The annual Australian PC Awards give us a wonderful opportunity to consider the year past, and spotlight the things that were very much better than the others.
It’s always fun for us to do this, and we hope you’re inspired to do an upgrade or two as we run through the finalists, the highly commended candidates and winners.
These awards cover all the products released in Australia through 2021, and were judged by members of the Australian editorial team here at TechRadar, along with our friends at sister Future publications APC, PC Gamer, TechLife Australia and PC PowerPlay.
Narrowing down the finalists took a long time, and the many pros and cons were carefully considered. This year in particular, value for money played a larger-than-usual role in determining the winners. Where we feel it was deserved, some almost-made-it products and companies scored a highly commended position if they didn’t win, though not all categories yielded standout gear to occupy the lower steps on the podium.
We extend a huge congratulations to the teams behind the winners, always striving to make good gear, and that pleases us immensely to see and be able to acknowledge.
2021 was a big year for motherboard releases, though mostly on the Intel side, with not one, but two major launches during the year. Things were quieter on the AMD side, with the refreshed X570S chipset and a few B550 latecomers.
Intel’s 500 series motherboards may have been overshadowed by Z690 and 12th-gen CPUs late in the year, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some excellent 500-series boards. Just as noteworthy was the long-awaited inclusion of memory overclocking on B560 boards, many B560 of which surprised us with their step up in quality.
But in the end, Z690 was Intel’s hero. Z690 boards include more storage and cutting-edge connectivity options compared to Z590. Add DDR5 and PCIe 5.0 support and Intel leads the way. Z690 boards took a step up in price, but the high quality Z690 boards blur the line between mainstream options and the neglected HEDT segment.
AMD X570S boards represent the best and last AM4 motherboards. For the most part, they are fully mature, with refined BIOS and up-to-date feature sets. And they’re not done yet, as AMD’s V-cache CPUs are still to come in 2022.
Best Motherboard Maker
MSI consistently produced high quality motherboards during 2021. Refined BIOS’ and a great blend of features and value for money were a hallmark, with quality offerings at every price point.
Best Value Motherboard
- Nzxt N7 B550
- MSI MPG B560i Gaming Edge Wi-Fi
- Asus ROG Strix B560-F Gaming Wi-Fi
- Gigabyte B560M Aorus Elite
- Asrock B560 Steel Legend
- Asus TUF Gaming B560-Plus WIFI
Best Premium Motherboard
- Gigabyte Z690 Aorus Pro
- MSI MEG Z690 Unify
- Asrock Z690 Taichi
- MSI MPG Z590 Gaming Carbon WIFI
- Asus TUF Gaming Z590-Plus WIFI
- Gigabyte Z590 Aorus Master
- Asrock Z590 PG Velocita
2021 saw the release of some fantastic graphics cards. Truly desirable cards like the GeForce RTX 3080 Ti met the needs of gamers with ultra-wide and 4K screens, while more affordable cards like the RTX 3060 and RX 6600 set a new 1080p 60fps baseline. As more and more gamers make use of high refresh rate screens, the need for faster graphics cards was more apparent than ever.
Image scaling technologies such as DLSS and FSR along with ray traced lighting effects went mainstream but, sadly, any discussion around the state of the GPU industry can’t ignore the unprecedented challenges that continue to blight the industry.
The one-two punch of pandemic-related supply chain issues along with surging mining demand meant that fewer cards made their way into the hands of gamers. It’s a sad state of affairs when a supposed mid-range card like the RTX 3060 sold for well over AU$1,000. Saying that 2021 was a lost year for PC gaming isn’t an exaggeration.
2022 is already looking much better as we look towards the launch of next-generation GPUs, not just from Nvidia and AMD, but relative newcomer Intel too.
Best Graphics Card Maker
Gigabyte’s graphics cards are typically very good, but they also tend to offer strong value for money, and that’s something that’s severely lacking in today's graphics card market.
Best Value Graphics Card
Best Premium Graphics Card
Aorus GeForce RTX 3080 Ti Xtreme
The Aorus RTX 3080 Ti Xtreme is a stunning flagship graphics card. Its four-slot design, LCD display, six video outputs and factory overclock make this the Lamborghini of 3080 Ti’s.
Intel dominated the CPU market in 2021. The reception of high-end 11th Gen Rocket Lake CPUs was lukewarm, but 11th-generation mid and entry level options were some of our favourite CPUs. They dominated the lower end of the market in the absence of competing options from AMD.
AMD was quiet, but what it did release, notably the 5000G series APUs, were well received. The Zen 3 cores performed well at their price points, but their trump card was very strong integrated graphics performance. In a year with no truly affordable GPU options, the ability to game without dropping huge money on a discrete card was very welcome.
But the best CPUs of the year came late in 2021. A resurgent Intel fired its best shots in years with its 12th Gen Alder Lake CPUs. Their hybrid architecture and multi-threading prowess saw them erase the lead AMD had built, while offering class leading single threaded and excellent gaming performance. The accompanying feature-rich Z690 platform with its DDR5 and PCI Express 5.0 support leaves Intel well placed for the battles ahead.
Best Value CPU
Best Premium CPU
2021 saw PCIe 4.0 NVMe SSDs (with whopping 6,600 MB/s write speeds) properly hit the market while PCIe 5.0 support started appearing on motherboards. Still, it was normal to see mismatched PCIe version 3, 4 and 5 components in many systems. Meanwhile, the mechanical drive world continued to wait for next-gen, huge-capacity, heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) drives to appear.
The external storage market witnessed SanDisk and Samsung offering increasingly speedy USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 drives with 1,000+ MB/s read/write speeds. This opened the door to new applications, like the rapid transfer of massive game files on consoles and PCs in addition to boosting professional media workflows.
Synology’s NAS featured heavily in 2021 but not always for the right reasons. On the one hand its DSM 7 operating system finally left beta, bringing some welcome enhancements. However, it didn’t launch any new SOHO NAS boxes, which left the door open for QNAP to lead the hardware charge. Meanwhile, new brand Terramaster impressed us with a budget offering. Synology also went rogue and launched its own (expensive) hard drives and said that only these and (a limited number of) certified third-party drives would work in their future NAS boxes.
Best Internal Storage Maker
Best External Storage Maker
Always well designed and engineered portable drives across a huge range of capacities and a great balance of performance and reliability.
Best SOHO or Home NAS
The QNAP TVS-675 is an excellent choice for businesses that need HDMI output and hardware transcoding, as well as fast network performance and flexible upgrade options.
2021 was another great year for laptop innovation and prebuilt desktop systems. In addition to Intel and AMD offering integrated GPUs that were powerful enough for light gaming, Nvidia’s 30 series GPUs significantly boosted laptop graphics capabilities and even allowed laptop makers to fully customise power-draw and overall performance.
Apple wasn’t content to rest on the success of its M1 processor launch, releasing the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors on an updated MacBook Pro range.
And, if that wasn’t enough, the price of high-end screen technologies has come down to the point where you’ll regularly see OLED, professional level HDR and faster refresh rates on laptops that aren’t in the ultra premium price ranges.
Best Value Laptop or 2-in-1
Microsoft Surface Laptop Go
The Surface Laptop Go manages to pack a proper i5 processor, keyboard, SSD, HD webcam and almost Full HD 12.45-inch screen into a compact and affordable clamshell.
Best Premium Laptop or 2-in-1
Apple MacBook Pro 14 & 16-inch
The most powerful and efficient laptop processors combined with impressive Unified Memory allocations, dedicated AI processing, 1,000nit 120Hz mini-LED screens and all the best bits of previous MacBook Pros.
- LG Gram 17 (2021)
- Asus ZenBook Duo 14
- HP Spectre x360 14
- MSI Creator Z16
- Dell XPS 15
- Lenovo Yoga Slim 7 Pro 14-inch (AMD)
- Razer Blade 14
- Microsoft Surface Laptop 4
- Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Carbon
Best Gaming Laptop
Asus ROG Zephyrus G15 (GA503)
This unit offers an AMD Ryzen 9 processor with a full range of competitively priced GPU pairings, a 15.6-inch QHD, 165Hz, DCI-P3 screen and an almost all-day battery life.
Best Desktop PC Maker
Thermaltake has a solid local Australian team and has branched out into the pre-built PC space with a range of reliable and reasonably priced gaming towers featuring well-picked and balanced components, showcasing the company's own components well.
Peripherals & Components
Best Memory Maker
The tail end of 2021 saw DDR5 make its debut. Sadly, component shortages left DDR5 as little more than a footnote in the market for all but the ultra-enthusiasts. At least you could buy DDR4 supporting Z690 boards, which probably saved Intel from a rather embarrassing launch. DDR5 availability is improving, though it will remain low in volume compared to DDR4 in 2022.
2021 saw DDR4 memory reach its final state of maturity. The pricing of 2x8GB DDR4-3200 memory kits dropped to their lowest-ever levels, and were mostly oblivious to semiconductor supply shortages. So much so that slower kits are hardly any cheaper. Even DDR4-3600 doesn’t carry much of a price premium and 3600MHz low latency memory is regarded as an excellent sweet spot for all Intel and AMD DDR4 systems.
We also saw the release of some very fast kits up to and even over DDR4-5000. These kits are aimed at overclockers, and their huge expense and tiny, if not non-existent performance gains makes them irrelevant for most users. Nevertheless, such speeds are an impressive illustration of just how far DDR4 progressed in the years since its launch in 2014.
G.Skill offers memory kits to suit all budgets and use cases. From the excellent-value Ripjaws to best-in-class Trident Z overclocking memory, there's always a G.Skill memory kit on our shortlists.
Best Cooling Product
Cooling is one of those things that doesn’t tend to change much year over year. The same fundamental principles apply. Depending on what your case will accommodate and the TDP of your CPU, you should generally try to buy the best cooling you can, within reason.
Some trends did emerge. All manufacturers began to sell ultra-luxurious and very expensive coolers, complete with head-mounted customisable screens. They look fantastic, but they cost a lot and some don’t cool any better than units costing half the price.
Air cooling remained perfectly viable. A high quality air cooler will last you as long as it remains compatible and there’s no reason that a good 2021 air cooler won’t last you for many years to come.
2021 did introduce the brand-new Intel LGA 1700 socket, which meant that users with older coolers needed to obtain an updated mount. There were also concerns that the base plates of some coolers weren’t adequate to cover the larger heat spreader and elongated die of 12th-gen CPUs. Such concerns are mostly unfounded though.
TT ToughLiquid Ultra 360 AIO
The Thermaltake ToughLiquid Ultra 360 AIO is a luxurious cooler with a beautiful LCD display, but the real stars of the show are the three Toughfans that provide excellent airflow while maintaining low noise levels.
- Cooler Master Air MA624
- Asus ROG Ryujin II 360
- MSI CoreLiquid K240
- Corsair H170i Elite Capellix
- be quiet! Shadow Rock Slim 2
- Zalman CNPS10x Performa Black
- DeepCool AK620
For the top echelons of gaming professionals, 2021 was the year when 360Hz displays really became commonplace and upped the ante on those hair-trigger response rates.
For the rest of us, though, 2021 was a year where you started to see WQHD and 4K monitors offering HDR colours and 100+Hz refresh rates for prices that make it hard not to want to upgrade.
We also had an uptick in TV-monitor hybrid displays thanks to the next-gen consoles and ongoing lockdowns. These impressive large-format monitors offered HDR colours and fast refresh rates that really pushed immersion in PC gaming.
MSI Optix MPG321UR-QD
A 32-inch gaming monitor that packs in every new feature and tech imaginable, including 4K resolution, a quantum dot screen, HDMI 2.1, a 144Hz refresh rate, 1ms response rate, VESA HDR 600 and G-Sync compatibility, make this larger format gaming display the standout 2021 option.
- Samsung Odyssey G7
- Philips Brilliance 329P1H
- BenQ EW3880R ultrawide monitor
- Asus ProArt Display 14
- Aorus FI32U
- Acer Predator X25
- Aorus FV43U
- Asus ROG Swift PG32UQX
- AOC U34G3X
- BenQ Zowie XL-K
- Dell 4K S3221QS
- Samsung Odyssey G9
- MSI MPG Artymis 343CQR
Keyboards continue to be not only a highly competitive space, but also one that is continuously evolving. Mechanical switches are most definitely here to stay, but as enthusiasts get more and more knowledgeable about choosing the right switch, we’re seeing more and more keyboard companies come to the fray.
In 2021 many more of the niche keyboard makers came to our attention, while many traditional leaders in the space have struggled to keep their products fresh and relevant. There’s not much more that can be added to a traditional keyboard, so seeing how the likes of Logitech and Asus have made efforts to stand apart has led to a re-evaluation of the market. Some manufacturers, like the once-dominant Corsair, now finds itself with some considerable catching up to do.
One of the best wireless keyboards, the 3098B is a typist’s dream and comes packed with features such as hot-swappable switches, N-key rollover, extra keycaps that let you customise your look and five different ways to connect.
- HyperX Alloy Origins 60 Percent
- Asus ROG Falchion 65 percent
- Corsair K65 Mini Keyboard
- Roccat Magma
- SteelSeries Apex 3 TKL
- Razer Huntsman V2
- Corsair K70 RGB TKL
- Asus ROG Strix Scope RX
Another hotly contested area of hardware – and one where the innovations can really make or break a product – is the humble mouse. Mechanical switches and RGB lighting are now firmly embedded in the space, so what does it take for a mouse maker to stand out from the pack?
It’s a matter of degrees when it comes to mice, complicated by it being an intensely personal choice – all the new bells and whistles simply don’t count if a mouse feels bad under your hand, or its ‘click’ doesn’t feel right.
As always, it’s the gaming space that truly pushes mouse hardware, but a good gaming mouse is, these days, supremely versatile, able to match users click for click, whether gaming or working – and, these days, often both!
Razer Basilisk V3
Razer's Basilisk V3 further hones Razer’s proven design, with a new scroll wheel design that can either scroll infinitely or in ratcheted increments, and can intelligently detect whether to scroll infinitely or in increments.
- HP Omen Vector Wireless Mouse
- Steelseries Rival 5
- Razer Viper 8K
- Logitech G Pro X Superlight
- Steelseries Aerox 3 wireless
- Cooler Master MM720
- MSI Clutch GM41 Lightweight Wireless
- Thermaltake Argent M5 RGB
Best Gaming Headset
How we listen to games and media on our PCs is another highly personal space, and personalising how we listen has been a key theme of headphone development over the last few years. Positional audio may not matter much to non-gamers, but it becomes essential if you want to play competitively. Similarly, while RGB lighting on a device most of don’t even look at while we’re using it may seem excessive, there’s no mistaking how striking a good lighting implementation can look.
But when it comes down to it, audio quality and comfort are the two most important aspects of any pair of cans, especially if you consume a lot of media on your PC – we certainly do these days. So, again, manufacturers are being forced to continually innovate headphone feature sets in a very competitive market, which means consumers remain the winners.
Creative SXFI Air Gamer
The Creative XFI Air Gamer headset adds two additional mics and carries over the unique microSD card slot from the original, which lets it play music without any connection whatsoever. It also has a new Super X-Fi Battle Mode that gives you precise positional audio in-game.
- SteelSeries Arctis 7P/7X
- Corsair HS75 XB Wireless
- Corsair HS80 RGB Wireless
- Turtle Beach Stealth 600 Gen 2
- Epos H3 Hybrid
- Razer Kraken V3 X
- Asus ROG Delta S
Best PC Case
The trend towards high-airflow mesh designs intensified, with most of the interesting and top-selling cases now featuring a full-front mesh and usually three 120mm or 140mm fans. It also seemed that ATX case makers increasingly recognised the need to accommodate 360mm radiator AIOs.
There was shrinkage too, with many smaller m-ATX and m-ITX cases appearing. Moreover, an apparent increase in the number of compatible compact motherboards on the market indicates small but well ventilated, yet somehow not cramped, is the holy grail – one which the Lian Li PC-O11 Air Mini managed with aplomb.
Some drama played out through the opening months of 2021, with some owners of Nzxt H1 cases reporting that they suddenly caught fire. It turned out that screw holes in the circuit board could allow direct contact between the metal screw and the board’s traces – which led to immediate shorting and combustion for some unfortunate owners. People’s champion Steve from Gamer’s Nexus took up the cause and publicly shamed Nzxt into issuing a recall and proper fix.
Lian Li PC O11 Air Mini
With this many features, handsome styling and lots of value for money, the Lian Li PC-O11 Air Mini is a stand-out case in a year of tough competition.
- Corsair Airflow 7000D
- MSI Sekira 100R
- Lian Li Q58
- Cooler Master NR200P Max
- Antec P82 Silent
- Fractal Design Meshify 2 Compact
2021 was a good year for routers in that not only did the technology move incrementally forward, but there was a Wi-Fi 6 option to suit everyone. At the very top end, Asus produced another mega-mesh, two-node-with-backhaul-channel setup that outperformed the market, but what was perhaps most notable about it was the dramatically cheaper launch price than its predecessors.
We were also pleased to see a return to over-the-top, spaceship-like flagships, with TP-Link’s GX90 gaming router leading the charge – a refreshing sight after so many wallet-friendly, boring boxes. However, we still greeted new budget entries from Mercusys and Huawei which offered some screaming performance at very low prices. The year also welcomed D-Link back to the ‘good product maker’ fold with its crowd-pleasing EXO DIR-X3260 router that finally offered decent features and performance at a decent price.
There were many notable new takes on the technology with potentially useful Wi-Fi 6 PCIe cards and USB sticks boosting the connectivity of older computers. While most mesh systems were meh, we quite liked TP-Link’s Deco Voice, which included built-in Alexa microphone and speakers. It felt very much like a version 1.0 model but the potential was there.
Asus Zen WifI XD6
Asus continues to refine its Zen Wi-Fi ‘megamesh’ routers (two nodes with a dedicated backhaul channel) and, with the XD6, produced the fastest overall router we’d ever tested.
- DrayTek VigorAP 1060C
- D-Link DIR-X3260 AX3200
- TP Link Deco X20 DSL
- Mercusys MR70X
- DrayTek Vigor2927ac
- D-Link Covr-X1873 AX1800
- Netgear Nighthawk XR1000
- TP Link Deco X90
- Tenda MW3 AC1200
- Asus ROG Rapture GT-AX11000
- Netgear Nighthawk MR5200
- QNAP QMiro-201W
There are many things we look for when we choose where to spend some money – and 2021 certainly proved to be a trying time for the nation’s shops. Stock shortages and endless waiting lists for many items, including (and most notoriously) graphics cards, meant they needed to do something special. We very quickly saw many resellers set up excellent and often daily updating of the stock situation, and by all accounts service remained friendly and helpful.
Much remained beyond their control, including the terrifyingly high prices of graphics cards, and we were pleased to see that most shops were in line with each other, indicating the margins were slim for the front line of the supply chain.
Not only does Mwave have a wide range of custom-built Respawn and OEM systems, it also has a stunningly wide variety of componentry available. Plus, with mVIP membership and now flat-rate nationwide shipping, for frequent purchasers of hardware Mwave is hard to beat.
2021 was the year that Facebook had so many front page scandals, it had to change its name. It was also the year many of us had to Google the word 'fungible' and then follow up with why on earth non-fungibility was so expensive. It was the year of the metaverse and it was the year of sold-out tech equipment thanks to an ongoing global chip shortage. It was the year Facebook and Google threatened to drop the Australian market rather than pay for local news content and it was also the year one of our own publications, APC, had its moment of excellence, releasing its 500th issue of the magazine.
Despite all the hurdles of a seemingly endless pandemic and the other complications thrown at it throughout the year, the PC space still managed to have a cracker of a year. Apple designed a battery-powered laptop CPU that was more powerful than any other consumer laptop processor put out by Intel or AMD. Windows soft-launched a new OS that wasn’t a complete flop and GPUs and monitors really started working together to deliver HDR games and media.
For the person, product or technology that advanced the PC more than any other in 2021.
Apple M1 Pro / Max (2021)
Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max processors were the most powerful laptop chips in 2021, beating many desktop processors while using only a fraction of the power.
When we visited MSI at the 2019 Computex show, our local rep told us that the company was about to embark on a big expansion into many new areas – but do it well, with only quality products.
And 2021 was the year that it bore fruit... in spectacular fashion. MSI delivered on its promise and far exceeded our expectations, proving itself as a true giant of the PC scene and a name to be trusted to produce well designed, engineered and priced products across almost every part of the PC landscape.
Successfully entering extremely competitive areas like monitors and SSDs is no small feat – the R&D and engineering challenges mean these aren’t markets you can half-heartedly throw gear into and see what sticks. MSI promised to aim high – and it did. The cases are beautifully designed and impeccably engineered, its monitors are without exception innovative and built around the very latest technologies. MSI hit the SSD market hard, with the Spatium range spanning budget to premium and featuring nine products now. And MSI power supplies now make it possible to build an almost entirely MSI-only PC.
Meanwhile MSI kept kicking goals with its laptops – the gaming models routinely delivering class-leading performance – while the peripherals and accessories range grows and grows, and it’s all excellent gear. MSI motherboards routinely score at the top of our testing, and are particularly impressive in the budget category, offering boards that, by rights, should be priced as premium but are usually blessedly affordable.
It’s been a thrill to watch MSI expand its range so dramatically in such a short period of time, tackling some of the most difficult-to-get-right areas, and coming through with products that are a statement of intent that excites us for the years ahead.
The company that impressed us the most, overall, in 2021.
MSI had a really strong year, branching out into new monitor and SSD lines without losing focus on its core gaming range.