2020 has felt like an eternity, but the year is finally coming to a close. Despite everything we’ve all been through, though, there were a few bright spots in the world of tech. Console makers blessed us with mouthwatering next-gen hardware, while Apple wowed the industry with the prowess of its own M1 CPU. Google also delivered an excellent phone for just $350, demonstrating an ability to not just read the room, but also to think of a world beyond a well-heeled tech-savvy audience.
There are also companies that flourished during the global lockdown, and though truth continued to be contested throughout the US elections, we thankfully saw social media step up their efforts to combat misinformation. Clearly, staying home gave some of us the freedom to make great products and fight for good.
Apple’s M1 chipset
Apple's M1 system on a chip (SOC) may be tiny, but its impact on the computing industry will be felt for years to come. The first of Apple's silicon to reach Macs, the M1 is a powerhouse, with 8 CPU cores and up to 8 GPU cores. It's an evolution of Apple's A-series chips for the iPhone and iPad, but looking at the benchmarks, you'd never mistake it for a mere mobile chip. Both the M1-equipped MacBook Air and MacBook Pro blew away comparable Intel or AMD-based PCs in the Geekbench 5 benchmark. The Air was particularly impressive, since it wields so much power without even needing a fan.
With the M1, Apple is betting on itself in a major way. The company no longer needs to wait for an Intel refresh before it can announce new computers. Now, Apple is working on its own demanding scheduling. The M1's sheer performance and efficiency is a major black eye for both Intel and AMD, who've been battling it out for PC dominance for years. And it proves that ARM-based chips, which previously were relegated to phones and tablets, can actually be capable enough for laptops and small desktops like the Mac Mini.
Really, you could say the M1 makes the entire PC industry look bad. While we've seen a handful of ARM-based Windows PCs on the market, we wouldn't dare recommend any of them, due to Microsoft’s poor support for x86 emulation, and x64 emulation remains a work in progress. Basically, you can’t trust ARM-based Windows computers to run older apps. Meanwhile, Apple's emulation for Intel apps, Rosetta 2, works seamlessly with the vast majority of apps we've tried. And in many cases, they even run faster than on Intel or AMD based PCs. Talk about embarrassing.
One recent Saturday night, I was playing Control on my Xbox Series S and simultaneously listening to podcasts on the console’s Spotify app, pointedly not going out to the bars yet again, and I found myself thinking, “Thank f--- for video games.” It’s not the first time that thought has crossed my mind, but amid a lingering pandemic and months of stay-at-home orders, it’s become a common refrain. Luckily this year, there’s a lineup of stellar video game consoles on the market, including shiny new offerings from Microsoft and Sony, and a familiar treasure from Nintendo.
First, that new new. Microsoft and Sony kicked off the ninth console generation this year with the Xbox Series X and Series S, and the PlayStation 5 and its all-digital counterpart. All of them are fantastic. Of course, there are benefits and disadvantages with each console, but there’s something here for every kind of player. The Xbox Series S, for instance, is a relatively cheap entry point for the latest generation, offering significantly upgraded guts over the Xbox One and a beefy library of digital games through Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. The Xbox Series X, meanwhile, features top-of-the-line hardware capable of playing games in 4K and 60fps (and beyond), and it runs like a dream.
Both new Xboxes have Quick Resume, which allows players to swap among multiple games on the fly, without having to close down or re-load anything. The consoles also connect to Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa home networks for voice-controlled features. This comes in particularly handy when the uncontrollable urge to scream at something — anything — bubbles up from the deepest recesses of your soul.
Though the PlayStation 5 may look like a gaudy rendering of a futuristic skyscraper, it’s truly an ultra-powerful console with impressive output. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for instance, is crisp and incredibly smooth on PS5, with literally zero loading screens. Plus, the new DualSense controller is nothing short of a revelation. Every inch of the gamepad features precise haptic feedback, and notably, the trigger buttons are adjustable. Developers are able to add or remove tension from the triggers as they wish, increasing immersion and unlocking a world of new gameplay mechanics. The PS5 feels like the future.
And then there’s the Switch. Nintendo operates in its own universe, regularly releasing underpowered yet innovative gaming consoles, and the Switch is no different. Both the Switch and Switch Lite have a lineup of adorable and adventure-focused games that have helped plenty of folks through the pandemic, especially considering the portable nature of both consoles. In March, too Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released and deserves a special shout-out for keeping the peace in plenty of households.
When it comes to video games consoles in 2020, there are no losers. Even the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hardware families have received a steady stream of high-quality games and media this year, when we truly needed it the most.
NVIDIA RTX 3080
In a year jam-packed with impressive gaming hardware, NVIDIA's RTX 3080, and its 3000-series cards as a whole, stood out. For $699, the RTX 3080 delivers fast 4K gaming support and far better ray tracing performance than NVIDIA's cards from last year (which we still loved at the time). And while it's certainly expensive, it's actually a pretty great deal compared to the company's last round of cards. It genuinely blows away the RTX 2080 Ti, which originally sold for $999.
Powered by NVIDIA's new Ampere architecture, the RTX 3080 proves that NVIDIA still manages to innovate, even when it already dominates the high-end GPU market. And it shows that the company's bet on ray tracing is finally paying off. NVIDIA clearly has a lead on AMD, which just launched its own new GPU architecture with ray tracing, RDNA2. And while that hardware has the advantage of being in all next-generation consoles, PC gamers will still get the best ray tracing performance with NVIDIA cards.
If you don't want to drop $699 on a single video card, NVIDIA also has other options: the $499 RTX 3070 delivers pretty much the same performance as the 2080 Ti, making it an incredible value. And the recently announced RTX 3060 Ti is still pretty capable for $399. The biggest problem facing NVIDIA, and most other PC hardware makers, is availability. It's tough to find its latest gear in stock, both because manufacturing has slowed down and eager scalpers are quick to scoop them up. But for the lucky gamer that can get their hands on one, any of NVIDIA's RTX 3000 cards will be a gaming treat.
With the Royole FlexPai at CES, the Huawei Mate X at MWC, the Samsung Galaxy Fold in the spring, and the first real look at the Motorola Razr in the fall, 2019 was the year foldable hype finally bubbled over. At last, we got our first real glimpse of what the future of smartphones could be, beyond just meticulously crafted, glass-and-metal monoliths. The problem was, many of those first-generation foldables felt and acted the way most first-generation devices tend to — more like expensive experiments than fully fleshed-out products. In 2020, that began to change.
I’ll grant you that this year has seen its share of flops. There was no way Motorola’s first, flawed foldable could ever have lived up to its through-the roof hype, and more recently, Lenovo took a stab at an expensive, foldable PC that was less functional than frustrating. So, what makes the overall category a winner in my book? Easy: it’s how quickly these device makers have learned from their mistakes and turned around superior products.
There’s no better example of this than Samsung, a company that faced enormous criticism last year for nearly releasing the original Galaxy Fold with a bevy of design flaws. To their credit, the team at Samsung ate s--- publicly, quickly remedied the problem, and went back to work on two new devices. One was the Galaxy Z Fold 2 — otherwise known as one of the first truly great foldables, and one of the rare devices I liked enough to purchase for myself after finishing my review. The other was the Galaxy Z Flip, a more capable example of the foldable flip phone design than the original Razr, and the first device in Samsung’s line-up to use an ultra-thin layer of glass to protect the fragile, internal screen. And while we’re on the subject of fast-paced improvements, Samsung released an updated 5G version of the Z Flip with an improved chipset just months later.
Meanwhile, Motorola honestly deserves all the flack I’ve thrown at it so far, but it also deserves credit for releasing a vastly improved follow-up to the Razr in short order. Yes, people who bought the original were burned — as were the people who bought a Z Flip right before the Z Flip 5G was released. No matter how you look at the landscape now, foldable phones are in far better shape than they were last year: They’re more polished, they’re more capable, and software support is steadily improving. Now we just need these things to get a little cheaper — maybe in 2021.
Pixel 4a (and the return of low-cost phones)
When reviews for the Pixel 4a came out, I was surprised. Before that, I couldn’t remember the last time a phone received nearly universal acclaim the way Google’s affordable handset did. Every reviewer, myself included, had been impressed by what the company was able to offer for a mere $350.
At that price, the Pixel 4a offers flagship-level performance and cameras, as well as an all-screen design. Google demonstrated that when it chose to focus on making the best phone for under $400, it was able to deliver something truly satisfying. The Pixel 4a’s release in August also came at a time when people were reconsidering their expenses against the backdrop of a dismal economic outlook. Its low price was also a welcome deviation from the exasperating trend of phones that grew more expensive year after year.
Though Google’s subsequent flagship was relatively less impressive, the company still chose to focus keeping costs low rather than coming up with flashy, expensive features. As a result, the Pixel 5 ended up being a pretty boring phone, but it does start at $699 compared to more expensive flagships from Samsung and Apple.
Thankfully, in 2020, those companies also rolled out budget-friendlier versions of their premium handsets. Samsung’s Galaxy S20 FE and Apple’s iPhone 12 Mini and SE were more affordable alternatives for people who were looking for new phones this year, too. Though neither is as cheap as the Pixel 4a, and “lite” or budget phones aren’t a new trend, the fact that Google delivered something so good for so little money is extra impressive this year. With the competition that is sure to cause, we could very well be on the cusp of seeing the rise of cheap phones that are actually good soon.
Zoom and all the video chat things
If there was one thing many of us had to do during the pandemic, it was take too many video calls for work. Zoom grew so popular that it became the de-facto verb for virtual meetings. Phrases were even coined with its name, like “Zoom fatigue” and “Zoom face.” The company’s stock price shot up 505 percent since COVID-19 led to lockdowns in the US in March.
But it’s not just Zoom that thrived during the pandemic. Pretty much every video-calling service provider saw similar activity, whether it’s Google’s Meet, Microsoft’s Teams or Cisco’s WebEx. Verizon (our parent company) even bought BlueJeans in April, jumping on the bandwagon as it looked to be one of few industries headed for profit this year. It wasn’t just business-first options that got all the action, either. Services like Skype and FaceTime continued to be used by people to keep up with their loved ones, as well as the video calling tools built into apps like WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram.
In addition to the apps that facilitated our calls, the devices that did also grew in popularity. Facebook and Google added support for Zoom and other major chat apps to their smart displays, making it easier for people to use those devices to stay in touch with loved ones. They became so sought-after that sales of Facebook’s Portal were up 10 times two months after lockdowns in the US in March.
Smart displays and video calling tools had been around before the pandemic, sure, but they were one of the few products that thrived as the world was forced to stay at home. Though I’m uncomfortable about the fact that this is another tale of big corporations profiting from the pandemic and that not everyone had the luxury of using these services, I have to admit that in a time where human contact was hard to come by, video chat tools helped the world stay sane and keep going.
Remember when people (myself included) were complaining that smartphones were becoming boring? They were all just rectangular slabs! Then one day, Samsung, Huawei, Royole and Motorola brought foldable phones to life, but those are far from ready to become mainstream. I’m not just talking about the prices. Even as a careful smartphone handler, I still managed to accidentally leave a scratch on a Galaxy Z Fold 2’s supposedly tougher flexible screen.
Meanwhile, LG has been hiding in the shadows biding its time and eventually surprised us this year with the Wing. Rather than toying with flexible displays, LG went with a wacky swivel design instead — one that swings a large landscape screen to above a smaller squarish screen. I’ve been using an LG Wing for almost three months now, and I still enjoy seeing the delight on people’s faces whenever I flick the screen up.
This design makes a lot more sense than the flagship foldables: You can watch fullscreen video at the top, while scrolling through news or social media within the usual portrait aspect ratio on the bottom screen. Or you can flip the phone itself and hold the larger screen vertically, and use the smaller display for, say, navigation or video. Oh, and both OLED panels are protected by glass, so you won’t have to worry about your fingernails scratching them.
Unlike rollable or tri-fold prototypes from the likes of TCL, Oppo and Xiaomi, you can already buy the LG Wing. Sure, its price, bulk and performance hiccups may keep the Wing from going mainstream, but you have to give it to LG for its newfound efforts in the smartphone game. I don’t recall ever getting this excited about an LG phone in the past, but hey, we still have that rollable phone to look forward to next year.
As hard as we tried to stay home this year, there were still important reasons for some of us to brave going outside. People with chronic health issues, for example, or symptoms of illnesses that weren’t Covid-related had to find ways to get to a doctor safely. Though telehealth had existed prior to the pandemic, insurance limitations and FDA and HIPAA regulations stood in the way of widespread adoption.
When the nation’s most populous states were forced into lockdown, all that changed. The US government expanded Medicare coverage for telehealth nationwide while Congress approved $200 million in funding to the FCC for a telehealth program that helped eligible healthcare providers pay for telecommunications and information services and the devices they needed to provide connected care. The FDA generally made it easier to see a doctor from home by easing up certain regulations around where practitioners could provide service, and also loosened rules around the use of certain medical devices at home, like blood glucose monitors.
As expected, big tech companies jumped in too. Not only did the same video chat services that are also a winner on this list facilitate many people’s remote doctor’s visits, but giants like Microsoft and Amazon also launched healthcare-specific products. Microsoft’s industry cloud for healthcare provided a means for medical businesses to offer patients tools like a portal, secure video chat and appointment booking system. Amazon launched its Pharmacy prescription-filling service late this year, too, and smaller players like Zocdoc modernized their services with video conferencing support, for example.
Industry experts agree that telehealth adoption had been growing over the last few years, but COVID-19 caused that to skyrocket. While it’s worth noting that telehealth will never fully replace in-person doctor’s visits and there are still accessibility issues to iron out, telehealth promises to alleviate burdens on America’s healthcare infrastructure overall and in 2020 we sped a little faster towards that goal.
PlayStation 5 DualSense controller
Focusing on a leaky water tower might not sound like the most exciting thing to do in a game, but I did just that for a solid two minutes in Spider-Man: Miles Morales. The haptic feedback from the PlayStation 5's DualSense controller made it feel like water was dripping into my hands. It’s uncanny.
Calling Sony’s latest controller one of our winners even though we already included the PS5 itself might seem a little specific, but its contribution to the gaming experience is noteworthy. Plus, the DualSense gives Sony an edge in the console wars, especially when Microsoft hasn’t meaningfully changed its controller since the Xbox 360.
Insomniac Games makes fantastic use of the controller throughout the game. Vibrations sparkle like electricity and triggers have a subtle tension as you swing through Manhattan. The speaker emits a satisfying “thwip” when you fire a web too. These all add depth to the experience and make it clear why the DualSense is one of the PS5's strongest selling points in an excellent new console generation.
It’s more than just haptic feedback that sets this controller apart. In Astro's Playroom, you can blow into the onboard microphone to make a fan rotate or feel subtle taps all over the DualSense as hail hits the adorable robot.
The adaptive triggers add a lot to other games too. There's a tiny bit of resistance to mimic a camera trigger in Bugsnax and different tension levels for each weapon in Fortnite. The triggers aren’t always used successfully, though. Switching from a tired player to a fresh one in FIFA 21 can be jarring when the trigger resistance suddenly changes, but that's on EA, rather than Sony.
The DualSense isn't perfect — the battery life is shorter than you might expect — but it's an evolution of the PlayStation controller that helps games feel truly next-gen. Now that more PS5 and Steam developers have gotten their hands on a DualSense, I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do with it. I have my fingers crossed other controller manufacturers take a leaf out of the DualSense playbook too.
Content Authenticity Initiative and TruePic
It’s time the war on truth met some resistance. So many problems in 2020 were made worse by the proliferation of retouched, recycled or re-imagined content across social media. Though we all would like to think we’d never make the mistake of believing a doctored picture depicts something real, it’s important to realize it can be difficult for everyone to know how to tell the difference.
In November, Twitter, Adobe and the New York Times announced a Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) that’s meant to help “empower consumers to better evaluate and understand content online.” It aims to create an industry standard for digital media attribution that would make it clear whether a piece of content had been edited even after it’s shared to supported platforms. An upcoming summit is taking place next year to iron out some of the details, but this is an important first step towards providing a means to distinguish truth from lies.
This year, too, a photo and video verification company called TruePic launched and became one of the more interesting features of Qualcomm’s latest premium mobile chipset. Thanks to TruePic integration, smartphones using the Snapdragon 888 would be able to use cameras that are compliant with the CAI. This would allow photos taken with these phones to have a cryptographic C either around or on the image that would remain as it’s shared to compatible platforms.
The inclusion of TruePic in the Snapdragon 888 is our first look at how the CAI could be implemented in the devices we use to take pictures, which is the first step in online content creation. With the CAI still in development, it will likely take at least months, if not more than a year before we start seeing a reliable format roll out, but the cooperation across the photo and video editing, social media and journalism industries is a heartening one. I’m cautious about its immediate efficacy, too — the world will need time to not only understand and get used to a new standard, but also start trusting it (after it’s inevitably tested and exploited by bad actors and hackers). In its announcement, Adobe said “joining forces will accelerate progress.” Hopefully, we will see this arrive soon.
As COVID spread and we found ourselves spending nearly all of our time at home, the relative novelty of living and working in the space space soon gave way to crushing ennui. That was especially true for fitness buffs, people who built time at the gym not just into their schedules, but into their personalities. For them, and for the countless others who wanted to nurture their health, home fitness tech became key to maintaining some semblance of sanity.
That was partially out of sheer necessity — during the early stretches of quarantine life, free weights and kettlebells grew scarce and expensive as people began pivoting to home workouts in earnest. Meanwhile, yoga blocks became tricky to find, and fly-by-night dropshipping outfits started peddling poorly-made, drop-shipped resistance bands on Instagram. (I bought a set out of desperation — they took months to arrive, and broke during my first workout.)
Meanwhile, connected fitness platforms saw their businesses boom as people spent more and more time away from their gyms. Tonal, a startup that pairs guided workouts with a smart, wall-mounted display and "digital weights" saw demand surge to the point where it raised $110 million in a funding round meant to help it meet additional demand. Lululemon dropped $500 million to acquire Mirror, a company that builds — what else? — mirrors with built-in displays to guide people through specific exercises. And Peloton, purveyor of smart spin cycles and treadmills for the reasonably well-heeled, saw its global membership roughly double in a year as it launched some more affordable hardware.
For those who didn't want to buy — or couldn't afford — a pricey, Mediatek-powered smart bike, resources dedicated to piecing together alternatives like cheap Amazon spin cycles paired with Bluetooth cadence trackers and tablets became indispensable to some. (Myself included.)
Meanwhile, people found gadgetry evolving in functionality and purpose in response to the COVID era. VR headsets like the Oculus Quest grew scarce, partially because of their value as entertainment devices, but also because new games and fitness apps gave people a reason to get out of their chairs. A study conducted by Fitbit suggested that wearables like the ones it sells could potentially detect early stages of COVID before symptoms began to manifest. And Apple's latest flagship wearable, the Watch Series 6, features built-in blood oxygen monitoring that can be helpful for tracking peak performance and potentially troubling respiratory issues. The fact that those Watches are a key component of the company's new, on-demand Fitness+ workouts program is just icing on the cake.
Recent news of a vaccine has given people hope that life could soon return to normal, but this — admittedly opportunistic — renaissance in home fitness tech could mean dire things for the future of gyms. If nothing else, though, all this gear has helped people stay healthy and sane in very trying times; they deserve a win for that alone.