A year after a global pandemic knocked all of us back on our heels, gadget makers are struggling to meet the demand caused by our dramatic shift in work and life routines. Coupled with an ongoing chip shortage, devices released this year were hit with delays, shipping weeks or even months behind schedule. Some products slated for a 2021 launch were even pushed back to next year.
But despite the turmoil, there were plenty of excellent gadgets released this year. These are the ones we tested and loved, the ones that made the year easier, and the ones that will ease us into a decidedly rocky start to 2022.
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Apple’s MacBook Pro With M1 Max
Apple’s MacBook Pro With M1 Max
We were floored by the M1 chip in the MacBook Air and Pro to the point where we wondered how Apple could possibly raise the performance ceiling any higher. Then the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros arrived this year with Apple’s upgraded M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. To say the new Pros are impressive would be understatement. But that doesn’t tell the full story. Sure, the MacBook Pro is more powerful than just about any laptop you can buy today, but it’s much more than that. Even if you (somehow) ignore the new chips, the 14-inch model is a significant upgrade over its 13-inch predecessor.
I’ll start with the display, which now uses miniLED technology, allowing for picture quality that is closer to OLED but without the nasty downsides. Furthermore, the six-speaker system sounds incredible, fast charging (via MagSafe, I should add) is a godsend, there are more ports than before, and this thing even has a damn good webcam! The list goes on and on, and at this point, once you excuse the notch, it’s hard to argue against the MacBook Pro being the best laptop around (at least, for those with a seriously large budget). —Phillip Tracy
Google Pixel 6/6 Pro
Google has been making phones for a long time, but only in 2021 did it feel like the company’s Pixel lineup finally arrived. The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro feel like a new beginning following questionable releases (squints at Pixel 5) from a brand that, at one point, looked ready to give Apple a run for its money. By upgrading the cameras, using flagship components, and keeping the price lower than anyone expected ($599 for the Pixel 6!), Google has made it difficult for Android users to justify buying anything else.
Perhaps most important for the brand are the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro’s unique design. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the camera bar and tri-tone colors feel like the emergence of a signature aesthetic, something the company has desperately lacked as it bounced from one idea to the next. These devices aren’t perfect (the fingerprint scanner is meh, for instance), but what the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro promise are years of stability for those who want a flagship phone running pure Android. —Phillip Tracy
First announced back in October of 2019, it took another whole year (and then some) before the Analogue Pocket started shipping to those who preordered the console in August of 2020, due to the ongoing pandemic. But the wait was definitely worth it.
A steady stream of handheld consoles continues to flow out of China. While those devices can play classic games from countless retro systems, including the NES, Genesis, and SNES, they rely on software emulation, which is often fraught with performance issues and bugs that result in less than ideal gameplay. The Analogue Pocket takes an entirely different approach with a custom Field-Programmable Gate Array chip that’s programmed to function exactly like the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Sega Game Gear, and several other retro handhelds did.
The result is a handheld that plays games from all of those systems absolutely flawlessly without skipped frames, graphical errors, or audio sync issues. The Analogue Pocket’s FPGA is paired with a beautiful 3.5-inch LCD display packing more pixels per inch than even the iPhone 13 Pro’s display. The screen not only makes classic handheld games look amazing, it can also perfectly emulate how these games all appeared on their original systems with the limits of ‘80s and ‘90s display technology. It’s the perfect Game Boy—but good luck getting your hands on one. —Andrew Liszewski
Beats Fit Pro
Apple-owned Beats has long made solid headphones and earbuds that work decently well with a wide variety of devices, but with this year’s $200 Beats Fit Pro, the company has finally knocked it out of the park.
Past Beats devices suffered from various drawbacks, and in recent years, it’s because Apple saved its best features (like the H1 chip, which enables seamless connectivity with Apple devices) for its own products. But the Beats Fit Pro have every feature you get with Apple’s own AirPods Pro, but for $50 less. You get active noise cancellation, deep integration with iPhones—and Android phones, too—lengthy battery life, and a perfect fit thanks to interchangeable silicone ear tips and a flexible wing. They also come in a fun color (though I wish there more options), which is more than I can say for AirPods Pro.
These are the earbuds I’ve recommended to everyone this year, and they really are worth it. —Caitlin McGarry
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Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio
Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio
With all the attention given to the new MacBooks powered by Apple’s custom silicon, Microsoft needed to make a statement. With the Surface Laptop Studio, it did so. Easily the most intriguing release in the latest batch of Surface products, the Laptop Studio has a unique semi-detachable screen that is a dream for artists. Where the Surface Book could act as a standalone tablet that docked to become a full laptop, the Surface Studio’s display separates from the back panel and tilts forward like an easel. This way, you can position the screen at a similar angle to a drafting table or push it down further into tablet mode. If you want to share your creation with those around you, the lid flips backward until the screen faces outward.
It all works better than you might expect and gives a sizable group of laptop buyers—artists, graphic designers, and handwritten note-takers—a compelling reason to veer away from Apple. Granted, the Surface Laptop Studio is heavy, not as powerful as the new MacBook models, and costs a small fortune ($1,600 to start). We also won’t give Microsoft a pass for releasing what might be the best laptop for stylus users without including the Slim Pen 2 (*slaps forehead*). Regardless, the Surface Laptop Studio is an excellent all-around laptop, one that caters to a specific segment of consumers better than any other. —Phillip Tracy
iPhone 13 Pro
At a glance, the iPhone 13 lineup doesn’t seem like a thrilling upgrade over the iPhone 12, but under the hood are several reasons to upgrade—specifically from older iPhones, like the 8 or 8 Plus.
The biggest improvement is battery life, which is hours and hours longer than the iPhone 12 lineup, and an even more dramatic jump from older iPhones. That’s true of all four iPhones 13. But the Pro offers a few additional features over the base iPhone 13, including a beautiful, bright display with a 120Hz refresh rate, a stainless steel design that feels more premium than the cheaper aluminum iPhones, and a triple-lens rear camera that offers an improved telephoto lens and a new macrophotography mode for shooting extreme close-ups.
The iPhone 13 Pro is the best iPhone you can buy—and honestly, the all-around best phone on the market. —Caitlin McGarry
Nest Cam Indoor
I know—it’s a security camera. But after spending some time reviewing and then living with the revamped Nest Cam, I can honestly say it’s one of the best security cameras to consider if you’re looking for one right now.
The $100 wired indoor Nest Cam is more expensive than cheaper alternatives from TP-Link and Wyze, but its facial recognition works well, and it’s all on-device, so the information never leaves your phone for Google’s cloud. The overall design of the Nest Cam is excellent, too, as Google developed it to look like an accessory in the home rather than what it truly is: a pastel-colored, modernized surveillance device.
The only major downside to the Nest Cam is that Google is still working out the kinks of its smart home landscape. The company is switching over from the Nest app to its consolidated Google Home app, which has left folks like myself who still have older cameras in their ecosystem a little flustered. I don’t love having to navigate between two applications to check my home security footage, but Google is aware of the mess it’s made, and the company is working on a fix. —Florence Ion
For a company that now releases a new version of its flagship smartphone every year, it was certainly an odd move for Apple to take five years to release a major upgrade to its original AirPods wireless earbuds. But with hundreds of millions of pairs sold in that time, there wasn’t much need for a major overhaul. But in 2021 we finally got one, and without a doubt the third-generation AirPods are a major step up from the originals.
Not only was the size of the AirPods’ dangling stem significantly reduced, but the overall design was very close to the AirPods Pro, although without the Pro’s sound-isolating silicone ear tips. This means the 2021 AirPods still lack active noise cancellation. That was certainly a dealbreaker for many, given how common ANC is on even wireless earbuds priced less than $100, but the third-generation AirPods deliver a more comfortable fit than their predecessors, and surprisingly impressive sound for what is essentially open-ear earbuds. Apple even added MagSafe functionality to the new AirPods’ charging case, making it impossibly easy to drop onto a charging pad and know they will reliably juice up. The $179 asking price remains questionable, but do a little homework and you can easily find them on sale somewhere. —Andrew Liszewski
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
Samsung’s biggest foldable phone has come such a long way since its first iteration a few years ago. Granted, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 still costs a whopping $1,800 (without discounts). But for Samsung fans and those on the bleeding edge, this is best foldable smartphone you can buy.
The benefit of the Z Fold 3 isn’t just that it’s a standard Samsung device from the front. It’s that it folds out into a usable 7.6-inch tablet, complete with S Pen support. The flexible AMOLED display is stunning and much more durable than its predecessors. Samsung also added IPX8 water resistance this time around so that folks looking for a next-gen phone without sacrificing flagship perks didn’t have to compromise.
Samsung still has some software kinks to work out with its foldables, but for the most part, the Z Fold 3 is proof that foldables aren’t gimmicks. —Florence Ion
Nintendo Switch OLED
Look, we get it. We were as excited and optimistic for Nintendo to release an upgraded ‘pro’ version of the Switch this year too so that we could enjoy future iterations of Link and Mario in 4K on a TV. That didn’t happen. Instead, the company delivered a different upgrade. The Switch OLED replaced the original’s 6.2-inch LCD display (which felt dated even at launch five years ago) with a larger 7-inch OLED panel that feels even larger thanks to the smaller bezels around the screen. The new display’s resolution wasn’t increased, so in handheld mode games are still only rendered at 72op, but the difference in contrast and color saturation is like night and day, making countless games feel almost brand new and worth completely starting over again.
Nintendo also took the chance to redesign the Switch’s charging dock with an added port for network cables if your home wireless network isn’t up to the task of online gaming. But the best update to the Switch OLED wasn’t actually the new screen, but the vastly improved kickstand on the back that actually supports the console properly with the Joy-Con controllers detached, finally delivering on Nintendo’s promise of being able to set up and play the Switch almost anywhere. —Andrew Liszewski
Apple’s latest iPad Mini is a perfect iPad. It has flagship features like Apple’s A15 Bionic chip, a USB-C port instead of Apple’s normal (annoying) Lightning, a Touch ID sensor embedded in the power button for a larger display, and even support for 5G.
If you want a tablet that is simply a tablet—i.e. an ereader that runs your favorite apps and can sit on your nightstand or be tucked in a bag—it’s impossible to find a better option than the iPad Mini. The only thing I don’t like is the fact that you can’t really get work done on it if you need to in a pinch, and the $499 price tag is much higher than past iPad Mini models.
But we’re splitting hairs here. The new iPad Mini isn’t trying to be a laptop replacement, it doesn’t cost a fortune, and it’s a delight to use in every single way. It’s the best tablet for most people. —Caitlin McGarry
Dyson V15 Detect
Dyson is to cordless vacuums what Kleenex is to facial tissues: a brand that’s become synonymous with the product. Every year the company releases iterative updates to its cleaners that include more suction power, better battery life, and improved ergonomics, but this year it released a vacuum that does something few have ever done before: It actually makes you want to vacuum.
The most notable feature on the Dyson V15 Detect is a green laser installed in the vacuum’s cleaning head that illuminates the path ahead and makes every last spec of dirt and dust on your floors glow like lights on a Christmas tree. The first time you use the V15 you might be startled at just how much dirt is on your floors, but seeing it all disappear as you start vacuuming, ensuring your floors are genuinely clean, is very satisfying. With the V15 Detect, Dyson also included an acoustic piezo sensor that measures the size and quantity of dirt particles being sucked up. The detail of what’s on your floors is displayed on a small LCD display, but the vacuum also uses that information to intelligently adjust its suction power, increasing it only as needed to ensure your floors are getting cleaned, while the vacuum’s battery life is maximized. It’s really impressive. —Andrew Liszewski
Samsung Galaxy Watch 4
The Galaxy Watch 4 is the first good Android smartwatch in years. It’s a near-perfect marriage of Google’s Android ecosystem with Samsung’s hardware-making prowess, making it the right accessory for folks who are deeply embedded in the Android world.
With the Galaxy Watch 4, Samsung and Google worked together to make Android a good experience on a watch. (With past watches, Samsung has relied on its proprietary Tizen OS—but no more.) Samsung also added to its watch lineup’s existing physical health features to be more competitive with the Apple Watch. Like Apple’s wearable, the new Galaxy Watch can measure your blood oxygen levels during sleep, which is a useful health metric.
The Galaxy Watch 4 isn’t perfect—there’s no easy access to the Google Assistant, and the battery life could be better. But this is a sign that Android smartwatches are actually getting better, and it’s about time. —Florence Ion
Google Nest Hub
For those not already entirely dependent on either their smartphone or smartwatch as a bedside alarm clock, the original Google Home Hub was arguably a better alternative to traditional alarm clocks with their retina burning red LED displays—but not for $150. The upgraded Google Nest Hub brought with it a $50 price drop and carried over the original’s smart home capabilities, but added a new feature that helped justify keeping it on your bedside table: sleep tracking.
Using Google’s much-hyped radar-based motion-tracking Soli sensor, the Google Nest Hub is able to keep tabs on the sleeping and breathing patterns of a person dozing beside it, without the need for an upgraded mattress or an uncomfortable wearable worn over night. Every morning it provides a detailed report on how well a user slept, allowing them to pinpoint potential issues affecting their slumber. For now the sleep-tracking feature is included for free, but starting in 2023 the feature will become a premium option at $10/month or $80/year for those who decide they can’t live—or sleep—without it. —Andrew Liszewski
Nothing Ear (1)
There’s a very good chance even your grandmother who still enjoys music through a gramophone is familiar with the Nothing Ear (1) wireless earbuds. In 2021, the company undertook one of the most aggressive promotional campaigns we’ve seen in years for its first product. But despite the over-saturation of hype, the Ear (1) wireless earbuds turned out to be an incredibly polished and feature-rich alternative to Apple’s dominant AirPods, boasting more features for an impressive $99.
The Nothing ear (1) are some of the most capable wireless earbuds you could buy for less than $100, with active noise cancellation, excellent call quality, and surprisingly solid sound performance given the price tag. Battery life is even 10 hours longer than what the second-generation AirPods offered, although that was thanks to a larger and flashy charging case that put the Ear (1) on display (and even doubled as a fidget spinner.) Are they the best sounding wireless earbuds on the market? No, but the balance of performance and functionality offered for under $100 is still unmatched. —Andrew Liszewski