It's the end of the year, and everyone from Santa to Time is making lists. Engadget is no different. Each year, we take stock of the hits and misses from the past twelve months to inform us as we look ahead. But as we hurtle towards the close of a decade, our picks feel even more important and telling of how far we've come.
In 2019, not only did we see brand-new categories erupt, but older technologies also got refreshed. This year saw a surge of developments in processors and PCs, while serving us freshness in wireless headphones and foldable phones. Apple had a good year with several well-received hardware launches, and we finally got to enjoy Disney+ and the proliferation of Baby Yoda memes that generated.
It was hard to whittle down the numerous gadgets and tech that Engadget team members nominated as their favorites this year. Our final selection ranges from something as mainstream as the iPhone 11 Pro to products as specific as a set of controllers that elevate an already excellent gaming console. It's been a good year to be a gadget lover, and we're excited for what's to come in 2020.
Sony WF-1000XM3 (and wireless earbuds)
Senior News Editor
In 2018, Jabra's Elite 65t were the best headphones of the year. Those true wireless earbuds were not only great headphones overall, but they were affordable, too. Yet, despite introducing a refined model this fall, Jabra failed to hold on to its crown. Sony stole the title in 2019 with its WF-1000XM3. Offering solid battery life, great sound and powerful noise cancellation, the WF-1000XM3 checks all the boxes. And through a recent software update, the company added a key feature that was absent during my review: onboard volume control. Plus, the WF-1000XM3 is $230, around $70 less than some flagship models that have similar features.
True wireless earbuds made a big leap in 2019. Companies like Jabra and Plantronics unveiled smaller models that not only look a little more discreet but are also more comfortable. Battery life has also increased almost universally. The most recent models tout up to 10 or 15 hours on a charge -- a far cry from the three-hour listening sessions we were stuck with not so long ago.
Companies continue to refine other features as well. Sony managed to bring its handy adaptive ANC from its over-ear headphones to true wireless earbuds. The likes of Apple and Amazon offer hands-free access to Siri and Alexa, so you don't have to reach for your phone or tap an earbud to summon a virtual assistant. True wireless earbuds have been popular for years now, and as the product category continues to grow, you can expect smaller buds, better battery life and more powerful features to be part of the spec sheets in 2020.
MacBook Pro 16-inch
The newest and largest member of the MacBook family is the best sign yet that Apple can still make fantastic notebooks. It addresses most of the problems we've had with recent MacBook Pros -- it finally has a decent keyboard -- while also delivering some fantastic new features, like a gorgeous new 16-inch display. It's a powerhouse, too, thanks to its updated Intel processors (which can run up to 5GHz) and revamped AMD graphics (the Radeon Pro 5300M and 5500M GPUs).
While it would be nice to see an SD card slot and some other ports, there are some surprising upgrades that separate the MacBook Pro 16-inch from most other workhorse laptops: Its excellent six speaker array makes the laptop sound like a dedicated pair of speakers, and its microphone configuration is close to the sound quality of pricey USB condenser mics.
What's most interesting, though, is that Apple has finally stopped prioritizing ultra-thin designs over functionality. The MacBook Pro 16-inch is a bit heavier and chunkier than its predecessor, the retired 15-inch model. But the tradeoff is you get an even more powerful notebook with innovative new features. It's a reminder of what Apple does so well: craft superb-yet-powerful hardware that leaves PC users envious.
Nintendo Switch Lite
I've been using my Switch almost exclusively as a portable since launch day back in 2017. Problem is, it's a pretty compromised handheld. It's big, it's heavy and its battery gives out very quickly. The Switch Lite, then, has been a big upgrade for me this year. Nintendo's stripped-back Switch doesn't appear significantly smaller than the regular one -- it's just an inch narrower and not even an ounce lighter -- but it's much more comfortable for long sessions. I never had a huge problem with the lack of a D-pad on the original, but having one on the Switch Lite reminded me of what I'd been missing. To top it all off, its battery life is also significantly improved. It still varies a lot by game, but I can get around five hours of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or, as I discovered recently on a transatlantic flight, over eight hours of Dead Cells. That's compared to around three and 4.5 hours, respectively, on the old console.
I still have that full-fat Switch, of course, it just lives under my TV for when I want to play there. Nintendo's cloud-save system is almost seamless; I have the Switch Lite set as my primary system, and every time I use the old Switch, it has already synced. There are a couple of games in my library that don't support cloud saves, though, and manually transferring saves is simple but a pain. Constantly switching between the two while reviewing the latest Pokémon game (which doesn't support cloud saves) was extremely annoying, but it's not a problem that I run into regularly. After all, I rarely play on the TV: That's for multiplayer sessions, reviewing games or when I'm playing something really suited for the big screen.
Being able to kick back and play Nintendo's latest games without being tethered to anything is a joy. My only fear is that the rumored more-powerful Switch console will be an even more compromised handheld experience. I guess I could always just buy it and stick it under my TV? Nintendo has never had, and never will have, a problem extracting money from me.
The Oculus Quest is the rare gadget that actually got better over time. When it launched, it was a breakthrough for wireless and self-contained VR. You don't need to connect it to a computer or plug in a smartphone -- just pick it up, and you're transported to virtual reality. But over the past year, Oculus has also made it just as useful as a dedicated PC VR headset. Now, with the Oculus Link feature (currently in beta), the Quest can run high-end VR experiences when attached to a capable PC.
As a standalone device, the Quest delivers an immersive virtual reality experience. There aren't any separate sensors to set up -- everything you need is contained within the headset and its two motion controllers. It features sharp OLED screens and surprisingly capable built-in speakers (though we'd recommend headphones for true immersion). And while the Quest is a bit heavier than the original Rift, the new PC functionality makes it far more useful. Finally, a VR headset that can work on the go and for higher-end experiences when plugged into a computer.
Oculus isn't stopping there, either. It just launched an experimental hand-tracking feature, which lets you interact with the virtual world without a controller. That's the sort of thing that used to require expensive headset accessories -- but all the Quest needs is a software update. We're still waiting to see how developers take advantage of that feature when it's officially released in 2020, but it's a sign that the Quest is going to keep surprising us for some time.
Bigger, lighter ultraportable laptops
Good lord, did laptops get a facelift this year. After all the progress that notebooks as a category made last year, I wasn't expecting to see much more improvement in 2019. I was wrong. This year, Dell launched a new XPS 13 2-in-1, which my colleague Devindra called the "perfect ultraportable," and HP released the Elite Dragonfly, which the company markets as "lighter than air."
No device is actually lighter than air, but this year, mainstream laptops certainly got a whole lot lighter and thinner than before while growing more powerful, without sacrificing battery life. That's to be expected, after years of incremental improvements, but we also have to give Intel a little credit. Its Project Athena program rolled out this year, spurring the development of more compact, lightweight ultraportables that last all day. Shout out also to the Galaxy Book Flex and Ion, which launched late in the year and proved that Samsung can make gorgeous, super sleek notebooks. And even though the Snapdragon-powered Galaxy Book S didn't actually arrive in time to make this year's list, my hands-on with it left me impressed by its lightweight, attractive exterior.
Aided by potent processors like NVIDIA's Studio products, laptop makers also delivered powerhouse notebooks targeted at creators who need the beef for editing multiple 4K video streams but don't want gaudy or chunky gaming machines. Acer and ASUS both made devices for these purposes, with the ConceptD and ProArt StudioBook sub-brands respectively. These proved that laptops could pack plenty of muscle without weighing a ton.
But 2019 also saw the arrival of the LG Gram 17 -- a surprisingly sleek machine for having a 17-inch screen -- and the 15-inch Surface Laptop 3. Apple also released a new 16-inch MacBook Pro, delighting power users and fans of usable keyboards. While these larger laptops still have their flaws, the fact that they're no longer chunky slabs of metal and plastic is a promising sign of bigger and better to come in 2020 and beyond.
iPhone 11 Pro
Bureau Chief, UK
It's hard for any smartphone to break out in 2019. Especially in a year where the industry was obsessed with folding gimmicks and a 5G network not ready for prime time. Apple's iPhone 11 Pro launched with a brighter screen, was predictably faster and has better -- and more -- cameras. It's costlier, sure. In fact, it's Apple's most expensive phone ever. But it also tackles one of the perennial issues with nearly all smartphones: mediocre battery life.
The 11 Pro Max is a barely noticeable 0.02 inches thicker than the iPhone XS Max, but with that extra space and a new L-shaped battery cell, the latest 11 Pro Max adds roughly four more hours of use compared to its predecessor. My iPhone 11 Pro Max consistently clocks almost two days on a single charge. It's better than any smartphone I've owned in the last few years.
And then there are the cameras. After leading the smartphone camera revolution, a decade ago, Apple has recently lagged behind the competition. With the iPhone 11 Pro, it's caught up. In fact, the company has arguably reclaimed the top spot. From Deep Fusion, which adds improved textures and detail, to the ultra-wide-angle cameras for squeezing in crowds, landscapes and more, to the improved night shooting mode, the iPhone 11 Pro is on equal photography footing with the Pixel 4 or the Galaxy Note 10.
There are other highlights, too. The 11 Pro phones come with a high-speed USB-C charger (and a USB-C to Lightning cable), making charging considerably faster. It also means I can connect my iPhone to my year-old MacBook Pro's USB-C ports without a dongle. Instead of having to plug it in overnight, I can charge the iPhone 11 Pro Max to 50 percent in just thirty minutes. Better battery life isn't the sexiest feature, but it's never been more appreciated.
Powerful processors and GPUs
The PC market is no longer moribund, thanks in large part to devices that are more interesting and powerful. That's certainly true in the gaming and content creation markets, and for that, we can largely thank AMD and NVIDIA. At the same time, we've never had so many lightweight but powerful laptops, and we give Intel credit there.
The processor of the year for gaming and content creation is AMD's $750, 16-core Ryzen 9 3950X. Intel still has the edge in gaming with its Core i9 9900K, sure, and that model is also cheaper at $500. But the Ryzen 9 3950X is really close, and once you switch over to content creation tasks, those eight extra cores let it destroy the 9900K.
Best of all, AMD's new Ryzen chips have forced Intel to drop prices, making powerful PCs cheaper across the board. For instance, Intel's 18-core 9980XE launched in 2017 cost a cool $2,000, but its successor, the 18-core 10980XE costs just half of that. That's because Intel had to react to AMD's Threadripper 3970X, which has 32 cores and costs $1,999.
Last year, we called out NVIDIA's RTX 2080 Ti as one of the worst products of 2018, thanks to its high price and abysmal ray-tracing support. To its credit, though, NVIDIA has introduced new features that make its RTX lineup more desirable, particularly the RTX Studio drivers. Those put NVIDIA's ray tracing to work, speeding up 3D apps like Blender, and making video and photo editing quicker and more stable, too. On top of that, games like Metro Exodus and Control are finally making better use of ray tracing, and we can expect more of the same in 2020.
Intel is losing in the high-end CPU market, but it's still thumping AMD when it comes to laptops. Devices like Dell's XPS 13 2-in-1 show that Intel has crammed a ton of power into low-energy, long-lasting devices, with big improvements in on-board graphics. Anyone getting a PC with a 10th-gen Intel CPU will see much better performance than last year's machines, and we'll have lots of great notebooks to look forward to next year.
Sonos and IKEA Symfonisk Table Lamp
We'll admit: Sonos and IKEA's Symfonisk table lamp looks goofy. But get past its unusual appearance and you'll find one of the most versatile gadgets released this year.
As an affordable entry into the Sonos ecosystem, the Symfonisk lamp has almost everything you could want. Setup via the Sonos app is easy whether you're adding to an existing sound system or starting from scratch. What's more, the lamp sounds almost as good as the more expensive Sonos One, which is one of the best speakers you can buy. Best of all, even though it's not a premium product, Sonos didn't skimp on features like AirPlay 2 compatibility.
What you won't find are any microphones onboard for Google Assistant and Alexa support. Some people might prefer this; it's one less device listening to their conversations. For everyone else, it's easy enough to integrate the lamp with your existing smart speakers for voice control.
But the Symfonisk lamp isn't just a good speaker, it's also a great lamp. Although it uses smaller and less common E12 light bulbs, it still adds a lot of warmth to a room. Its versatility as both a speaker and a lamp means you'll consistently get a lot of use out of it. Add to that its low price and the Symfonisk lamp is one of those rare collaborations that actually delivers the best of both partner companies.
8BitDo SN30 Pro+
The Nintendo Switch is a fantastic system, with great games and unrivaled portability for a console. But its standard controller setup is far from ideal.
Joy-Cons are terrific if you're hanging out with a friend and want to fire up your Switch for co-op action. But when you have to use both Joy-Cons for a single-player game, particularly one that requires dual thumbsticks, they're not the most practical. In fact, the right thumbstick is positioned too awkwardly to comfortably use for very long. But thankfully, there are plenty of other options out there.
The Switch Pro Controller is a solid alternative, but I much prefer 8BitDo's excellent SN30 Pro+. It feels far more natural to hold than Nintendo's controllers, and I have no problem using it for hours at a time. I love the SNES/DualShock 4 mashup approach to the design, too. I haven't encountered any significant latency issues, and its compatibility with Android, Raspberry Pi, PC and macOS is a nice bonus. The customization options on the 8BitDo Ultimate Software are also terrific and a boon for accessibility.
The SN30 Pro+ makes the Switch even more of a joy, especially for playing Overwatch or Fortnite on the go. I only wish 8BitDo included a headphone jack for more flexibility, especially for when I dock my Switch and I'm across the room from my TV. Still, the controller is an almost-perfect solution for my Switch setup.
Mixer has come a long way in a short time. As recently as last year, we were describing Mixer as "Microsoft's Twitch rival" in headlines, worried that people wouldn't recognize the service by name. Today, Mixer has 30 million monthly active users, exclusivity deals with a roster of high-profile streamers and plenty of practice in the tech-news spotlight. Mixer has Ninja. What more needs to be said?
Not only did Mixer steal Tyler "Ninja" Blevins, the world's most popular streamer, from Twitch in August, but a handful of other popular names have followed suit. This year, Mixer has picked up Cory "King Gothalion" Michael, Michael "Shroud" Grzesiek and Soleil "Ewok" Wheeler, and Twitch has only recently responded with exclusive acquisitions of its own. Of course, the follower counts of Twitch's most recent members -- Benjamin "DrLupo" Lupo, Saqib "LIRIK" Zahid and Timothy "TimTheTatman" Betar -- reach 10.73 million combined, while Ninja alone had 14.7 million followers when he ditched Twitch. Ninja racked up more than 1 million followers in his first week on Mixer.
At one point, it seemed as if Twitch was the undisputed, permanent champion of video game streaming, but a handful of moderation missteps and the loss of key personalities this year have left the company vulnerable. Of course, all of the main live-streaming platforms have the backing of massive tech companies -- Twitch is owned by Amazon, Mixer is the property of Microsoft and (surprise!) YouTube Gaming is run by Google -- so they have significant runway to try new things, fail and try again. But in 2019, Mixer got a lot of steps right and laid the foundation for the service's continued growth in 2020.