If you followed the headlines in tech blogs, 2014 was a year of giant phones, Dick Tracy–style smartwatches, and selfie sticks. But the gadgets that won the hype cycle weren’t necessarily the most elegant, enjoyable, or useful on the market. Just ask anyone who fell for the half-baked Samsung Galaxy Gear—or any of the five(!) follow-ups that the company released in rapid succession.
With that in mind, and the holidays at hand, we’ve rounded up the devices that most entertained and impressed us this year, regardless of novelty, controversy, or any of the other qualities that typically drive breathless media coverage. Several are my own picks, based on my tests of multiple devices in the same category, and some are Slate gadget columnist Seth Stevenson’s. Others, as you’ll see, are the recommendations of Slate staffers who bought these gadgets for themselves, on their own time and with their own money—and were delighted with the results.
Best smartphone: iPhone 6 ($300 for 64GB on contract, $750 unlocked)
I can already envision the angry comments from Android partisans. You’ll say I’m an Apple fanboy. That I know nothing about technology. That I’ve been brainwashed by Farhad.
All true. But none of that changes the fact that the iPhone remains the most elegant, powerful, and thoughtfully designed smartphone on the market. I’ve used the top-rated Samsungs, Motorolas, Nokias, LGs, and HTCs. They’re getting better all the time. But so is the iPhone, whose hardware and software still work together more seamlessly than those of its competitors.
To be clear, when I say “the iPhone,” I mean the iPhone 6. The oversized 6 Plus, in contrast, is the first Apple handset in years that I’ve found unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfying. Its capabilities are enormous, but it’s bulky to carry and doesn’t feel good in your hand. (Among “phablets,” I actually prefer the shape and feel of the Galaxy Note.) That sounds like a petty complaint, perhaps, but just think of how much time you spend with your smartphone in your hand. I spent three weeks trying to get used to it, then returned it and temporarily went back to my iPhone 5—and it felt like an upgrade. Then I got the iPhone 6, and my fears that Apple had lost its way quickly dissipated. Ultra-thin and light, but with a larger display than its predecessors, it’s a worthy heir to a legendary line of devices. —Will Oremus
Best tablet for play: iPad Air 2 ($600 for 64GB, Wi-Fi-only)
A year ago I would have recommended the iPad Mini 2 over the iPad Air. It was nearly as capable, but lighter and cheaper. This year, however, Apple lavished more attention on the larger of its tablet siblings, and the results showed. The Air 2 is only slightly lighter than its predecessor, but it’s 18 percent thinner, making it significantly sleeker and easier to hold. It’s the first full-size tablet that I’ve felt comfortable holding in one hand. It’s also noticeably faster, and the display is even sharper and brighter thanks to a hardware tweak that fuses the protective glass, touch sensor, and LCD into a single layer.
The iPad Mini 3, in contrast, is hardly different from the Mini 2, aside from the addition of the fingerprint sensor. In fact, I’d argue the Mini 2 is the better deal, if you’re set on buying a compact tablet: It starts at $299. —Will Oremus
Best tablet for work: Microsoft Surface Pro 3 ($1,000 for 128GB, Intel Core i5)
In 2013, when Microsoft released a second generation of Surface devices packed with productivity applications, I joked that “poor Microsoft doesn’t understand what tablets are for.” I’ve since changed my mind, thanks in part to the substantial improvements that Microsoft poured into this year’s Surface Pro 3. Microsoft knows exactly what its tablets are for: getting stuff done. And they’re increasingly capable in that regard. It’s Apple that’s stuck with the approach of “just build something pretty and people will buy it, whether they need it or not.” (Hint: You probably don’t.)
The Surface Pro 3 is not pretty, and it’s still not particularly fun. Anyone looking for delightful or innovative apps in the Windows Store will be sorely disappointed. But it is an impressive and surprisingly potent piece of hardware, highlighted by the ingenious Type Cover keyboard, which remains by far the best-designed tablet keyboard I’ve seen. That keyboard, and the seamless way that it integrates with the device, is one major part of what makes the Surface Pro 3 the best choice if you’re bent on replacing your work laptop with a tablet. The other is the software: Windows, clunky as it is, remains the default in many workplaces across the country. And for all its shortcomings, it lends itself better to spreadsheets and PowerPoints than mobile-native systems like Android and iOS.
One gripe: Microsoft’s refusal to throw in the full Office suite feels like a slap in the face when you’re paying upward of $1,000 for a tablet. Perhaps the company will relent and include it with next year’s version, but I wouldn’t bet on it. —Will Oremus
Best tablet for kids: Amazon Fire HD Kids’ Edition ($120 for HD 6)
Those who carp that tablets lack a practical purpose, I’ve noticed, tend to be childless. (I’ve been guilty of this.) Those who have children and aren’t above giving them some screen time, meanwhile, find their tablets indispensable. The only problem: As pacifiers go, $600 iPads are pretty pricey.
Amazon has heard all the complaints. Or rather, it has read them: Company executives have told me they routinely scour Amazon reviews of their tech rivals’ products to guide their own design process. Its solution is the most thoughtful I’ve seen yet. The Fire HD Kids’ Edition is essentially a standard Fire HD 6 or HD 7 tablet wrapped in a thick, brightly colored protective case that bounces when it’s dropped. (Notice I said “when,” not “if.”) It also comes with strict parental controls built in, plus a year’s subscription to FreeTime Unlimited, Amazon’s library of on-demand children’s content. The best part: a two-year, “no-questions-asked” warrantee. If your Kids’ Edition breaks or stops working, regardless of whose fault it is, just send it in and Amazon will replace it, gratis.
Unfortunately, Amazon has some work to do on both FreeTime Unlimited, which is poorly organized and difficult to navigate, and on the tablet itself, which can be frustratingly slow and suffers from short battery life and a puny 8GB of storage. That’s unfortunate, but the low price tag—which you can effectively cut in half if you end up needing a replacement at any point—takes some of the sting out of these complaints. Buy one now, wait two years for Amazon to improve it, and then buy another one—and you’ll still have paid less than half the price of a single iPad Air 2. —Will Oremus
Best e-reader: Kindle Voyage ($220 for ad-free version)
Devices with grayscale screens that do little more than display text aren’t as exciting in 2014 as they were in 2007, of course. But Amazon has managed to keep the Kindle line relatively fresh with incremental improvements that hold value for bibliophiles, if not Michael Bay fans. At $199 and up, the new Kindle Voyage is pricier than you’d expect for an e-reader, but offers about the best reading experience you can get anywhere (outside of, you know, an actual book). Ultra-thin, with a razor-sharp display and an adaptive front light that automatically adjusts the brightness to match that of the room, it’s really a niche device aimed at Kindle addicts with money to spare. For $70 more, you can get it with “free” 3G data service, so you can download books even without Wi-Fi. (“Free,” in this case, means no monthly fee or contract, once you’ve paid the $70 upfront.) —Will Oremus (adapted from his Sept. 17 Slate review of Amazon’s new tablet and e-reader lineup)
Best laptop: 13-inch MacBook Air ($1,000 for 128 GB)
The 13-inch MacBook Air is the finest piece of consumer technology I own. If the iPhone 6 Plus is the worst kind of ’tweener—too large for a phone, too small for tablet—the MacBook Air is the very best. It’s powerful enough to replace your desktop computer and light enough that you’ll find little use for an iPad. The 2014 version is not radically different from its recent predecessors, and if you want to wait and hope for a “retina display” version next year, I won’t blame you. But one thing did change this year: the price. Now that it’s less than $1,000, there’s very little reason to buy any other laptop for personal use. The exceptions are if you require a touchscreen, in which case you might want to try a Lenovo Yoga, or routinely use your laptop for heavy work like video editing or data-crunching, in which case you should consider a MacBook Pro. —Will Oremus
Best streaming device: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40)
This is a somewhat contrarian recommendation, because the consensus in the tech world is that Google’s Chromecast was the real game-changer in this category. It’s true that the Chromecast is the most versatile streaming dongle: Anything you can watch on your computer or tablet, you can sling to your TV via Chromecast, with no wires and minimal hassle.
Aside from the addition of a power cord, the Fire TV Stick looks a lot like the Chromecast—no accident, I’m sure, as it was clearly inspired by Google’s hit device. But it actually replicates the experience of a full set-top box, like the Fire TV or Roku 3. This approach has its limitations: You can’t use free Hulu with it, for instance—only Hulu Plus. But it also has great virtues, particularly if you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber. It does not require the use of a computer or mobile device, just a remote control. As a result, you feel more like you’re actually sitting back and watching TV. You can also use it for gaming—Flappy Birds Family is surprisingly fun on a big screen. If you don’t already have Prime, a Roku or Chromecast might make more sense. But if you do, the Fire TV stick at $39 is almost a no-brainer. — Will Oremus
Honorable mention: Roku 3 ($75)
This year was the first in which I could no longer mooch off a roommate’s PS3 for streaming Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and the Roku has filled that role with aplomb. It’s incredibly affordable (around $80) and has an incredible form (it’s very small, but sturdy and sleek). The interface is a cinch to navigate, and there are lots of tiny but really useful features (universal search, headphones that plug into the remote). If you need something that can also play files stored on USB—unlike Chromecast and the Amazon Fire stick—this is a great choice. — Sharan Shetty, Brow Beat writer
Best fitness tracker: Fitbit Flex ($100)
I have qualified love for the Fitbit Flex. It’s easy to set up and easy to use. The device display is simple, but the user interface for the Fitbit app is beautiful. Run/walk tracking integrates with iTunes, so if you start a playlist during one tracked activity, it will remember it as last played for the next time. Why is my love qualified? Because the most recent iOS update to the app is super buggy, with lots of crashes during food-tracking entry. —Heidi Strom Moon, product manager
Best external iPhone battery: Mophie Juice Pack Plus ($90)
I got my Mophie Juice Pack Plus at RadioShack, and immediately regretted not getting it for a friend’s birthday the week before. It effectively doubles your phone’s battery life, but it feels like a phone protector, not a battery. It slips on and off relatively easily, so there’s no difficulty sharing it with other phones of the same version, like my daughter’s when Temple Run is about to go offline. (Mophie has not yet released a case for the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, nor for any Android phone models.) It carries a day’s worth of charge, the indicator on the back is intuitively obvious, and it comes in delightful colors—mine’s grass green. Love, love, love it. —Vivian Selbo, design director
Best headphones: Sennheiser Momentum ($225)
I’ve owned Beats, I’ve owned (multiple pairs of) Boses, and these Sennheisers are far and away the best pair I’ve ever had. Best sound, best fit, most comfortable, most durable (knock on wood). If my apartment were burning down, they’d be one of the first things I grabbed. —A.J. McCarthy, Slate Video blogger
Best wireless Bluetooth speaker: Jawbone Mini Jambox ($130)
The Mini Jambox is, as one might gather from the name, pretty small. It’s also light and thus portable. It can be linked up with other Jamboxes to amplify sound further. (Make sure you have a good relationship with your neighbors before you try this.) The sound quality is very solid. The price is palatable. And it comes in a variety of hues. Don’t be boring—get an accent color. —Ava Lubell, Slate assistant
Best LCD writing tablet: Boogie Board ($35)
Need something to keep next to your phone, bring on a grocery trip, or just doodle away randomly on? The Boogie Board is way less messy than Post-it notes, and more fun. It’s also just about as easy to use, with a built-in battery that never needs to be recharged. —Matt Heinsimer, national sales manager
Best shower speaker: iFox Creations Bluetooth Shower Speaker ($50)
In my experience, most shower speakers have a lifespan of about four to five months. This one has lasted me well over a year. The sound is clear and powerful, it’s easy to set up, and it only needs to be charged once a week or so. —Sharan Shetty, Brow Beat writer
Best coffee maker: AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker ($25)
The AeroPress makes coffee faster, better, and with easier cleanup than any coffeemaker or French press I’ve ever owned. It’s newfangled: It was invented only a decade ago by inventor, engineer, and sometime Stanford lecturer Alan Adler, and was soon unveiled by his company Aerobie (yes, the same people who make those flying discs, which Adler also invented). The science aside, the coffee is delicious: It’s less bitter and acidic than what I get using other methods, and it’s not as muddy as from a French press. I like it so much, in fact, that I now pack this simple, portable, $25 device in my suitcase for trips because I never again want to get stuck feeling like this guy. —Forrest Wickman, staff writer
Best air conditioner: Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner ($280)
In this case, I’m totally judging the book by its cover. The real selling feature for Aros is its minimal design. It’s more than just a pretty face, though. The smart technology ensures my apartment is at my desired temperature when I’m on my way home. Brains and beauty! —Lindsey Underwood, social media editor
Best thermostat: Honeywell Lyric ($220)
While Nest’s “learning thermostat” uses time, the Lyric bases its smart thermostat settings on your proximity to your house, using the geofencing setting on your phone. I find it more reliable as a predictor of when you’ll need your heat adjusted, especially when you don’t have a consistent schedule. —Chris Schieffer, product manager
Best LED light bulb: Philips SlimStyle ($10)
The SlimStyle has a radically different physical shape. Imagine if you could press a classic light bulb between the pages of a book to make it flatter. A bit like a Frisbee with a socket-fitting screw at its base. Made of tough plastic, the Philips feels almost impossible to break. I threw it across a room with no effect. It’s not as red and warm as the TCP Elite, but its bright white light was clear, pleasing, and free of greenish undertones. Put this one in your kitchen, put the TCP in your living room, and call it a well-lit day. —Seth Stevenson (adapted from his Aug. 3 Slate review of LED bulbs)
Best standing desk: Ergo Kangaroo ($500)
It’s pricy but smooth-running, easy to use, and capacious. And it hasn’t broken yet (unlike my will to stand). —Dan Kois, culture editor
Best toilet seat: Toto Washlet S350e ($1,700)
You may have heard about these Japanese toilet seats. They boast remote controls, heated seats, and bidet functions. Some models play whooshing white noise in an effort to obscure other, zestier sounds. Toto, the leading brand, introduced its Washlet in 1982, and it’s been estimated that more than 70 percent of Japanese homes now feature a toilet seat with enhanced capabilities. For some reason, we in the United States have not yet boarded this fancy toilet seat train. Given how often we use our toilets, and how much money we happily spend outfitting other corners of our houses with all manner of technologically advanced appliances, the lack of traction here for Toto seems curious.
I will spare you effusive descriptions of my own experience with the Washlet. But it’s become difficult for me to remember a life without it. And having one at my house has made me wish that the restrooms I encounter elsewhere were all similarly equipped. —Seth Stevenson (adapted from his April 6 Slate review of the Toto Washlet)
Best vaporizer: Firefly ($270)
It’s solidly constructed with gleaming aluminum and glass. It sports retrofuturist lines, like a 1930s vision of some fantastically advanced gizmo. It had the fewest moving parts of any of my test vapes and seemed the least likely to break. While most other vapes climb to their target temperatures automatically, the Firefly has more of a stick-shift feel. You press a trigger on its side to heat it up, and then release the trigger when you want to cool it back down. Inhaling creates a convection effect, pushing hot air across the herbs, and various micro-ingredients of the marijuana vaporize at different heat levels. There’s no temperature readout on the device, but through trial and error you’ll discover how long to hold the trigger to produce a vapor of ideal flavor and richness. (And it really is flavorful. Much yummier than the acrid, smoky goulash you might inhale from a joint or pipe.)
With its monochrome aluminum and lone button, the Firefly looks a lot like one of Apple’s slick consumer devices. Which is no accident. Firefly co-founder Mark Williams spent years leading Apple development teams before he quit to launch his vaping company in 2011. —Seth Stevenson (adapted from his July 2 Slate review of vaporizers)
Best cardboard box: Google Cardboard ($25 from DodoCase)
The virtual-reality revolution may yet be a ways off—again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of it right now. The idea behind Google Cardboard is that you don’t need a bunch of fancy technology to experience immersive, three-dimensional movies and games. All you really need is your smartphone, some cardboard, a pair of biconvex lenses, and some Velcro to hold it all together. With the right tools, you can build one from scratch at home using Google’s open-source blueprints. But it’s a lot easier to buy a kit like the DodoCase VR, which is among the simplest and best designed of several third-party commercial Google Cardboard kits.
The apps, to be clear, are not exactly Bioshock Infinite. They’re more like demos than full-featured games. And yes, you will look like an idiot holding a cardboard box up to your face and jerking your head around wildly. Yet even in this rudimentary form, VR offers a wow factor that few other entertainment experiences can match. A simple rollercoaster demo on a smartphone viewed through a cardboard box makes you feel more like you’re there than a $100 million Hollywood blockbuster in 3-D Imax.
Today’s rudimentary VR headsets may be to virtual reality what archaic gizmos like the old-time movie viewer were to cinema. But for $25, it’s hard to be too disappointed. —Will Oremus (adapted from his Oct. 20 Slate review of the DodoCase VR)
Update, Dec. 14, 2014: Slate is an Amazon affiliate; when you click on an Amazon link from Slate, the magazine gets a cut of the proceeds from whatever you buy. The recommendations in this article were made by Slate editorial staff without regard to the magazine’s participation in the Amazon affiliate program.
Correction, Dec. 12, 2014: Due to a production error, photos of a Jawbone Jambox and a Mophie Powerstation were originally misidentied as the Jawbone Mini Jambox and the Mophie Juice Pack Plus. Those photos have been removed and replaced with the correct products.