Monday, June 24, 2024

Best Gadgets 2021: Our Favourite Buys, From PlayStation 5 to Pixel 4a

2021 has been a lot like 2020 — we spent most of the year indoors, and just as the world has started to open up, it feels like we might be immersed back into it thanks to the Omicron variant. And that means, just like last year, we have come to rely on gadgets and devices more than ever before. At Gadgets 360, we not only review hundreds of products each year — but like everyone else, we buy stuff for ourselves too. Audio is the most popular product category below, with some folks investing in audiophile-level gear. Phones, as always, are high on the list too. We can’t survive without them. And apart from the usual laptops, gaming consoles, mics and mice, there are a couple of subscriptions worth reading about. And plus, a bike accessory.

We hope you’ll find something below that might suit your needs — or excite you about something you didn’t know you wanted. Presenting the Gadgets 360 staff’s favourite (tech) purchases of the year.

Abhinav Lal, Sennheiser HD 599 Special Edition

This was an impulse purchase after a self-indulgent music appreciation phase back in February, when I decided I finally needed audiophile-grade headphones. With the new normal of working from home, I felt I could finally derive much daily value from a pair of open-back headphones, without troubling coworkers or worrying about portability.

With a small — by audiophile standards — budget of around Rs. 10,000, I spent some time researching options, with more than a little help from resident audiophile Ali Pardiwala, and came across a lightning deal on Amazon on the Sennheiser HD 599 SE. From what I understood, the headphones are essentially identical (except for colour differences) to the HD 599, but licensed and mass produced by Amazon — making them a fair bit cheaper (almost half the price) in comparison.

I’ve been quite happy with the purchase, enjoying the open and detailed sound. I played around with my laptop’s built-in equaliser and sound effects, tried out the Dolby Access app for Atmos sound and more features, but in the end, I felt the headphones were best used with all equalisers and features turned off. While in the past I had made mediocre offerings deliver the best sound possible by adjusting levels, my new cans gave me the chance to listen to the music as it was intended to sound.

Buy: Sennheiser HD 599 Special Edition

Aditya: I have been in the Apple ecosystem for ages. After using an iMac 27-inch for six months and still being dissatisfied with the level of performance I received for video editing, I finally decided to jump the gun with the MacBook Air M1. To my utter surprise, the nimble 13-inch machine had enough power to blaze through my 4K video edits with a thin fan-less design.

Jasmin: I have wanted to buy a MacBook for several years now, but for this year, it was the iPhone 13 Pro that I had my eyes on. I’d been religiously tracking all the updates that have been coming out about the new iPhone and was excited about buying it. But I think destiny had this MacBook in store for me. The previous laptop that I’d been using deteriorated quickly, and I was left with no option but to get a new laptop and in the spirit of #YOLO I went ahead and bought the MacBook Air M1.

Aditya: With some amazing card offers and discounts for education, I got my device for less than Rs. 80,000. For such a price, I found it to be the best ultra-portable laptop for all my work needs. For sure, there are some issues related to a few apps not being compatible with the latest Apple Silicon, but I was able to find alternatives for almost everything in the form of a native app. My productivity improved, I was able to get more done throughout the year and the only con I felt was the lack of a bigger display in this compact laptop. Truth be told, it was a great value-for-money purchase for me. I would give it a 9 out of 10.

Jasmin: Yeah, I absolutely love my MacBook Air M1 too. It’s sleek, it’s smooth, it’s silent, and most importantly, it’s just so beautiful (I got the one in gold). The device charges quick and will run for 12 hours or more on a single charge, depending on usage. It’s very light, handy, quick, and maintains a low operating temperature even without the fan. The small screen is tiring at times and the number of ports are less (very), so you’ll definitely have to buy a USB-C hub in addition. I think I’ll give it an 8.5 out of 10.

Read the detailed review from our dearest in-house reviewers: MacBook Air M1 review

Buy: MacBook Air M1

Aditya Shenoy, Parani M10 Intercom

I finally got a helmet intercom this year. The Sena 30K and Cardo Packtalk Bold have always made it to my wishlist every year, but the lockdown put my weekend rides on hold. When I came across the Parani M10 helmet intercom, I was happy to see the features it offered for its relatively low price. And since it was backed by Sena, I was willing to take a gamble on this one.

The Parani M10 communicator attaches to a motorcycle helmet and has two speakers and a microphone. It can be used to play music, and can also be used to talk to other fellow motorcyclists that use a similar unit.

The Parani M10 has quickly become the best investment for my rides. I can easily connect to my friends on their communicators while on the bike. This completely eliminates the need to take multiple halts and co-ordinate. While riding alone, it also dictates navigation directions inside the helmet, eliminating the need to pull the smartphone out repeatedly.

Buy: Parani M10

Akhil Arora, PlayStation 5

Honestly, I’m not sure if this is here because I like it a lot or because I managed to even get one. If you have tried to buy a next-gen console this past year, you will know what I mean. Thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted supply chains, caused chip shortages, and driven up the price of components, both Sony and Microsoft have had a terrible time making enough PlayStation 5s and Xbox Series Xs to meet demand. Worse yet, they expect these problems to continue deep into 2022, so things aren’t going to get better any time soon.

Buying a PS5 in India is a herculean effort. It involves being lightning quick with your fingers (stock goes out in a minute if not seconds), using byzantine hacks to get yourself in front of the queue (just take a trip through Facebook groups and Discord groups), and a lot of luck that things go right for you (both during the order and getting it delivered, as most websites are known to face technical issues and some are known for cancelling pre-orders). Assuming you can wade through all of that, there’s a chance you might get your hands on it.

This is why the PS5 Digital Edition is my most-loved gadget of 2021. Not because it’s a fantastic piece of hardware and I’m excited about the games I will get to play — which yes, it is, and I am — but because of the sheer effort involved in buying one. I mean, it was easier to get the first dose of my COVID-19 vaccine back in May, when stocks were mighty scarce. We’re into the second year of release of PS5 and Xbox Series X, but if you can’t buy something without such hassles, has it even released?

Read: PlayStation 5 review

Buy: PlayStation 5 Digital Edition, if you can find one

Ali Pardiwala, Apple One

I strangely didn’t buy any gadgets this year, instead spending large sums of money on trivial things like school fees and petrol. However, I did sign up for the Apple One family plan, the company’s subscription service that covers Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, and iCloud storage. I was already using three of the four services and paying for them individually, so signing up for Apple One was a no-brainer.

As a result of getting 200GB of cloud storage on iCloud, I’ve also finally backed up my MacBook to iCloud and finally freed up some space on its tiny 128GB hard drive. Since the storage space is available to family members, my wife has managed to finally back up some important pictures and data as well. We’re suitably addicted to Apple Arcade and Apple TV+ already, and Apple Music going high-resolution in 2021 has only sweetened the deal.

Of course, the utility of Apple One strongly depends on how deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem you are. If you do indeed own some Apple devices, this subscription service is a must-have, and will help you save some money in the long run.

Read: Apple One Launched in India, Other Markets: How to Sign Up

Buy: Apple One

Ashri Khandelwal, Digitek tripod

This year, I wanted to create a basic set up at home where I can shoot my videos. And the first thing that was on the top of my list was a tripod. So I went ahead and bought the Digitek tripod that can be used for smartphones as well as cameras. And, out of all the other tech products that I purchased this year, this tripod was the best buy for me and probably the most affordable. It is a great value for money and best for beginners.

The tripod comes with a carry bag, so I could easily move it around both indoors and outdoors for shoots. It is reliable, sturdy, and compact, so whether I had to record videos in horizontal or vertical format, it worked for me well. And, what I really like about this tripod is, it takes a minute to set up and can be folded in half. I could just unfold it and keep it inside, or let it stand in my room in the corner for quick access.

Buy: Digitek tripod

Cyrus John, Maono AU-100 Condenser Mic

I bought the Maono Au-100 Condenser mic purely for work purposes. Since I was going to be involved in creating a lot of video content for the Gadgets360 YouTube channel, I thought investing in a lapel mic would solve the audio problem that I had been facing earlier. The reason I chose this particular brand and variant was because it was highly recommended by some of my known acquaintances who had used the mic before. And also, because it offered support for both smartphones and digital cameras. Not to mention the 6-meter cable that also helped a lot during outdoor shoots.

Buy: Maono AU-100 Condenser Clip On Lavalier Microphone

David Delima, Sony WH-CH710N

I bought the Sony WH-CH710N this year to replace my older Sennheiser HD 4.40 BT headphones that stopped working after around four years of heavy use. Although I’ve been using in-ear true wireless earbuds a lot this year including the Galaxy Buds Plus, the LG Tone Free FN7 and the OnePlus Buds Pro, I prefer the comfort and acoustics of the Sony WH-CH710 headphones when catching up with my favourite TV shows or movies. They’re also very light, which means that they don’t bother me even when I’m listening to longer Spotify playlists.

Buy: Sony WH-CH710N

Harpreet Singh, Calm Premium

2021 was an exhausting year, both mentally and physically. To keep myself sane, I subscribed to Calm. For those who’re unaware, Calm is an app that essentially lets you chill your brain. The annual Premium plan unlocks a whole bunch of features after a 7-day free trial. I’ve tried several apps based on similar ideas, but couldn’t get used to them for some reason.

I use Calm once in the morning before I begin my day, and once before I go to sleep. I won’t say it’s a magical one-stop solution to all your problems, but it does have a calming effect after some time. I’m guessing paying for Calm might actually make me use it more regularly, and help me keep my anxiety and stress levels under control.

Download: Calm on Android or iOS

Jagmeet Singh and Sheldon Pinto, Pixel 4a

We were both looking to buy a Pixel 4a, but for slightly different reasons. Jagmeet does not like upgrading smartphones on a yearly basis, and Sheldon has been an iPhone user for the longest time, even as he reviews Android smartphones regularly.

Jagmeet purchased his Google Pixel 4a as a secondary smartphone, mainly to test out new software features, which mostly show up first on a Pixel device. Sheldon, on the other hand, switched from an iPhone 11 to a Pixel 4a seeking a better camera to shoot product photos and pictures of his toddler.

Both agree on the fact that the Pixel 4a is ideal only for a certain set of buyers. It does lack in 5G (so not future-proof), and there’s no high-refresh rate display either. But you do get the fastest updates when it comes to software and overall experience is also quite smooth even if it packs in older hardware inside.

Camera quality is typically Pixel; both of us seem quite satisfied with its image quality. Jagmeet also took some generic shots from the phone that are available in some of our articles as well.

But Jagmeet is not too impressed by its battery life, which he finds will fall short of expectations if you are a heavy user. On the bright side, it is smaller than most phones, which again appeals to a niche audience looking for a compact design.

Read: Pixel 4a review

Buy: Pixel 4a

Nithya P Nair, OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z Series

It was a sudden decision to buy a OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z-in ear Bluetooth headset. It was the most affordable one from OnePlus, so I didn’t spend more than two minutes thinking before placing an order. It was my replacement for the Apple Wired Earpods. It looks good and has good battery life as well — the feature I liked the most. It is working fine with my Android and Apple phones. Another key highlight is the fast-charging support. Very impressive sound for the price.

Read: OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z review

Buy: OnePlus Bullets Wireless Z Series

Robin John, Sony WH-1000XM4

Yes, I bought another pair of Bluetooth headphones, I do not know why. However, this might be the best tech purchase I have made in years. I’ve been meaning to own a flagship headphone from Sony for way too long. The Sony WH-1000XM3 was quite good, but it lacked some features that its successor was able to implement. The XM4s do not bring in any revolutionary design changes, instead, it follows along the lines of XM3 and it is really hard to tell them apart. I need not tell you about the sound quality, comfort and ease of use on the XM4, it was copacetic.

But what I love the most about this pair of headphones is the convenience factor. It also supports Bluetooth multipoint; this basically allows the headphones to connect with two different devices simultaneously. This meant I could wear it and edit videos on my PC while also watching reels on my phone, the headphones smartly pick the device playing audio and keep switching if need be. Besides this, it also has in-ear detection. The proximity sensor is placed inside the left ear cup — this basically pauses the media when you remove the headphones from your ear. However, I did find out that it was sometimes inconsistent and glitchy.

This brings me to the next best thing about this headphone, Active Noise Cancellation, also known as ANC. It is by far the best that I have personally tried. I cannot fathom over the number of times my parents have yelled at me for not answering them back, but that is a story for another day. You can manually set the level of noise cancellation (among other things) in the app which is available on both iOS and Android.

These, as mentioned before, fall under the flagship bandwagon and are pretty expensive, as you would guess. It retails for a price tag of Rs. 26,990. Fortunately, during the Diwali sale on Amazon, I was able to grab them for around Rs. 24,990. I know it is really costly, but if you are someone who is an audiophile, then this is a device that should definitely be on your wishlist.

Read: Sony WH-1000XM4 review

Buy: Sony WH-1000XM4

Shayak Majumder, Philips TAPB603 3.1 Dolby Atmos Soundbar

For me, 2021 was all about going Dolby. Having heard all kinds of praises for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, I really wanted to jump on to the bandwagon and experience what all the hubbub is about — without burning a serious hole in my pocket. I started with purchasing an entry-level 4K TV with Dolby Vision support and ended up buying the 43-inch variant of AmazonBasics Fire TV Edition. While Dolby Vision elevated the visuals manifold, the TV’s inbuilt 20W speakers weren’t doing justice to Dolby Atmos movies and TV shows on Netflix and other streaming services.

This is when I decided to go for a Dolby Atmos soundbar. After quite a few days of browsing through mid-range soundbars, I decided to go for Philips TAPB603. At around Rs. 30,000 via Flipkart, I was getting all I needed without having to dish out a lot. Apart from Dolby Atmos support, Philips TAPB603 offers 3.1-channel output, 320W of powerful sound (thanks to a thumping subwoofer), multiple connectivity options (including Bluetooth, HDMI ARC, and Optical), and a gorgeous, sleek design.

How was the experience? Well, Philips TAPB603 and Dolby Atmos made me fall in love with sound all over again. Allow me to share an instance. If you have watched The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, you may remember how pivotal the sixth episode – Two Storms — is. With Dolby Atmos, I could re-experience the episode anew and discover finer details even after watching the same show for the fourth time. The growling thunders of the storms made my bed and sofa rattle, and the intensity of the bass increases slowly as the storm builds gradually as the story progressed, something I never felt during my previous viewing sessions.

Philips TAPB603 isn’t loud, mind you. Having a subwoofer doesn’t only mean blasting noise, but what Dolby Atmos does is add finesse to the sound. It makes loud sequences more impactful with fine timbre, while making the quieter sequences even more impactful. It’s how a well-produced movie or a TV show is envisioned by the sound engineer and director. And, ideally, it should be how sound should be experienced to truly immerse yourself into what you are watching. If you are one of those who truly appreciate the cadence of what you hear, Dolby Atmos is the way to go and Philips TAPB603 is a great option to consider.

Buy: Philips TAPB603 3.1 Dolby Atmos Soundbar

Siddhant Chandra, Moto G 5G

At the start of this year, I found myself on the lookout for a new smartphone. My requirements: a substantial battery life, a big screen, and decent performance. I am also not one to frequently change my phone, so a handset that supported 5G technology seemed like the ideal option. Therefore, I went for the Moto G 5G, a mid-range smartphone that is 5G-ready and packs a long-lasting 5,000mAh battery.

Moto G 5G, after getting fully charged, can easily last me almost a whole day of listening to music with wired earphones. I have watched three movies back-to-back and even binged entire seasons on Netflix without needing to reach for the charger. Its 6.67-inch display with a full-HD+ resolution has made the streaming experience even more enjoyable.

Additionally, the stock Android experience offered by Motorola has always been a motivation for buying its smartphones. Motorola handsets tend to be quite durable too, and this one is not an exception. It has been able to survive several falls during its period of use.

Moto G 5G can smoothly run most games, but graphics-intensive games tend to heat it up after an hour or so of gaming. The performance of its 48-megapixel rear camera setup is also underwhelming. These couple of minor issues aside, Moto G 5G is a great purchase for users who primarily consume media — music, movies, or TV shows — on handheld devices.

Buy: Moto G 5G

Yousuf Jawed, Amazon Basics ergonomic mouse

The Amazon basics ergonomic mouse, as the name goes, is good in terms of ergonomics and design. I was heavily disappointed with its scroll wheel consistency though, and I was unable to get proper support from Amazon. As you know, you have to reach out to its supplier Cloudtail which is useless. Due to the tedious process to get after-sales support, I simply made peace with the broken scroll wheel. That said, the mouse is a good product overall in its price range.

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