For the average consumer, tech has never been better. In fact, thanks to a plethora of professional and consumer reviews, the average joe enjoys a commentary firewall against poorly made tech. The one gotcha? There’s more gear than ever, and it’s full of noise. If you’re of the mindset “buy less, buy better”, then getting the right product can sometimes be a paralysis of choice.
Our one take-away recommendation this year is that you shouldn’t commit to any particular product, but instead commit to an ecosystem and build around that. Are you pot committed to Amazon Prime? Buy an Echo and look for Alexa-enabled devices. Die-hard Apple and iTunes user? Buy Apple hardware. The convenience of compatibility will almost outweigh any short-term pricing decision you make right now, and it ensures your devices work better together for longer.
Elsewhere, we’ve spent the year focusing on the products we love at Gear Patrol: premium audio, high performing photography and camera gear, smartphones, and home entertainment. Our picks, from all your friends here at the Gear Patrol Tech Desk, are below.
— Contributions by Eric Yang (Editor in Chief), Tucker Bowe (Tech Writer) and Henry Phillips (Deputy Photography Editor)
Naim Uniti Atom All-in-One Receiver
Outside of premium home speakers or high-end components, premium audio hasn’t seen a lot of blockbuster releases; it seems like all the attention goes to portable gadgets and smart speakers these days. But don’t tell that to the folks at Naim. The Uniti Atom is one of the most exciting home audio products we’ve tested in years. Let’s start with how it looks: it’s stunning. Monolithic in black with a beautiful LCD, the Atom’s pièce de résistance is its sauce-sized volume knob on top. Not a single person will walk by the Atom and not want to touch or modulate it.
But the Atom isn’t just for show — the sonic substance runs deep. The all-in-one design takes a page out of the simplification that all users are looking for nowadays. Just add a pair of great speakers, and the Atom takes care of the rest. At 40W per channel pumped from a Class A/B amplifier, the Atom can handle many high-end applications. On the connectivity front, the Atom doesn’t pull any punches. It’ll serve as a hub to your primary entertainment with built-in support for Tidal or Spotify, multi-room audio, an optional HDMI port (that’s isolated from disturbing the rest of the audio circuitry), and every other modern input. If you’re looking for life beyond the soundbar, but not quite ready for a massive component-based system, you really should look nowhere else than the Uniti Atom. It soars.
Samsung Galaxy Note8
With the cloud of the Note7 disaster still lingering in everybody’s minds, we would’ve forgiven Samsung if it opted to abandon the Note line altogether. They didn’t, though, and instead delivered its best and biggest-screen smartphone ever: the Galaxy Note8. It arguably has the best rear-camera system of any smartphone, including the iPhone X. It has the best selfie camera, too. The Note8 is completely unique, with its stylus and its ability to take notes on the phone’s locked screen. It’s also, along with the S8 and S8+, the most objectively beautiful smartphone — not even the iPhone X compete with it.
Read the review, here.
Bose QC35 II
In an increasingly crowded field, Bose continues to make our favorite noise-canceling headphones. The QC35 IIs share the same excellent noise-canceling ability, sound quality and general aesthetic as its predecessor, the QC35s, but add a button on the left ear cup to access Google Assistant. This allows you to do things like calling a friend, change the song and search for directions, all without taking your phone out of your pocket. You don’t have to use Google Assistant, though, and can instead program the button to switch between different levels of noise cancellation. The flexibility to use these headphones the way you want is great, but the real kicker is that the Bose QC35 IIs are lighter, more foldable (therefore travel-friendly) and just generally more comfortable than any other pair we’ve tested this year.
Read the review, here.
AirPods, which technically came out in late 2016, are hands-down the best product that Apple has released in recent years — and there’s a good reason for that. Apple has poured unfathomable amounts of R&D into producing an experience that’s, well, magic. We’ve been predicting Apple would release a pair of wireless earphones for years here at the office, and attributing any delay to either software or battery life. Turns out, making a pair of wireless earphones that “just work” is far more complex than anyone expected.
While first generation products can be notoriously fickle, the AirPods work very well, thanks to the W1 chipset that enhances Bluetooth connectivity. Fire up your favorite tunes, pop in your AirPods and voila: seamless music. Sure, they won’t break any barriers for sonic capability, but for this reviewer who uses a fair share of headphones, the audio quality is rather admirable (haters can go ahead and hate). The convenience is game-changing. AirPods have redefined the “Air” moniker for Apple in a way we could never have imagined and at a price that makes them a no-brainer purchase.
Read our review, here.
LG C7 OLED 4K HDR TV
If you haven’t bought an OLED TV yet, that’s understandable: they’re a fair bit more expensive than the LED TVs that have been around for years. However, OLEDs can produce much more vibrant colors, brighter whites, and darker darks — and are frankly the best TVs you can buy. Also, their prices are finally becoming more reasonable. Of those OLEDs, the LG C7 Series is the creme de la creme. It produces arguably the best picture quality of any of them, with Wirecutter naming the C7 the best TV they’ve ever tested.
Read our review, here.
Sony A7R III
This year, the Sony A7R III raised the bar for what professional full-frame cameras systems could be. Thanks to its incredible sensor and an advanced processor (which it borrowed from the A9), the A7R III combines excellent high-resolution imagery with an absurdly fast and accurate — it’s capable of up to 10 fps continuous shooting speeds with full autofocus and autoexposure tracking, even in silent shutter mode. But that’s not all. The A7R III comes with a host of features not found on its predecessor, the A7R II, which will please landscape, portrait and studio photographers, as well as just about everyone else. It has a larger battery, a second memory-card slot, a rear joystick for easier tuning of settings while shooting, and a flicker-free view through the electronic viewfinder while shooting at high speed. It also has an optional Pixel Shift Multi Shooting mode where, according to our contributor Eric Adams, “the camera moves the sensor in one-pixel increments to capture four separate RAW images for each shot, totaling 169 million pixels You can then combine the images into a single frame with “overwhelming” resolution and color fidelity.” Lastly, the A7R III shares the same great 4K video capturing capabilities to the A7R II. It’s really the complete package when it comes to full-frame mirrorless camera systems.
Read our list of best digital cameras of 2017, here.
The Nintendo Switch took the gaming world by storm this year for two reasons. One: It was a convertible, portable home console, unlike anything the gaming world had seen before. And more importantly, because it was propelled by a number of games that are arguably among the best of 2017, such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Whether you’re a youngster or somebody who grew up Nintendo classics, the Nintendo Switch is a delight.
Nikon was nice enough to loan me this camera for a month. I shot 8500 photos over 18 stories. At the beginning, I brought two backup cameras. By the ends I didn’t. This is the core difference between Nikon’s DSLRs and their mirrorless competitors. Consider one other key stat: the “drastically improved” battery of the Sony A7R III will last 650 shots, the 850’s battery will last for 1,850. The key takeaway from my time with the D850 is that at the very top end the DSLR isn’t in danger because, simply put, they are unbelievably good.
Sure the D850 has a stunning 45.7-megapixel sensor and an autofocus system derived from the nearly untouchable D5. And of course it’ll shoot 7 frames per second and 4K video but that’s not the selling point these days. The selling point is that not only will you get class-leading image performance, but it’s also that you’ll get that same performance whether the camera is caked in mud, dusted in snow, or doused in rain. With the D850, Nikon has established themselves as the single best choice for a camera that can do anything, everywhere.
Read our list of best digital cameras of 2017, here.
Apple Watch Series 3
Apple remedied the initial cellular issues that some experienced with Series 3 (via a software update). That was a hiccup, for sure, but now the Series 3 is frankly the best Apple Watch ever, whether you get an LTE or GPS-only model. The Series 3 is much faster, more energy efficient and more water resistant (up to 50 meters) than any other Apple Watch. It also boasts a couple of other nice features. It’s able to continuously track heart rate, and detect your resting and recovery rates as well. Siri is able to speak out loud, too. And if you have an LTE model, you can stream music and answer calls without your phone. All those are firsts for an Apple Watch. It’s the best smartwatch and fitness tracker you can buy.
Read the review, here.
Ultimate Ears Blast and MegaBlast
The Blast and MegaBlast are Ultimate Ear’s first ever smart speakers. When connected to wi-fi you can ask Alexa to play music or answer trivia questions, the same way as you would with an Amazon Echo or the new Sonos One. But really, these really excel as rugged and portable Bluetooth speaker. The MegaBlast is the loudest speaker UE has ever made, coming in at 40-percent louder than the Megaboom. And both are waterproof. For anybody looking for a loud, great sounding Bluetooth speaker, these are what I’d tell them to put their money toward.
Read about the best hi-fi Bluetooth speakers, here.
Voice control is something many Sonos owners have wanted for years — and it’s finally here with the Sonos One. You can use Alexa to control Amazon Music Unlimited and Spotify, if you’re a subscriber of either, and it delivers the same excellent audio quality of a Play:1 speaker. Admittedly, this speaker isn’t doing anything revolutionary (voice control speakers were a dime a dozen this year), but that fact you can easily control the audio on the most popular multiroom speakers — that’s kind of a big deal. Plus, it doesn’t cost anything outrageous.
Read the review, here.
Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless
We’re in an era of wireless headphones. Thanks to technology like aptX, there’s increasingly little reason to deal with the hassle of wired headphones, even on the higher end. Sure, you’ll want a proper headphone amp and cans if you’re sitting down for a critical listening session, but for the 85-percent of us who just want great sound, reliability and supreme convenience, wireless headphones with near lossless streaming are a godsend — particularly for the office-bound music jockey.
Bowers & Wilkins stormed the premium audio space with their P series (the P5 wireless headphones are the most commonly owned pair in our office), but the P7’s sonic performance truly impresses. When the good folks at B&W followed up the P7 with a wireless model, we became smitten. There are a few quibbles with the P7 Wireless headphones (they go to sleep far too quickly), but for a long afternoon of sonic performance, you won’t find a better pair out there. As for the sound: the best way we can sum it up is this: perfectly balanced. The 17-hour battery life, long-term comfort, and outstanding initial build quality are just icing on the cake.
Read our review on B&W’s new wireless noise-canceling headphones, here.
The iPhone X isn’t the revolutionary phone we wanted, but it’s the one we deserved (thanks, Commish). Why? Well, let’s first ask ourselves: was anyone really comfortable getting rid of the home button or switching to new gestures we had spent a decade ingraining into an entire generations’ worth of hands? Nope. But Apple did it with the iPhone X by committing to a technology that, while not perfect, shows that there’s a better way. That tech is Face ID, and it’s the most important part of the iPhone X outside of the camera. Even the stunning OLED screen that calibrates itself to all environments and speed all play second fiddle to Face ID. For convenience, it’s a half generation behind the ease of Touch ID, and we found that to be the case with a lot of testing here at Gear Patrol, but sometimes, you have to take a step back to leap forward, and that’s exactly what Apple has done.
But this isn’t a story just about Face ID and the iPhone X. It’s also about camera technology of which the iPhone X is simply leading the class: and no, I’m not talking just about the photography optics (which are also class-leading), but the power that Apple is harnessing by coupling insane ARM silicon processing with functions like TrueDepth technology. The two are setting the stage for Augmented Reality, which will dominate our lives in the next several years. It’s without a doubt one of the most important reasons the iPhone X is at least a generation ahead of the competition and our choice for smartphone of the year.
Read the review, here.
Dell UltraSharp 38 Curved Monitor
There are two ways you can go when choosing a monitor. On one end, we loved the 27-inch LG Ultrafine 5K for its sheer resolution performance (14.7 million pixels, which is 77-percent more than a typical 4K display) combined with a wide color gamut that produces stunningly accurate colors, but after a few months of testing the LG, we couldn’t help but think that the monitor is undercooked; it showcases the pieces Apple will use when they release their own monitors in the future.
On the other hand, the Dell UltraSharp 38-inch Curved IPS LED Monitor came at us from left field. A curved widescreen display feels like a gimmick, a vestige of curved TVs, but after a solid month using our tester, we’ve changed our tune. The Dell serves only one purpose, to make you a productivity badass. If you work in an open office like ours (or anywhere there are distractions), you will literally feel the sheer task-mastering horsepower of the Dell within a few days use. One of the lesser-touted aspects of a monitor this wide is its ability to block your peripheral vision, which can be incredibly useful for those seeking focus. There’s a bit of spin-up time realizing you actually have that much space to use. And unlike a dual-monitor setup, your ever-critical center stage workspace isn’t bisected by two monitors’ bezels. Emails on the left, your primary app in the middle, Slack and iMessage on the right, and you, my friends, are in business.
This isn’t a gaming monitor, and it’s certainly not for color-critical uses. The matte screen and subdued-yet-accurate color display will reduce fatigue, and while it’s still a 72-dpi display, you quickly forget the loss in resolution as you begin crushing to-do. If your primary work app suite consists of spreadsheets, browsers, and writing then you should strongly consider giving an ultra-widescreen monitor a try and the Dell is the one we’d put our money toward.
Apple iMac Pro
If you’re an Apple nerd and lamented the seemingly lack of progress in computer hardware the past couple of years (Mac Mini anyone?) then the iMac Pro is a Space Gray Phoenix. Unapologetically “Pro,” the iMac Pro makes a bold statement about professional users: give it to me simple. The iMac Pro delivers an “order it and forget it” experience. Pick your cores, your ram and your storage, and get to work — we’ll see you in a few years.
The iMac Pro can top out at over $13,000 — and that’s fine. With the iMac Pro, Apple is setting itself a new standard for professional users on desktop machines (one we’d love to see make its way to laptops). For what it’s worth, the iMac Pro is a buzzer shot inclusion in our gear of the year from your friends here on the Tech Desk. It’s also the one product in this entire lineup we haven’t tested. But the iMac Pro warrants inclusion because of its reasoning. It’s a bellwether for professional Apple users that says: “you have not been abandoned” and if that’s not one of the most reassuring statements for high-end users then we’re not sure what is.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
The biggest names in streaming devices — Amazon, Roku, Google and Apple — all mad a big push towards 4K this year. Most of their 4K streaming sticks are very similar, admittedly, so spotting the differences mainly comes down to a few things: price, HDR compatibility, apps supported, and the interface you’re comfortable with. For us, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus edges out the rest. It supports pretty much every streaming service you want (YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Now), and doesn’t prioritize content, as Amazon’s Fire TV 4K often does with Amazon content. It supports HDR10 (not Dolby Vision, unfortunately) and has a really smooth and easy-to-use OS. Oh yea, it also costs less than $70.
Amazon Echo (2nd-Gen)
If there’s one thing we’re almost certain of, it’s that smart speakers, and the battle for your home assistant, will be one of the fiercest battle in tech next year. Amazon is willing to bet on savvier consumers over sound quality right now, and that sounds (quite literally) about right. During our test of the 2nd-Gen Echo, we weren’t incredibly impressed by the incremental audio improvements in the Echo over the previous generation, but we were impressed by the massive price drop (50 percent). Moves like that virtually guarantee Amazon a space in everyone’s home, and as long as Amazon continues to make the Echo more useful and not just an impromptu music player (or Jeopardy session), the Echo has a long, very long, future in people’s homes. We wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon is toying with the idea of giving Prime members an Echo Dot free at some point, but until then, if you’re ready for your first smart speaker, the $100 2nd-gen Echo is worth every penny.
Read the review, here.
Grado Pro Series PS2000e
Let’s get right to it. The Grado Professional Series PS2000e’s are the best Grado headphones, we’ve ever listened to and one of the best headphones we’ve listened to period. But for 90% of you reading this, these headphones aren’t designed for you and that’s totally fine, irrespective of the $2,700 price tag. Still, I still encourage you to come along for this audition because the PS2000e’s are worth every penny.
We have a penchant for professional grade gear at Gear Patrol. Call it a magnetism for source material, which makes the PS2000e’s so alluring. They’re unapologetically professional. A bit like a pro photographer working in a studio with “RAW” files, the PS2000e’s get as far out of the way as possible, and that’s the whole point. Accurate audio reproduction sounds simple in theory, but it’s an almost infinitely complex process to develop, which is why the Grado team have taken 2 years to develop the PS2000e’s as a sequel to the PS1000e headphones. Good things just take time.
There’s little Grado has done to imbue these headphones with a “sound signature” you’d see in most consumer-grade headphones. Just sit down for a full album listen with the remastered version of Eric Clapton “Unplugged” to see what we’re talking about. The sound is so authentic even a casual listener will immediately hear the difference. It’ll make you smile. And speaking of charm, we’re still bowled over with the fact that Grado gets away with its ultra bare-bones packaging (Grado team, please let us know if you’d like us to help with your packaging, we’d gladly donate our team’s time). If you’ve had a conversation with the Grado family as we’ve been lucky to have, it doesn’t take long to realize that they truly believe their mantra of “as much sound as money can buy.” With this year’s release of the PS2000e headphones, Grado has done just that and why these are our audiophile headphones of the year.
Xbox One X
On one hand, the Xbox One X doesn’t seem that impressive. It plays the exact same games as other Xbox One consoles. It streams the same apps. And you can play online against the same people as they play on their “lesser” Xbox One consoles. So why get it? The fact is the Xbox One X is designed to get the most out of new 4K HDR televisions, in a way that older consoles, including the PS4 Pro (the Xbox One X’s closest competitor), simply cannot. It has a custom GPU engine that runs at 1,172MHz (compared to the PS4 Pro’s 911MHz); it has 6 teraFLOPS of graphical processing power (compared to the PS4 Pro’s 4.2 teraFLOPS); And it plays games natively at true 4K at 60 fps. If you have a 4K TV and spend a substantial amount of time playing video games, this is the console you want.
Read the review, here.
The Best Products of 2017
A look back at the year in gear. From superlative whiskey to sustianable denim, these were the best products released in 2017. Explore the Series