2012’s Top 10 Tech Toys & Tools

Understand this: you must have an iPad (1 or 2) but it does not make this Top 10 list because it is assumed you have one. If you don’t, wait a few months because the latest incarnation, the iPad 3, is rumored to be hitting the shelves in late winter or early spring. iPad 2 was an incremental improvement over iPad 1 and nobody is expecting more from iPad 3 but with Apple, who knows? Just put it on your shopping list.

As to this year’s Top 10, heading the pack is Google’s ChromeBook via Samsung, a 12.1 inch netbook that redefines what a computer is. Other than the Chrome OS, the device has no software to speak of. Everything happens in the cloud. Security is very good (there are no known malware attacks of any significance). A drawback: probably you cannot load the drivers you want (for printers, scanners, MP3 recorders, etc). Google has contrived some workarounds — a cloud printing gimmick, for instance — but accept the ChromeBook’s limitations and it is extraordinary futuristic computer at a terrific price (it now sells for under $400).

Kindle Fire: Amazon’s new Android tablet is another must-have. It already has vaulted into the top selling Android slot. Nobody expects it to overtake iPad as the top tablet but it will be showing up in droves on your network as the $199 price wins bargain hunting buyers. It is very good for content consumption (watching movies, listening to music, reading ebooks), much less good at content creation (a paucity of apps makes this difficult). But buy it because co-workers will.

Babbel : Not a gadget but an online learning tool where users (paying under $100 per year) can learn a foreign language at their own speed. There are competitors (LiveMocha for instance). No interest in another language? The big point is that, suddenly, via the Internet, learning has become very, very cheap. This type of site ushers in a new style of employee education that is on demand, served up in modules, and priced at a point even a flinty CFO can applaud.

Virgin Mobile MiFi 2200: Who needs to pay premium prices for 3G tablets? Buy a WiFi-only model and carry connectivity in your pocket with this credit card sized hotspot (it costs $150). A plus is that the Virgin device (which runs on the Sprint broadband network) is available without a contract. A month of unlimited access runs $50; cheaper plans are offered. Turn it on and off as needed. Another plus: connect up to five devices at a time, at no extra charge. Really, who needs a 3G enabled tablet?

Instagram: You can’t beat free; the price for Apple’s App of the Year. Instagram creates a social stream of shared photos. The Apple endorsement says it will be popping up on just about every iPhone and iPad 2’s. Check it out to see what the buzz is about and to see what is driving so much traffic on your network.

Siri: Everybody is talking about this voice recognition personal assistant app that lives to answer your every question, the first of which may be, where can I buy an iPhone 4S, which is the only device on which Siri runs. Note: there are multiple similar apps that run on Android phones (Vlingo and Edwin are two such). All are presently free. All point to a future where we do more search via voice, less via typing. That’s great on small form factor devices such as phones.

Samsung Galaxy S 2: You need an Android phone to see how the other and bigger half lives (as Android now outsells iPhone) and the phone to covet is the thin, fast, powerful Galaxy S 2, which features Samsung’s brilliant Super Amoled display, Gorilla Glass (so it’s tough), and a dual core processor. This is Android at its best. Priced around $525 unlocked (much lower of course under contract).

Asus Zen: The only complaint is the price (over $1,300) but for hardcore Windows users, this ultra thin and light (2.4 lbs) notebook dispels any lingering Macbook Air envy (the must have geek bling of 2011). A new year means new style and the Zen wins applause. Buy it if you cannot break the Windows bonds.

3M handheld projector: It doesn’t get geekier or cooler than the LCOS projector, a $440 handheld device that lets you project up to two hours of a super bright show. A built-in micro SD card slot lets you project a show sans any connection to a computer. Or connect via Bluetooth for a wires-free presentation. We may curse shows but, accept it, they are part of business life and this has to be the sharp way to do a presentation in 2012.

LaCie Cloudbox: 100 GB of storage comes built into this network hard drive but then it takes storage a step beyond with automatic daily backup to the cloud. That makes it storage for 2012.

As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1500 articles for many of the nation’s leading publications — from Reader’s Digest to Playboy and from the NY Times to Harvard Business Review. McGarvey covers CEOs, business, high tech, human resources, real estate, and the energy sector. A particular specialty is advertorial sections for many top outlets including the New York Times, Crain’s New York, and Fortune Magazine.