So much of the hype around the next big tech release is what it does, but 2020 has been a year of innovations in how it gets done. Whether it's a next-gen console that is equal parts subscription service and hardware, an inbox that forces you to read your email differently, or a phone that packs flagship silicon into an old-school body at an affordable price, this year proved that sometimes you don't actually need a Next Big Thing, but rather, just a Better Last Big Thing.
Microsoft Surface Duo
Foldability: A full 360 degrees
Up until now, Microsoft's stabs at smartphone relevance have been best forgotten. Windows 10? Colorful, but ultimately inconsequential. Microsoft Kin? Honestly, don't even bother to Google it. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect the Surface Duo to succumb to the same fate. Except that everything is different this time.
Microsoft's flagship two-screen phone is the product of two long-term projects. On the software side, it's the pinnacle of Microsoft's long undertaking to abandon making its own mobile operating system and instead integrate its suite of various services — Word, Outlook, OneNote — seamlessly into Google's Android. On the hardware side, it's the culmination of the hard-fought journey to produce a line of Microsoft-made computers that rival Apple in fit and finish and fit Windows 10 into a slick and distinct physical form.
The result? Well, it's certainly a little janky. The Duo is on the bleeding edge of dual-screen Android technology. At launch, the experience was jagged. But fixes are obviously en route. The subpar camera and lack of 5G, however, can’t quite be patched, resulting in a $1,400 package that is certainly not ready for mass-market appeal at that sky-high price point.
As for the foundation? Superb. The Surface line’s engineering excellence lets the Duo’s no-nonsense hinges run circles around the most futuristic (and fragile) folding displays. It’s utter lack of an external screen, in addition to vindicating wrist-watch wearers everywhere, creates a bold barrier between using your phone and no — perhaps the best feature it could borrow from its laptop brethren.
The Surface Duo may be far from perfect, but it is certainly outstanding and hands-down the most exciting development in telephone technology all year.
Canon EOS r5
Sensor Size: Full frame, 45 megapixels
Top Video Quality: 8K RAW at 29.97 fps
The Canon EOS R5 had a lot to live up to, not only because it took the mantle of the apparently defunct 5D line, but because Canon itself spent ages upping the ante with a series of breathless teaser announcements in the run-up to a final release. In the flesh, it doesn't quite live up to the impossibly high expectations Canon itself did little to tamp down, but how could it? Nevertheless, the result is still an astounding best-in-class full-frame mirrorless camera that has clobbered the competitors.
As a stills camera, the R5 is unmatched. Its new 45-megapixel full-frame sensor captures stunningly high-quality, high-resolution photos at speeds of up to 20 frames per second, with awesome autofocus and excellent ergonomics. The guinea pig for Canon's new in-body image stabilization, the R5 can offer up to eight stops of stabilization under optimal circumstances and with compatible lenses. We're talking acceptable handheld exposures at two seconds, if your hands are steady.
Yes, the R5 can record in stunning 8K, as heavily hyped, though with some strings attached: prone to overheating in certain conditions, the R5’s 8K mode comes with warnings and safeguards that can require considerable cool-down times between bouts. This makes the R5 a technically capable powerhouse for everyday videographers but potentially impractical for longer shots.
But even with its flaws, the EOS R5 is a remarkable accomplishment from Canon, and a leap forward in its mirrorless technology. It proves that while the diehards may miss its flagship full-frame DSLRs, they're not for want of alternatives.
Apple Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
Attachment Mechanism: Magnets
Available Sizes: 11-inch and 12.9-inch
Whether or not you can, or should, attempt to replace the laptop in your life with an iPad is a field of open debate, one that has been raging for as long as the iPad has been around. A decade ago, in 2010, Steve Jobs asserted that it can't and shouldn't; instead it represented "a third category of device [from] a laptop or a smartphone, otherwise it has no reason for being."
But a lot can change in the space of a decade, yes, even Apple orthodoxy. The Magic Keyboard for iPad does not instantly transform a tablet into a laptop, but it does stand as a suggestion from Apple itself that you would not be off-base to use both devices for a lot of the same things.
At $299, it is an absurdly pricey peripheral, but characteristically better made than the vast majority of less expensive alternatives. Its scissor-switch keyboard is evocative of the MacBook’s before Apple's butterfly-switch snafu. Its trackpad, while miniscule compared to an actual MacBook, bridges the majority of the gap between tablet and laptop, bringing the classic cursor into a world previously designed so exclusively for fat fingers.
It's a package that brings the already beefy iPad Pro into quite close contention with MacBooks, though a software gulf still remains. iPads, now with their own specific operating system, stake out an explicit, but blurry, middle ground between the devices that sit on either flank.
While fantastic in the present, the Magic Keyboard is also something of an oracle, gesturing at a future that's already arriving. Apple's endeavor to replace its MacBooks' Intel chips with the same homemade Apple silicon already found in iPhones and iPads is set to bring all of Apple's various devices into an even tighter orbit. The Magic Keyboard is a glimpse of what that future looks like.
Xbox Series S & Series X
Optical Disk Drive: Series X only
Base Storage: 512GB (Series S), 1TB (Series X)
Xbox All Access Savings: $60 (Series S), $20 (Series X)
Price: $25+ per month
You could spend a lot of time poring over the specs of the two new Xboxes, which Microsoft has been teasing for the better part of a year. The higher-grade Series X commands 12 teraflops of graphics-processing power and 16 GB of RAM, guts enough to push a 4K screen full of pixels at 60 frames per second. The more affordable Series S, meanwhile, designed to run HD graphics at up to 120 fps, sports the same 8-core 3.6 GHz processor as its bigger brother.
But the real talking point is how you can buy them — and no, we're not talking about the fact that the Series S runs $100 cheaper than the all-digital PS5, neither of which sports a physical disk drive. Because, you see, the up-front price war is a distraction. The real game-changing appeal of the new Xbox breed is the subscription.
Through what Microsoft is calling "Xbox All Access," the $300 Series S and $500 Series X are available for $25 and $35 per month paid over two years, respectively, as a package that also includes 24 months of the incredible Game Pass Ultimate (Microsoft's subscription service that includes a virtual library of on-demand games that is 100s deep and will include bombshell next-gen releases like Halo Infinite on the first day they come out). At the end of two years, the boxes are yours to keep, and this is no rent-to-own situation where you pay a premium in interest: Xbox All Access is actually slightly cheaper than buying the hardware upfront and subscribing to two years of Game Pass.
Of course, diehards might chafe at the notion of not actually owning games, which is absolutely fair. But this all-you-can-game subscription buffet isn't aimed at the hardest core. By blunting the age-old up-front cost and appealing directly to dabblers, the new Xboxes are targeting a whole new demographic and bringing the highs of the next gen to a wider audience than anyone else is.
Apple iPhone SE
Wireless Charging: Yes
Display Size: 4.7-inch
Base Storage: 64 GB
The 2016 iPhone SE was a big hit—though it seemed like a one-time deal for Apple to make use of some spare components. But the 2020 iPhone SE appears to cement Apple's commitment to the excellent value of the SE brand, in a different and larger shape. It sports some now-antiquated features, like a Home button, and a less-than-incredible screen. But the 2020 iPhone SE is startlingly competent in other respects: it's kitted out with the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11 and a terrific camera, adding up to a great bargain that brings iOS into reach for a whole new tier of user — hopefully for good.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Operating System: Windows 10
Disk Space Required: 150 GB
Example Aircrafts: Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, Airbus A320neo, Cessna 172 Skyhawk
Price: $60+ (or free with Xbox Game Pass)
It may have been a bad year for travel in the real world, but it was an excellent time to take a flight in cyberspace. Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is the first plane-flying simulator from the software giant since 2012, and it sports highly detailed, real-world terrain pulled in from Bing Maps. Sure, the topography can be a little glitchy in places, and those enormous map sizes demand great internet and a beefy gaming rig for top performance, but hopping in a Cessna and flying off to literally anywhere is one of the year's great joys.
Nomad Base Station Pro
Charging Standard: Qi
Compatibility: Works with iPhone, AirPods, Galaxy S10 and S20
Capacity: Charges 3 devices at once
With the Base Station Pro, Nomad has accomplished something few brands dare to dream of: succeeding where Apple failed. This hefty leather-and-metal wireless charger is more than a pretty face, it's the futuristic, frictionless wireless-charging future Apple's ill-fated AirPower never delivered. Able to charge three devices placed any which way across its entire surface, the Base Station Pro builds on the well-established charging technology in a way that could scale to entire desk and table surfaces. For now, the single pad is magical in its own right — if you can afford it.
Contrast Zones: Up to 240
Smart TV Brains: Roku
Bonus: Dolby Atmos support
The latest and greatest 8K OLED TVs are fun to ogle, but they're not the ones that end up in your living room. The best innovation in TV tech is one that has trickled all the way down, which is what makes TCL's 6-Series so notable. This mid-range line, which was already punching above its weight class, this year inherited the mini-LED display technology of its more premium forebears, gaining improved brightness and contrast with no increase in price. It's a combo that makes this affordable line of 4K TVs a no-brainer purchase and an ever better deal.
Free Trial: 14 days
App Support: Android, iOS
Revenue from Selling Your Data: $0
Price: $99 per year
Email is a nightmare, as anyone with an inbox can attest, but Hey might just be the light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike Google's algorithmic fixes with Inbox and automatic filtering, Hey forces you to approve or reject every single new sender, manually curating your inbox down to just the important stuff and banishing the rest to the void. It's not free — domains start at $99 per year — but with a price tag that doesn't force Hey to snoop and sell your data, the service could easily carve itself a nice niche among legions of as-yet-unsatisfied senders.
Belkin Wemo WiFi Smart Plug
Voice Compatibility: Alexa, Google Home, Siri
Power Capacity: 1800 Watts
Dimensions: 2.05 x 1.81 x 1.34 inches
The best smart-home gadget is the one you only think about when you’re taking it out of the box. With a tiny profile that won’t block adjacent outlets, compatibility with all three major smart-home ecosystems and a slick multi-platform app, Belkin’s Wemo WiFi Smart Plug has everything you need and nothing you don’t. And like any great appliance, it does an excellent job of immediately fading into your daily life. In fact, you’ll barely even remember to appreciate it.