Innovation. What a completely slippery word, second only to “invention.” As much as we’re culturally fond of the notion of the “eureka!” moment or “game-changing” devices, important leaps in technology (or science or philosophy or…almost any discipline) progress slowly and quietly until they appear, seemingly full-sprung from the heads at Apple. Or Google. Or Microsoft. Or that unknown company crouching in the shadows awaiting its moment in the sun. All standing on the shoulders of giants.
That’s why, when choosing innovative products of a given year (or decade or century), it’s easy to succumb to either the turtles-all-the-way-down view in which the real innovations happened years ago or the random-things-you-remember-from-the-year view – even if the actual dates of those things fall outside the list’s constructs.
Ultimately, my picks for the innovative products of the year were actually either disappointing or surprising to me. Disappointing because, for once, I had an expectation that a product would do something new and it failed — but still showed promise of eventually paying off somehow, sometime. Or surprising because it did something new and met or exceeded my idle thoughts about how it would fare. We will not call that an expectation.
This list springs full-blown from my head. I did not solicit input. It’s random, incomplete and likely unrepresentative of whatever you think it might represent. Plus, it only covers my tiny corner of the technosphere, which is mainly computers and gaming.
The Framework Laptop is one of the few innovative products from 2021 that delivers on all counts. The 13.5-inch laptop addresses one of the biggest drawbacks in modern laptops as part of the right-to-repair movement.
It features four expansion card slots, slide-in modules that snap into USB-C connectors, socketed storage and RAM, a replaceable mainboard module with fixed CPU and fan, battery, screen, keyboard and more. It’s a design that makes the parts easy to access, all while delivering solid performance at competitive prices and without sacrificing aesthetics.
Its biggest misfortune is that it comes from a new company, so despite its founder’s provenance of Meta’s Oculus team, it faces a steep climb to turn that into success. However, even if the laptop itself doesn’t last, it heralds a new trend of products designed to be more easily repairable, starting with Apple’s iPhone and MacBooks next year.
Read the Framework Laptop review.
Turtle Beach’s first game controller is underwhelming in a lot of ways, but it makes sense that the company, with its long-time roots in audio, would be the first to put an amp in a controller — where it really should be if your headset is plugged into the controller. It’s a wired USB model that works with the Xbox or PC, adding equalizer presets, volume, mic mute, mic monitoring and more to any analog headset you plug into it.
Read Turtle Beach Recon Controller hands-on.
When I think of products with promise that let me down in 2021, the Razer Zephyr is at the top of my list. It arrived as a concept at CES 2021 that smartly rethought the face mask in a pandemic-stricken era. But by the time it shipped at the end of the year, economic realities and design flaws made it a mask I can’t even bring myself to wear.
Razer had to drop most of the important innovations for cost-cutting reasons and tone down the claims; hence the name change to “wearable air purifier” and no COVID claims whatsoever despite the ongoing need. One of the most notable is the built-in voice amp; without it, no one can hear me talking, especially over the somewhat whiny fans (the one aspect that does seem to work well enough). The inner lighting is supposed to show your mouth for better sociability, but it really isn’t bright enough. Despite highly touting the replaceable N95 filters, the way you slot them into the magnetic holders isn’t secure, so I have no faith they’re actually covering the openings.
The thing is, none of the problems is unfixable. The product also demonstrates that Razer’s thinking is heading in the right direction with the ideas for others to build on. Both are reasons why I still consider it innovative.
Read more about the Razer Zephyr.
Hulking external GPUs for adding discrete graphics power to otherwise lame laptops have been around for ages, and adding Thunderbolt 3/4 as a viable eGPU connection comes with its own issues. By pairing a tiny 13-inch laptop with a highly portable dock-and-eGPU combo, and a proprietary connection for it, Asus solves a few problems: You can take it on the road or to a coffee shop and not have to lug the power adapter around when you don’t need it, and it will work with systems incorporating AMD as well as Intel processors (AMD doesn’t support Thunderbolt).
And the pair are quite well done, plus the laptop is fine on its own. The downside is that for the laptop alone, the price has become way too high, and you can’t find the XG Mobile anywhere; it’s not clear if that’s a shortage-driven blip, though.
Apple; Illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET
Apple M1 and Intel 12th-gen (Alder Lake) CPUs
Something new in system silicon
Nothing exemplifies the infinite spiral of “when did it happen” more than processors. So to me, Apple’s and Intel’s hybrid CPUs — a key transition to an architecture that splits fast, high-powered cores and energy-efficient cores for background processes — represent an innovative technology that was successfully brought to market without compromising performance in 2021.
One aspect I was waiting out is scalability. It’s not as impressive if the architecture can’t be extended more generally to higher- or lower-powered configurations. But Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max launched this year for MacBooks at least proves it can scale up on graphics and Intel’s launch of 12th-gen Alder Lake CPUs for high-end gaming and creative desktop PCs show the tech can bring quite a bit to the power side of the equation.
Some questions do remain, though. One of the biggest for me is about the high end. Every hybrid implementation in systems thus far caps out at eight performance cores, so how well it scales up beyond that (for, say, a Mac Pro) is a question for 2022.