Some of the year's big hits were PlayStation VR, Snapchat spectacles, Amazon Echo, Pokemon Go and phones from Samsung, Google and Apple © FT montage

As with so many other aspects of life, 2016 was a strange year for technology, more likely to be remembered for what went wrong than for great innovation. Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 exploded, GoPro recalled its Karma drone after some started falling out of the sky and rampaging Pokémon Go players caused havoc.

Yet amid the chaos there were some subtle breakthroughs in the tech industry this year. Some were unglamorous but much-needed improvements to things we already take for granted.

Apple’s iPhone 7 and Google’s Pixel delivered meaningful steps forward in mobile cameras and went some way to addressing that perennial smartphone moan, battery life. The “smart home” may still be struggling to win over consumers, but at least domestic WiFi is improving thanks to the likes of Eero and Google’s OnHub.

Of all the gadgets I have tested this year, the ones I have most come to rely on (beyond our ubiquitous smartphones) are Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. Telling these disembodied virtual assistants to play music, tell me the news and weather, control my lights or simply set kitchen timers has become part of the daily routine.

The most interesting of the many other devices that I have reviewed in my Personal Tech column this year have also been the ones that, for one reason or another, are the hardest to get hold of.

Several virtual reality headsets are on general sale but most are either too limited in their software or capabilities, such as Google’s Daydream, or too expensive and take up too much room, including HTC Vive. Only the PlayStation VR has struck the right balance but overall, I believe VR will have a much longer road to mainstream acceptance than I had anticipated at the beginning of the year.

In wearable technology, the Apple Watch finally found its niche with a renewed focus on health and fitness. But as the smartwatch hype wanes, the more interesting advances in wearables were Snapchat’s fun, camera-toting Spectacles, which are available only at pop-up vending machines, and AirPods, Apple’s simple and reliable wireless headphones, which after a two-month delay are in vanishingly short supply.

Maybe the future will be distributed more evenly next year.

12 best of 2016

Google Home and Amazon Echo: virtual assistants get real
Google’s voice-controlled helper tops its rival, if you can put aside privacy concerns

PlayStation VR: the goldilocks of virtual reality
Easy to use, at a reasonable price and with a good offering of games, I have only one reservation

Rec Room: multiplayer VR game for HTC Vive
Bringing people together by giving them more to do than chit-chat

Rec Room

Snapchat Spectacles: making face-tech fun
Surprise and delight over discreet video-recording sunglasses


Apple AirPods: at last, reliable wireless headphones
I have some grumbles with this product but its signal cuts out less than competitors

Apple's Airpods

Apple Watch 2: focus on fitness
Waterproofing means the device can count your lengths in the pool while GPS tracks a run or ride

A new series 2 Apple smartwatch sits on display inside the Apple Inc. Covent Garden store in London, U.K., on Tuesday,on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Consumers buying Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 7 smartphones so far aren't grumbling about the lack of a headphone jack. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

Phantom 4 drone: a technical marvel with social challenges
The risk of collision and no-fly zones are two reasons why it is hard to justify cost of such expensive kit

iPhone 7 and Google Pixel: leaps forward in mobile photography
Both phones show that software is transforming photography just as digital cameras did before

Pokémon Go: an app phenomenon that may never be repeated
The craze shows that gamers like to be connected to others in the environment around them

People play the augmented reality mobile game "Pokemon Go" by Nintendo in Bryant Park, New York City, U.S. July 11, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich - RTSHH1C
© Reuters

Samsung Galaxy S7: the leading edge in smartphone aesthetics
Innovative screens are the shape of things to come in mobile devices

Left: Samsung Gear Fit 2, Right: Samsung S7 Edge

Eero and Google OnHub: fixing home WiFi
Frustration-free upgrades that even technophobes can handle

On Hub

Pearl Rearvision and Navdy: tomorrow’s auto tech in today’s cars
The balance between constant connectivity and technological distraction can be delicate

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