Alexa got plump. The HomePod sprouted babies. Electric bikes are suddenly sexy.
While 2020 kept you busy fighting a pandemic or fretting about the election, gadgets have had a life of their own.
Consider this a cheat sheet to this season’s buzziest and best new electronics. I’ve been testing a dozen smart speakers, nine smartphones, four TV dongles and three e-bikes in my Washington Post gadget lab — now also known as my living room. I blew a fuse only once.
2020 has had enough bad news, so this list covers only gadgets that impressed. It’s not necessarily the stuff you see most advertised – like the fib about faster 5G phones – that made the best impression.
All of the major smart speakers got an audible upgrade this year, with one exception. There’s once again a new iPhone sized to slip into skinny jeans. And I’ve actually gotten catcalls zipping around (stop laughing) on my pandemic commuting solution, the sleek VanMoof S3 e-bike.
A word of warning about one notable release I didn’t get a chance to test: Apple’s new MacBook Air. It uses a new kind of chip that promises better battery life but requires a rewrite or translation software for older apps.
Now bring on my gadgets.
Smart speakers that talk just turned 5, and you can actually hear them maturing. This year, all three of the biggest brands finally offer room-filling sound for just $100.
Of course, picking a smart speaker is about more than just sound. You’re also investing in an artificial intelligence tribe, of sorts — a voice operating system to fetch answers, operate your home and potentially violate your privacy. This year, Amazon, Google and Apple have gotten a bit better as home assistants, too.
Amazon Echo 4 and Echo Dot 4
If I had $100 to spend on a speaker, it would go to the new Echo 4. Amazon replaced its old tube-shaped Echos with a plump orb the size of a cantaloupe. Pop music sounds more muscular — and on instrumental songs, the dynamic range is wide enough that you can pick out the different instruments.
(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye. Or, in this case, without even looking: I tested sound quality with a blindfold.)
I promised to focus on the positive, but I’d be derelict if I didn’t mention one stinker: Amazon’s smaller orb speaker, the new $50 Echo Dot 4. About the size of an apple, its sound took two steps back from the Echo Dot 3. The good news is you can get the last generation on sale for as little as $19.
Just remember: Echos are also invasive data collection devices. After haranguing by privacy advocates like me, Amazon just added an option — if you know to go turn it on – to not store recordings of you.
Google Nest Audio
Google’s $100 Nest Audio speaker sounds almost as good as the Echo 4, just missing a bit of the bass. But it’s leagues less muddy than the original air-freshener-shaped Google Home speaker it replaces. With a rounded, vertical shape it looks stylish, though I find its lack of physical buttons for volume and play/pause frustrating – they’re hidden underneath its cloth exterior.
Google’s talking Assistant still feels the most capable. It even lets you choose different default voices, and the robot version of comedian Issa Rae makes me smile every time. I also like that Google’s default privacy setting is to not keep recordings from your home.
Apple HomePod mini
The original HomePod was a rare miss by Apple: overpriced at $350 and not the brightest student in the smart speaker class. But there’s a whole lot Apple got right in this new $100 baby-sized pod. While it just looks like a fancy fruit in a foam wrapper, it packs remarkable sound — nearly as good as speakers twice its size. If anything, it might have just a bit too much bass.
The mini is also smarter than the original HomePod. If you’re listening to a song on your headphones, just tap your iPhone on the HomePod and the music will move to there. Apple is more paranoid about privacy than Amazon or Google, though that means the HomePod mini isn’t as widely capable in the smart home — it still can’t operate things like the most popular doorbells and thermostats. And alas, you can voice control music from Apple Music and select other partners, but still not Spotify.
iPhones are no longer one size fits all
Forget 5G. But as I wrote in my iPhone 12 review, there are other reasons to like this year’s crop of phones from Apple. One is that there are more varieties than ever, including one actually designed for the ergonomics of the human hand – and another targeting photographers.
iPhone 12 mini
Don’t let the cute name throw you. This $700 (and up) iPhone does almost everything the latest iPhone 12 can but squeezes it into a package that’s a hair shorter than an old iPhone 6, 7 or 8. And unlike those older models, you get a much more usable phone, because Apple nipped and tucked the unused areas on the front to fit in 5.4 inches of screen (measured on the diagonal). Even people who don’t think of themselves as having small hands will appreciate how easy this phone is to stuff into a pocket.
Just one warning: The smaller size also means less space for battery. Apple claims the 12 mini can last for 10 hours of streamed video, one hour less than the regular 12. However, a product teardown by iFixit found the mini’s battery measures just 8.57 Wh — 20 percent less than in the regular 12. I’ve seen it eat through half of its battery in hours of occasional filming and sharing video.
iPhone 12 Pro Max
Apple’s supersized iPhone Pro Max, already larger than a “king” sized chocolate bar, got even taller this year. If no amount of iPhone is too much, then you’ll love the $1,100 (and up) 12 Pro Max’s now 6.7-inch screen, measured on the diagonal.
But for many, the Max in this phone’s name actually refers to its camera. Unlike the rest of the 12 and 12 Pro line, this model features a larger sensor to gather more light in dark situations. And its optical zoom that can go a wee bit further to bring your scene closer. I tested the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max side by side in difficult lowlight scenes and could feel how the Max captured the same shot in less exposure time, reducing the chance of blur. And you can spot differences in the final photos – if you look under a microscope. Only picky photographers will care.
Pandemic times have left us with a lot more time to watch TV. The technology in big screens hit a plateau with 4K ultra-HD resolution and HDR (short for high-dynamic range tones). But there are still some good new ideas to improve the overall experience.
Roku’s $130 Streambar is a two-in-one upgrade. First, it fixes the most common problem with most TVs: terrible sound. Today’s flat-screen TVs don’t have space for decent speakers. The Streambar is a compact sound bar, which combines four speakers into one strip to give you a room-filling sound. It can also boost the clarity of speech and level out crazy-loud commercials.
Second, the Streambar also plugs into your TV’s HDMI to turn it into a Roku streaming device, letting you access streaming services and search for movies and shows with your voice. While Roku’s interface, built around apps you install, is more dated than its competitors, it’s simple and just works. The price is right; I just wish Roku wasn’t in the business of tracking what we watch to target ads.
Chromecast with Google TV
With the new $50 Chromecast, Google has taken a fresh stab at organizing the hot mess of watching TV. With streaming apps multiplying like bunnies, how does anyone keep track of which show is where?
The Chromecast with Google TV updates Google’s beloved original streaming device, which you controlled with a phone, by adding a remote control and a whole new interface built around Google’s smarts. To get the most out of this experience, you need to go all in on streaming, including switching from cable to Google’s $65 per month YouTube TV (used by about 3 million people for live channels and DVR in the cloud). After you log in to all your services, you can search for whatever you want to watch — either from live TV or on-demand apps — by using your voice. Google also keeps track of what you watch and makes recommendations right up front, regardless of which service it comes from.
Google hasn’t totally cracked it: The new Chromecast’s search and recommendations aren’t equally smart about all app sources — it too often directed me to YouTube for clips instead of the apps where I had paid for access for shows. It’s also missing streaming services including Apple TV Plus.
See and be seen
VanMoof S3 and X3 e-bikes
I don’t own any Lycra pants. That’s my way of saying I’m not a bike guy. But the pandemic made me rethink getting around town. The $2,000 VanMoof S3 (and the smaller X3) looks like an ordinary bicycle, but is supercharged in and out. A motor kicks in when you pedal to help you get where you need to go — giving you just enough exercise to not have to break a sweat. My favorite part is a button on the handlebar you can press for an extra boost. When you get home, plug it in for a range of 37 to 93 miles (depending on hills).
Strangers stop and comment on its slick looking design, whereas many other e-bikes in this price range give off a dork vibe. It connects to a phone app that you can use to lock and unlock it, log your rides or even track down a stolen bike with its built-in GPS.
GoPro Hero9 Black
The original tiny action camera got some key upgrades in the $400 Hero9 that will appeal for vacation-video heroes and social media stars alike. First, the video quality is stellar: It now has a 23.6 megapixel sensor (about twice any recent iPhone). And while you’re on the move, the Hero9 uses a new kind of software smoothing to make your shots look like you were using a Hollywood Steadicam.
My favorite part: GoPro added a screen to the front of the camera (in addition to the one on the back) to help you frame your selfies. Now you can be both behind the camera and in front of it at the same time. It’s a huge help in framing your TikTok shots. Learning to dance is still on you, though.