The Next Big Thing in technology almost always hits the market with a high price tag. Wait just a little while, though, and a new technology will spawn a number of products across a range of prices. Some of the top tech trends of 2015 are already accessible to the masses. Here's a look at five high-end products that exemplify these trends, along with affordable alternatives for budget-conscious consumers.
2015 Technology Trends: 5 Hot Products for Less
Facebook-owned Oculus has stoked a high level of anticipation for the Rift virtual reality headset, due in the first quarter of 2016. The company promises that the Oculus Rift, with its high-quality optics and tracking system, will give wearers the sense of "being there." Headphones are built in, and a pair of controllers slip over each hand for gaming; a more traditional Xbox controller is also available. Oculus has not released pricing details, but estimates start at $350. Add a sufficiently powerful gaming PC and the company's CEO has said the cost of the virtual reality experience could reach $1,500.
Google Cardboard viewers are literally made of cardboard, which encases an Android smartphone to create a handheld virtual reality headset. Certified viewer kits are available from various companies, and specially designed apps immerse the user in interactive, 3D worlds for gameplay and virtual exploration of places around the globe and galaxy. The I Am Cardboard VR Cardboard Kit costs $15 and many of the apps are free.
Tesla is the company that jumpstarted the still-burgeoning trend of electric motor vehicles. Its current top-end model, the Model S P85D, is a classy-looking sedan that runs more than 250 miles on a single charge, a far greater distance than any other all-electric car on the market. The coveted vehicle includes features such as keyless entry, a navigation system, leather seats, and Xenon headlights. The P85D starts at $105,000 -- without a single option. (The best of those options has to be the Ludicrous Speed upgrade, which rockets the posh four-door from 0 to 60 mph in a blazing 2.8 seconds -- for an extra $10,000.)
When EV Obsession ranked the 10 best electric cars for 2015, the Nissan Leaf came in at No. 2 behind the Tesla Model S. The Leaf starts at a shade under $30,000 before buyers cash in available tax incentives (including a federal tax credit of $7,500). This best-selling all-electric vehicle is a comfortably sized compact hatchback with heated seats, a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a digital dashboard with navigation system. Perhaps the only notable limitation is the range: an average of 84 miles between charges. But the Leaf can easily manage a short commute to work and a few errands before coming home to charge.
Professional-quality drones aren't just for high-powered military operations anymore. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that non-military drones (the general term for unmanned flying vehicles) will become a $105 million industry this year. Filmmakers use these eyes in the sky for aerial shots, and creative consumers are finding plenty of other uses. With the popular DJI Phantom 3 Professional, pros and power users can shoot 4K ultra-high-definition video and control the drone and camera from as far away as one mile in open areas. A small tablet or smartphone can be attached to the controller to show an HD feed of what the camera is recording in real time. The flight time is about 23 minutes, and one button brings the drone back to its original takeoff spot. The price is sky-high: $1,259. Even DJI's standard model carries a list price of $799.
The Blade 180 QX HD is a pretty lithe drone compared with the costly big boys. The Ready-To-Fly Version, priced at $190, includes a 720p high-definition video camera, so there's no need to buy a separate camera or try to duct tape a GoPro to this drone. It can fly for about five to 10 minutes before it needs recharging. A stability mode makes flying easier for beginners, and expert users can shift to an agility mode for more precise control over the drone. The camera can snap 1.3MP photos and accept microSD cards up to 32GB.
Three-dimensional printing -- whereby physical objects are created, layer by layer, according to digital blueprints from a computer -- has exciting applications in science and manufacturing and is increasingly available for home use. Even with 3D printing going mainstream, consumers who want to get the most out of this technology should be prepared to spend a bundle on a 3D printer. The highly rated MakerGear M2 -- hardly the most expensive model available -- commands $1,775 and prints layers as thin as a sheet of paper. The build area (where 3D items are created) measures 8 x 10 x 8 inches. It has a sturdy steel frame and a heated platform to prevent warping. The machine is designed to work with Simplify3D software (sold separately) but is also compatible with a variety of open source programs.
Printrbot grew out of a Kickstarter campaign and has become known for high-quality yet relatively basic and inexpensive 3D printers. The Printrbot Simple costs $599 fully assembled or $539 for a kit, and assembly shouldn't be out of a typical hobbyist's league. The printer has a build area of 6 x 6 x 6 inches and a strong steel and aluminum frame. It includes an auto-leveling feature to keep 3D creations properly aligned; an optional heated print bed adds $150 to the price. The kit doesn't include 3D software, but Printrbot recommends using Cura 15.04, which is available as a free download.
Just as it did with portable music players and tablets, Apple is leading the charge toward making the smartwatch a mainstream, must-have item. While the Apple Watch Sport starts at $349, the high-end Watch Edition line starts at a cool 10 grand and tops out with an 18-karat-gold model for $17,000. The Retina display, available in a rectangular 38 mm or 42 mm case, has an ambient light sensor to make it easy to see in different lighting conditions. Apple Watches also include a heart rate sensor (to challenge fitness trackers) and support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections. The battery runs for 18 hours on one charge.
For consumers unwilling to spend $300 or more on a wristwatch, the $99 Pebble Watch tops several lists as the best smartwatch for the money. As with an Apple Watch, iPhone owners get texts, notifications, and emails right to their wrists. The watch tracks fitness stats, plays music, and is water resistant to 50 meters. Unlike the Apple Watch, it gets a week's worth of battery life and works with Android phones, as well. The app options top 6,000 -- no match for Apple's App Store but impressive for such a new platform -- and include favorites such as Twebble (Twitter for Pepple), TripAdvisor, Evernote, and PayPal. The e-paper display (like a Kindle vs. an iPad) is easy to read. The aesthetic and materials make for an informal look; higher-end steel versions start at $150.Gina Martinez contributed to this report.