We are reader supported. External links may earn us a commission.
XDA Awards — The Best Tech of 2021

XDA Awards — The Best Tech of 2021

Every year, we are treated to an incredible expanse of innovation across consumer technology, including but not limited to smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, laptops and PCs, and more. 2021 was a year of exciting developments, with many companies putting their best forward and coming out on top, and we as consumers could have not asked for a better outcome. We at XDA have not only used and reviewed a lot of these products, but have also gone ahead to make personal purchases and extensive recommendations because of the sheer impact that many of these tech experiences have had on us. It’s time to look back at some of these products, as we present to you, the Best Tech of 2021.

Navigate this article:


Best Smartphone of the Year: Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3

This is one of the hardest categories to choose for, simply because the definition of a “great smartphone” remains wide enough to accommodate a hundred needs and more. The Best Smartphone in any year should be the phone that comes to mind for the most impressive set of specifications while remaining at the pinnacle of smartphone innovation. Competitors can come close, but the Best Smartphone packs the ultimate experience that is unlike anything else on the market. A phone that can be universally accepted to not only work amazingly but also “wow” the user with every step. And for another year in a row, Samsung takes the cake with its foldable, as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is our Best Smartphone of 2021.

Front view of Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 with previous generations

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 takes the polish from its predecessor and refines it even further. While we thought the Galaxy Galaxy Z Fold 2 did a great job last year, Samsung managed to impress us with a product that improved the most in a year full of incremental upgrades. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 took the conventional glass slab flagship and made it into a textbook lesson on how to execute a foldable: stronger materials for the frame and the screen, IPX8 water resistance, S Pen support, and more. The hardware is top-notch globally, irrespective of which country you buy it in. And the phone doesn’t have a notch on the inner display as Samsung also included an under-screen camera on the phone, although we agree that there is a lot of room to improve on this. Then there are software features that Samsung has added to One UI specifically for the Z Fold 3, that elevate the foldable experience to a tipping point that no glass slab smartphone could touch. The camera setup is also competitive for the use-cases that the phone targets. While the price is something that not everyone can digest, many would agree that if this year had a phone that could justify its 4-digit USD price tag, it’s this phone.

Pixel Fold featured image

Galaxy Z Fold 3

As a complete technological package, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 is a lot of pocketable innovation. If you could carry one phone in your pocket to make heads turn and still get the job done, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 should be your top choice.

    Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3
    The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 is the most polished foldable smartphone ever, and it is our pick for the overall best smartphone of 2021. For a rational price, you get one of the best smartphone experiences this year, complete with active stylus support and innovative software features to complete the package.

Honorable Mentions for the Best Smartphone of the Year: Apple iPhone 13 Pro, OnePlus 9 Pro

The runner-ups for this section are two smartphones that also provide excellent experiences all around — smartphones with just the right hint of extras to deliver a nearly perfect experience. They aren’t necessarily bleeding edge in what they do, but they handle their duties with a level of finesse that is difficult to find in other smartphones. They are also widely available and easy to recommend, making them smartphones you just can’t go wrong with. And for 2021, the honorable mentions go to the Apple iPhone 13 Pro and the OnePlus 9 Pro.

iPhone 13 Pro in blue standing straight up

The Apple iPhone 13 Pro is the iPhone that you should purchase this year. It has all the smarts that you expect from a top flagship, and it also has one of the best camera systems around, especially if you prefer video over photos. The app support ecosystem on an Apple smartphone is also quite remarkable, and practically every single app will run better on iOS than it would on Android. Whether you use your phone as a tool or as a power statement, the iPhone 13 Pro services both of these purposes with ease.

OnePlus 9 Pro

On the same lines, the OnePlus 9 Pro is one of the best all-around recommendations that one can make for a universally acclaimed smartphone. While the definition of a “flagship” may have been extended this year by Ultras, the OnePlus 9 Pro dons the hat of practicality, offering a diverse feature set that is difficult to argue with. It has one of the best performances on an Android smartphone, one of the best displays, and a lot of other features that come together to provide a great overall experience. While competitors can one-up the phone in a category or two, the overall experience of the phone is more than the sum of its parts. This is the best smartphone that OnePlus has made, and it remains easy to recommend. Other competitors aren’t either widely available across the world or come with regional differences that make them not ideal. With the OnePlus 9 Pro, you can be sure that you get a great smartphone.

    Apple iPhone 13 Pro

    The Apple iPhone 13 Pro is the iPhone to purchase this year, thanks to the 120Hz display, a smaller notch, the A15 chip, and better cameras.
    OnePlus 9 Pro

    The OnePlus 9 Pro represents one of the best Android experiences in the market in 2021, with great performance, great display, great camera, and more.

Best Ultra Flagship of the Year: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

With the recent rise of the Ultras, the very definition of a “flagship” has expanded, going from practical to overkill. 2021 Flagships continued to push the boundaries of what a user could possibly need in their smartphone, and more importantly, not pause to ask whether they do really need it. An “ultra” flagship in 2021 is expensive, and with that price tag, comes a performance punch that lands very unapologetically, not shying away from the premium status and the word “overkill”. The competition this year is quite close for the top spot, but in the end, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra wins the Best Flagship of the Year for 2021.

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the apex flagship of the year 2021, and we have a lot of reasons to say so. For one, you get a gorgeous display that remains one of the best ones we have seen this year, along with impeccable camera performance that remains one of the benchmarks in versatility. It’s a solid smartphone from Samsung that took over Galaxy Note duties this year thanks to the addition of S Pen support. Samsung also makes tall promises for software updates, and so far, the company has delivered — in addition to regular monthly security updates, the Galaxy S21 Ultra also became the first smartphone outside of Google Pixels to receive its official Android 12 update. The only blemish one can spot is that you don’t get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC in every region, meaning gaming performance is a miss if you land the Exynos 2100 variant. But otherwise, this is the best flagship of 2021.

    Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
    The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra is the ultimate overkill flagship of 2021, packing in a flagship SoC, a premium build, a great display, and an amazing camera setup, as well as all the extras expected on a premium flagship.

Honorable Mentions for the Best Flagship of the Year: Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra

The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is the answer to the question “What comes after the Pros?”, and Xiaomi took the opportunity and absolutely ran with it. The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is an overkill flagship that is also priced very sensibly, in line with Xiaomi’s value-for-money principles. Arguably, the Mi 11 Ultra is even better than the Galaxy S21 Ultra, but it’s very limited availability and poor software support bring it down to the second spot. Otherwise, you would be looking at features like an equally impressive display, a ceramic back, an impressive camera system with insane zoom capabilities, fast wired and wireless charging, and an actual display on the back as well. The Mi 11 Ultra truly deserved a better spot, and we hope Xiaomi has more faith in its overkill flagship next year.

Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra in hand

 
    Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra
    The Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is a culmination of the company's best hardware in a smartphone yet, though MIUI, security updates, and actual availability are sticking points.

Best Affordable Smartphone of the Year: Google Pixel 6

The rising prices of smartphones and the advent of Ultras within the definition of flagships have skewed the definition of “affordable” as well. An affordable smartphone can mean different price ranges for different people. But what we believe that everyone will agree on is the fact that the Google Pixel 6 is the best affordable smartphone in 2021 that remains grounded to practical price points, and doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket for features you won’t really use.

Pixel 6 back

The Google Pixel 6 takes a lot of the features that make the Google Pixel 6 Pro a great smartphone, and makes it accessible to a wider audience. While some of the specifications may not be the absolute top-of-the-line, what Google has managed to achieve is feature parity with its more expensive flagship for the smarts as well as for the cameras on this one, two of the more defining characteristics of a great smartphone experience. So if you want to experience one of the best camera systems around, and want to use one of the best Android experiences around, the Google Pixel 6 remains the best affordable smartphone you should consider picking up. Availability remains a weak point though, but we hope the phone expands to more regions as the months go by.

    Google Pixel 6
    The Pixel 6 comes with Google's new Tensor chip, a modern design, and flagship cameras. The sum of the experience is definitely more than that of its parts, and this is our pick for the best affordable smartphone of 2021.

Honorable Mentions for the Best Affordable Smartphone of the Year: Xiaomi Mi 11X, OnePlus Nord 2

The Xiaomi Mi 11X is one of the understated releases of the year, eclipsed by the presence of the more powerful Xiaomi Mi 11X Pro. While the Pro is great in its own right, the Mi 11X gets so many more boxes ticked for being one of the best affordable smartphones to be released this year. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 remains a very practical choice for a flagship-grade SoC, and the swap over to a 48MP camera setup versus the 108MP on the Pro is another practical decision that leads to a better value-for-money equation.

Xiaomi Mi 11X Pro midnight black

The OnePlus Nord 2 is also an excellent choice for an affordable smartphone this year. Had the OnePlus Nord 2 been available more widely and in key markets like the USA, there was a good chance it could have eclipsed the Pixel 6 for the top spot. The Mediatek Dimensity 1200 SoC within the Nord 2 is a great chip that performs well and even games well. The rest of the experience is also pretty clean, thanks to OnePlus’ OxygenOS. OnePlus does need to address some security issues, but beyond that, the OnePlus Nord 2 is a solid, practical, and affordable choice for 2021.

OnePlus Nord 2 with a street lane in the background

    Xiaomi Mi 11X

    The Xiaomi Mi 11X is a great affordable flagship with a Snapdragon 870 SoC, 48MP triple cameras, and an ad-free MIUI experience.
    OnePlus Nord 2

    The OnePlus Nord 2 is a great premium mid range device, thanks to the capable Dimensity 1200 SoC, and a great overall package.

Best Smartphone Camera of the Year: Vivo X70 Pro Plus

Picking one winner for the Best Smartphone Camera in 2021 is an extreme sport, because the finalists finish so close to each other, it isn’t fair to not call them all winners at the end of it. But a winner is needed, and a winner shall be declared. If you have been following our camera coverage, you must already know that the best smartphone camera of 2021 is going to be the Vivo X70 Pro Plus.

Vivo X70 Pro+ Camera sensors

We have extensively tested the Vivo X70 Pro Plus’ camera this year and directly pitted it against most competing devices. And in every comparison, the Vivo comes out as the overall winner. Vivo not only managed to deliver a versatile camera setup on this flagship, it also delivered one of the most consistent camera experiences seen this year, raising the bar for all smartphones hoping to win this crown. The 50MP Samsung GN1 primary camera is excellent and produces noise-free, sharp and vibrant images in low light without needing to resort to night mode as frequently as the rivals. The same 50MP sensor is seen on the Google Pixel 6 Pro, but the Vivo X70 Pro Plus has a faster aperture and a dedicated V1 ISP chip that helps produce stunning HDR. The 48MP ultrawide is paired with Gimbal technoloy, and the 12MP telephoto handles 2x optical zoom while the 8MP periscope handles 5x optical zoom. Hundreds of camera samples later, we are confident in saying that the Vivo X70 Pro Plus is the best smartphone camera of 2021.

    Vivo X70 Pro Plus
    The Vivo X70 Pro Plus combines versatility with consistency for both easy and challenging shots to emerge as our choice for the best camera smartphone for this year.

Honorable Mentions for the Best Smartphone Camera of the Year: Google Pixel 6 Pro, Apple iPhone 13 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

As we mentioned, this year was one of the closest finishes for the top spot. The winner takes the cake, but the difference between the top four is razor-thin, with just some quirks coming in their way to pole position. If you have either the Google Pixel 6 Pro, the Apple iPhone 13 Pro, or the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, rest assured that you still have one of the best camera setups that you can get on a smartphone this year.

Apple iPhone 13 Pro, Google Pixel 6 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

Each of these phones has its own highlights. The Google Pixel 6 Pro represents the best daytime point-and-shoot experiences and a camera experience that can be best described as fun. The Apple iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max provide the best video capturing experience, and the photo experience is also pretty great. The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra matches Vivo for its versatility and consistency but falls short by just a whisker for nighttime shots and ultrawide capabilities. Between these four options, you can pick up anyone and still get a very confident smartphone camera that will be able to tackle all that you can throw at it — we just had to pixel peep and nitpick our way to select a winner.

    Google Pixel 6 Pro

    The Google Pixel 6 Pro finally sees a camera hardware upgrade, making it a confident and fun point and shoot smartphone camera with Google smarts.
    Apple iPhone 13 Pro

    The Apple iPhone 13 Pro is one of the best cameras you can buy this year, especially if your focus is on video recording for social media platforms.
    Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra

    The Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra comes with one of the most versatile camera systems, giving you full range over what you capture.

Best Foldable Smartphone of the Year: Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3

Foldable smartphones had a great year in 2021, riding on the back of some great releases. The most prominent ones have been from Samsung, but there have been others as well which set the bar of expectations for Samsung in the first place. This is easily the area in the smartphone market where we have seen the most innovation. And the award for the best foldable smartphone in 2021 goes to the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3.

But wait, isn’t the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 the phone of the year, you say? It is, yet the best foldable this year remains the Galaxy Z Flip 3. Not because the Galaxy Z Fold 3 wasn’t good enough (we literally awarded it the best smartphone of the year), but because the Galaxy Z Flip 3 managed to give us a glimpse of the future where foldables co-exist at the same price points as glass slab flagships. The $999 launch price was the real deal, lowering the barrier to experiencing what a foldable is and what a foldable can do. For all the greatness that tablet-style foldables can bring to the table, they remain enthusiast products until and unless they become affordable enough for the average consumer to buy and enjoy, and the Galaxy Z Flip 3 was a step in the right direction for that. The sheer mass appeal that a candy bar foldable like the Galaxy Z Flip 3 and its $999 price tag brings simply cannot be ignored. The phone has its drawbacks, like mediocre battery life and a price tag that is still high, but we’re confident these two areas will continue to be improved upon for the next generations. The Galaxy Z Flip 3 thus is our best foldable smartphone of the year 2021.

    Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3
    The Galaxy Z Flip 3 is Samsung's latest clamshell foldable that offers a bigger outer display, high refresh rate inner display, and top-of-the-line hardware. The practical price tag is what makes it the best foldable of the year.

Honorable Mentions for the Best Foldable Smartphone of the Year: Galaxy Z Fold 3, Huawei Mate X2, Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold

2021 saw a lot of great foldables, and each of them raised the bar in their own way. Honorable mention obviously goes to the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 for being an overall great smartphone and one of the easiest recommendations for this year, despite being a phone that can literally phone in half.

The three foldables phones from Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei

The three foldables phones from Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei

The Huawei Mate X2 also did a stellar job, with a proper flagship camera system onboard and a hinge that lets the phone fold completely flat without any noticeable gaps. The Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold makes it to the list for the same reason as the Galaxy Z Flip 3 did — it enters at a lower price point of about ~$1,500 in China, making it important in the quest to bring mainstream appeal for foldables. The device also has the world’s first “liquid lens” which allows one camera sensor to double both as a 3x telephoto and a macro sensor. The Huawei Mate X2 and the Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold remain restricted to the Chinese market, and we hope future foldables from Huawei and Xiaomi see a wider global release.


Best Gaming Phone of the Year: ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate

This is a category that is very much niche this year, as a lot of smartphones are competent enough for casual games. So if you are looking specifically for a gaming phone, you identify yourself as a much more hardcore gamer, or you are someone who simply loves overkill on your spec sheet. Either way, the one phone that unanimously wins the Best Gaming Phone for 2021 is the ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate.

ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate Review

The ASUS ROG Phone 5 Ultimate truly is the ultimate gaming smartphone, and it pulls back no punches. This phone qualifies as an Ultra Flagship, but has a much more stronger focus on raw performance than anything else. For instance, you get the top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 SoC, coupled with an insane 18GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. While the AMOLED display is “just” FHD+, it still refreshes at an insane 144Hz. The spec sheet continues to get crazier, with a beefy 6000 mAh battery that supports 65W fast charging. You need USB C ports, well you get two on this phone — one USB 3.1 on the side, and one USB 2. on the bottom; and you still retain the 3.5mm headphone jack, but now with quad DAC as well as a front-facing stereo speaker setup. The extras continue on, you have Ultrasonic sensors for AirTrigger on the side frame (which can detect taps and swipes), you have two more touch sensors on the back, and you even get grip press detection — all of it can be mapped to different actions within games. And because it is a gaming phone, you also get the aesthetics that do justice to the vibe — and you also get a PMOLED monochrome display on the back because why not. There are software customizations and an accessory ecosystem that should help enhance your gaming experience. The final question to answer is whether all of these features do translate into real-life gaming performance, and thankfully, the answer remains yes. This is the best gaming phone money can buy this year, presuming ASUS has it in stock for you.

    ASUS ROG Phone 5
    The ASUS ROG Phone 5 is the ultimate gaming smartphone. It has loads of gaming features, accessories, and chart-topping performance to handle any game you throw at it.

Best Sustainable Phone of the Year: Fairphone 4

Sustainability is bound to become an even more important topic in the coming years. Many smartphone OEMs have been taking small steps to showcase their commitment to the environment and human life. While we appreciate those small steps, several of those measures also reek of commercial profit motives. What we also need are more substantial steps, and making phones easier to repair and allowing them to last longer is one of the more concrete steps that can be taken. For that, the Fairphone 4 wins the Best Sustainable Phone of the year award.

Fairphone 4 disassembled

The Fairphone 4 is a special smartphone, something that you won’t immediately pick up if you just read the spec sheet. But look closer and you will find that the phone goes to great length to be repairable and consequently have a lower environmental impact. The design of the phone is highly repairable and the company sells several key spare parts, encouraging users to buy these replacement parts and change broken/defective components by themselves with very little effort. This is a far cry from the current trends in the smartphone industry, where glass and glue are generously used to give us a cocktail of a smartphone that is difficult to repair even by qualified technicians. Beyond repairability, the phone also makes attempts to use sustainable materials wherever feasible. And the company also promises two major Android updates and software support until the end of 2025.

    Fairphone 4
    The Fairphone 4 is a smartphone that is built to be sustainable, letting users repair their own phone themselves, and consequently let it last longer.

Mobile Manufacturer of the Year: Samsung

Samsung retains the crown for the best mobile manufacturer for another year. The South Korean tech giant has consistently been the largest smartphone maker by volume for years now, and this year, they have had a large hand in shaping the Android landscape as well.

Phantom Green Galaxy Z Fold 3 on top of Phantom Silver and Phantom Black units

From overkill ultra-premium flagships like the Galaxy S21 Ultra that pushed the boundary of what we expect on a glass slab smartphone, to releasing two well-executed foldables in the form of the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, to even shaping the very fabric of Android with contributions to foldable experiences to the point that we are now looking forward to a foldable-centric Android 12L update, and even in giving a fresh breath of life to Wear OS — Samsung has had a very eventful year. On top of that, Samsung has been on point in delivering security updates across its lineup, true to its word. Even for platform updates, in fact, the Samsung Galaxy S21 series were the first smartphones outside of the Google Pixel to receive an official Android 12 update. Samsung also remains one of the very few Android OEMs that continues to participate in the tablet market, not shying away from competing against Apple’s iPads.

All in all, Samsung has proven itself to be a force to be reckoned with, in the broad mobile market. Gone are the days of 2010-era Samsung with heavy TouchWiz skins that lagged four versions behind official Android releases and ran on more phones than you could keep track of. Samsung in 2021 has been lean, sharp and focused, while retaining its vision towards the future. That is why Samsung is our mobile manufacturer of the year 2021.

Honorable Mention for Mobile Manufacturer of the Year: Xiaomi

Xiaomi gets an honorable mention this year, thanks to the sheer accessibility that its smartphones provide for millions of users around the world. The company, a market leader in itself, continues to provide stiff competition to everyone else with its value-for-money smartphones that are very hard to ignore.

The Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold connected to a Bluetooth keyboard.

The Mix Fold running PC mode, with a Bluetooth keyboard.

This value orientation also does not hinder innovation, with several Xiaomi smartphones forcing us to rethink our expectations and redefine our definitions. Xiaomi also has a wide ecosystem of products outside of smartphones, and unlike others, the company does not attempt to alienate users with a walled garden approach. We’d just hope Xiaomi revisits some of its branding/rebranding decisions, and also works to improve the delivery of security updates on its phones.


Mobile Innovation of the Year: Voice Dictation on the Google Pixel 6 series

One of the big highlights of the Google Pixel 6 series is the Google Tensor SoC, which brings in tremendous improvements to Machine Learning capabilities on Google’s smartphones. Thanks to Tensor and the latest on-device speech models, transcribing voice to text is now smarter than ever. And we agree wholeheartedly, which is why Voice Dictation is our choice for the mobile innovation of the year.

Voice Typing on smartphones is not a new feature in any way, and it has been available in some format since the very early days of Android. What is new with the Google Pixel 6 series is that the feature is in its most reliable and accurate execution ever. Voice Typing now takes input from contacts on your smartphone to get name spellings right, it automatically adds pronunciations, and understands corrections and commands based on the context. Saying “send” on its own won’t type the word “send”, and will, instead, actually send the message. If it does get something wrong, it gets it right the second time when you provide more context.

This feature has the potential to change how we use on screen keyboards, how we interact with smartphones, and by extension, change the very nature of smartphones. Voice commands have been around for a while, yes, but this Voice Dictation on the Google Pixel 6 operates on a different level of confidence. We can’t wait to see where Google goes next with its Voice-based features on Pixel smartphones.

Honorable Mention for Mobile Innovation of the Year: Water resistance on the Samsung Galaxy Z series

Water resistance isn’t a new feature by any means, but water resistance on a foldable with several internal moving parts definitely is. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 are the first mainstream foldables that come with an IPX8 rating, meaning both the foldables can withstand 1.5m of freshwater submergence for 30 minutes. This is a big achievement for foldables, one that takes them one step closer to wider mainstream appeal as it helps shed the notion that foldables are delicate. The devices still remain susceptible to dust, so you can’t really take them to the beach. But if you ever get caught out in unexpected rain, at least know that your expensive foldable will walk away without any damage.

 


Best TWS of the Year: Samsung Galaxy Buds 2

TWS as a market has exploded in recent years, thanks to some questionable decisions in the smartphone market. There are way too many wireless earphones in the market, and it does get confusing pretty fast. But if you had to choose from the best options released this year, the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 stands out as the Best TWS of 2021.

Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 in all four colors

While the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro remains the superior product in Samsung’s TWS lineup, the Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 are the more practical and easier recommendation. They have a small and discreet design that lends to their burdenless experience, and many more users are likely to find the fit better than they would on the Buds Pro. The sound performance will also be appreciated by a wide audience set, and the microphone performance also remains excellent for calls and meetings. Bonus, you get pretty good ANC on these as well. The IPX2 rating isn’t the best in the market, but that’s about the only con you can find with these, especially considering their reputation, price tag, and device compatibility.

    Samsung Galaxy Buds 2
    The Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 are our pick for the best TWS of the year, thanks to their price-performance ratio and feature set. You get good sound, good microphone performance, a discreet design, and ANC at a fairly affordable price point.

Honorable Mentions for Best TWS of the Year: OnePlus Buds Pro, Nothing Ear 1

There are a bunch of earphones that deserve a mention here, but we’re sticking to these two. The OnePlus Buds Pro was actually a pretty surprising quality release from OnePlus, surprising because they sound pretty good for their price and come with no glaring caveats. There are some minor complaints, like the inability to change the volume from the earphones and a somewhat confusing software situation. But outside of that, they have a refreshing design, great ANC, great mic performance, great battery life, and more.

The Nothing Ear 1 gets an honorable mention for managing to get the tech world excited with a unique half-transparent design and great execution for a first product. They are very comfortable to wear thanks to their lightweight, and they also sound decent with ANC. They are also priced competitively, which helps in making a convincing argument for the first-release product from a new company. There’s also the Carl Pei magic, which has managed to carry over a lot of goodwill to the new company, giving it a bit more of a headstart than otherwise granted to a newcomer in this cutthroat market.

Earbuds in the case

    OnePlus Buds Pro

    The OnePlus Buds Pro are a great pair of TWS earphones, offering a solid feature set and performance at a respectable price.
    Nothing ear (1)

    The Nothing Ear 1 comes with a unique design, ANC, and good performance. They are a decent product from a new TWS company.

Best Smartwatch of the Year: Apple Watch Series 7

Choosing a smartwatch is a decision that is inextricably linked to your operating system of choice, as these are still considered secondary devices. But if you had to choose the “best smartwatch”, such a decision would need to ignore the base reality of ecosystem lock-in, and consider the pure merits of the product in hand, or more literally on your wrist. With such a conundrum in place, the decision is unanimous. The Apple Watch Series 7 is the best smartwatch of 2021.

Apple Watch Series 7 in three different bands and versions

This year, Android finally got better smartwatches thanks to Samsung swooping in to save Wear OS. But the update is still going to take a bit to roll out beyond Samsung’s stables, leaving us without too many options on the latest update. While the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 series is great, it swaps out the better choice of Tizen OS for Wear OS, which is a bit perplexing. That leaves the space open for Apple to shine, and shine it does. The Apple Watch Series 7 does not line up with the leaks of the product, but the actually launched product manages to remain convincing. Most of the upgrades are incremental compared to the Series 6, but Apple has nailed down the basics and beyond of what makes a good smartwatch. Not only is the hardware great, Apple pulls in and retains users on the power of its experiences, especially those revolving around health and fitness tracking and Apple Fitness Plus. Yes, the Apple Watch 7 does not work with Android, and that is a big flaw. But if you could choose your smartwatch first and then pick a smartphone, you should definitely be picking the Apple Watch 7 over other smartwatch options.

    Apple Watch Series 7
    The Apple Watch Series 7 is the best smartwatch of 2021, as it comes not only with great hardware, but also brings along a great health and fitness tracking experience with Apple Fitness Plus.

Honorable Mentions for Best Smartwatch of the Year: Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, Amazfit GTR 3 Pro, Huawei Watch Fit Elegant

If you are constrained by the Android smartphone in your pocket, you do need to look at other options beyond the Apple Watch 7. In such cases, you can consider the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic, the Amazfitn GTR 3 Pro, or the Huawei Watch Fit Elegant as they form part of our honorable mentions.

Galaxy Watch 4 Classic on a wrist

The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is the best Wear OS smartwatch yet, but that isn’t a very high bar to clear. The Watch does run Google’s software technically, but Samsung has had much more freedom on it. Think of it more as a Tizen watch with the Google Play Store, as that would better explain the absence of Google Assistant on the watch. If you want a proper smartwatch that is compatible with Android, this is practically one of your top choices. As a bonus, you get the beloved spinning bezel on this one.

amazfit gtr 3 on wrist

The Amazfit GTR 3 Pro is an excellent fitness tracker-turned-smartwatch. It loses out on top spots because of the intentional lack of an App Store, as it bends the definition of “smart” within a smartwatch. You have to make do with the pre-installed applications on the proprietary Zepp OS, but to compensate, you get a much lower price tag and a battery that lasts literally for a week. There are other fitness tracker-tunred-smartwatches that can provide similar features at an even lower price tag, but the Amazfit GTR 3 Pro wins out for its clean and understated look, and for the ability to get the job done.

The health circles on the Huawei Watch Fit Elegant

If you don’t need your fitness band-smartwatch to be circular, the Huawei Watch Fit Elegant is an option you should consider over the other honorable mentions. Like all other smartwatches mention, this does come with a proprietary OS, which Huawei calls Lite OS. What this watch excels in is its unique look, premium execution, and health and fitness tracking. However, the Watch Fit Elegant is limited to a few regions globally, which impacts the purchase decision.

    Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 Classic

    The Galaxy Watch 4 Classic is Samsung's top smartwatch, bringing together Wear OS with dependable hardware.
    Amazfit GTR 3 Pro

    The Amazfit GTR 3 Pro is a smartwatch that tries to do it all, and definitely achieves something special when it comes to the basics.
    Huawei Watch Fit Elegant

    The Huawei Watch Fit Elegant is a stylish and premium smartwatch from Huawei packed full of features.

Best Tablet of the Year: Apple iPad Mini 6

Tablets have been a shrinking market, especially in the wake of foldables gaining wider mainstream acceptance. Android tablets are an even smaller market, and unfortunately, our favorite OS does not do a lot of justice to bigger screen devices. Just like the smartwatch space, Apple ends up dominating the consumer tablet market, to the point that the words “tablet” and “iPad” are interchangeably used by the average users. So it should come as no surprise that the best tablet of the year is actually from Apple, though you may find it surprising that it is the iPad Mini 6.

The Apple iPad Mini 6th Gen reimagines what a compact, middle-range tablet can do and look like, as long as you ignore the jelly scrolling on the display. It’s a minimalistic glass slab that holds a lot of power, harnessed through the tips of your fingers. Thanks to the A15 Bionic Chip and iPadOS 15, this tablet takes advantage of the latest and greatest advances in Apple’s mobile domain. It’s the same chip that powers the iPhone 13 Pro Max — and it’s seriously no joke. This clean canvas comes with Apple Pencil 2nd Gen support, allowing you to doodle and take notes on the go. And thanks to iPadOS, you can connect Bluetooth mice and keyboards to it, allowing you to turn it into a lightweight laptop replacement with native cursor support. The iPad Mini 6 starts at $499 only, making it a perfect balance between affordability, portability, and power. This device is aimed at those who want a compact, yet competitively capable, device for more intensive and demanding tasks on the go. None of the Android tablets released this year match it in terms of software features, proper app support, and hardware specifications when taking its price into consideration. As a result, we’re crowning it as the best tablet of the year.

    Apple iPad Mini 6
    The iPad Mini 6 is the best small tablet ever made, and also the best iPad that Apple has ever made. It combines the very best of the larger iPad Pro, with the portable form factor that the rest of the iPad range is missing.

Honorable Mention for Best Tablet of the Year: Apple iPad Pro with M1

Apple shocked a lot of us with one of its announcements earlier in the year — the M1 Chip coming to the iPad Pro lineup. What powers some of the latest, most capable Macs has made its way to the slim, portable device that a lot of professionals use for their daily work tasks. And its price starts at $799, making it a more affordable Pro device than MacBooks. The latest Pro iPad comes with a 12.9-inch Liquid Retina XDR display with support for the ProMotion and True Tone technologies. This turns its display into a groundbreaking one in its field. This 5G-enabled iPad comes with Wide and Ultra Wide rear camera systems with LiDAR Scanners. The front notch houses a tweaked TrueDepth camera, allowing users to use Face ID in both portrait and landscape orientations. It’s a mighty masterpiece, worthy of an honorable mention. This remains an honorable mention because most users just don’t need this much power in their tablet — but it is there is they can take advantage of it.

Apple's iPad Pro with a white Magic Keyboard.

 
    Apple iPad Pro 12.9-inch
    The screen on this 12.9-inch iPad Pro has to be seen to be believed. Add the M1 chip and this is almost too powerful for just an iPad.

Best Laptop of the Year: Apple MacBook Pro 14

Picking one winner for the best laptop of 2021 was, well, easier than we wanted it to be. The bottom line is that with Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max processors, it changed the game with its new MacBook Pro. If you leave your home with a laptop that’s as powerful as this, you’re supposed to need a charger too. That’s not the case here.

MacBook Pro with its 140W charging brick.

While Apple’s MacBook Pro comes in 14- and 16-inch sizes, we picked the 14-inch model because it weighs a pound less, and frankly, it’s even more of a game-changer. Traditionally, Apple’s smaller MacBook Pro (it uses to be 13 inches) used an Intel U-series processor, while the larger model was required for the really powerful parts, like a 45W CPU and dedicated graphics. Now that Apple has moved to its own custom ARM processors, it can use the same chipsets in both models, so all you really have to pick is the size you want.

If it was just about performance and battery life, that probably wouldn’t be enough to call this the best laptop of the year. It’s also got one of the best displays around, using mini LED for a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio and also offering up to a 120Hz adaptive refresh rate. It’s got a notch, although the macOS menu bar adapts to it. More importantly, that notch houses a much-improved FHD webcam, a must when working from home.

The M1 Pro and M1 Max fix the shortcomings of their predecessor, the M1, by allowing you to connect to two and four external displays, respectively. Apple even added a third Thunderbolt 4 port, so if you’ve got dual monitors on one and a charger on another, you can still plug in some external storage. Apple also brought back a full-size SD card slot and an HDMI port.

    MacBook Pro 14
    The new MacBook Pro 14 comes with an M1 Pro or an M1 Max chip, MagSafe, and a 120Hz Mini-LED display

Honorable Mention for the Best Laptop of the Year: Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio is the successor to the Surface Book series, and if Apple hadn’t done so much to change the game this year, this would easily be number one. It’s got a new form factor that solves the problems of the Surface Book, allowing Microsoft to use more powerful internals, and the 35W processor and dedicated graphics are fast.

Angled view of Surface Laptop Studio in stage mode

You can fold the display down to different form factors, and the new screen has a 120Hz refresh rate for super-smooth animations. With the new Slim Pen 2, there’s actually haptic feedback, so it feels like you’re writing on an actual piece of paper. And with one of the best keyboards around, it all comes in a package with superior build quality. You’ll find an all-new touchpad with haptic feedback, and it’s one of the best on the market.

If you want the best from Windows, the Surface Laptop Studio is the best you can do. With Windows 11 launching this year, this is the hero device, and Panos Panay and the Surface team did not disappoint with Microsoft’s new convertible.

 
    Surface Laptop Studio
    The Surface Laptop Studio comes with an all-new design, more powerful internals, and more.

Best Ultrabook of the Year: Dell XPS 13 9310

Intel hasn’t announced a new round of 15W processors in almost a year and a half now, so the crop of ultrabooks and convertibles in 2021 is actually a bit slim. Dell actually released some new configurations of its XPS 13 9310 laptop, however, including some newer U-series chips.

Dell XPS 13 on wooden bench with car in background

The Dell XPS 13, year after year, is one of the best laptops on the market. It packs slim bezels with its InfinityEdge display, and that screen also has one of the widest color gamuts we’ve seen on a laptop. If we had a best display award, Dell XPS would win in 13, 15, and 17-inch categories, hands down. But instead, we’re just calling this the best ultrabook.

Dell’s claim to fame with the whole XPS lineup is that it’s an X size laptop in an X-2 form factor. For the XPS 13, it’s supposed to be a 13-inch laptop in an 11-inch footprint; of course, now that so many premium laptops have smaller bezels, this likely applies more to an 11-inch laptop that you might be replacing. But it does have a small footprint, and weighing in at 2.64 pounds for the non-touch model, it can surely be considered ultraportable. The small footprint doesn’t keep Dell from including its miniaturized webcam in the top bezel, something that was an issue in previous generations. It even has an IR camera up there for facial recognition. For ports, you’ll find dual Thunderbolt 4 ports, allowing you to connect things like an external GPU, dual monitors, or just a dock that lets you plug in a bunch of peripherals.

It’s stylish as well, coming in two colorways. You can get it in platinum with the black interior, or frost with the arctic white woven glass fiber interior. The latter is shown in the image above.

    Dell XPS 13
    Dell's XPS 13 is the flagship of the lineup, with ultra-thin bezels and a small footprint as its hallmark feature.

Honorable Mention for Best Ultrabook of the Year: Microsoft Surface Laptop 4

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop will never take the top spot as long as there’s no Thunderbolt, but it’s still one of the best there is. It comes in 13.5- and 15-inch sizes, and both have options of either AMD Ryzen 4000 or Intel 11th-gen processors.

Surface Laptop 4 angled view

Both sizes have interesting things to offer, including 3:2 displays, IR cameras, and more. On the Surface Laptop 4 13.5, you can get it with an Alcantara keyboard deck. For this year’s model, it ditches Cobalt Blue in favor of the all-new Ice Blue. Of course, if aluminum us more your speed, there are non-Alcantara options as well.

One thing that’s unique about the 15-inch version is that it’s still an ultrabook. A lot of larger laptops tend to pack beefier CPUs and dedicated graphics, but the Surface Laptop 4 15 is still relatively thin and light. Moreover, it’s got that 3:2, a rarity at that size, making the larger display feel very spacious.

 
    Surface Laptop 4
    Microsoft's latest Surface Laptop isn't a radical redesign, but the CPU refresh and new color push a great laptop even further

Best Chromebook of the Year: ASUS Chromebook CX9

If you want the best that Chrome OS has to offer, direct your attention to the ASUS Chromebook CX9. It’s just about as good as it gets, offering premium specs that would usually be reserved for a Windows PC.

ASUS CX9 with USI pen

First of all, it includes Intel’s 11th-generation processors, and you can actually get it with a proper Core i7-1165G7. That means that you get Intel Iris Xe graphics with 96 execution units. This thing flies with Chrome OS, and for battery life, ASUS promises up to 14 hours.

But along with modern ports like USB 3.2 Gen 2, it has two Thunderbolt 4. This is something that you simply don’t find on Chromebooks, mainly because so much of the market has processors made by AMD, MediaTek, or Qualcomm, and so much of it is made up of budget laptops. With Thunderbolt 4, you can plug in dual 4K monitors in a single port, turning your Chromebook into a proper workstation. Other high-end specs that you can get are 16GB LPDDR4x RAM, 512GB M.2 NVMe PCEe 3.0 SSD, and a 14-inch FHD 16:9 touchscreen with pen support, which actually has pretty narrow bezels.

This high-end Chromebook also has some interesting features, such as an LED number pad that’s built into the touchpad. That’s right; it lights up with numbers if you want it to, which can actually be pretty useful.

    ASUS Chromebook CX9
    The ASUS Chromebook CX9 comes with high-end specs like Intel 11th-gen processors, Thunderbolt 4, and more.

Honorable Mention for Best Chromebook of the Year: Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet 5

Last year, Lenovo introduced the MediaTek-powered Chromebook Duet, and this year it has the larger IdeaPad Chromebook Duet 5. It’s got a Qualcomm Snapdragon 7c Gen 2 processor, so it’s faster, and it comes with a 13.3-inch FHD OLED display.

Lenovo Chromebook Duet 5 on window shelf

But it’s also a tablet with pen support, an attachable keyboard, and an attachable kickstand. That actually makes the OLED display even more impressive, since OLED tablets are just awesome. And of course, the key thing is value. It’s a great device, and it comes with the keyboard and the kickstand in the box, so unlike with Microsoft’s Surface Pro, you don’t have to buy accessories to get started. The pen is optional though.

All-in-all, the Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet 5, while a mouthful to say, is a pretty awesome Chromebook. If it wasn’t for the ASUS Chromebook CX9 blowing everything else out of the water, Lenovo would take the prize.

 
    Lenovo Chromebook Duet 5
    The Lenovo Chromebook Duet 5 is a larger, more premium version of the Chromebook Duet from 2020. You get a bright OLED display, detachable keyboard, and USI pen support. All of those features for $429 makes this a solid value in the Chrome tablet space.

Best Affordable Laptop of the Year: HP Pavilion Aero 13

When I think of an HP Pavilion laptop, I think of something that’s purchased out of necessity rather than choice. It’s something that offers a lot of value for a moderate price point, but also makes some serious compromises. Then, the HP Pavilion Aero 13 blew away my expectations.

Front view of HP Pavilion Aero 13

First of all, it weighs under a kilogram, and that means it’s super-easy to just throw in your bag and go. You’re going to end up checking your bag to make sure it’s there, since it’s so light.

But what’s so cool is that it really doesn’t make any considerable compromises to get there. It comes with up an AMD Ryzen 7 5800U processor, so it packs a serious punch in terms of performance. Alongside that, it has up to 16GB RAM and a 512GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD. he 13.3-inch FHD display is really impressive as well. HP even threw in a fingerprint sensor, something that’s usually optional on Pavilion laptops. The thing that’s so wild about the HP Pavilion Aero is that if you didn’t know any better, you’d probably think that it’s a premium laptop. With its narrow bezels, metallic colors, magnesium alloy design, and just the fact that it weighs in at under 2.2 pounds without making any meaningful compromises, you’d never guess that this thing comes in at under $1,000, even if it’s specced out.

Let’s be clear. This is not the only laptop that weighs in at under 2.2 pounds, not by a long shot. But HP didn’t make compromises by choosing an underpowered processor, or by using a really small battery. And as noted above, it’s really inexpensive considering what you get.

    HP Pavilion Aero
    The Pavilion Aero weighs just 2.2lbs, but it's still a powerful and premium-feeling laptop. It has the latest AMD Ryzen processors, a tall 16:10 Full HD+ display, and a magnesium alloy casing that allows it to be extra light. Plus, it comes in four colors to choose from.

Best Gaming Laptop of the Year: Razer Blade 15 Advanced

Announced back in May, the Razer Blade 15 Advanced is the world’s thinnest laptop that has NVIDIA’s RTX graphics, at about two thirds of an inch thick. Normally, you’d expect some compromises in how powerful of a GPU or CPU is used, but this laptop goes all in, and that’s why it’s this year’s best gaming laptop.

Razer Blade 15 Advanced floating with white-lit background

It comes with an Intel Core i7-11800H CPU, although there’s actually an option for a Core i9-11900H, and for graphics, you can get up to an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080. And if you want to go all-in, you can get it with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. Indeed, it’s an impressive gaming laptop. The 15.6-inch display goes above and beyond expectations as well. Historically, if you want a high refresh rate, you’d have to sacrifice resolution and get a 1080p display. The screen on the Razer Blade 15 Advanced has QHD resolution, and it comes with up to a 240Hz refresh rate. Even just the base model comes with a Core i7, an NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 with 8GB GDDR6, 16GB RAM, and a 512GB SSD, so you don’t have to break the bank here to get a great experience. That model is actually a bit thinner than the one that’s specced out too. Of course, it’s got Razer’s clean design language, per-key RGB lighting with Chroma, and everything else you’d expect from a premium Razer laptop.

    Razer Blade 15 Advanced
    The Razer Blade 15 Advanced is the world's thinnest RTX gaming laptop.

Honorable Mention for Best Gaming Laptop of the Year: Lenovo Legion Slim 7

You might notice a theme here. It feels like every year, companies find ways to fit more powerful components into thinner and lighter packages. The Lenovo Legion Slim 7 is another example of that.

Amngled view of Lenovo Legion Slim 7

The product packs a punch. It’s got AMD’s 45W Ryzen 7 5800H processors and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 30 series graphics. But it only weighs in at 4.19 pounds, making it more portable than your average gaming laptop. It’s also got a subtle design, making it more of a work-and-play product. You can use it for productivity, creative work, and so on during the day, and then you can bring it home for some hardcore gaming. Naturally, it has the other perks you’d expect, such as a high refresh rate display, USB Type-A and USB Type-C ports, an SD card reader, and more.

 
    Lenovo Legion Slim 7
    The Lenovo Legion Slim 7 comes in at just over four pounds, but it's powerful with an AMD Ryzen 45W processor and RTX 3060 graphics.

Best 2-in-1 of the Year: Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

My personal favorite laptop of the year, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio is completely redesigned from its Surface Book predecessor, which had a lot of design flaws. With a detachable display, all of the guts had to be in the screen, creating thermal issues, not to mention the fact that it was super top-heavy. Indeed, I remember going to events and holding it down with my palms while typing.

Side view of Surface Laptop Studio in stage mode

With the Surface Laptop Studio, the screen isn’t detachable anymore. Right away, that solves a lot of problems. With the CPU in the base, Microsoft could use a proper 35W CPU instead of the 15W chip that was in a thin tablet. This offered a big change in how the device was to use. That’s not all though. Like the Surface Pro 8, which was announced at the same time, it has a 120Hz screen. Indeed, this is something that we’re starting to see from Windows 11 hardware, and it’s great. Historically, high refresh rates were reserved for gamers, but as we’ve seen from the mobile market, it improves the experience for everyone.

Let’s not forget about writing on the display though, as the folio-style screen folds down to being a tablet. With the new Slim Pen 2, it actually feels like you’re writing on a piece of paper thanks to haptic feedback, although you do need to be using a supported app. That pen attaches to the device magnetically on a shelf on the bottom, so it’s no longer sticking to the side and getting away. It’s charging that way too. The Surface Laptop Studio also has one of the best keyboards around, and for the first time in a Surface, it has a haptic touchpad that was custom designed by Microsoft. Indeed, this is truly the Windows 11 hero device.

    Surface Laptop Studio
    The Surface Laptop Studio comes with an all-new design, more powerful internals, and more.

Honorable Mention for Best 2-in-1 of the Year: Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 9310

Listen, if you buy something that’s called “Dell XPS”, you’re going to be getting one of the best around. That’s just how it goes. One thing that always impresses me is the display quality, which consistency does better in our testing than pretty much anything else that we come across.

Like the XPS 13 9310, this one was only refreshed with some new CPU SKUs this year, but there’s not much you can change from a winning recipe. It’s a 360-degree convertible, but it doesn’t make compromises on performance. To fit into a slimmer form factor, it has the newer MagLev Gen 2 keyboard, which is shallower but makes up for the lack of depth in resistance, making for a comfortable experience. It comes in several colorways, like platinum with the black carbon fiber interior, or frost with the white woven glass fiber interior. And as Dell loves to point out, it’s got four-sides narrow bezels, making it a 13-inch laptop that fits into the footprint of an 11-inch laptop.

 
    Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 9310
    The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 has a MagLev Gen 2 keyboard, along with 11th-gen processors, an edge-to-edge display, and more.

Best 15/16 inch Laptop of the year: HP Spectre x360 16

HP’s Spectre x360 series is probably the sexiest lineup of convertibles on the market. It’s hard to deny that. Unfortunately, a lot of them were disqualified simply because they weren’t refreshed this year. The company did introduce the all-new Spectre x360 16 though.

Woman standing in front of HP Spectre x360 16

Historically, we’ve had the HP Spectre x360 13 and 15, both of which had 16:9 displays, and the 15-inch model had beefier internals. Last year, the company added the Spectre x360 14, which has a 13.5-inch 3:2 display. Now, with the 16, it has a 16-inch 16:10 display, which is taller than the usual 16:9 screen, making it more natural to use as a tablet.

Interestingly, HP went with more of an ultrabook form factor for it. It used a 35W Intel processor and integrated Iris Xe graphics, basically making it a powerful productivity machine. It would seem that the days of the larger Spectre x360 packing a 45W CPU and dedicated graphics are over. Let’s not forget about the camera though. HP put a 5MP sensor in this device, a first for the Spectre range and a must in the work-from-home era. It can capture FHD video for your video calls, but it’s also got enough resolution that the field of view can move around with you. HP calls the feature Autoframe. Naturally, it comes with the same gem-cut design that we’re used to seeing from HP’s flagship convertibles. And it comes in colors like Nightfall Black and Noctourne Blue, a new shade of the color that replaced Poseidon Blue.

    HP Spectre x360 16
    HP's Spectre x360 16 packs a larger 16:10 display, Intel 35W processors, a 5MP webcam, and more.

Honorable Mention for Best 15/16 inch Laptop of the Year: Dell XPS 15 9510

Once again, Dell’s XPS lineup just has to be mentioned. We got a new XPS 15 this year, which packs Intel’s 11th-gen processors. There’s also a new colorway, which is frost with a white woven glass fiber keyboard deck. The new color is absolutely stunning, and it’s nice to see more colors come to the larger models.

Angled view of Dell XPS 15 on table

Another thing that’s new is an option for a 4K OLED display. While we’ve seen OLED screens on the XPS 15 before, the option was removed last year when Dell made the switch to the 16:10 aspect ratio. We should be surprised that now that a panel is available, a configuration is available. Obviously, OLED displays mean that you get true blacks, more vibrant colors, and so on.

It’s also worth noting that the XPS 17 9710 came out this year, just in case you’re looking for something that’s a bit more powerful than an XPS 15. With RTX 3060 graphics, it’s beefier and bigger, although it’s lacking things like the frost color with woven glass fiber interior, or a 4K OLED option. Indeed, 17-inch 4K OLED laptops simply don’t exist right now, as display suppliers still haven’t produced a panel for it.

 
    Dell XPS 15
    With an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics, this version of the Dell XPS 15 can deliver a fantastic performance for gaming and other demanding tasks. It's a reasonably-priced configuration too, and cheaper than buying from Dell directly.

Best Business Laptop of the Year: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga isn’t just the best business laptop of the year; it might be the most innovative laptop of the year. At first glance, it seems like a ThinkPad X1 Yoga with a 3:2 display, but it’s actually much more than that. This is a laptop that’s actually designed to be a great tablet.

ThinkPad X1 Nano and X1 Titanium on wooden bench

Most 360-degree convertibles are designed to be used as laptops 99% of the time because that’s how most people use them. Because of that, the tablet experience isn’t very comfortable, and that’s what the Titanium aimed to fix.

For one thing, it weighs in at just over two and a half pounds, so it’s very easy to carry. Indeed, as far as convertibles go, this is ultra-portable, not to mention that you can get it with 5G so you’re connected wherever you are. The weight isn’t the only thing that’s different though. It’s also flatter, so when you fold the display back, it lies flat and makes holding it as a tablet more comfortable. There were some key innovations that Lenovo had to make to get there, especially since it didn’t want to destroy the battery life. For one thing, the keyboard is shallower with 1.35mm depth. It doesn’t feel like a compromise though, because the 1.5mm keys on some other ThinkPads actually feel like they’re a bit too deep. The ThinkPad team, which is obsessive about keyboards, also made sure to match the force curve, meaning it takes the same amount of force to push a 1.35mm key as a 1.5mm key. It also has a haptic touchpad, something that we’re starting to see more of in the Windows world. This allows the device to be thinner, of course. It also uses Intel’s 11th-gen UP4 processors, which is the successor to Y-series. The big difference is that UP4 is actually really good, so none of the innovations needed to make the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga what it is feel like a compromise.

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga
    Lenovo's titanium convertible is made with tablet users in mind, also packing Intel Tiger Lake processors with Iris Xe graphics, Thunderbolt 4, and more.

Honorable Mention for Best Business Laptop of the Year: HP Elite Dragonfly Max

HP’s Elite Dragonfly Max just has to be in the conversation when it comes to the best business laptop of 2021. Also a convertible weighing in at around 2.5 pounds, it’s made of magnesium alloy and it comes in a beautiful Sparkling Black color.

Angled view of HP Elite Dragonfly Max screen with Sure View on

Still packing a 13.3-inch 16:9 display, one of the configurations has HP’s Sure View Reflect privacy display. That means that when you turn it on, people won’t be able to look over your shoulder and see what’s on your screen. It also comes with a range of collaboration features, most importantly a 5MP webcam that can record 1080p video. In today’s era of working from home, a solid webcam on your laptop is critical.

Not only is it light with great features, but it’s also just a fantastic laptop. It’s got one of the best keyboards that you’ll find on any laptop, it’s got lots of security features, and so on. You can get it equipped with 5G connectivity, so you don’t have to worry about being on public Wi-Fi, or if that’s too expensive, there are 4G options as well.

 
    HP Elite Dragonfly Max
    HP's Elite Dragonfly Max comes in Sparking Black, and adds some cool collaboration features over the Elite Dragonfly.

Computing Accessory of the Year: Microsoft Surface Adaptive Kit

This year, Microsoft came out with the Surface Adaptive Kit. The company has shown that it cares about accessibility for a while now. Previously, it launched the Xbox Adaptive Controller to make it easier for people with disabilities to play Xbox games. Now, this product should make it easier to use Surface PCs.

The Surface Adaptive Kit comes with an array of labels, tabs, indicators, and more. For example, there’s a pull tab that you can attach to the kickstand on a Surface Pro tablet, making it easier to open.

But there are all kinds of labels too. There’s a range of bump labels that should make it easy to feel for where a key is. There are port indicators too, helping you to figure out which ports are where.

All of this comes in at just $14.99. Microsoft often says that its mission is to empower its customers to achieve more, and it also likes to add that that means all of its customers. The Redmond firm wants to create a world where someone with additional needs doesn’t have to stand up and ask for help. The tools that they need are already easily accessible, while not compromising the experience for everyone else.

A simple set of tabs, stickers, and more is a long way to go toward making products that work for everyone, and it’s really inexpensive. That’s why the Surface Adaptive Kit is the best computing accessory of the year.

    Microsoft Surface Adaptive Kit
    Microsoft's Surface Adaptive Kit includes tabs, stickers, and more to help identify keys, ports, and more, making Surface devices easier to use.

Honorable Mention for Computing Accessory of the Year: Microsoft Slim Pen 2

While Microsoft introduced the first Surface Pen using Wacom technology back in 2012, it’s innovated on pen technology ever since. It moved to N-Trig technology, added pressure sensitivity, added tilt support, and more. The Surface Pro X came with a Slim Pen that was stored in the keyboard and wirelessly charged while it was in there. With this year’s Surface Laptop Studio and Surface Pro 8, you can pair it with the Slim Pen 2.

Pen stored under Surface Laptop Studio

The thing that’s really cool about the Slim Pen 2 is that it has haptic feedback to it actually feels like you’re writing on a piece of paper. When I got to see Microsoft’s new range of Surface products this year, the Slim Pen 2 is what had the biggest wow factor for me. It really is incredible, and makes writing on a screen feel a lot more natural.

The only problem is that you have to be using a supported app for it to work; otherwise, it just feels like you’re writing on a sheet of glass. Sadly, that list of apps is still pretty short.

 
    Microsoft Slim Pen 2
    Microsoft's Slim Pen 2 charges wirelessly when docked, and it has haptic feedback.

Computing Manufacturer of the Year: Apple

It was hard to pick a top computing manufacturer of the year. There’s been so much amazing stuff. But at the end of the day (or year), it has to be Apple. The Cupertino firm just owns the whole stack now, and that’s allowing it to do things that just weren’t possible before.

M1 Max MacBook Pro 16-inch

The new MacBook Pro is one example. As noted above, if you head out with a laptop that has the power to edit video, you have to bring a charger with you. It’s not just a regular charger. These powerful machines require more juice, so the chargers tend to be heavier and uncomfortable to carry. The new MacBook Pro PCs solve that. Not only do they have the power, but they have the battery life too. This simply wasn’t possible before. And if it was just the one series of laptops, that probably wouldn’t be enough to call Apple the top computing manufacturer of the year. But aside from the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors, we still have the regular old M1.

Apple’s new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini all shipped last year, but this year, the firm put the same processor into its new iPad Pro series and its new 24-inch iMac. That’s right; you can get the exact same processor in an 11-inch tablet that you can in a 24-inch all-in-one, and no one is saying that the 24-inch iMac is underpowered.

Aside from changing the game in the ways described above, Apple also gets points for just changing the landscape. Computing on an ARM processor is legitimized now, and we’re seeing all new things from other companies on the Windows side of things. Qualcomm bought Nuvia in an effort to compete with Apple’s custom ARM processors, and Intel is making hybrid chips that are meant to be more power-efficient. Competition is good, and it’s showing across the PC industry.

Honorable Mention for Computing Manufacturer of the Year: Microsoft

Microsoft has went all-out this year, and make no mistake; the reason is because so many people are working from home now. With two major redesigns in the Surface lineup and an all-new operating system, it’s really done all that it can. And remember, all of this stuff was done while people were working from home.

Angled view of Surface Pro 8

We’ve talked a lot about the Surface Laptop Studio, which is easily one of the best laptops of the year. But we also have the Surface Pro 8, a product that got its first proper redesign since 2014’s Surface Pro 8. It has thinner bezels, an aluminum chassis, a 120Hz display, and more.

We also got Windows 11 this year. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Windows 10 was going to be serviced forever, but there was an opportunity this year. Windows 11 offered a redesigned Start Menu, widgets, Teams integration, and it’s even getting Android app support.

And of course, Microsoft put out the Surface Adaptive Kit and the Slim Pen 2. Both of these things, listed in the Best Computing Accessory section, offer significant and meaningful innovations in the PC space.



These are our top picks for the year 2021. Do you agree with all of them? What were your favorite picks this year? Let us know in the comments below!

 

About author

Team XDA
Team XDA

XDA-Developers was established in 2003, back in the days of the Personal Digital Assistant, or "PDA".