A celebration of 50 years of innovation

New products? In the crowded, competitive world of technology gear, there's never a shortage of 'em. But truly new ideas -- and genuinely better takes on existing concepts -- have always been a rarer breed. When it comes to innovation, there are far more wannabes than winners.

Which is why we're kicking off the new year with our third annual Innovations Awards. Once again, we started with a long, long list of hardware, software, and services introduced during the past 12 months. Editors then spent quality time with the strongest contenders, making sure that each product's innovations were real and practical, not theoretical.

After plenty of spirited debate, we wound up with 25 winners that bring fresh thinking to personal technology.

Speaking of new ideas, this year's big Innovations celebration is happening at PCWorld.com, where we've posted detailed info and photos for all the winners. The online focus is in response to the rousing success of "The 100 Best Products of 2005," the site's most popular article of all time.

Strangely enough, as we were selecting forward-looking products for Innovations honors, we were also happily wallowing in five decades of tech nostalgia. That's because we were picking "The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Last 50 Years," yet another original story for PCWorld.com. (Coupling the two stories makes sense: Many notable gizmos of years past were among the most inventive products of their eras.)

As for this year's Innovations winners, they cover a lot of ground, from the thoroughly useful (Fujitsu's 2.2-pound convertible Tablet PC) to the purely fanciful (Nintendo's Nintendogs game).

Overall, though, there's a distinct theme to this year's crop. "The trend we're seeing is toward products that let you do more with photos, video, and audio," notes Senior Associate Editor Melissa J. Perenson, who led this year's awards team with fellow Senior Associate Editor Grace Aquino. By my count, 21 of 25 winners are on the list at least in part because of their digital-media savvy.

One tech world, indivisible

Another striking thing about this year's award winners is that they don't divide into tidy groups such as PC product, mobile communications device, and consumer electronics. The lines between categories aren't merely blurring -- they're becoming irrelevant. And some imaginative hybrids are emerging.

Consider, for instance, the DVDirect VRD-MC1 from Sony. Can you use it as a PC-based DVD burner? Check. Is it a consumer electronics device? Yep -- its LCD screen and full complement of connectors and memory slots allow you to use it directly with digital cameras, printers, and camcorders, no computer required. Does it qualify as mobile? Absolutely, thanks to its trim, lightweight case.

Oh, and the DVDirect is a handsome example of industrial design, too. That's another trend among this year's winners: They not only do new things, but they also look better doing them.

A gadgets hall of fame

Meanwhile, choosing "The 50 Greatest Gadgets of the Last 50 Years" was both a blast and a challenge. People are amazingly passionate about the gadgets that have mattered to them. When we began deliberations, I'd never heard of Polaroid's Swinger, a US$20 camera that brought instant photography to the masses. After hearing one editor's argument for its importance, I'm sorry I never owned one.

Part of the job was defining just what a gadget is. "It had to be cool, obviously," explains Senior Associate Editor Anne B. McDonald, who spearheaded our story along with Senior Editor Yardena Arar and Gadget Freak columnist Dan Tynan. "And for us, it had to relate to data or media -- we didn't want stuff like the Pocket Fisherman or the Kitchen Magician."

To determine our rankings, we rated scads of contenders for utility, design, innovation, and influence. The final list's number one product turned out to be a stylish little audio player that left a generation of music fans bopping around with headphones on, oblivious to the world. That's right: Sony's original Walkman.

You were expecting maybe a newer audio player by a company named after a kind of produce? The iPod took second place. One lesson here: Portable audio has long set the standard for gadget cool. In fact, our top ten also included Regency's transistor radio, still a sexy little number after all these years.

Elsewhere on the list, you'll find everything from PCs to game consoles to cell phones. Reading it, you'll be reacquainted with some old friends -- we sure were.

Have a favorite high-tech gadget of your own, past or present? Please drop me a note at mageditor@pcworld.com and tell me all about it. We'll continue the conversation over at my Techlog blog.

Herewith, the winners of PC World's Innovations Awards for 2006.

AIRGO TRUE MIMO GEN3: Technology for superfast Wi-Fi.

APPLE IPOD NANO: Irresistibly stylish, it lives up to the hype.

AVVENU: Free remote access to files, from a PC or handheld.

CREATIVE ZEN VISION: A video handheld we'd actually buy.

FUJITSU LIVEBOOK P1510D: Superportable Tablet PC.

GOOGLE EARTH: Both amazingly useful and just plain amazing.

JVC EVERIO GZ-MG70: With its built-in hard disk, this under-size DV camcorder dispenses with tapes and discs.

JVC RX-D702B: A reasonably priced receiver for the digital age.

KODAK EASYSHARE V570: One compact camera, two lenses.

MAXTOR SHARED STORAGE PLUS: 500GB of network storage.

MICROSOFT XBOX 360: Next-gen console-based entertainment.

MITSUBISHI HC3000U: The first projector featuring Texas Instruments' aptly named BrilliantColor technology.

NEC MULTISYNC LCD2180WG-LED: Stunning LED backlighting makes for the ultimate desktop display.

NINTENDO NINTENDOGS: Cute canines in a serious simulation. NOKIA N91: A more highly evolved approach to camera phones.

PANASONIC OXYRIDE: Today's power-hungry gadgets need these long-life AA and AAA batteries.

SLING MEDIA SLINGBOX: Slings your TV shows across the Net.

SONOS DIGITAL MUSIC SYSTEM: Elegant music streaming.

SONY CYBER-SHOT DSC-R1: Takes point-and-shoot photography to the next level -- and packs 10.3 megapixels.

SONY DVDIRECT VRD-MC1: Burns DVDs with (or without) a PC.

SONY HANDYCAM HDR-HC1: Puts HD video within reach.

TIVOTOGO: Sends your shows to a PC, a DVD, or a handheld.

TOSHIBA RD-XS54: A DVD recorder that does it all.

YAMAHA RX-V4600: This top-notch receiver offers HD radio.

YAMAHA YSP-1000: One slick audio box that outdoes multiple-speaker surround-sound setups.

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