All things considered, 2021 was a pretty miserable year in general. The COVID-19 pandemic carried on throughout the year, making things like smartphones, GPUs, and game consoles difficult to find, thanks to global shortages. Beyond that, the fact that the pandemic persists is undoubtedly wearing on many emotionally and mentally, making for a crummy year overall. Despite that, 2021 managed to deliver some great tech, from smartphones to tablets and even earbuds. Here’s the technology that made 2021 a year to remember against all odds.
Image credit: Google
With yearly iPhone releases being something you can set your watch by – even during a worldwide pandemic – some of the phones released throughout the years have inevitably missed the mark. That much cannot be said for the iPhone 13, which impressed us with camera features like Cinematic mode (which is available across all devices in the iPhone 13 lineup) and the Pro and Pro Max’s macro photo shooting mode.
While the iPhone experience is pretty well nailed down at this point and isn’t going to change much from one generation to another, there was still plenty to love about the iPhone 13. If the iPhone 12 lineup was considered a disappointment in terms of battery life, the iPhone 13 made up for it, with the Pro and Pro Max, in particular, sporting an impressive battery life that will get you through a day and beyond. Add to that a new Sierra Blue color scheme for the 13, and you can certainly say we’re smitten with Apple’s latest iPhone.
Google, like Apple, has had some “on years” and “off years” with its flagship phones. Some have impressed, while others haven’t quite hit the mark. The Pixel 6 definitely belongs to the former category, and it might just be the best Pixel smartphone Google has ever released.
An Android-lover’s phone through and through, the Pixel 6 brings a lot to the table. Google’s Material Design – which changes color elements in the UI to match the phone’s wallpaper – impressed us, and it goes without saying that the Pixel 6’s cameras were a high point. Battery life was also solid, but perhaps most important is that the Pixel 6 costs significantly less than other flagships out there.
If you’re sick of paying $1,000 or more for new phones, the Pixel 6 may very well be the handset you’re looking for. Just be sure to buy a case to go along with it, as it can be difficult to get a solid grip on the Pixel 6’s all-glass design.
Molecule Hybrid Mattress
It may be weird to see a mattress make the list alongside smartphones and wireless earbuds, but the Molecule Hybrid deserves a spot here no matter how unconventional it might be. There’s no lack of options when it comes to online mattress companies, but Molecule stands out with its Hybrid Mattress.
Something of an improved follow-up to the Molecule 1 Mattress (which we reviewed in 2018), the Molecule Hybrid firms things up for people of all body sizes. It accomplishes that with a coil system called MoleculeEdge, which not only provides the mattress with additional support but also firms up the corners and edges so you can sit or lay on them without slipping off.
We also found that the Molecule Hybrid effectively kept sleepers cool, which is another big benefit when we’re working with thick hybrid mattresses that employ memory foam layers as this one does. The only downside? It’s a bit on the pricey side at $1,900, but as the adage goes: “you get what you pay for.”
3rd Generation Apple AirPods
Throughout 2021, Apple’s AirPods were the subject of a lot of rumors. After months of leaks and reports, Apple finally revealed the third-generation AirPods at an event in October. These third-gen AirPods arrived sporting an entirely new design, with Apple dropping the EarPods shape it’s been using for years.
Not only do the 3rd-gen AirPods have a new look, but the internals have been improved as well. These new AirPods come with spatial audio and improved battery life. They’re also sweat and water-resistant, which is always a welcome touch, and they offer a new custom driver made by Apple.
Of course, there are some things to consider before taking the plunge. Like the EarPods design that came before, the new AirPods design isn’t going to fit every ear. These also aren’t noise-canceling earbuds, despite the improvements that have been made to audio quality. Still, for those who don’t want to go all-in and drop a ton of money on the more expensive AirPods Pro, the third-gen AirPods are worth considering.
Beats Fit Pro
If you’re looking for an alternative to Apple’s AirPods, the Beats Fit Pro could be a good choice. Either way, Apple will be getting your money, but the Beats Fit Pro offer some big upgrades over the 3rd-gen AirPods. For starters, you get active noise-cancellation with these headphones, which is something the 3rd-gen AirPods don’t provide.
Active Noise Cancellation is probably the biggest draw of these earbuds (especially at their $199.99 price point), but we also found that the Beats Fit Pro feel great in-ear. If you have problems with the rigid design of the standard AirPods, these may just be worth the extra cost you’ll pay for them.
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Signature Edition
To some, ereaders might be a relic of the past, but for ebook enthusiasts, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than the Kindle Paperwhite Signature Edition. While it may not offer a ton of functionality upgrades over previous Kindle Paperwhites, it does bring quite a few quality-of-life upgrades to the table.
For starters, it has a bigger display than previous Kindle Paperwhites (with no glare like what you’d get on a smartphone), and it has a USB-C charging port. It also has a bigger battery than its predecessors, more storage, and IPX8 waterproofing, so it’s reasonably well equipped to be taken out into the world with little regard for available outlets or forecasts that call for rain.
While the Kindle Paperwhite Signature Edition may not reach the same highs as the Kindle Oasis, it also costs a lot less. For a device as focused as a Kindle, that can be a pretty big deal. In the end, the Kindle Paperwhite strikes a good balance between cost and functionality, and it’s probably what most people want out of an ereader.
While 2021 didn’t bring us a new iPad Pro, it did give us a new standard iPad. With so much focus on the iPad Pro and the iPad Air, it can be easy to forget Apple’s entry-level iPad, but the 9th-generation model released earlier this year managed to impress.
Truthfully, if you have a standard iPad released in the past couple of years, it probably isn’t worth upgrading to the 9th-gen iPad. Everyone else, however, would do well to consider the 9th-gen iPad when on the prowl for a new tablet, because it offers a solid feature set at a price that’s almost shockingly low by modern smart device standards.
The iPad Pro can quickly climb above a $1,000 price point depending on the type of display and the amount of storage you get, but you won’t get anywhere near four figures when buying a 9th-gen iPad. With a 10.2-inch display, this iPad will feel like an upgrade over older 9.7-inch iPads, and with a price point starting at $329, you don’t need to go broke to buy one.
iPad mini 2021
The standard iPad wasn’t the only tablet win Apple had in 2021. Arguably even more impressive is the new iPad mini which, for the first time in the device’s long history, dropped the home button. While you won’t quite get an edge-to-edge display with the new iPad mini, the extra screen real estate we get by losing the home button is certainly welcome.
Like the new standard iPad, the iPad mini has a larger display with its 2021 entry, and it also comes with magnets that can keep the Apple Pencil in place along the side of the device as it charges. While it may not serve as a suitable replacement for a laptop, it is a good addition to the device lineup for those who want a display larger than the one of their phone, but who don’t want to go for something much larger or more expensive.
Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio
The only laptop on our list for 2021 is the Surface Laptop Studio, an impressive (and expensive) machine with an intriguing design. Rather than simply opting for a 2-in-1 design like so many convertible laptops, the Surface Laptop Studio is built with a double hinge that allows for three different usage modes: laptop, stage, and studio.
The laptop mode is self-explanatory, as is the studio mode for those who have used convertible 2-in-1 laptops in their tablet configurations. Where the Surface Laptop Studio stands out is in stage mode, which pulls the display up in front of the keyboard but behind the trackpad. This mode is perfect for watching video, as we found that it helps acoustics and improves the laptop’s already stellar speakers.
It’s an impressive laptop, but that comes with a price tag to match. With configurations starting at $1,599.99 and going up past the $2,000 price point beyond that, this is a rather expensive machine — but, for artists and designers who need a convertible laptop, it might just be the best choice on the market at the moment.
Apple Watch Series 7
2021’s Apple Watch Series 7 isn’t a massive upgrade over the watches that came before it, but even without a lot of flashy new functionality, we still walked away impressed. Key to that is the watch’s larger display, which fills much more of the space between the bezels and looks noticeably bigger even at a glance.
While functionality will be more or less the same as in previous watches, hardware is the central area of improvement in the Apple Watch Series 7. Not only do users have that larger display to work with, but the Apple Watch Series 7 charges faster than its predecessors and offers better fitness tracking to boot. Battery life didn’t make any noticeable leaps forward with this entry, but regardless, those who are new to Apple’s line of wearables will probably want to jump in here.
Nintendo Switch OLED
The Nintendo Switch OLED was a surprise for more reasons than one. While many were expecting Nintendo to announce a souped-up Switch Pro this year, that’s not what happened. Instead, we got the Switch OLED, which has an improved display but keeps the same hardware as the standard Switch.
While the display is beautiful (and the redesigned dock finally gives us an integrated LAN port), it isn’t quite enough for most current Switch owners to consider an upgrade. That being said, if you’ve yet to buy a Nintendo Switch and you’re looking to dive in, the Switch OLED is unquestionably the one you should go for – for $50 more, you get a fantastic OLED display, more storage, and a vastly improved kickstand, making this the obvious choice for prospective Switch owners.
So, even though 2021 was an up and down year in many regards, it did offer a lot of cool new gadgets. If we can make it to the other side of this worldwide semiconductor shortage soon, then 2022 promises to be an even bigger year for the world of consumer technology. We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that front, hopeful that 2022 will be better than this year in more ways than one.