After 50 years of in-person gadget showcases, the huge CES tech show had to go virtual this year. But CES 2021 still turned out to be just as packed with excellent gear as ever, from the smallest little gadgets right up to huge wonder-appliances.
Though we were sad not to have the chance to scour the halls for hidden gems ourselves and talk with the creators of the gadgets we love the look of, we still had great fun this year looking out for the new releases that rose above the rest, and digging into what makes this year's crop so exciting.
All that work has led to this: our list of the best tech of CES 2021. There's so much great-looking stuff that nearly made it here, but these are the gadgets that just edged ahead, for reasons we'll explain with each one. It looks like 2021 is going to be a bumper year for tech, but if you want to know what to really keep your eye on, look no further. Well, a bit further. Down, specifically.
Best phone: Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
Ultra by name, extra by nature. There is so much good stuff going on in the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra that we're not sure where to start. How about the 6.8-inch 1440x3200 screen, which can change its refresh rate from a maximum of 120Hz (for super-smooth scrolling and responsive games) all the way down to just 10Hz when displaying static screens, to save battery life. Oh, and the screen also now reaches an HDR peak of 1,500 nits of brightness, meaning it outperforms pretty much any TV for contrast.
How about the next-level camera setup, featuring a 40MP front camera, and quad rear camera system with two(!) 10MP telephoto cameras (a 10x and a 100x 'Space Zoom'), a 12MP ultrawide camera, and a 108MP wide-angle camera… plus laser focus sensor, better HDR recording and up to 8K video.
Oh, don't forget that it now works with Samsung S Pen, making it a Note phone as well as an S21… and it has Wi-Fi 6E for better connectivity, plus Ultra Wide Band support… and new AKG speakers… with a 1.7x bigger under-screen fingerprint sensor… and at least 20% faster performance.
It might be expensive, but with this set of features, you're definitely looking at one of the best smartphones of 2021 here.
Best laptop: Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Pro Laptop
The stand-out feature of this laptop is its gorgeous 14-inch OLED display with a resolution of 2880x1800 and a 90Hz refresh rate, making everything not just crisp, not just smooth, but also vibrant with ultra-deep contrast for movies and photos.
Inside, you'll find an 11-gen Intel processor with new Intel Iris Xe graphics, but you can boost that to Nvidia's MX450 GPU if you want more power for playing games, if you prefer. There's up to 16GB of RAM, too.
It's also packed with useful ports despite being slimline and weighing just 3.2lbs (1.45kg) – this is a strong contender for our list of the best lightweight laptops. It's a great working-from-home machine too, with a nice webcam flanked by a dual-mic setup. The Lenovo Yoga Slim 7i Pro Laptop is an impressive laptop in so many ways, but with that fantastic screen at its heart, we're in love.
Best gaming laptop: MSI GS66 Stealth
Haven't we met somewhere before? The MSI GS66 Stealth has already snuck into our list of the best gaming laptops once, but as the old saying goes: if ain't broke, why not make it better with newer and more powerful parts anyway?
The new version for 2021 keeps the same sleek design that's meant to make this a pro machine in the streets and a gamer's delight in the… home. But now you can get it with Nvidia 30-series graphics on board for DLSS AI rendering and ray tracing action. That's backed up by newer-gen Intel processors with up to eight cores.
On top of that, you've got a 300Hz display for instant response, plus boosted colours while it's at it. And the battery is 99.9Whr, which is the largest you can have in a laptop (without violating FAA guidance, at least). It looks like it'll be a beast, without actually looking like a beast.
We're also impressed with the rest of MSI's new laptops this year, which bring really impressive specs across a range of budgets – but its the GS66 Stealth's mix of design and power we're most looking forward to.
Best health tech: Razer Project Hazel
With its customary lack of chill, Razer (of all companies) is releasing a face mask that it says is "the world's smartest mask". And we're inclined to agree. It's been conceived for a world in which we have an ongoing need (or want) to wear masks regularly, and so aims to solve a bunch of problems. It doesn't muffle your voice, for example: a mic inside and amplifier makes you easy to hear to those around. It's transparent at the front, so people can see your mouth moving, helping with understanding – and the inside even has lights to illuminate your mouth when it's dark (and, yes, being Razer you can control the colours with RGB control).
The respirator element is surgical N95 grade, including high fluid resistance for droplets, and it comes with a sterilising case, which uses UV light to kill bacteria in the mask when you're not wearing it. And the mask has a silicon seal, to help make sure it's effective and also comfortable and hypoallergenic to wear.
Razer plans to do more testing before Project Hazel would actually go into production, but from what we've seen so far, it's a really impressive way for the company to use its knowledge of ergonomics in a smart new way.
Best headphones: Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro
Samsung's new earbuds have a genuinely innovative new feature, which isn't something that comes along that often in the me-too world of headphones. Not only do they have active noise cancellation built in, but it's smart ANC, and will actually listen out for someone talking to you, and will let their speech through the noise-cancellation wall automatically. And when the talking is finally over, the buds will ramp your music back up automatically.
No more fiddling or missing what's someone's saying while you try to pause! It's the kind of thing that gets a pair of headphones on the route to our best true wireless earbuds list.
We're also expecting great audio quality, and the price is very reasonable for premium noise-cancelling wireless buds at US $219, AU $349 or £219. Oh, and unlike most of the tech here, you can get your hands on them real soon: they're due for release on January 29th.
Best speaker: Sony SRS-RA5000
The odd looks of this Wi-Fi speaker (cool spaceship? Electric razor?) tell you lot about its raison d'être – it's designed to take advantage of Sony's new 360 Reality Audio technology, filling your room with audio in terms of both height and width. some services will have music encoded in this new format, but if listening to regular tracks, the speaker will convert them with an immersive 3D effect to take advantage of what its drivers can do. Three upfiring speakers angled outwards, plus three speakers around the centre, spread the sound effectively, while a single subwoofer adds the low end.
The Sony SRS-RA5000 is damn smart too – apart from having voice assistant control built-in for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa (including multi-room music playback for both platforms), it also has useful features such as monitoring the volume of different tracks and automatically equalising them, so you don't need to jump in to tweak things when something with a loud mix suddenly starts. There's also Bluetooth and Spotify Connect, to make it easy to play anything, and the SRS-RA5000 is compatible with Hi-Res Audio.
You won't have to wait too long to try it, either – it's due in February 2021 in Europe for £500/€599. It will be available in the US too, but details haven't been confirmed yet.
Best TV innovation: Samsung MICRO LED
For years, MicroLED has been the next great hope for TVs. This technology offers the same advantages as OLED – self-emissive pixels for incredible contrast, and an ultra-thin display – but without the disadvantages. MicroLED sets can go brighter than OLED, with better reliability. There's no downside, right?
Well, the downside is that it seemed to be incredibly difficult to make into a regular TV set… but Samsung has done it. In fact, it's not only done it, but it appears to have leapt a generation ahead of the competition while doing so – it can achieve 4K resolution in the same space that other companies can only manage Full HD so far.
Because the tech is so cutting edge, Samsung's MICRO LED TV range might be niche right now – the first set is 110 inches, with a six-figure price tag – but it's a feat of innovation that it exists at all. It's too early to say whether it will trouble our list of the best TVs at this price, but that it has a chance at all is why it wins this award.
Best TV: Sony A90J/AJ90
Sony has been producing beautiful-looking and clever OLED sets for the last few years, but usually with high prices that have kept them from the top of our list of the best OLED TVs. The Sony A90J (US)/AJ90 (Europe) looks on course to change that, though.
Not by lowering the price – this is absolutely going to be a premium set. But Sony is promising to solve one of OLED's issues while still packing in cutting-edge processing. The A90J/AJ90 is set to have brightness than can boost beyond what almost any other OLED TV can manage – aiming to reach as high as 1,000 nits for HDR peaks, according to our friends at TechRadar. This would make it the first TV widely available worldwide to hit such heights.
And then there's all the extras on top: Sony's new 'Cognitive Intelligence' processing knows which parts of the screen you're focusing on and applies more power to improving them; the Acoustic Surface Audio+ speaker system offers more 3D-sounding audio; and HDMI 2.1 functionality means it might crash our list of the best gaming TVs too.
Best soundbar: Samsung HW-Q950A
Once, soundbars were just a way of compensating for the weedy speakers most modern ultra-thin TVs have by adding some extra depth. Now, the best soundbars are surround-sound systems in themselves, using audio processing trickery and physical extra speakers to add Dolby Atmos height and real surround audio from behind you.
Samsung's HW-Q950A is the ultimate expression of this. It offers a ridiculous 11 channels of surround sound, four overhead Dolby Atmos channels, and one subwoofer (which seems positively quaint compared to the rest of it). The main speaker bar is huge – this is made for big-screen TVs – but then it does contain a ton of speakers for nine audio channels – forward-facing, side-angled to create width, and upfiring for Dolby Atmos.
There are two rear speakers too, and these contain three speakers each: one facing towards you, one side-angled for even more width, and upfiring to complete the Atmos 'dome of sound'. The previous version of this – the Samsung HW-Q950T – was pretty astounding, but it offered a mere nine channels of surround. And now this one (sorry, sorry, we're trying to steer out of it but we can't) goes to 11.
Best smart home device: Arlo Touchless Video Doorbell
The pandemic has accelerated many trends, but two big ones are 'getting more stuff delivered' and 'touching things other people have touched less often'. The former has made video doorbells a key buy in the last year, because the last thing you want is to miss a vital delivery.
Arlo's new smart camera doorbell deals with the latter part too, though: people just need to walk up to your door, and the doorbell will press itself, effectively. Other video cameras have motion control too, of course, but Arlo's promises to be the smartest about telling you only when a person is actually approaching your door, using "precise Proximity Sensing Technology".
It's very much a product for our current time, but that will also be great after this whole mess is over.
Best connected home device: Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500
There's a new Wi-Fi technology in town, and it's ready to appear on the best wireless routers as part of the wider shift to working from home. It's called Wi-Fi 6E, and the most impressive new router with it built-in is the Netgear Nighthawk RAXE500.
The aim of Wi-Fi 6E is to make sure that your network isn't overloaded by the mass of devices every tech-lover's home now has. It adds the 6GHz frequency to the standard – alongside the 5GHz and 2.4GHz frequencies of existing dual-band routers – meaning that devices can spread themselves out across three different networks, effectively, avoiding any one being overwhelmed. And it being a higher frequency band means lower latency for gaming and even faster speeds.
As is normal for Nighthawk routers, this new model looks like a Sith Lord's shuttle, with its wings housing enough antennas for 12 streams of Wi-Fi, and providing huge range.
Best smartwatch: Fossil Gen 5 LTE
Fossil makes some of the best-looking watches on the planet, as well as some of the best smartwatches – but in 2021 its wearables take a leap forward by adding mobile connectivity for the first time.
The Wear OS watches offer always-on displays with lots of options, great-looking case designs, useful fitness and workout features, a broad range of apps, Google Pay contactless payments, and clever battery modes so you can set the watch to last as long as you need it to, depending on how long you'll be away from a charger. Plus, of course, now giving you useful connectivity even when you don't have your phone with you.
For Android users who want a smartwatch with similarly flexible style to the Apple Watch, Fossil has always been a great choice, and the Fossil Gen 5 LTE makes it even more tempting.
Best fitness tech: Wondercise with Motion Tracking
Home fitness classes have become all the rage over the last year, for obvious reasons. But while the explosion of video classes and apps have become smart by tracking how hard you're working, they can't tell you whether you're actually exercising correctly – the wrong form can mean not making the most of your effort, or even injuring yourself.
Enter: Wondercise with Motion Tracking. Here, you'll do video classes on Wondercise's range of over 50 class types, but by wearing an Apple Watch, Garmin or Wondercise wrist band, the app can also analyse your form, to see how well you're matching the instructor.
It should mean you get more from your time exercising, stay a bit safer from injury, and even learn a little more about good form generally.
Best monitor: Asus ROG Swift PG32UQ
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X support great gaming features that are present on the best gaming TVs, including 4K at 120Hz and (in the Xbox's case) VRR. But those TVs only come in big sizes, which are no good for people who want to use the consoles in bedrooms and offices. Happily, CES has brought us some excellent gaming monitors with HDMI 2.1, and the Asus ROG Swift PG32UQ is our favourite.
It gives you a 4K panel in a tidy 32-inch package, with two HDMI 2.1 ports to take advantage of next-gen consoles, plus a DisplayPort 1.4 connection for PC gaming at up to 144Hz. AMD FreeSync Premium Pro is also built-in, with NVIDIA G-Sync coming soon too.
It's also rated for HDR600, so HDR gaming will look extra rich on it, and with 98% DCI-P3 colour gamut support and accuracy of lower than Delta 2 (which means it's so colour accurate, the human eye can't detect the imperfection) it's a great choice for work as well as play. The combo of it all, at a thoroughly reasonable size, makes this our favourite monitor of CES 2021.
Best gaming accessory: HyperX ChargePlay Duo Controller Charging Station for Xbox
Microsoft has persisted with disposable battery power for its controllers, which to our minds makes this add-on from HyperX an essential for those using a Microsoft controller for Xbox One, Series X/S or PC. It comes with two rechargeable battery packs, battery doors to fit Xbox Series X/S, and a charging controller cradle that can charge up to two controllers at once.
Individual LEDs next to each controller tell you the status, so you know which one to grab at a glance. It's a simple thing, but we love that this is the total package for whatever generation of Xbox you're on, making everything a lot more convenient.
Best home appliance: LG InstaView Oven
It's been too long since we heard of a game-changing oven invention, but things are hotting up with the 2021 LG InstaView Oven – particularly with the 'Air Fry' mode and new 'Air Sous Vide' feature.
Doesn't sous vide require water, you cry? Normally, but what if you sealed your food and then used a stream of air at finely controlled low temperatures to achieve the same thing? Much easier and just as delicious – at least, that's the promise.
It's a smart oven too, meaning you can control it using the app as well as the good ol'-fashioned knobs on the front (and slightly less ol'-fashioned digital display panel). So you can set it to pre-heat when you're out of the house, or check the temperature from another room.
And it's an InstaView product, which in this case means you can knock twice on the door to fire up the twin lights, so you can see how it's going without letting the heat out.
Best outdoor tech: Milo – The Action Communicator
The Walkie Talkie is back, in a fun new form for outdoors lovers. Having smashed its Kickstarter goal at the end of last year, The Action Communicator is now impressing at CES. Kit your group out with a mesh network of these and you can all talk as a group, even when up to 600 metres away from the nearest person. They directly connect to each other, so no phone network is required.
It's design to be used handsfree, clipping into your outfit, and with six mics picking up your voice clearly while you're busy base jumping or snowboarding or taking a nice slow walk or whatever. Wind reduction helps to make you intelligible, and you can mute your unit with a press, if you need a moment of privacy. Milo promises a full day of action from a single charge, and it's water and weatherproof, naturally. You can even connect some Bluetooth headphones, if you prefer.
This looks like a great buy for adventurers or just families out for a hike who want to let kids wander out of sight and still be able to communicate with them. We can see this as an essential for your backpack, along with one of the best action cameras.