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2013: Nic's best picks of the year

Pirates, robots and wearable tech: all of 2013 distilled down to Nic's picks for the five finest technologies, moments and events.

Distill an entire year of products, technologies and experiences into just five 'best ofs'? Almost impossible, you might think. But nigh-impossible or not, it's happening. So here are the five 'things' I feel had the biggest impact on my 2013.

Much gun. Very sword. Such pirate. (Credit: Ubisoft)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

In cognitive psychology you might hear people talk about the primacy effect and the recency effect. These describe the tendency people have to remember the first and last things in any group.

I bring this up, because there's an argument to be made that Black Flag is here only because of how late it arrived in the year, that perhaps Tomb Raider or Far Cry 3 or Bioshock Infinite could be here instead. It's possible, but I'm not entirely buying it.

I've been a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series, especially all three of the AC2 games. Sadly Assassin's Creed 3 happened, a game I personally found interminably boring and buggy. Black Flag was not just a great return to the series, but just a great game on its own — packed with side-quests and collectibles, a plot that didn’t need spreadsheets to follow and characters you could really enjoy playing and meeting.

It's telling, to me, that I'm still playing it — well after I've needed to do any more writing on it. If we did Game of the Year awards, this would be it for me. Instead, I'm just going to stop writing about it now and try and get that last Legendary Ship — it's what Kenway would want.

(Credit: Jawbone)

Jawbone Up

I spent a lot of time with a few different fitness trackers over this (and last) year, but it's the Jawbone Up wristband that I think has had the biggest impact on my fitness regime.

For one, there's a lot to be said about the simplicity of something that just sits on your wrist — it's certainly a lot harder to lose than anything designed to clip on one's belt.

The Up tracks your steps constantly, but that's probably the least interesting thing it does. It's also a sleep tracker, using your movement during sleep to work out how much deep sleep you're getting compared to light sleep and even calculate any time you've spent awake.

On the back of this, it's also a great 'silent' alarm — you specify a time you'd like to wake up and give the Up a window of time (for example, ten minutes) before that. The Up then senses when you're at your most shallow sleep in that time frame and wakes you up by vibrating.

It also works a great short sleep alarm — only starting to time your nap when you fall asleep. Actually, there's quite a lot it can do: it's able to monitor your specific workouts (e.g. weights, running, cycling etc.) and the app has great social functionality — share steps and sleep time with others to get encouraging comments (assuming you got the right 'team mates').

It's not perfect, of course — the food diary isn't overly well optimised for Australia, for example. Possibly the worst is the battery — failure rate is, anecdotally at least, quite high, with my current Up being my third.

But for all that, the Up remains a very valued part of my exercise planning and an often depressing reminder that I really need to get more sleep.

There is nothing wrong with this picture. (Credit: Warner Bros.)

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim copped a lot of flak from some critics and viewers. Some objections leveled against the film included calling it "wafer-thin psychodrama" and complaining that the action was lost in a sea of "plot talk". Giles Hardie on the SMH was particular vicious, suggesting that "a monster ate the script writer" and criticising the intelligence of the film, giving it "5 IQ points out of 5".

To its critics I ask just one question: "did you not see the part where a giant exoskeleton controlled by mind power punched a monster in the face? Because I did and it was magical".

I like intelligent cinema as much as the next man in cowboy boots and a flannelette shirt. I've even watched a couple of the ones that have the words down the bottom — "sub titles" I believe they're called? I'm even fairly confident I could point to Hal Hartley in a police line-up, although I'm not sure what he'd be doing in one.

But all that lefty intellectualism doesn't mean we can't still appreciate cinema as escapist artform. And it's hard to imagine anything more escapist than this. At the very least, it proved that you can direct CGI action scenes that makes sense and don't look like a bucket of engine parts being flung in front of a camera, thank you very much Mr Michael Bay.

In no particular order, here are the best things about Pacific Rim:

  • Idris Elba plays a commander called Stacker Pentecost.

  • Ron Perlman plays a criminal called Hannibal Chau.

  • The rocket elbow that lets a Jaeger punch harder.

  • Did you read the part about Pentecost and Chau?

  • Hannibal Chau's shoes.

In short, this was probably the best film of the year — assuming you're the kind of person able to relax and just enjoying the ride, rather than getting all agitated about "plot holes" and "bad Aussie accents" and "saving the sword 'til last".

Five stars.

Not one of these three things is correct. (Screenshot by Nic Healey)

Getting "facejacked"

At the start of this year I discovered that my face was being used in some ads for a Forex "trade at home" company advertising on Facebook. Not a "your friend likes this" style ad, but one that named me as Stephen, a 44-year old Melburnian who making thousands of dollars a week.

The kicker was the fact that I didn't actually have a Facebook account at the time — it had been inactive for quite a while. And the photo wasn't even from that inactive Facebook account — it was my company headshot for this website.

Hilarity, as they say, ensued as I attempted to contact Facebook to see what could be done. (Spoiler: it was exactly as little as you might expect.)

But, it got me back on Facebook, which in turn has given me a greater appreciation for Twitter. Some anonymous Internet sage once said, "Facebook will make your despair for your nearest and dearest, Twitter will make you admire a total stranger".

It's not quite that bad, given that I'm a discerning sort when it comes to friends, but around election time I found myself making some judicious use of the "remove from my feed" option for many of the people of fundamentally diametric political persuasions.

Now, I'm finding Facebook a pleasing haven of clever individuals willing to admire many, many, many photos of my cat.

Quickflix adds some much needed video-on-demand support for the PS4. (Screenshoy by Nic Healey)

Aussie video-on-demand services come of age

At times, 2013 felt like the year everyone learned how to work a VPN, purely so they could access Netflix. This was the year that people declared, in no uncertain terms, that they've had enough of shoddy treatment from broadcast TV and they wanted to watch the shows they wanted, at the time they wanted, on the device they wanted.

But while people were flinging open windows to declare that they were mad as hell and possibly not going to take it anymore, there was actually a hell of a lot of change happening to video services in Australia.

Commercial catch-up TV, for example, caught up with ABC's iView and, more importantly, the players started making sure they had an app on as many of the smart TVs and gaming consoles and smartphones and tablets that they could find.

Foxtel launched Play, an IPTV service that works on any PC or Mac, plus a variety of devices. It joined Foxtel Go, the mobile video player which was initially for iPad, but on Samsung devices soon after.

Quickflix continued its device dominance, becoming the first third-party video-on-demand app to hit the PlayStation 4, as well as edging its way onto LG TVs and now even TiVO.

EzyFlix launched a contract-free video on demand service and Ultraviolet — the free digitial copy that many DVDs and Blu-ray are now shipping with — finally arrived in Australia.

Smart TV also got cleverer about video services. Samsung revealed its vision for Smart TV functionality that lets you aggregate all your subscription and video on demand services. For example, you can sign in to your Quickflix account and add in EzyFlix details — then when you search for a movie, you get the results from both services, letting you choose the cheapest to rent, or the best price to buy, or even the HD version.

It's all far from perfect, I admit, and Aussies can still get mucked around on blockbuster TV series such as Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, where — thanks to social media — just a few hours delay can be the difference between having an episode spoiled or being able to enjoy it in peace.

But yes, I'll remember 2013 as the year when Australian viewers slipped the surly bonds of broadcast networks and gently kissed the face of viable video on demand. Now if only we had a robust broadband network — perhaps even one operating at a national level — that could supply the requisite speeds to ensure we're also ready for 4K video streaming and beyond...