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It’s easy to get excited about a shiny new device. But this year, some of the most important advances in the gadget world didn’t arrive in thoughtfully designed, sustainably sourced packaging. In fact, several of the biggest steps forward enhance the networks and engineering infrastructure that underpin our increasingly connected world. But don’t worry, we included some unboxing-video-worthy gizmos too.
Grand Award Winner: 5G Cellular
All four major mobile carriers have flipped on their 5G networks within the past year. AT&T led the way in December 2018, followed by Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Though coverage remains limited to metro areas like New York and Los Angeles, and only a handful of devices can tap the next-gen infrastructure, the gains will soon redefine the role of mobile networks. By accessing previously unused bands of the wireless spectrum, the devices can pull down 500 megabytes of data per second—an order of magnitude faster than 4G LTE and enough to download a movie in seconds. But the improvements are about more than jutter-free Netflix: The network could deliver broadband-level speeds to previously under-served rural communities. Experts also predict 5G will usher in an era in which devices like VR headsets and self-driving cars communicate directly with the network (or one another) in real time.
VIVE Pro Eye by HTC
Most VR headsets require you to swing your whole noggin to change your view of the virtual world. HTC’s VIVE Pro Eye, however, monitors the specific location of your pupils. Inward-facing cameras track the direction and focus of your gaze, allowing you to quickly navigate menus and scenes. By training its attention on where you’re actually looking, the computer generating the environments and objects can limit its most detailed renderings to those spots, seriously shrinking the processing power required to run complex scenarios.
Pro Display XDR by Apple
Professional video production and animation demand absurd levels of color accuracy, consistency, contrast, and brightness—specs that typically push the price of monitors into the range of, oh, say, entry-level SUVs. Apple’s Pro Display offers that level of precision for just $5,000. The panel illuminates the picture with an array of 576 LEDs, while a dedicated chip analyzes the signal and tweaks the diodes’ performance hundreds of times per second. The Retina screen can reproduce more than 1 billion colors and sustain brightness more than three times the average panel.
Osmo Pocket by DJI
DJI’s Osmo Pocket packs a mechanically stabilized 4K camera into a package about the size of a Snickers bar. The imaging system nestles into a three-axis gimbal adapted from the impeccable wobble-reducing tech that DJI uses in its category-defining drones. It shoots at 60 frames per second, and keeping the footage steady enables impressive shooting modes, like time-lapsed video.
P30 Pro by Huawei
Aggressively zooming in on a scene with your smartphone camera typically results in speckly noise and artifacts because most compact shooters rely solely on digital tricks to enlarge the frame. To achieve greater reach, the Huawei P30 Pro packs a 10x telephoto Leica zoom lens. The trick to avoiding a bulging camera? Vertically orient the lens inside the phone, and use a periscope-like prism to let in light. Coupled with the 40 megapixels of digital zoom, the setup captures a usable image at up to 50x—enough power to get a clear picture of the man in the moon.
Oculus Quest by Facebook
Virtual reality can make even the most elegant person feel clumsy as they slam knees into tables or fight against a computer-connected tether. Facebook’s wire-free Oculus Quest brings a bit of grace. Four outward-facing cameras on the front of the headset allow it to view your room and—with help from accelerometers and gyros—track your movement. As you roam, the system tells you if you’ve wandered astray by showing you a live feed of just where you are. That should stop you from slaying the knickknacks on your bookshelf instead of digital dragons.
Fresco by Adobe
The Fresco iOS app simulates the physical act of painting. Powered by Adobe’s Sensei AI platform, the program mimics more than 100 brushes and an array of artistic techniques: Watercolors spread out onto the canvas (a phenomenon called blooming), and repeated acrylic strokes will build up simulated textures. The software also integrates content-aware tech from apps like Photoshop, so artists can, for instance, delete a splatter shape instead of erasing a blocky, solid line.
X-Pro3 by Fujifilm
Large LCDs on cameras tempt photographers to obsessively review their shots. The habit—called chimping—takes them out of moment often enough that they can, well, miss the moment. Framing shots on Fujifilm’s X-Pro3 requires peering through an optical viewfinder. The prism lets shutterbugs see beyond the edges of the final image, allowing them to spy subjects and better plan pictures. A hinged 3-inch LCD on the back of the 26-megapixel camera flips down so that shooters can review their work, then return to the viewfinder.
Pixel 4 Motion Sense by Google
Handsets that let you snooze alarms or skip tracks with a hand wave typically rely on power-hungry cameras to spot your flailing digits. The Google Pixel 4 uses a tiny radar chip at the top of the display to monitor the area a foot or two around the handset. The sensor also looks far enough afield to, for example, tell when you’re reaching for your phone to start the unlock process. That makes opening your device a bit quicker.
Wi-Fi Certified 6 by Wi-Fi Alliance
By 2022, there will be 28.5 billion devices connected to the internet—that’s nearly four gizmos per person overtaxing your home network. The Wi-Fi 6 standard, which rolled out to new networking hardware this fall, allows routers to divide wireless channels into subchannels so that they can talk to more devices simultaneously. It also delivers four times the max speed of the previous version and bakes in a new WPA security protocol, which, working with other Wi-Fi techs, encrypts data on public Wi-Fi. But perhaps the biggest upgrade is the name, which frees us from the befuddling 802.11-whatever convention.
H1 Chip by Apple
As a growing army of AirPod zombies don their ’buds around-the-clock, Apple’s new H1 headphone processor manages power so efficiently, they’ll scarcely need to take them out. Devices with the chip can constantly listen for “Hey Siri” voice commands without sacrificing a minute of battery life, and provide a 50 percent increase in talk time. The H1 also makes pairing a snap (just put the latest AirPods or the Beats Powerbeats Pro near your device, and they’ll connect in seconds), and speeds up the process of toggling between devices.