DVICE's Best Tech of 2009

No pretentious reflecting, no "as we say goodbye to 2009…" clichés, no insomnia-curing treatises on what a year it's been. Just DVICE, you, and the best technology of 2009.

Keep reading for our staff's picks for the top innovations of the past 365. Be sure to let us know what your favorite tech of the year is in the comments.





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Wireless HD

Hanging a flat-panel HDTV on the wall is nice, but your carefully planned feng shui showroom is shattered by that ugly HDMI wire hanging like a limp Na'vi tail from behind it. Amputate the HDMI tail using WiHD, a long-sought standard that creates a wireless HDMI connection between your A/V gear stack and your HDTV up to 30 feet away. Sony, Panasonic and LG already sell HDTVs with WiHD built-in — you get a separate transceiver box to which you connect your cable box, receiver, Blu-ray player, etc., — and both Monster and Gefen have retrofit kits. A year from now, bet on there being a plethora of WiHD 3D plasma and LCD HDTVs available. — Stewart Wolpin




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DIY Solar Panels

This was the year solar energy stopped being complicated technology started becoming commonplace — something that looks great, available at the local hardware store, and that you can install yourself in a weekend.

Akeena Solar started selling its Anadaly home solar kits for under $900 at Lowe's stores in California this month. And Armageddon Energy won a competition in late 2009 for its innovative lightweight four-leaf clover panels that anyone can install.

You may still need professional help with some of the hardware — although you'll likely spend more time with an accountant understanding tax breaks — but you no longer need to be the Unabomber to consider dropping off the grid. This is a big step in realizing energy doesn't need to come from a giant plant down the road. — Trevor Curwin




NASA Helicopter Crash System

Earlier this month, NASA announced that it had been testing a crash system for helicopters — with, at its heart, an idea that comes from in-car security. It consists of an airbag placed beneath the aircraft that cushions the floor of the helicopter during impact with the ground. The airbag, or deployable energy absorber, as NASA's engineers have it, is a honeycomb cushion made of Kevlar, with a flexible hinge design that allows the honeycomb to remain flat until needed.

Four poor, unassuming crash-test dummies, one with a special torso with simulated internal organs, were forced into a helicopter (no doubt at supa-shooterpoint) which was then dropped from 35 feet above ground level, at a flight path angle of 33 degrees, with a combined forward and vertical speed of 33mph. When the plastic mooks were removed from the vehicle, they were found to be shaken but uninjured.

While this concept is not a gorgeous, sexy piece of tech, it has the capacity to save lives — and I like that in a piece of hardware. Given the current level of attacks on millitary helicopters in Afghanistan, if NASA's idea does get past the testing stage, this could be just what troops (and civilian helicopter passengers) need. Although it's unlikely that the airbag would save lives in the event of an RPG attack, a chopper in difficulty due to enemy rounds might just hit the ground safely. See it in action in the video above (1:13 in). — Addy Dugdale




Google Navigation

Google Navigation is changing the world of GPS devices. The Google Navigation app runs on any Android 2.0 phone. Leaving standalone GPS manufacturers scrambling to find new business models, Google's system is combining the power of Google, Google Maps and Android. What's so cool about it? Besides turn-by-turn instructions, there's voice recognition — just speak the name of your destination and it searches Google for the location giving you the options of navigating to it — a street view so you can see the destination before you get there, real-time traffic info, and your destination's phone number so you can call ahead. Let's see your TomTom do that. — Leslie Shapiro




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NVIDIA Ion

The year dawned with the debut of the NVIDIA Ion platform, hailed as industry-changing tech at CES 2009. By the end of the year the platform had fulfilled those high expectations. Consisting of a miniaturized 16-core NVIDIA GeForce graphics chipset, fast RAM and an Intel Atom processor, Ion is the star of the show when it comes to home theater PCs (HTPC).

With Ion's tiny, power-sipping components inside, a PC the size of a paperback book can accelerate Blu-ray quality 1080p video efficiently and cheaply. The technology is such a huge hit that by the end of the year, the home theater PC game has been profoundly changed.

Once costing well above $3,000, a 1080p-spitting HTPC is now cheaper than $400, and small enough to attach to the back of a flat-panel display. At these prices, networked video-playing boxes and Blu-ray players will soon take their places atop the ash heap of history. — Charlie White




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Chumby One

In this post-iPhone world, we're going to see apps playing a greater role in more than just phones. The Chumby One is a great early example of that. Not only is it an alarm clock and an Internet radio, but it also handles games and videos and can act as a digital photo frame. By loading it up with apps, that functionality only expands, linking you up with social networks, news sites, the weather, and more. There are over 1,000 widgets for the Chumby, some which do things that may not be immediately useful — such as letting you view your computer's webcam on your Chumby's screen — but you could find a use.

My favorite part of it all, though, isn't actually what the Chumby One itself does, but what it spawned: a robust DIY kit. Known as "Chumby Guts," Maker's Faire and Chumby got together to sell the components of the Chumby so that enterprising folks can alter the Chumby's form factor. We've already seen one great example of this with the Chumby Book. Any time versatile technology is broken down and delivered into the hands of the creative masses, it gets my vote. — Kevin Hall




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Project Natal

By taking the whole idea of a user interface into another galaxy, Microsoft's Project Natal makes Nintendo's once stunning WiiMote look a bit like a floppy disc next to Natal's Micro SD card. With Natal you can talk, gesture, and move your entire body in response to the on screen image, and Natal will read it all with uncanny precision.

While gaming applications for the Xbox are the initial target, I expect this technology will go on to affect the way we humans interact with all kinds of machines. Could the days of the good old mechanical switch be numbered?

Unveiled and demo'd earlier this year, the first "Natalized" Xboxes are expected to go on sale in late 2010. — Michael Trei




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Motorola Droid

The Motorola Droid is by all accounts an excellent smartphone. It's got a big, beautiful screen, a zippy processor, and is loaded up with the latest version of the Android mobile OS. But what it isn't is just as important: it's not the iPhone.

The Droid is really the first true competitor to Apple's mighty iPhone, and the fact that it's available on the reliable Verizon instead of the much-maligned AT&T does much to pull people out of Steve Jobs' tractor beam. But this is no basic ripoff; it actually does a lot of things that the iPhone doesn't, including Google turn-by-turn directions and app multitasking. And even iPhone fanboys have got the be happy that there's finally serious competition to their true love. Because if anything will make the next version of the iPhone better, it's a strong rival threatening El Jobso's huge pile of cash. — Adam Frucci




toptech2009_cloud.jpgGoogle Sync and Cloud Computing

Honestly, the No. 1 tech innovation for 2009 that literally changed the way I do things is Google Sync, which became available this year for a host of mobile devices, including the iPhone. Having all my calendars in the cloud, updatable from any device, means I'm never left wondering if I forgot a big meeting or to pay my Macy's bill.

Once I'd experienced the wonder of syncing in the cloud, it opened the floodgates. 2009 was the year I shifted pretty much my entire workflow to Google Docs. It was also the year I moved my music collection to Lala.com. And big video files I need access to anywhere are on my handy network-connected Seagate Dockstar (accessible via the super-simple interface at Pogoplug.com).

Cloud computing is one of those things that once you see the light of, you never look away. And in 2009 it lit up like Times Square on… look at that, tonight! — Peter Pachal