For most of us, the past 12 months have been filled with surprises. Between an ongoing pandemic, widespread political unrest, and the general mental strain that comes with reduced social interactions, we’ve all been forced to reevaluate the way we live our lives.
The WIRED gear team used 2020 as an excuse to concentrate on discovery. We scoured the internet and our bursting inboxes for exciting products to try, hoping to find new items we could all use to de-stress after these long, Zoom-filled workdays. And even though we tested lots of stuff, there were the occasional pieces of gear that plucked our heartstrings in unexpected ways.
Here are a few of the many products that we were surprised to fall head over heels for this year, from expensive upgrades to affordable pleasures.
Good Running Shoes
I started toying with running about a decade ago. Every time, it would go like this: I would decide it was time to get serious about getting fit. So I’d start running, then after a month or two of steady progress, I’d develop an injury. An aching foot, a sore hip, a tight lower back, a stabbing in my knee. So I’d quit. Six months later, I’d start again, only to see the pattern repeat. Maddened, I read all the articles and books in search of advice. I changed my diet. I went to the sporting goods store to have my gait analyzed so they could steer me toward the “correct” shoes. None of that changed anything.
Then, early this year, I slipped on a pair of these funny-looking shoes from a company in Switzerland. I started running in them, and I was amazed when I was able to continue running in them. The On Cloudflyers ($160) are supportive, with a stiff heel, a wide outsole, and rows of squishy, spring-like nubs on the bottom to absorb impacts. The bulbous globs deaden the hammer-like blow of each footfall while giving me a little bounce on the push-off as I truck along. I’m what the apparel industry calls “Big & Tall,” so extra cushion and support is important for me. The shoes also just fit really well, with the perfect combination of snug and loose that’s rare to find in the size 13 shoe I wear. Most 13s are just clownishly clumsy. But not these. Now I can run with no pain and no drama while maintaining a regular outdoor exercise regimen (3.5 miles, three days a week) in the year when I’ve needed it the most. See you out there. —Michael Calore
Since I started spending almost all my time in the apartment this year, I decided to slowly upgrade parts of it I never gave much attention to before. Our kitchen light switch, for example, is situated far from the entrance, all the way on the other side of the room. Walking in there at night meant occasionally stubbing my toe in the dark. I live in a rental and can’t redo the wiring, so the solution turned out to be motion-sensing lights. The tech has been around for ages—I’ve seen it in garages, basements, and entryways—but I never thought to take advantage of it in my own apartment.
After some research, these Mr. Beams lights seemed to be the lights to buy. As I didn’t want to screw anything into my walls, I bought several of these 3M double-sided adhesives, and voila: My kitchen now lights up when I walk in, giving me enough light to not even bother flipping on the kitchen light switch unless I’m about to start cooking. I liked it so much I put another light in my closet, and I can actually see everything when I open it now! For good measure, I bought this smaller nightlight version and put it in my media console next to my turntable to better see the cue lever when I flipped a record. Seriously, if you’ve got a dark spot in your house and you don’t want to bother installing a new lamp or a switch, get a motion-sensing light. —Julian Chokkattu
A Smart Water Bottle
Pre-pandemic, I was extremely skeptical about smart water bottles. They’re too expensive, I thought, and all they do is track how much you’ve had to drink. In a bid to be healthier, I picked one up on Cyber Monday. I bought it on a whim, but now I can’t go anywhere without it. I use the HidrateSpark Steel, an insulated 21-ounce (620 ml) bottle whose bottom lights up to remind me to drink more. I check the free app obsessively after drinking even the tiniest sip to see where I am in relation to my goal (a system similar to the Apple Watch’s rings), which the app calculates using personal information such as your age, sex, weight, height, and activity level. You can pull this data from apps such as Fitbit and Apple Health or input it yourself.
In an age of social distancing and digital competition, Hidrate also shows your friends and family’s stats if they own a bottle too, so you can turn drinking water into a rivalry. Yes, the bottles are still expensive, but if you like being able to track your own data, or save the planet from single-use plastic, or if you’re just on a health kick—Harvard University’s School of Public Health says drinking enough water is linked to regulating body temperature, preventing infections, improving sleep quality, and keeping organs functioning properly—a smart water bottle is worth a try. —Saira Mueller
21st-Century Audiovisual Equipment
We all have our blind spots. My kitchen might be equipped with a top-of-the-line Vitamix and Kitchen-Aid stand mixer. But before the pandemic, my spouse and I had the same enormous, heavy, 55-inch Panasonic TV with frizzy, blown-out speakers that we’ve had for the past 10 years. We just didn’t watch TV enough to think about it.
That all changed in March 2020. In April, desperate for some sense that all was not lost, I tentatively started my upgrade by adding a soundbar. The improvement in sound quality made the very hairs on my scalp stand up. A few months later, our A/V tester Parker Hall dropped off a midrange TCL 6 Series television for long-term testing. The difference between the dusty, enormous boulder of our old TV and the light, slim, bright one was obvious even to our 5-year-old. “Why does Paw Patrol look so much better now?” she asked, jumping on the couch in her jammies. If you’ve also forgotten that your television is worth an upgrade, I highly recommend it. —Adrienne So
Desktop Guitar Amps
I never realized how inconvenient guitar amps were until I owned one. Classic tube amps sound amazing, but they’re expensive, they weigh a ton, and they put off enough heat to warm small rooms (and enough sound to rattle a small house).
This year, I discovered the desktop guitar amp. Light, toolbox-sized amps like the Yamaha THR30-II and Positive Grid Spark bring everything you like about a physical amp into the 21st century. With everything from wireless cable technology to onboard processing for convincing effects (sans-pedalboard), these new digital amps finally sound too good to call them toys. Sure, I prefer my hand-wired Fender Bassman in the studio, but for most other applications, I reach for these little guys for the sheer convenience. Both the Spark and THR models come with USB and headphone outputs, as well as Bluetooth, which makes it easy to jam along with songs, record quick demos, or play during quiet hours.
I’m not the only one who has taken to them. I was recently watching a documentary about Taylor Swift’s Folklore, and noticed the songwriter messing with a familiar little Yamaha in an intro segment. If it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. —Parker Hall
There was no watershed moment this year at which ebikes leapt forward technologically. It was more of a gradual arrival. Maybe it was that so many were pushed into duty as errand and commuter bikes because of Covid-19, and performed admirably. Or because you can now buy a decent ebike weighing not much over 40 pounds and costing not much over $1,000 that, even after you strip away the hub motor and pedal sensor, is also at its core a decent bike made with solid brand-name components.
I’m a motorcycle guy at heart, so the early days of heavy-ass ebikes touting high speeds (for a bike) and high price tags (for any vehicle) didn’t hold my attention. I wanted them to compete against analog bikes and become a tool of the masses—while not sucking. Ranges will increase, prices will drop, and electronics will move fully in-frame as affordable ebikes get better, but this was the year I stopped telling people to “just wait a little longer” when they ask if they should buy one. —Matt Jancer
A Hot Water Bottle
After moving into a new place last winter, I quickly learned that my apartment’s top-vent wall furnace was good for heating exactly one corner of my living room and no place else. A friend suggested I put a hot water bottle in bed at night to keep me warm, which I thought sounded quaint and not at all effective. I was wrong. For just $13 on Amazon, all the joys of non-modern heating become mine, a thermoplastic bag filled nightly with hot water. As if it weren’t cozy enough already, it even ships with a knitted sweater. (To be clear, the sweater is for the water bottle, not you.) Just know that you can’t put it in the microwave, and scalding hot water isn’t recommended, either. —Lauren Goode
A TV Remote Holder
Pre-pandemic, I tried to avoid watching TV from bed, but this year that rule went out the window. My Fire TV Stick became a self-soothing necessity, but I’d inevitably lose its tiny remote in my nest of blankets. This super-cheap remote holder was an impulse buy, and now it’s strangely indispensable. It can be mounted via screw or adhesive, and it helps me keep track of my remotes so I don’t have to rummage through my candy wrappers bedding in a panic to adjust the volume or skip a YouTube ad. Cheap thrills! —Louryn Strampe
A Document Camera
The Hue HD Pro ($100 on Amazon) is the most useful thing I tested in 2020. If you do any kind of teaching, demonstrating, or peer-reviewing on paper, or anything else that requires both a camera on you, and another on a document, the Hue HD Pro is the device you’ve been looking for. It integrates with Zoom, Skype, Webex, and Microsoft Teams, or you can record via the included software.
The flexible neck makes it easy to position the camera, the built-in microphone is excellent (much better than the built-in mic on my laptop), and the LED light ensures that everything in the frame is bright and sharp. It’s worth noting that it’s only 720p (1080p would be nice), but for most situations, 720p is fine for documents. The feature that sold me on the Hue HD Pro is the manual focus, which means you don’t have to worry about autofocus tracking your hand when you really want the focus on the document beneath your hand. (Every phone app and stand combo I tested failed this simple test.) The Hue HD Pro is also dead simple to use: plug in the USB cable and it just works. —Scott Gilbertson
A Record Player
In January, I had one record and no means to play it. After my colleague Parker Hall sent me a turntable to test in the middle of the year, I now own 16 records. It is an addictive hobby that can easily drain your wallet if you’re not careful, but it’s also the most fun I’ve had with music in years. I’m listening to whole albums again! I’m finding old favorites in vinyl format! More importantly, I feel more connected to artists than I ever have with digital music streaming services.
It’s not about music fidelity either. It’s the physicality of owning a record, putting it on the platter of a turntable, moving the stylus, and hearing the crackle coming through the speakers before a beautiful, warm sound fills the room. It greatly enriches the listening experience, and it’s just plain fun. I can’t wait to explore the varied record stores in New York once things start to open back up again, but until then, I’ll just go back to browsing Discogs. Don’t mind me! —Julian Chokkattu
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In my home, 2020 was shaping up to be a stay-at-home year long before the pandemic. I had my first child as the year kicked off, and despite being a product reviewer with a room full of tech and products to test, I had no earthly concept of how much stuff babies required. There’s a new device for everything. We have electric swings, special tiny chairs, cameras, white noise machines, bottles of all shapes and sizes, scales, changing tables, snot suckers … we even have a handheld sanding machine to trim the tiny blob’s nails. But sleep, now that’s a challenge.
Babies just don’t know how to sleep. In a way, you have to help them program themselves on how to live in our strange world. In a futile attempt to control the uncontrollable, I ended up trying half a dozen different electric bassinets throughout the year. Some of them just vibrate, some let Mom pick the baby up more easily, some play white noise or shoot colors on the ceiling to lull the little one, and a few actually rock the baby back and forth. My favorite is the Snoo. Despite initially balking at its $1,300 price tag, I am now a believer. Out of all the bassinets I tried, this was the one that listened to my baby cry and tried with all its technological patience to rock and soothe him back to sleep.
Even if you can’t afford a Snoo, a bassinet that can do something (as long as it’s safe) can make all the difference. You can even rent one. My baby is approaching a year old and is equipped to sleep through the night. As parents, that means we finally get some sleep too. —Jeffrey Van Camp
More From WIRED’s Year in Review
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Read all of our Year in Review
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