Dec. 20, 2013 at 9:00 AM ET
It was a year of great tech triumphs, including big and beautiful phablets, a new wave of easy-to-use fitness trackers and cheap-but-versatile gadgets like the Chromecast. The jury is still out on smartwatches. But there’s just as much cause for hand-wringing among tech companies whose new products flopped. From a fruit-named firm that has become the antithesis of Apple and an overheating laptop charger to a family tablet I wouldn’t wish on the bully from “A Christmas Story,” these are the top 10 tech fails of 2013.
The company formerly known as RIM recently reached a grisly milestone: less than 1 percent smartphone market share. This from a company that once dominated the market, back when physical keyboards were all the rage. Despite some software innovations in the BlackBerry 10 — including a Hub for all your messages and social updates — shoppers have largely ignored devices running the OS, including the Z10, Q10 and most recent phablet-sized Z30. As a result, the company recently posted a $4.4 billion loss. Installing Sybase’s John Chen as interim CEO and doubling down on enterprise may help. But right now, Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s future looks brighter than BlackBerry’s.
Getting early adopters to pledge more than $8.5 million for your concept is way different than getting mainstream shoppers to plunk down their hard-earned cash for the finished product. Ouya learned that lesson when its Android-powered gaming console flamed out almost immediately after it went on sale. Reviewers panned the dearth of high-quality titles and a poorly made controller that literally fell apart in some gamers’ hands. The Ouya also suffered from mediocre graphics performance, ironic for a console. A high-end Android phone paired with a Moga handheld controller makes for a much more potent combo.
HP Chromebook 11
Did you hear? Chromebooks are hot, and this one is the hottest yet. HP had to pull the Chromebook 11 from the market after reports surfaced that its microUSB powersupply was overheating. In its testing, Consumer Reports found that the temperature of the charger reached a disturbingly toasty 140 degrees. HP and Google issued a recall for 145,000 of the chargers, citing the danger to overheat or melt. It’s a shame HP had to shelve the Chromebook 11, as we appreciated its colorful design, vivid display and solid speakers, but it's now back on sale with a new power supply.
Samsung Galaxy Zoom
There are many ways to one-up the competition in the camera phone wars. Literally grafting a smartphone to a camera isn’t one of them. The Galaxy Zoom crams a 10X-optical zoom lens into a clunky Android device. Despite having a relatively small 4.3-inch display, this Frankengadget tipped the scales at 7.3 ounces, making it anything but pocket-friendly. And although the Galaxy Zoom produced good-lucking photos, it was too slow on the draw. No wonder this $199 AT&T “exclusive” isn’t flying off the shelves.
It’s never a good sign when a company CEO feels compelled to apologize for a botched product (remember Tim Cook and Apple Maps?). In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer joined that exalted group when she had to issue a mea culpa for Yahoo Mail’s days-long outage that left about 1 million people without access to their inboxes. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Yahoo Mail users have been flooding the Web with complaints for months over the service’s redesign. Taking away the option to sort mail alphabetically by sender has seemed to inspire the most ire. A Change.org petition pleading for Yahoo to bring back the old Yahoo Mail now has more than 41,000 signatures.
Vinci MV 7 Family Tablet
With a couple of notable exceptions, I generally don’t recommend “kids tablets,” because they often skimp on specs and performance compared with Amazon’s Kindle Fire line. Choosing a worst of the worst in this group wasn’t easy, but the Vinci MV 7 deserves this dubious distinction. For starters, the 7-inch display shows visible gridlines, and the battery lasted only 3.5 hours on our tests. That’s awful. Add in sluggish performance and a shocking lack of parental controls (this is a kids tablet, right?) and you have to wonder whether Vinci’s URL of vincigenius.com is a twisted joke.
Verizon 4G LTE
What good is having the most 4G LTE markets if you’re delivering 3G speeds? That exact thought crossed my mind as we tested smartphone after smartphone in 2013 that delivered poor data rates in pockets of New York City. For example, in our review of the Galaxy S4, the handset averaged 390 Kbps downloads and 380 Kbps uploads near our Fifth Avenue office at 20th street. I also had a devil of a time getting 4G LTE speeds at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. To be fair, Verizon’s network offered speedy throughput on the east side of Manhattan (37.1 Mbps down, 6.9 Mbps up), but the inconsistency became so infuriating I wound up choosing AT&T when purchasing the iPhone 5s. In November, Verizon’s CFO admitted the carrier was having trouble in some big cities. You think? The good news: an AWS network upgrade should add much-needed capacity.
More: Top 10 Smartphones
The HTC First will (hopefully) be the last smartphone pre-loaded with Facebook Home. This launcher on steroids hijacked the Android OS by putting the social network front and center. A steady stream of updates invaded your home screen, which you could double tap to Like. While many actually do like the floating Chat Heads that follow you around when messaging, you can get the same functionality on any Android phone with a simple download. AT&T wound up cutting the price of the First from $99 to 99 cents in less than a month, and now you can get it for free. Online only. Hmm, I wonder why?
Windows RT 8.1
The trouble for Windows RT started in 2012, but 2013 was the year every PC and tablet maker abandoned Microsoft’s gimped version of Windows 8 (now Windows 8.1). Now the only two remaining supporters are Microsoft and the company it acquired in Nokia. The Microsoft Surface 2 ($449) and the Lumia 2520 ($399) are actually quite compelling in terms of hardware, but the value proposition is way off. You can get the ASUS Transformer Book T100 running full Windows 8 — meaning you can run desktop apps in addition to Modern touch apps — for just $349 with keyboard included. Adding a keyboard to the above RT devices brings the total to $550 or more. Even cheap 8-inch Windows tablets now run the full OS, complete with Office preinstalled.
MSI Slidebook S20
I’m not a fan of sliding Windows 8 hybrids for a simple reason: the screen isn’t protected like a clamshell when it’s in your bag. But this is the worst product in an already sorry class. MSI had the gall to ask $1,200 for an Ultrabook whose small 11.6-inch screen slid up to reveal a cramped keyboard and no touchpad or pointing stick whatsoever. Have you ever tried to repeatedly select text by reaching across the deck to touch the screen? It’s annoying and downright painful. Subpar battery life and a sluggish SSD cemented this Slidebook as a stinker.