Over the past 15 years or so, smartphones have consumed many familiar gizmos. Calculators, TV remotes, cameras, and other standalone devices have converged into the smartphone that lives in our pockets. Recently, however, that trend has slowed. Phones have been iteratively improving with increasingly granular updates. The gadget and computer market has felt more diverse as more and more devices find their niche outside the confines of a smartphone. That includes hardcore computer hardware, VR and AR devices, and even smart-home tech. Our winner this year addresses the ever-present disparity in the ways we use electronic devices, because gadgets should ultimately give us as many options as possible for how we interact with them.
Looking for the complete list of 100 winners? Find it here.
Grand Award Winner: Adaptive Accessories by Microsoft: Making computers accessible to all
Microsoft’s Adaptive Mouse might not look very advanced. It’s a simple, squircle-shaped device with two buttons, a scroll wheel, and several slots around its edges. You’re not meant to use it as it ships, however. This mouse is one of Microsoft’s Accessible Accessories that easily connect to custom, 3D-printed attachments to accommodate a wide variety of users with different physical needs. The Microsoft Adaptive Hub allows people to connect up to three of the Accessible Accessories to any computer. Compatible devices include an Adaptive D-pad button, an Adaptive Dual Button, and an Adaptive Joystick button, all of which can accommodate people with limited mobility through the Shapeways 3D printing platform. The hub connects via USB-C or Bluetooth wireless, so it can integrate third-party accessibility devices along with Microsoft’s own accessories. The company plans to continue expanding the platform to help ensure the most people can interact with their computers in ways not previously possible with common mice and keyboards.
C1 Webcam by Opal: A webcam that goes beyond its hardware
Computational photography relies on software and processing power in order to make camera hardware perform well above its technical capabilities, which is what makes your smartphone camera so good at what it does. The Opal C1 draws heavily on computational photography to apply those same improvements to a webcam. It relies on a smartphone imaging chip previously found in older Google Pixel phones, which stands to reason since the Opal was developed by a former Google designer, Kenny Sweet. Right out of the box, the camera corrects for common issues like heavy backlighting, mixed lighting (which can make you look sickly), and overly contrasty ambient illumination. People can also customize the look they want based on their environment or personal tastes.
Arc GPUs by Intel: A new chip to shake up the graphics processor market
The market for graphics processing units (or GPUs) isn’t very crowded. Two companies, AMD and Nvidia, have dominated for decades. Chipmaker Intel abandoned its GPU ambitions more than 10 years ago—until this year’s release of its Arc hardware. These graphics cards deliver surprisingly powerful performance for even more surprisingly affordable prices. The Arcs’ strength comes from their efficiency. The top-end A770 card isn’t meant to take on the most powerful models from other brands. Instead, at just $329, it provides 1440p gaming for players who might otherwise have to rely on wimpy integrated graphics or an older and outdated card. That should rally gamers who want solid graphics performance without having to shell out the money and power required to run the increasingly ridiculous flagship graphics cards on the market right now.
Ultra Reality Monitor by Brelyon: AR and VR without the headset
Typical virtual reality headsets create shallow stereoscopic depth by showing each eye a slightly different perspective of the same scene. Brelyon’s new Ultra Reality monitor relies on a more complex phenomenon called monocular depth modulation, which allows the eye to focus deeper into a scene just as it could in the real world. Brelyon’s combination of optics and display tech fill a viewer’s field of vision with 3D images that simulate a 120-inch display—with a device the size of a typical gaming monitor. The eye can focus at various depths in the scene, which makes the display feel as though it extends far beyond the physical bounds of the hardware. Eventually, tech like this could, on a much larger scale, essentially create a Star Trek-like Holodeck that creates room-scale VR without the need for a headset.
Ryzen 7000 Series CPUs by AMD: A big leap in processing performance
CPUs (or central processing units) get faster all the time. AMD’s latest Ryzen 7000 Series chips, however, represent more than an iterative jump of pure processing power. These powerful little chips rely on a brand new architecture that AMD calls Zen 4. It’s built on a 5nm process, which doesn’t indicate the actual physical size of the transistors, but rather their density on the chip. By moving to this architecture, AMD has created the fastest CPUs to date for creative and gaming purposes. AMD’s plans for these chips go beyond personal computers and extend out into its commercial data center hardware. But for now, they’ll render those Adobe Premiere edits with the quickness.
OLED Flex LX3 TV by LG: A screen that goes from flat to curved and back again
Curved displays can immerse you in a viewing or video game experience. Try watching content with a group, however, and that curve becomes a hindrance as the picture loses contrast and color accuracy for everyone sitting off-center. LG’s new 42-inch OLED, however, can rest completely flat for group viewing, then mechanically adjust its curvature with built-in motors. It curves all the way to 900R, which is just shy of the human eye’s natural shape. Because it’s an OLED, this TV offers superior contrast and color reproduction no matter what orientation you choose. Plus, it offers a full suite of advanced features, including HDMI 2.1 and an anti-reflective coating to keep the picture glare-free.
Until a company convinces us to collectively install Matrix-style data jacks in the backs of our skulls, headsets will be our way into the metaverse. Meta’s new flagship headset offers capabilities well beyond its Quest 2 VR headset that earned a Best of What’s New award in 2020. The Quest Pro features front-facing cameras, which add a mixed-reality element to the overall experience. It can pump a real-time feed of the outside world into high-res displays while integrating digital elements as if they really exist. Replace your desk with a virtual workspace. Get real-time directions on how to fix a piece of machinery. Play fantastical games in a hyper-realistic setting. We’ve seen devices that have promised this kind of AR/VR synergy before, but Meta has brought it a very real step closer to actual reality.
Z9 Mirrorless Camera by Nikon: A professional camera with almost no moving parts
Take the lens off a high-end mirrorless camera and you’ll still find a mechanical shutter that moves up and down when you take a shot. That’s not the case with Nikon’s Z9. This pro-grade mirrorless camera relies entirely on a super-fast, stacked imaging sensor that’s capable of shooting up to 30 fps at its full 45.7-megapixel resolution or up to 120 fps if you only need 11 megapixels. In making this switch, Nikon increased the camera’s overall speed and removed its biggest moving part, which tends to be the first piece that needs repair after heavy use. The Z9 can shoot detailed, high-res raw files for the studio, super-fast bursts of small jpegs for sports, and even 8K video for cinema shooters. And yes, it will shoot the fanciest selfies you’ve ever seen.
Archer Omni Router by TP-Link: A router that transforms to augment wireless connectivity
Single-point routers have fallen out of fashion thanks to the popularity of mesh Wi-Fi systems, but TP-Link’s AXE200 Omni could change all that. At the push of a button, each of its four antennas move automatically to optimize its signal based on where you need the internet most in your home. Positioning router antennas has been annoying for nearly 20 years, so it’s refreshing to see a major networking company take the hassle out of it. The various arrangements can throw signals evenly around an area or divert the antennas in order to focus coverage in one specific direction. Under the hood, the AXE200 is a monster of a router. By adopting Wi-Fi 6e, the router can reach speeds of up to 11 Gbps, and its eight-core processor manages antenna movement and enables HomeShield, a built-in security system.
Matter Smart Home Platform by the Connectivity Standards Alliance: Sync your whole smart home
Smart home gadgets are stubborn and territorial. Their refusal to play together nicely can throw a wrench in anyone’s plans to build an automated electronic utopia around the house. The Connectivity Standards Alliance aims to change that with Matter. It’s a set of standards that ensure smart devices—even those designed to work with specific smart assistants—can talk to each other during the setup process and forever after in regular use. The first iteration includes smart plugs, thermostats, lights, and just about anything else you control with Siri, Alexa, or whatever other assistant you’ve chosen. As devices evolve, so will the standards, so hopefully you’ll never have to struggle through a long setup or an unresponsive device again.
12S Ultra Smartphone by Xiaomi: A smartphone camera with evolved hardware
Smartphone cameras rely heavily on processing and AI to make their videos and images perform outside the bounds of the built-in hardware. Xiaomi has taken a different approach with its 12S Ultra Android phone, however. It has a truly impressive and relatively huge array of 1-inch and ½-inch sensors behind lenses designed by iconic German manufacturer Leica. It still provides the AI and computational capabilities you’d expect from a modern flagship phone camera, but it backs up the processing with hardware well beyond what you’ll find in a typical device. The 50-megapixel main camera takes full advantage of a 1-inch Sony sensor—similar to what you’d find in a dedicated camera. The ultra-wide and telephoto cameras both sport ½-inch chips that are also much bigger than most of their smartphone competition. That extra real estate allows for better light gathering and overall image capture before the computing hardware crunches a single pixel.
Phone (1) by Nothing: Light-based notifications help kick the screen habit
From the front, Nothing’s debut phone looks a lot like a typical flagship Android device. Flip the phone over, however, and you’ll find Nothing’s extremely clever light-based notification system, designed to let users know what’s happening on their device without having to look at the screen. Users can customize the lights (Nothing calls them glyphs) in a surprising number of ways. For instance, individual contacts can have their own light pattern that flashes whenever they call. A strip of LEDs at the bottom of the device can act as a battery charge indicator or give feedback from the built-in Google Assistant. The circular ring of lights around the center surround the Qi wireless charging pad, which can top up a pair of earbuds. Beyond the built-in functions, the lights are deeply customizable and will only gain more functionality in future updates. After all, anything that helps look at our phone screens less is OK with us.
Car Crash Detection by Apple: Smart sensors that can save a life in an accident
One of the most advanced features of this year’s iPhone and Apple Watch models is one the company hopes you’ll never have to use. Car Crash detection uses an iPhone 14 Pro’s or Apple Watch 8’s upgraded gyroscope, which can measure up to 256 G of force, and checks for changes 3,000 times per second. This data, along with information collected by an accelerometer and the built-in barometer, can sense the change in a car’s cabin pressure caused by a deployed airbag. Once it detects a crash, the watch will automatically send emergency services to your location if you don’t respond to an alert within a few seconds. Your device will also give you the option to manually call emergency services if you’re conscious but need help. The feature is enabled by default, and the information your phone collects is never shared with Apple or a third party.