We go through a lot of gadgets around here from year to year, but when it’s time to look back, a few of them always rise to the top — the things we keep on using long after the review’s been written, and the things we miss having once we’ve got to send them back!
This year was an interesting one in tech — virtual reality and wearable technology have been relentlessly hyped as the next big things, but wrist gadgets don’t seem to be taking off, while it still feels like VR is not developed enough (or way too expensive) to go mainstream just yet. With autonomous cars still a ways off, 2017 looked more like a transition year — we saw a lot that excited us, but what we see coming within the next few years could truly be life-changing.
Doesn’t mean we don’t have love for the gadgets of 2017! Here are our picks for the year that was.
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
Much as we appreciated the power of the Xbox One X, Nintendo did something that no one else has done — they made it possible to take the Switch from your bed to the TV to the bus, all without skipping a beat. The hybrid console that can be played as a handheld or as a home console launched in March with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, with a good flow of solid games throughout the year ending with the excellent Super Mario Odyssey.
What impresses us the most is how clear Nintendo’s vision for the console was. When you dig into Nintendo games like Breath of the Wild and Odyssey, you realize that not only did Nintendo make a great console, they knew exactly how to make the kind of games that explain why it’s great.
The post-Wii Nintendo has gotten by making games that can be enjoyed by everyone, from the student who can and will play games for six hours straight to the parent who can only fit in a few minutes here and there. With so many games on other consoles becoming hyper-competitive and requiring substantial time to get good enough to make the game enjoyable, the barriers to entry for those games have become a bit high for those of us who don’t aspire to be pro gamers. With their Switch games, Nintendo created gameplay experiences that can be fully enjoyed in small chunks of time — it only takes a few minutes to find a hidden moon in Odyssey or complete a shrine in Breath of the Wild. Because it’s portable, it means you can take out the Switch on a 20-minute bus ride home, play something, and actually feel like you progressed in-game.
Much as I’d like to game all day, I can’t, and that’s made playing a lot of other games, especially those with a heavy online multiplayer component, feel like a chore. Playing games on the Switch doesn’t, and that’s why I reach for it more often than not when I’ve got some free time.
Probably didn’t need to be said, but this list is super subjective! With fitness tech, some folks prefer wrist-worn fitness trackers or smartwatches, and that’s fine! But in testing those, I didn’t like having to use another gadget, especially the ones that required me to use touchscreens while running.
That’s why during my runs, I’ve consistently used the Jabra Elite Sport True Wireless Earbuds. I never run without music, so it’s not like I’m adding an extra gadget — I was going to have headphones of some sort on anyway! These buds just make things more convenient by including the whole slate of fitness tracking, even heart rate monitoring. They don’t sound bad for such small buds, either!
They’re just effortless. Run tracking can be started and stopped using a button on one of the buds, and while you’re out, the buds will give you readouts at every mile and at whatever time interval you want. If you’re training for a race, it can really help you figure out how to manage pace. Some smartwatches can give you those kinds of readouts too, but the convenience of sticking those features in earbuds puts these over the top.
I know, this seems like kind of a weak choice. It’s just the Amazon Echo Dot, but with Google! Well, that’s true, although with the Google Assistant’s smarts, we suspect Google’s smart home speakers will be more useful than Amazon’s before long.
But, we don’t like the Google Home Mini for its potential. We’re not going to apologize for it — we like a gadget that looks good. We love Alexa, but the speakers she’s been stuck in up until now? Not matching with the decor. Google’s decision to do a little extra work to develop the touch-sensitive fabric covers on their smart home speakers really paid off — the Mini looks great enough to be displayed confidently, and that goes a long way if you’ve already gone though a lot of trouble to make your place look nice!
So yeah, the Google Home Mini can help you do searches, play music, set events, and all that good stuff. We’ve seen all that before — we’re just glad we’re seeing it in something we actually want to look at!
Google – $30
This was a tough one for me, and a surprising choice, but I just kept coming back to it. Admittedly, I’m biased — the MateBook X was made with me in mind. I work remotely a lot, so I need something light. And I really, really need something that isn’t going to skimp on power — I don’t need a discrete GPU and I don’t need to play Crysis on ultra settings, but I do need something that isn’t going to become unusable every time I open up six browser tabs.
Huawei made exactly that machine, and they did it despite not having much laptop experience. The MateBook X is crazy thin and light despite having an Intel Core i7 processor. That made it plenty fast, and while I wouldn’t call it a gaming machine, gaming can be done on it.
And why not? One of the coolest bonuses of the MateBook X was the Dolby Atmos sound system — not only did Dolby provide their virtual surround sound processing software, they designed the speakers themselves and arranged them within the laptop. Basically, Dolby was given free rein to get the most out of their technology, and it showed in some seriously impressive audio coming from a tiny laptop. The display is just as gorgeous, and surrounded by super thin bezels and an aluminum body.
But, let’s slow down just a little. The lack of full-sized USB ports in favor of USB Type-C ports we can grudgingly forgive as a sacrifice for thinness, but another sacrifice was harder to accept — battery life. At just five to seven hours, it’s not going to be ideal for remote workers. But, if you’re always working in a place with outlets, that awesome sound system seems worth getting instead of finding longer battery life elsewhere!
You can get better displays and better camera quality elsewhere, true. And yes, OnePlus phones aren’t quite as cheap as they used to be. Still, they’re about half as much as premium Android smartphones while offering up a premium experience, and that makes OnePlus our choice this year.
We’ve only gotten hands-on time with the OnePlus 5, and liked it! The OnePlus 5T is basically the same phone, but with a better (still not top-notch) camera and a longer 18:9 display, of the sort Samsung and LG moved to this year.
But, we’ve got an ulterior motive here. We do love OnePlus because of the price, but the real reason we’re riding with them this year? Metal. Everyone went with glass backs this year — Apple, Samsung, LG, Huawei, and the list goes on. Even Google used it on the top half of the Pixel 2! Well, glass backs suck. They make it harder to grip the phone, they’ll slide right off even the most slightly tilted surface, and when they crash to the ground, they shatter. Even worse, the most common excuse — we need glass backs to make wireless charging possible! — is bunk. Wireless charging is still too slow, and now that pretty much every premium Android phone can get hours worth of charge in 15 or 20 minutes, using a cable isn’t that big of a deal.