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TUAW's Best of 2012 Personal Picks: Michael Grothaus, and the year that wasn't

In my opinion, 2012 was a lackluster year for the Apple ecosystem and the tech sector as a whole. Smartphones are now ubiquitous and this is the year the tablet hit mainstream adoption. While those are both good things, the whole touch computing world is now five years old and innovation and excitement seems to be taking a back seat to more of the same old-same old.

2012 brought us more Instagram clones, more Angry Birds knock-offs, and an endless array of people asking me to review their Kickstarter projects. I remember a world pre-2012 when developers and accessory makers would ask me to review real, finished products. Even the self-righteous outrage in the tech media about Twitter's third-party client TOS changes that brought about the (horribly named) App.net attracted only the geekiest of the tech world. After all, how is a Twitter knockoff that charges annual subscription fees going to gain mass adoption among users in the non-techie world?

Before I depress people more about the state of tech in 2012, let's talk about a few bright spots. Yes, most of these were because I need to pick something that says "this was good" -- that's why my category choices are a bit generic. Hopefully 2013 will be a more exciting year for tech.

Best iOS device: iPhone 5

TUAW's Best of 2012 Personal Picks Michael Grothaus or, the year that wasn'tThis year we saw the iPad 3, the iPad 4, the iPad mini, and the new iPod touch in addition to the iPhone 5. That's a lot of new iOS devices in one year. And while the iPad mini deserves praise for its design and lightness, the best iOS device of the year is the iPhone 5. Its thin profile, look and feel, and that extra bit of screen space turned an aging design into something sleek and sexy again.

I never thought adding just a half-inch (diagonally) of space to the screen would change the user experience that much, but it did. Matter of fact, that half-inch is just enough that I do most of my web browsing on my iPhone now instead of my iPad.

Best Mac: MacBook Pro with Retina display

TUAW's Best of 2012 Personal Picks Michael Grothaus or, the year that wasn'tApple had two major Mac product launches this year: MacBook Pros with Retina displays and the new optical drive-less iMacs. While the new iMacs are sleek and beautiful, the best Mac award goes to the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Why the 15-inch and not the 13-inch? Because the 15-inch is actually a little thinner than the 13-inch. Also, as my office is mobile, I prefer to carry the largest screen around with me that I can. For me, working in Word or Pages on a 15-inch screen is leaps and bounds better than working on a 13-inch screen. And, as with the iPhone and iPad before it, once you use a Retina display, it's hard to work on anything non-Retina.

Best iOS game: The Walking Dead

TUAW's Best of 2012 Personal Picks Michael Grothaus or, the year that wasn'tThis is the one thing on my list that is truly a bright and shining example of a standout product in 2012.

Yeah, there were tens of thousands of new iOS games this year, so why pick The Walking Dead? Because it brought back my faith that video games could be used to convey emotional, gripping stories. And that's where this game succeeds wildly. The entire team at Telltale Games deserves props for game play, art direction, and everything else that goes into making a game. However, it's the writers that deserve a standing ovation.

The best video games on any platform (almost like a good book) are the ones that can get the reader emotionally attached to the characters. More than that, the best games (again, like the best books) are the ones that let us peek into the human condition and tell us something about the world around us -- and ourselves. And yes, the game is set in a world where zombies walk the earth, but that in no way implies that the story is not compelling or relevant.

The world of iOS gaming is primarily dominated by "casual" games. They're games like Doodle Jump and Angry Birds (both fun games, mind you) that we play when we have five minutes to kill while on the train or waiting for an appointment. Games with complex, gripping stories are a rarity outside of the console world. That's why The Walking Dead is such an outstanding game.

If you haven't played it, grab it this week while the first episode is free. The game is normally $4.99 for the first episode and $4.99 for each additional episode (or $14.99 if you buy the remaining episodes at once). There are five episodes in total and, once completed, they form a compelling story. Also keep in mind that The Walking Dead game is based on the comic book universe and not the TV series; however, players can enjoy the game without familiarity with either series.

Best iOS app: Google Maps

TUAW's Best of 2012 Personal Picks Michael Grothaus or, the year that wasn'tEnough has been said about Apple Maps this year. It was a huge mess that led to the firing of at least two senior executives at Apple and was a rare major failing on the company's part. Sure, Apple will keep building on its maps, and sometime in the future the company's back-end database may be adequate for most users.

In the meantime, users are flocking to Google Maps via the new dedicated iOS app. In less than 48 hours there were over 10 million downloads of the app; while it wasn't out in time to be included in Apple's "Most downloaded apps" lists this year, something tells me that in its three short weeks of 2012 downloads, it may end up as the most downloaded app of the year.

Besides being a wonderfully designed app with vector maps and turn-by-turn directions -- and an incredible POI database and search features -- I love the Google Maps app so much because it let me come back to the iPhone. I was finally able to buy that iPhone 5 I wanted so much, rather than bailing out to a Samsung phone.

Best reader: The paperback

TUAW's Best of 2012 Personal Picks Michael Grothaus or, the year that wasn'tI read a lot. My pace is about one book a week. This year I gave iBooks a real shot, having bought ten books through the iBookstore. And while the iPad's Retina display made ebooks much more pleasurable to read, the iPad is still too heavy and distracting to use as a dedicated e-reader. I also gave the new Kindle a shot. Again, nice, but for me it doesn't compare to a printed book.

The only e-reader I found that I liked (primarily due to its size) was the Txtr Beagle, which I reviewed for The Guardian. However, that e-reader won't be out anywhere until next year, and in the US even later than in Europe, so I can't recommend it yet (not to mention I played with a prototype). 2012 saw e-readers move in the right direction, but for now the old-fashioned paperback book still rules.

I wish picking the winners of tech in 2012 had been more work, with a larger pool of contenders to sort through. There just weren't. While I feel my choices (particularly The Walking Dead) are all bright spots, here's hoping 2013 brings much more than 2012 did.

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