The Freewrite standalone word processor with keyboard sits on an office desktop.
Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

What we bought: Our favorite gadgets of 2021

Engadget editors tell us about some of their best purchases of the year.

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While plenty of gadgets cross our desks, we at Engadget also end up buying a lot of things for ourselves throughout the year. In 2021, some of us invested in smart home devices and others (re)discovered passions for things like e-books and vinyl, but there are plenty of things we bought and loved that didn’t make it onto the site. Here, our staffers look back on the year that was by gushing about their favorite items they bought this year.

Dyson V11 Torque vacuum cleaner

Someone stands while using the Dyson V11 Torque stick vacuum cleaner in their brightly lit living room.
Dyson

After a few years of waffling, I finally pulled the trigger in 2021 and bought a Dyson stick vacuum. You could say I fell for the hype, but honestly it’s been one of my favorite purchases of the year and arguably the most useful. Until now, we had been relying on a few-years-old Roomba (lovingly named Dale) to clean our two-bedroom apartment — Dale did a good job, but the Dyson is even better. Sure, we have to actually vacuum ourselves, but both my fiancé and I find the task soothing (while our cat finds it absolutely horrific).

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The hype is real when it comes to the power of Dyson stick vacuums. The V11 Torque sucks up nearly anything and everything in its path, including the masses of cat hair hiding in our carpet. I like how the machine automatically adjusts the suction power when it moves from carpet to hard flooring, and its three modes let you control how powerful it is to begin with. The LCD screen also shows how long the battery will last in each mode, and it’s good enough that I’ve never had to stop cleaning in order to power up. Maybe that will change if and when we move into a larger home, but even then, it’ll be a small price to pay for tidy goodness. My vacuum also came with a bunch of attachments, so the machine transforms from a full-sized vac to a handheld with just a few snaps. That lets me clean around my couch and the couch itself — a joy that 29-year-old me might not have appreciated, but one that 30-year-old me relishes in. — Valentina Palladino, Commerce Editor

Sonos Roam

Sonos Roam portable speaker outside, standing vertically on a wooden railing.
Engadget

I bought the Sonos Roam with one primary purpose in mind. In Canada, the early stage of the vaccine rollout was delayed compared to how it played out in the US. As a result, most restaurants and bars either weren’t open or operating at full capacity in the late spring and early summer. And so, for the second year in a row, it looked like any hangouts I would have with my friends would be outside. I figured the Sonos Roam would make those more fun, and I was right.

Everytime I brought it with me to a park hang, my friends would remark how great it sounded. And that’s the best compliment you can give the Roam. It’s small and compact, making it easy to bring with you on any adventure, but more than anything, it sounds way better than any Bluetooth speaker of its size has the right to sound. Because of that, I ended up using the Roam a lot more than I thought I would. It was my constant companion through the summer and fall months, providing a soundtrack when I had to cook dinner, clean my bike or host friends for a patio party. If music is how we decorate time, the Roam did an incredible job of it. – Igor Bonifacic, Associate Editor

Toro UltraPlus leaf blower and vacuum

Toro UltraPlus leaf blower
Toro

As I've acclimated to the grind of yard work, a part of me feels like I'm transforming into King of the Hill's propane-selling, tool-loving Hank Hill. That realization struck me pretty hard this fall, as I prepared to brave another onslaught of leaves from the enormous trees around my house. Last year, it typically took me around two hours to rake and bag everything from my tiny front yard. I just couldn't go through that again. So I decided to buy a leaf mulching vacuum – and it was the best decision I've made all year.

The Toro UltraPlus (model 51621) looks like a typical leaf blower, but it does so much more, I tell you what. Its vacuum attachment can suck up an enormous pile of leaves in minutes, and its metal impeller grinds it all up into a fine pulp. Best of all, once its mulching bag is full, I can just unzip it to dump out the contents into a yard waste bag, or directly over a portion of my garden. Thanks to the Toro, I was able to clean my entire front yard in under 30 minutes. Getting that free time back was easily worth $100.

Like most consumer-grade yard gadgets, the Toro UltraPlus has its share of downsides. Its leaf blowing is hilariously weak – at full blast, it sometimes had trouble moving just a handful of leaves. That's okay with me, since I also hate the relentless drone of leaf blowers in the suburbs. (And yes, its mulching feature is pretty loud as well, but at least that works quickly.)

My biggest worry about the UltraPlus is that it's almost entirely made of plastic. It feels like it’s only a matter of time until the tab that holds in the vacuum tube breaks off. As a plug-in tool, it's also annoying to juggle a long extension cord while I'm trying to beautify my yard. I can live with that inconvenience, though, as cordless leaf vacuums typically cost over $400.

Given how much the Toro UltraPlus has changed fall cleanup for me, I’ll probably just buy another if my curent one breaks. And who knows, maybe it’ll last long enough for my daughter to start helping out with yard work. (They make rakes for three-year-olds, right?) – Devindra Hardawar, Senior Editor

Apple Watch Series 7

Apple Watch Series 7
Engadget

I’ve been reviewing various generations of the Apple Watch for Engadget since the original debuted back in 2015. It was always the same routine: I would wear the thing for weeks, take it on runs and become obsessed with closing my rings. And then, I’d send my loaner unit back to Apple, and return to life as someone who wore an ugly, not-very-smart watch, or sometimes no watch at all.

2021 was the first time I felt compelled to buy one for myself. I wish I could say there was something particularly compelling about the Series 7. But it’s actually a lot like the Series 6, and I knew that when I bought it. No, I got an Apple Watch mostly because I was fed up with my trusty Garmin. It was never pretty – utilitarian at best – but it became decidedly less so when I broke the strap. Yep, I paid $399 for the Apple Watch because I wanted something stylish that would count my steps.

I’m mostly happy with it. The beige (“Starlight”) color scheme goes with everything. I love unlocking my MacBook with the watch instead of being forced to type a long password on Apple’s unreliable Butterfly keyboard. And the automatic workout detection is as precise as I remember it, gently tapping me on the wrist a few minutes into each of my daily walks.

The biggest issue is my nightly routine of fighting with the watch over how many hours I spent standing throughout the day. The sensor is mercurial and erratic, ignoring the time I spent literally standing at the stove, or even a long series of squats, but sometimes rewarding me for sitting on my butt. Whatever, Apple: I know how long it took me to make that squash for Thanksgiving – and I have photos of the burn marks to prove it. — Dana Wollman, Editor in Chief

Durablow gas fireplace smart remote control

Durablow gas fireplace smart remote control
Durablow

I live in a quintessential drafty San Francisco apartment. We have central heat, but my partner and I both have allergies and our furnace seems to do a better job at distributing dust around the house than keeping it warm. Which means in the winter months (and, often in the spring and summer too, because San Francisco) we use our gas fireplace to help keep things cozy. We use it so much that we started wishing we could control it from any room in the house. We have smart lights and other devices connected to our Google Home speakers, so why not the fireplace?

That’s where Durablow’s WiFi-enabled fireplace remote comes in. For about $70, the gadget turns any gas fireplace into a smart fireplace. (We use Google Assistant, but it’s also compatible with Alexa and other smart home systems.) The setup itself was fairly painless: it required connecting one set of wires to the gas valve, and downloading an app to pair the receiver with a Google account. Once it’s paired, you can control the fireplace with voice commands from your smart speaker.

That may sound like a needless amount of effort for something we can also control from a switch on the wall, but after another year spent (mostly) at home, I can safely say rigging Durablow remote control was life changing. Having it connected to our Google Home system means we can turn the fireplace on from any room, which is especially nice in the early mornings when the living room would otherwise be freezing. We can even activate from the Google Home app on our phones when we’re on our way home on a chilly night, brr. – Karissa Bell, Senior Editor

Bombas Performance Running Quarter socks

Bombas Performance Quarter Running Socks
Bombas

I’ve always had really bad luck with socks, and that might be because I typically bought the cheapest ones I could find. I regularly fought to keep ankle socks from falling down and, after particularly long days in not the best shoes, the backs of my heels would be screaming with cuts and blisters. And I detest nothing more than feeling my sock slip down into the depths of my sneakers in the middle of a run.

Ultimately, I caved and decided to give Bombas’ running socks a try, and I went with the quarter length because they seemed to be the best option for all kinds of runs. Well, you get what you pay for, folks. These are, without a doubt, the best running socks I’ve ever had — they don’t move around, they don’t slip and they keep my toes fairly warm even during late-November morning runs. They’ve become one of those staples in my wardrobe that are so good precisely because I barely notice them, which is in stark contrast to the cheap socks that always demanded more of my attention than I wanted to give. — V.P.

Astrohaus Freewrite

The Freewrite standalone word processor with keyboard sits on an office desktop.
Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

My first impression of the Freewrite smart typewriter from Astrohaus was one of confusion. I had the feeling that I was looking at a $600 solution searching for a problem. For as much as a modest Windows laptop, the Freewrite combines a small E Ink display with a mechanical keyboard and the ability to sync whatever you write to the cloud. It’s a very simple product that sets out to do one thing well: offer an excellent, distraction-free environment for drafting text. As such, there are no bells and whistles here — it’s minimalism taken to the extreme.

Under almost any circumstance, this product would make no sense. But, during the pandemic, I got an itch to try my hand at some different writing — fiction, essays, just something different from what I do for work. That’s when the Freewrite started calling me. Despite the high price tag, I became enamored with its beautiful design and imagined using it to bang out words without being distracted by Twitter, the vast expanses of the internet or my colleagues on Slack.

As expected, no piece of hardware is enough to turn anyone into a novelist. But the Freewrite is a delightful product because of its simplicity. In the era of multi-use gadgets, it’s rare to come across something that focuses on doing one thing exceedingly well. But that’s what the Freewrite does. Its keyboard is a joy to use and the E Ink screen is a smart choice for a device like this. Coming from a laptop it takes a few minutes to get used to the refresh rate, but the basic black-and-white is perfectly suited for text. The Freewrite isn’t for everyone — but if you make a living writing (or are just passionate about it as a hobby), it’s a device worth considering. – Nathan Ingraham, Deputy Managing Editor

Nintendo Switch OLED edition

Samus Aran in a save point
Kris Naudus / Engadget

Sure, it’s not the Pro model I hoped for, but the OLED Switch offers the definitive Nintendo experience (for now). This is doubly true if you spend most of your Switch time in handheld mode.

With a bigger seven-inch, higher-contrast OLED display, all of my games look better on the new Switch, without exception. And I get to play it for longer without charging, despite the same specifications and even battery size. The longer battery life appears to be due to the virtue of a less power-hungry OLED screen, and coming from the original launch model, where I was lucky to eke out 4 hours on games like Super Mario Odyssey or Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it’s a genuine improvement for me, as I love to used to travel with my Switch everywhere. I love the white Joy-Cons, but I’m afraid to wear them out or get them dirty. But that’s my problem.

Most have said it’s a nice, if inessential, upgrade for existing Switch owners – but if you typically play untethered from a TV, the OLED model is, for me, a substantially better console. Contingent on Omicron’s movements, my OLED Switch will soon have its first test – a long-haul flight to Las Vegas. – Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief

PopSocket MagSafe grip with Smartish phone case

Smartish popgrip
Nicole Lee / Engadget

For many years now, I’ve been a big fan of PopSockets, those round plastic extendable discs you stick on the back of your phone. I didn’t really want to like them – I do admit they’re pretty bulky – but they’re surprisingly useful. They make it a lot easier to hold a slim and slippery phone one-handed, plus they do a decent job propping up your phone, too. There’s one major downside though: Reusing them – taking them off and putting them on again – was not something you wanted to do very often, as the gel adhesive gets less sticky over time.

But this year I got myself the new iPhone 13, which supports MagSafe. Now, instead of a normal PopSocket, I could use the PopGrip for MagSafe, which simply attaches magnetically onto the phone. Reusing it is as simple as pulling it off and putting it on again, no need for a sticky adhesive. I still wanted a case for my phone to protect it against the occasional fall, so I made sure to get a MagSafe-compatible one. I ended up choosing this floral Smartish case because I liked the look of it. And yes, the PopGrip works fine with it on.

I know it sounds silly, but I just absolutely love this combination of the Smartish case and the PopGrip MagSafe. The case has a nice texture that makes it feel more secure, and I just love that I can put on and take off the grip as many times as I want without worrying about destroying any adhesive. And I do this more often than you’d think – I usually take it off to power up the phone on my wireless charger, and pop it back on for the rest of the day. I like to joke that this accessory is my number one reason for getting a new iPhone – and not, you know, all the other good things about the phone itself – but honestly, it’s probably not far from the truth. – Nicole Lee, Senior Editor

Wahoo Kickr Smart bike trainer and Zwift

An in-home setup for Wahoo Kickr Smart and Zwift showing a bike and TV.
Jon Turi / Engadget

I spent the summer of 2020 cycling around my Brooklyn neighborhood most days to keep in shape. But with a long winter looming and growing tired of the chaos in the streets, I decided to pony-up some cash for a home fitness solution. After much deliberation, I settled on the Wahoo Kickr Smart bike trainer. It’s one of the pricier models at $1,200, but its folding legs, subtle tilt range, low noise output and top specs seemed future-proof. Paired with Zwift, a massively multiplayer online cycling and running app ($16/month), I now had the biking sim I’d always wanted and an exercise setup that’s season agnostic.

The Kickr Smart is relatively compact with a handle and folding legs for stowing away during downtime. It’s direct-drive for use with your bike instead of being a space-hogging standalone device. You remove your back wheel, lock into place and use the unit's own (upgradable) gear cassette so you’ll be able to shift gears normally. This allows for quick release, so you can still ride your bike outdoors on a whim, although my road bike has been in position for a while now.

A screenshot from the cycling sim Zwift showing the Neokyo city environment.
An in-game POV screenshot from Zwift's Makuri Islands: Neokyo expansion.
Jon Turi / Engadget

I run Zwift on an Apple TV, which connects to the Kickr Smart via Bluetooth and includes power, cadence and speed tracking. I set up in front of a flatscreen for full POV immersion in one of the various virtual worlds offered, including the new Neokyo cityscape. I also have a fan (it’s a sweat fest) and a table for water, snacks and my phone since I use the Zwift companion app for features not readily accessible on the Apple TV. The experience is a combination of fitness and gaming in a form factor that closely enough resembles outdoor riding.

The Kickr Smart trainer adjusts resistance to simulate terrain from flat to climbs and downhill. There are tons of gamified features, long-term goals and you’re virtually alongside riders from around the world. You can set structured workouts and join races, but I’m just there to ride and only interact with others on occasion to give “ride ons” — a sort of thumbs up.

I’ve gone from eight miles during my lunch break to waiting until the evening to fit in fifteen or more, which seems like the minimum these days. My goal wasn’t really to train, but it’s been compelling enough that I've steadily increased my distances and climbs.

I’ve been riding year-round, about five days a week and I have to say it’s (a lot of) money well-spent, both for fitness and mental health. There are no spin-class tyrants shouting at you, just some gamified nudges and your own desire to ride. – Jon Turi, Homepage Editor

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