2014 year in review: Mobile and wearables

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Gizmag looks back at the top mobile and wearable stories of 2014 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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2014 saw smartphones get bigger and faster, with sharper screens and better cameras ... in other words, exactly like every other year. But with wearables gaining some traction, tablets' "post PC" aspirations screeching to a halt, and VR waiting in the wings, we did see some significant developments this year. Join Gizmag, as we take a look at the year in mobile and wearables.

In the tech world, every year starts with the mega-trade show known as CES. Though most mobile companies save their biggest announcements for solo events, 2014's show gave us a few big releases.

Some highlights included Pebble, which jumped from geeky plastic to classy metal with its 2nd-gen smartwatch, Pebble Steel. Samsung also launched its first high-end tablets, the Galaxy Tab Pro series, at the Vegas show, though they would be supplanted by a better flagship series, the Galaxy Tab S, only five months later.

CES 2014 also gave us our second glimpse of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, the Crystal Cove prototype, which later inspired the company's second developers' kit (DK2). The headset added positional tracking, which lets you "lean in" to get closer looks at sections of your virtual environment, and low persistence, to cut down on motion blur. All of which further enhances the mind-bending experience that is Oculus' virtual reality.

February saw one of the biggest smartphone announcements of the year, Samsung's Galaxy S5, which played it safe (and a little strange) from a design standpoint, with its dimpled faux leather (plastic) back. But the phone's IP67 water resistance, innovative Ultra Power Saving Mode and toned-down feature set (at least compared to previous Samsung flagships) still placed it among the top handsets of the year.

Alongside the GS5, Samsung also launched not one, not two, but three new smartwatches – including a fitness tracker with a curved screen. The other two, the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, refined the design and feature set of the previous year's Galaxy Gear, and switched from a forked Android AOSP build to Samsung's own Tizen OS.

HTC was hot on the Galaxy S5's heels, with March's launch of the HTC One (M8). Though it wasn't a radical departure from 2013's One M7, the new model took the same iconic aluminum build, made it bigger and added a second rear camera (for some kinda useful, kinda gimmicky depth effects).

One of March's biggest stories was Google's reveal of Android Wear, the tech giant's Google Now-centric take on wearable software. Though we'd still have to wait until July to get our hands on the first Wear-running watches (and even longer for the first that didn't look like strap-on tech products), it was clear even in March that Android Wear's voice control and deeply-integrated notifications were going to make it worth watching.

April saw the official announcement of the Cyanogen-running OnePlus One, which provided an unprecedented combination of high-end specs and budget pricing. Unfortunately that price point wasn't meant for volume distribution, as the phone spent the next eight months sitting in invite-only limbo. To this day, you still can't buy the damn thing without jumping through hoops.

In May new CEO Satya Nadella transformed Microsoft's Surface line from "promising but compromised" land to the best evidence yet that tablets and laptops can coexist in the same device, with the Surface Pro 3. The third-generation 2-in-1 makes for a gigantic tablet, but is light for its size and handles much more naturally as a laptop than any previous Surface.

Though it didn't launch in the US for another couple of months, May also saw the global announcement of the LG G3, the first flagship smartphone with a Quad HD (2,560 x 1,440) display. When we finally got our hands on a review unit, we were a bit let down by its slightly laggy out-of-the-box performance, but loved its razor-sharp display, excellent camera and winning combination of screen size and phone size.

Many had once expected an epic Google Glass launch sometime in 2014, but that fizzled – along with most of the hype for the bold head-worn wearable. Privacy concerns and a perception of the accessory as awkward geek gear have transformed Glass from one of the most talked-about devices around to something that's more likely to find a niche in industrial settings.

We're still waiting for Glass' consumer release (assuming there is still going to be one), but in May Google did lift the invite requirement, letting anyone who lives in the US buy the beta version of Google Glass for an eye-popping US$1,500.

June gave us one of the biggest duds of the year, Amazon's long-rumored Fire Phone. With flagship pricing, no Google apps in sight and so-called killer features that were little more than cheap gimmicks, the Fire Phone was one of the few phones we've reviewed that we wouldn't recommend to anyone. We weren't alone in this assessment, as Amazon eventually slashed the handset's price to itty-bitty pieces for the holidays ($200 full retail) to offload unsold stock.

At Google I/O in June, the company fleshed out more detail on Android Wear, showcased the first Wear watches, and previewed the biggest Android update in years, teased as "Android L" (ultimately called Android 5.0 "Lollipop"). The update introduced a new coat of paint, Material Design, that, from a design standpoint, puts the once clunky-looking operating system on par with – if not ahead of – iOS.

Speaking of iOS, Apple also revealed its big 2014 mobile update in June, iOS 8. Though it looked nearly identical to iOS 7, the update added better synchronization with other Apple devices, built-in fitness data and – finally – the ability to run third-party keyboards.

July and August were mostly uneventful in the mobile world, but that's only because companies were saving their best stuff for the pre-holiday season. Starting with IFA 2014, we were hit with an onslaught of quality devices in the following months – the likes of which we've never seen in one short period.

Samsung's IFA releases included the excellent Galaxy Note 4, which showed a restraint and focus on the finer details that we weren't accustomed to seeing from the Korean giant. Its improved S Pen, partially metallic build and more intuitive software made it arguably the best mobile device of the year.

At IFA Samsung also launched its sixth smartwatch in the last 12 months, the Gear S. It forged new ground with its standalone 3G data (courtesy of its own SIM card), gorgeous curved screen and onscreen keyboard, but also doubled down on the gadgety look that could put off customers looking for a more jewelry-like aesthetic.

It was Samsung's last big IFA announcement, though, that turned out to be one of the most exciting wearables to date. The Gear VR uses Oculus-powered software and hardware to turn the Note 4 into a virtual reality headset. There are some chinks in its armor, like a tendency to overheat, but it's also the first modern virtual reality device aimed at consumers – from the company that put modern VR on the map. Its consumer status does, however, need an asterisk attached to it, as this "Innovator Edition" of the Gear VR is being pitched as an accessory for developers and early adopters.

Motorola was another company that swung for the fence with its IFA-week announcements (though they were held far from Berlin, in Chicago), with a bigger and better 2nd-gen Moto X smartphone and the launch of the long-anticipated Moto 360 smartwatch. The round-faced watch has the sketchiest battery life of all the year-end Android Wear releases, and its thick build puts a damper on its aesthetic, but it's also hard to deny its status as one of the most striking gadgets we've used.

Oh, and did we mention that little fruit company from Cupertino? Apple used to spread out its announcements throughout the year, but during the last couple of years, Tim Cook has squeezed most – nearly all – of Apple's big announcements into the pre-holiday season.

First up was one of Apple's biggest events in years, where it revealed the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus – the company's first big-screened smartphones – and the long-awaited Apple Watch. We'll have to wait until early 2015 for the watch's release, but both new iPhones were outstanding, with light, thin and premium builds, excellent cameras, and hardware that transcends their specs.

Things didn't let up much in October, with Google and Motorola launching the absurdly large – and very good – Nexus 6. Though it dropped the budget pricing of its last two predecessors, its small tablet size, beastly specs and stock Android Lollipop software made it (arguably) a better value than its biggest phablet rivals.

Apple had a couple more mobile announcements in October, with the excellent iPad Air 2 and forgettable iPad mini 3. While two years ago the iPad mini looked like the future, it now looks like an afterthought, as it had only the most incremental of changes from the 2013 model (just a Touch ID fingerprint sensor). The Air 2, though, took all the things that made its predecessor great – light, thin and compact – and managed to make them even greater. Its screen's anti-glare coating didn't hurt things either.

An even bigger story than the new iPads, though, was 2014's big slowdown in tablet growth. In the second and third quarters of the year, iPad sales declined year-over-year for the first time in the tablet's nearly five-year history. And Apple wasn't alone: the tablet market isn't shrinking, but its growth has slowed all around. And as for that "post PC era" that Apple told us we'd be living in by now? Well, the company now (once again) makes more money from Macs than it does from iPads – a reversal that pundits from a few years ago never would have dreamed of.

Speaking of tablets, HTC returned to the space in October (last seen in 2011, with the stinker known as the HTC Flyer), now collaborating with Google for the Nexus 9. Though the tablet offered solid hardware and an early taste of Android Lollipop, it had the misfortune of following the superior iPad Air 2. By comparison, it just didn't look like a great value – even at $100 cheaper.

While the Moto 360, despite its flaws, looked like it might be the runaway "best Android Wear watch of 2014," Asus and LG wrapped up the year by sneaking in a couple of watches that offer excellent blends of fashion and function. The $200 Asus ZenWatch looks like a distant cousin of the Apple Watch and offers excellent bang for its buck. And the round-faced, diver watch-inspired LG G Watch R blows a raspberry in the face of the "but I'm almost round!" Moto 360, with a thinner profile and much longer battery life (though it does cost a bit more).

If we learned anything from 2014, it's that the quality of mobile devices isn't quite ready to plateau. Just when we wondered if OEMs had run out of convincing ways to differentiate new devices, we saw that ultra-impressive wave of year-end gear. While it's harder to imagine ways that 2015 handsets will differentiate themselves, we've learned that phone-makers can be pretty imaginative when their money and market share are on the line. It should make for one hell of a 2015.

Gizmag will be at CES all next week bringing you the first glimpse (if not tidal wave) of mobile devices for the coming year. Stay tuned.

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