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The Pogies: Best Tech Ideas of the Year

Welcome to the Sixth Annual Pogie Awards!

Yes, it’s time once again to recognize the best tech ideas of the year. Not the best products — sometimes, a Pogie award-winning feature crops up in a product that, over all, is a turkey. No, these awards go to the best ideas in products, clever twists that make life just a little bit better.

First, however, let’s get a few things straight: These are fake awards. There’s no trophy. There’s no ceremony. There’s no $500-a-plate dinner. It’s just me, quietly making notes all year long. (Every year, a few earnest P.R. people write me to ask about the deadline for submissions. If I had any brains, I’d tell ’em it’s Aug. 15 — and I’d tell ’em about the $300 application fee.)

Here we go. Keep hands and feet inside the tram at all times!

FACE-AWARE ZOOMING (BEST BUY INSIGNIA FRAMES) Like many digital picture frames, Best Buy’s can add an attractive transition effect between slide show photos. It offers the Ken Burns effect as one of the transition styles. With this effect, the photos are constantly in motion, gradually zooming in while cross-fading from one to the next.

The trouble with the Ken Burns effect, of course, is that the computer generally has no clue what part of the photo it’s zooming into. You often wind up with a beautiful, graceful, professional-looking zoom — into your mother’s knees.

Best Buy, however, built in face-recognition software. If it detects a face in a photo, it zooms into that, or from one to the next if there are several. It even removes red-eye on the fly. Tiny details, yes — but smart ones.

IMOVIE MOVIE TRAILERS Plenty of software makes you more productive or more efficient — but Apple’s iMovie ’11 actually makes you laugh. Its new Movie Trailers feature gives you a choice of 15 professional-looking movie trailers: action, documentary, drama, romantic comedy and so on.

Each is a template into which you insert clips from your own home videos; a storyboard screen recommends dropping an action shot here, a group shot there. The software provides the rest, including titles with very Hollywood animated effects, stunning backgrounds and, above all, hilariously on-target movie music, recorded just for iMovie by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Then it spits out a thoroughly convincing movie trailer in the style you chose. It’s amazing to see how scenes from your own mundane life can be transformed with a little help from some epic music and eye-catching credits.

If anything can persuade visitors to sit through your home movies, this is it.

WORD LENS When a reader sent me a video of this iPhone app, I wrote back: “Very funny!” I was convinced that the video was fake.

But it wasn’t. You point the iPhone’s camera at anything written in Spanish — say, a sign, headline or restaurant menu — and you see, on the screen, the English translation.

The crazy mind-blower is that you see the original sign — same angle, color, background material, lighting — with new writing on it! Somehow, the app erases the original text and replaces it with new lettering, in the same type size and spacing, but in English. (Spanish-to-English and English-to-Spanish are each $5. The free version demonstrates the fundamental magic by rewriting the sign’s text sdrawkcab.)

It’s a word for word, literal translation; don’t expect poetry or even perfect grammar. And complicated backgrounds or fonts confuse it. But this is software magic.

WINDOWS PHONE 7 CAMERA BUTTON Microsoft Windows Phone 7 is a rival to the iPhone and Android phones, but with a genuinely fresh, smart design. One example: You can use the phone’s camera even when the phone itself is turned off. Just hold down the shutter button to turn on only the camera “side.” You spend less time fussing, waiting and missing photo ops.

FASTMAC U-SOCKET With every passing month, more gadgets can be recharged from a U.S.B. jack: music players (including iPods), cellphones (including iPhones and Android phones), cameras, GPS units and so on. Which means that to charge them, you typically need a computer that, itself, plugs into a power outlet.

Not anymore. This $20 wall plate includes two regular three-prong power outlets — and two standard U.S.B. jacks. Now you can plug gadgets directly into the wall to recharge, no computer needed.

SAMSUNG TWIN VIEW REMOTE The Samsung 9000 series is a family of shockingly thin, chrome-backed flat LED TV screens. Terrific picture, excellent blacks, 3-D capable, Internet widgets, blah-blah-blah.

But the coolest part is the remote. It’s a responsive, compact color touch-screen remote (about the size of an iPhone) — and it offers Twin View. That’s where the remote’s screen shows whatever the TV is showing. If you take the remote to the kitchen or bathroom with you, you can take a break without missing anything. Or you can surreptitiously monitor what your kids are watching downstairs.

Strange bedfellows

SONY A55 TRANSLUCENT MIRROR In a regular S.L.R. camera (single-lens reflex — those big black pro cameras), light enters the lens, hits a mirror and is bounced up to your eye and, simultaneously, onto a focusing sensor. Unfortunately, when you take the photo, the mirror has to flip out of the way so that the light falls on the image sensor (the “film”). At that point, the camera can’t focus. That’s why most S.L.R.’s can’t change focus during burst-mode shots, or while filming video.

Sony’s A55 camera ($850) solves that problem by using a translucent mirror. It splits light between the focusing sensor and the image sensor. The mirror never moves, so the autofocus never goes blind. The camera can take 10 shots a second, refocusing all the way — no other camera can do that — and change focus as you pan or zoom, gorgeously and cinematically. No wonder this was Popular Photography’s camera of the year.

SAMSUNG PL90 FLIP-OUT U.S.B. When you want to transfer photos from your camera to your computer, you probably hunt for the U.S.B. cable. The masterstroke here: this camera has a flip-out U.S.B. jack, just like the Flip camcorder. So you never need to pack or find a cable or a card reader when you want to transfer pictures; the camera connects right to the computer.

CABLE COMPANY WI-FI ALLIANCES Last year, America’s cable TV companies began installing regionwide wireless Internet hot spots, free for use by their cable Internet customers. Your laptop, phone or Touch is always online when you’re in public places around town. It was supposed to be an irresistible bonus, a freebie that their phone company rivals couldn’t match.

This year, some of them had an even better idea: team up. In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, for example, Cablevision, Time Warner and Comcast decided to merge their Wi-Fi networks. Now any customer of any one of those companies can enjoy the Wi-Fi hot spots provided by the other two as well — free. Competition makes strange bedfellows, eh?

CHECK DEPOSIT APPS If you rate Pogie nominees by the number of hours, miles and headaches saved, surely this one should walk away with the Pogie Ultimo.

Any customer of Chase Bank (and some customers of USAA, which had the idea first) can deposit a check just by taking a picture of it with an iPhone or Android phone. That’s right: sign the back, use the app to photograph the front and back, type the amount, and tap send.

You’ve just made a fully legitimate deposit; at this point, you can actually rip up the check. No deposit slip, no driving, no A.T.M. envelopes. It’s good technology that benefits the environment, the parking lots and you.

And that, friends, is a beautiful thing.

Happy high-tech new year!

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.