CrunchGear's Best of 2006

CrunchGear’s editors searched far and wide for the best gadgets of 2006. We’ve included devices from our own pages and some things we picked up over the year that made us smile. Read on for everything we loved this year.

T-Mobile Sidekick 3

This has become THE communication device to have in 2006. I remember getting a review unit in before the launch date and having mobs of people come up to me while using it around Philly. It’s packed with a great e-mail and IM client, a web browser, an interchangeable battery, MP3 player, Bluetooth, and an overall better UI than its predecessor. All these features and a more refined design are what make the Sidekick 3 such a great gadget to have with you at all times.-VV

Apple iPod 5G
starting at $249

I originally picked up an iPod Nano this summer and before I even got home, decided it wasn’t big enough for me. Now with my expanding 60GB+ music collection, this 30GB 5G iPod does just the trick. I love how I can now watch my favorite video podcasts like Diggnation and Rocketboom on the subway, shuffle through my music easily with Apple’s click wheel, and get games off the iTunes Music Store.

I’m really addicted to Cubis 2 and Tetris. The screen is awesome compared to previous models. Video and photos look absolutely fantastic. Between the release of the 5G iPod, iTunes 7, and additions to the iTunes Music Store, this is the best possible times to be an iPod owner.-VV

Nine Stars DZR-42-1

This is hilarious, but I’m nominating the Nine Stars DZT-42-1 11 Gallon Infrared Trash Can. It has an MSRP of $99 but we got it for $37 at Costco and it’s been one of the best kitchen investments we’ve made in a while. The can runs on 4 D batteries and reacts to a presence in front of the sensor. No more foot switches, no more touching a dirty trash can lid. It’s going to be a great toy for the boy when he’s old enough to peer over the top edge.

Not sure how you’d be able to sneak this under the tree, but give it a go. -JB

Maxtor Fusion

If you have the upstream bandwidth—most Cable and DSL providers don’t—think about the Maxtor Fusion. This is essentially a standalone web server that stores images, documents, and video and is accessible from the outside using a system of invitations and “public” pages. We’ve been using it for our own personal pictures here at home and it’s been working fairly well. However, if you have a small business and need to host and recieve big files and don’t want to just dump sftp on a Linux box, then consider this. It can double as a back-up server and is essentially a mini-PC with 500GB of storage. -JB

ELP Laser Turntable

Back in the early 1980s some die hard audiophiles said this CD thing wouldn’t last. Well, 20+ years later the CD is slowly dying, to be replaced by music downloads and (ugh) iPods. This, however, wasn’t what many music connoisseurs had in mind. They long held onto the belief that vinyl records provided superior sound, and in the mid-’80s welcomed news that a turntable was in the works that would read the surface of said records just like a CD player. It has been “A Long and Winding Road,” but after 20 years in development you can listen to that copy of “Darkside of the Moon” in its analog glory—the Laser Turntable finally arrived in North America. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the ELP Corporation Laser Turntable arrived at a whooping $15,000! So it could be another 20 years before this thing is actually affordable. But if you have the bucks you likely know that you can’t put a price on high fidelity. This isn’t a mere record player either; it actually uses a laser to scan the surface, and like a CD player will let you skip around, rewind and even pause the music. But unlike a CD the audio information is reproduced without digitization, so the true analog fidelity is maintained, and one of the promises is that the laser can even pick up audio information that was never even picked up by the needle, which should satisfy even the most hardcore audiophile. The Laser Turntable can also play records that have been severely warped or damaged over the years, and because it is a laser it won’t deteriorate the surface with each playback. But considering the price you might have to wait until you’re 64 to actually play “Will you still love me (when I’m 64)” on vinyl! -PS

Sharp SD-SP10

A good set of surround sound speakers can make a home theater. Relying on small speakers—or worse the TV’s own speakers—just won’t do the job. It isn’t about mere volume either; it is about immersion of the audio that enhances the experience. If you’ve invested in a nice plasma display or projector, you need to make sure you devote as much attention to the sound. However, not everyone has a room that can support 7.1 or even 5.1 sound. So how about a 1.1 system? You read right, and that isn’t a mono sound track. The Sharp SD-SP10 ($349.99) is a mini-1.1 system, which is actually smaller than many digital pre-amps, consists of two parts including a main unit that houses the speakers and amplification, plus an external subwoofer.

The SD-SP10 is the first device to use Dolby’s new Audistry technology, which has been developed to enhance the audio performance from a range of products including stereos, TVs and MP3 players. This 1-bit technology produces high-resolution sound, which enables devices to sample audio signals at an ultra-high speed that is 127 times faster than a CD, and this faster rate allows for more accurate reproduction of fast, percussive sounds. But the best part is that this means you can have a single speaker in the front and still feel surrounded in sound. -PS

InFocus BigPlay IN76 projector

Here’s the thing about high-definition—it’s so sharp that a 42-inch plasma just can’t do it justice. I got my hands on the InFocus IN76 BigPlay projectors early this year and, let me tell you, it has blown away every other home theater solution I’ve tried. Even though it’s just 720p, HBO HD blown up 12 feet across on my white wall with no screen or Screen Goo looked better than any plasma, projector, or basically anything I’ve ever watched Entourage on. Plus, the saturation is great—I used it instead of a regular TV even at high noon. With a decent price and very decent design, it may be the most consumer-friendly projector out there. -SP

BlackBerry Pearl

This is the first smartphone that I was really, really happy with. I’m rather vain and typically shun anything that ruins my profile, so thick-faced Treos and older ‘berrys were no-nos. And while the Q and its Windows Mobile kin may be super-thin, that damn OS makes me want to stab people (they should just build a proper game pad into them and admit the only thing they’re good for is playing NES emulators.) The Pearl really did it all—super-intuitive interface, RAZR-thin profile, incredibly easy email support, none of the random freezing and frying that makes WM5 so headache-inducing. And, T-Mobile (and now Cingular, I suppose) offers data plans at a gazillionth the price of Verizon’s bank account-frying contract needed for the Q. -SP

Samsung Blackjack

As I said in my recent review, the Samsung Blackjack is the best smart phone I’ve ever used. While everyone might not agree with my assessment, it is undoubtedly one of the best smart phones currently on the market. Not only does it have a cool name and an incredibly sexy shell, it packs more features than you’ll probably know what to do with.

Features like push email and messaging come standard on every smart phone out there. What sets the Blackjack apart is how well it does all of its duties. Although it uses Windows Mobile 5 it zips around without ever a hiccup. And with the inclusion of UMTS/HSDPA Internet activities are a joy rather than a hassle. The only real flaw to the Blackjack is the quantity of power it saps. Samsung has at least included two batteries and an external charger to remedy the problem. -BR

Microsoft Xbox 360

OK, so this technically isn’t from this year, but I’m featuring it anyway. With only a few relevant launch titles the 360 didn’t actually hit it’s stride until this year. Maybe it’s not the most technologically advanced of the next gen consoles [link to PS3], or even the most innovative [link to Wii], but it’s definitely the most inclined to hardcore gamers.

Now that the 360 has games like “Dead Rising” and Gears of War,” and with “Halo 3” on the horizon, there really isn’t anything currently out that can compete with. At a cost of $299 for the core system or $399 for the premium, its priced right between the Wii and the PS3. Trust me though, if you’re looking for the system with the most immediate potential for fun, the Xbox 360 from Microsoft is the way to go. -BR

LG CU500 with Cingular’s 3G Network
Free with Contract

I used to think viewing streaming video on a mobile phone was a bad idea. Clips I had seen were always choppy and blocky and constantly rebuffering. Cingular’s 3G HSDPA network and the LG CU500 changed all that for me.

Video is smooth and steady and most importantly, watchable. The carrier’s video service is accessible in two clicks and loads quickly on the handset. The CU500’s display is just big enough for comfortable viewing (even though I wish you could rotate the picture to a landscape view) and the stereo speakers are some of the best I’ve heard on a phone. Plus the content is great, with access to clips from Comedy Central and Adult Swim, news from CNN, sports from ESPN, previews and recaps of prime time network shows and, for a little extra money, you can get access to content from HBO and some unique music channels from GoTV Networks.

Speaking of music, that’s what the CU500 is designed for. Music controls on the outside of the clamshell’s cover give you two-click access to music stored on your phone or a microSD card. Open up the phone and a music quick-launch button gives you instant access to the phone’s audio features and subscription streaming-audio services from XM Radio and MusicChoice.


Pentax Optio A20

So I guess the theme of the products I picked is “products that made me change my mind about the usefulness of a particular technology.” Again, it’s video related. As point-and-shoot cameras go, the Pentax Optio A20 is above average. The 10-megapixel, lightweight compact takes nice shots, and has a healthy selection of shooting modes and features. Menus are easily navigated and hovering over particular selections pops up a window of text describing the setting. Oh, and you can have it meow like a cat when it starts up and takes pictures.

But what sold me on the camera is its ability to shoot video directly to MPEG-4 DivX format (at a resolution of 640×480) at 30 frames per second. Like many consumers, I rarely used the video feature on my previous compact point-and-shoot. The quality was pathetic at best and trying to keep your hand from shaking while shooting video with a compact camera is nearly impossible. The A20 can create some very viewable video, however, and thanks to an effective movie-mode anti-shake, watching it doesn’t make you want to vomit from motion sickness.

The camera can accept SDHC cards so you can record a lot of video, but even a 1GB card can hold up to about 45 minutes of footage. You can do some simple clip editing on the camera and when you’re ready to watch, you can do it on the A20’s 2.5-inch screen, move it to your PC or pop the SD card into any DivX-certified playback device.


Apple MacBook
from $1099

I’m no Apple fanboy, I’m actually quite the opposite. Seeing as how I’m a daily gamer, I have built and owned PCs my whole life. Sadly for me, the industry standard sound engineering software is first developed for a Mac and then ported over to PC. Programs like Pro Tools, Apple Pro Logic 7, Digital Performer and Reason are just easier to work with on a Mac. Especially when using OS X’s dashboard and expose options.

I bought all the software and a brand new Apple MacBook. The 13-inch white MacBook not only runs my programs well, but I really love OS X. I’ve had my share of problems with it (optical disc failure, iSight failure) but I still love it. My MacBook is with me wherever I go. The one gripe I have with the MacBook is the fact that the keyboard isn’t backlit, a feature only MacBook Pro owners get to enjoy. Oh well, I don’t mind it, the MacBooks are way cooler looking. -RP

Nintendo DS-Lite

When the Nintendo DS was first released, I didn’t like it. In fact, I hated it and decided to stay loyal and follow Sony, so I purchased a PlayStation Portable instead. I was pleased with my purchase at first, I was addicted to Burnout Revenge. After about 20 hours, the game started to get boring, so I tried to move on to another game. That’s when things went downhill. Every game I tried for the PSP wasn’t up to par with BR, so my PSP gathered dust for a while. Then Lumines came out. After about 10 hours on that game I was all done with the PSP.

Then the Nintendo DS-Lite was presented to me. The sleek and sexy new Nintendo DS had won me over. Though the Nintendo DS-Lite doesn’t have graphics like the PSP, there are more than enough great games (and a touch screen!) to keep you busy on a handheld. I picked up Mario Kart DS and Trauma Center: Under The Knife and I was sold. The games were instantly fun and both had great replay value. After that, all the great games started rolling in.

Now you can choose from a library of great games including Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Metroid Prime: Hunters, Elite Beat Agents and my favorite, Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. One of the coolest features on the Nintendo DS-Lite is its WiFi capabilities. Not only can you play against other people in games like Metroid Prime: Hunters, but Nintendo has a specific site set up for WiFi compatible games for the DS that shows high scores, leader boards and who’s playing what.

If you’ve got a friend that has a Nintendo DS-Lite, the fun doubles, as you and your friend can play against each other (or together) in many games using one cartridge. This makes games like Star Fox Command and Mario Kart DS a lot of fun when you’re just hanging out and looking to kill time. Nintendo also has plans to release Opera Browser for the DS-Lite, so in the future, you’ll be able to browse the internet on your DS. The white Nintendo DS-Lite has its own special place in my backpack, and it’s almost always with me. -RP

T-Mobile Dash

I know some of our readers might disagree, as well as our editors, fellow writers, spiritual leaders, den mothers, parole officers, and Santa, but of all the devices we’ve played with this year, one that stands out as being under-appreciated and better than it has a right to be would be the T-Mobile Dash. It’s slim, slick, useful, and cheap. Those are all features a good gadget should have. Sure, the voice quality is lacking in the phone call department, but it costs less than our jacket.

In addition, T-Mobile gave us a ton of these to give away earlier in the year, and those who received theirs like them, so it wins a place under our proverbial tree. It’s no Treo, but if a wannabe is OK for you, it’s the first place I’d look. -MH

iPod Shuffle 2G

When we first received news of the new Shuffle from Apple during the Showtime event, we were a little “meh” about it. It still had no screen or Clickwheel. Sure, it clipped onto a pocket or piercing, but really, we though, what’s the big deal?

Then we got to see one up close and personal-like. Sometimes a gadget has an unquantifiable and intangible attractiveness to it, something that shouldn’t be sexy but somehow is. If you haven’t seen one for yourself, do us all a favor and check it out. It’s not for everyone, sure, but it’s damn sweet for those it is. -MH