It doesn’t feel right to praise much of anything in 2020, but here goes: the gadgets were good. In a year when many of us have been more dependent than ever on our screens to stay connected, do our jobs, and just stay sane, the technology behind them has been better than ever.
Big tech promised generational changes in consumer technology this year. The new Macs and the new gaming hardware we got in 2020 really have kicked off noticeably different and better eras in computing. I don’t like using grandiose phrases like “eras in computing,” but there’s really no other way to put it. Apple, Nvidia, Microsoft, Sony, and AMD actually delivered on their bombastic claims. That’s not usually how it goes. It’s a little bewildering.
So yes, there were the usual hits and misses in this year’s gadgets, but what’s different is the hits were blockbusters.
The biggest star has to be the M1 chip in Apple’s new laptops and the Mac Mini. We very nearly gave the MacBook Air a perfect score. Normally, a processor transition means app incompatibility problems that go on for years, but you have to go to strange edge cases to find apps that just don’t work. Normally, apps designed for the old chips run slow, but in some cases, they run faster on the M1. Normally, speed improvements and battery improvements are measured in single percentage points, but these laptops are astonishingly fast and last forever.
It’s hard to express what a big deal this is. More than once, we would have to double- and triple-check our test results because they seemed too good to be true. I do not know how Windows PCs are going to respond. Thus far, emulated apps that run in Windows on Arm have been slow and buggy, while Intel-based machines are unlikely to match the M1’s battery life. It’s going to be a tough row for the entire PC industry to hoe.
Then there’s the new slate of gaming hardware, which all seemed to land at once and which all seem to be impossible to find at any retail site. Before this year, getting 4K, HDR, and high refresh rates all at the same time was a stretch goal at best. After 2020, it’s accessible on PC or console (assuming you can find the hardware in stock and buy it).
The new graphics cards from both Nvidia and AMD force away the trade-offs gamers usually have to make in their graphics settings. Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and S don’t have a slate of next-gen launch titles, but they have competently and quietly made existing games run faster and look better. And they also have a ton of potential for the future with Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate subscription service.
The Playstation 5, on the other hand, surprised us all by having a new controller that offers some genuinely new and engaging experiences. It seems weird to enthuse about haptics and trigger resistance, but you really can feel the difference. The PS5’s fundamentals as a console are also strong — though the design of course remains polarizing.
Taken as a whole, the new PC graphics cards and the new consoles really do represent the beginning of a set of next-gen gaming experiences. And unlike the last time we got a big console refresh, it doesn’t seem like any of them have significantly stumbled out of the gate.
The phones of 2020 were also great. It’s hard to remember because it was a thousand years ago, but Samsung’s Galaxy S20 line launched in March as the first flagship 5G phones. It’s weird to suggest that anything Samsung does is quiet, but the S20 and S20 plus were just quietly the best Android phones this year.
5G turned out to be the most explicit claim to making something “next generation” that did not pan out. In the US especially, 5G is only slightly better than 4G for people who can find a signal in the first place. Even so, the phones that were meant to usher in the 5G era were great — not because they had 5G, but because they were simply well-made.
The new iPhones were also great — and launched along with a confident claim that “5G is real now.” But as with Samsung’s phones, the iPhone 12 lineup is great despite 5G, not because of it. The iPhone 12 mini, in particular, finally made a top-tier phone available to people who have felt that everything since the iPhone 5S was too big.
Hell, Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 finally made good on the promise of the original. Overpriced and blingy? Yes. But also a really good little tablet that folds up. I know at least one Verge editor who I shall not name (it’s not me) who bought one and loves it.
Then there are the gadgets that don’t purport to be next-gen anything but nevertheless were simply good: the Asus ROG G14 Zephyrus gaming laptop; the GoPro Hero 9; DJI’s Mini 2 drone getting OcuSync wireless and its new Ronan gimbals getting built-in focus wheels; Nintendo’s Mario Kart Live Home Circuit remote control AR cars; the VanMoof S3 e-bike; Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones; and Dell’s latest XPS 13 2-in-1. Even smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Nest Audio significantly improved their sound while Apple finally hit a reasonable price point with the HomePod mini.
I wish I could tell you what ties this year’s wave of good gadgets into a coherent trend. It wouldn’t be right to tie any of this to the pandemic — the lead times on everything mentioned here are such that they would have begun development well before lockdown. Certainly there was an effort to make “next-gen” products feel worthy of the description, but I don’t think that explains it all.
If I’m honest, I think it’s just luck. A bunch of technologies happened to mature around the same time and a bunch of companies happened to be ready to do something with them. In a year when so many things have gone predictably bad, it’s nice that this one small thing was unpredictably nice. The gadgets were good.