Our favorite new ideas of the year, from an AI-enhanced frame for your digital photos to a transcendent home pizza-making machine.
In case you hadn’t noticed, innovation is a tricky business. The fact that a product is innovative doesn’t necessarily make it good—see, for instance, Google’s Clips camera. Furthermore, what many people crave in the gear they buy isn’t so much revolution as evolution. That’s why the venerable MacBook Air line refused to die even after Apple was ready to move on.
For this roundup of some of 2018’s best gadgets, we focused on stuff that reflects fresh thinking. But in every instance, what’s new serves the higher purpose of making the products in question more useful. Their innovations are so well executed that you quickly forget they’re novelties. You just enjoy the little ways they make your life better—which might be the highest compliment you can pay a new idea.
THE MODERN-DAY PHOTO FRAME
Every day, Google Photos users collectively upload more than 1.2 billion pictures and videos for safekeeping. But once they’re up in the cloud, it’s hard to remember that they even exist.
That’s where the Google Home Hub comes in. Officially a “smart display” that can respond to Google Assistant voice commands, the Home Hub spends most of its time cycling through Google Photos on its 7-inch screen. All you have to do is decide which people should appear in the frame, and Google does the hard work of refreshing the screen with new pictures.
Although the Google Home Hub isn’t the first smart display of its kind, it’s the only one so far that omits a camera, so you might feel more comfortable putting it on your nightstand. It also has a clever “ambient” display mode that uses warmer screen tones in the evening and flips to a barely visible clock in the dark. The idea was to build something that feels less like an intrusive piece of technology and more like something you’d naturally have around–you know, like a picture frame.
The original version of Apple’s Pencil pressure-sensitive stylus, which shipped with the first iPad Pro in 2015, was a wonderful tool for drawing and painting in a bevy of iPad art apps. But Apple didn’t give you any way to transport the stylus with your iPad, which meant that there was a pretty good chance you’d end up leaving it at home. If you did remember to tote it, its battery ran down quickly. And the ungainly way you recharged it—by removing a cap and sticking the stylus in the tablet’s Lightning port—was one of the least Apple-esque maneuvers ever associated with an Apple product.
What a difference the new $129 Pencil—which is compatible only with Apple’s new iPad Pro models—makes. For transport, it snaps magnetically to the edge of the tablet, a trick Apple picked up from Microsoft’s Surface. The Pencil charges while it clings to the iPad Pro. That does away with the whole silly charging regimen of the previous Pencil. Bottom line: The odds that you’ll have a fully charged Pencil at your fingertips when you want it are now dramatically higher, which makes the whole concept much, much better.
The new iPad Pro models are pretty sweet upgrades in other ways, too. Apple ditched the home button/Touch ID sensor in favor of Face ID, allowing it to shrink down the tablets’ bezels and fit more screen into less space. The company also gave these new models its monstrously powerful, AI-optimized A12X chip, ensuring that they can run existing apps as fast as possible—and opening up new possibilities for apps yet to come.
Chances are, you’ve at least heard of the Instant Pot—the countertop pressure cooker that went viral on Amazon a few years ago. If you’re yet to take the high-pressure plunge, the Instant Pot Max is the industrial-quality, idiot-proof way to get started.
The Max is the first countertop pressure cooker to cook as fast as the pressure cookers you can buy for your stove. It also has the Instant Pot’s best interface to date, with a touch screen that lets you hop between sous vide and slow cooking in a second, and easily tweak all sorts of other settings. More importantly, the Max has a steam release valve that’s controlled electronically, rather than mechanically. That means you don’t need to sacrifice your fingers to an Old Faithful plume of steam every time you want to release the pressure on the cooker. You just hit a button, and the Max handles the rest.
You can get a cheaper Instant Pot than the Max for sure—and if price is a concern, you should. But the Max is a more enjoyable, controllable, polished product than its predecessors. It feels like the Instant Pot has grown up.