This year was a banner year for the tech sphere, with multiple mainstays producing some of the best devices their developers have ever crafted. It was also defined by supply chain pitfalls, labor rights issues and a continuing, unhealthy practice of tech figure hero worship that resulted in real-world impact (Game-Stonk, anyone?).
This list celebrates the best devices, tools and services of 2021, but highlighting the products without acknowledging the ongoing issues within the industry would be disingenuous. Doing so masks the plight of workers at some of the largest tech companies as they fight for a seat at the table to guarantee protections and normalize collective organizing in an industry abhorrent to the cause. Whether Amazon, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Tesla or any other major company are the topic of discussion, the point remains that addressing labor practices and workplace culture cannot fade into the background. Even as we derive joy from our trinkets.
iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro
Apple’s latest iteration on the iPhone feels like the company’s next step forward in smartphone development. The device’s A15 Bionic processor keeps iPhone performance top of the line, outperforming even Apple’s own claims in independent tests. The Pro’s Super Retina display also introduced ProMotion variable refresh rates, optimizing app performance to a new level. New video tools, including Cinematic Mode, and upgraded cameras make the iPhone 13 family of devices stand out among previous Apple offerings.
Google Pixel 6
For all the Android users, Google finally committed to the mobile market in a sizable way with the Google Pixel 6. The latest edition of the tech giant’s smartphone represents a complete rework of the device, right down to the processor. Google’s in-house developed Tensor chip brings the Pixel 6 into new levels of performance that works in-step with Android’s infrastructure with a fluidity that one would expect from the developer of Android. It also packs some of the best cameras and photography tools seen in the mobile market at a mid-tier price, making it an incredibly attractive option in an expensive market.
LG C1 OLED TV
OLED televisions are all the rage right now, but they can come with a hefty price tag. LG’s C1 brings things to the best middle ground possible, packing in stellar specs and performance without reaching the astronomical prices that can dissuade you from upgrading. The C1 delivers image quality on par with more expensive models while including special picture settings for gaming and not sacrificing its sleek design, all while remaining under $1800 for the 65-inch model.
Microsoft Surface Pro 8
Microsoft’s best tablet line got better this year thanks to a complete revamp, both outside and in. The Surface Pro 8 13-inch display made it more aesthetically pleasing while battery life and processing power have been optimized for max performance. The device is also the most flexible in terms of accessory integration, making third-party peripherals far more viable in the age of Thunderbolt ports.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
Xbox’s Netflix-for-games style service remains one of the better ways to access top titles while delivering a vast array of eye-catching indie gems. Microsoft’s commitment to releasing first-party titles from its expansive list of studios is enough to make the $15/month asking price worth the cost. The package got even better with the addition of Xbox Cloud Gaming to the platform, delivering on the streaming promise of Google Stadia with a game library that dwarfs its competitor. Concerns around media ownership and game preservation still exist, but Game Pass remains the top in convenience and storefront discoverability.
The Analogue Pocket is a device that won’t speak to the wider gaming world, but there is simply no better option when it comes to retro handheld gaming. The Pocket brings titles from the Game Boy era to life at 10 times the resolution with modern color arrays, delivering the best handheld experience to date. With Game Gear, Atari Lynx and Neo Geo Pocket titles compatible via cartridge adapters, the Pocket brings all of the classic handhelds from decades past into the FPGA future. The only problem is getting your hands on one.
Earbuds have become a daily fixture for those of us working from home as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, and Sony’s latest iteration of its poorly named earbuds stand out among the crowd. The WF-1000XM4’s noise-canceling and features are top-tier and voice call quality has been vastly improved. They may appear a bit bulky than its competitors, but their performance makes their design easy to overlook.
Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
The foldable future for smartphones officially arrived this year thanks to Samsung. The company introduced vast improvements to its phone/tablet hybrid Galaxy Z Fold 3, making the design feel like a viable if not pricey option going forward. And with specific operating systems being developed for dual-screen foldable devices, what was once viewed as a novelty now feels like a feasible path for smartphone development, even if they remain tailored more toward a certain kind of buyer. Extra points should be awarded for bringing the flip phone back as well with the Galaxy Z Flip 3.
Apple’s recently released Macbook Pro utilizes the added power of its new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips to deliver perhaps the best notebook the company has ever produced. An historically beefy line when it comes to processing power, the new Macbook Pro delivers upgrades in that area across the board, from the GPU to battery life. The return of HDMI and SD card ports is another bonus, increasing the device’s functionality with peripherals. Not too shabby for taking a five-year break between significant updates.
Sometimes you have to take a step back from the tech tools we use in our daily lives to understand the true power of technological advancement. A list of the best tech of the year can’t be complete without mentioning the mRNA vaccines developed to address Covid-19 worldwide. There are plenty of ills to speak of when it comes to international vaccine availability, efforts to protect vaccine patents as nations struggle to protect their populations and the historically caustic behavior exhibited by pharmaceutical companies. But those issues don’t take away from what the vaccine itself represents and the teams that continue to develop them to combat variants, doing what they can to stay ahead of one of the most devastating viruses the world has seen.
Brian Bell is a queer freelance writer covering tech, pro wrestling, esports, games, comics and TV. Find and follow him on Twitter @WonderboyOTM.