2021 gadget highlights: From foldable phones to noise-cancelling earphones

Apple's new and highly anticipated MacBook Pros unveiled this year were widely lauded. PHOTO: APPLE

SINGAPORE - From foldable phones to laptops with desktop-grade graphic cards, The Straits Times rounds up some of the gadgets from 2021 that made headlines and got people talking.


Samsung foldable phones

For better or worse, a phone with a flexible screen that opens up like a book to become a device with a larger display still gets buzz.

Of the latest bendable handsets released this year, Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 are arguably the most attention-grabbing, due in part to the South Korean tech giant's large lead in this space.

Samsung claimed in October that it sold more foldable phones in the first month of their latest release in the United States than in the two years before.

Many technology pundits also highlighted the improvements to the new phones. For instance, both are water-resistant, unlike earlier editions. The protective layer covering the bendable screens of the phones do a better job of preventing scratches than previous versions.

Even so, reviewers warned that the flexible screens are still made of a very thin layer of glass and are more prone to damage than traditional glass screens.

Another issue with the Fold3 is that it is still very pricey even though it is about $500 cheaper than last year's Fold2 - the Fold3 starts from $2,398 compared with this year's Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra that starts from $1,798 and has a technically superior camera system.

iPhone 13 Pro

The iPhone 13 Pro boasts better performance has a higher refresh rate for smoother visuals than the iPhone 13. PHOTO: APPLE

Judging by the latest iPhone releases, Apple appears to have taken to heart some criticism over its Pro handsets from last year.

Critics were unimpressed then that the iPhone 12 Pro did not do enough to differentiate itself from the iPhone 12.

But many felt that this year's iPhone 13 Pro boasts better performance in general than the iPhone 13, and it has a higher refresh rate for smoother visuals.

The Pro stands out for its photo-taking capabilities, especially its ability to pick out details even in low light in photos.

But the Pro falls somewhat short when it comes to a headline feature - the new cinematic mode for videos.

This much-touted feature by Apple blurs the background while keeping a subject in focus, but some reviewers found that this does not work too well in low light and can be a bit finicky. It also caps the resolution at 1080p instead of being able to record much sharper 4K clips.

One common issue many people bring up about the iPhone 13 Pro is its high, laptop-like prices - from $1,649 to $2,479 - as there are alternatives whose features are just slightly less impressive but which are more affordable.

Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro

The October launch of Google's Pixel 6 series, the latest in its "Made by Google" line-up of mobile phones, marked the debut of its custom-made Tensor system-on-chip.

This was the first such processor Google designed in-house, after relying on Qualcomm Snapdragon chips for five previous generations of Pixels and their predecessors, the Google Nexus series.

The tech giant said the change was made to better integrate the phone's software and hardware, which was needed to power new AI-driven features like Magic Eraser, which removes unwanted people or objects from photos.

Google debuted its flagship Pixel 6 smartphones, on Oct 19, 2021. PHOTO: GOOGLE

The phones also got a long-awaited camera hardware upgrade in the form of 50-megapixel main sensors, now set into a distinctive black camera bar that makes them stand out visually from the crowd.

Google previously used the same 12.2-megapixel sensor in all its phones since 2017's Pixel 2.

While the Pixel 6 series was highly anticipated, availability has been an issue as the phones were launched in just 12 countries.

Tech site Ars Technica reported that the phones will be launched in Singapore early next year.

The Pixel 6 costs at least US$599 (S$820) while the Pixel 6 Pro starts at US$899.


Macbook Pro (14-inch)

Apple's new and highly anticipated MacBook Pros unveiled this year were widely lauded by pundits as upgrades from earlier Pro laptops aimed at professionals like photographers and video editors.

The entry-level 14-inch screen MacBook Pro was praised by many people for its performance. This is due to two new chips, the M1 Pro and M1 Max upgrade, either of which can be installed in this year's device.

They are beefier than those from last year.

HardwareZone found that using M1 Max, the 14-inch MacBook Pro took under 12 minutes to complete a video transcoding test that converted one video format to another. This was 27 per cent faster than even last year's 27-inch iMac desktop computer.

Apple, to many users' relief, reinstated three ports it removed from earlier Pro laptops five years ago - an HDMI port, SD card slot and a port that magnetically connects to a MagSafe charging cable. This is on top of the three USB-C ports the device has.

But one controversial change is the notch at the top of the laptop's screen where a webcam rests. Some people lament that the notch is distracting, obscures menu text and that the webcam does not support Apple's Face ID feature for face verification.

Another issue: The 14-inch MacBook Pro starts from $2,999, which is high for a laptop. Some reviewers feel that the asking price and the processing power the laptop delivers make it an overkill for casual users.

GeForce RTX 30 Series Laptops

Chipmaker Nvidia claimed that its new GeForce RTX 30 series of graphics cards offered up to twice the power of those of the previous generation when they were rolled out last year.

But supply chain woes, scalpers using bots to snap up limited stock, and competition from cryptocurrency miners who typically buy multiple units to use in their "mining rigs" made the launch of the desktop versions of the cards a frustrating affair for many gamers looking to build a new PC.

The new GeForce RTX 30 laptop series features graphics cards that offer up to twice the power of previous generations. PHOTO: NVIDIA.COM

Thankfully, laptops with mobile versions of the cards proved easier to come by when they debuted this year, partly because they are less efficient for crypto mining.

Gaming laptops featuring the RTX 30 series cards, like the Asus ROG Zephyrus G15 ($2,598 to $3,298), wowed gamers and content creators, and proved to be attractive alternatives to a desktop set-up.

This year, Nvidia decided to drop the "Max-Q" branding previously used for laptop cards, leading to some confusion. Both the desktop and laptop versions of the RTX 30 series cards are identically named, which caused some consumers to incorrectly assume they would perform at the same level.

While this is not quite the case, RTX 30 laptops can still be said to offer desktop-level performance in a portable form.

Laptop cards have always trailed their desktop counterparts, but this year's RTX 30 series laptop cards were able to rival the performance seen in the last generation's RTX 20 series desktop cards.

Microsoft Surface Pro 8

While Microsoft's Surface devices make up just a small share of the tablet and laptop markets, the US software titan has been making inroads into the hardware business in recent years.

One standout from its line-up this year is the Surface Pro 8, a tablet-laptop hybrid launched in September and aimed at users who want a device with the form factor of a tablet but the productivity capabilities of a Windows 11 PC.

A flip cover with an integrated keyboard and a pen-like stylus can be purchased separately.

The device features a laptop-size 13-inch touchscreen display with a 120Hz refresh rate and a 3:2 aspect ratio resolution of 2,880 by 1,920 pixels. Its design has been refreshed with thinner bezels compared with the Surface Pro 7 from 2019.

Microsoft's Surface Pro 8 is a tablet-laptop hybrid aimed at users who want a device with the form factor of a tablet but the productivity capabilities of a Windows 11 PC. PHOTO: MICROSOFT.COM

The high refresh rate is a premium feature usually seen in gaming-focused devices. This means mouse movements and writing or drawing with the stylus will feel more responsive, and scrolling through pages or documents will be much smoother than on devices with lower refresh rates.

The Surface Pro 8 is a powerful machine, but those looking to replace their laptops with this two-in-one device should note that it is pricier than conventional laptops with similar internal specs from the likes of Lenovo, Dell or Apple.

Microsoft has yet to officially launch the Surface Pro 8 in Singapore, but prices start at around US$1,099 (S$1,505) in the US and go up to around US$2,599.


Sony WF-1000XM4 True Wireless Earphones

Active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology was once limited to military headsets for pilots and military personnel but has now become affordable and widely available to consumers in the form of portable earphones, with options at all price points.

Sony's latest offering, the WF-1000XM4 true wireless earphones, landed in June amid an increasingly crowded market with a $379 price tag, putting them on the higher end.

Despite stiff competition from the likes of Apple, Jabra, Sennheiser and Bose, as well as cheaper models from companies like Xiaomi, the Japanese tech giant's follow-up to its highly popular WF-1000XM3 from 2019 did not disappoint.

Sony's latest offering, the WF-1000XM4 true wireless earphones possesses active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology. PHOTO: SONY.COM.SG

Sony's implementation of ANC in the WF-1000XM4 as well as the depth and quality of the music playback was lauded by reviewers as being among the best. Unlike the previous version, it also features IPX4 water resistance, which means the gadget can withstand sweat and splashes of water.

The earphones come in a recycled paper package with no plastic.

While most earphones come with plain silicone tips, the WF-1000XM4 includes three sizes of polyurethane foam ear tips for better noise isolation.

For audiophiles who want the convenience of true wireless earphones, the WF-1000XM4 makes use of Sony's proprietary LDAC codec on Android devices.

This allows music to be transmitted over Bluetooth at rates of up to 990 kilobits per second (kbps) with a high-fidelity source.

For comparison, music streaming service Spotify offers songs at four quality levels ranging from 24kbps (low) to 320kbps (very high).

Gaming Consoles

Nintendo Switch Oled Model

One of the most disappointing gaming launches this year for many fans was Nintendo's new portable video game console, the Switch Oled model.

The reason? Gamers were expecting - based on leaks - a souped-up version of the console that could deliver game graphics at ultra-sharp 4K resolution when paired with television sets to match rival consoles from Microsoft and Sony.

Instead, the $549 Oled model announced puts out lower-resolution 720p graphics - on a par with older Switch models.

Still, the Oled model's screen is slightly larger at 7 inches, compared with the Switch's 6.2 inches and the Switch Lite's 5.5 inches.

The Nintendo Switch Oled model's screen is slightly larger at seven inches and can also display more vibrant graphics. PHOTO: NINTENDO

The Oled screen can also display more vibrant graphics than the previous Switch editions' LCD screens.

But arguably the standout feature for many people is the new wide adjustable stand, which is more stable than the narrower, flimsier and widely panned kickstand from before.

Like the case for rival consoles, Nintendo reportedly struggled to get enough semi-conductors to make the new Switch, amid a global chip shortage.

This has led to reports of shoppers unable to snag the elusive Oled model. Restocking is not common and when it happens, units tend to sell out quickly.

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