2016 was a weird year for consumer electronics. And that’s saying something, since consumer tech has never really been known for being bland or boring in any way. Silicon Valley prides itself on being able to knock everyone’s socks off every year with the newest, shiniest, fastest screens money can buy, but this year didn’t have the same wow factor.

Some companies suffered massive setbacks with their products this year, like when Samsung’s initially successful Note 7 started spontaneously combusting in customers’ hands. Other companies, like Apple, coasted along, not really doing anything exciting or new, other than _ _ taking away everyone’s favorite audio port and delivering a slightly underpowered but very overpriced new line of laptops. Then finally, a wide swath of companies simply didn’t know what to do to differentiate themselves this year, so they tried anything they could to be different. Some committed hard to the vision of the 2-in-1 hybrid computer, while others chased after silly milestones that don’t do much besides look good on paper – like making the world’s thinnest laptop .

In effect, if you were looking to upgrade an essential piece of tech in your life this year – be it your phone, your laptop or even your TV – you were going to have to make sacrifices. It used to be the case that even when companies were putting out poorly executed products, there was always something that would check off all the boxes anyway. There was always at least one company that was making products without any major sacrifices. That wasn’t the case in 2016, and that leaves a lot of people wondering if they should wait for the next round of products in 2017 or bite the bullet and accept something sub-par.

Laptops

For a while, it was looking like we might be able to leave our laptops behind for good and do the majority of our computing on a mobile device. Unfortunately, it’s become apparent that tablets aren’t the best solution for heavy-lifting tasks like photo and video editing, and phones are just too small to get a lot of work done. So computers – particularly laptops – are here to stay. Kind of.

Despite the fact that tablet sales are starting to decline and creatives everywhere nearly died of anticipation waiting for Apple to release a new MacBook Pro this year, plenty of OEMs are still trying to up-end the laptop form factor and do something different in hopes that it will catch on.

The dream of the 2-in-1 convertible computer is still alive and well with many manufacturers, as it gets more and more difficult to find a computer without a detachable keyboard or a flip-around touchscreen . Microsoft doubled down on this concept in 2016, despite the Surface Book being the closest thing to a traditional laptop the company has directly produced in years. Lenovo took the convertible idea even further by introducing the Yoga Book , which eschews a physical keyboard for a flat, touch-sensitive panel that doubles as a drawing surface.

So where do you look if you want a straightforward, no nonsense laptop computer that’s powerful enough to do more than surf the web?

Unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” answer for this question this year, so I’ve come up with my top 3 recommendations.

The 2016 Apple MacBook Pro

Photo courtesy of apple.com

Despite its steep price and notable compromises, the 2016 MacBook Pro is still the best all-around laptop on the market right now. This is especially true if build quality and consistently high performance are deal breakers for you. While other manufacturers are only starting to toy with premium materials for their notebooks, Apple has been crafting theirs out of unibody aluminum for years. It also goes without saying that if you’re stuck in the Apple ecosystem, and you’re used to MacOS, there’s really no other option.

If you can get past living the dongle life, the fantastically huge price, not being able to configure the machine with more than 16 gigabytes of RAM, only being able to get a quad-core CPU with the 15-inch model, inconsistent battery life and the fact that Apple has apparently shifted its focus away from MacOS and primarily to its mobile operations…then this is the laptop for you.

The Dell XPS 13/15

Photo courtesy of core0.staticworld.net

The Dell XPS line has become the go-to Windows laptop for a lot of people who don’t want to fuss with the aforementioned gimmicky features like flip-around screens and touch-based keyboards. It strikes a good balance between power and price, and with such small screen bezels, Dell was able to make their laptops significantly smaller than others with the same screen sizes. The unfortunate tradeoff with those small bezels is that Dell had to cram the webcam in the bottom corner of the screen, meaning your Skype buddies will be looking up your nose while you talk to them. It’s also worth noting that in comparison to Apple’s offering, these PCs have a somewhat plasticky build, but it’s solid nonetheless.

The HP Spectre

Photo courtesy of hp.com

The HP Spectre gets my pick for most interesting design of any laptop to come out this year. There are a lot of contenders that could give it a run for its money, but the design on this particular product is bold and striking – something we see far too little nowadays. It’s not for everyone, but that’s not the point of making a laptop with such a unique look. The point is for it to stand out from the crowd of boring clamshells and push the envelope a little – all while delivering good performance and a positive user experience, two things the Spectre does decently well at. If you can get past the noisy fans, and you like the design HP is serving up, look no further.

Phones

In 2016, the supreme ruler of smartphones took a break and opened the door for someone – anyone – to challenge them.

Apple’s iPhone has been the dominant smartphone on the market since it was introduced in 2007. Yes, Android is installed on more phones, but as far as physical hardware goes, it outsells everything else available. The next most popular line of phones, Samsung’s Galaxy devices, had an opportunity this year to make a real statement about its ability to out-innovate Apple while the folks in Cupertino were resting up. Unfortunately, Samsung missed their shot and did so in spectacular (read: explosive ) fashion.

So it would seem that despite being a lackluster update to its last phone, the iPhone will remain top-dog going into the new year. There is a challenger in the wings ready to go toe-to-toe with Apple though (finally).

Google’s new Pixel phone is as close as we’ve ever seen to a top-to-bottom Google-designed smartphone experience, and it’s a great device. With this being their first official outing against the iPhone, though, it won’t unseat the king just yet. Be on the lookout, though, because if Google follows the trend they’ve set with the Pixel, 2017 will be a very interesting year for smartphones.

All this being said, though, the silver lining is this: it is really hard to buy a bad smartphone in 2016. Manufacturers started challenging the idea that a premium smartphone has to cost nearly a thousand dollars – something we as consumers all benefit from. Hell, even Apple put out a “budget” phone this year with the iPhone SE. Sure, the flagship iPhone 7 and 7+, as well as Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge phones can cost as much as a down payment on a new Corolla, but we’re finally at a point where you can get a phone that’s 95% as good as those devices at half the cost.

Here are my top 3 picks for smartphones in 2016:

The iPhone 7 and 7+

Photo courtesy of apple.com

Call me an Apple fanboy if you want, but in my eyes, the simple truth is that the iPhone is the easiest recommendation for anyone needing a new smartphone. The competition closes the gap more and more every day, but the iPhone still strikes the best balance between build quality, usability, and ecosystem.

And that last one is more important than you might think. Ecosystem lock-in is a real thing in 2016 and a LOT of people have iPhones already, or have iPads or Macs. The argument for forcing them out of that ecosystem and onto an Android phone gets more and more difficult to make as time goes on. Apple’s products are designed inside and out by the same company, something Google is just now doing for the first time, so all of their products just work with each other. Try telling someone who’s used to sending iMessages from their Mac that they won’t be able to do the same thing with a new Pixel and see if you can still convince them to make the switch – that’s a tough sell.

The Google Pixel and Pixel XL

Photo courtesy of gsmarena.com

After experimenting with the Nexus line for years and watching it make paltry sales at best, Google finally decided to step into the hardware business and make their own phones with the Pixel and Pixel XL, and they’re stunners. Yes, they’re technically manufactured by HTC, but don’t let that fool you: Google designed these phones from the ground up, and the result is a smartphone experience that’s seamless and smooth. Being their first go at it, there are a few things they might consider adjusting next year, like the phone’s inexcusable lack of waterproofing and what many might call an uninspired design. Those minor gripes aside, though, the Pixel is a solidly built phone with the software to match. People looking for an excuse to jump into the Android ecosystem finally have a compelling reason outside of Samsung’s offerings.

The Oneplus 3T

Photo courtesy of androidcentral.com

A few years ago, Oneplus burst onto the smartphone scene with the Oneplus One, a phone that promised to deliver flagship specs and quality for a fraction of the price. That phone had its fair share of issues, but for a price near $300 USD, it was tough to find much to complain about. Fast-forward to 2016 and the Chinese company has just released their fourth “flagship killer”, the Oneplus 3T. It’s a little more expensive than its predecessors at $450, but that’s still significantly cheaper than an unlocked iPhone or Pixel. With the specs and build quality to be within shouting distance of both those phones, it’s a hard deal to pass up.

Virtual Reality

2016 will go down as the year VR finally went mainstream. For the past few years, it’s gone from being a bunch of duct-taped prototypes to ultra expensive Kickstarters, before finally being available to the masses. VR is still a little ways off from being a fully realized category of products, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to get in on the front side of the new and interesting, virtual reality is the best way for you to scratch that itch.

In essence, there are two main ways of experiencing virtual reality right now: you’re either going to have a dedicated headset that needs to be powered by a PC or gaming console, or you’re going to have a facemask that’s essentially a shell for your smartphone. Which one you choose depends on a few circumstances, like which phone or PC you have, how much space you have, or what kind of content you want to consume with this machine

The best way to think about it, though, is this: if you’re looking to dabble in VR and see what it’s all about AND you have an Android phone that’s suitable for mobile VR, go with a smartphone-driven headset. If you’re looking to do serious gaming, look for a PC or console driven headset.

In either case it’s important to note that essentially anyone jumping into virtual reality right now will be beta testing the platform. There will be bugs, the availability of games and content will be limited, and the power supplying the experience will hinder what this technology is ultimately capable of – for now. In a year or two, that will likely be very different. Technology companies the world over, especially gaming companies, are investing a lot of time and resources into VR. It’s only a matter of time before we see what it can really do.

TV

 

While the state of content you can put ON your TV is experiencing what some might call a “renaissance”, the actual devices themselves are in a bit of a weird spot. 4K has finally become affordable, so the conversation around which TV to get has less to do with the panel itself and the software driving it.

Fortunately, there’s a pretty quick way to decide on the television itself: pick the dumbest TV you can find that has a 4K screen and is made by a manufacturer you trust. What do I mean by “dumbest”? Let me explain.

Every TV manufacturer knows you can’t have a TV without smart features of some kind. You just can’t. So every single one of them tries their best (and ultimately fails) to make their own software to run on the TV that’ll connect you to all your apps like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Unfortunately, as I’ve alluded already, most of them fail spectacularly at this attempt and they all end up putting out disjointed, buggy software that doesn’t work half as well as it’s supposed to. So when you’re picking a TV, go for the one that advertises less of its own software features and maybe save yourself a few bucks. A few bucks you’ll need to spend on what REALLY matters here:

A streaming device. Whether it’s a box, a stick  or some combination of the two, the companies making these devices actually know a thing or two about writing software for TVs that doesn’t suck. Depending on what services you plan to use, getting an Apple TV, a Roku, a Chromecast or a Fire TV device will serve you FAR better than relying on whatever software LG, Vizio or TCL have tried to shove into your fancy new 4K panel. Pick the one that supports the streaming services you use the most, and streams in 4K (have to make use of those pixels you just invested in) and use that to navigate your TV.

Honorable Mentions

In a year when the normally exciting and agile product categories disappointed, people found themselves getting excited about some of the stranger things that are normally on the fringes of consumer tech.  Here are a few that stood out to me:

WiFi Routers

Eero, Google and a few other companies started paying close attention to WiFi and how people get connected in their homes. Routers aren’t sexy and they definitely aren’t exciting, but what they enable us to do is. Nothing sucks more than getting ready to stream a movie and the WiFi either goes out or slows to such a crawl that your movie buffers for ten minutes.

These companies saw that this was an issue and their approaches to fixing it have been pretty similar: place a few routers around the home that connect to each other and blanket the whole area in a “mesh network” that ensures you’re never without a strong connection. Couple that with user friendly set-up (finally, thank God), and the formidable pain in the ass that is setting up a reliable WiFi network suddenly becomes a lot smaller of an issue.

Smart Home Devices

With all this WiFi we’ve got now, the dream of a smart home is finally starting to take shape. We aren’t quite at Jarvis from Iron Man levels yet, but thanks to devices like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home, we can finally shout things into the void and watch our homes do stuff for us. The practical utility of these devices hasn’t reached mass appeal just yet, but it’s gaining momentum as people realize it can do things like turn on your lights, play your music, turn on the TV, adjust your thermostat, and more. The case for one of these devices being in every single home will be made more and more clear in the coming months and years, but 2016 was the year a lot of it came to mass market and readily available to the average consumer.

Smartwatches

I mention smartwatches here not because they interested me in 2016, but because they finally did what I, and so many others, expected them to do: fail.

People inherently want smartwatches to be a thing. The idea of having a computer on your wrist is cool and sort of sci-fi. Unfortunately, people have realized that save for a few unique use-cases, they’re just not that useful to most people. They can show you notifications, do a mediocre job of tracking your health, and die in less than a day in most cases. That doesn’t build up to a compelling device for most people, and for most smartwatch manufacturers, the day of reckoning is upon us. In 2017 they’ve got to make a solid argument for why we all need to spend hundreds of dollars to put a small screen on our wrist, and why that experience is better than simply pulling our phones out of our pockets.

Consumer electronics companies have always pushed the envelope with their products and tried daring things. This year, though, a lot of them are unsure of what to do. Some are trying weird things, others are waiting until they’re ready to wow the world again. Here’s hoping 2017 brings some exciting surprises, and not the explode-in-your-pocket type.