services. There is no doubt that Spotify is the most popular of the full-featured services, but I find it lacking (though everyone else in my family uses it). I want to support Groove and still use it, but I could see settling on Google Play Music. We’ll see what 2017 brings.
As I’m sure you know, PC sales have tanked in recent years, and it now appears that this market will only continue to shrink, overall, as we move forward. Most of this problem can be attributed to shifting usage patterns, but emboldened competitors didn’t help matters either, with the iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C causing me to wonder what might happen if these things ever take off commercially. Not helping matters is the Chromebook, which slowly started picking up Android app support in late 2016. That could be a major threat to the PC as well.
But there is good news, too, and PC makers started to focus more on those markets—premium PCs and gaming PCs, for example—that are still growing.
On that note, 2016 was the year of the Surface clone, with any number of me-too devices from all of the major PC makers. But there were also cool new PC form factors seen in products such as the HP Pavilion Wave, the HP Elite Slice, the Infocus Kangaroo series of mini-PCs, and others. HP took the lead here, clearly.
Microsoft’s own devices had a mixed 2016. Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 suffered from endemic Intel Skylake-related reliability issues for most of the year, and if Surface Book in particular could be trusted, it might have made a credible challenge for the title this year.
But Microsoft recovered in the second half of the year with Surface Book with Performance Base, Surface Studio, and Surface Dial, an innovative new PC peripheral. Naturally, we’re all looking ahead to whatever Surface Book and Pro revisions Microsoft may ship in early 2017.
USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 was the PC technology of the year, though I bet it has an even bigger impact in 2017.
Living room set-top boxes
2016 was the year of 4K/UHD (and HDR) in the living room, unless of course you chose Apple TV, in which case you’re stuck at 1080p. As always, Roku emerged again as the best family of set-top boxes, and it introduced a new lineup in September that further distances it from the competition.
That said, Chromecast remained an excellent low-cost solution, and the Chromecast Ultra sort of delivers 4K/UHD quality if the stars are aligned right and the moon is waxing. Or something.
I wouldn’t bother with an Amazon Fire device: They offer nothing that can’t be found elsewhere, and offer less than the Roku competition.
2016 was a tough year for wearables, with Microsoft killing its unreliable Microsoft Band and Pebble shutting down.
But there are two wearables of note. Fitbit is the clear winner in this space, with a nice range of devices that match virtually anyone’s needs, and with excellent pricing. For example, a low-cost Fitbit Alta is vastly superior to the Microsoft Band or even the Apple Watch for most people.
That said, it’s worth putting Apple Watch in perspective. Yes, Apple Watch sales still suck, and the device is non-essential. But Apple made big improvements to the latest version, and it’s no longer fair to claim that Apple Watch itself “sucks.” It’s just not necessary.
Xbox was the clear winner of 2016, beating back the 1-2-3 punch of Sony’s PlayStation 4 Slim, PlayStation 4 Pro, and PlayStation VR. Why is that, you ask? Because Microsoft has the right strategy, it has the best products now, and it has the right vision for the future. I spent much of 2016 experimenting with PS4, and even PC gaming, but I’m sticking with Xbox.
There’s so much to say here, from the “perfect thing” that is the Xbox One S to the amazing Xbox Elite Controller to Xbox Play Anywhere(which not everyone understands) to Games with Gold to Backwards Compatibility. Microsoft is just firing on all cylinders in this space, and it’s made the 15 year anniversary of the product line all the more a celebration
PlayStation wasn’t completely out of the running, of course, and while the holiday sales battle is still an unknown, PS4 was outselling Xbox One by 2-to-1 heading into December, with Sony having sold 50 million units. Sony even aped Xbox by bringing Remote Play to the PC.
But the PlayStation falls apart when it comes to 4K, a key area where Microsoft gets it right. The PS4 can’t do 4K at all, and despite promises, the PS4 Pro doesn’t really achieve 4K resolutions in gameseither. Microsoft’s Scorpio, due next year, will do so. With Sony, 4K is a lie.
As for video games, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the remastered version of the years-old Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, artfully named Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, is my favorite game of 2016. It has everything: The very best multiplayer shooter experience and an incredible, dramatic and gripping single player campaign. The only issue is that you need to buy an expensive version of Infinite Warfare to get it.
There were of course other impressive games in 2016, including AAA titles like Dead Rising 4 and even Halo 5, which was updated all year long with an incredible collection of free additional content. But some big games from 2016 bombed bad, like the lackluster DOOM remake and Gears of War 4, which brings “scripted” to new lows. More impressive were indie games like Inside and Firewatch, though both started strong and ended weakly.
Finally, two items of bad news for Xbox fans. In 2016, Microsoft canceled its plans for Xbox One TV DVR functionality. And it stopped production of the beloved Xbox 360. Sniff. We had a good run.
2016 was an odd year for virtual reality, especially for the Microsoft fan. Fortunately, it ended on a good note.
But before that could happen, Microsoft spent much of the year confusing customers with its plans. But it announced Windows Holographic and then slowly revealed how it planned to attack this market with something other than a $3000 developer-focused HoloLens. In 2017.
I think Microsoft and its partners will do well with VR/augmented reality/mixed reality/whatever you want to call it in 2017. But there were some notable developments in 2016 too, so much so that it’s clear VR is not a fad, but is in fact here to stay.
Google Cardboard remains the gateway drug for VR, and given its low price, it’s something everyone should try to see for themselves. But you can take a step up from that with Google Daydream View, which adds much-needed interactivity at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, it’s only compatible with a small range of devices right now, unlike Cardboard.
Moving up the functionality chain, solutions like PlayStation VR (which I’ve not tried), Oculus Rift, and HTC Vive (both of which I have used) offer better performance and features, but also more complexity and cost. Point being, when it comes to VR, there’s something for everyone.