Baig's best tech picks of 2017 will eat at your wallet
See how Apple's new facial recognition system works in real life. USA TODAY
A social robot, versatile video game system, and, yep, the most expensive consumer smartphone on the planet.
These were among the standout products I’ve checked out these past 12 months. Though some of the entries on my chosen list made it on potential, and none are without flaws, each in its own way left a strong favorable impression. Warning: they’ll also leave you in some cases with a considerably smaller bank account.
When the most hyped and anticipated iPhone in years not only ditches the familiar home button and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor but also cracks the $1000 price barrier, there was more than a little bit of pressure on Apple to belt a home run with the iPhone X.
Apple delivered. Face ID facial recognition—that’s what replaces fingerprint authentication—works remarkably fast and well in most cases, even in the dark, and even when you’re wearing a hat or glasses. The OLED screen is lovely, marred only by a "notch" at the top of the display, and the front and rear cameras are excellent. If that’s not reason enough, you can send silly but addictive animated emojis or “Animojis” to your friends, representing yourself—yes, this is what society has come to—as a piece of poop.
Samsung Galaxy S8
Speaking of facing the heat, in releasing its first major smartphone since the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 kept catching fire last year, Samsung faced enormous pressure to get it right with the Galaxy S8. Samsung also prevailed.
What sold me initially on the S8, and its larger sibling the S8 +, was an engineering feat we’re starting to see on other phones, notably a wide display that stretches from one curved edge of the relatively narrow body to the other. The "bezel-lite" 5.8-inch display on the S8 and the 6.2-inch screen on the S8 + gives users a lot of real estate without the bulk, and ends up meaning more to our enjoyment of a phone than we may immediately recognize. As with the iPhone X, the S8 also boasts excellent cameras, water resistance, and wireless charging. And it proved Samsung can bring out an excellent phone without a battery that catches fire, also paving the way for the top tier Note 8 that would follow. Pricing starts around $725. Worth mentioning: the S8 also introduced us to Bixby's Samsung's digital assistant and answer to Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. Unfortunately, then and now, Bixby has some catching up to do to the others.
Microsoft Surface Laptop
Surface Laptop ranks among the best-looking laptops I’ve seen and that seems as good a reason as any to recommend it. It is covered in a handsome suede-like, Italian Alcantara fabric that is found in luxury sports cars.
Beyond the aesthetic pleasures, however, this is a solid, all around laptop. The computer boasts a smooth trackpad, excellent keyboard and very good battery life. It is also education-focused, though you need not be a student to want one. The notebook runs a secure, streamlined but restrictive version of Windows called Windows S, kind of Microsoft’s answer to Google’s Chrome OS. Windows S includes Microsoft Office and other available apps that run in a “container” to prevent them from messing with other apps or the computer. If that's too limiting since you can't run your other Windows apps, you can upgrade free to Windows 10 Professional.
Surface Laptop starts at $999.
Samsung Frame TV
Apart from price, and perhaps screen size, most of us choose a television based on the quality of the picture. The pictures you may be evaluating on Samsung’s Frame TV models are gallery-quality artwork.
Samsung’s marketing pitch for the Frame TV—“the most beautiful TV you’ve never seen"—has some merit; at a Samsung exhibit I actually walked right past the TV because it indeed resembled a picture frame on the wall. That's precisely the point: Frame TV is meant to hang flush, using a no gap wall mount that is included with the TV and the thin, nearly invisible optical wire that connects to a box you hide away for your other components.
To reinforce the picture frame concept, the TV comes with 100 pieces of professional artwork that you can display on the screen when you’re not otherwise watching TV or streaming media.
The 4K UHD TVs with HDR Pro come in 43-inch, 55-inch and 65-inch configurations, and cost $1,299.99, $1,999.999 and $2,799.99, respectively.
Lenovo/Disney Jedi Challenges
May the force be with you through augmented reality. Disney and Lenovo have teamed up on Star Wars: Jedi Challenges, a game consisting of an AR Mirage headset, a tracking beacon you place on the floor, and a Lightsaber controller that is a little over a foot long. Each is battery powered.
You download an app onto your Android handset or iPhone, stick that phone into a tray inside the headset, and set aside some room so you can wield that lightsaber against the likes of Kylo Ren and Darth Vader who turn up in your real-life surroundings. Two fisheye camera sensors on the front of the headset track the light sources from the beacon and the lightsaber and thus know where you are and how you’re attacking or defending yourself against such villains.
My son Samuel and I tested Jedi Challenges with a Moto Z2 Force smartphone, and it’s a good thing you can see your physical surroundings through the headset. Sam, who couldn’t get enough of the game, proved to an aggressive Jedi fighter, who fortunately was able to keep a safe distance from any obstacles in the room. The cost is around $200.
The name reveals the appeal of Nintendo Switch, a $300 home video game console that doesn’t need to remain at home. You can switch back and forth between a console that docks via HDMI to your HDTV and a handheld portable player with a 6.2-inch touchscreen that you can take anywhere. In portable mode, you slide two Wii-like Joy-Con controllers on either side of a Switch tablet. When watching through a TV, you can connect the controllers to a standard grip.
Through a kickstand you can also prop up the Switch into a tabletop mode.
Venerable Nintendo properties such as Super Mario and Zelda have a presence on the Switch too, and there’s decent support among third-party gaming publishers.
In the “skills” department Jibo is lacking compared, say, to an Amazon Echo with Alexa. But then Alexa can’t dance like Jibo can.
Jibo is not a smart speaker at all (though there are some common elements) but rather an 8-pound, 12.5-inch tall “social robot” for the home, built off a foundation of artificial intelligence and social robotics. Jibo could easily be cast in a Pixar flick.
When you talk to Jibo (using a “Hey Jibo”) command, the robot turns to look at you, or whoever else in the room is speaking. It responds, with a bit of an annoying delay, in a robotic voice—Jibo is not meant to sound human.
Jibo's face, such as it is, is represented by an expressive orb and animations that show up on a touch screen. The robot can recognize you (and other other people), and on command snap a picture.
You can swaddle Jibo like a baby too, or pet him and hear him coo.
Like a smart speaker, Jibo can crack a lame joke, solve math, and read a few news headlines. But he's not yet as useful as you hope he will be someday. Jibo was stumped by simple questions—he doesn’t seem to know the alphabet, for example, and he can't yet play a song on demand.
Keeping that in mind I wouldn’t blame you for holding off until Jibo can do more, especially given the robot’s $899 price.
Even so, Jibo is not only engaging to have around—you'll love watching the robot twerk—but is full of promise for what a social robot can be. And that justifies Jibo's inclusion on this list.
Embracing all this top tech will collectively cost you well over $5,000. Given the fun and utility you get in return, the price for at least some of you will be well worth it.
Email: email@example.com; Follow USA TODAY Personal Tech Columnist @edbaig on Twitter