The most beautiful products of 2013 (pictures)
2013 was the year when wearable computing became serious. Most of it so far is geekwear, and though there's nothing wrong with an affinity for the digital realm, a lot of people would prefer something a bit more understated.
Enter the Misfit Shine. Like alternatives from companies like Nike and Fitbit, the Shine is a battery-powered, Bluetooth-connected, step-counting doo-dad. Unlike them, it's got an understated, unobtrusive design. It looks like a diminutive macaron but with a nice metallic finish with subtly glowing dots.
It's not exactly something you'd want to show off, though you can get it in a few colors and wear it as a pendant if you want. But it doesn't look like you're trying to flaunt your tech cred if you clip it onto your clothing or fit it into a watchband.
HTC, the company that made the first Android smartphone but that lost out to Samsung when it comes to market share and profits, fought back in 2013 with the terrific-looking HTC One.
The phone mounts a beautiful 4.7-inch, 1920x1080 display into a sturdy all-enclosing aluminum unibody housing, and its thinness and heft give it a solid feel that's sadly rare in the world of mass-market plasticky phones.
The difficulties of manufacturing this gem took a toll, since HTC couldn't keep up with demand. But the company's reputation came out ahead. The HTC One is a statement that Android can be classy.
Apple's Mac Pro crawled to market. With its workstation line languishing, Apple spent a year teasing its new heavy-horsepower machine. It was worth the wait, and for some demanding customers, it'll probably also be worth a price tag between $3,000 and $9,600.
In a computer world is moving to rectangular slabs of tablets and smartphones, the new Mac Pro's cylindrical design really stands out. The squat black shape somehow manages to combine a Darth Vader-esque seriousness with a unintimidating roundness.
It's nice on the inside, too. Most of the time top-end components means lots of fans furiously trying to pump enough air through a chassis to avoid overheating, but Apple uses a single big fan on top to cool the machine. It draws air past a "unified thermal core" -- basically a big heat sink connected to the main processor and the two graphics chips. It's kind of too bad it doesn't have a transparent case, but I guess Apple learned its lesson from the ill-fated G4 Cube.
In the real world beyond Apple's marketing department, the Mac Pro's sleek lines will be degraded by all the cables that its owners will have to attach -- Thunderbolt 2, USB 3, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, and of course power. If you need to plug and unplug cameras, monitors, USB drives, or external storage systems, you'll miss the absence of front ports. But that's quibbling. It's a remarkable, beautiful machine.
AgustaWestland Project Zero
OK, so you're probably not quite ready to go buy your own personal aircraft. But if you were going to do your part to usher in the era of the flying car, the thing to have in your driveway is AugustaWestland's Project Zero.
It's a tiltrotor, which means it takes off like a helicopter then move forward as its propellers pivot into a vertical configuration. It's electric, which means no pesky stops at the airport for aviation fuel, though its manufacturer wouldn't say anything about its range. It matches a sleek white fuselage with no-fooling-around carbon fiber rotors.
It's only a research and development prototype, so you won't see them flitting about. Too bad, because it's a sight to behold.
Zeiss Otus 55mm f1.4
Carl Zeiss has always been a premium lensmaker, but it's outdone itself with the Otus 55mm f1.4 lens.
The German company flaunts its engineering heritage, perhaps to a fault: tight manufacturing tolerances and super-smooth focus rings will only get you so far in business. But the Otus marries that aesthetic with unparalleled image quality: the Otus does better wide open at f1.4 than most lenses do anywhere in the aperture range.
Basically, Zeiss decided to see what would happen if it let its designers build a lens without being troubled by pesky details like a prohibitively high price. The Otus 55mm was the result, and Zeiss plans 85mm and wide-angle models, too.
Sure, it's bulkier than other lenses of its focal length, and yes, it's only a manual focus lens. But it's a feast for the eyes.
2013 iPad Mini
By now the iPad isn't much of a novelty, but it's still a worthy engineering achievement. In 2013, the iPad Mini moved up from second-class citizen to first-rate tablet.
Its look barely changed from 2012, but one big change did come to how the world looks at an iPad Mini: its Retina display. The graceful arcs of letters and the crisp scenery of nature photos pop on a Retina display. And even though the rest of the iPad looks nice, let's face it: the screen is where the action is at.
The iPad Mini also gets the same A7 processor as its big brother, the iPad Air, so it's nicer on the inside, too.
Pulling out a tablet nowadays may not turn heads the way it did a few years ago. But iPad owners still can take satisfaction in its clean, uncluttered aesthetic and now its worthy display, too.
For 2013, Jaguar's all-aluminum F-Type Coupe comes brings a tight, balanced design to the world of sportscars. It's got an all-aluminum build and streamlining perks like door handles that retract to become flush.
It's got a long hood, but not too long. It's got powerful-looking haunches but doesn't look bulbous. It's tapered but not pinched. All in all, quite a looker -- as you'd expect for a $69,000 car.
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard
Microsoft's new Sculpt Ergonomic keyboard, the latest in a long line of ergonomic keyboards from the company, shows just how wrong most keyboards are. The history of the computing industry is one of adapting computers to humans, not humans to computers, and the grid of keys on most keyboards are just the thing for robot typists.
The new Microsoft Sculpt keyboard has the organic, flowing design that not only is a better match for the human hand, it also looks terrific. It undulates pleasingly.
Looks aren't everything, of course. If you're not an ergo keyboard convert, using it will take some getting used to. I'm a longtime Microsoft ergonomic keyboard user and still had to recalibrate my right-hand muscle memory for slightly longer reach to the equals and backspace keys. Also, the screened-on letters may wear off the keys with use, which will undermine the keyboard's look.
Nest Labs wants to bring a little glory to the mundane world of household devices, and its new 2013 product, the Nest Protect, succeeds.
The company's first product was a thermostat that comes with a slick screen and a smartphone app. This year, Next expanded to the smoke detector market. The Protect comes with novelties like voice alerts and gesture controls that let you hush its alerts if the smoke problem is just an overenthusiastic toaster.
If you want to rid your house of electronic gizmos, the Nest Protect won't help. But smoke detectors are required, and the Protect's whirling dots and glowing status ring looks a lot better than a plasticky puck with a blinking red LED.
You pay for the Protect's features and look; they cost $129 apiece. But if you have several, they can communicate. And if you have a Nest thermostat, then a Protect that detects too much carbon monoxide can work with it to shut down the furnace.
The JBL Pulse is a $200 portable speaker that offers eye candy along with ear candy.
The speaker's rainbow-flavored light show accompanies the music playing on your Bluetooth-connected device. A digital-era lava lamp may not be your style, but CNET's David Carnoy found it mesmerizing.
It's too bad the sound quality isn't top-notch, but hey, it is a portable Bluetooth speaker. It's for casual listening, not high-fidelity reproductions of a Brahms symphony. So why not give your visual cortex a treat?
Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies amp
You may or may not think old-school vacuum tube technology makes for better sound quality than more modern electronics, but there's no denying they can look pretty cool.
Where most amplifiers hide their inner workings away, the Woo Audio WA7 Fireflies headphone amplifier wears lets it all hang out. A pair of tubes show their warm orange glow in an unabashed display. A glass cover protects them while showing them off.
The buttery-smooth volume knob is next to dual headphone jacks. There's one catch (aside from the $1,000 price tag): You'll have to find a cabinet behind which you can tuck away its an ungainly external power supply.
Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM
For photo enthusiasts, full-frame cameras offer terrific image quality but painfully high prices. For those without the bottomless budgets, Sigma did well in 2013 with its 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM zoom. Think of it as Zeiss Lite.
This wide-angle model offers terrific performance in a sweet little package. As my co-worker Lori Grunin notes, it brings the full-frame ethos to crop-frame SLRs. (Its equivalent focal length in full-frame terms is something like 27-52mm.) Its wide aperture means nicely blurred backgrounds and good performance in low light.
Sigma has for years been mostly a low-budget alternative to house-brand lenses from Canon and Nikon. But with its reorganization, its "art" lenses have shown the company can also make smooth, solid, and polished high-end lenses, too. The 18-35mm will upgrade the look as well as the performance of any SLR.