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14 Things BuzzFeed Tech Tried And Liked In 2016

All the apps, hacks, habits, and products that made our lives a little better in 2016.

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Here at BuzzFeed Tech, we're trying new stuff constantly. Companies send us products unsolicited; co-workers and friends and far-flung relatives corner us at parties to implore us to write about whatever thing they just discovered; our inboxes runneth over with PR pitches about the latest and greatest. But only a tiny fraction of that stuff ever makes it into our daily routines and changes the way we live our lives. That's what this list is — all the things that made us happier, safer, saner, more productive, and more connected in 2016, and that can maybe make you feel the same next year.

1. Organizing my apps by color

I think it's really cool that, if you put your bank app and your personal savings app into a folder on your iPhone, iOS will automatically name that folder "Finance." However, my digital life isn't really easily organized into categories like "Finance," "Health," "News," or "Games," and anyway, when I'm looking for, say, Instagram, I don't want to have to remember if it's under "Social" or "Photos." My big breakthrough this year was realizing that, actually, when I think Find Instagram, the first thing my brain thinks is rainbow. Just like when I think Find Twitter I think blue, or when I think Find Google Maps I think green. And so I organized my apps into folders by color, which sounds neurotic, but is actually just intuitive. Now Lyft, Airbnb, and Pocket are all saved in a folder titled "💕💕💕💕," while Zipcar, Nextdoor, and WhatsApp are in a folder titled "🍏🍏🍏🍏." Sometimes other people notice this system when they glance at my phone and look at me like I'm crazy, but I once met an Apple designer who does it too, so I'm pretty sure I'm right. Go ahead. Try it. —Caroline O'Donovan

2. Water-friendly phones

I love that the default for most flagship phones (iPhone, Galaxy S7, and flaming Note 7) except for the Pixel is that they will survive toilets, pools, river floats, etc., without bulky cases. Phones have been water-resistant in Japan forever (over a decade??), and it's ABOUT TIME the rest of the world catches up. —Nicole Nguyen

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3. Apple's Live Photos

I traveled more this year — for work and for pleasure — than I have in any previous year of my life, which means I also took a lot more pictures than ever before. The result is a formidable, deeply disorganized library comprising stray moments of my year. Sometimes, when I'm looking to kill a few minutes or if I'm feeling nostalgic for something, I'll pad through the little patchwork of colorful thumbnails and watch the days and weeks and months rush past under my thumb. I'll open up a few of the best photos and reminisce. It's a nice, tidy exercise of selective memory.

Late last year, though, Apple rolled out its Live Photos feature, and ever since it's unexpectedly changed the way I relive all of the weird, wonderful, dumb, and mundane moments of 2016. For the uninitiated, Live Photos is a nearly invisible feature that, when toggled, keeps your camera rolling before and after you snap the shutter on your picture, creating a little three-second video with sound; press on your photo and it animates almost like a GIF. It's one of the many throwaway bells and whistles that accompany new phone software and hardware updates — a little Easter egg designed to make your eyes widen a touch and give you the general impression that you're living just ever so slightly in the future.

I enabled the feature unwittingly late last year, and as a result my photo library has been transformed into a hypnotizing, moving archive of every memory I've seen fit to try to capture. Now my library is rich with new context — a photo of an acrobatic basket fisherman on Myanmar's Inle Lake is forever preserved with the sound of lapping water against our skinny little engine boat. With a touch of a finger, a photo of the park in fall at sunset reveals the orange and yellow leaves shimmering in the wind. The meticulously orchestrated but made-to-look-candid photos of my dog are appended with the moments where she turns away from the camera to drool and scratch herself indiscreetly.

There are unexpectedly poignant moments, too. A photo of my 90-year-old grandmother reflects the slow grace of her movements as she poses for a photo with her infant granddaughter at twilight at a family reunion this summer. Scrolling through moments like these, I can't help but think of the power these photos would have if the loved ones in the frame were to pass away. I think about how magical and heartbreaking and necessary it might feel to watch them come to life again, if only for an instant.

Mostly, though, I'm thankful for how messy they are. So many of my live photos from this year capture the awkward seconds before and after a posed picture or the mundanity of a seemingly insignificant moment at home. They're what might have once been throwaway photos. But now even these dumb, haphazardly shot memories are imbued with meaning. More than anything else, they're a reminder that, unlike most of the still images themselves, life is messy, weird, unexpected, and occasionally beautiful and poignant. —Charlie Warzel

4. Tile Slim

Que dolor, where is my wallet? I have this, like, sleek modern wallet made out of machined aluminum (atoms are the new bits, etc.) that I love because it forced me to keep it simple — just my license, debit card, credit card, insurance card, Muni pass, medical marijuana card, elevator key, and I'm out. It keeps my pockets slim like a jim, but I lose the thing all the damn time. (See: previous reference to medical pot card.) Or I did. Then I got this Tile Slim. It's a little card, slimmer than a HID-style access card, with a Bluetooth radio. It connects with a smartphone app, which can locate the Tile on a map and even ring an extremely small speaker in the card.

Usually, mine is in the couch.

Anyway, it's noble, and you should buy one and cram it in someone's stocking, you little rapscallion, you. —Mat Honan

5. Sending voice notes on WhatsApp

My best friend moved to another country a year and a half ago, and a few months back, we started sending each other voice notes. When you have a 12-hour time difference, sometimes this is the closest you can get to a phone call for several days or even weeks, and unlike iMessages, WhatsApp's voice notes do not disappear after you send them. This is the digital equivalent of sending letters, except it's faster and more gratifying. You get to hear the voice of the person you love — there is nothing better than that! —Priya Anand

6. @OfficerEdith

Jerome got to warm up in the "Officer Edith Super Toasty Vehicle Incubator™ "

If you have ever looked at an animal pic and thought "same" or "literally me," or even if you haven't — actually, especially if you haven't — then you need to be following @OfficerEdith on Twitter. Officer Edith — an "irascible crusader and protector of all animals" at the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control, according to her Twitter bio — tweets adorable, funny, sad, disgusting, and often fascinating pictures of rescued animals, with her zany commentary. What Sen. Cory Booker once was to snowed-in residents of Newark, Officer Edith is to the strays and exotic beasts of Frisco: Hers is one of those accounts that make you say, "Oh, so this is why Twitter was invented."

Her charges become characters, sometimes absurdly, and sometimes with real pathos. Jerome, an iguana rescued at chilly Ocean Beach, "had heard iguanas like the sun and the beach, poor Jerome didn't know ocean beach is practically arctic. No margaritas here old chap"; to a raccoon caught in a tight spot, she wrote, "Oh silly bum, don't be ashamed, getting squidged between buildings and then rescued by ACO's is raccoon initiation." To caption a close-up of an exotic bird, presumably saved from some unfortunate fate, Officer Edith noted: "If she had eyebrows she'd raise one at me in contempt." A shot of an adorable little dog dressed in a flight suit had a sobering backstory: "This top gun test pilot was hit by a car today. While we chuckled at his flight suit, it probably saved his life."

Officer Edith joined Twitter in October 2015, just in time to rescue my Twitter timeline in 2016. I found myself glued to Twitter this year, numbly absorbing one depressing headline after another, but Officer Edith provided occasional relief. In September, a couple days after the first presidential debate, she tweeted a picture that could have been a still from Parks and Recreation: "Officer Martinez is supposed to be running dispatch, instead, he's squeezing a pug and singing 'circle of life.'" More recently, on a night when my timeline was full of the latest incremental updates from Trump Tower, Officer Edith tweeted a shot of a guinea pig's rather large testicles, with the caption "When threatened, the Guinea Pig displays a decoy face. Predators find it unsettling." Or, you know, hilarious. —William Alden

7. iMessage effects

Of the many doohickeys and flourishes and lily-gilding Easter eggs included in the newest iOS update, by far the most purely delightful are the fireworks, shooting star, lasers, balloons, and confetti you can now unleash on any poor soul with whom you text. Spice up a boring “I’m running late” missive to your co-worker with confetti! Tell your significant other about a reality star's latest look with fireworks! Apprise your parents of your new tattoo with ~*LaSeRs*~! Is it necessary or useful or in any real way worth the millions of dollars Apple doubtlessly spent developing it? Heck no! Is it fun? Absolutely. (Sent with Laser effect)Ellen Cushing

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8. Kiwake

So, I am a big oversleeper. Major snooze-buttoner. I sleep like nine hours a night. I can sleep through anything. My sleepiness, while cute on a Sunday morning, is not so much a boon in the professional world. I've never gone in for those alarm clocks that shine lights on your face or get gradually louder or move away from you, because that seems like overkill, but this year, I found an app that actually helps with the snooze habit. It's called Kiwake. This is how it works: Before you go to bed, you take a picture of something in the room where you are sleeping. When the alarm goes off in the morning, you have to get out of bed and take a picture of that thing again before it will go off. Congratulations, now you're out of bed. The key here is, obviously, not to get back into bed; for this reason, I usually use a photo of a framed drawing of a banana that hangs above my coffee machine, so that I can immediately start making coffee. Kiwake's system also includes brain games (tap all the tiles as they fall, remember four colors or shapes in a row, remember which cup the bean is under), as well as "motivations" that you have to acknowledge by swiping them (if you, like me, don't have a personal mantra or whatever, you can use a picture of someone or something that makes your life worth living as your "motivation"), but these features are definitely secondary to the get-out-of-bed photo-matching thing. A word to the wise: If you don't want to set an alarm, make sure Kiwake is off — the app works because it's insistent, and the only way to make it stop other than to follow the instructions is often to delete it. —Caroline O'Donovan

9. Gboard

My smartphone, two phones ago, had a physical keyboard. I delayed upgrading as long as possible, and then it had to be pried out of my hands. (I remember telling a Verizon employee around 2013 that I wanted my new phone to have a keyboard. His response was something to the effect of “We literally don’t sell those anymore.”) I type a lot, OK? And the thought of pecking out texts one letter at a time — on a tiny screen, using the default iOS keyboard — made me want to peck my eyes out. SwiftKey was an acceptable swipe-enabled predictive keyboard. But Gboard, which Google introduced in May, has been truly great. It has a built-in Google search bar, so you don’t have to leave the app to hunt down a link to whichever restaurant or news story you’re discussing. It lets you find and add GIFs in a, well, jiff. I also find that Gboard predicts and corrects my typing with a high degree of accuracy. These conveniences sound small, but when you tweet on the go as much as I do, they add up. Of course, with every word you type, you’re giving Google that much more access to your data. But hey, what else is new. —Stephanie M. Lee

10. Deleting — and then un-deleting — Facebook

I spent most of 2016 hating Facebook. In the months leading up to the election, the social network felt like little more than an outrage factory: a crowded, loud, ugly, inhuman place good only for yelling at my distant relatives, being bullied into throwing parties for near-strangers, and finding out that people I previously adored had absolutely wretched opinions about culture and current events. In March, I'd deleted the app from my phone altogether, and by the summer, I was checking the site once a week or so. I was happier, saner, more productive. I forgot a lot of birthdays.

And then, on Dec. 2, a fire ripped through a warehouse a few miles from my home in Oakland, California, killing 36 people, some of whom were my friends. And literally overnight, Facebook became essential. It was where I gobbled up any information I could find at a moment when the local news and official updates were error-ridden and torturously slow; where people I hadn’t seen in years messaged me to ask if I was OK; where details about benefit shows and vigils and donation drives and memorials spread; where we prayed for the missing and, later, remembered the dead. I watched press conferences streamed live by local news affiliates and scrolled through the tributes stacking up on victims’ pages and I ❤️ and 😢-ed every acquaintance’s anguished status with the raw abandon of a broken heart and the kind of emotional vulnerability only really afforded by a screen. People at work or on the subway or, yeah, on Twitter may have been oblivious, but on Facebook, it seemed, everyone knew how I was feeling, because they were feeling the same way too. In a year when Facebook felt bigger — in ambition, in size, in sheer, world-changing power — than ever before, I liked it best when it felt small: all the people I knew and loved IRL in the same private, virtual room, grieving together. —Ellen Cushing

11. @NYPLEmoji

The New York Public Library has a treasure trove of digitized images from the past, more than 708,000 in all. All that history can be overwhelming. But exploring it with emojis — that’s way fun. In August, the library introduced a Twitter bot, @NYPLEmoji, that’ll tweet a picture in response to any emoji you send it. Tweeting at it maniacally has unearthed gems from all corners of history. I fired off the thinking face and got a rare print of a human skeleton deep in thought while looking at a skull (meta-ness, circa 1545). Sometimes the results are more approximate in spirit than literal: The poop emoji triggered a print of piles of brown cannonballs, which kind of look like poop emojis if you use your imagination. And the cheese emoji prompted a 1937 photo of a Manhattan cheese store. That photo was taken by Berenice Abbott. You may not have heard of her, but she started out as an assistant to the legendary artist Man Ray before becoming an influential photographer of New York City in her own right. That’s the best part of the bot: You send a mere emoji into the universe and end up learning something meaningful. —Stephanie M. Lee

12. Reflectacles

A @nytimes byline isn't good enough for @fmanjoo. He needs to put a F on his chest. @mat is just happy to be here

Hello! It is I! The guy with the the crazy-ass, look-at-me glasses! I am hard to miss because my reflective specs bounce light around like a wee Smurf dribbling a wee basketball. While they aren't designed for cycling per se, they are great for after-dark rides, where they reflect light so well that they effectively turn your face into a rave, as far as oncoming traffic is concerned. Yet despite the increased visibility to outsiders, none of that illumination is reflected back at you, so your vision remains unchanged. They're also great at parties and pretty much anywhere else.

The frames come in a variety of colors, which shoot off different-colored light, and in prescription or nonprescription strength. (You can get them as sunglasses too.)

$99 — available for now exclusively via Kickstarter. —Mat Honan

13. Night Shift and Night Mode

Apparently staring at screens right before bed destroys sleep, which, as we know, is the key to success. Which is why I am so happy that Apple and Google brought f.lux, a tool that reduces blue light when the sun goes down, to phones. Apple copied the concept for the iPhone (Night Shift), and Google copied it for the Android 7.1 (Night Mode) this year. —Nicole Nguyen

14. VR

A lot of techies said that 2016 was the "year of VR," which wasn't really the case. It's not a widespread thing yet. Google Cardboard was fine but uncomfortable, we all got motion-sick, and these high-powered headsets are super expensive. But the release of all of these headsets did allow a lot more people, me included, to have that initial "Holy shit!" moment with the technology. I watched a train steaming toward me turn into a flock of crows, which then turned into ribbons. It was amazing! I won't soon forget that first feeling of wonder. —Blake Montgomery

Ellen Cushing is an articles editor for BuzzFeed News' tech section and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Ellen Cushing at ellen.cushing@buzzfeed.com.

William Alden is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. Alden covers the technology industry.

Contact William Alden at will.alden@buzzfeed.com.

Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.

Contact Mat Honan at mat.honan@buzzfeed.com.

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

Priya Anand is a tech and transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Priya Anand at priya.anand@buzzfeed.com.

Nicole Nguyen covers products and personal technology for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@buzzfeed.com.

Stephanie Lee is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Stephanie M. Lee at stephanie.lee@buzzfeed.com.

Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Blake Montgomery at blake.montgomery@buzzfeed.com.

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