Over the course of 2021, the editorial staff here at Digital Trends tested and reviewed hundreds of products in dozens of different categories. We fiddled with folding phones, gazed into gigantic gaming monitors, and even tested some titanic TVs that take up an entire wall. Some of these products were duds, and others knocked our socks off. So, as the year draws to a close, we wanted to look back and recap some of the highlights. Without further ado, here are our personal favorite tech products from 2021. Enjoy!
I know, I know. I’m supposed to pick the viciously powerful new iPad Pro, or the cute Mini. Or even the svelte Air. So why pick the vanilla iPad? The one that looks exactly like last year’s?
Because at $329, I can’t recommend a single gadget that has brought more to my life for less money.
After filling a paper notebook with crappy sketches of plumbing diagrams, woodworking plans, and random scribbles, I realized I had a need for more than a mouse and keyboard in my life. The iPad scratches that itch and more. Paired with an Apple Pencil, it has become my new digital notebook, along with my couch browser of choice, travel TV, and portable game console — all at a price that is very un-Apple.
The design may be recycled from 2019, but it’s still plenty thin and light. After you wrap it in an awesome case and slap on a screen protector, all tablets look the same anyway. It’s what’s inside that counts, and the A13 Bionic processor gives it all the punch you need for anything you’re going to do on a 10.2-inch screen, from basic browsing to fast-paced 3D games.
Apple has always offered the best tablets you can buy, and lucky for you, its most basic option remains one of its best.
Up until this past year, I was one of those annoying hipsters that staunchly opposed e-readers and loudly professed my love of physical books to anyone who hadn’t already rolled their eyes and left the room. But when the pandemic shut down my local library and favorite bookstore in 2020, I was forced to adapt — so I bit the bullet and bought a used Kindle on OfferUp.
It was utter garbage. Crap battery, huge bezels, outdated ports — the whole shebang. But even with so many shortcomings, I still loved it. I was intoxicated by the ability to get any book I wanted — often for free — with just a few taps. It completely reshaped my reading habits, and I became a full-on e-reader evangelist in record time.
Naturally, when Amazon announced new Kindles this past September, I jumped at the opportunity to upgrade. And as someone who’s been using a dumpy old-gen Kindle for the past year, all I can say is SWEET JESUS, these new ones are SO MUCH BETTER than previous generations! Months of battery?! Light warmth adjustment? USB-C?! I’m in love. If you haven’t already embraced the e-reader life, there’s never been a better time to do it.
Third-party video game controllers are a crapshoot. For every perk a controller has, there’s usually a catch that makes it inferior to its official counterparts. Turtle Beach’s Recon controller for Xbox is the rare example of a third-party controller that’s actually better than the real thing.
The Recon’s special gimmick is that it features an onboard sound mixer at the top of the controller. With just a few button taps, players can mix their chat and game audio on the fly or toggle between different sound profiles. It’s a feature that I’ve never seen on a controller before, but one I instantly wished was available on all of them.
That’s not the only extra here. Back buttons and a precision aiming mode make this a surprisingly feature-rich controller for its $60 price tag. The only catch — there’s always a catch — is that it’s wired only at the moment. Even with that caveat, the Recon has quickly become my go-to PC controller over Sony’s DualShock 4. If Turtle Beach puts out a wireless version sometime next year, I imagine it’ll replace Microsoft’s official Xbox controller as my Series X gamepad of choice.
Apple’s head-tracking spatial audio
After a burst of innovation following Apple’s 2016 release of its now iconic AirPods true wireless earbuds, we’re now in the commodity era of personal audio. Hit up Amazon on any given day and you’ll find thousands of wireless headphones and earbuds at prices as low as $25. And for the most part, they all offer the same mix of features — give or take — like active noise canceling (ANC), transparency mode, good battery life, app-based tweaks for EQ and controls, etc.
But in 2021, Apple added something new to the headphone space — something no other company had done before: Head-tracking spatial audio. Using sensors baked into the AirPods Pro (and then the AirPods Max and AirPods 3rd gen), Apple was able to adjust the way music and movies sound in real-time as folks moved their heads. It can make music sound as though it’s being performed by a band right in front of you, and for movies, it can simulate an entire home theater sound system using just your headphones.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t going to change the world, but it once again illustrates how Apple is able to leverage its position as a maker of hardware and software to create entirely new experiences from existing tech, setting new benchmarks for others to follow.
My favorite piece of tech this year is the Trifo Lucy A.I.-powered smart robot vacuum. This thing has made my life SO much better.
If you’ve ever owned a robot vac before, then you already know most of them aren’t that smart. Basically, they just roam around aimlessly, bumping into stuff, and eventually, hopefully covering all of your floor space. The Trifo Lucy vac is different. It’s legitimately smart. It uses a 1080p camera, day and night vision, and a host of other sensors to build a map of your home. It then uses that map to clean your floors in an organized way, with efficiency.
Lucy has a high-capacity rechargeable battery, so it can cover a ton of floor space in one go. It can detect objects as short as one inch high, so it will NOT run into a pile of pet poop like many other vacs will. Speaking of pet messes, there’s a pet version with higher suction and a brushless attachment to get up all the pet hair without getting tangled up.
Lucy is also a security sentinel. If it detects movement in the home when it shouldn’t, it will alert you. You can pull up Lucy’s camera on the Trifo app and steer the robot around manually to have a look around your house from afar. You can even talk to pets, intruders, or your baby/pet sitter using the built-in mic and speaker.
Best of all, it’s a great vacuum. Its high suction power leaves nothing behind, and it’s easy enough to clean as well. All those pine needles and leaves my family tracks in? They’re gone before I know it.
The MacBook Pro was long overdue for a comeback. And this year, Apple gave us a spectacular one, especially if performance is what matters to you. The M1 Pro and M1 Max surpassed expectations and really make a case for why this new MacBook Pro is the most important computing product of the year.
We’ve never seen a processor of this type perform with this much gusto, especially not on the graphics front — and especially not in a laptop that almost never heats up or even gets loud. That couldn’t be more different than the previous generation, and it helps make the new MacBook Pro easily take the crown for the best laptop for creative professionals again.
But for me, it’s the quality of life improvements that make this stand out. It’s the endless battery life, the fantastic mini-OLED display, the full-size function keys, and even the improved 1080p webcam. It’s the complete package in a way that no other laptop is, and it’s easily my favorite tech product of 2021.
After three generations of continuous improvement, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is finally the foldable for the average consumer to buy. It comes packed with tweaks and improvements that have addressed most — if not all — the big complaints of previous generations. It’s much more durable, with Gorilla Glass Victus on the cover screen, a more svelte hinge that also lasts longer, a diminished screen crease and improved protector, and IPX8 waterproofing.
Using the Fold 3’s 7.6-inch screen is a delight for multitasking and gaming, and I had no trouble sinking hours into Genshin Impact. It’s the first foldable that I seriously felt compelled to use as my daily driver. The big reason is that the compromises are largely gone. It has a flagship processor and triple rear cameras with a wide-angle, ultrawide, and telephoto sensor. All three screens, including the cover screen, are Quad HD and support a 120Hz refresh rate, so you don’t feel like you’re missing anything compared to the Galaxy S21 Ultra.
Make no mistake, it’s still a princely $1,800, but the price isn’t too far from the upper range of top-tier flagships. Plus, what you get with the Fold 3 is more than a phone. If you can stomach the price, this is the foldable to get.
A processor? That’s the best tech of 2021? I went back and forth on choosing the Core i9-12900K as my favorite tech of the year, but I just can’t find a better option. Even if you don’t care about gaming or building your own PCs, you can appreciate the work that went into this CPU and the milestone it marks for Intel.
Intel has been losing hard for the past few years. Another iterative CPU wouldn’t be the final nail in the coffin — it’d be the last patch of dirt over a filled grave. Instead, Intel took a risk with the Core i9-12900K, taking notes from Apple’s M1 to bring the first ever slot-in CPU with a hybrid architecture to market.
The results speak for themselves. The Core i9-12900K has cemented Intel as a market leader once again, and its influence will be felt for the next several generations from AMD and Intel.
Every year, it’s easy to get excited over what the Pixel will bring you, while at the same time expecting a bit of a letdown. From mid-range processors to terrible battery life, there always seems to be a caveat. That’s ok in the a-series of Pixels because they’re the budget versions, but asking $700 for a Snapdragon 765-toting Pixel 5 was risky. This year, Google is flipping the buffet table and coming out swinging with the Pixel 6.
At $599, this phone is a steal. At $499, like we saw over Black Friday, it’s insanity. This phone is just that good. Putting aside its larger, more expensive sibling — the Pixel 6 Pro — the Pixel 6 offers great power, camera, and battery in a phone that has a decidedly mid-range price tag. It’s my favorite phone from this year, which has also included the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, and iPhone 13 Pro. Google’s version of Android is so smooth, the magic eraser is amazing, and the Tensor chip is baller. This phone will be hard to put down for a long time.
With COVID keeping us inside for most of the year, I fell back in love with my home theater system — and with my new Apple TV 4K in particular.
For a few months, I did most of my streaming through the PS5 but then realized that most of the streaming apps that Sony offers on its platform don’t actually support 4K playback — or Dolby Atmos sound, for that matter. HBO Max, for example, doesn’t stream things in 4K or with Dolby Atmos on the PS5. Amazon Prime Video does offer 4K playback but doesn’t support Dolby Atmos sound — which, in my opinion, is a must.
When I discovered these shortcomings, I switched over the Apple TV 4K to watch some videos and immediately noticed the difference. Sony should be embarrassed. Apple’s platform provides amazing picture quality with crisp and clear Dolby Atmos sound, and I absolutely love it. If you have a receiver that supports it, as well as a 4K TV, you are doing yourself a disservice if you are not taking advantage of the technology there. Do yourself a favor and make the investment — you won’t regret it!
For two years, I spent a substantial amount of my waking hours with Bose QC35 headphones gently perched on my head. When it came time to upgrade my worn-out QC35s, the over-ear ANC headphone space was entirely different. There are so many options now, all with advanced features and sleek designs. Yet, I took the most boring possible path, upgrading to the QC45s — and I’m so glad I did.
As I looked at the shiny new Bose NC700s, Sony WH1000XM4s, AirPods Max, and on down the list, I realized I didn’t need, nor even want, all of the features that have somehow become standard across the industry. I have no need for finicky touch controls, auto head sensing, spatial audio, or frankly, any promises of higher-quality speaker tuning. I already loved my QC35s, and that’s why I love my new QC45s just as much.
They’re the same damn headphones I’ve relied on for years, remade for 2021. They’re light on my head and oh-so-comfortable around my ears — and I don’t care that that means they’re made out of a kind of cheap-feeling plastic. They have 4 simple buttons to control everything. The earcups fold and let the QC45s collapse into a familiar compact case. The battery lasts longer than I’d ever need, and they now charge over USB-C! Honestly, I could’ve upgraded just for that.
I could’ve bought ANC headphones that were more interesting to use, sound better, have more features, or look fancier. They would’ve cost about the same as my QC45s. Yet, I have zero regrets — these Bose cans are going to be on my head for the next two years. I just hope Bose has a simple QC55 refresh in the works for me.
Despite owning a lot of traditional watches, the Apple Watch Series 7 is the one I wear the most, and that makes it not just my favorite piece of tech from 2021, but my favorite timepiece, too. It is certainly very, very close. It gets every aspect just right — smaller bezels, more power, and improved health tracking algorithms. It also comes in several different case colors, materials, and sizes, and there are a wealth of alternative bands available to make it your own. You can wear it all the time without it becoming annoying, and by making the right choices on the watch face and band, it looks really good.
But why wear a smartwatch? This is what makes the Apple Watch such a winner, as it is so much more than just a notification machine on my wrist. For example, in addition to the usual activity tracking, I use the Mindfulness app’s calming breathing exercises a lot, plus because its use is even tracked in the Apple Health app — where sleep data from my Oura Ring is also seamlessly gathered — it always gives me a complete picture of my movement, activity, and rest. That’s before Apple Pay — and the helpfulness of it keeping my iPhone unlocked when I have a mask on.
The Apple Watch Series 7 elevates itself beyond simply being an accessory for your smartphone and becomes its own product with its own distinct benefits. How much do I like it? Enough to give it a perfect 5/5 score in my review, and to wear it on my right wrist when I want to wear a traditional watch on my left. On that subject, I need all Apple Watch owners to do the same, so I don’t feel quite so eccentric when I do. I think all this speaks volumes about how useful and integral to my everyday life the Apple Watch Series 7 has become.