CNET Innovation Awards celebrate four products that gave us 2019 breakthroughs

Our first awards go to Motorola, Apple, Oculus and a startup you probably don't know yet -- but will soon.

Jason Hiner VP of Content, CNET Labs; Editor in Chief, ZDNET
Jason is Vice President of Content for CNET Labs and the Editor in Chief of ZDNET. From CNET's world-class testing facilities, the CNET Labs team designs tests to quantify the best products worth buying.
Expertise Over 20 years of experience covering Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, computers, smartphones, wearables, and the latest technology products. Credentials
  • Jason is an award-winning journalist, editor, and video host with a passion for covering cutting edge innovation.
Jason Hiner
7 min read
James Martin/CNET

CNET writers and editors strive to give you the best buying advice while keeping an eye out for technologies that will open up new possibilities for tomorrow. For two decades, our Editors' Choice Awards have singled out the products you should spend your money on. This year, we're fired up to launch our first Innovation Awards for the most groundbreaking products -- the innovations that will change the future of what we buy and how we live.

You may not buy these products today (they are often quite expensive), but our 2019 Innovation Award recipients give early adopters a taste of living in the future. Some sport features we expect to set new standards, while others redefine their category or bring science fiction closer to the real world. 

This year's winners and honorable mentions are:

Motorola Razr

Since Apple introduced the original iPhone in 2007 -- and Android phones followed their lead -- we have carried around similar slabs of glass and metal in our pockets. The design and shape of the smartphone hasn't changed much other than to grow larger. As phones reach their phablet-sized limits, several phone makers are rethinking the design of our devices to give us larger and more useful screens by making them foldable. 

You've heard a lot about foldables in 2019 -- some offered bendable screens like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and others teased dual screens that fold together like the Microsoft Surface Duo

Of all the foldable devices of 2019, the one that impressed our team the most was the Motorola Razr. It's the most polished and finished product among this year's breakout foldables. Its hinge is an impressive piece of engineering because when the phone closes the two halves lay flat, with almost no visible air gap. And, of course, this device reinvents the iconic Razr flip phone of the early 2000s into a next-generation smartphone that makes a convincing case: It's time for phone design to evolve. 

Motorola Razr

Motorola Razr foldable flip phone

James Martin/CNET

Apple Pro Display XDR

Macintosh users have clamored for Apple to make a great monitor to connect to Mac laptops and desktops ever since the company discontinued its Apple Thunderbolt Display in 2016. They got more than they bargained for when the Apple Pro Display XDR was announced at WWDC 2019 in June. Apple unveiled a 32-inch 6K monitor that is brighter (1600 nits) and offers a level of color accuracy that most professionals have never had available on their desktops -- even if they are cutting edge video editors or special effects artists. The downside is that the Pro Display XDR starts at $5,000.  

The thing to keep in mind is that the high-end "reference monitors" that the Pro Display XDR has now made virtually obsolete cost $30,000 to $40,000. So as preposterous as this sounds, this $5,000 monitor is an incredible bargain -- even if it only matters to the creative professionals who make our movies and other forms of art and entertainment.

What we have to believe is that the breakthroughs Apple achieved in making a display with such stunning color accuracy and the matte finish it achieved with its "nano-texture" etched into the glass will filter down to future iPhones , iPads , MacBooks and iMacs -- not to mention a less expensive monitor for the rest of us. 


Apple Pro Display XDR

James Martin/CNET

Oculus Quest

Virtual reality has yet to live up to the dreams of our 80s sci-fi classics -- there's no way around that, and there are lots of reasons for it. So, I'm sure you're going to be very skeptical when I tell you, "Don't look now, but there's a VR product that finally delivers." 

If the Oculus Quest had been the first big VR product that landed in the hands of consumers, we'd probably be telling a much different story about VR right now. What makes it so groundbreaking is that this standalone headset doesn't require a phone or a PC, is completely wireless, offers great controls with an immersive experience and costs $399. Its flagship game, Vader Immortal, is likely to excite a lot of Star Wars fans -- and let's be honest, that's most of us.

CNET's Scott Stein, who has been testing VR products for a decade and also reviews some of the most popular products in tech, called the Quest "the best thing I've tried this year." Because the price is so good, CNET also awarded it an Editors' Choice -- making it the first product to do what's likely to be a rare double feat of earning that and an Innovation Award in the same year. 


Oculus Quest

Sarah Tew/CNET

Matrix PowerWatch 2

The one product on this list that you probably haven't heard of is the one that could have the biggest impact. It's also the one that arguably feels the most futuristic -- even with its retro look. That's because the Matrix PowerWatch 2 never needs to be charged. It gets all of its power from a combination of solar energy plus your body heat. For example, during a single day when CNET's Scott Stein was wearing it, the watch generated 310 microwatt-hours from solar and 170 microwatt-hours of thermal energy from Scott's wrist. 

As a watch, the Matrix PowerWatch 2 isn't nearly as flashy as the Apple Watch Series 5 or the Fitbit Versa 2. It looks a little more like a Casio watch from the 1980s. But, it can do all the basic functions you'd expect from a smartwatch: send you alert notifications, track your steps and other activity, track your heart rate, track your sleep and more. And you literally never have to plug it in. That's its big breakthrough. It costs $500, so it's not for everyone. But we're excited to think about what this could mean for other smartwatches and mobile devices in the future. And keep an eye on Matrix Industries -- the company that makes the watch -- because they're also working ways to disrupt the way we use power in other types of products.

Matrix Powerwatch 2

Matrix PowerWatch 2

Sarah Tew/CNET

Honorable mentions

Since this if our first year naming Innovation Award winners, we wanted to give some extra context to the products that made the list by sharing a few of the near-misses. Keep in mind that we're not likely to give honorable mentions going forward because we'll be naming Innovation Award winners in the same way we do Editors' Choice: on an on-going basis as the products as released. 

Below are this year's honorable mentions. You'll notice that two of them are foldable phones like the Moto Razr because the genre of foldables was such a huge and important innovation this year. Each of these foldables did things a little differently. 

Samsung Galaxy Fold: The quality control issues of the Galaxy Fold hogged most of its headlines in 2019, but, we can't forget that it still delivered a powerful, tablet-like experience in the form factor of a folding phone, and all of the other foldables were largely judged in comparison to the Fold. While the Razr folded like a clamshell, Samsung's device folded more like a book. Love it or hate it, the Fold is also the 2019 product we're most likely to still be talking about years from now.

Huawei Mate X: Unlike the Galaxy Fold and the Moto Razr -- which both fold inward -- the Mate X folds outward, so its screens are always exposed. Of all the foldables we saw and tested this year, that makes this one was the most visually impressive. But our team has big questions about the long-term durability of this design. Going in and out of pockets and bags all day for months and years is likely to scuff up these plastic screens. For now, it's also only available in China and does not include official Google apps because of the Huawei ban from the US government.


Samsung Galaxy Fold (left) and Huawei Mate X

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Omron HeartGuide: This is the first FDA-cleared smartwatch that can take medical quality blood pressure readings, which means it can help fight one of the most undiagnosed diseases in the world: hypertension (high blood pressure). It also does many of the things that standard smartwatches can do: alert you to texts and phone calls and track steps, calories burned, quality of sleep, etc. This could open the door to make tech that monitors blood pressure part of every smartwatch in the years ahead.

Google Stadia: Technologically, Google pulled off something really impressive: the dream of true streaming game service that feels like console or PC gaming . Overall, the service still feels like a beta and it doesn't have enough games for us to recommend consumers start paying for it. But, we've been writing about the dream of streaming games for over a decade, and Google Stadia finally got it almost right. Stadia makes it easy to forget that you're not playing on a Playstation or an Xbox or a PC, but over the internet. This breakthrough portends good things for the future of gaming.

How we decided

The CNET Innovation Awards are chosen through a two-step process. CNET's editors, reviewers and industry experts make their recommendations based on the products they've reviewed and tested throughout the year. Then, CNET's Editorial Board makes the final selections based on the following criteria:

1. Did the product move the tech industry forward?
2. Did the product bring new benefits to consumers?
3. Did the product open up new possibilities for future products?

While 2019 gave us dozens of outstanding new products, the four honorees for CNET's first set of Innovation Awards were the only ones that earned consensus for checking all three boxes. We can't wait to see what 2020 will offer to impress us with the next great products to push consumer tech forward. Again, we will be selecting Innovation Awards on an on-going basis as we review the products in 2020, so subscribe to our CNET Now newsletter or our YouTube channel to keep up with all our latest picks.