Popular Mechanics magazine today unveiled its sixth annual Breakthrough Awards winners, honoring 10 products that its editors identified as solving existing problems in all new ways.
The products range from two different approaches to electric cars to the smallest ever camera with interchangeable lenses to a thermostat that can provide a wealth of data even as it responds automatically to changing conditions. The magazine will name the individuals it chose for the Breakthrough Leadership award and Breakthrough Innovators awards later this week.
For six years, a group of the magazine's editors have sifted through countless products, looking for the selections for the year's best inventions. According to science editor Jennifer Bogo, the team tasked with choosing the 2010 awards--which comprised editors from Popular Mechanics' automotive, home, technology, science and online departments--searched for a roster of products that they felt satisfied their rigorous criteria.
Each of the editors on the team nominates their favorite candidates, and then the list is vetted to ensure that each winning product is "really, truly unique," Bogo said.
"We look at things that do more than work well," she explained. "We look for things that actually solve a problem and things that do that in a genuinely new way. [These are] products that take advantage of new materials, or which are networked in a new way, or which can pack more processing power into a small space."
And while the precise variety of selections varies from year to year, it's clear from this year's choices that the editors are sticking with the same general set of themes that Jerry Bellinson, the magazine's deputy editor, spelled out in an interview with CNET in 2009: alternative energy and products and designers that push categories forward.
"If I look back [at the last few years of doing the awards], we looked at aviation and we looked at medicine," Bellinson said last year. "But over the last few years, I think the things that have been clear themes that we've been looking at that have emerged [are] alternative energy and appropriate technologies for the developing world."
Looking at this year's list of the magazine's 10 winning products (see below for the full list), you might be surprised by one or two.
One such example is the $700 Bosch Axial-Glide Miter Saw.
"I think that people might find something like the miter saw somewhat surprising," Bogo said, "because it seems like something that's been around for decades. But what we love is that the [Bosch] engineers looked at the miter saw as it was originally designed and thought, 'We can do better' and made it into an elegant tool."
And that decision was in stark contrast, Bogo added, to the magazine's choice of Nissan's Leaf as one of two electric cars it honored. The Leaf, she said, is very much in the public's consciousness right now, as is Chevrolet's Volt, the other such vehicle on the list.
The Volt, Bogo said, pleased the magazine's editors because Chevrolet followed a very different approach to engineering than have other electric car makers.
Its hybrid engine, she said, "backs up the electric battery with the gasoline engine [and we thought] that will give drivers the peace of mind that they won't get stuck on the side of the highway miles from the nearest charging station."
But Nissan's Leaf was innovative, she continued, because it is a "pure" electric vehicle that "also gives consumers some peace of mind [because its] range is 100 miles, [which is] enough for most consumers...Also, it's affordable. It's the same price as an average car."
And while it's very early in the electric car game, Popular Mechanics is bullish on the genre, having predicted recently that there is a future not that far off in which mass adoption of electric vehicles is realistic. Yet even now, with the Volt, the Leaf, and perhaps a small number of other models, "these cars are [already] coming down the pike," Bogo said.
The 10 Breakthrough Product award winners are:
The $41,000 ($33,500 after federal subsidy) 2011 Chevrolet Volt. "With the Volt," the magazine's editors wrote, "Chevrolet has tackled an electric-vehicle early adopter's worst nightmare--running out of juice when miles from the nearest charging station--by creating a plug-in series hybrid that automatically switches to a gas engine once the car's 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack becomes depleted. It's a dramatic reinvention of the great American car that doesn't sacrifice the great American road trip."
The 2011 Nissan Leaf, which runs $33,720, or $26,220 after a federal subsidy. "It's not the first pure [electric vehicle]," the editors wrote, "but the [car] hits the mainstream like none of its predecessors. Powered by a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack, the Leaf provides a 100-mile range, enough for most commuters, for the price of an average vehicle--and with much lower operating costs than gasoline-powered vehicles. It seats five, so with the exception of the silent driving experience, it feels like a practical family car too."
GoPoint Technology's GL1. At $100, the GL1 is the least-expensive product on the list. The editors said that "by using an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch as a window into a car's computer, GoPoint Technology's GL1 offers the kind of diagnostic info that usually requires a trip to the mechanic to retrieve. After plugging the scan tool into a car's OBD II port, a DIYer can use the GL1's corresponding app to view trouble codes, turn off the 'check engine' light and monitor every electrical signal that goes through the computer in real time."
The HTC EVO 4G from Sprint. At $200, "Sprint's 4G WiMax--a cellular network that offers Wi-Fi-like data speeds--will soon be accessible in dozens of cities," the editors wrote. "It all started in June with the HTC-manufactured Sprint 4G EVO, whose power isn't confined to its 4.3-inch screen: it can also serve as a mobile hot spot, allowing up to eight Wi-Fi-enabled devices to tap into the network."
Qualcomm's Snapdragon. "While today's app-hungry super phones require almost as much speed as a desktop," the editors wrote, "the chips that power PCs consume enough energy to drain a phone battery in minutes. Enter the Qualcomm Snapdragon, a processor that offers phones--such as the Sprint EVO--more than 1GHz of speed, as well as almost-all-day battery life."
DeLorme's Earthmate PN-60w with Spot Satellite Communicator. At $700, the magazine's editors felt that this device "can be a valuable tool on any trip that extends well outside of cell phone range. It not only provides detailed topographical maps and GPS guidance in the backcountry, it also lets explorers send SOS messages with embedded coordinates via satellite if they're in trouble--or Facebook updates if they're not."
Bosch's $700 Axial-Glide Miter Saw. "Typical compound-miter saws are stuck on rails," the magazine's editors explained. "For the Bosch Glide Miter Saw, the company's engineers looked at the tool's limited range of motion and envisioned the saw as it should have been designed, replacing the rails with a series of hinges so that a pair of triple-jointed limbs on the 12-inch, dual-bevel saw articulate like scissor jacks, gracefully and intuitively snapping into position to chop at an odd compound angle."
HSA 65 36-Volt Stihl Lithium-Ion Hedge Trimmer. This $500 cordless hedge trimmer is "the first product to be introduced in a new line of battery-powered yard tools by Stihl," the Popular Mechanics editors said, and "is poised to convert those homeowners demanding a pro-level cut from electric models. A single charge provided more than enough power to completely trim and shape a good-size yard during our tests, while emitting far less pollution than its two-stroke, gas-powered predecessors."
Trane's ComfortLink II Thermostat. At $300, the editors felt that "the 7-inch touch-screen interface of [the thermostat] eclipses the competition in ease of use and clarity of information--which is key, because the device has so much data to give. It gathers online forecasts and fires up heating and cooling equipment as the weather changes. It also remembers a house's HVAC history, allowing users to compare costs from year to year, and will eventually sync with the local utility to project costs over time."
Sony's $700 Alpha NEX-5 Camera. Popular Mechanics' editors were impressed by this 14.2 megapixel camera because they felt it is "the smallest interchangeable-lens camera yet. The NEX-5 even trumps an expensive SLR in one key respect: it is so adept at low-light shooting that Sony's engineers decided to design the camera without a built-in flash."
For Bogo, a favorite part of choosing the winners is looking for interconnections between the various winners. For example, she said she liked that the list contained both the two electric cars and the GL1 automotive scanning tool that she called "a window into the car's computer."
At the same time, she also enjoyed the interconnection between the Evo and the Snapdragon, and also found interesting the relationship between the phone and the DeLorme Earthmate, "which keeps you connected when you're entirely out of cell phone range."
Ultimately, when choosing the the 10 products on the magazine's list--and likely the innovators that the magazine will announce later this week--the editors looked to satisfy a set of criteria that have governed each of the five previous years' lists, and seem likely to do so in the future.
"Our ethic here at the magazine is that we love to know how things work and how problems are solved," Bogo said, "and those are the two lenses through which we choose products."