The best gadgets of 2019
Bigger, lighter ultraportable laptops
Good lord, did laptops get a facelift this year. After all the progress that notebooks as a category made last year, I wasn’t expecting to see much more improvement in 2019. I was wrong. This year, Dell launched a new XPS 13 2-in-1, which my colleague Devindra called the “perfect ultraportable,” and HP released the Elite Dragonfly, which the company markets as “lighter than air.”
No device is actually lighter than air, but this year, mainstream laptops certainly got a whole lot lighter and thinner than before while growing more powerful, without sacrificing battery life. That’s to be expected, after years of incremental improvements, but we also have to give Intel a little credit. Its Project Athena program rolled out this year, spurring the development of more compact, lightweight ultraportables that last all day. Shout out also to the Galaxy Book Flex and Ion, which launched late in the year and proved that Samsung can make gorgeous, super sleek notebooks. And even though the Snapdragon-powered Galaxy Book S didn’t actually arrive in time to make this year’s list, my hands-on with it left me impressed by its lightweight, attractive exterior.
Aided by potent processors like NVIDIA’s Studio products, laptop makers also delivered powerhouse notebooks targeted at creators who need the beef for editing multiple 4K video streams but don’t want gaudy or chunky gaming machines. Acer and ASUS both made devices for these purposes, with the ConceptD and ProArt StudioBook sub-brands respectively. These proved that laptops could pack plenty of muscle without weighing a ton.
But 2019 also saw the arrival of the LG Gram 17 — a surprisingly sleek machine for having a 17-inch screen — and the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. Apple also released a new 16-inch MacBook Pro, delighting power users and fans of usable keyboards. While these larger laptops still have their flaws, the fact that they’re no longer chunky slabs of metal and plastic is a promising sign of bigger and better to come in 2020 and beyond.
iPhone 11 Pro
Bureau Chief, UK
It’s hard for any smartphone to break out in 2019. Especially in a year where the industry was obsessed with folding gimmicks and a 5G network not ready for prime time. Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro launched with a brighter screen, was predictably faster and has better — and more — cameras. It’s costlier, sure. In fact, it’s Apple’s most expensive phone ever. But it also tackles one of the perennial issues with nearly all smartphones: mediocre battery life.
The 11 Pro Max is a barely noticeable 0.02 inches thicker than the iPhone XS Max, but with that extra space and a new L-shaped battery cell, the latest 11 Pro Max adds roughly four more hours of use compared to its predecessor. My iPhone 11 Pro Max consistently clocks almost two days on a single charge. It’s better than any smartphone I’ve owned in the last few years.
And then there are the cameras. After leading the smartphone camera revolution, a decade ago, Apple has recently lagged behind the competition. With the iPhone 11 Pro, it’s caught up. In fact, the company has arguably reclaimed the top spot. From Deep Fusion, which adds improved textures and detail, to the ultra-wide-angle cameras for squeezing in crowds, landscapes and more, to the improved night shooting mode, the iPhone 11 Pro is on equal photography footing with the Pixel 4 or the Galaxy Note 10.
There are other highlights, too. The 11 Pro phones come with a high-speed USB-C charger (and a USB-C to Lightning cable), making charging considerably faster. It also means I can connect my iPhone to my year-old MacBook Pro’s USB-C ports without a dongle. Instead of having to plug it in overnight, I can charge the iPhone 11 Pro Max to 50 percent in just thirty minutes. Better battery life isn’t the sexiest feature, but it’s never been more appreciated.
Powerful processors and GPUs
The PC market is no longer moribund, thanks in large part to devices that are more interesting and powerful. That’s certainly true in the gaming and content creation markets, and for that, we can largely thank AMD and NVIDIA. At the same time, we’ve never had so many lightweight but powerful laptops, and we give Intel credit there.
The processor of the year for gaming and content creation is AMD’s $750, 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X. Intel still has the edge in gaming with its Core i9 9900K, sure, and that model is also cheaper at $500. But the Ryzen 9 3950X is really close, and once you switch over to content creation tasks, those eight extra cores let it destroy the 9900K.
Best of all, AMD’s new Ryzen chips have forced Intel to drop prices, making powerful PCs cheaper across the board. For instance, Intel’s 18-core 9980XE launched in 2017 cost a cool $2,000, but its successor, the 18-core 10980XE costs just half of that. That’s because Intel had to react to AMD’s Threadripper 3970X, which has 32 cores and costs $1,999.
Last year, we called out NVIDIA’s RTX 2080 Ti as one of the worst products of 2018, thanks to its high price and abysmal ray-tracing support. To its credit, though, NVIDIA has introduced new features that make its RTX lineup more desirable, particularly the RTX Studio drivers. Those put NVIDIA’s ray tracing to work, speeding up 3D apps like Blender, and making video and photo editing quicker and more stable, too. On top of that, games like Metro Exodus and Control are finally making better use of ray tracing, and we can expect more of the same in 2020.
Intel is losing in the high-end CPU market, but it’s still thumping AMD when it comes to laptops. Devices like Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1 show that Intel has crammed a ton of power into low-energy, long-lasting devices, with big improvements in on-board graphics. Anyone getting a PC with a 10th-gen Intel CPU will see much better performance than last year’s machines, and we’ll have lots of great notebooks to look forward to next year.
Sonos and IKEA Symfonisk Table Lamp
We’ll admit: Sonos and IKEA’s Symfonisk table lamp looks goofy. But get past its unusual appearance and you’ll find one of the most versatile gadgets released this year.
As an affordable entry into the Sonos ecosystem, the Symfonisk lamp has almost everything you could want. Setup via the Sonos app is easy whether you’re adding to an existing sound system or starting from scratch. What’s more, the lamp sounds almost as good as the more expensive Sonos One, which is one of the best speakers you can buy. Best of all, even though it’s not a premium product, Sonos didn’t skimp on features like AirPlay 2 compatibility.
What you won’t find are any microphones onboard for Google Assistant and Alexa support. Some people might prefer this; it’s one less device listening to their conversations. For everyone else, it’s easy enough to integrate the lamp with your existing smart speakers for voice control.
But the Symfonisk lamp isn’t just a good speaker, it’s also a great lamp. Although it uses smaller and less common E12 light bulbs, it still adds a lot of warmth to a room. Its versatility as both a speaker and a lamp means you’ll consistently get a lot of use out of it. Add to that its low price and the Symfonisk lamp is one of those rare collaborations that actually delivers the best of both partner companies.
8BitDo SN30 Pro+
The Nintendo Switch is a fantastic system, with great games and unrivaled portability for a console. But its standard controller setup is far from ideal.
Joy-Cons are terrific if you’re hanging out with a friend and want to fire up your Switch for co-op action. But when you have to use both Joy-Cons for a single-player game, particularly one that requires dual thumbsticks, they’re not the most practical. In fact, the right thumbstick is positioned too awkwardly to comfortably use for very long. But thankfully, there are plenty of other options out there.
The Switch Pro Controller is a solid alternative, but I much prefer 8BitDo’s excellent SN30 Pro+. It feels far more natural to hold than Nintendo’s controllers, and I have no problem using it for hours at a time. I love the SNES/DualShock 4 mashup approach to the design, too. I haven’t encountered any significant latency issues, and its compatibility with Android, Raspberry Pi, PC and macOS is a nice bonus. The customization options on the 8BitDo Ultimate Software are also terrific and a boon for accessibility.
The SN30 Pro+ makes the Switch even more of a joy, especially for playing Overwatch or Fortnite on the go. I only wish 8BitDo included a headphone jack for more flexibility, especially for when I dock my Switch and I’m across the room from my TV. Still, the controller is an almost-perfect solution for my Switch setup.
Mixer has come a long way in a short time. As recently as last year, we were describing Mixer as “Microsoft’s Twitch rival” in headlines, worried that people wouldn’t recognize the service by name. Today, Mixer has 30 million monthly active users, exclusivity deals with a roster of high-profile streamers and plenty of practice in the tech-news spotlight. Mixer has Ninja. What more needs to be said?
Not only did Mixer steal Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the world’s most popular streamer, from Twitch in August, but a handful of other popular names have followed suit. This year, Mixer has picked up Cory “King Gothalion” Michael, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek and Soleil “Ewok” Wheeler, and Twitch has only recently responded with exclusive acquisitions of its own. Of course, the follower counts of Twitch’s most recent members — Benjamin “DrLupo” Lupo, Saqib “LIRIK” Zahid and Timothy “TimTheTatman” Betar — reach 10.73 million combined, while Ninja alone had 14.7 million followers when he ditched Twitch. Ninja racked up more than 1 million followers in his first week on Mixer.
At one point, it seemed as if Twitch was the undisputed, permanent champion of video game streaming, but a handful of moderation missteps and the loss of key personalities this year have left the company vulnerable. Of course, all of the main live-streaming platforms have the backing of massive tech companies — Twitch is owned by Amazon, Mixer is the property of Microsoft and (surprise!) YouTube Gaming is run by Google — so they have significant runway to try new things, fail and try again. But in 2019, Mixer got a lot of steps right and laid the foundation for the service’s continued growth in 2020.