So much about what initially draws us to the latest and greatest gadgets at first glance is how they look on the outside. But 2021 has been a banner year in proving it's what's on the inside that helps these products burrow their way into our daily lives. From Apple's new MacBooks to Nikon's latest flagship camera and more, this year has proven that changes you can't even see at first blush can transform a device into something you suddenly can't imagine living without.
Game Changer: 14-inch & 16-inch MacBook Pros
Processors: M1 Max; M1 Pro
Of course a key part of building a game-changing piece of tech — or any type of product, really — is figuring out ways to push the envelope. New features, new methods, new categories altogether. But just as crucial is to know what ain’t broke and resisting the urge to fix it. Apple’s latest generation of 14- and 16-inch MacBooks exemplify the way that the refinement of these twin instincts is essential to truly move the ball forward.
In terms of raw innovation, Apple’s 2021 MacBooks are host to the bleeding edge of the Cupertino fruit company’s project to bring all of its silicon in-house. Building off the success of its inaugural M1 chips, the new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips fully ripen the productive potential of marrying software and hardware down to the transistors. When it comes to the hard numbers of synthetic benchmarks, Apple’s new MacBooks blow the competition out of the water. And in more anecdotal testing, they hold up as well: For editing photos and videos, the workhorse, pixel-pushing tasks Pros are built for, you simply won't find comparable performance from the competition. What's more, the battery life is terrific too.
But all that improvement might be for naught if not for Apple’s decision to eat crow on some previous decisions. Gone are awkward innovations like “touch bar” that never served a great purpose. Returning are terrific features like MagSafe, which briefly disappeared from the line. Also returning is the grand feature of...having ports other than USB-C. The presence of mind to correct these previous errors is as essential to the final 2021 MacBook Pros as their internal improvements.
Surface Pro 8
Screen: 13-inch 267 PPI 10-point touchscreen
Operating System: Windows 11
Hybrid Design: Tried and true
Microsoft’s Surface Pro has come a long, long way since it was announced in 2012 as a chunky Windows 8 device. In 2021, the 8th generation of the tablet-laptop hybrid — newly refreshed with a 13-inch, 120-Hz screen and full Windows 11 compatibility — brings the ultra-portable yet still-powerful form factor to its pinnacle. While the design update (the first in two years) is more refinement than reinvention, it speaks to the rock solid foundation Microsoft has constructed for a form-factor that barely existed a decade ago.
LG A1 Series TV
Resolution: 4K (OLED)
HDMI Ports: 3
HDR Format: Dolby Vision, HDR 10, Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG)
There are two types of televisions. First are the big flashy showpieces, designed first and foremost to melt eyes out of sockets at trade shows and on storefront displays. Bigger than your living room wall, they loop viciously vivid demo footage so sharp it could cut you — all five minutes of it that exists at such ridiculous resolution. Secondly, there are the ones you might actually buy. As far as group number two goes, the LG A1 Series is a lowkey luminary, ruling with an iron fist of pure practicality.
Years on from its initial rollout, 4K has reached its saturation point, and the LG A1 naturally boasts this now standard resolution. Likewise, OLED technology — with its individually-lit pixels that lend themselves to the crispest contrast owing to deep, inky blacks — is the standout standard for the ideal picture. The LG A1 Series sports this as well.
What makes it so notable is the price point. Where 4K OLEDs have historically been just pricey enough to make the average buyer think twice, the LG A1 has encroached on no-brainer territory: the $1,000 price point. No, LG’s list prices don’t cross that Rubicon. The cheapest, smallest 48-inch model stops short of doing that limbo. But in practice, it’s no struggle to find one for under 1K. It’s larger 55-inch cousin isn’t that much harder to find on the other side of a grand. And it’s that sweet combination of features that makes it such a rockstar.
DJI Mavic 3
Takeoff Weight: 895 g
Max Flight Distance: 30km
Max Image Size: 5280 × 3956
The folding flagship drones pack the pinnacle of flight and photography tech you can get from a quadcopter before moving into truly professional gear, and DJI’s Mavic 3 defines the new top of the line. With its baseline $2,199 price tag, (more for a bundle with extra batteries, or the ProRes capable Mavic 3 Cine model), it’s no impulse buy, but with 4K/120fps video capability with its new 4/3-inch sensor and a near-50% improvement in maximum flight time (up to 46 minutes), the Mavic 3 is a great update for those who can afford it, and easily king of the aerial photography hill.
Google Pixel 6
Processor: Google Tensor
Camera: 50 MP Octa PD Quad Bayer wide camera
Quirky Colors: Sorta Seafoam; Kinda Coral; Stormy Black
For years, Google’s homegrown Pixel phones have occupied an uncanny space: slightly more affordable than flagships from the likes of Samsung or Apple, and slightly less capable in terms of features. But with the Pixel 6, which is simultaneously more affordable and more capable than its predecessor, Google appears to have hit a sweet spot. The $599 Pixel 6 has an eye-catching (and polarizing) design, a great camera, and a bit of added computational oomph from Google’s made-to-spec Tensor chip, which gives the search giant’s already considerable photography tricks even more heft.
Size: Extra-large Mentos
Battery Life: ~1 Year
Acceptable Operating Temp: −4° to 140° F
For a tiny, Mentos-sized gadget with no moving parts, buttons or screens to speak off, Apple’s AirTags are working towards an astonishing variety of ends. There are the obvious applications for end users, of course: They help you find your most important belongings by relaying their precise location through Apple’s ever-growing “Find My” network. A way to make sure you never misplace your wallet, or remote, or backpack or whathaveyou ever again.
But maybe even more impressive is the purposes they serve for the trillion dollar tech company itself. They’re an impulse buy-sized way for iPhone owners to bury themselves a little more irrevocably in Apple’s ecosystem of devices and services. They’re a way to absorb the burgeoning markets of item-tracking pioneers like Tile without the trouble of an acquisition. They are a part-gift-part-stimulus for the entire ecosystem of accessory makers that has evolved inside Apple’s walled garden; it’s no accident AirTags don’t have a hole for a simple keyring.
What might be AirTags’ biggest feature, however, could still take a few years to mature. Through the use of Apple’s U1 chip, an Ultra Wideband transmitter inside the AirTags themselves as well as within Apple’s newer phones, AirTags lay the foundation for tracking so precise, it could guide your very eyes to what you’re looking for, if only you could see the waves. For now, a compatible iPhone will do the trick. In the future? One can easily imagine some sort of glasses might play this role…
All that plus $30 insurance that you’ll never lose track of your prized possessions again makes from one of the most intriguing gadgets Apple has released in a long time.
Physical Shutter: Nope
Autofocus: 3D tracking
DSLRs were once the gold standard for high-quality digital photography, and Nikon’s classic D700 was one of the most beloved and long-lived cameras of the family. But over the past few years, as digital camera design has all but deserted the design, each big name has had to stake its claim to the throne for mirrorless, full-frame designs. Nikon’s Z9, with incredible specs for a surprisingly affordable price — and a few high-tech quirks to help it swing for the fences — is the storied Japanese camera maker’s play, and it’s an impressive one.
In some ways, the Z9 still recalls the mirror-toting cameras it’s following up. At nearly 3 pounds (complete with battery and memory), it’s roughly the same weight as Nikon’s classic DSLRs, compared to mirrorless flagships from the likes of Sony and Canon which lost a half-pound or so when they dropped their mirrors.
In other ways, the Z9 looks even further forward into the future. It didn’t just remove its mirror but shed its shutter as well; the scan speed of Nikon’s 45.7MP Stacked CMOS sensor not only eliminates rolling shutter issues, but allows for shutter speeds down to 1/32,000, and the ability to shoot stills at up 120fps (if 11MP JPEGs will suit your needs; RAW tops out at 30).
Time will tell if the Z9 can hang with the legendary DSLRs that preceded it, but the odds look good. It’s a mix of legacy and tech that proves Nikon has not lost its touch.
Apple iPad Mini (2021)
Charging Port: USB-C
Processor: A15 Bionic chip
Apple's line of iPads have been the gold standard for tablets for years, but the iPad mini has been kind of a weird middle child — a smaller and more expensive version of the entry-level iPad, which has a design that feels stuck in the past. Thankfully, Apple broke this mold as the latest iPad mini has been completely redesigned so that it's essentially a smaller and more affordable version of Apple's higher-end iPad Air. It has a bigger and fuller display, USB-C charging and Touch ID integrated into its power button. It's also compatible with the way better, second-generation Apple Pencil. This should be the new go-to iPad for most people.
Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3
Screen: Foldable Dynamic 120Hz AMOLED
Waterproofing: PX8 water resistant (up to 1.5m for 30 mins)
Old-school Flip Phone Vibes: Lots
Flip phones have been trying to capture nostalgia and make a comeback for the last several years, but they've been plagued with problems. Forget about the well-publicized issues from Samsung's and Microsoft's previous attempts (like cracked screens, creaking creases and failed durability tests); the biggest caveat with these new-age flip phones has been price. They've been wildly expensive — costing way more (sometimes double) than non-flipping flagship smartphones that typically top out at around $1,000 — while also sacrificing the flagship-quality things you want, like a good camera or brilliant display.
But not the Galaxy Z Flip3. Samsung's latest take on the traditional flip phone is an all-around improvement. Compared to its predecessor, the Galaxy Z Flip, it has a nicer squared-off design, a functional cover screen (that you can use as a viewfinder for your camera), an improved hinge mechanism, an almost flagship-quality camera system and a beautiful display that has a 120Hz refresh rate, just like Samsung's non-flipping Galaxy smartphones. The kicker? It's $1,000, making it $500 cheaper than before and the first foldable smartphone that the average Joe should think about buying.
Xbox Cloud Gaming
Available Games: Halo Infinite, Minecraft, Madden 21 and more
Compatible Devices: Xbox, PC, Mac, iPhone, anything with a browser
Total Amount of Stuff to Play: Frankly, too much
A full year after their release, next-generation consoles like the Xbox Series X can still be difficult to find. But at the same time, Microsoft seems to be doing its damnedest to make sure this doesn’t matter. The gaming giant’s subscription gaming service, Xbox Game Pass, has long been one of the best deals in the business, with it’s Netflix-like $15 subscription providing access to a truly impressive library of games. It wasn’t until 2021, however, that the service revealed its true power level with the integration of Xbox Cloud Gaming, previously known as Project xCloud.
With the help of an army of hardware connected to the cloud, Xbox Game Pass can finally provide complete, unadulterated access to console-grade games from anywhere. No Xbox? No problem. You can play them on your computer or mobile device through the Xbox app. Or, most importantly, through a browser, which enables a feat unimaginable just a few years ago: Yes, you can now play Xbox games on your iPhone.