Another year has gone by, bringing us one unit of time closer to a world of hoverboards and holodecks and Fifth Element haircuts. In that time we saw a lot of gadgets—perhaps too many—but good or bad, only a select few really mattered. Here's a selection of the most important gadgets that showed up in 2014.
The following are listed in no particular order, and you're encouraged to point out any we missed—or to yell about ones we shouldn't have included—in the discussion below.
It's not the best smartwatch, but the Moto 360 that proved these gadgets don't just have to be some ugly nerd toy. Of all the Android Wear smartwatches, the Moto 360 has been the one to lust after, the prettiest of the bunch and probably the best-looking smartwatch so far. More than any other of its breed, the Moto 360 is eminently wantable.
In practice, the 360's "flat tire" screen and less than amazing battery life held it back from being a total slam dunk, but it still set a new standard for smartwatch design, and offers a lot of hope for how good these things could look just a year or two down the line.
The true VR future isn't here yet, but its harbingers are arriving in force. Sure, Samsung's Gear VR seems like a glorified Google Cardboard from the outside looking in, but it's actually so much more, potentially the path to turning VR mainstream.
The first partnership between Oculus and a third-party hardware manufacturer, Gear VR shows off just how awesome phone-based VR can be. That is to say, more awesome than the original version of the Rift. On top of that, it shows a logical way forward for spec-crazed phones. With crazy screens and hella horsepower, your handset today is as powerful as any phone needs to be, but VR can give phonemakers a way to keep pushing the limits of screen tech and processing power while giving us something legitimately awesome instead of just shittier battery life. And Gear VR proves it.
Honorable mention: Google Cardboard is also important for many of the same reasons, but Gear VR beats it out for inclusion on the list because Cardboard is still mostly a cheap, fun little trick whereas Gear VR is legit and could seriously affect the trajectory of a mammoth company.
The OnePlus One is a fantastic debut phone from a previously unknown company. That's an accomplishment in and of itself. That the terrific 6-inch flagship is also cheap as hell is even wilder.
Google's Nexus line has traditionally been the place to go for great phones on the cheap, but with the Nexus 6 abandoning that tradition, the OnePlus One's ridiculously low $300 starting price is all the more important. The OnePlus One is also one of the first phones to run the modified Android OS known as Cyanogenmod out of the box. This phone is innovating a lot of things all at once.
The catch, of course, is that this sucker has been nigh impossible to buy, and the OnePlus system of invites and pre-orders has been confusing and infuriating for the legions that have wanted to get their hands on this killer deal. OnePlus totally succeeded in creating a "flagship killer," and if it can put them out in quantity it could really shake things up.
The iPhone 6 Plus is just another giant phone, but the bigger iPhone 6 is Apple's total abandonment of the whole "perfectly-sized for your thumb" thing. It means that the smallest, great, current phone you can get is now—the last hold-out of smallness— is 4.7-inches. That's mammoth compared to the largest phones of just a few years ago. If there's anything that suggests there's no going back to the compact phones of old, it's the iPhone 6.
On top of that, the addition of (limited) NFC in the 6 (and 6 Plus) is enabling Apple Pay, the most seamless phone-based payment system we've ever seen. That's great for the stores who adopt it, the people who use it, and everyone who uses the other services that will be forced to step up their game.
Chromebooks have driven the price of "laptops" down to absurdly low, ~$200 levels, but the price you pay is giving up a proper operating system in exchange for a glorified web-browser. The HP Stream 11 throws that caveat out the window with Windows.
A great and dirt cheap little PC (with Microsoft's Office 365 included), the Stream 11 is a no-brainer for students, and great as a work machine you can afford to rough up. It's also putting the pressure on Chromebooks to crank up the build quality, and on other PC makers to shore up their budget offerings. The Stream 11 stands to kickstart a great new wave of cheap-ass computers.
The price of Android tablets hit $100 a while ago, but the gadgets you'll find there are low quality, packed with bloatware, and just generally unrecommendable. Amazon's Fire HD 6 is different. It's good.
The HD 6 is a great budget buy for anyone who wants a tablet on the cheap, but the $150 kids' version—which comes with free, no-questions-asked replacements for two years—is an insanely good deal for baby's first tablet. In one fell swoop, Amazon gobbled up the whole small, cheap tablet market.
The ultra high-definition format is just making its way into consumer cameras, and the GH4 is the first system camera offering a solid mix of great 4K image quality, ease-of-use, small form factor, and all at a price that's not out of reach for young pros or upstart video makers. The GH4 proves that shooting in 4K doesn't have to be an expensive boondoggle for normal folks.
Bonus Gadget: PS4
It doesn't technically count, since it came out in 2013, but it really did work in 2014. Last year, we optimistically listed the Xbox One on a list like this. Since then, price pressure from the PS4 stripped the Xbox One of its pack-in camera and put Microsoft's optimistic living room future on indefinite hold. That, plus innovations like remote play on phones and TVs, plus the launch of a functional-but-not-quite-practical streaming game service, makes it an innovator worth mentioning in a way that the Xbox One no longer is.