Looking back I can hardly remember what gadgets were hot on my mind as I boarded the short flight from Oakland to Las Vegas for CES 2011. I remember that show featuring an onslaught of dual-core mobile devices and a sexy electric car that still hasn’t shipped, but mainly I remember meeting Jon and shooting my first video for the Buffalo with him. What a year it’s been!

Looking forward, CES 2012 is a scant few weeks away and while I’m expecting to hear words like, “Quad Core,” “Connected Home,” and “Windows Phone” quite a bit in Vegas starting January 9, who knows what the show – and the year it kicks off – will bring in the way of life-altering consumer technology.

We’ll get to trying to predict the future soon enough. For now, let’s return to looking back – here are my personal picks for the 11 Most Important Gadgets of the Year, 2011.These are not “The Most Bestest” things of the year, but rather the 11 I picked as being extra important for one reason or another. I’ll explain the rationale behind each choice as we go.

1. HP TouchPad

The TouchPad epitomizes almost everything that could possibly happen in early 21st Century Silicon Valley – in one product. The resurrection of Palm. The creepy Pre ads. The teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The white knight with the HP logo riding in to save the day. The excitement around the possibilities of innovative technology (webOS) finally joining hands with an industry pillar with deep pockets and solid production and distribution channels already in place. The launch! The promises that this time would be different! The … waiting … and waiting … and waiting for TouchPad to hit the stores. The CEO caught in a scandal and ousted. The replacement CEO trying to move the giant corporation onto an entirely new path. The cancellation of any and everything related to webOS after nary a year owning it. The swallowing of a billion dollar loss. The PR spin providing new hope that maybe webOS isn’t actually dead yet, please hold. The firesales that made TouchPad the second-best selling tablet on the market. The ouster of another CEO. The installation of Meg Whitman as the latest CEO. The sending of webOS out to pasture in the land known as Open Source. The bundling of TouchPad with random accessories in limited quantity specials on TigerDirect. And so it goes.

TouchPad may or may not have been the most impressive tablet computer to hit the market in 2011, but to me it’s the most important gadget of the year for what it represents: The endless cycle of everything from marketing bravado to whiz-bang innovation to revolving door CEOs to the realities of the consumer electronics marketplace that is high-tech American in the year 2011.

1a. Amazon Kindle Fire

Despite middling reviews, Amazon is selling one million Kindle Fires per week. All hail the commodification of Android! All hail the giant online retailer as the new king of personal technology! All hail the use of OEM-sourced hardware to help you sell more streaming media rentals! All hail cheap stuff that lets you buy more cheap stuff with JUST ONE CLICK!

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2. Apple MacBook Air (Summer Refresh)

2011 was the year Apple’s ultralight portable went from underpowered laptop for rich people to the computer of the future. This year’s refresh is built on the power of Intel’s i3/5/7 chipsets, CPUs that provide enough horsepower to get most people through most of the stuff they need computers for. The current line of Airs are, in my opinion, the best machines Apple’s ever made, and have already spawned some shockingly similar looking Ultrabooks from the likes of Asus, et al. Look for Apple’s MacBook Pro and Air lines to converge even further next year.

3. Sonos Play:5

Sonos Play: 5

2011 was the year Sonos went mainstream. Once exclusively the preferred audio system of really rich nerds everywhere, Sonos took aim at the consumer market with a corporate rebranding and a pair of accessibly priced wireless speaker systems. While the $299 Play:3 is the cheapest way to start a Sonos system, an extra C-Note gets you the Play:5. Featuring a five driver array and integrated digital amp, Play:5 has enough juice to fill the average living room with clear, full sound streamed from your local library or myriad online sources including Pandora and Spotify. Add a second unit and you’ve got a stereo pair or multi-room system controllable via free smartphone/tablet apps. Wireless music was never this easy or, in Sonos’ case,  affordable.

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4. Verizon 4G LTE MiFi/USB Modem

Verizon had the best 4G network in the U.S. during 2011. I used my USB LTE modem to upload videos via big red’s LTE network from coffee shops, moving cars, and most everywhere in between throughout the course of the past year. 4G on VZW faces some competition from T-Mobile’s HSPA+ and AT&T’s newly minted LTE network next year, but so far as 2011 goes, Verizon reigned supreme for fast mobile data in the U.S.

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5. HTC Titan

Windows Phone is important to the consumer tech landscape for a million reasons. Windows Phone is important to me because I recently took my SIM card out of an iPhone 4 and put it into a WP-powered HTC Titan. WP7’s bold design, ease of use, and lovely typography make it my choice in platforms. Titan’s beautiful Super LCD display, twin cameras, and sleek but solid industrial design make it my choice in hardware.

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6. Samsung 7000/8000 Series Smart TVs

For about six weeks I had a Samsung 7000 Series TV in my living room. My living room never looked so good. The new “bezel-less” Sammys are that pretty, and for people who care about aesthetics, a good-lookin’ TV is actually kind of a big deal. Too bad I don’t care enough to shell out for a D7000 now that I’ve sent the review loaner back to Samsung.

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7. Tie: Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Samsung Galaxy S II

Google Wallet on Galaxy Nexus

Samsung’s Galaxy S II TV spots make fun of people who line up to buy the latest iPhone. Thing is, people actually did line up to buy the Galaxy Nexus when it finally hit Verizon stores. Funny, huh? What’s not funny is the number of thin, light, high-powered Android devices Samsung moved this year. Galaxy Nexus and the GSII might just be on the brink of creating the sort of mainstream buzz that iPhone has enjoyed for years. Maybe.

9. Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia Lumia 800

Nokia’s comeback hinges on two things: Microsoft’s ability to market Windows Phone and Nokia’s own ability to design and manufacture top-notch mobile hardware. Lumia 800 is a stunningly cool object to hold, especially if you like your gadgets sheathed in bright blues and pinks. Too bad it doesn’t have a front facing camera; some ultra-vain folks out there apparently need such a thing on their mobile phones. Look for a huge Nokia/Windows Phone push to land in the US at CES 2012 with LTE-enabled devices in tow.

10. Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch

E-ink is better than LCD when it comes to reading book-length texts. Period. B&N’s cheapest Nook is small, light, and dead simple to use thanks to an innovative e-ink based touchscreen. I finally understand why road warrior bookworms I know carry both an iPad and an e-reader when they travel – it took Nook Simple Touch to show me the light.

11. Tie: Apple iPhone 4S /Apple iPad 2

iPad 2

On the one hand this year’s versions of iPhone and iPad really don’t bring a lot to the table over last year’s versions. Siri is not a game changer, and while I wish my iPad 1 had dual-core speed and a front-facing camera, those features weren’t compelling enough to me to warrant an upgrade. Still, the latest iOS devices are better than the old ones, and Apple’s selling a ton of the things. Also: Watch a little kid play with an iPad and you’ll understand there’s actually some truth to all of this, “Post PC World” hoo-ha. Computers in 2030 will hardly resemble the computers of the 1980s.

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