2016 Year in Review

Posted on December 29, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, Games, Groove Music, iOS, Microsoft Consumer Services, Microsoft Surface, Microsoft-Band, Mobile, Music + Videos, Office, Paul, Windows 10, Windows Phones, Xbox One with 31 Comments

2016 Year in Review

It wasn’t the best of times or the worst of times. But 2016 was a notable year for personal technology.

Note: I have published separate year-end reviews for Microsoft and Windows 10 a well. –Paul

Smartphones

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.

PCs

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.

The PC of the year is tie between two excellent portables, the HP Spectre x360 (2016) and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, both of which are nearly perfect mobile companions.

Other notable PCs from 2016 include the stunning HP Spectre, the HP Spectre x360 15, the HP Envy Notebook, and of course my cute little Intel NUC, which has been my primary use PC all year.

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.

Wearables

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.

RIP, Band.

Video games

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.

Minecraft pushed forward in 2016 as well, with tons of updates across platforms and hitting combined sales of over 100 million units and pushing into education with Minecraft: Education.

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.

Virtual reality

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.

 

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Comments (34)

34 responses to “2016 Year in Review”

  1. 5510

    Ok,...a couple of things:

    1. The PC industry. The Premium PC and Gaming PC industries are not growing the overall PC industry. That hasn't happened and/or it's not going to happen. If there is, it's going to be an extremely small percentage that will. Don't worry the PC industry is not going away, as there are too many reliable legacy software that needs to be used, like Adobe's products and perhaps corporate proprietary software. However, all in all, I see the PC industry continuing to shrink until it reaches a new equibrium point due to the emergence of Chromebooks, Android, and iOS (portable computers).

    The problem of the PC is very simple: WINDOWS. Like I have said in the past, Windows is hard for the common user to operate. It's not like Android, iOS, Chrome OS and even Mac. When Windows 10, starts to simplify in terms of operational use and that's extended to the "micro-portable" computer, also known as the smartphone, then we will see a true comeback or at least some downward resistence.

    2. As for the Xbox,....lol, does Paul actually think Xbox is the winner here? It is so clear and obvious how Microsoft is not in control of the console market. In Paul's mind, Xbox One got better, but the Sony and the Playstation 4 controls the market's entertainment. That's a fact. It's also a fact, that despite Xbox One won in sales in the worst Black Friday (2016) in history, Playstation 4 won the biggest CyberMonday (2016) in history and the rest of the week. I don't know about the entire Holiday season, yet. Seriously,...according to Paul, Xbox wins in 2016 because of "strategy?" That's funny. As for the 4K aspect of gaming, whatever issues the Playstation 4 Paul is having, I do not read the same issues with other tech reviewers throughout the internet. We have to remember, that Paul often nitpicks and makes mountain of molehills on basically irrelevant items when he reviews any non-Microsoft product. Case and point, his Google Pixel review. As a Nexus 6P and a Google Pixel user, it's hard for me to believe that he can't see the difference in the things like the camera, etc.... All in all, when it comes to gaming, the world belongs to Sony. There are just too many PS4 consoles in the home and with services like Playstation Vue, there could be more. Xbox may have a "country," but we are in Playstation's world.

    For 2017, I would love to see Paul and Brad be involved in technology-podcast outside their Microsoft bubble. I wanna see them challenged and see if their passions and beliefs hold water. The fact that Paul said that he can't use an iPad to create for his blog is just wrong. Well, I don't know about iPad, but I certainly know that you can do that for Android.

    • 5812

      In reply to Bats:

      I have to agree with just about all your points. I'd love to see Brad especially move outside the MS bubble. 2017 will be a big year. You know Google will have a re imagined phone and Apple is rumored to as well. AMD has processors finally coming out that with equal Intel performance again and they'll likely be 30 to 50% cheaper. AMD has their new video card coming out to challenge the nvidia 1080. Google should have Android Apps out for all Chromebooks and Chromeboxes by the end of quarter 1. High end Chromebooks with 2k or 4k screens and back lit keyboards and in Samsung's case the S Pen will be available for a Chromebook w Android apps. It's going to be good.

  2. 5615

    It's probably because I'm an old fuddy-duddy, but once Instagram abandoned the chronological timeline in an effort to be Facebook and SnapChat I pretty much gave up on it. Having gotten very used to the "original" way, it became practically unusable for me. I think I opened the app maybe a half dozen times in 2016 (despite their constant notification spamming) just to see if they added the original timeline back as an option. Nope.

  3. 4964

    You are so right about smartphones becoming boring. I switched from 950XL to S7 Edge and found no 'new device joy' on the hardware side. If anything the camera is slightly worse (if faster) but the S7 has nothing that the XL didnt. Even the "edge" features are of dubious value, mainly went with it as closer match on screen size and it could take SD card. Bonus was changing over was entirely painless thanks to all email, photos, contacts etc being in the cloud (Outlook/OneDrive).

  4. 5641

    I'd like to see a top of the range digital camera running Windows 10 mobile and continuum. For me, to be able to take photos with some sort of moveable lens, proper flash, high MP and moveable aperture etc would be very interesting. You would also be able use continuum for the Windows 10 experience and it would have the usual touchscreen running Windows 10 mobile / UWP apps etc. The camera itself would probably need to be thicker to have a proper moveable lens but as long as it's pocketable - I think people would buy this - and it would blow all other phone manufacturers out of the water. Of course, Android would copy - but wouldn't be able to match continuum (or even full Windows 10 on ARM)

  5. 6190

    So far most of the PC market shrinkage has been on the consumer side.  As people realize their smart phones can do almost everything they need they are less and less likely to buy, or replace, their PC.  This is especially true in most of the world where people struggle to own even one device.  As android and ios apps continue to fill the remaining niches, this trend will continue.  Sure, there are still the gamers and photoshoppers that continue to need a fast PC, but even photoshop could become a cloud service that can be run from any browser, including a chromebook.  These niche markets are big, but not so big that they could support the whole consumer PC industry.  There will need to be a consumers killer need/app for a windows PC, and I doubt that is likely to come.  Additionally, there is a whole generation of users (admittedly we’re getting older :) ) that remembers spending hours on on the phone with OEM tech support to fix malware, or registry issues, and they don’t want to go back there.  Their iphones just work with far less tech support needed.  Even ‘if’ W10 is much better, painful memories are long.


    The business side is a different animal.  That market has different, but similar, priorities.  Instead of measuring tech support in hours on the phone like consumers do, they measure it in money and risk.  These costs are tech support and lost work.  Security breaches are arguably becoming their biggest risk.  CIOs are looking to reduce all of these, and the up front cost of a device is the least important.  Businesses are beginning to see the advantages of ChromeOS for CERTAIN (not all) roles.  If they have roles, like a customer service rep (CSR) that only uses a web browser all day, the business can significantly reduce costs, and risk by moving these CSRs off of windows.  Of course, there are the spreadsheet jockeys, .net programmers, media manipulators and proprietary applications that still need windows machines, and the CIOs will choose to concentrate their worries there.  Microsoft sees this and that’s why they’re concentrating their efforts on cloud because they can see the future too.

  6. 5394

    Looking forward to the new iPhone. 9 months and counting. 

    The PC market needs new apps and Win32 applications or the premium PC market seems premature. What's the point of buying a top of the line PC when all you're doing is running a Chrome browser.

    Windows is still suffering from screen lockups and crashes. This makes no sense when the CPU is hardly busy. Getting more memory, a faster CPU, and hard drive spaces used to be the solution, but no more. 

    Also looking forward to the new Xbox 4K, but not having a DVR option makes buying such a console a much more difficult decision. However Occulus Rift paired with Xbox does make sense. 

    I may just get the Amazon Echo. Seems like what most people with Amazon Prime should consider with free Music. Maybe after my credit card accounts closes and I can start charging again next month. 

  7. 5349

    RIP Band is right. Had they fixed the Band's band it would be perfect for me.

  8. 9656

    Paul Thurrott may have felt that Doom was 'lackluster', but it's my game of the year pick for 2016. Its combat system, environment and music made it the most memorable (2016 released) game I played all year. Titanfall 2 and Battlefield 1 are great 2016 games as well. It was a fantastic year for shooters, especially for gamers who don't exclusively play Call of Duty.

  9. 6525

    2016 is the same as the previous years:

    Mobile devices are not truely mobile because their display is far from being as outdoor-friendly as paper. Windows 10 does not replace Windows 7 for everybody because of illegal telemetry.

  10. 2428

    I loved Doom for it's fast action, high frame rate and for all the opportunity to explore before you moved to the next bit. Rise of the Tomb Raider was my second most played game of the year. Loved it too.

  11. 6219

    Paul,

    A few(I'm sure there are others) apps that should make an honorable mention would be Waze, and Google PhotoScan.  

     

    Also my band needed aid 4 times this year.  But the last one I received has worked for the past 5 months.   They all had the same problem, wouldn't recharge.  

  12. 145

    Yep. What I expected. Paul didn't like Doom because he thinks Call of Duty, the rail shooter, is a better game.

     

    I think Doom is GOTY for me. It dispenses the bullshit. You start playing as soon as the have loads. No bullshit 20 minute story to set the premise. No 10 minute tutorial mission. You drop in, you play.

     

    Games have gotten too easy. They tell you where to go, all the time. You can't get off the ride, you just go. Doom brought back exploration. Anyone remember running around in Halo, looking for the next way to advance? Half Life?

     

    I loved Doom for resetting the franchise. Doom isn't about story. Sure, the story is nonsense, but who cares? The frantic pace keeps you engaged, and keeps the adrenaline level high. Sniping someone can be fun, but doesn't raise my adrenaline. Constantly on the verge of death, not having a constant reload of health, makes you be careful to a point, but desperation and a sense of imminent Demise force you to ruin, gun, and fight.

     

    I can enjoy Call of Duty. And just about any multiplayer is better than Doom, but capturing nostalgia, bucking trends that make games more mass appeal, looking fantastic, and keeping the adrenaline pumping made this GOTY for me.

     

    It's good we all have options. And just because I'm not big on COD doesn't mean it shouldn't exist or should change a winning formula. I'm happy some games come along and reset expectations like Doom did for me. FOR ME being Jerry there

  13. 4964

    I'm sad to see the Band die as found it a useful productivity tool. Notifications & meeting reminders were as useful as the fitness tracking away from work. My 2 is still going fine, guess it will be time to check out Fitbit if it dies.

  14. 1043

    Doom is far from lackluster or a bomb, in fact, it has been nominated as game of the year by most game sites/media, including at "The Game Awards 2016" event hosted by Geoff Keighly.  In most cases, only Overwatch is beating it. Personally, it was my favorite game this year.

  15. 145

    Doom 2016 is game of the year. I'll read up on why you don't like it, but given you love Call of Duty, I'm guessing you like rails. Which is fine, but gotten too bland for me.

  16. 433

    Great post Paul! Lots changed this year, but lots actually stayed the same, like the smartphone market. Xbox was indeed the clear winner for gaming consoles, and it saddens me that the PC market is in such decline. These companies need to innovate and make PCs relevant again in this age of portability, and fast. Not sure where you got your numbers for DOOM, but I'm pretty sure it outperformed expectations by a good margin, becoming a knock-out hit and bestseller right out of the gate and being nominated for several awards.

  17. 1442

    I will say that for certain usage cases, the apple watch shines. These include a lot of driving time (when you can check the watch for messages and phone calling numbers without pulling the phone out) and my current situation of crutches and walker when you might not have a hand to pull the phone out, but can glance at your watch. I have also found the voice reply function of the watch to very nearly be better than that of the phone, which is odd.

    I will also say my Nexus 6p is catching up to the iPhone7 as my best phone, mainly due to the now highly improved (since switching to "AI" voice recognition (actually neural network, NYT had a very good writeup on it)) voice recognition. If Apple doesn't step up their game, they may loose out on this.

  18. 5783

    The whole thing about not being able to edit Outlook contacts on Android.......infuriating. Absolutely infuriating.

    And the lack of noise and outrage makes me wonder exactly how many people are using both Outlook (either the client or .com) and Android. I wouldn't be surprised if MS shuts down Outlook.com for consumers. I simply don't see how they could have a decent size of people on outlook.com AND using Android and not be simply outraged.

  19. 670

    On that iPhone 7 Plus summary - beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as an owner of both the 6 Plus and 6s Plus, the pictures on my 7 Plus (thanks to the, ahem, Galaxy Note 7 hand warmer) are sharper, better color saturation, and far better digital zoom using both cameras (outdoors) than ever before. You can actually read the text on a distant sign zoomed 10x compared to the same digital zoom on the iPhone 7. The portrait mode is not much of an improvement, but better than anything previous on an iPhone and nearly as good as the same effect on my short-lived Galaxy Note 7.

  20. 1

    Does your opinion on the iPhone change if the Note 7 didn't blow up?

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