Plus, what to expect in 2018.
Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
In many ways, the world in 2016 was defined by its mistakes. Companies let products languish, and when they did release updates, they often made questionable design choices. And of course, one of Samsung's most important phones literally went up in smoke. This year was a different story though. Some previous offenders learned their lesson while others set themselves up for success down the road. Not that everything was rosy. There were plenty of errors along the way, including glitchy products and misguided strategies. With that in mind, let's look at the hits and misses of 2017 -- and more importantly, consider how they'll affect what happens in 2018.
You could call 2017 Apple's year of redemption ... or at least the start of its redemption. Whereas 2016 was defined by iterative devices and a sense that Apple had lost its way (see the dongle-tastic MacBook Pro), this year saw Apple rethink multiple products with a mind to 2018 and beyond.
To start, it apologized for botching the Mac Pro and neglecting the pro market as a whole. Soon after, it unveiled the iMac Pro as a near-term fix, but the biggest news was the promise of a redesigned Mac Pro in 2018 that addresses gripes about expandability and performance. Whereas 2017 began with pros wondering if Apple was abandoning them, 2018 will start with a renewed (if cautious) optimism. The company also spent much of 2017 laying the groundwork for more futuristic technologies, including virtual reality and external graphics cards. Between this and refreshing most of its computer lineup, Apple made it clear that the Mac will enjoy a renaissance in 2018 -- and catch up with tech that Windows has had for a while.
And then there's the iPhone. After years of conservative updates, Apple finally shook things up with the iPhone X. Its nearly all-screen design was a welcome upgrade, and its depth-based face detection was a clever (if imperfect) replacement for fingerprint readers. It's safe to say that Apple will spread the iPhone X's technology across other parts of its lineup in 2018.
On top of this, 2017 was the year the Apple Watch came into its own. A rocky launch notwithstanding, the Series 3 addressed the wish lists of early adopters with cellular data, improved performance and longer battery life. The new model helped Apple regain its lead in the wearable world and left little doubt that smartwatches would continue to be hot commodities in 2018.
That's not to say there weren't missteps. Buggy software marred some key products, from an Apple Watch connection glitch to iOS 11 reliability issues to a scary Mac root access flaw. Moreover, 2017 was the year of premature hardware announcements. The HomePod, iMac Pro and new Mac Pro were all unveiled several months before they were due to ship, which is unusual for a company that frequently delivers newly announced hardware within weeks. Even the iPhone X missed the usual iPhone release window in September. Simply put, Apple developed a habit of announcing products well before they were ready, but hopefully in 2018 the company will focus on fulfilling promises rather than making them.
If Google had only been dipping its toes into the hardware waters before, it dove in headfirst with its 2017 lineup. In many cases, the company's AI know-how was a central feature -- and that's likely to continue in 2018. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL were two of the best phones of the year, thanks in part to their excellent AI-assisted cameras, and they're only likely to improve through features like the Pixel Visual Core. Google's smart speaker line clearly blossomed too. The Home Mini's lower price made Google Assistant more accessible in the living room, while the Home Max gave audio enthusiasts an alternative to the Sonos One and (eventually) Apple's HomePod. The company prepared for VR's wireless future with support for standalone Daydream headsets, and it even gave hope to Chrome OS fans by replacing the Chromebook Pixel with the more flexible Pixelbook.
Even so, to say that Google flubbed a few things would be an understatement. The Pixel 2 line launched with its share of glitches, and the 2 XL took an extraordinary amount of flak for its display. Between blue tinting, muted colors, burn-in and unresponsive edges, there were so many complaints that Google extended warranties to quell upset customers. Software fixes addressed some of these problems, but it's evident that quality control will need to be a priority for 2018.
And then there are the Pixel Buds. While they do offer solid sound quality, just about everything else about them screams version 1.0. Fiddly controls, an awkward charging case and the questionable utility of the signature translation feature (which could easily be handled on your phone) make them a tough sell. There's a good chance Google will address at least some of these flaws later in 2018, but for now they don't live up to their promise.
This was the year Amazon went all out in its bids to conquer the smart speaker arena and make Alexa the voice assistant of choice in 2018. It released no fewer than five Echo models in 2017, all but one of which could do considerably more than play audio. Want a smart home hub? Echo Plus. Video viewer? Echo Show. You can even get an alarm clock (the Echo Spot) or a fashion adviser (the Echo Look). And that's not including Alexa-equipped devices like the Cloud Cam, Fire HD 10 tablet and new Fire TV. While we had our misgivings (the second-gen Echo's sound quality was initially lousy, for one) Amazon made Alexa far more accessible and capable. Expect that trend to continue in 2018: There has already been a leak hinting at a hybrid Echo/Fire TV media hub.
However, Amazon's real coup was getting other device makers to hop on the Alexa bandwagon. It wasn't just the Sonos One, although that was definitely the most prominent example. Jeff Bezos and company managed to slip Alexa into hardware as diverse as the HTC U11 smartphone, the Ecobee4 thermostat and even Mercedes-Benz cars. While the AI helper doesn't currently have the international reach of Apple, Google or Microsoft, Amazon's rapid international expansion of Alexa support at the end of 2017 hinted that Alexa could become truly ubiquitous in the year to come.
Unfortunately for Amazon, things started to unravel toward the end of the year. Google pulled support for YouTube on both the Echo Show and Fire TV in a dispute over Amazon's hardware sales policies and unofficial apps, hobbling two of Amazon's most important products. Amazon only just started making amends by carrying the Chromecast. Plus, there were a few questionable gadgets. Does anyone really want an upscale Kindle reader or Alexa game button? Amazon may have spread itself too thin, and there are easily a few products that could fizzle out in 2018.
There was one common theme for Facebook's hardware in 2017: VR, VR and more VR. Just under its own brand, it introduced 360-degree pro cameras, launched social VR spaces and promoted virtual reality technology at every given opportunity. There were other hardware initiatives, such as the Building 8 lab's brain-computer interface and internet drones, but there's no indication that you'll get more than peeks at these projects in 2018.
Oculus was certainly busy as well. It spent 2017 priming itself for a future in which VR is truly wireless, whether it's the low-cost Oculus Go or the advanced Project Santa Cruz prototype. It revamped its VR interface to be easier to use. While there's no guarantee the Go or Santa Cruz will reach your head in 2018, Oculus will go into the year with the clear goal of leaving clunky, complicated headsets firmly in the past.
This was a renewal year for Microsoft's hardware. After laying low in 2016, the company's device teams sprung into action, not only refreshing products that had been left untouched for more than a year but also addressing long-standing requests from fans who wanted a more complete selection. Its PC line finally got a conventional portable in the form of the Surface Laptop, while the Surface Book 2 added a 15-inch model packing the sort of horsepower that pros and gamers crave. There's no certainty that Microsoft will continue to aggressively update its Surface line, but its device catalog is much stronger going into 2018.
The Xbox One X will shape Microsoft's new year too. Even more so than in 2017, you can expect the company to push its high-end Xbox as a vehicle for all things 4K, whether it's the latest games or streaming services. It could even be a Trojan horse for VR, given that there are plans to bring mixed reality headsets to the Xbox. The challenge is that Microsoft is somewhat late to the party. Sony offered gamers a taste of 4K with the PS4 Pro and has already been selling PlayStation VR for over a year, so Microsoft will have to spend 2018 proving that its hardware was worth the wait.
Microsoft's Hololens provides mixed reality tools to assist in the workplace. Microsoft
Microsoft has some more experimental projects too. It might offer a glimpse of its next-generation HoloLens headset in 2018 and thus show everything it has learned about wearable holographic computing over the past few years. There are even reports that it could resurrect the Courier digital notebook concept.
In some ways, Microsoft's biggest move in 2017 was enabling hardware for others. Windows Mixed Reality established a common platform for AR and VR on Microsoft-powered PCs. The Cortana voice assistant, meanwhile, spread beyond computers and phones to reach smart home devices like speakers and thermostats. Microsoft even revived ARM-based Windows PCs, with ASUS and HP unveiling laptops that could easily last all day while keeping you connected. Only a small amount of this hardware arrived in 2017, but you should anticipate a flood of it in the year ahead. Microsoft may have already defined the tech trends that will shape the industry in 2018.
There weren't any major gaffes in 2017, but the company's less-than-ideal execution suggests it has room to improve going forward. It had to grapple with claims of poor Surface reliability and questionable design decisions, such as underpowered chargers. The Xbox One X's high price didn't do it any favors and gave the PS4 Pro another advantage. Windows 10 S was meant to offer an alternative to Chromebooks with similar security and more flexibility, but the dearth of hardware didn't exactly put Google on notice. Moreover, Microsoft came to terms with its long-term failures by putting Windows Mobile on life support and ending Kinect production. It's beginning 2018 with a clean slate, but only after learning some hard lessons.
Samsung ended 2016 with its tail between its legs, to put it mildly. The Galaxy Note 7's battery fiasco was so bad that it led to the company effectively killing the phone, and that left many people wondering whether Samsung's reputation would recover in 2017.
Thankfully for Samsung, it did. The Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8 not only represented returns to form but also pushed the boundaries of smartphone design in a literal way with their edge-to-edge displays. The tech giant also took the Note 7's failure head on, offering a detailed explanation of the battery problems and clear solutions. Even the firm's wearable efforts hit their stride between the solid Gear Sport smartwatch and the Gear VR controller. Samsung regained a lot of the trust it lost. And while rumors hint that 2018's Galaxy S9 could be an iterative update, Samsung might just shake up the mobile world with its plans to release a foldable Galaxy Note.
However, we still wouldn't call it a stellar year. Samsung made a push into voice assistants with Bixby, but the AI helper was undercooked at best -- and that's a problem when the S8 and Note 8 have a dedicated Bixby button. Yes, Bixby 2.0 could address some of the assistant's limitations (particularly around language recognition), but Samsung is starting 2018 after having placed a lot of faith in technology that remains shaky. The company is likely to bring Bixby to devices beyond phones and tablets in 2018, such as a smart speaker, but right now the assistant isn't mature enough to do justice to the hardware.
Check out all of Engadget's year-in-review coverage right here.