2016 is a year unlikely to be remembered as one of the greats. Bowie, Brexit, Trump: whichever side you fall on the last two, no-one was happy about the first. It’s a good thing exciting tech releases have managed to distract us from the bad bits.
First, we saw virtual reality headsets turn from what looked like vapourware to something we can all buy. If not necessarily fit in our lounges.
HDR TV has us once again looking at our own sets like a dog that keeps crapping on the carpet, and a new wave of PC graphics cards makes the idea of building a gaming PC seem more attractive than it has in years. Oh, and of course we can’t forget the stream of killer phones that never seems to dry up.
Before we sit back to see what 2017 tech turns up to make all of this year’s gadgets look like yellowed kids’ toys whose AA batteries have run down, let’s look back at the very best tech of 2016, as picked by our expert reviewers.
The Best Phones of 2016
2016 may be remembered as the year the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 exploded, but put that little (gigantic) gaffe out of your mind and it’s actually been a great year for Samsung. The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge...ahem...edged out all comers with refinements rather than headline-grabbing gimmicks.
A better camera, great battery life and design that packs a large, standard-setting screen into a frame not too large to handle make the S7 Edge easy to recommend. This is a phone Apple needs to learn a few tricks from. It’s water resistant too, making it one of the few phones that’ll fare better if you drop it in the bath rather than on the kitchen floor.
Smaller and less eye-catching than the S7 Edge but with the same camera and software, the S7 is a top buy if you’re after a pocketable phone.
It’s huge for a 5.5-inch phone, but smart extras like a 2x ‘zoom’ camera and pressure-sensitive screen make the iPhone 7 Plus important. Battery life is excellent too.
Honorable mention: Google Pixel
The Best Tablets of 2016
It may look like a plain old iPad Air 2, but the iPad Pro 9.7 certainly isn’t one. Here you get the chops of the 12-inch iPad Pro, shrunk down to a size much easier to handle.
The iPad Pro 9.7 has a screen that can be used with the pressure-sensitive Apple Pencil, turning it into the world’s prettiest graphics tablet. It also has a quad-speaker array, making it the best-sounding 10-inch tablet you’ll find. Two years ago the idea the iPad Air 2 would end up an ‘entry-level’ tablet was unthinkable, but the Pro 9.7 has made it a reality.
Proof that tablet progress has slowed to a crawl, the Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 is back once again in our best-of list. But it’s also proof Samsung aced the design first time around.
It’s that same old dinky tablet we’ve loved for years, but now with a 128GB option. Not new, still great.
The Best Wearables of 2016
The second Apple Watch adds meat to the original’s bones with a feature that makes it useful for a whole new crowd. It now has GPS, turning it from a fashion accessory into an alarmingly good runner’s watch. Our wearables editor Gareth even wore it during a marathon and its battery survived with plenty of juice left in the tank. Impressive.
It’s fully water resistant and the screen is brighter than the first Watch too. The only problem is that as it looks just like the old version, passers-by won’t know you bought the new one. Maybe it’s time to start printing those “Yes, it’s an Apple Watch 2” t-shirts.
As close as you can get to a proper sports watch in a slim package, the Charge 2’s HR sensor, big screen and phone-assisted GPS mode make it more than the average fitness tracker.
The successor to Google Cardboard, this is the low-cost headset that — fingers crossed — will bring VR to the masses. Fabric-wrapped, it looks like something you might pick up in IKEA. In a good way.
Honorable Mention: Samsung Gear Fit 2
The Best TVs of 2016
If you want a TV that’ll let you experience the future of the medium, you can’t do much better than the Panasonic DX902. Not only does it support newer standards like HDR and 4K, it delivers them with the panache to justify the wallet-melting price.
With a Panasonic DX902 you get among the best image quality we’ve ever seen from a TV. Incredible peak brightness makes HDR images pop off the screen in a way cheaper sets just don’t have a hope of replicating. Oh, and it has 3D too if you’re among the five or so people that still care.
OLEDs can’t match LCDs for peak brightness, but the LG OLED E6 is unbeatable if you want a cinema-beating dark room experience in your lounge.
Arch rival of the Panasonic DX 902, the Samsung KS9500 also provides stunning HDR and amazing brightness.
The Best Gaming Hardware of 2016
The gold standard of virtual reality hardware, HTC Vive has shown us what’s possible with VR, and it’s pretty amazing. Sure, one of the best VR experiences to date may be Job Simulator, which sees you performing menial tasks like serving behind the counter of a corner shop. But it makes them about 1000x more fun than they’d be in real life. There are also grand VR vistas to gawk at if you’d prefer those.
You need a good amount of space to get the full Vive experience, but if your lounge is up to it, the rig makes it feel like you’re walking around a ‘real’ environment. Brains well and truly tricked. Star Trek nerds: we’re 10 steps closer to the holodeck future you’ve been dreaming of.
Sony may have won the style war with the first wave of this generation’s consoles, but Microsoft snatched it back in 2016 with the Xbox One S.
At less than half the price of HTC Vive, PlayStation VR is the way most enthusiasts are likely to get their first taste of new-wave virtual reality.
The Best Games of 2016
Trust Blizzard to come up with a game that’s almost impossible to stop playing. Overwatch isn’t the classic MOBA title some seem to identify it as, though. It’s something older, that takes us back to playing Quake on a LAN.
It’s an FPS arena shooter, a new take on something like Team Fortress 2, another Blizzard classic. The benefit of jumping in now rather than in a year is that it doesn’t feel like you’re stumbling into a club with its own cliques and codes. Well, we say that, but we can’t count the number of times we’ve had our backsides handed to us playing online.
Better than we could ever have expected, DOOM is a resurrection of a gaming classic that keeps enough of the old while adding a truckload of new.
Sony’s movie-like PlayStation series Uncharted gets a final act you’d be mad to miss. Fans will be shedding a tear or two by the time the credits roll.
The Best Audio Gear of 2016
When we review a pair of proper studio-grade headphones, it’s a reminder of quite how much more information a great set can dig out of music. The sheer resolution of the Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro is breathtaking.
These are open-back monitor-style headphones, so you’re not going to want them for listening to music on your way to work. However, they’re perfect for chilling out with some music or movies when you get back, or for a home studio. The Beyerdynamic DT1990 Pro also come with two pairs of pads, each with a subtly different sound signature.
The most lounge-friendly route to high-end sound, this soundbar comes complete with Dolby Atmos, a subwoofer and a pair of surround units.
These are the best headphones for zapping the stress of the city, thanks to their active noise cancellation. This new model also has Bluetooth wireless.
The Best Home Entertainment Devices of 2016
The best 4K Blu-ray player money can buy right now, the Panasonic DMP-UB900 is a must-buy for those not happy with simple 4K streams. 4K Blu-rays are still the best way to appreciate a 4K TV. That said, it also features inbuilt Netflix with 4K streaming. This is not a “cutting-edge” dinosaur.
You’ll need a decent setup to fully appreciate what the DMP-UB900 can do, but it’s good at several things. For example, it makes a fantastic CD player, and is a good way to slim down your below-TV rig if you’re still using a separates-style CD deck.
This affordable Alexa-powered smart home digital assistant is so clever we may only be a year off the point it gains sentience and software updates us into oblivion.
The next generation of Sky box adds 4K video, new multi-room chops and a brand new interface: long overdue.
The Best Cameras of 2016
The FujiFilm X-T1 was already one of the best compact system cameras in existence, but the X-T2 sees the series leap ahead of everything else out there. As ever with this family, handling has a lot to do with too. Discrete ISO, shutter speed and exposure dials get you satisfying, direct control over your photos.
Important new features include 4K video, a first for FujiFilm’s CSCs, a higher-resolution 24.3-megapixel sensor and a faster processor. This lets you shoot at up to 14fps, fast enough for all but the most demanding action photographers. It has a new AF system too — the X-T2 may look similar to the X-T1 but FujiFilm has improved virtually everything.
An immensely impressive DSLR for those with deep pockets, and Canon has even got with the times by adding touchscreen control.
A camera with the speed of a top-end full-frame DSLR, but the smaller size that comes with using an APS-C sensor.
The Best Laptops of 2016
The Dell XPS 13 is the portable laptop that has it all. Its killer feature is an InfinityEdge screen. This fills out the surround, leaving only a few millimetres of unused space to each side. As a result, it is tiny for a 13.3-inch laptop. It has the portability of a 12-inch machine.
Despite the size you still get a proper dual-core Intel Core-series CPU. It’s no toy laptop. Thanks to clever power management its longevity scales very well to the task at hand. Give it something easy to do and it’ll last a full day’s work. The Dell XPS 13 is a case of “all the good stuff, none of the gimmicks”.
A gamer’s ultrabook, the Blade Stealth has a moody black shell, customisable rainbow keyboard and can plug into a Core desktop unit to give it desktop-style gaming power.
If you want a Windows Macbook-a-like on a budget, you can’t do much better than the UX305.
The Best Monitors of 2016
This 34-inch curved LCD monitor is one of the few with real wow factor. It’s also a monitor that can skip between roles as a gaming and entertainment/movies screen.
The has very solid color, good contrast, great viewing angles and very snappy response times for an IPS LCD screen. It’s also pretty keenly priced for such a large monitor with some real high-end chops.
A top-quality IPS LCD monitor with an aggressive design that just screams “gaming”. Its picture quality is fab whether you like the gamer style or not, though.
This is one of the cheapest ways to get a G-Sync display. Its response times are fab too, although as it uses a TN panel viewing angles aren’t as good as our other winners.
The Best Graphics Cards of 2016
Our winner this year isn’t the world-beating GTX 1080 but something a few more ordinary people can reach, the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070. It’s number two in this year’s Nvidia GTX line-up, but trashes last year’s tip-top GTX 980 Ti in most games.
It only uses 150W max too, meaning you shouldn’t need to dump your old power supply to fit it in your current system. It’s always tempting to go for the top dog if you can possibly afford it, but unless you’re going for all-4K gaming, the GTX 1070 will see you right.
Performance close to the Nvidia GTX 980 for this price? We’ll have some of that.
This mid-range Nvidia card is perfect if you’re only looking for 1440p or 1080p gaming.