With another year of technology done and dusted, and plenty of reviews later, what do we think are the best gadgets of 2021?
Another year is just literally around the corner as this one ends, and while many of us can’t wait for the new one to begin — and for new exciting things to show up at our doors — we still have time to talk about what was amazing this year.
Yet another tumultuous year for much of the world, 2021 has proved to be divisive. As we spent yet more time working from home and waited for the world to get vaccinated, it was hardly a surprise that headphones and computers played a central part to what we were looking at.
Mobility was slightly hampered with all that WFH time, and so the best tech tended to be focused on life at home, because that’s where we all were.
That clearly didn’t stop the number of gadgets coming out in 2021, and so we had plenty to look at, to check out, and to review. So what are our picks for best gadgets of the year in Australia? Let’s find out.
Best headphones: Apple AirPods Max & Sony WH-1000XM4
We couldn’t decide on an overall winner this year, and found both these headphone options to be absolutely stellar. They’re both winners, but for different reasons.
Last year, the Sony WH-1000XM4 took the best spot because of just how strong they were in performance and overall value, and this year, that remains the same. You can’t beat Sony in what it offers in the XM4, as the quality is just bang on that brilliant.
On the other end of the scale and roughly twice the price, Apple’s AirPods Max delivers some of the nicest sound you can find from any headphone, wireless or otherwise, and this year added support for positional spatial audio based on the movements of your head. When Apple added support for music in Dolby Atmos it was one thing, but then the company switched on a sound that changed based on where you turned your head, and it is bang on one of the best surprises of the year (more on that later).
Given the excellence in each, we probably need little reason as to why we can’t pick a “best headphone of 2021”, but each of these are pretty much the best you can find.
If you’re an Apple Music subscriber with an iPhone or iPad, the Apple AirPods Max are one of the best headphones you can find, and if you use any other service or any other device, the Sony WH-1000XM4 wins the best position from us, too. Each pair is amazing, and you’ll be happy with either.
Best earphones: Sony WF-1000XM4
The year’s best earphones also come from Sony, with the WF-1000XM4 offering a warm and wide sound that’s easy to listen to, with support for some of the cool features found in the larger WH-1000XM4 headphones.
Sony also changed the silicon tips to be something foam-based, making them stand out just that little bit more, and while the earphone size is such that it won’t accommodate all ears comfortably, even if it’s something you eventually get used to.
Outside of the slight issues with comfort, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 offers some of the best sounding and full-featured truly wireless earphones, with our only wish being the support for positional spatial audio, which is missing in action because it’s an Apple-only thing at the present time.
Best fitness earphones: Ag TWS04K
Not strictly a pair of fitness earphones, Ag’s first pair in Australia, the TWS04K, still manages to come with a higher water resistance rating than most earphones we see. Supporting IPX7 versus IPX4, you’ll be able to do a little more running in these earphones for a while, and not just because of the higher rating, but also something else.
Ag’s TWS04K comes with the most staggeringly impressive battery of any pairs of earphones we’ve ever tested, able to last 140 hours, which basically makes it a week of constant use, or a month without charging for anyone else.
Imagine that: a pair of earphones that practically goes without a charge for the longest time, and the sound quality is pretty solid, too.
Best value earphones: EarFun Air Pro
It is absolutely stellar news that there’s so much choice when it comes to spending money on earphones, but this year, the best pick comes from a brand you’ve never heard of: EarFun Air Pro.
A pair of earphones sporting noise cancellation with six microphones, warm sound and tuning by Edifier, plus IPX5 water resistance, the EarFun Air Pro are basically the inexpensive alternative to Sony’s WF-1000XM4 with less impressive noise cancellation.
Comfortable and easy to listen to, they’re a great option for folks looking for solid value and sound, and aren’t fussed about having an app to control extra features, because those aren’t here. Rather, the EarFun Air Pro just does what you need, delivering solid sound and cancelling out part of the outside world.
Best speaker: Sonos Roam
A pint-sized speaker with a lot of sound and a strong feature set, it’s hard to do better than the Sonos Roam when you’re looking for a speaker this year. Both the depth and volume is impressive, and Sonos has made this into a water resistant speaker that stands out for value, delivering both a multi-room speaker and a Bluetooth speaker you can take on the go.
There’s also AirPlay support, not to mention the ability to let you talk to voice assistants, and it helps to just keep the Roam full-featured and impressive overall.
Best value speaker: BlueAnt X5
A big speaker with a lot of sound, some handy features, and a surprisingly not so expensive price made Australia’s BlueAnt a winner in our eyes this year, nailing the value argument for a speaker that truly delivers.
The BlueAnt X5 speaker isn’t like the above Roam in that it’s small, but it is highly portable, and given what’s inside, that is thoroughly surprising. There’s a big speaker with lots of volume, support for two karaoke microphones, and even a battery to let you recharge your phone.
If you’re looking for a party speaker with lots of room to move, BlueAnt’s X5 provides something great for the home, and even sports flashy lights, too.
Best smart display: Google Nest Hub (Gen 2)
There haven’t been a heap of smart displays this year, what with the competition primarily existing between Amazon and Google, but the difference in feature sets and support mainly gives this one to Google.
Released earlier this year, Google’s second-generation display feel like it achieve a better feature set and value in Australia than Amazon’s smart displays, thanks in part to the support of family photos and sleep detection technology, two things Amazon doesn’t support locally, and helps to make the display just that much more usable overall.
Best tablet: Apple iPad (9th-gen)
There’s a recent tablet for every iPad style in the past year, whether you’re considering the best in the M1 iPad Pro, almost the best in the 2020 iPad Air, the smallest in the 2021 iPad Mini, and the entry-level iPad for this year, the 9th-gen iPad.
Apple didn’t change much in the update to the latter, but the updates it made were strong enough to count, with the white balancing of True Tone in the display, the auto-positioning technology of Centre Stage, and a slightly updated chip, plus double the storage overall. It’s all coming for the same price as last year’s iPad, which was already a winner in our eyes, as well.
Best computer for all: Apple M1 MacBook Air & Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
This year, we didn’t have a single winner for best computer, but rather two, because one retained its value and strength from last year, while another offered best-in-class performance at the same time.
In 2021, if you need a Mac for great value, you can’t do better than Apple’s M1 MacBook Air, which was updated last year, but still offers the best combination of features for the price.
And if you’re looking for the best PC laptop, the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 is probably it, offering excellent performance, solid construction, a comfortable keyboard, and a top battery life, as well.
Best accessory: TwelveSouth Hover Bar
In the work from home world, there have been some pretty notable accessories. Stands, port replicators, devices to improve the video capture and make us look marginally better over the every day video chat that seems to happen all the time.
And yet there’s been one accessory and peripheral we’ve relied on more than any other this year: the Hover Bar.
Think of this as a stand for your phone or tablet, or anything else you’d like to use on your desk, or even at your kitchen. You can clamp the Hover Bar to a table or bench, or even leave it on its stand, holding a phone or tablet up, and essentially giving you a secondary screen.
Beyond the requirement of chargers, headphones, and microphones, this is probably the unexpected accessory we relied on most this year and a genuine winner. Our desk can’t live without TwelveSouth’s Hover Bar.
Best wearable: Apple Watch Series 7
Even though there are some clear winners, there’s no shortage of gadgets you can equip your wrist with this year. However, we think there may be a clear winner, provided you own a specific breed of phone: the Apple Watch.
In 2021, Apple didn’t make any major changes to its formula, keeping the health tech the same but increasing the screen size, helping to make its smartwatch feel more watch-like than ever before.
It’s not a substantial change that makes us switch the best wearable choice from a Withings model to one made by Apple, but rather the support for fitness the watch delivers. If you use Apple’s fitness programs, it will track your health and vitals as you work out, and if you decide you need someone to walk with, Apple’s “Time to Walk” program provides a sort of micro-podcast for walking with, connecting special guests with walks when we were all at home and trying to be socially distancing.
The year didn’t offer anything necessarily mind-blowing for wearables, mind you, and while we liked Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 and the Whoop band, we think the integration and slightly evolved design of the Apple Watch Series 7 is what helped set it apart, making it the winner this year. You’ll still need an iPhone if you want to use one, but if you have one, it’s the best watch to connect to your phone hands down.
Best kids tech: JBL JR310 BT
We’ve seen a few examples of kids tech over the year, but the one that stood out for us in terms of sheer quality overall was a pair of headphones that sounded so good, it has kind of set the benchmark for quality headphones for kids. All kids headphones should be this good.
JBL’s JR310BT is a wireless pair of headphones for kids that delivers a great sound even adults would be sure to love. It’s a genuine surprise that makes it stand out, often because child-friendly headphones are often tinny and mediocre, and the JBL JR310BT are everything but.
Best home tech: Dyson V15 Detect
You mightn’t think that a vacuum cleaner qualifies as a solid piece of technology, but it has made cleaning the house fun in a year when being at home was more or less a requirement.
Robotic vacuums are nice, but Dyson’s V15 Detect stands out not just because of its almost “gamified” approach to counting dust and watching numbers go up, but because of the green laser on its specialty head, which lights up the floor and helps you nail that perfect clean. It’s just so cool an appliance that it might get your kids doing the cleaning for fun. Yes, we know what we said.
Best music service: Apple Music
There’s no shortage of choice in music services anymore, whether you look at the ones everyone knows of — Spotify, Apple Music, and such — or even check out some of the lesser known services.
In recent years, Spotify has been the one to beat, but in 2021, there’s a new winner for our money: Apple Music.
While they all offer a similar catalogue, Apple Music bolstered its service offering this year with the inclusion of Dolby Atmos spatial sound and lossless audio for no extra cost, something Tidal charges extra for, while also providing track identification for DJ set lists. All off this helps to give Apple Music the winning spot for music service for the year, and easily worth a try if you haven’t.
Best video service: Disney+
We’ve been fans of Disney+ for a while, thanks in part to the combination of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic, but Disney boosted the catalogue significantly this year and made it more appealing to adults with more Fox movies and TV shows.
With the arrival of “Star”, Disney+ suddenly had more appeal for parents and adults, even amidst more competition as Paramount offered its own service in Australia.
There’s a lot going on there, complete with support for IMAX Enhanced titles, as well, helping to make Disney+ stand out even in more in 2021.
Best gaming service: Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
You can get a gaming service on nearly every console or gadget, but we think Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass offers the best value and feature set of any gaming service.
More like a Netflix service for gaming — think “all-you-can-game” for a monthly fee — Xbox Game Pass Ultimate not only offers games on Xbox and Windows PC, but lets you connect it through to gaming on other devices, such as tablets and phones by way of an Xbox in the cloud.
Xbox Cloud Gaming (formerly “xCloud) essentially provides gamers with access to an Xbox on any device they want. You can plug in a controller and game without actually having or owning an Xbox, relying entirely on a phone, such as we did for a few weeks. It’s one feature no other gaming service does, and helps to make Xbox Game Pass Ultimate stand out considerably.
Best surprise: Spatial Audio on Apple Music
The surprise winner for our ears this year is something that has helped redefine music and how you listen, as Apple changed the way people experienced sound.
You might have heard albums you love again and again, but Spatial Audio can change the way you listen to them, making the soundstage just that much wider using standard Atmos, and then shifting the sound around your head using directional Atmos.
At the moment, directional sound in Apple Music’s Dolby Atmos is specific to Apple’s earphones, be it the AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, or this year’s updated AirPods (version 3), but hopefully it’s a technology that could be supported by more, which would mean more ears could hear the awesomeness that is audio oriented for your head.