Last year, mobile gear got slimmer and displays got bigger. Now in 2015, you can expect a slew of new productivity-boosting gadgets, including wearable computers and the return of the stylus. Here are four gadgets that will help you do your job in the New Year.
Digital styluses are making a comeback.
The stylus may sound like holdover from a time when touch screens weren't equipped to accurately register finger taps. But some of the best mobile devices on the market now pack in excellent digital pens. Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is a good example; it comes with a pen, so you can start taking handwritten notes right on the screen. Meanwhile, Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 is a big smartphone with an integrated stylus that includes a pressure-sensitive tip, for more-natural writing and drawing. Then there are so-called "smartpens" like the Livescribe Echo, which are special ink pens that can beam a digital version of the notes you write on actual paper over to your mobile device.
How it will make you more productive: A regular notepad can't touch the versatility of a good digital stylus. For one thing, pen-and-paper notes are easy to lose, while digital notes can be stored in the cloud so they're backed up and accessible from anywhere. Many note-taking programs can even transcribe your digital notes into text, so you can search for specific keywords later. Plus, a stylus simply provides a more precise way to navigate around a touch-screen interface.
A tablet is a great tool for on-the-go productivity, but it's not as versatile as a traditional laptop computer. That's why 2-in-1 tablet/laptop hybrids are such a hit. Giving you the best of both worlds, they combine a touch-screen display with a separate, snap-on keyboard. The Surface Pro 3, for example, is a tablet with desktop-class performance that's compatible with Microsoft's Type Cover, a super-thin keyboard that snaps on and doubles as a screen protector. Meanwhile, the Asus Transformer Book T200 is a zippy Windows 8.1 tablet that can act like a clamshell notebook when you connect it to the included keyboard tray. And in 2015, Apple is rumored to be preparing a super-size, productivity-focused tablet dubbed the iPad Pro, which might include a keyboard.
How it will make you more productive: Hybrids give you the best of both worlds, so you can use the display like a tablet when you need portability and quick access to the touch screen, and you can connect a keyboard for extended typing sessions and more-precise pointing via a trackpad. Plus, a 2-in-1 hybrid can help you pare down the number of devices you carry on your daily commute; instead of a separate laptop and tablet weighing you down, you get the same functionality from one hybrid device.
Modern smartwatches have been available for about two years now, but the device category didn't really hit its stride until the end of 2014. Last year saw the launch of Google's Android Wear platform, a mobile operating system designed specifically for smartwatches. With it came a slew of great Android Wear devices, including Motorola's Moto 360 and the Asus ZenWatch. Pebble also launched the excellent Pebble Steel smartwatch, which lacks a color display but offers unbeatable battery life and app selection. And while those devices are still great buys, Apple is set to steal the show in 2015 with the pending launch of the Apple Watch, one of the slickest and most feature-packed smartwatches yet.
How it will make you more productive: Smartwatches are handy because they deliver all your messages and alerts right to your wrist. That way, you never miss a call, email or calendar appointment just because you left your smartphone on vibrate. Plus, smartwatches let you perform all sorts of actions using voice commands, from sending a text message to retrieving turn-by-turn driving directions.
Phablets — smartphones with screens measuring 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) or larger — went mainstream in 2014. Smartphone makers churned out tons of huge devices, with big screens that give you a lot of room to work. Last year even marked the launch of the iPhone 6 Plus, Apple's first-ever phablet, which packs a huge, 5.5-inch display. Meanwhile, Samsung produced the Galaxy Note 4, a 5.7-inch (14.5 cm) smartphone with a handy integrated stylus. And Google went even bigger, with its 6-inch (15.2 cm) Nexus 6, one of the biggest phablets on the market. Large displays are so popular that it's getting hard to find a flagship phone with a screen smaller than 5 inches (12.7 cm). Expect the average smartphone to get even bigger in 2015.
How it will make you more productive: If you use your smartphone for work, a small screen can start to feel cramped. That's the beauty of a phablet: It gives you a lot of real estate for screen-intensive tasks like viewing documents and editing spreadsheets on the go. Some phablets, such as the Note 4, even include special software that lets you run two apps on-screen at the same time for better multitasking.