These gadgets didn't grab the limelight, and you won't see them advertised on prime-time TV. But these understated products were some of the best releases of the year, according to CNET editors.
HP Pavilion dm1z
Sleeper HitsCNET 100: The sleepers
These products came in under the radar, but they are some of the best tech releases of the year.
There's no doubt that the iPad is a great device--but some of us still need a real laptop to get the job done. That's where the HP Pavilion dm1z found its niche. The 11.6-inch ultraportable laptop tips the scales at less than 3.5 pounds, offers long battery life, and--thanks to its capable AMD E-series processor--can be found online for less than $500. Unlike the underpowered Netbooks of years past, the dm1z delivers on the promise of an affordable, lightweight, everyday laptop.
Sleeper HitsYou probably haven't heard of Fluance, but we remember the company for creating some great-sounding full-size surround-sound speakers a few years back--and selling them at insanely low price points. In 2011, the company quietly released its first iPod speaker dock. It's big and heavy, but unlike most of the glorified clock radios in the category, the Fluance FiSDK500 delivers true audiophile sound quality--for just $199.
Sleeper HitsApple's AirPlay wireless technology grabbed a lot of press in 2011--but so far, we'd rather have the non-AirPlay Sonos Play:3. Sonos debuted its family of wireless streaming audio products in 2005 with a $1,200 two-room system. In the years since, the savvy upstart has been constantly improving and offering more affordable hardware. In 2011, the company finally broke the $300 barrier with the Play:3, a relatively small streaming unit with a capable built-in speaker. It streams pretty much every online music service you can think of, and you can use your iPhone, iPad, Android phone, or Android tablet as a touch-screen remote to control it. It's a bit hard to explain to non-techies, but once they see it in action, they'll want one. Trust us.
Sleeper HitsUltrabook, shmultrabook: if you were looking for a MacBook alternative in 2011, the Toshiba Portege R835 was our favorite go-to choice. It's has a 13-inch screen, a fast Core i5 CPU, every port you could imagine, and it only weighs 3.2 pounds. And it even manages to squeeze in a DVD drive, just for old time's sake. Best of all, the Portege remains widely available at online and brick-and-mortar retailers for as little as $700. It's not surprising that this dark horse was one of the most popular laptops on CNET all year.
Sleeper HitsFor years, we've been telling you that all HDMI cables are the same, so you should pay as little as possible. Our favorite source for ultracheap cables has long been Monoprice.com. And in 2011, the online discounter began branching into audio equipment. The result was the Monoprice 8247--a full 5.1 speaker package selling for an impossibly low $84.21. The real shocker? It actually sounds good.
Sleeper HitsNikon, Canon, and Olympus may still be first in mindshare when it comes to cameras, but Panasonic and Sony are coming on strong. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX9V is a great example: this diminutive megazoom is our highest-rated camera of the year, and has a feature set, design,
photo quality, and performance that hit exactly what the majority of
point-and-shoot users are looking for. The worst thing we can say is that it may actually be too small for some folks.
Sleeper HitsLCD TVs are thinner and more energy-efficient, but Panasonic plasmas have long been a favorite of ours for their excellent black levels and full viewing angles. The higher-end VT30 and GT30 models offer more attractive enclosures and better picture quality, but for the average viewer--who can now pick up the 50-inch model for around $900 online--the Panasonic TC-PST30 is arguably the best bang for your TV buck as we close out 2011. And you don't have to sacrifice apps and 3D--they're all here, too.
Sleeper HitsCan Windows Phone 7 really make a play in a smartphone market dominated by Android and iOS? The Samsung Focus S doesn't answer that question, but it does make us think that the latest Microsoft mobile OS--dubbed Mango--deserves a place at the table.
Sleeper HitsWhile other manufacturers waged a quixotic battle against Apple's iPad with me-too tablets, Asus smartly delivered something different with the Eee Pad Transformer--an Android tablet that could do double duty as a laptop, thanks to a snap-on keyboard. Building on the original model's loyal following, Asus followed up late in the year with the Transformer Prime, an upgrade that improved on nearly every facet of the original, while still retaining the keyboard add-on. This is the yardstick against which we'll be judging the 2012 Android tablets--and maybe even some of the new ultrabooks.
Sleeper HitsLaptops rule the roost, but all-in-one designs--with the guts of the PC camouflaged behind the display--are helping to reinvigorate the desktop PC market. And no, the iMac isn't your only choice. Consider the Lenovo IdeaCentre B520. Lenovo crammed an amazing combination of features into the B520--including Nividia's 3D Vision display technology, a Blu-ray drive, and a 23-inch touch screen--all of which can be yours for under less than $1,300.