TechRadar's Year in Review: missing phones, broken Windows and cool wires

white earpods on black background
(Image credit: Apple)

A note from our Global Editor in Chief, Gareth Beavis:

Firstly, I'd like to say Happy New Year to all of our readers - without you, this site would be nothing but a weird vanity project that sees a few writers and editors telling each other which tech to buy. But thankfully we have millions of other people look at this site each month, and not a day goes by when I'm not incredibly grateful for that opportunity to help you buy the tech you love.

While we've got a lot to look forward to in 2022 - both in terms of TechRadar and the wider world of tech that we cover - 2021 deserves to be mulled over one final time, before putting it in a drawer in your mind and never examining it again.

In a year that began with Delta and ended with Omicron, it's impossible to ignore the impact of the pandemic on the world of tech over the past 12 months – so much was delayed, or outright cancelled, as a result of the disruption the virus wrought on global manufacturing and supply chains. However, there were still plenty of product launches to get excited about, and flashes of innovation that got us talking.

For our round-up of 2021, TechRadar's editors and writers have been looking back on the year that was in their particular field – and looking forward to what's coming down the line in 2022.


The big names get some serious competition, and foldables get good

Composite image showing the The iPhone 13, Google Pixel 6 and Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus

Left to right: The iPhone 13, Google Pixel 6 and Samsung Galaxy S21 Plus are among our best phones of 2021 (Image credit: Apple / Google / Samsung)

James Peckham, Phones Editor, writes…

2021 has been an odd year for smartphones, with a multitude of delayed launches, and some notably 'missing' handsets that we thought we'd see – for example, there was no Samsung Galaxy Note 21 or OnePlus 9T. Much of this is due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic on global manufacturing and supply chains.

We have, though, still seen a whole host of fantastic handsets launched in the past 12 months, from the Samsung Galaxy S21 and iPhone 13 series to Google's Pixel 6 duo, while brands such as Xiaomi, Oppo, Realme and OnePlus really established themselves as top-tier players with impressive releases.

2021 was also the year that foldables came of age. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 was a highlight for those looking for a folding smartphone that really works, although it's still eye-wateringly expensive. Elsewhere, 5G increasingly became the mainstream standard for connectivity, with most new smartphones supporting it and network coverage expanding around the world. The smartphone world also lost one of its big names, with LG announcing that it would cease making new handsets; sadly this means the previously revealed LG Rollable won't be seeing the light of day.

2021 hasn't been a game-changing year for mobile technology, but the field has seen a steady stream of improvements and innovations that have kept things interesting both for those who follow the industry and for those of us looking to upgrade our phones. You can catch up with all the biggest developments in our round-up of the year in phones.


Chip shortage fails to stem a tide of innovation

composite image show logos for Apple M1 Max, Intel Arc Alchemist and Windows 11

Advances in chip technology are set to usher in a new era of super-powered computing (Image credit: Future)

Jessica Weatherbed, Computing Writer, writes…

2021 has been a rollercoaster ride for the computing market, with the ongoing chip shortages making graphics cards harder to find than a needle in a haystack for PC gamers and desktop building enthusiasts. Meanwhile, Apple enjoyed seeing customers scrambling to get their hands on its latest M1 Pro and M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro laptops.

It wasn't all doom and gloom for Windows users, with the Windows 11 operating system releasing on October 5. It received a mixed but generally positive response, although predictably Microsoft has had to release a stream of bug fixes and updates to address issues and add improvements in response to user feedback. Microsoft also refreshed its Surface line, with new devices including the innovative Surface Laptop Studio.

As we move into 2022 we're looking forward to seeing a new generation of super-powered hardware, with Apple continuing to improve its own silicon, Intel announcing plans to enter the desktop graphics card market with the Arc Alchemist (creating the possibility of an all-Intel build), and super-speedy DDR5 memory modules increasingly replacing DDR4.


Nikon delivers a retro treat and AI gets creepy-clever

Image of the Nikon Z fc on a gray background

The Nikon Z fc was a glorious blast from the past in a year that saw the appearance of some seriously futuristic photography tech (Image credit: Nikon)

Mark Wilson, Cameras Editor, writes…

It's been another massive year of innovation for photography, if a more subdued one for new cameras. The chip shortage has put the brakes on launches, with some new models (like the Panasonic GH6) pushed back to 2022 and others (see the Sony ZV-E10) pulled out of production just months after they arrived. But it's still been a big year for new professional bodies: the Sony A1, Canon EOS R3 and Nikon Z9 are incredible full-frame powerhouses that have hammered the final nail in the coffin of DSLRs.

Back in the realm of cameras that most of us can actually afford, the highlight was arguably the Nikon Z fc. A mirrorless reincarnation of the 30-year-old Nikon FM2, it's a beautiful camera that delivers something that's all too easy to forget in a world of stacked sensors and 30fps burst modes: fun. Nikon still needs to make more lenses for the Z fc, but for casual photography it's a great alternative to Fujifilm's retro rivals. For those with a slightly bigger budget, Sony also delivered the excellent A7 IV, which is the best all-rounder for stills and video that you can buy right now.

2021 also saw AI and machine learning ripping up the photography rulebook, with powerful editing software like Photoshop and Luminar AI challenging the definition of what a photo actually is – is replacing your scene's real-world sky with a simulated one still 'drawing with light'? The debates have raged, and not just about editing – back in February, a new tool called Deep Nostalgia went viral thanks to its slightly unsettling ability to animate your old family photos.

So what about the coming year? We've polished our crystal ball, and made our predictions for the big camera and photography trends of 2022.


Wireless buds get some serious sonic upgrades

Image of woman wearing sunglasses and wired earbuds looking at her phone

It’s official: cool girls only wear wired earbuds – for now, at least (Image credit: / GaudiLab)

Olivia Tambini, Audio and Music Editor, writes…

It's been an exciting year in audio, with a rash of new products, innovations in wireless sound technology, some weird trends, and the continuing comeback of vinyl in a world largely dominated by Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming platforms. One of 2021's big launches was the Apple AirPods 3, a new and improved version of its most popular true wireless earbuds. Coming with support for Spatial Audio – a technology Apple has gone big on for its Apple Music streaming service and Apple TV Plus – they were received enthusiastically by those who felt the 2019 AirPods were overdue an upgrade.

They weren't the best earbuds we tested this year, though. From the all-round excellence of the Sony WF-1000XM4 to the supremely customizable NuraTrue, 2021 was an exciting year for wireless in-ears.

Oddly though, wireless headphones are being spurned by youthful fashionistas of today. As evidenced by Instagram account Wired It Girls, wired earbuds appear to be the preference of the young and hip crowd. Will this trend continue into 2022? Probably not – as with the renewed interest in Y2K microtrends like trucker hats and velour tracksuits, we suspect this particular fad will be a flash in the pan. So no, we won't be throwing our wireless headphones in the trash just yet.


Mini-LED is so 2021 – the future is QD-OLED

Image of the Samsung QN900A TV

The Samsung QN900A is one of the best TVs we saw in 2021, packing both an 8K resolution and mini-LED display tech (Image credit: Samsung)

Nick Pino, Senior Editor, Home Entertainment, writes…

We got acquainted with mini-LED TVs in 2020, but 2021 was the year that we finally welcomed the brighter, higher-contrast screens into our homes, from Samsung's Neo QLED lineup to LG's QNED models.

While most of the big innovation was in higher-end sets, budget buyers in the US were treated to a sampling of the technology in the TCL 6-Series QLED with Mini-LED for a very reasonable price. We're hoping the technology continues to make its way down the price range in 2022 as we look forward to the arrival of an even newer panel technology: QD-OLED.

QD-OLED screens combine the refined black levels and deep contrast of OLED with the color saturation of Quantum Dots. By boosting the amount of light an OLED pixel can put out and further enhancing the colors through a Quantum Dot filter, these screens are being talked about as the next big evolution in displays.

Here's hoping we'll get our first look at TVs featuring the tech at CES 2022; in the meantime check out our pick of 2021's best TVs across a range of price points.


Would you pay a monthly fee to see your health data?

Amazon Halo View

Amazon's Halo View is one of the cheaper fitness trackers, but you'll need to pay a subscription to get the most from it (Image credit: Amazon)

Cat Ellis, Fitness and Wellbeing Editor, writes…

The above was the big question posed in 2021 when Amazon unveiled its new Halo View fitness tracker. It looks like a Fitbit and captures a similar array of data, but unless you're an Amazon Halo Fitness subscriber you'll only be able to see the basics. You get a 12-month trial when you buy the tracker, but once that expires you'll have to pay an additional $3.99 (about £3 / AU$5) per month to see stats like your sleep score and workout insights.

It's the same story with Oura, which released its third-generation smart ring in late 2021 alongside a new subscription service that unlocks extra health insights, audio content (such as meditation sessions) and educational content. You get six months free with the third-gen Oura smart ring, after which it costs $5.99 (about £5 / AU$8) per month, which is pretty steep considering the ring itself is £299 (about £220 / AU$420).

Fitbit won't charge you to check your workout stats, but it's also started expanding its array of member-only goodies. These include the new Daily Readiness score, which tells you how much energy you have in the tank for the day ahead based on your sleep and activity patterns, and the Sleep Animals feature, which analyzes your nightly habits and gives custom creature-themed recommendations. Fitbit Premium membership is $9.99 / £7.99 / AU$15.49 per month, though all new Fitbits come with a free six-month trial so that you can decide whether it's right for you.

In 2022 we may well start to see fitness trackers that are super-cheap to buy, but require a phone-style monthly contract in order for you to make the most of them – we'll keep our finger on the pulse and let you know.

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