New form factors, gadgets with a focus on family and more tech aimed to get our noses out of our smartphones – while still capturing life’s memorable moments. These are just a few of the trends we’ve seen rise to the top of the gadget world in 2021.
In a year most people expected, waited, hoped and begged to “return to normal,” our gadget choices showed a need to adopt a whole “new normal” instead. For instance, people who never imagined starring in their own homespun versions of MTV’s "Real World" now embrace gear like ring lights and the mighty mute button with the same ho-hum sense of routine once reserved for switching on our coffee makers and slogging through our morning commutes.
We also learned that technology – if used right – can improve our lives in myriad ways, yet we still have a long way to go holding companies accountable in terms of protecting our security and privacy.
Here are four standout consumer tech trends of 2021 and a look ahead to the tech that could shape our lives – for better and worse – in 2022.
► Talking Tech newsletter: Sign up for our guide to the week's biggest tech news
1. Screens that flip, fold and double as a lid
When gadget-makers first showed off phones that fold and flip, it was more gee-whiz than ‘hey, I need that.’ This year, Samsung one-upped the smartphone crowd and launched next generation flip and fold phones that we actually purchased. Both the Galaxy Z Flip3 and Galaxy Z Fold3 are less gimmicky and more useful than we’ve seen before.
Lenovo also put a handy e-ink touchscreen display in the lid of its ThinkBook Plus Gen 2 laptop. That’s been incredibly useful for taking notes, checking calendars, getting notifications and even reading in the bright sunshine – all without even cracking the cover open. When you open it up, it has all the bells and whistles of a premium 2-in-1: a 2K touch display with Dolby Vision and a 16:10 aspect ratio ready for action. The webcam has a privacy shutter and you turn it all on with a fingerprint sensor. Still, it’s light, agile and always makes me forget that I can’t tap the screen of my MacBook Pro when I go back and forth between the two.
We expect a whole lot more with the rise of helpful hybrid gadgets in 2022 and beyond.
There are rumors swirling around the tech world that Apple’s working on an eyeglasses-like wearable with AR, VR – or both, according to some reports. One analyst told CNBC that “Apple’s computerized glasses will be as powerful as a Mac and launch at the end of 2022.”
One futuristic take not involving Apple is that we might see a laptop with a single foldable display covering both halves of the device – with one side doubling as a touch keyboard – or morphing into gaming controls. We’ve seen prototypes of similar devices, but have yet to see one that actually solves common problems in our daily lives. We hope that’s about to change.
Which takes us to number two on our list, gadgets that solve common problems.
► Spotify Wrapped 2021 is available now: Here's how to find your top artists and songs
2. Problem solvers
There are a few tools everyone needs these days, such as a portable charger, digital tracker so we stop losing stuff, fast-back-up – also – so that we stop losing stuff.
Have you noticed that many new gadgets come with cords, but not the actual bricks to plug them into outlets? One solution for that is Anker’s Nano II USB-C Charging Brick. It can fast-charge any recent iPhone or Android phone – so you can charge at least half your battery in a half-hour or possibly even less. The 65-watt Nano II is much smaller than Apple’s own MacBook Pro bricks, yet charges your laptop just as fast.
The Einova by Eggtronic’s 63W Ultra-Fast Power Bank is scarcely bigger than my smartphone, yet packs enough extra power to charge my smartphone, tablet and laptop – simultaneously. It includes three ports (USB, USB-C and USB-A) and quick-charges with the latter two.
The key-sized SanDisk iXpand Flash Drive Luxe is another total life-saver when it comes to backing up all our photos, videos, music, documents and contacts in a pinch. It has a USB-C connector on one end and a lightning connector on the other – which means I can plug it into an iPhone – or any iOS tablets, laptops and the same goes for Android devices. Add the iXpand app to your Android or iPhone and within a matter of minutes, you can backup some 1,000 photos – in their original resolution.
Smart trackers are the other small but mighty gadget I’m not sure how I lived without and Apple’s entry into this world with AirTags seriously upped my “I’ll never lose my (insert everything from remote controls to my dog) again. Stick the quarter-sized gadget on anything you tend to misplace and it pairs nearly by itself, allowing you to follow its whereabouts on a map in the Find My app. If you’re like me and lose stuff in the same room you're sitting in, you can sound an alarm or follow the turn-by-turn guidance.
► Apple AirTag review: What won't it find? We put the Bluetooth tracker to the test
Speaking of pets, Belkin makes the Secure Holder with Key Ring for AirTag that twists and locks, keeping the AirTag secure to a collar. Also, the Qalo TraQ – powered by Tile – is a quiet, jingle-free pet tag that lets you find Fluffy or play a ring sound from an app.
Every single new gadget we buy should help us out in some way and these are just a few that really stand out in 2021.
3. Ditch the screens but not the shots
With so many of us glued to screens for work, play, shopping, gaming and everything else these days, there was a big trend towards ditching physical dividers this year, without missing any memorable moments along the way.
One fix for that issue is the Wristcam, a sort of next-gen wristband that adds two more hands-free cameras to your Apple Watch. There’s a selfie camera that angles up and then this one that faces forward. Both can snap either stills or HD video. Wristcam syncs to an app and imports the captures into Apple's Photo library. It also hooks into Siri voice commands – no phone required – and is water-resistant up to 3.3 feet for 30 minutes. The shots aren’t as good as what you get with your latest smartphones, but we hope it’s a sign of easier ways to capture video and photos on the go.
4. Retro tech
We’re all suckers for nostalgia and retro tech reimagined for our current times made a big splash this year, too.
The Arcade1Up Infinity Game Table is one of my favorite finds highlighting this trend. It’s a coffee table with a giant tablet top that has all the best board games – Scrabble, Monopoly, Battleship – ready to roll. There are no actual game pieces; you do everything on the tablet. Up to six people can play at once and it’s a great blend of the old and new. For instance, the games aren’t all graphics-fancy, but rather represent the look and feel of actual board games.
But when you’re playing a game like Battleship or Whac-a-Mole, there’s haptic feedback so that you actually feel a rumble when you score a hit. You can also play with someone else who has a Game Table and a solid WiFi connection, from anywhere else in the world.
The Game Table was a fun find alongside another gadget I wrote about earlier this year: the Arcade 1UP Polaroid at-home photo booth. It’s another one of those “life of the party” gadgets and a big hit with the TikTok crowd. You can hang it on a wall, door or prop it up to take a selfie, then dress it up with filters, stickers, text and borders.
►iPhone or Android device acting strange? Here's how to perform a restart on your smartphone
There are more major tech trends that shaped our lives in 2021 and will continue to unfold in 2022. Devices that help us more around the house are a great example, such as smart air purifiers, wearables that continue to help us with our health and robot-companions that can do more than just look cute.
Better health and transportation gadgets are on the way, too – from sensors that can spot symptoms long before we feel them and planet-saving ways to get from one place to another.
We also need companies to step up on matters of privacy and security in a much more meaningful and transparent way. I’ll cover more of all of these issues in the next few weeks.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Year in review: The most popular tech trends of 2021